Santa Comes Through

By Faith Ellestad

The year I was six, my big brother, who was seven, introduced me to the Sears Christmas Catalog, A Complete Guide to Children’s Avarice. He had learned to read using the Sears Catalog, (gen-u-ine sim-u-la-ted lea-ther base-ball glo-ve) and helpfully instructed me in its use. Thoroughly exploring the pages in the “girls’” section, I discovered a real, working child sized stove with miniature cake mixes and pans so you could make tiny, real cakes and cookies. It actually heated up to 350 degrees, a dangerous but not unusual reality for toys in the 50s. That was it for me.  I knew I had to have that stove.  I needed it.

As a little girl I loved playing house with my dolls. I had a sizeable collection of baby and little girl dolls, most of whom sported crew-cuts due to my older sister’s penchant for “styling” their hair. They came with all sorts of furniture, including cribs, high chairs, clothes, and accessories. I had bottles and dishes and a tiny china tea set, but I longed for a kitchen to prepare our parties. My sister, probably as penance for styling all my dolls to resemble a platoon of miniature GI Janes, helped me fashion some appliances out of cardboard boxes since I was considered too small to use the real ones. I had accepted this as an unfortunate but incontrovertible state of affairs up until I saw the little stove.  I wasn’t sure my parents would approve, so I didn’t mention it to anyone.  I had developed a clever plan on my own.

Mom and Dad had promised to take us to visit Santa a few days before Christmas. And the older kids, exercising unusual restraint, had managed to keep the origin of Santa a secret from my little brother and me.  I suspect in my case, it was so they could tease me mercilessly after the holidays. But at the time of the visit, I was still a wide-eyed believer, and leaning against Santa’s knee, I divulged my secret desire. To my parents’ extreme dismay, and my total delight, Santa promised he would bring me my stove.

The wait seemed endless, but Christmas morning finally arrived. At approximately dawn, my siblings and I awoke on cue, and raced into the living room, buzzing with excitement, like four greedy little bees. Mom and Dad, still bleary-eyed from their marathon, post-Midnight Mass gift-wrapping session, quickly started some coffee and settled in to enjoy the show.  Santa had come and delivered mounds of packages, one of which was very large, gaily wrapped in festive Christmas paper, and adorned with a big green bow. It had to be for me, Santa would know my favorite color was green, but I checked the tag just to be sure.  “To Faith from Santa.”

I knew it! I ripped the paper off, and there it was, my promised electric stove, its gleaming white surface reflecting the multicolored lights of the tree.  It looked exactly like the picture in the Sears Catalog. I remember stroking it and touching every accessory.  I was beside myself.  Everyone else’s gifts paled in importance compared to my glorious real appliance.

My glorious stove unwrapped

After all the presents were opened, which seemed to take forever, I plugged in my new stove, excitedly anticipating baking my first tiny real cake, While I waited, mesmerized, for the little preheat light to turn red, a strange hot waxy smell suddenly permeated the living room, and gooey purple liquid began to ooze out the bottom of my oven door. As everyone watched in stunned disbelief, the explanation of this bizarre occurrence became evident almost immediately, given away by the excited squirming of my little brother. In the midst of the present opening frenzy, he had, unnoticed by anyone, decided to cook something. From his brand new box of Jumbo Crayolas, scattered about on the rug, he had selected Purple and popped it into the oven.  While the stove heated to the promised 350 degrees, Tommy’s crayon melted spectacularly, forming an indelible, wide, drippy purple stain down the front of my formerly pure white stove.

Furious and horrified, I impulsively did the worst thing I could think of in the moment. I told him his new tricycle was second hand!  Being three, he didn’t care a bit, and wasn’t even given the spanking I thought he deserved. Fortunately my beloved stove, even with its newly acquired purple stain and slightly waxy scent, worked perfectly, turning out tiny cakes and cookies, and burning many small fingers, throughout my house-playing years. As I think of it now, I should have become a better cook. But my inch-wide Snickerdoodles were the best ever. Grandma said so. Grandmas know these things.

