More Than Flags and Fireworks

Photo by Josh Wickerham
The little town where I live has a Memorial Day parade every year at 9 o’clock in the morning.  When I first moved here, I would roll out of bed, get dressed and walk up the street to watch.  It was a very small parade, with just a few aging veterans riding in convertibles and almost no one marching.  And the crowd watching was thin, not enough to line the sidewalks.  In the last few years the parades have included marching Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, so at least the parents help bolster the crowd.

For most of us Memorial Day weekend has become the beginning of the summer season.  Any links to World War II or more recent wars seem increasingly tenuous, or degenerate into flag-waving and pompous speeches.

So today I’d like to shift the emphasis back to people–people who gave their lives in military service, primarily, since this is Memorial Day.  But also people who served in wars and came home safely or forever marked by their experience, people who served when there wasn’t a war, people who stayed behind and worked and worried, people who spoke up when they thought something was wrong.  People who mattered then, and matter now.

And I’m making a shout-out to veterans in my family.  One of my brothers-in-law served in the Navy during the Korean war.  Another was a career Army officer and did two tours of Vietnam.  My brother was in the Air Force during the Vietnam era and did not see combat.  They came home safely, and I am glad. There are many things on which we don’t agree, but we agree that we love our country and we love our family.  Happy Memorial Day.


Remembering Uncle Floyd

Recently I found this photo of my uncle Floyd, standing in front of his cornfield.  It must be 30 years old, at least.  Uncle Floyd married my mother’s sister Mattie Lou.  This
field was beside their house, a dogtrot cabin with a porch, white siding and a tin roof,  where they lived with Uncle Floyd’s mother, Miss Blanche, until she died at nearly 100 years old.

Uncle Floyd was not a believer in modern ways, especially if they cost money.  When my parents built their house on our farm in the ‘60s, they had a well dug, and we had indoor
plumbing and a washer and dryer.  Uncle Floyd and Aunt Lou had a cistern with a hand pump, a wringer washer and an outhouse.  I remember staying overnight with them and trying my best not to make a bathroom run.  In the summer wasps loved the outhouse, and
spiders lived there until the cold killed them in the winter.

When “city water” came in, Uncle Floyd planned to have the pipe run to the backyard pump, not into the house.  My father’s youngest brother Preston, who was running the pipe from the water main, refused to do it unless he could put it in the house.  So finally Aunt Lou had running water, and they installed a bathroom.  At the time it seemed insane to me to live that way, but now I realize Uncle Floyd probably had never had indoor plumbing, and he thought it was a luxury.

Many nights I sat in the porch swing with Miss Blanche while Uncle Floyd told us stories about his days working on a barge on the Cumberland River, or about the boys he and Daddy grew up with.  They all had nicknames like Goat or Beetle (after Beetle Bailey, for a guy who had joined the Army).   One story ended, “I knocked that dead cat out from under the house with a rake.  It was dead and smellin’.  And that thing sat up and looked at me!”

Uncle Floyd liked to call me “Knothead,” for reasons which weren’t clear to me, but his affection was plain.  When someone dropped a shaggy puppy at their house, he brought him to me, saying he knew I needed a dog.  Mother was not pleased, but I named the dog
Dusty and loved him through junior high and high school, until he died.  Uncle Floyd always saved some pork tenderloin from their hog killing and froze it for me so I could have the best part of the hog when I came home from college, and brought me their smoked sausage at Christmas.  He never said, “I love you,” but he did say, “I sure do miss you, girl.”

Apocalypse, Not Right Now

When it was 6:01 p.m. EDT I called my sister Glenda to make sure the rapture hadn’t happened.  I figured if any one of my family or friends would be taken, it would be her.  She was still there, and I alerted her to the fact that the Preakness would be run some 15 minutes earlier than she thought, so she and her husband could watch.  None of us had any money in the race.

I think I’m what one of my college professors called a “Zen Christian.”  I was brought up a Southern Baptist, and we spent a lot of time studying Revelations.  I remember one Sunday school teacher positing that the Mark of the Beast might be our Social Security Numbers, or a credit card, or some other sort of government I.D. But the verse that always stuck with me was the one that Zonker quoted yesterday in Doonesbury:


And today, as Zonker quotes, it is apparent that the Lord cometh as a thief in the night.


But I am sad and sorry for the folks who quit their jobs and sat on a mountaintop, so to speak, waiting for the end.  I was reminded of those pathetic creatures of Heaven’s Gate, and so many others over the millennia who have waited for justice, retribution and destruction.

I think the most helpful things Jesus ever said were, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and, I forget the exact verse, but the gist was, live today and take care of those in need.  Let the future take care of itself.  Peace out, and love to all my family, friends and those in need of love.  Amen.

Blackberries, Cobbler, and Ticks

The best blackberries are wild ones, picked in the heat of summer from brambles in a fence row or along the side of an old dirt road.  The wild ones just have more flavor than domesticated ones.  That squirt of purple juice is richer and sweeter than any strawberry.

Photo by Fir 0002
When we lived on the farm Mother and I picked quarts of them every summer.  This was an ordeal.  Mother always carried a stick in case there were snakes, but the real enemies were chiggers and ticks.  We would dress in long sleeves and long pants, socks and shoes, sweating in the heat, in an effort to foil them.  The blackberry bushes were full of thorns and stickers to tear at your hands.  I always emerged with scars.

After filling up as many plastic buckets as we could carry (if the bushes were full), Mother and I trudged back up the hill to the house.  Then the real work began–hunting for the tiny, biting vampires before they got a chance to attach and suck your blood.  The ticks were smaller than deer ticks; I could only see them if they were in motion.  If I missed one, Mother would light a match, blow it out, and touch it to the tick to make it let go.  We checked each other to make sure none got away.  That’s the action referred to in Brad Paisley’s immortal song, “Ticks.”

But the end result of all the blood and labor was blackberry cobbler.  Here is my mother’s easy cobbler recipe.  You can use any fresh or frozen berries, except I don’t recommend strawberries.

Easy Cobbler

Spray bottom of a 9″ x 12″ baking dish (like Pyrex) with Pam or other oil spray.

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 stick butter or margarine, melted

2 1/2 cups berries, sweetened with 1/2 cup sugar

Mix all dry ingredients in baking dish.  Add milk, stir well.  Pour melted butter over dough.  Place sweetened berries on top.  Bake at 350 degrees until top is brown, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Halcyon Days

Halcyon days are a time of peace and calmness, when the sky is blue, the ocean is calm, and one feels safe and loved.  The expression comes from a story in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, a Greek classic whose theme is transformation.

Ceyx was the king of Trachis.  He and his wife Alcyone, the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds, were happy together and devoted to each other.  But Ceyx became possessed with the desire to visit a distant oracle and get a prediction of the future.  Alcyone pleaded with him to stay, but he boarded a ship and set sail.  When he was far from home Poseidon called up a mighty storm.  Everyone on board drowned, including Ceyx.

Alcyone went to the shore every day to look for his ship returning.  Day after day she stood on the beach, filled with terrible forebodings.  Finally Aphrodite, goddess of love, sent Ceyx’s ghost to her in a dream and told her to go to the shore.  As Alcyone ran into the water toward her husband’s body, Aphrodite transformed them both into sea birds, bringing Ceyx back to life.  When the halcyon birds build their nest on the sea, Aeolus calms the winds, and the skies are clear.

I saw Mary Zimmerman’s production of the Metamorphoses on Broadway in 2002.  The actors seemed to turn into birds before my eyes.  I’ve never seen a production that moved me more.

I think we all wish for everlasting love, and we all know, even if we find it, we will lose it—to time, illness, death or depravity.  The object of even the strongest love will end.  But if we are lucky, or the gods intervene, the love itself goes on.  And
perhaps there will be halcyon days.

Cowboys in Tuscany

Casa al MonteFriends at the Villa 2001

During the summer of 2001, eight of us friends rented a villa outside Panzano, Italy on a working farm.  The owners lived in the other wing of the house and grew grapes and olives.  They also kept a couple of  horses, Oskar and Luna, for riding. Our group enjoyed looking at the rolling hills,  watching the horses graze while we sat on the flagstone terrace as the sun set,  and talking until late at night under the stars.  The villa was our home base for a week while we explored Siena, Florence (Firenze), Montalcino, Montepulciano, and Panzano itself, which had charming restaurants and a renowned shoe-maker.  We also cooked a lot of our meals and went through a ridiculous amount of the local wine.

One day half the group went to San Gimignano to see the sights.  The rest of us decided to have a lazy day at the villa’s pool.  Sally had broken a bone in her foot six weeks before we left for Italy.  She had touristed through Rome, Florence and Siena in an orthotic boot, so she thought a day at the pool would be a nice break.

Friends at the Villa, 2001

Sally, Scott, Nancy and I were sitting on the terrace reading and relaxing when  we heard a clopping sound.  Oskar and Luna were standing in the yard looking at us, and the fence was down.  Sally jumped up and caught both horses by their halters, while I tried
to find some rope so we could tie them to a tree or something.  There was no rope in any of the outbuildings, so Scott closed the farm’s electric gate to keep them from straying onto the road.  The owners were away in Florence for the day.  Nancy called them on  their mobile phone and reported the problem.

Oskar and  Luna were patient with us, but they didn’t stand still, and they had big, heavy
hooves.  One of them shifted his weight  and stepped on Sally’s broken foot!  She
yelled and let him go.  The horses  drifted to the front yard, and Sally put an ice pack on her foot.

Then a real  Italian cowboy arrived, on a motorbike.  The owners had called him to come fix the fence and get the horses  in.  He wasn’t much like John Wayne.  He was small and handsome, with a ponytail and a tan, and  wore shorts, stylish sunglasses, and hiking boots.   He said something like, “Los cavallos escapa,” and we said, “Si, si.”

Turns out the horses  had broken their water pipe and were thirsty, so that was why they broke down the fence.  Our cowboy fixed the pipe, repaired the fence, put the horses back in  their field, and took off on his motorbike, smiling and waving.

I plan to write more about this trip.  It was an amazing time, overshadowed by illness in my family at home, but still a fun, peaceful interlude.  Then later that year came 9/11, and the world changed.

My Life in TV Shows

My friend Nancy commented that many of my stories almost seem like they are set in an earlier time–kind of long ago and far away.  In many ways she’s right.  My parents grew up during the Great Depression, and their lives were formed by hard work and poverty like I never knew.  They went from ancient Model Ts and farming with mules to watching a man walk on the moon.  Mother lived until 2004 and was almost 87 when she died.

I am the youngest of their five children.  So my early life was a mix of homemade biscuits, watching the Grand Ole Opry on TV on Saturday nights, and the Baptist church–and also being bused for school integration, watching riots and wars on TV, and knowing the high school drug dealers.  And I spent a lot of time watching TV.

My parents’ lives in their young days were a bit like “The Waltons,”  which was set on a farm during the Depression.  I loved that show!  I felt like a female version of John Boy, only more determined to get off the farm and to a big city.

The Waltons
Some of my classmates were more like “The Dukes of Hazzard.”  Ok, I admit, my first car was an aged  ’71 Plymouth Duster with a 386 8-cylinder engine, and cheater slicks and cams on the rear end.   The first thing Daddy did when I got it home was take off the cheater slicks and cams.  He thought it wasn’t proper for a girl.  I really never drove like a maniac.  I just liked to give the impression that I could.  That poor car kept going to nearly 200,000 miles, despite being a terrible gas gulper.

I think my favorite show, however, was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  She was determined to make it on her own, and she was beautiful and smart, and trying to learn to be aggressive enough to compete with the guys.  And she was so funny!  Here’s my high school senior picture.

High School Graduation

Check out the hairstyle.  Who does that remind you of?   Yes, for those of you who didn’t know me then, I was once a brunette 😉

As time went by, I moved on to watching “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” but I didn’t see myself in them.  It took “Murphy Brown” before I identified with a character again.

So, if you had to tell your early life in TV shows, which ones would you choose?

A White Rose on Mother’s Day

My mother

When I was growing up, Mother’s Day was a big event at the First Baptist Church in Clarksville.  Brother Laida always preached about Biblical mothers (with not too much emphasis on Mary, mother of Jesus) and sometimes a segue into Ruth and her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi.

The most interesting thing to me about the church service, however, was that everyone wore a rose or a carnation to church that day.  I asked Mother about it when I was
small.  “You wear a red rose or carnation  if your mother is alive, and a white one if she’s not,” she said.  Mother and Daddy each wore a white carnation  and I wore a red one, all bought at the grocery store on Saturday.  In later years when we lived on the farm I wore a red rose pinned to my dress from the old-fashioned rosebush that spilled  over in our front yard.

Mother always talked about her mother on that day with a mix  of sadness and detachment that I found hard to understand.  I remember her saying I had her mother’s  hands, long-fingered and slim.

Mother and I had very different personalities, and my  stubbornness irritated her.  Life was a constant battle for control, and I almost always gave in.  I moved away to gain some freedom, but I never stopped coming home.  No matter how we disagreed, I knew she loved me.

Her health deteriorated in her last years, and my sister Glenda moved her to her own town in Ohio and took care of her.  Even when she was in her bed in a nursing home, Mother was still herself.  Racked by strokes, she could hardly speak.  I would visit her, flying in from New York, and talk about nothing while she struggled to respond,  But when I went to leave, she managed to say the same things every time.  “Did you park at the airport?  Will you get home before dark?  Be careful,” she said, very slowly.  Her dark eyes followed me as I walked out the door of her room.

I miss her still.  I wish I had a white rose to wear for her on the day.

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