Tag: family stories

Wind Phones

As self-appointed family historian,
I’ve spent my entire life researching in preparation
to write  this book about
what happened to my family in May 1933,
In an attempt to capture information I don’t have,
I pen letters to my daddy,
my Uncle Gene,
my Grandmother and my Granddaddy.
After a brief breathing break,
I take a clean sheet of paper
and channel them,
recording their responses
in letters penned back to me.
It never fails to be an amazing event,
but oh how I long to hear their back door
slam behind me
as I walk into their house,
always invited,
never announced,
to sit with them at their kitchen table.

I ache for one
(okay, 26)
(or maybe 512)
(at least)
more opportunities to sit with them
and ask questions about their loves, their lives.
How did you meet?
Why did you fall in love with each other?
What were your favorite songs, colors, books?
Did you like to dance?
Did y’all  laugh a lot?
What did you wear to your wedding?
Sometimes I’d just like to hear their smiles,
as they answer commonplace questions like
Whatcha doin’?
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Whatcha gonna’ do the rest of the day?
So many questions I long to ask
especially questions
about that horrific weekend in May 1933.
Were you terrified?
How did you comfort each other?
What thoughts ran through your minds?
How did you stay calm?
What were the emotional after shocks like?
and so on.

Today as I gather
my thoughts, newspaper clippings,
photos, letters, and other ephemera
related to what happened that weekend
and prepare to start writing for real this time,
I remember reading about a telephone booth
installed in a field in Otsuchi, Japan,
complete with a disconnected telephone.
In 2011, the small town of Otsuchi was
eviscerated by a double-whammy:
a tsunami and an earthquake.
They lost everything, including 2000 residents.

Itaru Saski was already grieving,
wishing to share just one more cup of tea with his cousin
who died before the tsunami came.
As others around him rebuilt,
Itaru followed the urgings of his heart,
nestling an old telephone booth in his garden.
Calling it the Wind Phone,
he issued an open invitation for others
to come and place
calls to their deceased loved ones.

On the heels of this memory,
I look around me, and I move as if a puppet at the end of a string . . .
My studio is home to a chair I sat in as a teenager,
reclining in its outstretched arms
talking on the phone for hours.
Next to it I place a mid-century modern
telephone table found in a thrift shop years ago.
I have “a thing” for mid-century modern.
Atop this table now sits the red phone I announced I wanted
on a trip to Asheville years ago.
I didn’t know why I wanted it,
I just did,
and it may or may not surprise you to hear
that it was the first thing I spied upon
entering my favorite shop.
Beside the phone is one of my son’s boots
turned pencil holder
and 2 journals The Engineer
gifted me three years ago.

The front of one journal reads
Fill your paper with the
breathings of your heart.

~ W. Wordsworth

The other journal wears these words:
May today there be peace within.
May you trust that you are
exactly where your are meant to be.
May you not forget the
infinite possibilities that are born of
faith in yourself and others.
May you use the gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content with yourself just the way you are.
Let this knowledge settle
into your bones,
and allow your soul the
freedom to
sing, dance, praise, and love.
It is there for
each and every one of us.

Magic!
And it all happened in the space of 4 minutes.
I’m not kidding.

Now, when the longing punches my heart,
I will sit in this chair,
tucked into the far corner of my studio
where no one can see me without trespassing
and use my personal Wind Phone
to find solace
and who knows –
maybe some answers, too.

 

And you know what else?
I hereby proclaim that One Day
I will install a public Wind Phone
– 2 of them, actually
or maybe 3 –
each with an open invitation
and free long (long, long, long) distance calling.
The thought excites me,
and I look forward to doing just that.
For now, though, a photo goes on my Vision Board,
and when the time is Right
and everything aligns,
the other public Wind Phones will most certainly come to be.

~~~~~~~

This just in:
my friend Margaret Williams
just sent me a link to
a text version of the wind phone.

Losses or Gains?

snow on trees

Snow on Christmas Eve
Icy roads before midnight.
Santa made it, though,
thanks to Rudolph’s fierce
determination.

Snow covered trees around the waterfall

snow covered trees around the waterfall

This morning,
the men are up
earlier than the tots
on Christmas morning,
out to do battle with nature
who’s proving a formidable foe
(just as I warned.)
(I mean foretold.)
In their crosshairs:
getting off our slick mountain road
with little if any regard
for all the other potentially hazardous roads
awaiting them.

While all scurry frantically,
in angst at plans disrupted,
their eagerness to leave
lands like families of porcupines on my heart.

Have they learned nothing from 2020,
The Great Teacher
who gave us so gave us so many
opportunities
to learn
and reframe?

At the knee of 2020,
we learn to
consider plans made as suggestions
or possibilities
to jot task lists in pencil
instead of ink,
to linger.

She gives us countless opportunities
to sample a slower-paced life,
our 2020,
to remember how it feels to
spend entire days letting books
be our planes, trains, and automobiles;
to replace text message with
pen, paper, envelopes, and stamps;
to reacquaint ourselves with
childlike wonder
enjoying games made from bits found
and food made from leftovers
and the awe of trees
newly-defined by snow.

snow covered trees and branches

Now I leave the fantasy land of my studio
and rejoin the chaos of angst –
noses pressed to the
panes in the door,
watching the thermometer,
willing it to reach 32 degrees Fahrenheit,
where –
in their own fantasy land –
the snow and ice will magically poof,
disappearing so they can
hit the road
hours after they’d planned,
moving a little faster
to make up for all the time lost.

Refrigerator Shrine

Short and squatty with a handle that pulled out to open the door, Grandmother’s Frigidaire is home to an important piece of my family history, a story of a first and a last . . .

The first and only time Grandmother Hewell told me “No” was the day I – the apple orchard of her eye – reached to the back of the squatty, boxy, white-on-the-outside-turquoise-on-the-inside refrigerator intending to help myself to the Zero candy bar in the back left corner of the second shelf. Her loud, abrupt “NO” startled me. She offered no explanation, just “You leave that alone,” as she pushed me to the side and closed the refrigerator door.

I was stunned. Grandmother had never denied me anything – not a single thing. My wish was her command, and I didn’t have to clean some funny-shaped lantern to get her attention. But that fateful day, all I got was a resolute, unwavering NO.

a boy holding a baby in front of an old car parked beside an unpainted house

Crawford Jr. plays with 6 month old Baby Gene

William Eugene Hewell – was he my uncle or is he my uncle? I never know whether to use past or present tense when talking about people who are so alive inside me but aren’t readily available to hug or sit beside or laugh with.

Laugh with.

Everybody I ask to tell me about my Uncle Gene says the same three things:
~ I can’t think of him without seeing him sitting up on that tractor seat.
~ I remember him popping wheelies in the front of the school before the bell rang.
~ He was funny. Lord a-mercy how that man did make us laugh. I never knew anybody as funny as your Uncle Gene.

William Eugene Hewell was born on March 31, 1933, a mere five weeks before five armed bandits held the family hostage while waiting on the bank’s vault to open so they could relieve it of its money bags. Uncle Gene was the last of five children born to Grandmother and Granddaddy. Before him, there was Juanita who lived 4 days. Edgar and Earl were twins, one living for an hour, the other stillborn. Then there was Crawford Junior, my daddy. He was five when Uncle Gene was born.

a young boy sits behind the wheel of a tractor

12 year old uncle Gene behind the wheel of the tractor

Zero candy bars were Uncle Gene’s favorite. The morning of December 19, 1951, he pulled the handle to open the refrigerator door, placing his beloved Zero candy bar in the back left corner so it would be nice and cold when he came in later that afternoon. He kissed his mother on the cheek, said something to make her laugh and shake her head, then went out the back door. He hopped up on the tractor and headed off to spend the day pulling stumps up on the property. Though I can’t imagine how he reached the pedals, family lore – those sacred stories that remain forever impervious to logic – holds that Uncle Gene learned to drive a tractor when he was 8 years old. Two years later,  Granddaddy began renting out the tractor, sending Uncle Gene along to operate it. Details aside, it stands true that Uncle Gene knew his way around tractors.

But this day, something went terribly, horribly, unspeakably wrong.

He put the chain too high up on the stump, some tell me. Others say he put the chain too low. Either way, the result remains the same. As Uncle Gene began to move the tractor forward, it reared up and flipped over on him, crushing him instantly. I am told that my wiry, small-framed granddaddy found my rotund uncle, lifted the tractor off him, and carried Uncle Gene back to the house where he laid him on the bed he shared with my grandmother.

Granddaddy Hewell drove a silver stake in the ground to mark the spot. Grandmother kept that Zero candy bar as her private refrigerator memorial to the son she loved to immensely. Years later, Crawford created his memorial to his brother Gene by naming his firstborn child after him. He spelled her name Jeanne.

newspaper article about the death of Eugene Hewell

 

P.S. Uncle Gene died on December 19, 1951. Twelve years later to the day, Granddaddy Hewell died. He died in his sleep, and because the attending doctor couldn’t be sure whether he died before or after midnight, he chose to let Granddaddy’s death stand forever as the same day his younger son was killed.

P.S. 2 I am currently writing a book about what happened to my family on May 5-6, 1933 and having a big time as my daddy would say, learning more about myself as I look back at those who preceded me.

Twenty Years Is Both a Long Time and No Time At All

“In the language of the deaf, the sign for ‘remember’ begins with the sign for ‘know’: the fingertips of the right hand touch the forehead. But merely to know is not enough, so the sign for ‘remain’ follows: the thumbs of each hand touch and, in this joined position, move steadily forward into the future. Thus a knowing that remains, never lost, forever: memory.”
~~~ Myron Uhlberg in Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love

