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Clear Pictures: First Loves First Guides (Scribner Classic)
THREE USEFUL LESSONS
WILL AND ELIZABETH PRICE
I'm Lying In Dry Sun, alone and happy. Under me is a white blanket. I'm fascinated by the pure blue sky, but Topsy the goat is chained to my right — out of reach they think. The sound of her grazing comes steadily closer. I've sat on her back, she pulls my cart, I'm not afraid. Suddenly though she is here above me, a stiff rank smell. She licks my forehead in rough strokes of a short pink tongue. Then she begins to pull hard at what I'm wearing. I don't understand that she's eating my diaper. I push at her strong head and laugh for the first time yet in my life. I'm free to laugh since my parents are nearby, talking on the porch. They'll be here shortly, no need to cry out. I'm four or five months old and still happy, sunbathing my body that was sick all winter.
That scene is my earliest sure memory; and it poses all the first questions — how does a newborn child learn the three indispensable human skills he is born without? How does he learn to live, love, and die? How do we learn to depend emotionally and spiritually on others and to trust them with our lives? How do we learn the few but vital ways to honor other creatures and delight in their presence? And how do we learn to bear, use and transmit that knowledge through the span of a life and then to relinquish it?
I've said that all but one of my student writers have located their earliest memory in the third or fourth year. My own first memory appears to be a rare one. The incident was often laughed about in my presence at later gatherings — the day poor Topsy went for Reynolds's diaper, got a good whiff and bolted. So I might have built a false memory from other people's narratives. But I'm still convinced that the scene I've described is a fragment of actual recall, stored at the moment of action. If it wasn't I'd have embellished the scene further — adding clouds to the sky, a smell to the grass, the pitch of my parents' voices. What I've written is what I have, an unadorned fragment that feels hard and genuine. And the only trace of emotion is my lack of fear, my pleasure, both of which produced my first awareness of dependency — the goat won't eat me; help is near.
From the presence of Topsy, I know I'm in Macon, North Carolina. She was born, the same day as I, on my Uncle Marvin Drake's farm up near the Roanoke River. My father has had a small red goat-cart built, big enough for me and one child-passenger; and Topsy is already strong enough to pull us. Since we left Macon before I was a year old, then the memory comes from my first summer in 1933. That February 1st, I'd been born in the far west bedroom of my mother's family home in Macon.
Macon was then a village of under two hundred people, black and white. Because it was an active station on the Seaboard Railroad's Raleigh-to-Norfolk line, it had grown north and south from the depot in the shape of a Jerusalem cross-a north-south dirt street, an east-west paved road parallel to the train tracks and a few dirt streets parallel still to both axes.
There was a minuscule but thriving business district — three grocery and dry-goods stores, a gas station and a post office. There were two brick white churches, Methodist and Baptist, and two frame black churches, one on the west edge and one in the country. There were fewer than forty white households, mostly roomy but unpretentious frame houses, no pillared mansions. A few smaller black houses were set in the midst of town with no hint of threat or resentment; but most black families lived on the fringes of town — some in solid small houses, some in surprisingly immortal-seeming hovels. And on all sides, the sandy fields of tobacco and cotton lay flat and compliant, backed by deep woods of pine and cedar and big-waisted hardwoods.
Almost every white family employed one or more black women, men and children as farm hands, house servants, yardmen, gardeners and drivers. With all the deep numb evil of the system (numb for whites)-slavery and servitude did at least as much enduring damage to whites as to blacks — those domestic relations were astonishingly good-natured and trusting, so decorous that neither side began to explore or understand the other's hidden needs. When they'd granted one another the hunger for food, shelter and affection, their explorations apparently ceased; and the ancient but working standoff continued.
Yet a major strand of the harmony of all their lives consisted of the easy flow of dialogue expressive of mutual dependency, jointly sparked fun and the frequent occasions of mutual exasperation. There were even glints of rage from each side; but in our family homes at least, there was never a word about the tragic tie that bound the two peoples. And if a cook or yardman mysteriously failed to appear on Monday morning, even the kindest white employer was sure to foment angrily on the blatant no-count ingratitude — no trace of acknowledgement that a bonedeep hostile reluctance might be fuming.
Since the family trees of strangers are high on anyone's boredom scale, I'll limit the following to what seems bare necessity if I'm to track these mysteries. My mother Elizabeth Martin Rodwell was born in 1905 and reared in Macon in the oak-shaded rambling white seven-room house built by her father in the mid-1888os. He was John Egerton Rodwell, station master of the Macon depot. He'd grown up in a big nest of brothers on a farm, some four miles north, between Macon and Churchill. His mother Mary Egerton, whether she knew it or not, could have claimed descent from the English family that commissioned John Milton to write his masque Comus in 1634 to celebrate the elevation of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, to the Lord Presidency of Wales (the leading player in Comus was his daughter Alice Egerton, age fifteen). While the memory of such a standing was retained by a few of the deep-country farmers my Egertons had become, after two centuries in slaveholding Virginia and North Carolina, they seldom bragged on their blood.
My mother Elizabeth's mother was Elizabeth White — called Lizzie, even on her gravestone — from the oldest continuously settled part of the state, Perquimans County in the northeast corner, eighty miles east of Macon. Lizzie's mother had died in Lizzie's infancy, and she had been reared by her storekeeper father and an agreeable stepmother. On a visit to friends in Macon, she met blackhaired, brown-eyed funny Jack Rodwell; and she married him soon after. She was all of sixteen, mirthful and pleasantly buxom (a later problem), not pretty but widely loved for her good talk, her endless self-teasing and much ready laughter.
She was fated to bear eight children in twenty years, seven of whom survived her. One boy died in his first year; the other three left home early, in the common Dickensian fashion. They packed their small belongings, kissed their parents (all my kin flung themselves on kisses with the recklessness of Russian premiers), flagged the train and headed up the line for railroad jobs in Norfolk, already a teeming port of the U.S. Navy. Of the four daughters, my mother Elizabeth was the youngest. Lizzie used to claim that Elizabeth was conceived because, well after Lizzie thought she was done, the Seaboard added a four a.m. express. Its window-rattling plunge through the heart of Macon would wake Jack nightly and leave him with nothing better to do in the dark than turn to his mate.
My father William Solomon Price was born in 1900 in Warrenton, the small county-seat five miles from Macon. Before the Civil War, the town was a social and political center of the state (a local statesman Nathaniel Macon was Speaker of the House of Representatives in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson). As such it was the home of wealthy slaveholding planters, many of whose elegant ho
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