The fairy sprite that was my sister smiled easily and often. She lifted people from their everyday lives with her exuberance and charisma. She loved children–not just her own, but other people’s children as well. She loved to sing and garden and hike and waterski and run. She especially loved to run, which she did competitively in high school. She continued running even after her body could not quite keep up with her drive to move forward.
She adored the music of Tom Petty and John Fogerty–two legendary songwriters who were born at the tail end of World War II. They both inspired people throughout the world with their singular vision. It could be argued that Tom Petty was one of the best songwriters ever–and Lisa would definitely have made that argument.
Besides her faith and family, being Lisa Stanley of Stanley’s Greenhouse was her raison d’être–her reason for living. Just a year out of high school in 1977, she married the youngest child of the founders of Stanley’s: Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley. They had named him Roger, but he was by no means a “Roger”, so everyone called him Rocky. And Lisa adored him.
In a way of speaking, Lisa worked at family businesses her whole life. Shortly after she graduated a year early from high school in 1976, she found a job at Lay Packing Company. She worked there as a secretary for long enough, a decade or so, to be a fixture at the Lay family’s meat-packing business.
She was briefly a receptionist at the UT Medical Center, then worked at the UT College of Human Ecology for the associate dean Jim Moran. The University of Tennessee and its medical center in Knoxville were not family-owned, but they seemed as if they were since the majority of people in this part of the world act as if UT and its athletic programs are as important as family. Around here UT is more like a religion than a university.
But Lisa’s dream was to work at the Stanley’s family business, which was a thriving plant nursery built on the Davenport-Stanley Farm that had its roots in the early 1800s. Finally in the early 1990s Lisa talked Rocky into making her dream come true and he joined his family’s business where our mother Arzelia had worked since 1973.
She was in her element. She loved people; people loved her. Increasingly Lisa became the smile, the face, the voice, the image of Stanley’s Greenhouse. Not because there were not able, knowledgable, and amazing people already on board, including Rocky’s older brother Monte who is a legend for his kindness, humility, and love for his community. And there was Rocky himself who was a phenomenal grower and headed the family’s growing team. Yet, Lisa’s joie de vivre (joy for living) and naturally extroverted personality made her a natural.
It was at the greenhouse that she could be found–six days a week during the spring, fall, and Christmas season. She attended church, she and Rocky drove down to Charleston in the off seasons for vacation, and she enjoyed family birthday dinners, but her lifeblood was Stanley’s Greenhouse. She was dedicated to her customers and the business.
Stanley’s Butterfly Festival in August? Check! The fall Pansy Project Benefiting the Pat Summitt Foundation? Yes! Stanley’s Christmas Open House the first Sunday in December? You bet! The Beat the Winter Blues fund raiser in February supporting the Ronald McDonald Charities of Knoxville? A big hit!
We loved Lisa and Lisa loved us. Sure she struggled with her first round of cancer in 2010, but she beat it and moved on down the pike missing nary a beat. Was she a bit larger than life? Yes, she was. It did not seem at all fair when the cancer returned in 2019. Worse this time. More advanced.
Her faith was strong, in her oncologist and radiologist, as well as in prayer as she endured radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and the final experimental therapy that I can no longer recall. She went to church, she saw friends, she did a little gardening when she felt up to it, but it was a great loss to her that she could no longer work at the greenhouse. She needed to marshal her energies for the cancer treatment regimen. But if she was visiting the greenhouse and saw a customer who needed help or guidance, she was on it.
Today, Thursday, March 23, 2023, would have been my sister Lisa’s 64th birthday if she had not died of bone cancer on June 19, 2022. The last words I heard her say on June 17, were about hydrangeas. Hydrangeas need plenty of hydration, it’s right there in the name. They need plenty of water. Then she said, “Cultivar.” Merriam-Webster says a cultivar is:
an organism and especially one of an agricultural or horticultural variety or strain originating and persistent under cultivation.
My sister was incredibly persistent under cultivation. She pressed on when there was no there left. She fought, battled, waged war on cancer, bought Christmas presents, and baked her signature red velvet cake for my husband Kurt’s birthday and holidays. And Lisa loved, loved, loved the Island Home neighborhood of South Knoxville where she lived for 45 years, first on Maplewood Road, then just across the road and down the street to Spence Place where she and Rocky moved in 1989.
Island Home was where Lisa ran nearly every morning, and walked her beloved dog Plum. She planted annuals at the entrance to the neighborhood and was on the neighborhood association board. She knew who lived in nearly every home, where they had come from, where they worked. She tried relentlessly to find me a home in the neighborhood so we could live near each other, but the right property never came available. Still she persisted. As she always did.
After she died, some of her neighbors decided the gardening spot just past the entry columns of Island Home–where the trolley would turn around before making its way back to Downtown Knoxville in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s–should be dedicated to Lisa. They named it Lisa’s Garden, and used their skills to perfect the space.
Longtime neighbor and able carpenter (among his many other talents) Wayne Williams made a beautifully crafted bench and placed it under a dogwood tree–a perfect choice, because Lisa loved dogwood trees. Wayne and his gardening partner Joni Morabito spruced up the area, and local artist Mitzi Congleton designed and painted the sign making the designation official. This is Lisa’s garden.
With Lisa’s birthday approaching, the celebration is different this year. On March 21, I visited Lisa’s Garden and picked up three pinecones from the nearby tree dominating the space, Wayne had placed a bed of small rocks in a wooden frame to support and anchor Lisa’s bench. I picked a coral-pink one that glistened a bit in the noon-day sun. It felt like the right one.
In the Jewish tradition, placing small rocks on the headstones of the dead signified love, veneration, respect, and remembrance. They are called visitation stones. I witnessed this act at the end of the incomparable 1993 movie Schindler’s List, directed by Stephen Spielberg. A few of the 1,200 Jewish people saved from the Holocaust by Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, placed small stones on his grave alongside the actors who played them in the movie. Tears came to my eyes as I witnessed this profound statement in such a small act.
Cemeteries have a multitude of rules about what you can place on the graves of your loved ones: Artificial flowers, yes or no? Approved vases, yes, other vases, no. Items placed on graves during mowing season: no, no, no. Christmas trees, yes or no–and if yes, how long can they remain? I have never considered such questions because I prefer to think of my loved ones as they were in life. Full of life. Losing Daddy was a huge loss in December 2016, and I did place a stone on his gravestone a year or so ago. But somehow Lisa’s death feels different, more personal, more defining, more challenging. Her death was too soon.
I drove to the highest hill of Woodlawn Cemetery, on land that we are told was once owned by Rocky’s ancestors, the Davenport-Stanley family. Rocky’s parents Mary Kathryn and Charles are buried there, and our grandmother Jerushia’s brother Charles (Uncle Charlie) Cunningham and his wife Helen rest nearby.
Lisa’s gravestone features phalaenopsis orchid blooms, one of Lisa’s favorite flowers. I placed the three pinecones on Lisa’s grave marker with the gem-like rock at the center. Since pinecones come from evergreens that do not lose their leaves in winter, they signify life, human enlightenment, and regeneration. Some sources say that pinecones symbolize immortality–eternal life. And I certainly wish that for Lisa and for all of the people I love. And I know that Lisa fervently believed just that.
It is not for me, however, to know what comes after human life is over. Does the soul soar over the earth making patterns of white against a blue sky? Do the birds cry from the sheer sorrow of it all from the barren trees? There are so many mysteries around living and dying. Life and death. With mystery comes doubt, but also possibility. Hope? The thing with feathers that can fly?
