Aunt Joyce

JoyceVJarriel_WebsiteHer hands were always in motion as she sat on the sofa across from us, looping yarns over a crochet hook and pulling the strand or strands through other loops, and so on, and so on. Her daily masterpieces always lay across her lap, as she added rows to them, chatting at the same time.

Aunt Joyce was a multitasker. She could crochet half of a large afghan in an afternoon while watching television and carrying on a casual conversation. Crocheting was one of her things.

I think everyone in the Jarriel family has at least one afghan Joyce crocheted for them. I’m special. I have four. She made the first one for me in 1990, the year I married. It’s a large off-white afghan showcasing an exquisite seashell design. After my husband and I married, it occupied the backside of a big cozy chair in the great room of our first home. I curled up in the warmth of Aunt Joyce’s afghan on many nights as I watched television or read a book.

In 1991, she sent me a pastel pink baby afghan—a hint, I guess. I put it away in my cedar chest. Two years later, she made another one for me. This time, the baby-sized afghan was mint green. A year after that, she made me another pink one. Our babies never came, and so Joyce’s tiny afghans stayed hidden in the darkness of the cedar chest until last year after she died. I pulled them out one by one and looked at them.

I’m sure I thanked her for them, or did I? Surely she knew how much I appreciated everything she made for me, gave to me, said to me . . . Surely she knew.

Born in 1928, Joyce Valentine Jarriel was my mother’s oldest sister.

“She was almost ten years older than me, so she was already grown and living away from home through most of my childhood,” Mom remembers. “She’d always bring us a little something when she came home. She made me and Gloria dresses sometimes.”

She stood tall at 5’11” and had bright blue eyes and golden blonde locks. Lee Roy Anderson of Reidsville eventually won her heart. They married in 1946 and had four children (Dawn, Pam, Roy, and Yancey) before I ever came along.

Wanda, Joyce, and Gloria

Wanda, Joyce, and Gloria


She and Uncle Lee Roy ran a furniture business from a store behind their Richmond Hill house. Along with furniture, they also sold knick knacks and housewares.

One year, she gave me solid oak stool with a slit cut into the top that could be used as a handle. Another year, she sent me a little saucepan with a note that read, “This is good cookware. You’ll have this little pot forever.”
It has simmered gallons of gravy and boiled hundreds of eggs through the years.

Her gifts were practical and meant to last. So were her conversations.

She called me in 2009 after my father-in-law, George, died.

“Hey Honey. I was going to send you and Gene a sympathy card, but I decided not to,” she said. “All of those sympathy cards are just too damned sad, you know? They all talk about death and resting in peace and loss. You start feeling a little better, then you get a sympathy card in the mail, and you get sad all over again, so I decided not to send one.”

She’s right, you know. Sympathy cards are really sad.

Wanda, Gloria, and Joyce

Wanda, Gloria, and Joyce

“I want to tell you something,” she continued, her words flowing like water. “I’ve always loved you, you know, since you were a little girl. And I love Gene, too.”

“Now, you and Gene did a lot for his daddy, and that’s important. I know how hard it is to take care of someone—especially a parent. You did all you could for him. Gene was a good son to him, and you were a good daughter-in-law, and that’s that. He couldn’t have asked for more.”

“How’s his mama?” she asked, and then we talked about Gene’s mother for a few minutes before she ended the conversation by asking us to come see her soon.

Her phone call made me feel better.

The last time I saw Joyce was in 2015. Mom, my stepfather, Gene, and I drove to Richmond Hill to visit her, stopping in Pembroke to buy a big carrot cake with icing so sweet that the first bite broke me out into a sweat. We sat at her kitchen table and talked for an hour. She told us a story from her past about a gas station down the road from her that had a big billboard on the highway that read, “Gas, Monkeys, and Beer.” At some point, some of the monkeys escaped, but no one knew.

Mom and I standing with Joyce in her kitchen in 2015.

Mom and I standing with Joyce in her kitchen in 2015.

“Yancey ran inside one afternoon yelling that there was a monkey swingin’ around outside, and I told him to shut up and stop lying, or I was going to spank him,” she said. “He convinced me to step out on the porch, and there it was—sitting in a tree. I couldn’t believe it.”

We laughed and laughed, but then it was time for us to head home.

“Please don’t go,” she said.

Her faded blue eyes welled up with tears, and she clutched my arm.

“Stay for a while longer, or . . . take me with you.”

I felt the power of loneliness in her pleas. Walking out of her house and driving away that day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Those afghans mean the world to me now—enveloping me in love. And she was right—that little pot’s going to last forever. So will my memories of Aunt Joyce.

Amber Lanier Nagle writes from Northwest Georgia. She specializes in Southern heritage pieces. Buy her book, Project Keepsake at www.ProjectKeepsake.com or on Amazon.

MY AUNT COLLEEN

stencil-facebook-post-1As December 2 approaches, I remember my brother’s birthday is on the second of the month, and I remember that the anniversary of Colleen’s death is on that same day. She died in 2010 at 82. We buried her at Rosemary Primitive Baptist Church just north of Metter amid so many other Laniers.

Colleen was my aunt—one of my daddy’s older sisters. She was born on a “hotter than Hell” day in June in 1928, just before the Great Depression. My grandmother was picking blackberries that day when she realized that the baby was coming.

Colleen wasn’t like most children. She was special. At the time, society used the term “mentally retarded” to describe people with intellectual disabilities, and there were very few resources to help intellectually disabled folks, or the families struggling to raise them.
As a result, she never attended school for more than a few days at a time. I remember my father saying that he took her to school with him a few times, but it never worked, and so she stayed at the farm under the watchful eyes of my grandparents—keeping my grandmother company and doing chores around the house.

Today, she would have thrived in special education classes. Today, I believe that Colleen would have learned to read and write. I think about that sometimes and feel sad for her, but I don’t think that she ever wasted a moment being sad about her life.

Though cognitively limited, she was born with more gifts than most people. She had the gift of love. I felt it in each and every bear hug. She loved people and never met a stranger. She loved family. She smiled a lot, and you couldn’t help but smile back at her.
And she was given the gift of help—always pitching in to be of assistance and never complaining.

And is the case with so many special individuals, Heaven allowed the light of eternal childhood to shine within her—a blessing, really.

Speaking wasn’t easy for her, and few people outside our family could understand her when she spoke, but that was okay with us. We loved her, and her words weren’t really important.

She had a memory like an elephant and kept a journal of her life in her head. She could tell you detailed events from the past, and started her stories with, “Way back ‘er when…”

Of course, she knew how to hook a worm to a line to catch a fish in Papa’s pond, but she knew other stuff, too. One time when we were in the car driving from the Union Community into Metter to shop at Thain’s Five and Dime Store, I noticed some yellow wildflowers dancing next to the road.

“What are those pretty flowers, Mama?” I asked.

Before my mother could answer, Colleen pushed out the word, “Goldenrod,” and smiled at me. She appreciated flowers as much as I did.

