days ago, on her ninety-sixth birthday, Lavender Susan Jones was
the oldest citizen in my small hometown. That afternoon, the
town threw her a party on the lawn of the Swannee Hotel that
lasted into the summer night. There was dancing in the streets,
and after Miss Lavender had her fill of dancing, the mayor
announced that River Road had been officially renamed Lavender
Street, in her honor.
Miss Lavender had stopped driving
when she was ninety-two, but she was still getting around town
just fine on her own pins. Her memory was wonderful, and she
didn’t have much patience with whiners. She’d had a lifetime of
practicing patience in other areas.
Some time back, when I was
recovering from divorce, I told her I was afraid I had ruined my
life. I think I was whining some. Miss Lavender squinted at me
as she caressed the black, worn crook of her cane. Her knotty,
bony fingers curled around the wood like pieces of dark root
from the same ancient tree. Then she slapped her knee and
laughed, as if I’d cracked a great joke.
Miss Lavender told me I hadn't
come anywhere near ruining my life. "Now you listen to me,
daughter. I'm going to tell you what I tell all my
children. Being blinded and crippled or sent to prison are about
the only things that can ruin your life. And plenty of people
have overcome even those misfortunes. Death is the only last
"So stay away from firecrackers,
drugs, easy money, and fast cars — and stay away from people who
don't! Your chances for a good, long stay on earth will be a
whole lot better."
Another day, not so long ago, I
was talking with Miss Lavender. The conversation went something
"Honey, where are you working
"Well, I'm, uh, I'm trying to
write, to get some books published."
She pondered this a minute or
two. "A writer. Books. Good ones, like in the library, and on
the rack at the grocery store?"
"Hum. And if you don't have a
job, what are you doing with your time?"
"That's it. Writing. I spend more
time writing than I would at a full-time job."
"So it ain't real easy?"
"No ma'am. Sometimes I don't know
where the next word will come from."
"How much money can you make from
"Not very much, at first. I
haven't had one published yet. It's really hard to sell
something when you're a beginning writer, Miss
Lavender. Sometimes I think I'm crazy to even try."
"Lord have mercy, it does make
you wonder. Well, why do you? Why are you trying to be a
writer, sugar? Why'd you start it?"
I pressed my hands to my
chest. "I have to!"
She looked at me, sizing me
up.Took off her thick-lensed glasses and polished each lens on
the hem of her bright red cardigan. I thought of the dozens of
rejection slips I'd received, and the few scribbled lines of
encouragement from a few merciful editors.
Replacing her glasses, Miss
Lavender smiled at me. "You got a dream, don't you, baby?" she
said, and coming from her, it sounded like a prayer.
"Yes ma'am, and with my little
girl, I know I shouldn't take chances with my livelihood like
this. I should just let it go."
To my surprise, she drew back,
and made her eyes even wider behind the bottle-glass
lenses. "Let it go? Let it go? Darlin’, you've got a
dream! It won't let you go! Don't you know that,
"Well, I . . ."
"Now, you might insult it by
tryin to abandon it, but it won't never abandon you. It's
stuck with you, and you're stuck with it. Would you just quit?"
"No ma'am. But it's so hard, and
I get so scared . . ."
"Hard! Scared! Don't make me
ashamed of you. What kind of disadvantages were you born with,
"None. I was born with more
advantages than you can shake a stick at. But you don't
understand . . ."
I was really starting to tee her
off. "I understand! Do you? Where you been,
daughter? Don't you know nothin about dreams? Let me tell you
about Doctor King—"
"Miss Lavender, stop! You don't
have to tell me about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington
Carver and Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, and about a
million others. Okay, you're right. But I'm still scared."
She patted my shoulder. "That's
all right, baby. They were all scared sometime. Don't
turn loose of your dream, baby. You can't turn your back on it,
it's part of you."
"All right, I'll hang on. Thank
"Well, what are you gone write
about when you get cranked up again?"
"Maybe I'll write about you."
"Lord have mercy! Huh! Well, you
do that. And be sure to put in what I said about not turnin
loose. Let folks read about that, darlin. Huh. I hope I live
long enough to read about it."
Today I stood on Miss Lavender’s
front porch, shoulders back and chin up, dressed to the nines
just for her. A few seconds after my knock, her son Lincoln
opened the door. Lincoln is in his seventies. “Come on in,
Honey, Mama’s in the parlor. She seems mighty peaceful.”
Drawing a deep breath, I followed
him into the small adjoining room that Miss Lavender kept ready
for special guests, such as visiting royalty. Today she occupied
the place of honor. She did indeed look peaceful in that
gleaming casket made of solid walnut. Suddenly desperate to hear
her voice one more time, I started crying, and Lincoln put his
arms around me and gently patted my back. “She just died in her
sleep, you know,” he said, “without any kind of fuss. Look here
what she finished reading before she went to bed that night.”
He turned me around to look at a
low table that held a lamp, a stack of papers, and a pair of
thick-lensed glasses. In shaky but bold strokes, Miss Lavender
had written on the cover page of my first finished
manuscript: “You make me sound too good. Throw in some
Last summer began thick and slow
and sweet with heavy magnolia blooms
above little girls playing jacks
in the brown Georgia dust
Old Cap Washington sat in Irene's Restaurant
and dared us to make him move
he thought he was still segregated
so Irene gave him a free dinner for being brave
Sister Whaley got pregnant
and refused to marry the boy
who didn't love her and she wouldn't
get rid of it either
thank goodness for Sister
her daddy was already dead
and her mama knew how to spit
in somebody's eye
When Terry Joe Spencer came out of the closet
he felt spit of another kind
and went back in without checking
the sky for bad weather
A little spit don't mean a flood
but Lois Powell's spit
is worse than rattler venom till you get used to it
Terry Joe ran off with a man from Atlanta
Terry told his
mama not to worry
they're negative and faithful but she knows
they're only human
he still sends
her a check every week
Then nearly the whole town
got pissed off because Hugh Smallway came back
after ten years of no letters and no money
and tried to get his kids back from Leona
Jimmy Smallway shot Hugh dead
for hurtin his mama that boy had had enough
and the judge didn't think about it five minutes
Jimmy's on probation till he's twelve that's all
Lord this summer is startin out
to be a scorcher already
that Jimmy Smallway he'll be
twelve next week