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A few years before my late wife got ill, I began asking her to tell me stories from her childhood. She would talk and I would type them into my laptop (I can type as fast as someone can speak). 

She had been telling these stories for decades; she seemed to have an uncanny memory for even minute details, memory that went back nearly to her infancy. I thought it would be important to preserve some of these, especially for her granddaughters. We knew from our own experience how much we wish we could now ask our grandparents for information now irretrievable by their deaths. Here was a trove to preserve for when the granddaughters finally come to want to know their roots.

Well, their roots are as Southern as they could be. I am from New Jersey, and I always thought the baroque and byzantine tales of William Faulkner were clearly hyperbolic and sensational, but as Carole sat and recalled her life, it seemed ever more likely that Faulkner was just writing what he knew.

I thought I might share a few of these stories that Carole retold me. This group concerns her grandfather, Earl Thaddeus Steele, who she called “Papa E.” He was a character; he hardly worked a day in his life, spending his time hunting and fishing instead. When he was a boy, his family migrated to Kansas in a wagon to start an apple orchard; it failed and they moved back to North Carolina. Late in life, Papa E caused a car wreck in which he lost a leg. He had driven through a stop sign, but he always said that traffic signs were only for people who didn’t know how to drive. 

I have what amounts more than a hundred pages of typewritten recollections. I can only offer a few here. These are Carole’s words, transcribed by me. 

Bucko the Bull

Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school,  Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down.

Bucko was very ill-tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him. 

There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.

On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.

The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there. 

I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”

The Easter Chicks

When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuschia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.

And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.

On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.

I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.

Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house. 

“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”

Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.

We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.

The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.

We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He  killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”

Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”

But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed. 

Language Therapist

Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.

Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes. 

Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, had a terrible stutter and might have been a little slow.

One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.

At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.

Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”

And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious. 

And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad D-Deele.” 

Flying Squirrels

When I was growing up, I had the most beautiful piece of furniture in the house. It was a handmade walnut chest of drawers and on top, there was a small glove drawer and a small handkerchief drawer, or collar drawer.

It was made by someone in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a relative, but I don’t know who. It would have been someone old enough to be one of my great-great grandfathers. I hope someday Mother will give the chest to me. 

In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.

Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.

After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.

It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.

The Sock Drawer

The day I thought Papa E was dying. It was late in his life and he was lying in bed and he was wearing a van Gogh style beard and he was growing this beard as a hobby and it was irritating Mother. I loved his beard.

He called me to his room, motioned me to his bedside, asked me to lean down so he could whisper something in my ear and I was scared to death he was going to tell me goodbye for the last time. But he said, “Carole, look in the third dresser drawer, under my socks. Peach brandy.”

Daddy did something similar many years later. And when I bent down to hear what Daddy had to say to me, this was after one of his heart attacks, he said, “Catbird, go out to the Hudson, look in the floorboard of the back seat under a blanket. There’s a new rifle I bought. Your mother doesn’t know anything about it. Wrap it up in the blanket and bring it to me so she doesn’t find out.”

Testing the Edge

One of the funniest things about Papa E was, about the same time as the peach brandy, after he’d lost his leg, Daddy had built an addition on the house, that they called the Florida Room. it had the television and the dining table and chairs, the sofa and a couple of other comfortable chairs for watching TV. 

Mother used to work on the books for the plumbing company in this room at the dining table. And Papa E would watch television sitting in the recliner. And although he was watching television, his chief activity at this time was practicing casting his fly rod over mother’s head. That was the last of a long string of things he did that drove Mother nuts. Starting with Papa E’s guns.

Daddy was turned down by the Army and the Navy because the third finger on his left hand had been shot through at the knuckle near the fingertip. This happened when Daddy was a little boy and had picked up one of Papa E’s loaded guns. 

I remember at least two times in my childhood that Mother scolded Papa E about keeping loaded guns in our house, and Papa E would go get the gun and say to Mother, “This gun is not loaded. See?” as he shot a hole in the living room floor. Or a hole through the living room window.

Knife sharpening drove Mother mad, also. Every morning Papa E would sharpen his straight razor. So in the morning when he sharpened his straight razor, he would hone the edge on a leather strop and the strop would hang inside the bathroom. And he would step outside the bathroom and shave a thin strip of wood out of the kitchen doorframe to see if his razor was ready. 

When winter came, Papa E would leave us and head to Florida to hunt and fish with Uncle Jim and Dewey.

He would return to us with spring and when he did, he would push all the furniture out of Melvin’s room and pitch his tent in the empty room.

Papa E and the Pond

When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.

He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.

He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like. And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.

He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.

But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape. We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.

There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.

He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots. Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use. Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.

On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.

These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.

I make no claim of wisdom. In fact, the older I get, the less wise I feel. But I can claim, at the age of 70, to have amassed a life of experience. I have been through a lot, from the turmoil of the 1960s, divorce, near homelessness, the death both of a brother and of my late espoused saint. I have been both unemployed and had a successful career and traveled three continents. Finally, I have grandchildren and see with trepidation into the 21st century, beyond my time here. 

And it is that last that gives me pause. If there is one regret that haunts my senescence, it is that all the experience I have lived through can never be transmitted to the twin granddaughters that I love. Sure, I can tell them things, and perhaps some of what I tell them helps. More is surely ignored — I know I ignored the importunings of my elders when I was their age. It cannot be otherwise. When I was young, I knew so much; now that I am old, I know so little. They certainly see that in me, now that they are 18, headed off to college and know so very much. 

But it isn’t advice I am talking about. I am talking about the impossibility of transferring experience. From my brain, from my heart, to theirs, of for that matter, to anyone. A whole life of accrued sensation and false step, of battering and acceptance, of the shiftings of love and the devastation of failure, the afflatus of joy and the satisfaction of doing good work, remains bottled up inside me — and inside everyone. 

I am reminded in this of the soldier back from the war, with the thousand-yard stare, who can say in words what he has been through, but can never actually share the reality of it. The horror, the horror. So many, like my own father, a veteran of World War II in Europe, never talked about it. When he was old, I tried to tease it out of him. I asked questions about his war experience, but he always deflected. I know at one point near the end of the war, that 11 German soldiers walked out of the woods to surrender to him. But as far as he was concerned, he had no part in that. It was just something that happened while he was there. He avoided ever talking about the war and when pressed, made light of it, in a way that made it clear there was little lightness about it at all. 

Things of the magnitude of war and destruction cannot be adequately talked about. You had to be there. And having been there, you never wanted to be there again, even in recollection. 

I had a similar experience when my wife died. There is no way to express the enormity of the loss, or the singularity of the experience. There were many who expressed sympathy, and I greatly appreciated those words intended to comfort. But they cannot know what it was like. Is like. In no way. The only people I could truly commune with were those who had also lost a mate. They had been through it, too. They understood. It is a kind of brotherhood. 

The actual complexity and depth, the horror and devastation of it cannot be conveyed in mere words. The experience of it is different from language. It is the biggest event in my life, and remains so a year and half later. 

In the same way, all the years that have been poured into and out of my body and my psyche can not be expressed in words that begin to touch the heart of it. Language is a parallel universe, a train out of whose windows you may watch the world pass without having the need to experience it. The real thing is bigger, inexplicable, devastating, body-filling, rich, dense, multifarious and always connected, piece to piece in a larger and larger construction, which is me. Or you. 

It is the final frustration of life that all that history buried in my mind is stuck there, doomed to die when I do. In a way, all that learning I have amassed is ultimately pointless; poof, gone. 

I am aware of the irony: I made my living as a writer, and words are my only useful tools. But no matter, I have always felt the inadequacy of those ink squiggles on the paper. 

I am reminded again of those lines in Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…” 

The idea being that inside us is a world actually bigger than the outer one. It takes it all in and creates even further, making connections not obvious, building from imagination “far other worlds and other seas.”

“Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

And it’s the “annihilating” part that digs at me. I have no fear of death — after all, I was not afraid before I was born; non-existence is a neutral state (of course, like Woody Allen, I don’t want to be there when it happens). Like Herman Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty well made up my mind to be annihilated.” But all that life, all that experience of which my cup overfloweth, will ultimately count for nil. That is the part that vexes me. 

I want to make the twins’ lives easier, happier, with less of the pain and frustration that comes to all of us. I want to impart to them the equanimity that age confers, but I cannot. No one can. All that experience is ultimately wasted in me, moiling about inside with no escape. No purpose, no benefit. It is life’s greatest frustration. And I feel it intensely.

Mrs Semendinger's second grade 2
I recently came across a photograph of my second grade class and something odd happened.

I hadn’t thought of these young faces in more than 50 years. Yet, as I looked into their faces, their names popped into my brain. Where those names and faces had been stored, I have no idea: some forgotten warehouse in my mind, like the scene at the end of “Lost Raiders.” These were faces from nearly 60 years ago, and in their fresh-faced innocence, they barely show the traces that would line them even in their eighth grade graduation photo. 8th grade class 1961

I left behind my life in New Jersey four years after that second photo, going off to college and what seemed to me to be “real life.” I wanted to forget New Jersey — more exactly the banality I saw in the suburban stultification of my home state — and dive into the deep end of art, music and poetry.

But now, a half-century later, I saw the faces in that picture and names I have not uttered in 50 years reappeared magically, jogged out of the synapses of my brain like dust between the floorboards.

What connects, ourobouros-like, our lives now with our lives then? The disconnect seems immense: There is so little of then that survives into my now; yet, the person — the sensibility I am — is a continuous existence, a line drawn without the pencil once being lifted off the page.

There is a danger, when looking back, to fall into the miasma of nostalgia. You see it all over the internet: “Share if you remember when the milkman delivered milk to your door?” and “Remember when cars had running boards?” Rotary phones? Party lines? As the American population has aged, PBS stations ask for money to a soundtrack no longer of septuagenarians playing Glenn Miller standards, but now to septuagenarians singing doo-wop music and recalling, with a wistful gaze on their faces “the music of our times,” as if this shared experience created an us-vs.-them world in which we remain the good guys, who really knew the score, and they are the johnny-come-latelies who have ruined it all. Patti Page

So, it is easy to make fun of the elderly, watching reruns of Lawrence Welk and wishing music still had melody, like the tunes of Patti Page and Perry Como. Or the Beatles and Barry Manilow. Or, sometime in the future, of Nirvana and Coldplay.

Nostalgia is a trap we should avoid. The past was not better than the present; it was different. I, for one, would not wish to retreat to a time when segregation was enforced by police, when women had to wear girdles, and when everyone, everywhere, at every hour of the day, sucked cigarettes.

What interests me in that second-grade photograph is not a warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but a hard, difficult and confusing problem: How much of that is me, is still me? How complete is the link between that little boy and this old, bearded senex? What is the mechanism of selfhood? How come a flash glance at an old picture can fire off a neuron after a half century and cough up the name of a Linda Muth or a Lenny D’Angelo. Why do those names persist in the neurobiology of a 67-year-old writer, who has left them all behind? And what else is buried under a lifetime of experience, ready to be excavated by a chance trigger?

A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting her hometown in North Carolina. We stopped at a gas station to refill the car and she got out to go into the quickie-mart. Inside, while standing at the cash register, a voice called out behind her, “Carole Steele, do you remember me?” She turned around and saw an old man, cue-ball hairless, nearly toothless, with a vast beer belly and dressed in denim overalls — clearly an old farmer. “Thomas Bullins,” she said, in instant recognition. “What happened to your red hair and your freckles? And how did you recognize me?” Carole was now 70 years old. “Your hair,” he said. When they were in the first grade, little Tommy Bullins used to steal the ribbons from Carole’s pigtails.

He smiled that toothless smile, and Carole reached up and kissed him on the mouth. Some vast and unnamed chasm had been spanned in an instant.

What traces of the six-year-old Tommy Bullins remained on the wrinkled, pudgy, puffy, weathered face that Carole could see so immediately? “There is an X on the faces of all the Bullinses,” she says, “that I saw in the gas station.” Not an actual X, but a lineup of features that suggested an X there, that signaled that this was Tom Bullins.

I don’t know the mechanism for memory. I’m not sure anyone does. But I know its persistence, and I know that somehow that persistence is necessary for the development of a self — that sense that the boy is truly father to the man, that the me in New Jersey 60 years ago is the same me in the mountains of North Carolina now, despite all the midden of experience that has piled on in the intervening years. Would my mother recognize the little boy in me now? I know that Carole recognizes the little girl in her 50-year-old daughter; in fact, she hardly recognizes that Susie is all grown up.

We push through time like snow plows, leaving a cleared path behind us. That wake is our selfhood. Longfellow School Teaneck back

Through Facebook, I recently reconnected with a boy (now man) I first met in kindergarten at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Teaneck, N.J. He now lives on the other side of the continent. When my family moved from Teaneck to Old Tappan and I began the second grade at Charles De Wolf Elementary School in Old Tappan, he was there, too, his family having also moved. This makes him the person outside of family that I have known the longest.

The contact brought up a welter of memory, of playing in a rhythm band in kindergarten, of taking those daily naps on the classroom floor, of seeing him and other classmates singing “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,” and of walking every day — at five years old — the half mile from home to school, and later, walking back. The entire geography of my tiny life was back before me: the A&P I passed on the way, the firehouse on Morningside Drive, the ballfield outside Longfellow school, the deli, the stationery store, the old grocery with its sawdust floor, the Italian pushcart merchant that wandered up Farrant Terrace calling out his wares, the two collies that lived down the street that scared my younger brother, who thought they were lions — the inside of the closet in my home, with its lathe-and-plaster walls. A whole world wells up. Where has it been sitting? Why is it all buried in there?

A few years ago, I began an autobiography, not for publication, but to share with my brothers in a group project: They would write theirs, too, and we would get to know each other better — what they had done after leaving home for college, and we lost daily contact.

The thing that most astonished me about the writing was that every memory I retrieved was a room with three other doors, and behind each of those doors was another room with three more doors, on and on, like some Borges story. I was dumbfounded at the amount of information that was still there to be recovered. Many were not anecdotal stories, but rather, sense memories, bits of things and locations that fell back into place when recalled.

It must be the same for everyone. I know that when I ask my wife to tell me about her childhood, she can go on for an hour and we have to stop, but the next day, we can start again and there is an endless stream, an bottomless well of material. In her case, it sounds all like a Faulkner novel and I have tried to write it all down. A fool’s errand: There can be no “all,” because it never seems to end. I write it into my laptop as fast as she can speak it, but I’ll never have the time to go back and edit the notes, because the next time, there are all-new stories, and another cast of characters.

I want to save as much as possible, not for publication, but for the sake of our grandchildren, so they can have some sense of their grandmother. If her stories can become part of their memories, then their interior lives can retreat five generations, back to Carole’s grandparents, who were so central to her life.

In the end, this has given me a powerful sense of the onflow of life, of the piling on of detail, of the continuity, not merely of selfhood, but of family, of history: a line that Carole calls “the long man,” which reaches back past Eve and Adam, past Homo habilis, back to our reptilian life, back to our eukaryotid beginnings, all a wholeness. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The author, age 20 months

I see the scrubbed face of my old picture, holding my favorite ball, and I see myself now, aged and worn, and there is an odd reversal: The baby photograph is now six decades old and the ancient me is brand new. And in some inexplicable way, they are the same.