Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave And senorita play guitar, play it just for you My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through . . .
Yes I’ll sit with you and talk let your eyes relive again I know my vintage prayers would be very much the same And Magdelena plays the organ, plays it just for you Your choral lamp that burns so low when you are passing through
And the future you’re giving me holds nothing for a gun I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on
Songwriters: Bernie Taupin, Elton John
This song was on Elton’s John second album–called simply “Elton John”–and it was released in 1970 when I was too young to know who he was. Three years later I would see him live in the University of Tennessee’s old (torn down in the last few years) basketball and events arena, Stokely Athletic Center.
Sadly Elton and I did not have a good first brush with one another. I did not really know the senior who asked me, a sophomore, to go with him to the Elton John concert in the Spring of 1973. I was hopelessly out of my sheltered element at the concert, was not familiar with the bulk of Elton John’s music, and when pot and cigarette smoke suffused the arena, felt so ill I’m sure I staggered to the car.
Later that year, in the fall of 1973 ( my junior year), a new kid from New Jersey joined us at our small-town city, Tennessee junior/senior high school. He was a fish out of water in many ways and did not realize that I was considered a hopeless “brain” who wouldn’t “put out”, and thus had no boy friend or dates, aside from the abortive Elton John concert effort.
Through the usual high school channels–a mutual friend laying the groundwork with the standard query, “Steve likes you. Would you go out with him?”–Steve and I started dating. In the language of our time, we were going steady because he gave me his New Jersey high school class ring to wear with tape around the back to keep it on my finger (!). And it was Steve who truly introduced me to Elton John’s work and the album that contained the song, “Sixty Years On”.
I am now 60 years (and some change) on, and today is my birthday. I suppose more accurately we should say it is the anniversary of my birth. When I was born it was the last gasp of the 1950s, just before the 1960s changed everything with the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and the resulting peace movement. Not that I noticed because I was just a tiny girl whose parents neither listened to the music of the ’60s nor were politically active. The only sign of politics in our household was that Daddy would just say he was a Nixon man. Though he was a die-hard Republican, Daddy had bought a picture book about the Kennedy assassination and JFK’s funeral. So even though Daddy considered himself a strong supporter of President Nixon, he must have found President Kennedy’s assassination to be enough of a noteworthy event to add the Kennedy assassination picture book to our home. He would show it to me often. Perhaps there is just something about death, or even a brush with death, that focuses the attention.
Today, 60 years from the 1960s, my beloved only sister has been diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer. Daddy died three years ago in December 2016; Mama had a small stroke last year that still allows her to work at the age of 83 (a feat unto itself); and now my sister has cancer that has metastisized and spread. Her attitude is excellent, but her chemotherapy treatments are brutal.
And as my sister fights for her life against this unseen enemy, it is the Christmas season, for me the born-a-week-before-Christmas baby, my parents first child. I have always felt a special affinity to the holiday season because it is my birthday season as well. Just 15 months after I came into the world, my sister Lisa was born so neither my sister nor I recall a time that the other was not there. Daddy’s girls. He was so proud.
As a friend of mine from high school told me today, we are essentially the same people we were when were younger. And he is right. We are born with a genetic makeup that informs our temperament, our resilience, and our predisposition to disease. This genetic makeup then interacts in a delicate dance with the nurturing we receive or do not receive, the love we receive or do not receive, and the acceptance we receive or do not receive. This amalgamation defines us–and yet it does not. We are the same people we were when we are young, but we have the additional experiences of life that attach to us like barnacles. We drag these burdens behind us like a fisherman’s weighty net. If we are lucky we forget enough of the most cruel moments of life so we can wrest ourselves free and fly. Into the joys, into the laughter, into the risks of loving, into the risk of falling, into the infinite possibilties of living passionately.
In many respects, I do feel as I did when I was young. But there are many additional joys and stresses to be added to that core person that was me, 60 years on. There are the smiles of my grandchildren who I love unconditionally and who love me without question or reserve. The laughter we share. The unwritten adoration and delight we find in each other. Daddy is gone in my physical world which is a profound loss. Yet he remains close to me as I pray to him for strength and remember what he would say to me in difficult moments or happy situations. How he trusted me to do that right thing, and how very much he loved me–exactly as I am.
Beyond all these blessings, however, my sister’s serious illness has shaken me to my foundation. I cannot say I will ever be the same person I was before her illness–for just the terror of having to consider life without her. But, as luck would have it, my sister has a week off from chemo this week, and it is the week her beautiful son Zach is visiting us from Portland, Oregon. Last Sunday night, Zach, Lisa’s husband Rocky, Lisa and I walked around Lisa’s beautiful South Knoxville neighborhood. My sister and I walked arms around each other, looking at the Christmas lights at dusk and after dark. She knew who lived in every home we past, and she knew the history of each one.
It was a wonderful early Christmas gift last Sunday to have time with my sister. And tonight, for my birthday, we are having take-out pizza at her house. Sixty years on I am simply grateful for my sister’s presence in my life. We were best friends in high school, and being with her tonight is my most precious birthday present ever. Material gifts are lovely, and I have honored gift-giving my entire life, but time with my sister, just looking at her dear face, is all the gift I need this birthday or this Christmas.
May Daddy’s love give me the strength to go forward, to be there for my dear sister who turns 60 in March. May she be pain-free and enjoy that birthday–my dear, dear, dear, dear sister.
I am a native Knoxvillian who has lived here all my life, except for the three years I lived in Ft. Worth. I have also traveled with my husband to many far-flung places around the country and world, such as Alaska, Antwerp, Bruges (a picturesque city that still has the cobbestoned streets and village square from its 14th-Century heyday), Brussels, and Knokke in Belgium; Cairo (and other historic sites in Egypt); Austin; Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver in Canada; Costa Rica; Houston; London; Mexico City and historic sites in Mexico; New York City; Paris and the South of France; Puerto Rico; Rio de Janeiro; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Seattle, and St. Martin in the Caribbean. Phew! So, I know a thing or two about a good meal and a good deal.
