In the mood to enjoy a little armchair traveling, I pulled an old favorite from the bookshelf. When the bookmark slid from between the pages, I expected it to be the water taxi ticket from our girls trip (me, Mother, Anderson) to Venice in 2008.
I am always tucking precious keepsakes into my books. Never would I have thought it would be my ticket to the 102nd Floor Observatory of the Empire State Building. I brought back very little from the trip to New York City that fate filled summer -other than a few souvenirs for the kids and two journals filled with notes that would become WE SHARE THE SAME SKY.
That was 15 years ago! Where does the time go? And, why does it pass so quickly?
The moments, the memories that comprise our lives are precious—-the good ones and the bad ones too, for they both shape us and define the paths we will choose.
This past November, my husband and I were deep in conversation when our driver suddenly stopped due to traffic. As we looked out into the rainy streets of New York City, I was stunned to see Paley Park just steps away. She (because she is too beautiful to be anything else) was glossed with rain, just as she had been the first time we met in 2007. Time has a funny way of bending in on itself. So much has happened since then, but I am still the same girl; I still believe in all that is good. And, I know I am blessed.
When we returned home, I pulled out a copy of the book I wrote about my weeklong retreat in New York City ~ WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, A MEMOIR. And, I located the chapter where I mentioned my first introduction to Paley Park. I’ve included a partial entry here.
WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, A MEMOIR Elizabeth Mozley Partridge
2 Simplicity – free of complexity, refinement, or pretentiousness
For only a moment, I forget where I am. I have awakened to the sweet sound of rain, its drops playing out a song on the sill and making a tattoo of patterns on the glass, droplets that splat, gather and run. I’ve awakened in the past, on my old couch. How often I slept my lonesome weekends through.
There was that one soaking April I awakened to find the French doors of my living room standing open, thrown wide the night before to let in the breeze. I both loved and hated that white room, with its spacious doors set across the back. On the second story, it sat as if nestled within the limbs of trees. This morning the rain had made heavy the syrupy smell of warming wisteria and its scent had come inside with the wind to blanket the house. I had risen, prepared a pot of coffee, put Madeleine Peyroux and Miles Davis on the Hi-Fi.
I was determined that spring to make myself happy. Often, I’d waste the day away. Surrounding myself with cookbooks pulled from the shelf, I’d browse the stacks for something to cook, something to have waiting for the children when they returned from the weekend with their father.
So, I have claimed today as one of those days. It will be a day without destination, a day wasted away without purpose. But, really, in all things there is purpose.
Darting along the sidewalk, I sidestep a woman scolding her son for being late. These kids are still in school and will not be out for another week. Continuing the school year through June would be unbearable in Alabama. I turn, and cannot help but watch the woman. Having entered the store behind me, she continues with her barrage of corrections. Something in her tone reminds me of my mother. She is not really angry, but the voice holds the tone of determination.
Mother used to grab me by the shoulders, demand that I meet her gaze and then with an intensity that sank into my bones she would declare, “I want you strong and independent. I don’t want you scared to try things like I was.” She and my father loved me and my younger brother. That was obvious. But, we were never smothered with affection, never spoiled. The objective they sought in child rearing was clearly to produce two kids who were sure of themselves and independent.
Growing up in the country as we did, my brother and I became inseparable. The isolation created between us an amazing bond. But, it also fostered a desire to go solo. When sports began to consume Oba’s weekends, I was left alone in what had always been a shared adventure. Strangely, rather than feel this as a loss, it grew into an inexplicable love, an unequivocal joy. Instead of accepting invitations from girlfriends for a day shopping or burgers and a movie, I preferred instead to spend my days hiking to the lake that sat nestled in the woods, gather a pile of pine needles to make a soft place where I could curl up for several hours in the quiet and read. Other days, I’d throw a shovel in the back of our old truck, and spend hours riding the countryside searching old home places for daffodils. I learned early that I am very comfortable setting out on my own.
