A Wildflower Running Free

[The following tribute was written to celebrate the life of my beloved sister Lisa Diane Allen Stanley who passed away on Father’s Day, June 19, 2022, at the age of 63 after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. I read this eulogy during her graveside funeral service at Woodlawn Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Thursday, June 23, 2022.]

My beautiful sister, Lisa Diane Allen Stanley, in a photo taken around 1985.

As those of you who knew my sister can attest, Lisa had a tireless energy for everything she did and everything she believed in. She was a force of nature who never seemed to stop. You may know her as the gardening expert at Stanley’s Greenhouse. Or you may have seen her at Church Street United Methodist Church or Island Home Baptist. You may have gone to high school with her or have known her as a tireless advocate for South Knoxville.

You may have seen her running in the Island Home neighborhood or walking her beloved dog Plum. Or you might have asked her, through her position at Stanley’s, to support your nonprofit organization. Lisa did all these things, and much more.

She loved the music of Tom Petty, and she saw him in concert many times. In between seasons at Stanley’s, Lisa and her husband Rocky loved to drive down to Charleston to visit its historic neighborhoods, gardens, and plantations. When she was younger and had more time, Lisa enjoyed waterskiing and hiking in the mountains. We used to walk or bike through Cades Cove—back when we could go to the Smokies in the late fall, and it was not crowded.

However you knew Lisa, you are welcome here today to help us celebrate the life of my sister, Lisa Diane Allen Stanley. When she was born 63 years ago on Monday, March 23, 1959, she was the second child of our parents Arzelia and Roy Allen. The old English nursery rhyme says, “Monday’s child is fair of face.” And my sister was indeed a lovely baby who became an even more lovely woman.

When we were young, our parents struggled to make a living. Often Daddy was between jobs, and Mama supplemented our family income by keeping children in our home, working as a waitress at our Aunt Helen King’s restaurant, Ye Olde Steak House, and later working at Stanley’s Greenhouse. Somehow Mama always seemed to find ways to help Daddy make ends meet.

Our father Roy Rotha Allen with Lisa (right) and me on vacation in Georgia, August 1965.

Our Daddy was a storyteller. He loved to tell the same stories again and again. Daddy would regale us with tales of how Lisa ran headlong into life, and, as he would phrase it, “Bust her head open,” because Lisa needed stitches in her forehead a few times when she was young. Her most famous collision was with Mama’s cedar chest at the foot of our bed.

Daddy also had a saying for every situation in our lives: “Little things means a lot.” “People are more important than things.” “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” And the one Lisa and I hated the most: “You’ve got to the take the sour with the sweet.”

There was just the two of us, and since we were born a little over a year apart, many people assumed we were twins. We were not, but in those early years we were identical in the things we loved. One of the major joys of our childhood was Daddy’s music wafting through our house on Baker Avenue in South Knoxville. Lisa and I knew all the words to Daddy’s favorite 1950s pop songs and would sing them together at the top of our lungs. We loved to dance to the fast numbers and dream of romance during the slow songs. We loved movie soundtracks such as “The Sound of Music”, and we adored the gospel quartet music that our parents loved.

Lisa (left) and me in the snow near our home, perhaps winter 1963.

We also heard gospel music at church, and we went to church three or four times a week. We were especially close to Mama’s parents, Tom and Jerushia Henderlight. Besides seeing our grandparents at church, each Saturday night we went over to their house. Mama would pin-curl Mamaw’s hair so she could look her best for church on Sunday. Mama was devoted to her parents, and they were a constant force in our lives. Mamaw bought us new shoes for Easter and would slip us Dentyne chewing gum before the pastor’s message to keep us quiet during church. And Papaw could fix anything in our house that needed repair.

Daddy was not very mechanical, it’s true, but he was enormously proud of “his girls” and would take us to movies at the Tennessee Theater or nearby drive-in theaters. In the late ‘60s, Daddy fought to find us a better place to live than the house we grew up in. Due to his diligence, our parents were able to buy a new home on Scarlett Lane within walking distance of this cemetery. Lisa had the pink room; and I had the blue.

Although we moved only a few miles away from Baker Avenue, Lisa had to change elementary schools. So in 1970, Lisa became the new girl in the 5th grade at Galbraith Elementary School. You would think being the new girl would have been a burden for my sister, and maybe it was hard for the first few days. But she really blossomed at her new school and quickly became very popular with her classmates. She had a boyfriend in the sixth grade who, along with his best friend, did us the honor of egging our house on Halloween. We were not impressed.

Lisa in her official cheerleader photo, 1973 or 1974.

We attended South High School—a school that no longer exists. South enrolled students in grades seven through twelve since there were no junior high or middle schools in Knoxville at that time. Although we were born only 15 months from each other, Lisa and I were two years apart in school, so we were elated when she finally joined me at South for the 1971-72 school year.

My sister was a people person. Lisa was voted the most popular girl in her grade every year she was at South High. She was a cheerleader, as well as a mid-distance runner for the girl’s track team. It was a thrill watching her compete in track meets. She was small, but she was fast.

As sisters, Lisa and I surprised our classmates because—even though we were two years apart in school, and siblings do not always get along, we were best friends. Inseparable. We sang in chorus at school and sang duets at church—even when we were too young to join the choir. We were together at football and basketball games, with Lisa leading cheers and me in the stands cheering along. We were “the Allen girls”.

After I graduated in 1975, Lisa decided to graduate a year early in 1976. She got a job, saved some money, bought a car, and fell in love with Rocky Stanley. A year after graduation, on July 1, 1977, at the age of 18, she married Rocky, the youngest child of Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley who founded Stanley’s Greenhouse. The Stanleys started their greenhouse in 1955, and after only 22 years, it was already the place to buy plants in the Knoxville area. While Rocky worked in the family business at Stanley’s as its head grower, Lisa was a secretary for another family business, Lay Packing Company. As chief grower, Rocky was pivotal in the reputation Stanley’s achieved for having the finest quality plants, and Lisa yearned to work at Stanley’s with him.

In 1985 Lisa and Rocky welcomed their first child, a son, who they named Zachary Sterling Stanley, giving him his father’s middle name: Sterling. And Zach lived up to that name. He was a beautiful boy, and his arrival brought much joy to our family. Zach is a great deal like Lisa with his sensitivity, caring, and warmth.

Ten years after her first child was born, Lisa gave birth to her second, a gorgeous baby girl who Rocky and Lisa named Abigale. Just like her mother, Abby was a force-of-nature child who wanted to be taken seriously on her own terms. Although her brother Zach was 10 years older, she wanted to play with him and his friends. Being Abby, that is exactly what she did.

Lisa (center left) and me with her parents Arzelia and Roy Allen, Christmas 2012.

Throughout Lisa’s time working at Lay Packing Co., followed by UT Medical Center, and then the UT College of Human Ecology, she had always been a devoted gardener and her dream was to work with Rocky in the family business. Our mother had been working at Stanley’s since we were in high school, and eventually Daddy worked there too, so when Lisa joined Stanley’s in the mid 1990s, she worked alongside her parents and most of Rocky’s family.

The family business flourished, and Lisa loved everything about Stanley’s: the customers, the plants, and working with her family. For a few years, Lisa shared gardening advice along with other expert gardeners on a weekly radio program, and she was often called upon when local newspapers and TV stations needed information to accompany their freeze warnings.

As Lisa followed her bliss, the family business was the hub of their lives with Abby checking out customers while standing on a stepstool to reach the cash register, and Zach heading the tree and shrub team.

The business was important, but Lisa’s faith was central to her life. She believed that all things were possible. But she believed that her faith required action, so she worked to make a difference in the lives of others when charitable causes came to Stanley’s seeking support. Nearly always Lisa’s answer was: “Yes.”

Her life was full that it surprised Lisa when her doctors diagnosed her with cancer in 2010, at the too-young age of 51. Seemingly unfazed she made the treatment decisions she needed to make, worked through the cancer treatments, and after surgery, hurried to get back to being Lisa Stanley of Stanley’s Greenhouse once again.

