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Poem Call it GoldenThe Cousins

Cousins are a curious clutch of characters, relatives with whom you share a frightening familial commonality and sometimes much more. Cousins can be a special circle of instantly understanding friends, but, in this age of wireless long distance and perpetual roaming, they may be FB friends yet still RL strangers, those who share with us common snippets of DNA passed down to us from our mutual grandparents. And it is true that some bereft folk have spindly family trees with few branches and dire prospects for its extinction by evaporation of their shallow gene pool and, thus, they have few cousins. I, on the other hand, was fortunate to spring from a bushy branch of humanity and to have become acquainted with scores of first cousins that sprouted at odd angles and curious places from my father’s and mother’s collective families of fifteen other siblings. I knew most of the cousins by sight and many by name despite their dispersal across the Ohio Valley and Michigan, the southeast of Alabama, up to Plum Nelly, Georgia (that is, plum out of Alabama and Tennessee, and “plum-nelly” out of Georgia), the panhandle of Florida, the heart of Tennessee and on out to New Mexico and California and beyond because of determined and frequent efforts “to get together.”

It is inevitable, I suppose, that one will find favorites among a group of people because of time shared and of things held in common, because of mutual affinities, or because of parental bias. Among my many cousins whom I knew and loved, two were especially close and even today occupy a special place in my heart and imagination: Nelson and Margaret Ann, the children of my Aunt Nell of Dothan, Mother’s closest sister. I always thought it ironic, even before I knew that word, that Nelson was so named, because he was truly “Nell’s son.” Aunt Nell was an “Army widow,” what we called a wife deserted by a husband who seemed to be always serving in distant duty stations.

The Jenkins Clan

I remember only once meeting Sgt. Henry Jenkins, my uncle. It was 1954, in the middle of the night at the train station in Washington, D.C. My family was relocating for three months to New Jersey where Dad, a master aircraft mechanic, would study jet engine repair at a special school.   Uncle Henry arranged for us a midnight tour of the illuminated capital city from the backseat of a Yellow Cab. It was a thrilling even if frenetic experience that I shall never forget; we gawked at the capital, blinding white in the search lights, the Washington Monument streaking into a black sky and Arlington Cemetery with the marble marines raising the flag on an inky Iwo Jima. But I left on our train a few hours later, wondering what the city and my uncle were really like when they emerged from the shadows.

On the other hand, I knew quite well what my Aunt Nell and her children were like; they were an extension of home, were family, were people who seemed to love or at least tolerate me with right good humor. I do not remember a time when they were not part of the scenery of my grandparent’s world.   There were the summers when my mother brought my brother, my sister and me for a two-week stay “at Nell’s.” When I reflect on those few days out of my life they glow in my imagination as if they were the substance and main part of my young days. They were that significant.

It was then that I ran barefoot among the broomstraw and began to learn something of who I was. There were one hundred chases around the chicken coop that Nelson, Dale and I later made a clubhouse—for boys only. We even painted a rude sign, misspelling in capital letters, “NO GIRLS ALOUD!” We had no worry, actually, of female intrusion, since the place still smelled of chicken excrement and rotting feathers even though the birds had been evicted two years earlier.   Margaret Ann and Cindy Lou held their noses whenever they passed the rickety door, whether at the lingering smell or at our preadolescent prejudice, I am not totally sure. It was a time when Dad was again away from home on TDY, a hateful designation but one that was lucrative for the family budget. In letters exchanged between my parents I learned of forgotten misadventures.

To her husband, Audrey wrote in a letter dated July 16, 1956, “Our visit in Dothan was nice enough considering the number of children. Nelson and Sammy converted the chicken house to a hut and in the process Sammy learned the facts of life….Sammy expects a birds and bees conversation out of you for I told him Nelson’s ideas might be cockeyed but you’d know the straight of it.

