Memory, fickle memory. To recall the long-ago past becomes a journey into a place where truth flits behind trees or ducks into closets, an exhausting game of hide-and-seek where no player easily becomes “It.”
Do you remember going to the Saturday afternoon movies when you were a kid? How you got so engrossed in the story on the big screen that the bright sunlight shocked you back to reality when you walked outside afterwards? Sad to leave a time and a world so vivid but fleeting, you trudged home to Tater Tots and fried liver. Welcome to the real world, kid!
That’s what happened when I finished reading memoirist Susie H. Baxter’s Pumping Sunshine: A Memoir of My Rural Childhood.
I picked it up on a Thursday afternoon. Three days later, I set it down. I would have finished it faster if I didn‘t need to eat or sleep. I was sorry to reach The End.*
Ms. Baxter captured my heart and soul with her memories of her childhood in rural North Florida, on a farm near Live Oak. Set in the 1940s and 1950s, her story came alive in such a way that I could see her, Susanette, a young girl with two older sisters, hard-working parents, and a whole slew of captivating relatives, some by blood and others not.
In 75 short chapters, Ms. Baxter left nothing out, from bed wetting to cooking to identifying plants to her family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. Want to know about sewing, lace making? Butchering hogs? Grinding sugar cane? Turpentine camps? Home remedies? Making biscuits? Hookworm? Church? And much, much more.
In telling the stories that pieced together her life, she dug down deep into her emotions and feelings, conveying fears and wishes and hopes of a child struggling to make sense of the world and her place in it. Her experiences mirrored many of mine, even though we came from different worlds.
One such episode concerned vaccinations. And that tale resonated with me on a gut level.
I hated getting shots at school. If you cried, other kids made fun of you. “Crybaby, crybaby,” the boys teased.
Dressed in white from head to toe, the nurse set up shop in the middle of Mrs. Johnson’s classroom. She positioned her chair next to a table, now covered with a white cloth. The table held jars of cotton balls, a large bottle of alcohol, tiny glass bottles with red rubber stoppers, and several glass hypodermic syringes.
Mrs. Johnson told each row to line up. My line inched forward. I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt as my heart beat faster. I got a whiff of the alcohol, and suddenly I was up next.
Oh yes. In my case, the nurse administered shots alphabetically, so we lined up by last name. In those days, my last name began with “P,” so I stood there for what seemed like forever, watching all the kids cringing and moaning in front of me. By the time my turn came, I could barely breathe, close to full panic mode.
That’s just one example of how Pumping Sunshine opens up that little tattered shoebox of memories stuffed into the back of a reader’s brain.
Text boxes (“Hookworm,” p. 326, etc.) filled with factual and historical information popped up in many chapters, relaying information that deepened the reading experience. Numerous old family photographs put names from the text with real faces as well.
Pumping Sunshine** provided a delightful escape into an era and a place now gone, thanks to Ms. Baxter’s quasi novelistic writing style and amazing attention to detail. And just to keep that sense of connection, the book ends with 16 of Mama’s recipes.
I just wish that one of those recipes was for Coconut Cake. Maybe next time?
*Rumor has it that Ms. Baxter has a second installment in the works!
** The book’s title stems from a joke that Ms. Baxter’s Daddy loved to tell: “We live so far in the backwoods, we have to pump sunshine through hollow logs.”