The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(My annual holiday story, originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Going to Grandma’s

(Another writing workshop prompt response. This time we were challenged to write a descriptive poem evoking strong memory. We were prohibited from using adverbs.)

Small rock house nestled
in sinuous mountain bend
signals our nearness
to the place of my spirit
where my soul sings
at giggles like mountain brooks and
whiskered bearhugs scratching my face

Cuddled by layers 
of starburst quilts
through jet-black country night
awakened by wafting 
hot-biscuit aroma
like home should smell


Diamonds of dew glitter
in the green-apple morning
shadowed by blue granite spires
as old as time

Puffs of white float above
while draping branches of the ancient willow
like an antebellum ball gown
wait to enfold me


Dedicated to my inimitable giggling grandmother, Georgia Olive Stillwell Dillard.

Thirteen Ways

Every once in a while, I share something inspired by a prompt from one of my writing groups. Recently, we were challenged to compose a poem using the title of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Crow,” but inserting a noun other than crow (and writing in our own style). As usual, we were given five or ten minutes to complete the task. I composed a list poem using an image which has been close to my heart from my earliest days. (Sorry, I seem unable to set the poem to single space.)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mountain Brook

rushing water splashing over fallen boulders

minnows in shallows, trout in deeper water

salmon jumping upstream

sunbathers wading to a rocky slab

picnickers eating Vienna sausage and saltines midstream

mica-sprinkled sand under still, clear pools

glinting sunbeams

liquid life

sticks floating like tiny kayaks

soggy sneakers

frogs, algae, and water bugs

miniature lacy waterfalls

quiet water flowing over moss-covered stones

This Is a Wonderful Day

Maya Angelou said, “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this day before. In these days of still limited social activities, days can sometimes feel that they merely bleed into each other. I read a recent magazine article in which the author wrote of this very feeling, asking, “Is it Tuesday or November?”

I understand that sentiment, but it can be dangerous, so I set my mind to considering what makes each day special and unique. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, but my thoughts led me to this essay.

I never know what I’ll wake up to on our ridge. A bank of south-facing, shade-free windows greets my sleepy eyes. Will the sky be cornflower blue or gravel gray? Or will I be enshrouded by pea-soup fog so thick an unknowing person would have no idea our home is surrounded by mountains?

Will the Fraser Firs, planted so long ago as a Christmas tree crop—forgotten until they grew into sixty-foot giants—wave in the breeze as if they are dancing a graceful waltz , or will they be as still as the rocky peaks behind them? Will their branches be spring green or will they be laden with snow or frosted with ice? Will the maple leaves be green, crimson, or gone?

Will rabbits, turkey, deer, or even a bear be wandering across our meadow? Will daisies be in bloom or wild blueberries ready to become pie? Are mushrooms, chickweed, or purslane ripe for foraging? Will daffodils smile their sunny faces at me?

Will spiders have woven gossamer webs on fences? Will garden tomatoes be ready to harvest? Will robins and cedar waxwings be feasting on mountain ash berries? Will hummingbirds flutter at us through the window asking, “Well, I’ve returned, so where’s my nectar?”

Will caterpillars become butterflies today? Will hawks circle overhead as they gather to migrate? Will neighborhood crows hold a cacophonous caucus in the woods? Will I encounter a red salamander or a spade-footed toad on my morning walk? Will Jack-in-the pulpit or trillium be in bloom today?

As I begin to contemplate the never-ending possibilities awaiting me each day, I realize how important it is for me to remember this is a wonderful day. I have never seen this day before.

A few of the scenes, many of them surprises, that have greeted my sometimes weary eyes.

I’ve never seen a rainbow so low nor right in front of our mountain.
This walking stick hopped on for a free ride.
Rime ice can make for glorious scenes.
Seeing valley fog from above is pure magic.
Seen on a snowy winter day
One of the best thing about living in the mountains is the sight of native flame azaleas in June.

WINTIRFYLLITH

Now that October has come and gone–how did it happen so quickly?–here is a poem I wrote to try to capture the fullness of the tenth month of our calendar.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dscf5999.jpg
WINTIRFYLLITH* 


Golden leaf coins cascade
like heaven’s manna;
night skies sparkle
In October’s crisp air.

Sandals and shorts give way
to socks and sweats,
iced tea to hot cocoa,
salads to creamy soups.

October is county fairs
midway carnies competing for cash
Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds
cotton candy and caramel corn.

