Dimestore: A Writer's Life
“Damn good book, Dimestore.”
Back when author Lee Smith’s new memoir Dimestore was in galleys, it had a different subtitle. What now is called A Writer’s Life was then called A Memoir in Stories. This likely seems a small thing, and yet that original subtitle invested itself so much more in revealing what makes Dimestore special than the new one, the one that promises only that the book is going to tell us all about what it is to live a writer’s life.
So much better, that old subtitle.
So much more like the book, which, especially in the early chapters, reads like the days—the holidays, especially—that any or all of us spend with our families and friends, with those who knew us in that time long ago, and who spend gatherings telling the old stories. About the time that that damned cow walked too close to the edge of the cliff on the mountainside up above and fell through the roof in the kitchen of Aunt Bess and Uncle’s Clyde’s kitchen back in good old Grundy, Virginia. Or of the times that folks gathered up at the drive-in theater in broad daylight to sit on quilts and eat fried chicken and listen to Ralph Stanley play his music from up on top of the roof of the concession stand.
Stories about roofs apparently abound in Grundy, as well as stories about places like Dismal River and Big Prater and Little Prater and Watkin’s Branch, and especially Hoot Owl Holler. Sad and sweet stories about a area “in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia,” as author Lee Smith puts it, with “mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock.”
So much better than just another book about another writer’s life, isn’t it, this collection of memories presented in the form of essays, each crafted from the flesh and bone of the Appalachian folk from this place Grundy?
So scratch out that new, cold dishwater of a subtitle, write the original one back in, and celebrate the achievement that is Dimestore.
The opening chapters of this elegant memoir set the stage, telling the tale of “this river behind our house, this town where I grew up in my father’s dime store and across the street in my grandfather’s office at the courthouse and in the Methodist Church and in my grandparent’s house just across Slate creek, right next to my school . . . This was my geography. It would be like this forever. My daddy knew. He called it his ‘standing ground.’”
These chapters, and the bits of memory lodged in them, also illustrate the ways in which Smith was educating herself in the writer’s art.
“My favorite memories of Grundy take place in this dimestore. As a little girl, my job was ‘taking care of the dolls.’ Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that happened to them before they came to the dimestore, things that would happen to them after they left my care. I gave each of them three-part names: Mary Elizabeth Satterfield, for instance, and Baby Betsy Black. Their lives were very dramatic.”
“Was anything ever as scary as Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte? Or as sad as Imitation of Life? . . .
“The movies taught me that place can be almost as important as personality, and that actions really do speak louder than words. Plot is all-important; beginning, middle, and end is the most natural and satisfying sequence of events. Most important of all: something has to happen.”
“I became a voracious, then an obsessive reader; recurrent bouts of pneumonia and tonsillitis gave me plenty of time to indulge my passion. After I was pronounced ‘sickly,’ I got to stay home a lot, slathered with a vile salve named Mentholatum, spirit lamp hissing in the corner of my room, reading to my heart’s content. . . . But I did not read casually, or for mere information. What I wanted was to fell all wild and trembly inside, an effect first produced by The Secret Garden, which I’d read maybe twenty times.”
Arguably, it was from the beginning a “writer’s life” that Lee Smith was growing into. But Dimestore surprises. Along with the warm memories of Southern youth, Smith candidly shares her father’s struggles with mental illness (“‘Kindly nervous’ was my father’s euphemistic term for the anguish he suffered periodically from bipolar illness, or ‘manic depression’ as it was then called.”), and describes the impact of her mother’s deep and lingering depression and anxiety had on the whole family:
“When Mama got sick, she was physically sick, too—with stomach problems, insomnia, migraine headaches, and other undiagnosed pain. She ate very little and got very thin, subsisting on things she thought she could eat, such as rice, oatmeal, milk toast, and cream of wheat, which were all supposed to be easy on the stomach. In my memory, my mother’s food was all white. She had a special daybed downstairs next to the kitchen, where she’d stay more and more. Ava McClanahan came very day to take care of Mama and the house. Daddy did all the shopping. This could go on for a long time. Sometimes Mama and I would be taken up to stay with Aunt Millie and Uncle Bob in Maryland for a while. Other times, she went into the hospital.”
Both parents, it seems, came from families rife with “kindly nervous” states of all sorts. These were families whose members had been diagnosed as “schizophrenic,” or as “over-sexed” (one cousin, upon receiving this diagnosis was promptly hospitalized because of it). Some died in mental institutions. Others died by their own hand.
Lee Smith lived a childhood in which she consulted with doctors about her parents’ conditions, and in which she silently feared that she would one day be diagnosed as being like them.
Still, when she grants her parents’ relationship a summation, it is as sweet as a summation as can be:
“Well, they loved each other—two sweet, fragile people who carefully bore this great love like a large glass object, incredibly delicate, along life’s path.”
Smith writes even more powerfully about the life of her son, Josh, and about the ways in which his inheritance of the families’ “kindly nervous” traits devilled him, and about his early death.
And when she sums him up, it is like this:
“Josh was a major sunset man, always looking for that legendary green flash after the sunset, which nobody I know has ever actually seen, though everybody claims to have known somebody who has seen it.”
And when she finally gets around to writing directly about her writer’s life, she sums that up, too, in about the best way it could ever be summed up, when she takes us for a walk in the woods and reveals that she’s “realizing that writing is not about fame, or even publication. It is not about exalted language, abstract themes, or the escapades of glamorous people. It is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day, it is about playing with children and listening to old people.”
Damn good book, Dimestore. Well worth the visit to Grundy, Virginia, then or now, and hanging around the dimestore. And well worth becoming acquainted with the author, Lee Smith, who, in summation, is that sweetest of things: a writer’s writer with so many stories to tell.