Ode to Little Man

Lincoln, our 1-month-old Little Man.

I have a dark-eyed, adorable obsession: the Little Man who a month ago was born into our lives. Last year my son Justin married the love of his life Tracy. From their love, has come their son Lincoln, the already dignified and compelling presence we call Little Man because he is already so much his own person! And he was born with such large hands that he is still growing into them.

When I was a child, I used to swing on my grandparents’ backyard swing set and make up songs. I can’t remember a time that music has not played in my head when I am not dealing with all that life stuff that keeps me running about. So over the past few weeks I have made a lullaby for Little Man to the tune of the song Little Bird, Little Bird, written by Mitch Leigh in 1972 for the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. So here we go . . .

Little Man, Little Man
Don’t you wanna wake up?
Little Man, Little Man
We can have lots-a fun!

You can stare at me
With your big dark eyes
I can coo at you
Try to make you smile

Open up your arms
To the big wide world
Who’s more lucky
Than us!

Lincoln on the day of his birth.

The unadulterated force of my love for Lincoln and joy at his birth has been in sharp contrast to rest of the past year. Since I lost my dear father a year ago, and we gained an untenable leader for our country, I have been despondent about the present and the future.

I was born in the United States–in Tennessee, a historically poverty-stricken state, I’ll grant you–at a time when the country was riding high. When I was old enough to be aware of the world around me, America was about 25 years past saving the world from Nazism; World War II veterans were in their prime and led local, state, and national organizations; and we were proud of our place in the world.

Our high school chorus sang:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Little Man, a few weeks old, with his big hands.

Until today when I looked up the exact wording of this song, I did not realize the lyrics of this song were written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a New York poet who was the daughter of Jewish immigrants. She wrote it to help raise money to properly exhibit the Statue of Liberty which was given to our country by France. This statue, formally called The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, was given by the French people out of friendship and to mark our countries’ shared commitment to democratic ideals.

When we received this extravagant gift, many Americans were less than thrilled about a monumental statue of a woman holding a torch which required an expensive pedestal in order to display it. Fundraising efforts were not going very well, so its leader asked Emma Lazarus, a 34-year-old New York poet, to write a poem to be auctioned–along with works by other popular artists of the time, such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman–to secure enough money to exhibit Lady Liberty in a fitting manner.

Although she was reluctant to write a poem on demand, Lazarus contributed a sonnet to the effort. As for Mark Twain, he refused to contribute any of his work. Instead he sent a check with a letter enclosed proposing that a statue of the Biblical Adam would be more fitting and wrote:

What do we care for a statue of liberty when we’ve got the thing itself in its wildest sublimity? What you want of a monument is to keep you in mind of something you haven’t got—something you’ve lost. Very well; we haven’t lost liberty; we’ve lost Adam.

Another thing: What has liberty done for us? Nothing in particular that I know of. What have we done for her? Everything. We’ve given her a home, and a good home, too. . .

But suppose your statue represented her old, bent, clothed in rags, downcast, shame-faced, with the insults and humiliation of 6,000 years, imploring a crust and an hour’s rest for God’s sake at our back door?—come, now you’re shouting! That’s the aspect of her which we need to be reminded of, lest we forget it.

When I read Twain’s objections to the Statue of Liberty, it was not clear to me what aspect of Adam, the Biblical first man, Twain believed Americans had forgotten and needed to remember. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve lost their freedom to decide their own fate by disobeying God and were cast from their home, the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps Twain meant that a statue of Adam would be an apt reminder that we should safeguard our freedoms better than the first man reputed to have lost his. Although Lady Liberty has been a very effective inspiration to the world fpr the past century and a half, Twain’s admonition could be more relevant to our present-day situation than his own.

In any event, Twains’ alternative suggestion went unheeded, and Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, The New Colossus, was read at the Statue of Liberty’s 1883 exhibition.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

The love of our lives.

Lady Liberty has welcomed millions of refugees to America which has been a sanctuary from oppression, a land of opportunity and second chances. Her welcome presence in the New York harbor has been a symbol to hope to  immigrants seeking a better life.

Like Lady Liberty, my grandson’s birth awakened a hope in me that I thought was gone. When I look into his eyes, I want to ensure he has a world where he can breathe freely, love who he wants, do what he wants, and realize his dreams. Despite the daily evidence to the contrary, Lincoln’s existence gives me hope.

Loving Little Man as I do makes me want to fight for his best future. It is no coincidence that a female figure was chosen to exemplify the ideals of democracy and freedom, even if females have not always been able to exercise those rights in this country. Now that women have the right to vote, we should use that right from an impulse of love, not an impulse borne from (and born out of) fear and hate. More than with our vote, we should also use our individual talents as well as our combined efforts to conserve and protect our environment; provide affordable health insurance for all, but especially for children; promote policies that favor the majority of people, not policies that favor only the wealthy and powerful; and support regulation and legislation to make education at every level more child-friendly and affordable without graduate-school education benefits being taxed as compensation.

I am not a glassy-eyed Pollyanna, but a realist who knows the odds are stacked heavily against us. But we must do what we can. Twice in the past two decades, our country has demonstrated that Americans do not, by definition, live in a democracy where the power of the people and the rule of the majority decide their leader. We can argue about many things, but the present rule by the minority over the will of the majority is our present-day reality. However, I am encouraged by the fact that America and her allies overcame the Nazis in World War II and put an end to the systematic death machine of the Holocaust. If we could overcome the seemingly unbeatable German juggernaut, perhaps we have a future beyond the chaos of our current governance.

May he have the chance for a bright future.

A few years after Emma Lazarus wrote her poem to help raise money for the Statue of Liberty, she died of cancer at the age of 38. Her obituary did not mention her contribution to the way the world viewed our country: as a symbol of hope and liberty. Although it wasn’t till 1903 that her poem was championed and her words were added to the Statue of Liberty, her work has inspired generations to emigrate to theis country that my grandson’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln, said was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.

Sometimes the best efforts can seem lost for years, but then they may unexpectedly resurface above the waves, and find safe harbor. May it be so–sooner rather than later–for the precious sweetheart we call Little Man, and all the other little women and men we hope will have a future in this world.

// Anna ~ 12/1/2017

 

 

 

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Freedom, Happiness, Ideas, Love | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daddy’s Ro-phorisms

My sister Lisa and me in the snow outside our first home, 1963

When I was growing up Daddy used to drive me crazy with his corny aphorisms for every situation.

We didn’t have the money to eat at the fancier restaurants such as Shoney’s–yes, we were indeed that poor. Mama and Daddy would occasionally take us through the McDonald’s drive-through where the odds of getting a plain hamburger for finicky me were pretty slim. About half the time my “plain” hamburger came with the icky mustard and ketchup abomination they slathered on those unsuspecting burgers!

Mama would say, “Wipe it off with your napkin.” And Daddy would chime in with, “Anna, you’ve got to take the sour with the sweet.” I didn’t want to take the sour with the sweet! I  wanted a plain hamburger on a plain bun without the nauseating condiments that made me want to throw up.

But making do was my family’s mantra. Don’t make waves. Don’t ask questions.

Doctors always knew best–even if we went to the quack doctor in our poor side of town who diagnosed my torn cartilage as water on the knee. I walked around on that swollen knee for months before the former nurse across the street said, “You’d better get that looked at by a knee specialist I know.” The orthopedic doc suggested surgery right away. Voila! I could walk.

My mantra was making it better. Whatever “it” was, I wanted to read about it, learn about it, ask questions about it, organize it, devise a better system for it, put a bow on it, and for sure not have disgusting condiments all over it. Let’s say my parents and I were not always the most smooth dance partners for a childhood pas de trois.

Our second home with the big old trees in the front yard that Daddy hated because he hated raking leaves.

Daddy however was one to rail against the elements. With grim resolve, he’d say, “I’ve gotta go down and stoke the furnace.” From the pile of coal in our backyard, he’d take a goodly amount of coal in a bucket down to the furnace in our dirt-walled basement. If he was successful, the registers that brought heat into our house would spew forth warmth. If he was not successful, we were cold.

I’ve often said it, Daddy would have made a good king. He would have been a magnanimous monarch of a well-off country if there was a tidy bureaucracy to look out for all the details of his duchy. Justice and integrity would have ruled the day. But Daddy was not mechanical, he certainly could not fix anything, and he was so methodical with everything he attempted that he was left in the dust by the cut-corners, beer-and-pizza, salt-of-the earth men of his time and place.

But Daddy had his values, his aphorism, his theories, and his truths. Some of them were spot on, some less so. I find now I trot out more than a few of Daddy’s sayings to put the punctuation mark on life’s ups and downs.

We’ll cross that road when we come to it.

Jealousy. It’s jealousy. That’s the root of all evil.

This is dogwood winter, next we’ll have blackberry winter, and then whippoorwill winter.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Better late than never.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

You win some, you lose some.

You can’t beat a good team twice.

You can’t take it with you.

We don’t want to wear out our welcome.

Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Live and learn.

Dad jimmit!

Dadgumit!

Time flies.

It’s as slow as Christmas.

That’s a pig in a poke.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Money isn’t everything.

Little things mean alot.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Practice makes perfect.

Two heads are better than one.

That’s the pot calling the kettle black.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Don’t go out with your head wet.

Get home before dark.

Did we turn the stove off?

Daddy being irrepressibly himself at a 1996 wedding reception.

Daddy was especially fond of asking about the stove being off–a sign of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with his taking an hour to shave. We used to have a hee-haw, my sister and me, shaking our heads about Daddy taking an hour to shave. Bless his soul. I miss him so.

My Daddy, Roy Rotha Allen, died a year ago on December 2, 2016. I think of him often. My husband Kurt and I enjoy quoting Daddy’s sayings to each other. I usually preface one of these wisdoms with “as Daddy used to say . . . ” Kurt calls them Daddy’s aphorisms, his Rotha-isms, or his Rophorisms.

Despite Daddy’s 10th-grade education, his mother dying when he was only 4 months old, and his being raised in a home full of neglect, alcoholism, and abuse, Daddy was the parent who taught me to laugh and live life with open-armed passion and joy. He taught me not to be afraid of living life to the fullest, to talk openly, to question, and to love without reserve. He taught me these things because I shared more than a bit of his genetic makeup, and I watched him live. He loved me without qualification and without trying to make renovations, as Mama tended to. He was proud of me and everything I accomplished. He was proud of my education and the jobs I earned that allowed me to make a difference in the world.

Daddy at Christmas 2000.

Mama gave me my energy, drive, and hardworking, never-say-die work ethic. But Daddy gave me the sweet love that sustained my soul during the times in life when I was in serious harm’s way. He LOVED me. And because he loved me, I knew in my bones how to love others. Loving myself and accepting myself with all my imperfections has been hard; I am my own worst critic. But Daddy saw only my shiny-faced good points, and he made me glad to be alive.

He still does. And as long as I live, he will always be with me. He is still my sweet, sweet, adorable, dearest Daddy.

//Anna ~ 11/30/2017

 

 

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Family, Happiness, Home, Joy (Joie de General), Love, Writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Arriving at Last

The young dreamer, circa 1972.

In the fall of my senior year at South (Knoxville) High School, I was offered a full scholarship to Berea College, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionists who took their beliefs seriously enough to start the first interracial and coeducational college in the antebellum South. They expanded their mission through the years to offer poor Appalachian kids like me a free college education in exchange for working at the college.

Although my father was proud of my academic accomplishments in school, he made it clear he could not help me with my college education. He was not being unkind, just stating the obvious, since my family’s income was around $7000 in 1975. I knew I needed scholarships to attend school and was especially excited about a full scholarship to Berea where everyone would be a kid of limited-to-no means like me. Coming from a family where Daddy’s father was illiterate and Daddy did not graduate from high school, I was the first person in my family to seek a college education.

Accepting my diploma from high school in May 1975.

Making this whole Kentucky college education dream even more appealing to a naive, hopelessly romantic girl–who had grown up on a steady diet of old-time movie romance–I had met a young man from Kentucky that past summer. His father, the pastor of the Prestonsburg Baptist church, was a close friends of the pastor of our church in Knoxville. In the mid-1970s, Prestonsburg was a small town in Floyd County with one red light–a milestone over which there was great excitement and pride. There was even talk of a second one coming soon.

Our church youth group was invited to Prestonsburg to hold Vacation Bible School classes for the kids of coal-mining families. Just down the road from town, the hollers of nearby Johnson County hadn’t changed much since Loretta Lynn–the world-famous, country music singer-songwriter–grew up there in Van Lear, Ky., 30 years before.

