R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: In Memoriam (page 2 of 3)

Wednesday Photo: 6/8/16

OldNailsWithPaintAndBarnFloor_COPY_2016-04-24

“Old Nails with Paint and Barn Floor”
Troup County, Georgia – 24 April 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Tammy Wynette Sign, Tremont, Mississippi

TammyWynetteMemorialSignTremontMississippi_COPY_2016-04-14

Alabama-Mississippi state line – 14 April 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 5/25/16

QuietCountryBarnDemolition_COPY_2016-04-24_

“Quiet Country Barn Demolition”
Troup County, Georgia – 24 April 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 5/18/16

IAlwaysWantedToLiveInAnOldCabooseX755_COPY_2016-04-30_11

“I Always Wanted to Live in an Old Caboose”
Pine Mountain, Georgia – 30 April 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Track and Sky

TrackAndSky_COPY_2014-08-09

Abandoned mining camp, Leadville, Colorado – 9 August 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 4/25/16

100YearsOfNails_COPY_2016-03-23_10

During their epic March 2016 tear-off party, the roofing crew discovered four layers of shingles—including the original!—on my century-old Hillside mill house. Most houses can bear the weight of (at most) just two layers. No wonder the rafters and deck on my home were in such terrible condition.

In my hand sits one hundred years of nail history. With each new layer of shingles, the nails had to be longer and longer. Their shapes and relative condition speak to how nail manufacturing evolved from the first roof (circa 1915) to the fourth one (circa 1975).

“100 Years of Nails”
LaGrange, Georgia – 23 March 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 4/11/16

BlueWareBirdForrestAvenue_June2012

Most of the dishware fragments I find around Hillside are plain. They’re almost all solid white or off-white, their glaze turned crackly by water and soil and pressure and years. Now and again, I stumble upon a shattered bowl or cup featuring a stripe or two along the rim.

Back then, the plain stuff was about all most people in Hillside could afford. Many working people bought their dishware one piece at a time at Woolworth’s or Kress. Others built their collections with the sturdy, unembellished dishes that arrived in boxes of powdered laundry detergent.

But when something this pretty shows up, I think of how much those ornate blue flowers and birds probably meant to someone. I think of how a heart must have broken along with that special platter.

Photo: “Blue-Ware Bird, Forrest Avenue” (LaGrange, Georgia – June 2012)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/30/16

LifeInTheRuins_COPY_2014-08-09

“Life in the Ruins”
Leadville, Colorado – 9 August 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

There’s More Than One King at Graceland

TheresMoreThanOneKingAtGraceland_COPY_2013-07-25_15

Presley Family Grave Site
Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee) – 23 July 2013

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/16/16

Daffodil Knocked over by Storm #1, LaGrange, Georgia (8 March 2012)

“Daffodil Knocked Over by Storm, No. 1”
LaGrange, Georgia – 8 March 2012

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Bars, Vines, Glass, Time

BarsVinesGlassTime_COPY_2014-07-22-16

Franklin, Georgia – 22 July 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/9/16

GreenGlassOnGravestones358_COPY003-01_04August2012

“Green Glass on Gravestones No. 358”
Heard County, Georgia – 4 August 2012

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Fragment of an Ordinary Day Long Gone

When I taught at the University of West Georgia, my campus office was about 200 feet from the building where many of my classes met. My walks to class were never long, but they were beautiful. The thoughtfully landscaped campus always gave me something to look at, even in winter. Bare cherry and maple branches silhouetted against the sky, glossy holly and magnolia leaves defiantly green in the cold, silvery bark shimmering in the morning light, sweetgum leaves and seedpods clustered like so many haiku next to the sidewalk—I loved them all.

One cold February morning, I was on my way to class when I saw a spot of light jade-green in the brown bark mulch along the sidewalk.

Green Dish Fragment Found at UWG in Feb 2012 (21 June 2012)

Barely an inch long, the dish fragment bore the crackles of age and the freeze-thaw cycle. This wasn’t anything recently produced (or recently broken). The color was popular for dishes and kitchen accessories in the 1930s and 1940s. The subtle flutes along the bottom reminded me of Fiesta dishware.

I’m always finding interesting dish fragments on walks around my beloved Hillside neighborhood. But in all my years of university teaching, I’d never found anything like this on a college campus.

So I e-mailed Suzanne Durham, UWG’s campus historian. “What used to be where the TLC building is today?” I asked. “I found a small piece of an old dish behind the building, and thought it was out of place.”

Before it was a college, Ms. Durham told me, the campus was a 275-acre cotton farm owned by Bluford A. Sharp. College trustees purchased the property from him in 1907. That July, 12,000 people witnessed the cornerstone ceremony for what’s now the Academic Building.

Sadly, Special Collections didn’t have any pre-UWG photos of the north-central part of campus from back then. However, the farm did feature many sharecropper families. Their small, plain houses were likely on the edges of the farm, along dirt roads and the edges of pastures, far away from the main house. The main house still stands—except it’s now called Honors House. The sharecroppers’ shacks, demolished over a century ago, weren’t so lucky.

Almost nobody thinks to preserve poor people’s homes.

