The Christmas Bramble

The Fairchild household is in an uproar over Dabney’s marriage, but however peculiar the match, the proprieties must be observed, standards maintained, and that includes lavish decorations for rehearsal supper. At one point during the hustle and bustle the matriarch Ellen says, “I thought in the long run . . . we could just cover everything mostly with Southern smilax.”

Most of those who read Welty’s Delta Wedding probably skip over Ellen’s references to smilax without taking the time to find out what smilax is, likely thinking it a type of fabric or paper, but had they bothered to look it up, they’d have found that smilax is a coarse evergreen vine whose many varieties proliferate throughout the South in woods, fields, roadsides and back yards. Evergreen and durable, the vines have long been used for greenery in the home during festive events and holidays, and not just in the South. In the stage version of Harvey, the opening scene describes the home as being “festooned with smilax”.

Members of the enormous lily family, smilaxes are close relatives of asparagus, and they’re just as edible, just not as toothsome. In fact, before the invention of artificial flavorings, one species, Smilax ornata was used as the basis for sarsaparilla and root beer. (S. ornata was also registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910.) Linnaeus named the genus Smilax after a nymph who was by reason of some divine infraction transformed into a brambly vine (her lover Croesus for the same reason was—unfairly, it seems to me—transformed into a crocus).

Indeed most smilaxes are “brambly”, profuse with thorns, a notable exception being Smilax smalii (previously lanceolata), which only has thorns around the base of the stems. Steve Bender says one name for this plant, Jackson vine, comes from ladies in Alabama who would decorate their homes with the evergreen when Stonewall Jackson came to town, but frankly I have a hard time swallowing that. Most people just call it, as Ellen Fairchild did, Southern smilax. People once often trained smilax vines around their porches for evergreen framing, but is no longer cultivated because of an undeserved reputation as invasive.

Smilax takes readily to use in wreaths, swags and garlands. Like any plant cutting, the vines last longer when kept in water, and must be discarded when dry.

 

Dodging Charles

When he came out of the restaurant, turning my way and looking at his watch, I slipped into the store next door not because I didn’t want to see Charles but because I didn’t know what to say.

He looked haggard and pale, unsurprising since he’d been sick for a while, likely not to get better I’d heard, but here he was walking toward me in the same rumpled wear and with the same wrinkled brow he’d always carried.

We’d had our ins and outs, but had come to an understanding. Charles always held me under his thumb, reminding me how much of a rube I was here in Jackson, how little I’d ever know of the machinations of the city and its people and how tragic it was that I didn’t care. I still don’t care, which is why Charles helped me in any way he could with the same gusto he might give an old crutch to an in-law who’d broken an ankle.

So when I saw him that morning I tilted the bill of my cap down, hastened my step and disappeared into the store, hoping to avoid him for the present and speak with him later. I was surprised to see him on his feet, to be honest. That afternoon I heard he’d died.

I’m just going to let it go. I don’t want to deal with it right now.

An Olympian Illumination

Light in August is in many if not most ways Faulkner’s darkest work, dealing with driven madness, grueling toil, alienation, miscegenation, murder and castration, and the title has inspired a great deal of speculation. Some consider it simply a reference to the distinctly onerous nature of sunlight in a Mississippi August;. others would have us understand that the title refers to the light cast by Joanna Burden’s burning house. Then there are careful readers who point to Reverend Hightower’s observation of “how that fading copper light would seem almost audible, like a dying yellow fall of trumpets dying into an interval of silence and waiting” while scholars with a regional bent so note that the phrase “(to be) light in August” is a Southern slang term for pregnancy, concentrating on Lena Grove.

Yet the story that would eventually become the novel, started by Faulkner in 1931, was originally titled “Dark House” and began with Hightower sitting at a dark window in his home, but after a casual remark by his wife Estelle on the quality of the light in August, Faulkner changed the title, and some time later the author affirmed this luminous inspiration: “…in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone…the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.

Noting the Garden

No matter which gutter of the global warming argument you trickle down, barring an asteroid impact—I think we have a 7-year window for those—we’re not likely to see anything drastic in the next century, so don’t let the likelihood that your great-grandchildren can’t grow roses keep you from telling them that you did. Keep a garden notebook, if only by writing on a funeral home/insurance company/alumni organization wall calendar when you plant a bulb, move a shrub or sow your greens, the date of a late frost and of course the first ripe tomato. Do not neglect to include such enriching details as when Heather drove her three-wheeler all over Sally Jane’s daylily bed as well as accounts or video of the mayhem and its consequences. Start today.

Gertrude Jekyll, the goddess of garden writing.

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote and Hodding Carter and began writing in earnest.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time and won the bet. The resulting work, A Family’s Affairs (1962), is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably obvious non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

Faulkner’s Walk on the Wild Side

In 1931, William Faulkner published his first collection of short stories, These 13, which in addition to some of his most acclaimed and most frequently anthologized stories—“A Rose for Emily”, “That Evening Sun” and “Dry September”—included “Divorce in Naples”, Faulkner’s most direct if not overt exploration of  homosexuality.

Faulkner had already broached the theme in the intimacy between Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate Shreve McCannon in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Jenny and Patricia as well as the openly gay lesbian Eva Wiseman in Mosquitoes (1927), and would touch on the theme in later works, but “Divorce in Naples” stands as his most explicit examination.

Simply put, the story depicts the relationship between two sailors, George (“Greek, big and black, a full head taller than Carl”) and the younger Carl (“with his round yellow head and his round eyes, looking like a sophisticated baby”).

