By Hank Nuwer
“You really cringe when something goes wrong with you,” my wife Gosia told me. I walked dejectedly beside her as we headed to the parking lot at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek, Florida.
“That’s not a poop face,” I pouted. “It’s a ‘just disappointed’ face.”
“No, it’s a poo face,” she assured me.
Here is the backstory of my lowered mouth from Mr. Yuk.
I had compromised when Gosia begged to take a short vacation from Union City to Florida.
I’m the curmudgeon who wants nothing to do with sand, sunburn, Jimmy Buffet music, and souvenir shopping. I despise all the Florida stuff that makes Gosia have a smiley face.
But I said I’d come if I could visit the Cross Creek estate of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek,” two of my favorite novels about Florida’s pioneering subculture.
So it was a Monday. The only people in sight were volunteers cleaning the property, feeding the chickens and picking oranges from the orange groves that Rawlings had planted during the Depression.
It was then that a volunteer informed us that the grounds were open all week, but Marjorie’s 1930s farmhouse was only open for guided tours Thursday through Sunday, October through July. The “Florida State Parks” page did not announce this distinction.
And so, we had driven for hours from our accommodation in Sarasota, only to see my dream evaporate of visiting my literary heroine’s house.
“Wait, wait,” called a voice.
One of the volunteers offered to unlock the house and show us around.
I eyed the shady covered porches. I was amazed to see the black Royale typewriter that had spawned the stories that had fascinated me so much.
“I don’t understand how anyone can live without a little place of enchantment to turn to,” Rawlings wrote.
She had made it a house of enchantment. Every window had a view of the orange trees and the thick vegetation with its fluttering red birds. Near the house bubbled Cross Creek, and a man in hip boots cast his fly line gracefully.
Our guide, Susan, was a perfect storyteller. She peppered the lecture from her tour with facts and details like the spots on a speckled trout.
She told us how Rawlings wrote as if she had an angel on her shoulder, but lived as if the devil was leading her.
Marjorie drank too much and cracked her cars, Susan said. She – Marjorie, not our guide – was swearing like a muleteer.
Reynolds used a racial epithet even though she liked her brilliant black writer friend, Zora Neale Hurston.
She first married a journalist, but he didn’t share her love of Florida and left. “He probably hated sand, sunburn, Jimmy Buffet music and souvenir shopping,” I joked to Gosia.
“You’re dead,” Gosia said with a narrow smile.
Rawlings pushed a local hotel owner named Norton Baskin to marry her. His drunken tantrums repelled him and a black maid.
The only soul to stay with her was Scribner’s editorial genius, Maxwell Perkins. He found his letters charming, said Susan.
The writer cleared the brush and turned the farm into a profitable orange-growing business. She started fires to save more than one crop in a freeze.
She loved her colorful neighbors, but once she shot a farmer’s pig that had trespassed. Her life ran amok when she used a neighbor’s real name in her fiction, and the woman sued her.
Susan told us stories about house guests who now lined the walls as pictures in frames. There was Gregory Peck, star of the film version of “The Yearling.” Rawlings installed him in the hand-carved bed in the guest bedroom.
She was a great cook, said Susan, showing us the beautiful kitchen.
A few more volunteers came by. A woman was holding a new copy of “Cross Creek Cookery” by Rawlings. The book is on our kitchen shelf along with recipes for Cooter (Turtle) Soup, Hoe Cake, Baked Cornbread, Fried Cheese Grits, and Swamp Cabbage.
Want to stop by our place for lunch and seconds?
The tour ended in a sharecropper’s cabin on the property. Our guide bade us farewell.
We ended the visit with beautiful hiking trails on the property.
Gosia and I signed the guestbook at the exit. We gave this historic home tour five stars.
As I was leaving, I told Gosia a quote from Rawlings that I had memorized. “A woman has to love a bad man once or twice in her life – to be grateful for a good one,” I said, laughing.
“Are you the bad guy or the good guy? asked Gosie. “Oops, you’re making a poo face again, dear.”
Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and his wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. The views expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these views or the independent activities of the author.