Add a “Y” to Your Fox

My husband Kurt and I were finishing up a Scrabble game a few years ago, and he had one letter left: a “y” which can be quite difficult to find a place for late in the game. He was about to throw in the towel and subtract the points from his overall total when I noticed there was a solution he did not see: the “y” could be added to the word “fox” that he made earlier in the game.

My friend Mary would say Kurt and I are so competitive when we play games because we are both firstborns, but I know plenty of oldest children who are not as competitive as we are. In any event, even though the game was close, I had to tell him he still had a play he could make.

“You could put the ‘y’ on ‘fox’,” I said. I knew it was possible that he might beat me with that move, but it is a great word, and I thought he should make it–and of course he did.

I am constantly looking for symmetry and serendipity when random things show a pattern and come together to make something new and revealing. Many times my life has been enriched by hearing the lyrics of a song, watching the right movie or television show, or reading a book that points me in a new direction or reinforces my view of living a passion-filled life.

And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran, has been just such a life-changing book for me. It was originally published in the U.S. in 1963 when I was a small child. I discovered the book when I worked at my former high-octance job that required me to work long hours, and I often found I did not have time to read anything beyond newspapers. Yet, I ordered a British publication of the book, never read it, and promptly forgot I had it.

If I had not seen an e-blast from our local independent bookstore Union Avenue Books about Lussreyran’s autobiography, I would probably never have rediscovered and read this beautiful gem of a book. In his memoir, Lusseyran tells about his inner (and outer) life as a blind 17-year-old–yes, a blind adolescent–who started and led a Resistance group in World War II, Nazi-occupied France.

Most of the members of his group, Defense de la France (DF), were not yet 21 years of age. And yet, the underground paper they published for disseminating accurate news and boosting the morale of the French people became the most important daily newspaper in Paris and was published after the war as France-Soir.

Jacques was blinded by an accident at school when he was 7 or 8 years old, but only briefly found it to be an impediment. He taught himself Braille in six weeks so he could return to school. As a child, he grew alarmed by the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany and decided to teach himself German so he could listen to the Third Reich’s radio broadcasts. He was obviously a driven, focused prodigy who did not see his blindness as an impediment to living a full life.

Photo: Tomasz Filipek.

Remarkably within his blindness, he saw light and shadow and colors attached to people and sounds. Perhaps due to the loss of his sight, his other senses became more acute and he had a gift for telling when someone was lying by their voice, presence, and his strong intuitive sense. This gift came in very handy at weeding out possible traitors when he interviewed would-be members of the Resistance– although he was eventually betrayed by a member of his group and was imprisoned by the Germans in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Lusseyran is one of the best writers I have ever read. My words fail to capture the music of his writing. I highlighted so many paragraphs in my copy of his memoir that I began using different colored highlighters to differentiate the passages. He captures the fragility and beauty of life perfectly as in the following passage:

Memories and emotions are fragile things. You should never bear down on them, or draw on them by main force. You should barely touch them with the tips of your fingers, the tips of your dreams. The best way to bring love back to life, and happiness with it, was to catch hold of a reminder of love, catch it lightly as it passed by.

Jacques Lusseyran, “And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II”, 1963.

And he writes eloquently about his friendships with the young men who were his best friends in words that, in our age, are reserved only for describing lovers.

I walked in the middle and was happy, without knowing exactly why–happy to be with men who, like me, were not willing to shut their eyes to life.


He was a religious man, a Catholic, who nevertheless wrote with the open nature of a humanist:

God is neither a German nor a Russian nor a Frenchman. God is life, and everything that does violence to life is against God.

This photo captures a volunteer dill courageously growing through a crack in the driveway beside my sister’s home in Knoxville in September 2015. Dill symbolically means: “powerful against evil.”. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

He was imprisoned for 15 months in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp for non-Jews where he was one of only 30 Frenchmen to survive of the 2000 people imprisoned at his sub-camp during the final years of the war.

How did he survive? By giving to others and living life boldly. He proclaims, “Fear is the real name of despair. Fear kills and joy maintains life.”

I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn toward them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me. . . . That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. . . . Joy I found in strange byways, in the midst of fear . . .


And he writes:

When a ray of sunshine comes, open out, absorb it to the depths of your being. Never think that an hour earlier you were cold and that an hour later you will be cold again. Just enjoy.


And oh, the joy and relief his fellow prisoners must have felt, in April 1945, when the U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald and its sub-camps under the command of General George Patton. Lusseyran mused, however, that:

Buchenwald survivors when the U.S. Third Army liberated the camp in 1945.

Joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.


We have eyes and too many of us still do not see, as we are reminded by the heartbreaking death of a young, unarmed Black man pulled over in his car for an alleged traffic offense by five Black Memphis police officers in an unmarked car. The 29-year-old man, Tyre Nichols, father of a 4-year-old child, died three days later of the wounds he endured. I have not watched the video of this senseless beating, released last Friday by the Memphis police, but I have read accounts of it, and it breaks my heart. Those officers that were chosen to serve, protect, and help make their community safe could not find a spark of recognition that they should treat a fellow citizen, a fellow Black man, as a human being. It reminds me of how the Germans viewed not just the Jews, but anyone they did not value. For humanity is truly about values and what and who we choose to hold dear–and what and who we do not.

Lusseyran wrote that the true heroes of Buchenwald were not the most religious, wealthy, learned, accomplished, or powerful people. He found it was the most humble and surprising people who showed the most humanity.

The religious searched everywhere for their faith. They did not find it again, or else they found it so reduced in force that they couldn’t make use of it. . . . The people who had been generally respected ran after their lost respect, but there wasn’t anything left of it. And the intellectuals, the cultivated men, the great brains, had great sorrows. They didn’t know what to do with their learning for it didn’t protect them against misfortune. . . . They could understand anything more readily than the fact that their intelligence was out of season.


But the shining beacon of Jacques Lusseyran’s insight, spirit, courage, and love has shone down through the many years between our lives and has enriched my own. If you are looking for strength and courage in this sometimes bewildering time, I recommend you read, And There Was Light.

Thankfully we have not lived the horrific systematic deprivations visited upon the people who got in the way of the Nazi war machine during the worst of the madness of World War II, but we can learn from the principles of a man who did: that bringing joy to others, and sharing joy with others, can make even a difficult life worth living. By lifting others, we find ourselves.

You can’t imagine how despair smells, or for that matter confidence. They are worlds apart in odor. . . . The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face.


Living to lighten the load of others, serving others, was Lusseyran’s way forward in the worst of circumstances. He kept his sanity, remained humble, found joy in the simplest things, and shared his inner light with his fellow prisoners. He lived through the madness of a concentration camp, and although he died in a car accident in France with his third wife in 1971, he told his story, shared his wisdom, and made a difference in countless lives.

After hearing Lusseyran’s inspiring story, you are probably not concerned about the outcome of our Saturday afternoon Scrabble game. However, in the spirit of Jacques Lusseyran’s noting that giving is the real receiving, I will report that Kurt put a “y” on his “fox”, made the word “foxy”, and I won the game. I could make the argument that he did too.

~ Anna – 1/29/2023

Posted in Autobiographical, Beauty, Courage, Happiness, Intuition, Joy (Joie de General), Love, Op/Ed Thoughts, Tribute | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancing With Holidays Past

My father Roy Rotha Allen with his grandson Zach, Christmas 2012.

I remember the year our beloved nephew Zach played his classical guitar for us on Christmas. “Play one more song, Zach! That was beautiful!” And there was the time we gathered for our annual wacky family Christmas group photo and Kedi, the neighborhood cat that had adopted us, refused to stay in my husband Kurt’s arms, and we laughed till we cried.

This year I had plenty of time to consider Christmases past–and other family get-togethers–as I joined the many people who were sick for Christmas 2023 and missed the whole festive occasion.

Christmas 2013 with our passionate and somewhat crazy family: (Seated) our lovely niece Abby, Daddy, Mama, our nephew Zach, and his wonder dog Jack; (standing) my sister Lisa, her husband Rocky, our son Justin, my husband Kurt, and me.

I began feeling sick enough to call it that on Friday, December 23. At first I had hopes that I would recover in time for Christmas. I thought: Maybe it is just a cold, and I can mask up and wash my hands a lot and join the family get-together.

But it was not to be. My temperature shot to 101.3 during the night, and my doctor was kind enough to call in Tamiflu on Christmas Eve just before the pharmacy closed at 6:00 p.m. We assume it was the flu that came calling for Christmas–the unwanted visitor–since three at-home Covid tests thankfully came up negative. A few dear people I know where not so lucky in that regard.

This was the first time I have ever been sick at Christmas, so I am grateful for that. But it was hard not to feel sorry for myself, and the other people I know who have suffered with Covid and other respiratory infections this holiday season. And of course, this was the first Christmas without my dear sister Lisa who died in June of cancer. Lisa achieved so much in life and inspired so many people. The mystery of her passing confounds us. How could cancer overcome such a fighter? The holidays are not an unalloyed gladness for those with empty chairs around the table.

Instead of considering our family’s loss this year, I will share our family’s most exuberant celebrations over the last decade.


The string of Thanksgiving hilarity started in 2014 when our family attacked the turkey together and Daddy thoroughly enjoyed himself even though he had began to show some mental decline. In the turkey-takedown photo at left are: my husband Kurt, our son Justin (during his goatee period), my niece Abby (fetching as always), Daddy, Mama, my sister Lisa, her husband Rocky, our nephew Zach, and me. The turkey did not have a chance.


Thanksgiving 2015 we celebrated together at Daddy’s assisted living facility and had the main entry space to ourselves–piano and all. Our usual hijinks ensued.

Clockwise from top left: (Photo 1) Our son Justin (still with the goatee) was accompanied, physically not musically, by his fiancee Tracy who is an accomplished pianist. Daddy was the matchmaker who was an early cheerleader for the relationship and could not have been more delighted. (Photo 2) Mama is usually very reserved in photos, but she showed her playful side in the photo below. (Photo 3) I was a relentless photo bomber (someone had to do it) in this photo of our gorgeous niece Abby and Daddy, and (Photo 4) most of the family showed some attitude except for Mama who took a more relaxed approach.


Matchmaker Daddy was over the moon that his grandson Justin and the love of his life Tracy had married in the spring of 2016, and he was Justin’s best man. That Thanksgiving we gathered at Daddy’s rehab facility to celebrate the holiday and Tracy’s birthday.

