Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lost Art

Hot. Oh, God - it is SO hot. Florida hot is a special kind of hot. The temperature may be hovering in the mid-nineties or above, but it is the humidity that kills you. For me, a girl with seriously Northern genes (English & Norwegian), it's like someone soaked a heavy blanket in hot water, then laid it on my back. It weighs me down and saps my energy. I am pretty much sludge in the summer months, but I move more slowly.

So perhaps you can understand how overjoyed I was to hear that our tiny town that we lived 14 miles outside of in Wakulla was going to have a summer festival - with rides. Of course, Z-boy HAD to go. We're not talking about a full-fledged carnival, but more like a street fair. The kind with the flimsy rides that strike fear in the heart of any intelligent parent and rapture in any child under the age of 10. I didn't want to go. But Z-boy mentioned it to my husband who said, "Sure! That sounds like a fine idea!" We went.

Parking wasn't hard, but then we had to walk quite a ways to get to the little park downtown where the festival was. The smells of barbeque, smoked chicken, charred burgers and funnel cakes wafted through the air. We got lunch for an exorbidant price and headed over towards the rides. I still cringe at the thought of those things, but Z-boy was in kid-heaven. He bought a roll of tickets and off he and Daddy went to do the rides. I lagged behind, hating every second of melt-worthy weather, but not wanting to lose sight of my son's exuberant skip. It was worth it.

When we'd finally run through all the tickets and were sated on sno-cones and hotdogs, we headed back through the park towards the car.

What we'd missed on the way in were the local artisans and their booths set up under the tall shady pines. A gentle breeze stirred the air just enough to keep the no-see-ums at bay and make you feel human enough to stop and peruse the various works of art.

Sitting in the middle of the park, in a sunny patch of grass, was a black man. He wore overalls and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. On his head was a bleached straw hat. In his hand was an old knife with a worn handle. And next to him were strips of wood. He sat there quietly all by himself as people walked past with a glance before moving on to the next thing.

Darling Man, Z-boy and I walked up to him, sat down in the grass, and asked him what he was doing. It was like someone had turned up the dimmer. He didn't exactly become lively, but he reached over to the pile of woodstrips, pulled a couple off the pile and began splitting them.

"I'm makin' baskets, ma'am. Jus' like my gran'ma taught me." He told about being a troubled teen and getting kicked out of school. How no one knew just what to do with him so he was sent to live with his grandmother, "And she din' take no guff offen no whippersnapper youn'n. She set me down and taught me to make baskets." The pride in his voice was wonderful to hear. He obviously loved his grandmother, who'd passed a few years ago. But she taught him how to do this, like her mama taught her, and her mama's mama taught her, and way back to the slave days' mamas. He looked both ageless and timeless sitting there in the sun, weaving his white oak strips into a basket so effortlessly that it seemed like magic.

Z-boy was fascinated. The man finished with a handle, trimmed his odd ends with the old knife and carefully printed his name and the date on the inside of the handle. Z-boy asked if he could buy the basket. "How much you got, little man?" We all turned our pockets inside out and opened our wallets. Between us, we came up with seven dollars.

He tipped his straw hat up and gave us a big smile - "Seven dollars sounds jus' 'bout right."

Z handed his money over and received his basket. Afterwards, we all felt a little happier. The heat wasn't so oppressive, the breeze a little cooler, and we'd bought something truly unique.

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The basket became the music basket. It held all the odds and ends musical instruments we weren't quite sure how to store. It lives on top of the piano most of the time.

Yesterday, Darling Man was reading the newspaper and a small moan escaped his lips. "What is it, honey?" He showed me the headline...

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He was my age, that timeless man. And possibly the last person to have the skill of weaving split white oak baskets - a skill handed down from the times of slavery, when being able to make a good, sturdy basket quickly was a necessary skill. Not like going to Pier One and buying a mass-produced version. His baskets are actually in the Smithsonian. And he didn't have time to pass his skill on to anyone else.

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That man in the sun is now the owner of a lost art.

14 comments:

swampwitch said...

Only 44...I wasn't ready for the ending of this post. How sad that we lose talented people like this. Many people will cherish his artwork even more.

apricoco said...

Oh my gosh... what a sad and wonderful tale... Aren't you lucky to have met this man.. you must have been guided by a angel that day... wow..

sweatpantsmom said...

What a beautiful story. And how wonderful that you took the time to let him share his craft with you, and let your son be a part of it.

Kim Ayres said...

It reinforces the whole notion that it's the journey rather than the destination that is so important in life. Death is the ultimate destination and we have no idea when we will arrive. If we put off our enjoyment of life until the mortgage is paid off, the kids have left home or we retire, we might never make it that far.

Anonymous said...

How sad and yet wonderful at the same time.
Such experiences make for wonderful memories.

stef

quinn said...

What a touching post. What a life lesson this man has taught both your son and yourself.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes your sheer skill as a storyteller blows me away.
Dad

Patience said...

Oh my. I'm sure you will treasure your basket. It's value is immeasurable.

Anonymous said...

I'm so impressed that you all took the time to sit down with him, and ask what he was doing. And these little sidetrack moments can make for the best experiences. What a treasure that basket is!

Annie W.

Momish said...

Oh, that is so sad, you must have been devestated when you read the news.

At least you have a piece of his history to hold dear.

ablondeblogger said...

Oh my gosh! That headline hit me so hard! I can't imagine how it must have made all of you feel.

How much more special that basket is now, huh? You'll always have that part of him with your family. That's such a blessing.

Groovy Lady said...

What a beautiful story. :)

Isn't it amazing the impact, small or large, a chance meeting can have on us?

Nikki said...

How very odd that you would post this.

I haven't been posting much b/c I've been doing a lot of research on slavery - inspired by Jennyjinx' post on the word Nigger/Nigga.

You might find this link quite interesting:

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html

I read a few to my daughter last night.

Me said...

.oh.
I didn't expect the post to end that way.
oh.
I feel so weepy.