R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Holidays (page 1 of 5)

Last Day of School, 1981

On this day in 1981, I finished 1st grade.

Last summer, my mother found in her attic this worn, yellowed sheet of Blue Horse tablet paper. I’m not sure how it survived 37 years of moves, heat, and humidity. Check out the black Sharpie smiley-face at upper right. Somehow, Mrs. Reba Taylor even managed to check everyone’s work before first-grade cookout pandemonium descended upon her classroom.

Friday, May 29, 1981
Today is the very last day of this school year. We are going to have a cookout to celebrate. I hope all of you have a nice summer!

At first, I thought the oversized-pencil handwriting was my sister’s. It looks like the pre-3rd-grade-cursive, little-kid version of her grown-up print penmanship. But Val reminded me that in 1981 she hadn’t yet learned to write, and wouldn’t until the fall of that year.

This is unexpected. It’s also the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Tale for Mother’s Day

Note: This Mother’s Day piece, a reader favorite, first appeared here in May 2014. I’ve edited it since then. Names and identifying details have been altered.

*******

Look at this photo. Study it closely, so you can truly see it.

Staring back at you through sunglasses and sweat and thirty-plus years is my mother—a woman who has long followed her calling, long refused to heed society’s dictates. Here, working as a highway bridge form carpenter in the mid-1980s, she was the only woman on a crew of fifty.

Mom fought the often casual, always hateful sexism that permeates places where people fear difference of any kind, especially when that difference exposes the comfortable ignorance and shoddy workmanship that they have long swallowed as The Way Things Are Supposed to Be.

The old schoolyard insult of “Your mother wears combat boots” might have devastated many children. Not us. It made my sister and me proud. Our mother did wear combat boots: at first, military surplus, men’s size 5. Later, they came from Red Wing: steel toe, steel shank, anti-shock sole, men’s size 5. Yes, our mama wore combat boots every day. And, when the occasion arose, she kicked ass with them, too.

Sorry. This is going to be a long story.
It has to be.

My sister and I were always outsiders. Although our father had been born and raised in our tiny corner of Heard County, Georgia, and although three of our four grandparents had been born and raised there, we had not. We arrived from Randolph County, Alabama, when I was in first grade and Val in kindergarten.

By age seven, country kids know who “belongs” from birth and who does not. There is no hope for assimilation, no hope for blending in. Evil in the way that only children can be, our school mates reminded us all the time that we did not belong.

I still don’t know why those kids didn’t like us. Perhaps it was because we were bright for our age, placed in accelerated classes at the start of first grade. Perhaps it was because, thanks to family crises of many kinds, we were shy, sensitive, and didn’t make friends easily. Perhaps it was because we were each other’s best friend: we sat together on the bus, played together, stayed together at every family and social event, no matter the fun around us. We had learned early on that we had to stick together at all times. Others could not be trusted. Perhaps—well, perhaps there’s no reason at all. But the entire thing is sad, especially in light of children’s vast capacity for empathy and kindness.

The rumors and taunts did nothing to make us less different. The worst and longest enduring of them: “Rachael and Val are devil-worshipers. Rachael and Val are Satanists.”

I have to admit that this was awfully sharp for a bunch of country-bumpkin third graders. This was the kind of gossip grown-ups like to hear and love to tell, but will never admit to having created. Could it have come from adults? It’s impossible to know.

But remember: This was the early 1980s. With millions of parents terrified that random heavy metal lyrics and a few rounds of Dungeons & Dragons would hypnotize their teens into shooting themselves, and with traveling evangelical preachers making loads of money from west central Georgia record-and-tape bonfires, these rumors made perfect pop cultural sense.