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) , from her poem ” ‘Hope’ is the thing with Feathers ” (written around 1861)
I recall. also the words sung by the American troubadour Nanci Griffith about a miner’s daughter who died in Tecumseh Valley:
Her ways were free And it seemed to me That sunshine walked beside her.
Townes Van Zandt, “Tecumseh Valley”
It seems to me that sunshine still walks beside her.
Through the window in our backdoor, I see bees buzzing round the pink flowers of my plum tree. Plum trees bloom in late winter or early spring on bare branches before the leaves erupt. They do not wait to bloom until their leaves arrive to provide shelter and protection. No, they sally forth and bloom.
Here in East Tennessee blooming in spring can be treacherous as our springs are riddled with the potholes of mini-winters. Today it may reach a balmy 70 degrees and in a few days it can be a high of 30 degrees, windy, and cold. When I was younger and complaining about the unpredictable nature of our so-called spring weather, Daddy would declare, “This is blackberry winter, Anna.” Now how did he have any idea it was blackberry winter when we did not grow, or see any blackberry bushes around us?
I thought my father was simply telling tall tales that had no attachment to reality. But according to the Tennessee Historical Society, Daddy was right. The farmers who settled this area of Appalachia observed the natural world and named the little cold spells in spring accordingly. Thus, our spring “winters” were named for the activity going on at the time: redbud, (black) locust, and dogwood winters for when these trees were in bloom. Blackberry winter was when blackberry canes get their buds, “britches” winter for when you could put away your long underwear, and whippoorwill winter was when you began hearing the sweet sound of the whippoorwill singing at dusk.
In practice, East Tennesseans of the past and today emerge from the winter of our discontent (thank you, Shakespeare), ready for a reliable spring, and we instead suffer setback after setback as winter returns throughout February, March, and April, raising hopes and then dashing them.
Globally we have been suffering such setbacks since March 2020 when the pandemic began.
Today British author Katherine May’s book, Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age became available, Her last book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times was published during the height of the coronavirus pre-vaccine days of November 2020.
According to an article called How to Find More Joy by New York Times writer Christina Caron, May wrote Wintering during the Covid-19 pandemic, a time in her life when she was feeling dormant, depressed, and empty. Her usual way of living with action and purpose had fallen away and she felt calcified.
She clawed her way out of her doldrums by simple steps forward: writing a Post-it note for herself saying, “Go for a walk,” and committing to do just that. In her latest book, Enchantment, she writes about how taking the time to look for the simple acts of wonder around her pulled her from her malaise. This commitment to take notice of the simple joys around us is not easy amid the cacophony of distraction, obligation, and strife of modern life. Katherine May suggests we keep it simple and just asks ourselves what soothes us. A hot bath? Dancing alone to our favorite song? Taking a walk? Watching swirls of wispy clouds moving ever-so-slowly across the sky?
Simple pleasures have not always been enough to carry me through the last three and a half years. My dear sister Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer in the fall of 2019. Covid 19 became known to us in March 2020. While we tried to find our footing with a disease that killed people around us, we watched as Lisa’s failed treatments, one after the other throughout 2020, 2021, and half of 2022, left her body a husk. Somehow, her shining eyes and spirit seemed undiminished, yet, her pain grew harder to manage. After two days of coma, she slipped away from us on June 19, 2022, at the too-young age of 63.
We learned Mama had breast cancer a few months after Lisa’s death. Luckily, she had what appears to have been a successful surgery to remove it just before Christmas. Our winter has indeed been one of discontent.
Yet there are others who have suffered more. For inspiration I have turned repeatedly to the people who were alive in the early part of the 20th Century when most of the world was at war. World War I and World War II were only a little over twenty years apart–with the influenza pandemic sandwiched in between.
I am inspired by the brave people who laid their lives on the line willingly fighting the Nazis through Resistance efforts. As well as the Jews and other oppressed people who were imprisoned by the Hitler war machine, yet found a way to live when death was all around them.
Similarly I am inspired by the father of quantum physics, the German scientist Max Planck who won the Nobel Prize in 1918. I do not pretend to understand quantum physics, but I am inspired by all he overcame during his lifetime and his urge to do his ethical and moral best despite incredible hardships.
Planck married his wife Marie in 1887, and they were blessed with four children: eldest Karl, twin daughters Emma and Grete, and son Erwin. Just 12 years after their marriage, Planck’s wife Marie died. Two years later Planck married his second wife, Marga, and they had a son named Hermann.
During World War I in 1914, Planck’s second son Erwin was captured by the French, and his eldest son Karl was killed in battle. In 1917, Planck’s daughter Grete died giving birth to her first child, and in 1919, her twin sister Emma died in childbirth as well. Although their mothers died, both babies survived and were named after their mothers. And in the final chapter of Planck’s life, his beloved son Erwin, who survived imprisonment by the French, fought Adolph Hitler and the Nazis from inside Germany and was hanged in January 1945 for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in 1944.
What can we learn from this man, Max Planck? Despite his work in science, he says:
. . . there is no science and no intellect capable of answering the most important of all the questions facing us in our personal life, the question, that is, how we are to act. . . . what is important . . . is to work unceasingly toward the ideal aim, to struggle daily and hourly toward a renewal of life, and despite every setback to strive toward improvement and perfection.
. . . There is . . . an inalienable treasure which guarantees to thinking and feeling men their highest happiness, since it assures their peace of mind, and thus has an eternal value. This possession is a pure mind and good will. These afford secure holding ground in the storms of life . . .
Those who are ever striving forward Them we can save.
Max Planck, German Physicist (1858-1947)
What is worth doing? Living to see the light and feed the light in the eyes of those around us and those we love, creating beauty, bringing the joy, easing the load of the fellow traveler, making a difference in the building of community, and finding a balance in the middle of the riot of extremism. Seeking the light. Being the light. Fighting the fight to be our best selves in a time of earthly chaos–which is always.
My husband Kurt and I were finishing up a Scrabble game a few years ago, and he had one letter left: a “y” which can be quite difficult to find a place for late in the game. He was about to throw in the towel and subtract the points from his overall total when I noticed there was a solution he did not see: the “y” could be added to the word “fox” that he made earlier in the game.
My friend Mary would say Kurt and I are so competitive when we play games because we are both firstborns, but I know plenty of oldest children who are not as competitive as we are. In any event, even though the game was close, I had to tell him he still had a play he could make.
“You could put the ‘y’ on ‘fox’,” I said. I knew it was possible that he might beat me with that move, but it is a great word, and I thought he should make it–and of course he did.
I am constantly looking for symmetry and serendipity when random things show a pattern and come together to make something new and revealing. Many times my life has been enriched by hearing the lyrics of a song, watching the right movie or television show, or reading a book that points me in a new direction or reinforces my view of living a passion-filled life.
And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran, has been just such a life-changing book for me. It was originally published in the U.S. in 1963 when I was a small child. I discovered the book when I worked at my former high-octance job that required me to work long hours, and I often found I did not have time to read anything beyond newspapers. Yet, I ordered a British publication of the book, never read it, and promptly forgot I had it.
If I had not seen an e-blast from our local independent bookstore Union Avenue Books about Lussreyran’s autobiography, I would probably never have rediscovered and read this beautiful gem of a book. In his memoir, Lusseyran tells about his inner (and outer) life as a blind 17-year-old–yes, a blind adolescent–who started and led a Resistance group in World War II, Nazi-occupied France.
Most of the members of his group, Defense de la France (DF), were not yet 21 years of age. And yet, the underground paper they published for disseminating accurate news and boosting the morale of the French people became the most important daily newspaper in Paris and was published after the war as France-Soir.
