An Elegy for Fall in her Prime

We’ve been treated to several weeks of beautiful Fall Bonus Time this year in Northern Virginia. The temperatures have been mild, the sunshine plentiful, and nature’s colors absolutely brilliant. Today’s persistent rain, the remnants of Hurricane Nicole, is gradually, steadily, washing away the season’s brightest jewels. Therefore, I offer a look back on this glorious Autumn as we will remember her, in her dazzling, long-lived prime.

Leaves of burnished copper and gold gleamed in the morning sun in our neighborhood woods,

and in my mother’s front yard. On her porch steps, the summer’s red impatiens rubbed shoulders with later blooming yellow chrysanthemums.

The small sassafrass tree in our front yard put on an exuberant, outsized show.

The season’s glowing colors were often set, to dramatic effect, against a flawless blue sky.

But they were equally spectacular with the addition of a few strategically placed white clouds.

And then there were the exquisite, luminous mornings when an early fog was in a constant state of flux, rising here, settling there. These were days that vividly evoked Keats’ ode To Autumn, that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” While the poet’s words hung in the misty air, the painted images of John Constable’s ever-shifting, cloud-filled skies danced in my head.

A bounty of fall berries will be with us, still, for a while. Like the red, bubble-like jewels of honeysuckle,

and the Nandina clusters that mingle with red double knock-out roses along our fence row.

These hearty daisies, always late-blooming, took their good sweet time this year. Although their foliage has been towering high for months, they waited until late October to bloom. They play host to a variety of pollinators, like the insect above, which appears to be a beetle dressed in Halloween attire. It does, indeed, wear a sort of costume, as it’s really a moth, the ailanthus webworm. In flight, a pair of dark gray wings emerges from below the outer ones of orange, white and black. With every closer look, nature’s fantastic eccentricities become more evident.

Carpenter bees often embrace the daisy centers for long minutes at a time, as though in a love-sick stupor.

As leaves fall, dark, bare branches emerge, and the earth gains a carpet or warm bronze, copper and gold.

As I was looking at these photos, I realized that one familiar element is absent: my autumn-colored dog, who left us in July. The view above, along the home stretch on a morning walk, always reminds me of my dear, odd Kiko, a near-constant companion for the past nearly fifteen years. Most days, I don’t actively miss him. I certainly don’t miss him in the weakened, anxious state of his final weeks. But then, in my mind’s eye, I get a flash of my young, spirited dog. I see him bounding up the driveway, or on high alert in the pine straw, watching a squirrel, pointed ears straight up. I’m reminded of his first fall, when he was our brand-new puppy, and my parents had come up from Atlanta to visit. I see my father, his arms around our daughter. She’s holding Kiko. He’s so little. His fur is dark velvety red, his belly still hairless and mottled. Daddy and D look completely, perfectly happy. Kiko looks, well, a little crazy. And he was.

My father and daughter with Kiko. November 1, 2007.

Grief is tenacious and sly. It creeps up and catches us unprepared. But, as I find myself smiling through sudden tears, I understand that it’s mixed with joy. In every image from the past, our loved ones are alive again in the present. In every cherished memory, they’re with us.

On this dreary day, I can still glimpse fall’s flying colors through the rain. Likewise, I can envision our puppy in my daughter’s arms, and I can hear my father’s laughter. Fall is bittersweet, just like memory.

Midterms 2022: Why Vote for those who Whine “No Fair”?

Back when you were a kid, playing childhood games in the neighborhood, was there someone who yelled “NO FAIR!” when they didn’t win? Usually there was at least one child who absolutely couldn’t abide a loss. Not at High-Ho Cheerio, or Candy Land, or Freeze Tag, or Kickball. Not even Tic Tac Toe. No game was too trivial not to be contested. I recall gently asking one such wailing child, “Do you really think it’s only fair if you win every single time? It wouldn’t be fair, see, if I won every single time, would it? ” My reasoning fell on deaf ears. He continued howling NO FAIR through the tears. Apparently the concept of fairness was created only for him; it did not extend to others.

Such kids have now grown up, or at least grown older. Many are running in tomorrow’s midterm election. Over half of Americans will find one or more candidates on their ballots who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Don’t waste your vote on such persons.