The prescient little ringleaders were Morgan and Laura: two sisters, very close in age, whose parents had been high school friends with our father. Haughty, hypocritical, self-important, and entitled, they recycled the rumors every year or so. Heard County schools welcomed just enough new kids each fall to give the gossip fresh legs. There would always be another sucker to believe it. Although we were not in the same classes with Morgan and Laura, and although our grandmother had long removed us from the Girl Scout troop where the trouble began, the gossip still shadowed us no matter how many spelling bees we won, how often we made the Honor Roll, or how well we did at All-State Band auditions.

Once I reached eighth grade, though, the rumors went away. Maybe Laura and Morgan were too focused on trying to be popular to keep them up. Rehabbing their abysmal personalities must have been a full-time job. Had they been better than average looking, they might have sustained the Lucifer talk. The beautiful, of course, get away with so much more.

From our seats in the bleachers with the marching band, Val and I chuckled to see the two of them trying to jump their sorry posteriors into the air. Back then, the cheerleading squad was desperate—so much so that girls with nearly no physical coordination could give a half-assed tryout, fail miserably, and still make the varsity team. Suddenly, with the addition of a maroon-and-gray uniform, anyone could become Popular. Morgan and Laura did. For several years, they were content with their place in the sad, pointless high school social order.

And then, in the fall of my senior year, the rumors returned.

During the bus trip to an away game, third-chair tuba player Harvey Tidewater turned around in his seat to face our mom. By that time, Mom had retired from heavy construction and spent every weekend from August until mid-November as a band chaperone. Bless his heart, Harvey never was one for tact. That was his greatest flaw. In this case, it was also his saving grace. He opened his mouth, and a proverbial can of worms.

“Miss Gina, I have a question: Are Val and Rachael devil-worshipers?”

Mom stared down at him. “Excuse me?”

“Rachael and Val—are they Satanists? Do they worship the devil? I just wanted to know. That’s what I heard.”

Somehow, Mom contained her rage. “Harvey, that’s stupid. The answer is NO, of course not. Where’d you hear this crap, anyway?”

“In homeroom. Last week.”

“From?”

He cleared his throat. “Morgan. And then Laura said it Wednesday in world history. They both said it’s always been true.”

“Thanks for being honest, Harvey. I’ll take care of this.”

At 8:30 Saturday morning, Mom walked down the road to the patched-up sharecropper’s shack-and-a-half that Laura and Morgan’s parents tried desperately to pass off as a custom-built log cabin. She knocked loudly, and waited, and waited. Gladys, the girls’ mother, finally padded to the door. “Why, hello! Sorry it took me so long. We weren’t expecting company.”

“I know.” Mom paused, and locked eyes with Gladys. “I need to talk to you about something very, very important.”

“Uh—certainly. Please come in.” Mom stepped into the living room. On the sofa, Laura and Morgan sat lumpy and forlorn, cereal bowls in hand, eyes glazing over to a movie on the VHS player. She hadn’t expected the sisters to be at home. This would be interesting.

“Gladys, on the band bus last night to Crawford County, I heard something very ugly. Harvey Tidewater, the tuba player, asked me flat-out if Valerie and Rachael are Satanists.”

“You’re kidding.”

Mom shook her head. “I wish I were. Of course, my girls are not Satanists. They never, ever have been. I don’t even know how such a low-down rumor like that gets started. Do you?”

“No, I don’t. That’s terrible, Gina. Just terrible!”

“It is. But what’s worse is, when I asked Harvey who’d told him, he said he heard it from Laura and Morgan.”

The color drained out of Gladys’s face and rose into the pair of broad, cantaloupe-blank faces in front of the TV. “Girls, is this true?” They reddened more, then looked away and down at the now-soggy puffs in their bowls. Just as quickly, the blood returned to Gladys’s face. She frowned. “Gina, I am so sorry. Trust me, you won’t have any more trouble from my daughters. I am just so, so sorry.”

“Thanks, Gladys. I’m glad we straightened this out.”

