R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Holidays (page 2 of 2)

Hillside Monday: 3/14/16


“Hopsack, Sunlight, Plaid”
LaGrange, Georgia – 19 January 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


“Most just don’t know it.”

“Rubygene, if you didn’t even like Mr. Davis, why go to his funeral?” She never did make any sense, and this time was no exception. “Just stay home. Be content to read his obituary, especially with the weather hot as it is.” The inside of the car was a furnace, even with the windows down. Hell is real. It’s an old Pontiac at noon in late July.

My great-aunt shifted her girdle around in the oven of the driver’s seat, steering the massive automobile with just her knees. Surely we would hurtle to our own deaths within a quarter-mile. “Myrtle Mae,” she snapped, “there are some things in life you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them. Besides,” she said as she inexplicably rolled up the window, “funerals are never for the dead. They’re for the living. What’s that sticking out of your pocketbook?”

“Nothing.” I eased a hand over to stuff the racing forms back into my purse. The tires on my side of the car made a fierce rock-slinging noise as they rolled off the pavement and onto the too-soft shoulder. “Watch where you’re going!”

She nudged the car back between the faded white lines and cut her eyes again to the floorboard. “Great day in the morning. Bringing the devil’s playthings into the house of God. You ought to be ashamed.” And I was ashamed, but not for the reasons she was hoping. So we baked on down the road to the Primitive Baptist church, which was no more air conditioned than that tank of a car. Foot-washing, tongue-speaking, grave-digging, and oven-roasting all in one day. I don’t care what your McGuffey Reader says: there is no fun in funeral.

In the worn, sandy churchyard, the old ladies’ cars pointed out like a Detroit starburst: grilles to the road, and fins either to the church, the parsonage, or the clubhouse. Seasoned funeral veterans, they were no fools—set that bad V-8 in Exodus Mode, and let the rear axle throw gravel as soon as the last handful of red clay scattered across the top of the vault. Rubygene did them one better. She parked the Catalina at the farthest edge of the yard, half on the velvety carpet of moss under the last oak tree, and half on the grassy strip alongside the black gravel-dust road. I had to admit it was a pretty good getaway position.

Rubygene shoved the shifter into Park, cut the motor, and swung open the heavy door. “Pull down that hem. Button that dress all the way up.” I did as she said, then grabbed my bag. “Oh no, Missy. There is not even a hint of gambling in the Lord’s abode.”

“Yes, Rubygene.” I stuffed my purse and what was left of my dignity under the front seat, then followed in her dusty footprints to the church steps.

The sanctuary was so full of floral offerings that, even outside in the churchyard, the smell of carnations hung thick in the air. They were “death flowers,” far as I was concerned. In the fourth grade, Otis Hardeman gave me a crumpled little bouquet of them for Valentine’s Day. I was giddy until third period elocution. That’s when Willie Ann Sprayberry pointed and laughed and said he snatched them out of his grandmama’s funeral wreath in the wee hours before the school bus careened down Butler Road to pick us all up. I loved Otis for six more years, but carnations and I were through. Now their sweetly numbing scent mixed with the tacky evergreens in the cemetery, swirled up my nose with the musty oil-soap perfume of the floor and pews. With all these smells, and with it being so hot, I just knew I would vomit by the last “Praise Jesus.”

Deep summer in Georgia means there is no reason for wearing sleeves, girdles, stockings, or dark colors. Yet here we were, in front of God and everybody, breaking every single one of these rules in the name of propriety, tradition, and good manners. Talk about a Lost Cause. Itching, sweating, soaking up every sunbeam, and not even enough sense to stand under the shade of the red oaks yawning out over the cinder-block picnic tables. After we signed the book and nodded to Mr. Wattles from the mortuary, Rubygene creaked on up the rickety front steps of the church. And her with that hat, good grief. It was black and iridescent green, made of moth-eaten felt and the rooster feathers she’d so carefully collected after the original plumes crumbled to dust. The color said “funeral.” The shape said “Phenix City whorehouse.”

Once we were in the door, Rubygene removed her now-sweaty black linen coat. “Had enough of this thing, now that we’re here…”

In the middle of the church, the red velvet-trimmed, red silk crepe number screamed louder than a Pentecostal party of twelve when Morrison’s runs out of dinner rolls. And sleeveless, when she made me wear this long-sleeved torture chamber of a dress. Right then, I swore to God and Rex Humbard that I would get her for this. But we had arrived so close to the start of the service that there was no time to plot my revenge.

The casket was still open. Miss Rainey, whose old maid piano teacher stylings underscored every funeral I had ever attended, wrapped up “He Touched Me” and segued into “Blessed Assurance.” Rubygene lurched up the aisle, dragging me along. Heads turned. Silk flowers practically vibrated atop Methodist and Southern Baptist hats. “But I don’t want to—”

“Didn’t nobody ask you what you want.” She scanned the congregation. “Come on. Let’s pay our respects.”

