NDJ:1 Mary Sherrill Durham

An Hour of Creativity Down the Drain

When I read the Required Assignment for this meeting, I drew a blank: not an auspicious state of mind for a creativity weekend. Invited to “Let my mind float free over the events of your life,” I looked for evidence of a creative process, but the hoped-for event did not float by. And so it occurred to me to look in some of my photo albums, hoping for a visual memory-nudge leading to a plot for the assignment. I opened the oldest album on the shelf: “My Memory Book,” and there, on the seventeenth page, was the photo which produced a flash-back of The Occasion: a moment of angst which led to a burst of juvenile ingenuity.

Pictured are my paternal grandfather with my brother John and me in Haskell, Texas, in probably about 1927, three years before the incident, which I will relate. My parents, John and I made the ambitious journey by Ford from our home in Louisville to the small Texas town about every other summer. As my father taught at the Presbyterian Seminary, where in that day there was no sum¬mer school, our summers were free, offering alternatives unknown to most fami¬lies today.

Grandfather, whom my grandmother called “Mr. Sherrill,” since she had “gone to school to him,” had long since left his teaching career to become the manager of the town’s hardware store. One of Haskell’s leading citizens, the photograph hopefully portrays both his gentle, affectionate nature as well as his unfailing formality. He and Grandmother had raised five children in their modest frame home, on a small plot of land where chickens and hogs wandered beside a small fish pond.

John and I liked to rise early in the morning in order to watch Grandfather (the word grandpa was not in our vocabulary) perform his daily chore of pumping water out of the well: the sole source of fresh water in the small Haskell farm. We brought cups, as we were allowed to dip into the first bucket of well water.

It was on a bright Sunday morning that we learned that even grandfathers can fumble. Squatting at the edge of the well, we were poised to enjoy our First Sip, and as the bucket rose to the top of the well, John raised his cup and said, “Happy Sunday, Grandfather!” With that, Grandfather drew back, gasping. Even through his beard I could detect a blush on his face. Without a word he lowered the bucket into the well and walked away.

Convinced that his cheerful salute to the Sabbath had offended him, John ran after Grandfather, who solemnly informed him that drawing water from the well is a breach of his religious principle. He had somehow begun the day thinking it was Saturday, and had assaulted his conscience by performing an everyday chore on Sunday.

Explaining this to me, John scratched his head, put his cup away and proceed¬ed to get ready for breakfast. I could not think about cereal. I was worried about more important matters. First, we would all have parched throats all day. We couldn’t go to the drugstore or the grocery to buy something to drink, because it was Sunday and all of the stores in Haskell were closed. Second, and far more significant, Grandfather’s face had told me that he was suffering from embar¬rassment and guilt. And knowing full well how that felt, I determined that I must do something to provide relief to my father’s dear father.

I believe I was about six years old at the time, probably a couple of years older than the granddaughter in the photograph. At any rate, I had already found that the best way to invite an inspiration was to take a walk. And so I mean¬dered around with the chickens and the pigs, and sure enough, just as I reached the fence the epiphany descended upon me. I would make sure that in the future Grandfather would have reminders: that he needed to go to the well before sundown on Saturday, to stock up on water while this was still a permissible undertaking. And knowing full well that, the best reminders are ones that can be seen, I “borrowed” a calendar from a bedroom wall and printed in the square of each Saturday from the day of the crisis, in July, until the end of December, the words, “Go to Well Before Sunday.”

After breakfast I took John aside to show him the calendar, asking for sugges¬tions. He looked down at me and said, “Yes. Erase those words. They’d embar¬rass him. Anyway, in Haskell they store up all the water they need on Saturday. He just forgot.”

Fortunately, I had not used pen and ink. Not daring to disagree with my broth¬er, I proceeded to erase approximately thirty pieces of well-meant advice to my elder. And it was probably at that moment that I decided that when it involves telling people what to do, I must look carefully at bursts of inspiration. Well, at least I can say that I learned from my brother (who was telling me what not to do) not to try to be creative when it meant interfering in something that wasn’t my business. “Erase that ‘Go to Well’ stuff,” he said, “If you’ve got to write something, write a story.” I did. I wrote a story about a girl who minded her own business. It was dull as dishwater.