Honey, I’m so glad you saw fit to stop in, here at the Memorial Museum, or what I like to call privately, My Mama’s Museum. Let’s close that door so we won’t be bothered by the sun. I love to show strangers these few historical items. I’m so grateful to the people of this county for letting me use the old high school gymnasium to share these treasures of history with travelers like yourself. This building was used for education originally, I always say, and it’s still used for education today, in the form of these exhibits. Why, follow the sweep of my hand, young man, for your first sweet marvel at the fine, old dresses and uniforms, the flags and feathers, the tin mouse jewelry, shells and stones and bells and bones, the jungle spears and China dolls, our own local mummy child, cradle and bed, coffin box and calf head double, dental chair, skeleton, peeling machine, loom, churn, and that thicket of things unseen in the back. We’ll come to those in due time, every one. You do have time to see it all, don’t you?
I had the preacher in here the other day. His pilot light’s about out, but he’s a loyal patron of these memorials, and I asked him, “Preacher, you know what the Bible says about baseball?” Preacher stands up tall, and says, “The Bible doesn’t say a thing about baseball, Miss Savory.” But I say to him. . . .
So sorry to change my direction, but oh, honey, do look at the fleas! Two fleas dressed as bride and groom! My young man made that for me, 47 years ago. Oddest gift from a beau. I never could get a word out of him, no matter how hard I tried. Just one morning there was this little exhibit sitting on the front porch, and I never heard from him again. I always dealt from a full deck, and he did the same, so far as I could tell, but we didn’t match somehow. Those fleas! See ‘em there through that magnify glass taped in position? You have to squint, but there they are on the back of that miserably tarnished spoon. It’s just too hard to polish, you understand, without disturbing the newlyweds. They’ve both become a little wizened, you see, with their legs crinkled up by the heat of summer, but they’re still pretty fine. You can’t help but admire his tuxedo spreading from that pinched little bug face of his, and her wispy gauze of a veil just a cascade of frills ending in that glue spot that holds them on. There’s the tie that binds, my mama said.
Don’t miss noticing her tresses, now, they’re tail hair off a baby rat, dyed blond! And speaking of hair, you must see the hair wreath we have, four colors, all from one family. You just follow me down along this corridor. Once we get there I’ll bring you back through the Confederate money, the typewriters, shell combs, silverware, baby shoes, fossils, two-headed calf, and those fine little polished chicken bones wired into a crown.
I don’t move as fast as I did. Stay with me, but don’t rush me. Preacher, his clock needs cleaning, but he’s not so far gone as the Sheriff. He like to lost his mind when they took his speed trap away from him. So I asked the Preacher, “Know what the Bible says about the Carolina Short Line? It’s the creepingest thing on the Earth.” Yes, sir. I could have told him the other one, if he weren’t preacher: “Men all crooked and the trains run late—to hell with this old north state.” I don’t believe that, you know, loving my native home, but I’m sucker for a rhyme that’s local. I kind of collect them.
Let’s pause here a moment. I want to show you one of my favorites. My neighbor give me this—he was leaving next day for Monaco, going to teach Prince Rainier’s chef how to cook Cajun, with beer batter for onion rings on the side—and he left me this little tombstone carved fancy with the most poetical names: “Thankful Bodfish, Seth Blossom.” Is that woman and man, or is that children? Were they married? Were they orphans? Were they maybe sworn war brothers who died fighting side by side? With the name Thankful, it’s hard to say today was it woman or man. Some of these fundamental families use it either way. We may never know their story, but all the same we do have this stone among the other treasures I keep for the people who come by. I’m still working the toothbrush around these carved names, get that marble to shine, but then I’ll set it up by the baby coffin exhibit. Or maybe over with the marriage section, along by the nuptial proclamations I have framed. That’s the problem, how to categorize? Should this little tombstone go by baby coffin or over with the local sculpture, set among the caskets or propped up handsome along side the chicken-bone crown? Hard to say. I find museumery is a subject all its own. You have to let some things go, and save what saves easy. I make mistakes, of course, like the time I didn’t express sufficient interest on the neon sign for the Blockade Runner Motel. I didn’t show interest, and they smashed that red neon along with the bungalows. Didn’t seem historical yet, but now I see I was wrong. Well, that’s just another bridge under the water. You do what you can.
So much gets away from us, like the time they burned the old roller coaster to make the movie. They’ll squander it all, if you let them. Somebody has to be in charge of saving, keeping the fine old things around. The other day up to the high school, they wanted a fund-raiser car-bash. Do you know they didn’t have a car so they used a piano? I couldn’t hardly stand to hear about it. We used to say it’s a good day if you stay out of jail and get a grand piano moved. But to smash one down—would make a powerful sound, I suppose, but then just splinters and strings. The old lady playing when Sherman marched through? They fired the house and she played till she died. Not there’s a story, but I’d give anything for one charred ivory key, old bone white or ebony black, to keep among these other treasures of time. I’d feature it right.
