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SPEAKER OF THE FLOCK

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June 2018

Pool Parties and Peach Queens

“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired… jumping, running—that’s the way to live.”—Jack Kerouac

Aside from a brief period of time when my children were small and hadn’t yet learned to swim, pools have always held an alluring quality for me. As it generally goes, the things you don’t have are the things you want the most. My family didn’t have a pool, nor were we members of a neighborhood association that provided one. This meant the only time I got to dip my toes in a pool was either when we were on vacation, or some kind soul invited me over to their home for a swim. I spent most of my summers paddling around in murky lake waters. I yearned to be in water which was clear enough for me to see my feet; and, to be able to plant those feet on a surface that didn’t squish up between my toes. Bonus points for the feeling that there wouldn’t be any unidentified creatures sharing my swim space. It didn’t bother me a bit that the chlorine in those pools turned my hair green and plastic-like, resembling some sort of radioactive straw. Never mind that my eyes were red and scratchy for days after hours spent in a pit of chemicals, giving me the look of a pre-teen meth-head mermaid. Also of no concern to me? Those pools that had the rough concrete bottoms that worked on my feet like a meat tenderizer. By the end of a week of vacation, I could still find that one spot of uninjured skin on the corner of a big toe, and I would use that to bob up and down when I couldn’t just tread water.

Dive competitions, Marco Polo, handstands, breath-holding contests, balancing on floats, you name it, I was ALL IN FOR IT. Drop me at the pool and drag me out when it’s time to eat dinner.

In high school, many of my summer days were spent sweating it out at my summer job, but every now and then, a group of us would all have a day off. I can see myself now, having spent the entire morning in pajamas, watching MTV and eating peanut butter out of the jar, just waiting for the phone to ring. (What must it be like for kids these days, to have all their friends just two thumbs away right there in their phones? I think of all that time I spent staring at the phone at my mother’s house, willing it to ring.) Some days, the call I was waiting for would finally come in.

drew barrymore scream
Actual photo of me being super excited that someone finally called me.

“Hello?”
“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“What’re you doin’?”
“Nothin.’ What’re you doin’?”
“Nothin.’ (pause) A bunch of us are goin’ over to Lotie’s. You wanna come?”
“Yeah, let me get my bathing suit on. See you in twenty?”

That was cool, right? It didn’t sound at all like I was dying to get out of the house and go somewhere, and that I would actually be ready and watching the driveway through the blinds in approximately 7 minutes, right? On the other end of the line was my friend Libba, and she was talking about getting a group of our friends together to go to her great aunt Lotie’s (a nickname for Lois, and pronounced “low-tee”) to swim in her pool.

shag girls
“Get in, loser. We’re going swimming.”

There was a pool. There were friends. There might not be diving competitions, but there would definitely be laughing. Actually, there probably would be diving competitions. Whatever it was, I was ALL IN. Libba, usually accompanied with a couple of our other friends, would pull up to my house in her gigantic, late-model baby blue Bonneville and lay on the horn. I would practically skip down my front steps and jump in for the outing. It wouldn’t be unusual for us to make a stop at the nearby Clock restaurant for cheeseburgers and fries. Not necessarily because we were all that hungry, but because it sounded good, it was on the way, and we were 16, blessed with the metabolism of caffeinated squirrels.

crazy squirrels
“Anybody got a Diet Coke I can have?”

Soon after we arrived at Lotie’s, a slow trickle of friends would start showing up for the impromptu get-together. Libba’s cousin would almost always be there, too, with a pack of his friends, and before we knew it, a small party would be underway.

Lotie’s house was an oasis hidden in plain sight in the middle of residential downtown Greer. It sat on the corner of two well-traveled streets; a modestly sized house with a backyard that was almost completely enclosed by a decorative brick wall. I wonder how many people passed it regularly, having no idea what a beautiful secret garden, sparkling pool, and quaint pool house were in that backyard. It was built in the early ‘50’s, and it is believed to be the first pool in town, and for a short while, the only one. I didn’t know Lotie personally, but she and her husband must have been quite the entertainers back in their day. For several years, they opened their home and pool area as hosts of parties celebrating the contestants of the Peach Queen beauty pageant during the South Carolina Peach Festival, which was held for many years in Greer. One year, they filled the pool with peaches for a photo shoot with the beauty queens, who had traveled from all over the state. In the pool house hung several black and white photographs from those parties. Smiling beauty queens, with perfectly coiffed hairdos and makeup, wearing modest bathing suits. Some floating blissfully on pool rafts, while others sat on the side and dangled their long legs into the clear water. I imagine an invitation to one of Lotie’s pool parties must have been a pretty hot ticket back in the day. Those gals must have primped and prissed all morning long to get ready to strut their stuff at literally the only pool in town.

