Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day 179/365 A Thanksgiving Story...with apologies to Truman Capote

This is a Thanksgiving story like no other -involving hot dogs, woodburning pot-belly stoves, roaming buffalo, a high school prom gown, and a Nascar hat.....and West Virginia.

Are you thinking there's no way I can wrap all that into a coherant story?

Watch me.

The background.....

Appalachia, Christmas 1955. That's me in the middle, tasting my uncle's finger. More pertinent to this story, that's my favorite cousin, Pete, on the right. He's insisting to one of my parents that, yep, the baby sure does love moonshine!

Fast forward to Christmas 1960. Me n' Pete. No idea what we were up to, but whatever it was, no good came of it. At some point, he had decided I was actually his little sister, rather than his cousin, thereby taking up the burden of teaching me about life.

Pete's graduation picture, 1968. More than a few disillusioning years later.

The suit was borrowed from our granddaddy, and the sleeves are too short. The flower in the buttonhole was bright red and this is the only time I ever saw him in Sunday clothes. Pete had ears like my granddad's, rolled his cigarettes up in his sleeve, and loved Elvis and fast cars more than life. Later this day after graduation, he would take me out to teach me how to drive (I was 13). He figured the best way to do this was on a twisty, mountain road, after dark. There may have been more moonshine involved. All I remember is him saying "just because there's an brake don't mean you have to use it."

I don't feel free to go into all the details of his life - he got the short end of the stick, actually the short end of several sticks. He consistently made poor decisions, and I have several letters he wrote me from prison. And once he got a extra-long car-carrier tractor trailer stuck in an S-switchback curve on the backside of Hungry Mother State Park, which,in retrospect, was clearly posted "No Tractor Trailers", but, hey, he thought he could make it.

In spite of all that, and maybe because of it, he was always my most beloved cousin. He was the sort that would always be there for me, no matter what. He was the one who always did something outrageous, and many times, probably illegal. I can still hear him saying "That's my baby cousin!"

So in 1997, a few days before our first Thanksgiving back in Virginia, my favorite cousin Pete died.

It was sudden. He had lung cancer that was trumped by a massive heart attack at the breakfast table.

Being Pete, he completely upstaged Thanksgiving Day with his funeral and everyone had to drop their normal Turkey Day plans to travel to West Virginia for the services.

The Paint Bank General Store was the only place to eat between Roanoke and Gap Mills. This is the new,improved version. Thanksgiving 1997 was several years before this version was available.

The general store had wooden floors with a pot-belly stove, the original display cases with dusty piles of faded merchandise, 1970's postcards, and the worst hot dogs I have ever eaten. It was a glorified bait shop.

Note*Someone has since purchased it and performed a miracle. It has a proper restaurant, and wonderful food, and is well-worth the trip. Not sure if they still carry bait.

From the general store, there is only one road to Gap Mills. It is lined with buffalo. Live buffalo.

Large buffalo. Large buffalo that come right on up to the side of the car. They do not care if you are funeral-bound. They do not care that you are in a car, or possibly, that you exist at all. They are buffalo. Very very large buffalo.

Driving around the buffalo, we eventually arrived in Gap Mills. There are only two streets, therefore we only made one mistake before we found the correct road to the church. This particular church has sat in these West Virginia hills since the 1800's, and its most sophisticated feature was the doorway. Inside, there were eight pews on either side framing a potbelly stove that provided meager warmth. The carpeting was faded and worn, and the original oil lamps still hung on the walls between the windows.

Various family members were there, including one aunt who was there hoping for nothing more than good food afterwards, the other cousins who weren't on speaking terms with Pete when he died (they may have been hoping for a meal too), four out of five of Pete's step-children (the fifth is in the service in Germany) and their mother (Pete's current and third wife), plus his first and second wives.

The remaining pews were filled with either friends or extended family of one of the wives, including several men in flannel shirts and a couple in ill-fitting black dress suits, more than a few women in blue jeans, and one woman in a pink-sequined floor-length prom dress.

