Dear Lula

My grandmother, Lula Smith Coats,  11/25/1894-4/14/1942

(I was recently challenged to issue a dinner invitation to one of my ancestors. I chose my paternal grandmother, who died four years before my birth.)

Dear Lula, (you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?)

Will you please join me for dinner on Saturday evening? There’s so much I want to ask you. You’re the grandmother I never got to meet, having died just after my parents met. As a child, I didn’t know enough to ask about you, and once I had the good sense to get interested, some of the details had begun to fade from the memories of your children.

I want to know what it was like raising seven boys. They talked about some of their mischief, but I’ll bet they left out a few juicy details. I’d love to hear their mom’s perspective. You probably have stories of precious moments with each of them, too. I’d like to hear them. What made you proudest of them? (And did you secretly long for a daughter? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have some female companionship in that household! Did you dote on nieces? Seek feminine refuge with your sisters?)

Would you describe your typical day—if there was such a thing? I know you washed clothes in a pot over an outdoor fire and that between preparing breakfast, dinner, and supper you worked in the fields along with the rest of the family. And that you cleaned, ironed, made everyone’s clothes. What other chores filled your days? Did you ever have a moment to yourself?

What were your favorite activities? Daddy told me you gardened, played the piano, sang, and told stories. Were there more? What did you love to do above all else?

What would you have said and done with the twenty-two grandchildren you never got to know? Could you ever have imagined that after having seven sons, the first five grands would be girls—and that of the first eight grandchildren, seven would be girls? Would you have sewed up some frilly dresses for us? Would you have oohed and cooed over us? What advice would you have given us as we grew up?

And what about your experiences as matron at the Poor House? I never heard much about that. It must have been quite the experience raising those boys while overseeing all the domestic chores of the County Home when its seams were bursting during the Great Depression. Did you ever worry about the boys being exposed to the TB patients? To their being around convicts assigned to work on the farm? To their being around so much sickness and dying? Or did you even have time to think about it while you were overseeing the cooking, housekeeping, laundry, medications, clothing and personal needs, and more? Maybe you were just glad your boys had a roof over their heads during those tough years.

You were twenty-five, mother of four children, and pregnant with your fifth when our country finally recognized that women have an inherent right to vote. Did you take advantage of it? Your husband and father were on opposite political sides, almost rabidly so. Where did you fall? Did you ever share your political leanings with either or both of them or did you keep quiet about the whole thing? What was it like, in general, to be a woman in rural North Carolina in the early twentieth century? Would you have supported my feminist activism in the second half of the century?

I want to know about your strokes and your migraines, too. I used to suffer from migraines, too, so I have an inkling how you must have felt. But by my time, they’d at least discovered some medications that helped a little. It must have been devastating being in such pain and cooped up in a dark room so much of the time while life was swirling outside your door. Is it true that the doctor bled you when your blood pressure spiked? Did he use leeches? They say that after your first stroke, you were bedridden for a year or two and had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Is that right? What got you through those days and nights? Were your sons attentive to your needs? When you were up to it, did they fill you in on their days? Did they confide their fears and dreams?

And the little things—what was your favorite color? Your favorite song? Your favorite radio program? Did you have a favorite food? Book? Movie? Holiday? What were your pet peeves? Most dreaded chore?

Then there’s Granddaddy. The story goes that you were his seventh-grade teacher and that’s when you met. You married as soon as the school year was over. (He was old for a seventh-grader.) Is that the way it all happened? How did your romance evolve? What kind of student was he? Where was the school? I understand you only taught that one year. Did you give up a longed-for career to marry and start a family or was teaching simply the most logical job available to a young, single woman in those days?

You see, I have so many questions! Please come early. I’ll invite all the cousins and we’ll have a good old-fashioned pajama party catching up on each other’s lives all night long. You’d better believe I’ll be recording the whole thing, too. I can’t wait!

With love and anticipation,

Your (4th) granddaughter Carole

Everybody Has a Story

Everybody has a story.

Each of us has a story that’s uniquely ours, though it may have been forgotten in the hubbub of daily life: the blare of alarm clocks, getting everyone up and out of the house on time, job demands and annoyances, financial worries, unexpected emergencies.

