The Memory of Catfish



Our nephew Sam Phillips at the pond.



The things I must capture from my childhood often come to me in liquid form, streaming through the fingers of my mind quicker than I can grab for them, memories swimming, teasing, luring, before disappearing in the dark waters of the past. Now and again, though, I catch a memory, reel it in, fiddle with it, and spread it out, alive and twisting, to inhale, taste, hear, and feel.

Today, I caught the scent of fried catfish.

My daddy often brought home a mess of fish for my mother to fry for supper. With seven children to feed, he relied on nature—gardens, lakes, ponds, livestock, and fruit trees—for food.

Catfish were not prepared for cooking like bream, because they had no scales to remove. I watched my father, memorizing the movements of his hands, recognizing the brilliance and skill of a common man, cleaning all manner of fish.

With my brothers nearby, he laid a catfish on an outside table, on a piece of plywood supported by two sawhorses, or on the tailgate of his truck. He didn’t waste any time; the cleaning of our supper was done swiftly, with the precise movements of a sharp knife and inherent skill. We did not own a filet knife or any specialty knives, so Daddy used what he had.

I went from her to my father, from inside to outside, watching my parents prepare our meal.  

Inside, my mother cooked stone-ground grits in a pot on the stove. The grits had to simmer for an hour or so until they were thick and creamy.

In a bucket of water fresh from the outdoor spigot, my father rinsed a catfish and held it against the board while slicing under the gill, circling the head with the blade. With pliers from his toolbox, he gripped the skin and peeled it down, repeating the stripping until all the skin had been removed.

Mama sifted flour for biscuits. 

With the knife under the gills, Daddy sliced straight down the belly, then opened it up to remove the insides, gutting the fish. Next he cut under the bone of the head and forced it back until the backbone snapped.

My mother hollowed out a crater in the flour, stirring up white dust. She dropped lard into the well and cut it into the meal. 

At last, he rinsed the fish inside and out with clean water. When all the fish had been prepared, he sent them into the house for my mother to fry while he cleaned up the mess he’d made.

My older sister, Debra, added salt and pepper to the fish meat, lathered it in cornmeal, and dropped one fish at a time in an iron skillet of hot grease. 

Mama poured milk into the crater and worked the mixture until it was sticky. Then she pulled dry flour into the wet ingredients, building on the dough, kneading it, drawing in meal from the sides, folding from the top, from one side, from the bottom, from the other side, her hands kneading, folding, pulling, and folding again.

The grits simmered and the catfish fried.

At last, we gathered around the table and ate grits with butter; homemade biscuits with golden edges dipped in cane syrup; and fried catfish for supper.

It’s not a perfect memory. I worked with it, untangled it, and spread it out as best as I could.


 




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Sleeping on Paul's Mattress



This is a link to my short story, Sleeping on Paul's Mattress, published in Volume 23 of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change.  The story deals with poverty, love, and survival. Although I took many liberties and dug up words to use from the garden of fiction, "Sleeping on Paul's Mattress" is based on a true story.

Sleeping on Paul's Mattress



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Stains


(I wrote this poem about my mother, after her death.)


With red clay between my toes,
and the sun setting over my head,
the ghost of my mother blows in,
riding on a honeysuckle breeze, oh lord,
riding on a honeysuckle breeze.
Her teeth, the keys of a piano.

I play her grinning ivory notes
with cadenced fumbling fingers,
splattered with paint, textured with scars.
A song rises up from the belly of my past
and rocks me in the bosom of buried memories.

My mama’s dress bears the stains of her life:
blueberries, blood, bleach, and breast milk;
She cradles in her arms a lifetime of love and sorrow;
Its brilliance nearly blinds me.

My fingers tire, 
as though I've played this song for years.
The tune swells red, 

dying around the edges of a setting sun.
A magnolia breeze blows in strong, 

a heavenly taxi sent to carry my mother home. 
She will not say goodbye.
For there is no truth in spoken farewells.

I am pregnant with a poem,
my life lost in its stanzas.

My mama steps out of her dress
and drops it, an inheritance falling to my feet.
She stands alone: bathed, blooming,
burdened with nothing of this world.
Her body is naked and beautiful,
her wings gray and scorched,
her brown eyes piercing the brown of mine.

I watch her departure, her flapping wings:
She doesn’t look back, not even once,
not even to whisper my name: Brenda.

I lick the teeth of my piano mouth.

With a painter’s hands,
with a writer’s hands
with rusty wrinkled hands,
with hands soaked in the joys,
the sorrows, the spills
of my mother’s life,
I pick up eighty-one years of stains
And pull her dress over my head.

Her stains look good on me.




