Coming Home to Myself

For the ones who had a notion,
A notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive . . .

Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”, 1977

A few months before Bruce Springsteen wrote his elegaic anthem “Badlands”, I left my parents’ home, two weeks shy of 19, to marry a man I barely knew. When Bruce wrote this song, he was fighting his record company and personal management for release from a contract that took away ownership of his music and stifled his creative freedom. I was metaphorically on that same train, wanting to take the reins of my life and escape the strictures of growing up poor within the boundaries of my mother’s imagination.

The sky over Mama’s crape myrtles.

In the year that followed, Bruce and I achieved our objectives: he produced what I believe to be his best album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. And I escaped my childhood home. Frying pan into the fire, actually, since the man I married was emotionally abusive, but it was a beginning, and I was on my way.

At least one of my parents lived in my South Knoxville childhood home for the next 49 years. Daddy died in 2016 after suffering from the mental and physical effects of dementia, but Mama was still adamant to continue living in their home. My sister and I feared Mama would never agree to an easier living option. But a few weeks ago, the impossible occurred when my sister called to say Mama had finally admitted the burden of keeping up her house–by herself, at the age of 83–had become too much.

Luck was in our favor when we heard that a condo was coming available just a stone’s throw from Mama’s house. Lickety-split we were clearing out 50 years–and in some ways, we were clearing out a century’s worth–of our family’s collection of dust and memories.

With the installation stickers still attached, here is the Jacuzzi tub Daddy had installed in the basement beside Mama’s washer and dryer.

My mother was a pack rat, and Daddy had some difficult years near the end of his life when he collected things for no discernible reason–such as a Jacuzzi-type tub he put in the basement near Mama’s washer and dryer. Inexplicable also was an exercise bike that looks as if Daddy got it second hand. Let me just state the obvious: neither one of these items were ever used by either of my parents.

Among all the detritus of the upstairs and the basement of the house were treasures I had never seen. The most amazing find was my grandmother Jerushia’s photo album which was filled with snapshots from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. This album included photos of Mamaw’s childhood, her courtship with Papaw, and snapshots of their three children: James Thomas (Bud), Arzelia (Mama), and Rheta. Mamaw had never shown us, her grandchildren, any of these photos. Perhaps she thought these glimpses of her life when she was young were irrelevant to her later life of cooking three meals a day, washing and ironing Papaw and Uncle Bud’s clothes, breaking green beans from the garden, and attending church three or four times a week.

When I was small, Mamaw still had a party line phone that she shared with another family or two. Thus, when Mamaw was having a conversation with one of her friends from church, she could be interrupted or overheard by her neighbors. If she needed to use the phone, she sometimes had to ask these folks to please get off the line so she could make a call. People were very much into each other’s business then, gossiping about who was doing what to whom. It was a very small world with small-town values.

Mamaw (center) with her girl friends Ida and Lettie, late 1920s.

Yet the photos show that Mamaw flourished in it when she was young, with her friends and family around. Papaw called Mamaw, Boots, and that is the name she uses for herself most often in the front of her photo album. Occasionally she used her initials, or her first name, but usually she proudly used Papaw’s chosen name for her. How did she earn that name? Mama doesn’t know, so neither do I.

As a young man Papaw worked at the marble mill in South Knoxville and many of the photos in Mamaw’s album were taken at the mill. In the basement I found a small rectangular slab of marble honed to a smooth finish. I imagine Papaw probably brought it home for Mamaw. They were both dirt poor, so perhaps this was one of his first gifts to her.

Here are my grandparents Jerushia (he affectionately called her Boots) and Thomas around 1931. In this photo booth shot, Mamaw has a big fever blister and a direct stare that does not reflect her rollicking sense of humor. Papaw has movie-star-quality eyes to swim in.

Who knew Papaw was ever so young and good-looking as in a photo of the two of them that Mamaw had in a tiny frame. It was taken in a photo booth and is the only photo that shows a close-up view of their faces: Mamaw with a good-sized fever blister on her lip and Papaw with hynotically beautiful eyes.

There are no photos of their wedding in 1932, but plenty of the resulting children: the first child, my Uncle Bud who was born with one leg shorter than the other and a pronounced speech impediment. The doctor wanted to give up on him straight away, but Mamaw wouldn’t hear of it. My mother, the middle child, came along a year and a half later, followed by my Aunt Rheta, the youngest, a few years later.

Mama looking ever so fetching in her graduation dress, 1954.

When Mama and my husband Kurt were cleaning out the basement, they found a tiny New Testament Bible that I was given in the 4th grade. My parents named me Anna Marie, that’s what I was called, and that was the name written in the front of the Bible. However, when I was in the 6th grade, I decided I wanted to be called Anna. Perhaps I thought a one-word name was more grown up. I could only smile when I saw how my elementary-school self had marked out my middle name on the Bible’s “Presented to” page. In the back of the Bible, I had written beside the Serenity Prayer that I wanted to be a writer. For the life of me, I cannot remember wanting to be a writer from such a young age. Although I confided the information in a postscript to myself, I do love how I phrased it, “For I want to be a writer!”

Beside the serenity prayer, I confided that I wanted to be a writer.

I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these badlands.

Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”, 1977

In the bedroom that used to be mine, I found one of my high school diaries in a chest of drawers. I looked at the scrawl and couldn’t believe it was my handwriting. Nor did I recognize the girl that wrote the words. I had written about a young man I met in Kentucky when our church youth group went to Prestonsburg, near the West Virginia border, to hold Vacation Bible School classes for the children of coal mining families. I fondly recall the children we met there who were wonderfully sweet. We held our Bible School classes in a small building near their homes beside the muddy, unpaved hollers that ran up the hillsides–just as Loretta Lynn sang about. I never forgot the strange juxtaposition of ran-down shacks, each with its collection of old appliances and rusting car pieces, but nearly always a shiny, expensive-looking car or truck beside it.

The young man I met in Prestonsburg, named Dell, was the Baptist preacher’s son, unlike any other preacher’s son I have ever met. And yes, I would go on to date another preacher’s son latter in my life. But this young man was a gentleman, the quarterback of his high school football team, the most popular guy in his school, but he was inexplicably a sweet, humble guy who really liked me. That is, the me that spent years not dating because I was considered too brainy. And there was the guy who broke up with me because I was too religious. Good points taken on both accounts. At that time I was too religious and I did have my head in a book as often as I could get away with.

A framed front page of the Knoxville News Sentinel, showing Daddy trying on Lady Vols shirt after one of the Lady Vols’ national championships.

The preacher’s son and I wrote fervent letters back and forth for awhile. My family went up to meet his family, and we saw him play a football game. I dreamed of marrying him, of course. Because my family was so poor and I was 7th in class, I had been given a full scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky, and Dell wanted to be an engineer and attend Eastern or Western Kentucky University, I cannot now recall which.

But it was not to be. I had remembered receiving a “Dear Jane” letter, but forgotten it was because he had found someone else: that he had begun dating the minister of music’s daughter. And with that dream shattered I did not pursue my education at Berea College where I could have received one of the best educations any young, poor girl could have had. What a loss! I stayed in Knoxville, had two scholarships to the University of Tennessee, lived at home, made no friends as a commuting students, and dropped out of school after a year. At my first job I met a divorced guy who had some anger issues, married him after three months, and escaped my childhood home. From the frying pan, into the fire.

A stained-glass star I found in the window of what was my bedroom during high school.

Besides the birth of our son Justin in 1980, my first husband gave me one other gift that has stuck with me for all these years: a love for Bruce Springsteen’s early music. I have lived many years in that darkness on the edge of town. I have ended many days proving it all night. I have sucked the marrow out of many long nights and days of yearning to live freer than my girl nerd self (who worried too much about what other people thought) ever really could.

I found pieces of that girl scattered throughout my parents’ house. In some ways I was a stranger to my younger self. And I became a stranger to myself indeed, full stop, as I cleaned out my parents’ home. It was inconceivable to me that all their years together had become dust, a spider in the tub downstairs, mothballs in the upstairs closets, empty plant containers in the outside shed, no basketball net on Daddy’s basketball goal.

And I certainly can’t say I have the same faith I had as a teenager, for myself or my country. These days are full of more hatred and division than I have ever experienced in my life–an America I never thought I’d live in.

Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied,
till he rules everything.

Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

It would be encouraging to think we could pause long enough from hatred and division just as the Union and Confederate soldiers did when the soldiers would sing their battle songs the night before battles. Many times they would be on opposite banks of a river, with the Union soldiers singing “Hail, Columbia”, and the Confederate soldiers singing “Dixie” (or as some of them called it, “Look Away”). After the military bands on each side of the river piped down, a soldier on one side or the other would begin singing “Home, Sweet Home”.

Dear Sister, a song by Claire Lynch, written from the letters of a young Confederate soldier from Alabama to his sister Lucinda, was my first hearing of this bit of beautiful reconciliation. It brought tears to my eyes when I first heard that the Civil War soldiers from opposing sides often would sing together before battles. Songs about home. A longing for home. And their loved ones.

This could be my last letter,
I may never see the cotton fields of home again
I miss you, Dear Sister,
Tonight I never felt so all alone

And the fog was so thick that the Stone’s River stars
Could scarcely invade the dread and the dark
And all that I could see when I closed my eyes to dream
Was home, sweet home.

In the camps of Round Forest
the midnight coals were glowing through the haze
The Union boys sang Hail Columbia then
we sang Look Away, Look away
Then a hush in the rain and there rose a sweet refrain
In the dark before dawn, instead of battle songs
The enemy and we all sang a melody
Of home, sweet home.

So if this is my last letter
and I never see the cotton fields of home again
If I fall here at Stone’s River
I know that God will bear away my soul
to be with him

And I’ll wait for you there where all is bright and fair
Where the light of his face outshines the blue and gray
Where all of humankind, yes, every man will find
His home, sweet home.

