“Our family is cursed in Arkansas,” my Mamaw Manis once stated frankly.
Her white shock of hair, hazel eyes blazing countenance matched her matter of fact comment.
I never asked her to explain, having come to accept her superstitious church lady ways as just her way.
To her there was no conflict, only faith in her deeply engrained living wisdom, earned the hard way as an orphaned foster child in Depression Era rural East Tennessee.
One year in a great act of heroic self sacrifice, Mamaw took the brunt of our family curse off upon herself.
She had taken to performing various acts of heroism later in life (not that surviving the Depression as an orphan wasn’t), such as getting out and about after my beloved Papaw died, and marrying a curmudgeon of a yankee because no one else could stand to be around him (including his own family) and she felt sorry for him.
She and Earl (the yankee not his real name fyi) had taken off on an ill begotten cross country trip, both in their late 70s at the time, from Tennessee to California and made it as far as Arkansas before I got the call.
On their way westward, they had stopped off in Nashville to visit me, and this is where I learned of Earl’s penchant for wife beating.
Making what I think he believed to be polite conversation as I was strenuously reupholstering a chair in the living room floor, much to Mamaw’s delight, Earl told me the story of how he had “socked” his late wife “in the jaw” over some offense and that she, “didn’t even try to cover it up! She just walked around with a black eye for everybody to see!”
Looking to grandma and then to me for validation that this poor, deceased former wife of his should have covered her shame with makeup and sunglasses, and finding only blank disbelieving stares from Mamaw and me, he continued.
“You’da thought she’da had the decency to cover it up,” he snorted, obviously angered that we didn’t share his views of “decency.”
With the steely stare of 21-year old infuriation, I calmly looked up with my staple gun in hand and firmly fixed my gaze with his.
“Well, nobody is going to hit my mamaw,” I stated quietly, steadily.
“What?” he blustered, taken aback by my feminine assertiveness.
Doubling down, I pointed my gaze deeply into his blackened soul and said, “You heard me,” I gritted these words through my teeth as my dad had taught me the animals do, “I said nobody is going to hit my mamaw,” and meant it.
Before the pair left, I managed to pull Mamaw away from his possessive- compulsive hand holding long enough to whisper my message in her ear, “If you get out here on the road somewhere and want to come home, you call me and I’ll be there to get you. It doesn’t matter what time it is, or where you are.”
This was accomplished only after I asked him if I might have a moment’s private word alone with her, and he allowed me to speak to her from the privacy length of their two, still holding hands, outstretched arms.
Taking some comfort in my words, I could tell, she grunted and hugged me with her one free arm and let herself be led down the brick steps of our townhouse to the car.
Two days later, I found myself sitting in the Fort Smith, Arkansas hospital ICU where Mamaw was laid up in a near full body cast.
She later told me that when they had the wreck, she heard my words come back to her loud and clear.
They had been driving fast in the rain on the washboard like roads of the Arkansas interstate highway when the car hydroplaned and Earl slammed into a tree on Mamaw’s side.
The car was totaled. Dad and I went to see it in the pound, just to get an idea of what had happened. It was shocking that either of them lived. Earl broke his pelvis and Mamaw was pretty much one solid bruise from head to foot (including her tongue.)
She did not want to see Earl at all, who she accused of wrecking them on purpose, because she had been begging him to slow down, and he refused.
When the hospital staff wheeled him up to see her, she made him stop at the door saying, “That’s fer enough!”
While Mamaw was in recovery, I drove to downtown Fort Smith and found a small Native American owned crafts store where I bought (among other things) the materials to make some moccasins. Why not?
Intending to give them to Mamaw, I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that while she loved wearing moccasins, she hated the smell of leather. Go figure. So I decided to make the shoes and keep them for myself, and did.
It was these moccasins with leather dyed a rich chestnut brown, that I wore all through the last semester of school at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Knowing that I would be headed back to Tennessee, probably for good, I answered the call of adventure exploring the great countryside of New England.
It was the week of graduation when I realized that I had not yet seen the famous Walden Pond, abode of one of my favorite all time philosophers, Henry David Thoreau.
Not knowing when I would make it back that way, I grabbed a map and headed up to have my great Walden Pond adventure.
Perhaps it was a spirit of rebellion, or just an over romanticized imagination that made me ditch the appointed tourist greeting station and sanctioned swimming zone to set off on my own.
For whatever the reason, I found myself hiking in my hand made moccasins down the wooded hill to Thoreau’s swimming hole.
It was only sprinkling rain, so it was perfectly natural to jump into the pond for a dip, enjoying, like Thoreau would have done I imagined, the silence and solitude of my chosen spot.
After an hour or so of frolicking, I climbed out of the pond, and donning my moccasins, started my ascent back to the vehicle.
The car was parked on the side of the road, and as I approached, I saw the all too familiar bright orange of a Massachusetts parking ticket.
The fine? $10.
It was my first and only offence at Walden, so maybe the park ranger took pity on me, but I have to say, the ticket made the experience all the more memorable.
When I got back to my Boston apartment and removed my shoes, I got an unexpected surprise.
The moccasins had dyed my feet beet red from soaking in the rain all afternoon.
My white feet were dyed red for at least two weeks after the incident.
I’ve heard of being caught red handed, but this was new one – the red footed trespasser.
My Mamaw cackled when she heard this story about my dyed red feet, and recited for me an old song she knew:
God bless the girl that wears the red shoes
She’ll steal your money and she’ll drink your booze
She ain’t got no cherry, but that ain’t no sin
Fer she’s still got the box that cherry came in
Reminded of this incident a few days ago as I spoke with a music friend in Tennessee about our own Radnor Lake, I reveled in the joy of retelling some of life’s little adventures, such as this.
There’s nothing more conducive to good conversation than the stories of an adventurous life.
That’s just the kind of conversations I love and enjoy having with friends old and new.
If that’s you, too, I invite you to connect on my email newsletter and to come to a show at my venue next time you’re in Nashville.
We invite interesting people and even more interesting people show up.
The grounds, the show and the company are all designed to build connections to make conversation, even if you are shy or don’t go out very often.
Maybe you enjoy a good story, or maybe you have a few of your own stories to tell.
Either way, hope to see you soon.
Check for upcoming dates here on the calendar.
Here's a song I wrote about Mamaw's upbringing called "We Couldn't Tell"