Just to start, you might wonder about this old horseshoe? Mis-shapen thing. After the last of the kinfolk died, and they left the old house at the hilltop stand for 30 years without disturbance, my own daddy cut a doorway through the honeysuckle vines and went inside. The porch rocker stood clamped in vines, and inside, plates still set on the table, and the forks and knives laid out like they stayed for 30 silent years. This horseshoe that you’re holding, it was back in the barn, half-formed on the anvil’s horn. Mama collected it all, but most of it sold, and all I have is the horseshoe. I can’t help feeling that one little thing holds a power of story. What did happen to those people at the century’s turn? So many changes in this world, and a person can get confused. Just up the street, that Calvary Bible Baptist Church in the former Tastee Freeze Dance Hall? If that’s not museum material, I don’t know what is. But you can’t boil that story down to an object, so it’s not available to me for my collection. Same all around. People steal road signs to fix their houses, board things up. You see a sign says “Slow” used for the door of a hen house. That’s museum. You see a big old hand-painted “Collard Greens and Backbone” cafe special board. That’s collectible history, but the magnitude of the object is way out of proportion to the lasting interest of the notation, if you follow. So I let that one lie. I can’t afford to buy what they sell, so I just take what they offer when it’s right.
I do babble. But I see you looking over my shoulder at that mysterious gray object in the jar of amber nectar? That’s Maggie’s tumor. She lived to herself, right to the end. That tumor’s 15 pounds and the doctor gave it to me free. But I want you to look at this electric drill. I know they still use them today. It’s not old, and you might ask why I give it shelf space here in my mama’s museum. Well, you won’t have to wait around because I’ll tell you: Homer Hollacker died holding it! He was drilling bolt holes in the pilings down at the pier? You know where that is. Well, he was standing there drilling, minding his own business, and the tide comes up and shorts him out. Wife didn’t grieve long, he was so mean to her. McCreedy got his body, but I got his drill, poor soul. Left four young lads behind—and they never did finish that job down at the pier. They tell me he was going to bolt an extra step on the dock so they could reach it when they jump from a boat that’s all slimy with fish, and not fall in. Had that fish boat “Restless Lady” all ready to try it out, but then that little wire of lightning struck him. That’s what I heard. The drill still works, but I haven’t plugged it in for six months.
Poor old Homer, he has joined the multitude—mama, daddy, brother Clyde. You start with a historical consciousness, and if you’re not careful, it gets hard to imagine the living. You watch the world with museum eye, and suddenly it seems strange that you and I could make our way across this room without falling down. You handle so many objects that once belonged to the quick, but now sit dry on a shelf, and their true owners gone, I try not to be discouraged, though this world is failing badly. Seeing an old country sow by the road feeding on her own road-kill young is one thing, but to find people living the way some do now, well, that’s my puzzle. Why, out along the highway you see a raggedy house trailer with chickens and toys in the yard? It’s nothing but a big old still inside, with that clutter strewn around to disguise what’s real. The world is just one big museum, if you take the trouble to look. Look around! Signs everywhere. Sign in front of a motel out on the open road: “Buying Gold—Room 138.” Everybody collecting what they love. I’m no exception, I’m just a little more systematic than most.
I see you’re looking over my shoulder again, honey, as I talk. But I don’t hold that against you at all, this hall is just so jammed with marvels. That one gets them all, that four by eight sheet of veneer wood, with every state studded solid with a different color of button. There’s New Jersey in the little bitty blue buttons. There’s Texas in wide and shiny red ones. My Carolinas are mother-of-pearl, square for North and round for South. Eighty-seven buttons, one home state. What’s yours, dear. Oregon? Why, you got the abalone blue! Your state shines, young man. I never met one of you!
That’s just the remains, just the remains, you understand, of the button collection. When my mama died, there was so much of her collection stuff in the house it took ten men a full week just to carry it out to the yard. We held the sale there, and most of it sold, and you can see little bits of her collections in houses all over this county. What you see in this room is just the remains of her collections, along with a few things I’ve picked up since. Just what nobody wanted, and those buttons on that map, they are just the remains of her collection of thirty-thousand buttons. I know, because I took money all through the sale. See that jar there? That’s the dimes I got just for the buttons. Ten cents a hundred, and seems like I got a bushel of dimes. And the jar they’re in is one my mama found somewhere down to Florida. She liked Florida, always stopping in little towns to talk people out of stuff. She had the gift of easy talk like you wouldn’t believe. Could talk the skin off a snake, people said.
Here, hold this. It won’t bite you. Go ahead, hold it. There. You’d think it’s just an ordinary cedarwood nestegg? But let me tell you, the biggest gopher snake that ever lived came in our chickenhouse and swallowed that wood egg and died! We found it all coiled up in a stall, and mama said I could have the egg if I’d boil the body away, save the bones on the side in case we could use them, too. And speaking of dying, I want you to study that butcher knife over there by the hair wreath—the hair wreath! I almost forgot to show you that. It’s all from one family, Civil War widows all. Isn’t that the saddest story? Not uncommon, but sad all the same. This old mama with the white hair and her three married girls with the blond, the brown, and the rusty red you see braided together here. The daughters married young to soldiers just going off to fight, and those young men died in their first battle, and after, the women each had one child. Widows, they raised their children to know their own navels: “That’s where the Yankees shot you.” Woman combs her hair out long, and teaches the children what they need know. I just love how they’re all braided together in that wreath. You can’t tell me you’ve ever seen anything quite that pretty.
When the mama died, and the two elder daughters died, that generation dwindled down to the last little old redhead, Evalina. It was her made up the wreath. Cut off her own braids at the end and wove it up. Cut the ends off her own braids to get at the hair still red, and leave the white part of the wreath to her mama, I knew her well, everybody did, but she lived in the emptiest house, hardly a stick of furniture and the walls plain as the sky. And working in her own yard. You know what sun can do to a redhead’s complexion, I never did understand. Anyway, when she died I glued the hair wreath on that linen doily and got it behind glass. Everybody knew of the few things in that family, the hair wreath belonged with me. I keep it there by the butcher knife. The butcher knife! I don’t know how I get so confused. Here I’m trying to give you a reasonable tour of the treasures in this little museum and I’ve just led you distracted. . . .
I always give my skeleton a little shake here on the dental chair as I sweep by.”How you doing, darling?” Hear those bones rattle? I got Henry to wire them loose so they rattle. See how close the ribs are? That’s what I’m telling you about the butcher knife. She tried to stab him while she was doing the dishes. Pulled that big blade out of the soapy water where she had it hidden, turned around and lunged for him, like this! She forgot to put the blade sideways, though, to fit between his ribs, so it jammed, you know.
Honey, are you okay? You look a little pale. Oh no! You didn’t think this knife I’m holding pertains to that skeleton? Dear me, no. They’re from different families completely. The knife, that was from the fellow down by the river who married the Japanese woman. He lived and they’re happy, so far as I’ve heard. But the bones, my skeleton, she’s a convict I got from the state. Such a shameful story: 40-year sentence at the women’s prison for killing her mama, pre-meditated self-defense. And I do know what I’m saying: pre-meditated. Awful sad. Sometimes I look in her face here, into those big black eye sockets, and wonder what she could have been thinking. I was saying so to the Preacher just the other day . . . The Preacher! Now I never did tell you what the Bible says about baseball! I told the Preacher just the other day, it’s the oldest learning there is, your gospel and mine:
Eve stole first, Adam stole second,
St. Peter umpired the game.
Rebecca went down to the well with the pitcher
While Ruth in the field won the fame.
Goliath was struck out by David,
It’s a base hit off Abel by Cain.
Now, the Prodigal Son made a run home-run,
And Noah gave the checks for rain.
Speaking of rain, we could sure use some. I feel so sorry for the folks out working the fields on a blazing day like this. This is a day for wanderers, root workers out, and dark of the moon tonight. One thing museumery teaches: there are all sorts of ways to make do. Museum preaches tolerance and understanding. Kind of opens your mind to the strange. Those clay eaters, they just like it, munching little crumbles out of a bag. It takes all kinds of people, right down to the grave stealers, you know. They take $500 for a skull, and a five dollar gold piece out from a black man’s grave like to set them crazy. They caught one of those robbers the other day, his left hand pinned tight under the grave slab where he had her propped and tried to climb out. He’ll grow fur on that hand once it heals, like the keeper of the mountain store. Sounds odd, but I can understand the longing to acquire. I am a materialist believer, as you see abundantly, for the things of the world shall explain the world, though only the spirit saves.”Look upon all things, then try God.”
I saw you come in out of the swelter just to get a little rest of shade. The working folks, I feel sorry for them, but I have to watch them, too. I have to follow them around or they’ll steal me blind. I had all these spanking sharp Civil War uniforms out where you could touch ‘em, but those little poor boys come in and cut off every button! Thought the brass was gold, I guess. So I have them behind glass now. See those boots? Ever seen shoes that big? My brother cut them off a dead German at the Great War’s end. He didn’t bring them home for mama, he brought them home for me!
Let’s see now, you’ve seen the knife, and the bones, and the hair wreath. You’ve heard about the Bible, and the shine has dried on your brow. You’ll have to see the rest next time you come. I do like to bring a little rest to the stranger. I want God to bless you. I won’t ask your name. I don’t keep a register. It’s all for strangers. I hope I have given a little sweetness. You see down at the car lot that sign he has: “I’d give ‘em away, but the wife won’t let me”? Well, that’s how I feel about this donation box: Old Cash Safe Bank, vintage 1875. It’s my least favorite exhibit, but necessary, all the same. Why, thank you, kind sir. Now, you go home, wherever that is out to Oregon, and tell them about the marvels of the Museum here. You tell your mama about mine. Let me help you with that door. It sticks sometimes. Goodness, what a blaze of sun! Will sear the light right out of your eyes. I don’t see how folks can stand it. Watch your step on the stairs. I’ve been meaning to fix them for some time. Good-bye, dear.