Sometimes it’s hard to recall that special moment or event. When we hear others tell their tales, we may tend to think our lives are tediously predictable and tame—though predictable and tame can be blessings, and we should count them.

I’m one of those people who forgot. My life has been blessed with what I used to think was normal: happy, healthy childhood; happy, loving family; food and shelter. Very Donna Reed, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best all rolled into one (minus the hats and gloves for PTA meetings and errands). I thought it was that way for everyone. Then I learned differently. The TV norm, mirrored in my own family life, was not the norm at all. It was a sad awakening.

In all the normalcy of my life, I completely forgot two most unusual events, one major and one not so much. But both are events that make my story a little different from the stories of other folks in my orbit.

The first was the decision the Gnome and I made to move to a land of strangers hundreds of miles from the known, leaving our jobs and other security blankets behind, to hand-build our own home in the country, just the two of us. It was a remarkable risk and a singularly unlikely step for us to take. Its very significance may be what pushed it to the back of my mind as part of my unique story.

It was a major life decision, but it quickly became the everyday. What brought us here and has guided our decisions and processes is part of our daily life, so it’s become our normal, something it never occurs to me to bring up by way of introducing who I am. Yet it’s the very definition of who I am. I tell that story here. (It’s a nine-part series interspersed with blogs on other subjects—just click your way through for the whole story.)

A totally different aspect of my personal story was a single event, one based purely on luck. At the time, the Gnome owned and managed a small travel and map store. He sold lots of outdoor products and thus was invited to attend the annual Outdoor Retailers’ Market, then held in Salt Lake City. The organizers planned a drawing for free tickets, lodging, and airfare for two to the market. Although he’d never attended one of these markets and assumed he never would, he figured he might as well enter the drawing. He was astonished when he got the call that he’d won. And just like that, we were off to Salt Lake.

The prize package included a few other perks, one of which was a bobsled ride on the Park City Olympic run from Utah’s hosting of the Winter Olympics of a few years previously. I’m not much of an outdoors person and had never taken up any winter outdoor activities the other side of rushing downhill in a plastic sled. But I was ecstatic about that once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something pretty amazing.

The Olympic Park officials are no fools. They provided an experienced driver for us novices. We were given a brief preliminary lesson, and, of course, we had to sign a waiver which reminded us we were doing something pretty darned risky. The waivers dire language did nothing to dissuade us.

We didn’t set any records, but within mere seconds we were hurtling down that run at seventy-eight miles an hour, our brains bashing against our skulls, our skulls smacking  violently against our helmets, and our helmets cracking against helmets in front of and behind us which, in turn, snapped our necks to and fro in full whip-lash fashion.

Meanwhile, we barreled down the earth-shatteringly bumpy run at what felt like faster-than-light speed. Imagine, if you will, plunging down a steep mountainside full of jagged boulders—it might be almost as treacherous as our bobsled ride. In less than fifty-four seconds (a lifetime, let me add) it was all over. I never want to move that fast again!

You can tell this is the “before” picture because we’re all smiling. They wouldn’t have dared to take an “after” photo!

 

By the time we crawled our stomach-churning way out of the sled and onto the welcomingly motionless ground, our brains were so scrambled we suspected permanent damage. To this day, I feel justified blaming any poor decision-making or forgetfulness on that bobsled ride.

As much as we anticipated our Olympic moment, the reality was utterly terrifying. I thought it would never end and for the only time in my life, I wished for an immediate death.

Knowing what I know now, I’d probably opt out of that once-in-a-lifetime “opportunity.” But if I’d chosen not to do it, I know I’d still have regrets for passing it up. What we regret is usually what we didn’t do.

But it will never, ever happen again!

How about you? Big or little, on-going or momentary, funny or serious, good or bad, what would you include in your story?

 

Mortality

January 27, 2011:

My cousin died today.

And so it begins. I’d already found myself wondering who among the twenty-two of us would be first. Figured it would be one us older ones. Hoped it wouldn’t be me.

Instead, it was one of the younger set—ten years my junior. Cancer’s what got him: unpredictable, ugly, indiscriminate disease. You never know about life’s twists and turns, how it will all end.  

Cousins 

 

March 20, 2016:

It’s happened again. This time on my mother’s side of the family. This time it was one of us older ones. Not oldest me but the next in line.

Life feels more precarious than it did yesterday. We’re all, we cousins, entering the danger zone, that time in life when a generation ago death was the norm at the age we are today. Now, we think we’re still too young. Clearly we’re not.

They say it’s when your last parent dies that you feel most vulnerable, when mortality becomes vividly real. But I’m not so sure. Cousins—we’re the same generation. We were toddlers together. We grew up together. We see ourselves in each other’s faces.

When it’s one of us, a different kind of light goes out.

Yes, It Snows In North Carolina

Yes, It Snows in North Carolina   

(On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93)

When the Michigander I’d just met learned that our family lives in North Carolina, he said, “Well then, you don’t have to worry about snow.” It’s a comment I frequently hear from people who “aren’t from around here,” as if they think all Tar Heels live at the beach. Little do they know. In a state that stretches 600 miles inland, my home is on the same longitudinal plane as Cleveland, Ohio. The meridian actually skims Michigan’s mitten thumb and lines up with eastern Ontario. Pretty far inland.

At more than 4,000 feet in elevation, we’re also a bit higher than coastal areas. So, yes, we have some weather, and it’s not usually fit for swimsuits. Our thermometer has read as low as -32º. Our most wintry weather has a tendency to come after many folks have long since said goodbye to winter. During our first year here, we were surprised by several inches of snow on Memorial Day. Just a few years later, four-foot drifts covered our gravel road in the middle of April.

Snowfall near our house, 2010: everything is covered.

Then, there was that other time . . .

In mid-March, 1993, I had a business meeting a couple hours from here. I decided to add a quick overnight visit with my parents, who lived nearby. Snow was again in the forecast, but it wasn’t expected to begin falling until sometime the following day. I’d surely return home ahead of any significant precipitation.

Even so, I parked my little Geo Metro at the bottom of the mountain road that led to their home. Just in case. If the snow came earlier and/or heavier than expected, it would have been treacherous trying to drive out from my parents’ mountainside perch.

The next morning, we woke to a world of white outside and darkness indoors. The snow was deep and heavy. Power lines had snapped for miles around. Snow poured down for three days. Hundred-mile-an- hour winds created monstrous drifts. The governor issued a two-day long, twenty-four-hour curfew. Even wwhen the curfew was lifted, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only could I not retrieve my little car from the snowbank created by a snow plow—I couldn’t even see it under its huge snow mountain. My seventy-something-year-old father, who had suffered a massive heart attack several months prior, was in no shape to shovel snow. And I wasn’t willing to risk the same fate myself.

Back at home, the Gnome and our college-aged son who was getting ready to return to school after spring break were confronted by drifts up to four feet deep once the snow finally stopped falling. They were trapped, too. We usually hire someone to plow out our gravel road when it’s impassable, but no one could get up there. With school beckoning, they felt compelled to begin the daunting task of digging themselves out by hand.

Worried about not one but two potential heart attacks, I insisted on sworn promises that they’d take breaks a minimum of every two hours and call me on the nose at each break. I couldn’t get to them, but if I didn’t hear from them on time, I’d be calling 911 stat!

There was nothing more I could do except wait it out. My parents and I got by with a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of canned soups heated on a camp stove. We entertained ourselves with conversation and reading.

Enjoying my snow exile in a hammock

My mother had recently acquired a book published by the genealogical society of her home county. Residents had been invited to send in family stories and histories. Some were straightforward with lots of begats. Some people heaped praises on themselves—in the third person, clearly not realizing their own name would appear as author of their submission. Some were pious, some irreverent, some lavishly embellished.

Other entries were laugh-out-loud funny. Like the one about the grandpa who never cut his toenails and walked around his log cabin barefoot, his nails clicking loudly on the wood floor with each step. Or the one about the family whose children decided to outfit their mother with a football helmet and hang her upside down in a homemade traction device to cure her aching back. Or the story about the man who kept a skull in his closet. Then again, maybe we were just punch drunk. It was good medicine to read and share those stories while we were cooped up.

The book presented another opportunity, one to learn about my own family history. When I’d previously asked Mother how long her family had lived in her home county, she couldn’t tell me. She knew nothing about her family beyond her grandparents. Even then, the information was sometimes scanty.

