The View from Uncle Henry’s

Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.

While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time.

Uncle Henry wasn’t my uncle, of course, but the fellow whose name had become attached to the now-shuttered Mississippi landmark.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was sold in 1933 to William Wilkerson. Known in those days as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living and assorted illegalities. It lost, then re-gained respectability when the locals cut its connections to the Chicago mob. Finally, in 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Wright.

Sarah and her son George (now deceased) transformed Uncle Henry’s into an Inn and Restaurant. Tourist guides referred to it as a Bed and Breakfast, but none of the common terms quite captured its dusty reality.

A little shabby, quite a bit quirky, the place was imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. It was easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a “she” — the prototypical Southern Lady, temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

There’s no question Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. At dinner, more than a few locals gathered in the dining room, old-timers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking her polite question: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Some days later, I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House. They grinned, and one asked, “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” When I admitted I’d not only stopped there, but had lingered for a few days, the other fellow said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But that’s the good news – it’s not the Holiday Inn.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I made my sight-unseen reservation. A late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival had left me scrambling for a room. Motels were booked, and had been for weeks.

When I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, they had a waiting list in addition to their reservations. But, with the solicitous kindness I was coming to associate with Mississippians, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.” Once I arrived, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “and you can’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down into the dining room.”

That was fine by me. After all, Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, a pair of local boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to hit the road for the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult, but Tennessee Williams’ connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped Williams transform the Club into Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, reading Williams’ work and pondering what it must have required of him to transform his sleepy, Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I amused myself with the thought that he might have appreciated at least the tone of my own first blog entry.

I have things to say — words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack and reorder to suit myself and perhaps others…
If I’m to share my words and my vision, it [will require] energy and perseverance.

The confidence and declarative force of the words still seems entirely inexplicable to me. But I had persevered during that first year, at least in the sense that I had written, and on that late Mississippi afternoon, I found Williams himself eloquently affirming the importance of perseverance as a first step toward success.

Before my trip, I’d never read Tennessee Williams’ essay, The Catastrophe of Success. I discovered it as an addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag as travel reading. Originally published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, the essay was written as Williams celebrated an anniversary of his own. Three years had passed since the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie, and Williams finally was receiving recognition as a playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant – not only because I was in Tennessee Williams’ country, but because his words rang out with the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

The essay is filled with truth, memorable and recognizable truths that demand retelling. All of us hope to succeed, but Williams did succeed, marvelously well. Reflecting on the circumstances of his own life and career, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable.

The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every ince of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading the essay today, I find myself once again drawn through the veil of dogwood and azalea toward Moon Lake. I imagine Uncle Henry, and mourn the closing of his Inn. I remember Yazoo Pass, sluggish and narrow, winding its way toward Vicksburg, and consider my great-grandfather’s Union Regiment — the 34th Iowa — trembling there at the edge of their own great, unwelcome adventure.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores of the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like a riff of breeze across the Delta.

Where I sit, rocking in the late afternoon warmth, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning south and west while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.”

    One of your finest lines, Linda.
    Thanks

    beell,

    Really appreciate the comment. Every now and again I get a little gift – something I don’t really “write” – it just comes to mind, perfect from the beginning. That line was one of those “somethings”. It’s nice to have it recognized, and nice that you thought to comment about it. I’m rather fond of it myself.

    Linda

  2. Oh, my — This is MY kind of holiday — filled with time to review the works of those who so inspire us in a place that is definitely NOT the Holiday Inn; a spot filled with beauty (the photos are amazing) and a depth of soul vacation spots don’t always provide.

    Thank you for sharing the Williams passage at length — it was not one I was familiar with, but the part about the clawing and not realizing until you don’t do it anymore how it drains your energy… Splendid.

    As a theatre person, Williams has always been a favorite of mine — but this resonates powerfully. Thank you. I hope you were restored when you so needed it. It sounds like perhaps you were…

    jeanie,

    It was a lovely vacation, filled with a variety of experiences and more surprises than usual, including the discovery of a plantation orchard that looked as though it had been painted by Monet.

    There is much to share, but it will take a little time, a little photo processing and most of all, a little thought. I began the trip assuming it would be all music and literature – by the time I arrived home, I’d added the 1927 Mississippi flood, the Civil War’s Yazoo Pass Expedition, the strange reality of race relations in this country and Blues history to the mix. I hardly know where to begin!

    But I am refreshed. I love change, movement and variety, and I had each of those in abundance. And of course, it’s always fun to discover the obvious. I was completely amazed by the Mississippi Delta – I’m so used to thinking of the New Orleans delta I just wasn’t prepared for really, really flat and dry! And I wasn’t prepared for the agricultural changes that have taken place.

    Best of all, it took Dixie Rose only twelve hours to stop hissing and scratching and sulking and turn back into her purr-ful self. After five days, that’s not too bad!

    Linda

  3. Wow. That was some trip! You just can’t make up stuff like The Shack Up Inn! Uncle Henry’s sounds great. Hope the music was also. Loved Mr. Williams on the “vacuity of a life lived without struggle.” Life–and art–is in the struggle isn’t it? The tension of opposites, the gripping of fingernails. Thank you for that.

    Now, about your great-grandfather’s regiment and the Yazoo Pass…you cannot possibly drop a tantalizing little tidbit like that into the middle of a piece & not expect us to want more!

  4. I’ll say… you’ve done mighty well, Linda, in just a year. You deserve this time of just sitting and thinking. What you’ve described here, the people, the place, the names, the life… sound like a good setting for a movie script. You sure have fired up our anticipation. But don’t worry, just take your time and enjoy!

    Arti,

    The truth, of course, is that there was a lot less sitting and thinking on the trip than it might sound. There was so much to see and do, and so many impressions flooding in that I couldn’t write while I was gone, even though I tried. There simply was too much. Now, I’m starting to sort things out so I don’t just dump everything out of the basket at once!

    Ironically, there is a movie script being worked. Someone out in LA is putting together an indie film called “Moon Lake Casino”. Basic plot – Tennessee Williams characters who never made it to the stage go looking for their creator. Not bad, actually. I found it over at IndieGoGo and might even kick in ten bucks, just for fun!

    And I brought back another short, called “M for Mississippi”. I might be forced to do my first film review!

    Linda

  5. Linda, words fail me – and when I read your cleverly entwined syllables, they certainly do fail me. (I see now why I chose to write children’s stories.)

    This piece of work is one of your finest, in my humble opinion. Your use of metaphors to add colour to the painting you have placed on the canvas is just superb.

    Happy anniversary to you – and I wish you many, many more.

    Sandi

    Sandi,

    Don’t sell yourself short. Being able to entertain, intrigue and delight children is its own gift. From what I remember and what I’ve observed, kids can be much more discerning and critical than adults! Besides, if I had your talent with pencil and brush, I might not need so many words. My one little children’s story is still on that proverbial back burner, but if I ever get it written, I know where to come for an illustrator.

    I really appreciate your comments and I agree with you – I’ve come back to re-read this myself, to try and understand what makes it a little special. Whatever it is, I need to do it more often. I know this – if the whole of last year’s “practice” was what helped to produce that last line, it was worth every hour. Who knows what line this year will bring!

    As always, a pleasure to have you stop by.

    Linda

  6. Linda,
    Your words make me feel like I was there with you. I thought about you while you were away. I hope you feel rested and energized now, but I’m sure you would have enjoyed a few more days.

    Congratulations on your one year “blogoversary.” I feel fortunate to have found you out here in this big old blogosphere.

    Bella,

    As my strange old great-aunt used to say, “Tempus Fidgets”. I can’t believe five days went so quickly, but when you get right down to it, I can’t believe a year has gone so quickly. One of the first things I did when I got home was take the blogoversay countdown clock off the blog. It was fun for the first year, but somehow it seems a bit beside the point now. If I count time at all, I’ll depend on my “kairometer”. I’ve always preferred thinking of time in terms of kairos rather than chronos, anyhow.

    I do feel energized, and hopeful. Now that I’ve demonstrated it’s possible to leave AND come back, I may even leave again some day!

    Linda

  7. Great article and photos, worthy of publication.

    Ian,

    How kind! Thank you. And thank you, too, for leaving a comment and reminding me that I wanted to go over and see what you’ve been up to. I was entranced by the Corner View entry – not just the camels, but the idea of so many photographers working around a common theme.

    I think I’ve taken my best photos on this trip – at least two coming blogs will be heavily photo laden. I hope they’re as compelling as your camels!

    Linda

  8. Well, I was supposed to only let the boys nap for 30-45 minutes, but it’s been just over an hour. You hooked me. One of these days I’ll have to tell my story of staying in Little Lake Hotel. Glad for the memories, and glad that now they are only memories. Actually, it’s when things don’t go as planned that you create those memories. When everything does go as planned, the memories usually fade. Not sure where all that came from – I guess just Uncle Henry’s place spurred my past memories.