Daddy had broken his hip a few weeks before Thanksgiving and the rehab facility was kind enough to allow us to gather in their cafeteria. The top three photos show Kurt’s efforts to take a photo of Daddy with his girls: Lisa and me. Kurt could not get Daddy’s attention which cracked us up–and eventually Daddy started laughing too. The group shot captures Daddy’s relationship with Kurt: total delight with each other! It was great to pull of such a fun occasion at a rehab center!

A few days after Thanksgiving, which was on November 24, Daddy died of a heart attack at his rehabilitation facility during his morning exercise workout. We were devastated, but there were so many reasons to find comfort after Daddy died: We all had such a lovely time together at Thanksgiving. Mama was at his side when he died. He did not have a long protracted death. He had some mental decline, but he still knew us and was very much himself even in his final days. For all these reasons, we celebrate that Daddy no longer was in pain, and he did not suffer.


On this Christmas nearly a decade ago, I made a scrapbook for Daddy filled with photos of his favorite musicians, along with a CD of his favorite music from the 1950s. Lisa and I had grown up listening to Daddy’s 45s, so we knew every word of his favorite tunes. One of those songs “Love Is Strange”, by Mickey & Sylvia, was also featured prominently in the movie “Dirty Dancing” which Lisa had watched repeatedly with her daughter Abby. So the three of us did an impromptu dance to “Love Is Strange”. Kurt caught the magic which is just one of the many advantages to having a photographer for a husband!

Love Is Strange

Love is strange
Lot of people
Take it for a game
Once you get it
You never want to quit, no no
After you’ve had it
You’re in an awful fix

Many people
Don’t understand, no no
They think loving
Is money in the hand
Your sweet loving
Is better than a kiss
When you leave me
Sweet kisses I miss

Yes, Mickey
How do you call your lover boy
Come here, lover boy
And if he doesn’t answer
Oh lover boy
And if he still doesn’t answer
I simply say
Baby, oh baby
My sweet baby, you’re the one
Baby, oh baby
My sweet baby, you’re the one

Written in 1956. Songwriters: Ethel Smith (actually Bo Diddley using his then-
wife’s name)/ Mickey Baker / Sylvia Robinson

Yeah, Bay-bay, you’re the one!!!!


All the family, including Zach’s beautiful partner Paige, was in town for Christmas 2018 at our new (yet more than a century old) home in Old North Knoxville. This was the first Christmas gathering in our smaller home where photobombing had to be done on the stairs. I was definitely up to the challenge.


The yuletide celebration three years ago is significant because: Zach came in alone from Portland without Paige who stayed home to care for their adorable dogs Jack and Bear. He could only stay until December 21. We did not know it at that time, but due to the pandemic of Christmas 2020, Lisa’s illness during Christmas 2021, Christmas 2019 would be the last Christmas season we would be together as a family with Lisa.

Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer in the fall of 2019, and she fought valiantly with full steam ahead through all that the local medical professionals offered her: radiation and chemo, needles and infusions, immunotherapy, and whatever the final treatment was that I have now forgotten. Lisa’s spirit was undaunted no matter whatever the news from the oncological battlefield that was her body. It was, after all, her body that gave out on June 19, 2022, but her spirit never did.

Lisa, me, and Zach, December 15, 2019, near Lisa’s home in the Island Home area of South Knoxville.

Can we get our heads around it? No. We never will. She is gone. She has a grave on one of the highest hills of South Knoxville, near where we grew up on Scarlett Court, a short walking distance away.

I see her stone there on the ground marking her resting place, but she is not there for me. She continues to dance, she continues to love, she continues to sing, she continues to smile, she continues to hug, she continues to inspire. There is not another. Lisa. She is still with us as long as we draw breath. We fought alongside her whether we were there for the infusions or not. Whether we saw the oncologists or the nurse practitioners, we were there with her in spirit. And she is with us now. We will not give her up.

Words, words, words. They are not enough. Visions of the past, we danced together. We found joy together. We shared sorrow. We laughed; we cried. We grew up in those houses together. We heard that music. We sang those duets. We joined our souls together, my beloved sister.

I had to give you up on that hill high above the land we walked together, but I see you still. Tears fill my eyes. I remember you. I see you. You are still here with me. And yet you are gone.

~ Anna – 12/30/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Courage, Dance, Dementia, Family, Home, Love, Music, Tribute | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Superheroes Among Us

Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child
Don’t harden your heart or your hands

Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth
Warner/Chapell Music

Last Thursday our family gathered for Thanksgiving while two superheroes ran among us with their capes flowing ever so gracefully behind them.

The good intention of these heroes was obvious. They flew without care and appeared to understand the stakes involved: Living in the moment, living for today, living with passion and exuberance. Because they are children, they dwell in the land of the possible and the playful. May we join them as often as possible. May we learn from them.

Buy the sky and sell the sky and lift your arms up to the sky
And ask the sky and ask the sky

Don’t fall on me 

Songwriters: Bill Berry / Michael Mills / Michael Stipe / Peter Buck [REM] © Universal Music Publishing Group

Flying above the ordinary world, these heroes do not become trapped in their heads, ruminating about their past and future. As every child–and feline or canine companion–can show us, the present is the only actionable time period for eating, playing, jumping, running, and living. We adults are heavy with burdens and doubts and sadness that have piled so high that we feel incapable of flight, of being ourselves. It is for the superheroes, the children, to help us remember the sky and the broad firmament of now.

Don’t let ’em lower your shoulders
Love ’em more while they try
Grow younger while you’re growin’ older
Be amazed by the sky

Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth
Warner/Chapell Music

Fighting bad guys can be difficult even for superheroes. There are many people with their own agendas selfishly ready to shoot down the simple pleasures of being yourself, singing your song, shining your light, loving who you wish to love, and just enjoying the natural world around you. Keeping your chin up and back straight are tough when so many people are filled with anger and hate. But the antidote of child-like wonder is a powerful force for good in this world.

Darling, stay wild if you can (if you can)
The girl with the world in her hands (in her hands)

Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth
Warner/Chapell Music

Staying wild does not mean lowering yourself to engage the haters and their enablers. No, the word wild means: “living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated.

May the superheroes–and the rest of us–not be tamed by the forces of darkness and jealousy that weigh down so many. As the Holocaust survivor and groundbreaking Austrian philosopher Viktor Frankl learned, the Nazis could enslave his body, but they could not enslave his mind. To rise above despair, he found, ” . . . it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” May we see that even as we grow taller and older, seeking natural beauty and making a difference in the lives of others is the right choice for our own happiness as well as the people around us.

The ripples of love and kindness may seem small, but they flow outward inexorably. In other words, they are impossible to stop.

Stay gentle, stay gentle
The most powerful thing you can do
Oh, gentle, unbreakable you

Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth
Warner/Chapell Music

As all true superheroes know, you must know your own strength to lift up the ones who are at risk of falling. Believe in yourself, gentle heroes: You who are flexible, resilient, and strong. Float like a feather on the wind, as you teach the ways of kindness and gratitude, even to those who do not understand you.

May you fly with the clouds, may you dance, may you sing, may you be passionate, may you love, and may you teach others how to live the now with you.

~ Anna – 11-30-2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Beauty, Blooming, Childhood, Courage, Creativity, Dance, Family, Happiness, Ideas, Love, Music, Wonder | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ode to Halloweens Past

Over the past few decades, Halloween has both grown into a bigger event and become somewhat controversial in some circles.

When we were young it was a wonderful escape from the ordinary as my sister Lisa and I each picked out our mask for the night, which we called our “false face”. We would gleefully trick-or-treat around our small neighborhood in South Knoxville. I still recall the house on the corner of Baker and Davenport Road that gave the best Halloween candy. Seeing all the older people’s faces light up when we came to the door was enormous fun. However, it was hard to breathe with the masks on our faces, so we would remove them after each house and replace them only when we got to the next door.

For a few years we collected money for UNICEF on Halloween. As the door to each home opened, we would say, “Trick-or-treat for UNICEF!” We felt privileged to do our part–doing good on Halloween as well as collecting candy.

When my sister Lisa was in the 6th grade and I was in the 8th, her boyfriend and his best friend egged our house on Halloween. This kind of hijinks was typical, but it certainly did not endear the boyfriend to anyone in our household, including my sister.

As teenagers, our Methodist youth group had the run of our church fellowship hall, and we turned it into a haunted house of which we were very proud. We worked together to devise the most appropriately scary “haunted house” that would still be safe for all concerned. We chose the fellowship stage as well as the Sunday School classes leading to it. Going through the haunted house was electric with the unknown around every corner.

In my 20s, the church Halloween party featured simple handmade costumes as you can see in the photo above. Left to right, I am dressed in a robe and shower cap with cold cream on my face; our friend Craig dressed as a hillbilly, Russ put his shirt on backward and called it a costume; my sister Lisa was a witch; and our friend Jeff was a leopard.

Another Halloween church party, either the year before or after, I tied balloons to a purple leotard and went to the party as a bunch of grapes, while my friend Gina was a Hershey’s kiss. Although her costume was more ingenious, I won the prize for best costume. A few years ago, when we moved Mama from our family’s home into a condo, I found my trophy featuring a smiling pumpkin on top.

In the late 1990s, what had been for us a time of simple pleasures, dressing up in costumes with friends and playing games, became associated with darker forces. Sure mischief had always been part of the Halloween mix, but good fun was all we were ever looking for. Some churches and other organizations began sponsoring “trunk-or-treating” instead of “trick-or-treating” because it was seen to be less spooky, less scary. At these events, church members give children candy and toys from the trunks of their cars.

Although going around a parking lot getting candy from car trunks during the daylight can be fun, there is just something more compelling about the simple pleasures of dressing up, and going door-to-door at night in your neighborhood.

As I was searching for pictures of Halloweens past, I found other photos from the many lives I have led: a photo of the University of Tennessee system-wide administration women losing a tug-of-war against the UT campus women in October 1985. That’s me in the Paris Match T-shirt in the middle of the losing side.

I also found a picture of my beautiful sister Lisa (at left below) who was matron-of-honor when I married my now ex-husband Brian. This was my second wedding, and you can see my then 7-year-old son Justin (center photo) taking a phone call at the event. He would grow up to marry Tracy, the daughter of my lovely friend, Vicky Martin (photo below right), who helped serve at the wedding. It can be a small world in South Knoxville!