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A Poem: Road Trip to Snow







Road Trip to Snow
published by Flycatcher Magazine.


I swear we will never find the place. A right off
Highway 41 South. South, you tell me, nearly 
pleading, softly praying, always south.
We cruise past corduroy fields,
freshly plowed,
grooves, ridges, rows,
pressed, creased,
like brown school pants across a summer landscape. 
And I ask you
when will we arrive.
    Too late, you tell me,
                        too late.

Take a right on this dirt road,
Curling into a day splattered among four colors
and no sign of a mailbox.
By startling the crows
we paint the sky black.
This is the place,
oh God, this is the place.
Look at the birds, you say,
look at the birds.
And
      I look, I stare,
                        I shudder.

I follow your footprints
to the back yard and watch
you peer inside where
a door is torn away
to reveal your childhood.
Floors collapsing, boards rotting:
A room, red as liquid guilt.
A boy, a brother. A father.
A pair of brogans.
A sister (you),
a daughter (you)
crouched,
praying under this starving,
broken porch.You. You. You.
The 1930s turned into the 1940s, you whisper,
    The depression
                        wouldn't let go. It wouldn't let go.

You tell me it snowed one day
and you tasted the miracle of the color white,
a handful, scooped up,
melting like hope in your mouth.
You called for your brother
who pulled himself from the silence of death,
snow dripping from his warm mouth,
a smile lifting his face, and came to
you one final time. He told you,
his little sister, a secret:
Angel's wings melt into snow.
Together, you ate handfuls of the stuff.
You tell me,
             I never tasted snow again.
                     It would never feel as good as it did that day.

Did you feel hope melting icy in your mouth
when I dampened your dying lips?
Did your son's voice cool your fevered flesh?

Did you dream of a snowy day in the 1940s
before you wore gray in your hair, and did you
savor the color white as you drifted away?
These thoughts come
storming at me like falling
angel wings after we
blanket you in the ground.

I brew, knowing the answers will not be found here.

I slide my car into reverse
but I can’t turn around;
                   I am stuck in a snowstorm.


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A Poem: The Cracks and Chips in My Soul

 
Look closely.  You will see a trail of footprints
leading deep into the heart of the forest
near the Alapaha River and another set
leading out, far from the first.
In search of my soul I
travel to the center of sacred life
to examine those things called righteous
and those things that are right.
I come here where death gives
birth to life to uncover the difference.

I walk so deep in these woods
the sun loses me under canopies of green.
I wander into the interior, so far from my own self
I feel wildlife inhaling my scent while
staring at me with the haunting eyes of ghosts,
ghosts who have captured this fair skinned woman
in a mason jar, dropped carelessly by a hunter,
and placed me in a nest to study
the cracks and chips in my soul.
I go so deep my footprints seem to find their own way,
though I’ve never walked this side of the river before.

And you may ask what’s so damned important about
my study of righteous and right.
Why do I soak myself in questions
and come here to wring out the answers?
Well, the urgency of this calling
has left its footprints soggy across my heart.
These thoughts are mine and I will
remain in this sanctuary where the trees breathe
with each whisper of wind; I will stay
until I grasp knowledge true to me.

I curl into myself while three squirrels watch in silence
and a deer trots near the water. My eyes
pursue a snake, splattered with colors
of tobacco spit, slithering
near the trunk of a pine tree
not two feet from where I sit
cross-legged and worn and determined,
my heart swollen with unanswered prayers.

Did I pull the delicate wings from butterflies
when I was a child, when I was nothing
more than an unhatched egg of a person?
I hope not, but I remember catching fireflies and bees,
holding them captive, my prisoners
in a fairytale war.

When the trees in these woods go mute 
and no longer whisper or rustle or dance 
or weep, I crack the egg to separate
the white of righteousness
from the yolk of what is right. 
If I must choose—and I know one day I must—
I must be strong enough
to take up the yolk.

I resist the urge to retrace my steps 
as I leave the forest.
It is good to make a different path.



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The Youngs: Eating From the Same Table




Young family eating at the table in 1909.


Descendants of Catherine Young meet for the first time at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture. Approximately 100 descendants and 100 visitors were there for the reunion. It was a packed house.


When Catherine Young’s 11th child, Jesse, was six months old, her husband, Andrew Jesse Young, died of tuberculosis. The year was either late 1907 or early1908.

Catherine dreams were to provide for and feed her children. She held on to those starving aspirations until April 1909, three months after a social reformer named Lewis Hine snapped a photo of her with her children, when she delivered the seven youngest children to the South Georgia Methodist Orphan Home in Macon, Georgia, 100 miles from Tifton, 100 miles from Tift Cotton Mill, 100 miles from the duplex at the mill village she called home.