Indeed, that was the last we heard of the devil-worshipper rumor. Now and then, Mom sees Gladys around town. They wave hello, ask how the family’s doing, and move along. More often, though, Mom catches a glimpse of Laura or Morgan in the grocery store, the tag office, the BBQ joint. Neither will meet her gaze. Each of them—now a woman rapidly approaching middle age—looks away, then down, and sidles out the nearest door.

Perhaps, over a quarter-century later, they can still feel that combat boot on their behinds.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New piece in Columbus and the Valley Magazine

A huge THANK YOU! to publishers Jill Tigner and Mike Venable for running my nonfiction essay “Red Clay Ghosts” in the June 2018 issue of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. Back in June 2016, they published my first nonfiction piece, “The Lipstick Queen.” This marks the fourth time they’ve printed my words.

“Red Clay Ghosts” is an excerpt from my forthcoming creative nonfiction novel, Songs My Father Barely Knewand the first excerpt to appear in print. Part of Columbus and the Valley‘s Father’s Day issue, it’s in memory of my dad, Newt Williams. And check out the photo they chose to go with this piece. It is absolutely perfect.

The electronic magazine is now live: click here and look for “Red Clay Ghosts” starting on page 24. The print issue should arrive in mailboxes in the next few days. Oh, and subscribe to CATV, while you’re at it. For a year of gorgeous, glossy photos and quality articles, $20 is a steal.

Thanks again, Mike and Jill. Y’all are the best.

Text in this post © R.S. Williams
Magazine page image + photograph courtesy of Columbus and the Valley Magazine

Wherever Someone’s in Need

Three years ago today, I submitted final grades for the last time—and, to celebrate, posted on Facebook this photo of my 1960s neon Pabst Blue Ribbon bar sign. While I miss my former students, my friends, and the steady (if small) paychecks, I don’t miss teaching. At all. Ever.

In some ways, though, I’m still teaching. For example: Most of this week has seen me helping people figure out how to do the things that confuse or frighten them—and figure it out through writing. I’ve helped people’s ideas take shape on the printed page, whether in plain text or as part of a graphic layout. I’ve talked people through the stories they’re afraid to write, when their dreams literally point them toward taking greater creative risks. In a sea of disinformation, I’ve helped people find the knowledge they need to make hard decisions.

In 2015, I walked out of the classroom, and I haven’t looked back. But when I think about my own writing, and how I’ve used what I know to help others, I know that the classroom isn’t always in a school building. The classroom is wherever someone’s in need.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Buy some art for Mother’s Day

Yes! You can buy my artwork! For whatever occasion you like.

We’re three weeks away from Mother’s Day. If you’d like to place an order with me, do so ASAP. Most prints take about a week to come in from the lab. After that, it’s another 2-4 days in transit from my house to the customer.

Here’s the link to my Etsy shop. Even if you’re not in the market to buy art, stop by anyway and give it a look.

And, as always, thank you!

Happy Easter 2018

“Easter Hat with Methodist Clubhouse Door”
Glenn, Georgia – 3 April 2015

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 3/30/18

“Church Sign, Centralhatchee”
Heard County, Georgia – 24 February 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Caturday: 3/17/18

“No Time for This Foolishness”
LaGrange, Georgia – 11 August 2016
Model: Nooz

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/14/18

“Tulle, Glorious Tulle”
Columbus, Georgia – 4 January 2016

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy birthday, Steve!

Today is my stepfather’s birthday. Steve has been a part of our family for nearly a quarter-century, and I don’t know what we’d do without his witty humor, his genius handyman skills, and his kind heart. He also has a knack for rescuing baby animals in need.

In this 2014 photo, Steve’s holding my cat Miller, whom I’d adopted a couple days before from the Walmart parking lot. Steve is the reason there are so many pets at his and Mom’s house: “Awwwww, look! That poor little abused kitty [puppy/piglet/calf/foal/donkey] needs a home!” Ten cats and five dogs later—yep, you know the drill.