    I’m heading out on an all girls weekend away in a couple of weeks. A bunch of us that worked on the Pageant (I think maybe 8-9) are headed to Phoenix, AZ to enjoy a weekend, and a trip to the Desert Botanical Gardens where a man who sculpts glass has a display. I’ll try to update you later…I really think I need to get the boys up now :)

    Karen,

    After seeing your “next week” note over on the other site, I am just tickled to death to see your comment here. After all, what could be sweeter for a writer than reading those words: “You hooked me”? You are right about the unusual and the unexpected creating some of the best memories. There are many from this trip, that’s certain.

    You must be going to see the work of Dale Chihuly. From what I’ve seen of his installations at the Desert Botanical Gardens, it must be an astounding display. I’ll be anxious to hear about your trip and see the photos.

    Linda

  9. It’s uncanny, every time I hop over here and read your latest entry, I have one of those insightful moments. Life sans struggle is just plain boring – we all thrive on the edginess of imminent failure, the thrill of the small success.
    I never buy lottery tickets. I’m afraid I might win.

    Jeannine,

    I spent many younger years trying to eliminate the possibility of failure from my life. I have a friend whose mantra is “If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.” My corollary was “If you never try, you’ll never fail”. Well, fiddlesticks to that. I wasted a good bit of time sitting around being secure. You might get a kick out of an earlier post I did called “The Allure of Failure”. Boring was a word I used there, too.

    Sometimes I think the most exciting sentence in the world begins, “I wonder what would happen if…..” I suspect some of the world’s greatest art, science, literature and just plain living has resulted from asking that question. I’m sure you’ve had a taste of that, with your move to your new life.

    Linda

  10. . . . and congratulations on your anniversary. But it’s not really a year is it? Everything you write here has a lifetime of good living behind it.

    That’s right. When I began posting, one of my greater anxieties was “Can I find a year’s worth of things to write about?” With that question answered, the first thing I did to celebrate the anniversary was to take down the little countdown clock. It just doesn’t seem important now.

    Linda

  11. I traveled over here from Kerry (Qugrainne)’s blog. I wanted to thank you over here as well for mentioning “The Catastrophe of Success.” I had not heard of it, but I promptly went online and read it and it was wonderful. I particularly responded to this line:

    “In the time of your life – live.” That purity of heart is the one success worth having.

    I am thrilled you didn’t listen to detractors and that you took your trip. Between you and Kerry I am looking forward to my upcoming planned anniversary trip and I’m thinking that my family and I need to just hop in the car tomorrow and drive out in the country to see what we can discover! :)

    Carl ~

    How kind of you to stop by! I’m very much like you at least in this sense – things I love, I love to share, and that essay by Williams was well worth sharing.

    Your comment – “I’m thinking that my family and I need to just hop in the car tomorrow and drive out in the country to see what we can discover” – is one of the best comments I’ve ever received. Here’s why. When I was a child, in grade school, my Dad used to come wandering into the house and say to me, “I’m going to the hardware store. Want to come?” Or, “I’m taking some trash out to the dump. Want to ride along?” I’d always say yes, and off we’d go on our errand – except that, as soon as we were out of sight of the house he’d look at me and say, “Want to go exploring?”

    I loved our “sploring”. We’d head out onto the country gravel roads with no destination in mind at all. He’d take the hills at (gasp!) 40 miles an hour, and make my tummy feel funny. We’d stop and look at whatever seemed worth looking at, and then we’d come home.

    That’s still the way I travel, and pretty much the way I live. I got all solid and sensible for a while, but the older I get, the more I grow back into that kid who loved exploring. The fact that my writing raised the same urge in you is at the very least a testament to how deeply a father’s influence reached into a child’s heart. It makes me happy.

    Linda

  12. Linda, I saved this post for a languorous (albeit rainy) Sunday morning to I could savor and enjoy. It was right to do so – this was brilliant. I could write a note as long as your essay, there are so many bits that stirred my emotions.

    Foremost, it is marvelous you packed your bags and took this trip. In another conversation we had, you spoke of the willingness at a “certain age” to speak to strangers. I think when we are young we pick up and go without thought or much sense of responsibility. Then we find ourselves duty-bound, and picking up and taking off is much less easy, sometimes impossible. Suddenly the passage of time wags its finger at us, and if we are canny, we realize it’s now or never! At that point, I think it takes some courage to do the deserved thing and go, which you did with stunning dénouement.

    It is your one-year anniversary, and you’ve taken a moment to look back on this particular journey you were so plucky to embark upon. In your very first post – which I well remember reading – you said,

    “…I will write. At the edge of the precipice, a bit dazed, a good bit confused, I have made my commitment. Let the perseverance begin.”

