George Ella Lyon: Autobiography Feature
Years ago I wrote a picture book about where I'm from. Called Mountain * Bowl * Honeycomb, it was accepted for publication and two illustrators did sample pictures, but in the end my editor decided the problem was that it wasn't illustratable. It wasn't a picture book, but a poem. Here it is:
I was born in a bowl of mountains.
Clouds filled it sometimes.
But that isn't all.
I was born where three green creeks
come together to make a river—
at the headwaters, they say—
right in the bowl of the mountains.
But there's more to it than that.
I was born in a corner of Kentucky
so close to Tennessee
so hard up against Virginia
you could navigate one corkscrew curve
and be in three states at once.
But there is something deeper.
That bowl where I was born—
inside its green rim
were great seams of coal
with names, just like the mountains.
And miners, every daybreak,
rode down into dark
with lamps on their caps.
In a honeycomb of tunnels
they dug and cut the coal,
then hauled it up into light.
Most of that coal
flowed away from us like the river
on trains that shook our houses.
But we kept back enough
that when ice turned trees to glass
and the bottom of the bowl was snowy
our cast-iron stoves glowed
with the mountain's dark heart.
Growing up in the mountains of Kentucky has been a shaping force in my life, second only to the power of family. Not only my parents and brother but all four of my grandparents lived in Harlan. Our lives were woven together, and their stories, their spirits were a big part of my growing up. My mother's father, J. D. Fowler (Papa Dave), was a lumberman and had moved his family of wife and six children first from east Tennessee and then all over eastern Kentucky, wherever there was a boundary of timber to cut. ABCedar: An Alphabet of Trees is for him.
Mother's mother, Ruby Lane Fowler (Granny Buby), was born in Arkansas and raised in Louisiana and Mississippi. A southern lady, she was adamant that her children were not mountaineers, regardless of where they were born and raised. This created a bit of a strain, I think, since they were told not to be of the place they were from. She worked on her granddaughters, too, giving us lady lessons: how to examine your finger-nails, for instance, or check the heel of your shoe. After one of these sessions, I remember my cousin Susan saying, "Well, if I have to be a lady, I'm going to be a tough one." Granny Buby was witty, pretty, hot-tempered, smart, and resilient. Basket is her story.
My father's father, Robert Hoskins, Sr., was a house builder. Early on he had worked in the coal mines but hated it and took a job building houses for miners instead. He built the house I grew up in and many others in the neighborhood. He built the apartment building he and my grandmother lived in which also included Daddy's business, Nu-Way Cleaners. I've heard it said that Papaw's only contract was a handshake and that he could finish a house with nothing left over but sawdust and a handful of nails. And he was known for fine craftsmanship. In my play, Braids, the character based on Papaw says:
You take Mother's kitchen now. It's not big. It's not fancy. But every corner is square, every inch level. I cut that black linoleum myself—she says a floor's always black anyhow, might as well start out that way—and I measured and cut that red strip that separates the marbleized from the solid black border. I figure if Mother wants black, that's fine, but a little thread of color won't hurt us. And that round breakfas booth. I built it just to fit under the window, built it in sections for moving and cleaning and such. Covered it myself with that dark red leatherette, only time I've ever done upholstery work. And there's never been a rip or a split or a corkscrew pin coming out. We've eaten many a meal there, Mother and me. And Luther, too, sometimes with Glenna and the kids. That's what I like is work a family crowds into. Make it to last, I say. There's little enough that will (appeared in Mossy Creek Reader, 1985).
That breakfast booth is in my basement today, and my teenage son and his friends crowd into it, eating pizza, playing cards. Seeing them connects me with my childhood and connects my son with the great-grandfather he never knew. This gives me a great deal of joy.
