In the Season of Darkening Days

In the Season of Darkening Days
With softness flickering
And shadows cast
In the stillness of drawn blinds,
What hidden part of your storyFlickering
Would come to Light
If you knew that
Mercy would hold
With tenderness
Every part of your Life
The secrets and the open chapters
The awkward lines
The false intelligence
The courage that cost you the unspeakable
The sideways truth you live with
To protect the innocent
The rationalizations that are almost reasons
But not quite
The right you did
But not for good
?

If you knew that
Mercy
Would hold every word
Every period and question mark
And dash
Of your story
With the same gentle attention

What would you lay in her hands?

 

jmwhitehurst

I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Dear Reader, you might not realize this, but I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to get acquainted with the legendary bringer of gifts.

I submit for your consideration three of these events.

The first account is second hand, but I’m positive that my source is reliable. It was the Christmas Eve when my husband, Gerry, was about seven years old and his entire family celebrated at his Uncle Richard’s house with a long night of festive eating, Rook and dominoes, and noisy visiting. Everyone was there: his mom and dad, his brother, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and cousins once-twice- three times removed, seeing as his dad had no siblings to provide first cousins.

The adults were still lingering at eleven p.m. when Gerry’s family headed to their house, knowing it was straight to bed for two little boys to wait for The Main Event: the Santa Claus visit.

Sitting in the back seat of the ’56 teal and white Chevy, they bounced along, nervous about forcing sleep to come and antsy with anticipation of the morning’s booty.

But something was amiss when Martin Whitehurst wheeled into the driveway. Through the living room window, the family saw their tinsel-wrapped cedar tree, radiant in the darkened house. The strings of bulbs, turned off upon leaving, were inexplicably glowing like a…like a…well, like a Christmas tree!

Gerry and his brother charged the front door as soon as his mom turned the key and there it was: beneath those electrically lit boughs, was evidence that the Whitehurst house had been one of Santa’s first stops in Alcorn County.

He had come! He had come! He had come! Wrapping paper and bows flew through the air and the boys stayed up the rest of the night, playing with gifts that are long forgotten.

What Gerry does remember to this day is his wonder at the unexpected lights of that tree and the thrill of Santa’s surprise visit.

Next there was the Christmas of 1963 when I was nine years old. In school, I’d been hearing chatter for a couple of years about the source of those presents under the tree. Doubt had set in strongly about reindeer and flying sleighs and jolly old elves and I was trying desperately to hold onto what seemed to be an impossible story.

And, then, miracle of miracles, it snowed for Christmas! A sparkling layer spread across the front yard, masking the dull grass, as I took a final look out the window before pulling a couple of quilts up over my shoulders and settling in for childhood’s age old Christmas Eve dilemma: try to sleep or try to stay awake?

Sleep won out.

All through the silent night, the inky sky shed its downy flakes across the yard, now looking like nothing so much as a frosty feather bed. Deep. Comforting. Quiet.

It was a silent night, that is, until I was awakened at three a.m. by the sound of sleigh bells coming from a source I couldn’t see. Oh, but I could hear them. Surely they must be outside. I peeped out the window and the snow was undisturbed, but the nearby sound of bells kept up. On the roof maybe? It was deeper than a jingle, a soft clatter, and I was certain that it was borne by eight reindeer shaking their heads, which meant…uh, oh, Santa Claus must be in the midst of delivering our gifts. Right that minute.

Back into bed, back under the quilts I dived, determined to stay put until daylight. My doubt might have been real but so was my practicality: I was taking no chances on disturbing Santa Claus before his job was finished.

The last sound I heard as sleep took me away was the brassy clanging of bells as the wind picked up and I could feel the shudder of the roof as the sleigh lifted off.

Finally, consider the evidence that continued into the next generation. When our son was young we had a parakeet named Pete. He was a messy but social creature, perking up especially when we walked in the door from wherever we’d been. It was the season of our lives when we were each absent from our house more hours than we were present, and we concluded that Pete was lonely. How we decided that we could assess avian moods, I have no clue, but we got concerned that Pete’s disposition was becoming as blue as his feathers.

On Christmas Eve we were at Gerry’s parents’ house for the traditional feast. If you knew Gerry’s mother, Mildred, you know that to call it a feast was an understatement. Seth opened gifts with his cousins and, while they played, we grown-ups opened ours and visited, going back for one more bite and one more bite. There was coffee and lingering over pecan pie and coconut cake.

It grew late. We had a boy to tuck into bed, so the gifts were loaded and home we went.

Home we went to a tree that was mysteriously aglow in the front window, when we were absolutely positive that we’d turned off its lights. Home we went to evidence under the tree that Santa Claus had once again made an early Christmas Eve visit to a Whitehurst home.

As the wrapping paper flew, ripped to shreds by a delighted little boy, Pete’s happy chirp played in the background. And then…a different chirp…two chirps at once? How could that be?
In the dash to the stash beneath the tree, Seth had hardly given Pete a glance. Now there was more than a passing look.

