One who got away

Savannah Morning News

September 11, 2016

It’s one thing to read the words and stories and meditations of James Alan McPherson. And then, after a while, to pull down the books from the shelves and re-read them because the narrative is not always clear (which is a good thing), the meanings (and timeline) are multiple, the characters (and the narrator) complex.

It’s quite another thing altogether to speak with his sister, Mary McPherson. She lives outside Charleston. Mary is one of many relatives and friends who planned yesterday’s memorial service at their childhood church, St. Phillip Monumental AME on Jefferson Street. McPherson died July 27 in Iowa City. He was 73.

McPherson, a graduate of Beach High School, may well go down as one of Savannah’s finest writers. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winner in fiction (the first black person to do so), an early recipient of the MacArthur Prize Fellows Award and a beloved professor at the respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City.

Saturday’s service was not the only celebration for McPherson’s life. After his death the University of Iowa rented the local theater, the Englert Theater in Iowa City. Two hundred colleagues, students and friends crowded together to remember someone they called the moral center and backbone of the Writers’ Workshop. That same day there was a memorial service at the nearby Trinity Episcopal Church.

According to Mary, one year older than McPherson, she and her siblings left Savannah as soon as they could. “in the early 1960’s, opportunities for African-Americans were very, very limited,” she said. “Sometimes I look at the raw talent that got away and think what a shame.”

Her brother Richard joined the military. When he finished his term he worked as an aircraft mechanic with Delta in Atlanta. Mary became a corporate librarian and worked in the northeast for 40 years.

Before McPherson left Savannah he found a home at the Carnegie Library on Henry Street, a branch of Savannah’s Live Oak Public Libraries that has deep roots in the African-American community.

“At first the words without pictures were a mystery,” he said in an earlier interview. “But then suddenly they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other people’s lives. After a while I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while I no longer believed in the world in which I lived. I love the colored branch of the Carnegie Public Library.”

McPherson’s daughter, Rachel, wanted the Savannah memorial to be at the Carnegie library. But when she found it only seated 75 they moved it to the church.

After high school McPherson left for Morris Brown College. Then he graduated from Harvard Law School and followed that up with a Masters of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

“I remember he always read a lot,” said Mary. “He would write poems, too. He was like a god in Iowa. People were always coming around making special noises. When I visited I would have to say, ‘Back off. I’m here to see Junior.’”

In between degrees, McPherson worked as a waiter on the Great Northern Railroad and he was a lecturer in Japan. He spent years in Baltimore, where, as the owner of a house with deep connections to the people he rented to, he based many of his short stories and much of his ruminations in, “Crabcakes, a Memoir.”

McPherson kept in close touch with his family. In the last five years Mary would visit every three months or so. The siblings spoke on the phone two or three times a week. But he had put down deep roots in Iowa.

“One Thanksgiving I decided to go visit,” Mary said. “I was all set to cook. Then I noticed a sign he had put up: ‘Any student who can’t go home please come to my house.’ He cooked everything.”

At the Iowa City memorial writer ZZ Packer recalled how McPherson would invite students to his house and lend them books, maybe give them some crab cakes, sometimes, “If you’re real good friends some bourbon.”

During one particular visit to Iowa Mary suggested the two of them visit Savannah.

“Believe it or not he really wanted to visit. There were people who wanted to bring him there. But by then he had fallen a few times. His mobility was not good. Then he was afraid people might have expected more from him than he could deliver. It just wasn’t meant to be.

“While we were considering it Jim turned to me and said, ‘How should I go back? Dead?’ I said, ‘What? We’re not talking about death.’ That’s when he said, ‘I’m just kidding, Mary.”

When Mary decided to move back South she considered Savannah. But everything was too expensive.

“I came and drove around the old neighborhoods,” she said. “Every place I used to live they had torn down our home. My father’s house on Florance Street between 39th and 40th street was a vacant lot. It was the only house that was missing. It was like they just didn’t want us here.

Her brother, she was, “would be appalled at all the fuss we are making. He was so gentle and humble. After he got the Pulitzer he wanted to run into the woods and hide. He’s a very low key, thoughtful person. Everything he did was from the heart.”









Shampoo ginger: a new beauty queen

Savannah Morning News

September 4, 2016

It’s one thing to be drop-dead good looking and low-maintenance to boot but to have function and purpose as well? We call that a two-fer. That’s exactly what you get when you plant the pine cone ginger. Plus – get this –  the plant’s nickname is “shampoo ginger.” Could that be, especially when it thrives with no water, no soothing words, no worry, when it cares nothing for shade or no shade? Last year I used the oozy, medicinal center of the comfrey plant – nicknamed “bone knit” – to heal a busted knee cap. This year I followed instructions, plucked the bloom, took it into the shower, squeezed the squishy liquid center and used it to “restore luster and brilliance” to my hair, just like the Breck commercials used to promise.

My only beef is this: pine cone gingers spread. They make themselves at home. They take over. And all of this on a spot of land I’ve taken to calling “the garden that used to be a driveway.” The beautiful Texas red-star hibiscus a few feet away? Dwarfed. Overshadowed. Complaining (“Hey, what about me? Last year you thought I was the cat’s meow. What am I now? Chopped liver?”). Dear red-star: I have not forgotten you. You are my first-born (sort of). In a few months, when plants can be moved with minimal stress I will give you a new spot. You’ll have your own turf again. I promise.

I’ve made a lot of these promises lately. Gardens are mutable; they’re liable to change, sometimes for the worse. Last year’s favorite (or was it two years ago?), the delectable dotted horsemint, a member of that sprawling monarda (or perhaps you say mint) family, took my breath away, so delicate, so subtle was she. And that was before I was even sure of her name. But then, wouldn’t you know it, the swamp sunflower, prized for its stature and hardiness, edged closer and closer, took more and more territory and, in a battle royal, edged out my sweet little horsemint. None of this happens quickly. You think all is well, that you’re in control and then you look away, maybe go away for a few days. When you return you forgot you ever had horsemint. Horsemint who? But then this survivor of the fittest pops up in the middle of your drought-tolerant, non-complaining variegated zebra grass and you remember. Aha! Horsemint! Must do something about horsemint. Put it on the list.

Then there’s the beloved indigo. Last year it towered 10 feet high, more a statement than a material for a dye. I’ll leave the dyeing to the good people at the Ossabaw Island Foundation. I just do the planting. Up until now, I never worried about shaking out seeds and replanting it because I never had to. For the past seven or eight years my indigo has always come back on its own. Until this year. Until I broadcast some itty-bitty amaranth seeds I snagged from Janisse Ray’s seed-sharing project at the Tattnall County Library. I thought I had tossed them a safe distance away. Au contraire. I forgot to factor in the strength of those seeds. After all, the grain known as amaranth does go back some 8,000 years. It’s got some pretty good staying power as well.

And it’s a stunning plant. I don’t have any flowers yet and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to grinding this gluten-free product, but the leaves are two-toned and striking. And it’s tall. At least as tall as the indigo, which it seems to have been dislodged and/or displaced. Boo hoo.

Even worse is what I did to the Scarlett runner beans, another plant I have grown for the heart-shaped leaves and the red, red color – who doesn’t love red? – but which I have never eaten.  In my zest to clear some real estate for more runner beans I inadvertently unearthed some roots of the mother plant. Quick like a bunny I tried to bury them back before anyone noticed the error of my ways. But no dice. No cigar. No one likes to be disturbed that way. The vine died. And I silently cried. They were no beautiful. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I didn’t ingest some brain-eating amoeba while swimming in a lake. I didn’t dislodge the remote control and leave the batteries for some child to put in his or her mouth. I didn’t nick the spleen of a cat in the process of trying to neuter her (not me – someone who should have known better). I merely made a few mistakes in the garden. But that’s OK. Gardens are very forgiving places. Even if certain plants do tend to take over.

Anyway, it’s unseemly for Breck girls to complain.