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A rich, passionate first novel featuring a strong and determined African American woman living in contemporary South Carolina. "Straight's portrayal . . . is nearly miraculous in its astonishing richness of detail . . . emotional honesty and . . . human thought and feeling."--USA Today.
She was supposed to sit quietly with her mother in the slatted shadows of the wooden stand, learning to make better baskets than the clumsy-started circle that could still fit into her palm. The long strands of sweetgrass shot out from the woven round, making it look even smaller in her hand, and she dropped it to the ground. She should have been bending the spray of grass, coiling the strands around, and listening to the hum and fade of passing cars on the highway and the echoing murmurs, rising and falling, of the women's voices.
The women walked back and forth in the morning, after they had gotten settled, edging into each other's stands to compare peaches and straighten baskets that looked slightly crooked to an eye coming from the front. Rosie, Pinkie, and Laha would come all the way to the end, the last of the six stands, to see her mother. Marietta watched them. Her mother sat each morning, never looking at the baskets Marietta hung on the nails, or the peaches she lined in the box. Rosie would reach up to the shelf where the round-bottomed baskets sat, pushing one over a few inches, and then she'd turn to Marietta and say, "Get up there for pull that fanner basket right. You so tall and don never see it straight."
Marietta stood and tapped at the wide, circle-shaped flat; it wavered a moment before facing out to the highway. She went back to her corner and with her head lowered watched Pinkie. Laha would nudge Rosie's baskets, Pinkie would move Mary's, and only her mother sat motionless but for her hands.
Even her fingers were still this morning, the half-finished bowl of a basket on her stomach. She nodded at Rosie, and her eyes were too fixed for her to be listening, Marietta saw. Rosie said, "This heat make so hard for sleep, have me wake half a night. I too happy when this air break."
Her mother was quiet, and Rosie said, "How you rest, Josephine?"
She shook her head and answered, "No rest for me." Then she bent over the sweetgrass, and Rosie looked at Marietta.
"You still ain finish one, girl?" Rosie said, one side of her mouth lifting when her voice rose. "I swear, you ever was resist and hardhead." She dipped a finger onto the nearest peach and turned. "Your tree the oldest, Josephine. Got the best peach for everybody, so big and sweet." Marietta thought she was gone, but she paused again and said, "You let she put em up too high, maybe. Marietta reach up there for somebody want buy that, she don even need pole. But maybe nobody don see em good, so high for look. I ain sell a big one too long time. This summer for hard. But I keep mines easy for see." She went out, her feet crunching the dirt.
Marietta looked at her mother, but she had her finger and thumb on the skin between her eyes, pulling gently again and again like she did, like a foot tapping or a baby sucking a rag. Marietta took a step into the middle of the tiny stand, where the top baskets were close to her head. She hunched her shoulders, hearing Rosie and Laha and the others saying, "She cain get no taller. She what—fourteen? Something wrong she get bigger than that."
She had thought putting some of the baskets on a high shelf would give the peaches and new baskets more room. Her mother kept making them, all the women did, and none of the white people who stopped their cars seemed to buy more than one little oval to hold rolls, or maybe a small bottle holder. Baskets crowded all the slats of the stands, hanging from nails in the sagging boards, sitting on sand near the women's feet.
She pulled down the two biggest, the tall one with a flaring lip at the top and the big-bellied round that closed into a small mouth with a cap. Leaving the high shelf empty, she tried to put them on the ground near the front, but they looked squat and undignified sitting there. Her mother didn't look up. Marietta put them back on the top shelf and rearranged the peaches.
Rosie was still in Aint Sister's stand, next door, and Marietta heard them complaining about the wet heat, but then the first car slowed and their words faded. All up and down the line of stands, the women grew quiet. Marietta stood at the back of the stand, near the narrow rear opening between the two folding chairs, and saw the sun bars floating through the slats onto the dirt. Now the dust would come. The stands were at the edge of the woods, on the water side of the highway from Charleston, and when a car swerved toward them or pulled back onto the road, a layer of gold dust hung in the air for a long time. The women waited for car doors to open and feet to emerge, and Marietta pushed herself through the back, away from the fine roadside mist that came toward her. The cloudy air and hum of throats were what she hated.