The young preacher’s son, Dell, was kind, attentive, also a rising senior in school, and was such a gentleman when we went to see a movie at the nearest theater in Paintsville. The West Virginia line was just 30 miles or so away. This was coal country where mining families lived in hollers (hollows) that went straight up the mountainsides. I was amazed that their front yards were mud, the houses where not much more than shacks, but there were usually several cars beside them–some on cinderblocks, but some quite pricey. What little money they had went toward wheels, either for bragging rights or perhaps to take you someplace you’d rather be.

Here I am in April 1975, just before I started college in June.

My Kentucky gentleman and I wrote each other when I went back home to Tennessee for my senior year. My parents even took me and my sister up to see him play quarterback in a football game that fall. He had been voted Mr. Prestonsburg High, was the quarterback of the football team, and was a Baptist preacher’s son–what more could a young Southern, religious, girl like me want?

I dated no one my senior year, didn’t go to my senior prom–not that it was a terrible hardship since I hadn’t gone to many dances during my years at South. Being considered a “brain” had made me dateless for most of my high school years anyway. Instead I wrote earnest letters and dreamed of a future with such a nice guy as Dell. I must have confided to one of the girls at church about my dreams of going to college in Kentucky and a future with Dell, because she told a friend of hers in Prestonsburg, who mentioned it to Dell, and I received a Dear Jane letter. Perhaps a long-distance relationship was too tenuous to build a future on–or maybe he found someone else.

My Irish Mamaw Jerushia Cunningham Henderlight at my college graduation in 1987.

The breakup with my Kentucky boy friend made attending Berea College seem more like a pipe dream. So when I won a one-year Knoxville PTSA scholarship in an essay-writing contest, I decided to attend the University of Tennessee in my hometown.

Meanwhile life has happened over the last four decades. Busy, busy, busy. I graduated from UT where I worked for 30 years, the majority of those years spent writing for the fund-raising arm of the university. Education had been my ticket to a better life for me and my children, and I felt so fortunate to have earned a spot on the team that was working to ensure that other kid’s educational dreams could come true.

At the university I met an extraordinary man, Kurt, and we married in 1995. Ironically he had earned his undergraduate degree at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college in Lexington, Ky. This year our nephew Zach began work on his master’s degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, so last month the planets aligned and we gleefully set out to visit Zach and his adorable girl friend Paige at their home there.

Inside one of the gorgeously appointed buildings at Berea College. Photo: Kurt Weiss

Only a short drive from Lexington was Berea, the college that had offered me a full scholarship beginning the fall of 1975. I could have gone there, worked alongside other poor kids like me, and gotten a first-class education without debt or tuition. Of course, being such a sensitive, homesick kinda girl as I was at 17, I would have needed the additional incentive and support of a boy friend down the road at Eastern Kentucky University who was in the engineering program–which at the time was what Dell said he wanted to do.

But just for a moment, it is sweet to imagine that I had been raised by parents who knew more about the ropes of higher education, and I had been able to chart my own course at Berea. I could have become a history teacher or an English teacher, and gone on to make seemingly dry subjects shine, inspiring a few of my students to dream they could be more than the lives they were born into.

The Historic Boone Tavern at Berea College, September 2017, photo by Kurt Weiss.

It did not happen that way for me. But last month, in September 2017, Kurt and I left Lexington, went to Berea, and stayed at the college’s historic Boone Tavern, We had a tour of the campus given by an undergraduate student  who loves the school so much that she hates to leave even for holiday visits with her family! We enjoyed lunch in the student-staffed coffee shop, bought student-crafted mugs in the student-ran bookstore, and scored an organic rosemary plant from the student-ran farms of Berea. The grounds were perfect, the buildings immaculate, and everyone seemed very happy to be there.

One of only seven work-colleges in the country, Berea gives their students the highest quality education (worth approximately $100,000) and is consistently ranked one of the best private liberal arts colleges in the country. Pretty remarkable for a college that started with the dream of promoting equality by making education available to men and women of all races. Yes, men and women of all races.

Love this tree that fits me perfectly! Photo: Kurt Weiss

There is more than one way to make a dream come true, and the road to fulfilling Berea’s full egalitarian, interracial mandate was littered with roadblocks–such as Kentucky’s law in 1904 forbidding the co-education of blacks and whites. But 46 years later, in 1950, Kentucky amended the law to allow co-education above the high school level, and Berea again accepted black students.

Soooo, I was not able to go to Berea in 1975, but 42 years later I arrived–a bit late for sure. But so excited to see the college for myself at last. The huge old trees dotting the campus were planted by students we were told, some of the buildings were built by students, and we watched as students mowed the college grounds. Talk about sweat equity. This is triumph of the spirit. Of course, not everyone who begins as a freshman makes it to graduation at Berea. Some students cannot keep up with the rigorous academic standards and work responsibilities. But for those who have the work ethic, determination, and heart, Berea is the train they can take to where they want to go which gives them more power over their lives. For that is what education does–gives you more power over your life.

I finally arrived at Berea College–a bit late, but so happy nonetheless!

Berea College was never able to make my dreams come true, but as an adult–with some occasionally disposable income–I can support Berea and help other ambitious young people of limited means to realize their hopes for a better life.

As the famous primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall recently said in an interview printed in the October 21, 2017, edition of The New York Times:

 

I meet so many incredible people doing amazing things, saving animals on the brink of extinction, restoring the forest, cleaning up a river. It’s knowing what can be done that gives people the courage to fight.

Here’s to having the courage to fight and make a difference! And here’s to finally arriving!

Anna// ~ 10/31/2017

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Education, Family, Freedom, Ideas, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Taking Along Our Ghosts

When I was young, I saw the 1979 movie “Being There” starring Peter Sellers in his most provocative role as Chance, a simple, uneducated man who grew up and tended the garden on a great estate, and had never been off its grounds. Since the film was shot at the gorgeous Biltmore House in North Carolina, I felt a special kinship to the movie since I had been there a few years before.

As the movie opens, Chance the gardener’s life has irrevokably changed with the death of the estate owner who was his guardian. Chance cannot continue his existence of simply tending the garden and must make his way in a world he does not understand. Curiously, however, everyone he meets “writes” onto Chance as if he is a blank slate seeing in him what they want to see. A misunderstanding of his name leads to him becoming known as Chauncey Gardner who inadvertently achieves fame by appearing on television as a man of simple wisdom who eventually becomes the chief adviser to the President of the United States.

Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in the 1979 movie “Being There”.

