Each month, we ask distinguished authors or illustrators to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Hummingbirds and Hound Dogs
by Kathi Appelt
The June day was steaming hot, cracking a hundred degrees in the late afternoon. Not surprising for central Texas. But the porch I sat on with my husband, Ken, and his grandmother Emma had collected a few early evening breezes, so it wasn’t so very bad.
I loved Emma. She was in her early nineties then, and her porch was just as serene and peaceful as she was. She reached for my hand and held it. The skin of her hand was as soft as butter. In my other hand, I held a glass of iced tea that no longer sported ice. It was so sweet it made my teeth hurt. It seemed like heaven there, on her porch.
Emma’s first language was German. She began to tell us stories about the teacher in her one-room schoolhouse smacking those soft hands with a ruler whenever she forgot to speak in English. She let my hand go, and rubbed it with her other, as if the pain still smarted. She waited for a moment, and then, as if to defy the long-ago teacher, she burst into song. Nursery rhymes. One after another. All of them in German.
When she was done, I asked her, “Do you still speak German?”
“Only in nursery rhymes,” she said.
A warm breeze rushed up to the porch, and on it, a hummingbird flew. It hovered there, in the way of hummingbirds, then dipped down to take a sip from the bushes of lantana that Emma had planted, zipped back up, as if to say thanks, and flew away.
“A blessing,” said Emma.
In fact, all of it felt like a blessing. The porch, my sweet husband, the pots of lantana, the sweet tea, the cooling breezes, the hummingbird, the nursery rhymes, Emma. It brought home to me how much goodness there is, regardless of pain. That ruler made me so sad for Emma’s little girl self. She clearly never forgot it. And yet, there was goodness everywhere.
Years later, when I embarked upon writing The Underneath (Simon & Schuster, 2008), I thought about how we are all subjected to hard things in our lives. We all experience pain. For some of us the pain is small, for others it’s larger. But regardless, we are all left with choices about how we allow whatever sorrow or injustice that has been inflicted upon us impact our lives.
In The Underneath, my old hound dog, Ranger, and my evil antagonist, Gar Face, were both dealt similar hands. They were both separated from their families at early ages, they were both struck in their faces, they were both isolated and belittled. And yet, only one of them found goodness everywhere. Only one of them sang nursery rhymes in his native language. What I hope my book stands for, in the end, is that we can, all of us, make good choices, no matter how hard.
If we do, we might find hummingbirds. We might even find heaven on a cool Texas porch. We might hear the bay of an old hound, singing to the night. Blessings all around.