Category Archives: Arkansas

It’s Personal, With Love

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This is not a Father’s Day post.

On the other hand, it is. I just found out this morning that my dad had another child. Were he still alive, he would have found out this morning, too – and I would have been the person telling him. Life is a series of kicks in the face.

All my life, I’ve resisted the revisionist tendencies of much of my family. I revolted against the idea of secrecy and shame. Each of us makes our own decisions and is responsible for the consequences. People misbehave and make terrible decisions.

For the first time, this morning, I wrote, “every person in my immediate family has struggled with the demons of alcohol, drugs, or violence.” Some of their stories weren’t mine to tell, even as the consequences boiled over and tainted my ability to live a good life. Over the last year, I learned that my brother, despite his stunning intelligence, has been a victim for much of his adult life. On the Terry side of my family, every person in my immediate family has led a double life. Many have died prematurely as a result. Just writing this paragraph might have earned a beating in the not-so-distant past. The revelation that some of us lead secret lives (or smaller lives) controlled by our lesser natures is one that seldom gets a warm embrace. We prefer to hide our shadows away from questioning eyes.

None of this is a secret. Everyone close to those family members knew, of course. That’s part of the corrosiveness of alcohol or addiction. Part of my adult fight was trying to reconcile the fact that so many people stood by on the sidelines and angrily pushed me away as I tried to be open and honest about my parents and their brutal hidden lives. It’s my story to tell because I have an equal right to share my steps.

Since I was little, I’ve joked that I must have brothers and sisters out in the world. My dad was unfaithful in every sense of the word. He had notorious affairs with several people. I knew that one day I would be able to say with certainty, “I told you so,” even as a couple of my aunts and uncles angrily told me to shut up. “You ought not to talk about that!” Equally true is the fact that my father ought not to have behaved that way. People close to me have heard me say that my genetics are an infection. I don’t say it with disrespect toward my brother and sister; it’s a fact that is sustained by the carnage of our lives.

Years ago, I started genealogy. I didn’t think it would be interesting to me, even though I love to research. It opened a world to me. I helped many people find lost loved ones, discover their birth certificates, and unlock countless mysteries. Many of those mysteries were buried – or so those involved foolishly thought. I participated in the DNA system early and with optimism. DNA is the blueprint of truth that people can’t control. It is the genie which relentlessly tells us the truth, despite what those who preceded us might have written as history. Alongside DNA, I began to discover the historical record that buttressed my claims about my past. Much of the record contained people’s accounts of crime, abuse, violence and sometimes proud moments. Several of my aunts and uncles died before I compiled a record that would make them wince.

History devours all of us incrementally.

As the unofficial family historian, I’ve never shied from directly admitting what happened behind closed doors. It’s caused some discomfort and anger.

And so…

After years of relentless diligence, it finally happened: through DNA, I discovered that I have a half-sister out in the world. This discovery just happened. It’s raw and fresh in my mind. I can’t imagine what my half-sister is experiencing. I have a million questions, of course. Luckily for her, she can use my ancestry treasures and written accounts to jump right into the lives that she wasn’t able to experience. I warned her that demons possessed my father. I’m not one to gloss over the terrain that makes people uncomfortable. I’ve given my dad a long eulogy, one punctuated by bitter truth.

Her mom was very young when she was with my dad. The liaison happened in the early 70s after my dad was in prison and had returned to Monroe County, Arkansas. He’d barely survived a DWI accident that killed my cousin. I know nothing about my new half-sister’s mother or other family. It’s probably best at this point as she comes to terms with unintentionally finding an entire family in the world.

I don’t have all the details. Part of the uncertainty is that the woman in question didn’t expect to ‘find’ relatives, much less someone like me with a full arsenal of DNA results and extensive family history for her. I don’t even know her name yet.

Ironically, I found confirmation on Father’s Day, a holiday that was no more real than a unicorn in my family. My dad died over 25 years ago. He would laugh. Whether that makes him human or a monster I’m not sure.

I am both confused and happy. Most of my glee is for my half-sister who found the road she was seeking. What she does with it is entirely her choice. That’s entirely the point of DNA and family history. None of us had a choice regarding who brought us to this world, and many of us would desperately love to be able to change those choices. It’s not our fault. Whether our parents were doctors or assassins, we are guiltless in our existence.

I wish I could grant amnesty to all those children who grow up feeling responsible for the people behind them.

For those of you who have good families, it probably seems a bit exotic to think about these situations. Many of us flee in self-protection from our family. All of us would prefer the warm embrace of people who value and love us. Unfortunately, much of the world operates on a stranger wavelength.

It’s no insult to say that my original sister and I are incompatible. I’m not one for anger, drama, and instability. It might make her angry to see this truth written out – but it is true in a way that no one can deny. As for my brother, he wisely moved away when he was younger. Over the years, our connection lessened. A few years ago, we went through an intense and disruptive episode that broke something in me. I didn’t know at the time how much he was suffering from addiction. I knew but didn’t ‘know,’ much in the way that each of us later wonders how all of us avoided connecting the painful dots.

Now that the day has come that I might have a connection to another sister, it is news that I can’t share meaningfully. Mom and dad are both dead. My sister is in exile for my sanity, and my brother is struggling merely to live another year.

You might say, “None of that is your place to say, X.” You’re wrong, though. I have earned the right.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come of my discovery of a new half-sister. I wish my brother Mike were in his right mind, though. We share a deep and incisive bond of dark humor and irony. Since he’s been at the brink of death, he has passed a lot of time with me recounting the old stories. Shared history acquires a more profound meaning when you realize that your time in it is diminishing rapidly. In the last few months, Mike has read all my family lore and stories and relished them. He knows how strongly the gravity of what we came from has affected us.

I hope that my new half-sister waits a long time to meet my original sister. While I am by no means able to claim normalcy, I’m foolishly confident that I am the best ambassador to the family.

To anyone reading this, I hope each resists the urge to ‘find’ my new half-sister. She gets the right to decide when or if she opens the door. I wish her peace regardless of her timeline.

To the new half-sister I don’t even know by name, I wish that Father’s Day were one of joy for you. I wish that life had been different for us all and that all of us could sit at a table and wonder about what might have been. Each paid the price of our common ancestor. We never stop paying.

We also never stop hoping, though, either, not if we share a common humanity.

1975

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The early summer mist still blanketed the encircling cotton fields. Grandpa poured me a cup of coffee and then held the screen door open for me to slither through. Instead of sitting on the long porch swing, we both stepped down onto the cut railroad ties in front of the porch and sat. Grandma’s coffee was always hotter than the top of a wood stove. I was expected to respect the dangers of hot coffee. We could hear grandma inside, fussing with the skillet of salt pork, bacon, and sausage. When I was young and with my grandparents, vegetarianism was unimaginable. Later, as Grandma noted my love for vegetables, she filled my plate and bowl relentlessly with corn, mustard greens, and beans of every kind. After a few minutes, the smell of breakfast filled the damp air. All of our stomachs grumbled in anticipation.

Grandpa pointed with his right hand as a reddish grey coyote bounded through the periphery of the cotton field to our left. It stopped in the gravel drive, his head sniffing the air. To me, they all resembled foxes. After a moment, he turned and ran through the mist and across the road. We watched as the mist above him churned to mark his passage.

Grandpa sloshed the remainder of his cup onto the grass and stood up. Just as I stood up, Grandma hollered from the back of the house, “Woolly, come on!” Because of the way she talked, I found it hard to believe that she was calling him Willie; my young ears could not distinguish the subtle difference.

Grandpa shrugged his shoulders and took my cup and sloshed it into the yard, too, indicating we’d better get inside before the call to eat intensified.

Salt pork, sausage patties, bacon, and buttered toast greeted us as we sat at the table. It was Tuesday, but looking back, it was a morning for kings, one of many that summer of 1975. The mist of that early morning over forty years ago still swirls in my mind. I awoke this morning with it fogging my senses.

A Living History Focused In a Moment

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In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.

It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.

As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.

As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.

A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.

He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.

Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.

Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.

He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.

The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.

38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.

His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.

If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.

I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.

I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.

Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.

Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.

The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
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A Christmas Parade With a Shadow

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We lined Emma Street last night, each of us impatiently waiting for the bright succession of floats, lights, and hurled candy to pass us by. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm late November night. Northwest Arkansas’ largest lit Christmas tree came alive slightly before 6 as those in the parade made their way from the rodeo grounds down the revitalized path to downtown. The people involved in the downtown festivities did an incredible job of organizing the various activities. The Shiloh Square was a diverse mass of commerce, shouting, and smiling. With so many children present, it was no surprise to hear the word “No!” at least one million times.

