Sunday, August 19, 2012

What Do You See? Post 1

I'm starting a new series of posts that will include images of people or places that may or may not be immediately recognizable to you, as I want to test your ability as viewers to read a photograph. This is the first entry, so play along!

What do you see? Is he a criminal? An artist? An inventor? What does his fact tell you? I will give his identity later, but see what you see and please share it with the class. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Katie Bell

Grandmother's house

In a few days I will go see my paternal grandmother, probably for the last time.
Katie Bell House will turn 107 this Easter Sunday,  April 8. Up until a year ago, she was remarkably spry and, as my mother says, “with it.” But old age hit her suddenly and without mercy. She began to forget things. She refused to leave her house. She mistook her son (my uncle) for her husband, Wilson, who died in 1990. She declined to have her hair done anymore, or receive visitors. She became confused. 

Now I realize 107 is mighty old, and none of this should surprise me. But Grandmother seemed like she would somehow defy all expectations and preconceptions about aging. When she was in her seventies, she became obsessed with baseball. I was in Knoxville for an entire summer during that time, and spent most weekday afternoons at her house, having lunch, gardening with her, and watching the Braves. Many days she would insist that we go for a walk around the neighborhood. I could barely keep up with her, and would complain that she wanted to walk too far. She never gave in, but, with a hearty slap to my behind, would urge me onward.

When she was in her eighties, she still cut her grass with a gasoline powered, hand-pushed lawn mower. The family kept telling her it was too much for her, that they would get her a yard man, or that one of the grandsons would be happy to come cut her grass every week. She scoffed at us. Dr. Simmons, her doctor for over fifty years, told her to stop, that she needed to rest in the afternoons, and certainly not be outside in the sun pushing a lawn mower around. But she ignored him too, dismissing his advice until she was ready to give up the lawnmower. Then she stopped.

When she was in her nineties, she got colon cancer. We prepared ourselves for the end. After all, she had lived a good, long life, and this was her second battle with cancer. But Grandmother underwent surgery and emerged as strong as she had been before, as if nothing at all had happened. We held an early birthday party for her on her 98th birthday, secretly fearing she wouldn’t live to see her 100th. The next year, we held another one, for her 99th birthday. Then, of course, the next year, another one for her 100th.
Grandmother's dining room. It's looked exactly like this for as long as I've been alive.
My grandmother has never worried about things. She never talked bad about anyone, no matter how much they might have deserved it. She looks at life as a wonderful experience, but nothing that should be analyzed or dwelled on for too long. Grandmother has kept busy with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren her entire life. She also drinks a glass of “sweet buttermilk” every day. 
I have always wished I could be more like her, and I do try, but some things you are either born with or not. Grandmother was blessed with a sunny disposition and an ability to accept the simple act of living. Her life is spectacular in its unspectacular-ness. Even though I am not equally blessed, I am still trying to be like her. Well, except for the buttermilk.

Grandmother, July 2010
I realize as we all do that it is actually winding down now, that the ever-present, matter-of-fact warmth that is my grandmother will be gone soon. Though she still manages to live in her own house, with my uncle and other caregivers, and go through her daily life without pain or illness, she is fading.
Her eldest son, my own father, got lung cancer when he was 64. Though he held on for six years, it finally got him in 2006, when Grandmother was 102. When she was told of his passing, she decided not to travel from Knoxville to Rome for the funeral, preferring to mourn in her own, private way. Last year, her youngest daughter, my aunt Catherine, discovered she had esophageal cancer. But this time, no one told Grandmother. When Aunt Cack died in October, just four months after being diagnosed, no one spoke a word of it to Grandmother, saying instead, “Cack will be coming to see you next week.” By now, she honestly doesn’t seem to realize that Catherine is not coming.
So now I am going to pay her a visit. My mother says she doesn’t think it’s a good idea, and that I should remember her as she was. Lately she hasn't been taking care of herself like she used to. Her hair isn't "done" and the house is messy, something Grandmother never would have allowed in the past. She doesn’t know who you are when you talk to her. She is kind and friendly, but with a polite distance, as if you are a slightly-remembered acquaintance. Gone is the sense of connection with her, the feeling of being special and loved. But I don’t care if she knows me or not. I don't care if her hair is combed or she has lipstick on. I need a hug and a kiss and to hear my grandmother's voice, before she disappears from this mortal coil forever. 

July 2010

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Cowan Family Reunion

Ever since I can remember, the annual reunion of the Cowan family at the old Salem Campground in Covington, Georgia has loomed large in our family history. This yearly event has served as a kind of marker for the passage of time in so many ways. There are the series of age-worn photos of our "clan" standing under the trees that line the campground, in which we see each family member growing year after year, from little baby to child to teen to parent. There are the shared memories of the grounds themselves, of how Salem Campground used to be "way out in the country," thoughts that are peppered with the shared dismay that strip malls and fast food restaurants creep closer and closer to the once-rural but still serene locale. This unique spot under the trees on Salem Road combined with the annual gathering have given us all a sense of belonging and place, generation after generation.

My first memories of the Cowan Reunion are vague and unfocused – long tables covered in vinyl gingham and weighted down with platters of food, a lot of children I seem to be related to but whom I don’t know and can’t remember from the previous year, older aunts and uncles who without fail hug me or shake my hand and exclaim, “Well I swain…you have grown up so since I last saw you! You are becoming a young lady!” – all taking place in the hot, muggy midday sun of a third Sunday in August.

Images from later years are clearer. I remember my twin cousins, Sherry and Terry, attending a few reunions when we were all in our pre-teens. It was great fun because I seldom saw them, even though they lived close by in Atlanta. I remember other years sitting and fidgeting in the large sanctuary of Salem Methodist Church, trying to listen to old Zach Cowan (don’t ask me which one, apparently every generation had a “Zach”) talk about the Civil War but wondering instead when we could go and eat our dinner. I remember getting rained on many times, loving the feeling of walking from that hot, wet, green field into the chilly air-conditioned coolness of the main campground building. Mainly I remember that building, built entirely of wood in the 1930s, with its large dining area, a smaller sitting room with a huge stone fireplace, and two wings of quaint little hotel rooms, each holding two twin beds, a wardrobe, and a table and lamp. I used to love (and still do) to walk the dusty, old-smelling halls, checking doorknobs to find an open room, then going in and sitting on the bed, looking out the window, and imagining all the people back through all the years who had stayed in those rooms. As a young child I thought it was an actual hotel, and was amazed at the small, spartan furnishings. Those rooms always gave me a delightful shiver, a kind of ghostly feeling that I loved (and still do.)

But what stands out above everything else is the huge crowd of people, all somehow related to me, the multitude of generations and accents and backgrounds that spun around me like wild beautiful music, a quirky symphony with me at the center. These were my people and when I was with them, I belonged. The Sundays spent amongst my kin – squeezing past them in the crowded dining room to get to the piles of fried chicken and heaps of tomato sandwiches, sitting next to them in the rocking chairs on the big wraparound porch drowsing in the afternoon heat, listening to their stories told in unmistakable twangs and melodic dipthongs and hearing their laughter – mark my youth as no other event does.

As a young woman, I stopped going to the reunion for many years. I was in college, forging my way in the world, finding out who I was and where I fit in. I had no time for the long drive to Covington and no interest in sitting around with relatives who didn’t understand my lifestyle or my (now somewhat unusual) clothing. Although I wasn’t sad about missing the Sunday event each August, and didn’t really think about it all that much, on some level I felt the family carrying on as before, the exact same people still meeting and feasting and singing, as if they were somehow frozen in time on that porch and around those tables. In some part of my mind, the Cowan Reunion continued to go on exactly as it had in my youth.


But in the mid 1990s, as a new mother with my own family, I suddenly felt the need to go back. I wanted to hear the voices, feel the August sun and smell the old wood of the hotel. Most of all I wanted my children to have the experience of belonging somewhere, something they seldom experience in our constantly changing lives in Atlanta. So we began attending the yearly reunions again. My children had a wonderful time and I loved being a part of the big group again, catching up with everyone I had missed for the past decade. But I was surprised to find that so many of them were gone. Great numbers of distant relatives whose names I didn’t know but whose faces were familiar and dear to me were missing. Where was that sweet man who always had peppermints in his coat pocket? “Oh, Harold Stevens, he died last year,” my grandmother would tell me. What about the twins with identical flaming red hair? “Well, Mary Helen passed away about five years ago. But I hope Margaret will be here.” It was a shock to realize that during the years I had not attended the reunion, time had continued to pass. People had died or moved away, or simply disappeared from the table.

Soon others began to disappear, my own immediate family members. Gone was my sweet and funny grandfather, Papa, a man who laughed more than anyone I think I’ve ever known. One year my grandmother’s cousin Mary Louise, a former rival for the love of my grandfather before they were married, was there. The following year she was back, but pulling a little oxygen tank on wheels alongside her. And the next year, she was gone. My great-aunt Lula, who inexplicably used to tell me, “Julie, you know you’re the prettiest one of all” suddenly died. The next year her husband, Dallas, an ex-FBI agent who told fabulous stories and smoked a pipe, also disappeared. Then my great-aunt Kathryn, who was married to my grandmother’s brother (and Lula’s twin) Lewis, was gone. Months after her death, Uncle Lewis himself, one of my favorite relatives ever, who had an unmistakable voice that would boom out every time he saw me, “Well if it isn’t Ju-Ju House!!!” passed away, seemingly unable to continue without his wife.

Every year the loss was more apparent, and greater, as all members of this fabulous generation gradually passed on. Finally my sweet grandmother Nana, the one whose mother was a Cowan and who was not only the kindest grandmother a girl could have, but my direct link to the reunion, died after a stroke. And a few years later my own father was gone, succumbing to cancer. The losses that grew, one by one, at the Cowan reunion marked the passing of time and the losses we all experience, but in such a tangible, visible way. Where once we filled tables inside and out to overflowing, spilling into the next room and onto the porch, suddenly, it seemed, we barely seated a table and a half. And then, just one table. Finally last year there were only a handful of us, all clumped together at the end of one of the long tables, like survivors of a shipwreck gathered together for warmth. The food on the big tables in the center of the dining room mirrored the human losses: the freshly-fried chicken had been replaced with KFC, or grocery store chicken. The amazing home grown tomatoes were gone, as the cousin who always brought heaping plates of them died years ago. The Junior League cookbook casseroles and deviled eggs bursting with filling have been replaced with Stouffers corn pudding and Publix pimento cheese sandwiches.

It is clear that the reunion is in danger of being wiped from existence. This year, my cousin and I are in charge of planning the event. We have actually discussed officially ending it, telling the 15 or so relatives who still attend that it’s no use, there’s no reason to continue to hold on to something that has become outmoded, outdated, and no longer wanted. The “younger generation” is not interested, or too busy, or just doesn’t care. The older generation is gone. And those of us in the middle, having tried to come up with creative lures (A family cookbook! Bring a recipe to share! A book of oral history! Bring your favorite family story!) that led absolutely nowhere are just plain tired. We think it may be time to simply let go, and officially mark its passing in a solemn but honorable way.

Only time will tell, and for all I know there is going to be a massive surge of energy and interest in just a few years. But today I grieve for all that has been lost so far, and for all that we risk losing from this point forward. If the reunion dies, what does it mean for our family? As the banner of all we were and all we have been, would we disappear as a unified group once the event was gone? As hard as it is to imagine, the Cowan Family reunion, having been celebrated for almost 85 years, just may be a thing of the past.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My life with Davy Jones

I didn't plan on spending all day today on the computer, reading about Davy Jones' death, but somehow I have. My first real crush, the light of my childhood life, is dead, and try as I might, I just can't wrap my head around it. Others have written better than I can about his effect on their life, how much the Monkees meant to them as musicians, as comedians, as pals growing up. But I can't let this little bit of my childhood pass without my own tribute to him and to the group, and how Davy especially affected me as a young girl.

My parents loved music. My mother is a piano teacher and gave me my love for classical music. My dad was a big fan of "real" (I say that, he never did) country music. They both loved the smooth torch songs of the 50s and 60s as well as early rock and roll. They could dance the jitterbug like nobody's business. My dad knew the Everly Brothers in high school, and told me stories about sitting in the local radio station in Knoxville while they did live broadcasts before they were famous.

Obviously, this death hits close to home for me, so much so that I didn't even know until I wrote it that my opening paragraph would be about my parents, and not about Davy Jones at all. All this to say that I grew up listening to music, all the time. I don't know if it's true or not (you know how faulty memory is) but in my mind, a record was always playing when I was a child. I remember at some point I began taking my parents' "Chubby Checker's Your Twist Party" record into my own room and playing it on my record player. I later pilfered more -- Andy Williams, Peter, Paul and Mary, the "West Side Story" soundtrack -- and would play them while I read, or danced, or sat around playing in my room and daydreaming.

Soon I began having my own records and my own musical interests. I bought mainly soundtracks from my favorite movies, like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, and the like. And then, suddenly, there were the Monkees. I don't know when I first heard them or saw the t.v. show, but in many ways there is no beginning to this story. They were just always there.

I think what attracted me as a kid was first, the songs, of course, but also the fact that they were funny and sweet, mischievous and silly...kind of the big brothers I never had. They were a part of my life just as much as my parents and eventually my little brother were, maybe even more, because they were mine. I found them, I responded to them, I loved them, they were my own music to listen to. I watched the show, religiously. I bought the records. Every album. Every single. I knew all the words to all the songs, except the few I didn't like ("Auntie Griselda", for example.) I was the queen of mis-heard lyrics, some of which I still sing today. "I'm a believer, I could enleave her if I tried," and "When I needed sunshine on my brain" are two of the best. I'm still quite proud of them.

I remember once visiting my Great Aunt Renie and Uncle Harold in Atlanta, and bringing my Monkees records with me. (Again, memory being what it is, who knows exactly how this transpired...) I remember lying on the sofa in their den, listening to one of the albums, singing along. Soon my great uncle came in. He was a kind of gruff older country man who often scared me with his loudness and grumpiness, but that day saw the end of any chance of me ever liking him. "What the hell is that?" he asked. "Now Harold," my ever-genteel great aunt said, "Julie likes them. She brought her records to play for us, now let her listen to them." "What do you call that? Rock and roll?" he continued. "It's the Monkees, Uncle Harold," I told him, kind of confused. "Hmmmph," he grumbled. "Sounds like nigger music to me."

Now my family was not particularly strict, in fact, they let us do just about anything we wanted, but there was one word we were never, ever allowed to utter, and that was it. I remember those words hitting me like a punch. I felt my face get hot. I didn't know what to do. I got up from the couch, very upset, and started to cry. Not only had he been mean about my band, my only band, the band DAVY was in, but he used the n-word! I can't remember what happened after that, or how the scene ended, but I'm sure Aunt Renie made him apologize, then fried me a chicken or something to make up for it. But I remember for the first time feeling as if I myself had been insulted, by extension, when he talked bad about the Monkees.

So back to Davy. As I said before, he was my first love. I remember watching the show, looking at his beautiful face -- in truth, a perfect face -- and feeling nothing but a pitter-patter in my chest. Sometimes I would look at my album covers and just stare into those beautiful, soulful brown eyes. I dreamed about him, about meeting him and kissing him. His lips were full and soft, his hair brown (like mine) and straight (like mine). He was not macho at all, and for a young girl, seemed the perfect "boy" to be with. In fact, it was years before I ever dated or even had a crush on any male who was the least bit tall, or bearded, or manly. Davy was my ideal. I could imagine walking through the park with him, holding hands, like they sometimes did on the show...

Oh, and the accent! He had that beautiful melodic voice, and the cute British accent. He was from England! It seemed so exotic to me. I loved the songs he sang on best, and especially was fond of the slow, romantic (and sappy) ones, like "I Wanna Be Free," and the still-wonderful "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)."  Davy's songs were the best, and the episodes on the show where he fell in love and got the stars in his eyes were my favorite.

I recently saw a documentary on the Biography Channel about the Monkees, and was astounded to hear that the show was only on the air for two years. It felt like a lifetime. I never thought any of it would end.

Of course, at some point it did end. Davy was replaced by Donny Osmond, and then Peter Frampton, and then a slew of others, but he was aways my first. His death greatly saddens me. Tonight I am mourning you, David Jones. RIP sweet friend I never knew.