Claire Lynch, “Dear Sister”

When Daddy was in the hospital and going downhill, my husband and I decided to travel to Virginia in search of Daddy’s mother’s grave in Carroll County. Daddy’s mother died when he was 4 months old, so he never knew her. And Daddy was not able during his lifetime to see a photo of her.

We did not have much to go on. Kurt and I found ourselves in a fenced-in area in the middle of a cow pasture where we did not find my grandmother’s grave. Instead we found the grave of one of my Montgomery relatives who fought for the Confederacy surrounded by a few of his family. On that trip we also found out my great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy as well. I am proud that my forebears fought for what they believed at a time of great division in our country. I wish there were more I could do now to save our country from a leader who fans racial tensions that take us back to the Civil War days. Must we keep refighting past hatreds?

During our Virginia trip after searching through four Montgomery family cemeteries, we finally found the right one and were able to come home to Knoxville and show Daddy photos of his mother’s grave–and the graves of her family.

A few years after Daddy died, Kurt and I visited my cousin Linda in Salt Lake City, Utah, and she gave me the first photo anyone in my family had ever seen of my dear grandmother Darcas Nickaline Montgomery Allen. Oh, so long dead she was, but so lovely. I look a lot like that young woman who died at the age of 31 giving birth to Daddy. So many dreams she had of having her own family. She did not live to see the family she gave birth to, but because of her, Daddy was born, and my sister Lisa and me, and our children and their children.

My dear sweet grandmother Darcas Montgomery just after she married Daddy’s father Hodge in 1934. Daddy was born in April 1935, and in August 1935 she died.

In many ways I have nothing in common with the girl that lived in my parents’ house some 40 years ago. But I am indeed the girl that had a notion deep inside that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. And for my Daddy who encouraged me to be that girl, and my dear grandmother Darcas who gave Daddy and me life:

I believe in the love that you gave me,
I believe in the hope that can save me,
I believe in the faith
and I pray, that someday it may raise me
Above these badlands.

Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

~ Anna — 7/31/2019

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The Day the Music Lived

A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

“American Pie” – Don McLean (1971)
Here I am in 1972, the year “American Pie” was released.

When I first heard Don McLean’s American Pie, I was in the 8th grade. This was the time in my life when everyone seemed older and wiser than my own awkward, not-yet-grown-into-my-body self. Maybe since I grew up listening to Daddy’s 1950s-era, 45-rpm records, I was just old enough to understand the loss of great musicians in plane crashes as well as the loss of innocence as we grow up.

With its over eight glorious minutes of rollicking storytelling, American Pie was probably the only song to hit number one on the charts with that length. Don McLean effortlessly captures what it’s like to be young and hit between the eyes by rock-and-roll. Then to learn about the death of one its most stellar visionaries, Buddy Holly, in February 1959 at the too-young age of 22. The opening lines of American Pie refer Holly’s widowed bride, Maria Elena Santiago-Holly, who did not attend his funeral because she had just miscarried their first child.

Holly never saw the 1960s, but his records did. He was such a prolific songwriter and spent so much time in the studio recording them, that his record company was able to continue to release his songs throughout the ’60s. What an innovator he was as he is credited with establishing the quintessential lineup of a rock band: two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. He pioneered multi-track recording and influenced musicians who came after him such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others.

Buddy Holly in the recording studio. Photo copyright, The Guardian.

I was reminded of Buddy Holly a few weeks ago when I read The Day the Music Burned, a New York Times Magazine investigative article chronicling the loss of Buddy Holly’s master tapes in a 2011 fire of the warehouse on a movie-studio lot where the archival recordings were stored.

And not just Buddy Holly’s master recordings were lost, but an enormous treasure-trove of other artists’ master recordings including: Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Billie Holliday’s recordings for Decca. Also lost were masters by Etta James, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, REM, No Doubt, Sheryl Crow, Nirvana, the Eagles, the Police, Sting, Janet Jackson, George Strait, Aerosmith, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Diamond, B.B. King, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, the Weavers, Mama Thornton, the Four Tops, Benny Goodman, Joan Baez, and probably thousands of other musicians.

Why didn’t we hear about this terrible loss of our musical heritage? The record company that owned the tapes had stored them in a warehouse on a movie-studio lot. In their official statements after the fire, the record company downplayed their losses and stated that no master tapes were lost in the fire. Of course, the loss of a master tape is an incalculable one. In the early years, record companies thought of master tapes as a money-out-the-door issue since storing them safely and archiving them for retrieval cost money. They did not fully understand the inherent value of the master tapes. It was only decades later when recording technology progressed far enough where original recordings could be used to create pristine versions of the artist’s work that were actually better than when the original recording was released on vinyl.

The tension between accumulating money versus artistic creativity, getting rich versus aesthetic beauty is one I have been thinking a lot about lately as I have been driving around my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. I have been cursing as I see new apartment complexes going up near downtown Knoxville, most of them meant for university students not for long-term housing and the lack of aesthetics goes along with it. These new buildings look like manufactured housing with facades of a little bit of brick here and there to spiff it up.

