Because I grew up in the rural South before the coming of mass air-conditioning, I learned early from a wise and unexpected source the many benefits of staying as still as possible on a broiling August afternoon.
“Be still now, child. Too hot for that nonsense,” Miss Jesse May Richardson gently scolded as I squirmed uncomfortably on the plastic-sheathed front seat of her elderly Dodge while riding home from Vacation Bible School or the weekly trip she made to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket for my mother.
“Sit still long enough,” she added, “ain’t no tellin’ what you’ll see and hear.”
I asked what sort of things she meant.
She smiled, a Southern sphinx, never taking her eyes from the street.
“Could be what the birds are saying to each other way up yonder or what the trees are really thinkin’. I can’t tell you what. Be still and find out for yourself.”
Miss Jesse May was full of such peculiar sayings, also fully in charge of me that summer of 1959. While my mother recuperated from her second miscarriage in five years, resting through the long hot afternoons beneath a slowly turning ceiling fan, and my older brother was off at church camp having the time of his life, I was left to roam the shaded yard of our old house on Poplar Street or ride my bike to the stop sign at the end of our block, forbidden to go any farther.
Fortunately I had books to read, a wooden box full of them, and a King Edward cigar box full of painted soldiers to play with beneath the porch. An early reader, I’d finished half a dozen chapter books that year, beginning with The Boxcar Children and moving on to Winnie-the-Pooh and Wind in the Willows and starting on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series.
That summer, whenever I wasn’t conducting wars in the cool earth below the porch, I was working my way through the Golden Book Encyclopedia (Book One — Aardvark to Army) and the Illustrated Books of Greek and Roman Myths and more Tarzan books.
Some afternoons after Bible School and before lunch, old Miss Gilchrist’s gray cat Homer hopped the rail and sprawled out on our porch while I sat reading on a creaky rusted glider.
More than once I found Homer snoozing in the cool earth and dim world beneath the porch, where I dug forts for my hand-painted knights and Greek soldiers, conducting my own siege of Troy using a large plastic model of Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger with a booby hatch cut into his belly, a makeshift wooden horse. My mother said Homer was a perfect name for a yard cat in the Trojan War.
The screen door above me whined, and slapped.
“You need to come in now for lunch. Make sure you wipe off them filthy feet. Don’t be trackin’ nothing in my clean house.”
I missed Wilmington so much I could spit. That was where my daddy worked for two years at the Star News after losing his weekly newspaper to a scoundrel in a linen suit down in Gulfport. Across the street from our house in Wilmington was Greenfield Lake with its haunted dark water and lazy paddleboats and cypress trees draped with veils of Spanish moss.
I missed the drawbridge to Wrightsville Beach and Newells, where you could slide your bare, sand-burned feet on the cool tile floor; the Little Lagoon just off the causeway, where I learned to swim the first summer evenings we lived there; the wide porch of the Hanover Seaside Club, where the adults always gathered for evening cocktails while we kids eyeballed sand sharks hanging on the Lumina Pier and the awkward smirking teenagers at the roller rink.
Wilmington was summer heaven, a place I could have lived forever. It was supposed to be the first stop on the long road home to Greensboro, where my father’s people still lived and farmed outside the city. But somehow we’d mysteriously left and wound up in the sleepiest, slowest town in the world, probably even all of South Carolina.
Who explains such things to a 6-year-old?
This much is true. I had perfect attendance at the Royal School that year, reading more books than any other kid in my class, earning a small brass lapel pin shaped like an open book with the word “Wisdom” inscribed on it.
But save for Homer the cat and Miss Jesse May I had no real companions, no real friends to speak of that long hot summer.
Curiously, there was a public swimming pool in the park just two blocks south of our house. But my mother refused to let me go there because she disapproved of the sign that read “No Coloreds Allowed.” When I pointed out to her that I wasn’t colored, she threatened to make me sit on the toilet with a new bar of Ivory soap clenched in my teeth until I learned better. I once foolishly used the word “nigra” after hearing my father’s boss use it in a joke I didn’t really understand when he came to supper one evening, grinning like a cadaver and rattling the ice in his sweating highball glass. That resulted in my first taste of Ivory soap.
Lunch was a glass of cool Maola milk and either a fresh tomato sandwich with mayonnaise and sweet pickles or sometimes a bologna sandwich on Wonder Bread as white as a church robe with a couple of Miss Jesse May’s homemade peanut cookies.
After that, I was supposed to nap for two hours, though I rarely did.
Mostly I lay flat on the nubby chenille bedspread staring at the ceiling fan or out my bedroom window, thinking of Tarzan and seeing dusty herds of elephants with what Miss Jesse May called my “special” eye, oblivious to the drone of cicadas that made the August air sound roasted.
Eventually, there was stirring, soft footsteps followed by another whine and slap of the screen door.
My mother was going out to the yard to work in her new flower garden. She liked to say you were closer to God’s heart in a garden. She also said South Carolina was too hot for proper peonies in August, but she’d planted them anyway and somehow made them bloom, creamy pale yellow, the sweetest smelling things you ever put to your nose.
I think they came from Miss Jesse May’s garden, along with butter beans and yellow squash. When we finally moved to Greensboro that winter, my mother dug up those peonies and took them with her. They grow in profusion where she planted them to this day.
My mother hailed from West Virginia, the youngest of eleven children — eight large German blond sisters and three strapping brothers — who grew up on a mountain named for their family. Her daddy was a fiddle-playing coal miner.
She’d eventually moved to Cumberland, Maryland, and met my father there in 1941, not long after she’d won the Miss Western Maryland contest. My father was a sharp dresser, a newspaper salesman and aviation writer who was about to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He met my mother when she was selling Big Band records at McCrory’s, engaged to marry a rich guy named Earl who owned a Stutz Bearcat.
He asked her out even though he didn’t own a record player. They got married six months later.
After losing two babies, my beauty queen mama was learning to cook real Southern food courtesy of Miss Jesse May Richardson — ham-flavored greens, seasoned field peas, real cornbread and buttermilk fried chicken.
Those kitchen sounds as the shadows on the lawn lengthened are the ones I remember best from those faraway August afternoons in a sleepy town where I had no friends but an old cat and my adventure books for companions.
Sometimes Miss Jesse May played gospel music from her transistor radio propped in the open kitchen window while she cooked and chatted with my mother. I could never quite hear what they were saying, but they often laughed together.
It’s quite possible that sleepy summer in the world’s slowest town saved my mother’s life.
It may even be the reason I chose to become a writer and a gardener.
I have Miss Jesse May’s recipe for collards committed to memory.
A few years ago, the nice lady who bought my mother’s house in Greensboro invited me to come and dig up some of her pale yellow peonies, something I’ve always meant to do.
The first time I saw elephants in Africa, moreover, it wasn’t Tarzan and the Ant Men I thought about.
It was my mother and her pale yellow peonies, regaining her spirit and beauty, Miss Jesse May’s gospel music and tomato sandwiches in August, books in a box sitting by a rusted glider, and the sweet mystery — never fully deciphered — of what the birds were saying and the trees might really be thinking.