In twenty years, I want to be Margaret-Love Denman.
Born and raised in the Delta, Oxford, Mississippi, where generations of her family have owned and still run businesses, Margaret-Love invited me to her childhood home where she’s been living again for the past several years. The dining room table was elegantly set and within minutes, in between spates of chatter–the catching up kind–we sat before her homemade pan cake (corn bread) and butter, black-eyed peas and collard greens stew, green salad. Afterwards, we’d have homemade caramel cake with ice cream for dessert. Before we sat and laid crisp, creased white linen napkins on our laps, she told me the stew was prepared the Delta way: with one dime dropped in the pot, for good luck.
I met Margaret-Love when we both taught in the English department at the University of New Hampshire. In late 2005, I was writing my lecture for my final semester in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts about how creative people balance art and life, how to make a life in writing while having to earn a living, raise children, attend to all things domestic and about daily necessities. I interviewed Margaret-Love because I knew she was a women fiction writer and I wanted to know how she’d made her life work as writer, university professor, mother and wife.
We sat in her house in Durham, NH for several hours as she told me about her marriage, its ending at 30 years, her five children, that she’d started teaching at age 50, and how she’d written the first novel during her lunch breaks from her administrative job at NC State so many years ago when the family lived in Raleigh. A Scrambling After Circumstance, 1990
Margaret-Love left UNH in 2008; she told me she was going home, to Oxford, and to teach part-time at Ole Miss, her Alma mater. We hadn’t communicated since then, but when I knew I’d be spending several weeks with my dad this winter, I reached out, hoping we could reconnect. Something told me the time was right.
Margaret-Love answered the door, and I recognized her instantly—that open, wide, lovely face, warm smile, the southern drawl, and–I didn’t recognize her at all. She seemed to have shrunk against what my memory held; indeed, she told me she’d lost a fair amount of weight. But it was more than this: she seemed smaller, less tall than I’d remembered, but no less energetic and compelling. Fit, compact—well, springy–but now her blonde hair had gone white. She clipped it loosely from her striking jawline, pulled into a kind of pony-bun at her neck. She wore a multi-colored, thick poncho-sweater, slacks, and long earrings; bracelets. She seemed completely transformed, and yet there was no mistaking her.
Why do I want to be her? Because she has written four books, and continues at age 77, to write and lead and coach writers and attend festivals and conferences and residencies. In 2010, she spent 6 weeks writing in Malta. This summer, she is flying to Spain to walk 100 miles. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Wikipedia quickly tells me that the city is a destination of the Way of St. James, a leading Catholic pilgrimage route originated in the 9th century. A walk of 800 miles. Margaret-Love will do 100 in ten days. She’s been training and waves her wrist at me, her Fitbit visible.
She gives me the Spanish word for perseverance, but now I can’t recall it or find it online. [I don’t know Spanish.]
I think of Margaret-Love. All she’s endured and thrived in and under, the clear-minded, strong-willed, quick-witted person she is now. I think of this Mississippi, the Delta, what lives, threatens, weakens, strengthens here, all the aspects of this place I have for 25 years purposely “un”-seen, “un”-heard, “un”-witnessed in my attempt to keep myself detached from it, even when I am right here. Because I don’t know what to do with it. Margaret-Love suggested I get a book, which I did that evening at Square Books across from one of the buildings her family has owned for decades, maybe more than a century. In Dispatches from Pluto, Richard Grant, an Englishman reporter tells of his recent move from New York City to down here west of Oakland where my dad’s cabin is, about how and what he’s lived and learned about Mississippi in order to write about it. He kept me up one night this week with stories about snakes and crime in the state. “I think he gets is right,” she said, “because he’s British. He’s a true outsider.”
I think about myself here, the child of people who chose to live her for more than 20 years, who by now should not see herself as outsider, but remains so.
And, I have persevered in so many other ways.
I can’t think of a better vision for myself than to be where Margaret-Love is when I hit that stage, still moving, walking, writing, connecting, throwing my whole self into whatever living form I find myself in.