Each article, it seemed, provided a clue about yet another previously unknown branch in my family tree, which in turn led me to still another and another. My paternal grandfather died years before my grandparents met. Mother knew hardly anything about him. With the help of the heritage book, I discovered that he had been in the Civil War, that my great-grandmother was thirty years his junior and was his second wife. I learned that my grandfather’s ancestors were some of the first European settlers in the area. My grandmother had deep local roots, too. I discovered that while most of my ancestors hailed from the British Isles, some came from Germany. It was fascinating stuff, even if not quite all of it was verifiable.

I was stuck in place for almost a week, much of it with my nose buried in the heritage book. By the time I finally left for home, I had a sheaf of papers summarizing family stories and diagramming potential genealogical connections for further research.

That week was the beginning of an enduring passion for family history, one that’s even led to a couple of books. All because of the Blizzard of ’93, otherwise known all along the East Coast as the Storm of the Century. On this occasion of the storm’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we’re in the midst of another great snowstorm. It’s not expected to be as big an event as the Blizzard of ’93, but then that one caught us off guard, too. 

Taking a bite out of snow

For a recap of the Blizzard of 1993, click here:   https://www.wataugademocrat.com/watauga/the-blizzard-of/article_13899f70-3c38-5153-8e92-10c2da17e884.html

Hindsight

Hindsight

wrinkly skin thin as tissue paper
her shrunken skeleton icicle brittle
betraying
all her eighty-one years

yet between her thinning surface
and rickety bones
with all her hopes and imaginings
she is still eighteen

her blood flows just as warm
nerve fibers crackle
with the same electricity
as all those years ago

her brain just as alive
her soul just as eager
for adventure,
for love

in the mirror even her age reverses
whether on a slip of paper
or by visions reflected
from her cataract peepers

though now the dreams from long ago—
some realized, some not—
are the stuff of nostalgia
and sometimes bittersweet

for now she knows
some of those dreams
have lost their chance
to become real

and some
might better have been
unrealized
after all

what we wanted at eighteen
isn’t always what we’ll wish we’d had
when the years have vanished
before our rheumy eyes.

 

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

For Valentine’s Day

John Keats wrote it as the opening line in his poem, Endymion. If you’re like me, you read Keats, along with his fellow second-generation British poets, Shelley and Byron, in your senior high school English class. How I loved them.

At sixteen, I was primed for their romanticism—the imagery, the sensuousness, the idealism, the pensiveness. I remember spending rainy days under one of our massive pecan trees (in the midst of thunderstorms, no less) mulling over their poetry. Their young deaths (Byron at thirty-six, Shelley at twenty-nine, and Keats at the tragically youthful age of twenty-five) added an extra touch of melancholy to my teen moods.

Endymion’s opening lines go like this:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

This verse conjures up something uniquely mine, but I’ll bet it invokes something uniquely yours, too. What follows came to me one day when, as usual, I was first to wake. As I lay in the quiet of early morning, I took a long look at the Gnome‘s face, oblivious and peaceful in sleep.

* * *

At twenty, the only “wrinkles” on his face were the crinkly corners of his always smiling eyes. At twenty, he had a full head of dark blond hair. At twenty, his body was taut and tanned.

The skin is looser now, and the golden hair that covered the top of his head is gone, replaced by a full beard of gray on his face. The wrinkles have spread both upward and downward.

I try to see him dispassionately, as a stranger might. But I cannot. When I contemplate his sleeping form, I only see the whole of him across all the years of knowing him. What I see is the kindness, the love, the mischievous curve of his lips.

The crinkles are still there, too, framing the ever-present dancing smile that lives in his eyes.

And suddenly he is twenty again, but with the added dimensions of experience, of a  shared life together, of wisdom. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.

 

The Gift that Wouldn’t Die

The Gift that Wouldn’t Die

What do hair curlers, a canary funeral, and a burn pile have in common? They’re all connected to a childhood Christmas present.

My grandmother—my amazing, funny, creative, exuberant grandmother—sent a replica of an oak sugar bucket for Christmas when I was eight years old.

It was the same year a black cocker spaniel puppy quietly sat in a basket under the tree, waiting to be discovered and fussed over. But Blackie wasn’t the first thing I spotted. The sugar bucket was—a small wood-stave bucket, slightly smaller at the top than the bottom, held in place by two circular wooden bands, one near the bottom and one near the top. It had a wooden lid and a curved handle for carrying. To make it uniquely hers, Grandmother had added decorative touches with crayon.

