Happily colliding worlds of Nanny at the AWP Conference

I don't know if I've ever told you much about Nanny and Papa's house. Oh sure, bits and pieces here and there. How it sat in both sun and dappled shade on a corner lot at Moss and Division streets. About Papa's blackberry patch out by the old shed, and the towering pecan trees in the side yard by the Duhon's house, and Nanny's flowers all over. 

Maybe I've told you that white wooden house was where my mom and her siblings grew up, and where Nanny lived for more than sixty years until she died there, in her bed, at the age of 92, Mom right beside her.

It's the house where I, in many ways, grew up too. It's where we used to shelter for hurricanes threatening Lake Charles because it had always withstood even the strongest ones. It's the home in which we gathered for countless Sunday lunches of spaghetti and roast, salad and French bread, tall glasses of Lipton iced tea, and pie or a cheesecake or Crown Jewel or Nanny's lemon-lime refrigerator sheet cake.

Perhaps what I've not mentioned is that the property included four or five apartments, some separate from the big house and others attached to but not part of it. Nanny and Papa let those apartments for helpful supplemental income, and when Papa died, Nanny continued to keep the places rented.

The extra money was great, but I also liked that Nanny seemed to attract some really special tenants who became much more than simply renters. At some point, the head of the writing program at McNeese, the university in Lake Charles, started sending graduate students Nanny's way. The early referrals became a self-perpetuating means of keeping the apartments full.

One MFA student, a thirty-something named Neil, approached Nanny fourteen or fifteen years ago, and asked if he could rent an apartment month to month rather than signing a year-long lease, which was her standard first-year requirement, due to some personal concerns. Never one to turn down any sincere ask for help, Nanny said yes. 

Neil stayed for eighteen months, and during that time became close to Nanny. She adored him, and although I didn't live in Lake Charles anymore and so never met Neil, I nonetheless felt I knew him. I knew that he met and married a wonderful woman and that while still in town, they had a son. Nanny loved getting to know his expanding family.

After Nanny died, Mom told me about the beautiful letter Neil had written her describing why Nanny had meant so much to him. His words rang familiar to so many she had touched and made happy over the decades.

Fast forward some, and because the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' (AWP) 2017 conference was slated for DC and I learned of this on the last day of early bird pricing last fall, I registered. When the schedule was announced, I flipped through it like the eager ever-student I am.

Thursday, February 9, noon: Beyond "Show, Don't Tell"
Neil Connelly, Cheryl Klein, Shawn Stout, Kekla Magoon.

Certain that Neil was the Neil from the white wooden house at 601 Division, I emailed Mom. "Yes!" she replied, "I'll put y'all in touch."

I reached out to Neil several weeks ago. He is now an English professor at Shippensburg University and has published eight books. "Neil, I'd love to put a face with the name I've heard about in such fond ways all these years. Might we steal a moment at the conference?"

"Emily, I write you from my office at Shippensburg, looking up at a picture of your grandmother, whom I adored." he replied.

I sat with his lovely note, looking around at the many photos of Nanny peppering my home, her vibrant smile the first thing anyone notices in any of them, and thinking of how special it was that yet another person (for there are many out there) in this big, diffuse world loved and missed Nanny too, and continues to keep her near. I was so touched, but I wasn't surprised.

This morning, after getting the kids ready for school, quickly pulling together a not-mom outfit, and shoving some pens, notebooks, phone charger, and snacks in my "professional bag," I hopped on the Metro and headed downtown, attempting to get there, check in, and make it to the first panel on time.

Being at AWP feels somewhat like being in Vatican City. You're in a small, densely-populated humming city-state: it's overwhelming, but in a way I like. 

The first panel was absolutely great, and then I texted Neil to check in. I'm in the Book Fair at booth 575, he replied. The Book Fair, let's say it's the Vatican within Vatican City, is not small, but sooner than not, I was at 575, sharing a smile and hug with a kind man who once lived in the apartment abutting Nanny's house. 

We found seats at a nearby table and reminisced. 

"Your grandmother and I used to sit on her back steps and talk. About tough stuff or nothing at all. And she would really listen, with no judgment."

That very trait, the true listening and hearing with no judgment or superfluous commentary, is one of the things I most loved about Nanny. I told Neil how much I missed Nanny still, and as I teared up, he said, "She's a person worth crying over." Isn't that a profound compliment? I think I'll remember that simple phrase forever.

He told me that once he moved out he continued to send students to Nanny but with this head's up: "You'll get a place at a good price, but you need to help Florence. Take out her garbage, check in on her, don't upset her."

