Category Archives: Brinkley

Drunk Grapes

One of my favorite people wrote this story…

Hello Americans!

If you listened to the radio much between 1976 and 2009, at some point, you no doubt heard Paul Harvey’s distinct voice say those words. It was his way of kicking off his segment covering news of the day, personal commentary, and possibly a tidbit of some sort to make your life easier. His syndicated program was heard by millions of Americans every weekday for decades, and he had credibility and influence with his listeners.

How much credibility and influence he had became apparent when I saw him get three teetotalers to consume what I’ll call drunk grapes. To be clear, these folks believed—hands down without a doubt—alcohol is not to be consumed in any form unless you’re taking communion at church. No sip of wine with dinner; no beer while watching a ballgame. One tiny sip of inexpensive communion wine once a month was the only allowable type and amount of alcohol.

On a trip to my hometown in the mid-90s,I pulled into the driveway at my parents’ house one Sunday—-late morning. The folks were still at church, so I headed next door to my grandma’s house.

There I noticed but didn’t think much about, a mason jar on her kitchen table filled with clear liquid and globs of shriveled golden raisins.

Later, in my parents’ home, the same type of jar filled with clear liquid and raisins sat perched on top of the refrigerator. Neither of these jars had been in place the month before during my visit, so I had to ask.

Turns out, that week on his radio show, Mr. Harvey had touted a new remedy for relieving the pain of arthritis. In fact, the recipe might even be the answer to several ailments.

The recipe was simple: Pour a box of golden raisins into a large glass jar and fill it with gin. Let the raisins soak in the gin at room temperature for a week. After that, eat ten raisins each day. In about two weeks, your various pains should be significantly relieved – if not completely cured.

While it sounded a bit odd to me, stranger miracles have happened, so I made a mental note to check back during the next visit home.

First, though, I had to ask how this all came together…

Getting raisins was easy enough; Mom simply added them to that week’s grocery list. But how on earth did these three non-drinkers get the gin?! Mamma didn’t drive, so that option was out. Dad himself wasn’t an option because he wasn’t a fan of the unknown and going into a liquor store alone was far beyond the boundaries of the comfort zone he liked to inhabit. It was, as usual, up to Mom to do the heavy lifting or, in this oddest of cases, picking up the spirits.

One of the small town’s numerous liquor stores was situated on the route my mother took to and from work daily, so it seemed the logical choice. But my mother did not relish the possibility of being seen parking at and walking into such an establishment. A plan eventually was finalized. Mom would watch the pattern of occupancy at the package store, and Dad would drive her there during a day in the week with less auto and foot traffic. He would park at the side of the store in hopes they were less likely to be seen by people they knew (even though the side parking offered two directions from which to be seen just as the front did). Mom would go in to purchase the gin.

The chosen day came, and nerves tingled as Dad eased the large, white car alongside the building being careful not to block the drive-up window.

Mom gets out and purposefully, but quickly, marches to the door. An old-fashioned bell clangs as she pushes the wooden door open and steps inside to an expanse of potent potables.

The clerk behind the well-worn counter looks up to see an unfamiliar face and asks if he can help her find something.

She hesitates briefly but knows it is useless to look for it herself – she will never find what they need if she doesn’t have help. Yes, she says in a voice that fakes confidence in what she is doing. Yes, I need some gin.

Stepping around the end of the counter, the clerk throws a wrench in her business. What kind of gin, he asks. Kind? Her mind freezes for a second. There are different kinds of gin? She throws the wrench back. The kind that’s good for soaking raisins. Her firm answer implies “of course” at the end of her sentence, but she knows as the last word comes out how ridiculous it sounds. It is the clerk’s turn to be surprised. Mom can’t help but smile a half-smile at the situation. The clerk laughs and says “Well, let’s see what we have. You say it’s for soakin’ raisins, right?” Mom laughs and answers “That’s right!” before she adds that Paul Harvey said gin-soaked raisins are a cure—or at least a help—for arthritis pain and several other ailments, and they think it’s worth a try.

By now, they are standing before a selection of gins with a variety of prices. As with many things in life, Mom figures you get what you pay for, so she skips the cheapest and the clerk helps her pick a middle of the road gin. They return to the counter where the clerk totals the purchase, bags the gin, and accepts the cash Mom slides across the counter. Mom thanks him and turns to leave as he waves and wishes her luck with her raisins.

She closes the door behind her and notices the bell’s muffled jangle. She thinks that wasn’t so bad. She rounds the corner and notices Dad scrunching low in the seat looking furtively in every direction.

She marches to the car clutching her once in a lifetime purchase, grabs the handle, and hops into the passenger seat. Simultaneously, she says that didn’t take too long as Dad grumbles what took so long; he thinks someone they know saw him.

The engine roars to life, and Dad pulls as quickly as possible onto the street and drives home the back way.

And now the gin and golden raisins are hanging out together in glass jars waiting to be medical miracles.

A month later, I arrive home for another visit. The mason jar at my grandmother’s is gone. I ask if the raisin and gin “medicine” had worked to banish her aches and pains.

“Not sure bout that,” she said, “but it was really a dose!” The emphasis on “dose” was so heavy, I couldn’t help but laugh before saying it was too bad the taste wasn’t what she had hoped for.

At that point, I decided not to even ask my parents about their treatment as I could already imagine their reactions. The thought of the entire situation, all these years later, still makes me laugh and the line “it was really a dose” has become a fun and regular phrase in my vocabulary.

It’s apparently true after all. Sometimes, the cure really is worse than what ails you.

And, in the words of Paul Harvey, “Now you know the rest of the story… good day!”

*

Granddaddy Lun

A wise woman once told me anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.

She spoke from experience having been raised from the age of three by a man who wasn’t her biological father but who loved her as if she were his own.

He was a man of the land; a farmer who sweated in the cotton fields of Monroe county and hunted in the area’s woods. He took his family to live for a time in California during the Depression where he worked as a carpenter and where one of his children was born before the family returned to its roots in the soil of the Arkansas Delta.

Before that, he had a wife and  children he loved. When the youngest of them was still a baby, his wife became ill, and the family needed help. A young woman needing work came to the house each day to care for the younger children, cook, clean, and tend chickens while the man worked the fields and cared for his wife. Tuberculosis was common in those days, and it robbed many families of their loved ones. With her passing, the man was left a widower with children. He and the family still needed the young woman’s help, and, to keep things “proper,” they wed so she and her small daughter could move into the house full time. What surely began as a marriage of necessity turned to a marriage where love lived and grew, and they added four more children to the family. The number of grandchildren grew, too, over the years.

For many of them, memories of him included how he rolled his own cigarettes—carefully pulling a thin cigarette paper from its packet and holding it between several fingers of one hand while tapping tobacco from a Prince Albert can with the other. He then rolled the paper, licked to seal it, and twisted the ends. If asked, he allowed whichever grandchild had climbed into his lap to watch the fascinating process lick the paper for him. It was a thrill beyond thrills, and only a granddaddy wouldn’t mind a child’s spit on his cigarette. He loved his grandchildren, and the honest summary of their high energy visits was a simple “I love to see them come, and I love to see them go,” as he smiled.

He was a quiet man, but his eyes and facial expressions spoke volumes. You can take my word for it, or you can look at his expression in this photo—the first photo taken by my sister on her first camera. Its value can’t be determined by a number for it is priceless to me as it is the only known photo to exist of this elderly man and young child, and he only lived a few years longer after it was taken.

Most folks called him Lawrence; his wife called him Lun. Turns out the wise woman mentioned at the beginning of this memory was right. Anyone can be a father or grandfather, but it took someone special to be the man I call Granddaddy.

Screen Door To The World

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*Guest post…

“Hurry up and close the screen door! You’re letting flies in!” If I heard that phrase yelled at one of us kids once, I heard it, by conservative count, at least 32,760 times in my life. If the phrase had to be said more than once, the lollygagger was likely to be threatened with being locked out for a while; a punishment my brother figured out could be short-circuited by popping the door right where the hook went through the eye sending the hook flying up and over to dangle uselessly.

 

Keeping the screen door closed was important. We lived behind a grocery store in a small town. Its dumpster was straight across the street from our driveway and the screen door. My mother hated having the back of that store as the view from her kitchen window. In fact, she hated everything about that store.

 

Store employees and management dumped all kinds of expired food, including meat, in that dumpster. In the winter, it wasn’t so bad. But in the hot summertime, it became unbearable. The stench from rotting meat, produce, and milk could almost gag the maggots that formed on it. It was a common sight to see my mother marching across the street and pouring a jug of bleach all over the bin’s contents. She had talked to management time and again simply asking that they not throw away raw food items until the night before or the morning of the sanitation truck’s arrival. Sometimes, they would do as she asked. More often, they didn’t. As a result, they lost all of our business, as my mother began driving across town to the Kroger store near the interstate. The amount spent by my mother on groceries each week was substantial as she fed our family of five (including a male teenager who could pack away a lot of food easily).

 

Apparently, my mother’s example taught me as a child that not being able to beat them didn’t mean you had to join them. To this day, I will boycott a business in a heartbeat based on principle alone.

 

Aside from the smell in the summer, having a grocery store as a neighbor wasn’t so bad for us kids in the neighborhood. Really, it couldn’t get much better if you could scrape together enough change to buy a fudgsicle or a tiny container of ice cream with its own wooden spoon attached. If that much money couldn’t be found or begged from an adult, sometimes we had enough for a pack of candy cigarettes or a package of wax paper wrapped Now and Later candy (as if any of it was ever left for later).

 

Sometimes when money was scarce but supplies were available, we got our parents’ permission to make lemonade and sell it in the parking lot to earn candy money. Yep, for a kid, the positives of the store outweighed the negatives by far.

 

My mother rejoiced the day the grocery store’s owner closed the store. It stayed vacant for a while but eventually was converted into a maintenance shop and parking area for the school district’s buses. Life became a lot more peaceful – especially on the weekends when the shop sat empty waiting for school again on Monday.

 

Several decades have passed since then. The shop remains though the school district is shrinking as the town’s population shrinks. The house, however, now sits empty, its latest occupant having deserted it for reasons unknown to me. The kitchen windows stare blankly – one window partially broken.

 

It’s not much to look at, that house, but on the rare occasion I do, I can still hear “Hurry up and close the screen door! You’re letting flies in!” And I smile.

The Whisper Of The Night Train

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It’s 1:19 in the morning; another sleepless night as Lonely drops in for an unwelcome visit. Lonely doesn’t care if you’re by yourself or with others. It simply shows up when it pleases. As I attempt to put Lonely and the other things bothering me out of mind, I take a deep breath and release it slowly. Then, like a small gift from above, a train whistle sounds in the distance. As it draws closer, it transports me to a place in the past — a place where I can feel the subtle rumble and shake of the train’s cars as they rock to the wheels on the rails.

My sister and I shared a room until I was 10, when she moved out. She was 19 and had never had a room to herself. Nor would she in the foreseeable future. She was getting married. For me, a lot of excitement surrounded her wedding-especially since I was to be the only attendant. She would be a beautiful bride, and I would get to wear a pretty dress and hold a bouquet of lovely flowers.

Excitement surrounded her move too because she would be moving into a house she could decorate and set up completely as she chose. This was going to be fun to watch! Then, it hit me – I was going to have my own room for the first time ever! Wow! Things became more exciting each day!

The wedding day passed in a blur, but the bride was indeed beautiful, and I did wear a pretty dress while standing next to this young woman who was part big sister, part mother to me.

Later that evening, I went to my bedroom excited at the thought of having it to myself. As life often shows us, things aren’t usually what we think they will be. The room felt empty and sad. I had rarely spent a night without my sister, and now I was facing endless days and nights without her. She was the one who held and rocked me when I had a bad dream, she participated in my sleep talking to soothe me back to sleep; she even allowed me to warm my cold feet on her legs when winter nights were icy.

Facing that first night without her was lonely and more than a little scary. As I lay in what suddenly felt like a huge, empty bed, my fear of what might lurk in the dark grew until I wanted to scream for my mother. Knowing she was asleep and would not appreciate a screaming kid disrupting her rest kept me silent.

Just as the fear became completely paralyzing, I heard it. It was faint in the distance, but it was there, and it was coming closer. The evening train was rolling through town. We lived close to the tracks, and, as it approached, the sound of the wheels hugging the rails and the sound of swaying rail cars grew louder until the train was right there – practically outside the window. I could feel the vibrations from the floor up, and it was comforting. For a few minutes, I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t the only one awake in the world, and relief washed over me. I relaxed and focused on the train’s every sound and movement and drifted off to sleep as the train finished passing the house.

The nightly train became a trusted and reliable friend. I counted on it each night to lull me to sleep and, later, when fears and worries woke me in the early hours, I found that another train would come through and provide that distinctive rhythm that told me everything was on schedule and okay.

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P.S. This is a guest post written by a reluctant writer, counted among my favorite people.

 

 

 

 

The Great Undefined Before

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*Note: as with any mention of Trump, I acknowledge that Trump supporters are not automatically racists. I loathe the entire agenda of superiority, though.

“By elevating those who fought against equality, you are sending a message to those once with a knee in their back that you would prefer it be that way again, whether you realize it or not. America was not great when we enslaved people, chose to keep women from voting, or did any of the things that would be considered sociopathic if a person did them.” – X

Before Trump dreamed up “Make American Great Again,” I endured family members who constantly whined and moaned that the United States needed to return to what it once was. They were vague on specifics. What exactly were the parameters and years of “the good old days” in America? Because most of them believed that their religion and their color was the only way of life, all others were therefore inferior and the enemy. It’s true they had to live in the real world and interact with their perceived inferiors. Despite their exposure, though, they lived each day with the certainty they were victims to modern society’s demand that all men be treated as equals. They didn’t believe it. Many racists still don’t. They’ve learned to silence those vocalizations unless they are in their own bubbles of town, church, or family. As we live our lives, we run up against these unstated prejudices all the time. They simply aren’t labeled.

In the same way that blacks and women were left out of this country’s founding, the ideals that so many claim to cherish ring hollow to me. The revolutionists didn’t have women and minorities in mind when they phrased such lofty phrases such as “with liberty and justice for all.” People weren’t equal. Millions of people weren’t people at all. Much to our shame, it’s codified in our law. We can do better than the constitution we now have. I realize that such ideas go against the prevailing sense of patriotism. This country is people, though, first and foremost. It is malleable, adaptable, and flexible. It’s why we have the ability to change it.

Before my Mother died, she befriended a black woman who worked at Brinkley Schools. By all accounts, they were close friends. Saying this without understanding that my Mother didn’t believe her black friend to be her equal does a great disservice to the truth. My mom died with much of her racism intact and real. The stereotypes most of us reject were a large component of my Mom’s identity. Her alcoholism was a prism that intensified her anger toward those she felt superior to. I’m not writing this as an accusation toward my name. It’s not. It’s the truth.

I’m not saying that my Mom actively mistreated every minority she came into contact with. That’s not how the world works. Did she believe that she was superior to them? That she had a right to be served first, to be hired first, or that her color was better? Yes. My youth was filled with such diatribes and rants. If Mom would have had the power to enforce her superiority over minorities, would she have done so? Yes. If a black person was a cop, he got the job because they had to hire him. If the supervisor was black, it was affirmative action. In any argument, the n-word came out as if it were a label that negated the other side of the argument. Mom mocked and ridiculed me for speaking Spanish. She ridiculed any accent other than her own, saying it was a sign of a lack of education, breeding, or whatever nonsense might pass as a justification.

Mandatory sidenote: it is possible that someone can do an about-face and change their beliefs and way of living. This includes racists. People can change. Were it not so, we would all be cynical and filled with loathing for most people. There would be no incentive to change. As with all other behavior, if a racist succeeds in learning a better way, he or she should get a chance for redemption. It’s unfair to label someone as racist if they grew out of it. Likewise, it is no crime to point out that people once were racists; it’s just a fact.

For those without obvious intensifiers or addictions, I watched as their ideology sharpened their resolve to put the others in their place. Even as their ability to give voice to their poison lessened, their actual prejudice seethed inside of them.

There is no golden age of America, not an inclusive one. Whether we demeaned blacks, women, Jews, Latinos, or gays, the truth is that we’ve never been a county that truly worships the idea of equality. The South of my early youth was predominantly racist in a literal sense and metaphorically much worse. The surrounding elders lamented the loss of the ideals of their country. It confused me because from where I stood, efforts to force prejudices into silence were slowly improving our ability to live peacefully and equally. I didn’t have the tools or understanding to give voice to what was wrong with so many of my family members.

Whatever infected them, I could see that it was wrong.

It didn’t leave me without my own measure of guilt. Unlike others, I resented it, rejected it, and learned that such things were hurting everyone. For almost all of my adult life, I’ve been free of some of that ignorance.

I’m not sure if we can blame it all on ignorance. Many of my family members were truly intelligent. Had they focused their intelligence on bettering everyone’s lives, society would have been a better place.

When confronted, they’d ascribe the questions to youth or inexperience. If I pointed out that I needed a reason other than, “That’s the way it is,” they’d either resort to harsh anger, their Bibles, or some other circular reasoning.

Mostly Bibles that were rarely opened to the pages asking us to live peace and kindness.

It’s no surprise that my research skills have demonstrated that many of them had some sinister skeletons in their closets. “Pious bastards” rings in my head a lot.

Many still reside in that cauldron of prejudice. They don’t see themselves as racists, of course. They consume media and reinforcements that mirror what they believe. Their opinions do not change with new information.

One of my relatives couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to hear the n-word, sincere prejudices about Jews, or his definition of the differences of each kind of color. His job gave him the excuse to stereotype. Over time, it blinded him. He would get angry at me for telling him to stop using it while talking to me. I understood him, but in the opposite way than that which he’d appreciate it. My wife who died years ago secretly bit her tongue every time she was around him. It infuriated her that he couldn’t see that his heart was dark. Because I was younger and foolish, I didn’t appreciate that all of us would have been better served to let her unleash her fury on him.

If we do not exercise great care, the rising prejudices hidden in plain sight within “Make America Great Again” will ruin us. We can make America great, but not by following the lead of people who feel they are superior to others.

People see these arguments and falsely claim that such logic implies that we don’t want the best for the United States. It’s a vacuous argument for them to make – but one they’ll always make because they think it negates the need for further explanation. We all should be focused on making the best decisions for everyone.

The racists know their own hearts.

Let There Be Light – An Epitaph For Truth-Telling

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When I posted this story, I didn’t expect the invisible mob to approach me. It’s easy to skip over my stories if you don’t want to see them. Anyone not wanting to read what I have to say can easily avoid it. For most people, I’m a forgotten planet on the edge of the universe. If you’ve found me and continue to find me just to gnash your teeth, you should take more effort to stop looking for me.

It was amusing to see people assume they knew who I was talking about. That underscores my insistence that people only see what they want to see. Their own preconceptions mislead them into assumptions. Their defensive responses based on these errors tell me a lot about how they are wired and what goes on in their heads versus the persona they present to us.

This story is not about my siblings. It’s not about my paternal uncle. If it were, I would say so, especially now that I was attacked for people’s wrong assumptions about it. To be clear, I’ve been guilty of the same type of jumping to conclusions. It’s driven me to cause a couple of people needless harm. I tried to make up for it. While they might have forgiven my stupidity, they probably remember that I was a jerk needlessly to them.

I’ve waited a while to share it.

We all have people in our lives who have dark secrets. Many people would choose a miserable life over truth and honesty. They fear that the concealed darkness they protect will somehow consume them. The opposite is true: secrets, especially family secrets, only gain their power by our complicity. Children grow up to recognize the disconnect between what they’ve experienced and the story that follows them in life. Most maintain the charade of silence because it is safer. Silence seldom draws much ire or criticism. If we all consciously chose to avoid making ourselves prisoners to our secrets, we’d be happier. As with anything personal, there will always be people who ‘know,’ ones you interact with who are running their own truthline in their heads as they talk to you.

Although I can’t be sure who led him to my history online, it doesn’t change anything. He’d obviously found my thousand stories about love, life, laughter, loss, and lies. As with my family tree online, my stories are not hidden, private, or anonymous. I share them so that anyone can read them. I can’t force belief. I can’t force consumption.

I don’t claim to be a singular authority but I do lash back at anyone who challenges me with the asinine assertion that I have no right to tell my own story. I’m not forcing anyone to consume it. I get grumpy when people who’ve remained silent for decades suddenly get a voice or a conscience; or worse, when they go down the road of revisionism to challenge what happened or to create their own stories with the goal of mitigating the ones I’ve always shared. Several episodes of my life have been worsened because people have lashed out with their own revisions after mine have been out in the wild for most of my adult life. It doesn’t mean they stories are always wrong, but it does mean that their blooming interest should be cautiously examined.

I could tell the conversation had an intended point, even if we weren’t getting there directly.

He couldn’t see that attempting to challenge me would only cement my authority and right to tell my story. His anger and frustration not only told me that my words had pierced his heart, but that he recognized some truth in them. (People don’t generally argue with clowns or people with no credibility. They should stop and think about that before they start challenging or shouting at me.)

People tend to only stand rigid in anger when something has blurred their internal belief system.

It’s pointless to argue with someone wearing clown shoes – so any defensive reaction is in recognition of an arrow cast with keen accuracy.

So, I told him. “You are supposed to let the fools talk. Arguing with them only makes you foolish. If what I say is obviously false, why are you angrily wanting to silence me? It’s all out there, on the internet. Well, not all, but a great deal of it. And those parts which aren’t out there can be inferred. I think I captured the savagery of some of my youth truthfully. And some of the beauty. My story hasn’t changed in 30 years. I think that fact alone gives me a voice of authority and finality.” I wanted him to know that my story wasn’t accusatory; rather, it was history personalized and irrefutable. I wasn’t telling it to draw blood. It was my story – and mine to tell. He had his story to tell if he wants to. He won’t though, because words won’t conceal his complicity. People don’t want to take the time to examine their lives or write about it. I understand it, whether it is laziness or fear of the consequences. We cannot tell our own stories without stepping onto the fringes of other lives. It cannot be done.

“What good does it do? You’re not helping anyone. It’s over,” he said.

“It’s not entirely over. I’m not dead yet – and neither is all of your family. DNA has a lot to say, to reveal many of the lies we’ve been told. I can find things as an adult that our ancestors screamed to silence. Children will grow up and do their own research and find the things we’ve concealed. It took 25 years to find out that my family robbed me of being with a sister I would have undoubtedly appreciated more than my other sister.” I waited.

“DNA isn’t the full story, X. And people kept secrets for a reason.” It seemed like that comment wasn’t full of holes to him.

“Well, why did your parents fight you tooth and nail for no one to do a DNA test? Precisely because they knew you’d find skeletons, bastard children, and stories that would lead to huge lies. I often wonder if people knew if my own Dad had illegitimate children and that I had a black half-sister. It seems likely. They robbed me of all those years with her – and gave my Dad a chance to hide from the consequences of what he’d done. Even now, no one wants to talk about the fact that my Grandfather Terry was ridiculously old to be marrying Grandmother Terry as young as she was. My Grandpa Cook had his own skeletons, but he loved me when he was older. I didn’t know all those stories. The love he had for me was real. Knowing the truth does not change who they were. It might change who we are, though.”

He started to object and I cut him off and continued.

“It helps me. Most of the guilty are dead. I’m not claiming moral superiority. I am better than my ancestors, though. Literally, every moment of your life is over in the sense you use the word, right? Yet, when you think about yourself, you think about the sum of your words and experiences. All history. You can choose another path and never look back. That’s not what we do, though. Telling only the beautiful moments is easy. We are the sum total of what we’ve said or done. We have to earn a reset when we’ve realized we were wrong and offered to make amends.” I knew he hadn’t thought of that.

“What about your motive? It’s obvious that you are writing about it just to hurt people.” He seemed to think that was a rebuttal.

I noted he didn’t challenge the truth of my writing – just its existence.

“My motive? What was the motive when ancestors covered up that my dad killed someone or went to prison? Or beat me with a rake? Or when another family member told me it was my fault that my dad hit me so hard I was coughing blood? History doesn’t hold a motive. And I noticed you failed to mention that there were good times amid all the blood-stained teeth. I don’t just write about the terror. It’s odd that you focus only on the things that you’d rather that people not talk about, that you’re heavy-handedly trying to censor me. I had some great moments when I was young. I’ve never said otherwise and grow tired of people saying I do.”

He was clearly dumbstruck. “Listen, I can’t defend why anyone did or said things. I wasn’t there. But our dads were both more or less good people. They had problems, to be sure.”

I cut him off.

“Most people don’t beat their wife and kids. Or fail to protect kids when they are being beaten. They also don’t use the n-word or hold a buffet of prejudices. Or kill people because they chose to drink and drive. Those aren’t problems. They are psychosis. Family preached that they were superior to black people and that anyone sharing their religion wasn’t welcome in Heaven. My Dad tried to kill me and never faced the consequences of the law or even of family stepping in and demanding he act like a human being. Their silence encouraged him to continue for decades.”

I paused, as he stammered.

“Well, my dad loves God. He’ll be in Heaven.” I could tell he was certain of the fact.

“I know you love your dad. You were almost always good a good person and had a way of sharing laughter everywhere you went. It is possible to be a good person and have a parent or parents who were not good people. It’s okay to say you loved bad people because that is how love works. It’s no sin. It is a sin, though, to insist they were good people because you won’t see the truth of their badness. We have to eclipe the shadow of the people who should have known better.” I waited.

I continued.

“Some of my family looked away while my dad beat me dozens of times. They told me to go back to my dad after he literally tried to kill me. They let my dad lock me in a shed in the middle of summer, and make me eat rotted meat to teach me a lesson. They let dad beat mom and told her it was her fault and god’s will. They told people they were better than dark people. They used their jobs to hurt people who weren’t white. They said gay people were the Devil’s children. And as always, I have to reiterate that I had family members who did stand up sometimes and they were shouted down, too. Some tried. People forget that I acknowledge those people, too.”

“Your dad is a better person than me, I’ll give you that much. He’ll die one day and people will piously say he was a good man. And when he’s gone, I’m still be here, writing, if writing the truth can be twisted to be an accusation instead of a recitation. I stood in silence when people called my grandpa a degenerate drunk, all those years ago. Your dad could be generous and lovely as a person. I’ve said so. I know that the negative drowns out the positive. But that is the point. You can’t escape the totality of what you’ve said and done. People might not have snapped my bones with their own hands but their beliefs pushed them to allow others to do so. Had they ever realized they were wrong and told me as much, it would have been redemptive. People like them rarely do, though.”

I continued. “Your dad insisted that if a thing were true he could say it with a clear conscience. Those words alone give me a license to share my story where it overlaps with my family. And I will. Because I can. Because it’s my story. One day, this conversation will be out there, too. My goal isn’t to find the mud. It’s to tell a story. I can’t change what happened. I can either silence it or share it.”

“You’re an asshole!” he said.

“It’s hereditary. That’s my point. I haven’t beaten anyone to death yet, raped a young girl, or allowed anyone to do it and get by with it, so I guess I’m ahead of our ancestors, aren’t I? As an adult, I have not once allowed another adult to beat a child in my presence. I don’t recall ever saying that I wish the white race were back in charge, that gay people should be put down, or that my religion was the only one.” I laughed.

The phone went silent.

I won’t though.

Dust Eddies In Time

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While I will get the words wrong, my recollection is at least correct for tone and content. Many parts of the day I write about are a blur. It was a complex day for more than one reason. Like a few other days, the day sits on the calendar of our minds. I will write around the fringes so as to avoid treading upon the loss which brought us all together. All of our lives are complex. Our memories, reactions, and ability to interact fluctuate with an erratic ebb and flow.

I was in the geography of my childhood, sitting in the church that seems to ‘the’ church in my memories. It sits in silence off a highway between places travelers seldom slow enough to notice, surrounded by the relics which once thrived. Like so many rural places, it fights the bubble of time that envelopes the area. It is the nexus of memories for many people, benchmarking people’s faith and sense of family and togetherness. This church remains, across the highway from the place my dad once ran his gas station. The surrounding field has reclaimed every trace of the station. One day soon enough, it will overtake everything else in the area.

Those who can remember will fade too, leaving dust eddies as they pass through the area and this world. To me, this is a comfort, even as I am unable to exonerate the existential discomfort of the knowledge. We’ll all pass this place, regardless of the velocity of our lives.

