Southern Stories

Slipping In Among the Ghosts

This is a series of Facebook articles I wrote covering my childhood. So far, they have nothing to do with theater. Some day, they will.


My family has always been haunted.
Go ahead, laugh. I won’t be offended.
It comes from putting down roots in a soil that was a crumbled mixture of Christianity and superstition, where voodoo and Pentecostalism shared the back roads and somebody’s auntie kept track of it all through the cards.
No one really believed in ghosts. No one doubted that spirits walked.
When I was young, I stayed with my grandfather’s second wife. She had a cane farm in the Louisiana bayou country. Strange land, stranger people. On certain nights, the woman who worked for Grandmother Clark sent me to bed with an amulet around my neck. I would lie awake, fingering its bits and pieces, listening to the rhythmic chanting that came from the bog back of the house.
The thing at the foot of the bed listened, too. I never figured out what it was. Shifting clouds of blackness mostly. It didn’t frighten me. It seemed happy just to stare.
Once I made fun of the goings-on in the bog. That afternoon, sitting under one of the big trees out front, a hunk of Spanish moss fell from the branches, enveloping me like a shroud. There were dozens of bugs crawling through its weave, spiders and slimy, wiggly things. The woman
heard me screaming and came and freed me from the moss. She checked, but I wasn’t bitten, not even once. I simply learned a lesson.
I was lucky with bites. A black snake lived in the house. We believed it had power over the other reptiles and kept them away. It’s true we never found a snake in the house. But outside … I was sitting on an old pier, dangling my feet in the water. A water moccasin came gliding up and left its mark. I didn’t die, though you wouldn’t have known it from the anguished wails of my mother. The woman said to me, “Don’t put temptation in the way of evil, boy.” Another lesson chalked up on the board.
The first family ghost story I remember hearing was told by my other grandmother, whom I called Mommy. On an old wooden dresser in her room was a double frame with faded pictures of two young girls. These were the twins, Chloe and Ruthie. Mommy had 13 children, but only five lived to adulthood. Aunt Chloe and Aunt Ruthie died during a diphtheria epidemic. Inseparable in life, they passed 19 minutes apart.
Mommy grieved for her little ones. She begged God for a sign they were in heaven. One night, she was rocking before the fire. A sound behind her caused her to look around. Chloe and Ruthie stood at the bedroom door. Ruthie was holding her favorite doll. She walked over to a table in the
center of the room and laid it gently down, then turned and, taking Chloe by the hand, went back into the bedroom. For the rest of her life, Mommy kept the doll propped up against the picture frame, the tiny cross that first appeared that night still hanging around its neck.
That was many years before I was born and I only had the story through Mommy’s telling. But I was there the night the horses came. There was a porch encircling our house, its wooden floor painted white. One night, we were sitting in the kitchen, reading, when we heard hooves pounding up the road. The neighboring farmer, a man with an ugly streak, kept horses. He treated them badly and, from time to time, they broke free. We thought it had happened again, except this time, they leapt unto the porch and ran around and around the house before finally jumping off and going back down the road.
When we checked the next morning, there were no scuff marks marring the white planks. There were no hoof marks in the dirt drive. Later, we heard the neighbor had died, trampled to death in his barn. Grandmother Clarke always said she was going to call the sheriff on the man, but she never did. We were glad we didn’t go outside to shoo the horses away.
There were other tales. Every family had them. That was how it was in our part of the country. Things happened. You accepted them and turned them into stories that became lore. Life moved on.
I had one story that was all my own. If you continued south along the road that ran in front of our house, there was an overgrown ruin, one of the “big houses” that dotted the countryside in the days before the War Between the States. The roof had fallen in, the windows had lost their glass panes. The front door hung open at a crazy angle.
All the kids knew the place was haunted. The whole idea of spirits and monsters was a big thing with us. We were always daring each other to go inside. Of course, we never did. We believed.
One night, that changed.
It was a dare, naturally. Bigger kids challenged me and my cousin, Roger Dale. Go inside during the night and spend one hour. They promised to wait outside. If anything really “bad” happened, they would come running.
Margaret Scaggs, a girl with a mass of red curls and the first love of my youth, was our know-it-all. She had heard the story of the house. How a slave had accidentally touched the owner’s daughter. How the owner had cut off the slave’s hand. We were primed.
Southern moons seem bigger than those in other parts of the country. They put out more light. You could see the twisted shapes of the live oaks, the moss swaying in the night breeze. The house stood out against its neighboring woods, the surviving walls pale white, seamed with shadows.
Roger Dale and I were scared, not that we would admit it. I was acutely aware of Margret’s wide eyes staring at me. I can remember sweat trickling down my back. It was hot, humid, and the air was filled with the calls of crickets, frogs and other night prowlers. Periodically, a grunt was
followed by a splash. A bog gator, out for his nightly patrol.
We crept up onto the porch. The weakened floor creaked at our passing. As we pushed the door further open, a grinding screech from its hinges paralyzed us. “It don’t matter,” Roger Dale hissed. “If there’re any haints, they know we’re coming.”
Inside the door was a large hall, with a staircase at one end. Patches of moonlight spilled through the fallen roof and spotted the floor. The stairsteps rose in and out of the light. No way were we climbing that rotting ladder. Instead, we took shelter in one of the hall’s doorways, leaning back
against the frames, Roger Dale with his back to the stairs, me with a good view of the hall.
We had brought a ball and some jacks. All Southern kids played that game. Some us us were good at it. Well, Roger Dale, anyway. After a while, the moonlight shifted and it became too dark to see the jacks. We settled down to wait.
We both dozed. I don’t know why I woke. Maybe it was because I was cold. The hot, humid air had turned icy. And the silence was absolute. No crickets, no frogs, no rustling of leaves or tree branches. Then I heard it. The dragging, the crack-crack-crack of something striking wood. It came from the staircase.
The movement first called attention to itself about three steps above the hall floor. Something dropped from an upper step into a puddle of moonlight below. It moved across the light, long appendages pulling it to the edge of the next step, making a clack-clack-clack as they fought for leverage.
I kicked Roger Dale. His eyes opened. Before he could speak, I pointed into the hall. Whatever it was had reached the floor and was coming toward us. Bony fingers pulled it forward, shreds of what might have been deeply stained material trailed behind. The hairs rose on my neck. Fear took on a tangible form and crawled up my spine. “Jesus Christ,” Roger Dale said.
I would would like to say we were brave, that we really didn’t believe in ghosts, but we were boys and we knew what we were seeing. We got the hell out of Dodge, leaving the other kids and Margaret to race after us.
Such are the memories of growing up in the rural South. Are ghosts real? Do dismembered body parts crawl across floors? Most people don’t believe the stories, a few offer “rational” explanations (my favorite was the ”wounded coon”). Looking 60-some years into the past, I have no answers. I know only what happened. Anyway, I think, perhaps, that posing such questions is useless, and maybe dangerous. Grandmother Clarke, when I asked her about the things that happened out in the bog, said, “There is darkness in the world, child. Let it be.”
I am good at learning lessons.


The day Tante Helene found Papa De’Bec in her room was the beginning of the nightmare. I do not use that word lightly. Like you, I believe sunlight is the enemy of such things. But I was no stranger to the dark dreams; I often woke the house with my cries. So you couldn’t fool me with this. Evil came into our house that summer day and no amount of light pouring through Grandmother Clarke’s lacy curtains could dispel it.
It was a day for things to happen: Stormy since early morning, the rain came in fits and spurts; thunder growled in the rafters and flashes of lightning cast strange shadows on the playroom wall. Caroline, Caro to the family, was in what Grandmother called a “mood.” Her brother Whit and I treaded carefully. We played the games she chose with none of the usual complaints.
Tante Helene’s yells interrupted our concentration on dominoes. Hearing her mother, Caro stood up, turning toward the hallway. Whit, always more willing to face trouble than Caro and me, ran to the door and looked out. He saw Papa De’Bec hurtling down the stairs, Tante Helene’s impeccations giving him reason for haste. But he was smiling, Whit said, and it was not a nice smile.
Papa De’Bec was not a nice man. Of uncertain roots, with no visible means of support, he roamed the Louisiana back country, doing odd jobs to eat and drinking bootlegged whiskey when he could get it. Parents of the parish often used him as a bogey man to keep children in line. Papa De’Bec fancied himself a voodoo king. He wasn’t, Tante Helene said. Kings were New Orleans men, steeped in the lore of Africa and Haiti. Papa De’Bec was a pretender, but he knew something of the kings’ art and he used it.
He used it that day. He left Tante Helene a gift, an ouanga in her dresser drawer. This was a charm made from poisionous tree roots, bits of bone, nails and wafers stolen from the Catholic church. Fragments of crucifixes and church candles also figured in the mix, the whole soaked in holy water before it was sent on its mission. An ouranga had the power to hurt, even, it was rumored, to kill.
The magic in the ouanga is in direct relation to the belief of its victim. That was the problem. Tante Helene, though a devout Catholic, believed. To her, voodoo was not a figment of some writer or moviemaker’s imagination. It was an evil active in the world, a real and dangerous threat to her and her family, among which she included Grandmother and me.
Tante Helene had her ways of counteracting this evil: prayers to Jesus, lighted candles on a side altar and, more specifically, potions and amulets fashioned from herbs and other things. She would annoint our foreheads each night and place amulets around our necks. (Grandmother Clark, though raised Catholic, had been influenced by some of my grandfather’s beliefs. In her, Hardshell Baptist and Catholic united against unholy doings and she would not allow Tante Helene to annoint her or wear a charm. Still, she said nothing when she found a gris-gris in her dresser drawer or when she came to say my prayers with me and caught Tante Helene marking my forehead.)
You must understand that Tante Helene was not one of those voodoo priestesses so beloved of moviemaker Val Lewton and his imitators. She did not “hex” people or stick pins into dolls. Those were misconceptions anyway, created on a Hollywood set; voodoo practicioners worked in stealthier ways that involved the mind more than the body.
Tante Helene was a hoodoo woman. This practice, which had a large following in the countryside, involved white magic – sympathetic magic, Tante Helene sometimes called it. Hoodoo was used to good ends. A doll was a cause for blessing, not harm. If pins were used, it was only to fasten names written on paper to the doll’s clothing to identify the recipient of the blessing.
The basic weapon in Tante Helene’s arsenal was the “cure all.” “This will cure all your problems,” she would say, placing the amulet containing her lastest creation around our necks. (Years later, I asked her what was in these pouches made from her old day dresses. I don’t remember all the ingredients, but honey, sulphur and the leaves of various plants were among them.)
That Papa De’Bec brought the evil side into play was not surprising. He hated Tante Helene. Farm workers, men from the salt mine down near Avery Island, even Gulf fishermen, would come to her for “blessing.” She undercut his business. Morever, she didn’t like Papa De’Bec personally (“that filthy old no-account”), and she never missed a chance to say so. Caro told me later that she even tried to have a mass of exorcism said against him, but the local priest was not ready to go that far. It became a service that warned of evil and evil people, instead.
That day, Papa De’Bec succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. Tante Helene was terrified. Her skin, normally the sleekest ebony, was ashen. Her hands trembled. She dared not touch the ouanga, nor would she let Grandmother Clark touch it. Grandmother Clark fetched a pair of gloves and some iron tongs. She carefully picked up the charm and took it downstairs. She dropped it in the belly of the winter stove that stood in her book room and kindled a fire. We went out on the porch to escape the noxious smell.
We kids didn’t know what was going on, but from the way Grandmother Clark put her arms around Tante Helene and hugged her, and then went to make her some hot, heavily sweetened tea, we knew it was bad.
Very bad.
And that night it began.
(To be continued)