Jacques was blinded by an accident at school when he was 7 or 8 years old, but only briefly found it to be an impediment. He taught himself Braille in six weeks so he could return to school. As a child, he grew alarmed by the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany and decided to teach himself German so he could listen to the Third Reich’s radio broadcasts. He was obviously a driven, focused prodigy who did not see his blindness as an impediment to living a full life.
Remarkably within his blindness, hesaw light and shadow and colors attached to people and sounds. Perhaps due to the loss of his sight, his other senses became more acute and he had a gift for telling when someone was lying by their voice, presence, and his strong intuitive sense. This gift came in very handy at weeding out possible traitors when he interviewed would-be members of the Resistance– although he was eventually betrayed by a member of his group and was imprisoned by the Germans in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Lusseyran is one of the best writers I have ever read. My words fail to capture the music of his writing. I highlighted so many paragraphs in my copy of his memoir that I began using different colored highlighters to differentiate the passages. He captures the fragility and beauty of life perfectly as in the following passage:
Memories and emotions are fragile things. You should never bear down on them, or draw on them by main force. You should barely touch them with the tips of your fingers, the tips of your dreams. The best way to bring love back to life, and happiness with it, was to catch hold of a reminder of love, catch it lightly as it passed by.
Jacques Lusseyran, “And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II”, 1963.
And he writes eloquently about his friendships with the young men who were his best friends in words that, in our age, are reserved only for describing lovers.
I walked in the middle and was happy, without knowing exactly why–happy to be with men who, like me, were not willing to shut their eyes to life.
He was a religious man, a Catholic, who nevertheless wrote with the open nature of a humanist:
God is neither a German nor a Russian nor a Frenchman. God is life, and everything that does violence to life is against God.
He was imprisoned for 15 months in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp for non-Jews where he was one of only 30 Frenchmen to survive of the 2000 people imprisoned at his sub-camp during the final years of the war.
How did he survive? By giving to others and living life boldly. He proclaims, “Fear is the real name of despair. Fear kills and joy maintains life.”
I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn toward them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me. . . . That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. . . . Joy I found in strange byways, in the midst of fear . . .
And he writes:
When a ray of sunshine comes, open out, absorb it to the depths of your being. Never think that an hour earlier you were cold and that an hour later you will be cold again. Just enjoy.
And oh, the joy and relief his fellow prisoners must have felt, in April 1945, when the U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald and its sub-camps under the command of General George Patton. Lusseyran mused, however, that:
Joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.
We have eyes and too many of us still do not see, as we are reminded by the heartbreaking death of a young, unarmed Black man pulled over in his car for an alleged traffic offense by five Black Memphis police officers in an unmarked car. The 29-year-old man, Tyre Nichols, father of a 4-year-old child, died three days later of the wounds he endured. I have not watched the video of this senseless beating, released last Friday by the Memphis police, but I have read accounts of it, and it breaks my heart. Those officers that were chosen to serve, protect, and help make their community safe could not find a spark of recognition that they should treat a fellow citizen, a fellow Black man, as a human being. It reminds me of how the Germans viewed not just the Jews, but anyone they did not value. For humanity is truly about values and what and who we choose to hold dear–and what and who we do not.
Lusseyran wrote that the true heroes of Buchenwald were not the most religious, wealthy, learned, accomplished, or powerful people. He found it was the most humble and surprising people who showed the most humanity.
The religious searched everywhere for their faith. They did not find it again, or else they found it so reduced in force that they couldn’t make use of it. . . . The people who had been generally respected ran after their lost respect, but there wasn’t anything left of it. And the intellectuals, the cultivated men, the great brains, had great sorrows. They didn’t know what to do with their learning for it didn’t protect them against misfortune. . . . They could understand anything more readily than the fact that their intelligence was out of season.
But the shining beacon of Jacques Lusseyran’s insight, spirit, courage, and love has shone down through the many years between our lives and has enriched my own. If you are looking for strength and courage in this sometimes bewildering time, I recommend you read, And There Was Light.
Thankfully we have not lived the horrific systematic deprivations visited upon the people who got in the way of the Nazi war machine during the worst of the madness of World War II, but we can learn from the principles of a man who did: that bringing joy to others, and sharing joy with others, can make even a difficult life worth living. By lifting others, we find ourselves.
You can’t imagine how despair smells, or for that matter confidence. They are worlds apart in odor. . . . The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face.
Living to lighten the load of others, serving others, was Lusseyran’s way forward in the worst of circumstances. He kept his sanity, remained humble, found joy in the simplest things, and shared his inner light with his fellow prisoners. He lived through the madness of a concentration camp, and although he died in a car accident in France with his third wife in 1971, he told his story, shared his wisdom, and made a difference in countless lives.
After hearing Lusseyran’s inspiring story, you are probably not concerned about the outcome of our Saturday afternoon Scrabble game. However, in the spirit of Jacques Lusseyran’s noting that giving is the real receiving, I will report that Kurt put a “y” on his “fox”, made the word “foxy”, and I won the game. I could make the argument that he did too.
I remember the year our beloved nephew Zach played his classical guitar for us on Christmas. “Play one more song, Zach! That was beautiful!” And there was the time we gathered for our annual wacky family Christmas group photo and Kedi, the neighborhood cat that had adopted us, refused to stay in my husband Kurt’s arms, and we laughed till we cried.
This year I had plenty of time to consider Christmases past–and other family get-togethers–as I joined the many people who were sick for Christmas 2023 and missed the whole festive occasion.
I began feeling sick enough to call it that on Friday, December 23. At first I had hopes that I would recover in time for Christmas. I thought: Maybe it is just a cold, and I can mask up and wash my hands a lot and join the family get-together.
But it was not to be. My temperature shot to 101.3 during the night, and my doctor was kind enough to call in Tamiflu on Christmas Eve just before the pharmacy closed at 6:00 p.m. We assume it was the flu that came calling for Christmas–the unwanted visitor–since three at-home Covid tests thankfully came up negative. A few dear people I know where not so lucky in that regard.
This was the first time I have ever been sick at Christmas, so I am grateful for that. But it was hard not to feel sorry for myself, and the other people I know who have suffered with Covid and other respiratory infections this holiday season. And of course, this was the first Christmas without my dear sister Lisa who died in June of cancer. Lisa achieved so much in life and inspired so many people. The mystery of her passing confounds us. How could cancer overcome such a fighter? The holidays are not an unalloyed gladness for those with empty chairs around the table.
Instead of considering our family’s loss this year, I will share our family’s most exuberant celebrations over the last decade.
The string of Thanksgiving hilarity started in 2014 when our family attacked the turkey together and Daddy thoroughly enjoyed himself even though he had began to show some mental decline. In the turkey-takedown photo at left are: my husband Kurt, our son Justin (during his goatee period), my niece Abby (fetching as always), Daddy, Mama, my sister Lisa, her husband Rocky, our nephew Zach, and me. The turkey did not have a chance.
Thanksgiving 2015 we celebrated together at Daddy’s assisted living facility and had the main entry space to ourselves–piano and all. Our usual hijinks ensued.
Clockwise from top left: (Photo 1) Our son Justin (still with the goatee) was accompanied, physically not musically, by his fiancee Tracy who is an accomplished pianist. Daddy was the matchmaker who was an early cheerleader for the relationship and could not have been more delighted. (Photo 2) Mama is usually very reserved in photos, but she showed her playful side in the photo below. (Photo 3) I was a relentless photo bomber (someone had to do it) in this photo of our gorgeous niece Abby and Daddy, and (Photo 4) most of the family showed some attitude except for Mama who took a more relaxed approach.