Nanny took care of Neil, but he took care of her too, and I am so grateful for that. Imagine if we all looked after each other in such ways.

When Neil's first son was born, he and his wife would take him to visit. "To this day when Owen eats a peppermint patty, he thinks of your grandmother's house and how much he liked it there." 

I do the same. So do Jack and Oliver. Nanny always had York mints in the middle drawer of the buffet in her living room, and usually Starlight mints as well, those hard white-and-red peppermints. Maybe some Werther's too, but not as regularly.

"That front room had such great natural light. And high ceilings and those gauzy drapes in the windows." And like that I was back there again, sitting in the recliner across from Nanny's, watching the birds come to the feeder suction-cupped to one of the windows sheathed in translucent fabric, rolling around on the ancient carpet and feeling the familiar highs and lows of the slightly buckled wood floors underneath.

I remember when Jack was little, or was it Ol?, he'd lay quietly on that carpet and run his hand back and forth across the pile. Feeling, noticing, exploring. 

"Once, early in my and Tom's relationship," I told Neil, "I took him home to Lake Charles for a visit, and while there, my parents were trying to figure out how to affix Nanny's recliner to a wooden dais. I can't recall why, but it needed to be sturdy and firmly attached. Tom is an engineer so he got right to helping, and I remember thinking he'd really passed a test. He could see that we all adored Nanny and wanted to do anything for her, and he jumped in to do the same."

The time came to go our separate ways, and I asked if we could take a picture. Though I don't believe in an afterlife, I have to think that in some way, Nanny saw us and smiled her radiant smile.

Nanny, history (hidden and false), and otherwise

Tomorrow is Nanny's birthday, and were she still alive, she'd be turning 96. I miss her. At times, my memories of her slip into the background, but without fail and like the tides, they always flow back into the fore. I am thankful for that, but I recognize that keeping her with me does take some effort, and it should. Time heals, assuages. It covers naturally, like sand dunes that build up imperceptibly by day but noticeably over years. Without awareness and thought, what was once a flat land is suddenly a towering peak- what was underneath? Can it be reclaimed? Remembered? Found?

I keep Nanny with me in the way one must when someone or something is, and should remain, both important and honored. I don't want to lose any bit of her. My life and the lives of my children would be lessened without her guiding hand.

Nanny surfaced in my mind earlier while I was at the movies. Tom and I took the kids and one of Jack's friends to see Hidden Figures, a film about, literally, hidden women. Three incredible Black women who positively altered our country's trajectory but were, nonetheless, rendered voiceless, nameless, influenceless, until now.

How did my education overlook these women? How did my education overlook so many things that aren't part of "the" American narrative? That lovely, jovial narrative in which white settlers gave peaceful Thanks with native Americans (rather than the truth which involves a whole lot of slaughter and intolerance) and difference was tolerated rather than condemned as it had been when religious settlers fled England because of religious persecution. 

In truth, white Americans slaughtered the native ones and then proceeded to enslave Africans and racialize skin color. And forever subjugate women. And we continue to do all this but now also want to build a wall and stop people at borders. 

The racist and male fears (not always simultaneous, but sometimes) behind these ugly actions are why the figures in today's film/the real history were largely hidden and likely why my Nanny never boasted an outward voice as loud as I think her inner one may have been. Why I've spent my life unlearning a lot of what is expected of me as both southern and women -and, also, as Southern Woman- and why I have worked so emphatically, conscientiously, continuously to do so, despite the negative feedback I've sometimes received. 

I thought about this prior to Christmas when the boys and I decided to craft books for each set of grandparents. Each child would write a Top 10 list of things I like to do with you and also write a story or essay about one or more of those memories.

Lists were easy, stories for the grandfathers were easy. But the grandmother-specific tasks were harder: was there one thing? Some things? A specific thing that stood out? Not really. This vexed me for days and then I realized: It's because we are always here. We are the under-girdle, the pit crew, the foundation. We are the ever-present white noise, the hidden figures of nurturance and support. 

My boys are deeply connected to their grandmothers. I'd venture to say that beyond me, their Misse and Nomna are their closest relations. And yet they struggled for specifics. Sort of in the way I'd struggle to share something about myself of which I'm very proud. In the way Nanny never took much credit for all she'd one. In the times Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson kept quiet, spoke up, and decided when and how to do either. And because they were Black, a lot more was risked and at stake. This is largely true today. 