Pete was laid out in a long-sleeve shirt, jeans and his favorite NASCAR baseball hat with his pouch of chewing tobacco tucked in the casket, right where he could reach it when he needed it.

When everyone else thinks of a Thanksgiving with a beautifully basted turkey, cranberry sauce, and an elegant tablesetting, I think of buffalo, hot dogs and pink prom gowns.

And my much-missed, favorite cousin, who has now left the building, and left it much emptier than I ever imagined it could be.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day 176/365 Angels on the Head of A Pin

There are a handful of pivotal days in history-those days where entire cultures remember where they were and events as they unfolded: the news of the firing of Fort Sumter and four years later the assassination of Lincoln, the assassination of President Garfield, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and of course the assassination of John Kennedy.

Those events are so huge, so looming, that it's always surprising to find out that other things happened throughout history on that day as well.

On November 22:

Blackbeard the pirate died in 1718

Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890

The SOS distress signal was officially adopted in 1906 (just six years before the Titanic would use it to no avail)

The Beatles White Album was released in 1968

The Concorde began flying between New York and Europe in 1977

Mae West died in 1980

Margaret Thatcher resigned

There is no mass cultural memory that recalls where we were when Mae West died, or what it was like when the first Concorde took off.

Television and the internet have made it easier to create mass cultural memories. Events like Columbine stand out in most American's memories (except for one 20-something in my daughter's English class, who was completely lost when another student's paper on "Columbine" was read. She kept whispering "What's Columbine????" Some people will always be oblivious to the life around them).

Meanwhile as the "touchpoint" generation for each of these events ages and passes on, all we have is the written or recorded memory. There are no living witnesses to the Civil War and World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1000 a day. In forty years, almost all of the generation who were children when John Kennedy was assassinated will be dead.

When the primary witnesses to history are gone -the ones that lived it or witnessed it, or felt the immediate impact, the touchpoint is gone. The event passes into the pages of history, and recedes from human memory, make it easier to re-write history to achieve momentary goals of politicians and businessmen.

At some point in the future, perhaps the CIA will feel safe enough to release the almost one million pages of records it has retained on the Kennedy assassination, before someone decides to destroy and re-write the historical record.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Day 175/365 All the News in Black and White

I think November 22, 1963 set the tone for the rest of my life.

Ever since then, I've never accepted the government's explanation for much of anything, from a parking ticket to the war in Iraq. That day was the beginning of my distrust of any "official"

And it was the only time I ever saw a teacher slap a student.

We were sitting in third grade and Stephanie had been sent to the principal's office with some note or the other. She came back and said no one would take her note, that they were listening to the radio. No-nonsense Mrs. Parnham insisted that was silly, and Stephanie said the principal told her the president had been shot. And Mrs. Parnham slapped her, and said that was a horrible thing to say and she shoud be ashamed of ever saying something that awful.

It was only the first in a long line of awful things that week.

Being that my school was in Lousiania, Catholic bastion that it was (is?), the Kennedy's were very popular there. Our school was dismissed immediately while the parochial school on the side of the playground fence was hurrying to mass to pray. The nuns had tears running down their faces with handkerchiefs clutched in their hands, and the kids looked as confused as we were.

I found my mother sitting in front of the TV, crying, while Walter Cronkite fought to keep his composure. Dinner that night was a peanut butter sandwich because no one could tear themselves away from the TV screen.

Dad came home early from work, and while watching the evening news, I heard him say "Johnson finally did it." Later, when it was discovered that Oswald had been living in New Orleans, it was almost impossible not to jump to the conclusion that the mob had something to do with the assassination. After all, it was a long-standing tradition in New Orleans that the mob had something to do with everything.

I had been given a new scrapbook several weeks before and still wasn't sure exactly what I was suppose to put in it. Pretty photos of nature? Interesting animals? That weekend I put my first picture on page one: a grainy black and white newspaper photo of the riderless horse with the stirrups turned backwards as it followed the cassion in John Kennedy's funeral.

While I glued it in place, the TV ran in the background, the sound of those drums permanently sticking in my memory.

For someone my age, in 1963, the president was still The President, the only guy bigger than your Dad. The government was trustworthy, and Americans were good people. Bad things didn't happen to our country -we had the good life.

It was literally earth-shattering to have a president assassinated. Coming a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was terrifying, particularily living in southern Louisiana, well within range of Cuban missiles. As young as I was, the assassination was much worse than 9-11. It was a very personal event, as if a family member had been lost.

Someone pulled the rug out from under us, our world was shaken and turned upside down,and life shifted into black and white, with nothing quite ever again as it had been.

As it turned out, it was just the beginning -the top of the hill before a very, very long descent.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 174/365 Health Care, 1887 Style

When a person finally gets around to researching their family history, it's with the assumption that whatever ancestors they find, they will like. Funny anecdotes and charming stories will abound, and the ancestors will be, for the most part, upstanding citizens and people one would be proud to be descended from.

Logically of course this cannot be true for everyone. What about the family that is more complicated, with accomplishments and lofty endeavors that, for the most part, make their descendants proud - with the exception of one glaring event that seems, well, not admirable, not easily understood, and, at best, not explainable?

The young Civil war soldier above is my great-great grandfather, Robert Crutchfield Green. The day this was taken, April 16, 1861, he was in his hometown of Marion,Virginia. It was four days after Fort Sumter had been fired on, and the day after Virginia voted for secession. This photo was taken by a traveling photographer who saw a profitable window open when he set up his cameras inside the Marion railroad depot. Over a hundred young soldiers departed that day to join the Stonewall Jackson Brigade, the first troops to travel by railroad. The train transported the "Smythe County Blues" to Richmond, and then further on to Bull Run,Virginia, where my grandfather would be injured, recouperating during the winter of 1861, only to return to fight for four years until the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomatox in 1865, one of only nine surviving soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade.

Upon his return, he married my great-great-grandmother, college-educated Adeline Virginia Magruder, granddaughter of Patrick Magruder, the second Librarian of Congress. Robert Green defnitely married up. His marriage to my great-great-grandmother opened doors for him. Even when I was growing up (100 years later), she was still referred to as being from the "Virginia Magruders".

Robert and Addie married, remained in southwestern Virginia and enjoyed being the big fish in the little pond. They eventually had three daughters and one son. The son never amounted to all that much, but the daughters all became school teachers, eventually marrying a doctor, a successful businessman, and the last, Josephine Ellen Green, married a prosperous landholder, becoming my great-grandmother.

But I've jumped ahead in the story. This is Robert in 1886, twenty years after the War, aged considerably by it. He will live until 1916, traveling to veteran reunions, living with his daughters, serving as postmaster, but never speaking of the War, until his deathbed, when he will dictate his experiences in great detail as if they had happened the day before, to be written down by his best friend.
This is my great-grandmother, Robert and Addie's daughter, Josephine Ellen Green. She is approximately 18 years old, and the year is 1887.

Josie has just been sent to her Magruder relatives in Columbus,Mississippi, to attend the Female Academy. In a longstanding tradition of the Magruder family (one that has been passed down through the years), she will become the next in a long line of college educated women. At the age of 18, she has traveled from her home in the Virginia mountains, attended college in Mississippi,and the following summer (1888), she will return home to Virginia by way of the western frontier of Chillicothe, Missouri, where she will visit more Magruder relatives.

Fast forward 74 years.

This is Josie, at age 94, standing next to her mother's (Adeline Virginia Magruder Green) gravestone. That's how long it took her to find it.

For the first twenty-two years of their marriage, Robert and Addie raised children, built houses, and prospered. In 1887, Robert had Addie committed to the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Marion, Virginia. It was brand-new, a huge brick Gothic much-touted state of the art facility with "large rooms to contain the insane". Addie was one of the "charter" group of nine patients, those lucky enough to be admitted quickly.

Although I have Robert's letters from this period, and those of his daughter as she attended college and traveled around the county, and those of another daughter, and even one letter from the son to his father - never, never once, do they mention Addie. There is no "I saw your mother today", or "How is mother? When will she be home?" Not once.

The Lunatic Asylum opened during the summer of 1887, with my great-great-grandmother admitted almost immediately. By August 1888, she was dead. Letters we have from this time period do not mention her death. It's as if she never existed. In a family that kept photographs of daughters, husbands, cousins, horses, dogs, and farmland, not one picture was kept of Adeline Virginia Magruder.

Having the advantage of hindsight though, I now know what Robert Green did. In late August 1888, possibly on the 25th or 26th, he traveled alone by train to Marion, Virginia from his home in Bland County. In Marion he procured a team of horses and a wagon. His wife's body was released to him on August 26. He drove the wagon loaded with her body back into Marion, and then approximately 15 miles further on, to a tiny settlement called Chatham Hill. There, he buried his wife. If he had stopped overnight, then traveled another 20 miles, he would have been home, at the family cemetary.

The little wooden church is still standing in Chatham Hill, and there is a tidy cemetary, and my great-great-grandmother's gravestone is standing on the very,very edge of it. As far from the others as possible, and completely without family.

It took 74 years of looking to find her. And even then, my great-grandmother Josie never left the information in writing. It took me several years to locate it once again.

What possessed Robert to pack his wife off to a medical facility where they were proud of attempting medical procedures that would eventually be called lobotomies? Was she suffering from dementia? Was it what we now call Alzheimer's? Was it that difficult to keep her at home, with four almost-adult children and a husband to look out for her? Or was it something else?

Why did the family abandon her there? She was completely cut off. They never visited, never wrote, never mentioned her again, and then buried her in what amounted to an unmarked grave,not in the sense of not having a stone, but by leaving her children to ferret out the burial details over the years.

Sometimes the family history turns on you, and there is simply no way to understand choices and decisions made long ago. I would like to think that the stigma of having a "demented" person in the household wouldn't be enough for them to abandon her, but that may be the simplest explanation.

Simplest perhaps, but not understandable, and certainly not the family's proudest moment.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Day 170/365 How Did We Miss This??

Apparently it's November 1st.

And somehow, some way, we have missed Halloween.

Halloween is considered the best of all holidays at our house. Christmas falls a distant second. Fourth of July is a even more distant third, and Easter isn't even on the map.

We have a garage full of decorations, in addition to a bathroom full of decorations, on account of we ran out of storage space, and decided it would be easier to use them as a decorating motif instead of packing them up. This is why we have a bathroom shelving unit that is an actual life-size coffin, and animated skeletons in our bathroom, with skull candles.

Think of it as Martha Stewart Gothic.

This is what I look like in my witch's costume.

Okay, not really, but it's incredibly similar. Sortof. At least the hat.

Every year we do costumes. We have everything from the Grim Reaper to sorceress witch to demon to highway man to Boudicia the Celtic queen (my favorite).

We've got skeletons of every persuasion: skeletons in cages, in a coffin, glowing-in-the-dark, in tuxedos, on doorknockers, hanging skeletons, tapdancing skeletons.....

To keep the skeletons company, there's a few witches, including the animatronic one we got last year. She stirs her cauldron and mutters things under her breath - and she's life-size. She keeps the lifesize mummy company - he mutters too -sounds vaguely like someone bound up with a gag trying to say: "Lemma go! Lemma go!" Mummy Boy lives year-round in my daughter's room, under the gargoyle bat hanging from the ceiling, not far from the stuffed Batcat and the bloody hand on a chain.

Our trick-or-treaters are usually fairly run of the mill as far as costumes go - lots of face paint and non-descript efforts. We attribute that to living in a small town in the South that struggles with the whole religion thing (the biggest haunted house near us is one of those "you're going to hell" church-sponsored efforts).

Our house, and our feeble attempt at decorating is the only traditional Halloween experience available in our area. Some years we have had upwards of 200 trick-or-treaters, including a church bus that pulled up and disbursed a full load of kids, looking for candy and ignoring the possibility of a detour to hell.

And for that reason, I'd like to apologize for letting you all down this year. Life being what it is, it really interfered this year and we just couldn't manage it. Of course, it rained halfway through the evening, so hopefully a lot of folks didn't waste gas stopping by the house.


Just wait till next year.