My lines disappeared. I was in 10th grade, dressed in a blue-checked gingham dress and white tights, playing the lead in Alice and Wonderland for an audience of children. I’d had memory lapses before—an embarrassing one in my piano teacher’s living room in fifth grade, the specific, awkward misery of having to begin the sonatina again. The assembled families either would or would not pretend it didn’t happen, both options mortifying. I lost my lines in ninth grade as well, playing Lucy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. I was mid-song when the words atomized, but I belted out something anyway; I don’t know what. Whatever happened that time left me unscathed.
In general, however, no memory lapses. Not at the sixth-grade safety assembly run by a cop who held up a license plate. When he quizzed 500 of us seated on the gymnasium floor 10 minutes later, I was the only one who could recite the numbers. I’d memorized them from boredom. No problems either when I played Eliza in My Fair Lady the summer after seventh grade.
Alice in Wonderland was different. I stopped trusting my memory. Betrayed at age 14, I lost faith that anything would ever stick again. I saw my inability to memorize as a terrible weakness, and it haunted me.
Years of viola study followed. I got to the point where I could identify most any piece on any classical radio station. It takes practice, but it’s not exactly memorizing; composers leave tracks as clearly as deer crossing a snowy field. You get to know a composer’s output—Johannes Brahms left us only four symphonies (he destroyed more); César Franck wrote one piano quintet. Composers’ nationalities become as recognizable as flags. If a piano quintet sounds French, and/or has phrases that mirror those in César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, it’s not too hard to narrow it to the right piece. And once you’ve played or performed a composition, it stays with you as surely as remembering how to walk.
To me this is uninspiring; more akin to reciting the times tables than interrogating music’s mysteries. Much more meaningful are the memories that accompany first hearing or first playing:
I’m 16, on the edge of a metal folding chair, heart palpitating, listening to five students playing in a rehearsal room too small to contain the sound. At a music camp in Orono, Maine, I’m hearing the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor for the first time. I’m in an adrenaline-fueled high; I’m a jockey on a winning horse.
I’m at my music stand in the living room of a math professor from M.I.T. with whom I played chamber music, weeping that I have lived in ignorance of the third movement to the Schumann Piano Quartet in E Flat Major. The sound covers me like a hot blanket of grief, first the violin and the cello and then my part! The viola gets that heartbreaking melody, the one that sings to the world’s beauty slipping away, to the impermanence of love and life.
I don’t care if I sound hyperbolic; that’s what I felt. I’m not so different with books. Ask me whether I’ve read a certain book or a certain author, what it’s about, when I read it, who recommended it to me, and I’ll answer. But aren’t those memories somewhat meaningless? I’d rather share the feeling I had—the breathtaking experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time, of being unable to contain my excitement about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, of rushing to complete Robertson Davies’s trilogies; the deep serenity of living with May Sarton for months on end, and the connection I felt with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.
For a career in classical music, recognizing any piece won’t cut it. Books, of course, are beside the point. To become a professional violist, you must memorize; you have to be able to take an audition without sheet music, an ability I lost at age 14.
And yet, I entered college with the aspiration of becoming a professional musician. For a year or two during that time, I studied with a viola teacher who tried to cure me of my memorizing deficit. Our lessons were in his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side where he lived in an Old World space, dimly lit with lamps that must have come from Vienna in the 1930’s, walls lined with sheet music, and floors laid out in imported Persian rugs. He recommended I study the ads on New York City buses and memorize the numbers or words I found in them. Also, I should note and memorize the numbers on the rear of city buses.
Ultimately, I broke down and left music. My departure was, to my mind, an epic failure; my inability to memorize one of the many reasons for my defeat.
My mother died when I was in my early 40s. Her death was sudden and shocking—a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer for a strong athletic woman who had never been sick. She was gone in the space of eight weeks.
In ways I don’t fully understand, her death unloosed my writing. Granted, my relationship with mom was intimately tied up with books and the written word. She worked as a copy editor and editor. We shared a great interest in reading. Granted too, that I had been writing all along, if writing means keeping a journal and sending snail mail after it went the way of the telegram. Or writing memos at work. And inhaling books. But writing—the kind where you make a commitment and stick to it, where you attempt to take yourself seriously—didn’t come until after mom died.
It was then that I uncovered something altogether different from my memorized files of books and musical compositions. I discovered a trove of personal memories that went back to at least age three. Or more accurately, I found I could access those memories, which I began to appreciate as a generous gift from the writing gods. Memory is a writer’s nutrition and sustenance, her sine qua non.
The cabinets of memory I discovered after mom died were not remotely orderly. Stashed with my memories were other people’s recollections, memories that others had forgotten but I retained. Memories that were crammed into file folders, pieces torn off and gone missing, others like so many balled-up drafts. There were minute details about my siblings, granular information about school lives, friends and frenemies, secrets and intimacies. Don’t ask me to recite a poem. If, on the other hand, you want to know the name of my sister’s fifth grade teacher and what poems this terror of a teacher made her memorize, I’m on it.
I found myself mucking around in exhaustive details about my parents’ jobs; their friends’ careers, marriages, and children. Questions began arising in droves. Why did my father talk more about work than his emotional life? Why did my mother shy away from friendships with women? Random gossip from my early employment reared up and insisted on reinterpretation, indiscretions ranging from salacious to violent; memories that in the time of #MeToo would sink more than a few professional careers.
Writing, I quickly discovered, doesn’t thrive on memorization. And memories that are free from doubt, anxiety, and pain are nearly useless. Writing thrives on conflict and those irreconcilable, problematic memories. Were my overstuffed memory files a cause or symptom of my efforts to write in earnest? Perhaps both.
My father died last spring. With his death, I find myself slogging through memories too large to manage. They’re not so much painful, as awkward and uncomfortable. They keep me up at night, in part because so many of those memories are not mine. I hear dad recounting stories about his friends and colleagues, but fewer about himself.
Like mom, my father was a creature of the written word, a highly skilled wordsmith, author of two books and countless articles on varied subjects both personal and professional (he was a trial lawyer). He was the second of four children. His mother lost most of her hearing during his birth. To that physical disability he credited his clear speaking voice, which became stentorian in the courtroom. That does not, however, account for his vast vocabulary—an endless cache of words. Dad’s parents were extraordinarily intelligent, but his mother had a sixth-grade education and his father never finished high school.
Oh, but daddy could speak. His words are emblazoned on my memory. They land on the pages I write—ubiquitous, textured, yet not easy to digest. Does anyone use the word obliterate anymore? Does anyone ablute when entering the shower? I doubt wifty is even a word.
Words came tumbling out of my father, huge ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. He was a stickler for precision. He kept a huge dictionary behind his chair at the dining room table. If we weren’t sure of a word’s definition, he would dive into the book and demand, “Will you accept Webster’s Unabridged as a source?” He never read one of my junior high school social studies papers that he didn’t thoroughly mark up, because words matter and it’s always possible to be more precise.
Words are memories, but they are tools too, carving out bits of text from the lumpy rind of the past. It’s a daily effort—often exhausting—to try to keep the commotion of family memories at bay while simultaneously holding onto those noisy recollections.
I see now that I’m lucky for my memory, however unruly and ill-behaved it is. I mine it every time I put pen to paper. It is brine for my writing, even if I’ll never fully understand it. Wading through the chaos, I’ve learned that memory is more useful than memorizing. I might even forgive myself that shortcoming. I’m beginning to realize memorizing is too far removed from memory to qualify as even a distant relative.
Image credit: Unsplash/Siora Photography.
Two years ago I moved from Hoboken to Baltimore and I marked the occasion in the typical fashion: by pledging to read books only set in, connected to, or written by authors from the state of Florida. My rationale and the precise reasons for its timing elude me to this day. I didn’t think much of it; it simply felt natural. Maybe it had something to do with my relocation occurring during the winter, when the northern air thins out and becomes painful enough to make me crave the amniotic coat of tropical humidity. Perhaps it’s explained as psycho-geographic regression. The places I’ve inhabited longest are New Jersey and Florida, and if I was definitely leaving one to settle someplace new, then I suppose it’s natural to yearn for the comforts of the other home I know best. Hell, it might’ve been because I was three years out of college and I missed Miami. Who can really say? Who cares? The short of it is: I made my decision, and I moved forward.