Twenty years.

My daddy died died twenty years ago today, and I still ache with griefcrave one more hug, long to hear him call me Doll just one more time. Every December 2 I become a cauldron of grief – sorrow, anger, pensiveness, no sense of direction.  I usually spend the day doing soft, soulful things like writing, remembering, walking, but with the recent fullness of my life, I had no time to pre-plan. My waking thought was to read something written by someone else remembering and grieving for their daddy, and while that felt like a winner of an idea, what, exactly, I would read remained a question mark. Then, as Magic would have it, I went to the bookshelves in my studio this morning in search of another book for another reason, when the book aforementioned book  leapt off the shelf and into my hands.

Remembering.
It’s what I do.
It’s who I am.
Stories of remembering are my oxygen.

In August 2000, two weeks after delivering the book I wrote about my father-in-law to each of his children and grandchildren, Bones woke me up whispering, “Write a book about your daddy, and do it now.”

“Are you kidding me?” I countered. “I am exhausted, depleted, worn slap out.” (I kept the father-in-law book a secret even from Andy, which meant much writing at night) The Voice of my Bones was not amused or swayed, and I’ve learned (the hard way) not to argue with Bones, so the following week I began gathering stories, photos, newspaper articles, interviews, whatever I could get my ears and hands on, about my daddy. I wrote. I scanned. I wrote some more, and the Monday before Thanksgiving, off it went  to the printer and binder. Everybody in the family would receive a leather-bound copy of this 400+ page book of memories about Daddy.

Four days later – the day after Thanksgiving – Daddy fell, hitting his head. Hard.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I called Karen, the book binder. “I hear voices, you see, and well, Daddy fell last Friday and the voices I call My Bones tell me I need to get those books back asap. Can you help?” Without a single audible sign of exasperation, Karen said, “I can have one book to you on Saturday and the rest next Monday.”

First-Book-Arrives-Saturday started with all Daddy’s bells and whistles going off, his machine creating a cacophony of alert. I called family members. “If you want to see Daddy alive, you need to get here before noon,” I told them. They came trickling in. Friends followed. Finally, husband Andy and son Kipp walked in, brown package in hand.

In a rather bold move for a Southern girl raised to respect hospitality above (almost) all else, I asked the friends to  leave, gathered family around Daddy’s bed, and opened the package. I began reading at 1:05 p.m. A nurse stayed well past her shift’s end, keeping the machines shushed by holding her finger on the quiet button.

We took turns reading, arriving at “The End” at 4:50 p.m.

Daddy took his last breath at 4:55.

Though he never said a word, I know Daddy could hear his life review because from my position to the left of his pillow, I watched tears make their way down his face throughout the afternoon.

Take from this post whatever you will, just please promise me this:
~ If, God forbid, anybody you love should ever be in a coma or otherwise unable to communicate, take it upon yourself to make sure that only positive loving kindness is spoken within those four walls because I know – know to my very core – that they hear everything, and we all know that words are powerful.
~ You’ll take the time to capture your family’s stories. Start today. Record, write, ask, clip, copy, scan – gather and preserve those stories by whatever means available. You can shape them into narrative later, step one is to capture, and let’s face it: we never know. Preserving these stories will change your life (among other things, you will learn a lot about yourself) and future generations will call you good things and be forever grateful. Count on it.

Unclaimed Hallelujah: Katie Belle Wesley Ballard

 

When the brown paper grocery bag from K. W. McElaney’s corner store was full of fabric scraps, they met in the middle of the road – Mrs. Callaway and my maternal grandmother. After exchanging pleasantries, they swapped bags then returned to their respective homes, spilling the bag’s contents on the kitchen table, marveling at the colors, the patterns, the possibilities. Soon enough, colors were sorted, patterns were chosen, cutting begun. Eventually her Davis treadle machine whirred with life, providing Grandmother the only walls she could lay claim to.