Shelves lined with glass jars
brim with summer’s vibrance
waiting to fill
winter-chilled tummies

October is bonfires,
football and camping
hotdogs and marshmallows
roasting on open flames

hootenannies and folksongs,
hand-holding lovers
blanketed on hayrides
under harvest moon;

pumpkin patches and corn mazes
sourwood honey, sweet-sour pomes
haunted house frights
and woolly worm races.

Chattering chipmunks
and scurrying squirrels
clamp tiny jaws 
’round walnuts and pecans.

Candy corn adorns 
store shelves;
ghostly creatures
embellish roofs and yards.

Smoky-sweet leaf scents 
crunched by boot-clad wanderers
perfume October air,
feed forest floors.


Costumed spirits and ghouls
crawl Halloween streets
crammed with spooky décor 
for tooth-decaying treats.

October is crow caws
craft fairs and beer fests
frosty mornings, hillside mists
a foggy Hunter’s Moon.

October is a mellow month
like cat paws and clover,
more night than day
readying us for winter’s shivers.

		--Carole Coates
		   October, 2021




*Wintirfyllith: Anglo-Saxon word for October meaning the fullness of winter, because the first full moon of winter comes in October.  



My Book Is Here!

Can I just say, with a big Whew, I have just completed my magnum opus. Let me introduce you to my newest nonfiction book, David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. And it feels a-mazing! The fabulous cover art is courtesy of the Gnome. I could not be more proud.

Now, if the title doesn’t strike you as a page turner, I get it. But let me tell you a little about it. Actually, let me share the blurb on the back cover:

How did a Depression-era boy from the mountains of western North Carolina end up as a featured performer on the New York opera stage? Multi-talented David Rae Smith could have made a success of any number of professions, but opera and musical theater stole his heart. From his first days at the University of Illinois, he was determined to make it on stage. Years of study, hard work, and downright doggedness paid off when he signed a contract with the New York City Opera, marking the beginning of a thirty-year career with the company widely known as The People’s Opera. Along the way, he starred in opera productions and musical theater throughout the United States and internationally; created his own cabaret act; sang with the famed Robert Shaw Chorale, and performed on Broadway and luxury cruises. He was featured on recordings and appeared on radio and national television. Comedy was his forte, but he could do it all.

Combining personal interviews, newspaper archives, and other historical records, the author has woven Smith’s personal story and the world of the performing arts into a narrative which should interest music and history lovers alike.

David Rae Smith, Rae as he was known to family and childhood friends, was my dad’s first cousin. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was the last of his family line, and I wanted to learn and preserve his story before it was completely lost. Turns out it was pretty interesting. In addition to relying on various print sources, I was able to dig up some of his opera colleagues and even his oldest friend from Asheville to learn about the kind of person he was as well as his professional struggles and successes. I found some old correspondence to fill in even more gaps. And I added in a number of opera anecdotes, story plots, and other historical information to create what I think makes a fascinating tale. OK, call me biased, but I stand by those words. It’s chock full of information, and I can guarantee readers will learn more than a few new things. Honest! (Bonus for those interested in Asheville history: you’ll find some little known and curious facts between the covers.)

As of this week, the book is available on Amazon.com. If you want to take a look, just be sure to type in the entire title. It may take a few days for the ‘Look Inside’ feature to be available, but if it isn’t there already it should be soon. I’d be so tickled if you choose to purchase the book. Every reader helps ensure his legacy, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you read the book, may I ask that you post a review. And many, many thanks.

Music to My Ears

 

When I wasn’t planning to be Debbie Reynolds when I grew up, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I didn’t picture myself playing so much as bowing to the standing ovations. Oh, the applause!

I began taking piano lessons when I was seven. Dad drove me to Mrs. Kennedy’s each week for my 7:15 class before the start of the school day. How I treasured my red-and-white-covered John Thompson piano books. We haven’t owned a piano for thirty years, but I think I still have one of those falling-apart books tucked away somewhere. Some things are just too precious to give up. I mostly remember “Toreador Song,” “Berceuse,” and “Spinning Song”—one of my favorites.

I was never going to make it to the concert stage. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that—I swooned over playing, but I didn’t relish practicing scales at all. Yet, my dreams were reignited the 1959 day a 33-1/3 LP of twenty-five year-old pianist Philippe Entremont playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed up in our home. Now, I could listen to Chopin all day, but I heard Entremont’s Pictures in my sleep. I sat next to our high-fidelity stereo cabinet listening for hours as my head and shoulders swayed and bounced to Mussorgsky’s rhythms. Nothing would do but to obtain the sheet music, which I practiced relentlessly. Next thing I knew I was playing at least the first movement, “Promenade,” at the recital of my new piano teacher, Katherine Saleeby. (She was very patient with me and my musical whims.) Even today, I recognize Pictures at an Exhibition after hearing only the first note.

entremont (2)Young Philippe Entremont at the piano, circa 1959

It’s like that with other pieces, too. Along with a hundred or so college classmates, I sweated through our mandated Music Appreciation class. We spent long hours in the library’s listening room, dropping the needle at random points just as our professor did for tests, hoping if we did it often enough we could identify the music by hearing a mere measure. I guess it worked because, as long as I’m familiar with a piece, it rarely takes more than a couple of notes for me to know what the next ones will be, even if I can’t call up title and composer.

Somewhere along the way, my parents’ Entremont recording disappeared. Knowing how much the music meant to me, the  Gnome spent years (way before the internet age) searching for a Pictures album. One day he surprised me with an orchestral recording. But it was not the same. Many more years later, we were lucky to score the original Entremont solo.

Several years ago, the pianist came to town, conducting (I think) the New Orleans Symphony. Of course I was there. At some point he sat down at the piano. I don’t recall what he played—not Mussorgsky, but it didn’t matter. I wept.

File:Philippe.Entremont.jpg

Philippe Entremont, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

(You can listen to the first three movements of the 1959 solo recording here.)

DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

Mom’s Life in Pictures

Well, that’s  not right. Mother’s life was much more than can be depicted in these few photographs. This is more a through-the-years photo essay–a snapshot of snapshots, limited by what has been scanned and is readily available and not in any particular order. (And unfortunately, misses her middle life altogether–maybe another time.)

Pam Dillard Coates: 10/11/1923-7/7/2020

Circa 1936–sisters (l-r) Bobbie, Jeannette, Phyllis, Mom.

Circa 1937 family photo: (front) Bobbie; (center) Mom with a teenage smirk, Grandmother, Jeannette; (back) Granddaddy, Phyllis, Bill.

1942–college sophomore photo, Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University).

1940–Mom (right) high school senior, with friends at Sylva High School.

Sometime in the early ’40s–maybe senior yearbook photo.

Braxton and Pam Coates wedding

November 14, 1944.

1945–war workers in the Secret City (Oak Ridge, TN)–standing in front of their flat top home, one of thousands  brought in by truck and lifted into place by crane, fully finished and furnished.

1946 or 47: Mom with firstborn (me) in front of her parents’ home in the Addie community, about four miles from Sylva, Jackson County, NC.

Fall, 2004: Family reunion, Asheville, NC,three months before Dad died.

 

Circa 2006–Mom basking in sunlight in front of Olympic fountain, Atlanta, GA.

Circa 2007: Mom (r) with sister Jeannette, Blue Ridge Parkway.

mom 95

October 2018–Mom’s 95th birthday.

1950–Mom flanked by my brother Alan and me. She made all the clothes, probably including Alan’s cap and my pocketbook.

November 2019 (age 96)–Mom checking out a hot-off-the-press copy of my book about her life.

Circa 2010 at home in Fairview, NC. (Thanks to brother Curt for this one. He is the BEST photographer!)

circa 1938.  Mom as a teenager standing by the rock pillars in front of her home in Beta, NC (just outside of Sylva, Jackson County)

Circa 2005. Mom at home.

Circa 1990–in the woods at home, Fairview, NC.

1924, with her siblings, cousins, and grandmother. Mother is the baby, front left, fascinated with something on the ground instead of the person behind the camera.

Circa 1939. Mom at Swannanoa 4-H camp, Swannanoa, NC.

Circa 1943. Dad and Mom courting on the mountainside at her home in Addie, NC (near Sylva, Jackson County).

 

Circa 2015. Mom and Dad’s youngest brother, Bryan, are reminiscing.

Circa 1954. Mom holding her youngest, Curtis, at home, Florence, SC.

1994. Mother and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary when she was 71.

Circa 1944. A big smile for her boyfriend.

Circa 1942. Sisters: Barbara, Jeannette, Phyllis, Pam (my mom)

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed