All stories, even “Once upon a decade” ones, must continue with “and in a certain place” if they are to tell themselves completely. For this story, the place is Lucy, Tennessee . . . Lucy, where all things begin now and where, pray God, they will also arrive someday at their natural ending.
Lucy, when Sam and I brought our children here in 1977, was a clapboard, cinder-block, and tin-roofed village of no more than two dozen houses. It was surrounded by sparsely populated farmland and possessed of one aging general store, one magnificent old county school larger than the township, a railroad track with a spur, a Baptist church, a United Methodist church, two A.M.E. churches, and--incongruous as it may seem at first blush--a genuinely Anglican one. The school was testimony to the stature that Lucy once had enjoyed; the railroad with its spur was the explanation behind that stature.
Lucy had once been a bustling railroad stop for passengers and cargo on their way south and west toward Memphis. The general store had been both way station and cafe, while the village’s shade trees had functioned like oases in the midst of the desiccating heat of West Tennessee summers. But as with much of rural America, the coming of affordable cars, then of good roads, and finally of huge trucks had obviated the railroad and, thereby, the town, long before our arrival.
When Sam and I first moved to Lucy, we and such neighbors as we then had used to quip that Lucy was only twenty miles but over a hundred years removed from Memphis. The twenty miles have held constant since 1977, but the number of years has shrunk considerably. We old-timers are forced now to admit--with unstinting regret--that we live only about thirty years away from the city these days. We still operate off septic tanks, in other words, but by order of the Shelby County Health Department we all had to have our wells closed off and cemented up a few years ago, lest our use of them somehow contaminate Memphis’s aquifers. We still keep coal-oil lamps--or at least the Tickles do--handily placed about, though we lose power no more than twice or three times a year now. There is no television cable strung in to us and there are few fancy telephone wires, but satellites and cell phones have more or less obviated them as well. The old general store withered first into shut-down gas pumps and then into only a few shelves of staples before it finally closed; but it has been replaced by a thriving operation where the older men still gather every day for checkers and where the shelves bulge with every kind of tool or supply needed for restoring old houses to meet suburban expectations and for building new ones to meet a bludgeoning suburban demand. Most of us still grow our produce, but few of us still preserve it for winter. Instead, there’s a Wal-Mart just a few miles up the highway that sells us our winter provender handily as well as cheaper. Besides, for Sam and me at least, there is no longer any need . . . no need, that is, to prove a point.
He and I came to Lucy not to be villagers but to be a pair of her surrounding farmers. Sam is a physician--a pulmonologist, or specialist in diseases of the lung. For sixteen years, while he was building his career and I mine, we lived in Memphis in a kind of conclave of doctors and professionals that was, literally, almost within the shadow of the University of Tennessee Medical Center and the major hospitals that are its teaching as well as its healing hub. There was nothing wrong with that settled, tree-lined, well-maintained area. It still goes, in fact, by the name of Central Gardens, primarily because that is exactly what it is--central and as chock-full of pleasant gardens as of pleasant people.
Our concern in the mid-1970s, then, was not with the place where we were, but with who we were. If this, however, is to be an accurate record of things as they were then, I must qualify the “we.” In the long months before our leaving the city, the concerns Sam and I expressed to each other were all about who and what our children were becoming, not about us or ourselves. Only years later and in retrospect did I perceive that, as is often the way of parents, we were projecting onto the children shortcomings and lapses we ourselves were also suffering from, albeit ours were more negative than positive. That is, had the two of us had time to be more self-scrutinizing in those days of diapers and mayhem, I would like to think now that Sam and I would have also been concerned about who we as adults were not and about who we were not becoming in the midst of the affluence we found to be so limiting for our youngsters.
It was the time of America’s bicentennial, the time when patriotism was studied--too studied, one felt somehow, and not quite as naturally come by as once it had been. The dust of Vietnam was always on the mirror we looked at ourselves in; and there was the keening sigh, audible even in the city, of an earth being used, not tended. Sam and I sat down to supper each night with five children (Nora, our oldest, was a bride in 1976) who, being bright, knew exactly how much each dish on our table had cost at the market. We sat down as well with five children who had no more than a vague intellectual knowledge of where that food had come from prior to its arrival at the market. More disturbing than that, however, was that we sat down each night with children who had no knowledge, academic or otherwise, of what that food, that table, those eating implements, the walls around us, the clothes we wore, and the napkins we were using had cost in terms other than ones of money.
Because they were indeed bright children, good students and much-loved citizens of their world as well as southern in rearing, they understood the end worth of some things in terms of their utility and of many other things in terms of sentiment and familial heritage. They just did not--could not--grasp the initial cost of those things in nonfiscal terms. And because the stuff of life as they acquired it was being recorded in dollars, life itself was slowly but perceptibly coming likewise to be reported in dollars.
Sam and I watched with growing alarm even as, at the same time, we began to take long drives and scour the real estate listings. We were looking for that improbable thing: a farm big enough to sustain us, small enough to be run by people already working full-time, and near enough to the hospitals for him to be able to get to a patient in distress within a matter of a few minutes. We were looking for Lucy. When we found her--when we pulled across that cattle guard and I walked for the first time on the land that would become our farm--I was so sure, so blindingly, painfully, burningly sure, that I wept as I have rarely wept before or since. We were home.
The children, in the way of children, would call that place “the Loosey, Goosey Farm” while they were growing up here. Now, in the way of adults scorning the infantile in their own background, they call it the farm in Lucy, except they both say and write it as “The Farm In Lucy,” which I suppose is how it shall stay as long as there are Tickles living here either in time or in memory.
