It is a summer night in South Alabama, shortly before the 20th Century’s first great collision with hell. Austria-Hungary will declare war on Serbia in five days; within two weeks, the slaughter will be under way on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. The pace of events throughout the world is accelerating like a teamless wagon clattering down a hillside, but as Sarah Clementine Murdock picks up a pencil to write her daughter, time still moves at its immemorial pace.
Clio, July 23, 1914
My darling Belle,
I have been trying to get the chance to write to you all this week; but it just looks like I never will do any thing. I just want to talk to you so much more than to write. I am trying to make Dad some shirts, and it worries me so to sew. I reckon I am getting too old; but I am always tired when I start. I was sorry that Minie wrote you about Nat, for you all have enough there. He is some better I think, all-though he is suffering with his back. They are treating it and going to try to keep from operating if they can help it. I hope so. Anyway, Lucy came back Monday, and brought her aunt and little sister with her; but I enjoyed it. She is a nice good girl, and I enjoyed her company, and she did not mind helping me. You would like her.
Things seem much easier these days. Wives don’t make their husband’s shirts, and back surgery, though no pleasant prospect, isn’t as dreadful as it would have been then. But we have paid a price for these luxuries.
Well it is awful still, everybody asleep, but me and the clock. Ha. It has been awful hot for the last few days but we had a little shower this eve, and it is right pleasant tonight.
Listen. You can hear the ticking of the clock, as if Sarah’s cursive traced the path of a phonograph needle. You can hear the quiet of the night, the stillnesses between every word and sentence, a rhythm that can no longer be reproduced.
A couple of weeks ago, my stepson called me from Los Angeles to tell me he’d just heard my colleague at the Southern Political Report, Hastings Wyman, talking about the Mark Sanford affair on National Public Radio. From his home in Westwood, he could see news choppers circling the UCLA Medical Center, taking the pictures I was watching on CNN of the crowd gathering to hear the news of Michael Jackson’s death.
Time and space have become conflated. It’s no longer enough to know what time it is, but what time, where. Things happen in a sort of distended now, the star’s death anticipated and announced repeatedly, the moment captured at the top of every news cycle.
We are more connected, superficially, than Sarah could have dreamed. We text; we twitter. When we see the news about a mass shooting or a bridge collapse we grab the cell phone and anxiously call our children, wherever they are. But how much do we really say to each other?
I think it was too sad about that poor girl, looks so hard for one to have to go that way; but we never know what way one will go. I read an account of it in the Journal, but girls ought not to go to such places, without some one to protect them.
I wonder what it was that happened to that poor girl. Her tragedy has been obscured, not by time in the neutral sense but by our times, by the multiplication of tragedies, a century full of poor girls and boys without someone to protect them.
Time travels in one direction, but progress does not. My wife grew up keenly aware of the horrors her mother and father suffered in the Holocaust. But it was not until she accompanied her mother on her first trip back to Poland that she realized her mother had known one joy she could never share: a youth unshadowed by the memory of the roundups, the selections and the terrible trains.
I think Belle had a harder life than her mother, but that is unknowable. I do know her children were surprised when they discovered the 1914 letter. They remembered Clemmie, as they called her, as a woman of austere visage — it was said she had some Creek Indian blood — who could sometimes be more affectionate toward Dusty, her dog, than her grandchildren. (Not that they weren’t a handful. Once when Clemmie was visiting, the boys put my Aunt Myra up to crawling under her bed and doing push-ups while she was taking an afternoon nap; Clemmie awoke, grabbed her cane and whacked at Myra every time she tried to crawl out from underneath the bed.) For these children of the Depression era, the tenderness of this letter was, like my wife’s trip to Poland, a revelation.
They are expecting Estelle Baxter Brown to die, she has a cancer. So you see there is all ways something. There is lots that I could tell you but I will wait and tell you; would not have anything to talk about if I told it all – yes one thing – Ma Dillard quit the Baptist Church and went to Methodist. Would you believed it?
There is always something. Belle was living with her brother Aubrey and his family in Macon, working in a hat shop, when her mother wrote to her. She came back home and married her school sweetheart, Guy Baxter, settling down to life on a farm between Clio and Louisville. They had nine children, my father among them, and came to be known by everyone in those parts as Buddy Guy and Mother Belle. Buddy Guy was a man with a famous temper and a farm to tend. They say the night he learned my Uncle Jack had joined the Marines in 1942, leaving him with one less hand for the fields, the black family who lived a half-mile down the road came out in their yard to listen to his raging fit.
Bert is coming before long. I told him you were coming home, and he was awful proud. Haven’t heard from Cliff in some time; am afraid they are all sick. Has been so hot and dry down there. He has an Engine now.
The Murdocks were mostly railroad men. Bert later got my father a job with the L&N in Montgomery, where I grew up. In the summers I would go Down Home for long visits. Late at night I would lay in bed with Buddy Guy and he’d tell me the old stories of Rabbit and Fox, and the Old Man of the Woods. In the afternoons, Mother Belle would call when she saw the rolling store coming down the road, and my cousin Linda and I would scamper out on the steaming asphalt, hopping barefoot like Indian firewalkers, to buy Nehis and Ike and Mike gingerbread cookies. Clemmie had died in 1942, but the crepe myrtle she planted over Dusty’s grave still grew in the yard.
Those days have also passed. If you drive the straightened road from Clio to Louisville, you will find no trace of the Baxter farm, or the railroad section house in Clio where that letter was written in 1914. There is nothing but the graveyard at the Pea River Presbyterian Church where generations of Baxters and Murdocks, including Sarah Clementine, Belle and Guy, are buried. But on those six handwritten pages, we can hear the rhythm of that time. On this quiet night in the early years of a loud century, the clock ticks patiently, and stillness offers a salve to worried hearts.
Well it is nearly ten – guess I better stop and sleep a little – I am so anxious to hear from Aubrey – do hope he is getting on alright, bless his heart – I know he is tired – Hope it won’t be long before you all can come. I miss you so much. I got your things all right – think they were all so nice. I got them all put away for your honey-moon. Be sweet and let me hear from you real soon.
With a goodnight kiss, and a heart full of love,