Category Archives: Personal

09282013 My Mother Never Had a Birth Certificate

My mother never had a birth certificate. In this age, it sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

She was born in September 1946, in Widener, Arkansas. Although I’m not sure which crops were being picked or harvested, I’m certain that my grandparents were there working the fields of Eastern Arkansas in some capacity. My Aunt Marylou was somewhere around 15 at the time and she still remembers it. (Coincidentally, Marylou had to request a delayed birth certificate many decades after her birth, as she didn’t have one, either.) The family was very poor so anything other than an at-home birth would have been almost impossible for my mom.

Mom is probably one of the last people who will ever be able to get through life in the U.S. without a birth certificate. The rules are so strict now and modern living so complicated that the government has no interest in allowing people to go without distinctive identification. Somehow, mom skated through collecting social security and other bureaucratic complications.

A few years ago, I helped mom do the paperwork for a delayed birth certificate. She got too frustrated, though, and gave up without trying very hard. Part of the reason in her mind was probably that she wasn’t going to live long enough to need it, anyway. She had just started a new job as a janitor at Brinkley public schools and retirement was just a fantasy to her at that point.

I hate to think that mom worked the last 5 or 6 years at such a physical job. She didn’t have to, of course. It would have been comforting to know that she had even a year after working until retirement to enjoy her life, even if it were limited to reading and visiting people. Many of her choices limited her options and that somehow doesn’t mitigate my wish much.

This is a picture of my mom, her brother Harold, my grandma Nellie and my grandpa Cook, in December,1956.

A Rusty Nail Is All I Need

As strange as it sounds, one of my most prized possessions is most of a rusty nail. Seriously.

Years ago, before it was torn down, I visited the last house my maternal grandparents lived in together. I went on the property at great risk, as it looked like it had been abandoned and infiltrated by wasps, weeds, and rain through the old metal roof and tar paper siding. Before moving to this house, they lived to the south, still off highway 39, on the opposite side, near White Cemetery. They had an outhouse at the previous house.

I have an incredible number of memories about that old “house on the hill” as I call it. It was in Rich, Arkansas; not much of a place, really, even its heyday if it ever truly had one.  It was on Highway 39, on the west side of the road. Cook Road was slightly to the south of the old house. Most of the time cotton seemed to be the crop surrounding it in every direction.

I remember when grandma and grandpa moved in. One of the first things done was to hang a porch swing on the south end of the full-length wooden slat board porch. In that day, one didn’t use complicated screw hooks – a long nail would be hammered in and bent around to hold the chain linked through it. This isn’t the safest of ways to do it, not by today’s standards. Yet I can’t remember seeing one fall when I was young. (The second thing done was to build Grandma Nellie a storm shelter. She was deathly afraid of any weather, having survived the stories of the tornado in 1909 that leveled the town of Brinkley.)

Either Uncle Raymond or Uncle Harold picked me up and held me up high toward the roof of the porch. I held the nail more or less straight while grandpa hammered it in. Once we nailed the two nails, we hung the swing and sat in it, enjoying the simple fun and relaxation of it. I spent a lot of hours on that swing with grandpa. On some level, it is partially to blame for my extreme views on simplicity and comfort. Adding 44 uses and extras to things mostly ruins them.

To this day, when it rains sometimes I can smell the dirt and cotton blowing across the porch toward grandpa and me, sitting on the porch. If weather was coming, we’d usually be listening to grandma cajole grandpa into coming into the house or getting to the storm shelter.

The only thing I was really interested in salvaging that day in the 90s was the swing nail closest to the house, the one I remember “helping” put in. Honestly, I can’t say with 100% certainty that it’s the same nail, although I believe that it is. I’m humbled to think that the first swing installed at that house was balanced there almost 1/2 a century ago. I managed to extract some of the long bent nail from the upper wooden beam above the porch. Everything was caving in as I struggled to use it for footing.

Sidenote: one branch of the Pledger family was the last to live in the house. Their stuff, including pictures, were scattered all around inside. I learned later in life that my grandpa Willie supposedly had an illegitimate child with one of the Pledgers. At the time, he was working for the original Pledger patriarch at a sawmill in Clarendon. My mom didn’t know anything about her half-sister until after the half-sister died. The story is that she and mom looked a lot alike. Although I have delved fairly extensively into the Pledgers, I have avoided any direct linking to their trees or stories.

 

 

This picture is of the old house on the hill. (The aforementioned porch swing is on the left in the background.) Grandpa Willie is seated center. They are sitting on the porch steps, a series of piled railroad logs. I nailed at least 1,000 nails into those logs. These logs were one of the many reasons that I still love the smell of creosote of all kinds.