Matchmaker Daddy was over the moon that his grandson Justin and the love of his life Tracy had married in the spring of 2016, and he was Justin’s best man. That Thanksgiving we gathered at Daddy’s rehab facility to celebrate the holiday and Tracy’s birthday.
Daddy had broken his hip a few weeks before Thanksgiving and the rehab facility was kind enough to allow us to gather in their cafeteria. The top three photos show Kurt’s efforts to take a photo of Daddy with his girls: Lisa and me. Kurt could not get Daddy’s attention which cracked us up–and eventually Daddy started laughing too. The group shot captures Daddy’s relationship with Kurt: total delight with each other! It was great to pull of such a fun occasion at a rehab center!
A few days after Thanksgiving, which was on November 24, Daddy died of a heart attack at his rehabilitation facility during his morning exercise workout. We were devastated, but there were so many reasons to find comfort after Daddy died: We all had such a lovely time together at Thanksgiving. Mama was at his side when he died. He did not have a long protracted death. He had some mental decline, but he still knew us and was very much himself even in his final days. For all these reasons, we celebrate that Daddy no longer was in pain, and he did not suffer.
On this Christmas nearly a decade ago, I made a scrapbook for Daddy filled with photos of his favorite musicians, along with a CD of his favorite music from the 1950s. Lisa and I had grown up listening to Daddy’s 45s, so we knew every word of his favorite tunes. One of those songs “Love Is Strange”, by Mickey & Sylvia, was also featured prominently in the movie “Dirty Dancing” which Lisa had watched repeatedly with her daughter Abby. So the three of us did an impromptu dance to “Love Is Strange”. Kurt caught the magic which is just one of the many advantages to having a photographer for a husband!
Love Is Strange
Love Love is strange Lot of people Take it for a game Once you get it You never want to quit, no no After you’ve had it You’re in an awful fix
Many people Don’t understand, no no They think loving Is money in the hand Your sweet loving Is better than a kiss When you leave me Sweet kisses I miss
Sylvia Yes, Mickey How do you call your lover boy Come here, lover boy And if he doesn’t answer Oh lover boy And if he still doesn’t answer I simply say Baby, oh baby My sweet baby, you’re the one Baby, oh baby My sweet baby, you’re the one
Written in 1956. Songwriters: Ethel Smith (actually Bo Diddley using his then- wife’s name)/ Mickey Baker / Sylvia Robinson
Yeah, Bay-bay, you’re the one!!!!
All the family, including Zach’s beautiful partner Paige, was in town for Christmas 2018 at our new (yet more than a century old) home in Old North Knoxville. This was the first Christmas gathering in our smaller home where photobombing had to be done on the stairs. I was definitely up to the challenge.
The yuletide celebration three years ago is significant because: Zach came in alone from Portland without Paige who stayed home to care for their adorable dogs Jack and Bear. He could only stay until December 21. We did not know it at that time, but due to the pandemic of Christmas 2020, Lisa’s illness during Christmas 2021, Christmas 2019 would be the last Christmas season we would be together as a family with Lisa.
Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer in the fall of 2019, and she fought valiantly with full steam ahead through all that the local medical professionals offered her: radiation and chemo, needles and infusions, immunotherapy, and whatever the final treatment was that I have now forgotten. Lisa’s spirit was undaunted no matter whatever the news from the oncological battlefield that was her body. It was, after all, her body that gave out on June 19, 2022, but her spirit never did.
Can we get our heads around it? No. We never will. She is gone. She has a grave on one of the highest hills of South Knoxville, near where we grew up on Scarlett Court, a short walking distance away.
I see her stone there on the ground marking her resting place, but she is not there for me. She continues to dance, she continues to love, she continues to sing, she continues to smile, she continues to hug, she continues to inspire. There is not another. Lisa. She is still with us as long as we draw breath. We fought alongside her whether we were there for the infusions or not. Whether we saw the oncologists or the nurse practitioners, we were there with her in spirit. And she is with us now. We will not give her up.
Words, words, words. They are not enough. Visions of the past, we danced together. We found joy together. We shared sorrow. We laughed; we cried. We grew up in those houses together. We heard that music. We sang those duets. We joined our souls together, my beloved sister.
I had to give you up on that hill high above the land we walked together, but I see you still. Tears fill my eyes. I remember you. I see you. You are still here with me. And yet you are gone.
Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child Don’t harden your heart or your hands
Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth Warner/Chapell Music
Last Thursday our family gathered for Thanksgiving while two superheroes ran among us with their capes flowing ever so gracefully behind them.
The good intention of these heroes was obvious. They flew without care and appeared to understand the stakes involved: Living in the moment, living for today, living with passion and exuberance. Because they are children, they dwell in the land of the possible and the playful. May we join them as often as possible. May we learn from them.
Buy the sky and sell the sky and lift your arms up to the sky And ask the sky and ask the sky
Flying above the ordinary world, these heroes do not become trapped in their heads, ruminating about their past and future. As every child–and feline or canine companion–can show us, the present is the only actionable time period for eating, playing, jumping, running, and living. We adults are heavy with burdens and doubts and sadness that have piled so high that we feel incapable of flight, of being ourselves. It is for the superheroes, the children, to help us remember the sky and the broad firmament of now.
Don’t let ’em lower your shoulders Love ’em more while they try Grow younger while you’re growin’ older Be amazed by the sky
Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth Warner/Chapell Music
Fighting bad guys can be difficult even for superheroes. There are many people with their own agendas selfishly ready to shoot down the simple pleasures of being yourself, singing your song, shining your light, loving who you wish to love, and just enjoying the natural world around you. Keeping your chin up and back straight are tough when so many people are filled with anger and hate. But the antidote of child-like wonder is a powerful force for good in this world.
Darling, stay wild if you can (if you can) The girl with the world in her hands (in her hands)
Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth Warner/Chapell Music
Staying wild does not mean lowering yourself to engage the haters and their enablers. No, the word wild means: “living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated.“
May the superheroes–and the rest of us–not be tamed by the forces of darkness and jealousy that weigh down so many. As the Holocaust survivor and groundbreaking Austrian philosopher Viktor Frankl learned, the Nazis could enslave his body, but they could not enslave his mind. To rise above despair, he found, ” . . . it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” May we see that even as we grow taller and older, seeking natural beauty and making a difference in the lives of others is the right choice for our own happiness as well as the people around us.
The ripples of love and kindness may seem small, but they flow outward inexorably. In other words, they are impossible to stop.
Stay gentle, stay gentle The most powerful thing you can do Oh, gentle, unbreakable you
Songwriters: Brandi Carlile / Phil Hanseroth / Tim Hanseroth Warner/Chapell Music
As all true superheroes know, you must know your own strength to lift up the ones who are at risk of falling. Believe in yourself, gentle heroes: You who are flexible, resilient, and strong. Float like a feather on the wind, as you teach the ways of kindness and gratitude, even to those who do not understand you.
May you fly with the clouds, may you dance, may you sing, may you be passionate, may you love, and may you teach others how to live the now with you.
Over the past few decades, Halloween has both grown into a bigger event and become somewhat controversial in some circles.
When we were young it was a wonderful escape from the ordinary as my sister Lisa and I each picked out our mask for the night, which we called our “false face”. We would gleefully trick-or-treat around our small neighborhood in South Knoxville. I still recall the house on the corner of Baker and Davenport Road that gave the best Halloween candy. Seeing all the older people’s faces light up when we came to the door was enormous fun. However, it was hard to breathe with the masks on our faces, so we would remove them after each house and replace them only when we got to the next door.
For a few years we collected money for UNICEF on Halloween. As the door to each home opened, we would say, “Trick-or-treat for UNICEF!” We felt privileged to do our part–doing good on Halloween as well as collecting candy.
When my sister Lisa was in the 6th grade and I was in the 8th, her boyfriend and his best friend egged our house on Halloween. This kind of hijinks was typical, but it certainly did not endear the boyfriend to anyone in our household, including my sister.
As teenagers, our Methodist youth group had the run of our church fellowship hall, and we turned it into a haunted house of which we were very proud. We worked together to devise the most appropriately scary “haunted house” that would still be safe for all concerned. We chose the fellowship stage as well as the Sunday School classes leading to it. Going through the haunted house was electric with the unknown around every corner.
In my 20s, the church Halloween party featured simple handmade costumes as you can see in the photo above. Left to right, I am dressed in a robe and shower cap with cold cream on my face; our friend Craig dressed as a hillbilly, Russ put his shirt on backward and called it a costume; my sister Lisa was a witch; and our friend Jeff was a leopard.
Another Halloween church party, either the year before or after, I tied balloons to a purple leotard and went to the party as a bunch of grapes, while my friend Gina was a Hershey’s kiss. Although her costume was more ingenious, I won the prize for best costume. A few years ago, when we moved Mama from our family’s home into a condo, I found my trophy featuring a smiling pumpkin on top.
In the late 1990s, what had been for us a time of simple pleasures, dressing up in costumes with friends and playing games, became associated with darker forces. Sure mischief had always been part of the Halloween mix, but good fun was all we were ever looking for. Some churches and other organizations began sponsoring “trunk-or-treating” instead of “trick-or-treating” because it was seen to be less spooky, less scary. At these events, church members give children candy and toys from the trunks of their cars.
Although going around a parking lot getting candy from car trunks during the daylight can be fun, there is just something more compelling about the simple pleasures of dressing up, and going door-to-door at night in your neighborhood.
As I was searching for pictures of Halloweens past, I found other photos from the many lives I have led: a photo of the University of Tennessee system-wide administration women losing a tug-of-war against the UT campus women in October 1985. That’s me in the Paris Match T-shirt in the middle of the losing side.
I also found a picture of my beautiful sister Lisa (at left below) who was matron-of-honor when I married my now ex-husband Brian. This was my second wedding, and you can see my then 7-year-old son Justin (center photo) taking a phone call at the event. He would grow up to marry Tracy, the daughter of my lovely friend, Vicky Martin (photo below right), who helped serve at the wedding. It can be a small world in South Knoxville!
My dear sister Lisa died in June and the mystery of her passing is something I will never quite understand. I was more sure of many things when I was younger and collected the thoughts of wise people who inspired me. I found two of these quotes today in one of my many scrapbooks.
It takes so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price . . . One has to abandon altogether the search for security and reach out to the risk of living with both arms.
One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.
Morris L. West, from “The Shoes of the Fisherman”
Today my younger self is advising my older self to be open, not to be closed off. To risk the pain that comes with living. To risk the loss of those you love–those you cannot imagine that life can go on without. I cannot always take these ideas out of the closets of my mind. I take them out today, looking forward to tonight when I will hold my 10-month-old grandson Walker in my arms and give away Halloween candy to children on our front steps. Walker’s eyes will be bright. He will try to take in the scene of colorful outfits and laughter. He will try to understand the mysteries of the night, as will I.
When we were young, we put on our false faces and for a few hours visited the friends of our parents and grandparents who were utterly delighted with our costumes and our chorus of, “Trick or treat.” I remember fondly our grandparents’ across-the-street neighbors Alfred and Grace Cummings. Always with a smile for us children, these dear people made a difference in our lives no matter that they were just our loving cheerleaders. They believed in the good in us. They helped us believe in ourselves.
As an adult I “learned to play the violin in public” by getting divorced a few times. The first marriage was a disaster in many respects, but from it came my adorable son, Justin, who has traveled many roads with me. On Halloween 1989 in Ft. Worth, Texas, I helped Justin into his Halloween costume–he went as a scarecrow–and the next day, on All Saints Day, gave birth to his baby brother, Aidan, who gave us great joy. Sadly I could not find the photo of Justin in his costume, but I found a few of him from that time period: Justin in his baseball uniform and singing a solo at an elementary school event. Fantastic, talented, much-loved Justin!
In one of my scrapbooks I found a quote by opera singer Beverly Sills in 1981 as she spoke to graduates of Barnard College, an independent women’s college in New York City:
Women are told today they can have it all–career, marriage, children. You need a total commitment to make it work. Take a close look at your child. He doesn’t want you to be bright, talented, chic or smart–any of those things. He just wants you to love him. He will be the one who pays the price for your wanting to have it all. Think carefully about having that baby. Not to have it would be a great loss. To have it too late greatly increases the health hazards for you and the child. To have it without a commitment to it would be a great tragedy. There are two keys: one, believe in yourself; two, love. You must ooze it from every pore. Love your work, your husband and your child, not just to hear his needs but to feel his needs. For your husband you must reserve that 30th hour of the day when he has you all alone to himself. If you wonder when you’ll get time to rest, well, you can sleep in your old age if you live that long. You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.
Beverly Sills, opera star & impresario, May 1981
I never thought that I could have it all. Being born poor tends to ratchet down your expectations for taking over the world. Being female had it is own limitations, even though I have fought that reality for most of my life. Luckily for me, my husband Kurt does not feel threatened by a strong woman who has her own ideas.
The world has changed so much since I was young, but the fundamentals are the same: love deeply, profoundly, and passionately. Fight the fear. Flee the hatred. And open your door on Halloween.
First you learn and then you’ll teach About that bright, bright light Making its way On up the mountain night and day And you’ll get tired and you’ll get weak But you won’t abandon your masterpiece Now there’s a light making its way On up the mountain night and day And you’ll go down and you’ll go deep But you won’t surrender your masterpiece You won’t surrender your masterpiece You will deliver your masterpiece
Jakob Dylan, American Singer/Songwriter
My sister Lisa delivered her masterpiece. She sought and created community and natural beauty wherever she was, and for all of her 63 years she lived within a few miles across the river from Downtown Knoxville in South Knoxville. Most of our ancestors go back a few hundred years in this area that used to be farmland outside the city limits. And Lisa married Rocky Stanley whose forebears have farmed and/or grown plants on the same land since the early 1800s. The Davenport-Stanley farm is now also home to Stanley’s Greenhouse which was started in 1955, by Rocky’s parents Charles and Mary Kathryn–where Lisa joyously worked for around 25 years.
After their marriage, when Lisa was 18 years old and Rocky was 19, Rocky’s parents, helped them buy a home in the most desirable residential area in South Knoxville: Island Home. When the area was developed for residential housing a hundred years ago it was named Island Home Park.
According to the Knoxville History Project, led by its executive director, Knoxville historian and writer Jack Neely, Island Home gets its name from a small island down the river from downtown Knoxville. The land was originally owned by Moses White, son of Knoxville’s founder James White, who sold it to Col. Thomas Williams. There was a small island just down the river from Knoxville which became known as “Williams Island”.
Quite a few colorful characters and well-connected folk lived in Island Home from its beginnings, including the man that Col. Williams eventually sold the land to: Perez Dickinson. A relative of one of the most influential of American poets Emily Dickinson, and a native of New England, Perez originally came South to teach at Hampden Sydney Academy, a boy’s school that originally opened in 1817. The academy had several iterations and at one time was combined with East Tennessee University, the institution that would eventually become the University of Tennessee.