Two years ago, I wrote that one presidential candidate lived by another threadbare childhood taunt: “I’m not! You are!” Or “I didn’t! You did!” It matters not whatever wrong thing he has done. When confronted with the wrong-doing, the process is simply to deny, deny, and deny. Forcefully. Loudly. Repeatedly. And to turn the accusation back on an opponent. For bullies, it works surprisingly well.

But it didn’t work in the 2020 election. The bully lost.

And what did he do then? He did exactly what he’d been saying he would do: proclaim his personal doctrine of unfairness. Forcefully. Loudly. Repeatedly. His cries were amplified by various media outlets. His followers were hoodwinked. On January 6, 2021, they assembled at our Capitol in order to undo an election they had been told was illegitimate. Because their candidate declared NO FAIR, some brought weapons, zip ties, and wore body armor. They broke through barricades, windows and doors. Most of them had been strident supporters of “law and order,” yet they viciously attacked the police who were there to defend our democratic systems. They roamed the hallways of the Capitol, chanting violent threats against duly elected representatives of both parties. They did it because their leader, their hero, had told them, and continued to tell them, over and over, that it was NO FAIR. What terrible vengeance would have taken place if our lawmakers had not been whisked to safety, with only a very few moments to spare?

In this election, the original candidate of NO FAIR is not on the ballot. But his minions, his sycophants are. Bullies always have their cowardly, opportunistic hangers-on, those who seek to ride their long coattails to a measure of their own glory and power. They repeat and repeat the claim of unfairness. Ever more forcefully. Ever more loudly.

Don’t fall for it.

A vote for one of these election deniers is a vote against democracy. Ironically, it’s a vote for unfairness.

I ask you, much as I asked that whining child many years ago: Is an election fair only when your candidate wins? Imagine a system rigged so that the other candidate always wins. Would that be fair?

************************************************************************

And if you claim that your vote will be cast solely on the need for change because of inflation, or high gas prices, consider this: does your candidate have a plan to fix things? When the party line is NO FAIR, there is little room for workable public policy.

Skeleton Crew 2022

Soon after our old family friend Slim awakened from his eleven-month slumber a few weeks ago, he began to roam, as usual, from room to room, searching out familiar sights and new attractions. His five loyal pups followed, sniffing the rugs and furniture with interest. “Where’s the honorary leader of the pack?,” he asked. “Too lazy to get off his favorite porch hassock to bid his buddies a happy October? ” The news of Kiko’s passing was quite the unexpected blow for Slim and the dogs. They’d come to cherish our furry one’s calm, quiet presence. They’d been looking forward to his condescending glances. “Who will ride shotgun during our Halloween joyride?,” Slim asked, a tear in his eye.

“I so move that Kiko’s customary spot in the front seat remain vacant,” decreed Fluffy, the eldest and largest of the pack. He hung his big, bony head in sadness. Champ, the second-most senior dog, seconded the motion. Rocky, Ruth and Elfrida nodded their heads in agreement. The pack stood forlornly and out of sorts for a while, their heads downcast.

“But we must carry on in a festive Halloween spirit,” Slim said, with resolution. “Our man Kiko would expect nothing less.” Gathering around the Red Panda House, they swapped stories that celebrated the uniqueness of their departed friend.

Rummaging through boxes of fall decorations, Slim seized on a length of bright orange ribbon and a garland of autumn leaves. “We need some extra touches of holiday cheer this year, gang!” he proclaimed. “This ribbon almost matches the shade of Kiko’s fur.” Halloween sugar cookies further helped to lighten the mood of the pack.

And so Slim and his jauntily adorned pups set about their usual Halloween tasks.  They assembled a fine showing of pumpkins and gourds.  They decorated.  They made merry.  They basked in the warm October sunshine, much as their friend Kiko had enjoyed doing. 

At our church’s Trunk or Treat, on a particularly warm and gorgeous Saturday, Slim and the pack welcomed all manner of ghouls, goblins and crazy creatures, offering candy to young and old alike. Slim’s big-hearted belly laugh mixed pleasantly with the jubilant music provided by our virtuoso pianist, who played a keyboard from the back of a pickup truck.

When Slim smiles, the whole world smiles with him.

“Will Kiko be dropping by?,” Slim asked. Then he shook his head in dismay. “I forgot.”

When it was time to jump in the convertible for the top-down joyride, the pack piled in, somewhat less ebulliently than in previous years. Their furry friend’s place of honor in the front seat remained unoccupied. “Kiko’s like Elijah,” Slim joked. “We save him a place, and we’ll see him again.”

Happy Halloween from the Skeleton Crew!

For a previous Skeleton Crew post that shows how Kiko participated in the festivities, see here. And here, for the time that Slim drove the whole gang, including Kiko, to Charlottesville.

A Red Panda Sanctuary, A Sanctuary for Kiko

In May I started work on another dollhouse project, an Orchid House kit from Greenleaf.  This was to be my Red Panda House.  I envisioned it as  home to an extended family of red pandas, to be painted on the house, inside and out.  The red panda is a strong contender for my vote for world’s cutest animal.  I first learned of the existence of this delightful-looking critter when it was featured in the Pandamania curriculum for Vacation Bible School used by our church in 2011.   Since then, it’s become a fixture in pop culture, as in this year’s Disney Pixar film, Turning Red.   Development and climate change increasingly threaten the animal’s native habitat, the high-altitude forests of Asia.  As a result, the red panda is now considered endangered.  I felt the need to build a little painted house that, in my mind, at least, would be a sanctuary for several of these distinctively marked, adorably furry charmers.

This summer, my thoughts rarely strayed too far from Kiko, as I watched his health decline precipitously.  My formerly aloof little dog,  who typically preferred his own, undisturbed space, had become my constant, needy, anxious shadow.  I couldn’t concentrate enough to write much of anything.  Few subjects seemed worthwhile or interesting.  Plus, it was nearly always time to take Kiko out for another hot, uncomfortable walk.  He would be miserable, but perhaps less miserable than he was pacing the house.  My mind was a muddle of discordant and undisciplined thoughts.  The task of stringing together even a few sentences was often too daunting to tackle. 

But work on the Red Panda House helped unclutter my brain.  I could cut out a few balsa wood pieces, do some gluing, a touch of  painting.  I could do it little by little, here and there, a few minutes at a time, yet still know I was making progress.  It was slow going, but that didn’t matter.  I proceeded methodically, step by small step.  Assembling my Red Panda House became, therefore, a therapeutic venture.

In July,  as I began to see that we’d be heartless and selfish to let our beloved dog continue to suffer much further in this life, my mother said, “When Kiko is gone, you should paint a picture of him.”  She was right, of course.  I started thinking about how best to memorialize him.  I’d paint a big picture, at some point.  But I could also, more immediately, give him a place among the red pandas on the house in progress. I’d completed the front, but the sides still needed inhabitants. 

One of the reasons I find the red panda so emphatically appealing is that it reminds me of Kiko.  They could be cousins.  While the face of the  panda is flatter, more like that of a teddy-bear, the muzzle less pointed, the distinctive, perfectly symmetrical markings are similar, as are the ever-perky ears.  Like my dog, they have thick, primarily dark red, double-coated fur.  Kiko would appear to be very much at home with a group of red pandas, at least when that home was a cozy painted dollhouse of my own creation. 

Not long after we said our final goodbye, I painted Kiko onto the house, twice.  On one side, he’s a puppy, at about twelve weeks.  On the other, he looks as he did on his last day in this realm, at fourteen years, eleven months and three weeks.  And like his companions the red pandas, he’s out of harm’s way among the brightly colored flowers and foliage. Never at risk, never worried, never confused.  Always present, always confident, always content.  And when I’m at home, never far from me. 

Puppy Kiko on an exterior side. The house interior is partially visible as a reflection in the mirror.
Old Man Kiko, with two red pandas.
Two red pandas, a cub and an adult, at home inside.

Goodbye, to Grandpa

I hadn’t planned to dwell on the theme of saying goodbye. But life, and death, rarely go according to our plans.

My husband’s father left this world on September 21. We gathered with family and friends in Rochester for his memorial service last weekend, on the day before his eighty-third birthday.

