A Page a Day
When I’m out reading from my memoir (about freedom for black people and women in Mississippi), people ask if I wrote it before or after Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help. I tell them I wrote it before Kathryn Stockett was born.
Talent is grand, but it’s persistence that carries us through. John Dufresne once said: the only difference between a writer and a non-writer is the non-writer quits.
I began The Last Resort as a journal in the 1970s, when I was working on my Ph.D. I did a study of the journals of women writers and asked my students to keep a daily journal. “It’s easy,” I said. “Just write a page a day before you go to bed.” I thought I ought to do the same to set an example. It was really hard. When I ran out of things to say, I wrote memories of growing up at my family’s country hotel. I called it my Journal in Retrospect.
May Sarton, the late poet and journal writer, was on my Ph.D. committee. She said there was no such thing as a Journal in Retrospect and to stop it. (May Sarton was a terrifying committee person. When a letter arrived from her in response to my latest effort, I would circle it for three days before I got up the nerve to open the envelope. According to Sarton, every thought in my head was trivial and she couldn’t imagine why she was wasting valuable writing hours on me. When the time came for my defense, she refused to leave home and the entire committee had to trek up to York, Maine.)
After I got the degree, I turned that journal into a novel. Too many people were still alive to write a memoir. I made up a list of fake names for my relatives and called myself and the book “Wingate”. I got an agent and off it went. The publisher said they didn’t like it, but they did like the chapters about the little girl growing up in the hotel. Why didn’t a write a book about that? I spent a couple of years writing a novel about the little girl growing up at the hotel, which I called “Young Wingate” (Titles are not my best thing). I sent it off and they said: you did exactly what we asked and we still don’t like it.
As the years went by I wrote other novels and was chosen and discarded by other agents. I sustained hope by publishing personal essays in the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine and in the St. Petersburg Times.
Finally enough relatives died. I was in the M.F.A. program at Florida International by then and Lynne Barrett was my thesis director. She helped me shape “Wingate” and “Young Wingate” into one story, which became The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure.
I tell my students: do not give up. A page a day is a book a year, or at least a draft. You are the memory-keepers and you owe the future a story. As Anne Lamotte says: publication is not all it’s cracked up to be, but writing is.
Norma Watkins’ memoir, The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure, was published by University Press of Mississippi in 2011. Carolyn See in The Washington Post called it “splendid in every way.” Watkins lives in Miami and Fort Bragg, CA, where she teaches creative writing at College of the Redwoods. She is trying to sell the sequel—the half of the memoir University Press didn’t buy.
Excerpt from The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure
Marie started calling me Miss Norma and that was the last straw.
I had been cast out of childhood and into the realm of master and
servant. I’d wanted to grow up and have more power, but this was
not what I meant.
More things were changing than I knew. I wasn’t privy to the
conversation Mama had with Marie, though I saw signs of trouble.
At the dinner table one night, Mother mentioned she needed someone
who knew how to cook. “Marie refuses to be taught,” she said.
Sliced, boiled carrots in butter was still the beginning and end of
our nurse’s culinary skills, or so she claimed.
In Maya Angelou’s memoir (read years later), she wrote that part
of African bush secretiveness was to never tell the whole truth. I
figured refusing to cook saved Marie from becoming our chef as
well as our housekeeper, laundress, and nanny.
Mary Elizabeth and I were growing up and getting messier. We
had friends over, banged in and out of the house, put our feet on
the furniture, dirtied the kitchen making sandwiches after school,
and left our clothes on the floor. Marie followed behind us, punctuating
our days with her low growls. I hardly heard the grumbling
anymore: “Fast as I clean up around here—” We got the idea. We
were getting worse, not better, and company was not welcome.
Our mother enjoyed having ladies over for lunch and bridge.
When the grumbling got aimed at her company, “People coming in
here—making more mess,” she made a decision. She loved the way
Marie cleaned. Marie could make a bed so tight and square, you’d
swear no one had ever slept in it. When she finished with a room, it
shone. But a successful social life was more important than a tight
One night at supper, Mama announced she’d hired a new cook.