In front of me, two older ladies sat, each nervously chattering about the multitude of overlapping recollections in their lives. The further back one went into the wooden upright pews, the louder people felt comfortable talking. Whether it is always fair, funerals serve as a social outlet and gathering place for most people. Oddly, even as we grieve or grapple with loss, we sometimes find our hearts swelling with the smiles and faces of people who were once integral to our identity and lives. Loss ignites our connection to the shadows of our past; the demands of daily life usually blur that enthusiasm soon after.

I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth countless times as I attempt to navigate the mysterious awkwardness of interacting with people, especially ones I either once shared a deep connection to, or strangers who echo an odd familiarity. I later found out that I got roped into a hurtful conversation without being aware of it. I can’t take it back, so I will forever be someone’s anecdote. In a roundabout way, that is also what each of our lives does for everyone else.

“I never attended this church. I only came here for funerals. White Church was the only church for us back in the day,” said the older lady on the left.

“We should get back to the cemetery there. Not today, though. It’s Hell’s furnace out there. The old church was something. I hated to see it go. We lost the community when it left.” The lady on the right half-whispered it with a bit of pain and nostalgia in her voice. “Remeber the potlucks? The summer singing?”

When she said it, I thought of the mosquitoes, the blistering heat, and the discomfort of hot, uncomfortable Sunday-best clothing that churches like the White Church once required of members. I also recalled celery in potato salad, mind-numbingly long sermons sending all to Hades for our indiscretions – and cars with no air conditioning. Nostalgia certainly and capably erases the memories that more accurately convey the complexity of living in the past.

“The last time I was here, it was Carolyn’s funeral. Kak or Kakky they called her. I remember playing with her when she was younger. Their dad was a mean drunk back then. Carolyn took after her papa and married that no-account Bobby Dean. What a mess.”

The lady on the left was unaware that Carolyn was my mother.

The lady on the right nodded her head solemnly. She almost visibly shuddered. “Remember how she looked? That funeral home that got caught stacking bodies in the hallway did her funeral. That place out of up north, wasn’t it?”

I knew what was probably going to be said next. I wasn’t mistaken.

In her best gossipy whisper, the older lady on the left leaned in and said, “That horrible gravestone with the Bud Light can engraved on it is still down there. Can you imagine? Lord knows she was a drunk, but can you picture someone’s daughter thinking a beer car is a good idea for a tombstone?” She laughed.

“That daughter! Remember when she about gave Harold, or was it Howard, a stroke when he tried to adopt those two precious boys?” They both nodded toward one another.

I leaned in and said, “She’s still alive, too. Hasn’t changed one bit.” I told them in case they wanted to know. Neither registered that I might be closer to the people they’d mentioned than they realized.

I was unbothered, however.

Before arriving at the church, I drove the long loop around Rich. The roads were scorched with heat. Though I half-expected it, I choked up a bit as I neared the place where my grandparents once lived, off Highway 39 near Cook Road. I stopped at Upper Cemetery. An older man was outside in the heat, spraying the weeds and ditches. His dust-covered truck blocked the arch entrance, so I left my car along the artery of Highway 49 and walked out over the slight rise to the place where my parents are buried. As I crossed the top of the rise, my lungs filled with a pungent dust cloud, clotting my lungs and rendering my throat raw. I quickly walked down to the edge of the swamp and pondered the place for a moment.

I noted the Bud Light can on my mom’s gravestone and laughed. I think my sister chose well; some of the reasons for my agreement are based on amusement and aptness. The Bud Light can, at least, is an open salute to an essential truth in my mom’s life: more than anything, she lived for a drink. Even now, so many years later, I’m still discovering the mass of hidden lies and secrets in my parent’s lives.

When I got back to the car, my voice was almost gone. A million little pieces of this place remained in my mouth, nose, and lungs.

The cemetery embodies the communities around it. If the traffic becomes still, you can hear the insects, fields, and marshes for miles as they simply pulsate. Time doesn’t interfere in that place. I can hear it now, feel it in my bones, and feel it call me softly across the distance. I suspect you can too if you focus inward toward the places of your youth.

Truth sits outside of us. Every other person on this planet carries his or her own idea of each of us, independent of the facts and circumstances of our lives. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to amend their mental biographies of us.

I hope that you can find a good life if you don’t have one, embrace the parts that can enlighten and lighten you, and forgive or ignore all of us who may trespass against you. In this world, it is the only way forward.

The Unsettling Solace Of the Ruins

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This is a guest post.

Each of us has a hometown. Returning brings the blessing of memories and the bitterness of entropy enveloping what we remember.

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Trips to my hometown are usually quick and for a particular purpose. Occasionally during these trips, an investment of a few minutes is made to drive past the small house that was home to me for well over half my life. 

One of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of the day we moved in. I was not yet four years old. We lived next door, and my main contribution to the move was carrying my baby doll’s high chair down the front steps of that two-bedroom house (where a sheet divided one bedroom down the middle to accommodate my brother on one side and my sister and me on the other) to the larger (barely) three-bedroom.

This was home for the next 28 years–until my mother died—when it became a house-home mixture of sorts. It was never the same for any of us with her missing, but my father owned it for several more years before selling it and moving to a new town. 

In the bottom right corner of the photo is the front window to my bedroom. It often held a box fan in the summer and was covered with plastic on the inside during the winter to help block the cold draft. During my early teenage years, it held a view to and thoughts of a much bigger world beyond. 

The crepe myrtle outside this window was always one of my favorite things about the house. It provided a wonderful canopy for day or evening, and its delicate flowers and flaky bark were a constant enticement to touch. This crepe myrtle has never been subjected to the yearly scalping performed on many crepe myrtles, and so it has grown from the 10-foot (or less) height of my youth to the 30-40 foot beauty you see here. Knowing this tree as a friend from day one makes it feel as though the roots of this tree are deeply intertwined with the “roots of me.”

The photo is from the street in front of the house-taken today during one of those quick trips.  

Not all here was beautiful, though. Today brought the unsettling (and a bit devastating, being totally honest with myself) discovery of an abandoned home with a broken kitchen window and No Trespassing/Keep Out signs posted in various places on the property. Barring an unforeseen and unlikely miracle, this house will probably not exist within a few years. Based on the condition the structure and its outlying storage buildings are in, I hope it doesn’t. It would be far less painful to see a clean slate than to see the neglected and abused ruins of a home that held life and dreams for so many decades. Maybe I will drive past again during the next fast dash to the area; maybe I won’t. Maybe instead, I will ask friends who still live nearby to let me know when it is gone. I know this is not a situation unique to me, and maybe it makes no sense to many others who often moved in their growing up years; but, for today, I am sad about what is and miss what was. 

History Seldom Stays Silent

01 feb 1967 and other for dad combined

 

This post is personal. Read at your own discretion.
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I’m not quite sure what precipitated some of my revelations this week. Gears clicked and connections snapped together in so many different places. I felt like Rainman as a few things which had previously been a block for me fell away. Not only was I able to help several other people, but I also used my luck to take another stab at some of my own history.
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I found a few things which I’ll process and write about later. Some of them are dark and some are simply crazy. A few of my ancestry leads broke open, too. A couple of people are going to have to rethink who they think they are who they think they come from. I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone that while we are not our DNA, it is the tenuous and undeniable connection that belies our ancestry and heritage. I’ve made some discoveries which I’ve never shared with anyone; once told they are no longer ideas to be held, but burdens which cannot be forgotten. All of us have our internal history, the one which we know to be true – but often isn’t.
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Regarding one of my most personal finds this week, I only found them because I had helped someone find a bit of information. I wrote, “Start your inquiry in the simplest way possible.” Easy words to write but hard to live by. Starting simple is exactly like attempting to tell a story without drawing an entirely new and complex roadmap in the middle of the story as we tell it. We are so impatient for the people in our lives to get to the point and yet some of us are enraptured by the presence of a story well-told, filled with wrinkles, and the destination unclear.
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And so, in a matter of minutes, I found news articles in Indiana regarding some of my dad’s run-ins with the law. There was more than one, I discovered. I’ve been told that my dad left Arkansas because he had family in Indiana, which is true. The myth is that he had exhausted the good-ole-boy network in Monroe County, Arkansas and needed a clean break. Like in most rural Southern places, it was possible to run amok without real consequence in Monroe County, all the way to mayhem and sometimes murder. I do know that my Grandmother Terry exerted a great deal of pull in a continual attempt to keep my dad from being held accountable for the hell-raising that he always found himself in. My dad’s father James died in early 1964, and shortly before my oldest sibling was born.
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The story of all this is a massive tapestry shared by countless people. Some know more of it than others, especially the older generation, the one succumbing to death with greater urgency. Others, the younger generation, are unaware of much of the tapestry, as ideas like family honor, secrecy and shame shielded them from being aware in the first place. I’ve unevenly kept my post through the last few years, honing in on some truths. Some I’ve cemented rightfully into the record because I was able to find sources other than those affected by dubious family loyalty.
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That same misplaced loyalty to protect my dad served as an umbrella for him through much of his life. It enveloped him and encouraged many of my paternal relatives to shamefully look away as he engaged in a long series of brutally violent and alcohol-fueled crimes against his wife and children. (And society.)
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Alcoholism is one of the few diseases that infects others with an inability to see and hear clearly. Alcohol coupled with anger or violence demands a collective and permanent bout of amnesia. Once initiated, this voluntary amnesia makes everyone an accomplice.
I’m relieved that I’ve learned to place this idea in a tidy descriptive box like that because it makes it more palatable and relatable. People get really angry when they are reminded that they allowed children to be abused.
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My dad’s family silently stood by, almost always pretending to not see it, nor the symptoms of pathology that it engendered in myself, my brother and my sister. It is a miracle that we survived. It’s a greater miracle that I did not see fit to murder him while I had the chance, or that another family member didn’t light his bed on fire in the dark of night. Throughout my early life, I constantly heard, “We don’t talk about that.” Or, “Shame on you! He’s your dad.” The latter would be hurled at me through tightly-bound lips, spitting the obvious anger all over me, even as the person saying the words could see the dark purple and yellow bruises from my ankles to my neck. I can’t fathom how many children went to church with the hard wooden pews pressing against the trail of agony on their legs and back, wondering when the mercy would flow toward them.
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“Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot,” is an old saying to remind us that situations are complicated and look different from the outside. It’s easy for normal people to jump to their dad’s defense, (or mine) on the pretense of biology. It’s easy for some to expect me not only to forgive, which I have done – yet for some, they also insanely demand that I not use my voice to share my experiences. It is possible to share simply because the story of our lives is interesting to us. As we tell it, we learn things anew.
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“Bobby Dean was a good man,” some would say. No, he was not.
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By any objective measure and any accounting, he was not good. In his defense, he had his shining moments, as everyone does – and I remember those with fondness. To any family member asking me to focus only on those shining moments, I remind them that not all monsters have fangs. Some of them are in the PTA and engage in all manner of horrors.
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Years ago, Dad helped organize a fish fry to help someone with medical bills. It was truly a good effort with real consequence. A family member used it angrily against me as an example to support their ignorant thesis that my dad was a good man beneath it all. I acknowledged that it was indeed a good act, but that terrible people live lives of mostly normal constancy. I then shocked and angered the family member by saying, “Is that man good if he broke a rake across my back so violently that I peed blood for a week, or beat my mom so hard with a pistol that he broke her nose? Killed someone? Went to prison for multiple crimes?” As I talked, the man’s face became crimson. “And anyone who let him do it is as guilty as he is.” He stomped away.
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As my ability to comb the past has grown, I’ve assembled a larger picture of my dad. The more I learn about his life, the more sympathy I see for his trajectory. His arc was cruelly bent at an early age and he chose not to deviate from its perpetual fall. The responsibility is his and his alone, though, just as my impatience in my own personal life has led me to some dark moments. I, however, didn’t have children; my ownership of the defective biology that flowed through my dad now dies with me. I’m being literal. Whatever dad had lurked in his DNA.
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As I do with everyone, I say that almost everything we do when young can be forgiven. Most of us are simply stupid when younger. After a certain point, it becomes an issue of either willfulness or pathology. Beating your wife and kids to the point of risking murder is a great example of this, if using half your income to buy alcohol and cigarettes isn’t. Everything must be weighed against youthful ignorance and the long totality of a person’s life. Accumulated choices and consequences allow us to characterize someone in a way that singular mistakes cannot.
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I’d also been reluctantly told that my dad was only guilty of being in the getaway car at a truck stop robbery on Highway 20 in Indiana. Based on the evidence I’ve been able to uncover, he wasn’t just “there.” What I wasn’t told, however, was that he had also committed other crimes, including burglary, while he was in Indiana. He was younger than I had been told, which had hampered my ability to accurately research. I had to indirectly ask questions, usually when people had been drinking. My head was filled with a million untruths, half-truths, misdirection.
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My dad was sentenced to prison in Indiana the month before I was born. I was the last child, the baby, and the second-born son, and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, was branded with his name upon my birth in Brinkley, Arkansas. Some of my dad’s misfortune benefitted me, as during one long portion, I lived with my Grandma and Grandpa Cook. I’ve long suspected that Dad’s incarceration in another state might have saved my life, and most probably the life of my mother.
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As you all know, I later rejected my birth name entirely and yet credit my grandparents with the part of me that I find myself prideful of. Names don’t contain the essence of a person. My Grandpa would have never wrapped his head around my choice of name in “X,” but he would have leaned in and hugged me with his arm around me on the porch swing and laughed at my foolishness. He would have known why without being told. His eyes had seen a lot of human misery and recognized the stale indifference that often overpowered my dad. When I was young, Grandpa often said, “Don’t be afraid of things on four legs. It’s the ones on two that will get you.” In the rural area we lived, critters and creatures constantly came to visit, often stealthily and seen through the darkened screen of an open window on a blistering night. Years later, I felt as if Grandpa were talking about my dad. He rarely had words with my mom and dad, but several of the instances were warnings to stop mistreating their kids, and me in particular.
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So it came to pass that this week, on a whim,  I found the first article from Indiana in less than 2 minutes, after years of haphazard and dedicated digging. Dad started small and then went big with his nascent crime career in Indiana. I indexed the articles so that future interested parties might find the articles more easily.
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It’s worth noting that regardless of my dad’s official criminal record, he killed a cousin of mine while drinking and driving, (Which I recently found a mention of in a newspaper. Another tidbit that I literally just discovered is that my dead cousin’s father was related to the county sheriff.)
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My dad was quite the adept arsonist and managed to be involved in almost all the petty and felonious no-nos on the books, whether it involved guns, marijuana, VIN displacement, DWI, domestic violence, or assault. When the Springdale City Attorney went to prison for DWI-fixing, you can be sure that my parent’s names figured prominently in that accounting.
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Because the truth reaches places I hadn’t expected, I now know that a few other rumors I had heard in screaming and bloody episodes in the deep of night as bones gave way to furniture are probably true. Words I didn’t have context for now have meaning and their incoherence has slithered away, leaving behind a freshly-washed sidewalk for me to examine.
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I say none of this with shame; his life was his own.
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I have more than paid the price for his presence in my life. For anyone who has read my mind by reading my words over the years, you know that I’ve worked hard to extract the useful parts of my dad’s life, too. I’ve not turned my back on the whole person. A story I wrote earlier this year was read by thousands of people. It was a story of my dad as a whole, imperfect person, written through his eyes. I understand much of dad’s pathology now. I owed him a demonstration that I could see him as a human being.
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I’m not bitter, but I will confess that the sharpest lemonade is akin to water to my taste in part due to my dad.
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There have been times in which people have incredulously asked me about some of my stories. “That can’t be true!” someone will say.
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It’s true I sometimes get the details wrong, but I assure you that I try to get it right. I’m the only one out here on the limb of my family tree doing the time and attempting to share my part of the story. Not all stories are of youthful summer mornings on the porch with my Grandpa Willie.
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Where I err in detail, I strike a chord in truth.
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All these decades later, I’m amused that I get the final say. I read, I ponder, and I consider. The scarring I have is my friend, one which whispers in my ear as I put words on paper.
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Recently, I’ve been able to talk openly with someone who is familiar with the tornado of my youth. He’s shared some stories, many of them I couldn’t remember. In the past, he might have been the one to silence my family’s critics, as his family loyalty was ingrained into him in a way that it never was with me. His advancing age and experiences in the world finally gave him permission to detach and tell the overlapping stories of our youth. I thought that it would have been my cousin Jimmy, but cancer silenced him a few years ago. During a conversation last week, I could only imagine the storytelling if Jimmy were alive to join in. Here we are though, with our myths, certainties and acquired perspective, wondering how many unpleasant ripples our own choices might have made in life.
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Before parting, I’d like to mention that there’s another sinister chapter in my dad’s life, one which I don’t feel is my story to tell. It is a mirrored hall of horrors. I’ve circled its fringes with curiosity for a time; I doubt that I’ll ever claim ownership to the story. That I believe the chapter of his life is true reflects on the chasm that my dad punched and beat into me. I sometimes creep up to the bloody edge of it and recoil. It is the darkest of possible secrets. I guard it closely, knowing that those who would disagree with the assessment of dad would cringe and run if I were to shout it to them in reply their foundationless defense of a man long dead. I know that others walking in this world have their stories. Their silence is astounding to me. It is theirs to guard, though.
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