All of my adult life I have tried to discover the most electric, stimulating, lifeforce-charging and lifeforce-changing music I could find at that particular moment in time. One of my high school boy friends told me dismissively that I lived as if I was in a movie. And why not? What does a movie have that life does not? A soundtrack. I have been trying to find a solution for real life’s particular failing from the time I could swing in my grandparents’ backyard and make up my own scraps of music.
But perhaps nature does have its own soundtrack.
While watching a documentary called “Muscle Shoals” about the seminal soul music created in the 1960s and 1970s in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, I heard an oral story handed down to a man of the Yuchi Native American tribe from his great, great grandmother.
The Yuchi (also spelled Euchee or Uchee) people originally lived in the Eastern Tennessee River valley in what is now central Tennessee. They lived alongside the Tennessee River which they called Nunnuhsae, meaning “the river that sings”. The Yuchi people believed that a young girl lived in the river, sang her river song, and thereby protected them. Then the white people came and built dams in the Tennessee River Valley and muted the river girl’s song. And it seemed that they could hear the song no more. But the Yuchi people believed that in the quiet places, you can still hear her sing.
Listening to a babbling brook or gurgling spring captures the essence of living, as it moves, constantly changes, and somehow stills the troubled mind. However, not many of us live beside a lake, river, beach, creek, or stream. But when it rains we can hear the sound of moving water which is a symphony of natural wonder. Lord knows it rains seldom enough here in East Tennessee, that I look at rain as an exciting, replenishing miracle for my garden and for me.
In the movie “Wild Mountain Thyme”, written for the screen by John Patrick Shanley based on his play “Outside Mullingar”, a young woman named Rosemary farmed her family’s land alone after the death of her parents. On the next farm, Anthony lived on his family’s farm with his father.
Anthony confided to Rosemary that after his mother died he could no longer see colors, and asked Rosemary, “Where do we go when we die? The sky?”
Rosemary replied, “The ground.”
Anthony said, “Then what’s the sky for?”
Rosemary: “The sky’s for now. The sky is for now.”
So we have the river, the rain, the sky. And as our country’s young poet laureate Amanda Gorman said on Inauguration Day 2021:
There is light if we are brave enough to see it. There is light if we are brave enough to be it.
Amanda Gorman, January 2021
May we heed the call and listen to the natural rhythms of the Earth around us, and be wise enough to live by them.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. ‘Be still’ they say, Watch and listen– You are the result of the love of thousands.
Helena Bonham Carter, “Our Grandparents’ War” PBS Series, Episode One
Today, I honor my grandparents whose love made my life possible.
At left are my maternal grandparents Jerushia Flemingtine Cunningham Henderlight (who was called “Boots” by my grandfather) and James Thomas “Tom” Henderlight (who was called “Thomas” by my grandmother) on their wedding day in 1932. We, their grandchildren, knew them simply as Mamaw and Papaw.
At right are my paternal grandparents Darcus Nickaline Montgomery Allen (originally from Carroll County, Virginia) and Roy Hodge Allen who was known by Hodge. This photo was taken on their wedding day in February 1934.
Both sets of my grandparents lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and both overcame great hardships during their lives.
When Mamaw and Papaw had their first child, James “Bud” Thomas Henderlight Jr., he had multiple handicaps and the physician who delivered him (at their home) advised Mamaw to give up on him. One of his legs was considerably shorter than the other, his lip was deformed, and it was possible that he also had brain damage due to his difficult birth. Mamaw refused to abandon her firstborn and dedicated her life to caring for him.
Many couples might have decided that having more children would be unwise since their first child had multiple disabilities and would take a good deal of time and energy to care for. But my grandparents were undaunted at the prospect of increasing their family and had two more children: my mother Arzelia and my aunt Rheta. If Mamaw and Papaw had allowed their fear and misgivings to overcome them, my sister and I and my cousins Robin, Bobby, and Ricky would never have been born.
As for Daddy’s mother Darcus, she was born and lived her early years on her family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia. Her father John Martin Montgomery had a difficult time making ends meet, and eventually had to sell their 34-acre farm and move his large family to the nearby town of Fries, Virginia. Teenaged Darcus and her younger sister Eutaw Regina worked as cotton spinners in the new cotton mill that had been built in Grayson County. A few years later their father died of cancer, so their mother Cordelia moved her children to Kingsport, Tennessee, to be near family who lived there.
Darcus’s mother Cordelia had been cautioned by their family doctor in Virginia that her oldest surviving daughter Darcus was too sensitive and physically fragile for the rigors of marriage. However, several factors combined to change her thinking about whether Darcus should marry: after Darcus’s father died of cancer, Cordelia remarried and having a grown daughter living with them was less than ideal; their doctor in Tennessee advised that Darcus should marry and have a child right away; and Darcus met Hodge Allen from Knoxville. She saw in him a gentle soul that she could make a home with, and they were smitten with each other.
In February 1934, Darcus Montgomery and Hodge Allen were married. By summer Darcus was pregnant, and in April 1935 my father Roy Rotha Allen was born. In August my grandmother Darcus died, according to her death certificate, of insanity from pellagra psychosis, a severe nutritional disease that afflicted many Southerners who lived in poverty during the first half of the 20th Century. What was pellagra and how did she get it?
The first question is easy enough to answer. According to a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 and 2018, “The by-product of insufficient niacin consumption, pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the American South, killing roughly 7,000 Southerners annually at its peak in 1928.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in October 1999, “The near elimination of pellagra by the end of the 1940s has been attributed to improved diet and health associated with economic recovery during the 1940s and to the enrichment of flour with niacin.
The second question: how did Darcus get pellagra? Probably from being pregnant, just as her original family doctor had warned. And of course, Hodge’s family–the young couple lived with Hodge’s mother and brother–were poor.
In any event the improvements in the Southern diet and economy in the 1940s came too late for my grandmother Darcus who we never had the privilege to know. And perhaps she would have died in any event due to her fragile health and sensitive nature. What is true without a doubt, however, is if Darcus had not taken the chance, followed her heart, and married Hodge, my father Roy Rotha Allen would never have been born, and neither would my sister Lisa or me.
So today, I honor both my grandparents–who did not go to war in quite the same way as Helena Bonham Carter’s British grandparents did as they lived with bombs raining down near their home in London–sometimes on a daily basis. But my grandparents made their own sacrifices to dream, to hope, and to love–giving future generations the gift of life.
I got my first dose of the Covid vaccine today in a drive-through operation at Ft. Sanders Hospital West here in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a flawless experience except they did not set up a second shot right away on the spot. Thanks to a friend, I did discover I could call Covenant Health’s vaccine number and eventually set up my second appointment.
For those of you who are questioning whether you will get the vaccine, or are fearful to get the vaccine, I encourage you to do it. Why?
The vaccines available in the U.S. (and in most places around the world) are safe and have been proven to be highly effective.
Vaccines save lives. Not just your life, but the lives of your loved ones as well as the cashier at the grocery store, the pregnant woman and her unborn child behind you in line at the post office, the teacher at your child’s school, and the delivery guy bringing your packages.
They are free in this country. There is no charge whether you have insurance or not.
If every person who is physically able gets the vaccine, and we reach herd immunity, adults and children who cannot take the vaccine for medical reasons will be protected.
We can reach safe harbor where we can again (1) attend a concert and experience an indoor live musical performance, (2) hold indoor funerals for our loved ones who die, (3) go to a movie theater or see a play, (4) go to a church service or community gathering, (5) sing in a choir, (6) go to a wedding and dance, and (7) eat a delicious meal at a restaurant without fear of dying alone in an ICU.
Live without the fear that a simple trip to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription could make you so ill that even months after you first got sick with Covid you cannot live anything like a normal life. Yes many long-haul Covid sufferers wonder if they will ever live normal lives again.
Do not listen to the conspiracy theorists The what-iffers, and the whispers of the uninformed. Seek out the vaccine whenever it’s available And do your part.
I got the Pfizer vaccine today just before noon. Now at 6:00 p.m., my upper arm is a little sore, and I felt tired for a few hours. That was it. No wild symptoms, no strong reaction. I have read that the second dose of the vaccine is more likely to give mild symptoms. But that is a good thing because that is the sign that our body’s immune system is learning how to fight the virus, as we have for the past 12 months.
Today I went to our wonderful local independent bookstore Union Avenue Books and picked up a just-published book, “Lifelines” written by the co-founder of the children’s toy company Melissa & Doug, the number one, parent-rated toy brand. Melissa Bernstein founded a phenomenally successful company with her husband, gave birth to six beautiful children, and lives on a 500-acre farm in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet most of her adult life Melissa has lived each day in despair due to existential depression ,which was first identified and defined by pioneering psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl.
Existential depression: the state of hopeless doubt that life has any purpose or value.
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
By the time Melissa met her husband Doug in 1986 when she was a senior at Duke, she had a severe eating disorder, had lived through a couple of mental breakdowns, was struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and weighed only 82 pounds.
I can relate. When I was a junior in high school, I stopped having periods due to anorexia. A boy friend broke up with me and his parting shot over my bow was, “And you’re fat.” I was not, and have never been overweight, but being an inveterate pleaser who wanted to “control” her life, but I decided: I might not be able to control my love life, but I could certainly control how much fat I ate.
Melissa Bernstein said she, “truly reveled in the power of depriving myself through starvation and over-exercising.” That sort of mental illness runs in my family as well. Both my sister and I were anorexic in high school. Daddy was obsessive-compulsive till his dying day, and his mother died of insanity from pellagra psychosis when Daddy was only 4 months old.
A few years ago Melissa heard about existential depression and saw herself in it. Through therapy and writing poetic verses she has come to love herself, has written of her experiences in her photography-filled book of verses and prose, and has started an online nonprofit community, LifeLines.com for fellow seekers, as she calls those of us who are gluing together our broken places–which is all of us, is it not? As the LifeLines homepage says:
It’s not about feeling better, it’s about feeling everything.
Melissa Bernstein and her team (including her two oldest daughters Ilana and Audrey) at LifeLines
In order to be on an even keel, I prefer to need to stay busy, hit my marks, and accomplish high goals. I have always wanted to achieve, get the best grades, be ahead of the pack, make things better somehow, and make a difference in the lives of others.
The Covid pandemic has been a speed bump in my fast-paced lifestyle as my husband and I (and our cat Cadi Kitty) have squirreled ourselves at home and taken the virus seriously. Kurt and I have not eaten in a restaurant for a year, or seen a movie, or attended any indoor communal activity. Before the outbreak, Kurt traveled half of each month. Now he is home all the time. Over the last year, we have stared at our navels more than we would have wished to at this stage of our lives.
And yet, we are the lucky ones with a comfortable home, stability, jobs we can do from home, grandchildren in our social bubble, and a neighborhood where we can walk and get fresh air. But the pandemic has taken its toll nonetheless. Kurt’s mother died last year and we could not hold a funeral; a friend of mine died of Covid; the virus has been politicized at the local, state, and national level (under the former administration) which has meant that navigating occasionally around people not wearing masks–which has been terrifying.
Much has been lost, but much has been gained. Yesterday I decided to wash the pillowcases on the ornamental pillows on our bed. Most of our bed pillows are filled with man-made stuffing. But these pillows are stuffed with feathers that escape and float freely around the room. They are individually intricate and beautiful when they are free of their collective housing. They remind me of my Irish grandmother with her round belly and jolly laugh.
Balance is where the joy is. We do want to float freely–and some time in the coming year, after our vaccine is fully in force, we can move more freely, still masked and socially distanced to protect others because we can still carry the virus even after we are vaccinated. When herd immunity is achieved–when somewhere between 70 percent and 95 percent of Americans have been vaccinated–we can gather in groups without the fear we have now.
When Kurt and I were walking in the rain around our neighborhood this evening, we were surprised to smell a very strong perfume coming from our neighbor’s large bed of spring-blooming narcissus. We had walked beside these bed for days, but they had shared their sweet, strong fragrance before. The rain had brought out the scent of the flowers. Over the last year, it has been raining for us. May be bloom, may it rain, and may we display our full creative force.
As Melissa Bernstein writes on the back of her book:
It was only when I learned How to release what was suppressed That I truly birthed creation And organically expressed
We must take those special gifts Conceived inside us from the start And release them to touch others Bringing solace to the heart
Melissa Bernstein, Author, Successful Businesswoman, Mother of 6, Seeker
Melissa created imaginative toys to delight the world’s girls and boys. Allowing herself to fully live finally allowed her to connect with her own six children. We realize we are not like anyone else. When we glue together our broken places and risk showing our brokenness, we are not alone.
~~ Anna – St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2021 (and yes, for the first time in my life, I wore green!)
. . . But you remain a timeless smile Who’d just begun life’s tangled ways.
British Singer/songwriter Sandy Denny (1947-1978)
That uplifted chin, the beginning of a smile on your face as you recognized your goal was achieved. You held my flip flops, one in each hand, and your triumph was complete. I took this picture a couple of years ago in the upstairs of our house. What a happy child you were two years ago, Lincoln dear!
In many ways you still are a happy child at nearly 3 and a half years, but things are definitely not the same as they were when you were a baby and toddler. Nearly a year ago, in March 2020, we were told that a dangerous coronavirus was attacking the world, and we should take precautions to stay safe. What changed in our lives a year ago? For most of his career, your grandfather Kurt has traveled extensively for his work, and Kurt has not traveled in nearly a year. We have not eaten in a restaurant, watched a film in a movie theater, gone to church, or visited friends indoors. At Thanksgiving and Christmas we did not gather with our extended family. We have not visited our beloved nephew Zach in Portland, nor did we fly to New York to visit as we had intended to last spring.
You will never know her, Lincoln, but Kurt’s mother Dolores died in the summer of 2020, and he made the difficult decision not to travel to her nursing home to be with her. She was unconscious, and as far as we knew she did not have the virus, but we decided it was too dangerous for Kurt to say his final goodbye to the woman who gave him life. Yes, I know. That is a heavy burden for a person to carry. Poor Kurt. Neither was it safe for his family to hold a service to mark her passing, but we celebrated her life with an obituary in the local paper with a photo showing how lovely she was when she was a young woman. Times are different now, my dear boy. We have not lived through a time like this before. It has been over a hundred years since the last pandemic, the influenza outbreak at the end of the First World War, shattered lives and livelihoods. Perhaps a few very old people are still alive who were babies in 1918, but they would not recall the horror of so many deaths. They would have grown up in its aftermath. Like you.