Papaw also gave me a wonderful story from his childhood, which I retold as A Regular Rolling Noah. His neighbors on Hance's Creek were moving to Canada to homestead, taking farm implements, animals, everything, Papaw said, "but the little pasture gate," and they hired him to ride in a boxcar and look after the animals. It was his first trip out of the mountains. In fact, until then, he'd thought the whole world was mountains. This revelation of landscape was quite a shock. As he says in my picture book, "Sky right down to your ankles./ Big wind might blow you away" (Bradbury Press, 1986).
Like Papa Dave, Papaw had had to quit school early to help support the family, yet both men became experts in complex trades. Just think of the math required to build a house or figure out how much lumber you could get from a stand of trees! Obviously, my grandfathers apprenticed and learned on the job. Papaw also kept a journal, one volume of which has come to me, and he wrote the most tender, courtly love letters to my grandmother.
Josephine Wilder Hoskins, called Jo, was a puzzle. Always sweet to me, she could be hard to get along with in the larger family. Still I loved her and the music of her talk. Once she said she felt "blue as a fish hook." If she was sick she might say, "I feel like a stewed witch" or like "the hind end of bad luck." And she had lots of kinfolks down on Brownie's Creek whom I knew only by stories and by their fabulous names: Honey-Eating Richard, Pie-Belly Miracle, Sho-Enough Lee, Old Aunt Martha Money. It was Jo who said, "It'll come a tide," when the Cumberland River rose, but she didn't resemble Stephen Gammell's illustrations of the book by that name. Jo was meticulous. She loved fine clothes, pretty things, and dessert. Like Granny Buby, she was a good cook and a spotless housekeeper, but she complained about the drudgery of it. In fact, she once gave it up for two years, persuading Papaw to sell their house and move them to a hotel. This was before I was born.
Papaw, Jo, and Granny Buby each lost a parent when they were small, and I'm sure this affected not only them, but their children and grandchildren. Stories are where we come from, whether we ever hear them or not, and I'm blessed to have lived close to my grandparents and to have some sense of the stories that shaped us all.
While my mother, Gladys Marion Fowler, was one of six (actually seven; a baby died), my father, Robert Hoskins, Jr., was an only child. Mother lived in many places and went to thirteen schools before graduating, but Daddy lived in only two, and those in the same county. When they met at Harlan High, they didn't date but they must have noticed each other, because Mother wrote a flip remark in Daddy's yearbook. (Later she would be voted wittiest in her class.) Daddy was older and started medical school the year Mother went away to Berea College. His roommate at Tulane turned out to be a friend of hers, and when he wrote to her, Daddy would add a P. S. After all, they went to the same high school. Little did they know that those jokey sentences were laying the groundwork for the rest of their lives.
Some sad, hard things led to my parents' wonderful marriage, a testimony to how the pain and joy, the loss and fulfillment of our lives are braided. Daddy was a great student. The first in his family to finish high school, much less college, he'd gotten through in record time. But he began having trouble with the lab work in med school. He couldn't see through the microscopes. He couldn't draw from the slides he couldn't see. For a while, despite terrible headaches, he kept trying. Then he had his eyes examined. It turned out that he had a vision problem which made microscope work impossible and, while there was surgery to correct it, the operation was expensive and risky: the odds that it would work balanced the odds that he would go blind. So Daddy took a leave from school and came back to Harlan. While earning money for surgery, he would consider whether it was worth the risk. Since he knew chemistry, he got a job as a spotter for a dry cleaner.
Around this same time, tragedy struck my mother's family. Coming home from a school dance, her youngest sister was killed in a car wreck. Mother decided to stay home a semester to help her family. To make ends meet, she got a job at the eye doctor's.
Does this sound like a plot where the couple is fated to meet? Probably my parents would have found each other anyway, having both landed back in Harlan, their plans interrupted. But Daddy having an eye condition and Mother working for the eye doctor—well, they couldn't miss each other. In a year and a half they were married, and six months later Pearl Harbor brought us into World War II. Another eight months and my brother, Robert III, was born. College days were over for both of them.
Daddy continued as a dry cleaner and Mother became a stay-at-home mom. But she was always involved in community affairs: the Heart Fund, the March of Dimes, PTA, and later Girl Scouts. When Robert was finishing first grade, I arrived. He was an attentive older brother, though I've been told he said he'd rather have a new Ford. This was the four of us. Our family was complete.
Robert was too much older than me to be a playmate. Instead, he was the path maker, reporting back from the wilds of school, the discipline of piano lessons, the intriguing world of Scouts. He walked me to my first grade classroom and also took me to the first college class I ever experienced, a graduate literature course he and my sister-in-law were taking.
As long as I can remember, I have loved books. It's no wonder, since I grew up in a family of readers. When my parents planned the house my grandfather built for them, they sketched in a room over the garage for a library. Bookshelves lined one wall and I remember building mazes with Oxford Classics before I could read.
When I was little I had Robert's copies of Mother Goose and Bible stories, The Tall Book of Fairy Tales, which he gave me, and Little Golden Books from the grocery. When I got to school, I was thrilled with our reading books and the circle of blue, red, and yellow bow-backed chairs that Mrs. Lay called us to for reading group.
I was a good reader, though I had an odd habit of reading "See Spot run," or whatever lines she gave me, aloud twice. Mrs. Lay told me not to do this, and eventually I stopped.
Not until I was in fifth grade did I discover why I had done it. I read everything twice because I saw it twice. Like Daddy, I had double vision, so I saw numbers and people, blackboards and furniture, mountains and coat hooks twice, too. On the IQ test, where you were supposed to connect the two that matched or circle the one which didn't belong, I had too many to choose from. My score was impressively low.
When I was thirteen, I had eye surgery to correct my double vision and ever since then, unless I'm really tired, I see only one. Here's part of a poem I wrote about that early experience:
When my turn came to read
the teacher had to tell me
Once please, just once.
Not See Spot run see Spot,
not See See Spot Spot run.
I thought the lesson was to censor—
name the real, suppress the shadow.
With chairs and fish and books I learned
to wade my thick world
mumbling only half
of what I knew.
In her essay "Still Just Writing," novelist Anne Tyler tells us, "I know a poet who says that in order to be a writer, you have to have had rheumatic fever in your childhood. I've never had rheumatic fever, but I believe that any kind of setting-apart experience will do as well" (from The Writer on Her Work, ed. Janet Sternberg, vol. 1, Norton, 1980, pp. 3-16). For her it was growing up in a commune and then emerging into the regular world. For me it was having double vision.
I suppose this problem could have made me dislike reading, but I loved stories and poems so much that I was ready to do what was necessary to learn to read myself. Besides, I didn't know it was especially challenging for me. I thought the other six-year-olds gathered in those colorful chairs saw the same double lines I did. Somehow they just knew to read only one.
It's worth noting that Richard Jackson, my editor, and Peter Catalanotto, the illustrator with whom I've worked the most, are both dyslexic. Reading and writing didn't come easy to them either, yet the magic won us over. Vision problems were hard, but they gave us something, too. Here we are, spending our lives making books.
If I close my eyes, I can return to some of that early magic. I am in the fourth grade. A cardboard box, sealed with tape, scuffed at the corners, rests on the teacher's desk. Kids crowd around, begging, "Open it now! Please . . ."
Is there candy inside?
No, the Queen of England is in there, along with a time machine, a dragon, Black Beauty, and an Olympic ice skater. Our book club order has arrived!
I remember the smell of these new paperbacks: clean, slick, tangy, fuzzed with paper dust. I remember their perfect covers—smooth and shiny with promise. I remember feeling wealthy: this was mine to explore, to love, to leave and come back to. I still feel that way carrying home a new book.
Loyall Elementary School didn't have a library. So the books inside that box were the only ones we got to choose and take home. Most teachers did have a small collection of books on shelves at the back of the room, and when you were finished with your seat work, as we called it, you could pick a book to read at your desk. That's how I found King and the Princess in third grade. I loved Jack O'Brien's story of fierce friendship between an Irish setter puppy and a black kitten who live in a hunting cabin in the Northwest. It's full of drama. Princess gets her leg caught in a trap and it has to be amputated. Then a forest fire drives the people away and King figures out how to save his pal.
In fact, I loved this book so much that when school ended I couldn't bear to leave it behind. The logical thing would have been to ask the teacher if I could borrow King and the Princess over the summer, but I was afraid. What if she said no? What if she was still mad because of the time J. J. and I sailed tomato slices across the classroom during lunch? We had had to stay in at recess every day for a week. What if she thought a girl who threw food wouldn't take care of a book? I worried and worried about this. By the time the last day of school came, my stomach was in knots and I took the book without asking.
I told myself I was borrowing, not stealing, the book. I was going to bring it back. But I knew that taking things was wrong. So all summer, every time I got out my treasure, I felt sick. The joy and comfort I had thought it would bring me drained away in guilt. Eventually I couldn't wait for school to start so I could take it back and get rid of that feeling. It was a good lesson.
Still, I sympathize with my nine-year-old self, so passionate about a book that she didn't think she could live without it. If you look at the little girl on the cover of BOOK (illustrated by Peter Catalanotto), you'll see that she expresses the feelings I had about King and the Princess. She's hugging her book with her whole heart:
May it hold you
May it set you free.
In fourth grade my class was still in the big building which also housed the high school. In fifth grade, however, we moved out to the quonset-hut classroom heated by the pot-belly stove I describe in Mountain * Bowl * Honeycomb. One time this cast-iron wonder overheated and turned a deep, dangerous red so that we had to leave. Snow was swirling around the gravel-covered playground as we crossed to our refuge with the third grade in a newer building.
Fifth grade was a momentous year for other reasons: I was in two plays, the first in which I portrayed Martha Washington in a skirt made of gathered layers of pale blue and white crepe paper basted to my mother's half-slip and a wig of cotton balls glued to a pair of panties with the legs sewn shut; the second in which I was a snowman whose only job was to melt. There was some inner structure to my costume which I had to surreptitiously unhook or untie in order to achieve this transformation.
Then there was playing 45-rpm records during recess ("Breaking Up is Hard To-oo-o Do") and dancing. With boys. More or less.
And trying to collect enough points from potato chip bags so my best friend Jan could be a contestant for Halloween princess. This involved not only saving our own lunch trash but scouring the dark oiled floor of Dugger's Store right before the bell rang every lunch time and picking up other people's trash. We couldn't take bags out of the garbage barrel, ripe as it was with half-eaten fried bologna sandwiches (Dugger's specialty, ten cents each).
But the big event in fifth grade erupted when our first-year teacher received the results of our IQ tests and read them aloud to the class. I kid you not. Pandemonium! Yelling matches! Fist fights on the cinder pile behind the quonset hut and Jan refusing to speak to me because her IQ was higher than mine. What sense does that make?
Her outrage grew from the fact that I did better in school than she did. "But Monk"—that's what I called her, short for Monkey—"I do my homework." This truth did not soothe her one bit, perhaps because it suggested that she should do her homework. Anyway, she got over it, but the whole class was thorny and nervous the rest of the year.
What was this magic number, this I and this Q that had such power?
It was promise, in the grown-ups' eyes.
It was class.
It was who you might be.
Below average and you had a ticket to the trash heap. Above average and teachers got excited but you might as well pin a target to your back as far as other kids were concerned. Average is both disappointing and reassuring. There is no good outcome when you read a class their IQs. Luckily, that labeling eventually faded from our consciousness. We had other things to think about. We were growing up!
I was learning to play the flute in the junior band but what I really loved was singing. The confluence of music and words, story and breath still thrills me and I keep my guitar just a few steps from my desk.
This love of singing comes in part from my father who sang to me—mostly ballads and popular songs and mostly in the car—and who played records and tapes of everything from Hank Williams and Broadway show tunes to circus music and symphonies. Our house had seven radios so there was a lot of music and talk pulled in from the airwaves as well.
Before I could read, when we went on long car trips—which we did every summer, to California, New England, Canada, Michigan, Florida—I sat in the back-seat and sang. Or, if we drove through the night and I slept on the ledge under the rear window, I would sing myself to sleep, gazing at the stars. The family joked that I could sing all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, which was two hours away, without repeating a song.
Knoxville is where we went every Saturday so I could spend an hour at the ophthalmologist's office doing exercises that would strengthen my eye muscles in preparation for surgery. Finally, in eighth grade, I had the promised surgery. For two weeks afterward my eyes were bandaged, and I lived through that dark by imagining the thrill of seeing only one like everybody else. Nobody told me—how could they know?—that this wouldn't be all wonderful, that at first I'd feel strange and lonely in a world where half of everything had disappeared.
Not too long after my vision repair, I fell in love with the first album of a folk group called Peter, Paul, and Mary. I was captivated by the clear beauty of their style and the passion of their lyrics. These weren't the self-focused, romantic-love-driven songs of the radio. These were songs of struggle, calls for justice as well as cries of love. Within a few months of hearing them, I was listening to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, too, and had traded my flute and ten dollars for a guitar. Since I'd had years of piano lessons, it wasn't hard to teach myself basic chords and a little finger-picking. Soon I was writing songs and performing in a duo with my friend Joanie and in a quartet as well. Our repertoire included "500 Miles," "The Cruel War," "This Land Is Your Land," and "Blowin' in the Wind," along with songs I had written.
To be in touch with the national folksinging scene, I subscribed to the magazine Sing Out!, and it was there I learned about Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, the Weavers, and others whose work had made a way for the music I had discovered. I also read about current singers—Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie, Phil Ochs, Odetta: these were my heroes. The magazine published their songs along with much older ones, so readers could learn to play them; some issues even included a small floppy vinyl record—it was square!—which I could spin on the hi-fi in my room and feel connected with Bleecker Street and the Bitter End, coffee houses and antiwar protests all over the country. It was 1965. Song-writers were singing directly into history and I loved it.
But it wasn't only song writing which Sing Out! nurtured in me. My second publication was in their guest column, "We Never Wanted It to Stop." The guidelines were to capture a powerful but casual musical experience—not a performance. I wrote about when my cousin and I were trapped at a bus station in a summer rainstorm and, since I had my guitar—I always had my guitar in those days—we sat on a luggage cart outside under the bus shed and sang. Pretty soon folks gathered, to listen and then to join in. The harder it rained, the closer we gathered, and the louder we sang. "It was the loveliest storm I was ever in," I wrote. "Music crosses barriers that nothing else can."
Another gift Sing Out! gave me was international friendship. Through the "Correspondents Wanted" column I began writing to a fireman in England, a college student in Ireland, and a dentist in Switzerland. All were interested in folk music, and Niall in Dublin was passionate about poetry and politics as well. His grandfather, Donagh McDonagh, a poet and one of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion in 1916, was executed after it failed, and was commemorated in W.B. Yeats' poem, "Easter 1916." In addition to songs, Niall copied out many of his grandfather's poems for me on onionskin airmail paper. (This was before Xerox, much less e-mail.) I still have them. We also exchanged tapes of our favorite groups and of our own music. Niall taught me a lot about Irish history and music and gave me a different perspective on tumultuous events unfolding at home: assassinations, war protests, Civil Rights marches, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Then there was Max Eberhard, a medecin-dentiste from Lausanne whose request for the words, music, and guitar chords for "Lemon Tree" appeared in April-May 1966. In his initial letter, Max told me that he hadn't wanted a correspondent; he thought the editors could send him the song, but since I had replied, he'd love to write to me. And write he did! In a most energetic, expressive, and unconventional English, which was his fourth language. He wrote not only about music (he was a great singer and attempted to give me lessons via the mail) but also about the differences between American and European character, about the struggles of the youth culture, even about cultural geography. In his first letter in August, 1966, he brought up a subject I would be very much involved in later: Appalachian Studies.
what do you call an "mountain" dulcimer? Anyway, this expression of "mountain" comes very often in american folk music. what does mean, for instance, "smoky mountain?" Why are the "mountain" music different from the others? which one of the different mountain chains of USA is meant by that, Rocky, Appalachian, Sierra, or others? It looks as if the world of these "mountains" is very different from the others, but I don't understand what is meaned by that. [A]s you have seen, we have no difference between mountain and plain. I mean other differences than geographical, and shurely not in music. This "mountain" world has always fascinated me and I ever asked myself what it means. For mountains, I mean real mountains, are a little our specialty, and we know this phenomene very well, but your denomination seems to cover an other sense, I wonder which it is.
How can I express what their letters gave me—Niall's and Max's? A wider perspective on the world, certainly; an older one, too. But more than that they gave me, a small-town mountain girl, who was too smart and not pretty enough, an ongoing conversation with fascinating men who took me seriously, valued my friendship, and in Max's case, seemed to delight in my letters, to see me as someone of real gifts. I'll always be grateful for their generosity, for the sense they gave me of belonging to a larger world. Their love of folk music confirmed my passion, and trying to tell them who I was helped me define myself. It also gave me a lot of good writing practice.
My senior year I was in a quandry. It's hard to believe now, but I didn't really want to go to college because I thought it would be like high school only harder. However, the other choices were not good. Staying in Harlan was out; I didn't really want to work at the dime store (our version of Dollar Days). Besides, I was ready to leave home. What I wanted to do—go to Greenwich Village and look for work in coffeehouses like the Purple Onion—my parents were opposed to. "But I'll be in school," I told them. "I'll go to Columbia University." And if the folksinging jobs fell through, I would get a job as a simultaneous translator at the United Nations. My French wasn't so hot, but I figured I would work on that at Columbia.
But my parents didn't want me to go straight from Harlan to New York. So we reached a compromise. If I would try a small college for a year, they would send me to Columbia after that. I realize now that they were counting on the fact that I'd make friends in that first year and want to stay, which is just what happened at Centre College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky.
Imagine my exhilaration when I found out in the first few weeks of college what it was like not to be bored! I hadn't known I'd been bored in high school because I kept busy with homework plus lots of extracurricular activities. But at Centre I discovered the wonder of studying at a different level, with professors who loved what they taught, who were excited about connections between disciplines, and who really wanted to engage in discussion with students.
Not that I hadn't had some remarkable teachers in high school. Kathleen Hill Sterling, who was also my speech coach, and James S. Greene III, with whom I worked on the school newspaper, strongly encouraged my writing. Kathleen even took poems home and wrote comments on them, loaned me books, and sometimes had me out to her house for a Sunday afternoon poetry talk. A poet herself, she loved the magic of words as much as I did, and time spent with her was invaluable. It was after her class that I made my first book of poems, hand-printed in gold ink and called A Harvest of the Early Morning Rain. From this beginning in 1965, I continued to make books as gifts until my first book, Mountain, came out in 1983.
Except for Kathleen's class, however, high school had never required much writing. Centre gave me abundant opportunities, and I had wonderful writing mentors there, too, especially Roberta White and Paul Cantrell. I also began keeping a journal. I'd had a diary in seventh grade and a travel log when we went to Europe when I was fourteen, but I didn't begin keeping a regular journal till I was in college. That notebook was a center for me, a place where I brought my loves and panics, my questions, curiosities, and poem experiments. It was a place to check in with myself amid all the dazzle and work of college life. This steadied me. And each notebook I filled testified that I was a poet. I took it seriously. I kept at it.