Alongside Pete, in a birdcage decked out with Christmas bows, sat a sunny yellow parakeet twittering contentedly. It seemed that Seth wasn’t the only recipient of gifts from Santa Claus.

Suddenly it was all perfectly clear: Santa had had to come early because transporting a tiny bird throughout the cold night, in a sleigh, wouldn’t be easy on the bird or old St. Nick, either. Of course, it made total sense.

Are these tales simply accounts of Santa Claus going about his annual business or are they the ramblings of wishful thinking? Maybe a hyperactive imagination? I’ll leave that to you to decide, Dear Reader, because, frankly, I’m still pondering it myself.

I only know that, over and over, in times of doubt and confusion, I have experienced an astonishment that touches my heart: a tender compassion that beckons as gently as the jingle of a sleigh bell, that cares if a little blue parakeet is lonely and that rejoices in the wonder of the unexpected.

And I have met the spirit of love that can wrap a scraggly cedar tree in electric lights and dare to call it beautiful, reminding me that the Light of Love, unforeseen and inexplicable, shines brightest in the darkest night.

If Old Saint Nick has come to be tied up in all of that, then — Ho! Ho! Ho! — I do indeed know him very well.

Maybe you do, too.

—————————————————————————————————-

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and counselor located in Alcorn County, Mississippi. She contributes columns to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com.

This column was printed in a slightly edited version in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 16,2014, because—no matter how many times she proofs it— when Jaylene sees a column in print, she sees what needs tweaking. Enjoy!

The Red Toolbox: Lessons on Living

Red ToolboxThe Red Toolbox is now mine. An open wooden rectangle, cobbled together from leftover scraps of previous projects, it’s not too big. Made for use, it has a round dowel handle, easy to grab and go.

That old box has been a part of my world for so long that I have no idea when my dad made it. The red paint’s worn a bit chippy from decades of projects and repairs, a disconcerting number of those at our house. “Go get my hammer out of the toolbox.” “Put the toolbox in the truck.” “Leave that tape measure in the toolbox.” The thing was ever present. I grew up and grew older with it.
Oh, sure, there was a bigger toolbox, also handmade, but The Red Toolbox was the go-to box with the dependable basics: Daddy’s favorite hammer, nails and screws, heavy duty tape measure, a couple of crescent wrenches, several screwdrivers, nail set, small chisel, pliers, scissors, those flat carpenters’ pencils that intrigued me as a child, and a couple of last-minute items that got tossed in.
Daddy always kept a few tools in his vehicles, a set of wrenches and a screwdriver. But if he was going out of town, The Red Toolbox rode in the back. Just in case….
His toolbox and his workshop were basic to my image of him and the foundation of how I knew the man. I called on him to fix everything because I thought he could. As a son of the Depression and sharecropping parents, keeping tools and machinery in repair was a way of life that stayed with him.
Giving care to what he had was a ritual of appreciation for the use of what God had given Daddy. He attended to what he used. Keeping things in good shape was his giving back; fixing what was broken was his creativity. Leaving things in better shape than he found them was his “Thank you.” He was a simple man and it was simply the right thing to do.
In my own life, attending to brokenness took a different form. I became a counselor, an attendant to the pain of being human.
Caring for brokenness calls upon a common wisdom, whether it’s a human spirit grown dry or a hinge, un-oiled and rusting. Both creak for attention, habitually and loudly. Wisdom doesn’t rush the process of caring.
Daddy brought to his projects what he brought to his life: practicality, confidence that he could figure out a solution to whatever was awry, and a worrisome stubbornness that left me thinking he was determined to get hurt rather than get help. The man would look at a problem inside out and upside down with a dogged determination that could my impatience threadbare.
It was exactly that tenacity that had him putting a motor in a car when he was eighty-one because he’d never done that before but he thought he could, if he took his time.
Clearly, when it comes to a model for dealing with whatever is broken in this experience of being human, I don’t have to look far.
Daddy never jotted down a list of rules. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t need to.

These tenets were simply how he lived:
1. Be sure your foundation is solid. Fix it if it’s not.
2. Get familiar with the problem you’re tackling. Look closely. Look at problems from every angle. Get down on your hands and knees
3. If small repairs need to be done before the big job, DO them. There are no shortcuts. It’s time well spent.
4. In painting or staining, do the prep work. Prepare the surface to be receptive. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
5. Keep The Red Toolbox handy. You never know which tools you might need. Put the tools back in it when finished.
6. Buy the best quality materials you can afford.
7. Seeing a job as a puzzle of small pieces makes it manageable. Oh, and lay the pieces out in the order you removed them so you know where they go. Every piece has its place.
8. When a job isn’t coming together, take a break. Go work on something else awhile, even a little task. It’s good to accomplish something, even if it’s not what you intended.
9. If that still doesn’t help, do the best thing you can come up with at the moment. If it doesn’t work, you can rule one thing out.
10. Have good resources: make friends of the guys at the local hardware store and garage. The folks at Biggers’s Hardware and the Gilmore boys are your friends.
11. Good tools make the job easier. Keep them sharp and dry. Never put tools away dirty. Absolutely never!
12. Fixing one board saves a whole wall later. Do the job while it’s small.
13. There are times, when in spite of your best efforts, repairs won’t hold. The original is simply too worn to work with. That’s when it’s time to let it go and start fresh.
And
14. ALWAYS clean up after yourself. The job’s not finished until the floor is swept.

No, Daddy, you had no need to jot them down. You were living them.
I was watching.

Happy Father’s Day,
J.C. McCrary
July 11, 1923—May 9, 2009

This column was published in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, Sunday, June 15. 2014. I am happy to share it with you here.

Peace,

Jaylene

THE Dollhouse

dollhouse

Atop the bookcase in my blue room sit two metal dollhouses, circa 1950s. They are sentinels over the gathering space of my studio/office, high enough above the mix of chairs and throw pillows that they call no attention to themselves. I suspect some visitors hardly notice them.

The one on the left is the dollhouse I thought I found; the one on the right is the one I did.

When I was young, older than a toddler but not yet school-aged, our next door neighbors were Gladys and Elbert Jobe and their two daughters, girls edging into their teen years. The family doted on me. Martha, Alice, and their parents were a constant presence, keeping an eye on the tot I was, especially when my mother was ordered to strict bed rest while she was pregnant with my younger brother. The almost adolescent Martha was my playmate. I adored her.

My best guess is that I was about two and a half the Christmas that they gave it to me: THE dollhouse.

All I have to do for the memories of my dollhouse to surface is close my eyes and be still. In the quiet, I am there, back in our old living room. The chill of the uninsulated linoleum floor rolls under me, stretched out, stomach down before the open backside of the dollhouse. The chill penetrates my cotton camisole and red corduroy shirt with a shiver, while an insistent hiss from the gas heater is background noise. Warmth and chill coexist as I arrange and rearrange the tiny furnishings and determine the movements of a plastic family that I can control.

Bright lithograph colors on thin sheets of metal, all right angles and structured together with deftly folded tabs, it was sturdy. And that’s a good thing, because it was magic; and a sturdy kind of magic was needed by the child that I was, playing my way through the changes my family was experiencing.

Between the years when I was three and five, my mother buried a brother and her grandmother, both deaths shocking, with the abrupt cruelty of accidents. There was loss on my father’s side of the family too, not so cruel, but change producing, nonetheless.
The adults around me were juggling, emotionally and physically. This wasn’t an era when the impact of death on children was supper table conversation. We were fed, clothed, kept warm, and taken to church.

And we played. My imaginary friend, Mattie, and I held power in the magic realm of the dollhouse.

Somewhere along the years, I suppose my mother gave my dollhouse to another little girl, though I can’t say when that happened. Thinking I’d outgrown it, probably by second or third grade, I imagine her passing it along to a friend’s daughter, maybe a three year old who fit perfectly in front of its tiny rooms.

I hardly let myself miss it.

Until I started tapping this keyboard, pecking around for words that have taken me down a forgotten path, I wasn’t aware that my dollhouse mattered so greatly to me. Nevertheless, I’ve grown curious, fifty-five years after the fact, why the memory of it sent me out, years ago, to find its vintage twin.

One of my earliest forays into the world of eBay was the mission to find a replica of my dollhouse. I saved my search, kept up with new postings, and compared them against the image in my mind. Nope, not that one. Maybe this one…. but no. Oh, this one looks like it. Yep, that’s it!

I didn’t have a clear memory of the facade, since most of my time was spent at eye level with the interior, and I was sure that the one I’d bought was the exact same style as mine, red roof and all. There was no doubt I’d found it.

There was no doubt, that is, until ten years later when I found IT.

A red-roofed image, unexpectedly familiar, caught my eye and a gulp of recognition stuck in my throat. Displayed in a local shop window, I recognized the printed stone design on the exterior of a fifties era dollhouse. The tiny stones were amazingly similar in color to the faux stonework I’d painted during my mural painting years.

At gut level, I knew that I was looking at the origins of my own pink-green-blue-gray rocks. This was imagery that had become hard-wired into me. I cannot paint stone without those tones mixed in. I don’t even want to.

Here in front of me was evidence of how my childhood attempts to make sense of an uncontrollable world had become instinctive, part of who I am at the core. The comfort of my dollhouse with its dependable design, the setting where I could direct the action, the impact in my later life of what I was doing as a three-four-five year old, had been hidden away beneath events that I saw as more significant than my being Mistress of the Dollhouse.
It was all hidden until I began to write this essay about neighbors and loss and finding a dollhouse. Tapping away at the keyboard, gently rapping at the door to poignant and dusty places that want to see the light of day, it began to come together: I still love colored stone and arranging houses and scene setting and red roofs.

I found my old neighbors, still living in my heart.

And I still believe in the power of play.

Now, excuse me, while I dust off my dollhouses.