The simple act of me saying “yes” to receiving a garbage bag filled with scraps from an anonymous donor and turning them into quilts made Grandmother smile. I’m sure of it.

 

 

When the box arrived, I had no idea what I was going to do. My mind was a blank slate. I finished a few other projects, and with the calendar ticking, I got up one morning and before anything or anyone else could take the reins of my day, I opened the box, removed the garbage bag, then dumped the contents onto my design table. How I do love a beautiful jumble, the chaos of colors, the cacophony of shapes, the nostalgic imaginings of what the fabric had once been used for. Oh, the possibilities.

But still no ideas.

The calendar ticked louder.

I fiddled with the colorful bits of cloth and eventually began to See.

 

Christmas fabric . . .
Christmas mornings spent in Grandmother’s living room.
Gifts opened only after each of her 14 grandchildren played their two pieces on her black upright piano with the stool that rose and lowered by spinning.
Cousins showing off the 3 Santa gifts we were allowed to bring.
Granddaddy holding up a pair of freshly-unwrapped underwear, hollering across the room
”Katie Belle, are these from you?”
”What William?” she hollers back.
They had big ears – both of them did –
but they were for facial decoration only.
He asks again, “I said Are. These. From. You?”
With a chortle that would not be held back,
Grandmother says, “Oh William, of course they’re new.”

One strip of black and white fabric . . .
88 keys on a piano.
Grandmother’s full-ride scholarship to The Piano Conservatory
an adventure cut short
When her father harrumphed at the end of her first year
That young ladies didn’t need an education
especially in something as frivolous as piano
and declared that she would not be going back
and would instead spend her time in search of a husband.
Even a letter from the Dean
begging him to let Grandmother complete her studies
and telling of her immense talent
could not dissuade her father.
Whether Grandmother’s step-mother influenced the story or not,
we’ll never know.
I doubt anybody thought to ask before now.
She did meet and marry Granddaddy,
and every one of her five children
will tell you without hesitation
that he – Granddaddy –
married up.

Green . . .
How Grandmother enjoyed
cutting grass.
She had her own riding lawn mower
and she used it when the grass needed
cutting
or when she needed the grass to be cut.
Whichever need came first,
she would
strap on her battered straw hat,
take her seat on the mower
and commence to riding.
Another sound
providing her with walls,
a way to close out the world
and giver her space
to create her own.

Flowers . . .
Oh my goodness, flowers.
Grandmother’s entire yard was a flower garden
and how I would love to have just one more
day with her holding my hand,
treating me to a personalized guided tour,
checking on the health of each flowering plant
and telling me the name of the plane
and who gave her the cutting.

The fabric with flames . . .
Even as a teenager
there was nowhere I’d rather be
than at Grandmother’s house.
I stopped by
whenever I wanted.
We all did.
No appointment needed.
Walk-ins welcome.
The back screen door slamming behind me.
Mother forbade it at home,
but it is a sound that didn’t bother
Grandmother at all.

Gray . . .
Color of The South.
She was, after all,
the quintessential Southern Lady
without any of the pretense and subterfuge.

The Jetsons cartoon fabric . . .
Granddaddy died
knowing that Live Atlanta Wrestling
was the real deal
while the man on the moon was
staged.

Sock monkeys . . .
Grandmother always
and I do mean always
had time to stop and play
and talk
and, perhaps most importantly,
listen.

Comfort food could always
be found on Grandmother’s table.
Biscuits made from scratch three times every day.
Leftovers in the center of the table
hidden under a clean tablecloth
always available for snacking
or an impromptu meal.
She entered – and won – cake backing contests.

A rescued tablecloth holds these “scraps”
of memories and love
together
to create the second piece in my new series
called Unclaimed Hallelujahs,
this one a cape honoring
Katie Belle Wesley Ballard.
The woman I call Grandmother.

Hostage, The Adventure Begins

Vintage boy’s shorts and shirt, vintage embroidered doilie, two red embroidered circles, all appliqués to the top of a small vintage quilt

 

Till the day he died of natural causes, my daddy talked about the barrel of that shotgun placed against the back of his neck. It was a feeling he never forgot.

Daddy was five years old when bandits came to the house, intending to kidnap Granddaddy and rob the bank. It was a weekend of horror I can scarce imagine. After spending my entire life gathering the stories, photos, and information, I am at last sitting down to write the book about that event that happened in my family on May 5 and 6, 1933. It is a story  of many stories woven together, and I will tell them all in books and in quilts.

The red circles represent the double barrel shotgun he felt against the back of his neck when, on Saturday morning May 6, 1933, five year old Crawford Jr. (a.k.a. Daddy) forgot that the bad men were in the house and did what he did first thing every morning: ran for the outhouse.

When I decided to tell the story in quilts as well as words, I went straight to my closet and began culling through all the things I’ve rescued and adopted over the course of more years than I can count. Quilts someone made for their babies; baby clothing that caught my fancy; embroidered doilies or dresser protectors or coasters – not sure what you call them. In less than 2 hours, four quilts were pinned together, using only what I have on hand. That is one of my intentions for this year, you know, using only (okay, mostly) what I have on hand. It’s an idea I got from my talented friend Linda Syverson Guild, who doesn’t buy any fabric the first six months of every year, using instead what she already has. I smile as I weave these storied, already well-loved items into my family’s stories. I also smile feeling grateful  that I listened to my Bones and purchased these things, even with that dreaded voice of authority on The Committee of Jeanne booming in the background things like “You don’t need this” or “You have too much stuff already” or “What on earth do you plan to do with that?” (The others who sit on The Committee of Jeanne are saving up for a firing squad.) Score one – a great, big, fat one – for my Bones.

~~~~~~~

If you’re wondering about The 70273 Project, we’re still here. I’ve been regrouping and hatching plans that I’ll share with you here next week. Thanks for stopping by and trekking through these adventures – all of them – with me.

Playing in the Meadow on the Other Side of the Rainbow Bridge

kippandotto1

My boy, Kipp, rescued him from a Denver humane society.
It was between the border collie and a Corgi – he couldn’t decide.
Ultimately, Kipp chose well.

neuroticotto

Otto was a slightly neurotic dog
afraid of the most, um, unusual things.

otto2a

He was a mischievous dog,
though you usually only knew
he’d been mischievous
when he had this certain look about him.
Oh, he knew you were smart enough to figure it out eventually,
but he was always hopeful that once – just once –
he’d be wrong about you.

otto1
If you couldn’t find Otto,
you could bet your bottom dollar
that something resembling food
(cooked, raw, packaged, unpackaged – no matter)
had been left within, oh, 4′ from the edge of the kitchen counter.

prissyotto

Otto was a dog secure enough in his own manhood
to be prissy on occasion . . .
without apology.

marnieottokipp1

We’re still not quite sure which one
Marnie fell in love with first:
Kipp or Otto,
but no matter.
They were a package deal
and she won both their hearts.

ottowatchesover

And though they were as nervous
as any first-time parents in the history of the galaxy ever were,
Otto proved to be a good Big Brother
to Calder Ray,
watching over him when others
well
went to sleep on the job.

ottstands

Though they’ll surely adopt another furry baby
sometime down the road
when their hearts have had time to heal,
one thing is for sure:
the next Chambers canine will have awfully big paws to fill.

mygranddog

R.I.P. Otto.
You were the best Son Dog,
the best Big Brother Dog,
the best Granddog,
the best Great Granddog,
the best Nephew Dog,
the Best Friend
ever.

A Stitch from the Past

gdb5

About 15 years ago, I had this idea: I cut circles from fabric and stitched biographical plates (portraits) of my ancestors. Small projects, easy to tuck into my bag and work on wherever I happened to be. And what did I do after stitching them?

Nothing.

I’d planned to stitch them onto a tablecloth . . . but that never happened. I just tucked them into the scrap suitcase were they lingered (forgotten) until I went to grab bits I might use on The Storyteller’s Apron, #1: Sky Rider.  Now the plates will become constellations – or maybe galaxies – as I stitch along with Jude Hill and the #sunmoonstars gang.

gdb4

This is the plate of my maternal granddaddy who was a sheriff in Fayette County, GA who liked to play checkers with his grandchildren and took it upon himself to teach each of us to drink coffee. He’d pull us into his lap, fill a saucer with milk, then add a splash of steaming hot Luzianne coffee – just enough to turn the milk a tan color. We’d blow on it and blow on it and blow on it, sending the steam across the room, sipping from the saucer only when there was no more steam to blow. Me? I took part in the ritual up till the part of sipping the milked-down coffee. That was as far as I could go, and to this day, I’ve never even tried coffee.