Nothing more eventful happened other than the fact they set fire to the hut with gasoline. I managed to smother it before the wood caught fire, just several sheets they had hung as curtains. Papa was home but we got it out before he saw it and dispersed the smoke with the hose….”

Two Sisters in Conspiracy

To me, the weeks seemed endless and an eye-blink at the same time. The mornings of almost every day were filled with hot hours of blackberry picking in the pastures with four others—brother, sister and cousins. We five, in a running contest, filled buckets with gallons of the black, juicy fruit destined for the jelly pot of my industrious mother and Aunt Nell. I wondered how adults could have such obvious fun doing a monotonous and arduous task like jelly making or canning, but the two women, their heads frequently together, touching, hair in bandanas, laughed and smiled and glowed with more than perspiration as they worked together to mash the berries, strain them through ancient purple-stained tea towels or boil the juice with sugar and pectin, eternally stirring and vigilant lest it burn. I never learned from either the thousands of things they spoke of when the children were out from under foot, but they seemed as if they grew wiser and more peaceful with ever minute they shared.

Cousin Margaret Ann (L), Sammy Gene and Cousin Nelson Jenkins (R) ca. 1952

Cousin Margaret Ann (L), Sammy Gene and Cousin Nelson Jenkins (R) ca. 1952

I was the eldest child in my family and was always looked to with expectations of leadership and responsibility. In my cousin Nelson, I had my own interim surrogate older brother of sorts. In many ways I secretly admired his version of adolescent rebellion and his emulation of James Dean. For his part, he tolerated me, I think, even if four years his junior, as only a mild annoyance, sharing, instead, the secret pleasures of country and small-town life. I was convinced that he secretly approved of me because he did not ignore me but rather playfully wrestled with me and tormented me as young pups do. My head became accustomed to its occasional knuckle rub. His was just enough rough housing to make me feel initiated, but not so much as to feel abused or unappreciated. It was he who taught me the clandestine and disobedient joy of riding a footlocker down the mountain of cotton lint that was deposited by the cotton gin on the lot down the road. Mother had—unreasonably I thought—forbidden this exploit for fear that we would suffocate like infants in the slick fluff. It was he who took me “cruising” in his truck when a teenager; he revealed the sights, the smells and the light-hearted breezes of the summer night of the small 1950’s town of Dothan, Alabama; its Main Street, the Diary Freeze, the long country roads, Dothan Senior High. There he attended as had my mother and Nell and Johnny Mac Brown, cowboy film star. All these common sights were exotic and special to my eyes. I took in all he had to say as wise and worldly. I remember to this day his admonition when I reached the bottom of a milkshake. The sound of slurping through the straw he called, “The mating call of the North American Fool.” Now, I sometimes slurp for my own private rebellious delight and sometimes I am politely silent, but I never reach the end of a shake or malt without thinking of Nelson and what he gave me.

Margaret Ann was my idea of the perfect bobby-sock teenage girl, complete with poodle skirt and pony tail and Friday night softball games where she arranged for me to sell peanuts to the spectators. She let me listen to her precious collection of 45 rpm vinyl disks and hear the crooning of the heroes and idols of my generation, American Bandstand in her bead and board bedroom accompanied by the rhythmic sawing of summer cicadas outside the screened window. I appreciated her kindness then and her playfulness. What I did not appreciate at the time was her hidden strength of character and spiritual depth that revealed itself as an adult in her ministry to women across the South and her positive spirit and hope in the face of the deaths of a husband and a mother by cancer. But such assets may not be visible at our start. Indeed, who would have guessed her awkward and stuttering cousin, Sammy Gene, would have become a professor who for nearly thirty years daily lectured hundreds of people at the university.

