When Rita Williams was four, her mother died in a Denver boarding house. This death delivered Rita into the care of her aunt Daisy, the last surviving African American widow of a Union soldier and a maverick who had spirited her sharecropping family out of the lynching South and reinvented them as ranch hands and hunting guides out West. But one by one they slipped away, to death or to an easier existence elsewhere, leaving Rita as Daisy's last hope to right the racial wrongs of the past and to make good on a lifetime of thwarted ambition. If the Creek Don't Rise tells how Rita found her way out from under this crippling legacy and, instead of becoming "a perfect credit to her race," discovered how to become herself.
Set amid the harsh splendor of the Colorado Rockies, this is a gorgeous, ruthless, and unique account of the lies families live-and the moments of truth and beauty that save us.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Rita Williams lives in Los Angeles. She has been an actor, musician, professor, recovery counselor, and radio announcer as well as a writer. Her previous work has appeared in the LA Weekly and O, the Oprah Magazine. This is her first book.
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If the Creek Don't RiseMy Life Out West with the Last Black Widow of the Civil War
By Williams, Rita
HarcourtCopyright ©2006 Williams, Rita
All right reserved.
Out my kitchen window, the November wind off the Pacific whipped up light frothy waves on Silver Lake. The oddly beautiful smog-seasoned light burnished the last of the lemons, making them look sweeter than they were. I was just spritzing juice on a bowl of raspberries when my cat, Banana Sanchez, cool from her dalliance in the garden, settled to warm herself on the answering machine downstairs. The playback button engaged. I heard a familiar gravid throat clearing, a deep breath and a sigh.
"Rita? This is Rose." A pause, as if waiting to see if I'd pick up. I didn't. "All right, here it is. Daisy called Mary and Mary called me and I'm calling you. Daisy say she fixin to die. You got to come." Still another pause, in which my oldest sister seemed to be calculating how frank to be on the machine. "Don't know what you aimin to do, but I ain't goin no place."
An abyss opened up right there over the cutting board. Backed up against the Pacific, with two decades between me and my life in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I still felt the same numb fright at a summons from Daisy that I'd felt when I first went to live with her at the age of four. The odds that Daisy was truly"fixin to die" right now were slim. She had been playing that card for as long as I could remember. But I'd always known I'd have to go back once more, as an adult. And Daisy was in her nineties. Even she couldn't live forever. It was time.
I called the airline and bought a nonrefundable ticket. Then I called the hospital and asked to speak to my aunt.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," the nurse said. "Mrs. Anderson took and checked herself out last week." There was no need to add, "Against doctor's orders."
I had to laugh. Daisy had probably made those deathbed phone calls to Rose and Mary from her home phone in Hayden. Nothing terrified her more than being caged, and no pain was more excruciating than the prospect of entrusting her body to a doctor. She would have threatened to sue the nurses, the hospital, the janitors, the entire town of Steamboat Springs to get herself out.
I dialed Daisy's number and waited, imagining her creeping toward the phone. She picked up on the eighth ring. "Hell-oo?" She still hollered into the receiver as if she had to make her voice carry all the way to California.
"Daisy, it's Rita."
"Reeter Ann Williams? Good land." Her voice sounded higher than it had six months ago, more pushed.
"Heard you needed some help. I'll be coming in Friday night late. Won't probably see you till Saturday morning."
"Well, I'll make up the bed and thaw out a rabbit."
"Yes, ma'am," I said. No need to start a fight right off by telling her that I intended to "waste good money" on lodging and a rental car. "I'll call you when I get to town."
"Well, I'm fixin to sell my books at the Christmas sale Saturday." I had to bite my tongue not to ask whether she meant to sell them from her deathbed, the priest standing by to deliver the final sacrament.
"Okay, I'll help you," I said, and I got off the phone, noticing that that old feeling had me in its spell, that sensation of sparring and dodging out of range.
"I'd forgotten what it was like to fly into Steamboat Springs. The prop planes that looked so big on the tarmac at Denver International shrank against the fourteen-thousand-foot blade-sharp peaks of the Continental Divide. My breath grew shallow as the engines ground to the top of their range and the aircraft began to hop around like a waterdrop on a hot griddle. I always managed to fly in just ahead of a storm.