Part 2.

I’ve often wondered why the Thing that visited me in the night didn’t frighten me. Standing at the foot of the bed, it was blacker than the surrounding darkness and parts of it seemed to be moving, like clouds during a spring storm.
Surely, that couldn’t be good.
But it never threatened me. Rather, it seemed to be listening to something I couldn’t hear. After a while, the form would fade into the evening air. Sometimes it would return the following night, but often it would be days or weeks before I noticed it again.
The night after Papa De’Bec placed an ouanga in Tante Helene’s chest of drawers, the Thing took up its watch almost as soon as Grandmother Clark tucked the sheets around me, kissed me gently and turned off the light.
It seemed thicker somehow, more agitated. Part of the deal was that we never spoke. Though I wanted to tell it what had happened, I sensed it knew all about it. So, we observed each other in silence. I expected it to fade but it was still there when I drifted into a fitful sleep.
I woke to the chimes of the clock in the hall striking 2 o’clock. Another storm had come up; rain beat heavily against the window panes and low thunder sounded in the distance. It had been a hot evening and Grandmother had left my window open slightly to admit any breeze that came along. I could see the thin, white curtains that hung between the heavier drapes billowing out into the room, rainwater puddling between them. The netting on the bed rippled like a swamp pond when disturbed by a passing mocasin.
The Thing, silent, moving to its own rhythm, listened intently.
The house was old and had a language of its own, creaks and low-pitched groans, snaps like something had broken. On any night, the house fidgeted in its sleep, but its complaints were louder when the damp from a passing rainfall seeped into its walls.
That night, it was in rare voice.
I became aware that, like the Thing, the house was moving. But not silently. I could hear the bed posts creak as the frame shook. The bed seemed to be trying to lift its legs and run. On the fireplace mantel, the crystal pendants of Grandmother’s treasured lustres tinkled against one another, while overhead, the roof sounded as if it were attempting to stretch itself into a new shape. Across the room, my bedroom door, as ill-fitting as every other door in the house, made little smacks as it opened and closed.
I started to pull off the sheets …
Without warning, something piled on top me, pressing my chest to the bed. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to scream but nothing came out of my clenched throat. I panicked, scared as I never was before or since. It couldn’t have been a dream. I heard and saw my room clearly. In my head, I cried to Jesus to save me. The Thing already was moving. It expanded into a sheet of blackness that flowed up the bed and over my body. The pressure ceased. My breath came in ragged gasps, but it came. The darkness flowed back into its still form.
I didn’t have time to consider what happened. I suddenly was obsessed by the thought of the rain pouring into the room. It happened every time it stormed and we left a window open. In the chest by the bed, we kept towels for just such occasions. I grabbed one to wipe up the water before it warped the floorboards.
I am not a brave person; I wasn’t thinking clearly is my only excuse. No, not the only. Perhaps you won’t believe it, but I was drawn to the window by an inexplicable force. An irresistible urge to wipe up that water. Since that night, I have always understood why people go down into the cellar.
I was on my knees, trying to soak up as much of the water as possible when BAM! The window slammed shut!
Though the glass was covered in rivulets of rain water, I could see something taking form behind it. A face, distorted into a grinning rictus, stared back at me. It was Papa De’Bec. I could hear his laughter above the storm, raspy, hellish, I wanted to run and jump into the Thing. Of course, I wasn’t thinking logically. How could this man be outside my window? My bedroom was on the second floor of the house. There were no trees or shrubs outside to provide footholds. The wall went straight down to my grandmother’s rose bushes.
As I stood there, frozen in place, shocked to the core, screams erupted outside my door. It was Wilt. I heard Tante’s Helene’s door burst open, so hard it slammed back against her wall. The sound of her house slippers slapping against the pinewood floors echoed as she went to her son’s room.
I tore myself away from the horror in the window and ran into the hall. I could hear Caro whimpering in her room. Grandmother Clark, in her nightgown and robe, emerged from her bedroom and, taking stock of the situation, gestured for me to go into Wilt’s room while she saw to Caro. She turned on the hall lamps as she went.
When I reached Wilt’s bedroom, he was clasped in his mother’s arms, weeping uncontrollably and saying ”the bogey man, the bogey man” over and over. Grandmother came in with Caro. She reached out and flipped the switch, flooding the room with light. Rubbing her eyes, Caro blurted out, ”There was a man at my window, mama. Honest.”
We sat there for a long time, Will gulping in air, Caro cuddled in my grandmother’s arms, me nestled into her side. No one said much, but we all thought a lot. At least I did. I told Grandmother about the Thing and the other thing that sat on my chest. She hugged me closer and whispered in my ear, “God moves in mysterious ways. Don’t be afraid, child. He sends his angels to protect you.”
At this point, I know I should tell you I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. After all, I have a college education and a career in journalism that, by its nature, encouraged cynicism. But I don’t know what I believe, really. I just know there are things out there, and some of them aren’t nice. That night, I came closer to them than any kid should.
The next day, it was business as usual. Grandmother had a cane plantation to run, Tante Helene had the house to manage and we had our chores. But we were watchful, we never let anyone out of our sight for too long a time. The preacher came by in the afternoon, and we said prayers together. The priest came later, and blessed us and the house. No one said a word about the night’s happenings.
There was no point.
Papa De’Bec wasn’t through with us.
(To be continued)

