Your Life Story

What if you knew you had six months to live? It’s a question I pose to students in a course I teach, “Memoir, Your Life Story.” What might you write about your time in this world? Think about that.

My course is offered in a community college’s evening program. Students range in age from their 30s on into their early 70s. Quite often, many older students have spent a lifetime at some job they couldn’t stand. They’re hungry to learn something new. Restless to leave some mark on the world, they seek a creative outlet. The end of the road is coming and they are on fire to make sense of their life. Writing seems to be the path to take.

And then there’s the other end of the road. I teach students at the University of South Carolina’s School of Mass Communications and Information, (an unnecessary mouthful of words. “Journalism” works so much better.)

One semester, it so happened that I was teaching my memoirs class in the evening to adults and basic media writing to college kids in the afternoon. I told the college kids that teaching students older than me was an eye-opening experience. A young man raised his hand.

“Sir,” he said, “what’s the difference between teaching us and old people?”

“You really want to know,” I said, “I’ll tell you. Older folks would kill to be sitting where you are. Many never got to go to college. All their life they’ve had jobs they didn’t like and they are dying to learn. You kids, however, come to class late. You cut class and fidget when there’s about 10 minutes to go, sending me the signal that you are ready to go. You fall asleep in class. Your class is just one hour and 15 minutes but the evening classes I teach run three hours and the students don’t want to leave when class is over. Often the night watchman runs us out. That’s the difference.”

Not one kid said a word … the classroom was quiet.

Over the years, I’ve adopted an enlightened philosophy regarding college. No one should be able to attend college until they are at least 28 years old, maybe 30 even. Going straight to college from high school you know nothing, you’ve done nothing. You’ve yet to look down the rifle barrel known as life.

Work at a job you hate. That alone will motivate you to get a true education. Go to another country. Enlist in military service. Get some perspective on what the world is really like. Experience life. Discover your true calling. Earn a degree you’ll actually use. Live a full life and maybe you’ll write a wonderful memoir someday. Maybe.

A memoir, I should point out, is a slice of life. If you view a person’s life as a pie, the whole pie would be the biography. A memoir is one slice of the pie. A specific period revealed in all its intimacy. I enjoy a meaningful, well-written memoir as much as any book of fiction. For one thing, it’s real. I use James Salter’s Burning The Days as a model in my classes. Consider, for instance, this passage from Burning The Days on the death of his daughter.

“One night in May I had a dream of intense power—my daughter had become ill. In the dream she died. I was numb with sorrow. I went into the room where she lay, her beautiful face now closed, her long hair. Suddenly I was felled by it, brought to my knees. Tears poured down my cheeks. She was dead.

“The next morning there was a boil, like a stigma, in her left nostril. By nightfall she was desperately sick. The doctor pronounced it serious, an infection. There was a vein that ran here, by the nose, he said … I was sure she was going to die.

“At one time in my journals, beneath the date I had written, Every year seems the most terrible, but that was self-pity. The most terrible thing is the death of a child, for whom you would do so much, for whom you can do nothing. I had heard of the death of children and seen them lying helpless, but it was an arrow that would never be aimed your way.

“Nina, my daughter lived, but twelve years afterwards her older sister, Allan, died tragically. I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child. It was an electrical accident. It happened in the shower. I found her lying naked on the floor, the water running.”

Salter went on to say the truth, that in time the least painful thing was to forget this daughter who had died, not the kind of thing most people would confess to.

A memoir, you see, is unvarnished truth. It is real, revealing, and it may cause pain to some, though it can also cause joy after many years of anguish.

One day my phone rang. A man wanted to hire me to write an account of his life. He was ill. He was on oxygen. He had turned his back on his family many years earlier. Another woman entered the picture and he and his family parted ways. Estranged, they had not had any contact for many years. It’s a story more common than you may think.

This man, repentant, wanted to write a book, the story of his life. He had a sad story to tell. I met with him, recorded his thoughts, and began writing. We touched based daily. Several chapters took form, the work went well, and then he vanished. He wouldn’t return my calls. A month went by and then another month passed. I quit calling but one day for some reason unknown to me, I dialed his number knowing no one would answer. A woman picked up the phone. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“I was helping your dad write a book, his memoir,” I said. An awkward pause set in and then the woman began to cry. Her father had died and she had read the chapters we’d written. “Thank you so much,” she said. “We love what he wrote. It means so much to us.”

Though he never finished his book, he accomplished his goal. He didn’t live to hear the words he so badly wanted to hear but his words found their mark.

So, here we are, coming full circle. A friend of mine recently wrote, “If you knew you were about to die, would you feel you had given this life all you had to give? Would you feel you had completed your life’s great purpose? Will you go to the grave with the music still inside you? We’re all put in this life for a great purpose, and yet we come with no instruction manual. We have to find our great purpose on our own.”

What is your purpose? If you wrote your life story, what would your words be and would they find a mark?

The Gathering Place—The Country Store

Across The Savannah

You never see a true country store anymore. Changing times and interstate highways put them on the endangered species list and today weeds, kudzu, and pines advance through and over their empty shells. For decades, country stores stood as compact yet quaint centers of commerce, ready to dispense most anything, and just as importantly, provide gathering places to socialize. In rural areas, they stood as beacons to anyone who needed a plug of tobacco, mule collar, most anything, especially a chance to talk. A trip to the “general store” never disappointed.

country store-robertclark

Photo by Robert Clark

Most, if not all, are out of business, but for many of us good memories of country stores linger. What child of the South doesn’t remember country stores with happiness. I feel sorry for today’s youngsters who miss out on a trip to a general store. I just can’t see a group of 10-year-olds gathering in 2062, silver haired, reminiscing … “I tell you, there was nothing like a trip to Wal-Mart. Remember the plastic brooms and kitty litter? And those giant cartons of toilet tissue? We even bought plants there and grew our own flowers. Man, those were the days.”

A true country store had character no Wal-Mart could ever muster. It always sported a classic Coca Cola sign. You can still see some of those iconic signs clinging to old stores, their green and red colors washing out, victims of weathering, the store’s name fading … just as its business did.

Drawing on childhood memories, I wrote about one of the country stores of my youth in a novel, Forbidden Island. Embellished with bits of imagination, it went like this …

“Instead of pulling in and parking, I should have been dismounting and hitching my horse for Prices Store was of the late 1800s. The parking lot was sand, nothing more, just oil-stained sand. Two rusting Mobil Flying Red Horse gas pumps stood side by side like liver-spotted Wal-Mart greeters. Inside, two front windows filtered light through panes thick with khaki-colored dust. Off to the right, an old man was slicing wedges off a huge wheel of soft cheese. Motes of dust sparkled in shafts of sunlight slanting through cracks in the wall. It was primitive like all true country stores are primitive.”

A trip to a country store was one of childhood’s joys, a time for joyful self-indulgence: sweets, treats, and adventure. My grandfather ran a country store on Highway 79. He sold minnows from an outside tank. Inside, half-gallon jars with red lids held assorted cookies as big as your hand. The countertops glittered with colorful candies. It was a child’s paradise.

He sold penny candies like Mary Janes, those chewy bite-sized peanut butter and molasses candies, Lifesavers (the summer candy that withstood heat better than chocolate) and Bazooka Joe bubblegum, staples we kids loved. And we coveted Moon Pies too. It may be a cliché how the phrase “RC Cola and a Moon Pie” became part of the Southern lexicon, but it’s based in fact. Cokes with peanuts was another great combination too. Pour the peanuts into the bottle and enjoy!

Granddad sold Beechnut Chewing Gum and coconut candy with stripes of pink, white, and chocolate flavors, can’t recall the name but it was great. A good time was always to be had there, along with pranks and mischief. My cousins and I used to cut the spear-like leaves from a nearby Yucca and spear granddad’s minnows. It wasn’t exactly like shooting fish in a barrel ’cause the slippery rascals darted about, but we were persistent. Granddad never figured out why his minnows kept disappearing. And it’s a good thing he didn’t!

For a long time, Granddad didn’t use a cash register. A wood drawer stored folding money pressed in place by a vintage Ford’s chrome greyhound hood ornament. It’s hard to imagine anyone today keeping their earnings in such a simple place, but it was commonplace back then.

A place of commerce, yes, but it was more. It provided a focal point for the community. Mom remembers that Saturday evenings, Bud Sow, a local Black man, would come and tell animal stories to the children, generally reversing the animals’ names. A grasshopper became a hoppergrass. He was a local Uncle Remus of sorts and the children loved him and his tales.

Men would come and shoot bottle caps at cracks in the floor to see who would end up buying “dopes,” an old reference to Coca Cola, which once contained cocaine. (In its early days, Coca Cola contained nine milligrams of cocaine per glass.)

Mom recalls as well that her dad’s old store had a “cat hole” in the floor where a cat came and went. The cat hole proved handy to mom’s sister, Evelyn, for tossing goodies for retrieval later. On one occasion, Evelyn (We call her “Aunt Sister) had some fun with her younger brother, Carroll, who was bugging her for some Lifesavers. Superlax, a laxative, looked much like Lifesavers, and she gave him all he wanted all right. Uncle Carroll spent the rest of the day at the outhouse.

Mom also remembers that Thursday nights, mullet came in on ice from the coast for a fish fry, and the children always looked forward to that. A country store provided a rhythm of life as well.

I possess clear memories of my granddad’s store and Price’s Store. I see the crates of drinks stacked high. Simple bulbs hang from the ceiling. And I see old men sitting on the benches that flanked the front door to Prices Store. A country store was an educational institution. Men shared what they knew over smokes and Cokes for no country store was without cold Cokes.

The coolers at Prices and Granddad’s stores were nothing like today’s automated stand-up dispensers. Their coolers were filled with water and ice and the Cokes bobbing around would just about send you into hypothermia. You’d fish around getting a Coke from the bottom, pulling it out with a hand numb from Arctic-like water. First thing you did was check the bottom to see where the magic beverage was bottled.

The coldest Coca Cola I ever drank came from Prices Store. It was a blazing hot summer day and I was helping gather hay on my grandfather’s farm. Aunt Vivian went to Prices Store and returned with a cooler of Coca Colas for all the workers. Sitting beneath a persimmon tree on a hill, breeze in my face, I downed it in seconds, cold and crisp. So cold it burned. That Coke was the one I’ll never forget. Sheer delight.

Of course, country stores sold other soft drinks, Orange Crush was one of my favorites. Rush! Rush! For Orange Crush was an ad I recall. And then there were the Nehi beverages. Some of you silver-haired types will recall Nehi Grape and Nehi Orange drinks. (Nehi became Royal Crown Cola in 1955.)

You could buy Nutty Buddy ice cream, Squirrel Nuts, BB Bats, Candy Cigarettes, and Sugar Daddys and Sugar Babies at a country store. A Sugar Daddy had to be a dentist’s best friend because it would just about pull your teeth out. And some of you’ll recall Dreamsicles, too, an orange sherbet ice cream on a stick.

All that lives in a place called Memory now. All that lies in gathering dust. For me, it amounts to a line drawn in the sand: life beyond country stores would never be as real. Indeed, when those of us who remember country stores go to that great general store in the sky, the little stores and the lifestyle accompanying them will be gone at last.

Semblances remain though, sort of. I tip my hat to Cracker Barrel. At least it has some of the look and feel of a country store … if you ignore the waiting line and stare at the old signs and classic Coca Cola icebox filled with ice-chilled Cokes.

Maybe I’ll find another one up in the mountains some day or in some long-forgotten outpost. If I do, I’ll take a lot of photos. Or maybe you’ll find the last country store, not quite a victim of progress. Not yet.

The next time you pass a country store, one that’s long closed, its paint peeling, weeds and trees overtaking it, roof sagging, let your imagination loose. Envision it in the prime of life. You’re bound to see classic cars, vintage pick-ups, men in coveralls and ladies in floral print dresses buying provisions and sharing news. You’ll see a bench with old men whittling and whiling away the day and old glass-bubble gas pumps with gas 16 cents a gallon.

Out back, some boys, no doubt, will be up to no good. Inside you’ll find candies, supplies, a freezing Coke, and best of all, friends in the gathering place, the country store, yet another victim to that wonderful thing called progress.

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns.