Back to Nubbin Ridge
by Lee Smith, Correspondent

(The Chapel Hill News, Wednesday, January 9, 2002, p. B1 & B3)

Writing group members pool their resources to publish memoir by their late mentor

Dresser drawers all over America are filled with unpublished manuscripts' I know this. As a writing teacher, I've read a lot of them. The ones that get published are not necessarily the best ones, either. What happens to the rest? Well, people lose heart. They get tired of sending them around.

It's awfully hard to continue thinking of yourself as a writer if you can't find an agent or a publisher It's awfully hard to remember that a writer is somebody who is writing, rather than somebody who is publishing.

After five or six tries, many aspiring writers give up. After 19 or 20 tries, most do. They open that dresser drawer and toss in the manuscript, there to languish among the relics of earlier obsessions: the pastels, the flute, the wool and knitting needles, the tennis trophy, the Italian dictionary. They turn (sometimes with actual relief) back to their families, their other interests, their own real lives. They weren't really writers anyway, they're thinking...

But others may disagree.

Willie Mason died eight years ago. But his beloved writing group has refused to let his book die with him. Thanks to their efforts, "The Nubbin Ridge Reader" has just been published by Wolf 's Pond Press of Chapel Hill.

It's an unusual writing group by any standards. Five of Willie's former group members are still meeting with famed teacher Laurel Goldman: A.J. Mayhew, Eve Rizzo, Jim Ingram, Cindy Paris and Christina Pogoloff. At least 10 published books have emerged from Goldman's groups, which she teaches privately in Chapel Hill. Why do they work so well?

"I think it's the people," Goldman says. "We really become friends. And we offer very tough criticism which is never mean-spirited... I try very hard not to have it be mean-spirited.

Everybody was really attached to Willie. He did a broad spectrum of all kinds of stuff, a tribute to his curiosity and knowledge. A mystery, a lot of stories all of them had that delightful humor - some were almost laugh-aloud funny I never knew anybody with so many strings to his bow. But I always loved the memoir. He broke off writing it for a long time; it brought him too close to the bone, I think. But then he came back to it." 

"The book absolutely would not leave me alone. When he died, I couldn't bear it," Mayhew says. "The stories called to me. I had a connection to the book and needed to fulfill it. All we had to do was polish it and get it out."

A way was found when Publisher Mary Michael joined the group. Everybody chipped in to help defray costs.

Today I hold "The Nubbin Ridge Reader" in my hands, a book as extraordinary as its author.

Willie Mason was a man who "would try anything," and "saw life as a glorious adventure," says his wife, Martha. I must add that she shares these traits. I was privileged to be their close neighbor in Chapel Hill for years. They became a kind of model for us, and I will never be able to repay their many kindnesses.

I remember Willie helping my son Josh to make a turquoise and silver ring; giving my husband, Hal, a bread-making lesson; showing me how to pinch off suckers on a tomato plant in the garden; serving his homemade beer to neighbors; repairing an Oriental rug we'd found at a flea market... the list could go on and on. Pianist extraordinaire, chairman of the music department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dean of fine arts - Willie's finest art of all was the art of living well, it seemed to me. His passions, curiosity and zest for life never flagged.

Willie was born in Greenville, S.C., in 1916 into a prosperous family; his father was a cotton broker, and his adventuresome mother loved to travel abroad until the Depression put an end to this way of life.

Martha, Willie's wife-to-be, was "born on the same side of the street in the same block," she says. "There was never a day when I haven't known him." 

But Willie and his sister Mabel, a contralto, went up to New York City together to study music; Willie went to Juilliard, and Mabel took private voice lessons. After military service in World War II, he returned to Greenville and married the little neighbor from down the street, who had meanwhile been ferrying planes in WASP.

"He plucked me out of the air," Martha says.

Their son Tony, now a fiscal analyst in Wisconsin, was born in 1944.

The young family soon moved to Chapel Hill, where Willie taught piano at UNC and received his doctorate in 1949, staying on to join the faculty. He accompanied opera singers such as Nell Rankin and Clara May Turner and violinist Alfredo Compoli.

Writer of many songs, he also wrote the popular musical "Spring for Sure" with Kitty McDonald; it was performed all over the United States. His opera "Kingdom Come" was widely performed in the Carolinas. A popular teacher, he retired in 1969 so he and Martha could pursue their many interests.

They loved to travel, often collecting Oriental rugs and gemstones on their exotic trips; Willie became a skilled lapidarist who won "best in show" at national competitions. One of his stones, a pink morganite, is on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian. Willie designed and made jewelry for a hobby as well as collected and repaired clocks. My two little boys loved to be in their house when all these clocks chimed the hour at once in their varied tones. Our friendship with the Masons gave us all some of the best memories of our lives - and now, Willie has given us this book.

As a child, he and his family made the trip from Greenville to Nubbin Ridge, his
mother's home, every summer and every holiday, first in a T-model Ford and later in a Franklin, "all of us wrapped in long dusters. My father and I wore caps with enormous bills and my mother and sister wide hats with veils that tucked into their collars. The dust that rose in great clouds from every car that passed was worse than the mud when ii rained, and we often arrived with our faces red-brown and our eyebrows and lashes crusted."

All these essays are filled with equally vivid descriptions, centering around Willie's four aunts, all living within a stone's throw of each other in Nubbin Ridge.

These aunts , plus their husbands, children and neighbors, people Willie's lively and charming essays. Though Willie spent his early years "under," the conviction that Jesus Christ had begotten me upon my mother," he was eventually disabused of this notion and baptized by Nubbin Ridge's Dr. Quick, in one of the funniest scenes I have ever read, titled "Unholy Communion."

In other stories, Aunt lone finally understands that her much-prized "Summer Visitors" from New York City are up to no good; Willie encounters Leroy, "The Love Child" of Ellabet Renfrew; and in "Les Amis du Vin," Winfred Starr, who has courted Willie's cousin Myrtle for an unheard-of seven years, holds the first "wine-tasting" ever in Nubbin Ridge, mixing elderberry and dandelion wine with grain alcohol. Neighbor Ferman Hobgood works his first wife, Mittie, to death before the aunts' very eyes in "The Best Wife in Oconee County." They are horrified when he gets a new one from the orphanage right away, but secretly pleased when she outwits him, buries him, and ends up happy as pie with his workman, Luke Gordan.

My favorite tale of all is "The Coming of Gloria Swanson, in which Willie's star-struck Aunt Belle, who has moved to Nubbin Ridge from Asheville with a lot of notions, takes him on a trip to watch her idol shooting a movie near Seneca. Rain pours down just as Aunt Belle locates Gloria Swanson in a parked limousine.

"It began to rain really hard. I would have run for cover, but Aunt Belle still had me by the wrist. She was standing there like a graveyard angel just soaking up all the Gloria Swanson she could get" when "the door of the limousine opened and a lovely voice said, 'You all better get in here quick or you're going to be drowned."'

This wonderful memory is echoed later in "The Liberation of Gloria Swanson," this time concerning Aunt Belle's parrot of the same name.

All these stories read as if they've been dipped in amber -a time, a place and a way of life perfectly rendered and preserved, seen through the sensitive eyes of a young artist-in-the-making. What a gift Willie left for us all.

Copyright © Jean-Michel Margot
Date: 2002/02/01