Ready for church. My brother is perfectly happy with his trike.

Thank you “Santa” for that wonderful stove, and for the valuable lesson you imparted: if you take your kids to visit Santa, go well before your Christmas shopping is done.

© 2018 Faith Ellestad

Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist.  When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI with Ivy, their beloved old Belgian Tervuren. They have two grown sons, (also beloved), and a wonderful daughter-in-law.

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Hello from Oxford, MS, Classroom edition

I have just returned from the Southern Foodways Alliance grad student conference in Oxford, Mississippi–as nice a little college town as Halifax. My purpose in going was, of course, related to my Big MFA Adventure and my manuscript-in-progress, working title Glory Foods: A Soulful History of the First Food Company to Target the Southern Palate. 

The theme of the conference was “Between the Disciplines,” so it seemed the right place to bring my interdisciplinary question: As a book, the history of Glory Foods is packed with inspiring examples of black success, practical business lessons, and Southern food culture. But who is the audience for such a book? An SFA conference seemed the perfect place to test the waters (or potlikker) regarding the appeal among foodies of a book on the first company to put seasoned collard greens in a can.

And it was. My presentation was well-received; the questions I got were helpful in answering my authorial questions. Turns out they groove on the history, even though they hold the typical foodies’ disdain for the humble can.

The conference was fascinating, if occasionally over my head in its academic-speak. Of the roughly 20 students presenting, some were bent on tenure-track academic positions, and learning to sling the lingo required. I learned to use “troubles” as a verb and to insert “contextualize the narrative” whenever stumped for a response, in case I should ever need to speak like an academic.

Other attendees were foodies, or documentary filmmakers, or farmers, or activists, or…  in other words, cool peeps to hang with! Their topics ranged from tomato festivals across the South to the Pure Foods Act of 1906 to Hurricane Parties as a cultural phenomenon–and beyond.

We met in a little railroad depot dating from the 1840s, nicely restored into meeting space.

After the conference ended, I visited the library at Ole Miss, where the archives of the Southern Foodways Alliance are housed. There were collaborations between Glory Foods and the SFA in the 2000s, and I was looking for documentation. Living the dream, nibbling on a pencil while diligently digging through banker boxes of files in the cool hush of the archives room!

The high point of my visit to Oxford Mississippi came Wednesday morning, when, with time before my flight back to Madison, I went to Rowan Oaks, home of William Faulkner. There I found shady Adirondack chairs waiting for me! I read Faulkner in Faulkner’s side yard and communed with spirits that wished me well on my writer’s journey, until it was time to drive to the airport. Happy moments, stolen out of time.

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Getting Schooled in Africville

In August I went back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for my second grad school residency. As the weekend between the two weeks of school approached. Joanne, from the next year’s student cohort, confided to me that she worried about being lonely and depressed during those unscheduled weekend days. Remembering how I’d felt the same way the previous year, I invited her to join me. I had a plan for that mid-term Saturday.

During that first week of school, every time I told someone about my book on African Americans and soul food made convenient, they replied, “Halifax had a black community, you know. You should see it.”

If I was writing a book about African Americans, and I was in Nova Scotia, wasn’t a visit to Nova Scotia’s historic black settlement the obvious thing to do? So that’s what Joanne and I did.

Africville was founded by Black Nova Scotians who mostly came from the United States—first as Black Loyalists  freed by the British during the American Revolutionary War and War of 1812, and then as escaped slaves until the Civil War brought emancipation.

Africville was located along the back of Halifax Harbor, at the edge of the larger white community. It was, by all accounts, a relatively happy and stable village. From the early 19thcentury to the middle of the 20thcentury, about 400 black people raised their children, attended their own Baptist church, and worked for the white folks in Halifax or ran businesses that served the village. They fought Halifax city hall for even the most basic services—a school, running water, sewers.

But white Halifax refused those services to Africville—all they brought was a garbage dump on the empty land between the little community’s rocky beach and the mighty cranes of the industrial shipbuilders.

Then, insult to injury, came the urban renewal craze of the 1960s. Africville was deemed a slum. The same zeal that Robert Moses inflicted in New York City swept Halifax. “Urban removal,” opponents called it, and that’s what happened to Africville—residents were offered vague promises of public housing to come, and removed as bulldozers pushed their community into rubble. The bulldozers came at night, without warning. The city loaned its dump trucks to cart the now-homeless blacks and their remaining possessions away. Africville never forgot that final degradation.

Vacant land stood ready for the bridge-and-highway project city planners envisioned. But the tide turned on that plan, and nothing was ever built. The bulldozers returned to level the rubble, mound it with dirt, and seed it with grass. Nor did public housing come through for most of the displaced Africville families. Few people had held a legal title to any land, and a title was required to qualify for public housing.

That Saturday morning in early August, Joanne and I arrived by taxi, because no buses ran close, and walking meant navigating an unsafe tangle of freeways at the west end of the bridge across the water. My imagination had painted a tidy row of modest shops and houses, maybe a storefront housing the history museum whose website I’d perused. Instead—we found NOTHING. Only a green meadow sloping to a rocky beach. One boxy little building. It turned out to be a replica of the original Baptist church, built to house the Africville Museum.

Joanne and I stepped inside. A young docent told us what I’ve just told you, then left us to poke among the relics that comprised the one-room museum. A decorative plate, a hair comb, a vintage radio—the few objects traceable to the bulldozed homes and businesses. Oral history recordings played. After a nice chat with the museum’s director, we stepped back outside.

Now that we knew what we were looking at, our eyes adjusted and we saw Africville around us. Small white signs like simple tombstones said things like “former location of post office.” A few beat-up trailers squatted at the margin where the beach met the grassy slope.

“That’s Eddie Carvey’s camp,” the director told us, having followed us outside. “He’s been here since 1970. Today he’s in the hospital. He’s getting pretty old, not sure how much longer he’ll be keeping up the protest.” Eddie and a few other Africville refugees have kept up an occupation for going on fifty years now, despite occasional seizure of their trailers.

In 2002, Africville received an offer of the land Eddie watched over, as well as money and other resources, to build the replica of the church and start the museum. The community received a formal apology from the Nova Scotian provincial legislature in 2005. More recently, ex-residents have sued for financial compensation for the homes they lost all those decades ago. The case is still in the courts.

A movement has emerged in Canada at the federal, provincial, and local levels to apologize to indigenous and minority populations for past ill treatment. Maybe the once-citizens of Africville will get more than an apology and a museum on a vacant stretch of harbor. Maybe no one will need to take Eddie Carvey’s place at the barricades. In the meantime, people like me visit, and are moved by Africville’s story.

Joanne and I taxied back to the tourist zone along Halifax Harbor, where white people were smiling and taking selfies in the sun. But we could see beyond them, to the ghosts of Halifax’s dark past.

© 2018 Sarah White

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Heading East

By Suzy Beal

This is the first episode of a memoir that will unfold, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas.

On May 20, 1961 we headed east for New York City, Barcelona, Spain and the Island of Mallorca. The VW packed to capacity with Dad, Mom, and Frank (age 6) in the front, Jan (age 11) Conrad (age 8) and me (age 15) in the middle seat, and Tom (age 17), Carl (age 12) and Hank (age13) in the back. Behind them was the luggage.  The plan was to live in Mallorca, Spain while my Dad built a sailing boat for us to live on in the Mediterranean.