I will share a story I heard from one of my cousins who now lives in Utah, but our shared family once lived in Virginia. Daddy’s mother’s family, the Montgomerys, lived on their 35-acre farm in Carroll County, Virginia. John and Cordelia Montgomery lost their beloved 11-year-old daughter to what many people called the Spanish flu. The dreaded disease did not really start in Spain, but it was a terrible flu, sure enough, and poor little Luva Vera died from it. She made a fearsome sound just before she died, which was called the death rattle. When her mother Cordelia heard it, she screamed in grief and pain. Can you imagine that, dear boy? I cannot think on it for long because I cannot allow my mind to dwell on losing a beloved child in this way.
Luvie (for that’s what they called her) had a best friend and playmate who lived next door. This small boy of around the same age also fell ill with the disease. Just after Luvie died, one of the little boy’s parents knocked on my great-grandparents’ door and asked to borrow their ironing board to lay out their son who had just died.
At that time, not so very long ago, poor people laid out their dead, especially the children, on an ironing board because if the bodies were straight and rigid, the corpses were easier to place in a coffin. In addition to their own four daughters, my poor great-grandmother Cordelia and her husband John, were raising their eldest son’s daughter, and lost all five of them in infancy or childhood except two: my grandmother Darcus and her younger sister Eutaw Regina. My grandmother did not last very long, as she died at the age of 31 just four months after she gave birth to my Daddy. Times were hard then, Little Man.
And times have been hard for so many people in our country and world over the past year. A friend of mine who I sang with in our high school alumni chorus–a guitar player such as Kurt and a genuinely nice man–died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has spread around the world and still kills so many. As far as I know, my friend Herb died alone in an intensive care unit after fighting this horrible disease that attacks the respiratory system (and so many other parts of the body) for over a month. He was a sweetheart of a man who nearly always had a gentle smile for everyone. He possessed a lovely tenor voice and, although he worked long hours, was always quick to help his friends and family however he could. He is dearly missed.
In March a year ago, I wrote a letter on my blog to your then 14-month-old sister Penny. Now I write to you, sweet boy, about what your life is like now as the Covid pandemic goes on. We have a vaccine now, but as I write this blogpost, only 12 percent of Tennesseans have received one dose of the two-dose vaccine. You, of course, are oblivious to why your parents and grandparents, and occasionally you, are wearing masks. This way of living is all you remember. And when you are a bit older, you will probably not remember this year either. But you used to attend Montessori pre-school, sweetheart, and you were very happy there with all the children from age 2 to 13 or 14 years, or so. Your Daddy has asthma and it would not have been safe for you to continue to go to school.
Before you attended pre-school, as in the first photo above, I used to keep you two days a week in our home while your Mama worked. Now that you are 3 years old, we take you to the park or to the University of Tennessee track for a playdate or play with you at your house once or twice a week.
At the park the last two weeks, you have reacted in fear to people leading their dogs on leashes. I wonder if you are simply afraid of dogs or have you picked up on our fear that strangers, with or without masks, will come near us. Your vocabulary and mastery of English is not yet advanced enough for us to be sure whether it is the dogs and their owners, or just the dogs that you fear.
I will tell you, Little Man (which is what I called you when you were smaller), that I am fearful these days too. We do not eat in restaurants or go to church or visit friends indoors. Your family is what is called “in our bubble” which means Kurt and I and your parents have decided that we will see each other (and, of course, you and Penny) indoors without masks. Why? Because we believe it is important enough that we see you and love you and be with you as much as possible even during this time of disease and uncertainty.
And, sweet boy, let me tell you how your laughter rang out in the car last week as Kurt and I played with the toy remote car keys we got you and your sister Penny. We were being silly, and you, sitting in your carseat in the back seat, laughed again and again. It was quite wonderful to hear. There is nothing like the sound of you laughing. Adults may pretend they are amused, but you do not do that, my love.
When we got to the park, you began playing with the tiny rocks on the footpath and feeding them to your T-Rex dinosaur. Over and over again you made patterns in the rocks with your fingers, working diligently, intent on your task. I fed your stegosaurus pieces of wood because his jaw would not open to hold rocks.
After awhile you and Kurt ran off with the soccer ball toward the stationary train behind the fence at the far end of the park. I looked at the two of you, the sky, and the river that runs alongside the park, my dear sweetheart, and I thought there was no more wonderful sight or feeling in the world than seeing you and Kurt playing in the distance.
You have visited upon us such great joy, Little Man, and I hope this divided young country and tired old world can make a sure enough path for all the bright possibilities your adolescence and adulthood can hold. I love you, Lincoln. And may you be forever blessed with laughter, creativity, fulfilling work, delightful friends, devoted family, and the warmest of memories of your childhood spent running with the wind by the banks of the Tennessee River.
We walk through this world feeling unseen, unheard, unloved. And part of that is because we are not seeing and hearing and loving others. We’re so busy fighting to be seen that we’re forgetting that we are others. And we need to do our part to see people and to acknowledge them instead of fighting to be seen ourselves.
Last Monday night, Kurt and I watched the filmed version of the show “In & Of Itself” that played to packed audiences in New York from May 2016 to August 2018. The show stars the indelible Derek DelGaudio, who plows headlong into the thicket of identity and the illusion of identity–how people around us only see a fraction of who we are and, by that tip of the iceberg, proceed to define us.
Derek DelGaudio who created and wrote the show, began his career as a magician doing some of the best sleight-of-hand tricks you will ever witness. He demonstrates some of his mastery of cards during In & Of Itself, but he is also a storyteller and conceptual artist extraordinaire. What he accomplishes in this performance is simply beyond belief–and yet it is authentic and moving as well.
Every secret has a unique weight to it, and you can only carry them for so long.
Derek DelGaudio, in the film, “In & Of Itself”
Derek DelGaudio’s secret as a small boy was that his mother loved women. Trying to keep that secret so he could have friends, and not be bullied, made his life a misery–and somehow the bullies and would-be friends always found out his secret anyway.
Why do so many people bully others? Why did his schoolmates’ parents not allow their children to be friends with a boy whose mother was a lesbian? Why did those parents and classmates decide to reduce Derek’s mother to one part of her life–to define her by only one aspect of her humanity? Why do so many people refuse to see that all the isms around us reduce humans to our skin color, where we were born, what accent we have, what religion we practice, or who we love?
Isn’t that the crux of the matter in our country and world? So many people insist they can only feel better about themselves by denigrating others. So many people find anyone who is different from them to be impossible to tolerate. Perhaps these unhappy people do not feel seen, heard, or loved. It is so much easier to seek a scapegoat than to deal with the fear inside.
I cannot help but believe this is why the angry mob broke into our nation’s Capitol Building on January 6, while our nation’s legislators were certifying the 2020 Electoral College results from our 50 states.
I did not see happy faces assaulting Capitol police officers. These people believed if they listened to their chosen leader and followed his directions, they could overturn the results of a national election. Their anger, fear, and hatred for people who do not look like them and do not think like them, led them to assault our Constitution and the Capitol police and DC officers who came to help. And, if the mob had been successful, and captured members of Congress, who knows what they would have done to them.
People died. A young woman was trampled. Another was shot. A Capitol police officer was killed. Two Capitol police officers committed suicide. Because of hate, misinformation, and wanting our former President to remain President.
I tried to understand the madness and could only cry for my country. I have never been so overwhelmed with sadness for my homeland–the country that made the difference in defeating Hitler in World War II, and then helped our former enemies rebuild their countries. The country that has been a source of inspiration to oppressed people around the world.
How to understand how formerly law-abiding, 99 percent white, middle-class people could storm the U.S. Capitol Building? So many reasons, including: because their President asked them to. However, there is another reason many people chose to drive across the country and put their lives and futures on the line.
To fill the black hole that is inside them. To feel powerful because they had the answer: they were supporting the man they felt should be in power. Damn the torpedoes. Down with the ship, the dictatorship. But would it make them happy, would they be more important, would they have better jobs, would their children have better lives, would their own lives suddenly have meaning?
Because meaning is what we are really looking for. As Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor, physician, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote:
. . . it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, . . . gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add a deeper meaning to his life. [He] may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.
Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
From his research, as well as his experience watching people who survived in concentration camps and those who did not, Frankl wrote that people find meaning in life: (1) by working toward a worthwhile goal, (2) “by experiencing something–such as goodness, truth and beauty” and by (3) “experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness–by loving him.”
We need to reach outside our boxes–the ones we put ourselves in and the ones other people put us in–and see others, hear others, and love others. The only real happiness in life is in serving others, thinking of others, and making a difference in the lives of others.
That is why those angry, lost souls besieged and broke into the U.S. Capitol Building; that is why some of them wiped their own excrement on the walls of the sacred house of the American people. They thought they could fill the black holes inside themselves if they could get more power and more control over the lives of others. What a false narrative!
It is only when we seek to see, listen, help, serve, and love that we fill the black hole within us and become a light to help ourselves and others. Stop staring at your own navel, and raise your sights to the true source of happiness: community, understanding, and love.
What is it like in our corner of the world here in East Tennessee during the Global Pandemic of 2020? This holiday season, we have had a ring-side seat to watch our bantamweight-level state battling it out with California–the most populous state in the union–for the highest per capita Covid rate in the world.
Here in Knox County, we have the triple misfortune of ineffective leadership at the county, state, and national level. Where are the public relations ad campaigns reminding Americans about safe practices? Why wasn’t each American sent a mask found to be safe and effective at keeping this respiratory virus from getting into our bodies? Early in the crisis our Knox County Board of Health enacted a mask mandate and some local businesses enforced it for their customers. However our county mayor, a wrestler by trade, voted against the mandate, and the county sheriff plainly stated he would not enforce it. Our city mayor cannot enact a mask mandate because Tennessee’s governor gave that power to the counties, not our major cities.
Only a few weeks ago, our Knox County Commission voted 6-4-1 to abolish our Board of Health. If the Commissioners vote similarly at their next meeting in January, the Board of Health will be defunct, and our public health decisions will be determined by the director of the Knox County Health Department who reports to the county mayor.
As politics, politics, and more politics reigns supreme over our public health issues, loved ones we knew personally, and loved ones we knew through their public service or music or acting or writing have died of Covid. Among the victims this year were legendary singer/songwriter John Prine and strapping 6-foot, 5-inch-tall, Broadway star Nick Cordero who was struck down in the prime of his life at the age of 41, leaving his devoted wife Amanda Kloots and their sweet baby boy who they called Elvis.
For us in South Knoxville, we mourn our dear friend Herb Cover who was a humble, kind, and gentle man (and gentleman) who always led with a smile. Although Herb was devoted to teaching special education at Dogwood Elementary School, it was his passion for music that he shared with his students and in so many facets of his life. He was a singer, songwriter, musician, and minister of music at his church.
As a young man, Herb started his music career playing in bands here in Knoxville. He started writing songs are soon as he could play an instrument. As he wrote on his songwriter’s page on ReverbNation, “I’ve played in many parts of the world, thanks in part to the U.S. Navy. Most of my career has been in Knoxville, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Washington, D.C.”
The photo below shows Herb accompanying the South High School Alumni Chorus on his guitar, along with pianist Belinda Carter Hammond. This 2015 concert was a tribute to our former chorus teacher, Harold Mays, who directed us in 2015 as he did when we were in high school many decades ago.
Herb was devoted to Harold Mays–who passed away in June 2018–and to the alumni high school chorus. He was at every event that his busy schedule would allow. In addition to singing with the chorus, Herb sang with the popular men’s octet that provided entertainment at South Knoxville events.
Herb and his wife LeeAnn fell ill with Covid in October, and Herb got seriously ill in early November. After over a month in the hospital, Herb died of Covid complications on December 14, 2020, at the age of 68, leaving his beloved wife LeeAnn, his son Travis, and his dear sister Nancy.
It has been hard to get our heads around so many Americans dying, often alone in intensive care units, deprived of the solace of family members, not getting to say good-bye to their loved ones.
It is heartbreaking that many of us feel we have been pulled up by our roots.
What do my roots mean to me? I am proud of all of my cultural backgrounds, but I feel most naturally kin to my Irish ancestors. My dear Irish grandmother was like a second mother to me. She was an excellent cook who was a short sprite of a woman with a round belly and a small lap. When we were little, she would slip us chewing gum (Dentyne) or peppermint candy to keep us happy during the Sunday sermons at our church. For Mamaw everything revolved around family, food, and church–nourishment of the body and the spirit.
A plant’s roots give it nourishment as it moves toward the light. Without roots a plant or tree cannot grow. Uprooted, it cannot thrive. For most of us, this virus has taken us away from many of the sustaining forces that bring us joy: gathering together without fear, singing together, experiencing live music, hugging our friends and loved ones, and seeing our relatives who live across the world, country, or even just across the city.
Mother Nature must have decided to intervene on our behalf. Knoxville and parts of East Tennessee had a white Christmas this year for the first time that I can ever remember. I mean a real White Christmas with six inches of snow at our house and the peace that seems to come with it. Somehow there is a great silence and serenity around a heavy snowfall that is infinitely profound.
Having snow on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day seemed to be a special gift to cheer us as we grieve dear ones that have died over the last year such as our friend Herb–as well as the loved ones who died during all the years of our lives that came before it.
To these loved ones, and especially to Mamaw who passed away in 1991, and my dear father who passed away in 2016, I say through the words of the magnetic Mexican singer/songwriter Natalia Lafourcade in her song, “Hasta la Raiz” (meaning “To the Root”):
I carry you within me, to the very root And though I may blossom, still you will be here . . .
I will carry you within me on this New Year’s Eve, and forward into the this new year of vaccines, a new President–and hope.
Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children.
Kahlil Gibran, (1883-1931) Lebanese-American painter, poet, and writer
These are the words of a man who left his home country of Lebanon and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and siblings when he was 12 years old. Kahlil Gilbran is best known for his seminal masterpiece The Prophet, a book of poetic essays written in English which touched a chord with its readers from the time of its first publishing in 1923 to the present day. It is one of the bestselling books of all time and has been translated into 20 to 100 languages, according to which reference you heed.
Although his book is full of wisdom about how to live a fulfilled life, Gibran thought of himself as a painter and visual artist, not a philosopher.
What does Gibran mean by “the wisdom that does not cry”? His words speak to me clearly that he is referring to the puffed-up pontificators that love to hear their own voices and who care only for themselves. These pretenders do not care a fig for life-and-blood people and their lives. A man who sets himself up as one who is never wrong, who never makes a mistake, and who truly care or connect with others is not a man worthy of being heard. I grew up hearing that Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the New Testament: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” [1 Corinthians 13:1]. Such a man does not know or offer true wisdom.
And what about the “philosophy which does not laugh”? When I was an undergraduate College Scholars student at the University of Tennessee, we were asked to consider taking a special discussion course in which philosophy majors and psychology majors argued about important matters of the day. I took them up on their offer to take this course. I was curious to hear how scholars from each field of study approached issues that affected humankind. Sadly, however, I cannot say that I learned much from each class discussion because no matter what the topic, the philosophers were sure to state their case unequivocally broaching nothing that the psychologists brought to the table. The psychologists were not terribly persuaded by the philosophers either, but they were more genial about the debate. As for me, I was neither a philosopher nor a psychologist, but found that typically the psychologists’ opinions carried more weight than the philosophers who tended to weave spider webs in the sky.
Perhaps Gibran also found each philosopher he met thought they owned the market on truth and did not have a good sense of humor. In their defense, I will say that my husband majored in philosophy in undergraduate school, and he does indeed have an excellent sense of humor. Laughter is healing, it helps us live longer, and we certain need laughter to get through these long days of pandemic surges and the (hopefully) final days of the Trumpian would-be dynasty–at least for four years.
The final piece of Gibran’s trilogy is his hope to be kept away from “the greatness that does not bow before children”. Here he is fervently speaking to me about humility, innocence, and truth with a capital “T”. Tiny children are very truthful with their feelings and whims. They either want to do something or they do not. They will eat their food or they will not, they are interested in a particular person or they are not. A great man is one who from his height stoops low to place his ear close to listen to the infinite wisdom of children. Their eyes are bright with possibilities and visions of what can be. They do not yet know that human beings die, that disease eats at the soul of men and nations, or that justice is not a common occurrence in families or countries.
I have taught my granddaughter Penny the great wonder of trees. Before she could say more than a few words and we would pass a tree, I would carry her to the tree and touch its bark and say, “Tree.” Then I would say, “You can touch it,” urging her to touch the tree with her tiny hands and make a connection all her own.
Though she is not yet 2 years old, she now has a larger vocabulary. Two of her favorite words are “tree” and “leaf”. We were taking family pictures yesterday for Christmas cards and all she really wanted to do was touch the tree in her backyard and choose which leaf she wanted me to pull from the tree for her. It was her choice. Each time, I gave her a leaf, she was utterly delighted. She dropped it, and let me know she wanted another one. Again we would touch the tree, and again I pulled off a leaf and gave it to her. Simple joys are the best joys. Finally she picked up a dried leaf from the ground and claimed it as her own.
Experts tell us that trees communicate with one another. Well, Penny and I communicate clearly to each other too. I want my female grandchild to grow up choosing for herself who she wants to be. I want her to grow strong like a tree and withstand the storms of being told that being a girl is simply not good enough to compete, excel, and achieve. That a girl cannot grow up to be President or Vice President.
Well, at least on January 20, 2021, we will have finally put the lie to the idea that a girl cannot grow up to be Vice President of the United States. In my head, I find it hard to believe that my home country will elect a President who happens to be female–in my lifetime. Perhaps in Penny’s lifetime there will be such a President who towers like a tree above the others and bends low to listen closely to the wisdom of a child.
Children have much to learn from the adults who love them, but we have much to learn from them too. A fulfilled life is a balance, not white or black, but white and black; not male or female, but male and female; not the other or my tribe, but the other and my tribe. It does not have to be I get to win and you have to lose, we can learn something from children, and share the natural beauty and bounty of this world or we will find that soon there is no natural beauty or bounty for any of us to share.
We should stoop low and bend a listening ear to the voices of children–and heed their great expanse of wisdom.
Nothing compares with this dye’s ability to capture the blues of nature—a midnight sky, early dawn, or an impression of the sea. It can also define a mood—of melancholy, of mystery in the dark hues, or joy and vitality in lighter variations. Indigo is a dye that demands discipline to use.
Four years ago my husband Kurt and I were waiting for a movie to start at our local theatre, when a promo for “Indignation”, a 2016 film based on a novel by Philip Roth. The movie’s trailer was intriguing, but it was the word indignation that struck me. I decided the word captured the mood of a great number of people in the United States at that time which was five months before the 2016 presidential election. Here we are four years later, and only four days before our 2020 presidential election, and our pot of indignation has only grown–and overflows.
If our country has become an IndigNation, what does the word indignation mean? I researched the definition in both the American Merriam-Webster dictionary and the British Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines the word as follows:
Indignation: anger aroused by something unjust, unworthy, or mean.
Breaking down the root words in this definition, mean in this sense is defined as “lacking distinction, of inferior quality, lacking dignity or honor, characterized by petty selfishness or malice, causing trouble or bother”. Yes, that sums up the zeitgeist for those of us who yearn for change in our nation’s leadership.
Interestingly the Oxford English Dictionary describes indignation slightly differently as:
Anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment.
Oxford English Dictionary
The OED’s definition as the perception of unfair treatment sounds as if it captures the mood of the portion of the country who prefers to see our current president re-elected. During his campaign rallies, our current president’s supporters appear incensed with the unfairness of having to share their country with anyone who does not fit their idea of what an American should be. And our current president is oh, so adept at stoking fear, hatred, and division. It is indeed his nom d’être, his reason for being.
At this unsettling and chaotic time in our nation’s history, when we have a viral pandemic and no federal strategy on how to deal with it. With winter coming on (in more ways than one), polls tell us a majority of Americans are indignant, angry, frustrated, and afraid of what all this means for their future and the future of the ones they love.
As I sat in my theatre seat in 2016, I toyed with the notion of changing the public conversation, changing the tenor of the whole cacophonous mess by adding a strategic “o” to indignation and turned it into IndigoNation. If only our nation’s healing could come about so easily.
What would an indigoNation look like? Where for starters it would have a rich history originating from the natural world because the word indigo refers both to the plant (originally grown in India) and the rare dye used to make fabric the rich, deep color of blue found on Isaac Newton’s color wheel between blue and violet. Only royalty or the very rich could afford this rare and sumptuous dye for their clothing and textiles, until the 16th century when large amounts of indigo were imported to Europe.
An IndigoNation would be beautiful to behold as blue is the color of the sky and sea. Indigo blue signifies depth and stability, and also trust, loyalty, wisdom, intuition, inspiration, confidence, intelligence, faith, sensitivity, sincerity, and truth.
Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.
Wassily Kandinsky, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, 1912
The color blue is considered beneficial to the mind and spirit and is known to slow human metabolism, producing a calming effect. And in ancient times many believers looked to the blue sky above us symbolizing the ideal destination of everlasting life: heaven.
And then there is the Duke–Duke Ellington and the Jazz classic “Mood Indigo”–originally titled “Dreamy Blues”.
You ain’t never been blue; no, no, no,
You ain’t never been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo.
That feelin’ goes stealin’ down to my shoes
While I just sit here and sigh, ‘Go ‘long blues’.
“Mood Indigo”, Marshall Parish (lyrics), Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard, & Lorenzo Tio (composers), 1930
We think of the blues as sadness, loneliness, and absence, but with blue there is a depth of feeling that shimmers beneath the surface as waves in the ocean–waves of change: receding, ebbing, flowing, always moving. Blue is ultimately inspiring and passionate, substantive–not simmering on the surface, but churning onward.
An IndigoNation would be vibrant with life: Art, music, laughter, dance, color, sensuality. A nation with open arms instead of closed minds would be more willing to embrace change than to fear it, and consider the possibility that the differences between tribal groups is typically only skin deep. We are the same underneath: we want life, liberty, and a decent chance to pursue happiness.
An IndigoNation would not be controlled by its basest elements of fear and hatred.
A healthy country is not based only on the rights of its citizens, but also on the responsibilities of its people. A citizen may have “free speech”, but not be free to–as the proverbial example goes–yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Citizens may have the right to exercise their right to practice their religion, but not to decide that everyone else in the country must follow that religion. Citizens may arguably have the right to bear arms, but they do not have the right to kill people they disagree with.
And a healthy nation would understand that taking common-sense measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, to safeguard the lives of the people around them is not a loss of freedom but a responsibility to protect each others’ ability to live and not die alone in an ICU hooked to a ventilator.
What sort of country do we want to live in? A nation dominated primarily by love or one primarily consumed with hate?
As the singer, award-winning actress, survivor, and icon of the possible, Cher said yesterday in a Zoom meeting:
Stand and be counted, or sit and be nothing.
Let us decide to be a nation defined by our connections to each other, not our disagreements. As young people in the 1960s declared: Let’s make love, not war. Or in the words of Cher’s hit song, with her then-husband Sonny Bono, from 1965:
I got you to hold my hand I got you to understand I got you to walk with me I got you to talk with me I got you to kiss goodnight I got you to hold me tight I got you, I won’t let go I got you to love me so.
I got you babe I got you babe I got you babe I got you babe I got you babe
For most of us, our world has gotten smaller over the last seven months of the global viral pandemic. Many of us stay home most of the time. We work from home, eat our meals at home, do not see many of our friends or family in person, and are putting off gathering in large crowds for the duration of the COVID pandemic.
Other people refuse to wear masks, question social distancing measures, and protest efforts by public health officials to keep them safe. College students have been reported as attending COVID “parties” where they actively seek to contract the disease from someone who has tested positive. Why? In Texas a college student believed the virus was a hoax, attended a party to prove his point, and ended up contracting the disease. Outcome: this 30-year-old man died from the virus. At the University of Alabama students attended COVID parties that included a pool of money: The first person to get the virus gets the money—along with health consequences that could last a lifetime. Of course, the majority of college students are not so stupid as to play Russian roulette with such a deadly disease–for their own sake, but also because they fear they will bring the virus home to their higher-risk family members: their parents, grandparents, anyone who has asthma or COPD or diabetes or obesity or any disease that weakens the body.
During this time without social engagements, I have had more time to reflect, more time to go outside, to sit in my backyard, look up, and watch the clouds slowly float by. It has been reassuring to note that in the middle of chaos, fear, and fraying of the American social fabric that some things remain the same: The clouds, the old-growth trees in our neighborhood of century-old homes, the love of my family, and the occasional kindness of strangers.
Here in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, on Monday night, the Republican-led Knox County Commission voted 8-3 (with two Democrats and one Republican voting against the measure) at the end of a marathon eight-hour meeting (at 2:00 a.m. Tuesday) to diminish the power of the local Board of Health. The eight commissioners were angry that the Board of Health introduced a mask mandate in July in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID. Local media reported that hhe Commission’s resolution has no legal standing to end the mask mandate, but the county sheriff has made it clear his officers will not enforce the rule. The mayor of the city of Knoxville issued an executive order requiring masks in city buildings, and city police are enforcing the mandate when called upon to do so by local businesses.
My husband and I feel confident shopping only in businesses in which wearing masks are mandated. Of course, some customers refuse to wear masks, nonetheless. Our nearby cooperative grocery store, has hired a security guard to ensure all customers wear masks. It is truly a sorry state of affairs when wearing a mask to keep others safe has devolved into a political nightmare of epic proportions.
How serious to take the virus and how to act accordingly has divided our country, state, county, city, and families. I have never lived through a pandemic before, but I had imagined the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was not as politically charged as the reaction to the contagion we are dealing with now a century later.
However, I discovered that 1918 was a mid-term election year, in the middle of Woodrow Wilson’s second term. His Democratic Party was fighting to hold control of Congress. President Wilson himself contracted the flu when he negotiated the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
The first wave of the influenza outbreak occurred in the spring of 1918 at an Army training camp in Kansas. The second wave erupted in September 1918 at an Army and Navy facility near Boston where the disease quickly moved into the Boston civilian population. In October more than 195,000 Americans died of this disease that was heretofore unknown. Rumors and conjecture about what how the disease spread and how it started mixed with the election posturing to make a toxic stew of finger pointing and shifting of blame.
Due to quarantine efforts, candidates could not campaign in typical ways due to the banning of large gatherings. Sharing his frustration with the New York Times, the Democratic candidate for the governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, vented his frustration about what he called a, “Republican quarantine against Democratic speeches.”
Even the name of the outbreak that killed around 14 million people around the globe became political. In the U.S., many people called the disease the Spanish Flu due to a misconception that the disease started in Spain. This mistake was made possible since the countries fighting each other during World War I suppressed coverage of the flu in order not to give their enemies an advantage. Since Spain was neutral during the world war, Spanish authorities reported on the disease more openly which led many people to assume that Spain was responsible for infected the world with this new contagion.
Although early reporting on the disease came from Spain, most researchers do not think it started there. The Spanish referred to the disease as the French Flu. Scientists to this day do not know for sure where the 1918 influenza originated, but France, China, Britain, and even the United States have been investigated as possibilities.
Deciding who is to blame and announcing a handy foreign scapegoat, has been a feature of past wars, calamities, diseases, and “natural” disasters through history. If the other is outside our borders, psychologically speaking, it is easier for our tribe to rally round, band together, and demonize the enemy.
What do we do, however, when the enemy is within our borders? What do we do when the weakness of our national leader has been the fox in the hen house by not marshalling a national strategy to keep the American people safe: to ensure adequate levels of personal protective equipment for medical staff; to quarantine people in their homes until the levels of outbreak were low enough to open businesses, bars, churches, and schools; to administer a national testing, tracing, and isolation program; by rallying all levels of government and the military to ensure that effective and safe vaccines, when identified, can be distributed widely, safely, and quickly–with front-line medical staff and the most vulnerable receiving the vaccine first. None of these measures have been developed or implemented.
Instead our current president seeks to shift blame on China, where COVID is thought to have started, by calling the contagion the Chinese Flu. Perhaps this naming effort has not been embraced by our country or the world because COVID-19 is a coronavirus instead of a flu; it is much more contagious and deadly than influenza; and it does not stop infecting and spreading in warm weather as influenzas typically do. And, of course, wherever viruses originate, they know no party or country allegiance and attack their victims indiscriminately. We are connected to a global world where a contagion in China can very quickly move around the world, most notably by air travel.
What does this all this chaos and disorder mean for the most vulnerable in our society: the poor, older people, women, and most of all, our children? Historically children and women have been the collateral damage of war, disease, poverty, and social unrest.
My own father’s life is a case in point. When he was 4 months old, his mother died, according to her death certificate, from insanity caused by pellagra psychosis. Pellagra is an extreme form of nutritional deficiency–from a lack of Vitamin B-3, also called niacin–which causes dementia, diarrhea, and severe dermatis. Between 1900 and 1940, the illness afficted over 3 million people and killed more than 100,000, mostly Americans in the South. This Southern scourge killed 7,000 people at its peak in 1928. No other nutritional deficiency has killed more Americans than pellagra.
We do not know if Daddy’s mother was suffering with pellagra-induced mental illness while she carried him, or whether bringing the pregnancy to term took the last bit of her body’s resources and she succombed to the disease.
According to her death certificate, she died in 1935 the George Maloney Home. Having never heard of such a facility, my husband and I researched archival sources the and found that the George Maloney Home was the Knoxville’s workhouse for the poor. The inmates at the Maloney Home were the poor of the surrounding area who were forced to work in the fields as slave labor. It was not clear exactly how people were consigned to this fate, and it is equally unclear why Daddy’s mother, whose death certificate said she was mentally ill, died in a workhouse while the death certificate lists her husband’s address as a house in South Knoxville.
In the wake of his mother’s death, my father could have been raised by his mother’s Mormon relatives in Kingsport, Tennessee, but his father would not hear of it. Instead Daddy was reared by his domineering grandmother who lived with her two sons: Daddy’s father Hodge and his alcoholic brother. The photo of Daddy’s grandmother (at left, with him on her lap) reveals an austere, intimidating woman. There is something about seeing his tiny sailor hat, sitting at Daddy’s side, which is heartbreaking–as well as the tentative look on his face.
When Daddy was 5 years old, his grandmother died, and he was reared in extreme poverty by his illiterate father, who worked as a butcher at a packing company, and his uncle who may or may not have been a bootlegger.
Children are the loose change in the pockets of the adults around them who often make devastatingly poor decisions.
And heartbreakingly I know many women who were sexually abused as children, many by family members. As for me, an older neighbor boy told me that we were playing “doctor” in our next door neighbor’s basement. I was only 5 years old and had been taught never to make anyone uncomfortable, so I went along and ended up feeling ashamed, hurt, guilty, and profoundly dirty. When we are young and things we do not understand happen to us, we feel it is our fault. I have never lost the shame of that day, but was far luckier than the girls and boys who were abused by a family member or the priest or pastor of their church–which promises another layer of grief and betrayal.
What could I do to make difference? My answer was to rear two sons and teach them that no person—whatever his or her background, color, gender, immigration status, level of poverty, nationality, religion, sex, or sexual orientation—is disposable and worthy of contempt.
Racism and sexism are a form of death–and not just for the people who are denigrated, but also for the soul of the people who allow hate to control their hearts–or for the people who allow hate to define their government.
What can we do now? We can vote for the candidates currently running for election throughout our country who seek to bring us together, heal our social fabric, and enact legislation to protect the American people rather than fomenting more division and hatred. It is quite clear from last night’s debate, exactly which party–the Democratic one–and which leader–Joe Biden–stand for unity, community, and caring for the least, as well as the most powerful, in our sick and broken country.
Every day dragged by a month ago as we waited to find out if we had tested positive for the virus plaguing our country and world. Every day I waited for a phone call to tell me that my life could at the very least return to the watchful, careful precautions my husband and I have been taking since mid March to ensure we do not become infected with Covid. Those were better days, my friend, by a long shot than the nine days of hell waiting for the testing verdict.
Yet, we have been luckier than most, however, I know that. We were exposed July 19, and as of August 1, we had no symptoms. So supposedly if we made it to August 1, without symptoms, we would be fine even if we did not hear from the tests we had on Saturday, July 25. Yes, tests results here in this country can take so long as to be of little practical use. But when we learned we had been exposed at an outdoor family event in July, we quarantined ourselves, nevertheless.
During my wait for our testing results and in the time since, I have been trying to keep my mind off the fear and mayhem, by listening to music, sitting in the backyard with our cat Cadi Kitty, watching engrossing movies with my husband Kurt, and (of course) reading.
I slept and dreamt that life was beauty.
An excerpt from the novel “The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue, published July 21, 2020, by Harper Avenue
Sitting in my backyard among the dappled blotches of light and shadow, I am reminded of the possibility that life is beauty as imagined by the main character in the book I am reading. It is also easy to see that life is a call for forbearance as The Pull of the Stars tells the story of a nurse in an Irish maternity ward caring for pregnant women infected with influenza during the 1918 pandemic.
Four years before 1918, the world had been torn apart during World War I as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain (which included Ireland), France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States (the Allied Powers). Twenty million soldiers and civilians were killed and another 21 million were injured during the war.
So a hundred years ago, not only did millions of people die in a senseless war, but millions of soldiers and civilians died during the pandemic as well. According to our country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the influenza virus in the pandemic outbreak of 1918-19. The number of deaths from the virus, which has been diagnosed as a H1N1 virus, was estimated to be at least 50 million around the globe with about 675,000 people dying in the United States.
I had no idea how this 1918-19 pandemic affected my own family, and I still do not know how my mother’s Tennessee kinfolk from 100 years ago fared. But a few years ago I was able to find my father’s long-lost maternal relatives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and learn how the influenza outbreak affected his mother’s family.
How did we lose touch with Daddy’s mother’s family? Daddy’s parents Roy Hodge Allen of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Darcus Nickaline Montgomery of Kingsport, Tennessee, married in February 1934. After a few months of married life, Darcus was pregnant with my father.
When Daddy was born in April 1935, Darcus’s family said she was too ill to hold him. However, she had chosen names for him: Roy after his father Roy Hodge (who went by Hodge), and Rotha after a Mormon elder she admired named Joseph M. Rothe. Darcus’s parents, John and Cordelia converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1900 three years before Darcus was born, and Darcus was devoted to her faith.
Four months after Daddy’s birth, his mother died of pellagra psychosis, a severe nutritional deficiency that afflicted many poor Southerners of that time. Daddy, known as Rotha for most of his life, was reared here in Knoxville by his father’s side of the family who pronounced his name as Rothie. Although he saw his mother’s relatives a few times as a teenager and once when I was a small child, we lost track of Daddy’s mother’s family.
How did we find Daddy’s family? Because his mother’s family were Mormons, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we were able to find my two cousins Jeanie and Linda, whose family members moved to Salt Lake City from Kingsport, Tennessee decades ago. A year or so before Daddy died in 2016–as his health began to fail, my husband Kurt and I began to search for Daddy’s family so we could tell him as much as possible about his mother and her family. Because Darcus was a follower of the Latter-Day Saints, tracking down her family was easier due to their reverence for family genealogy and ancestral history. In addition to our own genealogical work, we filled in many gaps from the work of Jeanie and Linda, as well as Jeanie’s grandmother and Darcus’s sister Eutaw Regina, and Linda’s father, Darcus’s brother, Steve.
Daddy’s mother, Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, was born in 1903, to Cordelia and John Montgomery and grew up on her family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia. In the 1800s the Montgomery family held a large tract of land in the county. But with each successive generation, the family land was subdivided in order to give each child, usually their male children, a farm of their own. Even as a youngest son of a youngest son, Darcus’s father John, inherited in 1897 a good-sized farm of 35 and 3/4 acres in the rolling hills of Virginia–which is still fertile farm country today in the 21st Century.
Cordelia and John Montgomery’s first child, a son they called Adrian, was born in September 1897. Their second child, daughter Rose Elizabeth, was born on January 31, 1899, and died that same day. Son Robert was born in 1901, followed by Daddy’s mother Darcus in September 1903. Darcus’s beloved sister Eutaw Regina joined the family in September 1905, and they were by all accounts devoted to each other. Three years later in 1908, their sister Luva Vera was born, followed by brother Stephen in October 1910, and sister Willie Hazel in 1913–who died three years later on her birthday in 1916. Sometime around 1915 the family moved to a newly developed town Fries, Virginia, that had grown up around a new cotton mill. Their little brother Clarence was born two days before Christmas in 1916, and when he was nearly 2 years old, influenza hit the family in the fall of 1918.
By the 1920 census, teenaged Darcus and Eutaw worked as spinners at the cotton mill, so it is possible they were already working at the mill when the new flu came through town. My cousin, Eutaw Regina’s granddaughter, Jeanie, told me the story of how my grandmother’s family experienced the flu epidemic of 1918 in Fries, Virginia.
Influenza hit the area hard and killed so many people that the flu wagon would come through town each morning to collect the dead bodies. My grandmother Darcus’s younger sister Luva, who they called Luvie, was 11 years old and had a heart condition so naturally their mother Cordelia was doubly concerned when Luvie became very sick with flu symptoms. Cordelia was sitting by her daughter’s bedside when Luvie made a noise as if she was trying to speak. It was what they called the death rattle, and Luvie was dead. When a person died in 1918 in Virginia, it was the custom of the families to use a wooden board to lay out the body of the loved one to stiffen it, so it would conform appropriately in a coffin. Cordelia placed the body of her beloved youngest daughter on her wooden ironing board.
Over the few years they had lived in Fries, Luvie had played with a little boy who lived next door to them who, as luck would have it, also had a heart condition. When she fell ill with influenza, so did he, and he died just as quickly. Soon their next-door neighbors were knocking at the door to ask if they could borrow the wooden ironing board so they could lay out their much-loved little boy.
I had assumed that Cordelia Montgomery–who would eventually have 10 children, five girls and five boys–would have become somewhat immune to the deaths of her children at this time before vaccines when infants and toddlers and older children died like flies of one childhood illness or another. By the time she lost Luvie to the flu, Cordelia had already lost two daughters: her second child Rose Elizabeth who died the day she was born and her eighth child, Willie Hazel, who died at the age of 2 in 1916 when a doctor prescribed too high a dose of medicine for a staph infection and she was poisoned. Cordelia had also taken in her oldest son’s little girl after he was divorced, and this little girl also died young. However, my cousin Jeanie told me that Cordelia never became inured to the death of her girls, and was devastated by Luvie’s death. She cried aloud with her grief and suffering. I can only imagine how bereft she was when she heard that my grandmother Darcus, age 31, had died 4 months after giving birth to Daddy. Of 11 children Cordelia bore and reared–6 girls and 5 boys, Cordelia had only one daughter, Eutaw Regina, who lived to reach old age.
In the year 2020, a hundred years later, here in the U.S. we do not lose so many of our children to childhood diseases such as measles, chicken pox, smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, and streptococcus. However, it is not as if women in this country do not still lose babies in childbirth. And many Americans live in abject poverty and their children die in numbers not seen in other countries where health care is a given for every citizen living in a civilized, Westernized land. We do not have that luxury here, because we have a patchwork of health-care “opportunities”, and many families with children fall through the cracks of our loosely constructed safety net.
People are dying now of our new scourge, Covid-19. Currently 6.1 million people have been infected in the U.S., and at least 183,000 have died. These are probably conservative numbers because so many people get the virus and die without actually receiving a Covid test or proper diagnosis. Life is definitely not beautiful for people stricken with Covid who are breathing on venilators or who die alone in an ICU because their family are not allowed to be with them for fear they too will contract the virus. There are only so many ventilators in our country and only so many ICU beds, so we must ration them carefully since we have no national plan for keeping our people safe. What a travesty.
As for us, Kurt and I finally got our Covid test results back. After 9 days I had received no answer. When they gave me the test they said it was expected back in two or three days because mine was the “fast” test. Yeah. I called them 9 days later, and they finally were able to tell me over the phone that I tested negative. Kurt, who was promised he would hear in five days or so, got a call six days later and was also negative.
Phew! We were both glad to have dodged the virus we were exposed to in July. However, the virus is still out there, alive and hopping from person to person. It cares not whether we are ready for the virus, whether we have efficient and effective testing protocols, whether our schools are open with safe practices in place. The virus doesn’t care if bars are open, if parties are held on college campuses, or large numbers of people gather indoors for church services, weddings, or funerals. The virus does not care whether a political party decides to invite its top donors and most excited supporters to sit side by side as their leader reads a 70-minute speech. The virus will, however, by its nature be ready and willing to exploit the possibilities of superspreading events and lack of sufficient protocols and practices.
Last week my nephew Zach sent me the following quote that resonated for me when I first read it.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now–When?
Hillel, ancient Jewish sage, born 110 BCE, died 10 CE
This succinct Jewish wisdom comes down to us so clearly through the centuries. When Hillel says, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? I hear him saying, “If I do not take essential precautions and refrain from other actions to care for myself, then how can I expect others to risk their lives to save me?” For example: Yes on correctly wearing masks, washing my hands the appropriate amount of time, using hand sanitizer when I cannot wash my hands, and in general using common sense. No to gathering indoors especially, but also outdoors, in close promixity with people outside my family bubble, having sit-down meals in restaurants, or gathering for maskless get-togethers of any stripe. It is not just or in any way justified to ask nurses, doctors, and other health-care professionals to risk their lives to care for me if I have not taken common-sense steps to take care of myself.
When I read, If I am for myself only, what am I?, I clearly hear this salient truth: If I care nothing for my fellow human beings, and care only for myself, then I have no true honor, virtue, or humanity and am therefore a what not a who. I would then be an unhappy, pitiful creature, not a member of the human family. I would follow in the footsteps of a person of supreme selfishness such as the man who now leads our country with only his selfish whims and desires to guide him.
When I read, If not now–When?, I am certain that the time for action is today, our present day, our own present moment in time. When else do we have besides now?! We must stand up for the voiceless, especially for the children and adolescents who rely on us, the adults, to make their world safe enough for them to grow up in it. We must stand up for our country, so we can continue working toward a more just, less unjust, union. We must stand up for ourselves, and as they say on airplane flights (not that it is safe to fly now during a pandemic!): put the mask on yourself first before you put the mask on anyone else. For if you do not care for yourself, no one else can help you.
Who am I doing my best for? My two grandchildren who are beautiful and mean life to me. They need me to do my best for them, as my strong Virginia great-grandmother Cordelia tried to do the best for her five daughters and one adopted (grand)daughter, only one of whom actually made it past young adulthood. But still, she persevered. And so will I. And so should you.
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