Why cast the world away

Family weekend
Ladies at Blenheim.
Family weekend
The boys with kayaks.

Fam came for the weekend, for Mom’s birthday, for kayaking down a very low river and for visiting a winery and Monticello. Time with them is always very good; it always goes by too quickly.

I used to keep much more fluid and interesting blog elsewhere. I wrote about people and events as if I was writing in a private paper diary. It’s a little shocking to me now, rediscovering my late high school and college blog, but I also think I was a better writer back then. Sure, I was self-righteous and affected, but it was far more scintillating. Now, when I look at this thing, which I have maintained over the course of seven or eight years, my mind feels empty. I have nothing, it seems, to say.

Things I enjoyed reading online

(Hot tip: If you want to know what I enjoy reading online, you can sign up for the bimonthly email I curate: Story Matters.)

“God’s world is good. Only one thing in it is bad: we ourselves.” — Anton Chekhov

Writers I’d read on any topic

  • Anne Carson
  • Annie Dillard
  • Lydia Davis
  • John McPhee

Her towels, her house

A pair of colorful beach towels, folded so that they resemble books on a shelf, reside in my coat closet. I have left them there, undisturbed, for almost a year now. They belonged to my grandmother. She died a year ago today.

Oddly enough, I have strong memories of these towels. Ma-Maw would wrap us kids up in them when we’d dash into their house from the lake. We’d be shivering in the freezing house, dripping all over her floors in our Disney one-pieces, and she’d have a stack of these big beach towels by the door to fold us in.

The towels came into my possession when my mother gave me three framed prints from Japan that lived in my grandparents’ house.

Home, August 2016
One of the prints.

I had always loved these prints, as a child, because of my study of Japanese, and I was honored to receive them. To protect the frames in the car, Mom had wrapped them in these two towels.

When I unwrapped the prints, shortly after her funeral, I burst into tears in my dining room. Not because of the art but because of the towels. The towels smelled exactly like her. It was as if she was suddenly in the room next to me. My eyes still swim with tears when I remember this, which is strange, that the mere memory of a scent could produce such a strong reaction.

The towels don’t really smell like her anymore. Over the past year, they’ve absorbed our scent, whatever it is (probably a mix of old books and German shepherd dander), and lost hers. But if I bury my face in them, nose deep into the well-worn fibers, I can pick up the faintest hint of her.

I am not sentimental about objects. I throw everything away with gleeful fervor. But these towels, weird as they may be, may always live in my closet, untouched, unused.

Sapona Lane
Me, in front of their house, in August 1995, apparently.

The last time we saw my grandparents’ house was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. All 10 of us grandkids went together, as a final pilgrimage to the house that we so adored.

We silently split up and wandered through the house, each of us taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved: And I remember how sad and somber it felt, because she was not there. The house itself seemed to wilt. There were mildewy patterns on the gingerbread trim. Even the shadows seemed gloomy. The things that were once cute—a concrete owl on the front porch, her numerous rabbit figurines—now were strange and sad.

Grandkids at Sapona Lane
The last time we saw the house. March 2016.

“It was as if the house knew they weren’t living there anymore,” I told my mother, and she agreed. The house took on a grief of its own.

The house is sold now, and I am glad of it. Not only because of the needed income for my grandfather but because it would be horrible to keep thinking of it empty, without the two of them. The house needs a new life, just as we do.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of her. I don’t expect to. But it is comforting to remember her, in all of the ways that she resurfaces in my life.

Women in my family have taught me

Advice from the women in my family.

My mother

Christmas 2015Buy nice hand soap. Make your home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Be a kickass business owner who isn’t afraid to negotiate, with everyone, for everything. Never settle for uncomfortable jeans, even if they’re on sale. Take care of your nails (stop painting them). Sit down and eat a good meal, mostly derived from the earth, and don’t worry so much about hard-core exercise. Tend a garden. Take walks.

My grandmother Lucy

Ma-Maw getting some bun cuddles.Take care of your face. Invest in expensive face creams. Be proud of your family; tell them how proud of them you are whenever you see them. Create and cherish family traditions. Find your signature scent and do not deviate. Write and send cards to people on every conceivable occasion.* (*At Ma-Maw’s funeral, a woman came up to me and told me that Ma-Maw sent her dog a birthday card.)