During the Civil War, Dickinson found himself on the wrong side when Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861 to join the Confederacy. Tennessee was the last state to secede (and the first to rejoin the Union) but tensions ran high in East Tennessee with loyalties splitting families, businesses being confiscated from Union sympathizers, and some men leaving the state to muster in Kentucky to fight for the Union. Although he was said to be a slave owner himself, Dickinson was a strong proponent of the Union and eventually left Tennessee.
After Dickinson died, his pastoral riverside property passed to his son, then, several other owners before it was laid out as a planned community by the Island Home Park Community in 1911. By 1922, the neighborhood had 44 homes, and more were built throughout that decade.
Just past the entrance to the Island Home neighborhood, is a circular green space where, beginning around 1912, electric trolley cars turned around before making their way back to downtown. According to Knoxville Area Transit (KAT), the last trolley car made its run in Knoxville in 1947. A few years ago, along with help from her daughter Abby (shown in photos above), who lives on Island Home Boulevard, Lisa added plants, trees, and shrubs to the Trolley Turnaround site.
Professionals and civic leaders of Knoxville have lived in Island Home ever since. Their numbers included the physician Frank Faulkner, who not only was the head athletic trainer for the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team in 1928, but delivered our father, Roy Rotha Allen, when he was born in April 1935.
When we were young, Mama and Daddy had close friends who lived on Island Home Boulevard just down the street from Tennessee School for the Deaf that was relocated to the area in 1924 from its former location downtown. Many of our classmates in school lived in Island Home, and we had playdates with them. One of our high school teachers, Rose Mary Pressley, and her family owned the house that would become Lisa and Rocky’s home in 1988.
Our parents were also friends with Tom Jr. and Grace Parkhill (photo below) who lived on Island Home Avenue. Tom Jr. became a nationally known hybridizer of tall-bearded irises since his wife Grace was particularly fond of their flowers. Lisa and I played Barbies with their daughter Beth, and Tom III, Lisa, and I were in a high school production of the play”Tom Jones”. Lisa (shown rehearsing in the photo below right) was Sophie, the leading lady, but we all knew it was Tom that would be the one who would take his skills to the next level.
In 1989 Tom Parkhill founded the Tennessee Stage Company, a 501c(3) theater company providing local actors with professional opportunities. Tom remains TSC’s founding artistic director, and the company operates with the guiding motto typical of Tom’s wit: “Elvis is our co-pilot”.
When Tom found the leading lady of his life, Laura Regis, they were married on Knoxville’s Market Square right in the middle of the highly popular Rossini Festival benefitting Knoxville Opera. The marketplace where the Stanley family once sold its flowers and plants, hosted the marriage of Tom and Laura (above center) on April 23, 2016. Their touching wedding in the midst of the cacophony of a local street festival was one of the most perfect weddings I have ever had the privilege to attend. After their nuptials, Tom and Laura made their home in the only home Tom Parkhill has ever lived in, which was a few streets over and up the hill from Lisa and Rocky Stanley.
Lisa fervently believed there was no other place to live in the world than Island Home. Having lived in Fort Worth; Morristown, Tennessee; and West and North Knoxville, I found there were a few spots on Earth that were inhabitable besides South Knoxville.
In the past few days, I have come to understand more fully why my sister was rooted so deeply in the soil of Island Home. It was the people of Island Home, her neighbors. When we walked through the neighborhood together, Lisa knew who lived in every home. She knew how long they lived there, what they did for a living, where their children went to school, and how they changed their home or garden since they moved in.
When Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer in fall 2019, her community rallied around her and over the next few years left gifts, flowers, and food on her front porch. As she endured radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy, her spirit was indomitable, but her body weakened, and the cancer continued to spread.
When Lisa passed away on June 19, 2022, a few of her neighbors decided to celebrate her life in a tangible way. Wayne and Carolyn Williams, Lisa’s neighbors since 1977, put their heads together with Joni Morabito and Mitzi Congleton, and came up with a plan. Wayne, a talented woodworker, built a beautifully crafted bench out of pine and ash, created a raised bed of pebbles to anchor the bench to the site, and added a plaque that reads:
In Memory Lisa Diane Allen Stanley 1959-2022
Mitzi, a sought-after portrait artist, painted a sign that reads: Lisa’s Garden. They decided to place the bench underneath a dogwood tree, Lisa’s favorite tree, facing the river.
When the garden bench and sign were finished, her neighbors invited us to a special family unveiling of Lisa’s Garden on September 16, 2022, the night before the official dedication for the entire neighborhood the next evening.
Tears came to my eyes when I saw Wayne’s handiwork and Mitzi’s sign officially dedicating this public space of Island Home as a garden celebrating Lisa’s life. Her neighbors’ generosity was overwhelming, but so perfectly Lisa. The next night I was delighted to see Tommy Smith, who represents the First District on Knoxville’s City Council. He lives in Island Home with his family and does a fantastic job for our city. It was also a pleasure to see Debbie Billings, former owner of Graphic Creations, who another neighbor of Lisa’s, who built her business with integrity, professionalism, and kindness.
Lisa’s passion was Stanley’s Greenhouse, but when she had a few moments away from the greenhouse, Lisa worked in her home garden. She favored pink cleome (photo below right), her Edgeworthia bush, panolas (a cross between pansies and violas), pansies, violas, hydrangeas, and a contorted willow (below center right) that she planted along her fence line in the backyard. This tree has quite a story.
Lisa gave birth to her first child, Zachary (called Zach), in 1985, however, when she tried to have a second child, she found it difficult to get pregnant. After many interventions failed to produce the desired result, Lisa stopped fertility treatments and, to her surprise and great joy, found that she was pregnant again. When Lisa gave birth to Abigale (known as Abby), in August 1995, my husband Kurt and I gave her a dozen yellow roses with a small branch from a contorted willow tree in the center. Of course, being Lisa, she decided to root the willow branch and when it was big enough, she planted it in her backyard. Now, 27 years later, the willow that was once a floral decoration, is a 30 foot-tall tree.
Just as she always did, Lisa took something rather insignificant and grew it into a powerful statement of natural beauty that can be enjoyed up close as well as from afar. Similarly Lisa created a sense of community with tangible gifts to her neighbors and neighborhood, but also gifts of her spirit. She inspired many people to share her passion and grow their own gardens. She shared her enthusiasm with her customers, neighbors, friends, and family. She was an original.
Kurt and I were watching a British crime drama called Silent Witness the other night and one of the main characters, Leo, quoted a line from British poet and novelist Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”:
What will survive of us is love.
Philip Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb” written in 1956, included in the book “The Whitsun Weddings“, published 1964
From Lisa’s love of Rocky came their children Zach and Abby, and from Lisa’s love of the natural world and her love of people around her came the sense of community that she created so effortlessly. That communal spirit between the natural world and humankind continues in Lisa’s Garden in Island Home. She continues to bring people together even after she is no longer physically with us. Her love goes on. Lisa never abandoned her masterpiece.
My husband Kurt and I visited my sister Lisa to photograph her garden in 2015 and were amazed to find a dill plant taller than me growing out of a crack in her driveway. This herb had found a way not only to grow, but to flourish, in a location where only the hardiest of weeds could thrive. Such plants that find their way to unexpected locations are called “volunteers”. As Wikipedia notes:
A volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener. Volunteers often grow from seeds that float in on the wind, are dropped by birds, or are inadvertently mixed into compost.
