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2. Closing Over My Head

by christina jacqueline johns

From the book "Love Stories for Wilkes Ferry"

Closing Over My Head

For years, I told people that after Daddy died; celebrating Christmas just didn’t seem worth it anymore. Then I realized that after Daddy died, nothing seemed worth it anymore. All the joy in my life slowly drained out over the next ten years until I was left with nothing. No joy, no interest, no gladness, no pleasure, no reason to get up in the morning.

But I did get up. Like millions of other people I thought I’d never become, I dressed (most of the time). I cooked. I cleaned. I washed clothes. I took the cat for a walk. But, I became a ghost. Even though I could feel it happening, I could not seem to stop my withdrawal.

Most of the time, I kept something on – the radio, the television, my iPod (trusty friend of the insomniac). But there were times when I had none of these and my mind would start reaching back, wherever I was, to Daddy and Mama, to Drew and Margaret Ann, to Joe Ed and Miss Mary Francis, Elizabeth Ann and Mattie Mae, to Wilkes Ferry.

I remember once, when I was around thirteen, sitting on the front steps of my house on a summer night with one of the boys in my class.

“I hadn’t thought about it before,” he said, “but you’ll never find anywhere else home.”

He was referring to my parents’ house in Wilkes ferry. At the time, I thought it was foolishness, just another bit of evidence of how little he understood me. For years, I thought the best thing I was ever going to see was Wilkes Ferry in the rearview mirror.

But now, almost fifty years later, there is nothing so real as the memory of wet Georgia clay between my toes, the sound of long-leaf pines whispering in the summer breeze, or the cool feel of the deep rust red water of the Catawba River closing over my head. My mind runs over the memories like a green lizard skittering across the porch.

The Biggest Lie

Love Stories for Wilkes Ferry is a memoir of a sort. But it's the kind of memoir Southerners write. In other words, it's full of truths, half-truths, shadings of the truth and outright lies. It's tall tales and what wasn't the truth but should have been.

It is, I think, the art of the storyteller to conjure into being what should have been. Sometimes that altered version, almost unrecognizable as the truth, is more the truth than truth.

My mother hated talking about the past, hatted telling or listening to stories about the past. Most of the time, when I would ask her to tell me which doctor did what or whose coffin it was that showed up at the railroad station, she would refuse to answer. "He was the husband of my dearest friend," she might say and then conclude , as she always did, "I have to live in this town even though you don't."

I tried to reason with her. "Mama, if you don't tell me, I'll just make it up, and you know the version I make up will be trashier than the truth." But getting a story out of Mama was like pulling teeth out of a mule's mouth. She was a stubborn woman and only became more so the older she got. And as I was to learn very late in life she was a woman with things to hide. She was not above creating her own stories about the past, stories that suited her, some of them outrageous.

I inherited every bit of Mama's stubbornness but very little of her shame. A friend was recently telling me about the book written by Joyce Maynard, J. D. Salinger's one-time lover. The book was about their affair.

"I think it's a betrayal," my friend said.

"Do you?" I replied.

My friend turned to me. "Wouldn't you consider it a betrayal if your friend Carla wrote a book about her experiences with you forty years ago?"

I considered this unlikely possibility. "I don't think so," I said. "If anybody thought the time they spent with me was interesting enough to write about, I'd take it as a compliment. Besides," I added, "there's not much anybody could tell about me that I haven't already told about myself."

I am, for better or worse, a talker, a writer, and a spinner of tales. In other words, I am a fabricator. If you try to figure out who the people are in this book, or even where Wilkes Ferry is, you're bound to be frustrated. There are characters in these stories who existed but are depicted in situations I have invented. There are characters who never existed put in situations I remember vividly. Names are changed, and some characters are made up of two or more real people. In some cases, I have taken small characteristics of real people and magnified them so far they become major character flaws.

Southerners are just naturally drawn to embroidery. My father was the storyteller of our family. He told, edited, revised, and retold the same stories for years. I used to find fascinating the twists and turns of different versions of the same story as he improved on it. I think it's where I got my love of storytelling.

I remember one sitting at the dining room table i my parents' house onChristmas or Thanksgiving. Daddy was feeling expansive and tried out a paticularly inventive version of a story. The embroidery was not what got him in trouble. what got him in trouble was trying to enlist my grandmother in attesting to his veracity. Somebody at the table expressed doubt about the details of Daddy's story. Daddy, knowing exactly where to go for reliable back up, turned to his mother.

"Isn't that right, DeeDee," he asked, already smiling in anticipation of the answer.

My tiny Scottish grandmother, almost overwhelmed by the size of a standard dining room chair sat silently, looking down into her lap.

Two glasses of wine beyond taking the hint, y father repeated his question. "Isn't that right DeeDee?"

My grandmother swallowed and, never lifting her eyes, softly drawled. "Honey, I don't want to dispute your word but..."

That's as far as she got. The entire table howled with laughter, including my father. I love this genteel southern way of saying "You're lying."

My grandmother would have eaten her left arm off before admitting that my father was less than perfect, but on this occasion, her stiff-necked, rigid Southern Baptist background might tolerate silence before a lie but not active participation in it.

there will be a lot of people who will choose to "dispute my word" about these stories if not call me an outright liar. And I will not object. But everyone must remember that these are only stories, stories out of one person's memory, from one participant's imagination, from one listener who made up the bits she didn't know or which she thought worked better than the strict truth.

Even tough most of the characters in this book are imaginary, I can talk about them and their histories in detail because over the years, they have become real to me, as real as those who actually existed. There are times when I actually have to stop and try to remember whether Wilkie Dunn or Pickering Head were people.

In the final instance, what everybody has to remember is that memory is the biggest liar of all.