I’ll fly away, Oh Glory!
I’ll fly away! In the mornin’!
When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away!
One of her Gospel favorites…
Her CB tag was NaunieBGood. At her funeral I was told she had another: Georgia Wildflower. She grew up in southern Georgia in a place she called “The Patch,” where her ashes shall be spread. The friend she’d selected to speak at the ceremony told stories we all knew of a Naunie none of us knew, including the speaker, for those stories were rooted in Naunie’s youth when her children were yet to be. In fact, except for a sister and her children, few in that congregation knew Naunie before lupus destroyed her bold beauty — a beauty that, in pre-lupus photographs, is challenge-proud and dare-ready. The speaker repeated stories Naunie had told to us all — like how she wasn’t just a majorette but the majorette, leading her small town’s parades, prancing solo at the head of the majorettes’ formation because she twirled her baton faster and threw it higher than anyone, and would catch it and keep twirling while she sank into a split that awed the county. The speaker did a good job, though he left out how Naunie’s mother was struck by lightning twice, yes, twice, and lived.
He did not tell, and maybe did not know, how, through the war years 1939-1945, as Naunie aged from 4 to 10, she often dreamt of horrendous battle scenes where, after the battle, she, as she was then — a little girl — walked unafraid among the wounded and the dying to comfort and “pray them over.” There were no movies and no published photos to supply realistic imagery for that little girl’s imagination, but she saw what she saw, and told no one at the time. You may or may not take her word; I do.
Why do I? One for-instance: Twenty-odd years ago a friend of mine who lived in a small Mojave town called to tell me that she had to kill herself. I gave her Naunie’s number. “Do one thing for me: call her. Now.” She called, woke Naunie up. Spoke her agony. Naunie told her that she saw her. Saw the color of her robe. Its texture. Saw her coffee mug and what was written or painted upon it. Saw some other stuff, each description accurate. Naunie stayed on that call and visited with my friend quietly into the night. In the morning my friend called to tell me about it. That friend lives still.
We, Naunie and I, met in the winter of 1989. I was passing through her town, where lived a friend from my Bronx days. My mother was dying and I’d ruined my first marriage. A very fine Jungian therapist had asked me, “Do you have any idea who you are ten feet away from a typewriter?” I did not, I did not, I did not. My Bronx friend suggested I see Naunie before I left town. Didn’t tell me much about her.
The Naunie I found, in the house where I’d always find her, was 53 to my 43, had ballooned with the onset of lupus in her 40s, and had too many yappy dogs. Her consulting room was filled with books I’d never heard of and kitsch doo-dads of all kinds, especially various shapes, sizes and colors of elephants and frogs. I saw all of that but it didn’t matter because, however wounded, I still had sense enough to know in my bones that I was in the presence of a formidable human being. And those eyes. That intent look. And the odd sensation that somebody somewhere was laughing.
In the air — her air — there was always a vague but palpable presence of there’s something funny about all this.
She asked me this and that, and I told my stories, and after about a half hour she interrupted with:
“Ventura” — she would always call me Ventura — “for a brilliant man you make damn few choices.”
I was baffled, sort of insulted, and I liked the “brilliant” part.
“You don’t have one idea what I’m talkin’ about, do ya?”
I did not. It would take several years to understand, and experience, Naunie’s radical vision that we choose every moment of our lives and every word we say, while we fill our heads with every sort of notion to escape that scary reality. “Your head’ll lie to you about every little thing. That’s why you got to learn to hear your heart.” Also, “Don’t tell me you know it if you don’t live it.” “Naunie, I do know it!” “Not if you’re not living it, no you don’t.”
But that first meeting continued with a sudden rush, what I felt as an onslaught, as she said: “I can see you violate the Second Commandment of the Lord.”
I was really, but really, out of my depth. “With all respect, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”
My sense was: I know she’s not crazy, because I’m well-schooled in Crazy, and she’s not. She means it. So … what?
She watched me stew.
“Alright, lady — but how, exactly, am I doing what you say I’m doing?”
“Your graven image? That you place in the way of the Lord? It’s your graven image of who Ventura oughta be! That’s what’s standin’ between you and everything else. Between you and every one else.”
After that we spoke on the phone just about every Thursday, and I visited when I could. Sometime during a conversation she was sure to say, “How are you with you?” The repetition of that question taught me that the most important relationship one has is the relationship with oneself — not out of self-regard, but because one’s self is the means by which one knows others and knows the world.
Also: Maybe a thousand times I’d hear her say, “Allow, allow, allow.” What did she mean by that exactly? I still don’t quite know. Except that she respected life as it is, with all its vagaries. She didn’t always accept it, but she respected it — and she knew that even someone with her rare abilities could not hope to control anything beyond her own actions. Thus, she allowed.
Most days, she allowed. When Naunie did not allow, you did not want to be in that room.
Speaking of her rare abilities: Let’s pause and remember that over the centuries many thousands of women not unlike Naunie — many, many thousands — have been murdered as witches gruesomely and legally. Some scholars put the number in the millions. Women murdered by men, with the assent of their society’s respectable women and men.
Of this Naunie was keenly aware. Some close relatives thought her a witch, shunned her, and, in another time and place, would have damned her. So Naunie did not seek renown and did not advertise. She trusted that people who needed her would find her. And, writing this, I think of all the genes — all the abilities — erased in centuries of a world-wide slow-motion genocide of women (and some men) gifted with very special attributes. Enough survived so that there could be a Naunie in my life; and her children have birthed what Naunie might call a passel of grandchildren. Which is a way of saying that coming generations may surprise us with what human beings are capable of, now that the massacres have (at least, in the West) largely stopped.
So here, as she’d say: “Breathe. Let your shoulders drop. Deep breath. You always know a little more after a deep breath.”
I would live to see her at or near her worst. Worn to less than ninety pounds by decades of illness, she could be bossy, truculent, obdurate — and maybe that wasn’t even her worst. But, even then, a knock at her door and she was available to give of her best.
I remember one specific knock, during a visit a year or so ago. On oxygen, and quite weak, she excused herself — i.e., told me to go read out on her porch — and talked with a teary gentleman for two hours. When he left, I was, in her words, fit-to-be-tied (a vivid old usage); I said something like, “Okay, showing up without an appointment and taking half your afternoon, blind to the effort he’s asking of you, okay — but will he at least pay you?” “Prob’ly not. Says he will, and almost never does, bless his pointy little head.”
She charged for consultations, but not much. Clients stiffed her right and left because they could. She never denied anyone she liked, money or no money; people she didn’t like she “fired,” money or no money. She loved fools, and thought we were all pretty foolish, herself most of all, but she had no tolerance for rudeness and did not suffer disrespect. And, no matter how weak she became, she was never defenseless. Like Southern women of legend, Naunie could render you sputtering and helpless in less than a sentence, with merely a casual clause. (I didn’t intend to rhyme that with “claws,” but I’m not sorry it happened.)
Called herself “a whacky old lady on a Georgia cul-de-sac,” and so she was. I called her “my Georgia Baba-Yaga,” as close as I’d get in this life to the great Baba-Yaga of Russian folk-tales, a figure who might really bite your real head off but who also might tell you what no one else could: that your journey lay this way and not that way — and then Naunie would send you off with one of her arsenal of maxims, and this is my favorite:
“Take it a step at a time and watch what you step in.”
It’s amazing how hard that really is.
Michael Ventura © 2018. All rights reserved.
Michael Ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of Northern California.
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