Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | April 28, 2013

Sample from a Memoir

This is the beginning of a work I now call Bitterweed.

    It was a time when small boys in southern towns, listened for distant whistles and ran to long tracks.  Enormous dragons, spitting foul-smelling, steam slowed to reach steel claws snatching grimy canvas mail pouches, like stealing bags of knights’ armor from an enemy castle. Engineers, with grimy faces and striped blue caps, waved before giving an extra toot of the whistle, answering the arm-jerking signals as short legs tried to keep pace with accelerating iron wheels. Remembrance of tiny cinders still stings the eyes.

Mama Lou’s house was comfortable. White frame, with broad porches that invited breezes up from the creek we called Panther Branch. Everyone—eight brothers, sisters and their broods—could sit at Thanksgiving and Christmas tables with overloaded stomachs, or later, the porch swing, on green wooden slats, laughing above the squawk of metal chains.

Family gathered there. Not just for major holidays showing on the big insurance company calendar. A day of gathering wasn’t always printed under the calendar’s number. One of the aunts could always call and ask Johnny Cloud’s grandmother, who operated town’s switchboard, to get everyone on the line. After the get-together on the wires, assembling would be soon.

Many quickly-called gatherings I remember, or maybe I’ve heard the stories so many times I think I was there, were all attended by adult women in the family.  The men were at war. Two Rowe brothers who were my mother’s brothers and a Rowe cousin and in-laws. Two other close cousins from my maternal side of the family, were brothers in all but genes.
My dad was 4F, so he couldn’t be drafted. He worked in the Fire Department on Redstone arsenal.  There were no adult men at the gatherings.

Voices, higher in pitch than usual, swirled through the room like tobacco smoke and there many of the women smoked. News from the front; news from ships at sea; news from secret locations.

“… has anyone heard….?” an aunt.

“…do you know about…?” Mama Lou.

And so the news was spread. Each woman held, usually in one hand, at least one Victory    Letter, those single sheets of almost-transparent blue paper that were essentially thin envelopes with writing inside.
The women held the letters across their chests, over their hearts, like cradling a baby; like shields from the world, or a pledge of allegiance. For their men.
~~~~~~~~~~
“What did Louis tell you in the letter you got this morning?” Mama Lou said.
We were sitting in the swing on her side porch.
“He said he couldn’t tell me where he was, but he was doing well. He said it was hot.”
Mother had read the letter to me, but kept it safe to show my father. Louis was Mother’s cousin who was more like an uncle. I’d walked to the post office to pick up the mail.  I couldn’t work the combination, but the stern; unsmiling postmistress, with white hair curled against her scalp, stared briefly through her rimless glasses and gave me the V-Letter because it was addressed directly to me.

Home, Mama Lou’s house—Mother, Dad and I were living in half her house—was about half a mile from the post office. When I slammed, panting, through the door, Mother circled her arms around me and lifted me to her lap. Barely was I there when she took the thin letter and read it to me.
“Go tell Mama Lou. She’ll want to know. I’ll read it again and show it to her later.”
On the front porch I climbed into the swing with my grandmother. She pulled me close to her before talking. Finally, after I told her about the letter, she relaxed her enfolding embrace, but held my hand and combed long fingers through my hair and looked out across the
“They’re all so precious,” she said.
She was a woman who had grown up in a middle-class Irish family. Her hair had once bee rich auburn that fell to her waist.  A sepia- tone picture, on heavy cardboard, showed her with five others—three men and two women— she held a tall guitar leaned against her leg daring the camera with direct green eyes. Her hair, slightly wavy, dropped past a wide belt. When I asked who the others were, she pointed and named each one.  They were her classmates at Falkville Normal College.  There were only six students in her class, I wasn’t old enough for First Grade and there wasn’t a kindergarten, so only six students in her class didn’t seem remarkable.
She took off her glasses and touched each eye with a corner of her apron.
“What’s wrong, Mama Lou?”
“One day, we’ll lose one of them,” she said.
“Why?”
“It’s war, Thomas. Men kill each other. We can’t be forever safe.”
I’d seen the posters in the post office when I picked up the letter and in the general store windows. Powerful American men and women fighting brutish Nazis and snarling Japanese. Could one of those rat-faced brutes kill my uncles or cousins? It seemed unlikely.
“The Germans and the Japs want to take over the world. The Americans and the English-speaking countries have to stop them,” she said.
She held her left hand up between us, fingers splayed and ticked years off each finger and thumb.
“You were only sixteen months old, when the Japs made a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. They had no reason to attack our ships; they want to rule everything.  We’ve got to stop them,” she said.
“Go on and play.  I need to do some sewing and the rolls for our supper are rising. Tell your mother where you’re going so she won’t worry,” she said.
I was a happy boy, with a tide of saliva rising in my mouth, whenever the aroma of bread rising, curved across my nostrils then up to the food pleasure centers of my brain.
It would be hours before supper was ready, though.
I went to find my buddy.

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Responses

  1. Been waiting for this one!

    • Thank you. I’ve got to get back to this soon.

  2. Loved this wonderful memoir, Thomas. Our people could look evil in the face back then and know what they were seeing. I’m not sure that’s the case these days. I especially enjoyed your metaphors for steam engines.

    • Thanks, Rich. I am enjoying this, although not actively working on it, right now.

  3. Reblogged this on guvnamik and commented:
    From one of my favorite storytellers!

  4. Incredible! As a published writer — I can tell you have a firm grasp of turning a story into a painting! A work of art! That is what it is all about. The Irish make the best writers. I have no knowledge of your heritage, but you write like an Irishman!


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