And she and I shared a love of animals, too. She always had a dog and a few feral cats that she was trying to tame. There was a door to nowhere in Grandmother’s kitchen back then, right next to the sink. It opened to no steps—just a five or six foot drop to the ground. I remember tossing stale morning biscuits from that doorway and Colleen summoning her band of wild cats with her struggled speech. Those cats came flying from all sorts of hiding places to get a crumb or two.

My sister and I had long hair, and when we visited, Colleen often brushed, combed, and braided our hair. She pulled our hair so tightly in the braids that we could barely shut our eyes. It hurt. I wasn’t crazy about her braiding my hair, but I tolerated it.

She spent time in the mornings with the adults drinking coffee and flipping the large pages of the newspaper, though she couldn’t read them. She had learned to blend in.

Papa died in 1973 and left Colleen and my grandmother to live by themselves. As my grandmother aged, Colleen was asked to do more and more.

“Go get them dresses Nell made us and show ‘em to Wander,” Grandmother would say to my aunt. “Run, Colleen! Run!”

And my aunt would take off like a sprinter to the back bedroom to retrieve the dresses. colleenandgrandmother

Every day, my grandmother would watch for the mail carrier to deliver the mail. When it arrived, she’d say, “Colleen, get the mail. Run, Colleen! Run!”

I never understood what the urgency was. I think my grandmother was just trying to keep things interesting. For the most part, Aunt Colleen was very obedient—for the most part.

My grandmother had a few secrets that Colleen knew about, and she was bound and determined not to let Colleen tell anyone, but protecting her secrets was a bit of a challenge when the two women visited our house. My father liked to stay up late and sip on a tall glass of bourbon and Coke. He’d invite Colleen to have a drink with him—an adult privilege seldom offered to her. She loved drinking with Bus (that’s what she called my father—I don’t know why). My grandmother couldn’t stay awake after 11 o’clock and wanting to keep her secrets locked in the vault, she’d give the order, “Come on, Colleen. Let’s go to bed.”

“Uh-uh,” Colleen would reply shaking her head back and forth, then she’d take another long sip of her drink.

My dad would say, “Go on to bed, Mama. Colleen can stay up with me.”

But my grandmother would nervously sit back down in the living room and attempt to hold her eyes open. Ten minutes later, she’d try again. “Come on, Colleen. Let’s go to bed.”

“Uh-uh,” Colleen would say defiantly. It was the only time I ever saw my aunt disobey my grandmother. She stood her ground. It made my grandmother furious.

Most of the time, my grandmother would give up and leave Colleen and my father in the living room to drink, watch television, and talk. But one night, having something very important to hide, my grandmother grabbed my aunt by the arm and made her get up and go to bed with her.

Colleen got angry that night. We could hear the two women in the bedroom arguing—my grandmother telling her to put on her gown and go to the bathroom, and Colleen objecting loudly.

That’s when we heard it—the sound of someone’s hand slapping another someone’s face. Then we heard my grandmother wailing, more from shock than pain.

We rushed to the back and separated the two women. Colleen got to stay up that night after all, and my grandmother—who blamed the entire incident on my father and never forgave him for the scuffle—fell asleep crying in her pillow.

Colleen settled back down on the couch, picked up her drink, and balanced it on her lap as if nothing had happened. Before I fell asleep that night, I heard her say to my dad, “Way back ‘er when…”

I don’t know what they talked about that night, but I know that Colleen was quite content. She was always happy around my daddy.

And that’s what I remembered on December 2, 2010, the day she died. I thought about her, her struggle with words, and tight braids, and wild cats hungry for biscuits, and dancing Goldenrod, and bourbon, and so much more. Yeah, she was special—one of the most special people I’ve ever known.

Amber Lanier Nagle writes from Northwest Georgia. She specializes in Southern heritage pieces. Buy her book, Project Keepsake at www.ProjectKeepsake.com or on Amazon.

Veterans Day — of Sacrifice, Sadness, and Sorrow

“A time to be born, and a time to die;
…A time for war, and a time for peace.”

– Ecclesiastes

In honor of Veterans Day—Friday, November 11—I offer a short history lesson and a story.

Veterans day was originally called “Armistice Day,” denoting the the end of World War I, when hostilities ceased on November 11 at 11 a.m., 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In 1938 Armistice Day was declared a legal holiday each year—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.

Then on November 11, 1947 Raymond Weeks, a World War II veteran, organized a “National Veterans Day” parade in Birmingham, Alabama to recognize veterans of all wars. This celebration led to Congress changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 to recognize the veterans of all US wars.Veterans Day

Every Veterans Day, I think about the veterans I know, I think about the veterans I don’t know, and I consider the sacrifice made by veterans and their families. In fact, for the last decade, I’ve called my Uncle Edwin on Veterans Day and thanked him for his service during WWII. Two years ago, he said, “You are the only one who called me today.” I was shocked—and deeply saddened. He died around Memorial Day earlier this year. I thought about him several times on Friday and wished there was a way to call him.

A few years ago, I learned of a family in San Joaquin Valley, California who was mourning the loss of two sons killed in the war in Iraq. The Hubbard family lost one of their sons, Jared, to a roadside bomb in 2004. Months later, they also lost Nathan, 21, after the Blackhawk helicopter that he was in spiraled to the ground during a nighttime mission.

A third son who was also serving in Iraq, Jason Hubbard, escorted his brother’s flag-draped casket into a church so that more than 1,000 friends, family members, and military servicemen could say their final good byes.

Given the circumstances, military officials ordered the surviving son, Jason, to return to the United States and asked that he never again redeploy to a hostile firing zone.

I can’t imagine the pain that a family who has lost a child, a spouse, or a parent in wartime experiences, much less the Hubbard family’s pain in losing two sons. I was deeply moved by the weight of this tragedy and remembered a letter I read years before.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln penned a letter to Lydia Bixby, a bereaved mother who supposedly lost five sons during the Civil War. Although it was later determined that only two of her sons perished in the war and that some experts say that Lincoln was not the true author of the letter, it is still significant—eloquently powerful, sincere and sympathetic. No matter who wrote the letter, it speaks from the heart of most Americans.

The Bixby Letter

Executive Mansion
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Friends, fly your flags year-round. Thank military servicemen and servicewomen. Support families who have loved ones who are deployed in dangerous areas of the world. Hug the family members and friends of our fallen soldiers—hug them often. Talk to your children about America’s history and the price of freedom. And never allow yourself or those around you to forget the personal sacrifices that extraordinary men and women have made for our country.