“Our respects? I didn’t even know the man.” This was the longest walk of my life. All these foot-washers staring us down, with their plain bare no-makeup faces and straight long hair and ankle-length skirts in this heat. Lord, if You’ll just get me out of this, I prayed silently, I will never ever ask You for anything ever again. Which naturally was a bold-faced lie, but good people do bad things under duress.

And there he lay.

Poor old Vote Davis. He was stretched out against the quilted powder-blue satin, as bald and waxy as ever, except now a sickly pale somewhere between buttermilk and pork brains. Heart attack, they said, but his face sure did have a shellacked, patched-together look. His wife must have hated him to let Wattles dress him in that double-knit number. The smell of carnations was extra-strong there at the casket. I felt my stomach heave, and turned to Rubygene.

But she was staring hard, straight ahead and down at the dead man. Maybe she was having another fit. Paw-Paw had warned me about this. Where did I put that syringe? She spoke with a growl, low like the rumble of far-off thunder across swampland.

“Well. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Vote. But this time, the pleasure is all mine.”

“Rubygene?” Oh, God. I had left my purse, and the syringe, in the car, stuffed under the seat with my racing forms.

“Eyes closed. Mouth closed, for once. Legs out straight. Arms by his sides. And his hands—” She craned her crumpled brown paper sack neck to see over into the casket. “Folded over his pecker. Of course.” Over on the piano, Miss Rainey trudged through “Blessed Assurance” a third time, waiting for us to get the hint. Yet my grandmother’s sister stood there, immovable as Moses before the Red Sea, and perhaps about to lift her own arms and work an obscene miracle here in the Primitive Baptist sanctuary. Lord, have mercy.

“They’re about to start! What are you doing?”

“Making sure he’s dead.”

Miss Rainey switched to “He Is Coming Again,” this time pianissimo to signal the start of the service. Someone made a half-coughing noise, and one of the deacons’ chairs groaned against the varnished floor. Rubygene sighed a loud, dramatic sigh and raised her voice so that even the old biddies in the back pew, with their near-dead hearing aid batteries, could listen in.

“I declare! He just looks so lifelike, as if he could set right up and sing along,” she said. “Poor, poor Vote. Gone before his time. He was a good one, yessir. Mighty, mighty, mighty good.” Her voice grew dry and cold at this last. Over the faltering piano strains, I could hear the whooshing rhythm of a hundred cardboard church fans speeding way, way up. In a normal world, I would be sitting in one of those musty pews, semi-cooling myself with one of those ugly fans. Suddenly, I missed Cardboard Paint-by-Number Jesus and His strangely blond hair so much I could cry.

Rubygene went on. “And he sure done a lot for this county. Laid a lot of pipe between here and Mobile. And Tupelo, and Columbia, and Memphis. Maybe not the smartest man, but good. Why, if you put his brain on the head of a match, it would roll around like a muscadine in a truck stop parking lot”—she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief—”bless his heart.” She spun us both around.

Inez Davis stood square behind us. Her boiling red face, almost as red as Rubygene’s dress, seemed as wide as the aisle. “Hussy. You brazen hussy.”

Rubygene said nothing. She kept her eyes locked with the beady little brown ones buried in the rolls of fat on Miss Inez’s face.

“How dare you disrespect my husband.” The woman’s face burned nearly crimson. “How dare—”

“How dare you defend him,” Rubygene said. “Of course, if you don’t know by now who he really was, you probably never will.”

“You whore!” Inez hissed. “Whore, whore, whore!”

“Never could quit talking about yourself, could you?”

Miss Inez dropped clean in the floor.

I can’t recall how we got back out in the churchyard. All I remember is seeing Inez Davis’s eyes slide up as if to look at her forehead, and four hundred pounds of Jesus freak roll out of my field of vision and into a puddle in the middle of the Primitive Baptist church. Bet they didn’t have that much excitement even at Revival. Before I knew it, we were back in the car. Rubygene was straightening her cathouse hat and draping the black linen coat over the seat so it wouldn’t wrinkle any more. She finally saw my face, and spoke.

“You all right? Sick to your stomach?”

“A little.” As with much of what had just happened, I wasn’t sure how true this was.

“We’ll have us a cold ginger ale when we get home.” She paused, looked over her shoulder at the commotion pouring forth onto the church steps, and frowned. “Remember when I said there are things you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them?”

I nodded.

“What you saw in there is a perfect example.”

“But—” My belly hurt so bad. “You’re not a—whore. You’re a decent woman. Whores have sex for money.”

Rubygene shook her head, rustling the defiant feathers that arched from her hat. “Every woman has had sex for money.” She turned the key in the narrow slot of the ignition. “Most just don’t know it.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 14 February 2014. It appears here today with revisions.  With any luck, Myrtle Mae and Rubygene will soon return in a new scene.


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)


Stars All Along the Way


Callaway Gardens Fantasy in Lights
Pine Mountain, Georgia – 7 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

To 2016

One year ago today, I had a very strong feeling that 2015 would be a difficult year.

How right I was.
Oh, dear God, how right.

If there is one thing that has sustained me through the scrambled mess of the last 12 months, it is this passage from my Facebook post of 31 December 2014:

“Through everything, my creative voice has remained. Even when all I wanted was to give up, to let myself drown in the metaphorical flood, it has refused to run. After decades of struggle, I have finally learned to listen to it no matter what. That voice, that creative power, has saved me every time.

I won’t find what I need ‘out there.’
It’s been here all along.”

True then.
True now.

No matter what, all I want is to get the words right. This mantra is why I am still here. It sustains me.

I do not know what 2016 holds—for me, for you, for any of us. I could not have imagined one year ago that my life would change so much. I could not have imagined that my life would look so strange, so clumsy and beautiful, in another 365 days.

But I’ll take a chance and say this: I wish for all of you peace, solace, and love. If you need me in 2016, you know where to find me. I’ll be making the best art that I can out of the wreckage.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Bright Lights against the Pines


Heard County, Georgia – 6 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Cedars at Christmas


As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look forward to those fuzzy green oblong clouds along the winter-brown roadside. They float at the edge of the right-of-way, where the natural world waits to retake the built and the mechanized. Often, their knowing gray smirks pucker around twisted steel—Stupid barbed wire. We can’t grow here, huh? 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)

Wednesday Photo: 11/11/15


“Leaf Ghost, 173d Airborne Memorial”
Fort Benning, Georgia – 9 October 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


A Tail for a Halloween Caturday


My house was built in 1915 as one of many in the Hillside “mill village.” While I’ve called this house home since 1999, many other people have lived here over the last century. Some have never left.

In 2013, my family and I began remodeling what is now my den/home office. We removed the faux Queen Anne-style “wood beams” from the ceiling, gave the smoke-stained paneling half a dozen coats of fresh paint, and pulled up the mildewed 1970s carpet and the 1950s particleboard beneath it. We were sad to discover that, probably in the 1930s, the original red oak floor had been covered with 9” linoleum squares (a common size for that time). But at least we were making that room more pleasant to be in. I’d wanted to return the Happy Kitten Cottage to as close to its original layout and function as possible, and it was getting there a little at a time.

That’s when the smell showed up.

A week or so after we’d finished, I noticed the strong smell of butter in the den—and only in there. It smelled as if someone were melting three or four sticks of butter for a day of baking, or even for a huge batch of popcorn. A very comforting scent, for sure. It would linger for several hours, then go away, and then return a day or two later. The problem: I was not cooking anything.

It occurred to me that my neighbor makes her legendary cornbread with a whole stick of butter, rather than oil or shortening. But the delicious smell happened while Ernestine (not her real name) was at work, or at church, or out fishing on Saturday morning. Add to this the fact that her kitchen, on the north side of her house, is at least 80 feet from my den, which is on the south side of my house, and—well. That’s just creepy.

I mentioned the butter smell to Mom. She and my stepfather had spent several days tearing out the den floor while I was out of town. “Haven’t smelled any butter,” she said, “but the whole time we were working in the den, I felt like somebody was watching us. Someone was there with us. Not the cats—that’s different. A person.”

She added that the presence didn’t feel hostile. “It felt happy, like it was excited to see us taking out the nasty carpet and particleboard and cleaning up the linoleum floor.” Mom also reminded me that, in the house’s original four-room layout, the room next to the den was the kitchen. “Maybe it’s happy that the house is back like it remembers. Maybe it’s glad to see us—you know, welcoming us with something good to eat. Old-school Southern hospitality.”

Since then, I’ve smelled the strong butter smell every few months for a few days in a row. It doesn’t bother me. I look forward to it, and smile when I catch a whiff of it now and then. But there are other strange happenings. Tools too heavy and bulky for the cats to pick up somehow migrate from the toolbox in the old kitchen to other parts of the house. A box of drywall screws on an end table in the living room. A 22-ounce framing hammer set next to the bathroom sink. A 100-foot metal tape measure by the front door. A plastic case full of drill bits in the middle of the cooktop.

Last Friday, I had a doctor’s appointment and several errands to run. I left Hank, my sweet, sickly new kitten, out to roam the house while I was away. At that point, he had been here only three days. But the bigger cats already enjoyed playing with him, and were amazingly gentle with this little fellow who’s not even one-eighth their size.

When I left home, Hank was in the den, purring and snuggled in a sunbeam by the hearth. When I returned a couple hours later, he was sitting in almost the same place—but inside this wire basket. Funny, because when I departed, that wire basket sat eight feet away. On the other side of the room.

So the ghosts in my house are happy to see these familiar, sensible changes in my (our?) home. They encourage remodeling. And they love little Hank. You can’t get much more Halloween Caturday than that.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


On My Sister’s 40th Birthday

Today is my sister’s 40th birthday. For almost all of those 40 years, she has been my absolute best friend—my true “other half.” So, to celebrate her and our lifelong bond, I tell you the following story.

For one of her electives at Georgia Tech, Val took an upper-division English course called “The Grotesque in Literature.” It was a fascinating class, and covered a wide range of works, such as Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The roster was full of intelligent, well-read students. The professor’s lectures and discussions always got everyone thinking and talking in depth about the function of carnival/the carnivalesque and “the grotesque body” in literature. (That’s all from Mikhail Bahktin. Go look it up on your own; I don’t have time to explain.)

What a dream course.  It wounded my heart not to be able to audit, or even sit in on a session. Imagine my joy, then, when Val told me her professor would be giving a Friday afternoon guest lecture at the University of Georgia, where I was completing my senior year.

When the day arrived, Dr. H_____’s lecture was excellent. After it was over, I shook Dr. H_____’s hand and thanked him for his talk. I explained that my sister was in his 4000-level “Grotesque in Lit” course, and that I’d been enjoying the class vicariously through her. He seemed a little surprised yet happy that at least one student at another college had been following the course through someone enrolled in it.

The next week, Val’s class met again. As the period began, Dr. H_____ told everyone about his Athens trip. “Over the weekend, I gave a guest lecture at UGA. Afterwards, I met Val’s sister, who’s an English major there. And as we talked, all I could think was, ‘My God, Val has possessed this woman’s body, and is speaking to me through her.’ It was like there was one soul in two bodies.”

“One soul in two bodies.” That’s a good way to explain it.

Happy birthday, Bla.
I love you so much—and I always will.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Saint Francis Goes to Mardi Gras


LaGrange, Georgia – 28 April 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Another tale for Mother’s Day


It’s the second Sunday in May—yep, that one day every year where I grow weary of hearing folks say, “My mother is the toughest person I know.” Awful, perhaps, but it’s a reflex as quick and as natural as a cat licking its nose when you blow in its face. I have it because my mother happens to be much tougher than most other mothers. She also happens to be tougher than most men.

“Yeah, yeah.” The grumbling comes through loud and clear, even through the computer screen. “So what makes your mother so tough?” Sit down, son. We’re gonna be here a while.

Has your mama ever walked onto a construction site, found the foreman, and flat-out asked for a carpenter’s helper job in a field notoriously hostile to women—especially back in 1981? Has your mama ever learned to measure and hammer and saw as a complete beginner, picking up skills so quickly that she astonished even the worst woman-haters on the site? Has your mama ever made her living seven days a week, fourteen hours a day swinging a 22-ounce framing hammer when most of the men on the crew (despite their boasting to the contrary) preferred much less efficient 16-ounce hammers?

Has your mama ever kept a 40-foot-wide screed machine furrowing straight, even grooves into wet concrete? Has your mama ever worn out the bursae in her shoulders swinging a hammer? Has she ever spent her days in sun, wind, rain, and cold not just because she needed a paycheck, but because watching that eight-lane bridge rise, week by week, against the Birmingham skyline fascinated her as nothing else had?

Has your mama ever balanced atop a bridge piling 75 feet above the Chattahoochee River, suspended only by her right thumb—the end of which has just been crushed by a 2,000-pound concrete-filled form? Has your mama ever buried the dead end of her right thumb on the banks of the river the day after the form smashed it away from the rest of her hand?

I didn’t think so.

But no, we’re not stopping there. You see, my mother’s physical toughness is just as formidable, just as fierce, as her compassion for the small and weak. Mom’s love for animals, her conviction to do right by them, is indeed something to behold.

Consider Poppy.
That’s the solid-white cat with one blue and one green eye whom she found staggering down Highway 219—five weeks old, covered in fleas, ribs jutting out, and with a brain injury that the vet said probably occurred when she’d been pitched from a moving car. Eight years on, Poppy’s still going strong, despite her neurological issues.

Consider Sybil.
That’s the gray tabby/calico who’d been abandoned at least twice by the time she came to Mom’s house. An expert mouser, Sybil disappeared one spring. Mom mourned her cat for several weeks…until the day she heard faint, desperate meowing from deep within the decrepit fieldstone chimney of her house’s old fireplace. Aching shoulders be damned: Mom grabbed her nine-pound sledge and demolished 12 feet of chimney in two hours, the whole time sobbing and calling out, “Hang on, Sybil! Hang on, sweet girl!”

Sybil most likely fell while chasing a mouse, hit her head sharply on the way down, and somehow survived by licking rainwater off the inside of the chimney and eating whatever lizards came her way. The cat used up eight of her nine lives with the chimney escapade, but kept Mom company for ten more years. When Sybil passed away, the vet estimated her age to be 22.

Consider Hazel.
That’s my sister’s now-17-year-old brown tabby cat, whom Mom rescued from the bottom of the circa 1925 hand-dug well behind her house. The well was too weak-walled and too deep for anyone to try going down there. How the kitten managed to land between the wall and the old cistern—and not in the brackish water—only Bastet knows. Mom found a steel bucket, tied a rope to the handle, emptied a can of tuna into it, and then lowered it to where the kitten could crawl into it. The next morning, Mom pulled up an eight-week-old kitten, very confused and smelling like a seafood market, and with a huge horsefly larva writhing and turning inside her neck.

Consider Sherwin.
That’s my orange-and-white polydactyl cat who managed last spring to crawl into my attic and fall down into the wall surrounding my house’s ancient fireplace, closed up in the 1970s. (Fireplaces and cats. There’s a pattern here.) When the old tuna-in-bucket trick wouldn’t work, Mom rushed over to my house, saber saw and wrecking bar in hand, and spent two hours tearing out drywall, plaster, and lathe to free a tired, hungry, sooty, but otherwise safe Sherwin. (She also discovered in that wall a solid wood bookcase, built in the 1940s and also closed up for 40-plus years with the fireplace—but that’s a story for another post.)

Consider the cat on Jenkins Street.
That’s the one Mom saw, sprawled flat at the edge of the pavement. The cat was far enough out of traffic not to have been in the way. The way her fluffy yellow body lay, some dirtbag must have swerved on purpose to hit her. On her way home from grocery shopping, a cold February rain pouring down, Mom pulled over and lifted the matted, lifeless body into the floorboard of the truck. She texted me later: “I couldn’t stand to leave her in the street. Brought her home to bury. She died all by herself. At least now she’s got a home. At least somebody loves her.”

This is what I mean when I say that, in every way, my mother is the toughest person I know.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy.
I love you so much.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Spring Breakthrough


LaGrange, Georgia – 11 March 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


A Valentine’s Day Program in Three Acts

ACT ONE: February 14, 1981
With our meager savings from allowances (50 cents a week, if we make all A’s), my sister and I buy the fanciest Whitman’s Sampler we can find at the drug store. The heart-shaped, padded box features a dozen closely gathered rows of lavender satin ribbon and white lace trim, and boasts a monstrously floppy purple silk rose in its upper left corner. Scarlett O’Hara might have worn something like it, had her story wrapped up in a New Orleans cathouse.

But Val and I do not yet know this. We want to make our mommy happy, especially when she works so hard all day sawing boards and nailing them together into big containers for even bigger machines to fill with concrete and turn into bridges that will span really, really big rivers.

When we present our hard-won gift, Mom tries to hide the tears. She loves the beautiful fancy box. How did we know Whitman’s is her favorite? Still dressed in the old Army fatigues that she has had on since 5:00 that morning, she hugs us so hard we think we might snap in two.

Thirty years pass. Standing in Mom’s bedroom, helping her clean out her dresser, I spy the faded lavender-beribboned box. The sides, once sturdy and thickly glued to the cardboard base, now verge on collapse. Frail, feeble, gaudy—faithful.

Mom notices my stare. “Oh, this? I just keep stuff in it. Little trinkets you girls have given me.”

My turn to hide tears.

ACT TWO: February 14, 1983
After third grade morning recess, I return to Mrs. Rogers’ room and find her on my desk—a bendy-legged, rubbery doll whose white eyelet bonnet whispers “Little House on the Prairie” and whose dress and stockings shout “Panama City Spring Break WOOOOOOOO!” She smells neither of strawberries nor of shortcake. Instead, she reeks of something strange and acrid: one part stale oatmeal creme pie, two parts aspartame, three parts Vicks Vap-O-Rub.

Inside the tiny envelope at her waist, a carefully scrawled note:
“Will you be my Valentine? Love, Tommy.”

Since first grade, I have liked him. Silently. From afar.
And now—oh, oh. And now.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I start across the room. That’s when I see the other bendy-legged, rubbery lumps—one on every girl’s desk.

For the rest of the school year, the doll stinks up the cubbyhole beneath my desk, then befouls my top dresser drawer until mid-summer, when my grandmother throws it out. Decades later, Tommy will become a Holiness preacher.

ACT THREE: February 14, 1994
After class, I return to my University of Georgia dorm room to find my roommate standing puzzled next to our answering machine. She presses Play. The tape crackles with a man’s voice. He speaks my name slowly, deliberately, in an extended belch that puts every beer-drinking, alphabet-burping grandpa on the planet to shame. Then, he serenades us:

“Moon river, wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style—somedaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy…”
[stifled belch]
“Ohhhh, my little heartbreaker!”

We laugh so hard that we have to hold on to my roommate’s desk to keep upright. While we save the message for the rest of the academic year, we never figure out my admirer’s identity.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


To 2015

This year—well, then.

2014 led me to remarkable creative progress, to new friendships, to fascinating possibilities. In the face of all this, though, I’ve experienced losses—astounding, crushing losses—that I could never have predicted. Truth stuffed with illusion. Goodbyes I never thought I would have to say. Answers I will never find.

Through everything, my creative voice has remained. Even when all I wanted was to give up, to let myself drown in the metaphorical flood, it has refused to run. After decades of struggle, I have finally learned to listen to it no matter what. That voice, that creative power, has saved me every time.

I won’t find what I need “out there.”
It’s been here all along.

It will be a hard year. I know this in my bones. But it will also be a beautiful year. I know this, too, in my bones.

Here is to 2015.
Here is to making the best art that we can out of the wreckage.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 12/24/14

2014-12-17 14.41.14

“A Lesser-Known Christmas Vigil”
LaGrange, Georgia – 13 December 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)



For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to write up a birthday post, something full of wisdom and grace. I’m even more thankful and grateful this birthday than I was for 40; so I should have some extra-profound thoughts to share. Makes sense, right?

Of course, we all know how “should” works out (read: never as we expect). So much has changed for me over the last year. I’m still thinking through so much that I’m not yet ready to share.

But I did manage to come up with a few things occurring to me around my 41st birthday—or, rather, epiphanies that arrived only when I finally got out of my own way. They’ll have to do for now.

I don’t want my life to be perfect. It’s perfect in its imperfection.

I will never have it all figured out. I will never have it all together. And, strangely, this is fine. As soon as I figure it all out, I’ll either be 1) dead, or 2) full of shit.

Or 3) it’ll all change. As soon as I think I know what I’m doing—as soon as I think I know what to expect—everything changes. And, as I have seen again and again, it’s supposed to be that way. I can’t learn what I’m here to learn with a comfortable, lazy mind.

Somehow, miraculously, I have completed 41 years on this planet. Now, starting my fifth decade, I realize that on average, I have anywhere from 15 to 50 years left if I’m going to help anyone or leave behind anything that’s worth a damn. And I had best get busy, because I don’t know what’s ahead.

Thank you for listening.
I love you all.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


2014-10-10 15.27.39

Buddy and Miller, at Play
LaGrange, Georgia – 10 October 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Happy Independence Day

2014-06-27 02.05.06

Buck Owens’ guitar, on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Nashville, Tennessee – 21 June 2013


© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


A tale for Mother’s Day


Note: Names and identifying details have been altered.

Look at this photo. See it. Study it closely.

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. She 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, but for my sister and me, it made us 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. 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, 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: “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 that this was the early 1980s. With millions of parents terrified that random heavy metal lyrics and a few rounds of Dungeons & Dragons would hypnotize 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 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 heft their wide rear ends off the ground. The cheerleading squad was desperate back then, so much so that girls with nearly no physical coordination could give a half-assed tryout, fail fairly miserably, yet 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.

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.”


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 girl—now a woman rapidly approaching middle age—looks away, then down, and sidles out the nearest door.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Wednesday Photo: 2/12/14


Near West Point, Georgia
7 February 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)



Every birthday, my dad always asked the same question: “What does it feel like to be __ years old?” And, every birthday, I always gave the same reply: “Pretty good. About like the last one, I guess. How’s __ supposed to feel?”

Even into my early twenties, I simply hadn’t lived long enough to have a basis for comparison. I did the best I could with what little living I had done. Today, however, is my fortieth birthday, and I’d like to think that Daddy would be proud of the answers finally coming to me.

Forty feels grown-up.

Forty feels assured, even in the face of not knowing what’s next.

Forty feels secure in the complex, interesting, unusual person I am.

Forty feels direct, succinct, even blunt: “I’m 40 years old. I don’t have to put up with this mess.”

Forty feels wicked—and likes it.

Forty feels confident in my teaching, in my intellect, in the creative process.

Forty feels humbled by and thankful for even the smallest kindnesses.

Forty feels like acceptance.

Forty feels like forgiveness—for myself, and for us all.

Forty feels merciful.

Forty feels merciless.

And, most beautifully and unexpectedly, forty feels like love.

It feels like the kind of love that I know like the marrow of my bones, like the solidness of the earth. Throughout my life, especially when I didn’t realize it, I have been buoyed by this great, steady, abiding love.

I remember the people who’ve thought about me today, who are perhaps thinking about me right now, who’ve helped me in so many ways over the last four decades. When I was at my lowest, when I had lost nearly everything, those people believed in me. When I’d failed hard and was preparing to fail even harder, those people encouraged me. When they didn’t know how else to support me, how else to save me from myself, those people never forgot me, never doubted me, never stopped guiding me. When I wondered if my whole existence had been a waste of time and effort and flesh, those people loved me.

YOU are those people.

Thank you for making these forty years worth living.
I love you all.


© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Happy Halloween!

SOON. (Heard County, Georgia - 5 September 2010)

Heard County, Georgia—5 September 2010

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.

Candy corn:
It is the worst of the worst Halloween candy, plentiful as fleas and twice as hard to get rid of. In all its corn syrupy FD&C No. 6 glory, it refuses to masquerade as blood sugar-friendly. He never craved sweets like we did, but it was his favorite—in small quantities. At Halloween, when we brought home sack after sack of the stuff, he never complained. Had we asked him to, he would have eaten it until Kingdom Come.
Overall: Cloying, slightly giddy, with a letdown at the end.
Base: Unabashed enthusiasm.
Top Note: A bad case of the Sunday evening can’t-help-its.

Maybe he switched from PBR and Bud tallboys to feel more sophisticated after the divorce. Maybe it was too many late nights spent thumbing through Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out “the modern woman” and what she wanted. She wanted back then the same thing she does now: To be treated like a human being, with respect, dignity, and compassion. Besides, would a modern man in a modern relationship with a modern woman drink a redneck beer? Of course not.
Overall: Hoppy, skunky, with a bitter finish.
Base: Rancid barley.
Top Note: Mule piss.

In oil, in mustard, in cream, but never in hot sauce. His ulcer couldn’t handle it. How he could work fourteen hours in 110-degree heat on just a tin of these and a sleeve of saltine crackers is still beyond me. Meanwhile, the rest of us on the crew tried not to honk up our turkey-Swiss-teriyaki-meatball-chitlins-on-wheat lunchtime transgressions. He tossed the empty cans behind the stock pile, where they proceeded to attract every stray cat within a half-mile radius.
Overall: Stridently fishy, yet earnest, with a hint of struggle.
Base: Sweat-soaked long-sleeved Dickies.
Top Note: Waccamaw River silt.

Candy corn.

In memory of Newt Williams
5 October 1946 ‒ 16 January 1997

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Friday Photo: 5/10/13

Blur (Heard County, Georgia - 31 March 2013)


Heard County, Georgia – 31 March 2013

Happy birthday, Willie Nelson

There should be a law against saying “Willie Nelson” and “80th birthday” in the same sentence. Good thing there isn’t, though, because I’d be going to jail right about now.

In honor of the Red-Headed Stranger’s birthday, here’s his version of “The Rainbow Connection,” first made famous by Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie (1979). The video has quite a long intro; Willie comes in at 1:51.

Happy birthday, Willie! Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.

Roy Orbison: 1936-1988

Today would have been Roy Orbison’s 77th birthday.

The first time I’d ever heard of him was in 1987, when The Traveling Wilburys (Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Tom Petty) released “Handle with Care.” I had heard Van Halen’s version of his classic “Pretty Woman,” but somehow failed to make the connection between Orbison’s original and the 1980s cover.

No matter. This song was so unlike anything on late-1980s radio that I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Roy Orbison. That fragile, haunting voice—where’s it coming from? His mouth barely moves, yet all this world-weary heartbreak still pours forth.

But the next year, he died of a heart attack at 52, and his record company released Mystery Girl posthumously. My favorite from that album, “You Got It,” was a simultaneous #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, Adult Contemporary, and Hot Country Songs charts. It was also his first hit in nearly 25 years.

Rest in peace, Roy, and thank you.

Happy birthday, Roy Clark

It doesn’t seem possible that Roy Clark can be 80 years old—today, or any day. In my mind, he’s forever 45 and hosting Hee Haw with Buck Owens, or making guest appearances on The Muppet Show.

Speaking of which…

For something a little more serious, here’s Roy in 1969 performing a blistering version of “Malagueña,” which he’s made his own over the years.

Happy birthday, Roy! Thanks for sharing your many talents with us.

Happy birthday, Loretta Lynn

Her 81st birthday, no less!

“Portland, Oregon” is one of my favorite tracks from Van Lear Rose. The entire album is stellar, though, so it’s hard to choose just one. Since nearly everyone’s familiar with Loretta Lynn’s best-known work, I thought I’d share this in honor of her special day.