I wrote about H’s dad ten years ago, in a series of Father’s Day posts. (See here.) I referred to him then as Grandpa, because that was who he was to my daughter. As a grandfather, and as a person, he was kind, caring, and fun-loving. Till the very end, he carried with him a jumbo-sized cache of jokes, puns and silly remarks. Many were eye-rolling bad, but some were hilarious, and all of them were offered with the best of intentions. Grandpa understood the value of humor, of never taking oneself too seriously, and he loved laughter.

My husband delivered a tribute to his dad at Saturday’s service, on behalf of himself and his siblings. He wasn’t sure he could get through the talk without breaking down. Our daughter was on point to take over, should he find himself choked with tears. He made it through, with a few pauses to collect himself. He touched on several key aspects that made his father unique. He spoke of how his dad’s interest in science (including his obsessive talent for electrical wiring), his love of animals and music, his devotion to his family and to God, were manifested in unusual and unexpected ways. These were the qualities that made all those who knew him well nod their heads and smile: Yes, that was Dad. That was Grandpa. That was Jim.

My husband spoke of one particularly admirable attribute his father possessed. This was his gift for discovering something good about nearly every person he met. He always claimed to be shy, but he seemed to love nothing better than striking up a conversation with a complete stranger. Wherever he went, no matter the circumstances, he tended to run into “the most wonderful people.” The doctors, nurses and medical staff who treated him (quite successfully) for two types of cancer about ten years ago–they were all “wonderful people.” As were the car salesmen, the repair guys, and the elderly couple behind him in line at Tops Market.

Grandpa treated those around him with kindness and compassion. He sought out and encouraged those qualities in others. When he recognized that goodness within, as he so often did, we were sure to hear about it. Grandpa took to heart, and put into practice, Jesus’s advice to “love one another.” My husband concluded his talk with this question: What would Jim say about me? Am I living as one of those “wonderful people” he valued so highly?

To honor Grandpa’s memory, we’ll try to do just that.

Grandpa with our daughter in Cape Cod, August 2008.

Time to Say Goodbye (To Kiko, August 15, 2007 – July 24, 2022)

Kiko, on his final day, July 24, 2022

Four weeks ago, we said goodbye to our beloved dog Kiko. It was twenty-two days before his fifteenth birthday. The time had come, and it would have been cruel to deny it.  He wasn’t suffering from a catastrophic illness, but he was clearly suffering, nonetheless. Over the course of this last year, our family witnessed his decline.  It was a gradual descent, with a smattering of upward blips, typically when least expected.  Out on a walk, he’d occasionally harness a sudden burst of energy and run all the way home.  We could hear the plague-stricken old man in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail declaring, “I’m not dead.”  The last of Kiko’s rallying efforts occurred in mid June.  After that, it was all slow motion. We had taken steps, of course, to improve his condition, to alleviate his pain and anxiety.  None had any substantial effect.  Toward the end, it seemed that our dog was more than simply uncomfortable. He appeared to be perpetually and profoundly uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. He was as handsome as ever.  His body was as trim and lean, his thick, waxy coat as luxurious, his face, though faded from dark red to white, just as beautiful. Yet he apparently could find no peace, no place of solace, in his skin or in what had been the familiar surroundings of home.

We watched as Kiko’s former pastimes lost their appeal. As his agility decreased, it became difficult for him to access his prime window-level viewing spots. In early May, I wrote about how a ride in a car, once the ultimate thrill, had morphed into just another source of anxiety. His favorite hassock on the screened porch, the site of long pleasant snoozes in summers past–he avoided it. He had given up all interest in wandering our fenced back yard. Instead of alternately baking on the hot bluestone of the patio and cooling in a patch of shady mulch, he tended to stand uncertainly before heading back up the stairs, which he climbed with difficulty. He seemed to have completely forgotten that he ever lay in the pine straw by the bird feeder and kept watch on the wildlife. After getting stuck in the doggy door a couple of times, he no longer attempted to enter or exit the porch on his own. He used to revel in having the freedom to cross the courtyard to my mother’s house for a sausage biscuit or some other tasty snack. Sometimes he’d sleep for hours in his bed in the chill of her family room. More recently, when he reluctantly accompanied me there, he seemed to be particularly worried, pacing endlessly in a circle. He wanted to be home.

But home had become elusive. More and more, he was anxiously pacing in our house, as well. Over and over, he made a circuit from the playroom to the back door. Even when he ate, he’d take a bite of food and walk away. When inside, he wanted to be out, and when outside, he wanted to be in.

For a while, he could retreat to a safe haven upstairs, in his fluffiest, coziest nest of a bed, the one in my room in a secluded spot next to the armoire. After circling a few times, he’d settle and sleep for a while, something he found impossible in any of his assorted beds downstairs.

Kiko’s eyesight and hearing must have been significantly impaired. But his sense of smell apparently remained acute. Because of that, and his general restlessness, we were out five or six times a day on what should have been short walks. We covered small distances, but at a snail’s pace. He still seemed to derive satisfaction from savoring the party platter of neighborhood smells. With his nose deep in the grass, I could imagine that he was fully alive and well again. But before long, he’d look overwhelmed and disoriented. The oppressive heat during his final days didn’t help.

After returning from such a walk, though obviously exhausted, Kiko couldn’t stretch out on the kitchen floor to relax and cool down. Instead, his restlessness continued, to a heartbreaking degree. My once self-assured little dog, who, for so many years, preferred to go his own way, on his own terms, now followed me insistently from room to room, with a plodding gait, panting, questioning, distressed. Holding him, cuddling him–that did no good. He’d pull away, more uneasy than ever. It was as though he refused to be comforted.

Except in the very early hours of the morning. Maybe that was when his desperation or weariness peaked, or when he let his defenses down. During Kiko’s last months, he’d awaken me around two or three AM, standing beside my bed, nosing the covers. He was no longer able to make the leap, but he’d allow me to pick him up and put him in bed with me. He’d circle round and round a few times, but then he’d curl up near me. Sometimes he’d almost snuggle. And then he’d sleep, deeply, and well into the late morning. On his final night, he actually did cuddle close. He slept most of the night with his head resting on my leg. It’s a sensation I hope I never forget. My odd little dog gave me a precious parting gift. He finally let me comfort him.

Kiko has his wings now. He soars as he did in his puppy days. That thought is my present comfort.

Shall We Gather at the River?

Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”

My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.

But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.

The house was never grand, but it was larger and more architecturally interesting than it appears here, in a dilapidated state, stripped of most of its exterior elements in preparation for being razed. I wonder if the log cabin portions were revealed during demolition.

In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.

And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.

Me, at the river, July 1986.

After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.

Daddy skipping rocks at the river, July 1986.

Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.

Why, I wonder, are my mother and my Aunt Margaret wearing identical shirts? And what am I doing with my hands?

The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.

The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.

Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,

with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,

gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.

–Shall We Gather at the River

words and music by Robert Lowry, 1864

On that same July day in 1964, Aunt Dessie holds me awkwardly in her arms. I can still feel her exuberant embrace. My grandmother looks slightly miffed that we’re invading the space of her lawn chair. I’ve seen that expression on her face a hundred times. Uncle Edwin, holding his drink, smiles easily. The rolling hills of home, of central Kentucky, stretch out behind us.

July 4th, 2022

On this 4th of July, and every day, let us remember that true patriotic duty is expressed not by proclaiming our great country to be flawless, but to recognize and work together to strengthen her weaknesses.  May we open our minds, our eyes, ears, and hearts so that we may know the truth when we encounter it, even when it pains us to do so.  Only then can we protect and nurture the principles upon which our republic was founded. 

Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light!

–America

words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744

The Music of Robin and Linda Williams, Taking me Back to my Roots

We did something this spring that has become very out of character, in recent years, for us. We threw a party. An actual gathering, not on Zoom. With real people, at our house. Well, outside.

For many years, we hosted a neighborhood party in early December to kick off the holiday season. Covid put an end to that. About a year ago, my husband decided we should try something totally different: an outdoor concert party, with a live appearance by one of our favorite groups. I didn’t share his enthusiasm at first. I wasn’t sure we were up to the challenge. In fact, I was fairly certain that we weren’t. But I agreed wholeheartedly with his musical choice: the husband and wife folk duo, Robin and Linda Williams.

The Rolling Fork River in Gravel Switch, Kentucky, near the farm where my grandmother was born. The house was torn down in the 70s, and the land is no longer in our family. I see images like this when I hear Robin and Linda’s music.

I discovered their music during a hot, humid New Jersey summer of intense study as I was preparing for my general exams as a grad student. One Sunday night, back in my New Grad College room after yet another long day at my art library carrel, I tuned into the college radio station, WPRB, and heard the unmistakable sound of home. Not my midtown Atlanta home. This went far deeper, back to something elemental and essential. It took me back to my maternal grandparents’ beloved farm among the rolling hills of central Kentucky. It summoned the rugged landscapes of the Appalachians and the Cumberland Gap. It stretched back to colonial Virginia. And back across the Atlantic to England, Scotland and Ireland. It echoed the footsteps of my ancestors as they progressed farther west in a new land after making their way from Europe. It was the sound of my roots.

A 1913 photo shows my grandmother, Nora, at left, her sister Maude at right, with their friend, Emma in the center. They’re in the yard of their father’s house near Lebanon, KY. Note the buggy at back left.

I became a regular listener to the weekly local show that often featured the Williamses, which was called “Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio.”* The pair is known for their original compositions and for new takes on age-old traditional classics. Their voices are richly, warmly unique, and their harmonies sublime. Each is a skilled instrumentalist, with Linda on banjo, Robin on harmonica, and both on guitars. Fiddles, mandolins and the occasional dobro round out the sound when they’re accompanied by other artists. There’s an easy give and take between the two as they alternate vocals.

A view, from 2006, of the site of the old farm in Gravel Switch. New buildings occupy it now.

Robin and Linda’s songs are vivid with a sense of place. They call forth hills and hollows, mountains and prairies, small towns and family farms longed for by city folk who were forced to leave them behind. They sing of heartache, longing, love and joy during hard-scrabble times. They root for the underdog. They empathize with those who are down on their luck. With a few colorful details, they tell memorable tales that speak to universal themes. They’re masters of the evocative, haunting lyric, as well as the nicely phrased, comically insightful observation. Though some songs are suffused with melancholy, they’re never maudlin. Many overflow with a rollicking zest for life in all its messy glory.

I recently found my first recording of music by Robin and Linda. This was before the internet and smart devices, so I’d written off and ordered a cassette tape that first summer, through June Appal Recordings. It’s Dixie Highway Sign, recorded in 1979. With the advent of CDs and streaming services, I’d boxed up my old tapes, and hadn’t seen them in years. But I couldn’t forget the cover photo, and there it was again: a smiling young couple, Robin in a black cowboy hat, Linda with a mane of curly hair, and Peter Ostroushko, who joined them on this album, standing behind the two, looking studious. In the background is a lush green landscape. The plastic case was cracked, just as I remembered. Would it still play? I was hesitant to try. But after digging out my old boom box from the basement, I popped the cassette in and pushed Play. The title track is from the perspective of a trucker, reveling in the challenges of the drive, while missing his southern home. The exuberant, familiar fiddle opening was as bright and buoyant as when I first heard it in 1987. Amazing, considering how much use this little tape has seen.

Main Street in Lebanon, KY, where my mother grew up, and where I spent the most memorable parts of my early childhood. The sign designates the spot as the geographical center of Kentucky. Robin and Linda sing about little towns like this one.

Not long after I met H, I heard that Robin and Linda would be playing in Philadelphia, about an hour away. I didn’t expect their music to resonate with him. As a boy from Rochester, New York, he lacks ties to the Appalachians and the heartland of which they so often sing. But he feigned enthusiasm, because back then, at least, the pleasure of my company was worth it. He told me recently that one of our friends, a banjo-playing fellow engineering student, had encouraged him to bow out. “You won’t like that music,” he said. “Let me take her to the show.” After that offer, there was no way that H wasn’t going to accompany me. So we went to Philadelphia, and saw Robin and Linda in person at The Cherry Tree Music Co-Op. An intimate, chapel-like venue, located inside St. Mary’s Church, it hosted folk artists from 1975 – 2003. The live performance cemented my appreciation of the Williamses’ music. Apparently, it did the same for H. For over thirty years now, we’ve been fans. Our daughter has grown to love them, as well. Other interests have come and gone, but our affinity for the music of Robin and Linda has been a constant. For me, their songs will always prompt treasured “memories that glisten and shine” (to quote from Dixie Highway Sign) and visions of my old Kentucky home.

Family photos could easily show characters in a Robin and Linda song. Here, c. 1942, my mother’s oldest brother, Leland, on the right, with his wife, Dessie in the center, and their friend Clyde in army uniform. Leland farmed the land on the Rolling Fork after my grandparents transitioned to a farm in Lebanon. After Leland’s unexpected death at 52, there was no one in the family willing to take over the farm, and Dessie sold it and moved away.
My grandparents, Nora and Sam, and my Uncle Leland, holding me at about age three. We’re on the porch of the house in Lebanon, the one I remember so well.
It’s this house that I picture in my mind’s eye most often when I hear the music of Robin and Linda. Here, in the summer of 1967, I’m on the porch steps, talking to a cat. This was after my grandfather’s death, just before the sale of the house and my grandmother’s move closer to town.

*Despite the title of the WPRB show, Robin and Linda were, and are, quite often heard on the radio. They’ve been frequent guests on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, from 1975 on. They appeared in the 2006 Robert Altman-directed movie of the same name.

More later about our concert party with Robin and Linda!

Toward Finding Common Ground on Gun Violence

Four more people were shot dead on Wednesday, this time at a hospital in Tulsa.  Yet again, the gunman used a military-style semiautomatic rifle.  He bought it that very day.  This is the 233rd mass shooting in the U.S. so far, in a year that’s not yet at the halfway point.  Guns have replaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for children.  In the light of our country’s ceaseless gun violence, the need for real progress toward a solution becomes ever more urgent.

Is there really no common ground?  I continue to pray that it does exist.  We might find it if only we could step out from the confines of our ironclad political ideologies for a moment.  Of course, this is difficult because we don’t want to leave the safety of the familiar.  Maybe imagining ourselves in a hypothetical situation can help.  Let’s say we’re students, working together on a final group project.  We’re tasked with arriving at a plan to curb gun violence.   We don’t agree with, or like, everyone in our group.  But we all could really use an “A.”  Our teacher reminds us that no plan can possibly stop all gun violence, humans being what we are.  She suggests that we pretend, for the duration of the exercise, that the two major political parties as we know them do not exist.  A fellow classmate suggests that a real solution may be hiding in plain sight.  He proposes starting with some basic questions for discussion.  Here they are:

  1. You’re a parent, and you learn that an active shooter is threatening your child’s school. Which incites your greatest fear?
  •  To hear that the shooter wields a small handgun capable of firing a limited number of bullets before reloading is required, or
  • To hear that the shooter wields a semi- or fully automatic assault-style rifle capable of quickly firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition

2. You’re a police officer, responding to a call about an active shooter at a school.  Which gunman would you prefer to confront?

  • One wielding a small handgun, as above.
  • One wielding an assault-style rifle, as above.

3.  Does it really seem good, right, and appropriate that any eighteen-year old, unable to legally buy a beer, is able to purchase not one, but two AR-15 rifles for immediate use?

4. Think of a particularly immature, hot-tempered teenager whom you know.  Would you want this person to have easy access to multiple such weapons and a huge cache of ammunition?

5.  Would you feel comfortable knowing that the volatile teenager above is armed and roaming your neighborhood regularly?

4. Is it really likely to impact your rights as a responsible gun owner to protect your home if the person mentioned above is unable to purchase an AR-15 or similar gun without a background check, waiting period or any red flag laws in place?

5. Do you lock the doors of your home  at night and when you’re away?  Or do you not bother because, if someone wants to rob or harm you, they will find a way? 

The next victims of gun violence will likely not be members of our own families. But let’s act as if we expect them to be. Let’s quit bickering, acknowledge our shared humanity, and take real steps toward lessening this horrific epidemic.

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.