What parts of Knoxville reach to the national and international levels of interest? Here are a few that will not disappoint visitors and natives alike. And, by the way, all of these are locally or regionally owned businesses.
The new “harvest-land, sea & vine” restaurant in Knoxville is simply the finest: innovative drinks, delicious food, and an intimate atmosphere. Just the best of the best. Our waiter was friendly, knowledgable and fabulous, there are many gluten-free and vegetarian options, and the menu states clearly which dishes are safe for patrons with dietary restrictions to order.
A new restaurant concept, Harvest is located in Bearden at the corner of Kingston Pike and Mohican, across from Nama Sushi Bar.
Harvest sources most of its food from local purveyors, and is open for lunch and dinner daily, with a unique brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays. They feature daily chef specials, aged Midwestern hand-cut steak and fresh seafood selections along with several vegan, salad, and house-made pasta. And for dessert, be sure to check out at the classic French Pots de Crème, a rich chocolate custard delight, which is simple, elegant, and the perfect ending to a special dinner.
Photos from the Harvest, Land, Vine and Sea website..
Not only is the food amazing at this Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery, this family-owned restaurant has become a phenomenon that has been heralded nationally. In October 2018, Yassin’s was named the Nicest Place in America by Reader’s Digest magazine and announced by host Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America television show.
Located in Downtown Knoxville, Yassin’s was started in 2014 by Yassin Terou, a Syrian immigrant who, along with his wife and two daughters, fled his home country.
In announcing the award to Yassin’s on national television, Bruce Kelley, chief content officer for Reader’s Digest said,
Everyone who hears his story and the story of the shop is moved, from the customers that nominated him, separately multiple customers nominated him, to us editors that vetted him, to the judges and to the Knoxvillians we talked to who said he has changed Knoxville. He has made this a better place. This is an important guy.
In response, Yassin said,
Yassin’s is a place where you can come and feel safe and feel welcome because we love everyone around this world.
Yes, it’s an honor; but America is the winner; Knoxville is the winner; Tennessee is the winner. When he sent you [speaking to Robin Roberts about her visit to Knoxville], I say this prayer to everyone around this country. What makes us a winner is the people in this country, not us. So thank you very much.
Yassin has opened a second location for of thriving business. Besides the original location at the corner of Walnut Street and Church Street (at 706 Walnut), Yassin’s also serves its delicious and economical food, at 159 N. Peters Road in West Knoxville. Yassin’s has many gluten-free and vegetarian options to please those with dietary restrictions. And the staff are soooo welcoming and friendly.
Stanley’s was founded with one greenhouse in 1955 by Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley on the family farm that had been in the Davenport-Stanley family since the early 1800s. At first the family was one of Knox County’s biggest wheat producers, then they began growing produce and cutflowers to sell on downtown Knoxville’s Market Square.
What began with one greenhouse is now over 190,000 square feet, with the addition of the 36,000-square-foot retail center opened in 2001. Stanley’s Greenhouse has won numerous local awards as this region’s favorite source for everything to do with successful gardening: trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, outdoor and indoor decor, containers, gardening tools, soil, soil conditioners, and fertilizers.
An old-fashioned soda fountain on Gay Street, Knoxville’s main street downtown, the Phoenix Fountain makes it own ice cream in house–and what a delight it is! Our favorite is the peppermint stick ice cream the owner makes for the winter season.
Mast General Store has been in Knoxville since August 2006. It truly is a general store selling everything from outdoor wear, old-fashioned candy, clothes for the entire family to regional decor, candles, shoes, and kitchenware.
The prices are good, the employees are friendly, and the down-home style has been a perfect fit for Knoxville’s small town-city vibe. At Christmas the store’s friendly manager was wrapping presents near the front door for Juvenile Diabetes. I know this because she wrapped several beautifully appointed packages for me!
Three or four days a week–sometimes daily–we go into Wild Love Bakehouse for lunch or a hot or cold beverage. My husband Kurt and I are tea drinkers, but folks the coffees, lattes, and espressos are a work art too!
Wild Love is nearly always full because the soup and a huge array of bake goods are made fresh every morning by the owner and her staff of amazing pastry magicians. Each day the offerings are slightly different. Besides the amazing soup (with a crusty side bread), Wild Love offers a rotating variety of tarts, cookies, croissants, foccacia tartlets, cookies, gluten-free peanut oatmeal bars–and occasionally, the most creative salads I have seen in Knoxville.
Wild Love Bakehouse: the best coffee house, lunch, and bakery combination in Knoxville.
The tea is made fresh to order, hot or cold, with Rishi loose tea. I have them add some honey to mine, and it is divine!
And the staff are all young, friendly, and just fantastically welcoming. Wild Love has only been open a few years, but they are already a go-to location. For the late lunch and early dinner eaters, they are open on Sundays and till 6:00 p.m.!
The owners of Wild Love also have a sister location downtown, called Pearl on Union. Pearl has the same great baked goods and creative food within easy strolling distance of Knoxville’s Market Square.
A few years ago Maple Hall debuted as a brand-spanking new bowling alley, bar, eatery, and all-around fun urban experience in Downtown Knoxville’s historic JC Penney Building–and it is nearly next door to the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain. How convenient!
In 2013 Maple Hall’s visionary owners worked with a creative team of engineers, architects, designers, and contractors to reimagine a portion of the JC Penney Building as a hip bowling alley with good food, an extensive bar, an upstairs game room, and a relaxed, exposed-brick interior. Maple Hall is Knoxville most fun indoor playground.
You can’t go wrong in any of these Knoxville landmarks–and all of them are in Downtown Knoxville or within a quick drive. Enjoy, the best that Knoxville has to offer.
Last week I went to my local art-house film theater to see the documentary film Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice for the third time. Yes, I have seen this movie three times, and I thoroughly enjoyed it each time. The last time I saw a movie at a theater three times was the blockbuster Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, in 1983. So you can see that this film really spoke to me.
Why did I love the movie so much? I have been a huge Linda Ronstadt fan since the 1970s, and count myself among the lucky concert goers who have seen her multiple times. The first time I saw Linda in concert was at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletic Center on Saturday, November 5, 1977, during the tour she did for her eighth studio album Simple Dreams. The reason I know the date of the concert? I still have the ticket stub in my memorabilia binder.
Funny how memories can be selective. I had always remembered seeing Linda Ronstadt when I was a student at UT. However, after studying the ticket stub carefully, I learned (1) I had a great seat on the 9th row (!), and (2) I gained admission via a student ticket for which I would have had to present a valid student activities card. The mystery here is that I was not a student at UT in 1977. I was an undergraduate student the year before, but in November 1977, I was 19 years old and working full-time at the university in the admissions office. Hmmmmm. Maybe whoever let me buy their Linda Ronstadt ticket also let me borrow their student activities card. I don’t remember; but I do remember that the concert was thrilling.
When I saw the documentary directed by Rob Epstein (who has won two Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature) and Jeffrey Friedman, I was reminded of Ronstadt’s powerhouse voice and phenomenal song choices that have been part of my life since I was a teenager. For the first time, however, I was able to feel as if I was spending time with her since she narrated a good bit of the movie. She told the story of her parents meeting for the first time when her father rode a horse up the steps of her mother’s sorority house. Her father had what Linda described as a “lovely baritone-tenor voice” which he used to serenade her mother beneath her window. Linda’s mother was educated, beautiful, and encouraged Linda, her third child out of four children, to follow her bliss and be an independent woman, even if her ambition did not include marriage. And Linda says she has never regretted that she never married.
Her mother’s father was the inventor Lloyd Copeman who invented the electric stove, the automatic toaster, the thermostat for Westinghouse, rubber ice cube trays, the pneumatic grease gun, a tamper-proof envelope, and a slew of other inventions. As Linda says in the movie, her grandfather was third to Thomas Edison in the 1950s in the number of useful inventions he patented. But during an 2013 interview with NPR she points out that her grandfather worked alone and that Edison had teams of men working with him. Although her maternal grandfather patented nearly 700 inventions and innovations, Linda said he was only intermittently wealthy since he spent much of his money trying to find a cure for his beloved wife’s Parkinson’s disease–the disease that Linda herself now suffers from.
Linda’s particular form of Parkinson’s disease, called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (P.S.P.), has taken away most of her singing voice, caused excruciating back pain, required her to use a wheelchair to walk very far, and made it difficult for her to perform simple daily tasks. Sadly Linda has found her form of Parkinson’s is not improved by the use of traditional Parkinson’s medications such as dopamine.
Yet Ronstadt is not defined by her disease. She continues to define her life on her own terms just as she did throughout her more than forty-year-long musical career.
Music was simply a way of life for Linda as she grew up and the range of music she heard in her home was wide. The family spoke English, but her father sang Mexican folk songs, so Linda grew up thinking that everyone spoke English but sang in Spanish. Her mother listened to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, her sister loved country music, and one of her brothers was a featured vocalist in a nationally recognized boy’s choir. When she was a teenager she and two of her siblings sang together in a folk group in Tucson, Arizona, where she grew up, as Linda says, “on the last 10 acres of my grandfather’s farm.”
Linda did not get into the music business to be a star or to be the center of attention. She simply wanted to sing and make intricate harmonies with other singers. Some of the most electrifying harmonies she made were with her dear friend Emmylou Harris and their singing icon Dolly Parton. Together the three of them collaborated on the studio albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999).
Throughout her career, Linda wrestled with record company executives who wanted to confine her singing to what was the most commercially viable music to sell as many records as possible. In other words, her record company wanted her to continue making rock records that had made her internationally famous and had sold in the millions. Linda wanted to sing, could sing, and eventually did sing in more song genres (folk, country, rock, pop, opera, musical theater, Big Band standards, and Mexican folk songs or Canciones) than any popular singer has ever done. And despite the fears of her record company, she was successful at singing in all these genres.
Despite the debilitating version of the disease she has, Linda continues to enlarge our lives, not only through the startling range of her musical catalogue, but through her life story. She inspires by the example of her life: choosing to use her singing voice on the largest possible stage, choosing not to be defined by traditional female roles, speaking her mind, choosing not to be defined by the constraints of her disease, and inspiring others who have debilitating diseases.
At the end of the documentary, Linda distills the central question facing humanity to the simple words of a fellow Parkinson’s survivor who told her: “The question is not about life after death; the question is about life before death.”
Yes. We can beat each other up mentally and physically that only our beliefs are the correct ones. We can destroy each other’s sacred places and symbols. We can inprison people in concentration camps because they have a particular religious ancestry. We can consign human beings to slavery or second-class citizenship because they come from a different “tribe”, have a different color of skin, or speak a different language. We can argue until the cows come home about eternal life and which religion has the definitive answer to the pivotal question: Why are we here?
Linda Ronstadt’s life, her voice, her music, and the documentary about her extraordinary accomplishments inspire us to consider that what happens after we die is not our most important question. It is not whether we live after we die that is critical for us to know. The quintessential question is what we are doing with our lives now–before we are dead–that truly counts.
We can live our lives in a selfish vacuum, which is the example of our current national leader, or we can make a difference in the lives of others. For true happiness does not happen by staring constantly at our own navels and following our selfish whims down a rabbit hole. I have found I am the happiest when I share laughter, live my life with open arms, and take the risk to live passionately with at least two wheels on the ground. Sometimes four.
I thought I had gotten away from that long-ago house. You would think marrying when you are 18 years old would be enough to snap the thread, but I guess it is not so.
A few months ago I visited my adolescent self as I helped my mother clean out the home she had lived in for 49 years–the home I lived in for only six. The house with Mama’s beloved full-sized basement and large yard increasingly became a burden in her 83rd year, especially after she had a stroke a few years ago. She navigated ruthless steps in the front and treacherous steps from the washer and dryer in the basement to the living area. The journeys up and down had become perilous, and she was finally ready to call it quits on the house she loved.
My family moved into this house in 1970 when I was in the 7th grade. It was a newly constructed home in a small subdivision built quickly by a man whose name Daddy would use in vain many times as one thing after another needed fixing. Luckily in the early years, my grandfather was there to make everything work.
My room was painted blue, and my sister’s room was pink and both of our bedrooms had an extension phone with a loooonnnnnggggg cord. Yes, to those of you unfamiliar with the world of landline phones, the cat’s meow of the 1970s was having your own phone in your room, even if it was just an extension of the family phone line. The long cord allowed us the freedom to move around our rooms while we talked with our friends late into the night.
I am sure my sister Lisa was on the phone more than me because she had a boy friend every year she was in junior and senior high school. My time on the phone increased during my junior year of high school when I had three boy friends in succession–three months for each guy. My senior year Lisa could talk freely without negotiation with the blue room since my long-distance boy friend lived in Kentucky. It was Blue Moon of Kentucky for me because under no circumstances could I call him long distance and incur all those expensive long distance charges–another distinct difference from the call-virtually-anywhere-anytime-on-your-cell-phone capabilities of today.
After I married and left the bedroom that had been mine, Mama decided to store a huge, century-old baby bed in the middle of the room, making it difficult to clean out and pack. Inside the baby bed Mama had stacked gifts we had given her and Daddy as well as random flotsam and jetsam that was not needed anywhere in the house on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis.
Basically my former bedroom had become the memorabilia room. Inside the chest of drawers that was once mine–now with broken drawers–was my grandmother’s photo album covering the years of her childhood, her courtship with Papaw, and of her children growing up. There were also photos of Mamaw with her childhood girl friends, her mother, and her siblings.
There were a slew of photos with Mamaw with her brother Clarence who went away to World War II and never came back home–not because he died in the war, but because he decided he wanted to live in Washington DC with friends. I never met Clarence and family lore on his existence is slim. Recently Mama hinted there was another woman involved, from what she said I surmised that Clarence decided it was less embarrassing to live far away from home than to admit he was unfaithful and divorced the wife who waited for him while he was away serving his country. But in the 1940 census, I noticed that Clarence was already divorced before the U.S. got into the war, so his absence from his family after the war is a source of mystery and one of heartbreak for his family, especially his mother Madge. Perhaps the war simply changed him in ways he could not deal with around his family.
Also in the broken chest of drawers I found my diaries in a handwriting I did not recognize, written in a voice I do not recall. Could any version of me possibly have been so sheltered, so naive, and so worried about what her life would become without a boy to love her? Apparently so.
The best part of the homeplace clean up was discovering Mamaw’s active and adorable early life. The photos show Mamaw surrounded by friends and family. And Papaw! What a striking young man he was with his soulful eyes and matinee-idol looks. One close-up photo of Papaw’s face looks like the silent film star Rudolph Valentino who, as Wikipedia states, caused “mass hysteria” among his many film fans and was a cultural phenomenon. The photo shows Mamaw with a small hat on her head and a big fever blister on her lower lip, but she is smiling enigmatically and seems not to have a care in the world. Though his given name was James Thomas and his friends called him Tom, Mamaw called him Thomas and he called her Boots. I never heard how she got that nickname.
Mamaw’s family was very poor, living in what Mama describes as the chicken house at one point. The 1920 census notes that Mamaw was 7 years old and her father John Cunningham was a machine hand at a manufacturing company. A decade later, the 1930 census states that Mamaw’s father was a janitor with the city schools and that Mamaw, at the age of 17, worked as a thread clipper in an overall factory. Perhaps the overall factory could have been Levi-Strauss since the company had a textiles factory on Cherry Street in Knoxville until the 1980s.
Ten years later, the 1940 census–when Mamaw and Papaw had three small children at home–shows no income or assets for the family of five at all. The only indication of how they made a living is that they lived on a farm.
The 1940 census–with an innovation not found in the 1930 census–included a question for how many years of education each person completed. The education completed figures shown for my maternal grandparents and their families are bleak: Mamaw – 9th grade, Papaw – 8th grade, Mamaw’s father – 3rd grade, Mamaw’s mother – 6th grade, Mamaw’s brothers: 9th grade, Mamaw’s 17-year-old younger sister: 11th grade (perhaps still in school in 1940?), Papaw’s mother – 6th grade, and Papaw’s younger siblings – 7th or 8th grade.
My mother tells me that Papaw worked as a laborer in South Knoxville’s marble mill and many of the photos in my grandmother’s photo album were indeed taken at the marble quarry. Papaw worked as a janitor in an elementary school when my grandparents were courting, and he was the head janitor at my school when I was in junior high.
My grandfather could fix anything. When the school’s boiler was not working in the winter, and we all (students, teachers, and administrators alike) went around in our coats without heat, it was my grandfather who fixed the problem. At basketball games and football games Papaw sold the tickets. At halftime of basketball games, Papaw cleaned the gym flour of debris in preparation for the second half. I was only in school for a few years before Papaw retired from working for the city schools, and in the years after I mourned not seeing him in the halls. I was always so proud of him.
The hardest moments of cleaning out my parents’ home were finding my deceased father’s favorite things: his beloved New York Yankees jacket, his Yankees baseball cap, his basketball signed by the University of Tennessee’s legendary Lady Vol Coach Pat Summitt, and a framed copy of Daddy on the front page of the Knoxville paper looking at Lady Vol T-shirts just before the team was due to win their 880th game in 2005.
Daddy was one of the Lady Vols most devoted fans. For years Daddy and Mama went to every home game with my son Justin in tow. They traveled with the Lady Vols to Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii, as well as to many of the regional and national tournament games.
Season tickets, you bet, ba-bay. Daddy had four tickets behind the basketball goal–yes, you heard me right–behind the basketball goal. My husband Kurt and I sat with my parents beside the University of Tennessee pep band and had a riotous time jumping around, slapping each other’s hands, hugging, and watching the Lady Vols’ mascot Smokey ride his plastic sled down every step of the arena in a fan-hysteria-causing slalom.
Daddy’s dream was to have tickets on the side of the basketball arena where the donors were seated, so my husband Kurt and I made significant (for us) gifts to the university in order for Daddy to have four season tickets near mid court. Oh, the days of wine and roses–and glory when nearly every year we won a national championship. We gloriously celebrated each win (and amazing play) and lamented each loss right there with Daddy.
Something about seeing Daddy’s things without Daddy in them broke something inside me that I have not quite been able to fix ever since. That, and reading my diaries written in a handwriting I do not recognize, feeling ever so sorry for the young naive girl I was who had hopes of marrying just one time, having children, rearing them together with her husband, and living happily ever after.
My life has not been that simple. I left two unhappy marriages before I found the third time was charm, as people say where I come from. Although I have struggled to find my way in the wake of Daddy’s absence–let’s face it, it was my Daddy who gave me full license to be me and encouraged me to run with it–I live by the values he taught me. When I am troubled, I pray to him and my Mamaw Jerushia and my grandmother Darcus to help me find my way.
I draw strength from Mamaw and her joyous, jolly, nurturing spirit. My grandmother Darcus died when Daddy was only 4 months old so none of our family ever met her. Only recently, through our genealogical research, my husband and I were able to find some of her cousins in Utah. These beautiful women were kind enough to share with me a few photos of my grandmother and an abundance of stories about her that were handed down from their parents and grandparents.
I learned that through my grandmother Darcus Montgomery’s line of strong women, I have my independent spirit, my love of reading, and my sense of style. Last year one of my dear Montgomery cousins gave me the greatest treasure: an original photo of my father’s parents, probably on their wedding day, shown below. Now finally I have one item that was once my paternal grandmother’s.
And of course, Daddy, Darcus’s only child, is my touchstone. He loved the hit Little Things Mean A Lot, by Kitty Kallen, that reached number one on the Billboard chart in 1954. Throughout our childhood, my sister and I (loudly) sang to Daddy’s 45 rpm recording of it–and of course, we knew, and still know, every word by heart.
Little Things Mean A Lot
Blow me a kiss from across the room Say I look nice when I’m not Touch my hair as you pass my chair Little things mean a lot
Give me your arm as we cross the street Call me at six on the dot A line a day when you’re far away Little things mean a lot
Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls Champagne, sables or such I never cared much for diamonds and pearls ‘Cause honestly honey, they just cost money
Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way Give me your shoulder to cry on Whether the day is bright or gray Give me your heart to rely on
Send me the warmth of a secret smile To show me you haven’t forgot For always and ever, now and forever Little things mean a lot
This morning a watched a clip from a recent interview CNN’s Anderson Cooper had with Stephen Colbert of CBS’s The Late Show talk show. In the interview, Colbert and Cooper talked about their grief over the loss of their fathers when they were only 10 years old. Colbert‘s father and two older brothers died in a plane crash on September 11, 1974. And Cooper lost his father when he was 10 years old, and a few months ago, lost his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, as well. Seeing this beautifully realized interview, of course, reminded me of the loss of my own father nearly three years ago.
When Daddy died on December 3, 2016, I was not a child, thank heaven, but I think I understand some of the feelings they shared of their childhood grief because I feel similarly about the loss of my father: that nothing will ever be the same, that things do not matter in the same way they did before, and that the universe is aligned differently now for me after Daddy’s death. Curiously I also feel he’s close to me from time to time, and I pray to him when I need strength.
At dinner last night Kurt and I were talking about Daddy‘s last Thanksgiving. Daddy had broken his hip and was in a rehabilitation center trying to regain his strength. We got permission to bring Thanksgiving lunch to him in the rehabilitation center’s cafeteria which was quiet and abandoned from its usual clatter of activity because the staff were away sharing Thanksgiving with their families. Daddy had bedsores and was in a good deal of pain, but the rehab folks had given him a shot so when he came downstairs in his wheelchair he seemed strong and very happy. In addition to a turkery and all the trimmings, we brought a birthday cake for Tracy, Justin’s wife, since we were celebrating her birthday as well as Thanksgiving. We all laughed as daddy ate the icing off the bottom of the birthday candles. It was such an ever-so-daddy moment!
Kurt had set up a tripod to get a group shot of all of us on that Thanksgiving day. And I am so grateful that he did. The photo shows daddy holding hands with Kurt (who he adored) and showing his great joy and happiness for just being with his family. On December 3, a few days later he died with a sudden heart attack, and I sat beside his bed at the rehab center touching him repeatedly and trying to say goodbye.
When I see these photos from Daddy‘s last Thanksgiving, I am ever so grateful to be reminded of his beautiful spirit. I pray to him now in my hours of need and feel him close to me. I call out to the part of me that came from him so I can find the strength to live passionately as Daddy did.
Colbert says that grief is a gift because we can understand the pain in other people and reach out to them because of our own grief. I hear the truth in that. There is a fragile beauty in grief that reminds me of the sweet and terrible connections of life that I must never take for granted. Singing, laughing, comforting, encouraging, loving.
And yes, crying. I do hate to cry, and I have been doing too much of that the last few months as we moved Mama from the family home where she lived for 49 years to a condo which is a better home for her to management now. Cleaning out the house reminded me of Daddy in all his glorious complexity and eccentricity. I know I am very much like him and not only in my family’s gastrointestinal issues!
Daddy did not make a great deal of money in his life, in fact he lost jobs throughout my childhood–probably from being his own obstinate, couldn’t-stand-to-be-disagreed-with self. When I was a senior in high school, he told me clearly that he did not have the money to help me with college. But when I was able to go to school part-time while working full-time at the University of Tennessee, he was my greatest cheerleader.
He encouraged me to be myself and he lived long enough to see me do just that, for which I am grateful. How do I live without him? I take refuge in the small, beauty things of life; I open my arms fully to sing passionately and share my joy for music when I get the chance; I tell Daddy’s story; and I doubly love my grandchildren: for myself and also for Daddy. My father never got to meet his great-grandchildren who were born in 2017 and 2019, but I know he would be ovecome with their bright eyes, their gorgeous, innocent faces that are full of joy and wisdom that we adults have too often forgotten or left behind.
Kurt and I were at a car dealership this weekend for a test drive to replace my 11- year-old Honda Accord. To my surprise, this dealership, Toyota of Knoxville, has quotes from politicians, scientist, and writers framed on their wall. Many of them speak directly to our times–and to all times–but this one reminded me of Daddy.
Yes, Einstein knew a thing or two what was important in life. Daddy was a man of value, and I am ever-so proud to be his daughter carrying on the tradition of placing values above riches, caring more about people than things. Here’s to Daddy, Roy Rotha Allen, formerly of Knoxville, Tennessee, who now lives large and free in my memory.
For the ones who had a notion, A notion deep inside, That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive . . .
Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”, 1977
A few months before Bruce Springsteen wrote his elegaic anthem “Badlands”, I left my parents’ home, two weeks shy of 19, to marry a man I barely knew. When Bruce wrote this song, he was fighting his record company and personal management for release from a contract that took away ownership of his music and stifled his creative freedom. I was metaphorically on that same train, wanting to take the reins of my life and escape the strictures of growing up poor within the boundaries of my mother’s imagination.
In the year that followed, Bruce and I achieved our objectives: he produced what I believe to be his best album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. And I escaped my childhood home. Frying pan into the fire, actually, since the man I married was emotionally abusive, but it was a beginning, and I was on my way.
At least one of my parents lived in my South Knoxville childhood home for the next 49 years. Daddy died in 2016 after suffering from the mental and physical effects of dementia, but Mama was still adamant to continue living in their home. My sister and I feared Mama would never agree to an easier living option. But a few weeks ago, the impossible occurred when my sister called to say Mama had finally admitted the burden of keeping up her house–by herself, at the age of 83–had become too much.
Luck was in our favor when we heard that a condo was coming available just a stone’s throw from Mama’s house. Lickety-split we were clearing out 50 years–and in some ways, we were clearing out a century’s worth–of our family’s collection of dust and memories.
My mother was a pack rat, and Daddy had some difficult years near the end of his life when he collected things for no discernible reason–such as a Jacuzzi-type tub he put in the basement near Mama’s washer and dryer. Inexplicable also was an exercise bike that looks as if Daddy got it second hand. Let me just state the obvious: neither one of these items were ever used by either of my parents.
Among all the detritus of the upstairs and the basement of the house were treasures I had never seen. The most amazing find was my grandmother Jerushia’s photo album which was filled with snapshots from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. This album included photos of Mamaw’s childhood, her courtship with Papaw, and snapshots of their three children: James Thomas (Bud), Arzelia (Mama), and Rheta. Mamaw had never shown us, her grandchildren, any of these photos. Perhaps she thought these glimpses of her life when she was young were irrelevant to her later life of cooking three meals a day, washing and ironing Papaw and Uncle Bud’s clothes, breaking green beans from the garden, and attending church three or four times a week.
When I was small, Mamaw still had a party line phone that she shared with another family or two. Thus, when Mamaw was having a conversation with one of her friends from church, she could be interrupted or overheard by her neighbors. If she needed to use the phone, she sometimes had to ask these folks to please get off the line so she could make a call. People were very much into each other’s business then, gossiping about who was doing what to whom. It was a very small world with small-town values.
Yet the photos show that Mamaw flourished in it when she was young, with her friends and family around. Papaw called Mamaw, Boots, and that is the name she uses for herself most often in the front of her photo album. Occasionally she used her initials, or her first name, but usually she proudly used Papaw’s chosen name for her. How did she earn that name? Mama doesn’t know, so neither do I.
As a young man Papaw worked at the marble mill in South Knoxville and many of the photos in Mamaw’s album were taken at the mill. In the basement I found a small rectangular slab of marble honed to a smooth finish. I imagine Papaw probably brought it home for Mamaw. They were both dirt poor, so perhaps this was one of his first gifts to her.
Who knew Papaw was ever so young and good-looking as in a photo of the two of them that Mamaw had in a tiny frame. It was taken in a photo booth and is the only photo that shows a close-up view of their faces: Mamaw with a good-sized fever blister on her lip and Papaw with hynotically beautiful eyes.
There are no photos of their wedding in 1932, but plenty of the resulting children: the first child, my Uncle Bud who was born with one leg shorter than the other and a pronounced speech impediment. The doctor wanted to give up on him straight away, but Mamaw wouldn’t hear of it. My mother, the middle child, came along a year and a half later, followed by my Aunt Rheta, the youngest, a few years later.
When Mama and my husband Kurt were cleaning out the basement, they found a tiny New Testament Bible that I was given in the 4th grade. My parents named me Anna Marie, that’s what I was called, and that was the name written in the front of the Bible. However, when I was in the 6th grade, I decided I wanted to be called Anna. Perhaps I thought a one-word name was more grown up. I could only smile when I saw how my elementary-school self had marked out my middle name on the Bible’s “Presented to” page. In the back of the Bible, I had written beside the Serenity Prayer that I wanted to be a writer. For the life of me, I cannot remember wanting to be a writer from such a young age. Although I confided the information in a postscript to myself, I do love how I phrased it, “For I want to be a writer!”
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these badlands.
Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”, 1977
In the bedroom that used to be mine, I found one of my high school diaries in a chest of drawers. I looked at the scrawl and couldn’t believe it was my handwriting. Nor did I recognize the girl that wrote the words. I had written about a young man I met in Kentucky when our church youth group went to Prestonsburg, near the West Virginia border, to hold Vacation Bible School classes for the children of coal mining families. I fondly recall the children we met there who were wonderfully sweet. We held our Bible School classes in a small building near their homes beside the muddy, unpaved hollers that ran up the hillsides–just as Loretta Lynn sang about. I never forgot the strange juxtaposition of ran-down shacks, each with its collection of old appliances and rusting car pieces, but nearly always a shiny, expensive-looking car or truck beside it.
The young man I met in Prestonsburg, named Dell, was the Baptist preacher’s son, unlike any other preacher’s son I have ever met. And yes, I would go on to date another preacher’s son latter in my life. But this young man was a gentleman, the quarterback of his high school football team, the most popular guy in his school, but he was inexplicably a sweet, humble guy who really liked me. That is, the me that spent years not dating because I was considered too brainy. And there was the guy who broke up with me because I was too religious. Good points taken on both accounts. At that time I was too religious and I did have my head in a book as often as I could get away with.
The preacher’s son and I wrote fervent letters back and forth for awhile. My family went up to meet his family, and we saw him play a football game. I dreamed of marrying him, of course. Because my family was so poor and I was 7th in class, I had been given a full scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky, and Dell wanted to be an engineer and attend Eastern or Western Kentucky University, I cannot now recall which.
But it was not to be. I had remembered receiving a “Dear Jane” letter, but forgotten it was because he had found someone else: that he had begun dating the minister of music’s daughter. And with that dream shattered I did not pursue my education at Berea College where I could have received one of the best educations any young, poor girl could have had. What a loss! I stayed in Knoxville, had two scholarships to the University of Tennessee, lived at home, made no friends as a commuting students, and dropped out of school after a year. At my first job I met a divorced guy who had some anger issues, married him after three months, and escaped my childhood home. From the frying pan, into the fire.
Besides the birth of our son Justin in 1980, my first husband gave me one other gift that has stuck with me for all these years: a love for Bruce Springsteen’s early music. I have lived many years in that darkness on the edge of town. I have ended many days proving it all night. I have sucked the marrow out of many long nights and days of yearning to live freer than my girl nerd self (who worried too much about what other people thought) ever really could.
I found pieces of that girl scattered throughout my parents’ house. In some ways I was a stranger to my younger self. And I became a stranger to myself indeed, full stop, as I cleaned out my parents’ home. It was inconceivable to me that all their years together had become dust, a spider in the tub downstairs, mothballs in the upstairs closets, empty plant containers in the outside shed, no basketball net on Daddy’s basketball goal.
And I certainly can’t say I have the same faith I had as a teenager, for myself or my country. These days are full of more hatred and division than I have ever experienced in my life–an America I never thought I’d live in.
Poor man wanna be rich Rich man wanna be king, And a king ain’t satisfied, till he rules everything.
Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”
It would be encouraging to think we could pause long enough from hatred and division just as the Union and Confederate soldiers did when the soldiers would sing their battle songs the night before battles. Many times they would be on opposite banks of a river, with the Union soldiers singing “Hail, Columbia”, and the Confederate soldiers singing “Dixie” (or as some of them called it, “Look Away”). After the military bands on each side of the river piped down, a soldier on one side or the other would begin singing “Home, Sweet Home”.
Dear Sister, a song by Claire Lynch, written from the letters of a young Confederate soldier from Alabama to his sister Lucinda, was my first hearing of this bit of beautiful reconciliation. It brought tears to my eyes when I first heard that the Civil War soldiers from opposing sides often would sing together before battles. Songs about home. A longing for home. And their loved ones.
This could be my last letter, I may never see the cotton fields of home again I miss you, Dear Sister, Tonight I never felt so all alone
And the fog was so thick that the Stone’s River stars Could scarcely invade the dread and the dark And all that I could see when I closed my eyes to dream Was home, sweet home.
In the camps of Round Forest the midnight coals were glowing through the haze The Union boys sang Hail Columbia then we sang Look Away, Look away Then a hush in the rain and there rose a sweet refrain In the dark before dawn, instead of battle songs The enemy and we all sang a melody Of home, sweet home.
So if this is my last letter and I never see the cotton fields of home again If I fall here at Stone’s River I know that God will bear away my soul to be with him
And I’ll wait for you there where all is bright and fair Where the light of his face outshines the blue and gray Where all of humankind, yes, every man will find His home, sweet home.
Claire Lynch, “Dear Sister”
When Daddy was in the hospital and going downhill, my husband and I decided to travel to Virginia in search of Daddy’s mother’s grave in Carroll County. Daddy’s mother died when he was 4 months old, so he never knew her. And Daddy was not able during his lifetime to see a photo of her.
We did not have much to go on. Kurt and I found ourselves in a fenced-in area in the middle of a cow pasture where we did not find my grandmother’s grave. Instead we found the grave of one of my Montgomery relatives who fought for the Confederacy surrounded by a few of his family. On that trip we also found out my great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy as well. I am proud that my forebears fought for what they believed at a time of great division in our country. I wish there were more I could do now to save our country from a leader who fans racial tensions that take us back to the Civil War days. Must we keep refighting past hatreds?
During our Virginia trip after searching through four Montgomery family cemeteries, we finally found the right one and were able to come home to Knoxville and show Daddy photos of his mother’s grave–and the graves of her family.
A few years after Daddy died, Kurt and I visited my cousin Linda in Salt Lake City, Utah, and she gave me the first photo anyone in my family had ever seen of my dear grandmother Darcas Nickaline Montgomery Allen. Oh, so long dead she was, but so lovely. I look a lot like that young woman who died at the age of 31 giving birth to Daddy. So many dreams she had of having her own family. She did not live to see the family she gave birth to, but because of her, Daddy was born, and my sister Lisa and me, and our children and their children.