I thought of the hundreds of meals eaten on the jade-green dishes, of which the little fragment was once a part. I thought of the tired, cracked hands that washed those jade-green dishes in hundreds of dishpans of hot, soapy water. I thought of the accidents (or maybe the on-purposes) that shattered those pretty dishes, a shard of which lay before me. I thought of the woman who swept up the sharp broken dish pieces and tossed them beneath the house into the crawl space, where many country families discarded their broken glassware before the days of landfills.

I thought of the hundreds of people whose homes stood where the campus is today. I thought of the Native Americans who lived here long before that—and of the animals and trees that lived here centuries before the first humans ever arrived. In another 300 years, what will stand where these buildings and sidewalks and streets and trees do today?

The little green fragment stays tucked inside my purse. I keep it there in memory of an ordinary day long gone.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: This piece, since revised, first appeared here on 23 June 2012

 

The Daffodils That Always Mean “Home”

DaffNippedByFrost_Feb2012_COPY

Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. Before I began working from home, I drove about 90 miles round-trip to my university teaching job. While the commute itself sometimes bored me, the scenery on U.S. Highway 27 between LaGrange and Carrollton never, ever did.

So it’s March now—the month that, in the Deep South, gives us an ice storm one day and tornadoes the next. This year has brought out the daffodils a little early. I delight in watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.

When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and replanted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to move them at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.

Most of the daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone, year after year, with unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.

But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch—without a house nearby?

Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. So old houses get demolished, their sites fading into and gradually out of memory—yet the bulbs embedded around them come back. They come back every spring thereafter, house or no house.

Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.

The daffodils pictured above are very simple, single-cup daffodils, an old variety we often see around old houses. They’re about 12” tall at most, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.

Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house—or what used to be a house, anyway. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.

I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.

I wonder if, on leaving, they took one long, last look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”

Photo: “Daff Nipped by Frost” (Carroll County, Georgia – February 2012)

NOTE: Earlier versions of this post appeared here on 2 March 2015, and at Forgotten Plants & Places on 25 February 2012.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

History and Tragedy

HandleyHouse001_27May2012_017_COPY03

This stunning masterpiece of early 19th century architecture boasted 16-inch foundation beams hewn from trees that, if I read the ring counts correctly, were 350 to 400 years old in the early 1830s. The rafters in both the original structure and the circa 1890s addition were three- to five-inch saplings that had been stripped of branches and bark, then flattened on the decking side. I could still see the centuries-old axe marks.

The site on which the house once stood is on Whitesville Road, about a hundred yards from a truck stop and Interstate 85. The acreage is for sale. All the buildings are gone: the main house, the barn, the chicken coop, the slaves’ cabins, everything. No, there’s no historical marker—not even a little something that points descendants to the cemetery out back (most recent grave dated 1868). Word around town says we’ll soon have another strip mall right there. You know, because this place really, really needs another strip mall.

Just thinking about it makes me furious.

Fannin-Truitt-Handley House (built 1831-1833; demolished September 2012)
LaGrange, Georgia – 27 May 2012

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“We know no difference,” September 1976

WeKnowNoDifferenceSeptember1976_COPY_2016-02-03_17.15.16

I’ve written before about my fascination with the photos of strangers that I find in old family albums. Even with first and last names, even with a bit of detail scrawled along the border, sometimes nobody knows who these people are. I’m drawn to this photo because of the tension between the image and the words on the back.

Here, crape myrtle trees twist skyward. Low cement dividers behind them indicate perhaps an old cemetery, or maybe terraces in a park. In the far background, there’s a light-colored building with neatly spaced windows, the shadows of which stand out in the harsh light of a bright late summer day. At first, I thought I saw Spanish moss hanging from the taller trees, but no. That turned out to be more shadows in an aging snapshot made with a mid-1970s mass-market camera.

In the foreground, a woman and two little girls focus on something to their right, near the ground. The woman holds a plastic bread bag and a slice of bread in her left hand. With the fingertips of the right, she tears off small bits of bread. It’s hard to read her expression. Her attention may be in several places at once, as is often the case for parents of small children. Or, more likely, she could just be sweaty and uncomfortable in her nice outfit, and beyond ready to go home.

The smaller of the two girls holds something in her hand. Perhaps she’s counting pieces of bread before dropping them on the ground. The larger of the two girls gazes at a point out of the frame; she seems to be on the edge of saying something to the others. Their dresses are typical of children’s clothing for this era. Note how the trim on each girl’s dress matches the colors in the woman’s—all three may be the work of a skilled dressmaker. Check out those seams in the front bodice of the woman’s dress. Putting together four oddly-shaped pieces of knit fabric is neither for beginners, nor for the faint of sewing heart.

Somehow, for almost four decades, I managed not to spot the bird. See it, there in the foreground? It’s easy to miss. The print is old and rapidly fading, and the bird’s head is turned at such an angle just in front of the woman’s left leg that I can’t tell whether it’s a turkey, a chicken, or a large duck. All I can see are what I think are white feathers, and perhaps red wattles and a comb.

Then I look on the back of the photo. That’s where things really get interesting.