‘THEY CAME INTO THE SHIP together at Galveston, George carrying a portable victrola and a small parcel wrapped in paper bearing the imprint of a well-known ten-cent store, and Carl carrying two bulging imitation leather bags that looked like they might weigh forty pounds apiece. George appropriated two berths, one above the other like a Pullman section, cursing Carl in a harsh, concatenant voice a little overburred with v’s and r’s and ordering him about like a nigger, while Carl stowed their effects away with the meticulousness of an old maid, producing from one of the bags a stack of freshly laundered drill serving jackets that must have numbered a dozen. For the next thirty-four days (he was the messboy) he wore a fresh one for each meal in the saloon, and there were always two or three recently washed ones drying under the poop awning. And for thirty-four evenings, after the galley was closed, we watched the two of them in pants and undershirts, dancing to the victrola on the after well deck above a hold full of Texas cotton and Georgia resin. They had only one record for the machine and it had a crack in it, and each time the needle clucked George would stamp on the deck. I don’t think that either one of them was aware that he did it.’

One night Carl disappears and George, frantic, fails to find him. When Carl returns after three days, he reveals that he has been with a woman, and George kicks him out of their berth only to discover later, after their reconciliation, that Carl was too naive to have sexual congress with the woman, and

“ …two weeks later we were watching him and George dancing again in their undershirts after supper on the after well deck while the victrola lifted its fatuous and reiterant ego against the waxing moon and the ship snored and hissed through the long seas off Hatteras.’

Most of Faulkner’s examinations of same-sex desire focus on men; Faulkner had close relations with many homosexual writers and artists, including his townsman and fellow writer Stark Young and his childhood friend Ben Wasson as well as William Alexander Percy and Lyle Saxon. It goes without saying that while living in New Orleans he doubtless knew many others.

The story draws most directly on Faulkner’s experiences with William Spratling, a down-on-his-knees New Orleans fairy, in sailing to Europe on the West Ivis beginning July 7, 1925 and to Genoa on August 2, where after landing they celebrated their arrival by going drinking with the ship’s officers. The drinking bout turned into a brawl with “pimps and prostitutes”, after which Spratling was arrested and thrown into an Italian prison where during the night he had a “homosexual encounter”. Rape is of course implied, but then again we don’t have any evidence that the encounter wasn’t consensual. The event in Genoa provided the kernel for the story, and Faulkner himself was heard to joke at one point that he was jealous of Spratling.

Faulkner’s representations of human sexuality are ambivalent and veiled. “Divorce in Naples” displays sexual activity blended with romantic idealism and sexual innocence if not confusion, but typically for Faulkner leaves the tension between them suspended.

Harboring Mrs. Byrne

Having a collector’s edition set of Jane Austen displayed with discreet prominence tags one as a certain sort of person just as soundly as a shelf of brittle paperback Louis L’Amours. If you pardon as understandable the inordinate number of books devoted to cooking, my bookshelves are certainly eclectic enough to deflect instantaneous psychoanalysis with the exception of this copy of Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, which labels me as a pseudo-intellectual of the vilest sort; how pretentious it is to have a dictionary of words that are so obscure and out-of-use that it’s worthless as a reference, and if that’s your idea of bathroom reading, then you really need a therapist. I met a fellow in Belhaven the other day who told me that he had snagged a first edition of the OED for twenty bucks from a library that was cleaning its shelves, and I felt cheap and disgusted with myself for being jealous.

 

Tag Along Home, Little Bob

You asked me about the statue in the cemetery, the one of the dog. The statue is on the Guinn family plot. The Guinns are gone now, but they were well-known. Robert Guinn was an attorney who handled mostly small claims, but made a good enough living to buy a house on President Street. He had a lovely wife named Rose and a little girl, Doris. All little girls should be pretty, but Doris wasn’t; her face fused improperly in the womb. There’s a name for the condition that I can’t remember, but it’s a cruel assessment of the divine to say that was God’s will, if you ask me. She was never photographed, but there was a portrait painted, and the artist aligned her features. I saw it long ago; she had dark hair and a shy smile.

Doris in all other respects was a normal little girl; she had dolls and dresses and went to school with all the other little girls on the street. She also had a small dog, a spaniel of some kind that she adored. Her father had given her the puppy when she was five years old, so she named it after him and called it Little Bob. The dog would follow her to school, wait afternoons on the corner for her to come home and stayed with her before she died at twelve.

After that, Little Bob would go to the corner every afternoon and wait; at dark he’d go home until one day he couldn’t, and Bob Guinn went and got him. Oh, there was a big stink about putting the statue of a dog in a Christian cemetery, much less physical remains, but Robert Guinn took it to court and won the right, his finest hour before the bench. So that’s Little Bob, resting at the feet of his mistress; he was a good dog.

Jackson Launches Equipment Theft Deterrent

JACKSON, MS (YPI)—In an effort to reduce the theft of maintenance equipment, the City of Jackson has initiated a program of placing their more valuable pieces of machinery at “random and undisclosed” areas of the city until needed for upcoming projects.

“We are determined to protect the taxpayers’ property,” a spokesperson said, “and this method of dispersing machinery instead of keeping it in a vulnerable centralized location should greatly reduce the loss of expensive heavy equipment such as backhoes, trenchers and excavators.”

The location of the equipment, while “obvious to local residents” would be unknown to organized criminals who could steal and sell the machinery. “Some of these machines are worth a lot of money,” the spokesperson said, “and we need to protect them while they aren’t in use.” An estimated 75% of the city’s maintenance equipment is currently idle.

While most metro news outlets were quick to point out that this move is nothing more than a “frivolous” and “shamefully useless” effort, designed according to one periodical as “nothing more than a blatant attempt of the administration to draw attention away from its legal entanglements”, a metro alternative weekly applauded what it called “the city’s bold and innovative new initiative”.

One Jackson resident said, “I just wish they’d leave the keys in them and provide me with a pile of asphalt mix.”