What followed was equal parts overwhelming, disorienting, and hallucinatory. That much Florida does a man no good – and that’s doubly true when the man in question lacks any semblance of restraint. See, I wasn’t content to make a structured list and to steadily chip away at it. On the contrary, what I desired most was total immersion, or better yet submergence. So deep ran the currents of my obsession that at one point I set up Google alerts pairing the word “Florida” with random nouns. (You don’t appreciate the depth of Florida’s strangeness until one day you get two different news stories detailing pork chop-related violence: Exhibit A, Exhibit B.)
In two years, I made my way across the foundation of Florida writing: Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s River of Grass and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country; Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, John McPhee’s Oranges, and Arva Moore Parks’s Miami; Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro. (More on those over here.) I reread Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I dipped into poetry by Campbell McGrath, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Blanco, and Donald Justice. Mia Leonin dazzled me and Alissa Nutting creeped me out. With increasingly deep breaths, I inhaled Carl Hiaasen’s entire God damned oeuvre until I felt like I was having a psychic asthma attack.
That didn’t quite scratch the itch, though, so I supplemented my reading with other art forms as well. It began last winter when I fell asleep reading Joy Williams’s Florida Keys guide and had what I thought was a lucid dream about Islamorada, but was really just the beginning of a Bloodline episode playing as I woke up. I spent the next week plowing through the series. I followed Florida Man and Florida Woman on Twitter. I favorited more Craig Pittman tweets than I can count. I revisited Ace Ventura and There’s Something About Mary. I watched the Billy Corben triumvirate of Cocaine Cowboys, Dawg Fight, and The U, and I celebrated the premier of The U Part 2 by getting drunk off Jai Alai that I’d bulk ordered across state lines from a liquor store in Dunedin. I tried to watch Ballers but that thing’s like an even less deeply plotted Entourage, so…yeah. Meanwhile, I’ll never be ashamed of how much DJ Laz and Trick Daddy I’ve played. (Before anyone asks: Yes, I have donated to the latter’s Trickstarter.)
I watched both Magic Mike movies because nothing’s more quintessentially Tampa than the scene in the first one in which Channing Tatum scolds “Adam” for peeling off the protective plastic wrapper on his pick-up truck’s dashboard, which would totally kill the thing’s resale value. I read long, multi-part investigative news stories on widespread ecological destruction, for-profit college fraud, and government corruption. I contemplated buying prints from The Highwaymen and Clyde Butcher, but didn’t have the bankroll to go through with it.
Throughout this process, I’ve taken notes. To some extent, this was automatic. It’s something I’ve always done as I’ve read. It’s how I write, really: read first, take notes, and ideas for written work will follow. For this project, however, the Florida canon has become too big. Wrangling these disparate pieces would be like trying to limit the number of pythons invading the Everglades. It can’t be done.
Instead, I’m left with an unmanageable list of tidbits, direct quotations, and half-remembered ephemera lacking any semblance of a theme beyond their essential “Florida-ness.” Whereas on smaller projects my notes could serve as navigational buoys capable of guiding me back to an overall idea, these manic, unorganized Florida notes are what would happen if Hansel & Gretel threw their bread crumbs into a woodchipper. To wit, here are the six latest entries I’ve saved in my 1,700 row Excel document:
40% of dogs who shoot people live in Florida. (Source)
“A Miami suburb has been named as the ‘bidet capital of America'” (Source)
“Dead woman’s life insurance funding husband’s murder defense.” (Source)
“Florida man bit by shark catches shark, says he will eat it.” (Source)
“Cop fired for singing about killing with death-metal band.” (Source)
“How is Hendry County going to know how to handle massive monkey escapes during a hurricane?” (Source)
Where does the rabbit hole end? Is it possible to prismatically marry all of these disparate rays of weirdness into a single, unified beam?
This is all to say: for two years now, I’ve been steeped in Florida.
Of course, as with every rule, it was broken from time to time. Or, I should say, I tried to break it. As anyone who’s driven on a highway can tell you: once you notice one type of car, it’s all you’ll see thereafter. Reading works outside my Florida canon almost always meant I’d identify an unexpected Florida connection in the process. When I read Marlon James’s remarkable novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, I encountered what is certainly the only mention of Miramar to have ever been awarded the Booker prize. When I read City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s massive, hyper-localized depiction of New York City, one of the details that stuck out most was a throwaway passage about one character’s estranged daughter living in…well, where do you think?