My grandmother Loretta

GranBe direct with people about what you want; don’t hedge. Laugh a lot: loudly and daily. Tell stories and crack jokes in every social interaction. Making fun of people is a nice way to show that you care. Consider the needs of dogs, first and foremost. Take risks and do not give any weight to cultural opinions. Show off your legs.

My sister Kelsey

Easter 2016Be confident about yourself and your appearance. Marie Kondo your entire home; if you bring home one new thing, throw out one old thing. Reserve time for kissing and cuddling. Take care of everyone around you; be uncannily prescient about predicting others’ needs. Prioritize your own needs on a long road trip (e.g., chicken nuggets and a milkshake).

My sister Grace

It's so hard having hot sisters #farsonsSee the whole damn world. Do what you want with your life and ignore conventions. Hoard creative material and ideas and make no apologies for the rats’ nest that is your childhood room/closet. Dress like you just went on a trip to Japan and found out that your life calling is to be a potter (who also owns a motorcycle and two pit bulls). You can never have too many notebooks.

My great aunt Lib

Found photo: Aunt LibRead everything and write long letters full of great sentences. Tell stories in every conversation. Invent your own catchphrases and use them liberally. Preserve an irreverent sense of humor in all circumstances. Be a lady who gets things done and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.

Christmastime

ChristmasHow pleasant it is to be home with the whole family; how quickly it always passes.

ChristmasThis year, I was particularly grateful to have such an extended amount of time with Grace, whom we now get to see only a few times a year, owing to the fact that she lives in Germany.

Christmas times

Christmas timesChristmas times We got to meet sweet baby Covin, our second cousin.

Christmas timesEden was strangely good and cuddly.

Christmas timesCheers for the new year.

Xmas lovers

On a quiet holiday season

Thanksgiving in the Pines

I still can’t read the news, because it makes me queasy, so it was nice to remove myself from a screen for a long weekend. We retreated for the Thanksgiving holiday to spend the time with Guion’s family, and it was very nice.

Thanksgiving in the Pines

One supreme benefit is Georgia. This is Georgia. She belongs to Guion’s parents, and she is probably the best dog who has ever lived. She really likes holding hands.

We enjoyed long conversations and memory-sharing at the dinner table; ate sumptuously; and took extensive warm-weather walks.

Thanksgiving in the Pines

(Guion also continues to be very good-looking.)

We are at peace, despite our increasingly doomed country. I let him get his first Christmas tree* of our marriage this year, and he is very happy about it. The morning after we put it up and decorated it, I found him sitting in the dark living room next to it, lights on, drinking his tea. I felt a surge of guilt for being such a Scrooge, for having crushed his childlike spirit for so many years. But we have it now. And Christmas joy permeates the house.

(*”Tree” is a grandiose term; the thing is barely 3 feet tall. My wifely generosity has limits.)

Thanksgiving in the Pines

Shakshuka by the fire

Fatniss Turkeydeen 2016Family is always a solace!

In times of general nationwide gloom, there will always be Fatniss Turkeydeen. (We were delighted to host Kelsey and Alex this past weekend for our Third Annual Fatniss, to celebrate Kelsey’s birthday, cram our gullets with good food, and watch an apocalyptic film.)

It is good to spend time together, as much as we can spare, even if it is loose and unstructured and mostly just punctuated by food and drink. Talking about people we once knew well. Sitting by the fire and having overly spicy shakshuka for breakfast. Walking the dogs on narrow sidewalks and musing about domestic architecture. (I’m thinking about this great little essay from the New York Times about the myth of quality time: There is no “quality” time. You just need time. Don’t put that kind of emotional pressure on time; we resist it.)

And now, for more feasting and more family time, we head into the Thanksgiving weekend.

Having met my reading goal for the year, I am going to take December slowly and start my second read of War and Peace (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky). I am going to force myself to savor it. And allow myself the time to take as long as it takes. Read the dialogue in French before looking at the translation in the footnote. Re-read a whole page if I didn’t catch the gist the first time. Don’t worry about the fact that I still have 1,100 pages to go.

I want to read fewer books next year. I am so competitive with myself that I find it hard to slow down and dive into the long, complex things. I just want to tear through as many books of essays and short novels as I can. But this is a bad orientation to literature. I am trying to fix it.

Here is a photo of Pyrrha, taking herself seriously:

November home life

Pratts do London

We were delighted to host Win and Tracy for the weekend in London. We had a full (and fortunately quite sunny) weekend with them, including a marvelous dinner at Dishoom (thanks, Granddad! We love you!), an afternoon at the Tate Modern (including the newly added wing), and a day exploring the gorgeous Hampstead area. Photos ensue.

Out with W and TOut with W and TOut with W and TOut with W and TDishoomHampsteadHampsteadSwain's Cottage near Highgate CemeteryHampsteadHampsteadHampsteadHampsteadKenwood House

A bead of sensation (six years)

Abby_and_Guion616
© Meredith Perdue

We are celebrating six years of marriage in Berlin today! While we’re experiencing the city with Grace and Jack, I am increasingly convinced, as I look over at Guion, that there isn’t anyone else I’d rather have with me during our European summer—and during the whole of my life, however long it may be.

This passage from Woolf’s diary expresses so much of what I feel about the daily work and magic of marriage:

Arnold Bennett says that the horror of marriage lies in its ‘dailiness.’ All acuteness of a relationship is rubbed away by this. The truth is more like this: life — say 4 days out of 7 — becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side. That is to say the year is marked by moments of great intensity. Hardy’s ‘moments of vision.’ How can a relationship endure for any length of time except under these conditions?

Virginia Woolf, autumn 1926 (A Writer’s Diary)

As all of the days pile up, I am inexpressibly grateful to be accumulating them with Guion.

Abby_and_Guion262
© Meredith Perdue

Easter and family

A good portion of my family came to see us on Easter weekend — to celebrate birthdays, to labor in our yard, and to provide general merriment. I can’t get over how much fun these people are sometimes. I felt like my Gran when they returned to their respective homes. She, normally of the stoic and sarcastic temperament, would always turn her face and cry a little when family left. This is what I did for a moment on Sunday afternoon, but I know we’ll see each other again soon. (And, ideally, in Europe.)

Spring is finally here, and I am grateful.

Easter 2016The big project: Adding pea gravel to our little fenced garden area. We will eventually add two more raised beds, but we wanted to go ahead and finish the gravel before we depart for the summer.

Before:

Easter 2016

And after:

Easter 2016Easter 2016Didn’t the boys do a marvelous job? I’m so happy with how it turned out. To finish it up, I want to find some low-growing, flowering perennials to put around the edges.

Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016

Lucy

My beloved grandmother passed away on 28 February. Following is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral on 5 March.

Young LucyAs we remember the bright and beautiful life of Mary Lucy Land Johnson—known by most as Lucy and known to me as Ma-Maw—it is important to note, up front, that her primary love language was baked goods. Pies, specifically. And cakes. Not many years ago, while she was battling cancer, in the course of an afternoon, she made twenty-two cranberry pies to give to friends and to the oncology nurses and staff at the hospital. Twenty-two pies! In a day. Her strawberry cake and her three-layer cream cheese pineapple cake were family staples. As you all probably know, Lucy was a true Southern woman who knew that one of the swiftest ways to love people was through food. And we can all confirm, she certainly made outstanding food. And more than that, she made her family and friends feel deeply loved and cared for throughout her life.

Lucy’s loving nature is what we will all remember her for. I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name another person who was as constantly brimming with hospitality and generosity as she was. Her sweet and incandescent smile, spreading over her high cheekbones and fabulously, miraculously youthful skin, will not soon fade from our collective memories.

Mary Lucy Land was born on April 26, 1931, to Clarice Fulcher Land and Harry Lynwood Land. She was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and though she lived most of her adult life in North Carolina, Virginia always held a very special place in her heart. When my husband and I were considering moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, she told me, “I prayed about it, and God told me that you should move to Virginia. It is, after all, God’s country.” She said in the secretive but confident voice of one who most likely had a direct line to God, which I believe she did.

She was raised on her grandparents’ farm in Amherst, Virginia, after her father died when she was 3. Her Aunt Mabel and Uncle Teap took care of her and one of her siblings while their mother supported the family—including Lucy and her older sister, Dot, and their two brothers, Elburn and Allan—by teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.