I also don’t know what we’d do without Steve’s obscure Southern vocabulary words. This considerable vocabulary includes exceptional profanity skills for emergency situations. While my favorite Steve phrase is “shining like a diamond in a goat’s ass,” he’s at his verbal peak when danger is near.

One summer afternoon in 2007, Mom, Steve, and I were grilling out at their house when a large hornet flew up out of nowhere. Close to three inches long from antennae to stinger and wearing angry-looking yellow and maroon stripes, it made the kind of noise that lets you know an insect means business. Sure enough, the hornet made a few dive-bombs at Steve and me. We panicked.

“Goddamighty, Gina!” Steve shouted at Mom, who’d gone back indoors for a minute. “There’s a big-ass wawst out here!” [Wawst = Southern pronunciation of “wasp”]

The hornet kept circling the porch, probably looking for its nest entrance. Each orbit brought it closer and closer to us. When it disappeared into a small crack between the eaves of the house, we could still hear its hostile buzzing. This did not bode well.

“This thing is huge, Mom,” I called. “You better bring the big guns.”

“Just a minute,” we heard Mom yell back from inside the house. She’d been through this before and was in no big hurry to get back outside. The hornet had probably been there for weeks. It would no doubt still be there when she got onto the porch.

Despite my stepfather’s being a formidable-sized guy at 6’2” and 240 pounds, there are two things that rattle him: any kind of thorn-bearing plant, and any kind of stinging insect. I have seen him jump off of more ladders than I care to count when one of these bugs comes buzzing by, just minding its own business.

As such, Steve’s plan of action upon seeing a wawst takes one of three directions:

  1. Drown the wawst (hornet, wasp, yellow jacket, carpenter bee, horsefly, etc.—whatever insect it really is, he still calls it wawst) in half a can of Raid,
  2. Whack at it with a 22-ounce hammer until it’s dead, muttering the whole time that “this thang don’t know who it’s fuckin’ with,” or
  3. Take off across the yard like a shot, yelling his fool head off.

So there was no doubt in my mind Steve was going to put into effect one of his usual three modus operandi this time, too.

“Brang the wawst spray!” he shouted back into the house. “I can’t grill with this damn thang flyin’ around my head! I’ll burn the steaks!”

“I’ll be out there in a minute,” Mom shouted back from inside the house. “Let me find the ‘wawst’ spray.” Originally from Michigan but having lived in the South for almost 50 years, Mom still pokes fun at a few Southern-accented words—including wawst.

“Hurry!” Steve shouted. “You don’t know how big this thang is!”

“I’m sure it’s the biggest wawst ever,” Mom replied, without affect.

“HURRY! This thang’s as big as my left nut!”

At which point I collapsed on the ground, laughing too hard to move, speak, or breathe.

Mom finally emerged from the house, the can of Extra-Strength Wasp and Hornet Killer in her hand. “Mom! MOM!” I gasped between belly-laughs. “It’s as big as Seeben’s left nut!”

“Yes,” Mom said. “And you’ll also notice that it’s always ‘as big as his left nut,’ never the right nut.”

Happy birthday, Seeben! I love you!

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 2/14/18

“Pink Heart in the Gutter”
LaGrange, Georgia – 17 February 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

No Questions

When she heard the familiar squeaky fan belt out in the yard, Eula had already peeled off girdle and slip and was walking about in her gown-tails. Eight-thirty was no time for visitors, least of all those who didn’t even have the decency to call ahead. She stepped to the door, gathering her summer housecoat around her waist. Damned if she’d put on a clean dress this late in the evening.

As he swung his legs out of the car, Corvus saw her shadow behind the weathered screen, and grinned. Eula did not. She grasped the solid comfort of the steel pipe that she always kept behind the wide front door, and spoke without a greeting.

“Your letter said you didn’t want folks to know. Said you didn’t want to have to answer any questions about who you been courtin’.” The cool, smooth pine beneath her feet reminded her just how awake she was. “So, no, I didn’t stop or speak yesterday when you saw me on the square. I thought I’d wait. Maybe see what you’re made of.”

He warmed all over. She would be his again in a matter of minutes. “What am I made of?”

“Oh, the usual. Snakes, snails. A few puppy-dog tails. But mostly chicken shit.”

His broad, tan face turned coleslaw-pale.

She smiled. Her words had hit their mark—bull’s-eye. “No questions: that’s what you wanted. Now you got it.”

Eula stared into his icy blue right eye, the good one. Too bad she couldn’t gouge it out, grip the living jelly with her fingers, leave him screaming as she snatched the bloody orb from its socket. Maybe she’d keep it in her purse for her very own good luck charm. Maybe she’d tote it to work, send the Davis brats shrieking with the dried grayish-blue lump, and for once hang their mama’s drawers on the line in peace. Knowing that his eyeball dangled from her key chain would hurt him far worse than blindness.

“Get out of my yard.”

He took a shaky step and set his mind to the screen door handle. Pulling it open would take strength he wasn’t sure he had. “Eula, I didn’t—people were just—”

“I said: Get out of my yard.”

In the wide front seat of the Pontiac lay an armful of tiger lilies and Queen Anne’s lace, her favorite flowers. He’d picked them in a ditch outside Eckersley. Next to them sat a deluxe box of the cordial cherries she loved, the ones that made her kisses even sweeter. His voice wavered in a way neither of them had ever heard. “Please, Eula. I—I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I—well. All that’s in the past. Let’s make up.”

“Let’s make up. Just like that?” She snapped thumb and forefinger to emphasize this last.

“I know. It’s been a while. But I had to let it all die down. Had to lay low.”

“Lay low for what? Two years ago, you were ready to tell everyone.” Eula wiped the sweat that beaded her brow. “The world’s changed, you said. Didn’t matter that I’m colored, you said. But then you ran for office.”

“You’re not colored, baby—not enough for it to matter. C’mon.”

“Not enough for it to matter?” Fury rose from her soles clear to the top of her head, clean and cold and pure. “Show your face around here again, and I will lay you bare.”

He stood as if his hip might be welded to the car. His eyes widened. For a split second, he resembled a forlorn hood ornament.

Eula straightened herself against the edge of the door. “Surrounded yourself with yes-men and crooks. They’ve got you believing your own piddling little press releases. But step out past that courthouse a ways. Ask around. Nobody in this county is a big enough fool to believe you anymore.” She wiped her brow again with one cherry-print housecoat sleeve. “God knows I used to be.”

He buckled slightly at the knees. At least he could lean against the fender, play it off a little, while he squinted at her through the house plants lined up against the screen. “Aww, you know me. I just like to stay off the gossip circuit.”

For a moment, she thought she would never stop laughing. “‘Stay off the gossip circuit!’ Oh, now that is precious. I’m gonna use that one.” She shook her head. “Corvus Eugene Watson, you are County Commissioner. You’re on the gossip circuit whether you want to be or not.”

“And what your yes-men have failed to tell you,” she continued, “is that it’s the way you treat the people at the edge of your world that’s so important. It’s how you treat people like me—people you use and throw away once you get what you want from them—that keeps the gossip circuit running. How you conduct yourself with those who can do the least for you—that, Mister Commissioner, is what they will always, always talk about.”

In the evening light, the mighty red oaks stretched mute and watchful over the sandy, clean-swept yard. Eula saw his proud figure turn shabby and wounded. His pant cuffs made sad blue seersucker poufs atop his dirty brogans. The ribbon bow tie hung in jaunty, defeated loops. Even the expensive Stetson on his head was soaked clean through with flop sweat and reckoning.

He was trying, and failing. “Please, Eula. Please.” His mouth bent at one corner.

In the loam-scented shadows of the porch, she closed her eyes, forced her thoughts back to the cold galvanized steel in her hand. “I haven’t hit a man in fourteen years. Don’t make this the day I break my streak.”

Corvus turned so she couldn’t watch his face crumple. He slid back into the Bonneville, fired it up, and was gone.

She let the pipe fall ringing behind the door, and steadied herself—she’d forgotten to breathe. Inhaling big, she stepped onto the porch and watched the dust cloud at the mailbox swirl, swirl, swirl, then settle. At the edge of the yard, Hyatt stood before the boxwood hedge, his redbone hound leg raised in urinary bliss. He hadn’t so much as whimpered when Corvus pulled up. Sorry-ass dog.

Once she was in her favorite chair, she realized she could not stop shaking. She fumbled in the half-empty tissue box for an emergency cigarette. No, she would never, never have struck that man. Or would she?

Her fingers answered her question and refused to work. Both lighter and pack clattered onto the porch floorboards. Across the road, the last magenta remnants of daylight flared, then dimmed, just beyond the hog pen where the sows already lay dreaming.

Until it was time to go to bed, Eula just sat there, and sobbed, and wished it wasn’t so goddamn hard to hate and love at the same time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Roadside Valentine No. 330

Troup County, Georgia – 4 August 2012
One in a series of photos from “Roadside Valentine,” 14 February 2013.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wishing You a Happy 2018

“Turquoise Leap”
Denver, Colorado – 10 August 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Goodbye, 2017

“Stars All Along the Way”
Pine Mountain, Georgia – 7 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New Year, Same Me

So the end of the year is almost upon us. Everyone’s out having fun tonight, spending time with friends and family. They’re most likely not sitting around reading stuff on the internet. But I’m a writer, and hahahahahahahaaaaaaaaa!!! Tonight finds me sitting in front of a screen because 1) it’s what I do, 2) I enjoy what I do, and 3) something’s been bothering me and it needs putting into words on a page.

Everywhere I go this time of year, I hear the same old saying: “New Year, new me!” It’s a popular sentiment. For the most part, people who say it really do mean it. I can’t blame them, either. The beginning of a new calendar year feels fresh, full of possibilities. It’s a good time to try something new.

But here I am—that one weirdo at the party, the one who’s not buying into all this merriment and isn’t even pretending she’s having “fun.” Yep, that’s me, sitting over here by myself in the corner, not even drunk because up yours, acid reflux, the one muttering under my breath juuuust loud enough for the host’s pets to hear:

“’New year, new me?’ Bullshit. Everybody knows that on January 1, I’m gonna be the same asshole I was on December 31. And everybody knows the only thing that will help 2018 is my trying NOT to be as much of an asshole as I was in 2017.”

Really, y’all: The best thing I can do for 2018 is not to be as much of an asshole as I was in 2017.

Part of me knows all I can do is keep making good work. Well, okay—so that “part of me” is more like 95%. The other 5% sidles up all innocent-looking and asks, “But can’t you do something different?  Maybe push yourself harder? Be more business-like? Be more professional? Be more goals-hardcore-grind-objective-brand-network-leverage-bullshit?” (This is when the weird-but-also-kinda-wise 95% of me gives the sad, secretly-self-hating 5% a cautious side-eye and a pat on the head.)

Some readers may be thinking that by all this, I mean to be some kind of doormat, to let others run right over me however they please. Nope, not at all. Being less assholish means that while I’m actively working to be more kind, I’ve also still got to stand up for others, and for myself. In 2017, I drew some boundaries that some people did not like at all. Protecting myself in this way made these people think I was being mean to them. Too bad, so sad. Predators are not welcome here, no matter what form they take.

What’s more: I know I’m not powerful enough to change everything. I cannot know what’s in store for me next year. All I can really do is good work on my end: my own creative work, and my work for justice and transformation in my community. And then hope for the best from that work. That’s all I can control.

However, one thing I do know is that none of my accomplishments in 2017 happened just because of me. Sure, I was the one who wrote the article or made the photo that got published—but the reason I created these things in the first place? Other people.

People who asked what I was working on. People who read my words, gazed at my pictures, asked to see more. People who urged me to keep going, even when I wanted to give up. People who asked for my help with their own projects. People who reassured me that what I’m doing is worthwhile. People who hugged me. People who prayed for me. People who cared.

Whether it was financial help, encouragement, care packages, letters/emails/texts short and long, spreading the word about my work, or [fill in the blank], whatever I accomplished this year is because other people cared. Because you cared. Yes, YOU.

I’m old enough to know that New Year’s resolutions tend not to last very long. Most often, I do better when I’ve had enough of my own bullshit and decide to do something different. So 2018 will find me the same person, in a lot of ways. But I care enough about you to spend the coming year doing two things: making the best work I can, and being less of an asshole than I was last year.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I love you all.

RSW

Photo: “Self-Portrait with Western Shirt and Dark Roots” (LaGrange, Georgia – 10 August 2015)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Merry Christmas 2017

“Bright Lights against the Pines”
Heard County, Georgia – 6 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy Christmas Eve 2017

“A Lesser-Known Christmas Vigil”
Waffle House #646
LaGrange, Georgia – 13 December 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Caturday: 12/23/17

How does Nooz deal with a house full of Caturday-before-Christmas guests? The same way everyone else does: Bourbon.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Cedars at Christmas

As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look along the winter-brown roadside for the familiar fuzzy evergreen clouds. They’re far easier to spot this time of year.

They float along old fence lines, these tubby juniper ghosts, at the very edge of the right-of-way. They bide their time where state DOT and Army Corps of Engineers property ends, where the natural world waits to wreck the built and overrun the mechanized. Often, their shredded gray trunks smirk and pucker around twisted steel—We can’t grow here, huh? HA! Stupid barbed wire. That’ll teach you. 

When I was a child in rural east Alabama and west Georgia, these dark green blobs of badass were our Christmas trees.

Eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, grows all the way from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. A pioneer invader, it prefers pitiful, ragged-out, freshly-cleared land. However, unlike other potentially invasive species, it can live for centuries if left alone. My grandfather’s farm included several cedars with trunks nearly three feet thick. For the most part, though, the ones I notice are between four and seven feet tall, just the right size for the average living room.

I remember only one tree-cutting walk, far behind our house outside Rock Mills, Alabama. We were likely on someone else’s land. My father had to have known this. But, seeing how eastern red cedars alkalize pasture soil and steal nitrogen from forage crops, maybe the landowners would not have cared. Daddy cut it down with a hatchet and a hacksaw, then dragged the tree behind him for the half-hour walk back to the house, my sister and me following as quickly as our little legs could manage.

In this old photo, the short, squat little cedar looks as lush now as it did then to my three-year-old eyes. It sits atop the blanket chest—also red cedar—that my great-grandfather made around the end of the First World War. That same blanket chest now guards my guest room.

Christmas tree farms make me uneasy. Their offerings, while pretty, are not of this land. Their trees’ native soils lie hundreds of miles north and west of here. While I am glad they bring joy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they are just not for me.

Those plush needles stay too neatly combed. Too-tidy firs and spruces demand unreasonable cheerfulness and forced smiles. They heap manufactured happiness on top of organic, deeply rooted sorrow. And they act surprised when the needle-fine roots of that sorrow break back up through the soil.

Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays. Instead, give me an eastern red cedar, thriving at pasture’s edge. Give me slowly shredding grayish-tan bark. Give me perfumed red heartwood that swallows barbed wire and NO HUNTING signs along Georgia Highway 219. Give me needles growing in all directions like an overcaffeinated moth-repellent pompom. Wherever I go, for the rest of my days, the trees I have known and loved stay with me.

Photo: “Detail, Red Cedar Christmas: Rock Mills, Alabama, 1976”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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