More unsettling still: it’s often felt like Florida is the one seeking me out, or beckoning me from afar. (And I’m not talking about my alma mater’s alumni office calling for donations.) Maybe all of Florida is Area X. Indeed, this siren’s song can transverse spacetime. Imagine my surprise when I first watched Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video — a video so devoid of geographic setting that it takes place in a series of sterilized geometric patterns — and still find myself cognizant of the work’s Florida influence. Seriously, read this.
Truly, my year in reading has been two years in Florida, and as I look beyond to the years ahead, I see no reason to stop. Maybe I can’t. Maybe the essence of Florida inhabits me like one of the invasive species that’s inhabited it. There was an article this year about how scientists are baffled by a type of creeping, foreign mangrove invading Florida’s swamps — this colonizing plant to which sediments cling, muck becomes coated, and upon which land eventually forms. Nobody can explain the way the plants are acting, the way they’re resisting efforts to contain their spread. They are the essence of Florida, though: all that persistence, all that infestation.
Ultimately, the spirit of the Year in Reading series necessitates that I provide you all with specific titles to check out, and to fulfill that obligation, my choice is easy: the best book I read this year was Jennine Capó Crucet’s debut collection of stories, How to Leave Hialeah. In it, Crucet explores the variety of experience around the Miami metropolitan area and amongst its residents — its real residents; not the tourists, not the northeastern college kids who treat their stints at the University of Miami like a four-year Spring Break, and especially not the absentee condominium owners who’ve been driving up the city’s rents for years. No. Crucet grounds her stories within the mostly Cuban diaspora living in Hialeah and its surrounding environs: the community that, along with Miami’s extremely under-appreciated African-American and Afro-Caribbean residents, comprises the city’s beating heart — the ones who give South Florida an identity immediately distinct from that of anywhere else in the state, or really anywhere else in America.
In 11 stories, Crucet covers a remarkable amount of South Florida’s characteristic breadth: the Ecstasy-rolling girl seeking after-hours ablution (and Celia Cruz) in a church, the family politics of Nochebuena invites, the man who died in a Chili’s-related incident and left his roommate to deal with his pet ferret, and the children who find a body in a canal. She renders the complicated in-betweenness of immigrants straddling the Florida Straits between Cuba and their adopted homes, and how the younger generation oscillates between ambivalence and passion for the same. She examines these characters and their predicaments with closely-observed, generous authenticity, utilizing the vocabulary of their setting all the while: people’s hands and faces are said to be “the color of dried palm fronds;” a family’s closeness is described as being “like the heat in a car you’ve left parked in the sun;” a woman on the beach observes the way her date “leaned back on his elbows again, his nipples spreading away from each other, melting across his chest toward the pockets of his armpits.” These are moving, visceral glimpses at the myriad Miamis and Miamians. Even if you’ve never set foot down here, they’re not to be missed.
The collection’s title story — and also its last — tracks a young woman’s early life in semi-autobiographical detail as she’s raised in Hialeah, moves on to out-of-state college, and advances into a career beyond. It looks to the possibilities of a life outside of the one you know first, and it evokes a sense of wonder at the world beyond Florida. It also — and, by now you can tell I relate — makes clear that no matter how far away you go, you’ll never really leave it behind.
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Over the two week period when I finalized my plans for a trip to my home state of Alabama, I went from sunny optimism about the trip to downright depression. My visit had two purposes. One was to visit Notasulga, the birthplace of one of my favorite authors, Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston (the source of my optimism) and the second was to spend a little time with my sister…
Less than a year earlier on another trip down to Alabama I had participated in my sister’s wedding, where there were plenty of side conversations with relatives and friends at the reception in the small church hall about how Debra, emaciated by the ravages of colon cancer less than a decade earlier, was now a pretty, slightly plump bride.
By the time I arrived in Alabama the second time, most of the relatives knew as I did: the cancer had returned. We didn’t learn any of this from Debra. “I’m doing fine,” she always said whenever we talked by phone and my probing questions about when she had seen the doctor last or what the doctor had said during a last visit got me anywhere. Our mother was still in her long recovery from brain surgery so my niece (Debra’s only child) was my only lifeline to the truth. My niece was with Debra when I arrived at the hospital in Tuscaloosa.
