Whoa, Muley!

Cleaning through old folders is not an efficient task. An unexpected stack of school pictures took me back to the hair business that symbolized my ambivalent relationship with Mama. I was relieved when she stopped struggling with my hair. The stuff grew prolifically on my head, fine and board straight. If I had only been a 70s child, I would never have had to use an ironing board.

Mama had completely given up on my hair by the time I started to school. She let it grow and put it into pigtails. School pictures show braids meeting on top of my head from each side with back hair hanging down in my first grade picture. Each year, the school pictures showed longer braids. As my hair grew, she turned the pigtails into an asset with ribbons to match my dresses and several ways to put them up that were pretty and different. I willingly sat for her to put my hair in French braids for special occasions. After the braids grew really long, she sometimes looped them up and put the ribbon at the top. Once a girl handed down to me a rather nondescript white eyelet dress with buttons down the front. Mama added bone crochet loops on either side of the buttons and tied each pair together with three colors of narrow ribbon. Then she put the same colors of ribbons on my braids. It was ever so much sharper than the original. By the time I was ten, I plaited the everyday pigtails myself.

A point of pride was that only one other girl about a year older than I was who sometimes visited our community had braids as long. I didn’t even care when the boys took hold of the pigtails and gave a gentle pull, calling, “Whoa, Muley!” It was all in fun. I could have done without the nickname Muley, however, which stuck for a while.

Our bone of contention was not the braids but the bangs. Mama insisted on cutting them straight across just above my eyebrows. When my hair was neatly combed, they provided a nice balance to the long braids hanging behind and covered a rather high forehead. The problem was the bangs seldom hung down. Mississippi heat seemed almost year-round. You may have heard that Southern girls glow or perspire in the heat. Not me. I sweated profusely. I pushed hair that dripped sweat into my eyes straight up. After third grade, all but one of my school pictures shows bangs pushed up, up, and away.

On the whole, my pigtails made me feel special and kept Mama from trying to put one of those foul-smelling permanents in my hair. Mama must have liked them, too, since the next folder I open has the braids, preserved when they were cut in seventh grade with rubber bands on each end.


Mercies in Disguise

The question threading its way through the narrative nonfiction book, Mercies in Disguise, by Gina Kolata is one I’ve pondered before. If a hereditary degenerative disease showed up often in your family and you could be tested to see if you carried the gene, would you have the test?  

This story of the Baxter family exemplifies the odds of a fifty/fifty chance of having a gene for a disease that steals both body and mind slowly and ends in death. The frame is Amanda’s choice. It begins as she waits to hear the results of her test before going on to the backstory, and ends with the phone call and her response to it.

Irony lies in the fact that the Baxter family is filled with doctors. By chance, they begin to notice a similarity in family deaths that are attributed to Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. Once they realize the commonality of the rare disease, they are able to establish that it has been passed from one generation to the next, often receiving various labels since doctors themselves are not aware of the disease. In their bafflement, they label the sickness with the closest equivalent in their knowledge base.

Rogue scientists fill in a parallel story along with that of the family. They have the correct label, discover the gene marker, and find a test for it. As expected, family members differ in whether to test or not to test, sometimes finding a conflict between the possibilities of science and reliance on their faith.

This true story reads like a mystery novel with page-turning urgency. I found myself sympathizing with those who wanted to know and take every opportunity afforded by science and with those who wanted to live life with a faith that assumed they were in the fifty percent clear of the gene. Following Amanda feels like following the protagonist of an intriguing novel with the added urgency of knowing her story is true.

As for the question of whether I would want to know, I’m still pondering.


Lazarus, Come Forth!

Rewriting Daddy’s old pun of “When the Lord told Noah to gopher wood, what kind of wood did he tell him to gopher?” takes me to “When OLLI members take a trip to gopher a lesson on endangered frogs, what kind of frogs do they gopher?”

We gathered at the Nature Conversancy building on the edge of Camp Shelby where the agents work closely with the Army in a way that augments the military mission while conserving species that have been endangered by loss of longleaf pine habitat. One of these is the dusky gopher frog.

