What She Was Saying:
Each day we cross paths with someone that is saying something. It may be an actual conversation with audible words, but sometimes, there are no words –just signals, signs or even silence. The experiences of a life, the beautiful and the tragic, can become tangled in a mind, showing itself in the actions, attitudes and behaviors of a person. And because there is this event, sometimes with words, sometimes a memory, sometimes with subtle speechless revelation, the only way we can know is to notice, to remember and to give honor to what is uttered out loud or in silence.
What She Was Saying, a compilation of award winning short stories and poetry from Marjorie Maddox, peers into these thoughts of women and girls and puts words to those happenings of a person we may never know. Maddox recounts memories and wonderings from newspaper headlines and real-life encounters, as well as putting words to imaginative narrative and stories behind faces of those who often stand before us.
Often, we can be caught off guard at the wisdom of child or the depth at which they perceive. Maddox eases us in with “Crowned,” from the perspective of a preacher’s daughter. She and her daddy move around a lot, typically just before the town’s summer festival and it’s easy to connect with hot summer days and broad smiles and greetings that fill faces with anticipation at the prospect a new preacher brings. Not long after, though, friendly expressions are replaced with avoidance, having spoken too long, revealing too much. “By the time five Sundays have passed, Mrs. Moore has another bruise, only this time just her eyes say something. Part of what they say is shame. Her husband is an elder. They always are. His eyes say embarrassed. They say forget what you know.” (6-7) The life of child can seem simple, but in this opening story the reader is lead into the wise-heart knowing of an immature mind.
“Birthday Cake” brings into focus a celebration of a ninety-three-year-old woman with her son’s family. We listen to her thoughts as she recounts the familiarity of the moment, repeated for the last 20 years and immortalized with 20 frozen chocolate birthday cakes, she imagines can be consumed at her funeral. Lost in time past, she remembers her husband, their days working side-by-side in the garden. “They’d sit together under the oak, their knees dirty from digging. They’d raise their glasses and cheer the day.” (25) She’s tired, the repetitive celebration a perfunctory giving away of time that drifts further from the place she longs to be. I’m reminded of the years my own family lived life without their spouse and wonder at the ambivalence felt by the rest of us toward the awkward absence of their better half.
The raw and disturbing story of “Lot’s Daughters,” taken from Genesis, chapter 19 tells in few words the offering of his daughter’s to feed a sex-crazed crowd of men. In this retelling from the broken sister’s perspective, they resort to incest with their father in order to live after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The reader will be thankful for Maddox’s brevity, each word heavy with the young women’s hopelessness and desperation.
Relief comes in the ordinariness of life in Pennsylvania, of rascally squirrels scavenging for food, mini-van moms, “waiting for the bushy-tailed to signal the go ahead, to tell us all is safe,” (“Squirrelly in PA,” 147) and the imagery painted of mountains and trees and wildlife in the midst of suburbia. Maddox tempers my mind with images of tent camping with children, the ruffling of wind in the late night, sleeping without worry, as “the curve of the world huddled about us as we breathe its crispness in,” (“Pennsylvania Round in Four Parts,” 151) and internally, my world is set a little closer to center, a welcome reminder of goodness mingling with sorrow.
Finally, Maddox tells us a story about “Rachel Isum Robinson: Snatches and Excerpts.” Here Maddox has studied and listened to the stories passed on to her personally, she being the real life great-grandniece of Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who battled to bring Jackie Robinson into the white world of professional baseball. Here Maddox imagines the complicated inner thoughts of Rachel, a young black woman from California, the whipping sting of racism staring her down as she looks up at a “White Women” sign for the bathroom at a New Orleans airport. What must she have felt that day and the days that followed, a mix of questioning the motives of strangers alongside the “uncontained ectasy on the ball field; and the slow change of this still surprising world. When my love runs his pigeon-toed run, our life is a round glowing ball of hope.” (79) Maddox imagines a wife, mother and fellow sojourner in the battle for equality, but at the base of all things, to be loved as a people.
What She Was Saying is all at once difficult to read and hard to turn away. Maddox puts words to the things we think or conjure without proof, sometimes with only the slightest of revelations. These stories bring to light the inner person, the humanity of us and displays how we may honor or dismiss them altogether. Haunting, yet strangely encouraging, I would urge the reading of these stories – they shed light on the human condition, the story of one’s life, and the cry to handle each with care.
Janna Lynas lives in the Midwest with her pastor husband and four children. She loves listening to real-life stories and taking notes. You can read her thoughts online at jannalynas.wordpress.com and fourwardwrcc.wordpress.com.