The sky rips open and rain begins to spill onto the city. The echo of thunder ricochets off the skyscrapers with alarming intensity! It is unlike any sound I’ve ever heard. I sprint to the nearest cover along with every other soul who didn’t have the foresight to bring an umbrella. Just as quickly as it came, the rain slackens, then tapers off to a slow drizzle. Covering my head with a jacket, I tiptoe through the puddling water on the sidewalk and continue skipping between shops, searching for shelter within each, seeking enjoyment that requires no thought, just an aimless filling of the senses with shape, color, sound and scent. There is no hurry, no course to follow, just the pure enjoyment of an overcast gray sky, the creamy glow of traffic lights, the rain itself bouncing between the buildings as it picks up pace again. There is nothing so soothing as the low sound of distant rolling thunder and the muted light of a dreary day.
I turn a corner onto an unknown road and find the fountain. I know instantly that it will be my favorite and so silently claim it as a place of my own. It reminds me of one in downtown Gadsden next door to the old Pitman Theater on Broad Street. I mark it in my mind so I can return later. I have stumbled upon Paley Park, established in May 1967, a month before my birth! The plaque near the entrance reads, “This park is set aside in memory of Samuel Paley, 1875-1963, for the enjoyment of the public.”
Two questions come: Why is no one here? and What day is it? The realization that I’ve begun to let my days blend together brings a sudden smile. I feel that I am making some sort of progress, but toward what I am unsure. Folding my jacket and placing it in a chair, I sit back to appreciate what can only be a temporary moment of seclusion. The backdrop of the park is the waterfall, a twenty-foot sheet of falling water. Cobblestone pavers cover the ground and, all around, ivy buffers the encasement provided by the opposing buildings. The park is filled with the green foliage of trees with which I am unfamiliar, and a profusion of potted yellow and white flowers. The wind having died down with the passing of the storm, now blows gently through the trees and birds reappear to bathe in the puddles that remain. Bending, I collect a white rock that seems so out of place. Pausing before pocketing it, I notice its jagged edges, its surprising heft, and the way its surface glints against the light.
For centuries, man has erected fountains. Originally begun as wells that provided the city with water, fountains later sprang up, creating a place to congregate, a place to relax. The longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person took place at Jacob’s well with the woman of Samaria. The Persians are often credited with creating the first garden fountains and Romans the aqueducts and public baths.
Sitting here alone, reflecting on these things, two memories come to mind. I remember the sense of fulfillment I experienced when Anderson, my daughter, and I drank from the fountain on a hillside in Rome, where the cold water poured out onto the streets from the ancient aqueducts.
Though warned not to drink from it by our guide, we couldn’t resist; ambivalence must surely be an inherited trait! The other memory is of a time when having tired of a lecture on the relationship between Southern food and literature I’d made my way through the streets of Natchez, Mississippi where I stumbled upon St. Mary Basilica and its simple but gracious fountain that sat surrounded by old oaks. Rather than being overcome by the majesty of the sanctuary, I was taken instead with the unassuming oasis.
Neither of these memories are distant enough to have been forgotten or shelved, and yet they are seldom, if ever, recalled. But, they come to me now and the recollection of these happy times, these times I felt fulfilled, seem to ease the anxiety that has kept me in constant company these past months.
I cannot explain the need to revisit certain buildings and places, or why it is that they are of such importance to me, a Southerner. But, I think that the love for this city’s landmarks is a universal thing. Most people understand the importance of place to the human spirit. Just as individuals are unique, the characteristics of a place which appeal to us, those to which we attach some meaning or connection, are just as varied, just as distinctive. A place that holds no appeal to one person may be of inherent importance, almost sacred, to another. Yet, experiencing ties to a place and being drawn to one are very different; while we are drawn to those that supplement our soul, we become tied to the one that breathes of home. When people reside in an area to which they feel no attraction or sentimental connection there is often the recognition that something inherent and fundamental is missing. And so they search.
Elizabeth Mozley Partridge, an excerpt from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, A MEMOIR All books available on Amazon.
~I began writing WE SHARE THE SAME SKY following my return from a summer trip I took alone to Manhattan the summer I turned forty. I was contemplating a major change in my life and knew that the time away would give me the space I needed to think and see things more clearly. With children in the house, money spent toward a trip for myself –rather than a family vacation- filled me with guilt. So, I needed a second reason, one that might alleviate what felt like self-indulgence. I decided to write about my week in the city and include the history of the boroughs and enclaves of Manhattan, the cultural beauty of the place, the ever-changing neighborhoods that continue to foster a sense of belonging for our immigrants.