From now on, Marie would come twice a week to clean and iron
Daddy’s shirts. Daddy made no comment other than a nod. Running
the household was left entirely to our mother. As long as a
change didn’t involve more money, he didn’t complain.
Which is how, in 1948, Annie Carter appeared, as different from
Marie as two people could be. Annie was tall and broad with enormous
breasts, scarcely contained by a gigantic brassiere, the top of
which we spied above her uniform. She had what looked to our
horrified eyes like a third breast growing out of the left one. We
never dared ask and didn’t want to stare—not out of politeness but
for fear of what we might see, so we may have been wrong. Where
Marie had been silent and grumbly, Annie was a thunderstorm. I’d
see my father wincing at the breakfast table. She had a huge voice, a
big laugh, and a mouthful of white teeth in a shining black face.
Mama taught Annie to cook all the things we loved: fried chicken,
roast beef that fell from the bone, crisp fried oysters and bream,
fluffy white rice, spoon bread, rich gravies, corn cut off the cob and
simmered in butter, turnip greens with cornbread sticks, lady peas,
butterbeans. Every dessert: lemon meringue pie, chocolate meringue, chess pie, and
Daddy’s favorites, custard and sweet potato pie. In season, we had
peach and blackberry cobblers. For special occasions, we had cake.
Annie could make all the cakes we’d had at Allison’s Wells, plus a
three-layer chocolate concoction with a fudge-like icing that broke
when you cut it with a fork. I would eat around the icing, getting rid
of the moist cake first and leaving a ladder of fudge until last.
Chocolate cake made by a chocolate servant. I made no connection.
Our world went along as it was meant to be.
I missed Marie. I never admitted that aloud, it would have
seemed babyish, but I even missed the grumbling. With her gone,
I stepped out of the safety of childhood. No more nights of carrots
and radio programs.
Mama persuaded Annie to move into our maid’s quarters, a
small, almost windowless room with a dark, scary bath behind the
house on King’s Highway. Annie put up with it, along with the
enormous white and gray uniforms Mother bought her, the white
orthopedic lace-up shoes, and the humiliation of being handed a
bar of soap and a jar of deodorant with the suggestion she might
want to use more of both.
I didn’t see how Annie stood that room. Mildred, Ellis’s oldest
daughter, tried it for a while. She was supposed to be our babysitter
and Sydney’s nurse. She was far too young and progressive to work
for Mama. First she dyed her hair red and then she disappeared.
Turned up missing one morning when she was supposed to come
to work, the room emptied of her stuff. We found out later she’d
gone to Chicago.
“Ungrateful,” Mama said. Smart, I thought.
Slavery might have been outlawed, but there was a sense in those
days that the colored people who worked for you belonged to you.
To leave as Mildred did, without permission or a word of explanation,
was considered uppity and ill-mannered, not something you’d
expect from a child of Ellis’s. On the other hand, if you got dropped
from five days a week to two, the way Marie had, you were owed
nothing: no warning, no severance pay, no worries about how you’d
make enough to live.
With Annie on the premises and trained, Mama entertained
more often. Daddy didn’t mind, as long as all signs of company
were erased by the time he got home. He wanted supper on the
table at six sharp and then he was off to the office again. He worked
all the time. I didn’t wonder about this either. I thought all men did
it. Along with not having to go to war, it was one of the few good
reasons to be female.
For Mama’s bridge luncheons, Annie made aspic with tomato
juice, shrimp, scallions, and celery, mixed with gelatin and left to
set in the refrigerator. Heavily seasoned with Worcestershire sauce
and Tabasco, tomato aspic was served, quivering, on a piece of iceberg
lettuce. Alongside were finger sandwiches, triangles of thin sliced
bread with the crusts cut off, spread with Mama’s homemade
mayonnaise and pimento cheese. Each plate got a deviled egg and a
little pile of potato chips. The ladies drank iced tea with lunch, and
switched to bourbon and scotch after.
Annie got a little sour on the days when there were three regular
meals and a bridge luncheon. The ladies stuck their heads in the
kitchen to thank her. One afternoon, the door shut behind one of
these ladies and only I was left in the kitchen. Annie said, “Thank
you don’t buy shit.” This was my first hint that things might not be
as rosy as everyone pretended in the master-servant world.