All the buildings I see share a common theme: a small amount of brick edifice, and a great deal of cheaper material that is not made to last or look beautiful. Just one time I would like to see new construction in my hometown that is awe inspiring, aesthetically pleasing, and worthy of note. Just one time. The old buildings at the University of Tennessee have the fine architectural details around their windows and doors, railings with decorative filigree, form married beautifully with function.

Snow on the University of Tennessee campus in 1934–showcasing an elegant building with its defined and glorious details.

Buildings that are graceful and elegant, that will stand the test of time are really not what we build here in Knoxville–maybe in America–anymore. Before I was born, public buildings, hotels, banks, and other businesses were designed with distinction and built by bricklayers with old-quality construction and craftsmanship. I guess that quality and craftsmanship got lost somewhere around the time people began to be called employees instead of workers. If you are an employee, you are one that is being acted upon by your employer, you do not own the action. If you are a worker, you own the action, you produce the work. The words we use to describe things are subtle, yet they are powerful. I would much rather be a worker than an employee.

Maybe the word worker became too closely identified with Communism in the wake of World War II as the Soviet Union gobbled up country after country in its quest for as much of Europe as it could take. I don’t know. It would seem obvious to me that Communism lost out in its competition with Capitalism somewhere back in the Reagan-Gorbachev years. Maybe that’s why Putin is trying to regain Russia’s lost glory and build another empire in the world today. But Russia is not exactly known for its innovation as America has been known in the past.

Some of the best things about what it means to be American have inspired people around the world: especially through our music such as in the blues and rock and roll, both steeped in African roots. Because we are a country populated with an amalgam of different people from all over the world, our music was stirred together with bits and pieces of magic from musical traditions from all around the world.

Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly.
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly clowning in a photo booth in the late 1950s. Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly’s band in 1959 was suppose to be on the plane that crashed killing Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. He gave up his seat to the Big Bopper because he had a bad cold.

Certainly Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, born during the Great Depression in Lubbock, Texas, wanted to make money in the music business. But what drove him was not to be an employee of a record company, waiting for a songwriter to write him a hit record, a public relations man to tell him how to dress and act, and a producer to make his music sound like what other musicians were doing. Buddy wanted to be a complete artist, write his own songs, perform them in his own idiosyncratic way with his distinctive black glasses (that he bought from an optician in Lubbock, of course!), and produce his records himself. He saw what was there and he wanted to make it better. His music, his way. So quintessentially American.

So Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, his master tapes were burned in a warehouse in California in 2011, but his music did not die. It is the music that gives us the strength and fight to go on even in our darkest times.

~ Anna 6/30/2019

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Win By Losing

In my former life of working eight-to-five, I would have given my eyetooth to sit outside on my backporch steps and simply watch it rain, hear it rain, smell it rain. I suppose when I was a working stiff I could have stared out my office window to see the rain landing on the parking lot of the administration building six floors below. But my working-woman life was ever so helter skelter. Watching the rain would have been a luxury too far, and hey, babe, don’t even think about it because remember your office windows don’t open anyway—so, get back to work!

Now I can sit out back as it rains, hear the drone of traffic in the distance, and remind myself how freeing it is to choose what I do, to smell the rain as it lands on leaves and stones, and to hear a few birds who have decided this rain is about to end.

Rain itself is dear. We have runs of it when we get way too much, then far too little. Tennessee is a land of gentle mountains that are too old to give the taller peaks a run for their money. You cocky Rocky Mountains, you traffic-jam-of mountain-climbers Mount Everest, you erupting volcano Mount St. Helen’s. Over here in the slow lane, we can watch it rain.

I’ve been musing about losing for a few years now. Being a thinking woman on this planet has given me advanced field study in the fine points of losing. Points of reference:

Live? Love? Leave?
  • The sociopathic first husband who stalked me for 8 years after our divorce.
  • Being sexually harassed at work by my boss’s boss, but when the man (finally) leaves to take another job, becoming the target of his enemies.
  • Being forced to retire a year after being awarded an outstanding employee award for helping my employer raise $1 billion.
  • Watching the loser of the popular vote win the Electoral College in 2016, and my father die three weeks later. And finding that the greater tragedy was the former rather than the latter because Daddy is now out of pain and suffering and our country and world is not.

Recently I have found solace in the truth and wisdom of the book I bought for my nephew who has embarked on a new job. Despite its title, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, this is a book to be reckoned with. Its author Mark Manson parses what is important in life from the dregs of what is not.

An impromptu “floral” display at a London Underground station.

Look, this is how it works. You’re going to die one day. I know that’s kind of obvious, but I just wanted to remind you in case you’d forgotten. You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked.

Excerpt From
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Mark Manson

Hello, World. I am Anna, and I have been giving a f*ck about way too much that has not been worth my time.

However, in my stead has always been my Daddy’s hard-fought wisdom that little things mean a lot. And he underlined the importance of it in his sentimental 1950’s generation way, by playing us the 45 rpm record Little Things Mean A Lot by Kitty Kallen, and, of course, we—Daddy, my sister, and I—all sang it together. Loudly.

Another Kitty, Cadi Kitty exploring the bedside lamp.

Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I’m not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot

Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you’re far away
Little things mean a lot
Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls
Champagne, sables or such
I never cared much for diamonds and pearls
‘Cause 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
Send me the warmth of a secret smile 
To show me you haven’t forgot
For always and ever, now and forever
Little things mean a lot

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
Send me the warmth of a secret smile 
To show me you haven’t forgot
That always and ever, now and forever
Little things mean a lot

Songwriters: Carl Stutz / Edith L Calisch
Little Things Mean a Lot lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Mark Manson reminded me of my core belief in little things when he wrote:

You will have a growing appreciation for life’s basic experiences: the pleasures of simple friendship, creating something, helping a person in need, reading a good book, laughing with someone you care about.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? That’s because these things are ordinary. But maybe they’re ordinary for a reason: because they are what actually matters.

Excerpt From
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Mark Manson

What matters? In the grand tradition of my father’s ranking of important things (such as movies and people instead of money and material things), my husband Kurt and I took our 19-month-old grandson for his first ever experience in a movie theater. The movie? An hour-long classic set of Bugs Bunny cartoons at Knoxville’s only independent theater, Central Cinema . . . and it’s within walking distance of our home.

Rain, movies, smiling into the eyes of my grandchildren, learning how to say no to what is not important in lieu of what is. And I have never been good at saying no.

So yes, I have been losing all my life, but I have also been winning. I have been extraordinary and I strive to be ever-so (in the way of little things and tiny humans) ordinary. To the wee ones—and to the wee one in us all.

~ Anna // 5-31-2019

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Secrets: An Inheritance

If it wasn’t thought, it wasn’t so. If it wasn’t spoken, it hadn’t happened. Except that secrets, particularly the most deeply held ones, have a way of leeching into everything surrounding them.

~ Dani Shapiro, Inheritance
The late afternoon sunlight through the shutters in our bedroom.

I am constantly reminded of how critical light is, not only to our lives–let’s face it, we need the sun to exist–but to our imaginations, our creative process, our mental and emotional well-being, and the health of our relationships with those closest to us.

In my family, as in the author Dani Shapiro’s family, withholding truths about the past and never speaking about one’s feelings was as integral to our existence as breathing. Mama never explained the complicated relationships in her father’s extended family; she just said, “Papaw has half brothers and stepbrothers.”

In my white-bread, no-one-ever-gets-divorced, 1960s childhood, I had no idea what half brothers or stepbrothers meant. No one I knew had them. What did they mean? Papaw had a “full” brother who lived two doors down from him on the same street as my grandparents, yet I never saw the two of them together when I was a child. Mama took us to Woolworth’s 5 & 10 (my parents pronounced it five and dime) store where Papaw’s sister Vera worked as a Woolworth’s lady, but we never saw her or her family at holidays. And I only met Papaw’s mother two times that I can remember. The few times I saw them I was struck by how sweet, loving, and kind Papaw’s mother and his sister were.

One year old me with my Papaw

Mama did not explain Papaw’s lack of connection with his family until many years later when I was an adult and even then the information she shared was in disparate dribs and drabs.

I learned that my grandfather’s family was torn in two when his mother got pregnant with another man’s child at the same time that his sister, who never married, was pregnant as well. Papaw, who was probably a teenager and the eldest in his family, left home with his father and never completely reconciled with the rest of his family. I imagine my grandfather felt shame, anger, resentment, grief and loss. For decades he acted as if his mother, sister, and brothers did not exist.

Papaw segregated himself from the family members he judged harshly; he refused to associate with the ones who had, in his reckoning, sinned and come short of the glory of God. Although he could repair any machine or appliance, built most of his own house, kept bees, farmed, was the bulwark of his church, and could be kind to those in need of his help, he also could be a hard man–hard as the Tennessee marble he quarried to make a living when my mother was a child.

Riding a bike at a church youth outing, around 1972.

Talking about feelings was just not done in Mama’s family. My father’s family was the same, but worse, since his mother died when he was 4 months old and the grandmother who reared him died when he was only 5. He grew up with alcoholism, neglect, and abuse, so dodging slings and arrows not talking about feelings was the best Daddy could hope for.

My sister and I found our way by binding together as we navigated the slippery narrows of our family’s meandering ways. Not for us the open communication, not for us the answers to simple questions.

For the author and memoirist Dani Shapiro, she discovered in middle age that the beloved father she adored, and felt closer to than her mother, was not her biological father. Her parents had sought the help of a pioneering fertility “specialist” who helped low-sperm-count men by mixing their sperm with donations from sperm donors who were usually medical students. The true biological father could be masked behind a Russian roulette of possibility. For Dani she was devastated that no one in her family had told her the truth about her birth.

Isn’t it often the way that it is as much the hiding of it as the cataclysmic event that destroys the soul. If humans could bury their secrets in their backyards as they do their pets, leave them there and move on, the damage would be less. But secrets held and hidden, pushed down and denied, are like cancerous tumors that grow larger, infect healthy tissue, and kill. So much better to remove the tumor when it is small, before it grows, metastasizes, and destroys.