Imagine what the scene might be the night before Catherine Young gave her children away. She and several children walk home from the mill, tired, dirty, and hungry after working all day. Seaborn, Elizabeth, and Jesse rush to her as she approaches, and they hang onto her skirt. She reaches down and picks up Baby Jesse and takes Elizabeth by the hand. With Seaborn behind her, she lumbers slowly up the steps and inside. Outside, smoke from the towering smokestack rises and spreads ghostly over the village.

Catherine Young and nine of her eleven children. Three months after this photo was taken at Tift Cotton Mill village, she gave the seven youngest children up for adoption. Several of the children had been working in the mill to help support the family. The photo was taken by Lewis Hine. Joe Manning spent years searching for the identities of the children in the photo. The descendants gathered Saturday at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton, Georgia. Joe and Carol Manning were there for the reunion. The children from left are: Mell, Matty, Mary, Alex, Eddie Lou, Elzy, Seaborn, Elizabeth, Jesse. All but Mell and Matty, the oldest children in this photo, were taken to the orphanage.

Has she, in preparation for the event, put aside enough money to afford to prepare a delicious last supper? Turnips and collards would still be available in southern Georgia in April. Perhaps she has some sweet potatoes and has been able to purchase a chicken to fry. 

Or maybe she has nothing and can't feed her children a decent meal the last night they spend together. Love doesn’t cost money, though—not like food for a huge family of hungry children— and I believe Catherine Young’s heart is filled with love, yet tortured this night. I believe she is starved of hope, afraid and anguished, after a cold winter with not enough food, not enough heat, and not enough money to purchase clothes for the growing children.

In Tifton and throughout southern Georgia, dogwoods are blooming, shimmering gracefully on layered branches. Pecan and oak trees put out new leaves, and birds build nests on branches, and in bushes and shrubs. Spring, the season of new life, new growth, has tiptoed into the mill village. It is 10 days after Easter and in the morning Catherine Young will leave her children behind at the orphanage. I like to believe she hopes to give them new life. After all, it is the season of resurrection.

Perhaps she sings to the smallest ones and holds them overflowing from her arms when darkness wraps around their duplex on April 21, 1909. Does she dare sleep at all and close her eyes to her babies? I suspect she holds them as long as she can, and as they sleep she inhales, one last time, the scent of their hair, kisses their cheeks, and listens to them breathe. Perhaps delivering her children to the orphanage is the highest act of love Catherine will ever perform. Perhaps.

Eddie Lou Young is on the right. She is Dr. Earl Parker's mother. He never knew until Joe Manning contacted him that his mother ever worked at Tift Cotton Mill as a child.

We will never know for certain the events of that night or the following days. We will never know her heart, the extent of her pain and how scarred the erosion of poverty and her final sacrifice would leave her. I wonder if she boarded a train to Macon early the next morning with her children. Or did an agent from the county escort them to the orphanage? She certainly would not have been able to afford the train fare for seven children and herself. Help had to have come from somewhere. Catherine's story and the stories of her children are scattered throughout with the word "perhaps".

Descendants of Catherine and Jesse Young came together Saturday at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture, many meeting for the first time, 105 years after their family was torn apart. One handsome young man said in awe, to nobody in particular, “We are eating from the same table,” as he chose a few treats from a spread of desserts. He said it as a person who had never met the family members crowding around him and certainly had never shared a table of food with them.

We are eating from the same table.”

Because of the perseverance of historian Joe Manning, who was determined to discover the identity of the children in a Hine photo taken in January 1909, approximately 100 Young family members joined for the first time Saturday to laugh, share family stories, and examine each other for familiar traits and expressions. They ate from the same table for the first time since April of 1909 when Catherine and her children shared their last meal together as a family. 

Mr. Manning and many of Catherine's descendants were brought to tears again and again at the reunion. I witnessed a happy and forgiving family, a beautiful family, a family overflowing with love and reaching out with open arms.
Mr. Manning meets Dr. Parker, son of Eddie Lou, the dark haired beauty in the photo of the two girls at the cotton mill.

Joe and Carol Manning in front of the smokestack at the abandoned mill.


So how do we thank Joe Manning who spent years digging through the Young soil, searching through a family’s roots, when "thank you" amounts to merely 8 letters of the alphabet, 2 syllables, 2 spoken words? He would tell us the reunion isn’t about him at all and he wants no thanks. He would tell us it is all about the children standing in bare feet beside their mother in January of 1909 at Tift Cotton Mill village. He would tell us it is about family.

“We are eating from the same table.”


When it became evident there would be standing room only, the partitions were opened and another 100 chairs added to the 100 that had already been reserved for the event.

Published 3/16/14
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