My people

Rural

THE HOLIDAY season turns a fellow’s mind to his family, his people.

For most of my life, I had people, and now I don’t. Mostly, they have died. I now have lots of Mexican people, but I don’t feel close to them. The cultural divide is vast. We do not connect.

Except my wife, of course.

My people were rural Georgia crackers. I will name them for you. There were my parents, of course, whom I called Dee and Charlie, never Mom and Dad. I don’t know why. Charlie had one sibling, Marthalyn, whom we sometimes called Marty. Dee was an only child. There weren’t many people in that generation.

I have one sister, Diane. She is a hot-tempered feminist fanatic, and I had to cease communication with her a couple of years ago to maintain my sanity. The situation severely saddens me. I also have one daughter, Celeste, who lives with her husband, Mitch, in Athens, Georgia. Her mother and I parted company when Celeste was 5, which often bodes badly for future relationships. That too grieves me.

Moving back up the people chain, there were two sets of grandparents, obviously. I called Dee’s parents Mama Powell and Papa Powell. They were great people. Papa Powell died when I was 12. Mama Powell died when I was 22. I have a photo of them hanging in the Hacienda living room, sitting in their yard on a bent-cane swing.

The Powells lived on a 500-acre farm in southwest Georgia, about a four-hour drive from Jacksonville, Florida, where I spent most of my youth. Before moving to Jacksonville at age 7, we lived with those grandparents for six years. My father raised chickens while trying to make a name for himself as a writer.

Turned out he was better at raising chickens.

The other grandparents, my father’s folks, lived north of Atlanta, in a small town called Marietta. We visited them less often because of the greater distance. There were other unspoken reasons. Being an only child, my mother was inordinately attached to her parents. And my father didn’t much care for his folks.

My father’s parents we called Mama D and Papa D. They were devoutly religious. Papa D was a Baptist deacon, and Mama D was a Methodist. Yes, they headed off to separate churches on Sunday mornings.

I sometimes would spend summer vacations with Mama D and Papa D. They would send me to Vacation Bible School, and I recall every morning at breakfast the kitchen radio would be playing gospel music. White gospel music with banjos, not the far more enthusiastic black variety.

However, both Mama D and Papa D were hard-core liberals. They voted for McGovern in 1972.

Those were my main people, mostly dead now. There were peripheral people too. Papa D’s sister, Aunt Ned, an almost life-long spinster. She may have been a lesbian because lesbianism runs rampant in my family, but back in those days, nobody much admitted it. But Aunt Ned did something unusual. In her 60s, she got married … to Mama D’s brother, Clarence. I think it was more for companionship than anything.

Unfortunately for Aunt Ned, Clarence died about two years later.

The four grandparents and Aunt Ned likely never set foot outside of Georgia except for the occasional visit to our home in Jacksonville, not far over the Georgia-Florida line. Clarence, however, served in World War I, and I remember a photo of him in his doughboy uniform. Aunt Ned worked for years in a millinery store in Marietta, and I now have an antique clock of hers on the wall at the Hacienda.

Those were my people, 99 percent dead now. And since neither my daughter nor my sister had children, there are no grandchildren, no nephews, no nieces, and never will be. I regret that a lot.

I would love to have people.

Seven decades down

family
Then

AT 4:23 AM, 70 years ago today, a scrawny, unhealthy baby was born at the Emily Winship Woodruff Maternity Center at Crawford W. Long Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

T’was I.

It was eight months before V-E Day, nearly a year before President Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and 21 days after famous firefighter Smokey the Bear appeared on the scene.

My mother was weary because I was a long time coming down the birth canal. Was my father there? I don’t know. He might have been in a bar.

I had an affliction. An intestinal valve did not work right, and I could not digest food properly. The prognosis was grim. I hung on, skinny and wan, for a couple of months until an experimental drug was first tried on me — and it worked. I’ve been digesting well ever since.

It’s strange to be this old because I feel good. I have no major health issues, and I’ve never had any. Knock on wood. My last hospitalization, for nothing serious, was over 50 years ago when I was 19. I’ve never broken even one bone. The only obvious signs of this passage of time is that my hair is white, and my energy level is not what it was 30 years ago. You do feel that.

Alexander the Great, Lord Byron, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and Jesus Christ all lived fewer years. There is some debate about the last one.

There is one quite noticeable aspect to being 70: You know it’s the end game. Oh, it might come 20 years down the road, like it did for my mother, or just five years more, like it did for my father. It could come tomorrow, and nobody would be surprised. No one would say: So young. What a shame.  Young has vanished.

This age brings a sweet calm but also a sadness, una tristeza. Many things won’t be repeated: barreling 100 miles an hour on a motorcycle down a California freeway in the middle of a cold night; bicycling the perimeter of Puerto Rico, a long-ago, unfulfilled dream; having the sole motor of an Aeronca Champ conk out at 800 feet, forcing a spiraling, white-knuckle descent to a New Orleans runway …

… speedily bolting a crib together alone at night after my wife heads to the hospital earlier than expected; having my daughter call me Daddy; visiting a Cuban dictatorship with a Mexican; visiting a Haitian dictatorship with a Frenchman; a first view of England from the seat of a DC-10; seeing notes of music dance with DNA helices over a Florida lake while listening to frog songs sung far, far away; moving to Mexico alone with two suitcases …

… getting married yet again.

Best to enjoy the calm, an uncommon sensation decades ago.

I never amounted to much, as we Southerners say, but that goes for most people. Most of us simply breathe and live. With luck, we do minor damage and some good. The most the majority of us can hope for is that we made some small difference, sometimes in the life of only one other person.


“If I can stop just one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.”


Emily Dickinson wrote that, and I believe it. The flip side is that you do not break hearts. Twice divorced, I fear I have been remiss in that.

Now*
Now*

I committed one major error. I drank too much. It went on for 25 years, from age 26 to 51. I was never a raving drunk. I never spent a night in jail. I never lost a job. I was a low-level boozer, blotting things — mostly myself — out.

I quit one sunset evening in March of 1996. I was sitting alone in the outdoor patio of a taco restaurant in Houston, Texas. It was a conscious decision.

I remember marveling at my clear-headedness. It was easy, and life made a 180-degree flip overnight. Things have been great ever since.

So I was born twice. Once in 1944 and again in 1996, so I’m not really 70 years old. I am 18, and my child bride is not really my third wife but my first. I’m just getting started.


“Death should take me while I am in the mood.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne


* * * *

* Photo by Jennifer Rose.

The fireplaces

Upstairs fireplace
Upstairs fireplace
Downstairs fireplace
Downstairs fireplace

FIREPLACES WERE a part of my childhood because we spent lots of time at Granny’s House. Actually, we lived at Granny’s House until I was almost 7 years old. There was a fireplace in every room save the bath.

After moving away — to Florida — we returned often, for decades.

There is something primal and savage about fire. It speaks to us, and warms and comforts us too. Before building the Hacienda we lived in a two-floor rental nearer downtown. There was a fireplace upstairs and down. The first year I lived there alone, not long after moving over the Rio Bravo, wondering what the devil?

It was very cold that first winter, and I would sit long spells with a coffee cup in the mornings in a chair placed quite close to the fire. I would watch those flames, which are fascinating if you pay sharp attention. If you are spectacularly alone, fire can become a dear friend. Like love, it warms you.

When we built the Hacienda, we told the headman, a stone mason among other things, that we wanted a huge fireplace downstairs made of stone. He did just that, but we would have preferred something even larger. I don’t recall now why we did not stop him in mid-work to get something bigger.

He was a stubborn old man.

See that chimney from the downstairs fireplace snaking up the wall toward the ceiling? It continues on through the second floor, also against the wall, providing an architectural touch with cornices on the floor above. The chimneys of both fireplaces are not inside the wall. Instead they abut the walls inside, not out.

I would have liked to have one of those chimneys that are so immense a person can stand inside or nearly, but what we have, especially downstairs, is pretty grand. We don’t use them much, however, but they’re great to admire.

When my Granny died in the 1980s, my parents moved to the Georgia farm and renovated the house. All of the fireplaces were covered, and central heat and air was installed. The ceilings were lowered. A new entrance was constructed. My parents were practical people, but I would have kept at least one fireplace.

Perhaps that one in the kitchen where I heated Coca-Colas on the hearth on cold mornings. Small Cracker kids sometimes do the craziest things.

Old times there are not forgotten

 

pond2

I WOULD PADDLE the unpainted rowboat alone over bream, minnows, snakes, tadpoles and trout through this water named Wavering Pond, even though it was much nearer a lake, filled with Spanish moss and tall cypress trees holding black crows that, being smart, would fly away before I could shotgun them.

It was the 1950s.

Further back, during Hoover’s Depression, my mother would swim there, leaping off a rope tied to a cypress limb. But I never entered that water because I thought it dubious, and I saw more snakes than I would have liked.

So I stuck to my boat and the paddle, just one paddle so you couldn’t really row. You poled and paddled, but since you weren’t going anywhere in a rush, that worked just fine.

Our pond rested down a rutted dirt road about a quarter mile of corn field and Hereford cows behind this house that had been in our family since the 1890s — just 30 years after the bloody war.

home

At first, as was common, the front and one side of the house was one long screened porch for sitting, free of flies, on rocking chairs with cold lemonade on summer days after dinner. And watching fireflies at night after supper. But times and styles and desires changed, and the porch was cut off, saving just this short piece.

There was an interim style, still short but with a wood banister, where my dirt-farmer grandfather would sit and prop up his long, skinny legs in Dickies pants, looking across the red-clay road that ran directly in front of the house about 18 feet away. He usually wore a stained felt fedora and a cigarette, which eventually killed him.

The cigarette, not the fedora.

garage

Shifting your gaze leftward, past a stretch of yard and a pecan tree, you would have seen this garage. They parked Fords there. It was always Fords. Even the tractors were Fords. These were my mother’s people. If you wanted Chevrolets, my father’s family was the place to visit, up north of Atlanta, almost 200 miles away.

But you never heard any fussing about it. Chevrolets versus Fords. It’s not like anybody was a Yankee.

We were all on the same squad that mattered.

These pictures were taken in the 1980s after many of us had died, including the corn, the cows and my dog named Pepper. It had changed an awful lot. Even the red-clay road out front had turned into asphalt.