Today I still feel that way about my journal. I have shelves of ones I've filled, all labeled and dated, and a stock of empty ones, too, so I won't be caught paperless. I love the promise of blank pages and the comforting heft of a book full of handwritten words. I love reading old volumes and meeting myself and my family years ago, seeing how we've all changed. Even the journal has changed. The ones I keep today are much looser and more colorful than they used to be. I write in different directions now, depending on my mood, and I tape in souvenirs: a butterfly wing found on the car hood, a movie ticket, a leaf, a note. This added texture gives me joy and tempers my sense that life is moving so fast it's all slipping through my hands. Saving a movie ticket may not seem like much, but if I've written just a few words beneath it, they trigger a memory of the whole afternoon it came from: the weather, the people I was with, the story we watched together in the dark. So the journal reclaims my life in some way. And sometimes poems and stories, picture books and novels begin in my journal, this fertile ground I started working seriously in college.
Just as my parents counted on, I found lifelong friends at Centre, some of them singing companions, and I didn't want to leave after one year. I set my course there and never looked back.
Now I do, of course. What would have happened if I'd gone on to the Big Apple? My parents would have helped support me, I'm sure, and I would have had an incredible, perhaps difficult, adventure and grown in different ways. Would I be writing this piece now for the equivalent of Something about the Songwriter? It doesn't seem likely because I wasn't that good a musician. But then my poetry wasn't that good when I set off for Centre either. It had to grow and mature just as my music might have. As we say in the mountains, it's untelling.
But you can't do everything, and I don't lament not having followed that dream at eighteen. For one thing, I would never have met Steve Lyon, the long-haired piano player who became my husband. I would never have had Benn and Joey, our sons, or experienced all the joy, struggle, and growth of our years together.
Steve and I met in part because of a book and because of our names. When I was ten I read My Zoo Family by Helen Martini about how she raised lion and tiger cubs in her apartment and eventually founded the nursery at the Bronx Zoo (see Mother to Tigers, my picture book biography of Martini). As a result, I became fascinated with big cats, especially lions. Even after I gave up my ambition to be a zookeeper, I collected lions: carvings, drawings, stuffed animals, photographs. The rug in my dorm room had a mountain lion on it. So when I saw there was a guy named Lyon in the freshman class at Centre, I said, "I'll collect him, too." I was joking, of course, but we've been married for over thirty years.
We didn't connect right away, though. I took a lot of music courses, and he was a music major, so I saw him there. Then someone stole the wallet out of my pocketbook which I'd hung in the dining hall under my coat. Hoping to get back my pictures and driver's license, I put up signs all over campus saying "Keep the money but please return the wallet." I listed the dorm phone number and signed my name. The next day I found that someone had written on several of my signs:
is not a fella.
It was Steve. I appreciated this! All my life my name has caused problems: my birth certificate had to be sent back—I think they thought I was a fellow; kids teased me ("Georgie Porgie, puddin' 'n pie/ kissed the girls and made them cry"); my roommate was a boy when I had eye surgery (and when I arrived at church camp, etc.); and in the days before photo licenses, I got accused of stealing my own car, because my license and the title said George E. Hoskins and I was obviously female.
I appreciate being named for my mother's brother and sister, but almost every day of my life there's some glitch because of it. (Just the other day Mr. George Lyon got an invitation to join the American Association of Retired People, so I see this is going to be a cradle-to-grave affair.) The glitch could be as simple as introducing myself and having the person say "Excuse me?" and having to start over, explaining this time, "George like a man, Ella like a woman, Lyon like a beast," or it could be a new teller at the bank, a pharmacist, a doctor, a letter from an editor, a phone call where the caller thinks I am my wife. This is annoying. I want to be Allison or Gwendolyn, Jane, or Ruth . . . you name it! Just don't name me so they think I am a boy.