Lucy was a fun-loving and independent girl, and she used to delight my sisters and I with tales of her (admittedly minor) teenage rebellions. Her mother, a devout Baptist, forbade Lucy and her sister, Dot, from wearing any makeup, so Lucy would sneak a tube of red lipstick in the pocket of her dress and put it on while she walked to school and then be sure to remember to wipe it off on her walk home. Lucy was also tough and energetic, and she served as captain of her high school basketball team—a fact that always impressed us grandkids mightily.

After high school, she followed her sister Dot to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she took business classes and worked for an insurance company. In Charlotte, she and Dot lived with a fun-loving group of single women who called themselves “Girls’ Town.”

It was there in Charlotte that she met a tall, handsome young gentleman by the name of Edwin Rushing Johnson, or Pete, at St. John’s Baptist Church. Another suitor had asked Lucy on a date, but she turned him down, saying, “No way; you are too short.” But then she pointed to Pete across the room and said, “But he is tall enough!” Soon, Pete and Lucy started sitting together in the balcony during Sunday services. Pete was so nervous to be next to the lovely Lucy Land during church that he would gallantly hold the hymnal for her—but upside down. And then they could be found chatting at ice cream socials and so on. Pete and Lucy started dating, and he would take her out every weekend he was home from Wofford College.

On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 30 years and then were faithful members for another 30 years at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.

covermaybeI won’t be able to make it to the end of this speech if I have to tell you about all of the ways that Pete and Lucy have demonstrated true love. So, suffice it to say, this was a marriage that we could all strive to emulate. The most significant lesson about love that I have learned from my grandparents is that there can be joy in sacrifice. They loved each other tirelessly, but they were always full of light and humor when they were together. Pete and Lucy were extremely generous with one another, but they also had a lot of FUN too. Watching them interact with and care for each other in these difficult past few years has been enough to break your heart but then heal it again—to realize that such a transcendental and holy love is actually possible on earth.  All of their lives, Pete and Lucy were tender and kind to one another. Yes, I am sure they squabbled from time to time—they were not perfect, but I think they came pretty close to it.

Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. They delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and I have to say, from my vantage point, Pete and Lucy did a pretty commendable job raising their children. Each one of them reflects their mother in a variety of ways. Betsy has Lucy’s fun, playful spirit and unflinching devotion to her family members; Teresa has Lucy’s deeply sacrificial nature and her tremendous gift of hospitality; and Rush has her gentleness and love of tradition and family values.

Pete and Lucy with baby Mary Elizabeth (Betsy)After the kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. They began attending First Baptist Church, where she volunteered with the church youth group and started the Fifth Sunday Luncheon. She also started working at the Cheer Shop at Stanly County Hospital, where she worked and volunteered for 25 years. Lucy also created and organized the hospital’s fundraising winter ball for years.

Pete and Lucy traveled all over the world together, often with Pete’s brother Joe and his wife, Suzanne. They especially loved Europe and visited France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, just to name a few. They even went to Morocco together, which I, for one, find very impressive. They took a cruise to Alaska and drove cross-country across Canada and the United States. During their cross-country treks, they would bring their famous giant white styrofoam coolers, and Lucy would carefully pack the coolers full of food and sandwiches to minimize the amount of time that they would have to stop.

On one of their favorite trips, they took the Orient Express across Europe with Joe and Suzanne and Pete’s eldest sister, Lib. It was Lucy’s birthday, and Pete had told the chef that she loved chocolate and raspberries. The chef brought out a giant silver platter with this enormous chocolate mousse and raspberry confection, and they all ate it so quickly that everyone felt queasy afterward. But Lucy maintained it was all worth it.

Lucy was an excellent seamstress throughout her life. She’d create Easter dresses for the girls, without patterns sometimes, and if you ever had a need for homemade drapes or quilts or fancy bedskirts, Lucy was your girl. She loved arts and crafts; whatever was in vogue, Lucy was crafting it.

She also had a powerful obsession with rabbits. She started collecting rabbit figurines and bunny paraphernalia in adulthood, and over the decades, she amassed a remarkable collection. When I was a little girl, I was looking for something to do while at Ma-Maw and Da-Dan’s house, and so I decided to catalog all of the rabbits. I went from room to room with a pad of paper and counted all of the rabbits, and after about an hour, I had my grand total: 425 rabbits. Yes. In one house.

She loved shoes and frequently lamented her extremely narrow feet. She also loved putting together the perfect outfit. An “outfit” was an important sartorial construct for Lucy, and I loved that about her. Clothes were a carefully selected uniform, which communicated how much she cared about being with people and social events; she picked out the perfect lavender blouse to go with the white slacks and topped it off with her favorite bird’s nest brooch, and then she was ready for society. I don’t have to tell you that she always looked fabulous.

Lucy also probably singlehandedly kept her local Hallmark store in business. I think this may have been one of the only things that she and Da-Dan ever quarrelled about: how much money she spent on greeting cards. She loved the art of the emotionally perfect greeting card. Every year, at every birthday and holiday, we’d all get carefully chosen cards, each one with a sweet and personalized message from Ma-Maw and pertinent phrases meticulously underlined.

MM and Sam, boatingI would like to say that you have not known truly unconditional love on this earth unless you either (a) own a dog or (b) are one of Lucy Johnson’s grandchildren. Fellow grandkids, isn’t it remarkable to note that, in Ma-Maw’s eyes, we have never, ever done anything wrong? According to her, we are sinless! We used to joke that Ma-Maw could have ended the Iraq war if we had told her that Saddam Hussein had insulted one of her grandkids; she would have taken care of him swiftly.

She adored her children and doted on her 10 grandchildren: From Betsy, Matt came first, and then from Betsy and Jeff, Emily; from my parents, Teresa and Jak, there’s me, Kelsey, Grace, and Sam; and then from Rush and Cindi, Hunter, Pete, Parker, and Mary Elizabeth. If you ever visited Pete and Lucy in Norwood, you may have seen what we called “the Grandkids’ Shrine.” It was a big round table in the formal living room that had dozens of photos of the 10 grandkids at every stage of life. Although I can attest that we grandkids are all far from flawless, in Ma-Maw’s eyes, we were never anything but perfect.

One of Lucy’s many gifts was making people in her life feel special and cherished, especially on their birthdays and on holidays.

Grandparents through Grace's lensShe loved celebrating holidays and had an impressive store of decorations for her house at every major event. At Valentine’s Day, there were chocolates and hearts; at Easter, there were elegant baskets for everyone filled with candy and gifts, and a dainty “Easter tree” that we’d help her decorate with tiny, fragile egg and bunny ornaments; they hosted their famous annual Fourth of July gathering at the lake, and we kids would spend hours in the water and then everyone would gather to eat at tables on their wraparound porch. And then Christmas—Christmas was her magnum opus. She pulled out all the stops for Christmas. There was an immaculately decorated tree, seasonal food (a birthday cake for Jesus; Ruby Red grapefruit juice, sausage & egg casserole, and English muffins for breakfast; beef tenderloin for dinner), and piles and piles of presents. My brother Sam always liked to say that Christmas lived at Ma-Maw and Da-Dan’s house, and that was in large part due to Ma-Maw working her holiday magic.

For many years, when we grandkids were young, Ma-Maw and Da-Dan would have us stay with them for a weekend on our birthdays. We looked forward to those visits so much; we were treated like little kings and queens. We got to go shopping with Ma-Maw; she’d dress us girls up and curl our hair; and then we’d play by the lake or go fishing with Da-Dan. We were served unlimited cake and cartoons, and we never wanted to go home at the end of the weekend. She loved playing with us and talking to us about our interests. I think she saved every little scribble and drawing that we ever made at her house. She was perpetually involved in our lives—sending us cards and letters and care packages when we were away at school—and coming to see us whenever we came back into town.

Grandparents through Grace's lensAnd she was never one to pass up a good time with her family; on a memorable day many years ago, we even convinced her to play street hockey with the grandkids. She ended up getting checked by a feisty granddaughter (I won’t name names) but popped right up and was very brave and cheerful about the whole incident, despite the fact that she chipped a tooth and had a black eye. In typical Ma-Maw fashion, while she was being nursed on the sofa, she suddenly sprang up and said, “Oh, but I have to go make the coleslaw!”

We who have been fortunate enough to know Lucy Johnson will continue to reflect her in our lives. A person cannot help but be radically changed by receiving that kind of unconditional love. She will not soon fade from our memories, and I pray that we can honor her by showing each other even just a fraction of the kind of love and hospitality that she lavished on us. We all remember her with grateful and humble hearts.