Lisa, dancing with me, and her daughter Abby, Christmas 2013. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

Lisa loved demonstrating the abundant joy to be found in growing things. She worked to ensure that her customers had everything they needed to make their gardens flourish. Lisa found her way in life by doing. She grew plants, trees, and shrubs in her own garden, and then shared her experience with others. Her joy was a shared joy. Her smile reflected in another person’s smile. Her customers took encouragement from her advice, her hugs, her enthusiasm for the possibilities, her passion for the promise of what could be done, and for all the beautiful things that could be grown—the inspiration of natural beauty.

Lisa holding a moth found in her garden on her finger, September 2015. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

When her cancer returned in 2019, she faced it with her usual undaunted spirit. Everything was full speed ahead, let’s get these treatments done, and her faith never faltered. She never gave up.

Last fall Lisa and I talked about the upcoming growing season and her favorite fall flowers: pansies, panolas, and violas. It is easy to see why Lisa loved the viola plant family: they bloom in the fall, and continue to bloom throughout the dark winter months, and get even more beautiful in the spring and early summer.

Pansies are tall and majestic, while violas are smaller and hardier. A panola is a strong, hybrid cross of the two. Lisa planted all three in her fall garden, but she had a special affection for panolas.

Why? Because, as Lisa explained, panolas “stand up like a soldier and bloom”. That is the perfect description of my sister Lisa: She stood up like a soldier and bloomed.

To celebrate the life of my dear sister Lisa today, I leave you with the words of her favorite songwriter and musician, Tom Petty. My dear sister:

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free
Go away somewhere all bright and new
I have see no other
Who compares with you

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free

Run away, let your heart be your guide
You deserve the deepest of cover
You belong in that home by and by

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your troubles and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free
You belong somewhere you feel free

Thomas Earl “Tom” Petty, written in 1993, recorded in 1994

~ Anna – June 20, 2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Blooming, Childhood, Courage, Dance, Family, Freedom, Knoxville, Love, Tribute, Uncategorized, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blooming in the Desert Sand

An obelisk decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics at the Memphis Zoo.

Before Egypt became a country Americans and other Westerners could no longer visit without serious concerns for their safety, my husband Kurt and I were rushing to the Cairo International Airport for our British Airways flight to leave the country. I cannot recall the reason we were running late, but it could well have been Cairo’s notoriously chaotic traffic which is certainly a strong candidate for the worst traffic in the world. In this ancient city, no one in a car or donkey-drawn cart gives any attention to traffic lanes. Everyone is everywhere at once, meaning no one gets anywhere quickly. And, of course, we missed our flight.

The night before our willy-nilly dash to the airport in 2000, Lena, a young Lebanese woman from one of Kurt’s training classes drove us to our hotel from the restaurant where we had eaten dinner.

“Hey, listen to this song!” she said. “Isn’t it the best?”

We had never heard the song with its irresistible Middle Eastern instruments, but we immediately recognized the unmistakable voice of Sting, the British singer/songwriter.

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand

“Desert Rain”, Songwriter: Sting, 1999

We were hearing Sting’s “Desert Rose”, which was on its way to becoming a huge hit in countries around the world. Later I read that Sting wrote the song as an homage to the Rai clubs he had visited in Paris that featured a melting pot of musical influences including Arabic, French, flamenco, and jazz. It was ironic that we were introduced to this song by a British musician, in Egypt by a woman from Lebanon who loved her country, but could not go home.

The Nile Delta as photographed from the Gemini VII spacecraft in 1965. Photo Credit: NASA.

Lena explained to us that she could not live in her homeland, although she visited it as often as she could. Once famous for its intoxicating natural beauty, healthy economy, and rich architectural heritage, by 2000, Lebanon had been devastated by a civil war that had been going on for at least 15 years. In addition to the civil war, Lebanon had become ground zero for proxy armies fighting each other over control of the Middle East.

Although more stable than Lebanon, Egypt had become less attractive as a tourist destination after the Luxor massacre of November 1997. During this terrorist attack, at least four Egyptians and 58 tourists, the majority of whom were Swiss and Japanese, were killed by Islamic militants trying to overthrow the Egyptian government led by President Hosni Mubarek. The killings occurred on the west bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings, an archaeological site and one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations.

The MobiNil paperweight I have had on my desk for the last 22 or so years. MobiNil was an early cell-phone company in Egypt.

By the time we came to Egypt three years later, its tourism industry had taken a major hit. There were metal detectors manned by Egyptian soldiers with machine guns at the entrance to our hotel. Soldiers with automatic weapons were stationed at regular intervals along the major highways around Cairo, in shopping malls, and anywhere else where large numberd of tourists might be.

My husband Kurt had been employed by the Middle East Management Centre to lead training classes in Cairo for MobiNil, an up-and-coming Egyptian cell phone provider. On our next visit, we were in Cairo for a week before we flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort town located between the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, for Kurt to provide training for another group.

The Egyptian people we met were open, friendly, proud, and generous. The women who worked for MobiNil assured us that Egyptian women were the best belly dancers in the world and, according to my research, they are correct. Our Egyptian friends were very proud of their cuisine, history, and culture. And they were proud of their company which they believed was the best cell phone company in Egypt.

Our adorable Egyptian friends who accompanied us to a shop in Cairo so we could buy gifts for our family back home.

For over 3100 years, ancient Egypt was a super power, a fantastically rich country with its pharaohs wielding power over great swaths of land and people. From around 3100 B.C. until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.—Egypt was the dominant civilization of the Mediterranean world. The architectural splendor and ingenuity of their great building projects–including their pyramids, obelisks, and monuments–as well as their art, medicine, belief system, and funerary rites, are still studied today. Ancient Egypt was one of the world’s most influential cultures.

Present-day Egypt? Not so much now. My husband Kurt spent a good deal of time working in the Middle East, and he learned that Egyptians were disdained by their fellow Middle Easterners, especially the Saudis and Kuwaitis. Why? Racism. “Pure Arabs” look down on Egyptians as mixed-race peoples. And despite Egypt’s cultural heritage, it does not have the oil reserves of its richer Middle Eastern neighbors.

In 2000 when we were in Egypt, its relative poverty and political instability–with terrorists attacking tourists–had taken its toll on Egypt. Even the jewels of Egypt’s history were difficult for me to enjoy. While Kurt worked, I visited the Cairo Museum where the world-famous Tutankhamen artifacts were on display in a tiny, stifling room, enclosed in plexiglass with so many people filling the room that I could not enter it. There was no air conditioning in the museum, and I was grateful that I was not visiting Aswan, a tourist destination on the banks of the Nile, when the record temperature of 124 degrees F. was reached. When I visited the Great Pyramid, just outside Cairo, an Egyptian chased me on a camel begging for money.

Great civilizations come and go, with the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Incas, and British on the short list of once-dominant cultures that no longer rule the world. During the early part of my life, the United States and the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R.) were the two superpowers divvying up the world into spheres of influence. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, there was a few years of shining hope that glasnost would prevail and Mikhail Gorbachev’s more open government would end the Cold War between Russia and America and its Western allies. It was not to be, and Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine is the proof of that.

What happens when a country becomes unstable? Egypt is a prime example. Hosni Mubarek became president after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. For 30 years, Mubarak ruled his country with an iron hand which led to increasing unrest and protests that brought down his government in 2011. He surrendered rule to the military, and the next year the Muslim Brotherhood took power with Egyptians electing Islamist Mohamed Morsi to the presidency in 2012. Soon the Morsi government overplayed its hand and attempted to pass an Islamic constitution which ignited strong opposition from secularists and the military. In July 2013, Morsi was deposed in a coup led by the minister of defense, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, as millions of Egyptians took to the streets in support of a democratic election. El-Sisi became Egypt’s president after an election in 2014 that was boycotted by opposition parties, and he remains president to this day. I worry about my Egyptian friends and how they weathered the storms of their country’s oppressive leadership, punctuated by instability, then another round of oppressive leadership. Apparently their only governance choices are between autocratic rule by the military or autocratic rule by religious fundamentalists.

