I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
August 1, 2021: Vivian Gibson
Every year, Poets & Writers selects five writers over the age of fifty for a feature–which is how I learned about Vivian Gibson and her wonderful memoir The Last Children of Mill Creek. I love 5 Over 50–not only does it highlight an often ignored bracket of writers, but it’s so encouraging. Vivian was seventy when her memoir was published. So no one give up!
Vivian did not set out to be a writer, but in 2015, after retiring from forty-five years in the human resources field, she took a class at St. Louis Oasis, where at the age of sixty-six, she began to write stories about her childhood in a segregated part of the city that no longer existed. The city demolished Mill Creek Valley in 1959. Twenty thousand people were displaced to build part of a highway that would run from downtown to the suburbs. Her writing instructor encouraged her to submit her stories, and in no time, she was offered a publishing contract. In Poets & Writers 5 Over 50: 2020, she wrote,
I slept with my MacBook, a cell phone, a notebook, and my favorite pen. I had vivid memories in early morning hours, sometimes snapshots, other times full scenes in my mind. There were sounds and smells, emotions, and familiar faces I had to capture before they slipped away. I woke most mornings, without an alarm, at 4 AM, and wrote for hours.
I was a writer after all. I was always a writer, waiting to tell a dying community’s human stories through its last children.
Mill Creek Valley was one of the oldest parts of St. Louis–454 acres in downtown.
Winter or summer–no matter the weather, we stayed outside as long as we could. When the streetlights came on, Ferman and I had to go inside. The older kids had to be in front of the house, usually huddled around the light so that Mama could see them from the front window.
Along with her parents and brothers and sisters, Vivian lived on Bernard Street in her grandmother’s 800 square foot house.
Grandmama said that there were sundown laws that mandated people of color to be off the streets in the county by sunset. If she had to work late, her “white folks” (that’s how she referred to her employers) would drive her to the Wellston Loop to catch an eastbound streetcar back into the city.
Vivian’s mother worked from home–from the bed–to be more exact.
After Daddy vacated his side at sunrise, Mama would smooth the sheets and blankets, spread a muslin ‘drop cloth,’ and replace him with a tan, boxy leather suitcase she pulled from under the bed…The suitcase both served as a hard work surface and stored the tools and materials she needed… straight pins, tape measures, various sizes and shapes of needles…
In a small house full of lots of people, Vivian managed to find a spot of her own. (Of course she would one day be a writer.)
Halfway up the stairs that led to Grandmama’s rooms was my favorite retreat from the constant hum made by the ten people inhabiting three small rooms below. The worn wooden risers and treads of the steps created a perfect work desk for cutting out Betsy McCall paper dolls.
Vivian learned to sleep with her shoes, so she’d have something to throw at the rats if she had to go to the bathroom in the night. And she learned how to cook at an early age. Her corn bread recipe is included in the memoir. “[T]he crust rose slightly into a crispy ring of crunch. I’d know it was ready when a shallow crack in the center of the bread formed as the last steamy moisture escaped like a dying volcano.”
In Mill Creek, every aspect of life was labor intensive and time consuming. We boiled water to wash dishes, clothes, and our bodies; we built fires to heat the house, and walked everywhere we wanted to go… But we turned every chore into a game, a competition, or a lesson. Before we had a steam iron, clothes and sheets that needed pressing were sprinkled with water, rolled tightly, and placed in the refrigerator to be kept moist until ironing commenced.
Saturday night was spent getting ready for church on Sunday. But before church, breakfast…
Daddy’s homemade buttermilk biscuits: large baking pans full of browned mounds with fluffy white centers. We’d slather them with that good government-issued butter, drench them in Sho-is-Fine syrup, and eat them with thick slices of crispy, smoked jowl bacon.
As you can see, Vivian’s memoir is full of details that make not only Sunday breakfast but all of her childhood come alive on the page. To see old photos of the family and the neighborhood, check out Vivian’s website. And if you’re in St. Louis, you can visit the St. Louis Missouri History Museum where an interactive exhibit on Vivian’s family, titled “The Ross Family” has been part of the Reflections Gallery collection for eighteen years.
The Last Children of Mill Creek won the Missouri Humanities Council 2021 Literary Achievement Award. Vivian was also a contributing playwright of 50in50: Writing Women into Existence (2017), performed at the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn, NY. She has two adult children and currently lives less than a mile from the historic Mill Creek Valley community in downtown St. Louis.
Come back on AUGUST 1st to read how VIVIAN GIBSON spends her days.