Before the car doors even clicked, her mother put the cupped base of the basket down and looked at her hard. Marietta sat down, picking up the sweetgrass circle again, trying to work a new tail of strands into the shape. She saw the white people, two women in pointy sunglasses and scarves thin as spiderwebs over their hair, and a man with his belt cut deep under his egg-belly. She might scare someone if she stood, her head above theirs, her shoulders wide into the air around them, so she hunched over her hands.
Marietta wondered if her mother would fall asleep in her chair. Sometimes she did now, because at night she twisted in the bed beside Marietta, rolling back and forth, calling out. If she sagged in her chair, Marietta would slant herself out the back of the stand. She wouldn't stay to watch, to learn. She never had. Each beginning of a basket grew blurred under her fingers, the edges of grass loose and dirty from her handling until she threw the coil behind her chair and someone else picked it up, sucking her teeth and waving it at her mother. Marietta crept in among the orange butterfly weed every day, inside the bushes that grew thick at the fringe of trees behind the stands. Someone else would help her mother stay awake.
When she was younger, she used to lie in the soft, sandy shade behind the huts and play with her doll, or throw pebbles at Rosie's baby boy, Johnny, who was only a heap in the corner of her stand, where he slept all day. She was four then, or five? She remembered the stripes of light across her knees, the doll's creamy feet and cheeks that grew brown-smudged with dirt. Down the road, she used to hear Pinkie's two girls, Crystal and Cynthia, argue with their mother about boys and nighttime. She saw Crystal's and Cynthia's eyebrows grow thinner and wispy, then blue appear underneath the brows, and Pinkie shouted at them all day between slamming car doors. Now they were gone to New York, and Pinkie always talked about them when certain voices and license plates stopped during the summer. And Johnny went with the other boys to the landing and the boats, walking behind their fathers and uncles to the water, where they cast nets for fish and shrimp, pulled up crabs on baited lines, packed them on the landing to take in Big Johnny's old truck to the cannery in McClellanville. But Marietta was told to stroke the sweetgrass, around and around.
The feet had gone back to the car already, and Marietta lowered her head to peer through the slats; the hands carried nothing but purses and a cigarette and a small bag lumped with peaches. She watched dusty feet and listened to the roar of the engine, tires popping over the grit. Her mother stood suddenly. "I cain make it," she said, and Marietta got to her feet quickly to meet her mother's elbow with her hand.
In the humid end-of-July heat, when nothing swayed or blew during the day, only quivered under the pressing sun, her mother didn't last the whole morning by the road. But today was the earliest she had ever given up. She had to go back to the house to lie down now. Like all the other women, she refused to walk through the woods behind the stands, the forest that separated the houses from the highway, so Marietta gave her an arm for the long way.
It was hotter beside the asphalt than on Marietta's path through the trees, she thought for the hundredth time, and the voices she hated began with Aint Sister's leaning boards, her grumble through the back. "Go on get you rest now, Josephine. I take care. Drink you some a that tea I beena bring Sunday. Drink fe hot, now."
Rosie's stand, Laha's, Mary's, and then Pinkie's, each one saying, "Get you some sleep. Too hot for rest right. We keep a eye." Marietta kept her eyes on her mother's ankles, no bones showing, just plump-stretched skin that swelled like water-soaked wood. She didn't want to meet the eyes hard on her. "You herry back, Marietta," Rosie called.
They walked in silence on the sand. At the crossroad, they turned onto the scattering of gravel someone had left years ago, worn now into the sand, and then the dirt grew harder from so many shoes and wheels packing it down. They passed the bare lot beside Pearl's store, where no one sat outside to tell stories; only Laha's husband Jerry and his brother Dell squatted in the shade of the cinder-block wall, waiting for a ride if Mr. Briggs or one of the other white farmers should need some day labor. But they always brought their trucks down before the sun rose. Jerry and Dell nodded at her mother and looked away, but their knees stared at Marietta, hard, bony faces through the cloth.
A few houses lined the road, but after a mile the swampy land close to the creek was empty. The bridge's wooden planks had been washed out by the flooding creek and then rebuilt more times than she could remember. Sometimes the water rose with a flood tide or rainstorm and filled everyone's fields, even their garden plots and pig yards. A storm had hit only a few weeks earlier, but it was mostly wind that knocked down trees and branches, which still lay scattered everywhere. Marietta looked down at the clear brown water sliding sideways under her feet. Creeks cut across two sides of Pine Gardens, and the coastal waterway edged the back. The highway from Charleston to McClellanville was a blacker river.
Past Rosie and Big Johnny's house and the others after the bridge, she and her mother turned down the soft-powdered, narrow lane that led into the woods, where the oaks and pines towered over them to make the path cool and shaded. Her mother stopped twice, after Pinkie's house and then before the curve in the lane, but she never said a word; her breath was harsh and quick under Marietta's chin. Farther in the trees, Aint Sister's broom guarded her porch. Marietta's mother walked slower, to the small clearing and then their house, just before the brush and vines ended the lane.
Her mother didn't tell her to go on back, didn't say to get her a rag or bring water—nothing; just pushed down on Marietta's arm when it came time to climb the two steps to the porch. Then she went straight into the dark doorway. Marietta heard the soft pop of her own lips, the way they let go of each other when they'd been pressed together all morning, but then her mother was inside.
She looked into the doorway and saw her mother already lying on the bed. The bedroom was almost black, with the two window shutters closed and the sun on the other side of the house. In the other room, she checked the stove. The ashes still glowed pink from breakfast. The two rooms were already so hot she didn't think the embers would make a difference, and she made sure there was water in the bucket, in case her mother was thirsty. A clean Mason jar, too, and then she went back onto the porch and looked down the lane.
"Herry back," she whispered to herself. Starting into the woods, down her own path leading back to the highway, she walked slowly. Something—she was forgetting something. She kept on, frowning, but whatever it was, she wouldn't go back to the stand. Sit patiently, eyes down and fingers flickering, when white people came to tilt their faces at the baskets. They thought she was a woman. Grown. Their eyes swept right past her shoulders and hands, skimmed her dress—Rosie's dress, too old and small for Rosie's plumpness and too big for her mother, whose skin pulled tighter and tighter while the flesh underneath melted away.
The print hung loose on Marietta, but the hem barely covered her knees. "You beena get dress fe Rosie, you don care bout no print. You get pants this winter fe wear underneath," Aint Sister had said.
Her mother had said softly, "Girl have fe wear dress. And now you moontime come, every month. You keep you head cover, like Sister say. Keep you body clean and cover."
She hated how the dress felt when she hunched in the chair, the tight-soft creasing under her arms, the cloth smelling of smoke and bleach—she watched people enter the stand and their pale eyes flew past her, quick as moths. Their hands flapped at the flies hovering over the peaches. She stepped carefully around the swampy ground that covered her path, hugging close to a tree trunk to walk on the roots. If they knew she wasn't grown, their voices would be different, sweeter and direct, and they would buy something, feel sorry, give her money for soda or chips. But they wouldn't look at her. She heard the smiles and giving in their throats when Laha's kids hung around the stands. Could she say, "I ain't old," and take off the scarf tight over her hair? Would her forehead help? But if she stood up, none of that would matter.
She never said anything but: "Big one fifteen. That one seven."
The trail was only large enough for her; no one else ever went into the thick brush, and huge oaks hung with moss on this side. Laha's kids, all thirteen of em, Aint Sister always said, never crossed into the trees. They played only in their tromped-bare yard where Laha's mother kept an eye on them. The men chopped wood on the other side, too, past the church and the graveyard. If anyone came down this way to Aint Sister's or Mama's, they stayed in the middle of the lane, never venturing off to the sides. Beyond her mother's house were the old plantation gates.