I have many friends who were sexually abused as children or adolescents by members of their family or extended family. I was sexually abused by a neighborhood boy when I was 5 years old. I have always diminished my abuse because it was with a stick instead of with his penis, but was it different? I have always thought so. At least he was not a family member or a clergyman, which would have been even more of a violation.

If I had been a member of a family who talked openly about unpleasant things, would I have been able to talk about what happened to me? Would I have told my mother and found a way to think it that did not feel as if it was my fault for being so compliant and not screaming and running? Maybe. Perhaps. At least I would not have been alone with my pain and guilt and shame.

In reality, if I had found a way to tell Mama–who came from her own home of shame and denial–I would have found my shame multiplied and magnified as she blamed me too. Shame in the shadows was the way in my family–as was for the majority of children I grew up with it and as it continues now in the 21st Century.

The sunlight of the truth is my answer. Speaking honestly what has been happened or is happening–as much as possible–has been my way since I became old enough to speak the unpleasant truths in my family. But let it not be said that a family truth teller’s road is an easy one or easily defined. Some truths are especially messy. It always seems easier to deny them, especially when the secrets have been denied for years. Toxic secrets in the Catholic Church, nasty big and little secrets in our federal government, poisonous secrets choking the life out of families across the country and the world.

Drain the cesspools of the soul. Speak when you are able. Write your story and share it, even if you are not fully heard–at least you are not alone with your pain.

~ Anna – 4/30/2019

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Creativity, Family, Home, Writing | Leave a comment

The Sights & Signs of London

My husband Kurt and I returned Friday from London—the historic city that is roiling with the unanswered question of how the United Kingdom can maneuver itself from membership in the European Union and not wreck its economy. The jury remains out on Britain’s future as the clock ticks down and British politicians point fingers and live in denial. They have two weeks to come up with something remotely resembling a plan to go forward.

The day we left London, March 29, 2019, was slated to be the day Britain left the EU. Instead the United Kingdom, Europe, and the rest of the world wait for a Brexit solution.

Meanwhile in the streets, the Tube (the subway) and the pubs of London, life goes on. Here are the signs of the times as we found them in London last week.

//Anna ~ 3/31/2019

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The Best of Knoxville

I am a native Knoxvillian who has lived here all my life, except for the three years I lived in Ft. Worth. I have also traveled with my husband to many far-flung places around the country and world, such as Alaska, Antwerp, Bruges (a picturesque city that still has the cobbestoned streets and village square from its 14th-Century heyday), Brussels, and Knokke in Belgium; Cairo (and other historic sites in Egypt); Austin; Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver in Canada; Costa Rica; Houston; London; Mexico City and historic sites in Mexico; New York City; Paris and the South of France; Puerto Rico; Rio de Janeiro; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Seattle, and St. Martin in the Caribbean. Phew! So, I know a thing or two about a good meal and a good deal.

What parts of Knoxville reach to the national and international levels of interest? Here are a few that will not disappoint visitors and natives alike. And, by the way, all of these are locally or regionally owned businesses.

Best Dinner Restaurant: Kefi

This new Mediterranean restaurant in Knoxville is simply the finest: innovative drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), delicious food, and an atmosphere to die for. Just the best of the best. Not only are the staff knowledgable and fabulous, there are many gluten-free and vegetarian options, and the menu states clearly which dishes are safe for patrons with dietary restrictions to order.

Photos taken in Kefi on December 28, 2018, and February 2019.

Best Lunch or Dinner Restaurant for a Quick, Delicious Meal: Yassin’s Falafel House

Not only is the food amazing at this Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery, this family-owned restaurant has become a phenomenon that has been heralded nationally. In October 2018, Yassin’s was named the Nicest Place in America by Reader’s Digest magazine and announced by host Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America television show.

Located in Downtown Knoxville, Yassin’s was started in 2014 by Yassin Terou, a Syrian immigrant who, along with his wife and two daughters, fled his home country.

In announcing the award to Yassin’s on national television, Bruce Kelley, chief content officer for Reader’s Digest said,

Everyone who hears his story and the story of the shop is moved, from the customers that nominated him, separately multiple customers nominated him, to us editors that vetted him, to the judges and to the Knoxvillians we talked to who said he has changed Knoxville. He has made this a better place. This is an important guy.

In response, Yassin said,

Yassin’s is a place where you can come and feel safe and feel welcome because we love everyone around this world.

Yes, it’s an honor; but America is the winner; Knoxville is the winner; Tennessee is the winner. When he sent you [speaking to Robin Roberts about her visit to Knoxville], I say this prayer to everyone around this country. What makes us a winner is the people in this country, not us. So thank you very much.

Yassin has opened a second location for of thriving business. Besides the original location at the corner of Walnut Street and Church Street (at 706 Walnut), Yassin’s also serves its delicious and economical food, at 159 N. Peters Road in West Knoxville. Yassin’s has many gluten-free and vegetarian options to please those with dietary restrictions. And the staff are soooo welcoming and friendly.

Best Garden Center: Stanley’s Greenhouse

Stanley’s was founded with one greenhouse in 1955 by Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley on the family farm that had been in the Davenport-Stanley family since the early 1800s. At first the family was one of Knox County’s biggest wheat producers, then they began growing produce and cutflowers to sell on downtown Knoxville’s Market Square.

What began with one greenhouse is now over 190,000 square feet, with the addition of the 36,000-square-foot retail center opened in 2001. Stanley’s Greenhouse has won numerous local awards as this region’s favorite source for everything to do with successful gardening: trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, outdoor and indoor decor, containers, gardening tools, soil, soil conditioners, and fertilizers.

The family grows poinsettias, pansies, perennials, annuals, and roses on the family farm; supports local artisans; and partners with local charities such as the The Pat Summitt Foundation, The Ronald McDonald Charities of Knoxville, as well as a host of educational and community organizations.

Gardeners come from West Virginia, Washington, DC, North Carolina, Nashville, and all over East Tennessee to get their plants, trees, and shrubs from Stanley’s.

Best Ice Cream Shop: The Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain

An old-fashioned soda fountain on Gay Street, Knoxville’s main street downtown, the Phoenix Fountain makes it own ice cream in house–and what a delight it is! Our favorite is the peppermint stick ice cream the owner makes for the winter season.

Best Shopping: Mast General Store

Mast General Store has been in Knoxville since August 2006. It truly is a general store selling everything from outdoor wear, old-fashioned candy, clothes for the entire family to regional decor, candles, shoes, and kitchenware.

The prices are good, the employees are friendly, and the down-home style has been a perfect fit for Knoxville’s small town-city vibe. At Christmas the store’s friendly manager was wrapping presents near the front door for Juvenile Diabetes. I know this because she wrapped several beautifully appointed packages for me!

Best Coffee Shop/Bakery/Lunch Spot: Wild Love Bakehouse

Three or four days a week–sometimes daily–we go into Wild Love Bakehouse for lunch or a hot or cold beverage. My husband Kurt and I are tea drinkers, but folks the coffees, lattes, and espressos are a work art too!

Wild Love is nearly always full because the soup and a huge array of bake goods are made fresh every morning by the owner and her staff of amazing pastry magicians. Each day the offerings are slightly different. Besides the amazing soup (with a crusty side bread), Wild Love offers a rotating variety of tarts, cookies, croissants, foccacia tartlets, cookies, gluten-free peanut oatmeal bars–and occasionally, the most creative salads I have seen in Knoxville.

Wild Love Bakehouse: the best coffee house, lunch, and bakery combination in Knoxville.

The tea is made fresh to order, hot or cold, with Rishi loose tea. I have them add some honey to mine, and it is divine!

And the staff are all young, friendly, and just fantastically welcoming. Wild Love has only been open a few years, but they are already a go-to location. For the late lunch and early dinner eaters, they are open on Sundays and till 6:00 p.m.!

The owners of Wild Love also have a sister location downtown, called Pearl on Union. Pearl has the same great baked goods and creative food within easy strolling distance of Knoxville’s Market Square.

Best Indoor Recreation: Maple Hall

A few years ago Maple Hall debuted as a brand-spanking new bowling alley, bar, eatery, and all-around fun urban experience in Downtown Knoxville’s historic JC Penney Building–and it is nearly next door to the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain. How convenient!

In 2013 Maple Hall’s visionary owners worked with a creative team of engineers, architects, designers, and contractors to reimagine a portion of the JC Penney Building as a hip bowling alley with good food, an extensive bar, an upstairs game room, and a relaxed, exposed-brick interior. Maple Hall is Knoxville most fun indoor playground.

You can’t go wrong in any of these Knoxville landmarks–and all of them are in Downtown Knoxville or within a quick 5 minute drive. Enjoy, the best that Knoxville has to offer.

~ Anna – 2/28/2019


Posted in Food, Gluten free, Joy (Joie de General), Knoxville, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blooming Out of Season

Nearly a decade ago I planted two camellias in container pots just outside the front door of our home. I never thought they would live for long–in containers, mind you– in the mercurial climate of East Tennessee. But my sister, Lisa Stanley of Stanley’s Greenhouse, who is an expert on plants that will grow in the Tennessee Valley near our Great Smoky Mountains, assured me the camellias would grow and “bloom in January when nothing else is in bloom”.


Well, my sister was right. Besides my winter-hardy violas, nothing else seemed alive when the camellias bloomed with drops of rain on their faces.

January is the hardest time of the year for me–and many of my friends. Bleak, dark, nothing much going on, depressing. And then the miracle–for that is what it seems like every year–of white camellias with their winter-rose-like blooms.

I assumed camellias were tropical flowers that could only be seen in equatorial climes–like the gardenias over the ear of Billie Holiday in that classic photo of the peerless Lady Day, the most unique and finest jazz singer of them all. The way she phrased a song, ever-changing and ever new, was second to none–except perhaps the sublime Nat King Cole, who made every note a revelation.

Billie Holliday images

I read Billie’s biography which, even though it was written with her participation, has been dismissed as having little relationship to the realities of her too-short life. No matter the exact details, Billie undoubtedly lived her songs, you can see it in her eyes, you can hear it in her unmistakable voice.

According to Holiday’s friend and fellow jazz singer Carmen McRae, Billie’s signature look of wearing gardenias in her hair came about by accident. While curling her hair before a performance, Billie badly burned a section of hair and McRae ran out to find something to cover the injury. Voila, she found some a sprig of gardenias and a classic look was born.

Holiday bloomed in a time when even the most famous and talented black musicians were not welcome in restaurants, hotels, public restrooms, or the parts of town frequented by white folks. Unfathomable.

The Nat King Cole Trio.
Ad on page 187 of Billboard 1944 Music Yearbook [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I watched the riveting documentary Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark  on Netflix. Director Jon Brewer interviewed Cole’s second wife Maria Ellington Cole and had access to Cole’s journals and family video footage that has never been made public before.

Just like Billie Holiday, Cole was a singular, once in a lifetime talent. whose  life was cut short. Beside his trailblazing television show and acting in Hollywood movies, Cole performed across the country and in the glitziest Las Vegas hotels and showrooms to mostly white audiences. The documentary recounts that Cole was the headliner on Vegas marquees, yet he was not welcome to stay at the hotels where he performed.  He was forced to travel outside the city to hotels where “colored” people stayed. Nat’s friend and fellow crooner Frank Sinatra was furious about these “just-the-way-we-do-things” Jim Crow rules that were enforced not only in the South, but were widespread in many areas throughout the country.

Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Photo: legends 24×36 Poster by Silverscreen,

Sinatra let it be known that if Nat Cole was not welcome to perform and stay in these Las Vegas hotels, then neither would he perform or stay there. The Vegas hotels did not want to risk losing Sinatra, so they changed their policies. I have never understood such racism that was rampant in the early and mid 20th Century and continues in too many ways to this day.

Curiously to my mind, some of the most wonderful, lively, amazing music was created in the 1930s and ’40s. When the Great Depression slapped people down and World War II brought unspeakable misery and oppression to most of the world. The millions who died quickly in battle were perhaps the lucky ones, certainly luckier than the poor souls in concentration camps: the Jews, Poles, academics, homosexuals, and anyone who tried to help them or attempted to fight Fascism.

In my experience, the best art seems to flourish in hard times. And people who have known hard times carry it always somewhere inside. People who have truly lived the bleakness of winter of the soul, can bring it forth when they sing or write about love, heartache, farming a few acres and a third goes to the bank, or the deaths of tiny children or women in childbirth. But the art from the hard times lives on and breathes.

My adorable grandson Lincoln discovers himself in a mirror: Here’s looking at you, kid!

For me, it’s hard to get through January, February, March, and (what they say is the cruelest month, perhaps because it raises your expectations, then dashes them) April, so I reprint here 10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy, from the Winter 2009 Yes! magazine.

  1. Savor everyday moments that you would normally hurry through
  2. Avoid comparing yourself to others and instead focus on your own achievements
  3. Put material things low on your priority list; their satisfaction is fleeting
  4. Have meaningful goals since we require a sense of meaning to thrive
  5. Take initiative at work or home; it makes life more rewarding and you feel more in control
  6. Take the time to invest in close relationships and treasure your family
  7. Smile even when you don’t feel like it; happy people see possibilities
  8. Say thank you as if you mean it, write notes, express gratitude for people who have made a difference in your life
  9. Get out and exercise; it can be very effective in treating depression
  10. Give it away; give it away now! Do whatever you can to help others, and you get more health benefits than exercise: listen to a friend, help a neighbor, celebrate the successes of others, pass on your skills, donate to a cause you believe in

loreena b:w girl dancing

I would add that we should dance and play because there is far too little of that!

Yes, I know what you are thinking. We are caught in a polar vortex of Trumpian proportions. Our government doesn’t work; our planet is in jeopardy. I am no Pollyanna–although I did read the book when I was a girl. Not everything works out. Life is hard. People in power and people in everyday lives can be cruel, difficult, and impossible to understand or navigate. But I find meaning and happiness living with an open heart to the people I meet and the people I care about–with gratitude for the good and beautiful things and the small, wonderful things. I try in every way possible to make a difference in the lives of others. To make things better. It is the bane of my existence to chase the illusive better.

the hotel new hampshire cover

This way of living gives my life meaning and helps me to, as John Irving so eloquently put in in his 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire (as well as the movie that followed three years after), “keep passing those open windows”.

My aspiration is to be gracious as Lord Tennyson writes in the final lines of his poem The Lady of Shalott and as the incredible musician and Celtic-song-goddess Loreena McKennitt sings in her song of the same name:

lorrena windows

But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

I ask for Grace in the New Year–and all the years thereafter. And aspire always to bloom out of season.

~ Anna — 1/31/2019

[This blogpost was originally posted on January 16, 2013. Today I rewrote and added my thoughts in the light of our current situation in 2019. It is amazing how six years have changed our country and the world so much–and yet so little.]

Posted in Autobiographical, Backyard Nature, Beauty, Blooming, Dance, Happiness, Ideas, John Irving, Music, Op/Ed Thoughts, Stage, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments