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Fifty-seventh Annual Meeting Address

A Writer from Filbert: Her Own Place

Dori Sanders

Sometime, around 1915, a young, single black man, in the course of going to and from his job as principal of a small elementary school, daily slowed his horse and buggy to look covetously at the sandy soil in the small rural township of Filbert, S.C., just south of the North Carolina state line. Ideal land for farming, he thought, and eventually decided he should use his savings to buy some of that land. Shortly thereafter he made his first acquisition of eighty-one acres of land with two houses. That man was my father.

He moved his parents and a widowed sister and child from nearby Sharon into the larger house and took the smaller one for himself and his new bride. My nine brothers and sisters and I grew up hearing the small house had been the slave quarters for what had once been a very large plantation.

Our little town of Filbert consisted of a general store, a peach packing shed, cotton gin, two churches, two schools and a train depot.

I can close my eyes and picture that (general) store with the well-worn wooden floor boards that creaked--particularly near the candy section where generations of children had shifted from one foot to the other while trying to decide between an enticing array that included B-B Bats, Johnny cakes and candy sticks of all colors. The smells were equally varied and ranged from cinnamon buns, coffee and onions to cotton seed, Octagon Soap and fertilizers. Wintertime was best of all when the pungent smells of kerosene and burning oak from the big black stove were added to the potpourri.

From the tiny depot my older siblings occasionally took the train that made two daily runs, north in the morning and back in late afternoon, to school in the next town. It was called the bobbed train. Doubtless because of its shortness--two coaches, to be exact. Taking the train "threw them late" but the train cost only ten cents while the more timely interstate bus cost twenty.

Today a by-pass pulls major traffic away from Filbert's decaying cluster of abandoned buildings, a fortunate turn of events for us. Now, Highway #321 runs right by our roadside peach shed. From the peach shed nestled conveniently at the edge of our peach orchards, summer long, I sing the praises of fine South Carolina peaches. South Carolina is, after all, second only to California in peach production. Yes, it's California that's number one, not Georgia.

I must admit, my parents had a lot to handle. Aside from ten children and the peach orchards, there was the growing of sweet potatoes--each crop bringing in its own set of problems. With the peaches every spring there was the constant fear of frost wiping out the peach crop for that season. When the temperature dropped, there were the long nights of burning old discarded auto tires and waiting. Even if the peaches survived, peril still lay ahead. Too much rain and you end up with brown rot and frog-eyes, or hail can destroy a crop in a flash.

One should never take for granted the perfect, blemish-free peaches we've grown to expect in our supermarkets.

Such things prepared me to face the realities of life, particularly the farming life. I'm saved from total despair, when, as in 1989, a late spring freeze wiped out all nine varieties of our peaches. We grin and bear it, and simply double our plantings of summer crops.

I suppose it was my reflections upon that childhood that inspired me to write Clover, my first published work.

Although my book is not autobiographical, there are many things in Clover that touch upon my own experience. As I've said, my father was an elementary school principal and so is the fictional father in Clover. Unlike that character, however, my father was the principal of a segregated school and did not have an inter-racial marriage.

As a school teacher and landowner, who very early on purchased additional land for his sons, my father enjoyed a certain status in the black and white farm community. He didn't have the sharecropper racial relationship that some others, of course, had with white landowners. There was no one to say, "Boy, plow the cotton today. Y'hear?"

I don't mean to imply however, that racial problems and tensions did not exist for us. Indeed, they were everywhere. The segregated schools, buses, trains and movie houses that didn't admit blacks at all. Drinking fountains marked "For Colored Only." Again, not unlike my fiction, I grew up under a strong male presence, an achiever.

In the not too distant past, portions of my father's autobiography were salvaged when our house burned. The remains of them totaled fewer than a dozen pages, yet from them I learned things I either never fully knew or had forgotten; namely, that my father took leave from his teaching post and re-entered college to study algebra and Latin, and that he authored a history of several organizations in the county--a thousand copies of which were published in 1924.

I realize now that we had quite a sophisticated lifestyle for a rural hard-working farm family. My father played the piano and several other instruments. I still have his trumpet with pearl keys. My mother played also, although by ear. She had a lovely voice as well and coached us in a capella singing.

Books were also a necessity of life to us. I grew up with Homer, Hawthorne and other classics. Early in our teens we tired of reading only the Grit newspaper and farming magazines. My sister took her personal earnings and joined the Garden City Book Club. One of my brothers subscribed to the Charlotte Observer. Today my library cards fill the wallet slots that others use for credit cards. Credit cards? No. Debt was a four-letter word in my upbringing.

I am certainly not saying that the influence of a good father has been unique to me. I'm sure that many fathers have had an even greater influence upon their children's lives. But because a positive black maternal image has often been explored, I have chosen to focus upon the positive black male, who has so often been given short shrift in literature.

When I've done this, even in fiction, it is because I'm drawing on the familial background of my youth. And whenever I do it the only pen portrait I'm capable of sketching is a positive one.

I guess it all comes from being allowed your own experience. It's only natural that you will draw upon it. Mine will be different from others', but there should never be a need to offer apologies for that.

Eventually, we are so often like our parents before us--traced images, not too unlike paper tracings.

Writing allows me the freedom to reflect on the things of my youth: my roles in school plays written and produced by my father, first prize winner time and again in county-wide oratorical contests and spelling bees. Those glimpses into the past, along with seemingly insignificant details--the wonderment of tufts of moss clinging precariously in mid-air to tiny branches of dead trees, yet thriving; the mournful cooing of doves by day, the haunting cries of hoot-owls by night--evoke memories that tear pleasantly at my emotions.

Some of my brothers and sisters left the farm to pursue careers in other cities. They did take with them, however, a love of land and the freedom it conveys. Regardless of the amount of land they own, be it great or small, when spring comes, not one fails to respond to the call of the seed catalogs.

For me childhood is best interpreted when seen from the distance of years, and usually when so few tangible reminders are left. A rusting water tank atop a decaying tower is all that is left of the sophisticated irrigation system that my father designed and built for watering the beds of sweet potatoes before we had electricity. So many other things--like our old family home, for example--remain totally intact in memory yet lie in ruins in reality. Old silent foundation stones are the only landmarks remaining of a house that no longer stands, but which looms far nobler in its decay than when new, an unattainable piece of the past that becomes even more desirable because of its unattainability.

My farming experience served me well. It's an occupation that is at once challenging and humbling. Actually, it was our roadside peach shed with its steady flow of customers and visiting farmers that set the stage for my novel.

A farmer's very approach to life is so appealingly mundane. Rural life, unhampered by the frenetic pace of city living. Hard work, but plenty of relaxation. Meaningful lives played out without affectation by ordinary people on their own ordinary stage. A fertile environment of people regaling each other with stories of the old cotton-picking, watermelon-patch days--of opossum and 'coon hunts with hound dogs or beagle hounds--told over and over.

With such richness, it's no small wonder that so many of the Southerners who moved north earlier are now returning to the South in droves.

It is this experience and background that is the well-spring and the strength of my writing. It is also what doubtless enabled me to muster up enough courage to submit my manuscript to the publishing house that published my first novel in 1990.

Farming has its own unyielding deadlines. Timing and discipline cannot be ignored at any stage or an entire crop can be lost. My early exposure to these habits served to inculcate in me the sustained discipline so necessary for writing.

While farming prepares one for rejection and fuels the faith to try again, I must admit that the blow of the rejection of my first manuscript was softened by a caring editor, who, instead of sending the usual rejection slip, wrote a letter. He encouraged me to write about what I knew, rather than think of some contrived melodramatic plot.

I shall be ever grateful to him for that.

It was indeed such glimpses of the past and present that led to the writing of Clover. A simple glimpse of a slow-moving funeral procession down Highway #321 made me ponder "what if's"--made my imagination soar--and resulted in the writing of this book: the story of a ten-year-old girl from a small farming town in South Carolina and her white stepmother following her father's tragic death only hours after the marriage:

So here we are. Two strangers in a house. I think of all the things I'd like to say to her. Think of all the things I think she'd like to say to me. I do believe if we could bring ourselves to say those things it would close the wide gap between us and draw us closer together....

Just maybe we could learn something from each other.

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