The Boy, The Train, and Writing My World ~ Janis F. Kearney
I have often been asked when and why I began writing. I was just a child when I fell in love with my father’s stories of the boy he once was, that boy who loved trains and traveling the world. I became a writer, not realizing that writing was a real option for someone like me. What I knew I could do as a young girl was pick 150 pounds of cotton in one day, cook a skillet of delicious cornbread, wash, starch and iron my six brothers’ jeans and shirts on Saturday evenings before the Lawrence Welk Show, and listen. I was an exceptionally adept listener.
I was born into a sharecropping existence, and as a child, I loved my world. I adored my beautiful mother with the 8th grade education, and the brains of a college instructor; a father I imagined as Arkansas’ own handsome pied piper who mesmerized his and the community’s children with oral history, and bible narratives; and the village of caring families on Varner Road. All of this surely fed my childhood desire to write my world.
If I was born to write, then surely my father, TJ Kearney, was born to tell stories. I have met many storytellers who are not great writers. Their brilliance is their ability to step onto a stage, and tell their stories, mesmerize their audiences with sadness, or joy, or fear, or anger—stories that magically change our lives, or at least make us question our limitations. No, I was not a storyteller in that theatrical sense. In time, however, I realized that I could write my world in a way that sometimes caused a reader to pause, to feel inspired as I did, in response to my father’s stories.
How well I recall those magical evenings when TJ would pull up a chair next to the living room heater and look around to make sure we were all present and accounted for before his stories began. Even now, I smell the remnants of Mama’s supper--brown beans, squash and baked sweet potatoes. I can hear Daddy’s strong, gravelly voice as he pulled his children into his world with memories of his younger self, the child vagabond who loved American trains and the places they took him.
While I was consumed by my father’s stories, I also secreted away a painful realization. I was just a girl, and a girl could never jump onto a moving train, walk miles from one city to another, stand around a fire at night with fellow drifters sharing stories while watching the barrel of burning paper. I imagined my father, a young man full of energy and inquisitiveness experiencing a world I would never be able to experience.
I began to write down my father’s world lest they disappear, lest when I shared them, no one would believe me. Those mesmerizing stories of the boy who loved trains were tainted with pure and unadulterated envy. Thankfully, that childhood envy evolved into my own voice, my own stories. Thankfully, today, I can research, imagine, write and share the stories of amazing women or amazing girls who grow up to be amazing women. Even girls who love trains.