Gardening is all he knows, and gardening is all he really talks about. Yet everyone he meets and the people who watch him on TV, see great imagery, depth, and import in his simple phrases about roots, growth, the seasons, and “liking to watch” TV.

I couldn’t help but muse about “Being There” and Chauncey Gardner after the night I woke up at 4:00 a.m., on November 9, 2016. The day before had been Election Day and I had followed the returns with mounting dread. At about 1:30, I went to sleep hoping against hope that my country would not elect a reality TV star as President. A scant few hours later I was awakened as blood poured down my throat from a burst blood vessel in my nose.

And it wouldn’t stop bleeding. As I held a wet Kleenex to my face, I texted my friend who (thank heaven!) is a wonderful ear, nose, and throat specialist here in Knoxville. I explained my situation and asked if she could work me into her morning schedule. Of course there was no immediate answer at 4:30 a.m., but finally the nose stopped bleeding. I checked my iPad and learned that, yes, our Electoral College system of counting votes by the population of each state–rather than by democratically counting each citizen’s vote–had given the election to our own 2016 version of Chauncey Gardener.

I tried to doze a little on that early morning of November 9. I was awakened by a text on my phone from my ear, nose, and throat doctor saying I could come to her office straight away. As I drove my nose started bleeding again. Between driving and bleeding, bleeding and driving, I was lucky to make it to her office where she did surgery to close the artery in my left sinus. She explained that when we get older, our sinus cavities are not so resilient and blowing our nose with too much force can cause a rupture and open an artery. Live and learn. But too often we do not learn–certainly we do not learn from history.

I am a native Tennessean, born and reared in Knoxville. My various family lines (Irish, German, Scots-Irish, French, and English) have been in this country for hundreds of years.

My maternal grandfather’s family, the Henderlights, came from Germany in the 1700s. During World War II, my grandfather’s brother Ed was captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war. Mama says that because Ed Henderlight’s ancestors came from Germany, they saw his German last name and let him go. My Irish grandmother’s brother, my Uncle Charlie Cunningham, also fought in World War II.

Through archival research, I have found that my paternal grandmother’s line of Montgomerys came originally from Normandy (what is now France), then to England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The ancestor who came to the U.S., was William Montgomery, a Quaker, who emigrated from either Ireland or Edinburgh, Scotland, to Philadelphia, then to Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1772. He is buried in New Garden, which became a Quaker college, called Guilford College, a few years after his death.

During this country’s Civil War, my great, great-grandfather Lindsey Montgomery was a private in the Carroll County Militia Infantry, Company G of the 54th Virginia Regiment of the Confederate Army. The 1870 U.S. census states that Lindsey was a farmer, the value of his “personal estate” was $150, and that no one in the family could read or write except his son Thomas, age 8.

My paternal great-grandmother Cordelia Nichols Montgomery and her Carroll County, Virginia family.

The 1880 census notes that Lindsey and his wife Mary lived in a household of nine family members including Lindsey’s mother and their youngest child, my great-grandfather John Montgomery who was 9 years old.

According to her widow’s pension application from the state of Virginia in 1902, Mary noted that her husband died of “fever” on November 19, 1895, near Baker Mines in Carroll County, Virginia. Since her husband died after the war, Mary only received $25 a year instead of the $40 received by Virginia widows whose husbands who had died during the war. At that time Union widows received three times the amount that Virginia was able to give its widows.

My husband Kurt and I watched the 2012 documentary film “Death and the Civil War” by Ric Burns (documentarian Ken Burns’s brother) about the sheer numbers of dead during the Civil War and the crisis it created for the living: locating the bodies, identifying the bodies, transporting the bodies, burying the bodies, and so on.

The documentary was based on historian [Catherine] Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil WarBesides being a leading American historian, Drew Gilpin Faust is also President of Harvard University.

Faust and Ric Burns tell many stories about the sheer numbers of dead to be dealt with during the Civil War, a war that most people of the time felt would last only a few months. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, alone the numbers were unmanageable, unthinkable, and beyond all reason. As Mental Floss reported in their 2012 article on the documentary:

The battle of Gettysburg incurred death on a scale that we can hardly imagine. With an estimated 51,000 casualties and 7,786 dead, the scale of carnage overwhelmed the town of Gettysburg, which itself only had 24,000 residents. There was simply no way the people there could properly care for the wounded and dead. As the film’s narrator explains: ‘In three days, Union and Confederate forces had suffered almost as many casualties as in all previous American wars combined.’ Add to that, 3,000 dead horses lay dead on the battlefield. The task of burying the dead fell to Union soldiers and the townspeople, who faced the unimaginably grim work of burying these people in the summer heat.

Confederate dead near Chancellorsville, Virginia.

Most Union soldiers died on Southern battlefields far from home. And, of course, Southern soldiers could die in Virginia, but if they were from West Tennessee or Mississippi or Louisiana, they were still very far from their loved ones back home.

Grand designs and machinations of powerful men fed the grievances and fear that led the two major parts of the U.S. to reach the cacophony level that led to civil war: South from North, North from South. Each side had lost the ability to hear or see each other. But most of the soldiers on both sides who lived and, sometimes died, through disease and cannon fire were hardly aware of the bigger consequences of the war or how historians would make sense of it.

Dead soldiers from the Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Loved ones, who were told their sons, husbands, fathers, lovers, brothers, or friends were dead, had no body to prove it. No body to bury. No grave to visit. It is estimated that 40 percent of the dead were never identified, and 66 percent of African-Americans who fought for the Union were never identified. Two out of every three died from disease instead of in battle. Between 1865 and 1868, the Union received over 68,162 requests at its Missing Soldiers Office. And the United States government worked diligently and spent a great deal of money to locate and bring its Union dead home. However, the national government that fought a war to bring its erring brothers back into the Union fold had no interest in finding Confederate dead, recovering their bodies, or bringing them home to their loved ones.

My grandmother Darcas Montgomery (standing, left) with her parents John and Cordelia, her brothers Robert (left) and Adrian (right), and sister Regina Eutaw, Carroll County, Va., 1906.

Most Southern states were virtually bankrupt after the war–and the Union was in no mood to help them. The work-a-day people of the South suffered dearly for the decisions made by the powerful men who thought it was a good idea to secede from the Union. The women of the Confederate states worked together to raise money to find the bodies of their loved ones and bury them.