While I expected to get caught up in the magic that is New York City, I didn’t expect my mind to constantly jump back to the South. Throughout these days of wandering, images of home and memories of my childhood kept pressing in on me, as if demanding recognition.
You see, I was missing family; I was missing place. There simply is no getting away from who you are or where you are from. Place retains its significance to the human spirit because we tie to it the emotions of our memories. Being Southern means having a relationship with the land, a relationship with nature.
Being away, immersed in that immense, fascinating city, I could more easily reflect on the past, the people and events that made me who I am. The week in Manhattan actually helped me reconnect.
I’ve heard it said that as children, we are closer to our true selves, that we know our passions. I think this is true. It is only later when we are busy being adults that we slip up and forget.
(Excerpt from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY) 9 “There is as much dignity in plowing a field as in writing a poem.” —Booker T. Washington
Awakening, I move about in a stupor and realize that the bed is unfamiliar. The pillow is unfamiliar. The sounds coming from outside my window –all are unfamiliar. Slowly remembrance sinks in and settles like freshly poured concrete. I am snuggled safely within the city I adore!
In the subdivision in Rainbow City where I live, there is a small farm down the street that sits so charmingly out of place. Grandfathered in when our neighborhood was developed, the old farmhouse and tiny field remain. Every morning I am graced with the sounds of the family’s rooster trilling and the donkey baying for his morning meal. Here, the glare through the window forces me awake. And yet, thanks to the sound ordinance, rarely does one hear the frustrated, incessant blaring of aggressive horns. I have over-slept and awakened with the capricious nature of an unruly child. Pulling aside the curtain, I take a peek outside, mouth a quiet thank you to Him.
Late last night, I listed everything I want to cram into my day. Far and wide, my desires are spread from Upper West Side through Midtown and Upper East Side. Locating my list on the map, I realize that I will be all over the place. But really, who cares? It is not as if I am following a dreaded agenda. Flip of a coin, shake of the Magic 8 Ball; perhaps I have been going about my decision making all wrong. So, sensibility will not dictate my path, at least not today!
Is there anything better than sliding into a taxi when you know you are in for a long day? I don’t think so. As I get in and arrange my things, I notice the driver is talking on the phone. Hating to be rude, I jot down the address and hand it to him, trying to smile. He never makes eye contact and never hangs up the phone. Ill-mannered people get on my nerves and my pet peeve is rude cell phone use. Maintaining my silence, I sit behind him and seethe, wanting to tell him to please get off the phone and drive because frankly, he is scaring the hell out of me. I fantasize about reaching from behind and snatching the phone from his hand and flinging it hard out the window –something my father would do. And yet, I know that when he lets me out, I will tip the inconsiderate jerk anyway. My mother reminded me several weeks ago that unless one speaks their mind when they are displeased, they have no right to be resentful. Regardless, I am full. And, I am irritated with myself for letting something shake the sense of inner peace I awakened with. In the South, protestant church signs post words of wisdom each week. My favorite is the adage “He who angers you, controls you.”
The driver drops me intact at The Morningside Heights Greenmarket located at 116th Street and Broadway. While planning, I discovered that the market is sponsored by Columbia University and Barnard College. Amazed by the selection of fresh produce in the city, I find myself constantly comparing it to what we have back home. Surprisingly, it seems there are many more open markets available here.
Quickly, I purchase a pint of the plumpest blueberries and wish for some fresh yogurt. The apples are gorgeous. There is one variety that looks similar to those my grandmother Libby called horse apples. Although the skin of these apples is not the prettiest, they always have a good tart taste that makes them perfect for apple pie and apple butter.
Looking over the boxes before me, I think back on my fifth grade year when before morning announcements or even the pledge was completed, I was hauled into the Principal’s office to stand before Dr. Leftwich.
“It has been rumored,” she said “that you have been stealing apples from a nearby yard and selling them on the bus. Miss Mozley, being industrious is one thing, but thievery is quite another.”
