Sunday, July 16, 2017

Leave a Trace of a Time and a Place

by Creative Nonfiction Editor Susie Baxter

Back in the 1990s when I was an acquisitions editor at Mosby, a health-science publishing house in St. Louis, a colleague gave me a tiny pillow on which she'd cross-stitched: "So many books . . . so little time." So true.

Frankly, I started out far behind most readers. As a youngster, 18 miles separated our home from the nearest library, and for several years our family owned no vehicle. Granted, we did have our own home library: Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Dad's high school world history book, a storybook of tales like "The Three Little Pigs," the Sears and Roebuck catalog, and five copies of the Holy Bible . . . It wasn't until I read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca in high school that I fell in love with reading. 

The thought of becoming a writer myself never occurred to me until I lost my beloved grandmother. I decided I had to write about her, which led to writing down more and more memories, and eventually offering workshops to help others record their stories.

I think of myself as a recorder of history, leaving a trace of a time and a place that is no more, such as the Suwannee River flood of 1948:
Water began seeping up through the ground in early '48, the year Granny died, just as the onion sets were sending up healthy-looking green spikes . . . Since we'd become accustomed to seeing the river rise and fall, a little bit of water around the onions didn't seem like a big deal. After all, Daddy had planted at the right time; he relied on the Farmers' Almanac, which told him when the moon and stars were in the right positions for planting.

The almanac didn't tell him where to plant, though, and that year he'd planted the onions--five acres of them--on the lowest spot of ground on our property, an area we called "the bottom" . . . dark, fertile soil, unlike the dirt elsewhere on the place, which was similar to the white sand along Florida's beaches . . . 

Daddy rotated the crops every year to prevent disease, and that year he decided to plant the tobacco next to the onions . . . Mama and Daddy led the way along each row. Mama walked backward, facing Daddy, and we girls followed. Mama carried the plants in a cloth bag slung over one shoulder. She dropped the plants, one at a time, into the metal "tobacco setter," the planter Daddy toted . . .
Some farmers in the area owned modern planters that were pulled by tractors. The planting process, for us, was entirely manual, but the five of us moved together like a machine: 
     Drop plant. Drop setter. Squeeze lever. Step forward. Pack dirt.
Though it took less than ten seconds to put each plant into the ground, planting two or three acres took days.
By the time we finished that year's tobacco planting, water covered most of the nearby onion crop. Daddy said the onions might not make it, but then joked that we now owned "lake front" property.
Mama didn't even smile . . . She had never told us that when she was seven years old, she'd seen the Suwannee River flood the crops. "I spotted the very first sign of the 1928 flood," she told us later. "I noticed water seeping up from insect and gopher holes in the railroad ditch where I played."
Susie Baxter's memoir Pumping Sunshine: A Memoir of My Rural Childhood, is now available at You can benefit from her experience as memoir writer and teacher with her recent book, Write Your Memoir: One Step at a Time.

Baxter says "The creative nonfiction Bacopa Literary Review publishes has a moving inner voice. It holds to the same standards as other literary forms while remaining grounded in fact." Examples here, here, here, here, here, and here.