I thought of all of this yesterday when a close friend, who is Persian, told me that she didn't know now when she would see her parents and sister again. My friend has lived in the US for years, but her parents and sister are Iranian-German dual nationals wholly impacted by Trump's ban on entering folks from Muslim nations. 

Not all Muslim nations, of course. Just the ones in which the Vulgar Yam doesn't own a Tower. His offensive ruling has nothing to do with anything but his own bottom line. We are, again, shunning people for no good reason. People who have made this country better and would continue to do so.

Like the many Mexicans who have come here and done the jobs Americans felt were beneath them, and paid taxes, and cared for our kids, and worked harder and with more dignity than many white Americans do or would. Who have picked tomatoes and cleaned homes and acted in ways far more patriotic than too many lazy white Americans I know. 

One of my cousins today said about that fucking wall, "Build it long and tall." And I was so ashamed I nearly melted into myself. You can't pick your family, eh? Nanny would rather have died than say something so ugly, despite the fact that she too struggled with a Black first lady and a Black first family. But she struggled with it honestly and respectfully and came, at the dawn of her 90s, to see the errors of her past learnings. To address her unconscious but pernicious racist views and to confront them head on. To, ultimately, celebrate the beauty and dignity and complete realization of Americanness the Obamas embodied. That all the hidden figures in our past embodied. And to change her ways and vote accordingly.

As Trump shits on the core of what has made America a great place, I refuse to accept him and his mean, cruel, heartless, small-minded minions. You are what lessens us, and history will prove that theorem true. Now, more than ever, I see the value of voice and courage. I see how Nanny lived decades longer than anyone in her family had before her, and I know, in part, just why. Because she was the truest model of American exceptionalism: the rare bird to acknowledge her limitations, to address them, to change them, and to act on those changes.

THAT is the essence of what once made this country great, and I'll be damned if I don't try to live up to what she, and all the fighting and hidden figures before me, worked and fought for. We are better than walls and turning people back in airports. We must be, or we are nothing.

On internet friends and cardinals and Nanny

For one thing, hilarious text exchanges with good friends are really hard to beat. That's all on that subject, but if you haven't flown back and forth with a pal, emojis and honesty flying left and right, you really should try it prontissimo. 

As y'all might know by now, I have taken a number of writing classes and through them have made a number of friends. These many women and two men (hear, hear Freddie and Adam) have enriched my life in so many ways. Anyone who doubts the veracity of relationships forged online should pause and reconsider. While some are wholly fake, disappointing, or otherwise no good and totally ephemeral, others are the brightest of surprises, the happiest of new weights securing us to life and world.

Perhaps because writing is an artistic craft, a number of the folks I've met are not only tremendous wordsmiths but also talented photographers. I feel lucky every day to have in my home prints by Sophia and Eliza who graciously sent me high res jpegs of their work. Imagine the near impossibility of knowing these women, from Australia and Africa, before the internet. Imagine the chance even with that of meeting, of becoming friendly, of supporting each other's work, of sharing talent and beauty with someone you might never meet in person.

One writer-photographer, Terri, who captures spectacular scenes from nature once mentioned a lovely thing she'd heard about cardinals: that they're messengers from loved ones who've died, come to visit, offer some peace and love, or serve as a reminder of someone we miss.

Nanny always loved watching the birds at her window feeders. When Nanny became largely chair bound, Mom hung a feeder directly in her line of sight. As do most of us, she'd curse the squirrels and their Houdini methods of gluttony. But mostly she'd enjoy the simple act of watching birds come to feed. She liked cardinals' flashy red coat. I wonder if the scarlet hue reminded her of the lipstick and nail polish she always wore as a younger woman.

I imagine the way she watched the birds is the same way she used to watch her children and grandchildren eat the food she made them- simple, delicious food that never seemed to run out.

A few years ago, a copper birdfeeder caught my eye, and on a whim, I bought it. It boasts no fancy design or aesthetic. It just seemed sturdy, and I like copper. I hung it from the sugar maple in our old back yard, from a branch I could see from pretty much every window on the back of our house. And I came to relish every single visitor, though I did, on occasion, curse the squirrels.

We now have two birdfeeders and and an even greater variety of winged visitors to them. We also have more capable squirrels. They are eating me out of house and home, and recently, Jack and I greased the pole on which one of our feeders hangs. We waited for hours to watch a squirrel be foiled by our plot, but to no avail; the grease didn't slow those buggers at all.

In any case, I see cardinals every week, and I am certain that each is Nanny. Or at least that each is a reminder to think of Nanny and some bit of wisdom or cooking tip or grace that she shared with me before she died.