Increasingly our country has also devolved into metaphoric war zones of competing interests that cannot be easily resolved. We have been at this juncture before. In the mid 19th Century–157 years ago–our country endured a civil war as we killed one another over power, sectarian dominance, and the idea that owning human beings was a perfectly reasonable way to accrue wealth. The fissures bleeding openly at that time continue to this day. Who will have the power to decide? Who matters and who does not?

A few months ago, Irish actor Liam Neeson was interviewed by AARP magazine regarding his ability to continue being successful as an action movie star when he will be 70 years old on June 7. About Neeson, the reporter, Allison Glock, wrote:

He was raised to believe that everyone matters and by showing someone your humanity, you pay yourself the best compliment. . . . On top of that, he says, ‘there was a war going on where I lived for 30 years.’

Allison Glock, writing about Irish actor Liam Neeson in “AARP: The Magazine”, March 30, 2022

When he grew up in County Antrum, Northern Ireland, Neeson was a Catholic boy living in the predominantly Protestant town of Ballymena. Catholics and Protestants had been killing each other in Europe for centuries dating back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. In Northern Ireland the two main factions of Christianity continued that religious and political war. Thousands died or were imprisoned during what has been euphemistically called The Troubles, which lasted from the 1960s until 1998, when a formal agreement was reached to end the civil strife. Neeson kept his head down as a teenager and was quoted in 1999 as saying he felt as if he was a second-class citizen.

A tribute to Liam Neeson at the Deauville (France) Film Festival, 2012

Our country is not Egypt or Northern Ireland, but civil strife and bloodshed are happening on our streets. And in our schools, grocery stores, churches, movie theaters, shopping malls, nightclubs, and anywhere else people gather.

As an Irishman who lived through the unrest in his homeland, Liam Neeson knows a few things about what works and what does not work when it comes to hatred and fear erupting into violence. He now lives in upstate New York and has spoken out on his views about unrestricted access to guns, calling U.S. gun laws a “disgrace”. Practical, sane gun safety laws would ban automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons that can kill hundreds of people in a few minutes, require background checks of individuals before they can own a gun, and raise the age at which teenagers can own a weapon. Other countries have mentally ill teenagers and young adults, but they do not have mass shootings every other day because they limit who can own a gun to those who have proven themselves to be responsible to handle such a weapon, and their laws seek to keep automatic and semi-automatic weapons out of the civilian population entirely.

In his AARP interview, Neeson was quoted as saying, “Everyone matters.” Of course, he meant everyone should matter.

In Ireland, if everyone matters, then not just Catholics, and not just Protestants–but both–should have power and agency over their lives and livelihoods.

In America, if everyone matters, then not just white people and not just Black or brown people should have power over their own lives, but everyone should have power over their own lives.

And in Ireland and America, women as well as men should have power over their own lives.

In December 2018, Irish women achieved the right to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, as well as later in the pregnancy if the woman’s life or health is at risk, or in the case of fetal abnormality. Before that time, Irish law held that the life of the fetus and the life of the mother had equal value–not surprising, perhaps, since Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country and the Catholic Church held sway over the lives of all the Irish people whether they were Catholic or not.

What was the catalyst for Ireland to finally change its law? A woman died while having a miscarriage. In 2012, Ireland’s abortion law received worldwide attention after Savita Halappanavar, a dentist by profession, was denied an abortion while she was suffering a septic miscarriage. Because the fetus and the woman were valued equally, the medical professionals caring for her would not perform an abortion until after the baby no longer had a heartbeat, which meant both died.

Irish dentist Savita Halappanavar developed sepsis and died after being denied an abortion when she miscarried at 17 weeks and the gestational sac was stuck protruding out of her body. Since the fetus still had a heartbeat, her physician would not intervene. Ireland decided to make abortion legal in the wake of Savita’s death.
Photo Credit: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

On 21 October 2021, Halappanavar, then 17 weeks pregnant, was examined at University Hospital, Galway, after complaining of back pain, but was soon discharged without a diagnosis. She returned to the hospital later that day, this time complaining of lower pressure, a sensation she described as feeling ‘something coming down,’ and a subsequent examination found that the gestational sac was protruding from her body. She was admitted to hospital, as it was determined that miscarriage was unavoidable, and several hours later, just after midnight on 22 October, her water broke but did not expel the fetus. The following day, on 23 October, Halappanavar discussed abortion with her consulting physician but her request was promptly refused, as Irish law at that time forbade abortion if a fetal heartbeat was still present. Afterwards Halappanavar developed sepsis and, despite doctors’ efforts to treat her, had a cardiac arrest at 1:09 a.m., on 28 October, at the age of 31, and died.

Wikipedia, “Death of Savita Halappanavar”

When everyone matters, common sense reigns instead of absolutism. Common sense, compromise, and the good of the people are the hallmarks of effective governance. Not packing the Supreme Court with judges who are out of step with the mainstream values of the American people and who are willing to turn back the clock to 1787 when slavery was legal and women were property.

Who matters? Only one group of people with one color of skin? Only men?

Who decides? A woman and her physician? Four judges, appointed by presidents who did not earn the popular vote of the governed–judges chosen for their extreme religious and political views? The government? The state legislatures?

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
As time runs through my hand

“Desert Rose” – Sting, 1999

There is a sadness that rises within me when I think of the friends I made in Egypt and that their lives may have been devoured by men thirsty for power who may have destroyed their ability to navigate their own lives. There is a great sadness that rises within me when I think of my three grandchildren–Lincoln, age 4; Penny, age 3; and Walker, 3 months–and that their lives may be devoured by men (and a few women) thirsty for power who will destroy their ability to navigate their own lives.

May they be able to bloom in the desert sand. May the predators who seek to lead–fueled by their overwhelming ambition for absolute power–not keep my loved ones from flying as high as their dreams can take them. May they soar. May we all.

~ Anna – 5/31/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Blooming, Freedom, Friends, Happiness, Ideas, Op/Ed Thoughts, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Remember Who You Are

“Can the dead talk to the living,” the article begins. Apparently they can in Ireland–through their census record that gives them a chance to “speak” to their families one hundred years from now.

Reporting for The New York Times, Ed O’Loughlin wrote an article called On Ireland’s Census, a Blank Box Gives Residents a Chance to Tell Their Stories, about the unique way Ireland has decided to allow its people to share their stories to their future great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren. The 2022 Irish census includes a blank space, which they are calling a “Time Capsule” for individuals and families to write or illustrate a message that will be made available to Irish people a century from now, in 2122.

The Irish people–many of whom emigrated to the United States–are known to be great storytellers, and this mechanism through the census, suggested by Irish senior census statistician Cormac Halpin, allows the men and women of Ireland to share with their future heirs whatever they find most dear to their hearts. According to the Times, no other country has fostered a cross-generational dialogue in this way.

Many people who filled out the blank box on the Irish census form have shared on social media what they wrote. One woman named Amy Dutil-Wall composed a tribute to her much adored daughter, Estlin Luna, who was killed in a car accident when she was nearly 4 years old. She wrote:

Estlin was our 1st born child and the love of our lives. She was never counted in a census and so we are so relieved to be able to mention her here. She was beautiful, creative, funny, so smart & clever, and confident beyond her years. We were honoured to be her parents and honoured still to grieve her for the rest of our lives. Estlin Luna, we carry you in our hearts — love always, mommy, daddy, Mannix & Lucie.

Amy Dutil-Wall
Amy Dutil-Wall’s “Time Capsule” message on her family’s 2022 Irish census form.
Photo credit; The New York Times.

Heartbreaking. Yet exalting, because Amy found a way to honor her daughter’s unique qualities, to proclaim that she was deeply loved, and and that she has not been, and will not be, forgotten by her loved ones.

If only our own country had created such a mechanism one hundred years ago. Perhaps my beloved maternal grandparent could have written of her love for my father, and of the terrifying risk she was willing to take to give him life.

As my sister Lisa and I were growing up, our father, Roy Rotha Allen (whose Allen relatives called him Rothie), told us a few bits and pieces of his childhood–and all of his stories were difficult to hear.

“It was hard growing up without a mother,” he would say with great sadness. “I never knew my mother. She died just after I was born. I had a stepmother who was good to me, but my alcoholic uncle who lived with us, ran her off. My mother’s name was Darcus Montgomery, and she was Mormon. Her family were from Virginia.”

We knew very little about Daddy’s family, and what we were told was heartbreaking. After his mother died when he was only 4 months old, Daddy grew up in abject poverty with his illiterate father, Hodge, who worked on the killing floor of a local meatpacking plant; his grandmother Lucinda (which they pronounced Lu-cindy); and his alcoholic uncle whose name we never knew.

Daddy, known to his family as ‘Rothie”, with this grandmother Lucinda (pronounced Lu-cindy), around 1937.

Daddy would point to his cheek where he was told a rat had bitten him when he was a baby. It is not hard to imagine that a tenuous situation got worse after his grandmother died when he was 5 years old leaving Daddy in the “care” of his father and uncle. Daddy recalled being threatened with a hot poker, meals mostly of cabbage, and sneaking around to find clean clothes to wear to school. “There were lots of women and drinking,” he would say, but he did not elaborate on the details.

Daddy’s second stepmother, Sarah, threw him out of his home when he was a teenager, and he lived at the downtown YMCA until he and Mama married when he was 21. When I was quite young, Sarah decided that she and my grandfather did not want to see my family any more–which was fine with me because I was terrified of both of them. Their manner was dour and off-putting, and they constantly dipped snuff. With tobacco juice dripping from their mouths, they would kiss my sister and me. The sticky mess would stay glued on our cheeks until we could wash it off when we got home.

It is not surprising that we grew up knowing very little about either side of Daddy’s family. But since we were very close to my mother’s parents, we did not want for grandparents who loved us. We wondered about Daddy’s mother and her story, but we had no means to find out anything more.

However, when I lived in Ft. Worth, my then husband had a co-worker who was Mormon, and I became friends with his wife. I knew that followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormons, were very attentive to their ancestry. I decided to search for my grandmother through the Mormon database in Ft. Worth, and and learned that her birthdate was, September 7, 1903, in Carroll County, Virginia, and that she had two brothers that were still alive in Kingsport, Tennessee.

In Carroll County, Virginia, around 1914: My grandmother Darcus (around the age of 11) (second from left) with her brother Stephen (age 4) and her sisters Eutaw Regina (age 9) and Luva Vera (age 6) who died in 1918 of the “Spanish flu”.

It was a start, but I wanted to know more, for Daddy’s sake as well as my own. However, I moved back to Tennessee with my two children–one a toddler–and, after my divorce, became a single parent working full-time to support my children. There seemed to be no time to search for my grandmother.

Decades went by, and my sons Justin and Aidan were grown when my father’s mental health began to decline and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My husband Kurt and I felt an urgency to learn more about Daddy’s mother so we could share it with him. In addition to searching genealogical sources online, we traveled to Carroll County, Virginia, in the fall of 2015, to find her grave and to search whatever hard-copy records we could find in Carroll County and Grayson County, where Darcus’s family lived before they moved to Kingsport, Tennessee.

The rolling countryside of Carroll County, Virginia, that used to be my family’s farm. I am the tiny figure at the right. This photo was taken in October 2015 when my husband Kurt and I found the family cemetery. Photo: Kurt Weiss.

In the 1800s, the Montgomery family owned large tracts of rolling farmland in Carroll County, Virginia, and we found many Montgomery family cemeteries before we found the right one. Finally after checking with the local funeral home, we followed their handwritten map to a huge open pasture.

It was raining, and Kurt and I were both crying when we found not only Darcus’s grave, but those of her parents John and Cordelia, her brothers Robert (who fought in World War I) and Clarence, and the graves of her three little sisters who died when they were young: Rose Elizabeth, the family’s second born who lived and died the same day in 1899; Willie Hazel, who died at 2-1/2 years old); and Luva Vera, who died of the “Spanish flu” at the age of 10. Altogether Cordelia gave birth to 10 children and only seven lived to adulthood. The early 20th Century was rife with diseases that killed children.

Through online sources, Kurt found the granddaughter of Darcus’s sister Eutaw Regina–who was named Jeanie to honor her beloved grandmother. And through Jeanie we came to know my cousin, Linda (Darcus’s brother Stephen’s daughter), Both Jeanie and Linda live in Utah and have countless family photos and stories about the Montgomery family. We corresponded and talked on the phone, but Daddy died on December 2, 2016, never having seen a photo of his mother.

We visited Jeanie and Linda in the Salt Lake City area over the next few years, and they shared many photos of Darcus when she was young, and even a photo of Daddy who visited his Montgomery family in Kingsport when he was teenager.

On our third visit, Linda shared a photo of Darcus she had just found. It was probably taken just after time of her wedding to Hodge on February 10, 1934.

Darcus Nickaline Montgomery and Roy Hodge Allen (who was called Hodge) in Knoxville, Tennessee, probably around the time of their wedding, February1934.

My eyes filled with tears when I saw the photo of my beloved grandmother Darcus with her shy smile, long neck, and thin arms. Intuitively I have always thought my sister Lisa and I must have many traits from our Darcus because we do not resemble anyone in my mother’s family. We look like our Mimi Darcus–for that is what I call her when I ask for her help to find the strength and courage to make my way, to be true to my essential self, to be grateful always for every gift of love and friendship that comes my way, to aspire to be gracious, and to make a difference in the lives of those I love.

What a marvelous God-send it would have been for Daddy to have known his mother, to have seen her lovely face, to know her story.

It was too late for Daddy, but we learned Darcus’s story.

Darcus Montgomery in Virginia, in the late 1920s.

Due to his ill health, Darcus’s father John sold the family farm in Carroll County when she was a teenager, and they moved to nearby Grayson County where she and her sister Eutaw Regina worked as spinners in a newly established cotton mill. Their family doctor cautioned Darcus and her mother Cordelia that she should never marry because, in his opinion, she was not strong enough to risk having children.

Darcus was sensitive and emotionally fragile, and was protected by her mother and sister Eutaw Regina. She loved to dress stylishly, adored her family, and was especially fond of small children.

After Darcus’s father died of cancer in 1924, Cordelia eventually decided to move her youngest son Wilford and Darcus to Kingsport, Tennessee, where they had relatives. Cordelia remarried, and perhaps having a 30-year-old daughter living with her was an impediment. Or Darcus met Hodge Allen of Knoxville, Tennessee, and fell in love. Her mother remembered their family doctor’s warning, and took Darcus to a doctor in Kingsport who declared that motherhood was not incompatible with her sensitive nature, and that she should not be afraid to marry and have a child.

So Darcus Montgomery (age 30) and Hodge Allen (age 31) were married in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on February 10, 1934. They made their home an hour and a half from Cordelia, in Knoxville. Within a few months, Darcus was pregnant. Some of her relatives visited her, she seemed happy, and Hodge was openly affectionate to her. Some time during her pregnancy, however, Darcus’s health began to fail.

My father was born on April 2, 1935, but his birth certificate does state whether he was born at home or in a hospital. Darcus’s family said they were told that she was never able to hold Daddy after he was born.

According to her death certificate, Darcus died on August 12, 1935, at the age of 31, of insanity from pellagra psychosis. Pellagra was a severe vitamin deficiency that afflicted many poor Southerners in the early 1900s. Its hallmarks were the “four D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. Whether the diagnosis by the attending physician was accurate we will never know, but usually it takes four or five years to die of pellagra. It is a mystery how Darcus died of it in a year and a half.

It is a further mystery why she did not die at home or at a hospital. Her death certificate states her address as 208 Jones Street in Knoxville, but it notes that she died in “Maloneyville” at the George Maloney Home which was the work house for the poor in Knoxville. Archival records at the East Tennessee History Center, record that “vagrants, minor offenders, un-wed mothers, and insane persons” were committed to the George Maloney Home. Darcus’s death certificate shows that she died in the George Maloney Home where Knoxville housed its paupers, homeless, and insane people who were not violent. Knoxville’s mentally ill who were violent were committed to the Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital which was officially closed in 2012.

My grandmother’s headstone does not note the date of her death because her Montgomery family never knew for certain the exact day that she died.

Since my grandmother died only 4 months after Daddy was born, I had always assumed that she died of complications from childbirth, and I suppose you could make a good case for that being true. We will never know how much she suffered, and what the hell she was doing in Knoxville’s Dickensian combination workhouse/poor house/insane asylum for the indigent. And why did Hodge, her hapless and derelict husband, neglect to tell Darcus’s mother that she was desperately ill?

Although it is indeed fortunate that my father never knew the squalid details of his mother’s death, it would have been a gift beyond measure for him to have seen a photo of his mother, to have read a message from her declaring how much he was a much loved and wanted child, even before he was born.

We yearn to know where we came from so we can remember who we are. As in this gorgeous song Remember Who You Are, by South African musician Zolani Mahola:

If the birds up in the trees
Know how beautiful they are
If the mountains and the sea
Know how magical they are
If the stars which made our skin
Show how radiant they are
Won’t they shine their light until
You remember who you are?

You who cried yourself to sleep
Oh remember who you are
You who thought you were broken
Oh remember who you are
You who thought yourself ugly
Child remember who you are
You who tried to bury you
Ooh remember who you are

From the song “Remember Who You Are” by South African singer/songwriter Zolani Mahola who performs under the nom de guerre, “The One Who Sings

It is a tragedy for me that I did not “find” Daddy’s mother before his dementia began and before he died. However, for me, knowing her–even the little that we have been able to learn from her family–has given me a home within myself that I never had. It has helped me remember who I am: I am the proud granddaughter of Darcus Nickaline Montgomery Allen and the daughter of Roy Rotha Allen, Darcus’s beloved son and my beloved father.

In the moments when we most need it, may we all Remember Who We Are.

// Anna – 4/30/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Dementia, Family, Knoxville, Love | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

We Are the Real Countries

Penelope (Penny) and me, February 12, 2022.

We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you will come and carry me out into the palace of winds. That’s all I’ve wanted—to walk in such a place with you, with friends, on an earth without maps…”

Michael Ondaatje, (1943- ) – Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet, novelist, and filmmaker; from the book and movie “The English Patient”

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.

Thomas Merton, (1915-1968) – American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, and poet

Yes, we are the true countries. We, the people. And we do not exist only for ourselves. In order to be truly happy, we must focus on our real work: to love and to embrace life with passion and connection. To throw our arms wide to the possibilities of living. To jump and know you will be caught. To risk, to give, to love.

~~ Anna // 3/31/2022

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In Your Eyes, In Our Eyes

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies, my love
To the dark and the endless skies

Ewan Maccoll, Songwriter; Singer Roberta Flack
Walker, a few days old.

A week ago our third grandchild, named Walker by his proud parents Justin and Tracy, entered the world. At 2 days old, he was holding his head up and staring at us with his dark blue eyes. On one of the final days Walker spent in the hospital, the megalomaniacal dictator that is leading Russia, Vladimir Putin, sent his army to invade neighboring Ukraine. One era ended and another began, but we do not yet know where this act of war will lead as Putin reminds us that he has nuclear weapons. As if we could forget.

Life and Death stretch themselves across our planet with Russia’s army continuing to pour into Ukraine to kill and maim. For one man’s ego, for one man’s gain. How can the whole planet be at risk for one very short man’s ambition to be God? He seeks to repaint the past, paint out the ending of the Soviet Union, and reclaim his country’s empire that once included countries flattened under Joseph Stalin’s boot in the wake of World War II.

Our former president would like to be Putin and praises his actions as the majority of the Western world condemns Putin’s senseless brutality at invading Ukraine on false pretenses. We can only thank our lucky stars that our former president is not president now, or there would be no American-led coalition standing together to sanction Russia.

I have been reading the history of our species, Homo sapiens, in Yuval Noah Harari’s magisterial book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book, Professor Harari shares theories for how our species of humans prevailed and all the other species, such as Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, and Homo rudolfensis, went extinct. He mentions our unique language as being a prime factor in our rise, since we Homo sapiens could organize in a way not possible by our sibling humans who had lesser language skills.

He also mentions the ruthless behavior of our species may have played a factor in the demise of the other humans.

Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2015

We are human animals with, apparently, a genetic predisposition to divide and conquer. But unlike other animals we tend to kill our own kind in vast, unfathomable numbers. How we can continue to despoil our planet and destroy our fellow humans and continue to, as Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock famously said, to “Live long and prosper”? We cannot. As Dr. Harari writes:

The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. This record is unlikely to be broken even by our own species. It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

For the sake of my grandchildren, the children of Ukraine, and the children throughout the world, I hope we adults can find a better way for short men to prove their prowess and a better way for sociopaths who run countries to prove their manhood. And I hope our own country will find a way to deal with, as Dr. Harari writes, “a small difference in skin color”. As Americans we have already fought a civil war over our inability to see Black people as humans. May we find a way to see that we are all humans regardless of the language we speak, the color of our skin, the God we pray to, the sex of our birth, or our sexual orientation.

Sidney Poitier, in the 1960s, Photo credit: The New York Times

The great Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier died recently. He was a Black man who stood out from his peers of all skin colors and won an Academy Award in 1964 for the film Lilies of the Field. When he emigrated to the U.S. from the Bahamas, he could barely speak English. In a few short years, he spoke the language in a way that moved people even in a more racist time period than our own. His advice was:

Be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey.

Sidney Poitier, 1992 (1927-2022)

So no matter whether Homo sapiens last on our planet for a thousand years, or a few hundred years more, we the people who care about children and beauty and nature and love and creativity and lifting up the fallen must be useful to our journey so the little feet that come after us will know which way they are to go.

~ Anna // 2-28-2022

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The Sun Inside the Rain

I cannot remember a time that music was not center stage in my life. We never had much money when I was growing up, but my father had a small record collection that he played over and over again. From his adolescence in the 1950s, Daddy had 45s, so-called because they played at 45 revolutions per minute, unlike the vinyl albums that we have today which are played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. Forty-fives were smaller, two-song recordings with the hit single (if the artist was lucky) on the “A” side, and usually a filler song on the “B side” or “the flip side”. Daddy collected some rousing Black gospel and records as well as his favorite pop tunes. When he played them, my sister Lisa and I knew all the words and would sing them together at the top of our lungs.

Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls
Champagne, sables and such
I never cared much for diamonds and pearls
But honestly honey, they just cost money
Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray give me your heart to rely on . . .

Little things mean a lot.

Carl Stutz / Edith Lindeman, Songwriters; Singer Kitty Kallen

The songs taught us what was important, that simple kindness and love were more important than diamonds and pearls, as in “Little Things Mean A Lot”, Kitty Kallen’s big hit in 1954. That people were important than things. And Daddy told us stories about being one of the few white guys sticking out like a sore thumb when he went to see his favorite Black group, the Platters, when they came to town.

As I got older, I continued in my father’s footsteps. Many of my favorite singers were African or African-American fusion artists who wove disparate musical traditions together, Johnny Clegg (who was white) and his group Savuka (who were Black) from South Africa. As Savuka’s Wikipedia page says:

Johnny Clegg photographed with his son for the cover of his “Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World” album, 1989.

Savuka’s music blended traditional Zulu musical influences with Celtic music and rock music that had a cross-racial appeal in South Africa. Their lyrics were often bilingual in English and Zulu and they wrote several politically charged songs, particularly related to apartheid

Savuka, from Wikipedia

When Johnny started playing music with his Black countrymen, he lived under South Africa’s apartheid rules which among a host of other things, forbade Johnny, a young white man, from playing music with Blacks. He ignored his country’s institutionalized racism and segregation and continued to play music with his Zulu friends. He learned their tribal dances and their music that was so joyous even when the lyrics were full of longing for better days.

They say that four walls do not a prison make
I’m trying to find a way out but there seems no escape
When I feel the hidden power that lies inside your sound
Like the ghost inside the atom that spins it round and round
There’s magic in some words, some things you can’t explain
That conjures up that feeling of the sun inside the rain

From “I Call Your Name”, Johnny Clegg, 1988

I was mesmerized by Sade Adu who is Nigerian and British, and Americans Roberta Flack, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone. Somehow songs from the Black experience have always resonated with me, perhaps because I have always felt like an outsider, and I love the passion in their music.

And although she is not Black, I discovered Loreena McKennitt in the early 1990s. Loreena is a Canadian singer, songwriter, musician who combines Celtic and Middle Eastern musical traditions. Early on she was inspired by the Celts who show up in many places around the world.

Why does combining different racial and cultural backgrounds threaten so many of my fellow white people today in America and Europe as it did white people living under the apartheid system of South Africa? And the Germans before World War II?

From the Oregon Holocaust in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kurt Weiss

Similarly why did the Board of Education members in McMinn County, here in my home state of Tennessee, feel so threatened by Maus, a graphic novel depicting the Holocaust, that they voted earlier this month to remove it from their curriculum? The book, created by Art Spiegelman from the experiences of his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and remains the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. Maus depicts Jews as mice, Germans as cats. The McMinn County Board of Education said they were offended by a handful of curse words and a depiction of a”nude” mouse.

Is the world just a little too rough for some people in McMinn County, Tennessee? Should unpleasant truths be scrubbed clean? Truths such as the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and perhaps just as many other people the Germans found inferior or threatening in any way: Polish people, gypsies, intellectuals, homosexuals, people with disabilities, prisoners of war, Serbians, and anyone who tried to help the oppressed people who were being slaughtered.

I am reminded of another Tennessean who courageously took another kind of stand: Roddie Edmonds, an enlisted man in World War II, who hailed from South Knoxville where I grew up.

Roddie arrived in Europe in December 1944, only five days before the Battle of the Bulge, a surprise German winter assault, in which around 20,000 American soldiers were taken prisoner. Edmonds, a Master Sergeant, was captured along with more than a thousand other American enlisted men, and they were eventually sent to a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.

Roderick W. “Roddie” Edmonds, born in 1919 in Knoxville, Tennessee.He grew up in South Knoxville, graduated from Knoxville High School in 1938, and s erved his country in World War II and the Korean War.

As a Master Sergeant, Edmonds was the highest ranking non-commissioned officer at the POW camp which held 1,275 American soldiers. On January 27, 1945, their first morning there, the German commandant, Major Siegmann, ordered Edmonds to have all the American Jews appear the next morning outside their barracks. Instead the next morning, all 1,275 American soldiers stood at attention outside the barracks behind Roddie Edmonds.

Furious, Major Siegmann shouted, “They cannot all be Jews!” To which Roddie Edmonds of South Knoxville responded, “We are all Jews.”

The German drew his sidearm and aimed it at Edmonds, but Roddie would not back down. Instead he reminded the German officer that under the Geneva Convention’s armed conflict protocols all he was obliged to tell the enemy was his name, rank, and serial number. Edmonds said, “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The German commandant backed down and 200 to 300 Jewish Americans were saved that day. Edmonds spent a further 100 days as a prisoner of war, then went back home to Tennessee, and did not speak about his brush with death, not even to his family.

Edmonds died in 1985 and never received any recognition for his courageous stand, but others recalled his bravery. Thirty years after his death, in 2015, Roddie Edmonds was selected to receive the Righteous Among the Nations award, Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. And President Obama spoke about Edmonds’ heroism and human decency during the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony of 2016.

From the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kurt Weiss

Would we have the courage of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds?I know your dad said he was just doing his job, but he went above and beyond the call of duty, and so did all those who joined in that line. Faced with a choice of giving up his fellow soldiers or saving his own life, Roddie looked evil in the eye and dared a Nazi to shoot. His moral compass never wavered. He was true to his faith, and he saved some 200 Jewish American soldiers as a consequence. It’s an instructive lesson, by the way, for those of us Christians. I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.

Remarks by President Barack Obama at the Righteous Among All Nations Ceremony, at the Embassy of Israel, Washington, DC, January 27, 2016

“We are all Jews.” Roddie Edmonds’ words ring down through the ages. We are all Jews. He took a stand and saved lives. Some estimates of the number of people who died in World War II have reached 75 million. Why did 75 million civilians and soldiers die? Because Adolph Hitler was not a good enough painter. Oh, if only he had been a better, less frustrated artist! Instead Hitler saw a way to achieve ultimate power by manipulating the simmering hatred and jealousy in the hearts of his fellow men and women. He rode that crazy horse all the way to Armageddon and 75 million people died. Do we want to whitewash that history and say that Hitler did not really kill 6 million Jews? And another 5 or 6 million people that he found undesirable? And what about the other 63 million people who died during the Second World War? Yes, the Nazis were racist. Yes, they were White Supremacists. Yes, they were Fascists. And they were Anti-semitic. And young men around the world fought to defeat them.

Roddie Edmonds made a difference in the lives of 200 to 300 Jewish American soldiers, and he inspired many people who have heard the story since 1945. He saw the common humanity in people who did not share his religious background. Although he was a Christian, he put his life on the line and said, “We are all Jews.”

//Anna ~ 1/31/2022

Posted in Autobiographical, Courage, Ideas, Knoxville, Op/Ed Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Victorious ‘Yes’

I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death. I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.

Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997), writing about his experiences during the Holocaust of World War II, from his masterful book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Viktor Frankl was an internationally successful author, physician, psychiatrist, philosopher, professor, and lecturer from Austria. But after the Nazis annexed his country in 1938, he became only one word: Jewish. Or, as it would be stated in the masculine form in German: Juden. Between 1942 and 1945, he labored in four different concentration camps. In his research before and after the war as well as his experiences in the camps of the Holocaust, Frankl declares that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how we think about it and how we cope with it.

In the camps he would look up at the sky, and know that despite what the Germans were doing to his body, his mind and spirit were free. He could go back, in his mind, to loving moments of his life, and the Germans were powerless to take those memories away.

On Christmas Day this year, our extended family met for our annual Christmas celebration at our home here in the East Tennessee valley near the Great Smoky Mountains. It is not supposed to be nearly 70 degrees on December 25, nor should my daffodil bulbs be peeking their green shoots above the ground as they are now–but we put tablecloths on two tables outside and made some memories of our own.

The huge stufffed dinosaur and octopus my sister gave Lincoln and Penny for Christmas.

My beloved sister Lisa, who has been fighting cancer for the last two years did not feel well enough to join us on Christmas Day. However, she sent my grandson Lincoln, aged 4, a giant stuffed-animal dinosaur, and my granddaughter Penny (almost 3) a huge stuffed octopus. It was a great loss that Lisa could not be with us, but the sweeties were delighted beyond measure at their oversized friends.

It is hard to hide presents that are larger than their recipients, so it was not long before Lincoln and Penny had found their new toys peering expectantly from among the other Christmas presents in the guest room. The three-feet-tall, stuffed animals were too big for the indoors, so outdoors we went, where the swish of a dinosaur’s tail and the long legs of an octopus would not wreak havoc.

“Let’s play hide and seek,” said Lincoln.”You hide, and I will find you,” he said, and he began counting. His sister Penny, his dinosaur, and I ran away to hide.

Lincoln, as he discovered his dinosaur and me as we were played hide and seek on Christmas Day 2021.

It is not easy to hide with a huge dinosaur, but Dino, Penny, and I did our best. Luckily we had three cars in the backyard and the back fence which gave us a few good places to hide. Eventually Penny’s giggling gave Lincoln a clue, and his squeals of delight were glorious when he finally discovered us.

“When was the last time you played hide and seek?” my husband asked me.

Immediately I recalled playing hide and seek in my Aunt Rheta and Uncle Bob’s yard many, many years ago. There were four of us: my sister Lisa, 15 months younger than me; our cousin Robbie, a few years younger than Lisa; Bobby, a few years younger than Robbie; and me–the oldest. We played happily for awhile, then Robbie would complain that Bobby had done something he shouldn’t, and I would get into trouble because I was the oldest.

There was another time I played hide and seek, but I was a bit older.

To escape my childhood home, I married a man I had only known for three months. It was two weeks before my 19th birthday, and my husband-to-be was 23 and had already been married once. He was a bill collector at the finance company where I found a job after I dropped out of college before my sophomore year. His father Max had warned me, “You know, Gary has a temper.” I did not, but I discovered that fact for myself on our honeymoon when a whole new Gary emerged from the facade he had showed me during our courtship.

My sister Lisa (left) as my maid of honor on my wedding day to Gary. The lovely bridesmaids were my friends Lisa Hood and Ann Stanley.

Every year of our five-year marriage was excruciating. It was a perpetual give and take: I gave and he took. Control, emotional torture–he was an experienced practitioner, and I was learning the rules as he sought to separate me from my family and friends–but most especially he tried to keep me from spending time with my sister Lisa.

I had a low-paying job as a secretary and occasionally I would sit at work doing the math to see when I would have enough money each month to leave him and still afford to take care of our son, Justin. When the columns of income and outgo matched well enough, I sought spiritual counsel about this momentous decision from the pastors of the two churches I had attended. Both men of the cloth told me to go home to my husband, that love would return. I knew that love was never in our home, and would most definitely never return.

My sister Lisa and me in a photography box during our teen years.

One of my co-workers added her unsolicited advice saying I should wait until my husband had an affair, then I could leave him without risking eternal damnation and so forth. For me, living with Gary was eternal damnation and so forth. I was not waiting until he had an affair to leave him, nor did I want my son to grow up in a home with his manipulative, narcissistic father.

My sister Lisa was the only person who supported my decision to leave my abusive husband.

After we divorced, he stalked me for eight years. I hid as best I could, but he followed me on dates, broke into my apartment, took whatever he wanted from what little I had, and, since he was bill collector, always had ways to find out my phone number so he could harass me–even after I remarried.

But I had escaped the marriage, and Lisa and I would walk through Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains, talking constantly for the entire 11 miles–or for seven miles if we decided to take the shortcut route. We would meet at our favorite consignment store Reruns, and one glorious spring, we walked one of Lisa’s favorite Dogwood Arts trails here in town. Lisa loves dogwoods and the Dogwood Arts local nonprofit organization.

My sister Lisa (right) and me at Stanley’s Greenhouse in February 2015.

We each had two children; and eventually Lisa fulfilled her dream to work at her husband’s family business, Stanley’s Greenhouse, where our mother, Arzelia, had worked since we were in high school. Lisa became more and more famous for her enthusiasm, devotion, and love for her customers. She was featured on a local gardening radio show along with other expert gardeners, and she was interviewed regularly by local television and print reporters.

My sister flourished until her first bout of cancer in 2010. She had surgery to remove the cancer, and, for the most part, she went on as if nothing had ever happened. And for nearly a decade, she again was the queen of all she surveyed as she worked tirelessly to help her customers and the many local charities who asked for her support.

Lisa and Pat Summitt, in the fall of 2015, at Stanley’s Greenhouse.

Then in 2019 the cancer returned in a more aggressive form, a late-stage bone cancer–not the kind of news you want to hear, but Lisa was undaunted. She could no longer work full-time at the greenhouse, but for the last two years she has taken the treatments one after the other while doing a little work when she is able. For two years she has persevered and beaten the odds. Her spirit and strong beliefs have allowed her to spend time with the people she loves, to carve out her own way forward, and to soar above as the cancer fights to hold her down.

I had many flying dreams in the years after I left Gary. In these dreams, I floated above houses and trees. With the wind rushing past my outstretched arms, I looked at the ground and the forest below me and thought, “So this is how it is to be a bird.” Then I alighted gently in the top branches of a tree. Safe, whole, free.

Lisa with our late father, Roy Rotha Allen, at my son Justin’s wedding to his beloved wife Tracy, in the spring of 2016.

Tomorrow is officially a new year, January 1, 2022, with a clean slate as we turn the page from a difficult year to the unknown of a new one. For my dear sister, I hope that she soars safely above the fray, alights gently in the top of trees, and is pain-free as much of every day as is humanly possible. I hope she continues finding the victorious ‘yes’ of meaning and purpose. May she know that she is dearly loved and treasured.

And may she be free.

~ Anna – 12/31/2021

Posted in Autobiographical, Courage, Family, Freedom, Ideas, Love | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Holes Let the Light Shine Through

That’s the contradiction. That you have to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. Because you need to have holes in order to make the light come through.

Academy-award-winning, French actress Juliette Binoche, as quoted in “The Radical Vulnerability of Juliette Binoche” article by Sasha Weiss in The New York Times Style Magazine, October 17, 2021
Photo Credit: Kurt Weiss Photography, August 2021

Is it true that as we make our way through life it is best to understand that we should–paradoxically–seek to be strong and vulnerable? Do our imperfections and the difficulties we have faced–our holes, as Juliette Binoche says–open us to new ways of being and make us stronger? As I mused about whether my own life experiences supported her words, I thought about our rescue cat, and how we both startle so easily.

Two years ago our cat Cadi Kitty was living on the streets of Lexington. Our nephew Zach lived near the basement of a home where she had been taking refuge from the cold Kentucky winters. One of Zach’s neighbors, B., was feeding her, but he had a cat already, and could not bring Cadi inside his home. Zach and his partner Paige could not take her in because they had two dogs. Cadi’s situation became more critical when the couple who owned the house decided to board up the access where she was getting into their basement at night. Zach and B. feared Cadi would freeze to death, so Zach asked my husband and me to consider giving her a home.

We had lost our former cat companion when we moved a few years ago, so we said, yes, we would take her. On a cold November day, we met Zach halfway between Lexington and our home in Knoxville. During the drive home, Cadi was meowing pitifully in her cat carrier. I tried to soothe her by talking to her in a reassuring voice, and sticking my fingers into her carrier to pet her.

B. and Zach called Cadi (short for Acadia, as in Acadia National Park), “Charlie” because they thought she was a male cat. When we took her to the vet, we learned that not only was this adorable cat a female, but she had a microchip, meaning she once had an owner. Our veterinarian got in touch with Cadi’s original owner in Lexington, and she was willing to sign Cadi Kitty over to us.

It took awhile for our new resident to settle into our home. She was used to living on the streets, seemed ill at ease, and nervously scratched our upholstered furniture. I suggested we allow her to go outside, and she seemed much happier as an indoor/outdoor cat.

Cadi Kitty sitting by our backdoor.

We learned that she is called a tuxedo cat which means she has markings as if she is wearing a tuxedo. Such cats are highly intelligent and quirky. That describes Cadi very well because she falls into regular habits, then one day decides to do something entirely different. But in the main, Cadi is the happiest of cats, acting more like a lap dog indoors and just wanting to be near us.

However, on one point, Cadi has not gotten better: She is hypervigilant; startles at sudden movements or loud or unexpected sounds; and is terrified of strangers. Perhaps she suffered some abuse at some point in her life that has caused her to be more sensitive than the average cat. Or maybe being constantly on her guard is how she stayed alive when she had no home.

Even though Cadi startles easily and often, is easily frightened, and is a very sensitive cat, she no longer scratches the furniture. She sleeps through the night in the guest room, without meowing, and although she will not eat people food–and will only eat dry and wet cat food that contains turkey–she is a gloriously happy and healthy cat.

She feels more relaxed and confident when she is with us. She loves it when I go with her into the backyard so she can let down her guard and nibble sweet grass. To thank me for accompanying her, she rubs herself against my legs repeatedly. Occasionally she gets so excited with her thankfulness that she jumps up and rubs my face if I am bending toward her.

Gorgeous Cadi Kitty looking at me as I pet her.

Although Cadi and I are both hypervigilant and startle when someone appears unexpectedly and neither of us can abide cacophonous sounds, we are more comfortable when we are in the company of those we love and who understand and accept us. It is not easy to be vulnerable and strong.

To be vulnerable opens us up to possible harm, but it also opens us to living life to the fullest, to passionately embracing the joys that make us dance with possibilities.

To be strong invites us to do everything we can to make a difference toward justice, truth, and the yearning always to learn more.

As Bertie Carvel, the British actor when he was discussing his title character Dalgliesh in the latest serialization of the “Dalgliesh” mysteries written by P. D. James:

Contradictions define a person.

Bertie Carvel, British actor

I can with great confidence say: Contradictions also define a cat.

~ Anna – 11/30/2021

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Another belief of mine:
that everyone else my age is an adult,
whereas I am merely in disguise.

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
My sister Lisa (left) and me, around the time I started first grade, age 5.

I share Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s belief that I am somehow the same me as I was at the time of my first memory, when I was a 5-year-old girl. I feel exempt from easy categorization and the stereotype of who a person my age is supposed to be. I will admit to being an adult, thank heaven, but in many ways I feel the same way I did as a child. I felt my opinion should matter, I wanted to learn and know the truth for myself. I wanted to make a difference with my life. I wanted to love expansively and joyously. And I did not fit in easily among the other children. I was afraid to be myself in public. I was shy. In many ways I was hiding.

Here I am still hiding in plain sight, camouflaged as a mild-mannered, white Southern woman with many ideas and dreams.

Disguises are very big during the Halloween season, and adults and children in costume are walking outside our house today on their way to Halloween parties. Masks are important not only for Halloween but in order to protect us from Covid with more than wishful thinking and misinformation. Yet masks have become a battleground as has so much else: Vaccines, school board meetings, city and county legislative meetings, social media, airline flights, cities and rural areas, red states and blue states.

The sunset over the River Thames in London, 2019. Photo: Kurt Weiss

What is it like to live now? It feels as if we are living on the edge of a precipice overlooking a great expanse of sea and sky. There are craggy, jagged rocks far below, and the fall looks particularly horrifying and unforgiving. I try to stay away from the cliff’s edge and look to the horizon where the sky and earth meet with color and possibility.

Lincoln on his 4th birthday.

The sky and earth meet with color and possibility in the eyes of my grandson Lincoln and granddaughter Penelope. They do not hide in plain sight. Who they are, what they are feeling, and what they want are clear from their words and actions. They instinctively want to learn new skills such as jumping into the water from the wide of the pool or lake into the arms of the people they love and trust. They learn new words, whole sentences, complete paragraphs. They emulate what they see us doing around them.

Lincoln, age 4, loves dinosaurs. At some point Lincoln will learn that dinosaurs were once alive, but became extinct 65 million years ago. Yet their skeletons and where their bones were found have been guideposts for us to learn what they ate, how they lived, and where they died. We still learn from creatures that dominated our planet for 165 million years and then, for the most part, died away. Lincoln loves their dominating, mysterious, and wild ways.

Penny, age 2-1/2, at Lincoln’s birthday party.

Lincoln’s younger sister Penny, age 2 and 1/2, loves cats. Felines are mysterious and elusive animals who live with us as pets, but they will not be led on leashes as dogs are. Cats make their own rules and are still in some ways as wild and undomesticated as their kind ever were. Penny loves their dominating, mysterious, and wild ways.

In your eyes
The light, the heat (in your eyes)
I am complete (in your eyes)
I see the doorway (in your eyes)
To a thousand church (in your eyes)
The resolution (in your eyes)
Of all the fruitless searches (in your eyes)
I see the light and the heat (in your eyes)
Oh, I wanna be that complete
I wanna touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes

Peter Gabriel, English musician

My goal is to aid and abet Lincoln and Penny in their adventures to become themselves so they will not have to hide in plain sight when they are adults. My wish is that they can be independent, think for themselves, make their own way, and learn from the creatures and ideas that inspire them.

May they each seek and find a habitat that will support their life; may they seek and find fellow travelers who will accompany them as they make their journeys; may they have the freedom to find their bliss and fulfill their passion; may they find what stimulates them and makes them feel gloriously alive. May they not only survive, may they thrive. May they not perch on the edge of the abyss; may they fly from it.

May they not only run–as Penny especially dearly loves to do–but may they fly.

~ Anna – 10/31/2021

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The Garden Within

A flying insect exploring a native climbing aster.

If I believed in such things I would have done a spirited rain dance this summer and early fall to implore the skies to deliver the right clouds to make it rain for longer than the brief five minutes at a time that we experienced this summer.

Farmers and gardeners, and all humans for that matter, must adapt their lives to the seasons. Feast or famine. Drought or flood.

By the time we make it to October in East Tennessee, we have slogged through a stew of vaporous humidity, high temperatures, and day after day, week after week, and month after month of little-to-no rain. Yet we have plants, trees, shrubs, and grasslands that need rain. And, yes, people need rain too.

Water is what makes life on our planet possible. Our bodies are around 60 percent water, and even our bones contain 31 percent. No wonder the sounds of water falling over rocks, water lapping on the sides of boats, and water trickling through a creek are irresistible and balms to our souls.

Without water, our gardens would be deserts. And so would we.

A heart-shaped leaf in my sister Lisa’s garden.

Globally most of us have been metaphorically slogging through a desert created by the fear, uncertainty, and disruption of Covid, the disease of unease caused by a coronavirus that has killed at least 4.5 million people around the world, and around 700,000 Americans.

It is not the virus alone that causes us to be bleed our discontent. We Americans cannot agree on how to respond to the virus, despite the fact that nearly every American knows someone who has died. Some of us are vaccinated, others not. Only 45 percent are currently vaccinated in my home state of Tennessee. Not caused by availability problems, mind you, but mostly for political reasons and misinformation. Yes, while some countries suffer without access to vaccines, too many people in rich countries such as ours squander the benefits of a lifesaving vaccine by refusing to do their public-health duty to ensure we reach something close to herd immunity so the babies, children, and immunocompromised people can be safe.

The new little boy who is due to enter our world in February 2022.

In our family, we have a new baby who is due to join us in February next year. He knows nothing about drought, disease, floods, hurricanes, hatred, vaccines, masks, wars, guns, and politics. I feel sorry for this little man who hardly has a chance. We have the memories of better times. But for him there may be no butterflies to inspire him with their delicate, ethereal beauty. For him no country that hangs together when things are tough. And just like his older brother and sister, he will never know my Daddy. Oh, what a loss! He will not know the force of nature and passion that was Daddy–the man who was the matchmaker who believed his parents should be together before anyone else thought so. And yes, this little boy will be the youngest and will compete with his older siblings for life’s goodies. In the short term, his siblings will find him to be the tiny, crying usurper of his parents and grandparents’ time, attention, and affection.

Eventually his siblings will know him in a different way. Those of us who are old enough to know the score will welcome him straightaway and love him because we know how precious new life is. And we will welcome him with wonder and delight, awestruck at his unique qualities and nature. We will love him immediately, and help him get the feel for how it is to live in the 22nd Century. We his adult family members will shield him, but we will also help teach him how to–with every new step–make his own way in the world.

Frank Cabot was an American visionary who created a gloriously idiosyncratic private garden called Les Quatre Vents at his home in the Quebec province of Canada. My husband Kurt and I watched the documentary, called “The Gardener”, that tells the story of his life and his way of thinking about gardens. To him, gardens are life. He believed fervently that people can have a personal relationship with each garden they visit. Frank Cabot (1925-2011) was a gentleman, a gentle man, and he dedicated his life to making gardens, and saving endangered private gardens. In the documentary, he shared his belief that:

Everybody has a garden within them, and it’s a way of expressing one’s creativity.

Francis “Frank” Cabot, Self-taught American horticulturalist and saver of gardens
The impossibly intricate flower of the native passionflower vine.

Cabot created beauty and was never happier than when he thought that a person was touched spiritually when they visited his garden. May we encourage our new little man–this tiny little gardener entrusted to his parents and his family–to explore the beauty and awe and spiritual nature of the natural world. May he find his way, may he find his passion, may he find his bliss, may his spirit soar.

~ Anna – 9/30/2021

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