In many ways I have nothing in common with the girl that lived in my parents’ house some 40 years ago. But I am indeed the girl that had a notion deep inside that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. And for my Daddy who encouraged me to be that girl, and my dear grandmother Darcas who gave Daddy and me life:
I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the hope that can save me, I believe in the faith and I pray, that someday it may raise me Above these badlands.
A long long time ago I can still remember how That music used to make me smile And I knew if I had my chance That I could make those people dance And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver With every paper I’d deliver Bad news on the doorstep I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride Something touched me deep inside The day the music died So
Bye, bye Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die This’ll be the day that I die
“American Pie” – Don McLean (1971)
When I first heard Don McLean’s American Pie, I was in the 8th grade. This was the time in my life when everyone seemed older and wiser than my own awkward, not-yet-grown-into-my-body self. Maybe since I grew up listening to Daddy’s 1950s-era, 45-rpm records, I was just old enough to understand the loss of great musicians in plane crashes as well as the loss of innocence as we grow up.
With its over eight glorious minutes of rollicking storytelling, American Pie was probably the only song to hit number one on the charts with that length. Don McLean effortlessly captures what it’s like to be young and hit between the eyes by rock-and-roll. Then to learn about the death of one its most stellar visionaries, Buddy Holly, in February 1959 at the too-young age of 22. The opening lines of American Pie refer Holly’s widowed bride, Maria Elena Santiago-Holly, who did not attend his funeral because she had just miscarried their first child.
Holly never saw the 1960s, but his records did. He was such a prolific songwriter and spent so much time in the studio recording them, that his record company was able to continue to release his songs throughout the ’60s. What an innovator he was as he is credited with establishing the quintessential lineup of a rock band: two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. He pioneered multi-track recording and influenced musicians who came after him such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others.
I was reminded of Buddy Holly a few weeks ago when I read The Day the Music Burned, a New York Times Magazine investigative article chronicling the loss of Buddy Holly’s master tapes in a 2011 fire of the warehouse on a movie-studio lot where the archival recordings were stored.
And not just Buddy Holly’s master recordings were lost, but an enormous treasure-trove of other artists’ master recordings including: Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Billie Holliday’s recordings for Decca. Also lost were masters by Etta James, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, REM, No Doubt, Sheryl Crow, Nirvana, the Eagles, the Police, Sting, Janet Jackson, George Strait, Aerosmith, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Diamond, B.B. King, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, the Weavers, Mama Thornton, the Four Tops, Benny Goodman, Joan Baez, and probably thousands of other musicians.
Why didn’t we hear about this terrible loss of our musical heritage? The record company that owned the tapes had stored them in a warehouse on a movie-studio lot. In their official statements after the fire, the record company downplayed their losses and stated that no master tapes were lost in the fire. Of course, the loss of a master tape is an incalculable one. In the early years, record companies thought of master tapes as a money-out-the-door issue since storing themsafely and archiving them for retrieval cost money. They did not fully understand the inherent value of the master tapes. It was only decades later when recording technology progressed far enough where original recordings could be used to create pristine versions of the artist’s work that were actually better than when the original recording was released on vinyl.
The tension between accumulating money versus artistic creativity, getting rich versus aesthetic beauty is one I have been thinking a lot about lately as I have been driving around my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. I have been cursing as I see new apartment complexes going up near downtown Knoxville, most of them meant for university students not for long-term housing and the lack of aesthetics goes along with it. These new buildings look like manufactured housing with facades of a little bit of brick here and there to spiff it up.
All the buildings I see share a common theme: a small amount of brick edifice, and a great deal of cheaper material that is not made to last or look beautiful. Just one time I would like to see new construction in my hometown that is awe inspiring, aesthetically pleasing, and worthy of note. Just one time. The old buildings at the University of Tennessee have the fine architectural details around their windows and doors, railings with decorative filigree, form married beautifully with function.
Buildings that are graceful and elegant, that will stand the test of time are really not what we build here in Knoxville–maybe in America–anymore. Before I was born, public buildings, hotels, banks, and other businesses were designed with distinction and built by bricklayers with old-quality construction and craftsmanship. I guess that quality and craftsmanship got lost somewhere around the time people began to be called employees instead of workers. If you are an employee, you are one that is being acted upon by your employer, you do not own the action. If you are a worker, you own the action, you produce the work. The words we use to describe things are subtle, yet they are powerful. I would much rather be a worker than an employee.
Maybe the word worker became too closely identified with Communism in the wake of World War II as the Soviet Union gobbled up country after country in its quest for as much of Europe as it could take. I don’t know. It would seem obvious to me that Communism lost out in its competition with Capitalism somewhere back in the Reagan-Gorbachev years. Maybe that’s why Putin is trying to regain Russia’s lost glory and build another empire in the world today. But Russia is not exactly known for its innovation as America has been known in the past.
Some of the best things about what it means to be American have inspired people around the world: especially through our music such as in the blues and rock and roll, both steeped in African roots. Because we are a country populated with an amalgam of different people from all over the world, our music was stirred together with bits and pieces of magic from musical traditions from all around the world.
Certainly Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, born during the Great Depression in Lubbock, Texas, wanted to make money in the music business. But what drove him was not to be an employee of a record company, waiting for a songwriter to write him a hit record, a public relations man to tell him how to dress and act, and a producer to make his music sound like what other musicians were doing. Buddy wanted to be a complete artist, write his own songs, perform them in his own idiosyncratic way with his distinctive black glasses (that he bought from an optician in Lubbock, of course!), and produce his records himself. He saw what was there and he wanted to make it better. His music, his way. So quintessentially American.
So Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, his master tapes were burned in a warehouse in California in 2011, but his music did not die. It is the music that gives us the strength and fight to go on even in our darkest times.
He who owns a rood of proper land in this country, and in the face of all the pomonal riches of the day, only raises crabs and chokepears, deserves to lose the respect of all sensible men. --Andrew Jackson Downing