Some people said we were leaving the country because John F. Kennedy was our new president. My father, a staunch Republican, had supported Nixon.  Others said my Dad must be a spy appointed by the State Department.  And others thought my parents must be just plain crazy to take the seven of us out of school and move to Spain.  Mom and Dad didn’t seem bothered by the things they heard and just chalked it up to jealousy.  My experience differed from my folks because telling everyone I was moving to Europe, to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca, attracted lots of positive attention. It impressed my teachers.  Friends wondered what I would be like when I returned even though I didn’t know when that might be.  All this attention was something new for me and I relished it, despite misgivings.  But, now the time to go had arrived, and the glory disappeared.  I’d lived with these same kids my whole life.  How was I going to make any new friends?  I didn’t want new friends.

The last couple of days in Newport we had to move to a motel so the family renting our house could move into it.  Our motel stay was the first time we had all been together in a motel and it was the first of many such nights.  We left Newport the next day.  We stopped at AAA in downtown Portland before heading out of Oregon. Dad picked up our Trip-Tik, a series of maps with descriptions of what we would see along the road mile-by-mile for three thousand miles.  It also listed hotels and restaurants.

Each of us silent and engrossed in our own worlds, we headed east.  Somewhere during that first day on the road, we picked a name for our van, “La Cucaracha.” She became our home away from home, a moving point of reference that made up with familiarity what it lacked in hominess. Each time we stopped for food or the bathrooms, we counted off as we got back in the bus.  Tom called out “one,” me “two,” Hank “three,” Carl “four,” Jan “five,” Conrad “six,” and Frank “seven”.  Dad instigated the “count off” after we once left Carl in a service station bathroom!  Carl, the middle child, always so quiet he got lost in the noise from the rest of us.  The younger ones were on Mom’s radar, but we older ones did whatever possible to stay off our parent’s radar.  Carl went his own way, living in his fertile imagination, always inventing or conjuring something new and clever.

We traveled east through Pendleton, Oregon, then started south towards Salt Lake City.  Dad still had relatives there, so we met them for lunch on our way through the city. We must have been a sight, filing into restaurants and motels–a family of seven children behind their parents.

We crossed the Rocky Mountains up into the May snow.  It had only snowed once in Newport when we were little kids. The Oregon coast was too warm for snow.  Dad stopped the bus to let us out and play for a while.  Wet and shivering, back into the bus, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” we hollered out.  That evening we pulled into Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Mom acted as the navigator and with the help of our TripTik she picked out several motels.  She read aloud the motel specifications, and when she said “swimming pool,” pandemonium broke out from the back of the van.  En masse we were a persuasive bunch and a swimming pool is what we got.

The experience of getting into a hot steaming pool with snow still on the ground at that altitude was dreamlike.  I felt lucky and wealthy at the same time.  Our next motel experience proved to be an adventure of a different kind.  Uneven floors, thin blankets, no privacy from each other with only curtains to separate us. Dad and Mom might have been happy to have saved money on that room, but the look on Mom’s face told a different story. She was mad because she’d wanted to stop much earlier, but Dad pushed on into the dark. The nice motels were behind us.

Sometimes we older ones got to have a turn with the Trip-Tik and Mom sat in one of the back seats for a while.  Dad explained, “The top of the map is always north, so hold the map with the top up and you know the bottom is south.  East will be on your right and West on your left.”  From then on I figured out where we were going with the Trip-Tik and watched our progress across the states, using a map of the whole U.S.  Until then I’d never held a map. The only maps I knew were the world map hanging in front of our classrooms and a globe we had at home.

Somewhere out there on the plains, when we became bored and tired of traveling and seeing the same scenery mile after mile, we got out the playing cards.  Dad hated card games of any kind; he thought cards a waste of time, so we tried to hide what we were playing.  Back home, he always said we should do something useful or learning something instead of playing cards. The hiding worked well until a disagreement broke out and the conflict got out of hand.  We couldn’t keep a lid on it and Dad discovered the cards in the rear-view mirror. He pulled the van off the freeway and stopped.  Wide-eyed, we waited.  He jumped out and came around to the side door.  His face told us trouble brewed.  He grabbed both door handles, swung the doors open and shouted, “We didn’t bring you kids on this trip to hear you fighting the whole way to New York. Get rid of those cards and watch the scenery.”  As he stood there shouting at us, the playing cards flew passed him with the suction the doors caused opening.   I looked over my shoulder as we sped away, and watched the cards fluttering across the highway, flickering red, black, and white flashes of games gone by.

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

 

 

 

 

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Time for some true stories well told by Guest Writers–send me yours!

It’s been “me, me, me” here on True Stories Well Told for the last month or more. It’s time for YOUR true stories, well told! What have you been writing this summer, season, lifetime? Share it with your writing community, here.

But wait, you say–you need some inspiration? Okay…

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” ― Flannery O’Connor,

“Any sorrow can be borne if you can turn it into a story.” – Isak Dinesen

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott

Okay, now you’re inspired. Here are the submission guidelines. Let me hear from you!

– Sarah White

 

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Hello from Halifax, Classroom Edition

“We’ve got your book” the brochure for the U-King’s MFA program promises, and they mean that literally. Everyone studying here is writing one, everyone teaching here has written one (or more), and all we talk about from morning coffee to evening drinks in the Ward Room is books–your book, my book, this book, that book. Upshot: 3 visits to the U-Kings bookstore and counting.

All but the bottom two were written by U-Kings graduates. The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children is an oral history/personal history. The Fruitful City is about urban gleaners who ask the question: Can neglected city-grown fruit address hunger, waste, and food illiteracy? Eating Dirt takes us on the forest road with the tree-planting tribe of Canada’s west coast, while No Place to Go shows us how far we have to go to achieve potty parity–the author’s phrase–for all.

Catfish Dreams I was reading as I came here-it’s a story similar to the one I’m working on (about soul food entrepreneurship) and published by the press that would be my “reach school” if this were college, not publishing I’m trying to get into.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks went on my must-read list after mentor Harry Thurston mentioned it in a workshop. Why? “A privileged white woman writes about an African American working-class woman,” Harry said. I’m trying to achieve a similar cross-cultural acceptance by my subjects, for my book.

What are some takeaways from Week 1 in the classroom?

  • With your narrator, you’re building a persona. How is he/she coming across?
  • Your book proposal is a living document, like your CV/resume. You’ll be pulling from & adapting your master version the rest of your writing life.
  • Vocabulary! Semantics vs. prosody–the meaning of what you say vs. the way you say it, the rhythm and sound of your words. Wait til I work those into a sentence–I’ll sound like a real grad student!!
  • Go where the events you’re writing about happened. There is no substitute, even if the events happened 400 years ago. Place speaks.
  • Ask: How will your reader be changed by this?

Random, but thought-provoking.

Two and a half more days of this, and so to home, to start on MFA Year 2. And reading that stack of books.

The author, looking into her brilliant future.

 

 

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Hello from Halifax

“True Stories Well Told” is taking a micro-break while I pursue my Big MFA Adventure at University of King’s College, on the Dalhousie Campus in Halifax, NS, CA.

The relationship between the two institutions has been described as “uneasy siblings” and “it’s complicated.

Dalhousie is celebrating its Bicentennial, while U-King’s is even older–est. 1789, to be exact. It’s marvelous to feel affiliated with such a proud educational heritage.

Here are a few scenes from around campus… Enjoy!

The U-King’s main building, my dorm wing in the left wing, just visible at the center of the picture, 2nd floor.

The Dalhousie main building. The “Dal” campus wraps around the U-King’s quadrangle.

This little alley leads to the classroom building where we meet, center rear. Dorms to either side–that’s “Radical Bay” to the left, and “The North Pole” to the right, where I live. The names are ironic–“Radical” because that’s where the seminary students lived, “North Pole” because it was closest to the boiler room.

View from the library’s plaza toward Alexandra Hall, where I stayed last year. Voted one of Canada’s 10 most beautiful dorms, don’t be fooled by appearances.

And a classroom scene. We’ve moved from the usual theater-style lecture hall to the cafeteria to catch some air conditioning.

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