Wikipedia, Volunteer (botany)
We Tennesseans live in the Volunteer State which earned its nickname during the War of 1812 when Tennessee sent 1,500 men to fight against Great Britain over trade rights, territorial expansion, and power in North America. The Tennessee Historical Society notes the state solidified its volunteer distinction when President James K. Polk, a former governor of Tennessee, asked for 2,600 men to fight against Mexico in 1848, and 30,000 Tennessee men enlisted.
And of course, our state university, the University of Tennessee, competes in athletics as the Tennessee Volunteers.
There is selflessness involved in offering to take part in an effort for which there is no immediate personal gain. As Webster’s Dictionary says, “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service“.
How amazing it is to experience the sheer serendipity of discovering a plant magically growing on its own without human plan, intervention, or support in such an inhospitable place as a crack in a driveway or out of a small hole in an abandoned building. The tree shown below has its roots in the darkness of the former Palm Beach Mill Outlet building on Baxter Avenue here in Knoxville, yet it is reaching for the light through a tiny space between the bricks of a building that has been closed for decades. How does it get enough water? How did it begin to grow in a building where you would normally not find soil? It is remarkable that the owners of this building have not cut the tree down.
Given just a bit of sunlight and water and encouragement, living creatures can achieve great things despite the odds.
When our country was established as a breakaway colony of the British empire, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for population purposes so that slave states would have as much power as possible. However, representatives to the Continental Congress did not include women as part of the population. As Harvard Business School explains:
During most of American history . . . a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children. Widows did have the right of “dower,” a right to property they brought into the marriage as well as to life usage of one-third of their husband’s estate. Though a married woman was not able to sue or sign contracts on her own, her husband often did have to obtain her consent before he sold any property his wife had inherited.
Women, Enterprise & Society, Harvard Business School
Despite this invisibility under the law, women endured. It has been estimated by historians that 250 to 400 (and probably many more) women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War on both the Confederate and the Union sides of the war. They worked the fields, they tilled the soil, they gave birth to the next generation, and they fought for their rights to vote and for full citizenship throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.
In August 1920, women finally earned the right to vote when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by Congress. However, after I was divorced from my first husband in the early 1980s, a national American department store tried to hold me responsible for golf clubs bought by my ex-husband after we were divorced–and after I had my own credit card in my name. I fought the injustice and I won.
Progress is slow. The people who hold the power, typically white men, do not want to share it.
When I was in middle school in 1972, a friend of mine who was a few years older got pregnant. Since terminating the pregnancy was not legal in Tennessee, my friend traveled to Atlanta to get an abortion. I was immensely relieved for her and her boy friend. I was a staunch Christian, but believed fervently in their rights to decide, for themselves, the trajectory of their lives. The next year, in 1973, Roe vs. Wade passed 7-2 by the U.S. Supreme Court, affording American women the right to decide whether to bear a child in the first trimester of their pregnancies. During the second and third trimesters, government restrictions were allowed. This right was deemed “fundamental” to a woman’s human rights.
Ten years later I was a single woman, raising my 4-year-old son, working full-time and attending college part-time, when I discovered I was pregnant. I was terrified I would lose my job and that my ex-husband would try to take my son away from me. Fortunately my boy friend had the money for an abortion and a clinic in town safely accomplished the procedure soon after I discovered I was pregnant. My life and my son’s life depended on my right to make this decision. I have never regretted making this life-affirming choice to ensure that my son would be safe, and I would be able to work and get my bachelor’s degree so I could make enough money to care for him.
On June 24, 2022, the day after we buried my beloved sister Lisa, I woke to the news that the Republican-appointed majority of the U.S. Supreme Court had decided that American women did not, after all, have full rights as citizens and that Roe vs. Wade was overturned after 49 years. Lisa’s death had been such a devastating blow–one which I will never get over–and then I learn American women do not have rights over their bodies. Neither do their husbands or families. The legislature of their state has the right to decide if women have children. Essentially their state government gets to decide.
Five days ago, abortion became illegal in Tennessee. The legislature of my native state now allows no exceptions for maternal health, fetal abnormality, incest, child sexual abuse, or rape. There is no explicit exception if there is a risk to a woman’s life. The supermajority of Tennessee’s Republican legislators have decided a doctor or other health professional that performs a procedures to save a woman’s life during pregnancy can be charged with a felony and have the burden of proving in court that the procedure was necessary to save their patient or to prevent serious risk of “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” How vague is that? Who will want to be an obstetrics or emergency room doctor in Tennessee and deal with complicated pregnancies such ectopic pregnancies where the fetus is growing outside the uterus and has a zero chance to live, but where the mother could die? Unbelievable.
Women will die. Women and their children will suffer. Families will suffer. And I fear for my independent, irrepressible granddaughter who will grow up in a state where she does not have full citizenship or control over her body. She deserves to have full rights as an American citizen, and so does every other little girl and woman in America.
I come from a line of headstrong women, especially the Montgomery women. My paternal grandmother, Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, chose to marry R. Hodge Allen, at the age of 30 in 1934, after she had been told as a young woman that it would be dangerous for her to marry and have children due to her delicate health. She became pregnant with my father in the summer of 1934, gave birth to Daddy on April 2, 1935, and she died on August 12, 1935, in the George Maloney Home, the workhouse/poorhouse/insane asylum here in Knox County. She was 31 years old, and her death certificate noted that she died of insanity from pellagra psychosis. Pellagra is a severe nutritional disease caused by a deficiency of niacin (Vitamin B3) which killed 100,000 Southerners in the first part of the 20th Century due to their poverty and poor diet which consisted mainly of salt pork, molasses, and corn. Pellagra is marked by the three Ds: dementia, diarrhea, and dermatitis. And the other D: death, if untreated.
My grandmother had a choice to give birth to my father, and I love and honor her for doing so. But she was never able to hold my father after she gave birth, and soon after Daddy was born, my grandfather’s family committed Darcus to the poorhouse/insane asylum where she died soon thereafter.
Daddy’s life was marked by poverty and neglect. As a baby and small child, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Lucinda, but she died when he was 4 years old. He lived with his alcoholic uncle Bill and illiterate father Hodge who worked full-time on the killing floor of a packing house. He was thrown out of his home by his second stepmother, lived at the YMCA in Downtown Knoxville, and dropped out of school in the 10th grade.
Daddy eventually married Mama and made his way in this world as best he could. You could say that he grew on his own without being planted by a farmer or gardener. He grew between the cracks of his life. He eventually traveled and saw a bit of the world. He laughed and loved and fathered two daughters who he adored and who adored him. But he never got over growing up without a mother.
Human lives are messy. People need to decide for themselves whether they will have children. That’s what freedom is all about.
Last month my sister Lisa died after “fighting” Stage 4 bone cancer for nearly three years. In the end, cancer won, and we, the people who love her, lost. However, Lisa’s spirit was amazingly strong and would not allow her body to go down without a ferocious, optimistic fight.
When we were young, people thought we were twins since we were born only 15 months apart. We were not Irish twins which are born less than a year apart, but we missed that designation by only 3 months. We were very close when we were growing up–and were best friends in high school.
At Lisa’s funeral, our cousin Sonny said he remembered when Lisa and I used to sing “Do-Rei-Mi” from movie version of The Sound of Music. Daddy had bought us the soundtrack record, and we knew all the words to the songs. Well, apparently we did not know all the words, all the time, Sonny said one of us would elbow the other when the offending party missed a phrase. Being the older sister, it was probably me who did the elbowing. Guilty as charged. We had always been together, and even after we grew up, married, and had our own lives, we were close in ways that only sisters can be. We did not always agree on everything; no, not at all. But we had the shared values that our parents taught us–people are more important than things. And family was, well, like breathing, and the loss of close family members was unthinkable . . . beyond words.
Each month, each week, each day for the past two-and-half-or-so years, I dreaded the phone call that would make my fear of losing Lisa a reality. Often I got in the shower thinking, “Is this the day Kurt will come in and tell me my sister is gone?” When the day came I was not in the shower and my sister was still alive. Kurt and I were in the car when I got the call from Lisa’s husband Rocky that she was failing, and we should come right away. I had prepared myself, but I had not prepared myself. I howled liked a lost thing. Which I was.
Early that Friday morning, June 17, 2022, Rocky had taken Lisa to the emergency room, and the doctors said they could keep her alive for perhaps a few more weeks if she stayed in the hospital where they could give her intravenous antibiotics for a life-threatening infection she had picked up. If she went home, they predicted she would die in a few days. Lisa insisted with all the force left in her tiny body, that she wanted to go home, so Rocky took her home, and the family and hospice care was called in.
I felt so lucky that I got to speak to her before she died. We did not say goodbye, which was undoubtedly for the best. She was lying on the couch in her living room, obviously agitated, and told me how guilty she felt that she had not been able to help me take Mama to doctor’s appointments after our mother broke her wrist a few weeks ago.
“Oh, my dear girl, no, you have done so many things for Mama. You have done so much for everyone, sweet girl! And we love you so much!” I cried, as my tears dropped steadily on my dress.
She seemed not to hear my words at all as she worried aloud whether her husband Rocky had talked to the accountant to make sure Mama was taken care of while she was off work with her wrist.
“Oh, yes, Rocky has already done that,” I said.
“Rocky needs to talk to John about making sure Mama gets what she needs,” she said relentlessly to the ceiling.
“Honey, I have talked to him. It’s all taken care of,” Rocky assured her.
Lisa continued talking about Mama as the skies cracked open, and we could hear torrential rain falling outside the house. Lisa wanted to see the rain, so her daughter Abby helped her up. Abby–the beloved baby girl who Lisa gave birth to after so many years of trying to get pregnant–supported Lisa as she walked slowly. As Lisa stepped onto the front porch, a deafening crack of thunder boomed and lightning struck across the street near the river. It seemed that the natural world was enraged by this unnatural diminishing of Lisa’s light.
We–Lisa, Rocky, Mama, Abby and her husband Holden, Kurt, and I–gathered on the porch watching the tremendous rain that comes so seldom to Tennessee in mid June. Between thunder and lightning, I wondered at how the Earth had decided to signify Lisa’s upcoming death with tumultuous fury, aghast that it had come to this.
Despite her frail condition, my sister stood, barefooted and bareheaded, as she had lost most of her hair during the final, futile few months of treatment. She looked like an alert, little bird, still singing her song.
We watched the rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. “Let’s sit down,” Abby suggested. The lightning flashed and the thunder answered, and Lisa talked of hydrangeas and how they loved the rain. And she certainly would know since she had been a plant specialist and co-manager of the family business, Stanley’s Greenhouse. She inspired countless people to grow hydrangeas and pansies/violas/panolas (the latter a hybrid cross between the two which Lisa loved) and Greggii salvia (her favorite) and orchids and dogwood trees and fragrant Edgeworthia (paper bush tree) which she had planted near the road in her front yard. Lisa’s garden.
She talked incessantly of hydrangeas and then repeatedly said the word cultivars. Then she spoke, but none of the words were intelligible. We looked past each other, her bewildered family, talking about everything and nothing–trying to think how to answer her. Someone suggested we go inside, and Abby steered Lisa in the front door of her home for the last time. Lisa laid on the couch and seemed to enter a fitful coma.
Lisa’s first-born Zach lives in Portland, Oregon, so his partner Paige called to say she was finalizing his flights to arrive in Knoxville as soon as possible. The first available flight called for him to fly through the night to Nashville and then drive a rental car to arrive home Saturday. Zach made it to his parents’ home around midday. And his mother was, thankfully, still alive.
At Rocky and Lisa’s home, we hosted friends and neighbors and pastors and hospice nurses. One of the nurses said it was likely that Lisa was in a twilight sleep, yet she fervently believed Lisa could hear us. Family and friends talked to her and touched her lovingly. Occasionally she squeezed a finger, or turned her head to a familiar voice. But she was not at peace. Saturday was difficult for Lisa, but after her medication was adjusted in the early evening, she rested more comfortably.
Lisa died in the wee hours of the morning on Father’s Day Sunday, June 19, 2022. Our dear father died five and a half years ago, but it seemed fitting that his second daughter should die on his special day. Daddy was so proud of his girls, and so sensitive, that I feel certain it is best that he did not live to see Lisa’s passing. His mother, Darcus Montgomery Allen, died when she was 31 years old, just 4 months after she gave birth to Daddy. He never got over the pain of growing up without a mother. When his father died at the age of 84, Daddy said it took him three months to grieve. He woke up one day and found he could finally cry. Grief has its own timetable.
Mama has been remarkable in her ability to go on. She came from a close family who were entirely devoted to each other. Hardworking, full of faith and strength, Mama made up the difference when Daddy was between jobs when we growing up. With her wrist healed, she is now back to working, at the age of 86, at Stanley’s Greenhouse–the nursery that Rocky’s parents started in 1955–where she has worked for nearly 50 years.
Mama, Lisa, and I are people who have always been proud to get the job done. Even when Lisa was too sick to work full-time, she came by the greenhouse often to transplant a few containers for her customers. Many times she injured herself, but staying busy and making a difference continued to drive her. And she continued attending church–even during Covid. When the Methodist church where she was a member was closed for the pandemic, Lisa went to a nearby Baptist church, and sang in the choir when she was able.
Luckily she never fell victim to Covid. It could be said that she fell victim to cancer, but really she gave cancer a run for its money. She never gave up.
A few years ago, I read a memoir by Lucinda Franks, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting (in 1971) and one of the youngest people ever to win the award. The book, “Timeless: Love, Morganthau, and Me”, was written by Ms. Franks about the great love of her life, Robert Morgenthau, the longtime District Attorney for New York County. They met when she was 26 years old, and he was a 53-year-old widower with two grown children and a daughter still at home.
Not many people thought their relationship would last, but the naysayers were wrong. Lucinda and Bob were married for 42 years–from 1977 until he died at the age of 99 in 2019–and had two children of their own. Lucinda died of cancer in 2021, two years after her husband, at the age of 74.
Believing strongly in the power and force of love and following your intuition, Lucinda wrote:
I believe that love is no accident, no whisper from a random universe. It comes from deeper channels of longing and recognition; a collection of tiny lights that gathered force long ago.
Lucinda Franks, “Timeless: Love, Morganthau, and Me”
Lisa Diane Allen Stanley was indeed a tiny light that gathered force long ago. And she was a tree planted on a mountainside. Mighty winds whipped around her and blankets of snow at times covered her trunk, but her roots held fast and deep in the ground as other trees cracked and fell. She lifted her arms to the sun and encouraged others to do the same, She was a beacon on that hillside as many were inspired by her example of growth, faith, enthusiasm, generosity, and, most of all, love.
Lisa’s love was not random, but was directed to touch the people around her. She was a tiny light that blazed with a fervor that cannot be extinguished since her light was shared with so many people who loved her. And that light lives on.
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