Lest you think I’m through with nonsense vaguely related to the Bible, the dusky gopher frog we observed was named Lazarus. Already interested in this species, I hovered over his home before the presentation started. I saw his name on the glass and finally found him crouched under the white moss. I tried calling, “Lazarus, come forth!” with no results.

I didn’t have long to wait. The agent pulled Lazarus out of his home, gave instructions on how to hold him, and passed him around to those of us who wanted a closer relationship. He explained that one of their missions is growing the frogs which were down to one population area. The grown frogs are released back into natural habitats.

The agent told us the frog’s story and the reason for his name. He had appeared to be dead and came back to life. Lazarus, indeed. While they normally liberate to the environment the frogs they grow from eggs through tadpoles to adults, this one will remain with them. Their excuse is using him for public education. He certainly fits that bill, but I think they’re keeping him because they just like him.

By coincidence, I came home and started work on the Sunday school lesson I will teach this Sunday. It’s the story of Lazarus. I’m not sure how I’m going to work a dusky gopher frog into the story, but I’ll bet I find a way.


The Book that Made Me

Thirty-one authors with essays on the books that made them who they are sounded too enticing to pass up. The Book that Made Me with these essays collected by children’s literature expert Judith Ridge was published first in September in Australia and this month by Candlewick in America. While the writer names from New Zealand and Australia were largely unfamiliar to me, their ideas and passions rang a recognizable tune. 

The concept was for the authors to name the one book that was the greatest inspiration in their life or their work. James Roy summarizes the theme in his essay, “Everyone knows that often the best books are the ones that speak to us, the ones we truly relate to. The ones that make us go, ‘I know that feeling.’ ”

As you might guess with thirty-one writers, variety ensued. Some seemed not to understand the concept of one book and gave a list. Some leaned more to what formed them as writers and some to how the book(s) had changed them as people. One cited oral lore from the Palyku people of western Australia rather than a book. One leads into a long paragraph of general parenting advice.

Writers got these cherished childhood books from a variety of places – their library, their family bookshelves, or as gifts. One was pretty sure she stole hers. Expected titles of Chronicles of Narnia, a variety of Dr. Seuss titles, Nancy Drew, and The Book Thief were interspersed with Australian and New Zealand titles unknown to me.

Shaun Tan’s cartoons threading their way through the book along with photographs of the authors in their youth added fun and charm. I enjoyed comparing their choices and the ways they were influenced with my own relationships with books. (In case you are wondering, I would have chosen Little Women.)

I would agree with a line from Ambelin Kwaymullina’s essay, and I think those writers would, too. “Every story matters, and we all have the power to influence the future.”  


Berry Good

I thought I’d heard all the stories. My 88-year-old Aunt Ruth pulled me aside to look at the picture of the family home where she grew up and where all the family gatherings were held. “You remember Grandma Berry?”

Of course, I did. Until she died when I was fifteen, one stop of any part of a trip to my grandfather’s house was to pay homage to her. We would find this long-widowed grandmother in the home of one of her children or grandchildren as they passed her around. Dressed in modest high-necked dresses with sleeves at least three-quarter length, she lived an uncomfortable life in the Mississippi heat where some of her granddaughters ran around in short shorts. A small person, now stooped even further with osteoporosis, I remembered her mostly as old. Mama never failed to tell me I should have known her when she was younger.

Aunt Ruth pointed to the porch in the picture. “When I was engaged and brought your Uncle Leo Berry home to meet the family, Grandma Berry took me around to the back of the house.” Her finger traced their path heading for their private meeting.

I tried to figure what this unusual confidential meeting could have meant. Grandma Berry had graduated from eighth grade, as far as she could go at the time in their small community, and married Grandpa Berry at sixteen. Aunt Ruth had one year of college behind her and was marrying soon after her nineteenth birthday. Would Grandma Berry question her age? As young as it seems now, neither was unusual for their time.

Aunt Ruth continued the story she wanted me to know. “When we got to the back of the house by ourselves, Grandma Berry told me she hoped my Berry would be as good as her Berry.” She ended her story with a rather smug smile. I hadn’t known Grandpa Berry who died before I was born, but I have known Uncle Leo for the almost seventy years they have been married. Aunt Ruth, now the age that I remembered Grandma Berry, knew I would see that her Berry had met the standard.