My grandmother always reminded me to pause before answering and so I did. I knew that the man who owned the place had seen me a couple of afternoons as he sat out on his back porch. The tree I had chosen the day before was close enough that I had noticed he was drinking tea and cracking pecans as he read The Gadsden Times. I also knew that he didn’t mind or he would have said something. I even hoped that he liked me, although I never saw him smile. Yes, he liked me and he appreciated the fact that I enjoyed his trees, his apples. After all, he had dropped the paper to below eye level and watched as I gathered them in my shirt and climbed back over his fence.
He was not the one who reported me. I knew this. But regardless of who had, I was either in for a good scolding or a paddling. But, not both; Dr. Leftwich was known for giving one or the other. My only hope was that she wouldn’t call Papa. Double or nothing I thought, then replied, “Yes, ma’am. I’ve been doing just that.”
The following day –because she did not paddle me or even call my father –I left a rosy store-bought apple on her desk. I didn’t think a note was necessary.
What is it about picking your own produce that makes the taste more intense? My children swear that the apples they pick from our trees to bake each morning are better than those from the store and I believe them.
Apples purchased from the grocer sit prettily in the glass dish on our dining room table almost forgotten. It is as if they are there for the eye rather than the palate.
Each year, the children and I look forward to visiting an orchard. For years, we picked our own from an elderly gentleman’s backyard in Riverside. Posted near the bushel baskets was a sign listing the cost, and sitting below on a porch step was an old rusted coffee can where you deposited your money. Some of the trees that grew along the back row of his orchard seemed to be as old as the man himself. Laden with a full load, the sagging limbs were propped up with felled hardwood. When the old man passed away the property was sold, his bountiful trees cut, the land leveled and landscaped. The children and I mourned, then set out in search of another orchard. We headed north.
I had found a listing for a large family-owned orchard in North, Alabama. After a long morning drive, we arrived to find the place boarded up. Disappointed we turned back, but decided the return trip should be a different route, in the hope of coming across something of interest along the way. What we found was a North Alabama Indian mound. The gate, drawn shut and locked, held a sign posted no trespassing, but the children and I pretended not to see. We quickly parked the car and walked to the mound by way of a neighboring cotton field, full and white.
Catching sight of the mound, Anderson and Isaac stopped at once. I walked to where they stood, looking on with awe at the vision that lay before us.
A prehistoric Native American relic of the Mississippian culture, it was an amazing thing to see, just sitting there modestly in a field of lolling green pasture, surrounded by a pearlescent ocean of cotton and the distant emerald foliage of hardwood trees. In silence we climbed the mound, stood and gazed across the land. With unspoken reverence, we turned and descended quietly, then walked back through the high cotton to where we had parked.
Several miles down the road, we happened upon a very small family owned orchard. Although we didn’t get to pick the apples ourselves, no one seemed to care. We bought several bushels and an antique apple peeler to make our work easier. That evening, we set about slicing and filling the dehydrator racks sprinkling each layer with cinnamon; the remaining apples we baked and then topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.
Memories of time spent with my children bring only happiness. I say a quiet thank you. Because of them, I have much to be grateful for. Isaac’s cotton seeds are still in the backseat compartment of my car! When this thought comes, I cannot help but laugh outright.
I continue to pick up an apple from each selection, admire its uniqueness and fresh smell. I think of a quote from Walden, of Thoreau and his reflections on the farm he almost bought but didn’t. He laments, “I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only.” Now this I understand. But, when he admonishes “…As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the country jail.” I am want to disagree. To own and work a piece of land is to take pride in something that becomes an extension of self; a sense of accomplishment fills the soul of the weary possessor at days end.
Moving around the selections, I watch and listen to the interactions between the farmers and the locals and wish that I was staying somewhere that would allow me to purchase what I really want so that I might cook a meal early in the evening. Within arms reach are the most delectable Roma tomatoes I’ve ever seen accompanied by a beautiful purplish heirloom. I wish I could gather them up, take them back to the room, slice them, dehydrate them and pack them in oil or buy a couple of crisp ones still good and green, to fry.
There is also pineapple, freshly cut. If only I had several slices of a good homemade white bread and some mayonnaise. Is it only Southerners who eat pineapple sandwiches and hot tomato biscuits? Recognizing true hunger, my stomach rumbles at the thought.
The idea of dinner alone makes me miss being at home, cooking and dining with the children. They would be thrilled with this marketplace.
We often shop the farmer’s market in Birmingham. Not so much for the fresh produce –even though the offerings are amazing with over 200 farmers participating- but for all the other phenomenal vendors. Isaac’s favorite is a table of sliced cakes, presented by The Bakery at Cullinard. Anderson heads immediately for the croissants and chocolate sauce offered at another stand. Shelves of homemade preserves, jellies and jams call to me.
In our area, the weekend flee markets are where most folks shop for serious produce purchases. These are located closer to Gadsden, our hometown. We frequent Collinsville on Saturdays and Mountain Top on Sundays. Visiting a trade day in the South requires rising early. The best vendors arrive and begin setting up around 4:30 a.m. then pack up around noon. Collinsville Market is located in a small rural town of the same name. It is surrounded by beautiful green sprawling hills of farmland and the distant ridge of the lower Cumberland Plateau. Prettiest in the lambent light of the early hours, the view competes with the winsome sounds of farm animals. The smell of sausage biscuits and fresh coffee drift far and wide.
Regional pride has led to many a foolish notion. Admittedly, I always believed that Southerners held a closer relationship to the land and therefore held the prime pickings when it came to produce. Looking about, I acknowledge that I’ve been proven wrong on both counts. Before walking away, I watch a small family load their purchases into four worn arm baskets; supple, they easily bend and allow the carrying of much weight. What is it they will cook for dinner tonight? What are their traditions, and is this trip to the market one of them? I think on our family’s beloved catfish Sundays. Grandpa farmed and fished all week. GrandMosie began cooking early that morning while we attended our various churches. Gathering at their house after services, we children fought over the fried fish with the longest crisp tails. We gnawed them down to the nub before beginning on the flesh, filled our plates repeatedly, then lazed away the afternoon waiting for stomach pains to pass. It was a happy gathering. What a shame that in today’s haste, many have let the tradition of Sunday supper with extended family all but slip away.
I watch the father help his wife, guide her gently through the throngs of people. He is protective of her, she of the children.
Breathing deeply and enjoying the early morning air, I decide to move on. It occurs to me that all of this walking, where the wanderings of body and thoughts meld, has helped clear my mind. Physical exertion, be it calisthenic or aerobic, alleviates depression and anxiety. Wandering is much like pacing in that it requires constant yet thoughtless movement; while the body moves about as if by its own accord, the mind is free. For me, this is proving therapeutic and provides time to reflect on the important things, to examine what exactly it is that has brought me here, not just to this city, but to this juncture in my life. Perhaps with realization, healing and creativity can begin again. It is not that I have become blind to the limitless joy God places in the smallest of things, rather I have become distracted by circumstance. Time to wander, to think, to remember and reflect –without these we lose something fundamental and vital to self.
DAYS THAT RAN LONG
Standin’ here, Hands spread Across faded green, I listen undeterred To moans and groans behind me Of ungodly ugliness. I care not For I’ve found a treasure That’s less than grand sight And slick worn feel Bring back dusty memories Of skinned knees, stringy hair, Days that ran long and knew untold endin’s. Who would’ve known That city folk congregated in search Of fine Wedgwood and walnut Would find themselves subjected To grandeur so rural, That’s beckonin’ calls to those Whose memories once held rough edges Hewn by hard work and time. It stands there inquirin’ Remember me? Remember The gatherin’s… I become absorbed In its green flat formica And long since lost its shine chrome- Where many times did Families coagulate When such things were so, To feast on meals Pulled from the ground, wrung by the neck Then presented to kin whose presence Represented true survival Of hell and brimstone storms Characteristic of a glorious Southern Sunday morn.
I am not writing. I am relaxing! There was a time -when looking upon trees – that I wanted nothing more than to climb to the highest branches, or curl up beneath with a good book. (Part of that was a long time ago.) I am soaking up every minute I have of these peaceful mornings. Thank goodness for the trees and the birds, and the books.