Earlier yesterday, I heard the rumblings of resentment on social media, as people whispered against the Sons of The Confederacy participating in the parade. I limited my commentary to, “I hope people don’t do anything stupid. Or stupider.” As we all know, it’s become increasingly difficult to be civil at times. Given my background, I know how easy it is to make a situation worse, even if we are ‘right.’ No fire burns as brightly as one fueled by righteousness – and none singes with such wild abandon. In the end, it’s hard for us to believe that much of our complaining is no more than the proverbial ‘fart in a thunderstorm.’ I’m not judging the motivations of those objecting, either, because if we look at the actions of each person instead of as part of a collective, we can better determine the impact of something on our lives. Much of our issues stem from piling people into neat baskets. Even though I also know that screaming, shouting, or typing in all caps not only does not advance my argument but weakens it, like so many others, there are times when my brain short-circuits and leaves me incapable of persuasive disagreement.

If the Sons of the Confederacy is a relic, then so too are our family members who subscribe to supremacy and the arguments of heritage. It is often tone deafness amplified to a shout; out of place, out of time. Many are proud to be Southern and I find myself conflicted at times attempting the impossible task of distinguishing between prejudice and pride in others. In my case, I don’t feel Southern or even Arkansan. So much of our life is tribalism. We identify with the people, places, customs, collegiate sports teams, and religions of our geography. Allegiance to and defense of things which are unchosen lead us to strange destinations. I don’t subscribe to any of their memberships.

As someone who has done a lot of genealogy, I’ve discovered that many of us share a mass of common ancestors. One characteristic of those who preceded us is that they did a lot of vile, ignorant things, just as many of us do. I vainly try to read the hearts of those I know to circumspectly decide whether they glorify heritage or hate. I’m not impartial. Even as I hate to find myself judged, I judge others.

If I find myself unable to distinguish motive, I look to my own past and to my own father. His demons fueled a fury that left a wide path of pain behind him. If I cannot separate his humanity from his actions, I’m left with nothing except the certainty of destruction. It’s impossible to elevate him or honor him in the face of his actions. Other people in my situation find a way to love the person in their lives, my father’s equivalent. Some are able to do the same with our national disgrace of slavery and the institutions which furthered them. I don’t know how some people compartmentalize their adoration for Southern heritage without being derailed by what fueled it. I do know, however, that I am foolish if I paint all such people as having hate in their hearts. Just as they can embrace violent fathers or remain in churches which institutionalize abuse, they also embrace an imagined way of life without associating themselves with the violence of slavery. It perplexes me.

Having said that, I squint at public monuments which seemingly glorify our collective lesser nature and past. I distrust by default those who wave the Confederate flag. I wonder what motivates a group of people to build a float that will probably upset the very people who want to be entertained. Even as I do this, I know that I’m making the mistake of generalization when I judge everyone who disagrees. My privilege as a white male does not benefit me when I attempt to add my opinion to the pile. As such, I leave the heavy lifting to those who feel emboldened enough to protest or resist their presence. In short, I’m lazy. Especially of late, it is inevitable that most things will morph into shouting. A world in which the Confederacy is important is not my world. But neither is a world which mobilizes to shout back at those who find value in it. For those who truly feel the need to protest, my heart is with you. I hope you resist the visceral need to shout down those whose arguments are shaded with subtlety. People will say dumb things such as, “No one was offended,” as if they know your heart.

As we leaned against one of the restored buildings along Emma, I told my wife that a controversy was brewing and that I dreaded the inevitable brouhaha on social media. I knew that the next day would bring teeth gnashing and recrimination. I told her I was surprised that such a float would be included in the parade, but that it wasn’t a last-minute decision and that someone had hopefully taken a moment to consider the implications of its inclusion.

As the floats passed, the only misbehavior I noticed was that of several young misfits who were diligently and insistently attempting to make their mothers lose their minds. That a mother might actually smack a child was the most likely genesis of violence. The best float was the one celebrating the movie “Christmas Vacation.” Eddie drove by in a decrepit RV, tailpipe dragging on the pavement and ahead of him, a tree-laden (roots and all) station wagon adorned with a thousand lights.

As the parade ended, my wife and I cut through Spring Street, then on Johnson. The floats had looped around on Johnson after traversing Emma. I was carefully making my way along the edge of the road, watching the uneven ground carefully. “Merry Christmas” enthusiastically yelled a young blond-haired girl. I looked up as I bellowed, “You too!” The float behind her held two of the men dressed as Civil War soldiers. I waved and said, “Have a good night!” They both waved and said, “You too!” Both floats were part of the Sons of the Confederacy. I didn’t wave to endorse any hateful ideology. I waved because those were people and any meanness on my part would serve no purpose other than to solidify the presence of more discord. Time will hopefully do its job and convince people that such affiliation equally creates discord. I waved and greeted the other float participants, too, as each passed me. Especially Cousin Eddie in his RV.

The picture in this post is of one last night. I chose it because while it captures the beautiful lights carefully placed along Emma, it also captures an interloper passing through the frame. A shadow, one not participating, yet present. Whoever that shadowy person might have been, he or she represents the stain of controversy in an otherwise beautiful Christmas parade. Even as we enjoyed the goofy pleasures of a community parade, I knew the shadow would linger in the hearts of many. Many people worked hard for the night we all shared. It’s important that we take the shadow in its proper perspective yet also be grateful that the Springdale we now share is infinitely better than it once was. I truly believe that.

When I write, I lay out my deficiencies in concrete, leaving people to bring their own misconceptions and lives to the words I write. Unlike many, I have ideas which do not reside on permanent foundations; they shift as my understanding changes. In short, I am often wrong. Interacting with people changes me, especially those who temper their knowledge through a filter which demands that we often give one another a huge benefit of the doubt – and to be cautious when we attempt to read the hearts and minds of those around us.

I left with much to think about.

I left hoping that thinking itself would prevail over shouting in the next few days.

Behind me, the enormous lit Christmas tree filled our Springdale downtown with colorful lights. If the Spirit of Christmas is something worth aspiring to, I hope those lights somehow made their way into the hearts of those who share our community, no matter what their hearts might already contain.
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The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee (A book)

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We all vividly recall colorful memories of carnivals, ocean beaches, or sunlit birthday parties. Many of us have an unseen bond with a few select books, ones so rich and engrossing that we often mourn a little with their completion. The memory of a great book fills our minds with joy as easily as childhood happiness.

Often, a first-time author will pour his or her soul and wit into a book. Without recognition, these books can fade, despite their hidden potential to ignite people’s minds. Those which pluck at our heartstrings and nostalgic memories deserve a chance to flourish and reach more people.

If you’ve yet to hear of “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee” by Talya Tate Boerner, I envy you. Your first time reading this treasure is ahead of you. The prose flows like melting ice cream on the back of your hand and the people and places in the book walk through your mind with a vividness that’s difficult to master as a writer. Talya’s mastery of language is equal to Pat Conroy, though her words are more sparse and evocative.

I heard of the book through social media. An avid reader I know spoke highly of it. Since I hadn’t heard of it, at least not that I remembered, I had a tinge of doubt. Buying it on Amazon was one of the best decisions I’ve made regarding a book. Since then, I’ve given the book to several people, all of whom have nothing except warm praise for it. Each book has passed from the original owner to someone else, a secondhand gift of true love for those who might receive it.

For those who might have grown up in eastern Arkansas or in some other rural community, you’ll find yourself back in those tilled fields, with your hands touching the rough edges of a cotton plant or your bare feet carefully treading on the boards of a long front porch. If you’re really lucky, you’ll hear the muffled bang of a screen door slamming shut in the summer as someone you love hollers at you for doing it – for the thousandth time.

“The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee” is a love story for a young girl’s childhood. It will make you stand up and look out on your current world and feel like we might have taken a curved path as we grew up and turned away from simple connections. The book stunningly hides a story line of acceptance and redemption inside, one between a stubborn dad and daughter; many of us will find ourselves comparing ourselves to one or the other.

My only wish is that Talya Tate Boerner would write a dozen more such books. In a world filled with books equal to her first, most of us could find happiness in their pages. It is a book like hers which whispers to me long after I’ve finished reading it.

For anyone with a love for reading or storytelling, please find a copy of this book. I’m sure that you will not regret the time you spend inside its world.

Love, X