My friends and I arrived at Lotie’s pool party about 40 years after those beauty queens, and while there was certainly no primping and prissing on our parts, I imagine we enjoyed it every bit as much as they did. I also like to think that Lotie still enjoyed the art of entertaining. She almost always came out to greet us and make small talk (before her afternoon nap, naturally). Ever the gracious hostess, she would have her housekeeper, Imogene, bring us fresh chocolate chip cookies. Imogene was like an angel, dressed completely in white, and those cookies were undeniably heaven-sent. Even if we were still full from the cheeseburgers, we devoured those cookies as if we hadn’t eaten in days. Lotie was from another time: the summer after our senior year she asked some of the girls in our group if they had their hats and gloves ready for going off to Clemson in the fall. Her mannerly demeanor and dedication to keeping up her home had a way of making us feel special. Knowing that she thought highly of us kept us in line. We would have never wanted to disappoint her by acting like a bunch of hooligans. Now, that’s not to say that we abided by royal protocol every time we went over. There may have been some jumping off the roof into the pool during Lotie’s naptime. Probably a fair amount of foul language was batted around. But for the most part, I think we highly respected this lady who showed us that she thought we were worthy to share in her lovely oasis and partake in the Lord’s cookies.

For a hot minute, back in early Spring, I fell under the swimming pool spell and thought about having one installed at my own home.

At first, I thought it would be easy. I stood in the backyard with a very friendly and motivated contractor who told me, straight-faced, that we could be swimming by July. Sure, there would still be decking to be done, but we could work around that, right? I was like a female Clark Griswold, staring out the window at my crystal clear blue pool, with my smiling family and friends waving back at me, singing my praises for making all their dreams come true. A hero for the ages, I tell you.

cousin eddie in pool
“We love you, Mom!!”

But there was a problem. Well, several problems. The more we learned, the more we wanted, and, as home improvement projects tend to do, the plans outgrew the budget and we had to put on the brakes and redirect. I wonder if this happened to Lotie and her husband as they planned their pool? It must have seemed like an insurmountable task at the time. Not like now, when there are pool companies all over town. They were the very first one! Their neighbors must have thought they were crazy, digging a giant hole in their backyard and building a whole separate house. Think of the traffic they must have created with all the workers. And how did they find someone to help them maintain it? It was the only one in town! Surely, at some point, they had to think they might have been making a colossal mistake, that the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth. But at least one of them had the motivation to keep going with it. At least one of them was excited about being the center of the social scene. One of them had a vision of children paddling around in the backyard, growing up and inviting over a new generation of friends. They almost certainly were committed to this being their “forever home,” and couldn’t let resale figures cloud their judgment. But I doubt that even the most visionary of people could have foreseen a great-niece and great-nephew with a pack of restless teenagers still enjoying the fruits of their labors and worries a full 40 or more years after they had the idea to take the risk and make it happen. I guess sometimes in life you just have to shut out all the reasons you have for not doing something, and instead look at what kind of happiness you can create for yourself and spread to others in the process. It’s like thumping the first tile in a line of standing dominoes and having no idea where the line ends.

Lotie and her husband (and probably Imogene and many of the Peach Queens) departed their earthly oasis several years ago. The house went up for sale, and I’ve heard that a lovely young family lives there now, which makes me so happy. I hope they use the pool often and that they love it as much as so many people before them have. There are gallons upon gallons of memories and good times in that treasured pool, each generation adding more, to the point of overflowing. But isn’t that the great thing about memories? There’s always room for making more.

IMG_8223
“Off my raft, sister. I’m making room for memories.”

 

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Here’s to You, Mrs. Buchanan

“There is nothing so stable as change.”—Bob Dylan

Growing up, I remember a house that stood out from all the others in our neighborhood. All around us were rows upon rows of boilerplate, square homes, shingled in varying neutral shades, all with a similar wide front porch, brown front door, narrow front yard and some form of a brick chimney.

But this house was different. It had the same asbestos shingles as the others, but they were bathed in a sunny shade of buttercup yellow. A gabled roof was perched atop a quaint entrance with a freshly painted white front door. The porch was not the standard issue front-facing variety, but screened in, and thoughtfully set off to the side, under a grove of shade trees. You could see that there was sturdy white ceiling fan turning lazily, offering gentle assistance to whatever breeze was already there, and the puffy cushions on the patio furniture looked positively nap-worthy. The corner lot was meticulously manicured; a stark contrast to the surrounding lawns in this working-class neighborhood where yard maintenance was a low priority for the begrudging homeowners and renters. The house was an example of above-and-beyond smack in the middle of a lot of just-getting-by.

Every Autumn, a tall maple tree on the street corner of the yard would burst into a beautiful blaze of gold that would literally stop traffic as onlookers slowed down to admire it. It was one of those trees that most people would think was more trouble than it was worth. The glorious display would last no more than a week, at which time every single leaf would make the ultimate sacrifice and careen off the tree and onto the lawn to make a thick golden blanket beneath the empty branches. Unlike the other lawns in the neighborhood, whose leaves would remain until they were brown and crumbly and half-blown away, these gilded leaves would be scooped up within hours of when they reached the ground, stuffed into lawn bags that looked like gifts, and lined up orderly along the street, waiting for the City to come and pick them up.

One day I asked my mother who lived in the golden cottage. She replied, “Oh, that’s where the Buchanans live.”