Death in the South

DeathintheSouth
Mrs. Gump: “I’m dying, Forrest. Come on in, sit down over here.”
Forrest Gump: “Why are you dying, Mama?”
Mrs. Gump: “It’s my time. It’s just my time. Oh now… don’t you be afraid, sweetheart. Death is just a part of life.”
—From Forrest Gump 1994

I rose early that day faced with the long, four-hour drive down to my stepfather’s home in Southeast Georgia. I suppressed my many melancholy feelings by singing along to the radio and focusing my attention on each milestone along my journey—Atlanta’s downtown connector, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the large outlet mall in Locust Grove, Rose Hill Cemetery along the banks of the muddy Ocmulgee, and the point where the brown dirt on the sides of I-16 transitions to the white sand hills abundant in the lowland areas of Georgia.

“Which shoes should I wear?” Mom asked just moments after I arrived. She had hung her funeral attire on the door of the spare bedroom with two pairs of black pumps parked underneath.

“I don’t know. Maybe those,” I said pointing to one pair.

She agreed with my decision and dressed as I washed down a pack of cheese crackers with an ice-cold Coke. A half hour later, I was behind the wheel again, but this time, I chauffeured two others—Mom in the backseat and my stepfather in the front.

Freshly plowed dirt roads. Live oaks draped with cascading Spanish moss. Weathered clapboard houses. Barns strangled by tangles of kudzu. Saw palmetto. Towering longleaf pines.

The three of us arrived at the funeral home in Richmond Hill and entered the building. Dozens of relatives—some I had not seen in over a decade—ambushed us. We mingled, hugged, waved, dried tears and pressed our way through a sea of grieving people to the open casket. My cousin, Yancey, dressed in a navy blue fisherman’s shirt, lay peacefully before us as if he were taking a nap.
I stood next to my cousin’s body and spoke to him with my thoughts.

I hate seeing you like this. I’ll miss your wit—we all will.

I had not seen Yancey in a while, although he and I shared conversations and photographs via Facebook. He was my Aunt Joyce’s youngest child—her baby boy, even at forty-seven years old. His rotund body seemed a perfect match for his larger-than-life personality, but his heart and his lungs couldn’t support the surplus weight. Health problems plagued him in the end. His death was somewhat expected, but still, when my sister called and told me he had died, I was simply shocked. I gasped. News of death has that effect on me every time.

I hate saying goodbyes, and I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my lifetime.

My Papa Lanier died of emphysema when I was seven, and I remember the weight of his death on my family and the pained, primitive yowls of my grandmother and my Aunt Colleen in the days that followed. They seemed inconsolable.

As a child, I also attended funerals for Uncle Lee Roy, Uncle Louis, and many other relatives, and each time, Mom would escort me up to the body and say, “You might want to look, Honey. It will be the last time you get to see him.”

I didn’t want to look, but I did. I saw death laid out before me—the lifeless, empty shells of people from my life. I witnessed the anguish of the survivors who occupied the front pews of the churches. I smelled the overpowering aroma of Chrysanthemums arranged in baskets and stuck in large, flashy sprays. I listened to the comforting messages of preachers guiding my imagination to images of winged souls flying up to Heaven. Unfortunately, I heard the other kind of sermons, too—the hellfire and damnation kind designed to terrify a congregation, wounded and weakened from loss.

“If you want to see him again, you must repent your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior today,” some preachers howled while standing over the casket. “Only then can you be reunited with your loved ones in Heaven. Come to the front of the church now and reaffirm your faith. There may not be a tomorrow.”

Friends and family members streamed forward. No one wanted to be left behind. No one wanted to spend eternity in Hell. No one.

Even as a little girl, I found the fire-and-brimstone sermons of some funerals distasteful. To me, the words “today could be your last chance for salvation,” sounded a lot like a used car salesman’s cheesy pitch—“What do I have to do to get you in this car today? It may not be here tomorrow. Better go ahead and buy it now.”

My grandmother Lanier died in 1990. My father wept for her.

My daddy joined Grandmother and Papa on the other side in 1992, and I cried for him and my mother who became a widow at fifty-five. We buried him in denim jeans and a flannel shirt because that’s what he was most comfortable wearing. My father was a Mason, and so a band of Masonic brethren wearing white gloves and ceremonial aprons surrounded his body at the graveside. One man wore a hat and spoke directly to us.

“Our Brother has reached the end of his earthly toils. The brittle thread which bound him to earth has been severed and the liberated spirit has winged its flight to the unknown world. The dust has returned to the earth as it was, and the spirit has returned to God who gave it.”

The service brimmed with poetic phrasing and symbolism—my kind of sermon. At one point, the man with the hat placed a sprig of cedar on my father’s casket.

“This evergreen is an emblem of our enduring faith in the Immortality of the Soul. By it we are reminded that we have an imperishable part within us, which shall survive all earthly existence, and which will never, never die. Through the loving goodness of our Supreme Grand Master, we may confidently hope that, like this Evergreen, our souls will hereafter flourish in eternal spring.”

I loved the thought of my father existing in eternal springtime somewhere.

We buried my father that afternoon then went to a family member’s house and ate. Women of the family and community had prepared a generous spread of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, potato salad, cornbread, sweet tea, chocolate cake and other delicacies. Taking food to a grieving family is the epitome of Southern grace, like saying, “I’m sorry for your loss. I care. And don’t ever forget—you are loved by so many.”

After we picked at our food and rested for a while, my family caravanned back to the cemetery and stood beside the mounded dirt and flower arrangements for a few minutes. Mom reached down and plucked a limp rose from the spray that covered Daddy’s grave—a keepsake she eventually dried and pressed between the pages of a Bible. We each selected a potted peace lily to take home.
I found it difficult to turn and leave my father there that day. I believed that his soul had moved on, yet I had a strong connection with the vessel that contained his being. I lingered at his graveside delaying the inevitable.

With its granite and marble obelisks and monuments, the cemetery looked a bit like an outdoor art garden. There was a strange beauty to the setting, although it was a barren land flush with death and sadness. Some of the plots were well taken care of, while others seemed forgotten—faded plastic flowers leaning to and fro and weeds invading the marble rocks.

I continued to stall by wading through the sea of headstones and reading the names, dates, and verses engraved on the surfaces. Finally, my husband grabbed my hand and led me away.

Since that day, I’ve lost others—my beloved Grandmother Jarriel, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I’ve watched my husband’s parents deteriorate mentally and physically and fade away, too. They were both cremated—their ashes scattered together underneath a tree in a forest near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I’ve lost pets, and I’ve mourned for them, too—sometimes more than I’ve mourned for people who’ve passed away.

But back to my cousin’s funeral.

Yancey’s niece, Ashley, stood up in front of all of us and shared some lovely memories. I admired her courage and composure and wondered if I could push my pain aside for ten minutes and speak about a loved one at a funeral service. I’m not sure.

After my cousin’s burial, I gathered my passengers and drove off into the blazing sunset while Mom, my stepfather, and Aunt Gloria recapped the events of the preceding days. They talked about how good this person looked and how bad that person looked. They talked about who brought food and how delicious so-and-so’s cake was. They talked about relatives that didn’t attend the funeral or burial service and speculated as to why they didn’t show up. They talked about Yancey, and what a beautiful little boy he had been so many years ago. They talked about my Aunt Joyce and wondered aloud about her future. They talked about life, and they talked about death—sometimes in the same breath.

