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.

For the Fallen Accidental Soldiers of our Hometown Wars, Let’s Really Think and Pray

Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. Every year around this time, fresh new memorials to lost American lives appear across our country. They commemorate the growing number of civilians forced unwittingly to serve as soldiers in our ongoing hometown wars.

Among these most recently fallen conscripts are the nineteen fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, who almost made it to the end of the school year. These nine and ten-year old kids might now be relishing the start of summer, had they not been shot to death in their classrooms after returning from an awards ceremony. They include two teachers, both mothers, brave women who did their utmost to protect their students. They include ten people of various ages, from twenty to eighty-six, who had the misfortune to stop by their neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo for snacks, or strawberries, or a cake, at the wrong time.

We should also grieve for the traumatized survivors of these urban battles, whose lives are forever altered. They include the Uvalde children who evaded death because they chose an effective hiding place, or because they smeared their clothing with the blood of their dead and dying classmates. They’ll never see many of their little friends again. There is the young woman in Buffalo who eluded the gunman when another woman lunged at him and was shot dead in the process.

To these survivors and to the families of the lost, we are quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.” This phrase, if uttered automatically, has little meaning. But we should, indeed, be thinking about, and praying for real solutions. Solving a problem requires opening our minds in order to approach it from various viewpoints. Prayer, to be effective, needs a similar attitude, a willingness to consider answers that might push the boundaries of our comfort zone. Prayer should prompt us to release our tight hold on notions we cling to simply because we have always done so. I pray that we can find some common ground, and that it will move us to take strategic steps toward stopping our country’s epidemic of gun violence.

And as we think and pray to find this common ground, let’s remember that, at any time, we might find ourselves, or our parent, grandparent, child or spouse, forced suddenly into battle. We’re all in this dangerous lottery together; we don’t know when or where our number may be called. Medical exemptions or wealthy parents will no longer keep us from the fight.

An Easter Joyride for a Senior Citizen Dog

For the past few years, it’s been an Easter season custom to pile our family collection of big stuffed bunnies into my VW convertible with Kiko for a photo shoot. It’s a tradition inspired by the Halloween joyrides that my dog enjoys with Slim, our skeleton friend. Naturally, a ride must follow the photo session, or Kiko is crushingly, achingly, disappointed. I wasn’t sure I’d bother with the Bunny/Beetle pics this year. With the persistence of the chilly weather, there was no need to rush. And there was this: in recent months, my elderly Shiba Inu clearly derives increasingly less pleasure from his once-favorite activity, a cruise in the car.

Gone are the days when my little dog would snap out of a deep sleep at the most tentative metallic jingle of keys, when he’d pop up with eager enthusiasm at the question, “Wanna take a ride?” Kiko has, since puppyhood, been too coolly aloof to display marked interest in the things that stir the hearts of most dogs, such as the arrival home of a pack member, a ringing doorbell, or feeding time. But a car ride was something else. It used to spark an excitement that even he couldn’t contain. I loved seeing him bursting with anticipatory joy. What a feeling that this beautiful furry creature was willing to put his complete and wholehearted trust in me! That absolute trust one tends to find only in a dog, or a child. Wherever you go, I’ll go! I don’t care where, just let me go with you!

As he ages, Kiko is apparently losing that old sense of trust, in me, and in everything in general. I guess this isn’t surprising, because his world isn’t what it used to be. Only through sleep does he appear able to attain a state resembling contentment. Fortunately he sleeps for many hours at a time. At fourteen and eight months, his compact little body must be achy, as he moves slower and with growing stiffness, especially on stairs. It takes more pacing in circles to get comfortable in any of his beds. His eyesight is less clear, his hearing less acute. He has trouble negotiating his way through our house. This doesn’t stop him from wandering tentatively, restlessly, from room to room, as though searching for something he never finds. Doors are particularly problematic: where are they, and on which side do they open? We may find him staring into a corner when indicating a desire to go out.

I still occasionally invite Kiko to ride along with me when I’m going on a quick errand. Sometimes, after several repeated attempts to get his attention, I glimpse a flicker of his former eagerness. He meets my gaze and works his way to his feet. He used to jump with easy confidence into my Beetle and up into the relatively low seat. Now he’s hesitant, uncertain at the prospect of entering the vehicle. He wants to climb in by himself, but he can’t quite remember how. When I attempt to pick him up, he struggles. Kiko used to settle quickly in the seat, facing forward, as though ready to take in the scenery. Or, on sunny days, with the top down, he often curled up, fox-like, rested his head on the center console and soon drifted off to sleep. Now, more and more, he’s anxious. Should he sit, should he stand? No position seems to offer comfort or security.

A dog’s life moves ever so quickly through the stages. There’s a fleeting infancy, a long period of toddlerhood, a few brief teenage years, and then, suddenly, old age. My feisty baby boy has become a tottering grandfatherly figure.

But, on a pleasant day, with old friends, even an elderly grandfather can still enjoy a ride in the car. Kiko showed me that he still does, as well.

Easter 2022: Love Lives Again

Virginia Bluebells and Bleeding Hearts.

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,

wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;

Love lives again, that with the dead has been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Solomon’s Seal.

In the grave they laid him, Love who had been slain,

thinking that he never would awake gain,

quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

Appalachian Red Redbud.

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,

Jesus who for three days in the grave had lain;

quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,

Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again,

fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Now the Green Blade Riseth

Traditional French carol with words by J.M.C. Crum, 1928

Virginia Bluebells.

May you find new life in the promise of Easter!

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

Thanks to my friend Judy for encouraging me to take photos of her woodland garden plants above!

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.