    How lucky we all are that you persevered. Not only is your “perseverance [itself] a success,” so is your ability to inspire our complicity in your writing journey, arm chair travelers though we might be.

    Thank you for allowing me to be a fellow traveler.

    qugrainne,

    That complicity of which you speak is one of the things that delights me most about blogging. I came early to the conviction that there are bloggers, and there are writers, and there are writers who use blogging platforms to do their work and create an entirely new literary form.

    In a conversation with another blogger, I mentioned my conviction that blogging can and perhaps should be viewed in the long term. My blog is not a series of discrete posts, but an organic whole, an on-going conversation with myself, which is joined by others. As I put it, “my readers determine direction as much as do I, and each new entry makes the whole far more than the sum of its parts.”

    Beyond that, I’m quite taken by the fact that a blog has no “end”, as does a traditional novel or story. I like to think of writers and readers forming into exploratory teams, scouting along the edges of meaning for glimpses of significance. We traveling together in a way that I think was impossible a decade or two ago, and it’s very exciting.

    As for the picking up and going, I always enjoy Henry David Thoreau’s perspective: How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. August 19, 1851

    Linda

  13. Hey Linda,

    Your father sounds a lot like my grandfather. He never could resist the urge to go ‘exploring’. He called it ‘the wanderlust’ and said it ran in his family. I am so glad you gave into your wanderlust. It sounds like you had an amazing time.

    I love your final paragragh. I have always found old houses to be like little time machines. There is just something about walking across the boards and imagining people from 50, 100 or even 200 years ago doing the same.

    Thanks so much for sharing your trip with us.

    Hi, Kit,

    I’d never thought of the old houses as time machines, but you’re exactly right. The only thing better than old is old-and-long-empty, or old-and-being-overgrown. Apparently kudzu is good for that.

    The trip was wonderful. I had one experience in Rolling Fork I still can’t get my mind around, but I’m working on it. One of the problems is trying to sort it out and tell just one story at a time. Some time today I’ll get the next one up, about a couple of crossroads, Bessie Smith and a guy named Robert Johnson. You might have heard of him ;-)

    Gosh, I’m glad I found Words, Music… and Sometimes Baseball!

    Linda

  14. Although I have never been in Mississippi, while reading “The View from Henry’s Place” I felt as if I were actually there. I once had a similar experience reading a piece by Hemingway, in which he described fishing in a trout stream in Northern Michigan. In each instance the precision and economy of the writing was so exquisite I was fully transported into the writer’s world—utter magic. I thank you Linda, for a wonderful and very inexpensive journey to Mississippi.

    I was unfamiliar with Tennessee William’s The “Catastrophe of Success.” I am so glad you shared it. It has inspired me to read more of his work. Likewise, your personal remarks on attentiveness and perseverance are inspiring. I loved what you said about changing the title back to what was right, not what would appeal to more readers. I was also struck by William’s words, “the vacuity of a life without struggle.” What a stunning truth! Sadly, it seems so much of our culture directs us to seek a life without struggle as if “easy street” should be our ultimate goal. I suppose it is no accident, that fortunes are made feeding the existential hunger of the well-heeled and bored.

    By the way a favorite book of mine you might enjoy is “Vestiges of Grandeur: Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road” by Richard Sexton. It is a great collection of photographs and essays about the old plantations lining the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. (Amazon has it)

    Mike,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this piece. One of the wonders of the trip is that there surely will be at least one post for everyone, for there was so much to see and think about – music, literature, Civil War history, race relations, and the soon-to-be passing of even more Blues legends.

    I’ve found so much of Tennessee Williams I never expected during this past month. Not only the “Catastrophe of Success” – one of the best, ever – but even his short stories are stimulating and well-written. When I was introduced to him, we never got much beyond “The Glass Menagerie”. There’s so much more to be appreciated. His short story, “The Mattress by the Tomato Patch”, contains a long paragraph about the “rocking-horse weather” of Southern California that just isn’t to be believed.

    The early struggle over the right title for an essay was my first experience with something I’ve never heard anyone talk about – the possibility that the task of the artist is to serve his or her art, not to control it or attempt to impose one’s will on it. I don’t know quite what I mean by that, but Michaelangelo gets close when he says, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

    I don’t know whether the analogy works for painting and photography, but it surely does for writing. What I take away as I write is far more important than what’s left – that may be the precision and economy you mention.

    Love the suggestion re: the Plantation book. As a matter of fact, one entry will be grounded in the Doro Plantation – no longer grand, but utterly exquisite in a French countryside sort of way.

    Always a pleasure!

    Linda


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