Anyone’s life, if lived fully and expressed well, could be molded into good literature. But few people take the time, nurture the voice and develop the proper distance and self-consciousness to tastefully share their lives in print. Claude Robert Sheffield is one of those rare individuals. In at least five books he has written about his childhood and family, his spiritual development, the joys and sorrows of marriage to his beloved Arcenia. Being a writer is only Mr. Sheffield’s latest occupation. In his eight decades the Ohio native has been a construction worker, draftsman, designer, architect, construction superintendent in crisis management, as well as a teacher, member of the U.S. Army, graphic and fine artist, preacher and a professional story-teller.
The most recent of his books is “Two Elderly Women and One Old Man: Stories with Lessons from My Childhood”. The stories are colorfully illustrated in Sheffield’s painterly style and two CDs accompany the book. Little Claude Robert is a healthy, active child who is curious about the world and picks up knowledge as easily as he attracts the grime that sends him reluctantly to the tub. Voices alternate between a juvenile autobiographical narrator – written in the third person – and one or more adults. Most often we hear from Claude Robert’s grandmother, and her words of wisdom are written in African-American dialect.
Ahm gla’ dat yu g’ts uh chuk’l fr’m yo gran’ma’s sow’n’s lit’l fella, caus’ ah har’ly evah heah yu laf’s, n yu sho’ du nee’s ta laf; espes’l at yo s’f; dat b’ gu’d med’cn. Ahm sho gla’ dat it b’ me dat stari it, fo’ yo gran’pa, now he b’ dun had a fit…
-- from the “Grandma Stories and social commentaries”
Claude Robert heard many lessons as a child, but even that good preparation for life did not guarantee an easy path to spiritual maturity. Guidance for living with strong moral purpose can be deflected by alienation, temptation and countless other negatives. In “A Pilgrim’s Journey, Mine”, Sheffield personifies the forces one finds while seeking God along life’s journey: Mrs. Kindness, Denial the Attorney, the Right Reverend Mr. Unity, Mr. and Mrs. Follow Along Now and many others.
The oldest daughter, “Give Me”, is the second oldest child born to Mr. and Mrs. C. Kindness; she is a large woman with a voracious appetite for things: food, clothes, jewelry, and most of all, attention. It has been said of her that as a baby she was large for her age and bawled a lot. Not shedding many tears, but for long periods cried aloud until she was given something, anything to pacify her. She is seldom personally invited to any occasion by those who know her, and only once by those who don’t.
-- from “A Pilgrim’s Journey, Mine”
All of Claude Robert’s spiritual strength must have been poured into “RC and her claude robert: learning how to read Arcenia” and “Letters, Notes and Cards to our daughter Casandra Elaine”. Claude Robert tells of his years with his wife Arcenia (also known as Willie) in a moving book that begins with her death and unfolds back to their first meeting and a final chapter in which they overcome a strain in their relationship by his deliberately learning to read Arcenia’s eyes. Their life together was not always easy, especially as Arcenia suffered several miscarriages and the premature birth of a baby girl who lived just long enough to be given a name, Casandra Elaine. The “Letters, Notes and Cards” that “dad” writes to his daughter and stillborn sons are filled with observations and advice that they would have received on honesty, learning, sex, work and the challenges of growing up.
Claude Robert Sheffield joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to discuss his writing and tell his stories.