Days of Luxurious Indolence

In those days of luxurious indolence, I learned how to turn boredom into peaceful reflection and loneness into solitude. When we were sentenced to the sweltering hours of mother-decreed afternoon quiet time, I happened upon the excitement of discovery in Nell’s parlor. The encyclopedia held a deep well of knowledge that I learned I was thirsting for, like a berry-picker in the noon-day sun without a water jug. I randomly looked up a topic, “Argentina,” and there was “Argon” beckoning; preceding “Balloon,” with a picture of Picard ascending, was “ballistic.” On and on. Soon I looked forward to the hours I could read of the wonders of the universe. My cousins shook their heads at their strange relative. “Sammy’s reading the encyclopedia, again.” They must have wondered at this freak of nature that was related to them, secretly fearful that such bookishness was congenital.

I did not read all day, however. In the long otherwise empty afternoons we invented our play. I once discovered the ant lions under the house that sat on red brick pillars tall enough to permit you to walk crouching under the floor jousts. The predatory insects made conical pits in the dust there that had lain protected from water for decades. A hapless ant that attempted to traverse the pit would slip hopelessly down into the vertex where she vanished in a flash of sand. If you pushed a little sand into the pit, the thing that lived at the bottom of the inch-deep crater flung a plume of dirt out over the side. I spent hours watching and teaching myself to catch the mysterious tiny monster. A little spittle on a straw and a quick jerk at last brought up a hideous creature the size of a grain of rice with disproportionate claws and mouth. This must be what ants dream of when they have nightmares. I thanked God that I did not daily face such a challenge as I walked about.

Call it “Golden,” Indeed

Cousins are indeed curious characters, but they are more than set decorations in the drama of my memory. They are individuals who loved me even though they did not have to. I shall never see a jar of home-style jelly, the sun shining through it like some cathedral glass rose window, without thinking of the hands that picked the fruit and the labor that transformed the juice into jelly. I shall never cease to feel the glow of those summers. When I review the scenes of those days, I am sure that they are priceless; and on sober appraisal, “golden,” indeed, is what I shall call them ever.

Wet Mountain Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado Photo credit: Carolyn Matteson

Wet Mountain Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado
Photo credit: Carolyn Matteson

In 2003 my wife’s sister and brother-in-law, Linda and Bob Warren, whom I like to call my “bonus siblings,” drove us out from Buena Vista, Colorado in their four-wheel drive vehicle into the dense San Isabel National Forest, and over Cottonwood Pass. Bob and Linda have resided in the Wet Mountain Valley (pictured above) for over twenty years and should by now become accustomed to the stunning beauty of the mountains and forests of south central Colorado. But not so. They were as enraptured as were Carolyn and I, the visitors from the flatlands.

Beholding the autumn foliage in the pass, I was inspired to pen the poem below that not only exalts in the beauty of the place but also marvels at the extravagance of a God who would create such scenes for His own pleasure.  What a gift to glimpse it, too, almost incidentally.

Cottonwood post (1)

“The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains – mountain dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature’s workshops.”–John Muir (1938)

April has been designated National Poetry Month (http://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/stanza/national-poetry-month-2015) Below is a poem that expresses my simultaneous aspiration and doubt about my attempts at communicating truth. It was inspired by a dream that is described in the poem. I probably was under the persistent influence of my research into the history of stringed instruments, ancient Grecian music, and better ways to intrigue my students in my musical acoustics class as I went to sleep the night in question. Inspiration can spring from the oddest intersections of thought.

One of the oldest complete musical poems is the text of the Song of Seikilos (ca. 200 BC), an ancient Greek text performed by the Atrium Musicae de Madrid directed by Gregorio Paniagua that can be found on-line at https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=9RjBePQV4xE#t=6.  Its haunting text and musical accompaniment on the kithara (lyre) must have made a subconscious impression on me. It may do the same for you.

In the weeks to come I will a post an original poem each week. I believe that poetry is language singing, telling us of life in its multifaceted reality. April poem post #1:

Original verse by Sam Matteson (www.sammatteson.com) Permission granted for repost or copying for educational use.

Original verse by Sam Matteson (www.sammatteson.com)
Permission is granted for reposting or copying for educational use.

Poetry Quote: “At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.” – Plato

Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral    Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Easter is coming. I can tell from the Cadbury Bunny’s sudden appearance in TV ads. In addition to the mythical egg-laying leporid, we can look forward in a few days to hidden colored eggs, abundant candy and new spring outfits. The time is awash in pastel hopes for sunshine and the promise of warm days. Easter-tide is a sweet-toothed springtime celebration of the cyclical nature of the rebirth of the world after the cruel winter that seems more like a fairy tale than history.

Perhaps, lost in all the fun is a horrific historical event. Friday, next, April 3, 2015 Anno Domini, is “Good” Friday. A day when Christians of the western tradition (Roman Catholics and Protestants, for example) will observe the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus called the Christ. Those of the eastern tradition (Eastern or Greek Orthodox for example) will wait a week more, due to a difference of opinion that dates back centuries about fixing the annual celebration of Easter relative to the full moon in spring. Many may assume that with all this calendric shuffling, we cannot know when the first Good Friday or Easter happened. Indeed, some even assume that the holiday is merely a cultural relic from a more pious era that has no relevance to our time or any basis in a real event that happened on a particular day in history.

Was Jesus an Actual Historical Person?

There are a few who might claim that the date of the crucifixion is moot because they are skeptical of even the reality of a historical person called Jesus (Yeshuah in Hebrew, a variant of the first century common name that has also come into English as “Joshua”) of Nazareth, called the Messiah (Meshiach in Hebrew) or the Christ (Christos in Greek). I found both fascinating and accessible an article written by Lawrence Mykytiuk in Biblical Archaeology Review1 dealing with extra-Biblical historical evidence for the existence of this remarkable person.

Mykytuik concludes that there is ample secular textual evidence to persuade most scholars that there was indeed a Jesus called the Christ, who lived in the Roman province of Judea in the days of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and was executed on a Friday that was also the eve of the Jewish Passover festival. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he was a threat to the Pax Romana, as was customary in such cases. This travesty of justice was perpetrated by Pontius Pilate, who was governor or, more precisely, prefect of Judea in the period 26-36 AD. These details are so familiar to those who have heard the story repeatedly that we risk the events seeming to be folk lore set adrift from the grim realities.

Eyewitnesses to History

History has witnessed other violent deaths of public figures. I will never forget another Friday, November 22, 1963, where I was and what I felt. That was 52 years ago. Nevertheless, many are alive today that were there in Dealy Plaza in Dallas to witness the event. I was in my algebra class, three states away, but I experienced it too. The public address system crackled to life with my high school Principal’s voice: “My apologies teachers, we interrupt your class for this important announcement.” Then we heard Walter Cronkite’s familiar and trusted voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.’ (a pause as he glanced up at clock) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

The very public death of our president recalled a similar incident that occurred 150 years ago this month. On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the great American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the very public venue of Ford’s Theater by the well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died the following morning. We know these facts because of eye witness accounts. Yet, this event seems already so ancient and out of touch. Can we know anything with reliability? Indeed we can. In fact, the last witness to the terrifying event, Samuel J. Seymour, himself died April 12, 1956, when I was nine2. Even a century and a half after the events there are individuals of my generation who could have chatted with living witnesses.

But what of an event that is reported to have occurred almost two millennia ago? We have treasured documents that purport to share eyewitness testimony. One history written in the Greek language of the day begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses [emphasis added] and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” (Luke 1:1) The work, called the Gospel According to Luke, is traditionally ascribed to Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul, although the document itself does not identify directly its author. Scholarly opinion variously dates the writing of this document to between 80-90 AD or 90-110 AD, that is, as early as fifty years or as late as eighty years from the events it details. What is impressive to me is the claim of reporting eyewitness testimony of the events.

This document and its volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, that are attributed to and generally agreed to be by the same hand, provide wonderful insight and detail that can help fix the chronology of the final days of the remarkable individual called Jesus Christ. According to the author of the gospel, whom we will call without further apology “Luke,” Jesus began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea . . . .” (Luke 3:1) Scholars have variously understood the 15th year of Tiberius to be 26 A.D. (assuming one counts from Tiberius’ regency while Augustus was in semi-retirement) or 28-29 A.D. (assuming one counts from the Caesar’s death on August 19, 14 A.D.). Depending on how one interprets the gospels Jesus’ ministry lasted from one to four years. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus must have occurred in the time period of from about 27 A.D. to 34 A.D.

Humphreys and Waddington date Crucifixion to 3 April 33 AD

In 1983, I read an article in Nature by Humphreys and Waddington3 that argued very persuasively (to my mind) that the most probable date for Jesus’ crucifixion was April 3, 33 A.D. I subsequently corroborated their calculations myself using an astronomical ephemeris program with up-to-date corrections for changes in the rotation and orbits of the earth-moon system. The authors have revisited the topic both in a festschrift book3 and a decade later, successfully answering all of the credible criticism.4

They argue, in essence, that–on examination of the dates of Passovers that began on Friday evening during the period Pilate was prefect–only two dates emerge as calendrically possible: 7 April 30 A.D. and 3 April 33 A.D. Citing much historical evidence, they declare that the later date is significantly more likely than the earlier.

Moreover, it is especially moving that Good Friday 2015 also occurs on April 3 and that a very special celestial event will reoccur that recalls one of 33 A.D. I refer to what Peter alluded to in his Pentecost sermon, fifty days after that first Easter, in which he quoted the prophet Joel:

“In those days I will pour out my Spirit . . . I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood . . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. . . .This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:19, 20, 22, 32)

Blood Moon April 3, 1996  Photo: Preston Starr

Blood Moon April 3, 1996         Photo: Preston Starr

Thus, Luke reports a “Blood Moon,” that is, a lunar eclipse. Humphreys and Waddington point out that just such a celestial event occurred April 3, 33 A.D. at sunset. This year on April 4, 2015 A.D. the morning of Holy Saturday, just before sunrise (from about 6:00-7:00 am CDT) the moon will be “turned to blood” on the western horizon. If you are an early riser you, too, can witness this celestial reminder (weather permitting) of that fateful day 1982 years ago.

[Please note that contrary to what some have posted on-line, Humphreys and Waddington do not claim the darkness at noon is due to an eclipse. Lunar eclipses do not cause a darkness at noon. It was Thallus the Samaritan, in a first century history now lost, who was quoted and refuted by Julianus Africanus as dismissing the darkness as due to a solar eclipse. As Julianus correctly point out, no solar eclipse is possible at Passover when the moon is full.]

First Century Eyewitnesses Accounts Confirmed by Astroastronomy

I find it noteworthy that a reporter (Luke) of eyewitness testimony recounts a confirmed event (a blood moon) that did, indeed, occur as reported. This is indirect but compelling evidence that Luke shared eyewitness testimony, not folk tales.

For a self-identified calendar-and-history-nerd who loves a good mystery like me, the topic is fascinating. However, the historical debate can obscure the most important point: the gospel is a report of historical events that changed the lives of the people who experienced them and that have continued to impact people who subsequently listened to the news. We are the recipients of that good news story. In John’s gospel we read that Jesus, after his resurrection, said to “doubting” Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

What is more, the Apostle Paul reported

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that we was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, [emphasis added] although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

Thus, if the witnesses are to be believed, Easter is, indeed, a day to celebrate, after all. It is a day to dye eggs, a sign of new life, to revel in the vernal rebirth of the earth, and to put on new bright clothes—in short, to party. We do not celebrate the deaths of Presidents Kennedy or Lincoln. Too many hopes died with them. The good news that Paul delivers to us is echoed in the Easter greeting of the Orthodox tradition: Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! Alithos Anesti! He is risen indeed!

In that historical truth, hope is reborn—reason enough to party large.

References:

  1. Lawrence Mykytiuk in BAR On-line:

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/

  1. Wikipedia Samuel J. Seymour

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_J._Seymour

  1. J. Humphreys and W.J. Waddington, ‘Dating the Crucifixion’, Nature 306 (1983) 743-6; idem, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, J. Vardaman and E.M. Yamauchi (eds.), (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1989) 172-81.
  2. Humphreys and Waddington Tyndal Bulletin

http://www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1992_43_2_06_Humphreys_DateChristsCrucifixion.pdf

Wei Yang

Wei Yang--"Not yet finished"

Wei Yang–“Not yet finished”

I arrived too late, too late for Dad to say a final “good-bye.” When I raced up the corridor of the hospital to my stroke-stricken octogenarian father’s bedside after an eighteen-hour drive, I realized that I was too late. The light had gone out in his eyes; he could not acknowledge my presence even if he were aware of me; the shades of his eye lids were drawn half-way down, and I sensed that he was no longer home behind his body’s gray-green stare. The man I had known for my sixty-plus years had unceremoniously departed a few hours before, felled by a stroke, although his breath still came paroxysmally in shallow and rapid gasps. It was small—and I must say bitter—comfort that millions of other “Boomers” faced the same scenario each year. Indeed, thousands I realized, were probably sharing the same experience at that very moment. I was glad that I had visited on a whim a few weeks before, but that, too, was little comfort now.

A “Good” Death

The next week was unforgettable, even if excruciating. The transfer to the hospice facility, the execution of his “directive,” the vigil, the final breath, all shouted “mortality!” In those hours watching Dad’s body incrementally shutting down, I saw not him but me lying abed there, slowly sinking down with each breath, each feeble cardiac palpitation, until in the early morning hours of Good Friday, March 21, 2008, the vernal equinox, a day for turning to the light, although it could have just as well been the longest and darkest night of the year, at last we arrived—at stillness. Even as ugly as is death, I could not look away. I had ignored it until then, until it was impossible to deny, but then I was forced to look at it full face: I am inevitably my father’s son, son of Adam. Indeed, it is difficult to escape your genetics, and it is impossible to cheat death in the end. It comes on, welcome or not.

In the year after his departure (“death” seems too harsh a word to utter even if it is all too real), I felt my own mortality acutely. I pondered the meaning and significance of Life, my life, in particular. I reflected on the rumors of a future hope, and wondered. I slipped into a perpetual sadness over the possible futility of human existence. I did not smile as often as before life and death had orphaned me. My typical bravado was shaken just as when, as I child, I bravely scaled the high dive ladder until the kid before me had taken his turn, disappearing over the edge of the platform, and I stood staring down into the depths below, a lump in my throat. I had suddenly realized when my children and grandchildren were assembled at a table per stirpes for thirteen that somewhere along the line I had imperceptibly grown into a patriarch, the elder son, a scion of a complete branch of our family tree. The realization was unnerving.

Wei Yang

I was helped somewhat by sympathetic friends and family, but the grief work was mine to do alone, since the only answers that are relevant to our deepest questions are the ones we discover for ourselves. Christmas came, the first Christmas without Dad. My eldest child Carrie and her family gave me a high-tech walking stick to use on our hikes in Colorado. She also included two books on theology, in recognition of one of my hobbies. Over the next few months these items came to mean more than I understood at first. Indeed, they bespoke that my life was not over; there are trails and other journeys that I have not explored. On impulse, I decided to give my walking stick a name and looked up the Mandarin characters on-line for “not yet finished.” Thus, I stumbled upon the phrase “Wei Yang,” a classic literary phrase, little used today, as I learned from my Mandarin-speaking friends. The elegant connotations of the ideograms suggest that life holds more possibilities in its unfinished-ness than we can foresee. I prepared a wooden plaque with the characters in calligraphic form to remind me of this truth and to provide a daily encouragement, when quite by accident (or God’s providence) a Chinese student noted the sign and amended an insight.

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

“Have you been to Wei Yang?” He asked. “. . . in China?”

“Been?   No.” I replied.

He explained, “Wei Yang was the largest palace ever built. Its name means: ‘Never ending. . . .” How do you say? . . . ‘eternal’ palace.”

In an inexplicable way it is comforting to my spirit that part of the eternity of life is its unfinished, never done character. Indeed, when my days among you have expired I suspect that I will be on my way somewhere and must leave much unfinished. Until then, I will not sit and wait for the end. It must and will catch up with me on the way, as it did my father.

In Memoriam

Lewis Edward Matteson
(August 13, 1919 – March 21, 2008)

The Mycophagists

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. It was decades later and leagues away from the swamps outside Mobile—after I left home for good—that I learned of the pleasures of button, Shitake and honey mushrooms, of mushroom and Alfredo cream sauce, of sautéed mushrooms and onions, of salads with sliced, fresh mushrooms and almonds, of meaty portabellas, morels and golden chanterelles. Such exotic delights had to wait for sophistication. But when I was a child of the 50s, mushrooms were treacherous plants—as everyone knew. People died eating them.

We were convinced of the facts because we encountered ‘shrooms all the time in the woods. Circles of the white and elegant Death Angel grew in mysterious, deadly fairy rings in forest glens. Overnight, after a rain, brown-encrusted buttons pushed up from the black humus, summoned by unknown malevolent powers. Dire warnings were not lost on us about eating wild fungi and the fate that befell indiscriminant mycophagists.

We Kept Our Distance

We were well acquainted with mushrooms, but without really knowing them. We encountered them everywhere but maintained only a nodding acquaintance. Mushrooms, toadstools, bracket mold, and mildew, all were denizens of the dark and decaying places of the earth. No place was safe. Even in our bathroom in the humid corner under the toilet tank, there grew up what my mother—a proper Southern lady—called a Devil’s Finger: red, sticky and rank. But in my roguish imagination Lucifer’s fungal appendage seemed something more phallic—and alarming—than an interloping digit.

Thus there was no escaping the incursion of mushrooms into our lives. And mushrooms and toadstools were indistinguishable to children. So we maintained an uneasy truce, keeping our distance, we and the fungi. Perhaps, if we gave them a wide enough berth, they would not harm us.

At the same time my Mother Audrey, faced a daily and challenging question that grew ever more acute as she “X-ed” her calendar, inching toward Dad’s next payday: “What am I to feed my hungry children?” I am sure that she felt like the mother bird with a nest of open-mouthed chicks that are never satisfied, all pin feathers, flightless wings and mouths agape. I see her standing before a near-empty pantry, one hand on her hip, one hand drumming her cheek, her eyes scanning the labels of the few remaining cans on the shelf. “What to feed them? Oh, Lord have mercy! What to feed them? Ah! Soup! And toast.   ‘Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.’ Mmmm…I wonder? No Tomato. This is all we have. It’ll have to do.”

Anti-fugal Insurrection

In retrospect, I, Sammy Gene Matteson—as the eldest, at the cheeky age of nine—must have been the provocateur who incited the riot, the one who reminded his sister Cindy Lou, his junior by twenty months and their brother “Baby” Dale, soon to turn six, of the admonitions regarding eating wild mushrooms.

“What if they made a mistake at the soup cannery?” I began.

“Yeah! . . . What if they put in a toadstool by mistake?” Cindy added.

I continued, “It could happen. Remember when we got the piece of rag in the can of beans?”

They both nodded.

“What if Mother has finally had it with us? We have been a little naughty, lately. . . . Do to think she is trying to get rid of us?”

I thought of the headlines: “MOTHER OF THREE POISONS KIDS! MUSHROOM SOUP IMPLICATED!” We began to bawl. We began to howl.

“What’s the matter, children?”

“You’re trying to poison us! You’re feeding us toadstools!”

“Nonsense!”

Her reply did not convince us. Indeed, nothing she said made any difference. No reasoning, no cajoling, no pleas had any effect. At last, her face reddened in frustration, then she began to cry, too. “This is all I have to give you. Can’t you eat it? It won’t kill you.”

After more tears and more negotiation, we children finally agreed to drink the creamy soup, but we resolutely refused to eat the “poisonous” mushroom pieces that floated in it. I finished my soup first. I looked down to glimpse an ironic half-formed fairy ring of uneaten mushroom bits smirk back at me from my bowl.

I hear my beleaguered Mother’s voice once again, and it breaks my heart. For from this distance I understand, at last. She set more on the table than food: she ladled love-seasoned desperation into our empty bowls. She offered up everything she had, meager and unwelcome though it was to us. We did not mean to be cruel. I only hope that she forgave our anti-fungal insurrection. Surely she did. But whether she did or she did not, she never tried to feed us mushroom soup again.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) "Baby" Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) “Baby” Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

Postscript:

As those who follow this blog will notice, this vignette was read for the Listen to Your Mother casting. We were disappointed to learn that it did not fit with the directors’ vision for this year’s production. More the better for my readers, since the tale is too true and too “rich” to sit on the shelf.

Featured image

1943 Copper Cent valued at $80,000 Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

On Saturday March 7, I auditioned for a slot in the cast of Listen to Your Mother—Nashville, an evening of readings of stories in honor of mothers. Since March is National Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s Day, I offer a tease of what I shared: “The Mycophagists,” a recounting of the great mushroom soup insurrection.

Listen to Your Mother

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. . . .

Dream or vision?

You will have to be patient to hear the rest. Either hear me perform the piece in person May 2 at the TPAC in Nashville, Tennessee or read it here in my blog, sooner or later. We will shortly know whether my dream will come true.

I mean that statement more than metaphorically. A few years ago I had a vivid dream that I was standing before a group—reading aloud. I gradually recognized the words as my own. I was reading my story, my memoir, the child of my memory and of my childhood. My gaze lifted to look into the eyes of my listeners. I was at Barnes and Noble for a book signing! Perhaps it was a gratuitous wish fulfillment, but perhaps it was actually a vision of what lies ahead. The Lord knows and we shall see.

But the question comes to me as I ponder the future and my compulsion to scribble: why do I tell stories? In the years that I have worked at the craft of teaching and communicating, I have studied and practice the art of the well-turned phrase, of the clearly expressed idea, and of the fresh glimpse of reality. What scientists and professors do in my discipline is exposition and argumentation. Only rarely do we deploy narrative to illustrate our point, and then it is often considered an ornamentation.

Homo narrans

Humans are narrators. Homo narrans, I have heard our species called. We love a story. Oliver Sacks, a consummate story teller as well as clinical neuroscientist, has taught me so much. He has illuminated neuropsychology for us all by his stories of the bizarre and poignant behaviors of his patients in works like The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and many others. Sacks makes the point that the inner self of a human being is his stories and his memories. So I tell stories because they are me, at least in part.

And my stories are gifts, from the hand of the Father, I believe. They are like treasures we pick up along the way. I once was inspired in 2002 to express that thought in verse that I will now inflict upon you, dear reader, as my admonition.

These are Lines Scribbled

These are lines scribbled
with a blue pen
Found on the concrete,
Picked up on the way
To somewhere.
‘Forget where.
Discovered letters, these.
Stumbled-on words
Scratched on an envelope back
Lest they be lost again forever.

They spill out the ball
As if a thing alive,
A skipping, undulating scrawling wave
That carries meaning on its back
Like flotsam or flying fish
In a gray-green sea
That romantics would call blue.

Truth is found like green pennies, too,
On the pavement, snatched up,
That nothing be lost.
Heads—I keep it;
Tails—I give it away.
But never leave it lie.
Someday it might be a copper ’43 Steelie’s twin
Lost somehow ‘til now.

So do pick it up,
Unafraid as you go by,
Gold is where you find it.

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