I’ve reached an age where my parents and my remaining aunts and uncles are all surpassing the average life expectancy. Friends and contemporaries are fighting and losing battles with cancer and other debilitating illnesses. I find myself thinking about mortality more and more these days. I brace—not for my own decline and death, but for the eminent loss of the lights around me who brighten my world.

My mother has always talked candidly about death, dying, and the afterlife. A few years ago, she called and told me matter-of-factly to prepare for a whole slew of deaths in our family.

“There’s no easy way to say it, so I’m just going to come right out with it,” she said. “We have so many in our family who are either really sick or really old, so be prepared. When they start dying, they’ll drop like flies.”

Mom suggested I keep at least two appropriate funeral dresses in my closet at all times and urged me to make sure my husband’s suit still fit him, which I did. She also said, “You might want to plan and visit with some of your family that you haven’t seen in a few years. You never know—you may not get another opportunity to spend time with them.”

Her words made me sad, but her warning proved to be prophetic. Mom’s always on the mark.

As far as her own death, Mom talks about that, too, even though she has the health and stamina of a woman half her age. For the last several years, she regularly sends me a spreadsheet that itemizes all of her bank accounts and personal business. She’s given me a copy of her will and a key to her safe deposit box. I know exactly where she wants to be buried—beside my father’s body at the cemetery east of Collins, Georgia.

Her main concern is my stepfather, Johnny.

“If I go first, please be there for him,” she has pleaded with me. “He’s going to need a lot of love and care. I know you will help him in every way that you can.”

And I will.

Yes, I’ve seen death, and I understand both its finality and its truth. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Death is just a part of life.” It reminds us of what’s important—that we are only here for a finite number of days, that we should live each day as if it is our last, that we should love one another, that we should show compassion and forgiveness to others, and most of all, that we should never take one moment for granted.

Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle has written nonfiction articles for Georgia Magazine, Grit, Mother Earth News, Points North and dozens of other magazines. Her book, Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake), is a collection of nonfiction stories about keepsakes. She facilitates workshops for writers of all skill levels on topics such as freelance writing, writing family stories, and writing creative nonfiction pieces.

Hey—I’m Usually the One Asking the Questions

As a freelance writer, I’m usually the one asking the questions and scribbling down the answers in a form of shorthand only I can decipher.

But every now and then, someone asks to interview me about writing, publishing, marketing books, or putting together a magazine. I hold a firm belief that we writers have a duty and obligation to help young and emerging writers, so I agree to the interview, if time allows.

That’s how it happened late last year. I was contacted by Deyse Bravo, a librarian at McKee Library on the campus of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. She asked me to answer just four questions related to my writing journey, and I obliged. I came across our correspondence this morning, and after reading over my answers, I thought, perhaps, her questions paired with my answers may be of some benefit to my blog readers. I’ve pasted the text of the interview below. Enjoy!

Deyse: What are you working on now?

Amber: As a freelance writer, I have piles of works in progress on my desk throughout the year. Even though it is the end of summer, I am working on articles for the fall and winter issues of magazines. For example, I just completed “The Great Pumpkin,” for Sea Island Life Magazine’s fall issue. I’m almost finished with “Oh Christmas Tree,” an article GEORGIA Magazine will publish in December about the experience of going to a Christmas tree farm to find and cut a tree. And I’m trying to find a magazine editor interested in an article I wrote about growing pecan trees, harvesting pecans, and creating Southern pecan-based delicacies like pecan pie and pecan divinity (Note: I sold the pecan article to GRIT Magazine shortly after the interview. It will appear in their November/December 2016 issue). I pitch ideas to editors several times a month, so that type of work (idea development and sending out query letters) is always ongoing.

At the computer...

At the computer…

I still promote Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), and because I sincerely believe everyone has a keepsake and every keepsake has a story to tell, I continue my quest to help people write and share stories about keepsakes. I haven’t decided whether I will publish a second volume of keepsake stories yet, however, I still continue sharing these magical stories on my blog and through social media.

I facilitate workshops on freelance writing, writing family stories, writing about keepsakes, and other topics. I’m in the process of making my workshops available via podcasts and through interactive web conferencing. Writing is a business, and you have to constantly strive to be relevant and reach readers and paying clients. It’s the only way to make money in the business, unless you are a Rick Bragg, Stephen King, or Anne Lamont, who I am not.

I am also working on a novel with the working title, Daylily. I’ve reached into my background as an engineer for inspiration. My story begins with a horrific industrial accident that takes a man’s life. My main character, a female engineer working in the facility, is blamed for the accident. My story drifts through its arc as the main character runs away to a daylily farm to regain her sanity and figure out how to clear her name. I’ve always been a nonfiction writer, and writing fiction has been somewhat of a challenge for me. I’ve joined a critique group to help me progress through the writing process and get feedback. I hope to have a first draft of Daylily completed by spring next year (Note: I didn’t make my deadline. I’m still working on the novel).

Deyse: How have libraries been a part of your life?

Amber: I credit the public library in Warner Robins, Georgia with planting the “book fever” seed in my soul. Growing-up, I was drawn to books, especially picture books with their whimsical words and illustrations. I loved the way books felt in my little-girl hands and the way the pages smelled. I loved my hometown’s public library, which was connected to our local gym and recreation department. A trip to basketball practice was always followed by a quick visit to the adjoining library. I remember browsing the shelves, collapsing onto the floor to flip through the first pages of books, the mechanical stamping sound the librarian’s machine made that transferred the due dates to the the library card, the hush-hush silence of the library that contrasted with the loudness of the basketball gym and the recreation department’s pool room, and most of all, I remember the euphoria of skipping to the car with an armful of books.

I wanted to share the joy of the reading experience with others, so as a little girl, I often crawled under my family’s dining room table with my stash of library books and read them to a captive audience of disheveled dolls and thread bare stuffed animals.

As a teenager, I spent after-school hours at the library with friends. I grew up in a time before personal computers and the Internet, so the library was my lifeline for research. I also enjoyed plucking novels from the shelves and reading great works such as A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Catcher in the Rye. I feasted on the quirky tales of Flannery O’Connor and felt a special bond with her.

At some point during my childhood and teen years, my attraction to stories and my appetite for reading evolved into the desire to write, but I did not pursue a career in writing—not then. I was a child who possessed strong math skills and an insatiable love of science, so I was herded toward a career in engineering. I tucked my dreams of writing away for several years. But again, it all started at the library.

After my book, Project Keepsake was released in 2014, several libraries around Georgia and Alabama invited me to speak at their “Friends of the Library” meetings and events about the book, storytelling, writing, and keepsakes. I’ve really enjoyed discovering new libraries tucked away on the backroads of Georgia. I was in Hazlehurst, Georgia last week for a book signing, and when I stepped into the Jeff Davis Public Library, the familiar aroma of books greeted me like an old friend.

Deyse: What is your favorite book and why?

Amber: My favorite book is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As a child of the South, so much of Lee’s novel resonates with me—the sultry summer days of the South, the curiosity and mischief of children, the dialogue, the lovable, charismatic members of the community, the unfathomable cruelty of racial injustice, etc. I had never seen myself and my life portrayed in literature until I read Ms. Lee’s masterpiece as a young adult, and it shook me to my core. She so eloquently defined my dilemma—my struggle of loving and admiring my homeland and my beloved family, even though the ugliness of racism whirls around me every day. Just as Scout tries to make sense of it all, I’ve spent an entire lifetime trying to reconcile the differences in my head. Strong writing. Strong story. Strong message. I still cry when I read it, and yes, I read it every few years and savor it like a glass of fine muscadine wine.

Deyse: Any advice for today’s college students?

Amber: I have lots of advice for aspiring writers. I’ve written lots of motivational and informational posts for writers on my blog at www.ambernagle.com. For beginning writers, I recommend “The Reality of Writing” and “Hook, Line, and Sinker”.

Here are a few of my general tips:

  1. Read. Read volumes. Read all sorts of material. Reading will make you a better writer.
  2. Write. Write a lot. Put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys) and write fearlessly. Make time to write and write!
  3. Find a tribe of writers and contribute—ask for help from those with experience and offer assistance to those you can help.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by rejection or failure. Just smile and know that it is part of the journey and all writers go through it. I often tell students in my workshops that they will never hit a home run if they don’t step up to the plate and swing.
  5. If you fail at something (and you will), learn the lessons from the experience, put the experience behind you, and move forward.

Collaborating With Other Writers

Though I’ve only done it a few times, I enjoy collaborating with other writers. My largest collaborative writing effort is Project Keepsake, where I worked with writers of all skill levels to shape their short stories and publish them in a paperback collection.

In November, I collaborated on a blog with my dear friend and fellow writer, Renea Winchester. She and I are part of a sisterhood of writers who help and encourage one another. After exchanging a few emails, Renea pulled our story together and posted it on her blog at reneawinchester.wordpress.com.collaborationphoto

Today, I, too, am sharing our story (Buckeye Magic) with the world, but before I share our joint venture, I want to offer you a few reasons why you should consider collaborating with other writers.

  1. COLLABORATING IS FUN. Writing can be somewhat of a solitary journey, and so collaborating with someone you like transforms the writing process into a social endeavor.
  2. COLLABORATING HELPS YOU ENGAGE WITH NEW WRITERS. You have one set of readers, and your writing partner has another set of readers. At the end of the collaborative effort, a new audience will view your work. Simply put, working with another writer increases your readership reach.
  3. COLLABORATING ALLOWS YOU TO SHARE THE JOY. If your collaboration is a big success, you get to share the spotlight with someone you like, and that makes the moment even more special.
  4. COLLABORATION BREEDS CREATIVITY. The process of bumping thoughts and words off of one another helps generate new ideas and different approaches. You see the story in a different light, and that helps you grow as a writer.

“BUCKEYE MAGIC”
by Amber Nagle and Renea Winchester

Today’s post is a lesson in friendship—a reminder that we are all connected, even when we are miles apart. It’s also a window into the world of a writer and how book events aren’t glamorous. Sometimes they turn downright ugly.

Amber Nagle: I rose to a familiar nip in the autumn air and dug out a wrinkled sweater from the bottom of my closet. I followed the winding country roads to Goodlet Farm near Rock Spring, Georgia and admired the contrast between the rolling green fields and cerulean blue sky along the way.

I love fall festivals and country fairs, and I was looking forward to participating in the first-ever Goodlet Farm Festival—a fundraiser designed to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research. Festival organizers directed me to the Author’s Barn, where other regional authors and poets had congregated behind tables showcasing their books and promotional items. I sat down at a table with an acquaintance I had not seen in a few years and started unpacking copies of Project Keepsake. I placed a large bowl of buckeyes in front, then settled into my chair and waited for potential readers to sashay by.

amberandbuckeyeProject Keepsake is a collection of stories by several different writers about the histories and memories associated with keepsakes—a quilt, a pocket knife, a cake pan, an heirloom sewing machine, etc. I coordinated the project, wrote two of the stories in the collection, and led the effort to find a publisher. The first story in the collection is “Herman’s Brown Buckeyes” — a story about my father and our relationship.

During my childhood, my dad gave me dozens of buckeyes he had retrieved from the woods. He always followed the gesture by saying, “Keep it. It’ll bring you good luck.” And so buckeyes remind me of my father and his lifelong love of the great outdoors—hunting, fishing, sitting by a glowing campfire, and roaming the backwoods of Georgia on foot.

During book events, I often bring a large bowl of buckeyes to give to passersby. The smooth brown nuggets tie into my book, but they also prompt interesting conversations. Many people respond to the buckeyes and share memories with me from their own lives, and I treasure that connection.

Renea Winchester: Many Southerners and hill-folk alike can recollect with great detail the moment a smooth buckeye was placed in their palm. For you see, a buckeye is just the right size for every hand, because it carries with it a bit of magic. Sometimes buckeye’s come on a whisper, a bent low-lips-to-the-ear moment when someone believes you are special enough to receive the gift. Other times buckeye’s come as a reminder that we all need a little bit of luck.

Buckeye’s trigger memories of special people which is why, upon receipt we are entrusted with the duty to share buckeyes with others. Buckeye’s slide effortlessly into pockets where your finger and thumb caress them for good luck and perhaps even remember that the One who created the Buckeye tree also created us.

Amber Nagle: And so it was on that beautiful fall morning at Goodlet Farm that I painted on a warm smile, handed out buckeyes, and sold three books in the first hour as the writing acquaintance seated next to me sat idle. I felt badly for her. During a lull, I reached into my cache and found the largest buckeye in the bowl. I handed it her way and said, “Here. Take a buckeye, my friend. It’ll bring you good luck.”

But instead of receiving my gift, she held her had upright and said, “No. No thanks.”

I offered again. “Come on. Take it. You never know—it may make all the difference.”

And that’s when she leaned toward me, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I don’t need your good luck. Jesus is my good luck.”

She seemed agitated. No, she seemed kind of angry.

Stunned by her response, I sat motionless for about ten seconds, then finally uttered, “Jesus doesn’t care if you put a buckeye in your pocket. It’s just a fun Southern thing.”

She held firm in her rejection, and I realized she had misconstrued my gesture.

It had never occurred to me that someone might think I was pushing some sort of witchcraft on them through my offering of a buckeye. Indeed, I’ve never actually believed that good fortune is bound to a buckeye. I find them nostalgic, as do so many other folks.

Not having enough good sense that day to move on, I reached over and placed my buckeye on her stack of books. Yes, I realize that it was a juvenile response, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

She wasn’t happy with me and promptly removed it.

Like moving a chess piece into a check mate position, I put it back over on her side of the table, allowing it to make a heavy striking sound.

She was fuming.

Renea Winchester: Dad and I have been building a goat fence. This little project, which should have taken a week, has lingered incomplete for almost three months. I’m not going to push him, but it is getting cold and the days are growing short. I’d like to look out my window and see a couple goats, before the snow is piled head high to a giraffe, but I digress.

buckeyefenceMy daughter decided to help which makes me smile. Grandparents are our most valuable treasure and time with them is time well spent. When Winchesters launch into project mode we do so in style. Jamie, Dad and I each tied an apron stitched by Rita, who made the apron from articles of my Mother’s clothing. We now carry a piece of Momma with us in our hearts, but we also keep her close. After filling the apron pockets with nails, wire, and tools we got to work.

Amber Nagle: A half and hour after the buckeye incident, civility returned to our table and we actually exchanged a few book publishing and promotion ideas with one another. I’m thankful for that.

Just after noon, each author was invited to read a few pages from his or her book at a lectern positioned in front of tables filled with people devouring barbecue. As my time slot approached, I flipped through the pages of Project Keepsake and landed on one of my favorite stories, “Uncle James’ Pocket Knife,” penned by my friend and fellow writer, Renea Winchester. Her story embodies the essence of the project—that the items we keep hold deep, powerful memories.

I stepped up to the mic and addressed the crowd. “Today, I’ve chosen to read a friend’s story, because I miss her, and I wish she were here with us today,” I said, and then I began reading.

“A memory keeper collects, gathers, plucks important items and hides them in safe places. Sometimes a memory keeper displays mementoes for all to see. Sometimes memory keepers listen, hoard and stack-up stories waiting for the right moment to share them with anyone who shows a hint of interest.”

As I read Renea’s words, I could see her life playing out in my mind—her selecting the knife that bore her uncle’s fingerprints. The audience clapped at the end, and I walked back to my table and my somewhat disgruntled table mate, all the while wondering where Renea Winchester was, how she was feeling, and what she was doing. I made a mental note to tell her I read her story to festival-goers and that another author had been mean to me—rejecting my kind offering of a buckeye. I knew Renea would understand my frustration and melancholy.

Renea Winchester: While Dad and Jamie worked on the fence, I eased into the woods and began picking up sticks. The place has become a haven for briars, brambles and fallen limbs. It is difficult to mourn the loss of a parent and keep up with property maintenance. I bent double and parted the saw-briars, then carefully made my way to the area where limbs were twisted in a pile. I’ve got plans for this place, grandiose ones that – like most of my plans- rarely end like I envision. All I need is time and a chainsaw.  By the way, I always need a chainsaw.

Angry at myself for letting the hayfield go to seed, I pulled and tugged, tossed, and flung, and began expressing my strong displeasure for briars and brambles. The more I tossed the more I missed my mom, my friends and my old life. Then something lovely caught my eye. . . a buckeye, half-buried in the forest floor.

buckeyeAll work stopped.

I picked up the nut and immediately looked heavenward. Now I don’t claim to be a botanist, but I do know that buckeye trees look like, well. . . buckeye trees. The nuts they drop are encapsulated in either prickly balls, or soft leathery balls. Scouring the forest floor, I could find neither. It appeared that this buckeye had been tossed down from heaven just for me. This wasn’t a small nut, this was the biggest buckeye in the whole wide world !!!  I snapped a photo and immediately thought of Amber. She’s the Amber Appleseed of the Buckeye family. If you’ve met her, odds are, she’s placed a buckeye in your hand. Many people know that I rescue flowers from development. That is who I am . . . it is what I do. Sharing buckeyes with folk is who Amber is . . . it’s what she does.

Amber Nagle: My table mate left early, and I continued to hand out free buckeyes to people who paused at my table. An elderly lady ambled by putting much of her weight on a walking stick. I held out a buckeye to her, and she automatically lifted her hand to receive it. She opened her shaky, wrinkled hand, smiled, and said, “Ha! My daddy used to give these to me.”

She paused as if she had slipped into a deep memory, then cleared her throat.

“He used to tell me they’d bring me good luck. I haven’t seen a buckeye in years. Did you find this in the woods?”

“No,” I said. “I ordered these from the Internet. But I’ve found a few buckeyes in my lifetime, and their discoveries are magical moments—like finding an arrowhead or a secret garden.”

The woman beamed and nodded. “Yes, it is, isn’t it? Magical.”

And just like that, I made a new friend. We connected over a buckeye—a buckeye—just as my father and I connected over buckeyes in all of the years preceding his death in 1992.

Renea Winchester: Exiting the bramble pile, I hid my find behind my back and said, “Guess what I found?” Presenting the prize to my dad, for a moment I was back on Bett’s Branch standing atop the mountain rolling timber down the holler. For one moment I was ten years old and my Mom was still alive.

As Dad and I smiled, my daughter didn’t quite understand, being from the newer generation that must Google Buckeyes to learn of their importance. Dad placed the shiny nut in his leathery hand and said, “You know what this means?”

I certainly did. It meant I was tasked with the responsibility of finding someone worthy of the buckeye’s magic.

Amber Nagle: I closed shop and drove home with my mind awhirl with the events of the day. After I returned home, I checked Facebook, and that’s when I saw it. Renea Winchester had placed a photo of a big, brilliant buckeye on my Facebook wall with a message—“I’m thinking of you and feeling like the luckiest girl in the world #lookwhatIfound #itsabigone.” It was glorious—simply glorious.

Coincidences amuse me. Even though Renea and I were in different states that day, I was thinking of her about the same time she was thinking of me. We must have a magical buckeye bond.

Renea Winchester: I helped Dad and Jamie position a couple goat-fence panels (the fence still isn’t finished), then Dad and I searched for another buckeye, or the tree from which it fell. Finding neither, we both smiled understanding the magic of the buckeye.

Amber Nagle and Renea Winchester: We would love to hear your magical buckeye stories. Please do share them with us.

Please check out Renea’s books and short stories. I’ve added links below:
Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches
Walking in the Rain: A Short Story about a Secret Place
Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half-Truths from Appalachia
In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes
A Hardscrabble Christmas

And as always, if you want to read more of my work, check out:
Project Keepsake
Southern Exposure
Have a Seat 

The Art of the Interview

I should sit down one day and calculate how many people I’ve interviewed in the last nine years. It would be a large number.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Raymond King before he died. From the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner, he talked to me for thirty minutes about his life and his philosophy of giving back to the community. After the interview was over, he pushed himself up with a groan, grabbed his cane, and asked me to follow him into the back yard. He struggled to raise a garage door revealing an antique car—his pride and joy. He told me all about it. I have a soft place in my heart for sweet, old men, and so that day stands out in my mind.