Buchanan. I knew that name. But it couldn’t possibly be the same Buchanan that I was thinking of. The Buchanan I was thinking of was Mrs. Buchanan, the meanest substitute teacher in all of Greer, SC. Maybe even all of Greenville County. And while it would have been hard to prove, I would have bet my whole piggy bank that she was the crankiest, toughest, and downright saltiest sub in all of the great state of South Carolina. Everyone agreed. Kids who couldn’t see eye to eye on anything would unite in synchronized groans when Mrs. Buchanan entered the classroom. In general, substitute teachers were welcome, sometimes even cause for celebration. Maybe because of their ignorance of classroom rules, or their fondness for showing movies instead of following lesson plans, or just because having a substitute was a departure from the ordinary humdrum of school days. None of this applied when Mrs. Buchanan was substituting. It was as if she wanted to be tougher than the teacher for whom she was substituting. She wasn’t about to phone anything in. She doled out plenty of schoolwork and even assigned homework for the evening. She was there to teach, and she expected you to learn; no, master the material she presented. She wouldn’t take any lip, as we said in those days, and in the rare instance that a student dared to buck her authority, it was straight to the principal’s office.

Everything about Mrs. Buchanan was no-nonsense. Her silvery blond hair was coiffed into a perfectly wispy helmet, likely the result of a weekly wash and set. If there was a threat of rain, she would proudly don a clear plastic rain bonnet to protect her investment as she walked through the parking lot to her spotless, waxed gold Buick. She wore small reading glasses that she kept on a golden chain hanging around her neck. When not needed for reading, those glasses rested on her formidable bosoms, unmovable in their WWII-era underpinnings, meant to withstand a bombing with nary a jiggle. Smart, neutral sweater sets paired with polyester blend pants and sensible flats provided her with a uniform that was both comfortable and the height of appropriateness. She was there to do a job. Not to make friends, or to waste time, or to collect a paycheck for doing the bare minimum, and, heavens above, not to merely babysit.

“Class, today you will have a substitute teacher, Mrs. Buchanan.”
All together now: “UUUUGGGHHHHHH.”

So, of course, this house must belong to another set of Buchanans. A cousin, perhaps? There was just no way that that Mrs. Buchanan could live in this lovely house full of goodness and light. It was like seeing the Wicked Witch of the West wearing Glinda the Good Witch’s dress. It was all wrong.

My mother was still talking. “Oh, you know them. Mrs. Buchanan. She used to be a school teacher when I was your age. I think someone at the church told me she’s a substitute now. Couldn’t stand being retired…”

Nooooooooooooooooooo. How could this be??? Mrs. Buchanan (a.ka. Mrs. ButtCannon; kids can be so clever in their mean-ness) was the force behind this lovely home of sunshine and buttercups? You’re telling me that the woman who used wooden rulers to paddle little hands came home to relax with a tall glass of sweet iced tea on that breezy screened porch? The same stoic lady I saw stand like a stalwart captain behind my teacher’s desk by day also stood gazing out the window with the delicate white curtains patterned with sweet little yellow flowers washing dishes by night?

As a child, I could not possibly reconcile the two. So, I blocked this knowledge out of my brain. I didn’t tell any of my friends that I knew where she lived. I stopped looking at the house when we passed it in the car. I don’t know why, but it felt like some sort of betrayal. My imagined story for this place had been shattered by cold, hard truth.

As an adult, however, it makes complete sense. The perfect home doesn’t just happen. You either have a full staff at your disposal, or you have to be a no-nonsense battleax to stay on top of the never-ending tasks. You have to have a Mr. Buchanan who will take orders. And you have to be willing to work. HARD.

Mrs. Buchanan, who was old even when my mother was young, has long since passed away. I think I was in college when I heard the news, and it made me sad. Meanie or not, she made an indelible mark on my childhood, and I think I always knew that deep down she had a soft heart. She showed her caring through discipline, not coddling. And there was always the case of that lovely home. A beautiful and welcoming space can only come from a beautiful and welcoming soul. She might have hidden it from us crass kids, but to those she kept close, she was surely a loving person.

Homes carry the character of those who inhabit them, and once Mrs. Buchanan left us, the home began to pass away, too. I see it often when I go to visit my mother, and I’m usually disappointed to see how it has deteriorated. The once cheerful yellow has taken on a very tired, almost sickly hue, and all the bright white trim paint is peeling and flaking away. The lawn is full of weeds and almost always in need of a trim. I can sometimes see people relaxing on the screened porch, but I also see that the ceiling fan blades are wilted from humidity, and the screen is torn and stretched out in places. Someone must have decided that the traffic-stopping maple was indeed too much trouble; all that remains of it is a ground-level stump.

I know that Heaven is not a place with disdain or annoyance, so I can’t imagine Mrs. Buchanan as I’d like to: an angel glaring over the top of her reading glasses at these ingrates who have run her haven into the unkempt ground. Instead, maybe she looks down with love on those that are leisurely enjoying the simple pleasure of sitting on that shaded, screened porch without the hours and backbreaking toil of the upkeep. Maybe.

I don’t like change. I never have and, unless something changes, I never will. But, change we must, and if Mrs. Buchanan can accept change, then I guess so can I.

 

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