Pumping Sunshine

“When are you going to finish your next book?”

I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the past few years by friends and family members who read C.G. & Ethel: A Family History ( 2008). At long last, I can answer with something other than “I’m working on it.”

My childhood memoir, Pumping Sunshine, will publish this fall, 2017. It must! Because I’ve promised to read passages from the book as part of the Alachua County Library’s “Local Author Series.” Please join me at 2:00 p.m., Sunday, November 19, at the library’s headquarters in downtown Gainesville. All programs at the library are free and open to everyone.

Back Cover Copy

Pumping Sunshine unfolds in old Florida in the 1940s and 50s when rural kids ran barefoot, used their pennies to buy bubblegum off the rolling store, and could hardly wait for polecat on cane-grinding day and warm cracklins on hog-killing day. Stories are told with honesty and humor in the voice of young Susanette, the baby in the family, who struggles to understand her own embarrassing and difficult issues in a perplexing world.

The family’s cracker house on a tobacco farm near the Suwannee River has no indoor plumbing and no screens on windows to keep out gnats, flies, and mosquitoes. Young Susanette and her older sisters attend a three-room school for eight grades at a time when all schools in the South are segregated and the Suwannee County school district bars country kids—white and black—from elementary schools in town.

Facts, photos, and old-time recipes in the book correlate with real people, places, and events, such as the Suwannee River flood (1948) that devastates a wide swath of North Florida, including crops and homes. Other stories touch on the murder of the family’s doctor, Dr. C. Leroy Adams, a white man, by a black woman who is denied proper defense. This memoir does not address such injustices. Rather, it brings to life the time and place in which these tragedies occurred.

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This snippet will explain the book’s title: Pumping Sunshine.

Daddy Gave His Usual Answer

A trip to town usually included a stop at the Live Oak Drugstore soda fountain for a treat and a stop at Wright’s Grocery. But about the time I spotted the city limits sign, Daddy said he also needed to run by Castleberry’s Feed and Seed and pick up a bag of blue lupin seed.

“Why today?” Mama asked. “You never plant blue lupin until just before we expect the first frost.”

Mama wasted her breath. I’d discovered, even before I started to first grade and learned how to print my name, Susanette Howell, that when Daddy set his mind to something, there was no changing it. But to my surprise, he answered Mama. “So I won’t have to make a special trip to town when I’m ready to put the seed in the ground.”

He planted blue lupin nearly every fall. Come spring, blooms would turn the field a deep blue. “Like wild Texas bluebonnets,” people said, but I’d never seen Texas bluebonnets, having never set foot out of the state of Florida. Few people in our family had.

Daddy didn’t plant blue lupin for its pretty flowers, though. He planted it as a cover crop and for what he called its “organic matter.”

At Castleberry’s, Daddy parked by the loading dock. We’d gone to town in Granddaddy Rye’s truck. Daddy had sold the Model A he owned when I was baby and my sisters, Anetha and Patsy, were two and three. He used the $100 he got for the car to buy a red Farmall tractor because his plow horse had died.

Daddy switched off the truck in front of Castleberry’s. “Y’all can wait here. I won’t be long.”

We sat and sat in the cab of the hot truck—in full sun—not a cloud in the sky. We opened both doors, but with no breeze, the truck soon felt like an oven set for baking biscuits. All of us were wiping sweat off our faces by the time a fellow walked out on the loading dock and tossed a heavy croker sack of seed into the truck bed, causing us to rock.

Now that we had the seed, I stared at the door of the store, expecting Daddy to come out, though I could hardly see through the truck’s cracked and cloudy windshield. It looked as if it had a film of skimmed milk trapped between two layers of glass. The truck’s upholstery was cracked too, with stuffing poking out. But its motor worked fine—always cranked right up.

A man pushed a mower—one with a reel like Granddaddy Rye owned—back and forth on a small patch of Bahia grass between the parking lot and the railroad tracks. The smell of cut grass drifted our way.

Mama finally decided we should go into the store where it might be cooler. She didn’t have to tell us twice. We three beat Mama to Castleberry’s door. Inside, the sweet scent of grass was overpowered by the pungent odor of fertilizers and the fruity smell of DDT, the powder we dusted on tobacco plants each spring to kill hornworms.

Daddy motioned to us when we first walked in, letting us know he saw us, but he kept talking with a tall man near the checkout counter. I heard Daddy tell the man he should come out and visit us sometime. Daddy loved to invite folks over, even strangers—like this fellow.

After a while, I heard the man ask where we lived. Daddy gave his usual answer, “We live so far in the backwoods we have to pump sunshine through hollow logs.” The man chuckled as he glanced over and nodded at Mama and us kids. To be polite, we smiled back. But we’d heard Daddy’s joke about pumping sunshine so many times it wasn’t funny, if ever it was.

Next snippet: Daddy’s Pitiful Directions

Memoir Writing — Author and Teacher