By KAREN SALYER MCELMURRAY
NONFICTION PRIZE WINNER
Judge: Bobbi Buchanan,
author of Listen: Essays on Living the Good Life
and coauthor of Higher Love: The Miraculous Story of a Family
“In beautifully rendered prose, the writer gives us ghosts and magic and the energy of a special brown dress, handmade by her grandmother, for which the essay is named and which she wears to an oral examination for her doctoral program. The narrator braids the examination day narrative with her family’s story and difficulties, her quest for a life of letters, and her relationship with Fannie Ellen. This essay speaks not only to the duality of individual and family identity, but to those parts of the human spirit that drive desire and independence, mercy and generosity. The writer’s words are as comforting to the reader as her granny’s hands patting her back—tender and loving, assuring us that our shoulders are strong enough.”
Once I lived for a short time in Crete, where I swam a half mile each afternoon across a bay to a smaller island. There I once met fishermen who told me about diving so far down for conch shells their eardrums burst in the sea. Years after that, I lived beside a lake and swam across a cove each morning, marking distance toward a dock and a red house with a porch swing. I have always loved swimming such complicated distances, but in my early thirties, that distance changed from water to words. Distance became books, so many books that by the summer of 1997, I had read upwards of twenty pages of titles in preparation for an examination in American Literature. Nights I dreamed of water—of swimming pools blue in the summer heat, of oceans and ponds. In one dream, I was lying back on a warm river, a brown dress floating around me like a life raft.
I’m wearing that dress this morning as I study myself in the mirror in a bathroom across from the conference room where my examination will be held. The dress looks worn and homemade, and I imagine the day Fannie Ellen, my granny, made it. I imagine her hands smoothing the crinkle of pattern pieces, a yard and a half of cloth laid across her dining room table. Ninety percent of her fabric came from yard sale tables or from the Mountain Mission thrift store in Paintsville, the town where she grew up. I’m very saving, she’d say as she gathered the tail ends of everything—lard, soap, gnarls of thread, cloth. I have saved this dress for years. Wear a power suit, I’ve been told in regard to my examination day, but I chose this dress from my closet full of peasant skirts and beaded sweaters. I wonder if you can tell it from the dress, the thirty-some times I’ve hauled myself and it from town to town, house to house. I touch the frayed edge of my collar and think about how, if my granny were here with me, I’d tell her that I’m not floating in all these words. I’m drowning.
On my father’s side, my granddaddy worked pumping gas for the Allen, Kentucky Standard Oil, while on my mother’s side, my grandfather, who we called Pa, was a coal miner. The women on both sides of my family were waitresses, sales clerks, homemakers. Only my Aunt Octavia, my father’s brother’s wife, went on to become an elementary school teacher. Even if the life of education was rare in my family, I loaded up on books from the time I was seven years old. My mother introduced me to romance novels like Sue Barton, Student Nurse, and the pre-soap opera world of the novel Peyton Place. My father took me to the public library in the summers where I checked out every Lad-a-Dog book I could get my hands on and read, over and over, all three books about a girl named Karen who overcomes the limitations of cerebral palsy. By the time I was I twelve I’d read Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. At the school library, I was told I was too young for Moby Dick, but I read it on the sly, a page a day.
I didn’t go to college right away, and when I did, it was to night school at Kentucky State University, where I took sociology and basic math, courses to set me on a different path than my day job as a secretary. My second semester I had the experience that would lay the groundwork for my inner life of language. The second half of basic comp was a literature class, and I remember reading “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” by Conrad Aiken. The professor had a dashing goatee and eyes dazed from the grading of dozens upon thousands of essays. What, he wanted to know, does the boy really hear as he lies awake at night, listening to snow fall? Dogs and cars, someone said. A postman walking, someone else said. I raised my hand. I think the boy hears his own heart beating. The professor looked at me hard, as if I’d seen some manifestation of the Holy Ghost, and perhaps I did.
A door swung open in my head as I for the first time glimpsed metaphor. Meanings behind meaning. Symbols. Angels making music beyond the letters on a page. I went back to work, wrote sentimental poetry that grew more narrative, wrote rambling short stories, went on to other schools, opened the doors of other classrooms. Occasionally there were moments like that one in my night class, moments that, as Annie Dillard says, showed me how I had been a bell my whole life, but never knew it until that rare moment when I was lifted and struck.
The surface of my skin this morning feels less like a poem and more like a threadbare quilt made of all the answers I might need. Discuss “houses” as a metaphor for historical literature of the United States, from colonialism to civil unrest. Discuss “confinement” and “rebellion” in slave narratives, focusing especially on Harriet Jacobs, Narrative in the Life of a Slave Girl, and the more contemporary Confessions of Nat Turner. I have written up lengthy answers to questions I’m not sure they’ll ask at all. Talk about narrative and the silencing of women’s voices. Mistress Anne Hutchinson. Emily Dickinson. Tillie Olsen. In the margins of my notebook, I have drawn tiny pictures of a woman in a tree with a panther. Harriet Spofford. “Circumstance.” On one hand lay the forest to which her path wound; at the other the evening star hung over a tide of failing orange.
The truth is I have spent most of the summer in bed in the attic of the house I share with my crazy roommate. The roommate and I throw all night keg parties with wild dancing and smart conversations. A boy ran naked through our house at one of these parties, a sign around his neck that said, and your very flesh shall be a great poem. Some nights in my bed is my twentysomething boy lover, who resents the time my studies take away from him. Or I am in bed alone with copies of Wieland and The Conjure Woman and my two small dogs. Nights I can’t sleep in the Georgia heat, there’s the string of bars downtown. The Globe. The Forty Watt. I order Manhattans and reread novel pages until the letters and the margins of my life blur and I am tired enough to head back to the shared house.
The only thing I know for sure my examiners will ask is about bridge building.
When I was little and we were home visiting Eastern Kentucky, we’d drive along the Big Sandy River and my mother would point out the spot where there used to be a swinging bridge she’d crossed once upon a time to get to classes at Prestonsburg High School. My literary bridge could be between slave narratives and the later work of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz. It could be between Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and a contemporary memoir. I hope that somewhere in there, there might be time to build a bridge between the literary work I’ve studied for these months and my own writing life, but that bridge is hard to talk about.
It is made of generations of odd-turned women, their trailers up the heads of hollows, their houses with the curtains always drawn shut, their fear of all those places I’d seen, the foreigner I’d become. That bridge was made of me, perennial student, thirtysomething writer-wannabe, someday-me teaching novels at a tidy college somewhere. Me in my hand-me-down dress, wishing for my granny’s hands to pat my back, tell me I’m alright.
I was in my mid-twenties when I found the dress in Fannie Ellen’s attic, a place with a ceiling bowed with rain and half a wool blanket strung across a window. Ghosts lived up there, in deeds to land long gone, in the mouths of bisque dolls my granny played with when she was little. Ghosts lived in the bottoms of old canning jars, in between the pages of letters from my father from the Korean War. They sang along with songs from 75 recordings of Glen Miller. This is the story of a starry night, the faded glory of a new delight. Ghosts nudged me as I pulled the dress out of a box and held it against me, wondering if it would fit.
The dress had a pattern of tiny ladies with hats. Its brown faded from washings and bright sun on a clothes line. There were loose buttonholes, roomy pockets I could imagine my granny filling with potato eyes and onion sets on planting days with my granddaddy, who died when I was nine. Fannie Ellen and Clarence Wiley. They became sweethearts at nineteen. I’d seen photos of them sitting in a river fully clothed, their arms and knees just touching. I could almost see her hands knotting and unknotting in the brown dress’s pockets as she worried about the hole in his heart that finally killed him when he was not yet sixty. I wished the pockets would hold a lost treasure, a buffalo-headed nickel, a love letter. I wished I’d find the garnet ring Fannie Ellen lost out in the garden when it slipped off her thin-fingered hand that time when she was hoeing. I wanted to find that ring so I could wear it like a talisman. Magic was what I needed most about then.
I was a lost soul, lost as any post-hippie, wannabe flower child. By the time I was fifteen, my parents had divorced, and I didn’t see my mother for over five years, didn’t speak her name. I was a mother myself by the time I was sixteen, though I relinquished my son to a state supported adoption. I’d been a maid, a grocery clerk, a fast food employee, working as hard as I knew how to take myself down roads as far away from home as I could get. Lost inside me was my private axis mundi, a mainline to the mountains and the people who made me, but I didn’t know it yet and wouldn’t for many years. All I wanted right then was to reach into the brown dress’s deep pockets, find a garnet ring, rub it like a genie’s lamp, but the only thing I found was a good-sized hole I never got around to mending.
In these weeks before my examination, I’ve been distracted, proverbially absentminded. Just this week alone, I’ve lost my keys, looked everywhere for a file I failed to save on my computer, found myself with a sinus headache and, before I thought, raised the nose spray to my ear and squirted. Rather than resting up ahead of this morning, I’ve been reciting names and dates and key information in my sleep. William Bradford. 1620. “Of Plymouth Plantation.” All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage. Ann Bradstreet. 1650. “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America.” Wisdom with an inheritance is good, but wisdom without an inheritance is better than an inheritance without wisdom. Wisdom. Inheritance. Inheritance. Wisdom. I’ve forgotten which comes before which.
One area of my exam will be magic realism. American Magic Realists. I have in mind Charles Brockden Brown and his spontaneous combustion. Jean Toomer and his novel’s transformative journeys between North and South, between spirit and body, from poetry to prose. My favorites writers of magic are William Faulkner and William Kennedy. Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich. I have memorized the order of people ascending to heaven in the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” I know by heart the end of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
As my three examiners enter the conference room, who I suddenly remember with the greatest clarity is none of the literary names I have memorized. Instead, I remember Fannie Ellen. Her hands made the tiniest stitches I know, and I long to see those hands snipping memory cloth, gathering sleeves, turning collars. I wish with all of myself for my granny to be here. I imagine her smoothing my hair, laying her fingers against my cheek, telling me all will be well.
For years a ghost has followed me down road upon road, down all the roads I have taken away from myself. For a long time, the ghost was my mother, she who made the world one long story about clean. When I was little, she vacuumed and wiped and scrubbed until her hands bled. She spent long afternoons locked in the bathroom, washing her face over and over, brushing her teeth until they sparkled. She vanquished the world that made her, one I would never entirely know. While she cleaned, I spent hours sitting in a recliner chair, not allowed to go outdoors, not allowed to open a cabinet or a drawer or a refrigerator. A prisoner of sorts, I escaped via reading. I read D.H. Lawrence’s version of Quetzalcoatl. I read biographies of Houdini, excerpts from Frazer’s The Golden Bough. I read about ventriloquism, clairvoyance. I memorized the names of famous magicians and made up adventure stories in which, wha-la, I vanished off the face of the earth. I became a ghost-girl, haunted by her own loneliness, filled my diary with notes about what I wanted, what I did not have. I wrote poems full of moonlight, filled up pages with drawings of my own hands. That lonely girl’s ghost followed me for years. Her memory was where I lived unless I crawled back out via words. Words were my dubious magic.
At one end of the conference table there is Adam, the newest department professor. He’s charming and linen-shirted, fresh from Cambridge and chock-a-block full of enthusiasm for Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys, two of my favorite authors. On opposite sides at the other end of the table are my creative writing mentors. The woman I will call C. is vivacious and funny, a smart and talented Latina woman poet and novelist. K. is an Older Southern Gentleman who writes essays about hunting and fishing and who, each spring, takes all the grad student writers on a long weekend to Sapelo Island, where we bird watch, light sparklers on the beach, drink too much and read our work aloud. C. and K., while they are not enemies, are not part of the same creative fabric. K. is about grit and coon hounds, while C. is made of women’s voices and the memory of waves in Puerto Rico.
Mid-table, I spread out the folder of notes I’ve been allowed to bring. I’ve colored coded my notes in one folder, which seem to be all about rooms. Red is for fire and the room in that scene about anger in Jane Eyre. White is for the room upstairs where Jack and Anne have a crucial encounter in All the King’s Men. A green, hidden room. Harriet Jacobs. Orange bedsitter, Carrie. I wonder if anyone will question me about rooms in Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker. I have a random sentence memorized for my discussion of Arnow. Demands for authenticity all too often confine marginal authors and their texts to narrowly representative positions, circumscribing both what they are able to produce and to publish and how their works are received. I can almost see Gertie Nevel sitting at her kitchen table, carving wooden animals for her children, working away at her secret magic, a sculpture of the face of Christ.
