Fresh Water From Old Wells

Please welcome guest blogger, author Cindy McMahon. She brings to the blog today an excerpt from the prologue of her newly released memoir, Fresh Water from Old Wells. If you are intrigued, as I was, go on over to her website at to find out where you can pick up a copy of the book. Until then, here's a virtual glimpse inside its pages. Enjoy!

Memoir southern historyIt began before daylight: a wide-awake feeling that led me to a quiet room, journal in my lap. My pen told me that I could leave my full-time job and be at home for a while. Find wholeness. Live in hope instead of fear.

I did resign. The rest proved somewhat more elusive.

After watching my dad die and quitting my job, both in the spring of 2004, I spent a year and a half careening from “I’m amazing! If I believe in myself, there’s nothing I can’t do!” to “What in the world was I thinking?” and back again. In between, I remembered how to play with my children, drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and spent a lot of time wondering about this thing, this important thing that I could feel waiting out there for me to do. I barely recognized myself: I’ve always known exactly where I was heading, what was coming next, and what I was going to get done once I got there. Living in indecision, in the unknown, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Somehow the idea finally bloomed in my head. I could write a book. About my liberal white southern family. About my crazy, idealistic, violent, tree-hugging father who started out as a Baptist preacher, tried to save the world, and ended up living in a tent and criss-crossing the country with his thumb out. About my distinguished maternal grandfather, also a Southern Baptist preacher, who quietly brought factions together without ever making a fuss. And about the women who somehow managed to hold it all together without anybody knowing what it cost them. And I could write about me—maybe I would finally begin to understand where I came from and how in God’s name I survived it all in one piece. Perhaps others would one day read my story and find inspiration to shine a light on the dark places from their own pasts.

The thing is, when you have the idea of writing a book, at least in my case, you have to spend many months exploring all the reasons why it’s a completely cock-eyed idea. Even if there’s a voice deep inside you, first thing in the morning and last thing at night that says, “This is why you’re here now. You have a story to tell. Tell it.” Even if the first tentative steps are ridiculously easy and you feel like you’re being pulled down a path by the hand, you still tell yourself, “Nope. Not me. Can’t do it. Don’t deserve it. Not good enough.” Until the Moment comes.

For me, the Moment was at a February church retreat, in a two-person chair by a roaring fire, snow pouring down outside, in a house on a hill full of burbling women filling their bowls with oatmeal. There were several of us in the conversation at first, talking about trusting the flow—getting into it, being open and prepared, letting it take us where we’re meant to go. As I sat quietly with the conversation swirling around me, I found myself getting angry. Flow, schmo. I had been holding my arms out to the flow for the past year and a half, to no avail. I was losing faith in the whole idea.

As others drifted off towards the oatmeal pot, I turned to my friend Jeanine, sitting in the chair with me. “You know—that whole getting in the river thing . . . I’ve been letting myself float out there for nearly two years . . . it’s always been clear to me before . . . I’m caught in some sort of eddy in the shallows. I’m going NOWHERE, and I’m getting frustrated.” Jeanine let loose a flow of perceptive questions. What was I resisting? Why was I resisting it? Every reason that I could give her that I shouldn’t write a book, all the barriers that I had so carefully constructed over the last many months, got knocked down like glued-together toothpicks. So you’re an extrovert? Find non-work ways to meet your social needs. You see yourself as a leader of people? What better way to lead than by telling your story? Worried about money? Trust the process.

She left me with nothing but belief in myself and a clear path ahead. By the time I filled my own bowl with oatmeal, I knew I was going to do it. The sensation was one I had felt before when jumping off a high rock into an icy-cold stream: that moment in mid-air, knowing the splash is coming, followed by the tingling of every pore. I was exhilarated and full of wonder.

And so I devoted myself, heart and soul, to this project. I went through my mother’s address book and got in touch with anybody and everybody who might be able to tell me more about my story. I drove up one Georgia road and down the other, knocking on doors of people I’d heard about my whole life but had no memory of, people who welcomed me with open arms, loved me simply because of who I’m related to, and generously shared their stories with my tiny tape recorder and me. I even ventured to the faraway land of Alabama. I dug through church archives and read their histories, visited cemeteries, and found old homes—mine, my grandparents’, and my great-grandparents’. And all along the way I shed springs, creeks, and rivers of tears as I watched my mama following her own path away from me into debilitating dementia.

This is my story—fresh water from many old wells. It is the story of an amazing time in my adult life, as well as my childhood and the family who got me here. And it is a goodbye to my beloved mother, who spent my whole childhood making sure our story would never be told. It is out of love that I finally tell my story.

Memoir southern historyUnplanned youngest daughter of activist hippies in the turbulent South, Cindy Henry McMahon survived family violence, fire, flood, poisonous mushrooms, and an ice-cold outhouse. She now lives a decidedly normal life in Asheville, North Carolina.

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About the Author Cindy McMahon

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