Interviewing

I also think back to an interview with US Senator Lamar Alexander. He and I talked about nuclear power. I forgot I was working. I was so interested in the topic and in what Senator Alexander had to say, that I entered into a personal conversation with him. I wrote that article in record time.

I love those moments when I make an instant connection with the person I am interviewing. I love to see the world through their eyes, if even for just a moment. I had that experience when I interviewed the History Channel’s survivor superstar, Alan Kay, two weeks ago. I lobbed a beautiful question for Kay, and he knocked it out of the park.

I said, “I’ve heard that servicemen returning from combat often find it difficult to assimilate back into their routine lives when they return from a combat zone. After your fifty-six days alone on Vancouver Island, did you find it difficult to return home?”

There was a pause, and then Kay gave me what I was looking for. He talked about how his experience had deepened his awareness of life and purpose, and how he wanted to scream warnings to humanity when he returned. I can’t share his specific answer because the article won’t be published until October (Get Out Chattanooga Magazine), but Kay’s response was writer’s gold.

Here are some general tips for getting the most out of an interview.

  1. Do Your Research. Before you talk to the person you are interviewing, do some general research and draft a few warm up questions from your research.
  2. Minimize Yes or No Questions. I always try to form my questions so that the person will give me lots of meat on the bone. For example, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy your experience on Vancouver Island?” I asked, “What were two of the most memorable moments during your time on Vancouver Island?” Asking more open-ended questions will allow the person to elaborate beyond a simple yes or no answer.
  3. Make a Connection. Find common ground with the person you are interviewing and build from that common ground. For example, I recently interviewed volunteers who rescue dogs from a local shelter. After the introductions, I said, “I’m excited about writing this article. I love dogs, and in the past, I, too, have been involved with animal rescue.” Their faces lit up, and they opened up to me.
  4. Ask for the Story. Depending on who I am interviewing, I often have a lot of success asking the person, “So what’s the story here? Why should readers care?” I get lots of interesting responses to this question. I also ask them to tell me about a particular event or experience that can lead into the story—an anecdote—that will draw my readers in.
  5. Ask Followup Questions. Sometimes when a person has a really great answer to a question, I say, “Tell me a little more about that. Give me more detail.”
  6. Send Questions in Advance. Sometimes, I send my questions in advance. This allows people to check details and think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. I never send them all of my questions, but I send a few so that they won’t feel anxious about talking to me.
  7. Mine for Different Angles. I don’t want my article to sound like other articles, and so I often look for different approaches. As I was preparing to interview survivalist Alan Kay, I read many articles that other writers had already published. I was determined to present “a different story,” and so I focused on Kay’s survival tips and the psychological toll that living off the land in total isolation for fifty-six days took on him, and how he kept his sanity. My article is different than the other content, and that’s a good thing.

There are other tips writers use to get the most out of interviews. I invite you to leave a comment telling me what works best for you. As always, I appreciate your stopping by my website.

“Gone Fishin'”

“Writing is therapeutic,” I often tell aspiring writers who attend my workshops. “Getting your thoughts on paper will help you sort things out and move through loss, illness, and sadness.” I’ve had something on my mind all week—something heavy that wouldn’t go away. I finally took my own advice and wrote about it. Enjoy!


GONE FISHIN’

by

Amber Lanier Nagle

I woke to a nearly perfect October morning. The air was fresh, clear, and a bit crisp, and the golden sunlight danced and flickered through the changing leaves.

I pulled on my padded cycling shorts and a neon, dry-fit jersey, filled a water bottle, and walked my bicycle down our gravel drive to the paved road. Bike riding during the autumn is a spiritual endeavor for me, equal to sitting in a grand European cathedral or watching the sun sink beyond the horizon at the end of the day.

Alone with my thoughts, I pedaled along country roads lined with flashy goldenrod, deep purple ironweed, and scarlet shoots of Indian paintbrush. Eight miles into my ride, I pedaled beside a small lake fringed with velvety cattails and cooters sunning on wet, exposed branches. And that’s when it happened—I inhaled a memory. As that swampy, organic perfume entered my body, I was suddenly transported back in time.

FishingI was in the boat with Daddy, maneuvering to his favorite spots on a pond in Bolingbroke, Georgia—our vessel brimming with rods, a tackle box, a styrofoam container filled with sticky red wigglers, a wooden paddle, and a small cooler containing saran-wrapped fried egg sandwiches and bright red cans of Coca Cola.

He sat on a floatation cushion at the back of the boat controlling a trolling motor with one arm, his eyes fixed on the watery expanse. He wore a pair of black Reeboks which he referred to as hot boxes, and a ball cap—he always wore a cap to protect the top of his slick head and shade his pale blue eyes.

“Cast your line over there,” he whispered, pointing to a mass of vegetation growing along the shore. “Try to get it about five feet from those bushes.”

Fishing was not my forte, but it was almost instinctual for my father. He had to guide me and walk me through every motion.

I clumsily slung my line—my worm hanging on for dear life then hitting the water with the plop of a fat platform diver. I envisioned the hook and worm sinking slowly through the murky depths before coming to rest just above the slimy underwater floor.

I stared at the white and red plastic bobber and anticipated any jiggle or movement indicating that a fish was teasing my bait. A few minutes passed. Nothing. I tugged on my line a bit.

“No, no, just leave it there,” he said. “Be patient.”

We sat perfectly still in the boat, drifting ever so slightly. We were as motionless as statues—watching, waiting. We merged with the natural world.

My father was known for his quiet nature and his incessant desire for solitude. His patience was boundless during our fishing excursions. He seemed perfectly at peace with the world when he was near the water. At his core, he was a fisherman, as were his father, his grandfather, and generations of Lanier men before him.

Minutes passed—my eyes still glued upon the still bobber.

“Okay, just keep yours there,” he said softly. He lifted his rod and with a smooth, fluid whipping motion, he cast his worm six or seven feet from where my bobber floated. He made a few adjustments before resting his rod between his legs to light a cigarette. He took a deliberate, satisfying draw and picked up the rod.

Plomp. Plomp.

His bobber dipped then vanished beneath the glistening surface.

Daddy’s body jolted to action. His left hand clutched the rod’s handle as his right hand cranked the reel—the clear fishing line tightening then moving toward the boat’s edge.

“Woo, Boy,” he said. “He’s a strong one.”

Like a crane operator, Daddy lifted the fish—wiggling and writhing—from the water and laid him in the floor of the boat near his feet. The incandescent scales shimmered as the fish flipped and flopped. Being careful not to let the fish pierce his palm, he grabbed him with one hand and twisted and yanked the hook from the fish’s mouth with his other.

He looked at me and grinned—his cigarette dangling from his lips. It was the story of my life. My father could catch a fish with a bare hook if he put his mind to it. He had the gift. I did not.

I spent a childhood fishing with Daddy in boats and on the banks of ponds, lakes, and streams. The activity bound us together, especially after my older brother left home and I became somewhat of a surrogate son. I refused to hunt with him as my brother had, but I willingly fished with him.

