Shattered Dream

(I was recently challenged to write about a real-life adversity, mine or a family member’s, and the response to it. This is my story. What about you? Care to share an adversity you or someone in your family experienced? You can do it in the comments section)

All Daddy ever wanted was to be a farmer. Knee high to a mosquito, he helped with farm chores. In grade school, his days began before dawn, milking cows and chopping wood.

After high school, Daddy continued to work the farm with his dad. Two years later, he met Mama.

Lovebirds

She was heading to Western Carolina Teachers College. He quickly enrolled at North Carolina State. His dreams of farming followed him; he would major in agricultural economics. In one of the many letters that flew between them, he wrote, “I aim to own a farm someday.”

World War II interrupted Daddy’s studies when his ROTC unit was activated. After only a few weeks at Fort Bragg, however, he was honorably discharged—the Army had too many new recruits. Daddy didn’t return to school. The military had taken over much of the campus. Besides, his patriotism demanded he find another way to help the war effort. First, he worked in the Newport News shipyard, then at Union Carbide in New Jersey.

That was too far from Mama. When Daddy was offered a transfer to the new “Secret City” of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he leapt at the opportunity.

Daddy and Mama married. The war ended. I was born. A year later, Daddy’s farm-owning dream came true. With help from Mama’s parents, he and Mama purchased a mountain farm on the banks of the Tuckasegee River just a few miles from where she grew up.

View of the Webster farmhouse from the rear. The hillside beyond is on the other side of the Tuckasegee River. The original part of the house was built in the 1850s with the two-story addition added in the 1880s,

Disaster struck almost immediately. Daddy kept a hundred chicks in a brooder box on the back porch. One frigid morning, he found all of them frozen. He couldn’t afford more.

Daddy tried growing sweet potatoes at river’s edge. It worked back home. (Did I mention that Daddy grew up in eastern North Carolina?) The old man who came with the place told him it was no good. But Daddy, with the ignorant arrogance of youth, paid him no heed. After all, he knew farming. He’d studied the latest techniques.

The old man was right, of course. The soil, the rainfall, the temperature—they all were different here. The crop failed. The old-timer’s thoughts must have run along the lines of Olive Tilford Dargan’s neighbor in From My Highest Hill when he said about a certain “book-farmer” from Raleigh, “Maybe he knowed all about flat-land farmin’ but the world couldn’t hold what he didn’t know about raisin’ corn in this ‘jump-up’ country.”

Bryan, Daddy’s youngest brother, came to help out for a couple weeks after his freshman year at Mars Hill College. When Granddaddy came to pick him up, Bryan took another look around, recalled how desperately poor our little family was, knew how urgently Daddy needed help, turned to his father and said, “I can’t leave.” In exchange, Daddy offered to pay Bryan’s bus fare back to school come fall.

Daddy, Bryan, and Granddaddy finalizing summer plans from a hilltop on the Webster farm.

Daddy grew rye and wheat. The previous owner had left an old combine behind. None of the nearby farmers had such a machine. With a lot of elbow grease and some baling wire (a farmer’s best friend), Daddy and Bryan got the combine in working order. Bryan hired out to cut the neighbors’ fields. But there was no demand for grain that year. All the farmers could offer in payment was the one thing Daddy didn’t need—more grain. He didn’t have two nickels for Bryan’s return trip.

It took only a year for Daddy to figure out his farming dream had died, and ever after, it pained him to talk about that year. But without another source of income, we’d soon be homeless. Daddy found a non-farm job that led to another and another until he retired years later as vice-president of the insurance subsidiaries of what had become, through a series of mergers, Bank of America.

Daddy never lost his love of the land, though. Wherever my parents lived, he grew a garden. He gave away more food than he and Mama kept for themselves. He couldn’t help himself. Only one home couldn’t accommodate a garden. That was when Daddy experienced a near-fatal heart attack. The prognosis gave him only a couple more years. Daddy and Mama moved again, this time to a place with an extra lot. Daddy was back to gardening, giving it up only shortly before his death from congestive heart failure thirteen years later.

I believe Daddy was happiest when he had dirt under his fingernails. I guess you can take the farmer off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the farmer.

The Webster farmhouse today,  having been lovingly restored by Lacy and Dottie Thornburg

(By the way, I’m happy to say a version of this article has recently been published in the anthology, Bearing Up, a series of essays about overcoming hardships.)

 

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?

 

REFLECTION

Creative Commons Introspective Chicken by Jonathan Lidbeck is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When I look in the mirror, I see
a much younger version of me–
not the face
that stares back from photographs,
so rudely honest
in their appraisals.

In truth, it’s not quite
the younger me I spy,
but the whole of myself–
the things a photo will never catch.

I see both youth and age,
twinkles and wrinkles;
I see emotion and belief,
passion and compassion;
I see history: life’s experience,
and expectation. Hope’s still there;
I see a life of love and, occasionally, hard knocks.

The whole of me
is much more interesting
than any Kodak moment
could ever be.

That’s not quite right;
the whole is what I see
each time my gaze lands
on anyone I love;

But in the mirror,
rather than a whole,
perhaps I see
just an edited me—
only what I want to see.

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

Gender Bender (for Danielle)

What if humans . . .
were synchronous hermaphrodites
like earthworms
who, when two mate,
both become impregnated?

Now, that’s equality!

Or the banana slug,
able to mate with itself alone?
Uniparental reproduction
is what it’s called.

As much fun as with a partner?
More?
Simpler, for sure—
certain of being in the mood.

What if humans . . .
were parthenogenic
like the rock lizard?
Some turkeys do it, too—
going it alone
reproducing without fertilization,
making maleness irrelevant
for species survival,
making maleness obsolete?

If men were extraneous,
would we still
keep them around
just for the fun of it?

What if humans . . .
were like the blanket octopus,
she a hundred times his size
and he, wanting to mate,
breaks off his penis
and gives it to her
for keeps?

The ultimate romantic gesture?

What if humans . . .
were like seahorses
where the male
is the one
who gives birth?

Would we have any reproductive laws?

What if humans . . .
were like anemonefish
practicing dominance hierarchy?
Where the largest female rules
and upon her death
the favored male
gendermorphs to take her place,

where all develop
first as male; then mature
to female.

How would social conventions change?

What if humans . . .
were bidirectional
like hawkfish
able to change gender
at will
and back again
and again?

What would we learn
when we’ve lived both sides?
Where would we hang
our biases?

What if?

(First published in Branches Literary Journal in a slightly different form, 2017)