As memory draws me down its treacherous paths, I find I am not walking alone. The present is constantly at my side, beckoning down a side road, pointing to some irresistibly enticing tangent. People long dead, others long forgotten, call out. Tell it this way. No, tell it that way.
Who I was has grown into who I am. I cannot step into my seven-year-old self and set aside the 65 years that have passed. I try to approach these tales on their own merits, but the reporter in me argues with the writer. Years of education war with the impossibilities that live comfortaably in the imagination.
Though the incidents I recall are true to memory, I constantly ask myself: Are they scrupously true to history? In spite of attempts to keep my distance, the me of the story sometimes acts and reacts as the man who knows he is peering through a veil.To separate a traumatic horror story from what my rational mind wants it to be is a Sisyphean chore. It is the blood price of these memoirs.
Life changed after the apparitions at the windows. This is a part of the South where superstition dances cheek to cheek with daily existence. People don’t talk about it but some part of their brains hear the dark melodies and sway to their tune. Caroline, Whit and I knew what we saw. We were scared. Grandmother Clark and Tante Helene could have told us we were foolish. They didn’t. They took steps.
Every night, they made the rounds of the ground floor, securely locking every door and window. Upstairs, due to the heat, it wasn’t possible to close the windows. Tante Helene rimmed the sills with a mixture of salt and things she didn’t talk about. She muttered beneath her breath as she lined the woodwork. Done, she told us, “Don’t touch this” And: “If you hear anything at the window, don’t go and look. Come get me or Mrs. Clark.”
The three of us went to bed wearing a brace of amulets. Things were tucked under the pillows. Since we couldn’t stay indoors all the time, Grandmother Clark talked to her farm foreman and he talked to the workers. Wherever we went, eyes followed us. If Papa De’Bec turned up at the farm, the men had orders. He was to be escorted off the land, and not gently.
Life went on. The adults treated us as they always had. Routines didn’t change. But the power of the ouanga lingered. It made us more aware.
Most nights, we gathered in what grandmother called her “book room.” It was the original dining room, but she had lined the walls with shelves and filled it with comfortable chairs, each with its own reading lamp. The pinewood floor was covered with an old but soft oriental rug.
I liked to lay on the floor and read. Grandmother would “assign” each of us kids a summer book. It was not the usual fairy tale. That summer, she was introducing me to Charles Dickens, Caroline (who was older and read better) to Jane Austen. For me, she thought about “Oliver Twist,” but bowed to my boyish enthusiasms and give me “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Beside me, I kept the old Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary that normally lived on a table near the windows but – since it was too heavy for me – grandmother or Tante Helene had to take it down and place it on the floor. I loved that dictionary. In truth, I would much rather read it. When I could, I would open it at random and trace down the list of words with my finger and try to sound them out. My favorites were the ones that had little drawings as part of the definition. Other places, other worlds.
The dictionary also was handy for looking up words I didn’t know. There were a lot of those in Dickens. But engrossed as I was, I kept a nervous eye and ear on the world around me. I was suprised at how “alive” the house was. It was old, the first part built in the 1850s, the rest in the early 1890s, the “modern” kitchen and the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms in the 1920s. The ground beneath it was solid enough, but not far away were swamps and it partook a bit of their sponginess. The walls settled oddly; there were cracks here and there, windows and doors did not fit perfectly.
The house talked to itself, especially at night, and especially after storms. You may remember from the earlier installments that we had been going through a rainy spell that summer. Humidity was high. The house complained loudly. Crack. Snap. Raaatch. I would jump at each sound. Beneath me, the floor sometimes seemed to move. That didn’t frighten me as much. In fact, I rather liked it. It was like riding on a lazy turtle.
More disturbing were the soft click-clacks of the doors as they moved in and out, responding to the drafts that pervaded the house. From where I lay, I could see the door to the book room. It seemed to be moving constantly. If I stared hard enough, I could swear the doorknob turned.
The drafts entered mostly through the rifts between the windows and their frames. Earlier, Grandmother and Tante Helene had taken down the heavy winter drapes and replaced them with filmy cotton panels. The hems moved silently in the wind, weaving in and out almost imperceptibly – but I noticed.
I was distracted by the moving curtains when I realized something besides air was seeping into the room. It looked like fog, not thick enough to be smoke but hefty enough to be visible. It flowed along the edges of the window sill, stopping at Tante Helene’s rim of salt. It reared up a little at that, but it did not pass over.
I thought about pointing it out to grandmother but I didn’t. If I did that, it might make it real and I was scared enough thinking it was just my imagination. Then I felt the air. It was flowing over the book and around my body, touching me, causing the pages to flutter. There was a smell. Not a nice one, but not so awful that anyone but me seemed to notice it. I looked over at Caroline. She was wandering the corridors of Pemberly. Whit, who didn’t like to read, was playing with his erector set. Both seemed happy and calm. Tante Helene was mending some clothes. Grandmother was aborbed in one of Henry James’ novels.
I was alone in my perceptions, but I didn’t feel alone. Something was in the house.
Grandmother shut her book. “Time for bed,” she said. Caroline complained. She would stay up all night reading if she could. Well, so would I. Grandmother made sure we got our sleep.
She sat on the edge of my bed as I said my prayers. “You seem worried, Kylie.” Only she could use that hated nickname and not arouse my protests. “Did you lock everything?” I asked. “Everything is locked up tightly,” she said. She didn’t say more. She had heard enough to understand something had spooked me. She went over to the nightstand and turned on the lamp. “I think tonight we might leave it on. The house is making a lot of noise, isn’t it? You might wake up and be scared if it was dark.”
While she was dealing with the lamp, the Thing that often came and stood at the foot of my bed made its presence felt. As she left the room, Grandmother passed it. She said nothing, but did she nod as she passed? I don’t know. I thought she did.
I felt better. The Thing, though it was black and seemed to be made up of something that moved like angry clouds, never frightened me. Years later, Grandmother suggested it “might have been your guardian angel.” I certainly felt it was watching over me.
Sometime in the night, I awoke. The hot, humid room had been replaced by one that was cold. I shivered under the thin sheets. I felt a presence in the room; if I turned over I might see it. But I was unable to move. Something was sitting on me, the pressure made it hard to breathe. I tried to cry out. No sound escaped from my throat. At the edge of my hearing, a hissing began.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Thing was on the move. It glided along the edge of the bed, slipping silently through the netting. As it had done the night Papa De’Bec’s face had appeared at my window, it flowed gently over me. Nothing changed visibly. The light from the table lamp still softly illuminated the room. But I was not aware of it. I slept.
The next morning, I was awakened by Tante Helene coming in and turning off the lamp. “Get up and get dressed,” she said. “Your grandmother wants to see you in the kitchen.”
When I came downstairs, Caroline and Whit were already at the table, their breakfasts in front of them. Tante Helene put mine on the table and then sat down. We joined hands, as we did every morning, and said grace.
“I don’t want you children to be frightened,” Grandmother said after we had eaten, “but Papa De’Bec was here last night.” Caroline let out a whimper; I felt my spine creeping up on my neck. “One of the men caught him down by the dock,” she continued. “They fought and Papa De’Bec slipped and fell. He hit his head on the edge of Ezekiel’s flatboat. The men took him into town. He’s hurt pretty bad.”
By the time she was finished, I was shaking like Spanish moss in a storm. “What’s the matter, child?” Grandmother asked. “He was in my room last night. I know he was,” I said. She reached over and hugged me tightly. “Don’t fret child. Everything will be all right. Last night, God was in your room, too.”
It was several days before I heard Papa De’Bec’s name again. The preacher came by to tell Grandmother the news. Papa De’Bec had not made it.
“God forgive the man,” Grandmother said. Tante Helene crossed herself in the Catholic way.
That night, the Thing returned to the foot of my bed. I hardly ever spoke to it. That night, I did. “Thank you,” I said.
The clouds that made up its being swirled, then it faded into the darkness.
It came no more that summer.


Growing up southern wasn’t for the faint-hearted.
Even going to the bathroom was an adventure. You never knew what sort of critters you would find in the sink. And the lid to the toilet was always closed. You flushed before lifting it. The wise child avoided surprises.
At night, when the air hadn’t cooled and the humidity was thick, we slept on the pinewood floors. Lots of other things slept there, too. We poured salt around our bedding. Snakes and wigglies found the crystals uncomfortably sharp. We had a cat that prowled through the night. Every now and then I would hear crunching as she devoured a midnight snack.
When your house is set up against a swamp, you learn early about your neighbors. Cypress trees, with their draperies of moss and their knobby knees, were common place. Among them, a gator looked like just another log. The grass was kept short along the banks, the better to see what might be planning a lunch break.
Ripples were a cause for concern. Swamp water moved slow; water moccasins gliding just under the surface left a tell-tell wake. The workers on our farm told of catfish as big as hounds, able to swallow a kid in a single gulp. There were patches of quicksand. And places where air bubbled up to the surface with an audible ”plop.”
On some nights, when the mist was up, bits of light would flit from spot to spot. We called this “swamp fire.” I knew they weren’t fireflies. Too big. I asked Tante Helene, who worked for my grandmother, what they were. “They’re evil souls looking for a place to light,” she said. That pretty much put a kibosh on any night fishing.
Black snakes received considerable respect in this environment. Not only did they eat rats and other vermin, but it was believed that their fellow reptiles avoided them. A black snake lived in our house. It was about six feet along, and hefty. Other snakes must have believed the story. We never found any snake but Blackie in the house.
One day, the Hardshell Baptist preacher came to visit. He was a stern, pious man with no love for small boys. As he walked through the front door, Blackie came slithering down the stairs. The preacher let out a shout and ran for his car. Later, his son told me he had wet himself. Some childhood memories are treasured more than others.
Blackie had one bad habit. If you didn’t keep the dresser drawers closed, he would snuggle in among the hankies, underwear or whatever was kept there. Sometimes grandmother or Tante Helene would come along and push the drawer shut. My mother never learned. We would be doing something and we would hear a scream, followed by a thud. Grandmother Clarke would look at me and say “Fetch me the smelling salts, Kyle. We’ve got to do something about that snake.”
Not all of the creatures of my childhood were tangible. The thing that stood at the foot of my bed most nights was, as near as I could tell, made up of shifting swirls of darkness. It was silent, with a tendency to loom. It showed up one night, when I was 5, maybe 6. I was frightened. I told my grandmother. For several nights, she slipped into the room. She saw nothing.
I also told Tante Helene. She held to what we called “swamp religion,” a kind of voodoo but with a lot of Christian stuff in the mix. She said, “Do you see its teeth?” “No, Tante.” “Do its red eyes stare at you?” ”I don’t think it has eyes, Tante.” “Well, then, you just leave it alone and it will leave you alone.” She turned back to the sink, where she was washing dishes. Without looking at me, she said, “But if you ever see its teeth or its red eyes looking at you, you holler as loud as you can and I’ll come with the broom.”
After a while, I got used to whatever it was. In time, I even was glad of its presence, especially on stormy nights. Wind and rain have always terrified me. That swirling blackness, imaginary or real, stood between me and the chaos outside. But one night, the thing wasn’t there. It never came again. I missed it. I was lonely. Something had changed in my life.
I was growing up.