My dear sister Lisa died in June and the mystery of her passing is something I will never quite understand. I was more sure of many things when I was younger and collected the thoughts of wise people who inspired me. I found two of these quotes today in one of my many scrapbooks.

It takes so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price . . . One has to abandon altogether the search for security and reach out to the risk of living with both arms.

One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.

Morris L. West, from “The Shoes of the Fisherman”

Today my younger self is advising my older self to be open, not to be closed off. To risk the pain that comes with living. To risk the loss of those you love–those you cannot imagine that life can go on without. I cannot always take these ideas out of the closets of my mind. I take them out today, looking forward to tonight when I will hold my 10-month-old grandson Walker in my arms and give away Halloween candy to children on our front steps. Walker’s eyes will be bright. He will try to take in the scene of colorful outfits and laughter. He will try to understand the mysteries of the night, as will I.

When we were young, we put on our false faces and for a few hours visited the friends of our parents and grandparents who were utterly delighted with our costumes and our chorus of, “Trick or treat.” I remember fondly our grandparents’ across-the-street neighbors Alfred and Grace Cummings. Always with a smile for us children, these dear people made a difference in our lives no matter that they were just our loving cheerleaders. They believed in the good in us. They helped us believe in ourselves.

As an adult I “learned to play the violin in public” by getting divorced a few times. The first marriage was a disaster in many respects, but from it came my adorable son, Justin, who has traveled many roads with me. On Halloween 1989 in Ft. Worth, Texas, I helped Justin into his Halloween costume–he went as a scarecrow–and the next day, on All Saints Day, gave birth to his baby brother, Aidan, who gave us great joy. Sadly I could not find the photo of Justin in his costume, but I found a few of him from that time period: Justin in his baseball uniform and singing a solo at an elementary school event. Fantastic, talented, much-loved Justin!

In one of my scrapbooks I found a quote by opera singer Beverly Sills in 1981 as she spoke to graduates of Barnard College, an independent women’s college in New York City:

Women are told today they can have it all–career, marriage, children. You need a total commitment to make it work. Take a close look at your child. He doesn’t want you to be bright, talented, chic or smart–any of those things. He just wants you to love him. He will be the one who pays the price for your wanting to have it all. Think carefully about having that baby. Not to have it would be a great loss. To have it too late greatly increases the health hazards for you and the child. To have it without a commitment to it would be a great tragedy. There are two keys: one, believe in yourself; two, love. You must ooze it from every pore. Love your work, your husband and your child, not just to hear his needs but to feel his needs. For your husband you must reserve that 30th hour of the day when he has you all alone to himself. If you wonder when you’ll get time to rest, well, you can sleep in your old age if you live that long. You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.

Beverly Sills, opera star & impresario, May 1981

I never thought that I could have it all. Being born poor tends to ratchet down your expectations for taking over the world. Being female had it is own limitations, even though I have fought that reality for most of my life. Luckily for me, my husband Kurt does not feel threatened by a strong woman who has her own ideas.

The world has changed so much since I was young, but the fundamentals are the same: love deeply, profoundly, and passionately. Fight the fear. Flee the hatred. And open your door on Halloween.

~ 10/31/2022 – Anna

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Family, Home, Ideas, Knoxville, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisa’s Garden and Her Island Home

First you learn and then you’ll teach
About that bright, bright light
Making its way
On up the mountain night and day
And you’ll get tired and you’ll get weak
But you won’t abandon your masterpiece
Now there’s a light making its way
On up the mountain night and day
And you’ll go down and you’ll go deep
But you won’t surrender your masterpiece
You won’t surrender your masterpiece
You will deliver your masterpiece

Jakob Dylan, American Singer/Songwriter

My sister Lisa delivered her masterpiece. She sought and created community and natural beauty wherever she was, and for all of her 63 years she lived within a few miles across the river from Downtown Knoxville in South Knoxville. Most of our ancestors go back a few hundred years in this area that used to be farmland outside the city limits. And Lisa married Rocky Stanley whose forebears have farmed and/or grown plants on the same land since the early 1800s. The Davenport-Stanley farm is now also home to Stanley’s Greenhouse which was started in 1955, by Rocky’s parents Charles and Mary Kathryn–where Lisa joyously worked for around 25 years.

After their marriage, when Lisa was 18 years old and Rocky was 19, Rocky’s parents, helped them buy a home in the most desirable residential area in South Knoxville: Island Home. When the area was developed for residential housing a hundred years ago it was named Island Home Park.

According to the Knoxville History Project, led by its executive director, Knoxville historian and writer Jack Neely, Island Home gets its name from a small island down the river from downtown Knoxville. The land was originally owned by Moses White, son of Knoxville’s founder James White, who sold it to Col. Thomas Williams. There was a small island just down the river from Knoxville which became known as “Williams Island”.

Quite a few colorful characters and well-connected folk lived in Island Home from its beginnings, including the man that Col. Williams eventually sold the land to: Perez Dickinson. A relative of one of the most influential of American poets Emily Dickinson, and a native of New England, Perez originally came South to teach at Hampden Sydney Academy, a boy’s school that originally opened in 1817. The academy had several iterations and at one time was combined with East Tennessee University, the institution that would eventually become the University of Tennessee.

During the Civil War, Dickinson found himself on the wrong side when Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861 to join the Confederacy. Tennessee was the last state to secede (and the first to rejoin the Union) but tensions ran high in East Tennessee with loyalties splitting families, businesses being confiscated from Union sympathizers, and some men leaving the state to muster in Kentucky to fight for the Union. Although he was said to be a slave owner himself, Dickinson was a strong proponent of the Union and eventually left Tennessee.

After Dickinson died, his pastoral riverside property passed to his son, then, several other owners before it was laid out as a planned community by the Island Home Park Community in 1911. By 1922, the neighborhood had 44 homes, and more were built throughout that decade.

Just past the entrance to the Island Home neighborhood, is a circular green space where, beginning around 1912, electric trolley cars turned around before making their way back to downtown. According to Knoxville Area Transit (KAT), the last trolley car made its run in Knoxville in 1947. A few years ago, along with help from her daughter Abby (shown in photos above), who lives on Island Home Boulevard, Lisa added plants, trees, and shrubs to the Trolley Turnaround site.

Professionals and civic leaders of Knoxville have lived in Island Home ever since. Their numbers included the physician Frank Faulkner, who not only was the head athletic trainer for the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team in 1928, but delivered our father, Roy Rotha Allen, when he was born in April 1935.

When we were young, Mama and Daddy had close friends who lived on Island Home Boulevard just down the street from Tennessee School for the Deaf that was relocated to the area in 1924 from its former location downtown. Many of our classmates in school lived in Island Home, and we had playdates with them. One of our high school teachers, Rose Mary Pressley, and her family owned the house that would become Lisa and Rocky’s home in 1988.

Our parents were also friends with Tom Jr. and Grace Parkhill (photo below) who lived on Island Home Avenue. Tom Jr. became a nationally known hybridizer of tall-bearded irises since his wife Grace was particularly fond of their flowers. Lisa and I played Barbies with their daughter Beth, and Tom III, Lisa, and I were in a high school production of the play”Tom Jones”. Lisa (shown rehearsing in the photo below right) was Sophie, the leading lady, but we all knew it was Tom that would be the one who would take his skills to the next level.

In 1989 Tom Parkhill founded the Tennessee Stage Company, a 501c(3) theater company providing local actors with professional opportunities. Tom remains TSC’s founding artistic director, and the company operates with the guiding motto typical of Tom’s wit: “Elvis is our co-pilot”.

When Tom found the leading lady of his life, Laura Regis, they were married on Knoxville’s Market Square right in the middle of the highly popular Rossini Festival benefitting Knoxville Opera. The marketplace where the Stanley family once sold its flowers and plants, hosted the marriage of Tom and Laura (above center) on April 23, 2016. Their touching wedding in the midst of the cacophony of a local street festival was one of the most perfect weddings I have ever had the privilege to attend. After their nuptials, Tom and Laura made their home in the only home Tom Parkhill has ever lived in, which was a few streets over and up the hill from Lisa and Rocky Stanley.

Lisa fervently believed there was no other place to live in the world than Island Home. Having lived in Fort Worth; Morristown, Tennessee; and West and North Knoxville, I found there were a few spots on Earth that were inhabitable besides South Knoxville.

In the past few days, I have come to understand more fully why my sister was rooted so deeply in the soil of Island Home. It was the people of Island Home, her neighbors. When we walked through the neighborhood together, Lisa knew who lived in every home. She knew how long they lived there, what they did for a living, where their children went to school, and how they changed their home or garden since they moved in.

When Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer in fall 2019, her community rallied around her and over the next few years left gifts, flowers, and food on her front porch. As she endured radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy, her spirit was indomitable, but her body weakened, and the cancer continued to spread.

When Lisa passed away on June 19, 2022, a few of her neighbors decided to celebrate her life in a tangible way. Wayne and Carolyn Williams, Lisa’s neighbors since 1977, put their heads together with Joni Morabito and Mitzi Congleton, and came up with a plan. Wayne, a talented woodworker, built a beautifully crafted bench out of pine and ash, created a raised bed of pebbles to anchor the bench to the site, and added a plaque that reads:

In Memory
Lisa Diane Allen Stanley

Mitzi, a sought-after portrait artist, painted a sign that reads: Lisa’s Garden. They decided to place the bench underneath a dogwood tree, Lisa’s favorite tree, facing the river.

When the garden bench and sign were finished, her neighbors invited us to a special family unveiling of Lisa’s Garden on September 16, 2022, the night before the official dedication for the entire neighborhood the next evening.

Tears came to my eyes when I saw Wayne’s handiwork and Mitzi’s sign officially dedicating this public space of Island Home as a garden celebrating Lisa’s life. Her neighbors’ generosity was overwhelming, but so perfectly Lisa. The next night I was delighted to see Tommy Smith, who represents the First District on Knoxville’s City Council. He lives in Island Home with his family and does a fantastic job for our city. It was also a pleasure to see Debbie Billings, former owner of Graphic Creations, who another neighbor of Lisa’s, who built her business with integrity, professionalism, and kindness.

Lisa’s passion was Stanley’s Greenhouse, but when she had a few moments away from the greenhouse, Lisa worked in her home garden. She favored pink cleome (photo below right), her Edgeworthia bush, panolas (a cross between pansies and violas), pansies, violas, hydrangeas, and a contorted willow (below center right) that she planted along her fence line in the backyard. This tree has quite a story.