As a kid I was called Georgie (also Jell-O, GE, George Ollie, and Squirt); in college I became George, and now I'm mostly George Ella, but along the way I've encountered folks who refused to call me any of these. My high school principal called me Edna, my first boyfriend called me Georgia, and one camp counselor insisted I was Sydney. People even joked about my name when I was in the hospital giving birth. "George is in labor!" they said, hooting into their latex gloves. "George is having a baby!" (I must say that women in labor are not known for their sense of humor and I would have liked to pinch these peoples' heads off.)
It's a strange thing to have a problematic name, especially one which causes gender confusion. Like double vision, my name makes two possibilities when one would be clearer, more centered, easier to navigate. But I am who I am—or who we are: George like a man, Ella like a woman, Lyon like a beast.
On the other hand, I probably wouldn't be writing this, wouldn't be writing for kids at all, if it weren't for my name. I started out as a poet and for eleven years after I graduated from college I submitted manuscripts trying to get a book published. Finally, in 1983, Mountain, a chapbook, won the Lamont Hall Award from Andrew Mountain Press. Around that same time I got a postcard from writer and anthologist Paul Janeczko, asking if I had any poems about family which he could consider for his next book. Well, I had a wheelbarrow full of family poems, and I sent him a big package. He chose three to appear in Strings: A Gathering of Family Poems, and in his acceptance letter, asked about my name. "In the north, George is a man's name," he said. (He lives in Maine.) I wrote back and told him that in the south George is a man's name, too, but . . . and I told him the story of my name. He liked my letter and sent it on to his editor, Richard Jackson, and Dick wrote me a brief letter which he sent along with my copies of Strings. He said he'd seen my letter, liked my writing a lot, and wondered if I wrote for kids. "If you do, please send me something," he said. "And if you don't, please think about it."
Well, I had been trying to publish poetry long enough to know that an editor writing and asking for work to consider was a pure miracle. And I wrote right back to say "No, I don't have anything to send you, but hold on. I will."
So this name I've been complaining about brought me Dick's letter and set me on a new path. We began a friendship and collaboration that continues to this day. Since May 1984, when I first heard from him, I've published twenty-one picture books and five novels for kids, along with a book about writing poetry and a mini-autobiography. I've been a visiting author in hundreds of schools, spoken at conferences, received a few awards, along with a bounty of letters from readers. My writing life and family life are rich, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.
Still I can't help but wonder: What would have happened if I'd gone to New York all those years ago? Where would I be now? Someday you will probably have such a moment to look back on. Perhaps you already do.
Part of the magic of writing is that I could continue this account as if I had gone to New York. I could tell you how I sat on a wooden stool and sang in a little hole-in-the-wall joint called the Green Parrot, how I wrote a song that was almost picked up by Joan Baez, and how I began to hang out with a dobro player from Idaho. I could write forward from there a whole different life, including a sojourn in Canada because of the Vietnam War, and twin daughters, Phoebe and Bella. I could tell you about living in Hokkaido where David, my husband—not the dobro player—and I taught American folk music to school children . . . and so forth. None of that happened but the possibilities are all enfolded in that moment when I decided which road I would take out of my parents' house. Imagination lets me explore other unfoldings.
This is one of the great gifts of writing: it frees you from the confines of having only one life. I get to imagine reaching into a parallel universe as Gina does in Gina.Jamie.Father.Bear, or growing up in Alabama in the fifties like Sonny in Sonny's House of Spies. I can be a lion cub rescued by Helen Martini in Mother to Tigers or raise sheep and weave their wool into art in Weaving the Rainbow. Writing leads and teaches me—and not only when I'm at my desk. The truth is that books are written inside the writer, too, in thought and feeling, blood and bone, cell and soul. Taking part in Creation in turn creates me, and I feel blessed every day I get to do it.
- George Ella Lyon (1949-) Biography - Personal, Career, Sidelights - Addresses, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress
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