Fannie Ellen loved her Bible, loved a good Harlequin romance. She’d gone to what she called the rock cliff, a one-room school, when she was little. By the time she was seventy, she could still recite most of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Latin. She’d always wanted to be a teacher or a nurse, but what my granny knew best was mercy. Mercy, she’d say as she sneezed or broke a plate in the sink. Mercy was a charm, a spell, and a way of life, too. While she was saving with her dollars, a habit learned from having been a daughter of The Great Depression, she was generous. Let’s go get you something pretty, she’d say when I came to visit. She’d take me to the S Mart and make sure I had what I needed—sweaters or jeans or underwear. Eat you some, she insisted as she made me fried corn rich with butter, green beans cooked all day with fatback. I lived with her for about three years so I could attend community college, and she put up with the chaos I steeped myself in. Once, after being out most of the night drinking whiskey until my head pounded, I slept the day away on her couch and woke, an afghan tucked gently around my backside.
She gave me names I will keep for the rest of my life. Trip around the World. Double Wedding Ring. Nine Patch. Cathedral Window. Log Cabin. Jewel Box. Quilts were a lesson in precision, in repetition and symmetry as the patterns evolved, piece after piece, the whole a lesson in geometry. They were history. In quilts, I saw pieces of my granddaddy’s old shirts, of my own outgrown dresses. My granny was an artist, too. A cloth-witch. A painter via colors and shapes, via the setup of squares. Quilts were patience; they were Zen. I tried my hand at quilts. A hand-embroidered denim nine patch I gave away. A Moon over the Mountain that years later found its way to Tennessee, to the home of a lost love.
By hour three of my oral examination, I’m bridge-building in earnest, World War I to the pages of Jean Rhy’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight. I tell them how this novel was adapted into a theatrical production in 1949, and again into a radio play 1957. I tell them about how Sasha, the central character of the novel, has difficulty taking care of herself; drinks heavily. She takes sleeping pills, obsesses over her appearance, longs for something she can only vaguely describe. I tell them she is adrift, that she feels most connected to her past, despite the great pain it has brought her. I realize, after some minutes have passed, that I have forgotten, really, whether I’m talking about Sasha or about Jean Rhys herself, or whether I have somehow ended up talking about myself.
As a graduate student, I worked as a landscaper, tilled, raked, planted, dug, hauled rocks. I’d hurry to my Faulkner class every afternoon with no time to change first. We’d talk about “the Tellurian impulse,” the characters with their “unlaced brogans” and country ways while I sat trying to hide my muddy boots and my beat up hands. I was afraid to open my mouth, afraid of theory, afraid of the adeptness and ease with language that I heard around me. Eventually, I trusted my narrative poems enough to enter a master of fine arts program in fiction writing.
In one workshop, I was told that the characters I was writing, ones based on back home, spoke too eloquently. In another, I had a character (based on my mother’s father) who went downtown to trade guns and knives, and the responses I got were perplexed. Was my grandfather in the Mafia or what? In another workshop, I turned in a story with a character named Mary Ruth who worked the counter in a dime store. She fell in love with the local oddity, a guy name LT, a forty-year-old drifter who believed he’d end up as a recruit for the Cincinnati Reds. Was Mary Ruth slumming? the workshop participants asked me.
When I went back to Eastern Kentucky for visits, I hated both the place and myself in it. Back home was the place where my mother’s father met me at the door and asked me why I didn’t have a better car, why all that education wasn’t working me better. In school again, I worked to learn more, advance more, degree by degree, but I didn’t much fit there either. I came from people who hurt one another, people who worked hard and fought harder when the bills weren’t paid and there was no way to pay them. Once at a cocktail party, I came with my rough-handed, wind and sunburned landscaper boyfriend and a pretty writer in a black satin dress asked me, confidentially, if he beat me.
When I went to Kentucky, I stayed with Fannie Ellen. I ate and refueled and curled up on her couch. My favorite place was the Long House, a building behind my granny’s house with a small kitchen where she canned in the summer. The building also had a bench with saws, vises, cans of oil from the service station where my granddaddy used to work. The Long House scared me some. It was greasy, dark. Spider webs clung to the corners of the low ceiling. Unnamed things were repaired in there, or more often left to the attendance of the ghosts of my ancestors. It was a workshop.
Over the years, I’d been in any number of other kinds of workshops, lectures, classes, but the ones where hands were involved were where I came from. I knew wood workers and I loved those shops with their dust and cedar smell, the turned vases and lamps and bird houses. I knew potters, typesetters. Glass blowers and bakers. I loved machine shops and garages. I loved all those places where things were tuned up, aligned. My stories, my heart’s words, came from places like that and of all of it I was nonetheless vaguely ashamed.
I do indeed talk that examination day about the first great American novel and Charles Brockden Brown. I talk about Brown’s Gothic sensibility, his descriptions of spontaneous combustion, ventriloquism. The tales of apparitions and enchantments did not possess that power over my belief which could even render them interesting, I say, quoting Clara Wieland. I talk about The Grandissimes and a curse on a plantation and its future generations. I talk about conjure women. I work forward until I’m talking about light at night on Harlem city streets. I talk about Hagar in Song of Solomon, how she summoned the little pieces of heart Milkman had left inside her. I build a bridge via magic, from book to book that I love. The only part of the bridge I leave out is myself.
Just before I entered my doctoral program, I was traveling in Nepal, then in Thailand, finally in the far reaches of the desert in Rajasthan, in India. I felt myself most cut loose from any world I’d ever claimed as my own, but I fell asleep some nights and, if I was lucky, dreamed of home. I dreamed of my granny’s house in Johnson County, how I used to park my Dodge Dart on the other side of the bridge that forded the creek that ran past her house. I dreamed of the flood that came one time, how part and parcel of everything floated past our front porch. Tires. Boards and boxes and buckets for coal and ash. Co’cola bottles and flotsam and jetsam. The drenched castoff of dresses and trousers and even the body of a good sized mule.
As I slept my toss-and-turn sleep those desert nights a million miles from anywhere at all, I dreamed of Fannie Ellen herself. How she descended the steps of her house and waited a long time, to see if I was really there, maybe, asleep and dreaming of home, all those miles and miles away from her, in that foreign country with a name she’d never heard of. She stopped, just on the edge of my own sleep, my own near-waking. She stood still and looked at me, contrary girl-woman, wanderer, lost one. Wake up, honey, she said. Everything will be just fine.
Once, in a class I was teaching, we were discussing the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who is an African-American writer from the Harlem Renaissance often dismissed for her use of dialect in her fiction. Rather than discussing her novel, my students and I that day tried to find words to describe writers nobody knows much about, like Hurston. Underrepresented. Subordinate groups. Marginalized. We made lists on the board of peripheral groups. Women. Children. Muslims. Jews. Asian Americans. African Americans. Native Americans. Gays. Lesbians. Transgender people. The disabled. Working class. I was in the mix somewhere, but the word marginalized sat uncomfortably in my mouth. Who was insignificant to whom? I thought of the world of Fannie Ellen, the one I’ve long left behind as I have made my way up the ladder of higher learning. I thought of a professor I had once who said that the people I come from and the writing from my region are merely provincial. I stood in front of my class discussing marginalization, saying nothing I completely understood.
My examiners and I study one another, the clock winding down to the last minutes of our session. It is almost noon, and there will be forms to sign. There will be a lunch with C. and K. and the boyfriend and glasses of wine, maybe at The Globe downtown. There will be a creative dissertation to write, a novel about my family that I disguise as fiction. Tell us a little bit about what you’re working on these days, C. asks me from the other side of the table. I am tired, out of words, not sure, after all we’ve discussed, what I have left to say. I reach into my pocket one more time, hoping and not hoping and wishing that my granny’s garnet ring might be there, after all. I find no ring, but magic happens nonetheless, in the way I least expect.
Across the room, I seem to see her at last. Her eyes are dark, her hair pin-curled, and Fannie Ellen crosses her arms and yawns. Mercy, she says. She is standing on the other side of the conference table. Or she is standing in the yard of her house, at the end of the wide, creosoted bridge. She shakes her head, considering everything she’s heard, then she nods, like she approves of me and my books and books. She smiles, proud of that brown dress I’m wearing, the one that seems to say I haven’t forgotten who I am, though there are miles and miles and a thousand and one nights between me and the people I come from. She holds her arms out, palms up. Come on girl, she says. She hopes that I will be able to figure out the best thing to say in the short time that I have left. Tell them, she says. She waits, looking at me patiently. Tell them, she says, how to build the bridge you need most, the one back to your own self.
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Other stories and essays have appeared in Iron Horse, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Riverteeth, and in the anthologies An Angle of Vision; To Tell the Truth; Fearless Confessions; Listen Here; Dirt; Family Trouble; Red Holler; and Women and Their Machines. Her essay “Strange Tongues” was the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award from The Bellingham Review. With poet Adrian Blevins, she has co-edited a collection of essays from Ohio University Press, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.