Curiously in May 1958–nearly 100 years after the Civil War–the United States enacted a law giving Confederate veterans and their widows the same pensions given veterans of other wars. My online research indicates that two Confederate veterans and a few thousand widows were still alive to receive the pension.

It took 100 years for the hatred between the warring states to diminish enough for Americans in the North to agree that Americans in the South, mostly widows, could have a tiny bit of money–$60 or $70 a year–to improve their lot. Does it really take a hundred years for such hatred to abate? Yes, and sometimes the hatred continues after thousands of years as we see with the tribal forces fighting each other in the Middle East and Africa.

In addition to watching the “lived” values of my parents, Daddy taught me that movies can provide a profound education about people who lived before me and the importance of searching the metaphorical seashore of their experiences for nuggets of hard-earned truth about how I should live my life.

Perhaps the movie that touched me the most in this regard is the 1996 masterpiece, The English Patient, adapted from a historical novel of the same name by the British author Michael Ondaatje. This Best Picture, Oscar-award-winning movie has everything going for it: a stellar cast, intelligent writing, luminous cinematography, and what a memorable story.

With a name so like my own and with a similarly sensitive termperament, Hana is the character that most captures my heart. In her Oscar-winning role, French actress Juliette Binoche  plays Hana, a French-Canadian nurse who loses everything in World War II: her fiance, her best friend, and her willingness to live. Hana decides she will leave the medical caravan as they drive through Italy with their badly injured soldiers. Instead she will care for their most precarious patient, a hideously burned man with little memory, only a “bit of lung”, and bandages over a badly disfigured face. Because he speaks perfectly clipped British English, he is assumed to be British.

Juliette Binoche as Hana in “The English Patient”, 1996.

She cares for her patient (beautifully played by British actor Ralph Fiennes) in an abandoned monastery. As she eases his suffering, Hana finds comfort in the simple acts of everyday life: reading aloud, sharing a juicy plum, playing the piano in the bombed-out library, and listening to her patient’s hallucinatory memories triggered by the regular doses of morphine used to alleviate the pain of his burns. They both know he won’t live long, but he encourages her in the love she finds with Kip, a young Sikh British Army soldier, whose job is defusing unexploded mines left behind by the retreating enemy troops.

Kip lifting Hana by rope and pulley so she can see the amazing frescoes painted on the walls of a church.

Kip takes Hana to an abandoned church at night and lifts her into the air with a rope and pulley so she can view–by lantern light–the marvelous frescoes left there by master painters long ago. Sharing the beauty of the natural world, as well as the creativity of art with Kip by the flickering lantern light, inspires Hana to risk living–and loving again–in the middle of chaos, destruction, hatred, and mindless death.

Hana and her patient discover his history as his memory slowly returns. He is not what his speech pattern implies–not British, but a Hungarian cartographer (schooled in England) named László de Almásy (an actual historical figure). When the war broke out, he and his expedition were mapping Egypt and its archaelogical treasures for the British Royal Geographical Society. He had fallen in love with an unhappily married woman, Katharine Clifton, whose husband Geoffrey tried to kill them all when he discovered their affair. His chosen method was suicide (and murder) by plane: deliberately crashing his plane into Almásy’s campsite in the middle of the desert–with Katharine in the second seat of his biplane. Geoffrey successfully kills himself, but misses Almásy and badly injures Katharine. Walking three days in the desert, Almásy tries desperately to find help to save  Katharine who cannot walk.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Juliette Binoche as Hana by candlelight, 1996. ©Miramax Films

As you can well imagine, Almásy’s quest to save Katharine’s life is not successful. Despite his English accent, when he reaches the nearest British outpost he is mistaken for a German spy. When he finally flies back in a borrowed plane to the desert cave where he left Katharine, she is dead.

In his grief he carries her dead body to the plane and is flying with her over the desert when he is shot down. His badly burned body is found by Bedouins, the nomadic people of Africa, who tend his wounds and bring him back to a military hospital. They do not care whether he is British or German or Hungarian or American; he is a man who needs help and they give it.

Although Almásy was not able to save the woman he loved, his friendship with Hana saves her. In deep emotional and physical pain, he asks Hana to end his suffering with an overdose of morphine. With tears flowing down her face, she gently complies. Sometimes a healer must put her patient’s needs above her own misgivings and end suffering in a different way.

A military truck passes near the monastery, and in the movie’s final scene Hana hops in the back. With her hair blowing, her face toward the wind, eyes open, she looks ahead and smiles. Hana has left the ghosts behind her, or perhaps she has found a way to take the ghosts along, and through her love for them, they, and she, live on.

The French word for “story” is historie. Curiously, the German word for “story” is also historie. In order to go forward in our own strange, chaotic, frightening time of the 21st Century, it would be comforting to imagine that we could learn from our ancestors’ stories and from the stories that inspire us in books and movies. That we could learn from our own history, our country’s history, and our world’s history.

If not, we can at least take up the charge as Hana did–face to the wind and to the sun–and find the courage to live passionately by learning from the simple acts of everyday life, sharing the beauty of the natural world and the creativity and wonder of art, drinking deeply of the lifeforce of friendship, and taking our ghosts along with us.

Anna ~~ 09/22/2017

 

Posted in Autobiographical, Backyard Nature, Beauty, Courage, Creativity, Freedom, Friends, Ideas, Love, Screen, The Arts, Wonder | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Independence Day

Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters.

Recently I have been listening to Gretchen Peters’ recording of “Independence Day”, the song she wrote that was a huge hit for country music star Martina McBride in 1995.

Well she seemed all right by dawn’s early light
Though she looked a little worried and weak.
She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinkin’ again
But daddy left the proof on her cheek.
And I was only eight years old that summer
And I always seemed to be in the way
So I took myself down to the fair in town
On Independence Day.

 

“Independence Day” tells the story of a fractured family from an 8 year-old girl’s point of view. Her father was a mean drunk who beat her mother when he was liquored up, which naturally left a small girl feeling her home was not a safe haven.

Well, word gets around in a small, small town
They said he was a dangerous man
But mama was proud and she stood her ground
She knew she was on the losin’ end.
Some folks whispered, some folks talked
But everybody looked the other way
And when time ran out there was no one about
On Independence Day.

Her father had a reputation, but whatever happened to his wife behind closed doors was not seen as anyone else’s business. So on the Fourth of July, while her daughter enjoyed that year’s county fair, the mother in this song decided it was their Independence Day and burned down their house with her husband in it.

Well, she lit up the sky that fourth of July
By the time that the firemen came
They just put out the flames
And took down some names
Sent me to the county home.
Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong
But maybe it’s the only way.
Talk about your revolution
It’s Independence Day.

Justin at the age of 2, August 1982.

Thirty-five years ago–around this time of year–it was independence day for me and my 2-year-old son Justin. Although my ex-husband never hit me (that I can remember), he was emotionally abusive. He did not want me to have friends or be around my family, was incapable of loving anyone except himself, and was a serial and highly effective liar with an effective short-term knack for pretending to be a warm and caring person.

When I met him I was a deeply naive 18-year-old who had never been with a man. I had dated a few boys in high school, but my most serious “love” was a long-distance relationship with a Kentucky preacher’s son that ended in a Dear Jane letter.

For a year I attended the University of Tennessee as a commuter student on two scholarships and a government education grant for kids whose families could not afford to attend college. It was a lonely existence, and my scholarships were for only one year. So after my freshman year, I dropped out of college and got a job at CIT Financial Services where I did credit checks on people who were requesting loans.

This photo of me was taken in April 1975, just before I started college in June.

From the distance of years down the road, I cannot fathom why I felt that to get on with my life–and move out of parent’s home–I needed to be married. Perhaps it was the pittance I earned, or the way I was raised. In any event, Gary, one of the bill collectors at work, wanted to take me out. After a few dates, I told him I did not want to date him anymore. A few days later he told me he was so upset about our break up that he drove his orange Camaro at over a hundred miles an hour and got a speeding ticket.

Ding, ding, ding! “Danger, Will Robinson!” This reference proves when I grew up, since it is a phrase the robot in the TV show Lost In Space said to the family’s youngest child in the Robinson family. This 1960s robot would wave his arms and lights would flash on his head as he warned Will of impending doom. For my generation, this became a catchphrase for danger. And certainly at this point in my relationship with Gary, my psychic alarm should have rang loud and clear. However–even though I was book savvy, graduated seventh in my class at South High School, and should have known better–I came to the conclusion Gary really cared for me and agreed to continue dating him. As we became more serious, his father Max warned me that Gary had a “temper”. I had grown up with a father who would occasionally erupt when he was angry or frustrated so I thought I knew what Max meant.

I didn’t.

After three months of dating, we were married in my home church and went on our weekend honeymoon in Gatlinburg, Tennessee–where my parents had gone for their honeymoon 20 years before.

At age 12 on a church youth trip.

What I did not know about Gary, men in general, and seriously messed up people could have filled an encyclopedia. But I began my “schooling” the day after our wedding when I woke up to a man I did not know. He was demanding, unreasonable, and totally unpredictable. He blamed me for everything that went askance in his life from his inability to get a parking place to whether the waitress served our food on time. I lived on the edge, fearing what public scene he would cause next. Whatever I did was never enough as I shoveled daily into the gaping hole of his rage.

I can’t remember much of the five years we were married. My memory has deleted most of the files for those years. I remember only a few moments: when I couldn’t get the hang of the clutch on a straight-shift car right away, and he told me to get out of the car and walk home. He wasn’t kidding, and I did.

Or when he picked me up for lunch and could not find a parking place at the McDonald’s near where I worked. He angrily drove to another McDonald’s a few miles away, ordered me food he knew I did not want to eat, then told me that if I did not finish it all, he would not take me back to work. To my mortification, one of the girls I knew from high school was in the dining area that day seated nearby as I tried to choke down the food and not cry.

Or when we visited his parents in Cookeville at Thanksgiving one year and I gathered dried plants to make a dried-flower arrangement. Gary became angry about something that weekend and refused to allow me to take the arrangement home.

Or when he flew into a rage when my version of his mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe did not taste like hers. Or the time I lost one of his socks at the laundry room of her apartment complex, and he would not speak to me for days.

And there was that time he started beating up one of the homosexual guys who lived downstairs from our duplex. They both jumped him in return. I ran terrified to call the police, and of course the youg men filed a complaint against Gary since he was the instigator. The charges never came to anything, but I was scared to death that Gary would end up being arrested. Not that his behavior didn’t warrant it.

After one of his tirades, I called my parents to come get me, but he said sternly that if I left I couldn’t come back. Why I would want to come back is hard to imagine, but for some reason his admonishment scared me and I stayed.

Justin in our rap-trap Vega, around 1981.

And I got pregnant. After our gorgeous son Justin was born in 1980, everything was magnified. When our rambunctious son wasn’t quiet at Gary’s favorite Italian restaurant, I was punished. He drove the nice car, and I drove our son around in his infant carseat in a piece-of-shit Vega–a car so poorly built that Automotive News said in a 2011 article, “The Chevrolet Vega, one of the most maligned cars ever made, is a case study of how to get just about everything wrong.”

http://www.autonews.com/article/20111031/CHEVY100/310319922/the-vega%3A-an-unmitigated-disaster

Gary bought the Vega for $300 after it was repossessed by the finance company where he worked. I poured transmission fluid into the Vega and prayed it would make it up Knoxville’s steep hills. Needless to say it had zero traction in snow or rain.

Part of the reason I stayed with him was my fear for what he might do to me if I left. I was also a practical person. Many days at work I added up my bills and calculated how much money I would need to earn so I could support my son and myself on my secretary’s salary.  The final push that got me out the door was a Florida vacation we took with two other couples. I saw up close how the other women were treated by their mates, and decided I could no longer continue the hell which was every year of our marriage–and I certainly did not want my son to continue growing up in a home with that behavior.

I know what it feels like to just want to breathe. To be free. To set down the burden of that life.

Justin, age 3, in his preschool photo.

When Justin was 2-1/2 years old, I left his father. I’d like to say it was smooth sailing from there, but it wasn’t. Gary threatened suicide, then broke into my apartment and took everything he wanted. I got a protection order against him, but it didn’t stop him. After the divorce was final, he followed me on dates, shut off the electricity 0f the little house I rented, and continued to stalk and threaten me years later–even after I remarried and moved from Tennessee to Texas.

But there is a memory I treasure from my first bit of fresh air in the fall I left Gary, some 35 years ago. I was sweeping my tiny apartment, door open to the sunny autumn day, with the smell of cornbread baking in the oven. You see, Gary hated cornbread, so for five years I was forbidden to make it.

My independence day, in September 1982, was filled with the sweet smell of cornbread. I made it myself–and I ate it–and freedom never tasted so good.

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today
Is a day of reckoning.
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It’s Independence Day.
Roll the stone away
It’s Independence Day.
Roll the stone away.
Songwriter: Gretchen Peters
Independence Day lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

//Anna ~ 8/31/2017

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When Elephants Fight

When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

~ African proverb

The inside cap of an Honest T Peach Oo-la-long tea.

As I was having lunch with my husband at our local health food coop, Three Rivers Market, I looked inside my drink container’s lid and this quote was written inside. It struck me that this saying is relevant to the sad situation in which we find ourselves in 2017.

Powerful politicians and titans of business and commerce jockey for position in this never-ending race for more power and more money, mo money, mo money, mo money. For they can never have enough of the goodies: money, the biggest piece of the pie, power and control, and the most attractive women.

Comes with the territory. If you are a powerful, silver-backed male in the gorilla pack, you fight it out with the other males and the winner gets all the females. When I have seen documentaries about gorillas, monkeys, elephants, lions, rams, bulls, and so many other animals, the most powerful male earns the right to proliferate his line by mating with the females.

Perhaps that is why when men rise to the top of an organization–whether it be the head of a university, corporation, bank, political body, or a country–more often than not these men have affairs with their subordinates, secretaries, interns, or anyone in a lesser position. I cannot count the times I saw this happen during my 30 years of working at the University of Tennessee, and certainly it happens now on the national and world stage.

But women are not the only spoils of these wars for domination. Those who suffer while the elephants fight are working-class people, middle-class people, young people who will never have the chance to have a decent-paying job even if they earn a degree, men and women in their 50s who are “right-sized” out of jobs they held for decades, and woe to anyone with a health condition since affordable and accessible medical care are not a given in our country. Definitely in this category of the suffering are children, the least of these, who go to bed hungry, abused or without a home.

Daddy (center left) at day care, around 1940.

As for me I have never had a problem identifying with the grass in this proverb. My Daddy was a sensitive, at times angry man, who grew up in abject povery without a mother. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. Perhaps because he got tired of trying to outsmart his father and alcoholic uncle by sneaking down to the basement to find clean clothes to wear to school instead of wearing the same clothes all week as they demanded. Or maybe it was the desolation of being under the thumb of a man who refused to have Daddy’s tonsils removed when he was a child and his eardrums burst. It could have been that he wanted something better than being threatened with a hot poker or being bitten on the cheek by a rat when he was baby. We will never know all the whys of Daddy’s decision, but maybe his second stepmother Sarah did him a favor when she threw him out of his home at the age of 16, and he came to live as a homeless young man at the Downtown Knoxville YMCA.

Daddy lost every job he ever had, save the last one in which he worked for my sister’s in-laws. Despite Mama’s best efforts to provide stability, Daddy’s fragile nature was an impediment to the tough-guy work world he entered. I have often wondered what he could have become if he had been lucky enough to have had a loving family, a healthy childhood, and an education. The life lottery would have been different if Daddy’s mother’s family had been allowed to raise him after his mother Darcus died when he was 4 months old. His life could have been very different, but his father refused.

My parents traveling abroad with the Lady Vol basketball team, around 2000.

As it was, the early losses of Daddy’s life made a good job impossible, but he had dreams and he made many of them come true. He loved to travel, and he went to Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii with his beloved University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team. He was proud of his two daughters, and he instilled in us a passion for life. He loved movies, sports, music, and he especially loved his grandson Justin who was like a son to him.

Being raised hearing Daddy’s sad stories about his upbringing–and living the poverty of my own childhood–has given me a natural affinity for those who are discounted and undervalued in our society. Many times I have said that I feel as if I am a black, Jewish girl. The Jewish people have been hounded and killed for their religion down through history. For centuries that have been outcasts. African-Americans were brought as slaves to this country and have not never been truly given full citizenship, as the population of our prisons, full of non-violent black criminal offenders, attest.

Four generations in 1960: my mother and me (right), my Irish grandmother with my sister (center), and Mamaw’s mother (left).

One line of my ancestors–my Mamaw’s family, the Cunninghams–were Irish. When the poor, starving people of Ireland came to this country in the mid 1800s, they were seen as less than dogs, These desperate people were fleeing Ireland’s potato famine, called the Great Hunger, which occurred from 1845 through 1849, and some say it lasted until 1852.

The British believed the Irish should not be helped when their potato crops failed due to what is called a late blight which destroyed, not only the leaves of the potato crop, but the roots. In fact, the British policy during the famine was to continue exporting grain from Ireland to England. Some estimates say 5 million people died and that 25 percent of the population of Ireland either died or emigrated to another country, mostly to America.

Me at the age of 12 or 13.

Growing up poor gave me an early education in the dis-ease that better-off people emanated in our direction. I regularly felt not only “less than”, but as if I could never measure up no matter how hard I tried to excel in school and earn my own money to afford school clothes.

My sister and I started working in our aunt’s restaurant when I was 12 and she was 11. There is a basic lack of confidence that goes with growing up poor–a feeling my sister and I will never completely overcome even though we both have been outwardly successful in our lives. There is a shorthand expectation that goes with being raised at least middle-class, as my husband was. I have never taken anything for granted in my life, which sounds like a good instinct, but living with fear and instability is not a comfortable row to hoe.

Amazing singer/songwriter Jason Isbell.

Speaking of the road, I listened to the new record, The Nashville Sound, from my favorite singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, his talented wife Amanda Shires, and his band the 400 Unit. His song Hope the High Road, is filled with the passion, fury, fierce determination, integrity, and intelligence that I admire in the best musicians–and the best people. But music! Ah music! It is the yearning definition of the soul. It is all that my Daddy taught me. Just sink your teeth into these words.

“Hope The High Road” – Jason Isbell

I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink
I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams
I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home againI heard enough of the white man’s blues
I’ve sang enough about myself
So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere elseLast year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in a ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

We’ll ride the ship down
Dumping buckets overboard
There can’t be more of them than us
There can’t be more

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

For me this song captures the unsettling rock-in-your-shoe anxiety and simmering on the back burner unease of 2017 as no other song does. I especially love the lines: “Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fighting you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road”. And the high road just might lead us to a world we want to live in.

Yes, the elephants are fighting and the grass is suffering, but, as Jason Isbell says, I refuse to fight in the gutter, I’ll meet you up here on the road. And maybe, just maybe, the grass can continue to grow.

//Anna ~ 7/10/2017

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Retro Communications

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Fred Ridinger Jr., who served under Patton, taught Tennessee history at South High, and had some amazing stories to tell.

When I graduated from South (Knoxville) High School, I wanted to be a history teacher in the mold of my two favorite history teachers from South. My Tennessee history teacher Mr. (Fred) Ridinger Jr. served under General George Patton in World War II, but led his classes with humble good-humored example.

Mr. (Charles) Baum taught American history by telling us the stories of history and weaving them into the present. He also had devised his own version of the Risk, take-over-the-world board game and had us play against one another with the resources each country had during the Second World War.

Although participation in World War II had been over for 30 years when I graduated from school, the war’s values of serving your country and your community were still very much alive in our high school. But they were waning in the wake of the Vietnam War that ended two years before I graduated. We graduates of 1975 were something of a lost generation: a bit too young to understand the chaos and confusion of the Vietnam Era, but raised with the values of the generation that fought a world war and won. For a brief, shining moment, the American heroes, the G.I. Joes had made the world safe for democratic ideals over the Nazi machine that had ground Europe and Africa under its jackboot.

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American history teacher at South High School, Charles Baum in 1973.

Mr. Baum taught that things were not so simple, explaining the oil crisis of 1973 in terms we could understand, if we were listening. I not only heard Mr. Baum, I wanted to learn everything I could, know for myself, and draw my own conclusions. I never wanted to be referred to as “Miss” Anna Allen, the salutation seemed so dismissive. Nor did I want to be among the women who subsumed their identities by using their husband’s names (Mrs. Joe Schmo) and gossiping and complaining in the kitchen while the men talked about weightier subjects in the living room.

Since my family had no money for higher education–my family’s income was $7000 or so in 1975–I  knew I needed to earn scholarships to attend. I was offered a full scholarship at Berea College in Kentucky, where poor kids such as me could get a free education while working at the college. What derailed that idea was a breakup by my long-distance Kentucky boy friend, and winning a one-year PTSA scholarship for writing a winning essay explaining why I wanted to be a history teacher. UT also awarded me a Fred M. Roddy Scholarship because I had a strong grade point average (7th in my class) and financial need. I also had a Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG) given to disadvantaged kids who showed academic promise.

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Check out the set of my chin from my university ID card from 1975-76.

Despite all my shiny-faced accomplishments, no one in my family had ever been to college, so I was a lost cause when I entered the University of Tennessee (UT) in the Summer of 1975. I hoped to get my feet wet at college before the fall quarter onslaught. It didn’t help me because I was still quite clueless through all the registering hoops of university bureaucracy. I lasted in the College of Education for two quarters or so before switching to the College of Communications. Apparently there was a glut of teachers at the time, and we were told that if we were graduated in education, we would not be able to get a job. And, as I well knew, I really need a job when I graduated.

I earned good grades in college, but after a year of being impossibly poor and lonely as a commuting student who had no opportunity to make friends, I dropped out of school. A few months later I took a job at a financial services company, and promptly met the sociopath that would become my first husband. Despite my academic success, I was raised on movie romances and novels where things worked out for good girls if you tried  hard enough and did your best. Our church youth group studied the virtues of The Total Woman handbook: if we were very good, submissive Christian wives our husbands would love us and treat us with respect and all would be well in our world.

Let’s fast forward through the emotionally abusive marriage, raising an adorable boy as a single parent while working full time at the University of Tennessee as a secretary while going to UT part-time to earn my degree (thank heaven for free tuition for two classes a quarter for employees). Ditto, fast forwarding through another failed marriage and raising two adorable sons as a single parent and working full-time.

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My sweet Mamaw and adorable son Justin on the day of my graduation from college in 1987.

As I finished up my bachelor’s degree in English literature and writing–and just before I married my second husband–I met the enthusiastic, alive-in-every-way man who would become my third husband. He taught at the university, was married at the time to his college sweetheart, and was my dear male friend who was kind enough to came to my wedding. Coincidentally when my second marriage was falling apart, so was his marriage, so we commiserated and our friendship became love. We will have been married 22 years in September and is the love of my life.

After working 29 years at the university, I was director of communications for the system-wide development office at UT. We raised money for the university’s scholarships, professorships, research, and medical schools, and I simply loved my job. We had an amazing team, the four of us, as we told the stories of our university’s supporters. Despite the usual chaos of university politics, we believed we were making a difference in the lives of our students, alumni, and donors.

It simply was not to be. Office politics reared its ugly head, and I was the fall gal who was forced out of her job in 2011. They were “kind” enough to allow me to reach my 30th year of employment which at UT was full, vested retirement. Since this was before Obamacare, I was quite lucky to have reached vested retirement and health insurance since at the too-young age of 53 years (too young for Medicare), I had only one kidney and probably would not have been uninsurable at any cost.

For the last six years, I have been a freelance writer. Luckily my retirement funds–and having a husband who is a management consultant and photographer–have meant I can be choosey about the jobs I take. My sister, Lisa, married the younger son of the Stanley family that owns Stanley’s Greenhouse, and she is the customer service manager of the greenhouse, doing a phenomenal job. Two years ago when she asked me to handle the business’s social media and website communications, I was proud to do so.

A part of me regrets I never became a history teacher in the shining examples of my high school teachers Mr. Baum and Mr. Ridinger. But I have never forgotten their friendship and how they encouraged me to think for myself. Although being a young woman of my era was devalued versus a man, they taught me to take myself and others seriously, and to learn from the lives of the historic figures in our past.

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One of the last public telephones in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I am a writer. It is the gift I gained from reading, reading, reading throughout my entire life. Communication may have changed from the rotary-dial phones of my childhood to the push-button extension phones of my teen years. Newspapers have been beaten down by the electronic cacaphony and iPhone-news flashes of the present, but communication and journalism remains central to the ability of our country to genuflect toward its democratic ideals. These days it does not seem we have learned much from history. If investigative journalists do not shine the light on the dark deeds and hidden corners of our nation, we cannot be the America that saved the world from the Nazis in World War II.

Yesterday I was sitting at a gas station in West Knoxville filling up my car when I saw a sight I had not seen in years: it was a public telephone. In the era of second-nature cell phone use, I mused about whether I could even figure out how to make a long-distance call on a public phone–something that used to be a common occurrence. Even though I had no use for that public phone just at that moment, there was something comforting about knowing that even one public phone still existed in my hometown.

//Anna ~ 6/30/2017

 

 

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