As was typical, her designs didn’t match. On the lid, in all the primary colors, was a depiction of a female Mexican hat dancer, while red apples and green leaves ringed the bucket’s bands. A strange combination.

That was sixty-three years ago. As unlikely a gift as a wooden bucket is for an eight-year-old, I still have it. It’s traveled with me through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in all its stages. It’s traveled from South Carolina to Kentucky to North Carolina. It’s been with me through teen angst, first love, first heartbreak, college, marriage, motherhood, and empty nest. It has seen me through girly girlhood to feminist maturity. It’ was part of my greatest life adventure—moving to a strange place and hand-building our home.

My bucket played a role in the funeral of our canary, Gene, who died unexpectedly not long after that Christmas. I’d had no experience with human death at that time, but Gene’s was the second pet death in my life; it was hard on me. I gathered my brothers and neighbors in our backyard where we dug a small hole. I placed Gene in an aluminum-foil-lined shoe box, and we lowered him into the ground with a eulogy, a hymn, and tears. But I didn’t have a monument. So, to memorialize Gene’s life and death, I wrote the details—name, dates, and how beloved he was—on the underside of my bucket’s lid.

For the most part, my bucket was where I stored my hair curlers, curlers that changed over the years as hairstyles and curling techniques evolved. First, there were small-diameter metal rods with attached clips, rubberized on the closure end. Those were followed by spongy, pink, foam curlers with matching attached plastic clips. At some point, self-gripping velcro curlers filled my bucket, as did snap-ons.

When bouffant hairstyles became all the rage, my old curlers were replaced with large, brown, mesh cylinders, supported by wire spirals and held in place with bobby pins, which were in turn succeeded by similar mesh curlers that surrounded hard, stiff bristles to lock the hair in place. Plastic “pins” were stuck through the curlers to hold them in place. Those curlers were painful to sleep in, and if you didn’t curl and uncurl just right, those curlers grabbed your hair and wouldn’t let go. Even more painful.

The way we were–a typical late night dorm party

 

Probably the last curlers to make my bucket their home were the so-called magnetic curlers. They were made of hard plastic punched with holes for air circulation and came in various pastel shades and multiple sizes from half-inch to two or three inches in diameter. Those were the days of serious hair teasing, gels, and sprays. Again, bobby pins held the curlers to my head.

Primping for the prom

 

Then, electricity entered the world of home hair care. Heated hard plastic electric hair rollers with nubs to catch hair, steam curlers using a combination of hot water and salt to create some kind of molecular curling magic, and ultimately curling and flat irons took the place of loose curlers. A mish-mash of curlers sat unused in my bucket—just in case they needed to be called into service.

When a more natural look came into style, curlers of any sort were irrelevant to my life. My bucket no longer served a practical purpose. But it was a gift of love from a person dear to my heart, so I kept it, as I do so many things. It became part of our eclectic “decor,” if you will, wherever we lived.

A few years ago, the Gnome and I were on yet another of our simplifying kicks. (They come upon us every now and again, only to be replaced by some other collecting kick.) I decided the time had finally come to say goodbye to my sugar bucket. The rim of the lid was broken and the lid wouldn’t stay in place. The bucket’s bands kept slipping off, turning the whole thing into little more than a pile of sticks. I’d gotten tired of piecing it back together every time something bumped into it.

But it was a conflicted moment. I had to thrash out my mixed emotions with my husband, hoping he’d weigh in and give me justification for either keeping or throwing. He wisely left the decision entirely in my hands. I threw the bucket on our burn pile. Sixty years seemed plenty long enough to hold onto a childhood gift, regardless of its source.

Some time later, suffering from tosser’s remorse, I couldn’t take it anymore. Wracked with guilt, I had to check on my bucket. Even though it had sat through weeks of sun, rain, and snow, the bucket was somehow still intact, not much the worse for wear. I retrieved it.

The lid was too far gone for reincarnation so I bid a final farewell to Gene’s memorial. But the bucket is safely back inside, where it sits as a fine memorial of its own—a lidless monument to perseverance, to my ultimate inability to simplify, and to my inimitable grandmother.

The sugar bucket in tatters

Reclaimed sugar bucket