Lisa gave birth to her first child, Zachary (called Zach), in 1985, however, when she tried to have a second child, she found it difficult to get pregnant. After many interventions failed to produce the desired result, Lisa stopped fertility treatments and, to her surprise and great joy, found that she was pregnant again. When Lisa gave birth to Abigale (known as Abby), in August 1995, my husband Kurt and I gave her a dozen yellow roses with a small branch from a contorted willow tree in the center. Of course, being Lisa, she decided to root the willow branch and when it was big enough, she planted it in her backyard. Now, 27 years later, the willow that was once a floral decoration, is a 30 foot-tall tree.

Just as she always did, Lisa took something rather insignificant and grew it into a powerful statement of natural beauty that can be enjoyed up close as well as from afar. Similarly Lisa created a sense of community with tangible gifts to her neighbors and neighborhood, but also gifts of her spirit. She inspired many people to share her passion and grow their own gardens. She shared her enthusiasm with her customers, neighbors, friends, and family. She was an original.

Kurt and I were watching a British crime drama called Silent Witness the other night and one of the main characters, Leo, quoted a line from British poet and novelist Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”:

What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb” written in 1956, included in the book “The Whitsun Weddings“, published 1964

From Lisa’s love of Rocky came their children Zach and Abby, and from Lisa’s love of the natural world and her love of people around her came the sense of community that she created so effortlessly. That communal spirit between the natural world and humankind continues in Lisa’s Garden in Island Home. She continues to bring people together even after she is no longer physically with us. Her love goes on. Lisa never abandoned her masterpiece.

// Anna ~ 9/25/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Backyard Nature, Beauty, Blooming, Courage, Family, Friends, Home, Knoxville, Love, Stage, The Arts, Wonder | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Growing Between the Cracks

My husband Kurt and I visited my sister Lisa to photograph her garden in 2015 and were amazed to find a dill plant taller than me growing out of a crack in her driveway. This herb had found a way not only to grow, but to flourish, in a location where only the hardiest of weeds could thrive. Such plants that find their way to unexpected locations are called “volunteers”. As Wikipedia notes:

A volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener. Volunteers often grow from seeds that float in on the wind, are dropped by birds, or are inadvertently mixed into compost.

Wikipedia, Volunteer (botany)

We Tennesseans live in the Volunteer State which earned its nickname during the War of 1812 when Tennessee sent 1,500 men to fight against Great Britain over trade rights, territorial expansion, and power in North America. The Tennessee Historical Society notes the state solidified its volunteer distinction when President James K. Polk, a former governor of Tennessee, asked for 2,600 men to fight against Mexico in 1848, and 30,000 Tennessee men enlisted.

And of course, our state university, the University of Tennessee, competes in athletics as the Tennessee Volunteers.

There is selflessness involved in offering to take part in an effort for which there is no immediate personal gain. As Webster’s Dictionary says, “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service“.

How amazing it is to experience the sheer serendipity of discovering a plant magically growing on its own without human plan, intervention, or support in such an inhospitable place as a crack in a driveway or out of a small hole in an abandoned building. The tree shown below has its roots in the darkness of the former Palm Beach Mill Outlet building on Baxter Avenue here in Knoxville, yet it is reaching for the light through a tiny space between the bricks of a building that has been closed for decades. How does it get enough water? How did it begin to grow in a building where you would normally not find soil? It is remarkable that the owners of this building have not cut the tree down.

A white mulberry tree growing out of an abandoned building near our home. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

Given just a bit of sunlight and water and encouragement, living creatures can achieve great things despite the odds.

When our country was established as a breakaway colony of the British empire, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for population purposes so that slave states would have as much power as possible. However, representatives to the Continental Congress did not include women as part of the population. As Harvard Business School explains:

During most of American history . . . a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children. Widows did have the right of “dower,” a right to property they brought into the marriage as well as to life usage of one-third of their husband’s estate. Though a married woman was not able to sue or sign contracts on her own, her husband often did have to obtain her consent before he sold any property his wife had inherited.

Women, Enterprise & Society, Harvard Business School

Despite this invisibility under the law, women endured. It has been estimated by historians that 250 to 400 (and probably many more) women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War on both the Confederate and the Union sides of the war. They worked the fields, they tilled the soil, they gave birth to the next generation, and they fought for their rights to vote and for full citizenship throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.

In August 1920, women finally earned the right to vote when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by Congress. However, after I was divorced from my first husband in the early 1980s, a national American department store tried to hold me responsible for golf clubs bought by my ex-husband after we were divorced–and after I had my own credit card in my name. I fought the injustice and I won.

Women celebrating their right to vote.

Progress is slow. The people who hold the power, typically white men, do not want to share it.

When I was in middle school in 1972, a friend of mine who was a few years older got pregnant. Since terminating the pregnancy was not legal in Tennessee, my friend traveled to Atlanta to get an abortion. I was immensely relieved for her and her boy friend. I was a staunch Christian, but believed fervently in their rights to decide, for themselves, the trajectory of their lives. The next year, in 1973, Roe vs. Wade passed 7-2 by the U.S. Supreme Court, affording American women the right to decide whether to bear a child in the first trimester of their pregnancies. During the second and third trimesters, government restrictions were allowed. This right was deemed “fundamental” to a woman’s human rights.

Ten years later I was a single woman, raising my 4-year-old son, working full-time and attending college part-time, when I discovered I was pregnant. I was terrified I would lose my job and that my ex-husband would try to take my son away from me. Fortunately my boy friend had the money for an abortion and a clinic in town safely accomplished the procedure soon after I discovered I was pregnant. My life and my son’s life depended on my right to make this decision. I have never regretted making this life-affirming choice to ensure that my son would be safe, and I would be able to work and get my bachelor’s degree so I could make enough money to care for him.

On June 24, 2022, the day after we buried my beloved sister Lisa, I woke to the news that the Republican-appointed majority of the U.S. Supreme Court had decided that American women did not, after all, have full rights as citizens and that Roe vs. Wade was overturned after 49 years. Lisa’s death had been such a devastating blow–one which I will never get over–and then I learn American women do not have rights over their bodies. Neither do their husbands or families. The legislature of their state has the right to decide if women have children. Essentially their state government gets to decide.

Love? Live?

Five days ago, abortion became illegal in Tennessee. The legislature of my native state now allows no exceptions for maternal health, fetal abnormality, incest, child sexual abuse, or rape. There is no explicit exception if there is a risk to a woman’s life. The supermajority of Tennessee’s Republican legislators have decided a doctor or other health professional that performs a procedures to save a woman’s life during pregnancy can be charged with a felony and have the burden of proving in court that the procedure was necessary to save their patient or to prevent serious risk of “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” How vague is that? Who will want to be an obstetrics or emergency room doctor in Tennessee and deal with complicated pregnancies such ectopic pregnancies where the fetus is growing outside the uterus and has a zero chance to live, but where the mother could die? Unbelievable.

Women will die. Women and their children will suffer. Families will suffer. And I fear for my independent, irrepressible granddaughter who will grow up in a state where she does not have full citizenship or control over her body. She deserves to have full rights as an American citizen, and so does every other little girl and woman in America.

I come from a line of headstrong women, especially the Montgomery women. My paternal grandmother, Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, chose to marry R. Hodge Allen, at the age of 30 in 1934, after she had been told as a young woman that it would be dangerous for her to marry and have children due to her delicate health. She became pregnant with my father in the summer of 1934, gave birth to Daddy on April 2, 1935, and she died on August 12, 1935, in the George Maloney Home, the workhouse/poorhouse/insane asylum here in Knox County. She was 31 years old, and her death certificate noted that she died of insanity from pellagra psychosis. Pellagra is a severe nutritional disease caused by a deficiency of niacin (Vitamin B3) which killed 100,000 Southerners in the first part of the 20th Century due to their poverty and poor diet which consisted mainly of salt pork, molasses, and corn. Pellagra is marked by the three Ds: dementia, diarrhea, and dermatitis. And the other D: death, if untreated.

My grandparents Darcus Nickaline Montgomery and R. Hodge Allen, probably on their wedding day, February 12, 1934.

My grandmother had a choice to give birth to my father, and I love and honor her for doing so. But she was never able to hold my father after she gave birth, and soon after Daddy was born, my grandfather’s family committed Darcus to the poorhouse/insane asylum where she died soon thereafter.

Daddy’s life was marked by poverty and neglect. As a baby and small child, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Lucinda, but she died when he was 4 years old. He lived with his alcoholic uncle Bill and illiterate father Hodge who worked full-time on the killing floor of a packing house. He was thrown out of his home by his second stepmother, lived at the YMCA in Downtown Knoxville, and dropped out of school in the 10th grade.

Daddy eventually married Mama and made his way in this world as best he could. You could say that he grew on his own without being planted by a farmer or gardener. He grew between the cracks of his life. He eventually traveled and saw a bit of the world. He laughed and loved and fathered two daughters who he adored and who adored him. But he never got over growing up without a mother.

Human lives are messy. People need to decide for themselves whether they will have children. That’s what freedom is all about.

// Anna ~ 8/30/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Courage, Family, Op/Ed Thoughts, Women, Wonder | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Tiny, Fierce Light That Lives On

Lisa hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, probably the mid-1980s.

Last month my sister Lisa died after “fighting” Stage 4 bone cancer for nearly three years. In the end, cancer won, and we, the people who love her, lost. However, Lisa’s spirit was amazingly strong and would not allow her body to go down without a ferocious, optimistic fight.

When we were young, people thought we were twins since we were born only 15 months apart. We were not Irish twins which are born less than a year apart, but we missed that designation by only 3 months. We were very close when we were growing up–and were best friends in high school.

At Lisa’s funeral, our cousin Sonny said he remembered when Lisa and I used to sing “Do-Rei-Mi” from movie version of The Sound of Music. Daddy had bought us the soundtrack record, and we knew all the words to the songs. Well, apparently we did not know all the words, all the time, Sonny said one of us would elbow the other when the offending party missed a phrase. Being the older sister, it was probably me who did the elbowing. Guilty as charged. We had always been together, and even after we grew up, married, and had our own lives, we were close in ways that only sisters can be. We did not always agree on everything; no, not at all. But we had the shared values that our parents taught us–people are more important than things. And family was, well, like breathing, and the loss of close family members was unthinkable . . . beyond words.

Each month, each week, each day for the past two-and-half-or-so years, I dreaded the phone call that would make my fear of losing Lisa a reality. Often I got in the shower thinking, “Is this the day Kurt will come in and tell me my sister is gone?” When the day came I was not in the shower and my sister was still alive. Kurt and I were in the car when I got the call from Lisa’s husband Rocky that she was failing, and we should come right away. I had prepared myself, but I had not prepared myself. I howled liked a lost thing. Which I was.

Early that Friday morning, June 17, 2022, Rocky had taken Lisa to the emergency room, and the doctors said they could keep her alive for perhaps a few more weeks if she stayed in the hospital where they could give her intravenous antibiotics for a life-threatening infection she had picked up. If she went home, they predicted she would die in a few days. Lisa insisted with all the force left in her tiny body, that she wanted to go home, so Rocky took her home, and the family and hospice care was called in.

Mama and Lisa at the old retail center at Stanley’s Greenhouse, Christmas season 1999.

I felt so lucky that I got to speak to her before she died. We did not say goodbye, which was undoubtedly for the best. She was lying on the couch in her living room, obviously agitated, and told me how guilty she felt that she had not been able to help me take Mama to doctor’s appointments after our mother broke her wrist a few weeks ago.

“Oh, my dear girl, no, you have done so many things for Mama. You have done so much for everyone, sweet girl! And we love you so much!” I cried, as my tears dropped steadily on my dress.

She seemed not to hear my words at all as she worried aloud whether her husband Rocky had talked to the accountant to make sure Mama was taken care of while she was off work with her wrist.

“Oh, yes, Rocky has already done that,” I said.

“Rocky needs to talk to John about making sure Mama gets what she needs,” she said relentlessly to the ceiling.

“Honey, I have talked to him. It’s all taken care of,” Rocky assured her.

Lisa continued talking about Mama as the skies cracked open, and we could hear torrential rain falling outside the house. Lisa wanted to see the rain, so her daughter Abby helped her up. Abby–the beloved baby girl who Lisa gave birth to after so many years of trying to get pregnant–supported Lisa as she walked slowly. As Lisa stepped onto the front porch, a deafening crack of thunder boomed and lightning struck across the street near the river. It seemed that the natural world was enraged by this unnatural diminishing of Lisa’s light.

Lisa with her husband Rocky, around 2000.

We–Lisa, Rocky, Mama, Abby and her husband Holden, Kurt, and I–gathered on the porch watching the tremendous rain that comes so seldom to Tennessee in mid June. Between thunder and lightning, I wondered at how the Earth had decided to signify Lisa’s upcoming death with tumultuous fury, aghast that it had come to this.

Despite her frail condition, my sister stood, barefooted and bareheaded, as she had lost most of her hair during the final, futile few months of treatment. She looked like an alert, little bird, still singing her song.

We watched the rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. “Let’s sit down,” Abby suggested. The lightning flashed and the thunder answered, and Lisa talked of hydrangeas and how they loved the rain. And she certainly would know since she had been a plant specialist and co-manager of the family business, Stanley’s Greenhouse. She inspired countless people to grow hydrangeas and pansies/violas/panolas (the latter a hybrid cross between the two which Lisa loved) and Greggii salvia (her favorite) and orchids and dogwood trees and fragrant Edgeworthia (paper bush tree) which she had planted near the road in her front yard. Lisa’s garden.

She talked incessantly of hydrangeas and then repeatedly said the word cultivars. Then she spoke, but none of the words were intelligible. We looked past each other, her bewildered family, talking about everything and nothing–trying to think how to answer her. Someone suggested we go inside, and Abby steered Lisa in the front door of her home for the last time. Lisa laid on the couch and seemed to enter a fitful coma.

Lisa with hydrangeas grown at Stanley’s Greenhouse, April 2019.

Lisa’s first-born Zach lives in Portland, Oregon, so his partner Paige called to say she was finalizing his flights to arrive in Knoxville as soon as possible. The first available flight called for him to fly through the night to Nashville and then drive a rental car to arrive home Saturday. Zach made it to his parents’ home around midday. And his mother was, thankfully, still alive.

At Rocky and Lisa’s home, we hosted friends and neighbors and pastors and hospice nurses. One of the nurses said it was likely that Lisa was in a twilight sleep, yet she fervently believed Lisa could hear us. Family and friends talked to her and touched her lovingly. Occasionally she squeezed a finger, or turned her head to a familiar voice. But she was not at peace. Saturday was difficult for Lisa, but after her medication was adjusted in the early evening, she rested more comfortably.

Lisa died in the wee hours of the morning on Father’s Day Sunday, June 19, 2022. Our dear father died five and a half years ago, but it seemed fitting that his second daughter should die on his special day. Daddy was so proud of his girls, and so sensitive, that I feel certain it is best that he did not live to see Lisa’s passing. His mother, Darcus Montgomery Allen, died when she was 31 years old, just 4 months after she gave birth to Daddy. He never got over the pain of growing up without a mother. When his father died at the age of 84, Daddy said it took him three months to grieve. He woke up one day and found he could finally cry. Grief has its own timetable.

Carroll County, Virginia, where our grandmother Darcus Nickaline Montgomery grew up on her family’s farm.
Photo: Kurt K. Weiss.

Mama has been remarkable in her ability to go on. She came from a close family who were entirely devoted to each other. Hardworking, full of faith and strength, Mama made up the difference when Daddy was between jobs when we growing up. With her wrist healed, she is now back to working, at the age of 86, at Stanley’s Greenhouse–the nursery that Rocky’s parents started in 1955–where she has worked for nearly 50 years.

Mama, Lisa, and I are people who have always been proud to get the job done. Even when Lisa was too sick to work full-time, she came by the greenhouse often to transplant a few containers for her customers. Many times she injured herself, but staying busy and making a difference continued to drive her. And she continued attending church–even during Covid. When the Methodist church where she was a member was closed for the pandemic, Lisa went to a nearby Baptist church, and sang in the choir when she was able.

Luckily she never fell victim to Covid. It could be said that she fell victim to cancer, but really she gave cancer a run for its money. She never gave up.

Photo Credit: Anna Montgomery

A few years ago, I read a memoir by Lucinda Franks, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting (in 1971) and one of the youngest people ever to win the award. The book, “Timeless: Love, Morganthau, and Me”, was written by Ms. Franks about the great love of her life, Robert Morgenthau, the longtime District Attorney for New York County. They met when she was 26 years old, and he was a 53-year-old widower with two grown children and a daughter still at home.

Not many people thought their relationship would last, but the naysayers were wrong. Lucinda and Bob were married for 42 years–from 1977 until he died at the age of 99 in 2019–and had two children of their own. Lucinda died of cancer in 2021, two years after her husband, at the age of 74.

Believing strongly in the power and force of love and following your intuition, Lucinda wrote:

I believe that love is no accident, no whisper from a random universe. It comes from deeper channels of longing and recognition; a collection of tiny lights that gathered force long ago.

Lucinda Franks, “Timeless: Love, Morganthau, and Me”
Stanley’s Greenhouse decorated for the Beat the Winter Blues fundraiser benefitting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Knoxville, February 2019. Photo: Anna Montgomery

Lisa Diane Allen Stanley was indeed a tiny light that gathered force long ago. And she was a tree planted on a mountainside. Mighty winds whipped around her and blankets of snow at times covered her trunk, but her roots held fast and deep in the ground as other trees cracked and fell. She lifted her arms to the sun and encouraged others to do the same, She was a beacon on that hillside as many were inspired by her example of growth, faith, enthusiasm, generosity, and, most of all, love.

Lisa’s love was not random, but was directed to touch the people around her. She was a tiny light that blazed with a fervor that cannot be extinguished since her light was shared with so many people who loved her. And that light lives on.

~ Anna – 7/31/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Beauty, Blooming, Books, Childhood, Courage, Family, Love, Tribute, Women, Wonder | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Wildflower Running Free

[The following tribute was written to celebrate the life of my beloved sister Lisa Diane Allen Stanley who passed away on Father’s Day, June 19, 2022, at the age of 63 after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. I read this eulogy during her graveside funeral service at Woodlawn Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Thursday, June 23, 2022.]

My beautiful sister, Lisa Diane Allen Stanley, in a photo taken around 1985.

As those of you who knew my sister can attest, Lisa had a tireless energy for everything she did and everything she believed in. She was a force of nature who never seemed to stop. You may know her as the gardening expert at Stanley’s Greenhouse. Or you may have seen her at Church Street United Methodist Church or Island Home Baptist. You may have gone to high school with her or have known her as a tireless advocate for South Knoxville.

You may have seen her running in the Island Home neighborhood or walking her beloved dog Plum. Or you might have asked her, through her position at Stanley’s, to support your nonprofit organization. Lisa did all these things, and much more.

She loved the music of Tom Petty, and she saw him in concert many times. In between seasons at Stanley’s, Lisa and her husband Rocky loved to drive down to Charleston to visit its historic neighborhoods, gardens, and plantations. When she was younger and had more time, Lisa enjoyed waterskiing and hiking in the mountains. We used to walk or bike through Cades Cove—back when we could go to the Smokies in the late fall, and it was not crowded.

However you knew Lisa, you are welcome here today to help us celebrate the life of my sister, Lisa Diane Allen Stanley. When she was born 63 years ago on Monday, March 23, 1959, she was the second child of our parents Arzelia and Roy Allen. The old English nursery rhyme says, “Monday’s child is fair of face.” And my sister was indeed a lovely baby who became an even more lovely woman.

When we were young, our parents struggled to make a living. Often Daddy was between jobs, and Mama supplemented our family income by keeping children in our home, working as a waitress at our Aunt Helen King’s restaurant, Ye Olde Steak House, and later working at Stanley’s Greenhouse. Somehow Mama always seemed to find ways to help Daddy make ends meet.

Our father Roy Rotha Allen with Lisa (right) and me on vacation in Georgia, August 1965.

Our Daddy was a storyteller. He loved to tell the same stories again and again. Daddy would regale us with tales of how Lisa ran headlong into life, and, as he would phrase it, “Bust her head open,” because Lisa needed stitches in her forehead a few times when she was young. Her most famous collision was with Mama’s cedar chest at the foot of our bed.

Daddy also had a saying for every situation in our lives: “Little things means a lot.” “People are more important than things.” “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” And the one Lisa and I hated the most: “You’ve got to the take the sour with the sweet.”

