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Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Minnie Youmans Place

From "19th-century farmhouse, Lexsy" by Brian Brown. This is grander than
my grandparents' house, but it is in Lexsy--my grandmother Kate once had
a fistfight with another woman in Lexsy, back when she lived there for a time.
Evidently Kate "Little Bear" was defending one of the children...
I am hoping Brian will not mind if I "borrow" his image, as he once
borrowed from one of my posts to illuminate something about
the house my maternal grandfather, a house builder, made for his wife
Be sure and visit his wonderful site, Vanishing South Georgia.
     It never belonged to my grandparents, even though they worked the land near Lexsy for decades, plowing with mules, shaping the resistant earth until gullies became flat and usable. Even the girls plowed, at least until the last baby came along. Preston and Kate labored as tenant sharecroppers in south Georgia, and if you have ever read James Agee's passionate Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or seen Walker Evans's photographs wedded to that prose, you have a hint of what that means. It was a postwar world, after all--why wouldn't the neighbors eat dirt, why wouldn't my father see his first jealous, throat-slitting murder before he was ten, why wouldn't he early on see the rural ways of sexual congress in a field, why wouldn't he run to join up with the Army Air Corps at 17?
       A long pale road of packed dust led by swamp and blackberry tangles: then a turn, and a visitor drove between fields of horse corn, tobacco, and cotton. The shack with its burst of trees in the midst of flat fields, its tumbledown outbuildings, the rusted stove that sometimes held rattlers, the gaudy flowers rioting from coffee cans, the half-fallen cedar with tiny scorpions in the cave underneath, the cloyingly sweet but tiny white blooms in the shining hedge that sheltered the porch from a blaze of sun: there is not one picture of the place. Not one. No one thought it worth the cost, I suppose. And later on the four-room house (living room, two bedrooms, kitchen--no bathroom, no hall, no closets or frills) was burned by vandals.
Public domain, Wikipedia. Walker Evans photograph of 3 sharecroppers,
Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, Summer 1936
     Long ago I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I biked around the perimeter of Ireland on my green Peugeot that German tourists fondled whenever I left it outside a pub. (They seemed to spring into being whenever I lashed the bike to a post.) I left the book behind somewhere in a Derry that, terrorized only hours before, was full of drifting smoke. I hope someone found the book, took it home, read, and passed it on.
     How I still wish there was a photograph somewhere! One of the reasons I wrote A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage was to make a sort of picture for myself. And it is a book where my family slips in--my grandfather's mixed race brothers (my great-grandfather Nathaniel Youmans/Yeomans sired twenty-two legitimate children and at least two illegitimate children, though doesn't know the half of it!) inspired the loss at the start of the book, and Pip contains elements of my father and one of my children. The well with ferns growing inside, the pomegranate trees, the chinaberries, the smolder of summer sun, the graveyard with its stones topped with shells: I wanted to keep those things, as much as I wanted to hold on to people.
     Some years past I went back to the site of Lexsy and then the Minnie farm. No one then lived in Lexsy; perhaps they have come back now, though I doubt it. The farm was now owned by an international corporation; there were signs meant to bar us from a place that was one of my loadstones in this life. My mother and I bumped down the road, still pale dirt, between the blackberry ravels, and turned down the drive toward the house. Nothing built by hands remained, not the shack, not the outbuildings, not the well. Doghobble ran wild in the yard. The chinaberries still stood in a messy row. The fields went on forever under the hot Georgia sky.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1 King James Bible


  1. Thanks for this post, which resonates with so many forgotten stories.

    My grandparents met as neighbors in a Polish slum in Jersey City. The freight train ran right in front of their stoop; it served both the sugar refinery and the asbestos factory across the street. I go there now and the row houses are refurbished and fancy, a pleasant little light-rail route runs along the block, and the "sugar house" is full of luxury apartments. My grandfather maintained the elevators in the building that preceded the World Trade Center; my great-uncles helped dig the tunnels under the Hudson. And every year, fewer people remember it all...

    1. You should write about that for the blog... Another world! I'm sure you can scrape up a medieval connection somewhere.

    2. A decade ago, I wrote a fun little post about my grandfather, who moved with my grandmother out to the New Jersey countryside to try his hand at farming during the Depression. I'd write it differently now, but here 'tis....

    3. Jeff, I really liked that remembrance--the hoop of it, the present running around and seizing the past in its mouth. Perhaps you should write it again, "differently now."

  2. Does one say, simply, one has read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? If so the statement is inadequate. There should be a verb that encompasses reading the text and viewing the photos, the two are interdependent. Impossible to do one without doing the other.

    Those faces staring straight out of history and those items of clothing, some seemingly made of something durable like canvas. On the other hand one or more of the women, as I recall, wear almost frivolous print dresses - courageous flags flown in the face of deprivation. To me, lacking your background, these people were wholly alien, a rudimentary race possibly created out of the dusty soil they subsequently worked.

    And I remember something else; none of the faces seemed to ask questions that I felt should have been asked. There was only acceptance. The photo you show is one year younger than me, so when did I encounter Let Us Now...? I can't remember.

    You must think of me as a terrible flibbertigibbet. But the book seemed to have travelled from the dark side of the moon.

    1. To me as a writer and as a human being, it is an absolute gift that I was born to highly educated, literate people but spent time each year living the life of my sharecropper grandparents and also with my maternal grandmother in her Queen Anne house built by my grandfather--and in those weeks, I lived Edwardian. My father eventually bought his parents a house in "town"--Swainsboro, Georgia--but in many ways the house with its modern utilities and appliances was alien to them, and they did not know how to take care of it.

    2. By the time I went to the farm near Lexsy, they had a 24-party phone line and minimal electricity and water at the kitchen sink, but it still felt like the way people had been living for a very long time. And that has no doubt been a help to me in dreaming my poems and stories.

  3. Oh, Marly. Thank you. Such vivid word-pictures that I almost feel those are my memories.

    1. From a painter, I take that as a stellar compliment! Thank you.

    2. Still know nothing about dates, but I hope to see you this year...

    3. And I, you... I'll catch up soon and write you what I know, when I know!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.