SCUM


SCUM

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.

SCUM


SCUM

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.

GEMS


GEMS

by Sharon Stevens

Mary Elizabeth Gordon-Cummings died forty years ago this month. She had fallen down the basement steps of her crumbling home and laid there several days in a heap on the floor, no one hearing her cries before a neighbor came to check on her. Old age and pneumonia then tore her down and she succumbed, her features clawed and withered with severe arthritis. She spent her last days in a clinical environment in a local hospital where everyone saw her as ancient.

We called her Aunt Molly and knew her as neighbor in my years growing up. How many times I wished I had visited with her. What could she have taught me with her stories and her memories. What could she have shared with her artist’s eye and her love of all that surrounded her. We will never know. She carried everything to her grave. She was old, her joints knarled and ugly, pain marring every feature. Nothing is left. She is dead and buried. All is gone.

But wait. I have her picture from a photograph that once hung on the walls of the Randall County Courthouse. There is no notation of when it was taken or where or why. It doesn’t tell the story of when she was born, or her passions, or her pain, but her beauty and the sweet face of youth is captured within.

Phebe Warner had urged her to come to the plains of Texas to apply as an art teacher at Goodnight College. Molly and Charles Goodnight welcomed her with open arms and gave her a glimpse of the empire they had established as the J.A. Ranch. Coming from Dallas and encountering dirt streets of Amarillo and the limited comforts of home must have been an eye opener. But the first meal at their home she remembered how the lemonade looked in the glass pitcher, the tour of the gardens, the bee hives, and of course the ranch itself.

She met Charles Lennox Gordon-Cummings at the Goodnights, and they married and moved to land west of Canyon on the Tierra Blanco Creek. Later they built a magnificent home and raised three daughters out here on the Texas plains. Mr. Gordon-Cummings died in the 1940’s and Molly lived out her life alone except for her brother that lived with her until his death in a train accident. You can read the story of her life in “The Randall County Story” by Grace Warwick.  We became her neighbors in 1952 when my dad bought land and moved us out to the country in the hottest year in recorded history.

I was reminded of Aunt Molly at this year’s annual “Night At The Museum” at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum. I volunteered at the kit house in my role player costume. Armed with my picture of Molly in her youth, a glass picture filled with colored stones, and with my storytelling patchwork hat perched on my head I shared the story of Mary Elizabeth Gordon-Cummings and hoped I made her come alive.

I chose the bright gems in the pitcher because my mother had shared with me that Aunt Molly used to take broken pieces of glass and paint the images that flooded through from the sunlight. What rainbows she must have seen. What colors and prisms must have shown through. What beauty she must have witnessed among the shades of dirt and shadow.

And this brings me to this week’s blog on writing. On the season finale of “Castle” his daughter is agonizing over her valedictory speech after researching speeches by the famous such as Steve Jobs, and presidents, and historical figures and famous celebrities. Castle advises her (and I will never forget his words), “write whats true to you”.

In my writings I could pen about how Mary Elizabeth died a horrible death, abandoned, without neighbors to care whether she lived or died. I could write a horror story about how arthritis had turned her body into a mass of ugliness with her hands so gnarled she couldn’t even pick up a spoon to feed herself, much less a brush to paint. But I CHOOSE to write of her beauty, and imagine the sunrises and the sunsets she must have seen from the top floor of her great home. My heart CHOOSES to remember the smell of the lilacs that lined the walk, and the massive, shimmering cottonwoods that shaded her memories.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to read all kinds of stories from “Chicken Soup for the Soul” all the way to zombies, murder and mayhem. I have troubles with “Flowers in the Attic” but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good writing. I don’t mind being led to an author I haven’t read before such as Harlan Coban and I absolutely fell in love with Stephen King’s, “Dorothy Claiborne”.  I will always treasure stories like “E.T.” and “The Goonies” (celebrating 25 years), “Toy Story” and any story that encompasses good versus evil. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is just one of my favorites with the connection to being filmed in Palo Duro Canyon on the Christian Ranch. And don’t get me started on the musical drama TEXAS. More importantly, I remember those who struggled and faced adversity, but found strength within because they were surrounded by friends. I treasure community and neighbors and family, those that touch our lives on the level of all that is good and honest. My passion is to share of heritage, legacy, the pioneer spirit, beauty, patriotism, and freedom. OH sweet freedom. I feel that there is always room for that

I will always treasure the spirit of Aunt Molly and the artistry she shared. And even though I read anything and everything in sight, I just want to write what is true to me, myself and I.  To me each word and every memory is a gem.

By the way this week celebrates the Queens Diamond Jubilee and since Charles Lennox-Gordon-Cummings was titled nobility from Scotland I am sure he would have received an invitation to the festivities. This week also marks the anniversary of D-Day during World War II and may we stop to remember not only June 6 but also each and every day past, present and future that we honor not only those in service, but those on the home front and the veterans and their families that share this common bond that ties us all to conflict and peace.

Last but not least…WTAMU is hosting the SUMMER STORYTELLING CONFERENCE on campus June 8-10, 2012 at the Sybil Harrington Fine Arts Complex. Friday and Saturday there will be concerts in the FAC Recital Hall at 7pm with a Sacred Story Concert Sunday from 9-10:30 a.m. at the Joseph Hill Chapel. Dr. Trudy Hanson has all the registration information and Eldrina Douma has been instrumental in sharing her stories. The guest speakers are from around the country and our own Jodi Thomas will be front and center speaking on creative storytelling.

And don’t forget the Frontiers in Writing Conference June 28 with the best guest speakers ever, Natalie Bright is the conference chair. And then also we celebrate the Writing Academy at WTAMU with Jodi Thomas and Tim Lewis. WHEW what a lineup!

Sharon Stevens