In careful cursive and blue ballpoint ink, someone has written, “Our daughter ______, and granddaughters, ________ and ________, September 1976. Ages 2½ and 4.”

For once, we have first and last names to accompany the image, but they’re not among those that I’ve heard relatives mention. A search of local phone directories turns up nothing of use. Facebook searches, too, turn up nothing. Perhaps these people no longer go by the (fairly common) names listed on the back of their photograph. Perhaps they don’t use social media. Perhaps they’re dead. That might explain why they don’t show up in a dozen rounds of Google Crapshoot.

But there’s one more sentence. It stops me cold:
“The larger one is adopted, but we know no difference.”

Oh, yeah?

Because, to my mind, if you truly “know no difference” between the adopted child and the blood-related child, there’s no reason to bring it up. I sure can’t tell a difference. The kids look like they belong in the same family. And even if they didn’t look alike—who cares? They’re family. End of discussion.

While I know that, forty years ago, people felt free to say incredibly rude things about adopted children (hell, they still do), this is something private, something written on the back of a picture. Who did the original photographer think needed this information? And why?

“Now that I think about it,” Mom says, “there’s someone in the back of my memory—maybe somebody from the old sewing plant?—who talked all the time about her two granddaughters. Can’t recall her name. But she was always telling people how one of them was adopted: ‘But I treat them just the same! We don’t know any difference.’”

“Oh, for God’s sake. That’s horrible.”

Mom nods, and rolls her eyes. “Anybody who goes out of her way to tell the world how kind she is to an adopted kid is probably meaner than cat shit.”

Photo: “‘We Know No Difference,’ September 1976” (original photographer unknown)
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Haiku for My Father, Buried 19 Years Ago Today

I asked my father
for a sign, in a dream. He
said: “That boy ain’t shit.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

To 2016

One year ago today, I had a very strong feeling that 2015 would be a difficult year.

How right I was.
Oh, dear God, how right.

If there is one thing that has sustained me through the scrambled mess of the last 12 months, it is this passage from my Facebook post of 31 December 2014:

“Through everything, my creative voice has remained. Even when all I wanted was to give up, to let myself drown in the metaphorical flood, it has refused to run. After decades of struggle, I have finally learned to listen to it no matter what. That voice, that creative power, has saved me every time.

I won’t find what I need ‘out there.’
It’s been here all along.”

True then.
True now.

No matter what, all I want is to get the words right. This mantra is why I am still here. It sustains me.

I do not know what 2016 holds—for me, for you, for any of us. I could not have imagined one year ago that my life would change so much. I could not have imagined that my life would look so strange, so clumsy and beautiful, in another 365 days.

But I’ll take a chance and say this: I wish for all of you peace, solace, and love. If you need me in 2016, you know where to find me. I’ll be making the best art that I can out of the wreckage.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Cedars at Christmas

DetailRedCedarChristmasRockMillsAlabama1976_2015-12-24_COPY_18.04.11-2

As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look forward to those fuzzy green oblong clouds along the winter-brown roadside. They float at the edge of the right-of-way, where the natural world waits to retake the built and the mechanized. Often, their knowing gray smirks pucker around twisted steel—Stupid barbed wire. We can’t grow here, huh? That’ll teach you. 

When I was a child in rural east Alabama and west Georgia, these dark green blobs of badass were our Christmas trees.

Eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, grows all the way from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. A pioneer invader, it prefers pitiful, ragged-out, freshly-cleared land. However, unlike other potentially invasive species, it can live for centuries if left alone. My grandfather’s farm included several cedars with trunks nearly three feet thick. For the most part, though, the ones I notice are between four and seven feet tall, just the right size for the average living room.

I remember only one tree-cutting walk, far behind our house outside Rock Mills, Alabama. We were likely on someone else’s land. My father had to have known this. But, seeing how eastern red cedars alkalize pasture soil and steal nitrogen from forage crops, maybe the landowners would not have cared. Daddy cut it down with a hatchet and a hacksaw, then dragged the tree behind him for the half-hour walk back to the house, my sister and me following as quickly as our little legs could manage.

In this old photo, the short, squat little cedar looks as lush now as it did then to my three-year-old eyes. It sits atop the blanket chest—also red cedar—that my great-grandfather made around the end of the First World War. That same blanket chest now guards my guest room.

Christmas tree farms make me uneasy. Their offerings, while pretty, are not of this land. Their trees’ native soils lie hundreds of miles north and west of here. While I am glad they bring joy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they are just not for me.

Those plush needles stay too neatly combed. Too-tidy firs and spruces demand unreasonable cheerfulness and forced smiles. They heap manufactured happiness on top of organic, deeply rooted sorrow. And they act surprised when the needle-fine roots of that sorrow break back up through the soil.

Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays.

Instead, give me an eastern red cedar, thriving at pasture’s edge. Give me slowly shredding grayish-tan bark. Give me perfumed red heartwood that swallows barbed wire and NO HUNTING signs along Georgia Highway 219. Give me needles growing in all directions like an overcaffeinated moth-repellent pompom. Wherever I go, for the rest of my days, the trees I have known and loved stay with me.

