Stories Of The South: Penny Show
Though I've lived in the county continuously for twenty-four of my adult years, I'm thought of by my friends as the Great Indoorsman—one who loves nature from behind glass most of the time, the ideas and images of nature more than its touch and smell. As a child however I was different and better. We only lived in close contact with a relatively wild environment for some two years, when I was age six to eight; but in that time, wandering without brothers or sisters or regular playmates, I was lured quickly into an intense harmony with our suburban woods, creeks, and small animals. It was a harmony amounting to mystical union with the vital intelligence I suspected in nature; and while I knew nothing of Wordsworth then, I later found in his poems numerous close parallels to my own early raptures and faiths—a conviction that the inhuman world took benevolent cognizance of me in what seemed to be silence but was surely a secret code, decipherable with patience (one of my methods was to plunge my hunting knife into live wood, then to bite the thrilling blade and feel the tree's message).
The great majority of those moments were solitary; and perhaps of necessity, they did not long survive puberty. The flood of physical maturation tears of child's attention from its old objects—and deposits it forever on other human beings, freshly magnetized poles of inexplicable love. Seldom thereafter can many adults, barring saints or lunatics, plumb the deep blissful well of singularity. All the stranger then that one of my own clearest, most resonant, and most refreshing memories of such a moment involves two other people—my mother and my cousin (near-sister) Marcia Drake.
Marcia and I were seven or eight, which means that my mother was in her mid-thirties. Someone in her family had died. Maybe it was Uncle Brother, one of her father's two bachelor brothers who'd survived into his eighties (stone-deaf, asthmatic, but neat as a bridegroom) in the back-bedroom of the Rodwell home in Macon, North Carolina. In any case, Rodwells, Drakes, Rowans, and Prices were gathered for a funeral in comfortable weather. The memory of flowers in the big dining room, traditional pausing place for family coffins—and contagious tears from my mother's older sisters, my mother herself (my own continuing lachrymosity is almost certainly and the result of a Rodwell gene). Marcia and I, or possibly both, caught the prevalent tone of lament and were soon disconsolate demanding some sign that the day's heavy air would break and not last the rest of our lives.
My mother took the challenge and, not changing her funeral dress, led us outside. The house in those days stood on two-foot brick posts, no underpinning; and the visible dirt expanse beneath was a warehouse of disused implements patiently awaiting new purpose. By one post were jagged panes of glass, removed from windows but never quite discarded. Mother crouched and found a piece the size of a platter. Then she found an old garden trowel and led us far forward in the shady front yard. One of the big oaks near the road has a bowl-shaped arrangement of roots above ground. Mother crouched again there laid her glass down gently, and (with us watching speechless) began to dig a small basin in the earth in the oakroot harbor. When she had its boundaries clearly sketched, she stood, brushed her hands, and passed me the trowel—"You and Marcia dig it deeper. I'll be back soon."
The funeral air still kept us silent—no complaints or questions. We dug on in peaceful turns, unsure of the depth prescribed for this mystery, and were working when Mother returned with her hands full of flowers. At the time, we didn't ask where she'd got them; now I see they must have been discreetly removed from memorial sprays. Yet my memory of their color is mostly purple (purple flowers at a funeral? what could they have been?). She approved our dig, then bent and slowly arranged her flowers in a nest on its floor. Then she told us to turn our backs for a minute.
When she called us to look, she had risen and was standing by the site of our dig—vanished now. Still neither of us questioned her. "Ask me what happened," she finally said. So Marcia asked her (maybe I was prevented; isn't "What happened?" the primal unasked child-parent question?)
Silent, Mother bent and with a clean hand swept at what had seemed firm-packed dirt. It slid back easily and showed her secret; she beckoned us toward it. The pane of glass, only lightly dusted, was a window again. What it showed was flowers under the ground, a garden buried under the earth. Mother covered it again. "It's a penny show," she said. "When people pay a penny, brush back the dirt and show it."
We had a few cents, and were happier, by the end of the day.
Only now, more than forty years later, have I asked any questions of the memory. In a recent random search, I could find no other friend or acquaintance who'd heard of a show like my mother's. For all her surging vitality, she was not unusually inventive or handy. Was the idea of small subterranean gardens a family invention passed down to her? (She'd been born in the house where she showed me the first one; I'd been born there too, the only American my age that I know who was born at home.) Or has her own pronounced periodic melancholia responded so strongly to an old man's death, and her own son's distress, as to give her this tangibly poetic invention?—a brief consolation, to be shared with others for a nominal fee: the reward of your inventiveness.
Whatever, she'd quietly given me one of her largest gifts. An adult I trusted had confirmed my suspicion—from that day, a conviction—that the ground itself, the earth and its products, was inhabited in hidden ways. That many of the ways were hurtful, I'd known from the start; any infant knows danger. What she'd shown me, at the edge of a family death, was the fact of veiled beauty, discoverable by hand and of some small profit. It's by no means the least of the thanks I owe her.