Although I had been warned that Debra had lost a lot of weight, the sight of her lying in the hospital bed, her narrow face staring at me through metal rimmed glasses I had never seen her wear before, sent my body into immediate rebellion. I felt as though it was trying to forge some reaction from me, but not yet sure what it was, I didn’t know whether to fight or give in. The best I could do was manage a boyish grin, the same one I had probably brandished when I had surprised her by showing up at her wedding rehearsal eight months earlier.
“Pull up a seat,” Debra said, sounding much more robust than she looked. She pointed at a metal chair shoved against the wall near the door to the small bathroom. I reached for the chair feeling her studying me in that way big sisters do and feeling the panic I felt years earlier when I first heard the news from my mother that Debra had colon cancer.
I was surprised at how easily the chair lifted, like it was made of some newly discovered lightweight metal with titanium-mitered joints. Where was the science to help my sister?
Before sitting down near her bed I leaned over and kissed Debra’s forehead. Her dry skin was a surprise from the moist ninety degree air that had soaked my neck and arms on the short walk up from the sweltering underground parking lot. “You’re as skinny as me,” Debra said, looking up at me over the rim of her glasses. “What’s your excuse?”
As we talked, I wanted to ask about her husband, a man she had known for years before she married him, but I had heard the relationship had been strained lately and I didn’t want to upset her. We talked until the nurse came in and began busying himself around the bed. On the walk outside to the elevator, my niece and I talked about how hard it was to accept Debra’s decision to take a break from chemotherapy. Debra’s doctor had advised investigative surgery to find out what was causing her inability to digest food. “She refuses to do the surgery,” my niece said, her voice sounding like she was struggling to remain calm.
The news came just as a crowd exited the elevator. My niece and I remained quiet as the crowd passed. I knew that once Debra’s mind was made up about a matter, there was little chance of changing it. I suspected my niece knew that too. “The doctor says she can go home today,” I reminded my niece. “That’s a good sign. I’ll talk to her when I return tomorrow evening.”
On the highway later during most of the two hour drive, I worried about my next visit with Debra, It had never occurred to me to imagine a world in which my sister was not alive. As adults we had grown apart with brief visits during the rare trips I made back to Alabama to attend funerals, including the funeral of Debra’s son who drowned when he was barely twenty. Now I began to consider death as a real possibility.
Soon my optimism about my first trip to Notasulga, in which I imagined myself an investigative journalist, evaporated into hard fatalism. This was not the state of mind I imagined myself to be in the summer before at the Norman Mailer Center where I had greedily soaked up the interview techniques that I imagined star reporters use: develop a good list of questions before hand, tape as many interviews as you can, start with the easy questions. This is going to be a fiasco, I told myself a few miles outside Montgomery.
I became interested in Zora Neale Hurston after reading about other early 20th century literary figures like the poet Langston Hughes, the editor Alaine Locke and the novelist Nella Larsen. Hurston’s name appeared in articles about Harlem Renaissance writers, but I paid her name passing notice until I learned that she had been born in Alabama. I later realized that Zora Neale and I had more than that in common. We both spent time in the Washington D.C. area, both lived and wrote in Harlem, both studied at Columbia University. Until then the only writers that readily came to mind with ties to Alabama were Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Both had produced captivating works. Perhaps Zora Neale had too.
Half an hour on the other side of Montgomery, I exited the highway, beginning to imagine that my quest to visit Hurston’s birthplace seemed silly. Yes, Hurston was born in Notasulga, but her family moved away when she was still a toddler. Did she even remember living in the town? Moreover, throughout her life Hurston claimed she was born in Eatonville, Florida. I understood the enticement: Eatonville touts itself as the first town in America incorporated by African Americans. Hurston’s father served several terms as mayor.
Notasulga is no Eatonville. With barely nine hundred residents within sixteen square miles, the hamlet sits a short drive from Tuskegee and Montgomery which offer museums to Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, even Hurston’s literary contemporaries F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The important role Notasulga played in Hurston’s literary career became apparent to me after reading her first novel. Though Hurston had early success with stories set in Florida, it was the critical and commercial success of Jonah’s Gourd Vine that catapulted her from a talented but unknown writer to a commercially successful one. Many of Hurston’s important early critics and readers first came to her writing immersed in the setting of Notasulga.