Photo: “Detail, Red Cedar Christmas: Rock Mills, Alabama, 1976”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

We Have Met Again.

WeHaveMetAgain_COPY_2014-06-03_18.34.28

Heard County, Georgia – 3 June 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Cemetery Fence with Lichens

CemeteryFenceWithLichens_COPY_2015-02-21_13.17.11

LaGrange, Georgia – 21 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 11/11/15

LeafGhost173dAirborneMemorial_COPY_2015-10-09_14.27.36

“Leaf Ghost, 173d Airborne Memorial”
Fort Benning, Georgia – 9 October 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Granite Slab Vault with Leaves

GraniteSlabVaultWithLeaves_COPY_2014-06-03_18.43.46

Old cemeteries in the rural South sometimes feature above-ground burial vaults made of roughly hewn granite slabs. This one, in southwestern Heard County, Georgia, dates from the early 1800s. On its upper surface, time, rain, and lichens have obscured the name and dates carved into the stone. Over the last 190 years, falling trees and shifting earth have caused the vault’s heavy slabs to slide apart.

Heard County, Georgia – 3 June 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 11/4/15

MilkyQuartzOffering_COPY_2014-06-03_18.52.44

“Milky Quartz Offering”
Heard County, Georgia – 3 June 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Vivid Memory, in Ruins

What does it feel like to drive past a place you knew for many years, only to discover it’s gone?

Wait, wait. Maybe place isn’t the right word. Perhaps building, or what used to stand at that place. The place—meaning the site, the GPS coordinates, the location on the face of the earth—is still there. It’s not going anywhere. But what used to be there, where the metaphorical X of the GPS ”marks the spot,” has gone, has disappeared, has completely vanished.

It’s an otherworldly feeling.
The older we get, the more we should probably expect it.

Years ago, my family’s Labor Day weekend tradition was to spend a day at the Powers’ Crossroads Festival. In the cool of the morning, I picked up Mom at her house. We’d then drive twenty-six miles on Georgia Highway 34 to the Festival grounds east of Franklin. This route intersects Bevis Road, which in turn winds past my old elementary school. Same route every year, nothing different—until September 2010.

The hand-lettered sign on the corner by the funeral home caught my eye. “Heard Elementary salvage sale this weekend?! What the—”

“Wonder what’s going on?” Mom said.

I whipped the truck onto Bevis Road. “Maybe they finally remodeled the old sixth grade wing. I’d love to get an old soapstone counter out of Mr. Smith’s lab and put it in my kitchen.”

OldHeardElementary_ChairsAndDesks_04Sep2010_Crop2015

Imagine my surprise, then, at the rubble strewn everywhere—and at the heap of orange fiberglass chairs in what was once the bus parking area. My sister and I probably sat in a few of them. They were nearly new when I began first grade in the fall of 1980.

Seeing them all piled up in front of the remnants of the school was surreal. Sure, the county had built a brand-new elementary school on Pea Ridge Road. Students hadn’t been here for several years. In my memory, though, the old Heard Elementary building stood as immovable as the Appalachians. It had always been there. It would always be there. It would never be reduced to a broken tangle of orange and chrome.

But as I learned in Mr. Smith’s fifth-grade science class, every physical object—even a mountain—will eventually disappear. Occasionally, mountains blow up all at once, like Krakatoa. Most of the time, though, they gradually erode and crumble, turning into boulders, then rocks, then pebbles, and then the finest sand.

OldHeardElementary_DownBankIntoPlayground_04Sep2010_Crop2015

My classmates and I loved the playground in front of the school. We loved the 1950s equipment, loved the rocks and trees that served as make-believe palaces, fortresses, and secret hideaways. Those granite chunks and red oaks and sweet gums endure; every trace of the swings and slides has vanished. Not even a concrete anchor remains. Despite seventy years of foot traffic, the hard-packed sand of the ball field now wears a glossy green fescue coat. With sun, water, and time, plants will return almost anywhere.

I thought about running down the steep bank beyond the dirt of the front drive, just to relive a memory. But I didn’t. It’s a lot more vivid, and bittersweet, where it is—in my mind.

This post originally appeared at Forgotten Plants & Places in March 2012, under the title “When a place is no more.” In June 2012, a revised version of that post appeared on this website.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Ray & Dot, February 1970

RayAndDotFeb1970_COPY_2015-09-09_19.18.17-1

When I browse old family photos, sometimes I see faces I don’t recognize. On occasion, the context reveals who they are: Oh yeah, that’s So-and-So’s friend from Scouts. See the t-shirt? 

Mostly, though, I cannot identify these people from the clues in the image. Their pictures often include no descriptive caption on the back, or perhaps a brief, unhelpful scrawl. In the washboard-rough dirt road of images in this forty-five-year-old photo album, these photos are mud holes. They are in here for some reason that I cannot figure out. I cannot help splashing through them again and again.

On the back of this picture, in Palmer-Method-plus-a-lifetime cursive, someone wrote “Ray & Dot.” And that’s all. I do not recognize their faces. In all my years of eavesdropping on grown-up conversations, I do not recall my grandparents, or their many friends, ever mentioning anybody named Ray or Dot.