After our trips, we stood side-by-side scaling and gutting our catch with paring knives. I scrutinized the guts and identified the tiny organs as if I was a surgeon. It was Biology 101. It was life.

I remember the smell of the fishy pond water mixed with the fragrance of smoke from Daddy’s Winston. I remember the silent hum of the motor and the rocking motion of the boat as we repositioned our bodies in that boat from time to time. I remember the taste of those fried egg sandwiches slathered with a layer of creamy Miracle Whip dressing and sprinkled with salt and pepper granules.

And that was the unexpected memory that came crashing into me last week as I pedaled past Nelson Lake in the perfect light of a late fall morning.

I turned my bike around and rode past the lake again, slowing to smell the familiar smells. Then again. Then again. I engulfed myself in the aroma, trying to recapture all that was lost twenty-two years ago when my father died suddenly. His leathery face, his personality, his essence—I felt him with me that day as I navigated my bicycle by the water.

I think I’ve gone fishing three times since 1992. The activity lost much of its appeal after my father passed away.

Today would have been his eighty-first birthday. I close my eyes and try to imagine what he would have looked like had he been allowed to age two more decades. I think about him sitting in a recliner watching college football. I see him hoeing in a large fall garden full of collards and turnips. I see him dressed in camouflage—loading his guns in his truck and heading out to the hunting club for the weekend. I hear him whistling. I imagine him holding my nephew’s children. Most of all, I see him fishing—floating, drifting, and waiting ever so patiently for the next big fish to bite.


Amber Lanier Nagle has published hundreds of articles in national and regional magazines including Grit, Mother Earth News, and Georgia Magazine. She is the brainchild behind Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), a published collection of nonfiction stories about the origins and histories of keepsakes—a pocket knife, a cake pan, a quilt, a milking stool, etc. She says, “Everyone has a keepsake, and every keepsake has a story to tell.” She’s also published two eBooks and facilitates writing workshops on freelance writing and writing family stories.

Day 6—A Southern Place

In an effort to help other writers promote their books, I launched Seven Book Reviews in Seven Days. Today, I celebrate another book by a writer with a Calhoun, Georgia connection. Elaine Drennon Little is the author of A Southern Place.SouthernPlace

Last spring, I saw a copy of A Southern Place sitting on a counter in Wanda Dills’ lovely gift shop (A Gift of Season) in downtown Calhoun. As I plucked it from the counter, Sherry said, “A local author wrote that one. It’s good!”

I replied, “Hmm. I don’t know Elaine Little. I know a lot of writers from this area, but I’ve never met her.”

The cover art took me back to my roots in the flatlands of Georgia—south of the state’s fall line where hills and valleys are not plentiful and fields are a deep, verdant green. The back text teased me, but I put the book down remembering the dozens of unread books I had at home.

Two days later, Elaine and I connected via the magic of Facebook. A few days later, she sent me A Southern Place, and I wrapped and taped a copy of Project Keepsake and sent it to her.

Little hooked me from the first page. The book starts in 1989 as a beaten, broken young woman (Mary Jane “Mojo” Hatcher) fights for her life in the ICU of Phoebe Putney Hospital in South Georgia. Sheriff Wally Purvis tries to question her, but she codes before she can push any details out. What happened to her? Where’s her family? Will she survive?

The story then moves back in time to 1958 and uncovers the backstories of Mojo’s mother (Delores) and Uncle Calvin. Here’s an excerpt from the third chapter, as the reader is introduced to Delores.

She was outside under the smoking tree, on break from her job at the Nolan Manufacturing Company, a sweatshop that produced ladies’ panties from size 4 to size 44+. One Pattern. All cotton. In white, pastels, and various floral some big-wig found for next-to-nothing at going-out-of-business warehouses.  —Elaine Drennon Little


Mojo meets Danny Hatcher in Chapter 17. Here’s a part of her narrative:

I paid him no never mind, not at first, I didn’t, and I meant not to at all, but after I talked to him, well, things changed. People aren’t always as bad as you think they’re gonna be, you have to at least give them a chance, before you make a decision about them. My mama didn’t trust nobody, ‘specially men, though she must’ve trusted on at least one or I wouldn’t be here. —Elaine Drennon Little

The rest of the book chronicles Mojo’s journey and the events leading to her unfortunate trip to the ICU.

A Southern Place is not a happy, feel-good story. Instead, the book is about enduring. Surviving. Inner strength. Moving on. It’s a real story that maps a life’s trajectory—the sadness, pain, and misfortune that accompany so many lives throughout the South, and beyond. Little weaves alcohol abuse, the plight of the working class, poverty, pregnancy, and domestic violence into her book with panache. Her story is about real people living real lives, and I loved it!

A Southern Place
Author: Elaine Drennon Little
ISBN: 978-1-937178-39-0
Genre: Southern/Fiction
Price: ~$16 Paperback
Buy it HERE.

Creative Endeavors (in Writing)

I’ve tried to write in a journal many times in the past, but I always lose interest after four or five entries. But I like the idea of capturing moments that make up a life. Earlier this year, I decided to document a few events of 2013 with very loose poetry prose. Here’s my first try.

No, I’m not a poet, nor do I wish to be a poet. But I like this exercise. It flexes part of my brain that I don’t flex often.

F3

Gene called.
“The weather service has detected rotation in the clouds,” he said.
A pulse of fear. Helplessness.
“I’ll stay with you on the phone until it passes,” I said.
I looked at the technicolor radar map on my computer.
Blasts of red and yellow in a sea of green.
“It’s on the ground,” he said.
The sound of shoes and paws rushing down basement steps.
The waiting.
Rain.
Wind.
No sirens.
Closer, closer, closer.
“It’s moving south of you,” I said.
Relief.
Reports of overturned cars.
Loss of power.
But Gene was safe, this time.

Two days later—the aftermath.
A congregation of 500.
“Wear this orange vest,” they said.
“Do only as you’re told,” they said.
We walk.
Then, suddenly, we saw.
Devastation.
Tangled heaps of debris.
Piles of rubble.
Once mighty oaks—some toppled, some limbless.
Cleaning Up After Adairsville Tornado
Where to start?
A preacher paces outside his tattered home.
An invitation to his small, crippled parcel of land.
We began to unscramble the mess.
Limbs.
Roofing shingles.
Twisted lumber.
Tin panels.
Shards of plastic.
A three-legged lawn chair.
A dented frying pan.
A box fan.
A shower curtain.
A sealed electric bill.
A wet baseball card.
Bending.
Lifting.
Toting.
Tossing.
Heaving.
All into a large roll-off trailer.
And then into a dump truck.
And another dump truck.
And another.

“Wait,” the preacher said.
“Please look for photos of our son,” he said.
We searched for mementoes of a child who passed.
But found nothing.

A family drained.
A land torn asunder.
A community in crisis.
We pulled together and kept moving.
Into the future.