By Sharon Stevens
“Scum-the refuse, the recrement, that which is vile or worthless”
Webster’s 1890 Dictionary Definition
While getting cookies at the local discount store for our cookie jar at our family business I spied a package of Kool-aid someone had knocked to the floor. (Black Cherry if I remember right.) It took only a second to pick it up and put it back on the shelf. That’s all I did, nothing more and nothing less. There was no fanfare, no flags unfurled, no pageantry anywhere around me. All I remember is looking at the image for just a moment, remembered the brand, then placing the bright colored picture back where it belonged among the others. I then simply walked on down the aisle.
But I came away from that brief encounter with memories that flooded and overwhelmed me deep within my heart all the way down to my toes, so much so that I couldn’t shake it off.
My husband worked with a man who had been in Vietnam and had battled some of the fiercest fighting of the war. He was just nineteen years old and from a small town in Texas surrounded by every horror known to man. He told us that he would never forget a hometown gesture that really kept him sane. He said that friends and neighbors back home would send him packets of Kool-aid. When he came to a steaming creek or river, all he had to do was skim the scum off the top of water, fill his canteen, pull out a packet with the bright colored logo, empty it in, shake it up and voila. In the horrendous heat of the tropical jungle he had a drink that instantly reminded him of cool glasses of lemonade on the front porch, or back porch, at the lake, at the baseball field, at a family picnic, or after a hard days work. His thoughts could return to home even with the drones of every insect, the scavengers in the water, and the bombardment of the deafening fight that surrounded him.
I will always remember Mrs. Gordon-Cummings, our neighbor next door out in the country. She was one of the original pioneers of our area. Until her death she would ask her caretakers to go down into the canyons, to the artesian springs, and bring her back a glass jar filled with cool water. I have been down to those very springs and they are covered in a scum that transcends nasty. But to her, for some reason, this was the nectar of the Gods.
But then again, when I think about it, I have gone down to these ponds and noticed a sweet smell, something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Earth, flowers, water, grass, leaves…all the colors of the rainbow would fill my senses. Years later I could be walking next to a stream in Colorado and be surrounded with these same thoughts.
Scum is such a relative word. When you hear or see this image you can’t help but think evil, ugly, and dark. Or child molesters, wife beaters, drug dealers, the whole gamut of despair. You can’t separate anything out other than the deepest and the worst. Men come to mind more than women, old comes to mind more that youth.
As writers you have to write your characters as you see and feel them. It is so very hard for me to write of the darkness of the soul. I don’t always look for the silver lining in whatever story I am working on, but I usually find a memory that pulls the very dregs of humanity out back up into the light. Makes me weary though. I so want everyone to be happy all the time. My heart tells me that not every story has a happy ending, or a joyous middle, or a sweet beginning. Or maybe its my brain that is forcing me to see reality between the lines.
On the other hand. I never want to get so lost in the black that I can’t ever see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think this is what happened to Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”, as he became consumed with the darkness that turned inward.
So the next time you hear or think the word, “scum” take just a moment and place yourself away in a world where a homesick soldier is skimming aside the scum of the earth to get a quick drink of memory so many miles away from the world he grew up in. Imagine a woman that remembered while living in a dugout, raising her family, so far away from the nearest neighbor or friend that a cool glass jar filled with water from the creek could make all the difference in the world.
Maybe then, as a writer, you will see your world in a different light.
I want to take a moment and remember Elsie Batenhorst who passed away this week. PBS televised a special called, “Cathedral on the Plains” about St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Umbarger a few years ago. We had our book signing for Donald Mace Williams with his book, “Interlude in Umbarger” about the Italian Prisoner’s of War who painted this church and were featured in this documentary. Elsie came as well as Gerri Gerber and shared her memories and scrapbooks with those of us gathered. I will always remember her twinkling smile and impish laughter. She shared several stories about Mrs. Gordon-Cummings with me as well. I miss them both.