As was the Kodak 110 photo lab custom of the time, the white border is stamped “FEB 70,” to denote the image was processed and printed in February 1970. No telling whether the photo was taken in February 1970. If the photographer was like many amateur family snapshotters back then, the film could’ve been exposed for months or even years before she or he finally thought to get it developed. The right edge has been cut away at a scissors-in-the-right-hand angle.

I showed the photo to my mother and my sister. Neither recognized the faces or names. The setting, though, looked familiar to Mom. “They might be at the old Rock Mills Cemetery, where Mildred’s folks are buried. Who in the family died in February 1970?” Nobody that I could think of, right off. I suggested to Mom that the background could also be the cemetery behind Paran Baptist Church, an eighth of a mile from the Georgia line on Alabama Highway 22. “Yep. Could be Paran. And it could be the big cemetery in Roanoke, too.” She sipped her coffee.  “But I still have no idea who these people are.”

Ray and Dot are dressed in fashionable clothing for the late 1960s and early 1970s, and are pretty stylish for people who look to have been about twenty years older than my grandparents. Dot’s long-sleeved, high-necked green dress and brown purse suggest fall: cooler weather, but not quite coat season. The green dress also tells me this occasion was not a funeral, as does Ray’s rumpled light tan suit. A church homecoming, perhaps? Dot’s corsage indicates she was someone special at this gathering.

While Ray squints into the sun at the camera, Dot turns toward him and smiles broadly, as if anticipating the funny remark he’s on the edge of making now that somebody’s taking his picture for the hundredth time today. Do they know the dark-suited fellow in the background who’s strolling off into the cemetery? Are they about to hop into that big brown Chevy and rumble down narrow two-lane roads to their house? Are they married? To one another?

I cannot answer any of these questions. Chances are that I never will. Just the same, forty-five years after someone froze this moment onto light-sensitive paper, I keep Ray and Dot in my photo album—and in my heart.

“Ray & Dot, February 1970” – original photographer unknown
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Elvis’s Gold Piano

ElvisGoldPiano_CMHOF_21Jun2013_WW

Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Nashville, Tennessee – 21 June 2013

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Thank You, Johnny

JohnnyCashAndJuneCarterCashGravesideBench_COPY_001_June2008

In loving memory of John R. Cash
26 February 1932 – 12 September 2003

“Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash Graveside Bench”
Hendersonville, Tennessee – 5 June 2008

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

WAR ELVIS

ElvisWarholPrintInDen_COPY_2015-08-16_15.56.29

“I got tickets to see Elvis one time,” my friend said, “a couple years before he died.” He nodded toward the huge reproduction Warhol print of The King that hangs in my den.

“My God! When was this?”

“Mmmm…I was still in college. Probably my junior or senior year, ‘73 or ‘74.” He took another deep swig of his beer.  “He came to Auburn. Played the old coliseum.”

I shook my head in wonder. “Now that’s special.”

But I doubted my friend’s story. No way Elvis Presley, at any point in his career, would’ve come to a (then) backwater town like Auburn, Alabama. No way Colonel Tom Parker would think a bunch of college kids would come see old, fat, sweaty, drug-addled Elvis. No way.

Later, though, I got online and looked it up. Sure enough, there it was—March 5, 1974, Auburn Memorial Coliseum, 8:30pm. Well. Damn.

“People can say whatever they want about Elvis,” my friend continued, “but they can’t deny that he was one hell of a performer. He may not have written the songs he sang, but by God he could take any song and interpret it like absolutely nobody else could.”

“That’s the truth,” I said. “When I was growing up, Elvis was old people’s music. I couldn’t stand him. But once I started researching country music, I realized how important he was, and still is, to all kinds of popular music.” I got up and poured myself another bourbon, neat. “So, tell me about the show. You’re the first person I’ve met who’s actually been to an Elvis concert.”

“Well, I was dating this gal who was an Eastern Airlines flight attendant,” my friend said. “I’d bought tickets for her, my aunt Lorene—she’s 87 now, still loves Elvis—and myself. My girlfriend flew into Mobile, rented a car, and drove up for the concert. She mentioned the show to her mama, though, and of course her mama wanted to see Elvis, too.”

“Now that’s cool! One young lady, two old ladies, and a young fella all going to see the same Elvis show.”

He sighed. “Well, by the time we all got to Auburn, there was not even one extra ticket to be had. Wasn’t even any scalpers selling them around town or out in front of the coliseum. Solid sold-out.”

“And?”

“So I gave my girlfriend’s mama my ticket, and waited outside.”

I blinked. Hard. “You mean to tell me that you’d been an Elvis fan since junior high school, you’d waited all those years to see him, and when you finally got a chance to go to one of his concerts, you gave your ticket to your girlfriend’s mother?”

“Yep.”

“That girlfriend—she was your first wife, right?”

He chugged the last of his beer, then sighed again. “No. We broke up that Christmas.”

I’m still not sure whether my friend’s tale is one of great foolishness, or of great love. But maybe, like any good story, it’s a little of both.

