I am a writer. I find stories and sometimes they just come to me. This one came from Cross Creek, Florida and the homestead of another writer, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. (It is the remnants of an orange grove where she and her first husband settled hoping to support their writing with the profits from the fruit sales. She ended up supporting the grove with the profits of her writing.) She wrote, most notably, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Yearling, later made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. Her memoir, Cross Creek, tells the story of her life in Florida living among a people she came to love and respect. I’d never read a word of it, nor did I know anything about Ms. Rawlings until this weekend. Her house, tenant house, barn, hen and duck houses are the same as when she left them nearly 60 years ago. Her furniture and books, typewriter, stove, bathroom and outhouse are still standing as though she will return. I came to believe she has never left. I felt her through her stories and this place. I feel a connection. We both have lived in Rochester, New York and the piney marshes of north central Florida. I have watched storms roll in off the ocean from Crescent Beach and walked the cobbled streets of St. Augustine as she must have done. I don’t think she would like being an icon and having her home viewed as more than it was to her, a home. She might wish it were still a working orchard with rows of sweet oranges and magnolia rather than hard woods. The dogs who accompany the tourists, her favorite, reminding her of Pat and the many other dogs who roamed the yard when she was there. She loved to write everyday, a thousand words, in the yard and on the porch. She wishes she had taken better care of her body, but doesn’t regret any experience and would embrace everything even more wholeheartedly if she were given the chance and I imagine her urging me to learn from that.
Her home feels like my home through some genetic memory or very real memories of my grandmother’s home in the sixties.
One of my earliest memories is of fresh eggs. On a clear, Iowa afternoon I followed the girl who lived next door into the hen house and lifted a warm brown egg from the sweet smelling hay. I started to run toward the door but stepped hard on a thistle and stopped. The girl lifted me into a rusted red wagon and delivered me to the steps of grandmother’s kitchen with my egg. I wanted to eat it, but it was afternoon and dinner was near ready, so Grandma showed me to the ‘icebox’ where I reluctantly left it until breakfast. It was the best scrambled egg I have ever eaten and now some fifty years later I still recall the heat, the smell, the thistle, the taste and the contentment of a sacred morning at my grandparent’s rural home.
On the kitchen work table at Cross Creek there were two baskets filled with fresh, warm eggs. There were hints and visions of my past throughout. A wooden, bucket ice cream churn like the one from which I’d eaten banana ice cream. There were cigarette ashtrays, cocktail glasses and a typewriter. So many things that are no longer part of my life but recall an earlier, magical time and maybe that’s why I felt a connection there. I bought and read her book “Cross Creek” in one day and although I feel uncomfortable with her racist language and judgments I so clearly feel her life along the creek between two lakes, in the scrub affronted by a new culture. I am inspired and connected.
The truth is I spend a lot of time in fear. I’m afraid of surprises that life may bring, but when life brings me connections through time, space and story I am hopeful and certain of the magic and miracle of life. Life can be cruel and unpredictable; but balanced by the mystical whispers and writings of those who’ve gone before, I am renewed and prompted to embrace the fortune and the hardship with equanimity rather than fear. I don’t know why we use the chicken as a symbol fear, but to me the memory of laying hens, roosters and strong women will forever mean courage and love. I am so grateful for the reminder this Memorial Day weekend.