This children’s story, a part of Clifton’s book The Lucky Stone, is more about the community that is created by elders sharing stories with children than the plot of those stories themselves. As is often the case in working-class literature and African-American literature, creating community and stability is of higher value than adventure.
The story begins by asserting that two family members, spending time together is what makes a story, and that a story is about not only passing family history and wisdom but also about creating bonds: “Mrs. Elzie F. Pickens was rocking slowly on the porch one afternoon when her Great-granddaughter, Tee, brought her a big bunch of dogwood blossoms, and that was the beginning of a story.” The gift of the girl’s visit and the dogwood blossoms motivate Mrs. Pickens to relate a story from her youth that will connect her to the girl three generations distant from her. The narration, when gesturing to the reader, keeps the woman distant from us: We regard her respectfully as “Mrs. Pickens,” but we watch the process of her becoming closer to the girl, who calls her “Grandmama.” The reader is a witness to the relationship and the story, but the participant characters are enclosed in the intimacy of family. Because no dogwoods occur in Mrs. Pickens’s story—the only relationship to the story itself is the word dog, and there is a dog in the tale—it appears that what begins the story is the being together of the two family members.
Mrs. Pickens’s story is charming and seemingly simple: She tells Tee of the day she met Tee’s greatgrandfather, whom the girl never knew. This story is one of a series that she has been telling Tee throughout The Lucky Stone. Mrs. Pickens has passed on to the girl her lucky stone from her girlhood: a “shiny black” stone with “the letter A scratched on one side.” In giving Tee the stone, Mrs. Pickens, through her stories, is connecting her girlhood to Tee’s, just as she is passing on the luck to her. At the same time, by attaching stories to the stone for Tee, she is creating a family object—a tradition for Tee to carry on, by remembering the stories and by passing on her own stories of luck to future generations of the family.
The stone itself, a humble object, is one of great value. In the working-class family of Mrs. Pickens and Tee, the stone, which is not a gem or a crafted thing of great monetary value, is nonetheless an heirloom, and it carries the identity of the family and the tradition it represents as well as any more expensive item might for a wealthy family. The shiny blackness of the stone also enshrines and celebrates the blackness of the family, whereas otherwise being African American has been thought unlucky for people. The etched A explained earlier in the collection in this story of Mrs. Pickens signifies the name of her husband: Amos Pickens. Thus, she is able to give the girl a memory and an object relating to a family member, blood of her blood, whom she has never met.
Mrs. Pickens tells Tee of when she and her best friend, both teenagers, went to the visiting circus with the idea that they would join and leave their small town behind to see “the world.” Mrs. Pickens, then just Elzie, and her friend, Ovella, before signing up, witness a dancing dog act, and the dog is so entertaining and mesmerizing that the girls, after first throwing pennies, start throwing trinkets of value to them. Elzie throws her lucky stone at the dog and regrets it the moment it leaves her fingers. She did not mean to give away her luck.
The lucky stone at first seems to foment disaster: It hits the dog on the nose, and he begins to chase Elzie with hopes of retaliation. Elzie flees but eventually looks back and sees not only the circus dog but also a handsome boy pursuing her. The man Elzie describes as “the fineest fast runnin hero in the bottoms of Virginia.” She tells Tee that Mr. Pickens (as Mrs. Pickens refers to him) seemed to her “an angel come to help a poor sinner girl.” The A of the stone Mrs. Pickens links indirectly to angel but directly to Mr. Pickens’s first name: Amos. Amos saves Elzie from the dog by cradling it gently when he grabs it, and he encourages Elzie to forget her fear of it.
Amos also helps Elzie retrieve her lucky stone and restores it to her. Mrs. Pickens ends the story there, but she has led Tee to ask the right question for her to get the message of the story, “Grandmama, that stone almost got you bit by a dog that time. It wasn’t so lucky that time, was it?” and Mrs. Pickens asserts that the stone is what gave her her beloved husband, and, therefore, “That was the luckiest time of all.” Tee hopes that she will have the same luck with the stone someday, and her great-grandmother wishes that for her. They share the warmth of the memory and their good wishes for each other, speaking no more, but, as the story concludes, “And they rocked a little longer and smiled together.”
The stone’s luck is multifold: It gets Mrs. Pickens her husband, helping her continue her family and create ongoing love in her life and that of those she loves. The stone makes the future generations possible and now binds them together, closing a circle of experience and memory. But the stone also holds Mrs. Pickens to the greatest working-class and perhaps also the greatest African-American value of all: loyalty to community, with family at its center. Elzie set out that day with her lucky stone to leave her community and family to go off for personal adventure and fulfillment. She was seeking money and recognition—fortune and fame and adventure in the circus. But the stone made her lucky: It rescued her from becoming unrooted, alone, and alien. It was a lucky stone for Elzie’s family and community, for her finding love with Amos Pickens kept her at home, in the less glamorous but more loving and more significant life of belonging and responsibility.
Mrs. Pickens, through Lucille Clifton’s deft and subtle plotting, uses the lucky stone to keep the true story—not of adventure, but of family continuity— intact. That story is of not storytelling or finding one’s true love but of women three generations apart remaining together on the porch, smiling quietly about the future.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story
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