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.
// Anna ~ 8/30/2022