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Sunday, December 13, 2020

What Is Happening Here? You May Be Surprised.

We have had the heat on for about a week now. That’s new. We had one long, noisy night’s rain on the metal roof, with a little more the next day, and that was good for the dry land. What's not new is that social life, even with neighbors here in the ghost town, continues to be carried on by phone, text, and e-mail, as we all endeavor to "stay safe."


I’m about two-thirds of the way through the John Lewis book, with every page amazed by and in awe of the perseverance of those who demonstrated for the right to vote in the 1960s South. I’m also about two-thirds of the way through Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin, which has a lot of interesting brain science, as well as specific information on dogs, horses, and other animals. Have read a few chapters into Penguin Island, by Anatole France, satire with a gentle, light touch. But this morning I picked up a comforting, undemanding book, the first in the series about the fictional woman detective in Botswana: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, beginning again at the beginning of Mma Ramotswe's story. And then I go back to the 19th century on a regular basis --


-- still at the job of transcribing an old diary from that era and interspersing the young man’s entries with my own observations on his time and reports on my own, 166 years later. Every now and then, too, something I read serendipitously connects (for me) to that project. For instance, simple as the Mma Rmotswe stories are, they are filled with important and touching truths, and in this first book of the series the author gives us the history of the main character and her father. The second chapter, “All Those Years ago,” begins like this:


We don’t forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories as the sky may sometimes be full of swarming bees, thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are. And who am I? I am Precious Ramotswe, citizen of Botswana, daughter of Obed Ramotswe who died because he had been a miner and could no longer breathe. His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people? 


-      Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency


An ordinary person myself, an obscure, seasonally retired bookseller, like everyone else I am the center of my own life experiences. Silas Durand achieved a certain public status in his adult life, but back in 1854, when writing the diary I have in my possession, he was only one more young man starting out in life -- looking for work, meeting people for the first time, exchanging views with others, and forming his impressions of the world as his own views and character formed. In other words, an ordinary person. A young person writing a diary for his own eyes alone. 


In his diary, Silas recorded his life’s ordinary events, tried out ideas, and clearly worked on expressing his perceptions and responses. To me, this is fascinating. To me, ordinary lives and the ordinary events of those lives are fascinating. 


Now I read news of a memoir that will be a must-read for me. Mary Othella Burnette, age 89, was born and raised in Southern Appalachia. After attending a writing workshop for first-time authors, she wrote and self-published the story of her father’s favorite first cousins, a man who died before she herself was born, in the form of a letter to that man she never knew, not wanting community stories that were only preserved in her family’s oral history to be lost to future generations.


If only I had realized that I was living in the last days of the old Black community and had kept a diary of what I experienced. If only you or my father could have written a book for us. What a marvelous history we would have inherited.


I’ve read several books of life in the Southern hills, all of them fascinating, but none before about African-Americans in Appalachia. 


Note that wish – to have “kept a diary of what I experienced.” Again, I think of all the ordinary people, as Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional character muses, all the ordinary lives gone unrecorded. My own grandmother comes to my mind (as she does so often), someone with very minimal education, who worked hard all her life and loved with her whole heart and whose earthly possessions when she died filled only a single cardboard box: some flannel nightgowns, knick-knacks, and snapshots of grandchildren. Or my Aunt Bettie, who died a few days after giving birth, the year before I was born. Bettie died in Nuremberg, where she had been working as a transcriber at the Nuremberg Trials. What must that have been like, hearing those stories of nightmare inhumanity while carrying in her belly a child soon to be born into such a world?


Some people ask, Why keep a diary if no one else reads it? The thing is, no one ever knows on any given day what lies in the future. Young diarists have dreams but no knowledge of what their adult lives will hold. None of us knows what may happen in our own small, ordinary lives or in the larger world around us from one week or year to the next. Even if nothing earth-shaking occurs, there may be value for another generation. Although the 5-year diary my father kept in his late teens has only the briefest of entries and nothing of interest to anyone beyond our family, my sisters and I enjoy word pictures of our father and uncles when they were boys, such as the day one of them got his “first pair of long pants.”

The sun rises, the sun sets. The moon rises, the moon sets. The stars shine. We wait for rain -- or snow. 

What we are not waiting for any longer, however, is a dog. 


Sarah, as everyone knows, was irreplaceable. Sarah was the gold standard of dogs, the standard of excellence, and always will be for us. But while there can never be a replacement for her, life without a dog – it was just too hard! I couldn't bear it! So we started reading newspaper ads, looking online, visiting shelters, and then we came home with Peasy. Peasy needed a home. I needed a dog. It was that simple.

There is quite a story attached to Peasy, but I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say for now that while Peasy is no Sarah, he is a good-looking, sweet, affectionate, and biddable little boy. Yes, a boy. Not what we were looking for. Not even what we thought we had adopted! Big surprise! But there’s no way I could take him back to the prison cell he had occupied for so many long weeks, and for his part, little sweet Pease seems very grateful to have a family at last. He has no idea I still look at pictures of Sarah with tears in my eyes. Sarah, "the big sister he never knew"! Life goes on.



twessell said...

Pamela, I don’t consider you to be ordinary, obscure or retired. I do enjoy your blog. Looking forward to meeting Peasy at Dog Ears Books next spring.

P. J. Grath said...

Good morning, Ty! Thanks for the kind words. As for retired, I am only seasonally retired. Not obscure or ordinary, though? Remember, I am the "tiny bookseller"! As for Peasy, I hope he will be able to handle retail life, but that remains to be seen.

For the record, literarily, I heartily recommend all the books I am currently reading. :)

BB-Idaho said...

Don't know if it is the photos or me, but Peasy resembles Sarah appearance-wise?
I would guess he would love walks and chasing squirrels, but may take time to become a dignified literary bookstore greeter. Black lives- being from northwoods
Wisconsin, I had never known any..not one...and being a geek student had never experienced alcohol. Fast forward to Army Chemical Officer School, deep in Alabama
I met Hank, a tall skinny good natured black kid. The very first week there was a
fancy reception, dress blues-dignity (officer and a gentleman stuff). I was quickly introduced to the 'open bar', but had no idea of what to even order. Someone suggested a martini. They seemed pretty tasty and they were free and after serveral
I became what I thought was a social butterfly. I was pretty dizzy and sought out
the post commander, a black colonel, and offered several suggestions on how to run
an Army Post. The the world went blank: I woke up under a cold shower in the BOQ,
with Lt. Hand standing over me, "Boy-you some debutante! We were very close the next nine weeks and I was introduced to early 1960s southern culture. When we walked along the town streets we were yelled at by kids with Confederate flags on
their old jalopies and most places had a black entrance. Hank's father was New Orleans physician, but like Hank he had to answer to 'Boy'. I wanted to buy a used
car in town and took Hank along. The old guy running the place, Lloyd Plunkett, was
color blind, treated us both as humans..and green was his favorite color. Happy with
my new 'wheels' I invited Hank, another black Lieutenant, a Japanese American and
another white kid: we would integrate the local movie theater. Probably set the record for enraging a ticket line and the compromise that probably saved us all from being hung was that we could sit together, but up in the Colored balcony..
who considered us most peculiar. I liked cowboy movies, if any at all and Hank
introduced me to 'The Americanization of Emily', which makes me think of him everytime I see it on TV. After visiting most of the churches in town, I took him
one Sunday to the Episcopal church, where the all white congregation was very accepting, especially in comparison to the rest of the town.
Hank and I went our separate ways, he got his much anticipated assignment to Germany and I was off to R&D in Utah. I learned to tolerate martinis, but always
wondered how Hank's life went. I would like to tell him that he probably saved my
career. Yes, I'm ordinary, obscure and retired..but that was my introduction to
Jim Crow, and kind strangers that quickly become friends. If you are ever in a bar
and hear an old white haired guy raise his martini "Here's to you, Hank", you can
be suspicious. Apologies- sometimes your posts send me off in oblique directions!

Dawn said...

BB- I thought the same about Peasy, that there's something about him that reminds me of Sarah. Maybe if we met him in person we would't see it, but it's there in the photo.

And your stories about the south, those are a good should write them down. You may even be able to find Hank, wouldn't that be something.

Pamela, I love your boy Peasy already and I don't know if I'll ever meet him. You're right, it will take time to see if he's a retail kind of boy, but I'm pretty sure he's going to be a 'long walks on the beach' kind of boy, and that's just fine.

I think my blog is something of a diary, though not as personal as one that only I could see. The beginning of this blog was very much reflection on my days and my losses, but it's turned into more of a photographic blog and less a written space. Mostly anyway. I do use it to figure out where we were when sometimes, and in that sense it's something of a journal of our time, especially our travels. The problem, and it's the same problem with all digital formats is that 100 years from now who knows if there will be a way to read it. Unlike paper which mostly manages to last through time, barring hurricanes and floods.

P. J. Grath said...

Bob and Dawn, good evening to you both. It's still early as I write this reply, but darkness has fallen on the high desert, and above the invisible mountains the stars shin.

You are both right that there are Sarah-like aspects to Peasy's looks. He seems to be the same breed mix, border collie and Australian shepherd, and, like Sarah, he has coat colors from white to black, with some brown and tan. He has the spots above his eyes, as Sarah had. But he is much smaller, doesn't have her kohl-outlined, long-lashed bedroom eyes, and it seems the border collie may be dominant in his case. He is an energetic little boy!

Bob, Ialways enjoy your stories and certainly understand how little it takes to trigger important memories. What year was it that you and Hank and the rest were in Alabama? And did you go to the movies in uniform?

Dawn, I know what you mean, too, about your blog being a kind of diary. That is the origin of the word, you know: web + log. As a ship's captain keeps a log of whatever happens on and around the ship, these blogs of ours sometimes sail into some surprising waters. You started with job woes. I started with my bookstore. Both of us have become very (though not exclusively) dog-focused over the years, and our travels have found their way into our posts. It is possible to have these things printed in book form. I think Kathy's kids did that for her at some point. Wasn't it through Kathy in the U.P. that you and I first connected?

Michigan-Arizona-Idaho -- and here we are together, trading stories and thoughts. Lovely!

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Love your reflections on diaries, and as always, the rest of the blog... but especially excited to hear about Pease! Can't wait to meet him!

P. J. Grath said...

Barbara, are YOU keeping a diary/journal this year? I find juggling my own journal, my Silas project, my blog, Facebook, and letters to friends and family is quite a challenge. Now, add in Peasy, and -- well! But I wouldn't give up any of it.

Happy Hanukkah to you and your family!

Jeanie Furlan said...

Oh Pamela, I’m SO happy that you got Peasy! I do agree with Bob and Dawn that there is a resemblance to Sarah in the picture, but just like us humans, in real life Peasy is his own person, I’m sure. I think that you must be glad to have him because when we are at our niece’s country house and walking & playing with the two dogs, we miss then so much when we come back to the city.
Hmmm, diaries and who will read them. I don’t think that my life would be too interesting because I don’t think of myself as a writer. But I love Bob’s story, and I hope he reconnects with Hank. I love to read biographies and autobiographies. I might do well thinking of a focus, like Dawn’s reflections and your bookstore as a beginning. Your Silas project is quite an amazing endeavor! And you are tying into other places, from what I can see, so it seems his diary will be part of something larger. I’ll want to get that when you publish it!!
Time does seem to go quickly most days with coffee & newspapers, 2 hours+ of exercise, cooking lunch which is our big meal, maybe a movie, reading and communicating with everyone like family and friends. Poof, it’s 9:00 pm and I want to read!
Gee, I really hope we can make it up to Northport when you and the Artist and now Peasy, are there. Beijos ‘til then!!

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, dear Jeanie, I love "seeing" you here! And you are SO far away -- in another hemisphere, for Pete's sake!

Well, the Peasy story develops day by day. I've certainly taken on a big challenge, because more and more I'm thinking that he isn't anywhere near "2-3 years old," as I was told at the pound. He's no more that than he was an Aussie girl! But he is a little love, and we are all doing our best. More, much more, to follow on that story, you can bet.

As for diaries (this goes for letters, too), they don't have to be written by "writers" to make them interesting. As I say, it is the ordinary lives, as well as the ordinary parts of extraordinary lives, that really speak to me. Just this morning I was transcribing Silas's New Year's Eve entry from the year 1854, which closes with the plaintive lines, "Oh, if I could have some kindred spirit near me, to whom I might breathe the thoughts that crowd upon my mind, the emotions that swell my heart."

Days go quickly here, too. I get up in the dark, take Peasy out for a pee, heat water to thaw the ice in the birdbaths, make coffee for humans and dog breakfast for Peasy, check e-mail. read or transcribe Silas's diary, write letters and e-mails, post to Facebook and see what friends have posted there, get Peasy out for several good off-leash runs, walk down the road to the mailboxes, drive into town with David to go to the post office ... maybe the feed store or hardware store ... check out likely places to see horses or sandhill cranes ... shop and plan and prepare meals and clean up after them -- and then, before we know it, the sun has set,, and darkness has fallen once more. You, of course, are at the beginning of summer, with nice, long days, but I know how fast those fly by, too.

I do hope we can have another evening together at the farm. The one we had was so nice, wasn't it?


Jeanie Furlan said...

Yes, oh Yes, I DO remember that night at the farm! We had a talkfest as I remember, and David gave Antonio a tour of the barn. I missed that part, so we must return and have a proper visit with all the trimmings.
Looking at Silas’s diary, I loved the line you quoted from him. It sounds so poetic, and yes, plaintive, also. How enticing to see what a soul was thinking on a New Year’s Eve in 1854! Seeing that line made me want to know what else he wrote.
MyMY! Little Peasy was not at all what he seemed. I will want to know what you three are up to as he gets used to his new life. We noticed the energy difference between the two dogs at our sister’s country house. The younger one is so much more rambunctious and harder to train. She’s a sweetie, though, and more of a follower to the other, older dog when we’re out. Bird chasing and lizard hunting are their favorite pastimes. And eating.
I keep forgetting that your days are darker and that the sun sets so much earlier. The desert can be cold when the sun goes away, so I hope you have heat that usually works. Ciao for now!

P. J. Grath said...

I'm getting ready to post the Peasy story this morning, Jeanie -- Peasy's first week with us, that is. OH, my! What have I gotten into?!

We do have a good little heater, and this place is essentially one room, so it can be kept nice and toasty at night. After the sun starts warming the house in the morning, we turn the heater off and sunshine come in through open blinds all day. Dark comes early, though, and sometime between our (early) supper and (early) bedtime we turn the heat on again.

So, how fast is summer coming on in Brazil? Flowers? Another world! So heartwarming to connect across all that intervening space, isn't it?