Only twelve other passengers could ride this little prop plane, mainly skiers accustomed to Rocky Mountain turbulence. Across the aisle, a kid in a ski hat was engrossed in an electronic toy--probably a snowboarder planning to spend Thanksgiving on the curl. A businesswoman was equally engrossed by the screen of her laptop. Only the working man with a white swath across his forehead where his tan ended and his cap began stared rigidly at the seat back in front of him, as if he too was holding his breath.
At last the pilot throttled back for the descent, and the plane took to bucking as if it had no intention of setting its wheels down anywhere near Steamboat Springs. I could not shake the image of a search party coming upon the wreckage of the aircraft and our bodies frozen among the pines of Berthoud Pass. Finally we broke cloud cover and the Yampa Valley lay below us.
My hometown was transformed. An infestation of shingled condos extended from the edge of the highway to the base of Mount Werner. The mountain face itself had been given over completely to the service of skiers, hundreds of wide gores scoring its flanks to create ski runs. I remembered when it was lowly Storm Mountain, debuting as a ski resort with a tattered little rope tow on a slope groomed by an orange snowcat. Daisy had been quite confident it would go belly-up in a season. But now I could see significant expansion on either side of Steamboat Springs. Wryly, I thought of an old sixties bumper sticker: Don't Californicate Colorado.
The plane lit on the icy runway, crow-hopped a little to the left, righted itself, reversed thrust. "Made it in before the blizzard," the pilot said over the PA when he'd brought us to a stop.
I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and rolled my little suitcase past what I could have sworn was the site of the A&W stand where I spent my saved allowance on my first root beer float. The arctic air clutched my throat. Hadn't felt that particular nip in a while. I hurried toward the tiny shed of a terminal, smaller than a single luggage carousel at LAX.
Inside, a wall was devoted almost entirely to snowboards. Where were the skis? But a surge of delight went through me as I saw the sensible face of a woman who had to be a Steamboat local behind the car rental counter. At seven thousand feet of constant sun and wind, people wrinkle early, and here was a woman like those I'd grown up with, more concerned with what she was doing than how she looked doing it. The wings on her eyeglasses hooked to the frame at the bottom--a style that had died out at least twenty years ago. Her hair had faded to the color of a weathered barn. She wore a tired white turtleneck under a plaid wool shirt, layers to protect her core. The label on her pocket protector read susan. Something about the steadiness of her mien was familiar. Was she one of the Buchanan girls?
I was about to ask when a woman wearing a nuclear yellow ski suit and lizard-skin cowboy boots cut in front of me. "Did I leave my cell phone?" She set her plastic water bottle down on the counter and her acrylic nails clicked against the wood like bugs skittering on glass.
"Got any Jeeps left?" I asked, as if she hadn't spoken.
It was the boots that did it. You had to earn the right to wear cowboy boots like that. You had to scrounge around for years in mud and shit up to your ankles in cheap ones lined with cardboard that you tried to dry out overnight by the coal stove. Of course you had to wear them out damp the next morning. And you'd certainly wear them to show that Black Angus calf you'd hand-raised through Future Farmers of America, or 4-H. Daisy took me to F.M. Light & Sons when I was fifteen to get outfitted to help her at the county fair, and thirty years later I was still wearing the boots--olive-green suede with a wide heel and the subtlest swirl of scarlet stitching. Back then, their beauty was absolutely numinous to me, and that feeling never changed over the years as I traveled from New York to the high California desert. But in Colorado they were practical as well, in terrain that harbored Rocky Mountain spotted ticks, horse- and deerflies, stinging nettles. I was the only black girl I knew who delighted in Garth Brooks's "Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots." I was still in sentimental love with the West, the romance of cowboy and horse, all those symbols of ennobled loneliness. And my secret sorrow would always be that I hadn't been able to make that life work for me. How was it possible that the membrane separating me from my redneck roots was still so thin that merely touching down on Colorado soil dissolved it?
Still, I restrained myself from telling neon-clad Ashley or Courtney or whatever-her-name-was to haul her ass to the end of the line and wait her turn. After all, I had long since thrown in my lot with the Botox crew in LA, and I was no stranger to a manicure. Susan had picked up on my tone, however, and we both stared at the interloper until she wilted. "Haven't seen your phone," Susan said curtly, then turned her full attention to me. "Welcome to Steamboat Springs, ma'am. How may I help you?"
Copyright © 2006 by Rita Williams
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Table of Contents
Strawberry Park 25
The State of Water 51
God’s Goose 143
Mount Saint Scholastica 165
Bad Penny 197
If the Creek Don’t Rise 221
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
tough, lyrical account of growing up as the only black kid in 1950s Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Can't wait for May to buy the new one. Loved the first one. Keep em' coming. Melissa
This memoir reminds me somewhat of Angela's Ashes as it deals with growing up in abject poverty and with religious indoctrinations. I laughed with this book and I also cried, wondering what else could happen to this vulnerable girl as she was growing up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. However fairly Williams tries to deal with the abusive upbringing by her aunt -her aunt continually reminds Rita never to 'bring up someone else's child'- I was always drawn in to what the author calls her 'conundrum', that of having her aunt require her to think for herself, then punishing her whenever she does. It is difficult to prioritize which of Rita's difficult childhood issues was worse, race, religion, abuse,poverty or neglect. In the end, it has to be the inescapable issue of race as she and her Aunt are the only blacks within 200 miles...all the while the country is experiencing the integration of the South and its accompanying violence every night on tv. The title's reference to the Civil War and the legacy of slavery is very near indeed, through the mind of Daisy as she raises Rita to see the 'color issue' on every street corner. Williams paints the picture of the frontier west in sometimes graphic, yet beautiful language, describing fishing on a frozen lake, butchering sheep, and the changing of the seasons. I loved this book.
Remarkable storytelling by this author in her first book, Williams weaves a vivid story of her upbringing by Aunt Daisy, a colorful, at times cruel, personality who tries to toughen her charge by exposing her to the 'realities' of life. A historically interesting story, Williams contrasts her home life with the grace and beauty of the animals she loves (Jiggs, horses, geese), the haven of her beloved library, the majesty of the Rockies, and the harshness of the world painted by the embittered Daisy, who does her best to stamp out all hope for a better life. Williams clearly challenges those ideas by getting educated and forging her own path. That she published this book is testament to how thoroughly she traveled the inner journey to forgiveness, and its deep character of affirmation of life haunts the reader. The story draws you in and holds you captive to the insatiable desire to know how things turn out. Williams is an exquisite writer who has achieved a remarkable feat in this book. Can't wait for her follow up!
Raised by the widow of a man born into slavery, Rita Williams had a childhood like few others. Her mother died of carbon monoxide poisoning soon after her father ran away with another woman. Rita was four-years-old, and the relative who gave her shelter was her Aunt Daisy, the last surviving African American widow of a Union soldier. Rita came to an unforgiving aunt and unforgiving territory around Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Daisy was a fighter and her enemy was racism. Young Rita received mixed messages, believing in the `60s that doors were opening for blacks and females while instructions from her aunt were to hold back because 'uppity niggers' got lynched. Daisy was a child of her time. She came from a family that she described as so poor that 'we had no chairs, we ate standing up.' She was 21 when she first met her future husband he was 79. It was from him that she learned about his life as a slave and how he had run off to join the Union army after another beating by his owner. His father, she learned, lived on a neighboring plantation and was allowed to visit twice a week. His mother was sold when he was six, and he never saw her again. Such heartbreaking reminiscences became part and parcel of who Daisy was. Daisy believed that she could make Rita stronger - she even washed floors to pay for her neice's schooling so that Rita could be somebody. And, become someone she did. Today she is a former actress, musician and college professor, a thesis advisor for the of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. For us she has crafted an affecting memoir rich with not only her amazing coming-of-age story but pictures from the past of racial injustices and a nation, families torn asunder by civil war. - Gail Cooke