Shortly after our marriage, I took Pat to visit my relatives in the South. Our first stop was New Iberia, La. We checked into a motel and Pat disappeared into the bathroom. Within seconds, she came out and slammed the door.
“We are not moving here!”
I checked the john. In the sink was a fine example of the local wildlife. About six inches long and 90 percent legs. The things that come out of Louisiana drains are the stuff of legend. At our house, anyway.
That night, we had dinner with Tante Helene’s daughter, Caroline. Afterward, we sat in the porch swing, watching creatures fly across the moon. “Those look like bats,” Pat said. She glanced at her arm. Eleven or so mosquitoes were having desert. A cricket chirped from her lap.
Another door slam.
“We are NOT moving here!”
Later in the trip, we visited Ash Lawn, former home of President James Monroe. Pat went inside the gift shop to purchase some souvenirs while I checked out the rocking chairs on the porch.
The shop’s screen door slammed. “Get in here!”
The residents of Virginia’s mountain country can trace their roots back to Elizabethan England. Their language reflects that, or would if it weren’t for the drawl. The clerk kept explaining how much the souvenirs cost. Pat couldn’t understand a word.
It wasn’t a problem. I placed a $50 bill on the counter and accepted the change.
“I hate you,” Pat said.
She slammed the car door as she got in. Did I mention that one of Pat’s few faults is that, when she finds a phrase she likes, she overuses it.
Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.


I was raised by women. My mother. My grandmother. My step-grandmother. But the most important female in my young life? Tante Helene, a black woman who worked with my step-grandmother on her cane farm in southern Louisiana.
The two women respected and trusted each other and Tante Helene was allowed a free hand with me. She was a wise, tolerant woman, generous with her love. She was scrupulously fair in administering discipline, and she never offended my dignity. When I needed a switching, she sent me out into the yard to pick the switch.
Tante Helene was born in the Carolina low country, but her father got a job in the cane fields and she grew into a woman in the country north of Avery Island. When she was 15, she married. Once, when someone asked me the name of her husband, I answered “Mr. No-good-layabout.” I never heard him referred to by any other.
Tante Helene was wiry; her slender frame always seemed too small for the blouses and long skirts that she wore. She loved the colorful scarves that my grandmother and I gave her at Christmas and on her birthday. One was always knotted around her waist.
Apart from the scarves, her favorite accessories were bracelets. She usually had a dozen or more climbing up both arms. They jangled while she worked. Her hats, which she mostly wore to church on Sunday, fascinated me. Feathers and flowers and birds and, most memorably, a large dragonfly. They were constantly in motion. Sometimes, when grandmother was ailing, Tante Helene would take me to her church. I remember the singing, and the folks jumping up and hollering ”hallelujah” and her hats. They seemed to be keeping time with the choir.
On those Sunday mornings, I learned that faith could be joyful, something that I desperately needed to remember later in my life.
Beneath her hats, Tante Helene’s hair was what some folks describe as ”salt and pepper.” Mostly pepper, the same rich black as the seeds she ground up for the shaker on the kitchen table. By the time I spent the first of four memorable summers with my step-grandmother, the salt had begun to show.
She did the cooking. “Honey, if we let your grandmother in the kitchen, we’d starve. The only thing she can do is scorch water.” In the years since, I have sampled the best that Paris and Rome had to offer, stuffed myself in Savannah, San Francisco and New Orleans, but I never had food like Tante Helene’s. Incredible gumbos, potato soup with oysters, things with shrimp and crawdads … I would collect frogs in the swamp and their legs showed up on the table that night. Under her instruction, her children, Caroline and Whit, and I would pick dandelions and wild cabbage from the fields, and the leaves of turnips, kale, collards, spinach and mustard from the garden at the side of the house, so she could “fry us up a mess of greens.”
It was Tante Helene who taught me how to survive in the world outside Grandmother Clarke’s house. She showed me which plants were okay to eat, and which were poisonous. She instructed me in the habits of alligators, cottonmouths and the-greatly-to-be-feared coral snake. I learned how to recognize a black widow spider and to appreciate the intricacies of spiderwebs, especially on a dewy morning. Satan put dark in the world, Tante Helene would say, but God balances it with light.
Sometimes, that balance was confusing. Tante Helene was a Christian, but she also dabbled in the “swamp religion.” It mixed elements of Voodoo, Catholicism and shamanism and scared the white folks. The participants generally met in the back country. I can remember hearing the drums and the chanting voices.
Grandmother was more liberal than most women of her acquaintance; she loved theater and Shakespeare, in particular; but she drew the line at some of Tante Helene’s more outre beliefs. But Tante Helene was strong-minded and I wore many an amulet in those four years, slept with stuff under my pillow and learned to have a healthy respect for evil (Satan’s ”dark”). The first two didn’t hurt me, and the third was a valuable life lesson.
I also was absorbing a lesson that, to my shame, I didn’t recognize at the time. Once a month, Tante Helene and my grandmother would go into New Iberia to have their hair done. Not that you would have noticed in Tante Helene’s case. She kept it cropped close to the skull. “It’s too hot to wear it any other way,” she would say, taking the scissors to mine.
Looking back, I realize now how racist we were. How ugly our behavior was. How ashamed I am still. Grandmother went to the hair salon on the courthouse square, Tante Helene to a shop in another part of town where black people lived. While they were at the beauty shop, I went to the movies with Caroline and Whit. They had to sit upstairs. I wasn’t allowed to sit with them, so I sat on the main floor with the other white kids, who saw me come into the theater with my black friends and called me names I can’t bear to repeat. I hated them, I hated being by myself. Once I slipped upstairs. “You’re going to get it,” Caroline said. Sure enough, I was caught by the manager, who called my grandmother and asked her to come and get me. I was setting a bad example for the other white kids.
Caroline and Whit. They were the best friends of my childhood. An inseparable trio, we were pirates, cowboys, soldiers, doctors, fearless explorers and Frankenstein monsters together. There wasn’t any nonsense about gender. Caroline ruled us with an iron hand and ready fist. She always took the best parts and we had to be satisfied with roles as her supernumeraries.
It was Caroline who planned our pranks. It was she who supervised the action. And it was she who was out on the porch reading a book when Whit and I were caught and faced retribution from Tante Helene.
Those were carefree days, the best of my youth, I think. I always hated it when I had to go home to my “other family.” That household was ruled by a woman, too: my actual grandmother, who was deeply religious and convinced the dark was in everything, especially boys. Life in her charge was the worst sort of dysfunctional. I am not sure I can ever write about it.
Instead, I will remember those long Louisiana evenings, sitting on the front porch steps, one woman shelling peas, the other crocheting, the kids working on their coloring books. I was safe, I was loved, I was happy.
As I cope with the problems that come with old age, I draw on those long ago feelings. Yes, I have pain, I have waded in the darkness, but I have a wonderful wife, a great dog, many friends and a firm if occasionally somewhat unconventional belief in God’s balancing act.
The voice of Tante Helene echoes, as she reaches over and gently turns my head upward to gaze at the night sky.
“See those stars, honey. They are the eyes of angels and every one of them is watching you. You don’t have to ever be afraid.”


My best friend was a light pole. That says a lot.
My childhood geography was schizoid. Summers were spent with my grandfather’s second wife on a farm in Louisiana. Shakespeare at bedtime, theater, art, trips to New York. So much laughter. A life in the sun.
The rest of the time, I lived with my mother in a house ruled by my grandfather’s first wife. It jutted from a mountainside overlooking the small coal-mining town of Logan, W.Va. We were church-going people, ever aware of sin and wary of the pleasures of the imagination. Life seemed grey, like the slag heaps of the surrounding mines that oozed steadily into the creeks.
An only child, and lonely, I poured out my troubles to that pole. It heard about my mother’s exhaustion (she worked three jobs as the sole support of her mother, sister, two brothers and me), my uncle’s constant ill-treatment that made me afraid to be in the same room with him and Mommy’s frequent switchings that led to my wearing my first pair of long pants to school one afternoon. The pole counseled patience. I liked to think it promised revenge.
The shaft stood at the base of High Street, which climbed the hillside to our house, or, if you went the other way, led to what downtown there was. Across from it, a stone retaining wall held up the elementary school I attended. Further down the hill from the pole were blocks of apartment buildings and the Methodist church.
Directly opposite the pole was one of those grocery stores found mostly in fading memories. It was full of old-fashioned wonders, wax candy with juice inside, blue Popsicles and a red metal container that on hot days was filled with ice, frigid water and bottles of soda pop.
The post was stalwart. It did tend to sway crazily in a storm but it never broke, a lesson I absorbed unknowingly. It was wood, of course. The base was a mosaic of rough carvings, mostly of initials, mostly done by kids. “KHL” was there. I hadn’t yet become ashamed of my middle name, which was the same as my Dad’s.
Two of the initials stood out from the rest. “L” and “E,” surrounded by a crooked heart pierced with an arrow. They were carved by Lester, whose last name is lost to me, for his girlfriend, Evelyn, whose last name I don’t think I ever knew. (I did know how to pronounce her first name: “Eve-a-lynn.” Her mother always called her that. We knew her as Evie.)
Lester and Evelyn were above the rest of us. They were teenagers, beautiful (to me, at least) and lordly with the attitude that came from recently graduating high school. While we played near the post, they would sit on the steps leading up to the elementary school, indulging in what we called “necking,” but never really going beyond that.
For a graduation gift, Lester’s dad gave him an old Ford that the family had bought before the war. Lester spent every moment he could restoring it. He took a shine to me and, for that reason, I was allowed to give it a shine. How I loved those times, polishing enthusiastically, moving to the faint strains of the radio from the grocery store, blossoming under the tolerant regard of a “real adult.”
Now, I realize Lester wasn’t happy. His folks didn’t have the money to send him to college and he worked in a garage. Evelyn’s father managed the local dime store. Naturally, Lester wasn’t good enough. He drank to compensate. (This was a small southern town. There were no drugs but liquor and smokes were always available, even to me had I dared.)
My mother came into the room. She was quiet and I could tell from the way she looked at Mommy that something had happened. Lester and Evelyn were dead. There had been a sleety rain followed by a cold snap and High Street was covered in ice. Coming around the curve, Lester lost control and the Ford plunged into the apartments below.
It was said they were running away. It was said he was drunk.
For weeks, we kids traced the rough initials with our fingers. We were filled with a sadness we didn’t understand – the first stirrings of our mortality. A little piece of innocence walked down the road and never came back.
Mostly, the post held happy memories. It was home base for our games. Hide and seek, of course, and a form of tag which we invented where one kid guarded the pole and the rest of us tried to touch it without being caught.
At night, it was a gathering place. I can hear younger readers shake their heads in disbelief. Children allowed outside after dark? What were parents thinking? Well, it was a small town, and safe. Everyone was your parent; someone one always had an eye on you.
The light atop the pole was a magnet for flying insects, which led, in turn, to bats. They would flit through the beams, causing the girls to scream and cover their hair. We boys were nervous, too, but we would never have admitted it.
We told stories in the pool of light, ghost stories usually, each one more outrageous than the last, each one resulting in ever more dramatic reactions from the listeners. In fairness, it actually was scary. Outside the light, the West Virginia night was fearsome. Who knew what lurked at its edges, or what waited up the holler behind the store?
I never told anyone about the shadows I saw sitting on the school steps. The kids would have thought it was just another story. Maybe it was. Or maybe I only wanted to believe there was another life out there, one where Lester and Evelyn still necked on the steps and, like Shakespeare said, the world was a stage where I could be a player.
Every child’s dream. But here’s something from the hindsight of 72 years: Dreams aren’t always ghosts. Not if you believe.


In the ’50s, when I was a boy, the hill country of eastern Kentucky was rugged terrain. Stony outcrops reared up out of dense forests, the trees smothered with vines and the clearings filled with nettles, poison ivy and wildflowers of every shape and hue. Snakes and biting insects made life a misery for the squirrels, deer and the occasional bear. Human infiltration was not for the faint-hearted.
But the land had been settled since the 1700s. Roads and power lines snaked across the top of the ridges. Farms clung to the hillsides, with fields and pastures sliding into the ravines below. Water came from wells, or from springs that bubbled up from beneath an overhang.
A lot of tobacco was grown then. Around every corner was an old barn, usually a storm or two from falling in on itself, but with leaves from that year’s crop drying in the rafters. There might be a rusting Ford pickup from the ’20s inside the barn, or a wooden wagon, missing a wheel or two. On the side of the rickety structure, an advertisement for Mail Pouch tobacco or Chattanooga’s Rock City faded slowly into obscurity.
It wasn’t all tobacco. Most people had a corn crop and, closer to the house, a vegetable patch. Turkeys and chickens scratched in the yard. A pig or two wallowed in a muddy pen. A dog lazed on the porch. It was hardscrabble living. Nobody got rich, but kids got raised and bills more or less got paid.
The Browns, my stepfather Cecil’s people, lived atop one of those ridges, in an old farmhouse that had said goodbye to better days. The stove used wood, and you pumped water into the sink, yet the place boasted electric lights, thanks to those power lines, and indoor facilities, courtesy of a son-in-law who was a plumber. The closest town was Morehead, which had a state college (now a university), a Woolworth’s and a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The family went into town maybe once a month, except for the boys, who went more often to get drunk.
Daily needs were met by a general store further down the road. It housed a post office and a gas pump. I remember it as also having farm equipment, some cotton clothes, the coldest Nehi orange pop I ever tasted (thanks to being submerged in a tub of ice water) and just about every chewing tobacco known to mankind. Anything else, the ridge people grew or made themselves.
Cecil’s dad, Tom Pres, had been a schoolteacher out west. I’m not sure if his mom, Jesse, had been a teacher, but she was educated. She gave Cecil the middle name, Cassius, because she had been reading Shakespeare’s ”Julius Caesar” when he was born. Their six boys – Vertie, Cecil, Doris, Scott, Orville and Seldon – and three girls – Esta Mae, Lucy and Beatrice – had been schooled, though the girls took to it more than the boys.
The Browns were hard people, flinty as the rock beneath their feet. Jesse had a tongue that could flay you alive, and the boys were always in trouble. But they weren’t unkind to a stepson whose mother was not entirely welcome in their midst. Mother had a degree in accounting, a well-paid job and dressed accordingly. Putting on airs, Jesse thought. But they didn’t hold it against me personally. Tom Pres was the changeling in the group, a gentle dreamer who would take me up to the barn, where we would sit on the wagon tongue and he would tell me stories about his days out west. The tales inflamed my imagination and kick-started a lifelong love for the country on the other side of the Mississippi.
Jesse was more practical. She figured there was no way my mother was going to teach me common sense, so she would tell me about each vegetable and what you had to do to get it to grow in that inhospitable soil. She pointed out dangerous weeds and taught me how to chop off the head of a snake with a garden hoe. When the cantankerous old gobbler that ruled the yard chased me ’round and ’round the well head, she would come out with her broom and shoo him away.
I repaid her with amusement. She sent me out one morning to gather eggs. The hens were nesting on them. I thought, OK, just lift them up … Jesse had tears running down her cheeks from laughing as she put Mercurochrome on my scratches and peck marks.
Uncle Vertie was my favorite of the Brown boys, but he had moved to Wisconsin as a young man (where we would later join him). My next favorite was Scott. He was a handsome devil, given to chasing women and getting into trouble with the law. Mother was always having to drive into Morehead to bail him out of jail. There had been a brawl in a bar, or a dispute over some lady or a game of pool. Uncle Scott was handy with his fists, and slow to run from a confrontation, so he was always the one who got cuffed and hauled away.
For some reason, he took a liking to me. He called me Peckerhead and enjoyed coming up behind me and giving me a burr-head, rubbing my scalp raw. Usually, though, he was sprawled on the day bed in the back room, rip-snoring drunk and smelling like he’d had a run-in with a skunk. None of that mattered to me. I suffered from an acute case of hero-worship. He’d wake up, grin lopsidedly and I’d sneak him a ”restorative” behind Jesse’s back.
Mother wasn’t immune to that grin. She made endless bail-outs since Uncle Scott’s siblings (and Jesse) were all for letting him rot in his cell. She never said no when I asked to go riding with Uncle Scott in his truck. She knew he cared about me and it would be woe to anyone who tried to do me harm.
If only she’d known the rest of it.
Uncle Scott was a moonshiner. He must have been good at his craft because there was a fair-sized demand for his product. We jounced down rutty back roads, many of them old wagon trails half returned to nature, dropping off the jugs and bottles that were hidden in the ”secret places” he had built into the body of the truck. I was proud because he didn’t hide those compartments from me. And doubly proud because the couple of times we were stopped by the state police, they never found them. “Just showing Peckerhead here the country. He’s from up in West Virginia,” Uncle Scott would say. And off we’d go, singing Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford at the top of our lungs.
For all that I was part of the delivery system, the source remained a mystery. Uncle Scott would disappear for days at a time. “He likes living rough,” Jesse would say. ”At least he’s not in jail.” She never said that last part with any confidence, though. You just didn’t know, until someone from the store would come up and say they’d had a call from him and he needed bail money.
One day, he was feeling especially companionable. My head tingled from his ministrations. Finally, he said, “Put on your boots and get your jacket. Let’s go for a walk.”
Off-side the barn, an old wagon track led down into the cliffs, as we called them. It was overgrown with weeds and grasses. The seeds stuck to my pants legs and sometimes got up under them, which wasn’t a good thing. The track wound down the side of the ridge until it reached a cleared space around an old cabin that was falling into ruin. This had belonged to one of the Browns, just whom I can’t remember, but who had been long dead even then. I wanted to explore it, but Uncle Scott said no. There were rattlers there, and they didn’t like visitors. We carefully skirted the area and headed on down to the bottom of the ridge.
These were the cliffs, large drifts of sandstone that were gritty to the touch. There must have been harder rocks mixed in, because at one end, a stream of water spilled over the edge, forming a pool beneath. It was cool there, cold almost, especially after the summer heat of the ridge top. The air was damp, and full of smells, mostly of vegetation. It was a rich, fecund odor that immediately said “wild” to my impressionable mind. For a couple or maybe three generations, Brown women had hauled their linens and clothes down there for a good wash and gossip.
Uncle Scott pulled back a tangled mass of foliage to reveal a pipe, which led off downstream. Putting the greenery back into place, we set out to follow the pipe. Soon, we branched off the trail onto a path that you wouldn’t have noticed unless you were looking for it. Made by deer, probably. Uncle Scott carried a large stick he had picked up back at the pool. It was forked at one end. After maybe a five-minute hike, there it was: the still. I don’t pretend to understand how the thing worked. There was a big copper pot, some wooden barrels and a lot of tubing. There was a fire pit. The first thing Uncle Scott did was send me off into the woods looking for fallen branches, which he then set ablaze, letting the wood settle into red-hot coals surrounded by powdery black/white ash.
He bustled about while I watched, then sat on a rock shelf and told me stories about some of his more memorable drunks. When whatever was happening happened, he gathered up a couple of mugs from inside an old wooden box and turned a spigot on one of the barrels, filling them with ”shine.”
Now, the strongest – and only – liquor I’d ever tasted until then had been some gin I’d stolen from my Uncle George, my mother’s brother. I hadn’t liked the taste and quickly put the bottle back. So, for all practical purposes, I was a virgin. And, like a virgin, I was nervous as hell. I didn’t sip. I didn’t drink. I gulped. I’m quite sure Mount St. Helens didn’t go off like that stuff exploded in my insides. From my lips to my gut, I was on fire. I tried to spit it out, but it erupted from my nose, making things worse. Uncle Scott collapsed in laughter. ”Whoa, Peckerhead, take it easy. This is good stuff. Don’t rush it. Enjoy it.”
It was good stuff, powerful maybe, but smooth when you treated it properly. I had one cup, then another. I was very happy. I gave Johnny Cash the workout of his life. Uncle Scott good-naturedly stuffed his handkerchief in my mouth. “Shut up, boy. You don’t know who’s listening.”
I was feeling no pain. I certainly wasn’t aware of my surroundings. Suddenly, Uncle Scott blanched. He rose up slowly. “Don’t move, Peckerhead, not a muscle.” I had no idea why he said that, but I didn’t move. Uncle Scott picked up his stick and abruptly thrust it into the ground beside me – neatly pinning a rattlesnake with the forked end. A really big rattlesnake. He whipped out his knife and cut off the reptile’s head, then reached behind and cut off the rattles. He gave them to me. “You gotta be aware of what’s around you,” he said. “These bastards usually shake their rattles – but not always.”
What with the close call and the “shine,” I couldn’t walk very well. Uncle Scott finally gave up and hoisted me atop his shoulders. Singing, we made our way back to the house. Mother was waiting on the front porch. Uncle Scott carefully sat me down. I grinned at my mother and said “Hi, I’m drunk,” and promptly fell on my ash – er, butt. Words erupted from my mother’s mouth that I never knew she knew. Uncle Scott grinned. Jesse looked pensive. For the first time, I think she thought there was hope for ”that woman.”
Me? I threw up on my mother’s shoes. It was a memorable day.