Forsythia in full bloom

Forsythia (Heard County, Georgia - 31 March 2013)

Heard County, Georgia—31 March 2013

Luck of the groundcovers

The house was demolished years ago, but in what was once the front yard, clover and assorted early-spring groundcovers endure. Lucky, indeed.

LaGrange, Georgia—8 March 2012

Roadside Valentine

Roadside Valentine #323 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012) Roadside Valentine #324 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012) Roadside Valentine #325 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012) Roadside Valentine #327 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012) Roadside Valentine #328 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012) Roadside Valentine #330 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012) Roadside Valentine #334 (Troup County, Georgia - 4 August 2012)

Troup County, Georgia—4 August 2012


Hover (Heard County, Georgia - 4 July 2009)

The next season of the year is never far away.

(Heard County, Georgia—4 July 2009)

No groundhog? No problem.

Stray Tomcat on Porch (LaGrange, Georgia - 23 December 2009)

(LaGrange, Georgia—23 December 2009)

Think he saw his shadow? Judging from the expression he’s wearing, it’s probably none of our business.

Special note: This marks WilliamsWrite’s 200th published post. Time sure does fly when you’re busy writing.

Wishing you a joyous and peaceful 2013

Tiny Tibetan Prayer Flags #701 (LaGrange, Georgia - 31 December 2012)

LaGrange, Georgia—31 December 2012

Christmas Past & Present

Mom in Her Christmas Dress (Battle Creek, Michigan - December 1969)

Mom wears the Christmas dress she just finished sewing for herself
Battle Creek, Michigan—24 December 1969


Gold Brocade Jacket (Formerly Mom's Brocade Christmas Dress) - Heard County, Georgia - 25 December 2012

My Christmas jacket, formerly known as Mom’s Christmas dress
Heard County, Georgia—25 December 2012

Nearly Wordless (Halloween!) Wednesday: 10/31/12

Heard County, Georgia—10 May 2012

Happy Labor Day

Happy Labor Day to those of you celebrating today. I hope you’re fortunate enough to have the day off.

In honor of the working people who keep America moving, here’s a classic:

Thanks, Merle!

So many workers make our lives easier, better, possible. Dana Velden of TheKitchn notes the interconnectedness of all our lives, especially when it comes to food:

Consider the people who pay for and maintain roads and stop signs and lights that assure that your onion will arrive safely to the warehouse or the market. And at the market, the people who haul the boxes that your onion is in and the people who pull your onion from the box and place it on display and people who take your money at the register and maybe even the person (getting rarer but still possible) that packs your onion into your reusable tote bag and helps you haul it out to your car. The people who clean and maintain the market, and the people who work at the electrical plant that lights the market and cools the refrigerators, and the people who take the money at the bank so that the manager can pay the electricity bill.

You get the picture, right? That if you were to follow the concentric circles of people and their work out from your beautiful onion sitting on your beautiful cutting board, you will find a vast and complex system of people and their work, seen and unseen, acknowledged and unacknowledged, but without whom your life would be miserable, if not impossible. Innumerable labors bring us our food.

Read the rest of this excellent article here.

Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to all of you celebrating in the U.S. today. Let’s start the holiday with something out of the ordinary.

Everybody expects a John Philip Sousa tune for July 4th. But nobody expects to hear it arranged for guitar. Indeed, Chet Atkins’ version is one of my favorites. Take that, Boston Pops!

And a special note: This is WilliamsWrite’s 100th post. Hooray!

Happy Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there. Hope you’re having a fun and relaxing time today.

My dad passed away in 1997, and this marks my 15th Father’s Day without him. From the time I was born, Daddy would spontaneously break into the first verse of “Poke Salad Annie,” no matter where we were or what we were doing. Along with the chorus, that was the only part of the song he knew. I didn’t know it was a real song until I heard it on oldies radio years after he died.

And carry it home in a tote sack. So many old Southern expressions in this song: truck patch, no-count, pick a mess of. Gotta love Tony Joe White’s old Louisiana accent. You can eat poke salad, as Annie and her family had to, but that doesn’t mean you should. It’s tough to boil out all the poison. Stick with collards or turnip greens.

Well, now that you mention it…

Wednesday morning in a computer-enhanced writing classroom.
After taking roll at the start of class, I ask students about their Spring Break plans. (Names and details have been changed.)

ME: All right, so Spring Break is next week, and—  [students cheer]  —and as you’ll recall from the syllabus, Essay 2 is due the last day before break. That way, you’ll be worry-free during your vacation. So who’s going out of town? [students raise hands] Where are you going, Tommy? Continue reading

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Hope you’re having a safe, fun, and peaceful holiday.

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