The Wednesday afternoon in June I arrived, downtown Notasulga — several blocks of low buildings running in several directions from a two-bulb-traffic light — had the quiet feel of a small town on a Sunday. The only enterprises that looked open were Hughes Auto Parts, Ben’s Bargains, Citizen’s Hardware and Supply and Town Hall. On the main corner, I walked through the white pillars at the entrance of Town Hall wondering if anyone inside had heard of Zora Neale. Hurston left the area over a century earlier in 1894, but she returned to the south many times. In 1927, she and fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes spoke to summer students at Tuskegee Institute, and in nearby Mobile, Hurston, interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the man believed to have been the lone surviving passenger of the last slave trip to land in the U.S. On other trips, Hurston collected the folktales, character sketches, and historical artifacts that informed her four novels, her autobiography, scores of plays, essays, and her many short stories.
What intrigued me most about Hurston as I read more of her work was her success at telling stories about African Americans living in the south that resonated with readers no matter what their background. I was familiar with Hurston’s most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, but I was surprised to learn of the critical praise heaped on her first novel. Carl Sandburg, among others, praised Hurston’s debut as “A bold and beautiful book, many a page priceless and unforgettable.” The novel’s title alludes to the biblical story of Jonah, who during his travels to preach in a foreign land, is swallowed by a whale. After deliverance from the whale’s belly, Jonah reaches his destination angry and frustrated at God’s refusal to punish those who had sinned. As Jonah watches the city from a place to the east, a divine gourd plant grows over his head and provides shade. But later, a worm attacks the plant and it withers. Under a burning wind and searing sun, Jonah becomes faint and eventually says, “I would be better off dead than alive.”
Before this trip to Alabama, I had a vague notion of what manner of suffering might make a person accept death. But seeing my sister in the hospital bed, surrounded by overturned pill cups and hanging feeding tubes and buzzing wall devices — witnessing the frail remains of what had once been a vibrant healthy-looking body — though I still did not want her to refuse the operation, I began to understand how her suffering might have opened her up to such fatalistic thoughts.
Hurston herself suffered a variety of health maladies before she died in 1960. And though the publication of Jonah’s Gourd Vine initiated a decade-long period of critical and commercial success for Hurston, after she published her last book Seraph on the Sewanee in 1948, her literary reputation waned. By the time she died, publishers and readers had lost interest in her work. Inside Notasulga Town Hall, the elderly clerk at the counter gave me a puzzled look when I mentioned Zora Neale. She also gave me my first piece of bad news: “The town records burned twice,” she said, sounding sorry to be delivering the news. “You might try the county seat.”
Which county? I wondered outside as I stood on a small bridge at the edge of the business district looking east toward the county line. Most of Notasulga sits in Macon County but a small north-east corner lies in Lee County. Hurston’s father was born in Lee County in 1861, the year Alabama seceded from the Union. Zora Neale used to say that the area had an abundance of creeks, but below the small bridge were only railroad tracks, a reminder of the post-Civil War period when Notasulga was a whistle stop on the rail line than ran from Montgomery then east toward Opelika and the Georgia border. Photographs from the period show a post office, express office, and cotton gin. In addition to cotton, local farmers also marketed rice, tobacco, soy beans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine opens with the protagonist, John “Buddy” Pearson under threat of being “bound over” to one of the Reconstruction-era plantations, to toil there under conditions little better than those offered during legally enforced slavery. Pearson is not yet twenty when his step-father announces the news. His mother, unable to reverse her husband’s decision, decides to send their son into Notasulga to seek work at a farm that she hopes has better working conditions.
Much of the novel is autobiographical, and John Pearson’s yearnings — like those of Hurston’s own father– eventually lead him to Florida where he becomes an influential preacher and community leader. But first, Pearson has to face the challenges of being driven out of his home in Alabama. On the plantations and lumber camps where he finds work, he has strained relationships with the first of many jealous men and inviting women he encounters often over the course of the novel. He also courts a local girl named Lucy Potts by attending Macedonia Baptist Church.
The original Macedonia Baptist Church no longer exists, replaced by a stately red brick building along the highway just outside of downtown. I wandered the grounds in a fruitless attempt to find remnants of the old school house that might have been on the property. Half a mile down the road were the Spanish-style buildings on the campus of Notasulga High School, but those buildings were constructed by WPA workers in the 1930s for white students. Farther south, the Rosenwald School, financed by Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears and Roebuck, to educate black students, was not built until the early 1900s. The schoolhouse that inspired the early scenes in Jonah’s Gourd Vine was probably one of the first schools built in the south to educate recently freed African American children.
After multiple trips down a few side roads in Lee County, I fumbled my way through several interviews of people from the town. Yet, the main interview I was looking forward to seemed to be slipping away from me as soon as it started. I sat down with Mary Potts-Travis inside a small hair salon not far from the picturesque town square in Tuskegee. Mary was a small woman with drawn-in shoulders and a thin face. She had a strong profile, the bearing of someone who might have been a professor or an engineer had she been born a century later. She wore a plastic smock over a simple dress. Less than a minute after I started my questions, Mary looked at me with heavy concern and said: “Young man, I have no idea what in the world you’re asking. What is it that you want?”
In the midst of fear and panic I reverted to the one tactic I remembered from my seminar: “What is your earliest memory of Notasulga?” I said quite tentatively. That seemed to do the trick. Mary, who I had been told might be a distant relative of Zora, said she had been born in Notasulga ninety-one years earlier when there was a single grocery store that sold shoes and hats and eggs and ground corn in the back. She recalled a clothing store, and a woman who sold Nehi sodas out of her house. She described the cotton farmers and the bankers and the two-room school in the church yard. I was still scribbling furiously nearly an hour later when the salon’s manager walked over and informed Mary it was time for her appointment.
Whatever bit of confidence I had garnered from salvaging my interview of Mary deflated when, at the records’ office in Tuskegee, I asked the clerk how I might find out when the Potts had purchased their land, and who owns it now. “Give it up,” the clerk said, but still directed me to a musty side room crowded with stacks of enormous leather-covered record books. “The records are probably not here.”
Addled from several fruitless hours turning hundreds of yellowed pages, I later drove past the Potts homestead several times before realizing it. In the novel, Lucy’s parents (like Hurston’s maternal grandparents) are one of very few land-owning families in Macon County and strongly opposed their daughter marrying the uneducated and landless John Pearson. During his first visit to Lucy’s home, John Pearson notices the “Flowers in the yard among whitewashed rocks. Tobacco hanging up to dry. Peanuts drying on white cloth in the sun. A smokehouse, a spring-house, a swing under a china-berry tree, bucket flowers on the porch.”
The place I had been told was the Potts homestead presented a more modest face the day I visited. A patchy yard surrounded the yellow clapboard house, which was trimmed in brown. I walked to the back yard later, unable to separate the real Lucy Potts presented in Hurston’s autobiography from the Lucy Potts in Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Both Lucys got dressed on their wedding days unsure if any family members would accompany them from the house to the church. Both Lucys later suffered a challenging marriage. And both Lucys died relatively young.
The backyard, overgrown with tall weeds and thick vines, was more evocative of the two Johns whose metaphorical vines continued to grow after they moved their families to Florida. Both became popular preachers and community leaders, but eventually both their vines withered. In the novel, John Pearson’s metaphorical vine is eaten away by many worms: the wrath of jealous men, the problems of chasing women, his own hubris, and especially his grief over the death of Lucy. Late in the novel when adultery charges threaten to destroy John Pearson’s new marriage and his standing in the community, he finds solace in resurrecting memories of Lucy and Notasulga:
So John sat heavily in his seat and thought about that other time nearly thirty years before when he had sat handcuffed in Cy Perkin’s office in Alabama. No fiery little Lucy here, thrusting her frailty between him and trouble. No sun of love to rise upon a gray world of hate and indifference.
I left the Potts homestead deciding to make more visits to Notasulga, and to learn more about the town that Hurston had mined to fashion an enduring love story. The road from the Potts homestead winds past nice houses next to dilapidated ones, reminders of the economic disparities that threatened that long ago courtship and marriage that was not without its challenges.
Love, I suspect — or at least companionship — sustained my sister during her initial round of therapies and doctor visits after the return of her cancer. The next morning, before leaving my hotel along the highway outside Montgomery, I dialed my sister’s number, remembering how happy she was the day of her wedding. Her relationship had gotten rocky since, but I had heard that she and her husband were working at it. “Yes, I’m back at home,” Debra said, her voice hoarse but slightly cheery, when she answered the phone. “Of course, I’m up for another visit. I feel fine.”
Image courtesy the author