God and The Weather (Interventionist God…)

‘Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man’
-Thomas Paine

(I couldn’t get this blog post “right,” not by any measure I could fathom. It’s really 2 distinct concepts slammed together inelegantly. But it’s honest and written with a good intention.)

I don’t believe in an interventionist god…

I know that I am a very small minority. There aren’t many people who purport to believe in god, yet don’t believe in god’s interventions in our affairs – or with nature.

-God does not interfere in the affairs of men.
-God does not control, direct, or mitigate the natural order of the world, including the weather.
-God does not use disease, weather or other things to punish or reward people or countries.
-I distrust people who disagree with my opinion on the 3rd bullet point.

God set it in motion and has given us a large enough brains and toolboxes to work out our own issues. And yet we are not doing what we can to help one another. We have been successful to a point but our own individual and national allegiances stymy our potential. So concentrated we are on smaller issues that we are allowing things to be unfixed that wouldn’t cost us much in time or resources- not really.

I have a huge respect for what we have done as a civilization. Despite crazy nationalism and divergent and bitter religious beliefs, we continue to figure things out and solve complex problems. Our world is improving, becoming smarter, and people in general are suffering less. I think that the world is becoming a better place. As education replaces opinion, I think that our lives will continue to improve.

I look at our brains and our potential and see a positive universe, rather than negative.

This blog is supposed to convey who I am and what I think. I’m not sure what bothers me more: people saying I believe the opposite of what I’ve stated or becoming angry that I disagree with them. I’d hope that recognizing that our opinions diverge is important to everyone. But I’m learning anew with great frequency that the admiration and respect for other people’s opinions tends to shrink dramatically where religion treads. Whereas once I was atheist, I now “believe,” but my belief does not include a clause which allows for a beneficent god to intervene on our individual behalf. I am certain that the cosmos was set into motion by some force, but I don’t believe that the universe can  be made to change course based on human consequences.

I also find it amusing that many people would tell me “You can’t believe that!” As if any religious argument can be presented as a logical buttress for any such proclamation. There are a lot of religions in the world, many practiced by those would insist that their flavor is the only one possible. I don’t tolerate that type of religious exclusion well. The joy of religion is that we can and do select what works for us. Even casual observation of religion at work demonstrates the striking diversity and difference of religious opinion.

Someone once said that you can choose your own opinion, but not your own facts. Our development as a civilization is full of instances where “everyone knew” something that turned out to be false. Experts were put in the spotlight to placate people- right up until they were no longer right.

08222012 Pranked And Fired at Work (From 2012)

One of my co-workers, Alex, had his last day of work. He had often told me that he was going to ‘get me’ one way or another. Little did I know that he was capable of pulling off the best work prank in a long time. He even managed to get the head of Human Resources involved.

My supervisor called me up to go with him to H.R. We sat down and the head of H.R. told me that I was being suspended and/or fired depending on his investigation and that I had been accused of fostering a hostile work environment.

If you’ve ever been fired or been in the room when it has happened to anyone else, you can imagine how horrible the experience was for everyone else (not just me.) Both my supervisor and the head of H.R. had perfectly inscrutable expressions and delivery the entire time. We talked for a few minutes. As I was leaving and just about the shut the door, the head of H.R. stood up and said, “Wait a minute, X, I’ll let you go ahead and read the file.” He had handed me a blue folder with my name on it. It had been laying in plain sight during the firing meeting.

When I opened it, what I was saw inside was a single sheet of paper, the paper pictured below. Even looking at the paper, it took a few seconds for the realization to sink in that not only was I not fired, but that Alex had finally punk’d me, all with the incredible performances of my supervisor and H.R. head. I had to sit down.

When I returned to the storeroom, everyone was at the front area, awaiting to see how it had went and to get a good laugh.

It was an exceptional experience and I’m glad they ‘got me,’ so to speak. Alex was as happy as the king of the world knowing that he had pulled off the prank. I think everyone was surprised that I had no inkling about it happening. I’d like to say I suspected, but I was totally ignorant of what was going on. Even when inside the H.R. office I still had no clue or even a suspicious thought in my head. They had me perfectly fooled.

I learned a lot from the prank. The first thoughts in my head were of my wife and how she’d be affected and also of my supervisor and how much I’d let him down. I also realized that it was true how much I liked my job. I’ve always said it and even preached it – but being ‘fired’ focused that idea into certainty. I’ll never look at Steve, the H.R. director the same way again, either. His performance was Oscar-worthy.

I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t start screaming and throwing things when I was told I was fired? : )

12292013 Grandma and Her Snuff

Back in the day, it wasn’t an odd thing necessarily for women to dip snuff. “Snuff” is most often thought of as the type of tobacco that you might see pro baseball players or bull riders pinch out and put between their teeth and gums, letting the flavor seep and then spit. But the kind most of us might imagine is not the kind that my grandma enjoyed. Using snuff isn’t often portrayed in television or movies, even though it was extremely common in many areas, even among the affluent of society.

The snuff that my grandma Nellie loved was the other kind, the dried, powdery type. It very much resembled cinnamon, and was the result of dried and very finely ground tobacco. Instead of sniffing it or inhaling it through her nostrils, she would put a pinch in her mouth and let is seep. She would then spit into a cup and wipe the corner of her mouth. Keep in mind that by the time I was born in 1967, grandma would have been 58 years old and didn’t have most of her original teeth. I no longer remember whether she ever sniffed it through her nose. I don’t have any memory of it.

For an interesting history lesson, you should google snuff or read a little about it on wikipedia:
Snuff Wikipedia  It is a reminder of how strange and bizarre some of our customs really are.

I admit to loving the smell of snuff. Grandma’s most-purchased brand was W E Garrett.  The taste could be very bitter. I’m not certain how much nicotine was in it, but I’m sure it was very potent.

It was made packed in small metal canisters, or in a larger drinking glass size. The drinking glass size is worth mentioning because that is exactly what many people used them for – glasses. The top of the glass was an embossed metal lid, sealed onto the glass under the paper label. Using glasses like these was pure marketing genius.

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Above it a decent picture of what these glasses looked like.

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The small metal canisters were 2-3 inches tall and an inch or two wide. As you might imagine, these little cans were used to store coins, buttons, bugs, just about anything an adult or imaginative kid could imagine. I would often open one and just sit and smell the acrid tobacco after grandma emptied it.

Growing up, grandma always had a damp rag by her, mostly to wipe at her lips from dipping snuff.

If you look closely at the picture below, you can see that grandma has a little spittoon on her foot rest.
(She looks grouchy because she didn’t have her glasses on and she often didn’t enjoy getting her picture taken.)

02082014 Child and Domestic Abuse Isn’t Caused by Alcohol

My dad is the gentleman on the left…

I gave up trying to edit this blog post. All errors or poorly worded areas are my fault. Thanks.

First, I was a victim of child abuse and alcoholism. And all that accompanies this type of story.

Second, most people would probably agree that my point is obvious; yet it’s not.

Breaking news: adults who abuse their children tend to also sometimes suffer from substance abuse. Their tendency to abuse is not due to their substance abuse but rather exacerbated by it. Drinking does not cause normal people to commence abusing their children anymore than drinking suddenly makes a person want to publicly rant about Jewish people or burn white flags on their neighbor’s lawns. The root of it was already present, seeking release.

Take away all the alcohol, drugs or substances and the abuse remains. I don’t doubt that drinking removes inhibitions for many adults and allows them to abuse; but alcohol in itself is not the culprit.

Anyone who is on the verge of committing child abuse cannot honestly say that the lack of alcohol is the only catalyst missing from their intention of a crime. If they were to say this, they already need treatment for psychological issues.

(Removal of all alcohol would not eliminate child abuse, if the argument is stretched to its longest possible scenario.)

In a world of my choosing, everyone would have access to free mental health care, regardless of income.

In a world of my choosing, anyone having committed documented child abuse would be required to undergo rigorous evaluation as to when and if they would ever be permitted to have their children again. Anyone already convicted has already demonstrated their lack of normalcy in this regard and the presumption would be against them. In a world of my choosing, if you abused your spouse, one of the many requirements would be lengthy and difficult counseling (among other things).

As a victim of abuse, I can rant expertly on the stupidity and cruelty of abuse. As a victim of a family of alcoholics, I can rant expertly on that, too.

The difference for me is that most people who drink do so responsibly, in my worldview. It would be very easy to exaggerate and shout for prohibition of alcohol. But it would be irresponsible on my part. Each of us is responsible for how and when we imbibe, and whether we do it too much.

In a world of my choosing, anyone could ask for and get free substance abuse treatment. Anyone.

It is a crime against personal liberty to abolish the availability of alcohol simply because those pitiful creatures who abuse other people suffer from its use.

This sort of thinking leads down many dark roads wherein adult citizens are treated as inferior creatures who would otherwise run amok absent a parental government watching them.

 

04032014 X Ancestry.com Revised Ethnicity Estimate

Ancestry.com continues to revise its dna methods. I know that I should participate in other sites DNA sequencing too, but so far I haven’t done so. No extremely close relatives have popped up on their system yet, although a 3rd cousin has emerged, albeit without a corresponding family tree attached.

Although I haven’t been able to pin it down, I very much suspect that a couple of my great-grandparents might not be related to me at all genetically. At each generational level, I’ve found significant personal turmoil that usually indicates that genetics might not equal a family tree relationship. It’s not that I’m pointing fingers – they lived their lives as they had to or wanted to. I don’t like the temptation to gloss over people’s tendencies to marry more than once, have children out of wedlock, move away from one’s children and so forth. It was common in previous generations and it is still affecting our family trees today.

I’ve written before that the best way to start ancestry is to assume that perhaps most or all of what you think you know might be mistaken. It makes it easier to swallow when you have royally messed up in several ways. We are inextricably tied to our genetic markets. (A story this week involved a white supremacist attempting to establish an all-white town, only to be confronted with DNA evidence that he is significantly “black” genetically. I love this kind of story, not only because the gentleman in question got his comeuppance but also because science and genetics intervened. )

The picture above: my mom is on the right end, holding my cousin Cheryl.

The picture above: my mom is on the right end, holding my cousin Cheryl.

The picture above: my maternal grandfather on the left, my cousin Cheryl in the middle, and my great-grandmother on the right. In the back are my Uncle Melvin and cousin Barry.
The above picture: my grandmother Nellie on the far left, with her siblings.
nellie aunt betty and unknown girl

The above picture: my grandmother Nellie on the far left, my aunt Betty to her right.

(Many thanks to my cousin Cheryl who gave me many more pictures to cherish and share with family and the world.)

The above picture is Bobby Dean Terry

The above picture is Harold and Wayne Cook.

The above picture is Carolyn Terry.

 The above picture is Raymond Cook

Ancestry DNA Test

(Written in 2012)

Ancestry.com recently entered the DNA/ethnicity business. For $100, you can have a DNA sample analyzed to determine your ethnicity and possibly find others out there who might be related.

Keep in mind too that ethnicity doesn’t mean what most people generalize it to mean, especially when geographical isolators are used to help you identify your origins.

I was very interested in the getting the results. While it wasn’t exactly what I had expected in terms of information, the process taught me several inter-related things. The results will expand as more and more people participate in this particular system with ancestry.com.

Unlike many, I didn’t worry at all about the privacy aspect. What most people don’t realize is that your DNA is EASY to collect – and anyone can get a sample of your DNA if they wish – and have it tested. This includes your mom, ex-girlfriend, boss, or worst enemy. It’s just a reality now.

Ancestry also allows you to connect with genetic relatives, if you wish. This part is quite interesting, too. It requires some effort to understand. I’m so used to generalizing, like most of the rest of the world, that I have to train myself to stop being sloppy when I’m thinking about genetics and how it works.

There are several other services out there now which offer similar services. 23andMe and Family Tree DNA are two of the most reputable. I’m going to use one of those in the near future, too.

Burial and Pallbearers For Mom

 (From September 2013)

One unusual aspect of my mom’s funeral was that the funeral home my sister used defined the utility of the word “pallbearer” literally. As the brief graveside service ended, the funeral director called upon the pallbearers to lift the casket with straps and put my mom and her casket into the dug grave. Many people were shocked or surprised by this. It caught me off guard, even though I had seen the grave the night before and as the service started: there was no platform or lifter, which seems to be almost a requirement by today’s standard.

My sister chose the funeral home that mom had found that would allow her to be buried at a greatly reduced price. It was tremendously less expensive. Up until very recently, I had thought that mom was still going to be cremated. Part of mom’s growing reluctance for cremation was a result of one of my aunts talking to her about her particular beliefs about burial and cremation. To be honest, I wanted mom to be cremated – and not only because I hate the entire concept of burial as we do it today. I kept telling my sister that since she was the one who stepped up to care for mom as she was dying of cancer, it would ultimately be her decision. I’ve written before about how appreciative I am of my sister’s recent efforts:

Before I forget, too: mom was late for her own visitation. The hearse and her body had went to the wrong place. Another admission: my wife and passed the hearse on the roadside on the way to the Lutheran church. My wife conjectured that it probably was mom in that hearse on the roadside. I stupidly said, “There are 100s of hearses in Monroe County.” This is the point where I eat a plate of crow for being absolutely, totally wrong. (It had in fact been mom’s hearse…)

Not to pour salt on anyone’s feelings, but mom had told me repeatedly that she didn’t want a viewing. She got one, though. I do not know how to say it with decorum or in good taste as there is a strong taboo against saying it – but mom looked terrible in the open casket. I’ll spare you the details and you should use your imagination. But even as I saw her hair above the rim of the coffin, I knew that it was going to be bad. I don’t blame the funeral service or my sister. Mom’s appearance in many ways was a slap-to-the-face reminder about how literal death is and how viewings can be. With a closed casket, maybe we could have been “spared” the shock of it. But why should we want to be spared? Cancer is a destroyer. Mom died a hard death and making a herculean effort to “restore” her is almost blasphemy to me. For those in attendance with beliefs in the afterlife, it should not matter, for if the body is truly just a vessel, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether ANY restoration was done. I know I sound like an old stooge, going on about the artificial facade of most funerals. Whatever helps the family. But I can only react and comment as myself. I wish mom had been cremated and if not, that she had been buried without being exposed again to the world. But at least those parts were more honest than many I’ve witnessed. As tough-minded as I am, I think I might be haunted for a while, thinking of how startling mom’s appearance was.

5 of my sister’s 6 boys and my nephew Quinlan lowered my mom into the grave. The oldest boy had to step aside, as he almost slipped in. I tried to get over to the grave before they went sideways with the coffin but by then one of the boys had stepped hard on the edge and righted it as they lowered it into the ground. I forgot to mention that mom’s coffin didn’t have a liner or vault. Many people think that these are required for burials in Arkansas. They aren’t – nor should they be. Mom’s coffin went directly into the ground. It didn’t have a special seal or gasket, either.

I told them all that I was glad they got to participate directly with the burial. I explained to them that while I don’t believe in burial, I truly believe that burial should have nothing extra involved. It should be just the wrapped body going into the ground – and not because of the needless money involved, but rather to acknowledge that death is real, personal and meaningful in its own right. Much of our processions seem to distance us from our connection to death and the ground. Maybe the pallbearers thought I was crazy for thinking it was all a good thing – but I do – and it was.

Among other things affecting my mom’s passing was the incredible delta heat. It was 100 degrees on the day she was buried. Despite being well into September, both the heat and humidity were at record levels. Everything was baked and even the cologne and perfume applied earlier in the morning had burned into a different, strong smell from the sun.

The church service was very hot, too.  The country church didn’t have the cooling capacity for so many people, especially during record heat outside. Mom’s inside service ended around noon, just about the time the sun started to angrily beat down everything in its way.As in further punishment, my wife had to step into another room and leave me alone for most of the service, as the heat was about to kill her. Before I forget to mention it, I had a mild case of heat exhaustion the day before, on Sunday. I don’t know how close I came to serious injury but I knew afterwards that it had been a close call. I felt horrible for my wife, as I knew she was going to feel guilty for not being there with me.

Sundown the night before, my wife and I had driven the circuit out to and including Upper Cemetery in Rich, Monroe County, Arkansas. The heat was declining, but still over 90. As we drove through the cemetery to the swamp’s edge, the bugs were hitting the car with surprising force. Even as we parked and stopped, the bugs continued to hit the windows, top and doors hard enough to thud. I compare it to walking through a sheet of falling skittles. I jumped out of the car, dozens of bugs, flies, mosquitoes and dragon flies hitting me. I went over to lift the plywood off of the grave recently dug for my mom’s coffin. I wanted to linger and stare at the headstones, but the insects were starting to use me as a landing pad, even though I had only been out of the car for a few moments. I’ve always loved cemeteries and at sunset, they evolve into something magical. At Upper Cemetery at sundown, the ebbing sun hits the swamps and trees in a startling pattern. It is at that moment that I can sometimes feel the line of ancestors behind me, signalling to inhale deeply the richness of the swamp.

I Admit to Not Being A Great Driver

Most people state that they are better than average drivers. Statistically, this can’t be the case. With males, it is nigh on to impossible to get one to admit that his driving ability is anything short of Indy 500-ready at all times.
Not me. I have to remind myself to be mindful. I don’t consider myself to be a good driver at all. 
(Unless my insurance agent is reading this, in which case I am the best driver west of the Mississippi.) 
I also wish all the vehicles I drive had rear video cameras that I could easily see on the dash. How normal people feel confident as they speed, seemingly oblivious to the imminent death on all sides, is a mystery to me.  Seeing a wide angle shot of traffic as it approaches would be the single best thing for drivers at my skill level. Could someone surprise me with a retrofit at no charge? Thanks, and your children will be safer for this way if you do.