In honor of Mother's day, I'm posting a short story my mom and I wrote together as part of creative project she did with her theater group. The stories were then knit together into a play, and the writers performed the stories as monologues. The play ran over President's day weekend this year, and sold out all three nights. Proceeds went to support an international organization that is working to end violence against women everywhere.
This is a work of fiction based on some real events. This is a true story in that it tells the truth.
We Sipped Sweet Tea, and He Told Me Stories
My father, Ray, left my mom and me when I was about 7. Momma remarried
and divorced two more times. I have no siblings. No cousins with whom I
exchange holiday greeting cards. I got married to my college sweetheart when I
was 26, but have been divorced for 40 years now. I have a daughter. She grew up
with her father. She lives two states away, married, divorced, remarried, and has
no children of her own by choice.
Although I grew up during the exuberance of post-war America, I lived
together with Momma and sometimes her husband, and my grandparents, and sometimes
my aunt, in more of what you might describe as a post-depression era
arrangement. My family followed paid work wherever it led. A Louisiana cannery. A New Mexico saw mill. A trucker’s diner out on a busy highway that
rolled along between sunny Sacramento farmland and the damp ports of San
Francisco. I loved school, but we never stayed long enough that I made many
friends. In fact, I was timid and lonely and I feared I might drown in my family’s
storm of alcoholic rages and violence.
We all have our childhood memories. Some of them are hard and painful. I
know you do, too. I don’t mean to play on your sympathies, at least not
directly. These experiences make up our character, who we will become, who we
will teach our children to be. Life is not easy, or fair, nor does it care
about our feelings. Coming into adulthood with some survival skills is
something I daresay the current generation could use.
My point is to say, in spite of the way I grew up, I want you to know
that believe in family more than anything.
My father, Ray, had a brother. Vern. Well, he had 10 brothers and
sisters, but Vern is the only one I knew.
My Uncle Vern and his wife, my Aunt Stella, lived a whole life away from
mine in Colorado. They lived way up in a mountain valley, in a small ranching
and farming town. Manassa, Colorado.
My great-grand-parents on my father’s side arrived in Colorado in 1876,
just north of the New Mexico border in the San Louis Valley, not far from the
Rio Grande. This was the same year that Colorado became a state. They were
Mormon, and they had travelled with other families from South Carolina in
covered wagons. Those families pooled their money to buy two massive cattle ranches not far
from the town, on an assurance that the railroad would come through their
ranch. In the mean time, they used the canvas and timbers from their wagons to
erect tents, and lived in those tents while they built their homes and planted
their farms. A year later, though, the railroad bypassed the colony, just three
miles to the west.
Most of my adolescent memories of 1950s San Francisco bear absolutely no
resemblance to the lives of those pioneers, or even my Uncle Vern and Aunt
Stella’s lives as farmers. But I understood, when I sat aside them at the tiny
old drop-leaf kitchen table pushed back and up against the wall in Stella’s
kitchen, that these people were my family, too. I drank in Vern’s stories while
I devoured Stella’s salty sweet friend chicken like you have never tasted. Pork
chops, fruit pies, fresh snap beans, scratch biscuits and gravy. They didn’t
have children of their own, and when I got to visit for a summer week, maybe
two, it was like being on parole from my regular life. Theirs was full of the
earth, of hard work and play, of kindness, and a kind of love that makes you
want to belong to it.
So I grew up, made my own life, and as often as I could, though
sometimes years would go by, I travelled to Manassa. I brought my daughter,
just once, when she was about the same age I was the first time I visited. To
this day she recalls Stella’s friend chicken and fresh picked peas and apple
pies. She remembers a horse-back ride into the Rocky Mountains, seeing a horned
toad for the first time, learning to pick out Indian Paint Brush flowers from
the back of a saddle.
By my very last visit with Vern, some 15 years ago now, Stella had
succumbed to diabetes two years before. But I still saw her everywhere in that
little house. I saw her old dishes, her floral pattered brown rugs, her
crocheted tablecloth on the old maple dining table. Lace curtains. Hand-embroidered
bath towels. I could see and feel so much loss and grieving in Vern’s brown
eyes, set deep in his old, tanned and weathered face. I felt sad, too. I was
confused, not knowing how to console this old man who had given so much comfort
to me over the years.
I sat across from him at the little drop leaf table. We sipped sweet tea,
and Vern told me stories. Some were old and familiar, but one was new. He
wanted to tell me about how he had built their store-house out back next to the
garage. He’d made it secure, kept it locked tight to protect Stella’s
valuables. He started with two railroad box cars for solid steel walls. Nearly
impenetrable to fire, weather, farm animals or coyotes, and most thieves.
I wondered what could be so valuable, and yet not more secure in a
deposit box down at the bank. I had seen most everything in their modest, two
bedroom stucco home; their small wealth was in their land, not in splashy
furnishings. His eyes sparkled and he smiled a little. “You want to see?” He
knew I most certainly did. “Let’s go have a look.”
Sure enough, though they had been their for years and I never noticed
them apart from the tractor shed and cattle barn, were those two box cars,
stacked one atop the other, painted white at either end, and covered with wood
He unlocked the bolt, slid open the latch, and switched on fluorescent
overhead lights. I smelled dried grass mixed with cool earth and machine oil. I
looked around. He pointed out the cement foundation, described how he’d put
together the roof trusses and laid the shingles himself. Today I live on an old
chicken farm in Sonoma County, California, and the 100-year old redwood chicken barns are more of a
nuisance and fire hazard. But as I stood listening, I was completely absorbed
by what he had done, single-hand. I saw in front of me a breed of man who could
build or fix almost anything. There aren’t many left in our
techno-industrial-whatsit world today. For a minute I forgot why we were even
I looked around for “it.” It wasn’t the two snowmobiles that they had
taken to the mountains every year, now sitting mothballed in a far corner. And it
was definitely not the array of compressors, generators, trimmers, carpentry
tools, or table saw and drill press. We walked through a narrow doorway into
the second boxcar, over boxes and around more tools, and finally to a closet in
He opened the door, pulled a
chain to illuminate the small space, and there it was. He reached out gently
with both of his old work-scarred hands and picked up a canning jar filled with
green beans. He brought it close to him, holding it like it might disintegrate
if he weren’t gentle. “This is Stella’s,” he said. Not a diamond. Not a
painting. Not anything I had imagined.
All three walls where shelved,
floor to ceiling, with row after row of neatly labeled jars. Vern explained
that every year she grew and canned the food that got them through the winter
and into the next growing season. Every day she worked by his side, and every
night she set the table.
One by one he picked up and held
a jar of pears, then apricots, then tomatoes.
I stood next to him and reached
out towards the jars, fingering some of the labels. I quietly watched him
caress each one and remember. For the first time I saw my Uncle, not through a
niece’s eyes, but through my adult eyes. Fifty-two years of marriage. Fifty-two
summers. And it was the first time in my life that I really saw one person’s deep
love for another, the kind that only comes once it’s lived, and not on your
Vern died a year later. I like to
think that every time he opened a jar and ate the beans or pears, he imagined
that Stella was there with him.
In the family I grew up with, in
the worn down and wounded love that we shared, I hadn’t known this kind of sustenance.
I have longed for it all my life. I cry when I remember the sadness in my
little-girl self, and I cry when I remember the summers when my Uncle Vern and
Aunt Stella’s love became a part of me. This year, for Christmas, my daughter
sent me a jar of figs she put up last summer. And I cried again because I
believe in family.