When she had first started wandering in the woods, after the roadside dust began to fill her nose and mouth, she found twisting paths all overgrown—no thick trees to block her, but creeping vines and brush that only possums and raccoons slid through. She had knocked the brush aside with a heavy stick, like she saw the men do. Now she came to the huge fallen oak that walled off this path. People always said the tree had fallen years ago to cut off the road to the plantation, so that the spirits living there would stay where they belonged. She leaned against the gnarled trunk, so high she couldn't see over it. PINE GARDENS, the wrought-iron gates said, but Aint Sister just called it "the House." She told stories about the windows boarded like shut eyelids, and the plat-eyes and other spirits roaming there. Laha's father and the men said the old landing where the mail boat had come years ago to bring supplies to the House was a good place to fish, but more haints and rushes of darkness that could knock you down hovered there and in the gardens.
She trailed her palm down the oak's roughness and came to the hole she'd dug at the base. A piece of car fender, once thick-silver and now rusted, was wedged into the wood to keep her magazine safe from the wet.
Sitting against the tree, she opened the cover and looked at the ads first, at the same narrow, chiseled faces with noses as small as the knuckle on her baby finger. She had stared at the faces hundreds of times. The women's knees, in tight short pants, were sharp as knives.
A man had dropped the magazine by accident when he held out his hands for the two baskets his wife had bought—the shiny roll dropped from under his armpit. "Don't you put those in the trunk," the woman said to him when he turned. "They'll get oil on them somehow, I know it." They stood at the back of the car, arguing, while Marietta watched the magazine swell and plump itself, open its own pages against the sand. The car thrummed suddenly and swerved away, and she bent to touch the glossy cover.
"Motor tour on the historic South Carolina coast: Charleston and the Low Country." That patch of words on the cover was penmarked in spidery blue. She turned to those pages again, found the pictures of the waterway where Big Johnny's boat and the others left each morning and came back slowly in the dark. A sleek white boat she had seen on the water showed people standing to face the wind, wearing silvered sunglasses. Big Johnny and the others called them snowbirds.
She turned the page to the photo she always looked at longest. Under oaks and moss, a man and a woman sat in a small boat. He leaned into her shoulder, his mouth close to her ear, his brown hair ragged like bird feathers, and her smile was small, her hair yellow as corn. You could see half a boy who was Rosie's color, sitting behind them to push a long pole in the water. "Cypress Gardens—lush and romantic under dripping moss and stately oaks. The gardens are exquisite."
Lush—she read the word and studied the photo again and again. It meant the pinkness of the flowers beside the black water, the pink of the woman's lips. Dripping—that was exactly what the moss looked like.
"Charleston is the jewel of the coast, replete with old-world charm." She traced the wrought-iron gate; women with drinks in their hands leaned from the balcony to wave at someone below.
Excerpted from I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots by Susan Straight. Copyright © 1992 Susan Straight. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Big Ma's World
By Susan Straight
When I was a teenager, first dating my future husband, his grandmother owned a two-story white house on a busy corner, a block and a half from his parents' home. Daisy Carter rented rooms in the house, to various relatives and boarders, but the woman with her own separate apartment, with its own door and bathroom, was Big Ma.
That was what everyone called her. Her daughter was called Sis — she lived with her husband and two children a block the other way.
They were all close, the people on these three streets who'd come to Southern California from Georgia, as did Big Ma and Sis, from Mississippi, as did Daisy Carter, and from Oklahoma and Louisiana and Florida. Most often — as with Sis's husband, Floyd, and his brother, LB, also from Georgia — the men had served in the Air Force and were stationed here, and afterward never wanted to return to the segregated, impoverished, and violent South.
The first time I saw the woman called Big Ma, she was walking down the street toward my boyfriend's house, carrying a bucket and a newspaper rolled into a torch. He told me she'd light the torch, smoke out the wasps who'd built nests under the eaves of houses all along the block and then use the larvae to go fishing in the Salton Sea with his grandmother's husband, a short, stern man who'd been among the first black Pinkerton security men on the railroad in San Bernardino.
She was so tall — nearly six feet — and her skin was very dark, her expression somber. My boyfriend and his brothers and friends were very quiet when she approached.
Her son-in-law, Floyd Walker, had worked on aircraft at military bases for years; during his off hours, he cruised the neighborhood in an ancient truck, collecting cast-off produce for the pigs he kept on land near the Santa Ana River. After I was married, we took excess apricots and nectarines and even carob pods from our trees out to his pigs, and my in-laws would share in a pig with us in fall — we had fresh bacon, which my mother-in-law called streak-of- fat, streak-of-lean, and porch chops.
Big Ma and all the rest of the older women in the neighborhood were mythic figures to me when I was young. I was tiny and pale, so generic in my looks that people still ask me now whether I work at Wal-Mart or the post office, because they've seen me there, they say. Big Ma passed away, and so did Daisy Carter, and I was pregnant with my first child. I began to imagine them all the time, these woman and their heroic journeys from the South to Southern California, the tenacity and hard work that let them raise children and grandchildren here because they'd have education, and drinking fountains. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s — but they had come in the 1940s and '50s, when African Americans were dying still, over education and drinking fountains.
At twenty-seven, I began a novel about a woman named Marietta who grows up on an island just off the coast of South Carolina, near the Georgia border, and she was based on Big Ma, the image of that woman who was larger than life to me. I wrote at a card table in the back bedroom of the small white-painted house where my child would live, late into the night, while my husband worked the graveyard shift at a correctional institution.
The character of Marietta came to me because she was tall, stoic, and observant, and people were frightened of her size and serious demeanor. But the stories, of how hard it was to live on former plantations as sharecroppers, how people escaped through the military or through sports, had come to me from everyone in the community who told stories, at parties in the front yard of my in- laws' house, at local parks, at weddings and funerals.
I loved football, and was a sportswriter in college, and before I knew it, Marietta had twin sons who were so large and talented that they played football for the Los Angeles Rams, a team now gone but much loved here in the 1970s. Marietta survives with the help of older people in her community — just as I have, all these years.
They are all gone now, Big Ma, her daughter, Sis, her son-in-law, Floyd. But his brother, LB Walker, is eighty-five, and I see him nearly every day, because I drive past his house on my way to work, and we visit now and then. He came here, too, after being in the military, and he ran a popular nightclub just down the street from his house where Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner, and many others played in the 1970s and '80s.
Last summer, we sat on his porch for a long time while he talked about the old days. He was telling me about growing up on the farm, how hard he and his brothers and sisters worked, how his mother taught him and Floyd to sew and cook because they should be able to help out their wives, and that's why his restaurant was so good — because he learned to cook when he was a child.
Then he looked into his yard and told me that one day, he'd seen his grandmother's back. He came inside and she was changing her shirt, and he ducked away. But he said her back was covered with terrible scars, like the ones Americans see on historical photographs, from being whipped. "I never forgot that," he said. "Never did."
I had written about Marietta working on a plantation turned into a tourist site, and how she refused to let her sons play-act as slaves, and how a moment of violence comes close to replaying that terrible history.
Black history is American history, neighborhood history, family history. My three daughters know this story. They know the story of both grandmothers from the South — Daisy from Mississippi, Callie from Texas, though both died before they were born. Writing I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots was my way, I realize now, of making sure I had those heroic women with me, and us, always. I heard a woman say that phrase in my mother-in-law's kitchen one night, after a long party and a lot of dishes. It meant survival, a wry sense of humor, and my luck in being able to dry silverware and listen.
Posted July 24, 2002
A good point of view of a black person????? What on EARTH is that supposed to mean. I know I'm not here to critique other peoples reviews...but this one I couldn't let pass. Right now I am reading one of her books and I found it very ummm.....strange...for a white person to write about African-American's as if they have been in thier shoes. So far I am not surprised nor offened (although I am on page 30). Lets see how this book develops later on. :)
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Posted July 10, 2001
This book is spectacular. The best part is that i kno Susan. She lives down the street from me. She is such a wonderful person and author. I recommend all of her books to people who like to read books.She has a good point of view of a black person.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 25, 2008
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