There was just the two of us, and since we were born a little over a year apart, many people assumed we were twins. We were not, but in those early years we were identical in the things we loved. One of the major joys of our childhood was Daddy’s music wafting through our house on Baker Avenue in South Knoxville. Lisa and I knew all the words to Daddy’s favorite 1950s pop songs and would sing them together at the top of our lungs. We loved to dance to the fast numbers and dream of romance during the slow songs. We loved movie soundtracks such as “The Sound of Music”, and we adored the gospel quartet music that our parents loved.

Lisa (left) and me in the snow near our home, perhaps winter 1963.

We also heard gospel music at church, and we went to church three or four times a week. We were especially close to Mama’s parents, Tom and Jerushia Henderlight. Besides seeing our grandparents at church, each Saturday night we went over to their house. Mama would pin-curl Mamaw’s hair so she could look her best for church on Sunday. Mama was devoted to her parents, and they were a constant force in our lives. Mamaw bought us new shoes for Easter and would slip us Dentyne chewing gum before the pastor’s message to keep us quiet during church. And Papaw could fix anything in our house that needed repair.

Daddy was not very mechanical, it’s true, but he was enormously proud of “his girls” and would take us to movies at the Tennessee Theater or nearby drive-in theaters. In the late ‘60s, Daddy fought to find us a better place to live than the house we grew up in. Due to his diligence, our parents were able to buy a new home on Scarlett Lane within walking distance of this cemetery. Lisa had the pink room; and I had the blue.

Although we moved only a few miles away from Baker Avenue, Lisa had to change elementary schools. So in 1970, Lisa became the new girl in the 5th grade at Galbraith Elementary School. You would think being the new girl would have been a burden for my sister, and maybe it was hard for the first few days. But she really blossomed at her new school and quickly became very popular with her classmates. She had a boyfriend in the sixth grade who, along with his best friend, did us the honor of egging our house on Halloween. We were not impressed.

Lisa in her official cheerleader photo, 1973 or 1974.

We attended South High School—a school that no longer exists. South enrolled students in grades seven through twelve since there were no junior high or middle schools in Knoxville at that time. Although we were born only 15 months from each other, Lisa and I were two years apart in school, so we were elated when she finally joined me at South for the 1971-72 school year.

My sister was a people person. Lisa was voted the most popular girl in her grade every year she was at South High. She was a cheerleader, as well as a mid-distance runner for the girl’s track team. It was a thrill watching her compete in track meets. She was small, but she was fast.

As sisters, Lisa and I surprised our classmates because—even though we were two years apart in school, and siblings do not always get along, we were best friends. Inseparable. We sang in chorus at school and sang duets at church—even when we were too young to join the choir. We were together at football and basketball games, with Lisa leading cheers and me in the stands cheering along. We were “the Allen girls”.

After I graduated in 1975, Lisa decided to graduate a year early in 1976. She got a job, saved some money, bought a car, and fell in love with Rocky Stanley. A year after graduation, on July 1, 1977, at the age of 18, she married Rocky, the youngest child of Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley who founded Stanley’s Greenhouse. The Stanleys started their greenhouse in 1955, and after only 22 years, it was already the place to buy plants in the Knoxville area. While Rocky worked in the family business at Stanley’s as its head grower, Lisa was a secretary for another family business, Lay Packing Company. As chief grower, Rocky was pivotal in the reputation Stanley’s achieved for having the finest quality plants, and Lisa yearned to work at Stanley’s with him.

In 1985 Lisa and Rocky welcomed their first child, a son, who they named Zachary Sterling Stanley, giving him his father’s middle name: Sterling. And Zach lived up to that name. He was a beautiful boy, and his arrival brought much joy to our family. Zach is a great deal like Lisa with his sensitivity, caring, and warmth.

Ten years after her first child was born, Lisa gave birth to her second, a gorgeous baby girl who Rocky and Lisa named Abigale. Just like her mother, Abby was a force-of-nature child who wanted to be taken seriously on her own terms. Although her brother Zach was 10 years older, she wanted to play with him and his friends. Being Abby, that is exactly what she did.

Lisa (center left) and me with her parents Arzelia and Roy Allen, Christmas 2012.

Throughout Lisa’s time working at Lay Packing Co., followed by UT Medical Center, and then the UT College of Human Ecology, she had always been a devoted gardener and her dream was to work with Rocky in the family business. Our mother had been working at Stanley’s since we were in high school, and eventually Daddy worked there too, so when Lisa joined Stanley’s in the mid 1990s, she worked alongside her parents and most of Rocky’s family.

The family business flourished, and Lisa loved everything about Stanley’s: the customers, the plants, and working with her family. For a few years, Lisa shared gardening advice along with other expert gardeners on a weekly radio program, and she was often called upon when local newspapers and TV stations needed information to accompany their freeze warnings.

As Lisa followed her bliss, the family business was the hub of their lives with Abby checking out customers while standing on a stepstool to reach the cash register, and Zach heading the tree and shrub team.

The business was important, but Lisa’s faith was central to her life. She believed that all things were possible. But she believed that her faith required action, so she worked to make a difference in the lives of others when charitable causes came to Stanley’s seeking support. Nearly always Lisa’s answer was: “Yes.”

Her life was full that it surprised Lisa when her doctors diagnosed her with cancer in 2010, at the too-young age of 51. Seemingly unfazed she made the treatment decisions she needed to make, worked through the cancer treatments, and after surgery, hurried to get back to being Lisa Stanley of Stanley’s Greenhouse once again.

Lisa, dancing with me, and her daughter Abby, Christmas 2013. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

Lisa loved demonstrating the abundant joy to be found in growing things. She worked to ensure that her customers had everything they needed to make their gardens flourish. Lisa found her way in life by doing. She grew plants, trees, and shrubs in her own garden, and then shared her experience with others. Her joy was a shared joy. Her smile reflected in another person’s smile. Her customers took encouragement from her advice, her hugs, her enthusiasm for the possibilities, her passion for the promise of what could be done, and for all the beautiful things that could be grown—the inspiration of natural beauty.

Lisa holding a moth found in her garden on her finger, September 2015. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

When her cancer returned in 2019, she faced it with her usual undaunted spirit. Everything was full speed ahead, let’s get these treatments done, and her faith never faltered. She never gave up.

Last fall Lisa and I talked about the upcoming growing season and her favorite fall flowers: pansies, panolas, and violas. It is easy to see why Lisa loved the viola plant family: they bloom in the fall, and continue to bloom throughout the dark winter months, and get even more beautiful in the spring and early summer.

Pansies are tall and majestic, while violas are smaller and hardier. A panola is a strong, hybrid cross of the two. Lisa planted all three in her fall garden, but she had a special affection for panolas.

Why? Because, as Lisa explained, panolas “stand up like a soldier and bloom”. That is the perfect description of my sister Lisa: She stood up like a soldier and bloomed.

To celebrate the life of my dear sister Lisa today, I leave you with the words of her favorite songwriter and musician, Tom Petty. My dear sister:

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free
Go away somewhere all bright and new
I have see no other
Who compares with you

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free

Run away, let your heart be your guide
You deserve the deepest of cover
You belong in that home by and by

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your troubles and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free
You belong somewhere you feel free

Thomas Earl “Tom” Petty, written in 1993, recorded in 1994

~ Anna – June 20, 2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Blooming, Childhood, Courage, Dance, Family, Freedom, Knoxville, Love, Tribute, Uncategorized, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blooming in the Desert Sand

An obelisk decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics at the Memphis Zoo.

Before Egypt became a country Americans and other Westerners could no longer visit without serious concerns for their safety, my husband Kurt and I were rushing to the Cairo International Airport for our British Airways flight to leave the country. I cannot recall the reason we were running late, but it could well have been Cairo’s notoriously chaotic traffic which is certainly a strong candidate for the worst traffic in the world. In this ancient city, no one in a car or donkey-drawn cart gives any attention to traffic lanes. Everyone is everywhere at once, meaning no one gets anywhere quickly. And, of course, we missed our flight.

The night before our willy-nilly dash to the airport in 2000, Lena, a young Lebanese woman from one of Kurt’s training classes drove us to our hotel from the restaurant where we had eaten dinner.

“Hey, listen to this song!” she said. “Isn’t it the best?”

We had never heard the song with its irresistible Middle Eastern instruments, but we immediately recognized the unmistakable voice of Sting, the British singer/songwriter.

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand

“Desert Rain”, Songwriter: Sting, 1999

We were hearing Sting’s “Desert Rose”, which was on its way to becoming a huge hit in countries around the world. Later I read that Sting wrote the song as an homage to the Rai clubs he had visited in Paris that featured a melting pot of musical influences including Arabic, French, flamenco, and jazz. It was ironic that we were introduced to this song by a British musician, in Egypt by a woman from Lebanon who loved her country, but could not go home.

The Nile Delta as photographed from the Gemini VII spacecraft in 1965. Photo Credit: NASA.

Lena explained to us that she could not live in her homeland, although she visited it as often as she could. Once famous for its intoxicating natural beauty, healthy economy, and rich architectural heritage, by 2000, Lebanon had been devastated by a civil war that had been going on for at least 15 years. In addition to the civil war, Lebanon had become ground zero for proxy armies fighting each other over control of the Middle East.

Although more stable than Lebanon, Egypt had become less attractive as a tourist destination after the Luxor massacre of November 1997. During this terrorist attack, at least four Egyptians and 58 tourists, the majority of whom were Swiss and Japanese, were killed by Islamic militants trying to overthrow the Egyptian government led by President Hosni Mubarek. The killings occurred on the west bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings, an archaeological site and one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations.

The MobiNil paperweight I have had on my desk for the last 22 or so years. MobiNil was an early cell-phone company in Egypt.

By the time we came to Egypt three years later, its tourism industry had taken a major hit. There were metal detectors manned by Egyptian soldiers with machine guns at the entrance to our hotel. Soldiers with automatic weapons were stationed at regular intervals along the major highways around Cairo, in shopping malls, and anywhere else where large numberd of tourists might be.

My husband Kurt had been employed by the Middle East Management Centre to lead training classes in Cairo for MobiNil, an up-and-coming Egyptian cell phone provider. On our next visit, we were in Cairo for a week before we flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort town located between the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, for Kurt to provide training for another group.

The Egyptian people we met were open, friendly, proud, and generous. The women who worked for MobiNil assured us that Egyptian women were the best belly dancers in the world and, according to my research, they are correct. Our Egyptian friends were very proud of their cuisine, history, and culture. And they were proud of their company which they believed was the best cell phone company in Egypt.

Our adorable Egyptian friends who accompanied us to a shop in Cairo so we could buy gifts for our family back home.

For over 3100 years, ancient Egypt was a super power, a fantastically rich country with its pharaohs wielding power over great swaths of land and people. From around 3100 B.C. until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.—Egypt was the dominant civilization of the Mediterranean world. The architectural splendor and ingenuity of their great building projects–including their pyramids, obelisks, and monuments–as well as their art, medicine, belief system, and funerary rites, are still studied today. Ancient Egypt was one of the world’s most influential cultures.

Present-day Egypt? Not so much now. My husband Kurt spent a good deal of time working in the Middle East, and he learned that Egyptians were disdained by their fellow Middle Easterners, especially the Saudis and Kuwaitis. Why? Racism. “Pure Arabs” look down on Egyptians as mixed-race peoples. And despite Egypt’s cultural heritage, it does not have the oil reserves of its richer Middle Eastern neighbors.

In 2000 when we were in Egypt, its relative poverty and political instability–with terrorists attacking tourists–had taken its toll on Egypt. Even the jewels of Egypt’s history were difficult for me to enjoy. While Kurt worked, I visited the Cairo Museum where the world-famous Tutankhamen artifacts were on display in a tiny, stifling room, enclosed in plexiglass with so many people filling the room that I could not enter it. There was no air conditioning in the museum, and I was grateful that I was not visiting Aswan, a tourist destination on the banks of the Nile, when the record temperature of 124 degrees F. was reached. When I visited the Great Pyramid, just outside Cairo, an Egyptian chased me on a camel begging for money.

Great civilizations come and go, with the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Incas, and British on the short list of once-dominant cultures that no longer rule the world. During the early part of my life, the United States and the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R.) were the two superpowers divvying up the world into spheres of influence. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, there was a few years of shining hope that glasnost would prevail and Mikhail Gorbachev’s more open government would end the Cold War between Russia and America and its Western allies. It was not to be, and Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine is the proof of that.

What happens when a country becomes unstable? Egypt is a prime example. Hosni Mubarek became president after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. For 30 years, Mubarak ruled his country with an iron hand which led to increasing unrest and protests that brought down his government in 2011. He surrendered rule to the military, and the next year the Muslim Brotherhood took power with Egyptians electing Islamist Mohamed Morsi to the presidency in 2012. Soon the Morsi government overplayed its hand and attempted to pass an Islamic constitution which ignited strong opposition from secularists and the military. In July 2013, Morsi was deposed in a coup led by the minister of defense, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, as millions of Egyptians took to the streets in support of a democratic election. El-Sisi became Egypt’s president after an election in 2014 that was boycotted by opposition parties, and he remains president to this day. I worry about my Egyptian friends and how they weathered the storms of their country’s oppressive leadership, punctuated by instability, then another round of oppressive leadership. Apparently their only governance choices are between autocratic rule by the military or autocratic rule by religious fundamentalists.

Increasingly our country has also devolved into metaphoric war zones of competing interests that cannot be easily resolved. We have been at this juncture before. In the mid 19th Century–157 years ago–our country endured a civil war as we killed one another over power, sectarian dominance, and the idea that owning human beings was a perfectly reasonable way to accrue wealth. The fissures bleeding openly at that time continue to this day. Who will have the power to decide? Who matters and who does not?

A few months ago, Irish actor Liam Neeson was interviewed by AARP magazine regarding his ability to continue being successful as an action movie star when he will be 70 years old on June 7. About Neeson, the reporter, Allison Glock, wrote:

He was raised to believe that everyone matters and by showing someone your humanity, you pay yourself the best compliment. . . . On top of that, he says, ‘there was a war going on where I lived for 30 years.’

Allison Glock, writing about Irish actor Liam Neeson in “AARP: The Magazine”, March 30, 2022

When he grew up in County Antrum, Northern Ireland, Neeson was a Catholic boy living in the predominantly Protestant town of Ballymena. Catholics and Protestants had been killing each other in Europe for centuries dating back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. In Northern Ireland the two main factions of Christianity continued that religious and political war. Thousands died or were imprisoned during what has been euphemistically called The Troubles, which lasted from the 1960s until 1998, when a formal agreement was reached to end the civil strife. Neeson kept his head down as a teenager and was quoted in 1999 as saying he felt as if he was a second-class citizen.

A tribute to Liam Neeson at the Deauville (France) Film Festival, 2012

Our country is not Egypt or Northern Ireland, but civil strife and bloodshed are happening on our streets. And in our schools, grocery stores, churches, movie theaters, shopping malls, nightclubs, and anywhere else people gather.

As an Irishman who lived through the unrest in his homeland, Liam Neeson knows a few things about what works and what does not work when it comes to hatred and fear erupting into violence. He now lives in upstate New York and has spoken out on his views about unrestricted access to guns, calling U.S. gun laws a “disgrace”. Practical, sane gun safety laws would ban automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons that can kill hundreds of people in a few minutes, require background checks of individuals before they can own a gun, and raise the age at which teenagers can own a weapon. Other countries have mentally ill teenagers and young adults, but they do not have mass shootings every other day because they limit who can own a gun to those who have proven themselves to be responsible to handle such a weapon, and their laws seek to keep automatic and semi-automatic weapons out of the civilian population entirely.

In his AARP interview, Neeson was quoted as saying, “Everyone matters.” Of course, he meant everyone should matter.

In Ireland, if everyone matters, then not just Catholics, and not just Protestants–but both–should have power and agency over their lives and livelihoods.

In America, if everyone matters, then not just white people and not just Black or brown people should have power over their own lives, but everyone should have power over their own lives.

And in Ireland and America, women as well as men should have power over their own lives.

In December 2018, Irish women achieved the right to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, as well as later in the pregnancy if the woman’s life or health is at risk, or in the case of fetal abnormality. Before that time, Irish law held that the life of the fetus and the life of the mother had equal value–not surprising, perhaps, since Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country and the Catholic Church held sway over the lives of all the Irish people whether they were Catholic or not.

What was the catalyst for Ireland to finally change its law? A woman died while having a miscarriage. In 2012, Ireland’s abortion law received worldwide attention after Savita Halappanavar, a dentist by profession, was denied an abortion while she was suffering a septic miscarriage. Because the fetus and the woman were valued equally, the medical professionals caring for her would not perform an abortion until after the baby no longer had a heartbeat, which meant both died.

Irish dentist Savita Halappanavar developed sepsis and died after being denied an abortion when she miscarried at 17 weeks and the gestational sac was stuck protruding out of her body. Since the fetus still had a heartbeat, her physician would not intervene. Ireland decided to make abortion legal in the wake of Savita’s death.
Photo Credit: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

On 21 October 2021, Halappanavar, then 17 weeks pregnant, was examined at University Hospital, Galway, after complaining of back pain, but was soon discharged without a diagnosis. She returned to the hospital later that day, this time complaining of lower pressure, a sensation she described as feeling ‘something coming down,’ and a subsequent examination found that the gestational sac was protruding from her body. She was admitted to hospital, as it was determined that miscarriage was unavoidable, and several hours later, just after midnight on 22 October, her water broke but did not expel the fetus. The following day, on 23 October, Halappanavar discussed abortion with her consulting physician but her request was promptly refused, as Irish law at that time forbade abortion if a fetal heartbeat was still present. Afterwards Halappanavar developed sepsis and, despite doctors’ efforts to treat her, had a cardiac arrest at 1:09 a.m., on 28 October, at the age of 31, and died.

Wikipedia, “Death of Savita Halappanavar”

When everyone matters, common sense reigns instead of absolutism. Common sense, compromise, and the good of the people are the hallmarks of effective governance. Not packing the Supreme Court with judges who are out of step with the mainstream values of the American people and who are willing to turn back the clock to 1787 when slavery was legal and women were property.

Who matters? Only one group of people with one color of skin? Only men?

Who decides? A woman and her physician? Four judges, appointed by presidents who did not earn the popular vote of the governed–judges chosen for their extreme religious and political views? The government? The state legislatures?

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
As time runs through my hand

“Desert Rose” – Sting, 1999

There is a sadness that rises within me when I think of the friends I made in Egypt and that their lives may have been devoured by men thirsty for power who may have destroyed their ability to navigate their own lives. There is a great sadness that rises within me when I think of my three grandchildren–Lincoln, age 4; Penny, age 3; and Walker, 3 months–and that their lives may be devoured by men (and a few women) thirsty for power who will destroy their ability to navigate their own lives.

May they be able to bloom in the desert sand. May the predators who seek to lead–fueled by their overwhelming ambition for absolute power–not keep my loved ones from flying as high as their dreams can take them. May they soar. May we all.

~ Anna – 5/31/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Blooming, Freedom, Friends, Happiness, Ideas, Op/Ed Thoughts, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Remember Who You Are

“Can the dead talk to the living,” the article begins. Apparently they can in Ireland–through their census record that gives them a chance to “speak” to their families one hundred years from now.

Reporting for The New York Times, Ed O’Loughlin wrote an article called On Ireland’s Census, a Blank Box Gives Residents a Chance to Tell Their Stories, about the unique way Ireland has decided to allow its people to share their stories to their future great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren. The 2022 Irish census includes a blank space, which they are calling a “Time Capsule” for individuals and families to write or illustrate a message that will be made available to Irish people a century from now, in 2122.

The Irish people–many of whom emigrated to the United States–are known to be great storytellers, and this mechanism through the census, suggested by Irish senior census statistician Cormac Halpin, allows the men and women of Ireland to share with their future heirs whatever they find most dear to their hearts. According to the Times, no other country has fostered a cross-generational dialogue in this way.

Many people who filled out the blank box on the Irish census form have shared on social media what they wrote. One woman named Amy Dutil-Wall composed a tribute to her much adored daughter, Estlin Luna, who was killed in a car accident when she was nearly 4 years old. She wrote:

Estlin was our 1st born child and the love of our lives. She was never counted in a census and so we are so relieved to be able to mention her here. She was beautiful, creative, funny, so smart & clever, and confident beyond her years. We were honoured to be her parents and honoured still to grieve her for the rest of our lives. Estlin Luna, we carry you in our hearts — love always, mommy, daddy, Mannix & Lucie.

Amy Dutil-Wall
Amy Dutil-Wall’s “Time Capsule” message on her family’s 2022 Irish census form.
Photo credit; The New York Times.

Heartbreaking. Yet exalting, because Amy found a way to honor her daughter’s unique qualities, to proclaim that she was deeply loved, and and that she has not been, and will not be, forgotten by her loved ones.

If only our own country had created such a mechanism one hundred years ago. Perhaps my beloved maternal grandparent could have written of her love for my father, and of the terrifying risk she was willing to take to give him life.

As my sister Lisa and I were growing up, our father, Roy Rotha Allen (whose Allen relatives called him Rothie), told us a few bits and pieces of his childhood–and all of his stories were difficult to hear.

“It was hard growing up without a mother,” he would say with great sadness. “I never knew my mother. She died just after I was born. I had a stepmother who was good to me, but my alcoholic uncle who lived with us, ran her off. My mother’s name was Darcus Montgomery, and she was Mormon. Her family were from Virginia.”

We knew very little about Daddy’s family, and what we were told was heartbreaking. After his mother died when he was only 4 months old, Daddy grew up in abject poverty with his illiterate father, Hodge, who worked on the killing floor of a local meatpacking plant; his grandmother Lucinda (which they pronounced Lu-cindy); and his alcoholic uncle whose name we never knew.

Daddy, known to his family as ‘Rothie”, with this grandmother Lucinda (pronounced Lu-cindy), around 1937.

Daddy would point to his cheek where he was told a rat had bitten him when he was a baby. It is not hard to imagine that a tenuous situation got worse after his grandmother died when he was 5 years old leaving Daddy in the “care” of his father and uncle. Daddy recalled being threatened with a hot poker, meals mostly of cabbage, and sneaking around to find clean clothes to wear to school. “There were lots of women and drinking,” he would say, but he did not elaborate on the details.

Daddy’s second stepmother, Sarah, threw him out of his home when he was a teenager, and he lived at the downtown YMCA until he and Mama married when he was 21. When I was quite young, Sarah decided that she and my grandfather did not want to see my family any more–which was fine with me because I was terrified of both of them. Their manner was dour and off-putting, and they constantly dipped snuff. With tobacco juice dripping from their mouths, they would kiss my sister and me. The sticky mess would stay glued on our cheeks until we could wash it off when we got home.

It is not surprising that we grew up knowing very little about either side of Daddy’s family. But since we were very close to my mother’s parents, we did not want for grandparents who loved us. We wondered about Daddy’s mother and her story, but we had no means to find out anything more.

However, when I lived in Ft. Worth, my then husband had a co-worker who was Mormon, and I became friends with his wife. I knew that followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormons, were very attentive to their ancestry. I decided to search for my grandmother through the Mormon database in Ft. Worth, and and learned that her birthdate was, September 7, 1903, in Carroll County, Virginia, and that she had two brothers that were still alive in Kingsport, Tennessee.

In Carroll County, Virginia, around 1914: My grandmother Darcus (around the age of 11) (second from left) with her brother Stephen (age 4) and her sisters Eutaw Regina (age 9) and Luva Vera (age 6) who died in 1918 of the “Spanish flu”.

It was a start, but I wanted to know more, for Daddy’s sake as well as my own. However, I moved back to Tennessee with my two children–one a toddler–and, after my divorce, became a single parent working full-time to support my children. There seemed to be no time to search for my grandmother.

Decades went by, and my sons Justin and Aidan were grown when my father’s mental health began to decline and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My husband Kurt and I felt an urgency to learn more about Daddy’s mother so we could share it with him. In addition to searching genealogical sources online, we traveled to Carroll County, Virginia, in the fall of 2015, to find her grave and to search whatever hard-copy records we could find in Carroll County and Grayson County, where Darcus’s family lived before they moved to Kingsport, Tennessee.

The rolling countryside of Carroll County, Virginia, that used to be my family’s farm. I am the tiny figure at the right. This photo was taken in October 2015 when my husband Kurt and I found the family cemetery. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

In the 1800s, the Montgomery family owned large tracts of rolling farmland in Carroll County, Virginia, and we found many Montgomery family cemeteries before we found the right one. Finally after checking with the local funeral home, we followed their handwritten map to a huge open pasture.

It was raining, and Kurt and I were both crying when we found not only Darcus’s grave, but those of her parents John and Cordelia, her brothers Robert (who fought in World War I) and Clarence, and the graves of her three little sisters who died when they were young: Rose Elizabeth, the family’s second born who lived and died the same day in 1899; Willie Hazel, who died at 2-1/2 years old); and Luva Vera, who died of the “Spanish flu” at the age of 10. Altogether Cordelia gave birth to 10 children and only seven lived to adulthood. The early 20th Century was rife with diseases that killed children.

Through online sources, Kurt found the granddaughter of Darcus’s sister Eutaw Regina–who was named Jeanie to honor her beloved grandmother. And through Jeanie we came to know my cousin, Linda (Darcus’s brother Stephen’s daughter), Both Jeanie and Linda live in Utah and have countless family photos and stories about the Montgomery family. We corresponded and talked on the phone, but Daddy died on December 2, 2016, never having seen a photo of his mother.

We visited Jeanie and Linda in the Salt Lake City area over the next few years, and they shared many photos of Darcus when she was young, and even a photo of Daddy who visited his Montgomery family in Kingsport when he was teenager.

On our third visit, Linda shared a photo of Darcus she had just found. It was probably taken just after time of her wedding to Hodge on February 10, 1934.

Darcus Nickaline Montgomery and Roy Hodge Allen (who was called Hodge) in Knoxville, Tennessee, probably around the time of their wedding, February1934.

My eyes filled with tears when I saw the photo of my beloved grandmother Darcus with her shy smile, long neck, and thin arms. Intuitively I have always thought my sister Lisa and I must have many traits from our Darcus because we do not resemble anyone in my mother’s family. We look like our Mimi Darcus–for that is what I call her when I ask for her help to find the strength and courage to make my way, to be true to my essential self, to be grateful always for every gift of love and friendship that comes my way, to aspire to be gracious, and to make a difference in the lives of those I love.

What a marvelous God-send it would have been for Daddy to have known his mother, to have seen her lovely face, to know her story.

It was too late for Daddy, but we learned Darcus’s story.

Darcus Montgomery in Virginia, in the late 1920s.

Due to his ill health, Darcus’s father John sold the family farm in Carroll County when she was a teenager, and they moved to nearby Grayson County where she and her sister Eutaw Regina worked as spinners in a newly established cotton mill. Their family doctor cautioned Darcus and her mother Cordelia that she should never marry because, in his opinion, she was not strong enough to risk having children.

Darcus was sensitive and emotionally fragile, and was protected by her mother and sister Eutaw Regina. She loved to dress stylishly, adored her family, and was especially fond of small children.

After Darcus’s father died of cancer in 1924, Cordelia eventually decided to move her youngest son Wilford and Darcus to Kingsport, Tennessee, where they had relatives. Cordelia remarried, and perhaps having a 30-year-old daughter living with her was an impediment. Or Darcus met Hodge Allen of Knoxville, Tennessee, and fell in love. Her mother remembered their family doctor’s warning, and took Darcus to a doctor in Kingsport who declared that motherhood was not incompatible with her sensitive nature, and that she should not be afraid to marry and have a child.

So Darcus Montgomery (age 30) and Hodge Allen (age 31) were married in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on February 10, 1934. They made their home an hour and a half from Cordelia, in Knoxville. Within a few months, Darcus was pregnant. Some of her relatives visited her, she seemed happy, and Hodge was openly affectionate to her. Some time during her pregnancy, however, Darcus’s health began to fail.

My father was born on April 2, 1935, but his birth certificate does state whether he was born at home or in a hospital. Darcus’s family said they were told that she was never able to hold Daddy after he was born.

According to her death certificate, Darcus died on August 12, 1935, at the age of 31, of insanity from pellagra psychosis. Pellagra was a severe vitamin deficiency that afflicted many poor Southerners in the early 1900s. Its hallmarks were the “four D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. Whether the diagnosis by the attending physician was accurate we will never know, but usually it takes four or five years to die of pellagra. It is a mystery how Darcus died of it in a year and a half.

It is a further mystery why she did not die at home or at a hospital. Her death certificate states her address as 208 Jones Street in Knoxville, but it notes that she died in “Maloneyville” at the George Maloney Home which was the work house for the poor in Knoxville. Archival records at the East Tennessee History Center, record that “vagrants, minor offenders, un-wed mothers, and insane persons” were committed to the George Maloney Home. Darcus’s death certificate shows that she died in the George Maloney Home where Knoxville housed its paupers, homeless, and insane people who were not violent. Knoxville’s mentally ill who were violent were committed to the Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital which was officially closed in 2012.

My grandmother’s headstone does not note the date of her death because her Montgomery family never knew for certain the exact day that she died.

Since my grandmother died only 4 months after Daddy was born, I had always assumed that she died of complications from childbirth, and I suppose you could make a good case for that being true. We will never know how much she suffered, and what the hell she was doing in Knoxville’s Dickensian combination workhouse/poor house/insane asylum for the indigent. And why did Hodge, her hapless and derelict husband, neglect to tell Darcus’s mother that she was desperately ill?

Although it is indeed fortunate that my father never knew the squalid details of his mother’s death, it would have been a gift beyond measure for him to have seen a photo of his mother, to have read a message from her declaring how much he was a much loved and wanted child, even before he was born.

We yearn to know where we came from so we can remember who we are. As in this gorgeous song Remember Who You Are, by South African musician Zolani Mahola:

If the birds up in the trees
Know how beautiful they are
If the mountains and the sea
Know how magical they are
If the stars which made our skin
Show how radiant they are
Won’t they shine their light until
You remember who you are?

You who cried yourself to sleep
Oh remember who you are
You who thought you were broken
Oh remember who you are
You who thought yourself ugly
Child remember who you are
You who tried to bury you
Ooh remember who you are

From the song “Remember Who You Are” by South African singer/songwriter Zolani Mahola who performs under the nom de guerre, “The One Who Sings

It is a tragedy for me that I did not “find” Daddy’s mother before his dementia began and before he died. However, for me, knowing her–even the little that we have been able to learn from her family–has given me a home within myself that I never had. It has helped me remember who I am: I am the proud granddaughter of Darcus Nickaline Montgomery Allen and the daughter of Roy Rotha Allen, Darcus’s beloved son and my beloved father.

In the moments when we most need it, may we all Remember Who We Are.

// Anna – 4/30/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Dementia, Family, Knoxville, Love | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments