Irish Eyes

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I rather like this old photograph.  A portrait of a young Irish girl taken in the 1880’s.  Something familiar in the expression, especially in the eyes.  A touch of melancholy.

Her name was Mary Ellen Ballentine, but everyone called her “Maime.”

Census records show that her father John and mother Anne Kelly arrived on separate ships during a time the Irish called “The Great Hunger.”  Anne Kelly was only two years old, so her memories of the Emerald Isle were little more than the songs and poems of her homeland:

When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone.
In her sun, in her soil, in her station thrice blest,
With her back towards Britain, her face to the West,
Erin stands proudly insular, on her steep shore,
And strikes her high harp ‘mid the ocean’s deep roar.

Perhaps Anne passed this lyrical tradition to her daughter, Maime.

The 1880 census shows that John and Anne were married in January of 1869.  They settled in the little town of Whistler, Alabama.  He was 34 and she was 21.

A young bride might make a man whistle on his way to the blacksmith shop in Mobile.

Maime would follow a path much like her mother.  She married a man 15 years her senior, a carpenter named Anguish George (no easy delivery, that one.)  Anguish gave her three children, but didn’t hang around long.  Dropped dead in his yard from a heart attack before they called them heart attacks.

Maime moved across Mobile Bay to Fairhope.  Most Alabamians know the place.  A quaint little tourist town inhabited by writers, artists and those who have more money than God.

But I’m guessing Fairhope wasn’t quite that way in 1920.

Maime was a single-mother with three young children.  Tough row to hoe in any day.  She became a telephone operator with AT&T.  Probably the first on the east side of Mobile Bay.  She continued to raise her little family by herself.  The oldest child would someday graduate from the University of Alabama, an unlikely debutante.   The second daughter died in a horrible accident as a child.  The third, a rather boisterous, mischievous boy, would test her patience.  But he turned-out well, a baker and bread-delivery man with a love for bawdy little songs, poems, and limericks that would make a Baptist openly cringe but secretly smile.

Maime spent her days trying to make ends meet with her day job.  But she liked to write in her free time.  She was a member of a Fairhope ladies’ group, “The Scribbler’s Club.”

I’ve read her journals.  They ramble.  A poem here.  An observation there.  Writing from some undefinable need.  Writing for the writer.  Readers not necessarily the end-game.

You learn a lot about yourself when you start turning over the stones of your past.

Ancestry.com took my DNA and showed me that I’m 48% Irish, and not English as I always presumed.

The story of my great-grandmother Maime showed me why my mother feels a need to write, and I as well.

So here’s another post in a little blog about nothing, indelibly linked to some yellowed journal-pages from the past.

I hope someone out there enjoys the read.

If not, that’s okay.  It’s in my DNA.

*The Emerald Isle, by William Drennan, the first known usage of that phrase to describe Ireland.

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Of Barns and Men

barn

Just a barn at sunset.

A barn that once had a purpose.  Four stalls for horse or mule.  Small tack room for saddles, bridles and leads.  Loft up above for square bales.

A poet or an artist might describe it as “weathered” or “rustic.”

I am neither.  I like solid words.  Words with a certain heft that you can hold in your hand or put in your pocket and bring out twenty years from now, meaning intact.

I call it “old.”

The tin roof has stood the test of time.  Poplar sideboards still sound.  But the loft door sags, as does the gate.  Time passes.  “Things fall apart.  The centre cannot hold.”

Someone with skills I cannot fathom built this barn for its purpose.  Probably out of the ether with no written plan.  Visualized and then constructed with hand tools.  Style and method learned from father, who learned it from his father.  Hammer, handsaw, sweat and muscle.

I would like to think he paused after the last nail had been driven.  Admired his work like the Master in His holy book.  But likely as not he had a dipper of water from the well across the road.  Wiped his brow, spit, then headed on down the road to the next little patch of land where a barn was a needful thing.  Rest reserved only on the appointed day.

This day draws to its own close.  Perhaps these lines only the scribbled imaginings of a lonesome pilgrim who walked the land at the close of day.  But one thing holds true.  They don’t make them like they used to.

Barns or men.

 

Fire and Ice

cold

Cold.

Not Yankee cold, but too cold for Alabama cold.  Alabama cold is 30 degrees, and that only for a night or two.  Not two weeks with lows in the 20’s and teens.

I was not prepared for this.

The problem is outside air finding a way inside, instead of staying outside where it belongs.

The old farm-house we moved into a little over a year ago is a little more drafty than our previous dwelling.  Good insulation in the walls and attic.  None in the floor.

In the sunny days of summer not so long ago, the Redhead said “we need to get some insulation under the house.”

“No,” I said.  “Heat rises.  We have good insulation in the attic.  We do not need anything under the floor.”

Quick thinking, that.  Dodged a bullet.  Visions of lying on my back under the house, stapling fiberglass rolls between the joists.  Redhead thwarted by my scientific intellect.  Don’t bother me woman.  I am “Master of Science.”  Got a diploma on the wall right over there from Louisiana State University to prove it.

Turns out cold does rise.  Between every crack and crevice.  Sometimes slips in “on little cat’s feet.”  Sometimes more like 90 psi.

Two weeks and a half-cord of firewood later, I realize that I will be on my back under the house this spring.

Science ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Halloween

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She is Rapunzel.  Her brother, Charlie Brown.

This is the first Halloween that she will likely remember.  Just shy of three.  Still too young to understand the concept.  Strangers.  Candy.  Walking in the dark.

“I want Pops” she says.

She does not want to walk, will have none of it, in spite of constant urging.  She wants to be carried.  Strong familiar arms more valued than promises of candy in a basket.

Endless questions and statements, repeated.  “What’s that?”  “You see that moon?”  “What’s that noise?”  “Where we going?”

I understand.  A little heart more interested in security than candy.  Door bells and “thank you” will come later.  There will be time for that.  No rush.

A day is coming, too soon, when these arms will no longer seem necessary.  Uncool.  Embarrassing.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.

Until that day, I happily oblige, redeeming the time.

 

 

 

Black and White

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I have a young friend who is also named Ray Clifton.  We have never met.  He is a virtual friend, a connection made through social media.  Seems to me that most people today have more of these friendships than real ones.  Less messy.  More work when it’s flesh and bone.  Tolerance.  Forgiveness.  Things like that.

Our online friendship suggests that Ray and I have some things in common.  Sports.  Muscle cars (restored in his case, a childhood memory of them rolling off the showroom floor in mine).  Opinions on pop culture.  We are both Alabamians, separated east and west by a couple of hours on the asphalt ribbon.

We call each other “Big Ray,” “Little Ray,” or “Other Ray.”  “Young Ray” and “Old Ray” is closer to the truth.  He is young and handsome.  I am old enough to be his father.

And then we have our differences.  Young Ray is Black.  I am White.

When he invited me to be his virtual friend several years ago, he told me there were four other Ray Cliftons on the social media site, and I was the only one who accepted his friend request.

I suppose this means we aren’t racists.  He for asking.  Me for accepting.

I have the benefit of reflection on the subject of racism.  I was a gleam in my father’s eye when Rosa Parks made her stand.  A toddler when the 16th Street Bombing happened in Birmingham.  A first-grader when Dr. King was shot.  I have vague memories of George Wallace.  Too young to understand the things that I saw on that twelve-inch black and white television.

My generation.  School connected us.  We studied and played together.  We were the foundation of what was supposed to be the beginning of the end of racism.  Oblivious that the country considered Alabama to be ground zero.

My two son’s generation saw more progress.  Some blending and acceptance of two distinct cultures.  Social segregation by choice, not by law.

Years later the television is much bigger and the images are in high-definition, and I am perplexed by what I see on the news.  Cops being shot.  Riots and looting.  Monuments pulled down.  Cars driven into protests.  Every word spoken or unspoken analyzed, fomented by politicians and a news media which now seems to create rather than report.

I am not naive.  All kinds of racism still exists.  But the thing is, I just don’t see that much racism here at ground zero.  In Alabama we earn our wages together.  Live in the same neighborhoods.  We wave.  Hold the door.  Say things like “please” and “thank you” and “have a blessed day.”

Maybe the common folk have just decided to let it all go.  Live and let live.  Live together.

My grandchildren and young Ray’s future children.  Living side-by-side in peace.

Is it too much to ask?

 

 

 

The Subtlety of the Season

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I have written about Fall here before.  My favorite season sometimes leads to metaphor, as it did here.  Sometimes it is what it is.  I write, you decide.

This year, subtle signs without solid substance.  Three weeks ago, my front porch hummingbird feeders  were suddenly occupied by a charm of twenty or so.  A few days later, nary a bird.  Just another stop along the way to southern Mexico.

Not much color yet.  The red of the Sourwood, always faithful to lead.  Faint yellow from the Black Walnut.  Poplar noncommittal.  Some of the oaks with nothing more than brown at the leaf tips.  It has been a hot and dry September.  Rain and cooler temperatures are all that can enrich the Artist’s palette.

Temperature is my gauge.  Not even close to expectations.  Only one night thus far has seen a slight dip into the upper fifties.  No need for a jacket at sunrise.  Long-sleeved shirts on hangers since March.

Even so, there is a certain quality of the light before sunrise and sunset.  A softness that is felt more than seen.  It invokes a sort of sadness in me.  In the Fall of life, waiting for the Fall.  Wishing my life away.  Anxiously waiting for the next day with a limited number of days left.

I took the photo above a few days ago.  The last of the Summer wildflowers.  A bit of mist in the bottom.  That softness of light that I cannot adequately describe.

She comes, but she will make me wait again.

And the waiting is the hardest part.*

 

*Line lifted from Southern singer/songwriter Tom Petty.  Rest in peace.  We sang along with happy hearts.

Takin’ a Lickin’

Foresters see all sorts of interesting things in the woods.  Not only trees out there, in spite of the notion that you can’t see the forest for them.

I certainly have seen my share.

Old cars and trucks, silently rusting since the ’40’s and ’50’s.  So far from a road you wonder how they got there.  Truth is that what is now a large part of the Alabama forests was open land not so many decades ago, a product of cut-out and get-out Yankee lumber tycoons from places like Chicago and New York.  Other land just worn slam-out by King Cotton, or by the calloused hands of poor White and Black folk who tried to scratch a living out of red clay.

Old house places (my daddy always called them “home places,” a more hopeful term which I rather like), chimneys askew or collapsed.  Remnant trash piles if you really look.  Blue-glass bottles, or some with faded labels of patent medicines for whatever ailed folk back in the day.  I tend to leave these things where they lie.  Seems more respectful.

Whiskey stills rusting in the creek bottoms, ax-marks still visible where revenuers busted-up the only profitable way to grow corn in hard times when a dollar was as scarce as a pleasant day in the August Alabama sun.

Weed patches, planted in containers or in neat rows in clearings.  Always a surprise, but not too frightening.  Illicit farmers tend to live and let live as long as you mind your own business and walk on by.

A meth-lab I have not seen.  Don’t want to.  Good way to get killed.

Then there was that day when my co-worker found the body.

He was just moving through, as foresters do, stopping to count and measure trees for a timber appraisal.  He happened to look down and see a human skull at his feet.  Told me later that he thought it could not be real, had to be some kind of toy, until he saw a femur.

Two deputies arrived about thirty minutes later, and we fanned-out through the brush, little expanding concentric circles in search of the rest.  “Don’t touch anything” they said.  Not a problem, that.

Scatterings.  A pelvis here, a tibia there.  Each spot marked with little colored pieces of flagging tape that foresters carry around to mark their territory like a dog marks his.

About a hundred yards out, we found more. Jeans on the ground, as if a man took them off, gave them a shake, and laid them out flat to wear again tomorrow.  A wallet still in the back pocket.  Couple of one-dollar bills and an Alabama drivers license.

“It’s Shorty.”  Other deputy nodded.  “He lived in a house trailer about a mile through these woods as the crow flies.  We’ve been out there a few times.  He and the old lady didn’t get along.  She called-in a missing person report about a year ago, three days after a real knock-down-drag-out.  Said he walked out and told her he wasn’t ever coming back.  He’d done that before, so we just filled-out a report.  I guess he was serious this time.”

I reckon so.

Another thirty yards away, the scene.  Yellow nylon rope still attached to the limb of a holly tree.  This unusual in itself, as holly rarely grows tall enough in Alabama to be considered a tree.  Didn’t need to be too tall.  His name was Shorty.

Sitting at the base, the  skeletal torso still more-or-less intact, encased in a faded flannel shirt.  Left wrist exposed, Timex watch still in place.

It still had the correct time.

I have often thought about Shorty over the years since.  I wonder what circumstances brought him to that lonely place.  I seem to recall that the deputies said something about depression and drug abuse.  One never knows in the final analysis.  People have their reasons.  Best for the living not to tarry there.

But I do know one thing about Shorty.  The man knew how to pick a watch.

John Cameron Swayze would have been proud.*

 

  • I’ll save you a Google, young folk:

 

 

The Valley of the Shadow

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It is Coleta Valley on the map.

I passed this way a few days ago.  Stopped for a photo and a memory.

Once upon a time three boys wandered into this spot in an old Jeep Scout.  The Scout is no more.  Neither is one of the boys.  The other two are worse for wear.

The day that old Scout clanked into the valley the driver immediately christened it “the back side of heaven.”   It was the most beautiful landscape they had ever seen, and the name stuck, part and parcel of the bond between them.

In their boyhood journeys together it became the end of the line.  The turning-point back toward home.

The mountains in the background are a part of the Talladega National Forest and the Hollins Wildlife Management Area.  The boys spent countless teen-age hours in those mountains, learning to hunt white-tailed deer.  Never any success, as deer were not abundant in Alabama in those days.  They might see less than ten a season between the three of them, and they never managed to kill one.  That was not important.  Still isn’t.

In other seasons they bounced along Bull Gap Road on Friday and Saturday nights, straight through the heart of that country between home and Coleta.  Spot-lighting deer without guns when that pastime was legal in Alabama.  The thrill of eyes reflecting back like stars from the beam of the white light gave hope of success for the next deer season.

Occasionally they brought a girl or two along for the ride.  Jokes told.  Tales of nocturnal killers that roamed those woods, always useful if the girls wouldn’t scoot over a little closer.  Zeppelin, Skynyrd, and “Do you feel like we do?” blaring from the Scout’s tinny speakers.

Conversations eventually turned spiritual.  Always.  What Jesus said here, what He did there.  What it all meant now.  The driver had plans to be a preacher of the Gospel.  In truth, he already was.

A couple of hours later Coleta, then the trip back toward home.

The boys grew up and went their separate ways, as boys do.  Contact became less frequent, then not at all.

The preacher got his flock, but his life unravelled, the thread picked and pulled until the fabric was unrecognizable.  His journey down the road of life ended, leaving a shadow on that valley that blue skies and wispy clouds cannot overcome.

He once reminded us that Jesus said “the road to heaven is narrow, and few find it.”

I know that the road to Coleta is also narrow, but there was a time when three boys travelled all the way to the back side of it.

 

 

Einsam

They call it an “estate sale” in real estate lingo.  In layman’s terms it is nothing more than a house with a deceased owner and an unpaid mortgage.  No family willing or able to make a claim or settle the books.  A faceless bank with no need for a house.

I accompany my favorite realtor, the Redhead, to show this house at the end of an isolated country road.  I am the protector on rural properties, well-armed and well-schooled in matters of country dangers.

A potential buyer is to arrive in 30 minutes, allowing my charge just enough time to open doors and conduct a quick inspection.

I stroll the grounds.  A small lawn with woods alongside.  Well-tended once, southern standards now fading away from neglect:  knockout rose, dogwood, camellia, and crepe myrtle.  A bird-feeder in the likeness of a covered bridge hangs precariously from a frayed string on a maple limb.  A stone walkway from front door to back, now crooked and askew.

No sign of the customer, so I wander inside.  The rooms are mostly ransacked, an overturned chair here, a broken end-table there.  A large stack of old VHS tapes on a table catches my eye.  Handwritten labels:  “Aus Bitburg In Der Eifel” and “Lustige Musikanten.”  A few titles in English:  “A Journey from the Alps to the North Sea.”  Even some American films in the pile (if you consider “Robocop” a film), but the German tapes predominate.

A closet holds other surprises:  a faded envelope with a postmark that reads “Deutsche Post.”  A brightly colored pint-size paper box in the shape of a cottage.  Two children on one side, a grotesque witch on the other.  I turn it over:  it is a container for lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread Christmas treat.

A black car pulls-up in the drive, but it is not the overdue customer.  It is the Law around these parts.  Muscular, heavy-set Black man, the kind that would not have to say “get down on the ground” twice.

Convinced that we are not robbers, introductions are made.  The Redhead offers a tour, but he says he has been here before.

I must ask:  “Did you know this lady?”

“Oh yes, I stopped by to check on her whenever I was in the neighborhood.”

“Did she have family?  Friends?”

“No, she didn’t have nobody as far as I know.  Didn’t even know who I was down toward the end.”

We talk more.  I ask about the German angle.  He says there are lots of people of German descent in the area.

“Do you know of any others around here that are completely alone like she was?  Someone who might need some company?  Some help?”

“Yes I can think of about ten off the top of my head.  You want some names and addresses?

“Yeah, I think I do.”

“Stop by the station next week and I’ll have you a list.”

He drives away.  The customer finally arrives 30 minutes later, now over an hour late.  His name is Jesus, but he is not my Saviour.  I stay outside and keep my mouth shut.  I am just the guard dog.  I do not bark or bite unless commanded.  Good boy.

Jesus’s pick-up truck is a tricked-out lowrider.  Big money in that ride.  I notice four soldered-over bullet holes in the radiator.

A few minutes later agent and customer emerge.  Agent provide  information about sources of financing, but Jesus always pays cash if he decides to buy.

The Bible says you should tell people about Jesus if you know him.  I might mention him to my new friend when I stop by the station to get the list of loneliness.

Later that night I sit on my porch and have a vision of Ursula in that little house at the end of the road.  She sits alone, illumined only by the light of a television, remembering happier days at Zuhause.

 

 

 

Kudzu

It always starts with good intentions.  A hopefulness that something will fill the empty spaces where something else has been lost.  Entanglements ensue, and soon the solution is worse than the problem.

Southern soil, worn-out and stripped of nutrients by King Cotton and the Great Depression.  Summer downpours on sandy-clay became rivulets, ditches, gullies.  Worthless hardscrabble land swept along the current to the Gulf of Mexico.

As with most bad ideas, a solution came from the government.  Import a vine from Japan to shelter the soil from the impact of the rain drop. Growth so fast a man could almost hear it.  Green tendrils and wide leaves with late-summer purple blossoms hanging in the scorch like little clusters of grapes.

Initial trials went well.  If a little was good, a lot must be better.

A million acres were cultivated by farmers in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Hope and dollars in short-supply back then.  Paid-out at the rate of eight dollars per.  Better money than cotton or tobacco.  Better money than most anything.

Stopped the erosion, but it would not stop.  Covered trees, pastures, roadsides.  Anything it could cling to.  A little sunlight and a little space and a little time lead to a big problem.  Nobody knows how many million acres today.

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  The roads in Alabama are lined with them.

No longer able to pay eight dollars per acre, the government simply plants it for us as they mow the right-of-way.

kudzu spread

 

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