“The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields, written by Stephin Merritt, and posted by me today, for Jim Pearce. I took a long, surprising, winding road to this valentine of mine, and didn’t even know I was headed in this direction. But here I am and here we are, and so, my love: Thank you for the wedding rings.
Here she is, Ruby Lavender. She has quite the story to tell.
Ruby started as a picture book I worked on in the mid-1990s, in a poetry workshop I took at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Maryland, where I lived at the time. I was a freelance writer and editor, after having been a magazine editor for one fateful year.
I was also in the midst of some grant-funded oral history work for the Community Foundation of Frederick County, which took me to the most interesting places, with the most interesting voices: people over 100 years old; knife makers, farmers and farm wives, potters, artists, community activists, former mayors and police chiefs, civil rights activists, and more.
Their voices, and their stories, in concert, over the years I interviewed them, reminded me so much of the voices I heard telling tales (some of them tall) on the front porch of my grandmother’s house in Jasper County, Mississippi in the sixties.
Ruby was born because I missed them all so much, wanted to bring them close to me, and wanted to honor their memories through telling a story, just as my new friends in Frederick had honored me with their stories.
So I went back to Mississippi, like I did every summer, and this time to document a time and place. I’ve been back so many times, always back, although no one I grew up with lives there anymore.
I’ve made some new friends there, though, and they come out to see me every time I stop by. And my kinfolks live an hour north, near Jackson. I go there, too. And if I’m lucky, I wrangle one of them to go with me to Louin.
I remember my great-grandmother, Nanny (great-great Aunt Florentine in Each Little Bird That Sings), coming out this door (it leads to the kitchen) in the early morning, after eating her toast and drinking her coffee, and walking down the steps in her long button-down dress and wide-brimmed hat, heading for the garden, which is behind me.
I remember those cousins as kids, and that cemetery as a playground, and the pie at the Bayless is still that good (like the Cake Cafe in A Long Line of Cakes).
I remember watching Sea Hunt on a black and white television in the living room at night, with all the lights turned off. I remember Miss Eula’s dentures in a glass of water by her bed at night. I remember the moths that danced around the porch light and the beez that buzzed in the car house.
I remember what it all looked like to a ten-year-old kid, what it smelled like, felt like, tasted like, sounded like, and I remember it all now as if I were still ten, that place that became a little girl’s homeplace filled with those who loved her best in the world and couldn’t wait to see her from summer to summer, every year.
Whew. I’ve had deadline-brain. I turned in the revision and backmatter to the Kent State project (book, now), which publishes in April 2020, and that intensity, on the heels of bringing-in the last bits for ANTHEM, Book 3 of the Sixties Trilogy (publishes October 1, 2019), shoved me right over. Tilt.
Noodle-brain, I started calling it. For days. I’m slowly pulling it back together, and so back to Summer Reading. Let me finish writing a bit about my first book, FREEDOM SUMMER and then on to RUBY next time.
I often say that Mississippi was/is the landscape of my heart. It is certainly the geography of my childhood. Both my parents were Mississippi born and bred, so it become our homeplace each year, as we lived all over the globe in an Air Force family. I started school in Hawaii (before it became a state!) and I graduated high school in the Philippines, at Clark AFB.
Mississippi was the place where everyone knew me and couldn’t wait for me to return each summer, to pinch my cheek and tell me how much I’d grown, and to celebrate their most famous citizen (or so it seemed to a young girl then), my dad, who had left this tiny town of a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere, and gone out into the world to become a pilot and a war hero. If the town had been big enough for parades, I thought they’d have had one for my father’s return each summer.
Those childhood summers were idyllic for me, with nothing to do, and nowhere much to go, except to the cemetery to visit all the relatives, to play piano in the unlocked (and un-air-conditioned) Methodist church, to ride to the Cool Dip for ice cream in the next town over, and, if you were lucky, to go roller skating and swimming at the Pine View.
Here’s what the Pine View Cafe across the road from the pool and roller skating rink and pond looked like before I was even born, probably:
We ate there once that I remember. It was the first time I’d heard the term “blue plate special.”
This was the roller skating rink, and next to it (hidden by cars, but on the left in front of those pines) was the pool.
In 1964, the year I was 11, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the pool closed. The roller skating rink closed. The Pine View Cafe closed. The Cool Dip closed. The Bayless Theater in Bay Springs, the county seat a few miles away, closed. The public library closed.
It would be years before I began to understand what had happened. And even more years before I wrote about that time in FREEDOM SUMMER. And even more years before I revisited that pool.
I have been to see it many times since, have photographed it in all seasons, and show those slides when I speak at schools or conferences, after I read FREEDOM SUMMER on slides. And always, there is a hush. You can hear a pin drop. The proverbial pin.
My pool (as I have taken to calling it) was abandoned in 1964. (In the book I have it filled in with tar/asphalt, the way the pool in Greenwood, Mississippi was turned into a parking lot.) I can’t stop visiting this town, every time I go to Mississippi. I still have precious family in Mississippi, although my parents have both died, and I still feel pulled to this geography of my childhood, this time and place, this trying-to-understand.
I’m still trying to write about this time, which I’ve done specifically in REVOLUTION (Freedom Summer in novel form, and Book 2 of the Sixties Trilogy), and in THE AURORA-COUNTY ALL-STARS, and in A LONG LINE OF CAKES, in which the Pine View Cafe becomes The Cake Cafe. Possibly I will write about this time in our American history for as long as I live, in one way or another. It shows up in all my novels, in some form.
FREEDOM SUMMER got me started. Here’s how.
In 1997 I went to the (then called) IRA — International Reading Association — conference in Atlanta (I lived in D.C. at the time, and went to support a friend). I met Anne Schwartz there, who was then at Simon&Schuster/Atheneum. My good bud Deborah Hopkinson introduced us and said, “Debbie is working on a book about the civil rights movement for children.”
I wasn’t. I had been writing and submitting manuscripts about my southern childhood for many years, and had collected a sizeable batch of rejection letters, but I hadn’t sold a book yet.
At IRA, I’d sat up late the night before with Deborah and another writer buddy Jane Kurtz, and each of us had talked about the book we’d write if we got only one book to write in our lifetimes. I talked about the summer the pool closed. “But that’s not a book for children,” I said. And Deborah said, “Why not?”
On the exhibit floor that day, Anne shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you write that book, I want to read it.”
And four years later, S&S published FREEDOM SUMMER.
Perhaps I’d become a better writer in the ten years I’d been practicing and collecting rejections. Perhaps it was an editor’s challenge and invitation. Perhaps it was good friends believing in me. Perhaps it was a story I knew was mine to tell, and mine alone, and perhaps all those things came together in a moment that I was prepared for by all the days of my life trying to figure it out. I don’t know.
I’m grateful for this book, though. It has helped. I will read it to anyone who will listen. And I will learn from it, for all the rest of the days of my life.
I’ve about forgotten how to blog. :> But it’s summer, and summer always meant reading, to me, along with bike rides in the woods and friends over to play, swimming pools, baseball, family camping and fishing, and trips to my grandmother’s house in Mississippi, where we’d have nothing to do but breathe, try not expire in the heat, and listen to the kinfolks swap stories and gossip. Nothing and everything. I grew up on stories.
I had a stack of library books that rotated in and out of my bed, my brother’s tree house, my bath (until they were dunked under accidentally), the dinner table (until they were confiscated), and the car. I read everything I could get my hands on, even encyclopedias, even Popular Mechanics. Even stuff I didn’t understand at 12, like Dracula. It scared the pants off me.
And now I write about those summers, in books of my own. I have a newly-designed website ready to share this summer, and as I do, I want to revisit my books, as much to reacquaint myself with their characters and stories, as to share them with you. A book and a story each week for the summer weeks, from June into August.
So let me begin at the beginning:
Freedom Summer was the first book I published, with editor Anne Schwartz, at Simon & Schuster, in January 2001. Anne’s imprint was Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Jerome Lagarrigue illustrated my 760 words, and we were off into a whirlwind year of unexpected excitement. More to come about that!
Jerome had illustrated his first book, My Man Blue, by Nikki Grimes. This would be his second. He was 28 years old, from France (his father) and Brooklyn (his mother), and wasn’t even born in 1964, when the book takes place.
I was convinced he wouldn’t be able to understand the Southern time and place I was writing about, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Smart Jerome interviewed his grandmother, who lived in Richmond, Virginia in the Sixties, who had seen her share of racism and civil rights unrest, as an African-American woman living in the American South; she had stories to tell. And Jerome did his homework. As did I. As did Anne.
We lovingly put together, together, the story of the friendship of two boys, one black and one white, and what happens when the segregated pool is supposed to open to “everybody under the sun, no matter what color” in July 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Freedom Summer was published almost 20 years ago. It still sells and sells, out there in the world, a story about friendship and fairness and the decisions two young boys face together in the segregated South of the Sixties.
In 2014, at the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, S&S issued an anniversary edition of the book, which is the cover you see here.
Next up: the story of how Freedom Summer came to be, how it grew from a piece of my own childhood personal narrative, to a book for young (and older) readers.
But for now, I’m going to pull the book off the shelf and read it again, out loud, this time doing something I haven’t done for years: turning each page as I read aloud, and taking my time, listening to the cadences of the language just for myself alone, and admiring Jerome’s art.
For years I couldn’t read this book without tearing up. Now I have it memorized, and rarely have the book in my hands when I read it. I’ve put the pages on slides (PowerPoint, today), and I have “read it” many, many hundreds of times, over the past 18 years, to children in pre-K through college, in schools and libraries and bookstores across this country, and even around the world.
Today I watch young people and their teachers have the same reaction I did as I read it years ago, when “John Henry’s eyes fill with angry tears. ‘I did! I wanted to swim in this pool! I want to do everything you can do!'”