For many years, the ghosts of my youth could be seen in snapshots, mostly black and white, sometimes sepia, their edges worn, the images faded and creased by time.
There was my Aunt Lou, reaching out to stop me from eating dirt from under the steps of our house in Logan, W.Va. There was Grandmother Sizemore, staring crossly from an oval shaped frame, dressed in her Sunday finery and her hair pulled severely into a bun. In one picture, Uncle George smiled at me as I sat behind the wheel of a car, presumably his, while, in another, my step-grandmother and her co-worker shucked peas on a Louisiana porch.
Most potent of all, Mother and Aunt Lou posed in a garden, the women – the two were widely regarded as beauties – representing the epitome of 1940 style. Mother was 19, Aunt Lou was 21 and I was two years away from making my entrance.
These people are long gone. My uncles and their children were victims of Huntington’s disease, the curse of the Sizemore clan.The others fell prey to various ills. Only Mother and I survived into this new millennia, then she, too, left for a brighter horizon.
The photographs also have been lost, destroyed in a fire that took my school yearbooks, the programs of the theatrical productions I was involved in as a child and young adult and the lock of Aunt Lou’s hair that Mother kept after Lou – short for Luetta – died of a ruptured appendix.
To my surprise, the memory of those images remains vivid, as if they were part of documentary footage that flickers across the tattered screen of my mind. There are gaps, times and people who are irretrievably lost, but the older I get, the more vivid my childhood becomes. Sitting here before my computer, I see with clarity those pages in my mother’s scrapbook, which we would pour over while sitting at the kitchen table during college breaks.
It isn’t only photographs. Looking back, I realize my childhood was filled with wonder: floating through a Louisiana swamp on a pirogue, spending the night in the haunted ruins of a plantation, appearing on stage in “Life with Father” and “The Corn is Green,” reading Mark Twain for the first time and, huddled under a tent of blankets, discovering by flashlight the writings of adventurer Richard Haliburton.
So much, and so many characters.
Some of the more interesting people lived on or near my maternal great-grandparents’ farm, located in a remote hollow outside Branchland, W.Va. My mother’s mother, Melissa Sizemore, was one of five Clark daughters and six sons (Southern families were big; Melissa had seven children of her own). The Clarks were farmers who raised pigs and dairy cows and were, I suppose, poor, though no one ever went hungry and there always were decent clothes for church.
Melissa married David Clark, a distant cousin. I know very little about Grandpa David, other than he joined the Army just in time for World War I and trained at Camp Beauregard Army Base in Pineville, La. There, he met and fell in love with a Louisiana girl. He promptly divorced Melissa and moved to the bayou country where he soon died from fever (a tragedy that, round-about, led to me spending summers with my step-grandmother Clark on her cane plantation – but that’s another story. Several, actually).
Divorce was a great sin to a Hardshell Baptist, which may account for Melissa’s pinched look in the photograph I remember. To restore propriety, she married Alfred Sizemore, had those seven kids and frequently sought refuge in the bosom of her family. When I grew old enough, I tagged along.
Life on the Branchland farm has a lot of those gaps I mentioned. I remember some things but have forgotten more. One thing I do remember are the cows. I had a thing about exploring the woods and, to reach the trees, it was necessary to cross the pastures. Not a bad thing, since I have always had a rotten sense of direction. “Pap,” as I called my great-grandfather, told me that, if ever I got lost, I should just hang on to a cow’s tail. They always found their way back for milking.
He neglected to mention one of the hazards of walking home behind a cow. Upon arrival, I was summarily dunked in a tub of water out behind the house and vigorously scrubbed. I also discovered my grandmother and great-grandmother had many words for ”stupid” – which may account for the vivid recall of the incident and to explain why, to this day, I won’t drink milk.
Then there was Rosellen, one of the innumerable cousins. She also liked exploring the countryside, and unlike me, she knew a lot about the things we found there. She especially loved ferns. I soon learned to recognize climbing ferns, filmy ferns, rusty woodsias (which she called ”Granny’s Lace”), shield ferns and the scarily-named adder’s tongue fern (like Indiana Jones, I hated snakes; still do). In spring, we would chew on the “fiddle heads,” which were the coiled sprouts of young ferns, and collect the foliage of older plants, which the women would add to the mess of greens that were always cooking on the stove.
I soon learned to tell a hickory tree from a beech, and a black locust from a black gum. As we walked along, Rosellen would point to a tree and say “Oak?” and I’d say “No, a sycamore,” and she would laugh and say, “Silly, it’s a walnut.” My favorites were the red spruce, which will always be my idea of a Christmas tree, even if they are a bit spindly. Once, we came across a large stump. “Chestnut,” she said, sadly, and told me about the great blight that destroyed the once plentiful species.
Today, far removed from those explorations, I can’t remember all the wildflowers we collected. But once in a while, I will come across a picture of a coltsfoot or those delicate pink and white blossoms Rosellen called ”spring beauties” and her face and voice will reach out to me across the years.
She will bend down, push aside a screen of grasses and expose a plant. “That’s pokeweed (or, maybe, moonseed). It’s poisonous. It could kill you.” Or I will hear her say, “Three leaves, let it be,” helping me learn to avoid poison ivy.
The special reward of our forest walks was ginseng, a highly prized root that could be sold for what seemed to me a lot of money. It was used for every thing from curing ailments to making tea. Rosellen had an eye for it and, when she spotted a plant, would take the small shovel she carried and dig up the root. My great-grandmother would always call out to us as we returned, “Find any sang, kids?”
It was at Branchland that I first learned about sex. Not the doing, the concept. The scandal of the family was a couple, Lacey and Rolly, who lived in a log house further up the hollow. Their union did not involve clergy. I really didn’t know what that meant but I knew it was a terrible sin. Nevertheless, she was Melissa’s niece, they were family. We called upon them, my grandmother’s face more pinched than ever, and had iced lemonade on the porch.
I thought Aunt Lacey made the best lemonade in the whole world and that Uncle Rolly was the best-looking man I had ever seen. It was hero-worship at first sight – and, now I realize, something more. Aunt Lacey was a voluptuous woman, bursting out of her thin cotton dresses and usually barefooted. Those bare feet greatly disturbed me. I would sit on the stoop and, when I thought no one was looking, I would stare at them. Incredible toes. I also would gather flowers during my walks in the woods and bring them to her. She would kiss me and take them and put them in a glass of water on the windowsill. I tingled.
I never figured out what Uncle Rolly did. He was one of those Southern men whose only job seemed to be laying around oozing testosterone. He was very good at it. Aunt Lacey certainly thought so. She was always touching him. Grandmother Melissa disapproved, but she was not immune to Rolly’s appeal. He would say something teasing and, in spite of herself, she would smile. Later, on the way back to the farmhouse, she would say “That Rolly is a no-acount sinner. Don’t you go hanging ’round him.”
But of course I did. Every chance I got. He liked to grab me and give me what we called a “burr head.” The tussling greatly disturbed me, too, but it wasn’t anything to worry my family. He was as enamored of Aunt Lacey as I was. He was the first man to ever talk to me in that way about girls. Most of what he said was incomprehensible, but I did get the general drift. Somewhere in my future there was a Lacey. Life would be good.
Reading these words, I wonder what happened to Lacey and Rolly, Rosellen and the other Clarks. When my mother remarried and we moved to Wisconsin, that part of my life drifted away, never to return. For many years, I never thought of them; only recently have their faces begun reappearing in my memories. Like those faded snapshots in my mother’s scrapbook, they suddenly are very vivid. The cling of Aunt Lacey’s dresses, the humid air of a southern afternoon, the rough texture of a log wall, are as real as they were then. I can feel the breeze on my face, the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, the taste of ice-cold lemonade sliding down my throat.
You can’t go back, not literally, but, after a fashion you can return, another ghost slipping in among the ghosts. The past is the scrapbook of the brain.


Theater is an unpredictable art. It makes you laugh when you should take it seriously. Many years ago, I was in an ill-fated amateur production of ‘Hamlet.’ Nothing went right from the moment the curtain rose.
Not a sure thing, that curtain. All through tech it went up and down of its own accord. The crew piled weights on the rigging, but they tended to fall off. Still, the show must go on and, on opening night, the curtain rose as prettily as you please. General sighs of relief.
Too soon. The actor playing the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father had a bad cold. He had barely made his appearance when he let out three great sneezes. “Gesundheit!” yelled an audience member. General pandemonium (read laughter) ensued.The curtain fell halfway then jerked up again. More pandemonium.
Ophelia complained throughout tech that her gown was too long. On her first exit, she tripped on the hem, taking out a standing candelabra as she went down. The stage was raked. The candles rolled into the front row. An audience member picked them up and put them back on the stage. Giggles all round.
The actor playing Hamlet was nervous. It was his first attempt at the role and, as we later learned, he had been tipping the bottle in his dressing room. Suddenly he was a very loose Dane, grabbing any prop or fellow cast member who was handy to steady himself. Ophelia would have raced off to the nunnery but he was reluctant to let her go. More giggling.
The actor also had a weak bladder. He launched into one of his big speeches (it might have been “to be,” I can’t remember). As he spoke the opening lines, a stain spread down his leg. A puddle formed at his feet, then followed gravity down the raked stage. The front row, remembering the candles no doubt, became very restless. Fortunately – or not – a stage hand rushed out with a towel.
You would have thought we were doing ”Getting Gertie’s Garter’ the way the audience carried on.
Speaking of Gertie – or Gertrude, the Queen as she was more formally known – she came in for her share. Hamlet, by now a walking wreck, stuck his knife into the wrong curtain. Polonius, whom I recall as a grocer turned ham, was constantly being told by the director to ”speak up.” He chose that moment to follow the advice. “I’m over here, idiot!,” he hissed. The words bounced off the back wall.
The curtain fell.
After the crew trotted out and trucked it into the wings, Gertrude and Hamlet did their best to get back into character. They were not entirely successful. Every time Hamlet came close to his mother, she backed away. He was very wet.
Shy as she was, Horatio was even shyer. He had been blocked to take the dying Hamlet in his arms during the high body-count finale. He went to cradle Hamlet, then realized that if he clasped him close, he too would be very wet.
In a quick compromise, he held up Hamlet’s head instead. Alas, the celebrated Dane was vain. He was wearing a toupee. It snagged on Horatio’s sleeve and stayed there during Horatio’s final speech and through the curtain call.
Well, just a call.
There’s never a curtain when you need it.


Been thinking about marriage lately, marriage to my wife in particular. Why is it so important to me? Lots of reasons really. One is that old age makes you needy. It exposes you to the risk of loneliness. Having Pat by my side means there is someone to help me when it’s necessary (and vice versa) and someone to talk to when I have something to say.
Just looking at her across the breakfast table is cool, too.
I have friends who are longtime bachelors. They find compensations in a lifestyle that leaves them free to do as they wish. I have noticed though, that as they get older, many have turned to opposite sex living arrangements or even same-sex setups – sex having nothing to do with it, companionship everything, so don’t jump to conclusions.
OK, help with the bills may figure into that, but it’s having another human being in the house that’s key. Thornton Wilder said it in “Our Town.” We were meant to go into the grave two by two. Moliere added with a sly wink: “We are men. We are not meant to be alone.”
Pat was my third attempt at finding a life partner, the first two being narrowly averted disasters in the making. A goat brought us together. I was directing a production of “Brigadoon” in Grand Island, Neb., where I was a reporter (then city editor) on the local paper. It being a farming community, we thought it clever to have livestock in the opening village scene: two ducks, who did nothing but poop, and a goat who ate every crepe-paper flower in sight.
Clearly we needed someone to keep us supplied with blooms.
I had a buddy whose girlfriend, he assured me, was very artsy-crafty. He brought her to rehearsal and introduced us. You may think love at first sight is just a staple of romantic fiction. Well, you’re an idiot.
This brunette beauty with eyes as mysterious as the depths of the Nile knocked me on my ass.
Small problem, though. She was taken. I handed her the crepe paper and went back to rehearsal. Some guys have none of the luck. Later, she brought some flowers for me to approve. They could have been weeds. I wouldn’t have cared.
A week or so later, she and my pal had a disagreement. Well, a knock-down dragger if you want the truth. Pat is a member of the Hyland clan, Black Irish to the core. Temper? Oh. My. God.
The fight meant she was short a ride home. She looked at me. Mama didn’t raise a dummy. Home via a cocktail lounge where we told each other lies and maybe revealed a truth or two.
A couple of days later I showed up at her apartment with $700 worth of fabric and a plea. We needed some extra costumes. She didn’t shut the door. I didn’t realize it but the deal was sealed. A month later we were engaged, several months after that, married.
That was 1970. Since August, we’ve been married for 45 years. It’s been thick and it’s been thin, but the relationship has been solid. Our careers did conspire against us: she was a speech therapist who took clients in her spare time; I was a journalist with another story to chase.
We didn’t see all that much of each other in those early years. Maybe that was good. We never got into the habit of arguing. As I write this piece, I marvel that in 45 years we have never had a serious disagreement. Occasionally, I get on the wrong side of that temper. I am adept at disappearing on short notice, though she’s learned the trick of standing at the exit and giving me a slap up the side of head in parting.
Pat has always put me first. I am ashamed of that. I wore blinders when it came to my career. What I wanted, I pursued, never doubting she would follow. I took a job as managing editor in Gunnison, Colo., then as entertainment editor at the Scottsdale Progress. She packed us up, called the movers, and unpacked us again, making a new home from scratch.
There were seriously bad times. Her parents died within a short time of each other. She was extremely close to them and it hurt her deeply. My stepfather died and she welcomed my mother into our home, knowing that relationships between Southern mothers and their daughters-in law are fraught with peril.
For seven years, I struggled with clinical depression. I would wake up shaking and she would cradle me in her arms until I fell asleep again. She would comb my hair endlessly, because, many times, that was the only thing that could soothe me.
Diabetes entered our life, affecting my feet and legs. It became a matter of chronic pain, though agony was closer to the truth. At all hours of the night, she would be up, rubbing salve into my legs, crying with me when it became too much.
Now, there is heart trouble and lung problems and ailments of her own. It’s me who’s applying ointment to her hands and other joints, trying to relieve the pain of arthritis.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was hospitalized for various and sundry reasons including a mini-stroke, she sat in a chair beside my bed from early in the morning until late at night, leaving only to take Bailey for a walk.
She has never complained, though she can’t hide the worry and weariness from me. She does what she does out of love; and I have learned to accept that and return it in kind.
Would I have lived this long without her? Not possible. Would I have experienced the joys we have shared. Doubtful. It was God who sent the goat. He knew what I needed and he knew just the woman to fill the bill.
I love Pat. Sometimes I ache with that love, It overwhelms me at unexpected times. When I hear her laugh at some passage in the book she’s reading. When she’s standing at the patio door with the sunlight pouring around her. When she stands on her toes and kisses me on the forehead.
I know that everyone doesn’t have that kind of that relationship. For some there are no goats. I worry about them, and pray for them and sincerely suggest they get themselves cast in a production of “Brigadoon.”
My wife is my everything. It’s a tragedy when someone can’t find theirs.


tollings wasn’t much more than a string of paint-deprived houses and a few ramshackle stores strung along the tracks of one of West Virginia’s railroads. At one end of the strip was a gas station that also sold soda pop, at the other a Pentecostal church and the local elementary school. In between were mostly folks struggling to get somewhere else.
I was maybe 7 or 8 when we moved there; my mother was business manager for a car dealership in the area and wanted to be closer to work. She got a deal on a house. She needed the break.
Where my mother and I lived, so did my Grandmother (Mommy) and my Uncle George, and, for most of our time in Stollings, my cousin Sue Ann. There was my dog Tags and Sue Ann’s cat Ginger. Since there were two bedrooms, sleeping arrangements were tricky.
Only my mother worked; the rest of us mooched. It had always been that way. Intelligent and ambitious, Mother waited on tables, worked in the dime store and cleaned other people’s houses to pay her way through business school. Apparently this meant she had a responsibility to support her family so they wouldn’t have to do anything but drink (Uncle George), go to church (Mommy) or chase boys (Sue Ann).
I worked on being invisible. Uncle George, high strung and an alcoholic, liked to slap me around. He was Mommy’s pet and when I “got on his nerves,’ she would take a wet dish towel to me – then threaten worse things if I told anyone. She made sure Mother never saw the welts.
It wasn’t all bad. My best friend was Emily, a tomboy who lived in the next house over. She was older than me but not as old as Sue Ann. She had no interest in males other than as partners in a search for tadpoles or a game of softball.
Her other attraction was that her family had the first television in the area, a screen no bigger than a dinner plate but large enough for us to watch the wrestling matches. Those were good times, especially when Emily’s mom would pop some corn, lather it with butter and set it down between us with the admonition, “Don’t wipe your greasy hands on the rug.”
On hot days, I would bum a nickle from Mother and go down to the gas station where I would choose a bottle from the icy water in the container where the pop was kept. Usually, it was orange Nehi, though sometimes I opted for Coca-Cola. Then I would “walk the rails,” trying to keep my balance while taking swigs from the bottle. Often, I fell on my butt – but that was part of the challenge and, honestly, part of the fun.
On church nights, Emily and I would sneak down to the Pentecostal Church and peek in the windows. Mommy called the congregation “Holy Rollers.” They were both fascinating and frightening to me. When they jumped out of their seats, threw their hands in the air and began talking in tongues, it took all of my childhood bravado to keep from busting it for home.
Mostly, life was Tags and me. When I wasn’t in school, we were exploring the neighborhood. Behind the gas station, a path worked its way up a hollow overgrown with sugar maples, beeches, tulip trees and black walnuts. There was a hickory tree, too, the only one I ever found. I would gather the nuts and take them home, where I would bury them in the yard, hoping they would grow into my own forest.
Far up the hollow, near the top of the hill, an old fellow lived in a shed that was a wind’s breath from collapsing into a heap of weathered lumber. For some reason I never learned, he was called Mousey. Sue Ann said it was because he ate mice to survive. I didn’t believe her.
In the way that sometimes happens between lonely old men and even lonelier boys, Mousey and I became friends. He knew all there was to know about the forest. We would follow deer paths along the side of the hill and he would point out wildflowers and other plants, giving me their names in both English and Latin. He was an educated man, fallen on hard times. If he told me the story of his misfortune, I’ve forgotten it, but I looked up to him, even idolized him a bit.
I learned a lot from Mousey – which mushrooms were good for eating, which plants were “good medicine.” I learned to recognize the footprints of the small creatures that inhabited the woods, and to distinguish the various bird songs. Never having known my father, and deathly afraid of my Uncle George, Mousey was the first man I ever trusted. Looking back, I realized that somewhere along those deer paths I had come to love him, but I didn’t know how to express that feeling and he never encroached on my shyness.
Every now and then, we would find a flat rock and sit for a while. A favorite was beside a small spring, almost completely hidden by the undergrowth. The water was cold and tasted good after beating our way through the woods. Mousey would cup his hands, gather in some of the liquid and slowly pour it over my forehead. On a humid West Virginia afternoon, I expect that was just a step away from heaven.
It was then we would talk. Mousey, who had been in the first world war, would describe what it was like, though there were things he didn’t tell me. His eyes would grow dark, his hands would tremble and I knew better than to ask for more.
Often, we would talk about God. He didn’t believe in Mommy’s God. God is here, in the earth, in the trees, in the waters of that little spring, he would say. He would take my hand and place it against the bark of a tree. “There is God, Kyle. Can you feel him?”
For two summers, Mousey made it possible for me to go home and face the beatings. I never told him about my Uncle George. I was ashamed because I got on his nerves and made him hit me. In turn, Mousey never asked about my family. Our time together was ours, no one else’s.
I didn’t see him much in the winter. School kept me busy, there were chores to do. But some days, I would come out on the porch and find a bunch of nuts in a woven grass bag, or a particularly handsome rock, and I knew Mousey had been by in the night.
That next spring, I climbed up to Mousey’s shed, but he wasn’t there. I went back several times but the place was empty.  I walked the trails, calling his name, sure he was out and about and I had just missed him. There was no answer.
It was days before I overheard someone talking about the old man who died of exposure that winter. I didn’t know what exposure was, I didn’t really know anything about death. But I felt like some thing had grabbed hold of my heart and was squeezing it hard. I stumbled up the hill and found my way to our rock. I hugged my knees and cried, cried harder than when Mommy whipped me, or the day Uncle George knocked out my tooth, cried harder than I had ever cried.
That was the first real loss in my life – not the first person I had known who died, but the first for whom I truly grieved. More than 60 years later, I can’t think of Mousey without my throat constricting, my eyes growing wet.
Love is not something you plan, it is something that happens. And it only happens if you are open to it. If you set conditions, if you say “it must be this way, or it isn’t love,” if you say I could never love someone like that person, they are too poor, or too weird, or the wrong color, or have the wrong beliefs, it can pass you by.
It’s scary. I admit it. In the end, love will kill you. All things end, and when something you love dies, you die along with it. Not literally. Life is tenacious, it goes on. But there will always be that place that isn’t filled, that wound that never completely heals.
It doesn’t matter. To love and be loved is worth a risk. Love grows your heart, it nurtures your soul. It takes you to heights you could never achieve on your own. It’s easy to take it for granted, even to think it’s not something you want. Only now, having escaped death in my recent illness, do I realize that every moment I live is not enough time to embrace love and revel in its glory.
As I write this, I know I am a lucky man. In his mercy, God has given me more time. I don’t know why. I only know I am not going to waste it. Those two summers with Mousey were more than an education in wood lore and philosophy. They left me with a taste for risks. It’s time to follow through.


Sometimes the most unforgettable characters in your life are the ones you most want to forget. I was 19. She was 23. She worked with my mother at the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital. Let’s say her name was Melody. It wasn’t, but I am a cautious man. Her brothers were street punks and she had learned a few things. I’d say she’s still a dangerous woman.

Melody wanted to get married. Not next month. Not even tomorrow. Today! My mother, unaware of the ramifications, arranged a date. We went to a movie at the Riverside Theatre on Milwaukee’s main drag, Wisconsin Avenue. I don’t remember the name of the film. I just remember her hands. They were restless. My knee. My thigh. Moving along.

Later, we went for drinks. I was underage. It was a Polish bar on Milwaukee’s South Side. Melody was Polish. No questions at the door and heavy on the whiskey.

She had several martinis. I had an anxiety attack. She got down to business. “Let’s make a baby and get married.” “What, now?” I cried. “I have an apartment,” she said. Scared the hormones right out of me. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “I’m too young.” She looked at me appraisingly. “Old enough. We’ll save on shaving cream.” I suddenly remembered I had to go home.

At her door she kissed me. It wasn’t graceful, but it was effective. Most (but not all) of me was numb. Actually, I was pretty sure I was having a nervous breakdown. She was thinking we could live in the apartment until we earned enough for a down payment on a house. I was praying, “God, get me out of this and I will never go to another movie that isn’t Disney.” When she finished hoovering my mouth, she said “I think your mother likes me.”  I ran for the car. Go ahead, bring up the Cowardly Lion.

The thing was, my mother did like her. So did the director at the community theater where I was trying to get a career started. So far, I had managed to be the director’s go-fer. Melody came to see me in what I hoped would be my natural environment. She liked it. A lot. “Are there any roles left?,” she asked the director. Did I mention Melody was the walking definition of “zaftig?” Actually, I should capitalize that. In any case, the director didn’t suffer from numbness. He gave her the part of the maid.

She had basically one good scene. No lines to speak off, just a really tight uniform and a bra that uplifted a year’s crop of melons. The maid was one of the characters in the play within the play, a murder mystery. She was the villain. She picked up a phone when it rang, handed it to the hero, then opened a desk drawer, pulled out a gun and had him at “Hello.” Don’t ask.

She had no trouble with the action, even though the hero had made several passes at her backstage. He got a tooth-rattling smack. Melody was a devout Catholic and she knew the hero was married. Babies possibly, adultery no. She was very professional in rehearsal but he still flinched when she thrust the phone at him.

On opening night things were going well. Well, mostly well. I was prompting from the wings. Several actors were suffering serious stage fright. Lines were dropped. I was busy.

Too busy to notice Melody also was having a meltdown. She had never performed in public. Her entrance arrived. She made it on the stage – but did I mention this was community theater? The sound guy never really understood how things worked. The phone didn’t ring.

She looked frantically at the hero. He looked frantically at her. She preceded to Plan B. She opened the drawer. No gun. I screamed into the headset: “Props!” Mel chose to be practical. She picked up the desk lamp and bopped the hero. He crumbled to the floor. Mel screamed, “Oh, blessed Virgin, I’ve killed him” and passed out. The audience howled. Who knew this was such a great comedy?

The curtain came down and bodies were hauled into the wings. Paramedics were called. The curtain came up and the last scene performed. The audience went home, happy to have received its money’s worth.

The director invented new cuss words and threatened murder. “She’s your girlfriend, Lawson, you’re dead meat.” Surprisingly, the response to the adlibbed scene was so great, it was kept in the show. The hero, who didn’t trust Mel and feared she would really kill him, tried to take his makeup case and go home. The directer explained what he would do to the actor’s sensitive parts if he did. They say the show must go on. It did.

All in all, it was not a good week for Mel. She had a chat with my mother, outlining her wedding plans. Mother liked her but she had greater hopes for my future than a tiny apartment and 20 kids. Some hard facts were broached. Mel eventually married a guy who wanted to be a plumber. I was wrong about the 20 kids. They only had three.