In memory of Elvis Aaron Presley
8 January 1935 – 16 August 1977

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Joy, to the world

JoyToTheWorld_COPYCOPY_2015-05-12_14.42.48

On a hard-freezing December night nearly sixteen years ago, Paw-Paw, Grandmommy, and I rescued you from a drug dealer’s porch. Barely eight weeks old, flea-bitten, and bony, you still had a meow we could hear a hundred yards away. That’s how we figured out where you were, and how badly those people had been treating you. I stuffed you into my winter coat as we ran to the car—whew. A clean getaway. The entire drive home, we enjoyed the 20-pound purr coming from your two-pound body.

You never did get much bigger than that. At your tubbiest, you weighed eight pounds. What you lacked in size, though, you made up for in attitude. For years, I thought the older cats were beating you up. Then, one summer afternoon, I walked into the den just in time to see you wa-babababababababa-BOWWWW!!! light up poor elderly Graya’s head, then fall over with a finesse that not even the 1989 Detroit Pistons—those masters of floppy Game 7 double-overtime fouls—could ever have imagined.

I know, I know: she was bogarting your ‘nip. Whatever, cat. I couldn’t help laughing as Graya finished what you had started. After that, though, you settled down and became everyone’s sweetheart.

When people came to visit us, you ended up their favorite cat. As Aunt Val says, “Joy sets the bar pretty high for lap kitties.” If someone made a lap, you were in it, purring and head-butting their hands, your huge green eyes convincing them to pet you non-stop for the next three hours. For most of your life, you slept right next to my head. The only time you’d leave your spot was around 3:42 a.m. That’s when you paced from kitchen to bedroom and back, again and again, all meow-meow-meow-Mama-look-what-I-hunted-and-killed-for-you. In your mouth, you’d have a toy mouse. Or a jingle ball. Or a Beanie Baby. Or a dirty sock. I was so sleepy, but you were so proud.

Today, I lay your rumpled, frail body on the exam table and thought of all this. Somehow, even as sick as you were, you turned your wobbly head in the direction of my sobs—though your eyes no longer worked, you could hear my sorrow. I wept anew thinking of all the times when, crying and out of options, I looked over and saw you next to me, one paw tapping my arm as if to ask, “What’s wrong? Can I help?” And, climbing into my lap and purring yourself into a tight gray-striped ball, you did help. Always, and without fail.

Thank you for being my companion for the last 15½ years. I miss you already. But, Bastet willing, one day I will see you again—on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.

Love,
Mama

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Concrete Love

ConcreteLove_IG_COPY_2015-02-16

University of West Georgia
Carrollton, Georgia – 16 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Oak over Horace King’s Grave

OakOverHoraceKingsGrave_COPY_2015-02-21

Stonewall Cemetery
LaGrange, Georgia – 21 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Looking East from My Father’s Grave

LookingEastFromMyFathersGrave_COPY_2015-04-03

Heard County, Georgia – 3 April 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Charles P. Borders: A Friend to All

CharlesPBordersAFriendToAll_COPY_2015-02-21

Stonewall Cemetery – LaGrange, Georgia
21 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/18/15

HandedDownInMarble_COPY_2015-02-07

“Handed Down in Stone”
Heard County, Georgia – 7 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Daffodils That Always Mean “Home”

DaffNippedByFrost_Feb2012_COPY

Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. In my case, I commute 45 miles one way. It’s the price I pay for the relatively slow pace of life in west central Georgia. While the drive sometimes gets old, the scenery does not.

I take U.S. Highway 27 from LaGrange, driving through rural Heard County, to get to Carrollton. The U.S. 27 I knew growing up is no more—the new, four-lane highway took its place some years ago. Just the same, the new road still crosses a beautiful countryside.

So it’s March now—the in-between time of year when the weather can’t decide between ice storms and tornadoes. This year has brought out the daffodils a little early. I delight in watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.

When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and planted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to carefully dig them up at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.

Most daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone year after year with their unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.

But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch, without a house nearby?

Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. So old houses get demolished, their sites fading into and gradually out of memory—yet the bulbs embedded around them come back. They come back every spring thereafter, house or no house.

Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.

These are very simple, single-cup daffodils, a very old-fashioned variety found in the yards of very old houses. They’re about 12” tall at most, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.

Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house. Or, rather, what used to be a house. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.

I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.

I wonder if, on leaving for the last time, they took a long, final look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this post appeared at Forgotten Plants & Places on 25 February 2012.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Hillside Monday: 2/23/15

2015-01-19_COPY

“In Memory of a Friend”
LaGrange, Georgia – 19 January 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

In a Churchyard at Dusk

MyCousinsKeeper_COPY

Heard County, Georgia – 7 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

To 2015

This year—well, then.

2014 led me to remarkable creative progress, to new friendships, to fascinating possibilities. In the face of all this, though, I’ve experienced losses—astounding, crushing losses—that I could never have predicted. Truth stuffed with illusion. Goodbyes I never thought I would have to say. Answers I will never find.

Through everything, my creative voice has remained. Even when all I wanted was to give up, to let myself drown in the metaphorical flood, it has refused to run. After decades of struggle, I have finally learned to listen to it no matter what. That voice, that creative power, has saved me every time.

I won’t find what I need “out there.”
It’s been here all along.

It will be a hard year. I know this in my bones. But it will also be a beautiful year. I know this, too, in my bones.

Here is to 2015.
Here is to making the best art that we can out of the wreckage.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

After the Harvest

Ten thousand starlings cover the orchard floor—a green-purple-bronze carpet delivered six weeks too late. Pecan branches arch in rough cathedral peaks against the weeping sky. Muddy footprints fill with broken hulls, with lost feathers, with rain.

None of this brings you back.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Gone to Be an Angel

GoneToBeAnAngel_COPY2_2014-06-03-18.47.30-HDR-1024x768

The marble is so discolored that I can’t tell what type it is. Knowing a bit about geology, though, I think it’s likely Creole or Murphy marble, quarried from a half-mile-deep vein up in Pickens County.

Rain, wind, heat, and cold have nearly worn away the marble lamb’s face. No matter: its sweet, loving expression remains. Against the patient trees, against the sunset-dappled grass, and with a dirt dauber nest cradled in its ear, the tiny kneeling statue stays faithfully with little Mattie—as it has for over one hundred years.

“Mattie Will Gamble (1907-1909): ‘Gone to Be an Angel'”
Heard County, Georgia – 3 June 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

History and Tragedy

HandleyHouse001_27May2012_017_COPY2

This stunning masterpiece of early 19th century architecture boasted 16-inch foundation beams hewn from trees that, if the ring counts served me correctly, were 350 to 400 years old in the early 1830s. The rafters in both the original structure and the circa 1890s addition were three- to five-inch saplings, stripped of branches and bark and barely flattened on the decking side. I could still see the centuries-old axe marks.

Just thinking about it makes me furious.

Fannin-Truitt-Handley House (built 1831-1833; demolished September 2012)
LaGrange, Georgia – 27 May 2012

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Indictment

BaileyGravestone_HeardCoGA_COPY002_06-03-2014

He was an itinerant millwright, the story goes, a handsome fellow who never stayed long in one place. Women loved him. He loved them back. His mistake was in messing with one whose husband hid in a roadside thicket and shot him off his horse on a fine summer evening.

The doctor tried to save him—removed all the lead he could find, tied and pressed and tourniqueted against further bleeding. Too late. They buried the good-looking millwright at the back edge of the cemetery, sheltered by oak, hickory, poplar, scuppernong.

The chest wound told what the dead man could not. A muzzle-loader, yes. Homemade shot. Wadded tight with paper. The doctor unfurled the biggest blood-soaked piece: a long front page strip from the Franklin newspaper, dated a few days before.

Only one local man still used a muzzle-loader. Years later, the sheriff shook his head when he recalled how the fellow still had that newspaper with the piece torn out. It lay right there on the table when he and the doctor arrived.

They hanged the murderer at the jail in Franklin. Where they buried him—or what became of his wife—nobody knows. But Charles M. Bailey remains here, a mile and a half from where he fell.

Gravestone of Charles M. Bailey
Glenn, Georgia (Heard County) – 3 June 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 1/29/14

iPhone 01-17-2014 934

Heard County, Georgia – 15 January 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Marginalia

JamesThompson_Fall1963_COPY_Cropped

The poor thing looked so lonely, squeezed on both sides by the spy thrillers and bodice rippers whose gaudy covers hogged the floor like a twelfth-runner-up beauty queen on a Vegas bender. But Lord knows how I love a wallflower. A shy, handsome volume of Robert Frost never needed to do the Watusi, the Monkey, or even the Mashed Potato to impress me.

Off we went.
And oh, how we danced.

While there is always something that doesn’t love a wall, there is also always something that does love impeccable penmanship. The notes flowed with grace and control, looping perfect lowercase o’s and curlicuing flawless uppercase T’s completely en pointe inside the narrow margins. Precise inky pirouettes bound Mary and Warren anew to their dying hired man: “Transcending the mundane—earthy, practical—enjoying labor for the sake of labor—LOVE.” The annotations whirled between Frost and me, spinning that road not taken into a pas de deux of why-the-hell-didn’t-I-take-this-road-sooner.

Inside the front cover, though, a few more faded letters sent my heart straight into a grand jeté: “James Thompson, Rm. 407 Morris Hall.” Below, in blue ballpoint: “Fall Quarter 1963, Prof. Jack Kitson.” The gorgeous cursive melted into small caps, still strong and legible. Why, of course, young man. You may have this dance, too.

I wondered about James Thompson and his corner of Room 407. I wondered how many dozens of colleges boasted a Morris Hall men’s dormitory in September 1963. Maybe James, still sporting the summer’s flat-top haircut, arrived right after Labor Day with his clothes, his books, his horn-rimmed glasses, and the expectations of an entire county stuffed into his one graduation-gift suitcase.

I saw James listening, scribbling, an eager young man grasping for every insight from professor, from classmates, from roommates. I saw him reviewing his notes, rereading, explaining, analyzing, revising his term paper and himself so he could make good, do good, come home a success. And here, nearly fifty-one years later in the dusty basement of a dusty used bookstore, his painstaking marginalia still danced to the tune of Robert Frost’s selected poems. Sorry, boys, but my dance card is full—for James Thompson.

At the register, I nearly did an arabesque in disbelief. “A dollar-fifty? That’s all?”

“Yep.” The cashier pressed the change into my palm. “We get a lot of estate sales, you know.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Biohazard

NewtWilliamsGloves_COPY_15Jan2014

Before they were his, they were hide.

Before the goatskin was stripped of flesh, bone, sinew, it cinched fur in follicle, held together bone, gut, muscle, bile. Three square feet of full-grain hide would one day protect my father’s hands from the hot corrosive black-and-clear liquid inside electrician’s splice packets; from the powder-blue edges of just-sawn three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe; from the slow and subtle and inevitable hardening of hands that work in dirt.

No matter how I open the drawer, I’m never fast enough. I still see them. Behind the artfully arranged failure of a dozen jumbled mementos, they wait in the bottom of the dresser, curled as always. Dusty green mildew wraps them in frosty fuzz and a sharp, tangy-bitter smell. They remain in the battered plastic biohazard bag where the homicide investigators carefully placed them.

The evidence from a death.
The detritus from a life.

My father’s final work gloves lie in the drawer corner, bent and shriveled as if immolated. Dark, stiff, foreboding, they put on an obscene mime show of his hands as they clamped the backhoe steering wheel—the backhoe steering wheel behind which he sat for hours missing the back half of his skull while the crime scene crew processed the evidence, surveyed the damage wrought far beyond the sprinkler heads and backfill going in at the 12th tee. Once light tan, the leather slowly turned dark with each successive layer of Lowcountry dirt, of peat and brackish bog, of cattail and swamp water, of sweat, of blood.

Blood.
That’s the other smell—seventeen years on, still spattered along the cuffs.

In memory of Newt Williams
5 October 1946 – 16 January 1997

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy birthday, Elvis

iPhone April 2013-Early September 2013 1543

iPhone April 2013-Early September 2013 1711

iPhone April 2013-Early September 2013 1689

iPhone April 2013-Early September 2013 1759

iPhone April 2013-Early September 2013 1751

Today marks what would have been Elvis Presley’s 79th birthday. Although his death revived his career beyond even the farthest reaches of Colonel Tom Parker’s imagination, I wonder what Elvis would be up to today, had he lived. Part of me likes to think he’s still with us, enjoying his golden years in anonymity.

Perhaps he’s retired to a tiny little Arkansas town and runs the local vegetable stand in the summer. Perhaps he repairs lawnmowers and chain saws for grins and extra cash, and to keep up the illusion that he’s just another old man. Or, in what would be such masterfully delicious irony, perhaps Elvis is impersonating himself in Las Vegas.

Photographed at Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee) – 25 July 2013

 

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

Candy corn:
It is the worst of the worst Halloween candy, plentiful as fleas and twice as hard to get rid of. In all its corn syrupy FD&C No. 6 glory, it refuses to masquerade as blood sugar-friendly. He never craved sweets like we did, but it was his favorite—in small quantities. At Halloween, when we brought home sack after sack of the stuff, he never complained. Had we asked him to, he would have eaten it until Kingdom Come.
Overall: Cloying, slightly giddy, with a letdown at the end.
Base: Unabashed enthusiasm.
Top Note: A bad case of the Sunday evening can’t-help-its.

Michelob:
Maybe he switched from PBR and Bud tallboys to feel more sophisticated after the divorce. Maybe it was too many late nights spent thumbing through Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out “the modern woman” and what she wanted. She wanted back then the same thing she does now: To be treated like a human being, with respect, dignity, and compassion. Besides, would a modern man in a modern relationship with a modern woman drink a redneck beer? Of course not.
Overall: Hoppy, skunky, with a bitter finish.
Base: Rancid barley.
Top Note: Mule piss.

Sardines:
In oil, in mustard, in cream, but never in hot sauce. His ulcer couldn’t handle it. How he could work fourteen hours in 110-degree heat on just a tin of these and a sleeve of saltine crackers is still beyond me. Meanwhile, the rest of us on the crew tried not to honk up our turkey-Swiss-teriyaki-meatball-chitlins-on-wheat lunchtime transgressions. He tossed the empty cans behind the stock pile, where they proceeded to attract every stray cat within a half-mile radius.
Overall: Stridently fishy, yet earnest, with a hint of struggle.
Base: Sweat-soaked long-sleeved Dickies.
Top Note: Waccamaw River silt.

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

In memory of Newt Williams
5 October 1946 ‒ 16 January 1997

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Hank Williams: 1923-1953

HankSrGravesite_BocephusRequest_2008

Today would have been Hank Williams’ 90th birthday.

Photo: Hank & Audrey Williams’ grave site, Oakwood Cemetery Annex, Montgomery, Alabama – Spring 2008

George Jones: 1931-2013

September 12, 1931 – April 26, 2013

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2019 R.S. Williams

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