And so it was that we seven, ranging in age from two to forty-five, set about the business of joining our lives more immediately to the land’s. We still bought our staples--our sugar and flour, butter and coffee, etc. but I made our bread, and the girls and I canned, froze, or dried our produce. We bought our cloth and yarn and, except for uniforms, we made most of our own clothes out of them. Sam discovered and rescued an ancient orchard that had been lost under vines for years and gone fallow. He trimmed and watered it back to fertility, and we made our own sweets. The jellies came from the apples and peaches, the honey from the hives he and the boys tended near the tree line, and the jams from the blackberry brambles we cultivated as breaks to protect the gardens and orchard.
We put in a herd of twenty-some head and grew the hay and fodder to sustain them. The children--the boys more than the girls--despised tending cattle, but we all enjoyed eating the roasts and steaks and stews that were a portion of the end result. We pumped water and hauled off garbage. We buried the calves that didn’t make it and shot the coyotes and wolves that wanted to strike those that did. We laughed a lot and complained a lot, saw stars in a sky so dark at night that theirs was the only light, learned to chop wood and repair tractors, make do and . . . and, inevitably, become different.
Different had been the point, of course, the stated purpose behind our coming; but different tends to become a total, rather than a partial, thing. Within a matter of no more than five or six months, both our sons and our daughters could calculate the cost of their breakfast eggs in terms of how many times the rooster had flogged them as they’d gathered the things and, even worse--“Yucky!” I believe was their word--how many times they had had to empty, clean, and reline the soiled nests in the henhouse in order to get any eggs in the first place. Within a matter of less than a year, all of them over five could absolutely and painfully calculate what the okra on the supper table had cost in terms of itch and rash from its picking, or what the corn had cost in terms of stings from the saddleback caterpillars that inhabited the rows and mimicked the coloration of their stalks. Within two years they could calculate the cost of a hamburger in terms of a cow they had watched birthing, a calf they had fattened, and a yearling they had helped slaughter and butcher. Such things are graphic experiences. They command the attention and then, fairly quickly, they also command the conversation.
Sam and I went in and out of the city to our professional responsibilities, and the children in and out each week day to the parochial schools where they were still enrolled. But slowly, slyly almost, the locus of the days began to shift for each of us. Occupied in town, we still were restless to get home, to get back to the chores that had to happen if we and the animals were to eat, to reassume as soon as possible the ease of a common jargon and deeply physical experience, eager as well to move again, like water to its level, into that paradoxical expansion and diminishment of self that occurs in open space.
So it was that the Tickles--old and young alike--became the owners of two lives. We learned, each of us, to play both the role of City Mouse and the role of Country Mouse, the highway north toward Lucy or south toward Memphis becoming the symbolic portal between the two . . . which process was also how The Farm In Lucy became a state of mind as well as a plat of acreage on the Farm Bureau’s maps.
During our city years, I had taught, first as a visiting lecturer at Rhodes College in Memphis and then, for almost a decade, as Dean of Humanities at its sister institution, the Memphis College of Art. The years of teaching were good ones professionally as well as personally. In those days, a female academic dean was so rare a thing that no one, at least in our part of the world, had yet developed any kind of protocols and standards governing the consequences thereof. As a result, I taught and administered right up until the fourth Tickle was born in 1970, going immediately back to teaching and administering within a few days afterward. The new baby and his siblings were simply part of the college family as well as of its foyers and hallways. Many of my colleagues became avuncular playmates to the lot of them; and those connections have held as emotional anchors ever since, not just for me, but also for the now fully adult children who were their original source.
Beyond the fullness of range and derring-do that come from working in a receiving and sustaining place, the years at the College of Art gave me as well the education of eye and ear that are necessary parts of the writer’s craft. No one can give a writer--or for that matter a painter or a dancer or any other creative artist--the twist of personality or the skew of interpretation that are his or her fundamental content. The ability to see and hear the resonance between one’s content and one’s medium, on the other hand, can be taught. More to the point, they can be taught across the apparent, but ephemeral, barriers of aesthetic disciplines.
For young writers in those days, however, and especially for young writers living outside the northeast corridor, the opportunities for publication were limited. In the South, they were primarily limited in form and shape to poetry and to short, irregular, and usually poignant first-person essays. In outlet, the limitation was almost always to largely regional, usually newsprint journals. How many young writers were mowed down in those days by such circumstances no one will ever know. Only a romantic or a naïf, though, could have ever been benighted enough to think that talent alone would out, that the gift will always find its way. Not so then, and not so now. It was and is, rather, the lucky, the fortunate, the ones blessed by an apparently capricious circumstance in whom the talent will out. In all the others, the gift simply crumbles back into the dark from which it came.
How much of all this I actually could or did articulate to myself in my mid-thirties is unclear to me now. My suspicion is that I simply intuited most of it. But I most certainly understood enough of it to be prodded into action; and it was the professional artists around me who showed me how, whether they intended to or not.
Anyone who teaches in a professional school of art learns fairly quickly that the studio trash bins are the most relevant appointments on the whole campus. Into them go small gems and massive heartbreaks, class exercises that are more than what they are but still are exercises, sketches and fragments no longer of use to their creator but nonetheless still a pleasure to another’s observing eye. Sam and I have a farmhouse full of such refugee treasures, for in the mid- and late 1960s I excelled at trash-bin patrol. What I was scouring for, however, was not just the abandoned canvases or half-realized sculptures that drew the rest of the staff to scavenger there, but also the poetry. We human beings speak too often in hyperbole to always be taken literally by our friends and families. I know that. But in this one thing at least, I would like to be heard as speaking absolute truth: There was, in the 1960s, in the trash bins of the Memphis College of Art, more raw, visceral, compelling poetry than I have ever found, before or since, in any other single place.
Excerpted from Prayer Is a Place by Phyllis Tickle. Copyright © 2005 by Phyllis Tickle. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.