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I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

Meanwhile, in English class, Mrs. Thelma Vanderweiss (not her real name) subjected us to a regimen of daily reading of verse in the sincere hope that “culture” would take root in our juvenile minds.  We read and committed to memory sections of “Annabell Lee” by the tintinnabulating poet Edgar Allen Poe and other “classics” of nineteenth century American literature.  She furthermore inflicted upon us one of her favorite “modern” compositions, Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.”  Mrs. Vanderwiess , a tiny woman with a tyrannical air, was the whitest woman that I ever met.  Her skin was pale, her pallor accentuated by her fashionably powdered cheeks.  She was, indeed, fair skinned from her high forehead to her diminutive feet, but I intend more than that; her air epitomized to me the aristocratic pretension that I thought Mobile’s white society espoused.  She always wore large diamond rings on her fingers, white pearls and a demur dress or business suit; and black pumps after Labor Day.   She seemed perpetually offended that she must attempt to instruct such uncultivated pupils as we.   She rarely smiled in my presence.  I recall how she drilled the class daily in the recitation of “The Congo” for weeks.  It was to be the centerpiece of a school-wide assembly.  The sound of her more than her image haunts me still; it is her pointed-toe shoe stomping the rhythm on the worn pine floors of the now razed Robert E. Lee High School building where we were holding classes.   “Stomp—THEN I SAW THE CONGO—stomp—CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK—stomp— . . . .   Do you feel the beat?  All together now! Stomp— CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST—stomp— WITH A GOLDEN  TRACK—stomp. . . .  That’s it!  You’re getting it!”


Vachel Lindsay source: Unknown-Modern American Poetry website, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

The rhythm was exciting and, despite my aversion to the manner of Mrs. Vanderweiss, I fell in love with the power and music of the poetry.   Lindsay’s rhythms were intoxicating.  There was jazz in the meter.  I suspect that the poet was sympathetic to the plight of the inhabitants of the Congo, but his voice was not the voice of a black man even though it had the power of the beat of the human heart.  His verse was a minstrel voice dressed up in black-face chanting a white man’s song.  It was only pretending to be in the Style Africaine.  Even a young teen such as I could discern the patronizing and denigrating tone of the poem entitled “The Congo, A Study of the Negro Race” with stanzas named “Their Basic Savagery,”  and “Their Irrepressible High Spirits,” and “The Hope of their Religion.”    I was embarrassed but could not explain why when we chanted lines like, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” and “A good old negro in the slums of the town/ Preached at a sister for her velvet gown….”  I did not know any Africans nor did I really know any “colored people” in my town, and thus, I had no way to test my misgivings.  But something seemed odd to me about the characterizations and words I was chanting.

I might have marveled then, as I do now, if I had known of the African community around the corner. In a curious and ignored twist of history a transplanted African village existed for a century less than ten miles from where our map hung in my school room.  I might have felt more connected to Africa and to history if I had known of Africatown.  As it happened, in 1860, in the year before Alabama’s secession from the union and the subsequent “War between the States,” a swaggering Mobile ship builder, Captain Timothy Meaker, bragged that, although the importation of slaves had been illegal in the United States since 1808 and had been declared a capital offense equivalent to piracy in 1820, he had built a sloop fast enough to out run any Yankee gunboat.   He could defy the jack-leg Feds and meddling abolitionists.  He made good on his boast when he handed the Clotilde over to a Captain William Foster of Maine for the purpose of acquiring a cargo of humans.

Foster had no difficulty in securing the “merchandize.”  The Dahomey tribesmen who resided in what is present day Benin happily sold their Tarkbar captives to the captain for $100 per head.  Unfortunately for Meaker, when the Clotilde reached Mobile, the Federal troops were waiting.  He sailed the sloop up the Mobile River, herded most of his human cargo onto a barge, and shipped them to Montgomery.    Then he ran the ship aground and burned it.   Later the thirty-two Africans that he had reserved for his own use were cut loose and settled on his property, freed presumably to avoid his being caught red-handed.  When the war broke out, the displaced African nucleus was joined by others who had escaped their captivity up state.  Together, they established a discrete community with a distinctly African culture just three miles from downtown Mobile.  Known locally as


Abache’ and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis at Africatown. Mobile, Alabama in the 1910s. Source: Emma Langdon Roche, Histroic Sketches of the South (Knickerboker Press, 1914) Public Domain

“Africatown,” it persisted until World War II as an identifiable community.  This was the last instance in US history of the importation of slaves into North America.  It seemed so long ago, but the last survivor of the Clotilde “passed” only thirteen years before I was born.  Meaker was apprehended but was never convicted, the Civil War intervening.  African history happened next door and I never knew it.  Perhaps those who taught me did not know it either, or perhaps they ignored it since they thought it irrelevant.  I realize now that I really knew nothing about Africa or Africans until I met Duke Badejogbin in college.

Duke was a Nigerian.  He was a Yoruba.  He was my brother in Christ.  When we met in my second year of college, I began to learn something of what was Africa.  He was one of the first missionaries from the Nigerian Baptist Convention to the country of Sierra Leon, more than a thousand miles up the coast of West Africa.

“I realized that I needed more education if I were to minister to the people the way our Father wanted me to,” he said, pronouncing “education” with a precision that inspired in me a new appreciation for the word.  “But when I wrote to the mission board to ask to return home, they cut us off completely.  There was no more support.  We were marooned without enough money to buy food or a ticket for the boat home.  We sold everything we had, down to the pans as small as this,” he showed me the pink palm of his left hand as he made a slicing motion at his wrist with his right. “But God is good.  He brought us home and now He has brought me here to study.”

I learned from Duke how he had reluctantly left his children and pregnant wife in the care of his family and ventured to the United States.  I agonized with him and prayed with him when word came of the coup back home and how Elizabeth, his wife, had fled with their children to the bush.  Then I rejoiced with him when he learned of the birth of his son Ayo and at the news of their safety.  Soon Elizabeth and Ayo joined him while the older children remained with his parents.


Yoruba Ceremony Nigeria. Source: heartmendersmagazine.blogspot,com

He taught me rudimentary elements of his Yoruba culture, how his family name was a badge of honor signifying that his ancestor was the friend and advisor of the tribal ruler who danced the Jogbin dance with the chief, how his family did actually live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and no door.  Thus, I learned of the custom of clapping your hands at the doorway instead of knocking on the nonexistent panel.  He taught me that sanitized running water, air conditioning, electricity and automobiles that effortlessly rode on paved streets were luxuries that I took for granted without thinking.  It was no stereotyped lie; many Nigerians did not enjoy these amenities.  I found nothing to belittle him about.  Instead, I admired this short wiry man, his courage and resilience.

From Duke, I heard of Schweitzer’s philosophy and ethic: that all life was sacred and we must exercise a grand reverence for life.  When a visitor was about to swat a mosquito, the Nobel laureate is reported to have cautioned, “Take thought!  Remember that you are a guest in this country.”  One Sunday afternoon, my fiancé and I were visiting Duke and Elizabeth in their apartment on Second Street near the black church that was sponsoring their stay in Waco.  Suddenly, Duke pulled off his slipper and flung it across the room.  I turned just in time to see a cockroach skitter behind a bookcase.  I asked him, “What would Dr. Schweitzer say?” He replied sheepishly, “That is philosophy. This is different.  I must think about Ayo now.”  Then he smiled.  His look reminded me of what he had told me, “Ayo means ‘joy’.  As Isaac means ‘laughter’ because Sarah and Abraham laughed when he was born, so we called our son ‘Ayo’ because he brought joy to Elizabeth’s and to my heart.”  At that moment we were not Yoruba and Alabamian, Nigerian and American; we were brothers.  I began better to understand Africa.  The inhabitants of the continent were people as we are, grown from a different soil but of the same seed, cherishing a different history and culture but with the same needs and longings.

A curious word “stereotype.”  We use a stereoscope to see things in the round.  We listen to stereophonic music to be immersed in the sound.  In stereo we better understand the reality of a thing and it seems more “solid.” But when we harbor a stereotype of a person or place, we substitute a counterfeit death-rigored lie for the living, breathing reality.   I have grown to distrust statements like “All _____ are _____.”

I still despair sometimes.  We cling so jealously to our tribalism and distrust of others not of our clan. “We belong to the European tribe, the Anglo-Irish clan, the Italian family, the French enclave, the Cherokee Nation,” I think I hear us mutter.  “They” are the Africans or the Indians; they are the Whites or the Hispanics, the Asians or the Arabian; they are all a different tribe.

I hear African voices, “We are Tarkbar; they are Dahomey. They killed our ancestors; they sold us to Captain Foster of the tribe of Maine who was just the agent of Captain Timothy Meaker of the clan of Alabama. . . .  We are ‘Kikuyu;’ we are Muingiki, the second Mau Mau; death to the European exploiters.”
I worry that the tyranny of the tribe survives too strong in our breast. Yet, opposing the rule of the clan, of the tribe, of the race, opposing “us or them” stands the Family of Man.  It affirms that we are one species, one humanity.  It is not “us or them,” rather, it is only “us,” or it is nothing.

Nasa Earth rise

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

The real shape of the Earth is a sphere, and its net of latitude and longitude begins in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Congo.  This is an appropriate convention of geography.   “Appropriate,” I call it because anthropologists tell us that humanity—Adam and his bride—began their pilgrimage somewhere in east Africa.  Thus, there is ultimately “home.”  Thus the proper map of Africa and of its place in the world would show it at the center of our view of a globe.  On the other hand, anywhere could be the center, for this planet is round.  In spherical geometry one place is as good as another.  What is more, when we look at it aright, we see that the coast of Africa is the complement of North and South America; West Africa fits neatly into the Gulf of Mexico, while the Gulf of Guinea cups Brazil comfortably.  This remarkable fact exists because once, as children are now taught, the whole of all the land was one great Pangean continent.  Later the waters and our history came between us, but the Earth still has no edge, no real border—no border at all, except that which we have drawn between us and the others—except of course for the great oceans and the rivers, like the Congo that yet spills blue across the map and into the sea of our imaginations.

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As we grow, we draw our own maps of the world as we imagine it, gathering cartographic “facts” wherever we can, from what we are told and from what we see for ourselves on the journey.  At the end of the middle decade of the twentieth century—just as you might turn a calendar page or flip over a map leaf to discover hidden notes scribbled underneath—I turned over too.  In 1960 I began to understand for the first time that most issues of life and history are more subtle than they would have you believe who perennially view the world only in black and white and explain it all by a simple and comfortable paradigm and in a rigid stereotype.   The world is not peopled by identical copies of even a few types that are easily characterized as “good” or “evil.”

As I turned the calendar page to 1960, I began to suspect, as well, that ignorance was never an impediment to opinion, and uninformed opinion—no matter how emphatically affirmed or taught, or perhaps especially when it is chanted—is ignorance most blatant, most diabolical.  Moreover, ignorance is often chained in the darkness of its own shadow out back while prejudice hawks out front with midway barker shouts of “Hey! Rube!” but it is actually counterfeited knowledge and bogus light within.  I ultimately concluded that we do well to stand in humility before continents of human experience that are dimly known to us and reserve our judgment of those we do not understand.



A map of Africa ca. 1960 source: http://www.timemaps.com


The decade that began when I entered the second year of junior high school was one of world-wide political upheaval.  Colonialism and Imperialism, that had flourished for centuries, were rapidly dying in a convulsion of nationalism.  No object better represents that turmoil in my memory than a giant map of the continent of Africa that hung on the wall of my social studies and geography classroom.  I entered eighth grade with an eager expectation of exploring Africa, at least from an ancient wooden school desk, if not from an armchair.  I, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, had “a passion for maps . . . I would put my finger on [a place] and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”  In my imagination I already had been there.  I put out my finger and traced the boundaries of Africa, of its coastline, of its rivers, of its colorful countries.


In profile the continent reminded me of the brow ridge of a skull—somehow human—like that of a brooding silver back gorilla or of a millions-of-years-old Zinjanthropus, like that which Louis Leakey had just reported in National Geographic, the Atlas Mountains marking the hairline, the Gulf of Guinea the empty eye socket.  Or perhaps the shape was more like a Neolithic axe, a war club, wielded by a gigantic unseen hand submerged in the Indian Ocean.  “It looks like a question mark,” I decided at last, albeit a crudely drawn question mark, limned in blue by the Congo and the Nile, and punctuated by Madagascar.  Africa was a stage of eleven and a half million square miles, a macabre circus for a tragedy of European colonies to play that comprised a cast of hundreds of tongues and thousands of tribes and clans, millions of people and a drama of global exploitation.  It had been explored, “discovered” by Europeans of the last century.  I had heard of the great explorers:  David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, especially the latter who famously, nonchalantly posed the inane query after a grueling search for the famous physician, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  There was, of course, a contemporary adventurer-missionary, even if he were a bit elderly by then: Dr. Albert Schweitzer


Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) source:wikipedia

—physician, theologian, virtuoso organist, Nobel laureate, and humanitarian.  We knew after his capturing the Nobel Peace Prize that this “Reverencer of Life” had returned from France to somewhere in the heart of equatorial Africa—we were not quite sure where—to serve the medical and spiritual needs of his black “junior brothers.”  He was universally lionized in Europe, the United States, and Africa for his unselfish service to—in the European mindset—the hopeless and childlike natives of the “Dark Continent.”  He was regarded as a champion of the “colored races” even though he publicly supported the oppressive French Colonial Government of Equatorial Africa and regarded the indigenous population as inferior to the civilized European “race.”


We thought we knew Africa because we visited its jungles for half an hour every Saturday morning in the adventures of “Ramar of the Jungle” and in the film adventures of Tarzan the Ape Man.  I presumed that the entire continent was a dense tangle of vegetation crawling with snakes and crocodiles, ringing with the howl of monkeys and pocked with treacherous pools of quicksand.  In many ways the images suggested to me that Africa was very much like my back yard, my woods, and my swamp. Yet the human inhabitants of this alien world were both like and unlike those I saw in my country.

In the cinemagraphic jungle that I visited each Saturday, Jon Hal, also known by his other stage names of Charles Locher and Lloyd Crane, portrayed the intrepid Doctor Tom Reynolds in black and white reruns from the 1952 and ’53 seasons.  Ramar, whose name we understood to mean “Great White Medicine Man,” ever wearing a pith helmet, epaulet shirt, Bermuda shorts, and a stoic demeanor, weekly battled evil white poachers and thieves, as well as  black “jungle native” voodoo witch doctors.  He, like the real doctor Schweitzer, took care of his “child-like” patients with a benevolent patronage that demonstrated unequivocally the superiority of the European civilization to the savage “native” culture. Every show could be counted on for a leopard-skin-clad woman, some quicksand, or cuts of stock African wildlife photography—slithering snakes or snorting hippos.

The good doctor was assisted in his exploits in many episodes by his comical retainer and guide Willy-Willy played by Nick Stewart, a black actor who had given voice to the character “Lightnin’” on the Amos ‘n Andy radio show.  He was also the voice of B’rer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South.  It seems oddly ironic that Stewart would reach a measure of notoriety portraying such comically subservient and stereotyped roles, then spend the remainder of his career directing the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles where African-American actors performed serious drama and grand theater.  But much that I saw in popular culture regarding Africa, I now know, was a contradictory mixture of truth and fabrication, but that is the nature of entertainment.

Ramar and Willy-Willy did not actually move about the jungle, rather they performed their


Left to Right: Nick Stewart (as Wiily-Willy), Juanita Moore , and Jon Hall (Ramar) in episode “Savage Challenge” source: it.wp.com/thebiggame hunter.com

exploits on a sound stage in downtown Hollywood, California.  Neither, to my knowledge, ever got within a thousand miles of the jungles.  The animal scenes were spliced in from “spec” shorts shot on location by freelance adventurers.  My more critical adult eye can discern today the different sources as obvious, but for us, the children, the television took us in reality to darkest Africa.  Every child was sure he knew the sounds of the jungle: “Bwana, listen to the drums.  I hear the drums . . .” and then a piercing “koo-koo-koo-kaw-kaw-kaw,” actually the song of the Kookaburra bird.  Unfortunately, the bird never existed in the wilds of the African bush, residing as it does in Australia.  Its sound was appropriated because it sounded “jungle-like” to an inventive sound engineer.  Curiously, truth and fiction melded everywhere.  Ramar, as well as Tarzan, was often called “Bwana,” a legitimate Swahili word meaning “Lord,” or “Sir” or just plain “Mister.”  Yet this appellation was often coupled to the interjection “Ungawa!”  The latter word is a fabrication reputed to have been the brainchild of screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was inspired by the sound of the answer to the question “Where is Paramount Studio?”  The answer: “On Gower”—Boulevard, that is.  Much of what I thought I knew of Africa was like that: a cauldron of dark ignorance containing much speculation, some fabrication, and a few craven lies, but with a pinch of truth just to make the brew palatable.


The map of Africa that hung on the classroom wall became an object of infinite irritation.   The multicolor rotogravure print of the “dark continent” was a continent of frustration to me and others who were trying to learn the political geography of the vast continent.  The inconsiderate Africans had begun, in earnest, the practice that they would continue for the rest of the century: continually changing the names; redrawing the boundaries of their countries; declaring their independence here; building a new nation there.  It was all too chaotic for a junior geographer to master.  Nothing seemed to be as tidy any more as the beautiful poster of colonial Africa would suggest.  If the nineteenth century had seemed a sweeping romantic symphony of discovery, then my century resounded with the melded syncopation of jungle drums and bar room jazz.  In a futile attempt at making sense of the splintering African political landscape, my teacher placed beside the brooding map a tack board headed: “Current Events.”   She awarded points for every relevant article we clipped from newspapers and magazines like the Mobile Press Register or Newsweek or Life.  As we entered the class room we would glance up to the board by the map.  “What is the name of the Congo, today?” I heard more than once.

Indeed, the names of the countries began to change that year, as did the geopolitical realities within the former colonies.  In particular, the Belgian Congo disappeared from the map and was replaced by the Republic of the Congo, or was it called the Congo-Brazzaville?  No, wait.  What about Katanga?  Was it a separate nation?  Was Kenya still a British colony or did it go independent over the weekend?   What about Nigeria?

“At least, they haven’t changed the rivers,” I whispered to myself and to anyone standing nearby as I ran my finger up the Nile from Lake Victoria.  Then I followed the blue, tortured track of the Congo west from the savannah near Lake Tanganyika below the heights of the Mitumba Mountains, crossing the equator twice before disgorging into the Atlantic Ocean.  This was then and is today Africa’s most powerful river and, only after the Amazon, the second most voluminous cataract in the world.


River Congo, Africa source:africa-facts.org

If I had picked up a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would have agreed with Marlowe, “There was in it a mighty river that you could see on the map resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”  But Conrad’s masterpiece was not on our approved reading list, nor even in the school library.  Neither was Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy readily available.  We learned simply in our social studies text that King Leopold of Belgium had ruled the Free State of the Congo after the United States and thirteen European nations had met in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century and had agreed to permit him to become the protector and overseer of a territory larger than pre-world war Germany.  If we had read Twain’s scathing pamphlet as we can now via the Internet, we would have been scandalized at the atrocities perpetrated against the people of equatorial Africa—atrocities that rival in brutality those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Particularly savage was the practice of severing the right hand of Congolese men, women, and children as punishment for failing to meet the quota of the rubber tax.   They were required to feed the army that terrorized them.  If they failed to cooperate, they were slaughtered wholesale.  Twain’s final words on Leopold are a bitter epitaph that he hoped would soon be appropriated for use: “Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages and ages [hence].”  When I learned of the exploitation, murder, cannibalism, and abject slavery that Leopold’s agents practiced on the hapless inhabitants of the Congo basin, much of it brokered initially by Henry Stanley, I thought that, if I were Congolese, I would forever despise Europeans and hate the white race implicitly and always mistrust anyone not of my tribe.

I was told nothing about the “unpleasantries” of the genocide for which Leopold was culpable.  The similarities to the exploitation of Kenya by the British should have been plain, but we were preoccupied with news of other atrocities.  The seven-year-long state of emergency in Kenya ended that year.  To our great relief, the Mau Mau Uprising was over.  The Mau Mau or the Muingi were primarily of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya.  What made the Mau Mau seem so horrific and frightening was the “oath.”   It was a magic ritual in which the blood of an exsanguinated goat was blended with that of the adjurer who, standing before a fearsome idol of the old god Ngai, and the mingled flow was sprinkled over banana leaves and raw earth, recited a vow of obedience to the movement and an eternal, lethal hatred of the British.  Refusal to take the oath meant instant and fatal reprisal by the Mau Mau.  Consequently, it has been estimated that over half the indigenous population of Kenya had taken the oath by the end of the insurrection.  Oaths are not taken lightly in Kikuyu culture, and, despite the criminalization of the oath as a capital offense by the colonial government, the populace had little choice but to comply if forced to swear allegiance to the rebels.

Based on the lurid newspaper accounts, we imagined wild-eyed, dread-lock coiffed, machete-wielding butchers running amok from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi, slaughtering whites wherever they met them.  In actuality only thirty-two Europeans were killed by the insurrectionists in the seven year revolt, while 11,500 “Mau Maus” perished at the hands of the British often without trial; one thousand of them were hanged.  The colonial government’s practice of mutilation of the corpses by amputation of the right hand (“for finger print identification” was the official explanation) is bizarrely reminiscent of the Congo a half century before.

I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

(to be continued)

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Ma Bertie in Dothan

Ma Bertie Moates (family photo)

Some would say I got religion early.  Some might even claim that I inherited it from Dad’s family, all the way back to Henry Matteson in the sixteen hundreds.  It is true that Henry was a follower of Roger Williams and a non-conformist believer who was run out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for his Baptist beliefs.  And it is true that there have been Baptists and Congregationalists in my father’s family for generations since then.  But I do not make any claim to prestige because of Henry’s presence in America in the seventeenth century, that he lived on this continent earlier rather than later, since everyone has to be somewhere and everybody has ancestors as ancient as Henry, even if they do not know of them by name.  Nor do I lay claim to any piety by association, not even from my saintly maternal grandmother Ma Bertie.

Rather, I think that there is a deep-seated need in every human to look up.  Awe is an emotion that is appropriate to man.  I felt it early when I looked out on the endless water of the Gulf of Mexico reaching from my feet, halfway to the heavens.  Then, I knew that I must always swim only in the shallow end and marvel, at a distance, at the secrets of the deeps.  I sensed God was at work in the mighty and marvelous things I saw. I knew God in the simplicity of a child’s trust.  The message I heard was plain: the Maker of all that is knew my address, knew who I was and loved me anyway.  We called Him “Father.”

My first memories of church are of singing.  I see myself sitting beside the piano in a white oak chair.  The handle of the piano is as high as my left ear.  Brother Mac, the choir director, is trying patiently to help his music makers to learn the melody of a simple song that we will sing in big church just before Christmas.  It is Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Mother is waiting for me in the parking lot while I practice; then it’s home to our house in Birdville.

I knew the Jesus script well.  He was a baby in December; by spring he was grown and the story grew gorier.  There were rumors of an unjust execution and the death of a perfect man who was, somehow, God inside.  Because God loved me, he took my place and my punishment.   But the full import of that was lost on me.  I knew too little of guilt and no shame at all to feel a need for God’s forgiveness.  But I knew God, not just things about Him.  And who could know God and not love Him?  I talked to Him, silently most often but out loud when I was otherwise alone.   And He talked to me.  Not in audible words but in impression and in peace.

Once, when I was six and after I had been very ill, and I was sure I would die with my father far away in Puerto Rico, I longed for my Daddy’s sure hand gripping mine. Years later, my mother told me what I had said and done.  I asked her, “Momma, when is Daddy coming home?”

To this she responded—exasperated and beat down by three sick children and a husband gone forever on TDY, “Temporary Duty,” that nevertheless seemed eternal –“Only God knows.”

“I’ll ask him, then.”  I agreed.

I left the house on Flamingo Drive and walked down the gray sidewalk between the gray clapboard-sided apartments to the gray and empty wading pool in the common field.  The structure was a square “fort” with a foot and a half high wall, twenty by twenty.  It was my special place, a place that was my thinking place, a special place where I talked to God.  In half an hour or so I returned and said to my Mother, “Daddy’s coming home.  I talked to God.  Daddy is coming home.”  I pronounced it with such conviction that she was shaken.  She called Brookley Field’s operations to see if indeed there was a chance.  But they reported that a hurricane was bearing down on Puerto Rico, and they doubted that anything would be leaving the airfields down there.  Mother was worried my faith would be shaken.  I was unconcerned.

That night Mother received a long-distance call from my father.  He would be arriving at 3:00 a.m. She woke me. “Daddy just called.  He is on his way home.  Let’s meet him at the airport.”  I was happy but not surprised.  I remember seeing my Dad descending the stairs from the Convair turboprop, he sporting a red goatee.  He was home.  He had flown out on one of the last planes to leave Puerto Rico before the storm hit.  He had flown out on a plane whose propellers he had serviced.  His was a faith in his own work.  Mine was a faith that must of necessity lie in something greater than me.  As a child, however, I felt my premonition unremarkable, but it was not the last time I had such an adventure.  Only sometimes the answer was not what I wanted or expected.


Convair turboprop similar to that the author’s father returned from Puerto Rico. Phosot credit: http://www.goodall.com.au

My Grandmother, Ma Bertie, had a quiet faith that did not shout or boast of its strength.  Hers was like the rocks that lie at the edge of the sea whose strength is hidden deep beneath the surface and is only revealed when the storms crash against them, and they are unshaken.  This was her faith.  I have sat beside her at the harmonium, the pump organ, and listened to her sing in a high reedy soprano the melodies of the faith from the Sacred Harp Hymnal.  The mystic shapes of the notes were like the gamut of her life.  Married as a naive teenager to a straight and strong young man who was a good man at heart but was a lover of strong drink, she, nevertheless, stood faithful.  The notes sharpened as she learned of the struggle of rearing a family at the turn of the century.  During the Great Depression, like other Americans singing the blues in a minor key, she took solace in the hope of her faith despite the privations and the loss of their farm.  She was not perfect, this granddaughter of the circuit riding Pastor Thomas Dew, but she was genuine and strong.  When I knew her, she was already over seventy and had weathered many storms.  She seemed the epitome of resolute faith.

I recall sitting beside her in the Assembly of God church where she attended in Panama City.  I was a little frightened by the commotion that swirled around her when all prayed aloud.  She held a man’s handkerchief twisted in her left hand and whispered softly, “Sweet Jesus! Yes, Lord!” with her eyes clinched shut.  I knew that she asked God for more than she spoke aloud.  I was troubled by those who “spoke in tongues.”  One sister in particular shouted out at every meeting what sounded to me to be exactly the same babble every time she spoke.  Pastor Riddings translated her declaration for the congregation without hesitation.  It was always something on point with his sermon.  But I did not mind as much the show of their worship when I thought of how they loved “Sister Bertie.”  They loved her in warm appreciation and practical ways.  They loved Pa, too, even though he did not attend.   Perhaps the whole affair was lost on him due to his deafness.  I suppose it was to him like the distant incoherent roar of the sea, like the ecstatic tongues that never get translated.

It is told of my Ma Bertie that when a prayer meeting was called at the church to petition the Almighty for rain to end the drought, she was the only one to come to meeting with an umbrella under her arm. Such was her faith.

Ma Bertie’s favorable hymn was “Victory in Jesus.”   The affirmation of the words was like the steel bands of a stave barrel; she held together because of what she believed.  When she ultimately died of stomach cancer that followed throat cancer, all brought on by years of dipping snuff, she faced it bravely.  The scale was returning to “Do.”  She hummed the broken melodies of the hymns of faith with the little strength of her failing body.  But she was unafraid and was hopeful of an ultimate victory in Jesus.

PICT0019 edited

The author’s mother, in one of her most common poses: sewing. (family photo)

I have shared that faith for much of my life.  I sat in the pew at Hollinger’s Island Baptist Church, realizing that there was something between God and me that I had to get straight.  I saw that Jesus had paid the debt of my willfulness and disobedience.  My “sin,” Pastor Rusk called it, was getting in the way of my life-long friendship with God.  I told Mother after the service that when Brother Rusk told us to give our hearts to Jesus, I wanted to go to the front of the church, take out my heart and lay it on the altar.  She arranged for me to visit with the Pastor.  He quizzed me and declared that I was old enough and understood enough to make my own commitment.  I was nine years old.

I was “dunked” on November 5, 1956.  The baptismal pool was deep, and the water was cold.  The deacons had put a cinder block in the bottom for me to stand on, but I had to swim from the step to Brother Rusk.  “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost…” under the water; “rise to walk in the newness of life!”  I rose from the water shivering, but happy.  I was proud to show outside what had happened inside of me.

My subsequent adventures in the faith have been much like that icy pool of water.  Much of the time I cannot touch bottom and the water chills my soul; occasionally, I do get a toe touch of solid ground, but just for a moment.  Nevertheless, I am rarely afraid, since I grip a strong hand of One who has been here before me, just as I did that November night.

I have examined that faith repeatedly over the years.  Every time I found that it was indeed real and reasonable.  It may have been the faith of my fathers, it may have first belonged to Ma Bertie, then to my mother, but it is also mine.

Some would say I got religion early.  I say that I found God none too soon.  I found Him for myself and have been making sure of it ever since.  What I discovered in my search is that He does not hide when you really look for Him, and you will recognize Him instantly when you meet Him, even if you never saw Him before in your life.

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Rain. Photo Credit: dehayf5MHWL7.cloudfront.net

The rain is beating against the window glazing with tiny, crystal-ball hands.  You can see your entire world reflected there if you look hard and long enough, only small and coiled up inside a minuscule globe.  Billowing sheets are down there hopscotching their round foot prints across the parking lot like some ghost of a lost tropical storm were puzzled to find herself in my neighborhood and she does not know where to turn next.  I start when I realize that I have been staring so long out the office window.  The light is failing; night is coming and I can begin to see myself, there in the window—like the portrait of a ghost, too, a framed specter sprinting through the gray hissing gauntlet.  Strange it seems to me, but when the light it is that rose and gray just before sunset or when some twist of the quotidian ordinary pricks loose some fragment of a memory or the smallest piece of a memory of a feeling that it flings up against the inside of my head or the backside of my eyes, I will wander off into a melancholy place.  That is where I am, now, and there I find my grandfather, Pa—Theodore Noah Webster Moates.

Pocket Contents

I do not recall not knowing him or when I first realized that this rock of a man was my ancestor and I, his progeny.  Yet my recollections are really few, much like the contents of a small boy’s pockets: in my right front I find a marble, a pebble, a penny from 1947-lincoln-wheat-pennies-value-78-13936425071947, the year of my birth; in the left, a jack knife with one of the grips missing—lost playing mumbly peg, and two bent rusting nails, one square, one round.  I lay the contents of my pocket memory on the sill beneath the window that never has opened before and I see a Mount Rushmore-ian figure.  I see his towering head with its craggy nose and high domed brow.

I did not think of his beginning until he died.  He seemed always to have been there, an ancient sun baked creature speaking slowly, wisely, steadily even as his calloused carpenter’s hands oscillated tremulously with “the palsy.”  He smelled of cigarettes—“I’d walk a mile for a Camel”—an exotic, dark tobacco aroma that hung on his clothes like an invisible mantle of virility.  And there was also that faint, strange sweet yeasty smell that was both the comfort and the curse of another Noah after the legendary flood.


Pa Moates

Theodore Noah Webster Moates ca.June 1969  Panama City Florida Photo credit: the author, his grandson

Pa was one of the oldest human beings that I knew as a child, though I doubted even then that he had been acquainted with the ark builder, even though my grandfather was builder too. I suspected they had more in common than I could understand, but I realize now that I did not really know him well, despite our times of tales on the screened porch, tales of the days before paved roads in Florida, when the Moates family traveled by buckboard wagon two days to visit Aunt Sadie.  I can see the pair of white sandy tracks of the trail when Pa speaks.  He smiles when he recounts how in a sudden thunderstorm they find shelter in an abandoned smokehouse—all that remained of a farm stead build before the war—the War Between the States, that is.  Settling back in his aluminum lawn chair, my grandfather paints a dark and mysterious still life study with his drawled words, a picture of close, black restless sleep in the ancient building, smelling of age and decay and hams.  Suddenly he leans forward, grabs my hand, and blurts out: “I snapped to when I felt something awful wet and hairy slam in my face.”

“What was it?” I demand breathlessly.

“Well, I couldn’t rightly say.” He is stalling. “Until the next flash of light’n showed up some wild goats go a-runnin’ out the door that was a-bangin’ in the wind.  They was as sceerd as we was, I reckon.”

We both laugh—I in my child’s high rattle, he in his deep rumble that sounds like the breakers of the gulf that slam against the shore.  Pa’s chuckle is powerful like thunder itself that makes you shake, laughing or not, in spite of yourself.

Amazing Camellias!

I see him now walking after the rain among his camellia bushes, and I remember the mischief in his eye.  Pa had found a mail order catalog that advertised growth hormone.  With a vial of the magic elixir he treats each bud of every plant in his garden.  He even secretly applies it one twilight evening to the camellias of his friend and neighbor, as well, across the sandy street.  Weeks later she brags to Pa about how green is her thumb.  Pa only chuckles mysteriously and never lets slip the truth of his evening rounds.  Now it makes me smile that for fifty years she never figured out what she had done that miraculous year to make such beautiful and grand blossoms.

There is so much that I do not know or have forgot.  I feel it all slipping away like the sand of a castle on the beach as the surf flings foaming salt water higher on the shore when the tide moves in.  I can cling to the few grains that volunteered on the back of my hand, but why did I not grab up whole handfuls and stuff them into my pockets?  But that I had been wiser than the child I was!  Pa, I am now a grandfather myself.  Now I wish I could know you; now perhaps I could understand.  But all I have is remembrances and faded photographs.

I can no more relive the past than I can return the rain to the sky.  I can only treasure the memories I hold in my pocket and, on occasional rainy days and in rare quiet moments take them out and amble among them.  This I will do and Pa, you will be remembered and loved again.


Beach after the rain, before night. Empty. Photo credit: the author

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St Nick

St. Nikolas of Myra, the prototype of Santa Claus is revered throughout the world. Photo credit: the author.

I am, at times and by spells, a true believer. From my earliest memories until the age of eight I was indeed a true believer. Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I trusted implicitly, without question, what I was told—especially by my elders and by older children. As a child, I believed devoutly in Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the North Pole workshop. Fortunately, I rarely heard tales of witches and goblins or trolls in my bedtime stories, or I would assuredly have been terrified by an absolute faith in those horrific fantasies, as well.

I began first to appropriate the Clausian mythology almost osmotically. The grand elf appeared soon after Thanksgiving in all the shops and stores of the city. He—or his surrogate as I learned when I inquired—even held court in the big department store downtown in Mobile, Alabama. I accepted as believable the explanations of the only-approximately-polar attire of Gayfer Department Store Santas: shoe covers to simulate boots and false cotton whiskers. Santa’s “helpers” were in abundant attendance, too, characters who supposedly reported their conversations to the jolly elf, His Great Redness, himself. I found it an inescapable and seductive prospect that my deepest desires could be granted by a benevolent, generous old elf in a red suit if I but let him in on my secret wish by whatever means available. Thus, I was compelled to believe. Just to be sure he got the message, I also wrote to him in block letters on a Big Chief pad of blue-lined paper addressed to “Mr. S. Claus, North Pole.” I told of my longing for an impossibly expensive bicycle. So trusting of his intent and benevolence was I that it did not occur to me that his clandestine nightly visit should have been slightly threatening. That he annually persisted in his recidivistic practice of committing a class-C-misdemeanor of global breaking and entering on the evening of 24 December was of no concern at all.

The Gospel According to Clement Moore

I found “The Night Before Christmas” a wondrously compelling tale, which my faithful father and mother read to me, my sister, and my brother every Christmas Eve. Flying reindeer! Imagine the sight! Reindeer, themselves, were exotic enough for a swamp-rat like me to comprehend, but flying reindeer? I had seen flying squirrels and flying bats as well as millions of birds on the wing. But I had never seen a Lapland reindeer at all and certainly not a flying one. But who was I to question the veracity of such accounts of air-borne sleighs, accounts that were documented in sacred print and attested to by radio reports of his progress across the globe? Had I not even once received a telegram from the North Pole encouraging my “nice-ness”?

I was just a child of eight. I was discovering daily other wonders previously unknown to me that were being revealed to my wondering eyes in books and in the tales my science teacher told. I was learning that my imagination did not limit the range of what is Reality. Thus, I chose to hope and suspended any doubt. To doubt might make it impossible to acquire the bike that I so wanted. And thus I waited. I suppressed my guilt at my mercenary faith.

Christmas 1955 was approaching. I was growing anxious. How would Santa fit my bike into his small sled or down a chimney? How did he enter our house that had no chimney? And would he be able to find me when we were visiting at my Aunt Vivian and Uncle “Doc’s” house in Columbus, Georgia?

“No doubts!” I reminded myself, but I fretted anyway. When I shared my concerns at supper the week before Christmas, my parents remarked that surely Santa could find me since he kept up with such things routinely, and anyway, perhaps he might bring a special gift as a special pre-Christmas delivery before we left on the trip. The next night again we sat at supper.

Before dessert my parents stopped, looked at each other. “Did you hear that? I thought I heard sleigh bells.” Mother declared.

Dad suggested, “Sammy, why don’t you go look in the living room, and tell us what you find?”

I complied and was overjoyed to discover a bicycle, shiny and new, sitting in the middle of the floor. No tag or bow was necessary; I knew for whom it was, and I knew who had brought it—a surreptitious, hasty reindeer aviator.

After several minutes of exaltation, I rushed outside to tell Pete and Dean Cooper, my boyhood neighbors and pals, of the miraculous appearing of my great gift. They were likewise pleased for me, as real friends should be. They even assisted me in searching for reindeer prints in the dirt. I found several suspicious marks that were evidence enough that I had been, indeed, visited minutes before by Saint Nick himself and by his flying herd.

Xmas Reading

Part of every Christmas eve at the author’s house was a review of The Night Before Christmas. Sammy, Dad, Cindy Lou, and Baby Dale absorb the gripping poem ca. 1954. Photo credit: Matteson family snapshot scanned by Cindy (Matteson) King.

But I secretly wondered. I had heard the smug pronouncements of the second-grade Santa-agnostics. I half-worried that I was the victim of a conspiracy, a hoax, a grand deception. But I kept quiet about my growing doubt as we traveled to Columbus, Georgia for a family Christmas.

I looked on Aunt Vivian and Uncle Doc as aristocrats. Uncle Doc Jordan—“Jur-den” as it was pronounced in the proper vernacular of western Georgia—was a respected urologist. He always wore a bow tie that, amazingly, was not a clip-on, but rather the real thing. He reminded me of the many illustrations of Saint Nicolas that I had seen: short, silver haired, balding and a little stout, with “smoke circling his head like a wreath.” Only “Doc” was somewhat strange; he smoked cigarettes held in a Dunhill black lacquer cigarette holder that with his glasses evoked the mystique of FDR. Uncle Doc spoke earthily with a gravelly drawl but always in a charming and sophisticated manner. Once he examined his sister-in-law Ruth, who was suffering from a bladder ailment. He gleefully reported to the family that he had found a Green Stamp adhering to her derriere, probably due to a wayward saving stamp that had fallen into her dresser drawer. “Sister, do you always give Green Stamps to your customers?” He snickered as he recounted his question to the adults. I did not fully comprehend his meaning at the time. He only gave me a sly wink and a nod.

Aunt Vivian was a giant woman who towered over her physician husband. They had met professionally years before when she worked as an LVN, but now she managed their large household and two rowdy boys. Hers was an elegant table that often baffled me. I tasted politely the strangely pale spread that they called “butter.” “Give me my yellow oleo margarine-butter, thank you!” I thought but did not say. There were also casseroles concocted of exotic substances like egg plant that looked like no egg or plant that I had ever seen before and that my child’s palate did not appreciate. But the dark golden candied yams with white punctuations of melted marshmallow I devoured. I wondered between bites if the strange and fancy foods that their dark skinned cook prepared and passed to their gray haired maid in her starched gray uniform, who served it on silver trays, was what made my aunt and uncle seem so sophisticated.

The Jordans lived in a large multi-story red brick house that accommodated all of the assembled family for the holiday. I was assigned a guest bed situated at the top of the grand staircase that led up from the living room out of sight of the festive room but only barely out of earshot. Christmas Eve finally came and the other children and I were at last dispatched to bed. But sleep did not come soon to me. I worried that if I lost my saintly faith the magic of Christmas Eve would vanish as well. Simultaneously, I wanted to see for myself the mystic elf materialize in the room below, but dreaded the unthinkable truth. Late in the evening the house grew quiet except for suspicious noises that drifted up from below. I struggled not to listen too closely, wondering if it were Santa or some other individual “making Christmas.” I had seen unusual lumps under a quilt in the trunk of our car when my father had put in the suitcases earlier. I ached with doubt, not wanting my myth to die, but not willing to live ignorant and foolish, a child forever.

In the early morning as the sun slipped through the crack in the blinds and poked me in the eye. I awoke. I lay in bed awake. I did not give in to the compulsion to run downstairs until I heard my name being called, “Sammy! It’s Christmas!” Sammy required no second call. The living room was beautiful. Everywhere there were brightly packaged gifts for everyone. I recognized some of the wrapping paper from trips to the market. “Did Mrs. Claus shop at Delchamps too?” I secretly wondered. The cookies and milk that we had left for Santa were gone. A note lay in their place. It read, “THANKS, SANTA,” written in a hand that reminded me of my mother’s block script. Like too much sugar in a cold glass of iced tea, my doubts crystallized and precipitated into apostasy with this last teaspoon of evidence.

A Fall from Santa’s Grace

Sometime during Christmas Day I silently decided that I would not believe any more, despite the risks. Santa Claus dissolved in my mind. The myth died in me. I did not speak of it, but I slipped into unbelief. I returned to Mobile less a child of wonder than when I had departed.

At sixteen, those same feelings of unease returned. I began to question whether the stories that I had heard in church and during weekly squirming hours at Sunday School—tales that the adults and older children around me loved and believed so devoutly—were only childish myths like stories of the great polar benefactor, too. How does one know the truth, if indeed there is a Truth?

The same aching faith-storms I knew in my long Georgia-Christmas night rose up again in my mind as viciously as the meteorological gales that lashed Bayfront Road. I began to think about what I had heard and to review and examine what I thought I knew. I learned from credible historians that Jesus was indeed real; he was not a made-up character, a mere excuse for Christmas retail. The records of his life, the Gospels, while controversial in their origins, were not invented in the middle ages nor was the Bible “written by Shakespeare” as one ignorant and arrogant self-styled atheist high school acquaintance claimed, even if the English translation I was reading was filled with a hundred pages of “thee” and “thou” and “Yea! Verily . . .”

I learned that Saint Nicholas was also a person, a bishop of third century Asia Minor, who had such a generous heart that he did many deeds of kindness in secret. His bones can still be visited in the village of Bari in southern Italy. Yet, how had a real person, one who acted in real time and space been so transformed into a mythical elf? Even more troubling was the thought that, perhaps over two millennia, the real Rabbi Jeshua had been corrupted into a Christ myth. I had to know. I dug deeper, fearfully at first. I began to consider the major religions of the world. I examined the major philosophies of the ages. I thought about the evidence for and against the proposition of God and of the Christian God, in particular. In my search I was helped by conversations with my wise and kind pastor, Brother Mahlon Thomason. (We in the 1950s South always called our pastor and deacons, “Brother” in a reverential tone.) He never seemed to be shocked at any proposition that I brought to his attention, nor did he ever tell me I was wrong. Rather he simply asked me questions that often began, “Have you considered . . . ?” I felt safe to talk to him about what was troubling me. I began to feel that I need not fear to examine my doubts or to face the truth, whatever it was.

A Transforming Story

In my deliberations—the deliberations of a jury of one—I became convinced that I could get a sense of who this Joshua (another transliteration of the common first century name Jesus) really was. I concluded that he is and had been a transforming personality to everyone who met him, in person, or in the witness of the New Testament, down through the centuries. Even Nicholas of Myrna, the original Saint Nick, was changed when he met the Christ of the Bible. His character had been transformed by his faith and he was never the same afterward. I, too, had met God in my own experience, not just as a myth or in a story, but in my own life and I had been existentially changed forever by that encounter. The track of my life took a turn when at age nine I committed what I was and would become to him. While the storm of doubt and self-questioning raged, I had an anchor: I did not just know about God; I felt that I actually knew God Himself. I had never really met Santa Claus, even though impersonators had tried to delude me with tangible fakes. Conversely, I really knew this very God by intangible, but nevertheless real encounters. What I concluded was that there was evidence, and that it made sense. I became a believer again, not a believer in a fairy tale told to a child, but rather a convinced mature believer who is persuaded by evidence and reasonable argument. In the decades that followed, even as I pursued my calling as a natural scientist, that persuasion became even more compelling. The physical universe appeared to me to be ancient but not eternal. No means was found by which it could have created itself. Moreover, mankind was not inevitable on this planet. That we are, indeed as is all we encounter, a wonder, a providential grace. The more I learned, the more beautiful I found the universe to be. Indeed, it is good. And what of the human condition? I saw the image of God imprinted in me as well as in each person I met. Yet we are ever striving souls that struggle to have our own way, preternaturally estranged from that glorious promise, potentially holy but more often horrific.

Now, I see all of creation in the light of the story of a loving God rescuing His wayward children through a redeeming Christ. The heavens are indeed telling the glory of God, the story of a real event that occurred in history and of a life that was lived in the first century of this current era. That story proclaimed that there is hope for humanity, but only in redemption.

It is a truism that not all we think we see is real. We sometimes find what we are looking for, despite the evidence to the contrary. Thus, I have been on my guard to critique my persuasions since my youth. Conversely, not all we cannot see is unreal. In the end the evidence of what is actual must decide the issue for us. We must only have the courage to look at the facts as squarely as we can and take what we find for what it is. Then we must risk all that we are—or that we have—to live by that knowledge and walk about in that light. Then and only then—my experience prompts me to believe—have we the right of claiming ourselves honestly to be true believers.


Does knowing that the beauty of the rainbow arises proximally from the dispersive refraction of sunlight through droplets of water reduce any of its glory or obscure its ultimate meaning? Photo credit: the author.


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Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth Grade South Brookley School

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth grade South Brookley School ca. 1957

Childhood is an innocent space where we become who we are. I was not a beautiful child, but, on the other hand, I was not a cruel child, as children sometimes can be. I was not a difficult child in elementary school, either. At least that’s the way I remember it. I was eager, earnest and—some might call it—“experimental.” I tried out ideas, and at the beginning, I did not think through to the end what were the implications of my impulses and inspirations. But that’s the nature of a child who is innocent of consequence.

To be sure, there were times when I sat in Mrs. Becton’s office and then waited on the broad wooden steps after school for my mother to pick me up. Whatever her actual size, “Mizrez Becton” will always seem a figure six feet tall, dressed in a black suit with white lace trim, wearing heavy-heeled, high-heeled dress shoes that sounded on the pine board floors of South Brookley Elementary School the cadence of authority. In the evening, I still imagine, the black janitress would spread rose-colored cedar sawdust on the floor—as I often saw her do after school—to sweep up the footfalls of the Principal and teachers and the thousand stumbling scuffs of children and, too, the hundreds of ideas lying there unused that were tossed about but failed, this time, to stick. Mrs. Becton was in charge. Her gait and demeanor said so to me. She was the Principal teacher, but her kind eyes were not hidden behind her tortoise shell glasses.

The Great Bathroom Experiment

Grade school is a place to begin to find out where you fit, jostling against girls and boys your own age. The jostling, for me, did not stop even in the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they called it “bathroom” since it contained no fixture anything like a bath except an immense urinal trough. It was the fourth grade when I discovered one of the wonderful properties of the equipment with which God had blessed Adam, a urinary tract that terminates in a marvelously directional nozzle. To my boyish delight, I could urinate well up the tiled wall behind the ceramic trench. When I revealed this discovery to some admiring comrades, they responded enthusiastically to my demonstration with their own attempts. Thus, began a short-lived tournament. Who could hit the highest point? That was the goal. Unfortunately, our glee was apparently too boisterous. I heard a “clump, clump, clump,” that I recognized all too well. Surely a lady would not come into the boy’s bathroom!

I was wrong. My explanation of our “experiment” did not appear to persuade the lady in the black dress. Whether she was amused or not, I cannot tell. Although my mother could not refrain her laugh, although she tried to hide it behind her hand, when she told me that she had had a telephone call from Mrs. Becton. My embarrassment was sufficient punishment, I think; I recall no other consequence except a deep redness in my face that returns even now when the competition comes to mind.

But I was truly not a mischievous child. Whenever I was accused of transgressing the bounds of propriety, I had an explanation that seemed sound and reasonable to me. Once I was called an exhibitionist. But, honestly, I was falsely accused. It was a conspiracy of events and my Mother’s infatuation with technology and fashion. Alabama, Mobile in particular, was hot in the spring—and unbearably humid in that un-air conditioned age. On a particular day I was dressed in a nylon paisley short-sleeved shirt and an old man’s cotton undershirt.

The Hateful Nylon

The air in the classroom hung hot and damp like still wet, poorly wrung clothes on a line. No breeze stirred in the classroom, even though all the sash windows were open to their full height. The nylon shirt clung to my skin. Nylon was the new “wonder” fabric; light and sleek like silk but affordable to everyone. I looked at the paisleys swimming randomly in blue over my stomach. I loathed paisleys. The forms that swarmed over me and seemed to devour my body were neither distinctly identifiable as animal or vegetable but were, instead, the creation of some deranged imagination designed to offend the masculine sensibilities of little boys who were forced to wear them by their mothers “without another word, young man.”

It was hot. I was hot. Somehow, the paisleys amplified the stiflingly humid warmth. Then the teacher left the room for an errand. I had an inspiration! Too many layers of clothing were the reason why I was dying of heat prostration. I did not hesitate. I unbuttoned by shirt and stripped it off. I began to remove my old man cotton undershirt, wet with sweat. I intended to redress with only the hated paisley shirt when my plans were thwarted. Just as the cotton shirt came up over my head, I saw through the weave, my teacher reappear.

“Sammy Gene Matt’son! What are you doing?”

“Just, trying to get cooler, Ma’am.”

“You go directly to the bathroom and put back on your clothes. Then, report to Mrs. Becton’s office.”

I have always hated paisleys.

The Secret Code of Reading

I came to reading late. It was second grade before I made sense of the black blocks they stacked in meaningless clumps and irregular rows like some inky vegetable crop that I did not like. I did not care for Dick and Jane, either, who seemed to want to do little more than run and see their dog, Spot. I was interested in National Geographic.   I “read” the pictures of far-off places and exotic adventures: a toddler sitting in a footprint; a monkey swinging from a branch; a raft floating on the ocean.

I was in the “second circle.” When I was forced to read aloud, I stammered and stuttered with fright and mortification at my ignorance. I did the best I could, but it was a paisley shirt to me. Mrs. Vera Pounds, however, would not let me be satisfied. I thought that she stopped teaching and began mettling when she called my mother. They decided that there would be no more National Geographic until I had learned to “read it proper.”

Presented with this ultimatum, I chose to make the most of it. To my surprise, I ultimately did break the code of the black blocks. I learned, too, that there was a person standing behind the picture telling his story in lacy black print that surrounded the photographs. The child was sitting in the fossilized foot print of a giant meat-eater in the track way in the Pulaski River in Texas; the monkey was one of a newly discovered species in Madagascar; the raft was the Kon Tiki and carried adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who proved by his voyage that Polynesia could have been peopled by ancient travelers from Ecuador.

I look at the school photograph of a child. “South Brookley, 1957” it reads. I am dressed in a polka dot knit shirt and a smile, my lips closed, my hair combed to the side. This is the same me that looks back in the mirror in a suit and tie, still smiling a closed lip smile, but with thinning hair combed straight back, now. I outgrew my paisley nylon shirt. Everyone does. We put off childish things. We become who we are. I look in the mirror and I see. I am wearing a paisley tie.

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: www.bows-n-ties.com

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: http://www.bows-n-ties.com

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Who can find a virtuous woman?  for her price is far above rubies.”
Proverbs 31:10

         A sister is often, for a brother, a dubious blessing at the start.  At the beginning he cannot easily see what value is her half of humanity. Sisters are truly different, bona fide members of that subspecies of homo sapiens that is uniquely female and, thus, alien to him.   My sister was no different, nor was I.

Cindy Lou, of course

         Cynthia Lou Matteson, known, of course, as “Cindy Lou” was always part of my world, just as were my mother and father.  From my first memories she is there with them, but as somewhat of a competitor for their attention rather than as a collaborator.  And nearly two years my junior, she seemed much more vulnerable and helpless than any of my peers as we grew up, so that—unfortunately—I slipped into that common brotherly state of mind that discounted her as one not having much to contribute to my interests.  I was wrong.  I did not understand her for a long time, or any other woman, for that matter.  If I had paid closer attention to the lessons she could have taught me then, I would have been so much better prepared to become a husband, a father and grandfather of the girls and women of my life.  But brothers begin thickheaded and slow, more inclined to rough housing than to listening, more attuned to footraces, marbles and tree climbing than insights into feeling.

Nobody in my family enjoyed washing the dishes after our family meals.  As the dessert was finished, my sister and I would glumly look at each other.   The first to speak was sentenced to a lonely half hour over the sink.  At first it was just the two of us, Cindy and I, who sat in jeopardy, but later, when “Baby Dale” was older, there was a trio of potential bottle washers.  So loathsome seemed the task that I, sometimes, would give Cindy a provoking look or whisper, “It’s your turn.”  Somehow I often could get my sister to speak out loud.  “Sammy talked first!” Or “Mother, make Sammy stop tormenting me.”

Cackling syblings

“You children stop ‘nyah-nyahing’” Mother would plead. “The first chicken that cackles laid the egg,” she would intone and Cindy was often chosen.  The pronouncement would be met with “That’s not fair!”  And it probably wasn’t fair.  But more often than I, Cindy was sentenced to sink duty, although it did not seem to me to be too frequent at the time.  For things in the kitchen were “women’s work” when I was a child.  Such tasks were resented by my masculine prejudices.  When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was heard to reply, “A man would do nicely.”  Indeed, I was very glad I was not a woman.

It seemed to me that girls were held captive by their bodies.  A guy was okay if he showed the least bit of athleticism, or he could compensate with knowledge of sports or automobiles or even science.  No boy thought it a compliment to hear that he was such a pretty baby.  A heavy male could be a lineman on the football team.  A freckled-faced carrot top, known naturally as “Red,” could still be a cheerful pal.  But a girl was judged fit or worthless by her looks and that was the end of it.  If she were overweight or plain or shy in the critical eyes of her peers and of those she admired, then she was doomed.  What is more, her emotions were the slave of hormones that raged through monthly cycles with frightening changes, both publically visible in acne or bloating or more intimately and more distressing.  I had only a dim understanding of human physiology in general and that was primarily focused on the masculine gender in particular, despite a provocative but remote interest in the female anatomy admiringly inspired at a distance by women other than those of my clan.  I did not really know nor appreciate what women endured.  I was only glad that I was or would some day be a man.

When I did ultimately become an adult, I began to understand what passed between my sister and me.  I once was asked to give advice to a newly wedded colleague.  He had lived as a bachelor for a long time and had never had any sisters.  He recounted how his bride was angry with him for hurting her feelings.  “I told her, honestly, that I did not mean to hurt her feelings…She was still mad as a hornet.  What can I do?  She is just not being rational about it.”

I thought back to my own experience.  I should have begun to understand this very situation, years before, on that day when I was playing with an old sock.

My sock-full of angry

In my part of Alabama, we had to make our own fun.  I had found an orphaned athletic sock, the kind that eventually everyone finds in the wash, its mate absconded to parts unknown and the forlorn lone sock destined to live out its miserable existence abandoned in a drawer.  I had rescued the lonely hosiery and put it to better use.  I sat on the grass beside the sandy cul-de-sac of Broadmoor Place filling the sock with gray sand and pounding the ground with this surprisingly hard dirt hammer.

I heard my name called.  I twisted to look over my shoulder to see Cindy.  She frowned at me and called out again, “Sammy Gene, Mother says you need to come in to wash up for supper…and by-the-way it’s your turn to do the dishes tonight,” she added a little too sullenly, I thought.  Then she turned to reenter to the house.

In disgusted resignation I carelessly flung the sand-filled sock one more time into the air.  “Ah, forget it all!” my action said.  I jumped up and turned to go in.  To my surprise and horror, the sock that I had released had become a ballistic missile that was arcing in a high and graceful parabola toward my retreating sister’s back.  I calculated the place where it would land and extrapolated Cindy’s position.  I had thrown the projectile with a precision that was far beyond my skill.  I wished I could reel in the airborne bludgeon with invisible threads of regret, but it was now beyond control.

The sand-loaded sapper struck Cindy between the shoulder blades and sent her sprawling under the oak tree.  I heard her scream in pain and anger.  She lay there for a short while with the breath knocked out of her.  I started for her.  Then I stopped.  Breathlessly at first, she pushed up to her knees, then, deliberately, ominously she climbed to her feet.  She turned to me with eyes of fire and came running at me, her fingers spread with claw-like nails to scratch my eyes out.

She would not listen to my protests of innocence and apology.  She clearly wanted blood.  Fortunately, I was bigger and stronger and caught her by the wrists before I was blinded in her wrath.  I held on tight and struggled with her.  She cried and yelled in pain, fury and frustration.  At last, her anger finally began to abate as I continued to apologize.  Eventually she relented in her attack, but I think she was still not convinced of my truthfulness despite my continual protestations of innocence and of regret.

Many times since that day I have let loose reckless words that flew in what seemed like a high ballistic arc out of my control; I always wished that I could suck them back into my mouth or freeze them in place so that they fell to the earth and shattered, anything, as long as they would not hit their unintended mark.  But alas, words, like sand-filled socks have a mind of their own when we have flung them out.  And every time I let fly reckless missiles I relive the sickening scene of remorse.

Not all lessons are lost on brothers

Fortunately, such lessons are not always lost, even on brothers.  Sibling-inflicted pain is not necessarily simply perverse or suffered in vain.  I had learned a lesson that was valuable, a lesson taught to me at my sister’s expense.  I told my friend to imagine that he were working on his house, happily and distractedly driving nails into the siding with a large hammer.  “Imagine,” I continued, “your wife softly comes up behind you unnoticed.” In my parable he strikes his dear one in the head, hard but unintentionally.    She is gravely hurt.  “Of course,” I said, “you say, ‘I’m sorry that you are hurt.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.’  But she continues to cry and perhaps is unreasonably angry in her pain.  Then will you say to me: ‘Now isn’t that just like a woman! So irrational!  I said I’m sorry but she still is upset.  Women, who can understand them?’”   He got the message.

I wish I had got the message sooner, too.  I guess that I should have paid more attention when I was just a brother; then I would have been wiser, sooner and a better husband from the start.  Too bad I was asleep during most of my adolescence, dreaming my own dreams.

I did try to make it up to my sister afterward, but I now realize that even the kindness I showed her was still selfish at its base.  I would, from time to time, surprise her with a little toy I made for her, like the inch-long knife, spoon and fork that I hammered from a wire for her to use when her dolls had tea.  I would carve pine twigs into dolls for her dolls.  She always seemed to appreciate whatever I gave her.  I secretly appreciated her, although I did not really show her.  When you are self-absorbed and uncertain, you are more than a little bit frightened that who you are becoming is not who you want to be, and you have little time or interest in any other person, except when they make you feel capable, admired or at least more worthy.  Sisters rarely make you feel more capable or worthy when you are an adolescent.  Their opinion can’t be trusted, you see; sibling rivalry and jealousies make them untrustworthy.  And besides, they have their own problems.  They also are much like you, since you are from the same gene pool and household.   And you may not care much for such a faithful mirror.

So you’re a Matteson?

So I left Cindy to fend for herself most of her high school years.  I think that she did not have an easy time following two years behind me in school.  Sisters rarely do.  Whether a brother does well or not, expectations and biases among teachers cannot be avoided.  “So you’re a Matteson, huh?” a teacher might remarks ominously and vaguely.

But the magic of maturation and experience happens even when we are not looking.  While I was away from home, first at college and then on my own, my ugly duckling of a sister metamorphosed into a swan.  Somehow the awkward girl became a capable woman when my back was turned and my attention diverted.  Some may wonder if it were she or I that changed—or both.  In any case, now I look on my sister’s accomplishments with pride, and marvel at her affection for the not-always-kind brother of her youth.  I must not be such an awful human being if a person of her caliber finds me worthy of friendship.  Or perhaps it is just that she is a person capable of saintly forgiveness.  Nevertheless, I listen to her with new interest and wonder. I have learned at least one thing: I now know that brothers have much to learn that sisters were specifically designed to teach, both at their beginning and later on.

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 “We would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our troubles.”
2 Corinthians 1:8

My brother and I dispute the facts. That is a fact.  It is also a fact that we each honestly remember the events of our childhood differently.  The phenomenon is common to siblings, I hear, probably because brothers are different people from the beginning and because their experiences—although ostensibly shared—are actually seen from subtly different views.

Moreover, in the end it is not what happens but what we experience and what we remember that makes us who we are.  I also have learned that the most vivid memories of humans are those that we have most inhabited and thus most renovated and—perhaps—reshaped from actuality to conform to an inner reality of our unique vision, our secret hopes, and our deepest desires.  And then we forget that our own thinking created the images.  Notwithstanding all that, it is a fact that we agree that we, two brothers, are always there in our recollections, disparate though they be—yet there always together.

Where babies come from

My very first memories are indeed of my brother—a red, wrinkled little old-looking man-child blanket-wrapped in my mother Audrey’s arms.  His name is Dale Webster Matteson, and he reminds me a little already of the other old, but larger man I know: Theodore Noah Webster Moates, my Grandfather.   We will call this little Webster “Baby Dale” for many years. My sister Cindy Lou is there, too, as is our Father Lew—her namesake, along with Mom.  I have no memories that are B.D., “Before Dale”; there were many that follow, however.

 “Why is Mommy sitting in the back seat, Daddy?” I ask.

“To bring home your new brother Baby Dale from the hospital.”

I am not quite four years old; more precisely, I calculate that I must have been three years nine months.  The tableau, however, is etched into my memory despite my youth.  I have replayed the same scene often.  The stage is our family car, a ’41 Ford, a venerable vehicle that my father nursed along until we finally sold it in the early sixties.  We sold it to a car dealer so that he could push-start other younger but less reliable automobiles.  It is the memorable and moveable stage of so many dramas.  The dramatis personae comprise my family, the casting just now complete.

A simple story

The script is a simple story; the scene a homecoming for my mother and a new sibling.  For years afterward, I thought in some vague way that the origin of siblings was a place called “Providence” (Hospital, that is) where your parents went to pick out a baby, much like picking out shoes at Gayfer’s Department Store or at Buster Brown’s.  Some early nights I am sure I wanted to send him back, but he was in my home to stay. From that moment onward he became part of my life and of the context of who I was.  His arrival turned me instantly and forever into his big brother.

He, fifty years later and no longer a “little” brother, is now a giant man who towers over me, a mature father whose features confirm my first impression of him as the “spittin’” image of our grandfather.  Dale tells me that I was indeed always “big brother” to him.  He reminds me of the time he fell out of the tree.  We agree that I loved climbing trees and regularly conquered green turpentined towers.

Photo CC-BY Wikipedia/ Pinus_taeda

Big Brother–Baby Dale–a limb too far

We concur that whatever I, his big brother, did then he must also do, as my little brother, like my tiny mirrored image I saw on the back of a soup spoon that mimicked my every move.  My latest conquest had been a twisted, forking loblolly pine that soared from the woods.  Thus, he must climb it too.  When I was distracted he began his ascent.

Dale reached a notch high up in the branches near the top before I noticed he was gone.  He continued his upward climb without incident until he stepped into the vee of the fork to purchase a foothold for his step up to the next perch.  The tree in reprisal for his intrusion grasped his shoe in a wedging notch-vise.  His foot got stuck, dogged down as on an anvil waiting the hammer blow!  Dale struggled mightily but could not free his foot; he lost his balance; he tumbled backwards; then he stopped; he hung upside down, dangling by one leg, thirty or more feet in the air.

I heard him cry out for help. As I rushed to get a clear view of him, I stifled a shameful chuckle at his comic predicament; then his laced leather shoe released its grip on his foot, and he fell.  He crashed into the first limb, then cart-wheeled into the next lower branch, and the next, falling by stages, cascading by degrees.

I watched with my mouth open, helpless.  He reminded me of a human pinwheel in a fickle wind blowing first one direction then another.  At the bottom limb of the tree, his descent halted briefly. His suspenders had caught on a bough.  He hung, momentarily oscillating elastically, a few feet above the brambles, just before they gave way and he crashed the last increment to the ground.  He remembers the pain, the scratches, the broken clavicle; I remember only the vision of his fall.

Dale tells me that I became angry at him later because our mother blamed me for his accident.  “If y’all hadn’t climbed that tree, he wouldn’t’ve tried climbing the same tree ‘n he wouldn’t’ve fallen,” she explained in faultless parental logic.  “Now, go back into the woods and fetch your brother’s shoe from up in that infernal tree.”  This I do not remember, but it sounds like an accurate account.

Divergent Memories

There were many other scrapes and bumps and bruises I do recall in our growing up; the fall was only one.  Once our cousins from Dothan, Margaret Ann and Nelson, were visiting us when we had the inspiration to dig a hole and completely bury someone alive, or at least up to the waist.  From whence such preposterous ideas spring into the juvenile brain, I do not know or have chosen to forget, but in the liberty of unsupervised child’s play such delightful and inspired mischief is inevitable.  Nevertheless, we did, indeed, dig a hole and half-bury someone.  Here Dale’s worldview and mine diverge.

Each of us claims: “What are you thinking?  I was the one we buried! Not you!”  No matter what he claims, I distinctly recall the sensation of the damp sandy earth pressing in on my kneeling legs and lower abdomen.  I see my cousins dancing around me in glee at the spectacle of a semi-subterranean boy.   Then I feel again the pain as the shovel cuts into my big toe when Margaret Ann, after a half hour of fun, tries to dig me up from behind with a stab of the shovel.  I remember leaping from the ground trailing sandy loam and blood behind me. Margaret Ann remembers it too.  It must be so.  I am sure.

Dale recalls it differently, though.  He avers that it was he that was buried and cousin-butchered.  I insist it was I who was injured.  Maybe it’s the spoon again. Empathy is a powerful emotion; by it sometimes we mirror hurts and emotions so faithfully that they become our own, only distorted.  Empathy then can produce unexpected effects—shared memories that are vivid but faulted, for one.  I feel it so strongly that I must be right.  Yet, he makes me doubt myself, since he just as strongly recalls it—but differently.  And he was witness, too.  On that we agree.

Other Scars

Later in our lives we shared other pain that we agree was his, but of which we do not often speak.  There was one great hurt that could not be repaired with stitches or iodine or aspirin. I see my brother as a young husband, married less than a decade, sitting in my living room in an agony of heartbreak.  His wife had demanded that he move out. “She wants her freedom—without me,” he tells me.

He who had faithfully provided for and loved his spouse is injured as surely as if he had again fallen from a great height into sharp, hateful brambles.  I am glad he can come to my home for refuge.  I hurt for his pain.  I also hurt for my powerlessness; I am big brother, the protector, the one who made all things right, the retriever of shoes, and I am without means to do anything to assuage his agony; I have no balm to heal his wounds.  I have no remedy for his pain.  We can only weep together.

In the end, he went on.  His life has turned out better than I or he have had a right to expect.  He later met and married a wonderful woman; together they reared a family of boys and are happier than he could have ever thought possible.  Recalling the evening that he sat crushed in my living room, I have wondered if—just maybe—without the pain we do not understand the joy.  But I have not really earned the right to have an opinion, for I only have the memories of a spectator; his are those of the actor.

Your may have the memories

At our mother’s funeral, her children traded stories and shared memories.  Cindy recalled the story of the subterranean brother much as I did.  Dale laughed and smiled a crooked smile, “You two!  You may have the memories, but I have the scars.”  Cindy and I looked at each other.  Then, we simultaneously laughed.  What really happened?  We will never actually know.

But it matters little; the memories are what matter; the memories are what shape us.  The narrative of the childhood that he each carries behind his eyes is what shapes the story of his life.  Memories of those stories that he wields like a hammer are what forge his being into its uniquely shaped self on the anvil of his past.  Each is he who is the author of his own tale and who is simultaneously its tireless reader, reciting to his own internal ears his story’s significance and meaning, even if the details differ from the irrelevant recollections of all the others in the world.

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“I will surely make thy seed as the sands of the sea.” Genesis 32:12

I hear “them” talking. They are saying that this is not really my story, that I should not be telling it.  But they are wrong.

I confess: it is the story of others—of my parents, of my family, and of millions of other men and women and children who lived or who were born along with me and ahead of me in our century.  I admit that it is their story.    But it is my story too, for I was there.  I was surely there, as each of us is there, at least a little, even before our consciousness gets on its feet, for each of us is part of what happened before we were ourselves apart from all the others who came before us.

We are there, first, in bits of our parents, in their DNA, the twisted parcels of humanness that are our ancestral birthright, the miraculous molecule in whose fantastic shape—first conceived in the 1950’s by Watson and Crick—is written our flesh and form.  We are there, also, in the knotted choices and intertwining events that knit our fate and our nascent being together, there whether we follow a beaten path or first trace it.  We are part of their history and of their flesh and they ours.  So this is our story, my story.

My Story

It is my story, too, because of my memories.  Wondrously, I remember tales that transpired before I was born.  Surely, I must only recall what I was told.  That must be so, else I did not come into the world without a past, as I always thought.  These must be memories of what I was told and then remembered as my own, because I held them close and turned them over and over in my mind, caressing them like a favorite plush animal or fingering them like a prayer thread.   I know that I found them precious and comforting, even if they were incidental gifts.  So those memories became my own as the story became my story when I relived it in memory.

What is more, the story will become part of your story as I relate it to you, and it will live again in your memory henceforth.   This is the “why” of who I am and the “how” of my coming to be.  As you see yourself in it, you will find that this is your story, too.  And as Oliver Sacks chronicled in his memoir of clinical neurology, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: “We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives.  It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative,’ and that narrative is us, our identities.”  Thus, this is or will be our story.

Child of War

The sad truth of this story is that I was born because of a war.  My life and its history are linked to the deaths of millions of other humans.  I will not deny it.  I cannot. The mid twentieth century was a time of fiery global war and the perpetual and imminent threat of war, a “Cold War.”  It is fact: I was born because the Second World War of the century began for our country in 1941 and because it ended when it did, abruptly in 1945.  I was born when I was because of its ending, and it concluded with a colossal explosion, a reverberating boom that echoed through to the end of the century in millions of lives.

Sociologists and demographers refer to us born then as “Boomers.”   They call us that because of the “boom” in the birth rate that began with the Second World War and persisted for about twenty years.  But I submit that I am a “Boom Child” also because my birth was a direct result of the repercussions of the horrendous blast that signaled the conclusion of hostilities in the Pacific.  To be sure, it was an infinitely kinder explosion among the families of Mobile, Alabama, United States of America than the cataclysm that our Air Force unleashed on the hapless citizens of Nagasaki or Hiroshima, Imperial Japan.  I was born in mid winter of 1947; I speak with a slight Southern drawl; I am because of that concussion.

Mark Twain wrote that “There was never yet an uninteresting life….Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”  And I would add—there often is a romance, also.  While in the history of the world the courtship of my parents hardly warrants a footnote, it is, nevertheless, momentous to me and to my family.  It was my beginning. Their story is the story of so many others as well.  Here is how it happened.

The Families Matteson and Moates

The Matteson clan of Lewis Edward Matteson had sprung from the loins a seventeenth century follower of Roger Williams—Henry Matteson of Rhode Island, who had been, like other Baptists, expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Over the three hundred years since that time, his descendants had wandered to New York and the Northwest Territories and helped populate the northeastern United States, Texas, and the west coast.  Thus, the U.S. census of 1920 documents a notable absence of Mattesons in Alabama, where the family of Audrey Moates, my mother-to-be, resided with the bulk of the American Moates family.

Whether separated by a single mile or a thousand, two lovers will never meet or found a family unless their paths cross at some time.  Crucial to our story, my century saw a migration from farm to city.  Not so much a movement from one region to another but a general stirring of the population.  In this great mix brought on by the war, my parents happened on each other.

When bombs of Imperial Nippon fell on the warships at dock in Pearl Harbor, the United States was irreversibly sucked into the global conflict; yet my father did not go off to fight as did so many other young men.  Polio, the scourge of summer and youth, had assured that he would never march, that he would never carry a rifle into battle, that he would never stand watch on the deck of a battleship at sea, that his right foot would forever have its unique shape.

Moreover, FDR exhorted the citizens that the fight was not just in Europe or in the Pacific but on the “front lines” of factories and on the farms of America also. Lew had been schooled on his family’s Ohio farm in hard work.  He hired out as a “day hand” or as a “month hand” when his neighbors were short of men but long on work, so he resolved to do his part for the war.

Ohioan Mechanic

Because it was his patriotic duty and since years before he had left off school after the eighth grade and had begun to earn an honest wage repairing machinery and operating it on the farms of the area, he jumped at the chance to study aircraft maintenance at the National Youth Administration Camp, the “NYA,” when it opened nearby.  He saw this, also, as an escape from the dead end of the farm; it was at once a stile over the barbed-wire fence of his family farm bridging the way to a world beyond the Ohio, a world that became especially real when word came in ’42 that the Army Air Corps had opened a repair facility in the Southern port city of Mobile and had need of trained mechanics.

Thus, in March of 1942, at the age of twenty-two, he said “good-bye” to the life he had known in Ohio and—with a comrade from the NYA camp—he turned the wheel of his auto south for Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama to join thousands of other state-side warriors.  That is how my father-to-be came to the steamy port of Mobile and there to wait unwittingly two years for my mother to find her way into his life.

Alabama Typist

In May of 1944 a pretty Alabama girl, next to the youngest of nine children of Theodore Noah Webster Moates (Noah) and Katie Robertia Holland Moates (Bertie), who lived in the wiregrass and peanut country near Dothan, graduated senior high school.  The following day she packed a single plain suitcase and boarded the Trailways bus that displayed a sign in the narrow window over the driver’s head that read “Mobile.”  The world she saw lay open to her, like a picnic cloth laden with opportunity.  The Maritime Commission in the port of Mobile was hiring secretaries she had read.

Her typing and shorthand classes could be put to good use there, much better there than in the cotton and peanut farming community of Dothan.  Soon Audrey Moates had a steady job at the dry docks and ship building facility on the Bay and she shared with new friend May Burnham a pleasant room located within walking distance of work.

Their accommodations were in a boarding house for respectable young women, where they resided with five other girls and the proprietress.  Money was scarce and commodities rationed, so entertainment often meant strolls in the park and attendance at church meetings reached on foot—first at the stately First Baptist Church, then at Hershel Hobbs’ church on Dauphin Street, Dauphin Way Baptist.

There the Ohio mechanic and the Alabama typist first encountered each other, but only across the room.  They were “nodding” acquaintances in the BYPU, Baptist Young People’s Union that congregated on Sunday night deep within the gothic glory of Dauphin Way.  They smiled shyly across the circle of folding chairs and said a quiet “hello” when they saw each other but did not otherwise speak directly.

The Wedding

Lew and Audrey actually met formally at a wedding.  After prayer meeting on a Wednesday night, before the benediction, Pastor Hobbs addressed the congregation: “Please remain seated.  We are going to have a wedding for Johnny and Vera, here.”  The bride and groom stood before the preacher.  Audrey and May, seated next to each other in the pew near the front, wanted a better view of the ceremony.   They each shifted, one a little to the right, the other to the left.   Thus a fateful gap opened between the two roommates.  Small acts, deliberate or unintended, can be like intersections on a county road, little noted and unmarked but journey shaping.  That gap is one such fork in this story.

Seconds before the rituals began, a handsome young man slipped into the pew and sat down between the girls.  They did not protest.  They recognized him from BYPU and he was so dapper, with his blond hair wavy and his physique muscular.  The wedding was simple and beautiful.  “I do—I do. I promise—I promise.” Rings exchanged. “I pronounce you husband and wife.” Kiss! Mr. and Mrs. John Lance. Applause. Benediction. Time to go.

As the smiling crowd drifted out of the door and cascaded down the steps of the church, the trio ambled out together.  And—being or playing the gentleman he was or wanted to be—Lewis insisted that he walk the young ladies home to their boardinghouse.  The three of them walked side-by-side, Audrey-Lew-May.  The autumn air was clean and crisp, and the stars winked slyly from the sky at the sight of the three.  It could have been so romantic—for a couple.

“Good night!” said Audrey,

“Good night!” said Lew and nodded.

“Good night!” repeated May.

“‘Night!” Lew replied and smiled at both. Then he turned and disappeared into the night.  So began a pattern for the next several weeks: the young Yankee mechanic would walk home the secretaries from Alabama after every service, after every meeting, saying good-bye at the door.  Then, safe in their rooms, alternately giggling and jealous, the girls wondered, “Who is this guy interested in, anyway?  He surely looks interested. Don’t he?”  “Yeah! And interesting, too,” they agreed.

First Date

The answer came the week before Christmas.  The telephone rang in the hall of the boarding house.  It was Mr. Matteson calling for Miss Moates.  “Audrey!…Audrey! It’s for you.”

“Would yah . . .  ah . . . celebrate Christmas with me?  I can’t get back home to Ohio for the holidays. . . . I’ll be alone in the city and I was a-wondering. . . .”

“Oh, Lewis!  How sweet! Thank y’all ever so much for askin’ me . . . but Aah can’t.  Aah’ve got to spend Christmas with my cousin and all.  You know how family is.”

“Sure.  Maybe we can get together another time?”

“That would be nice. Aah’d like that swell.”

“Well, bye.”

“Bye…Oh!  Y’all have a Merry Christmas.”

“Thanks. . . . and, uh . . . you, too . . . Bye.”

“Bye, now.” . . . Click!

Lew was not ready to “meet the family” before he had had a single date.   But a week later he found an occasion and the nerve to try again when Roy Rauls suggested to Lew that they double date in his auto and so celebrate New Year’s Eve.  When Lew telephoned a second time, Audrey agreed to go to the movies with Lew, accompanied by Roy and a girl named Carol.

Pooling their ration coupons, they rode in Roy’s roadster.  Newspaper advertisements of the day proclaimed the premier of National Velvet introducing Elizabeth Taylor, but Lew and Audrey never recalled what was showing that first date; instead they remembered the excitement of a charming conversation partner and the agony of doubt, the pain of “does he (she) really care for me or not?”  Haltingly, the courtship began—uncertainly but yet decisively.

Romance among the Tombs

Long walks after church continued, but now, instead of a threesome, a couple promenaded arm-in-arm the oak-arched streets scented with azalea and camellia blooms.  But they did not stop at the boarding house door when they reached it but walked on to Magnolia Cemetery.  Among the tombstones and statues of lost loved ones, the young and very much alive lovers talked privately, overheard only by the eavesdropping but departed residents of the graveyard, who could keep secrets well.

They preferred the garden-like setting with crinoline pink azaleas and stately oak trees to the cramped parlor of the boarding house that they must always share with three or five other couples.  The cemetery was an oasis in the heart of the concrete and brick metropolis.  It was their secret garden.

Lew and Audrey talked for hours of family back on the farm, of their hopes and dreams, about what life might bring for them.  They came first to appreciate, then to admire, then to adore each other.  Their love blossomed among the tombs, beneath marble angels and lambs, “gone but not forgotten.”  Yet there was a price to pay for the intimacy: Lew constantly swatted at mosquitoes, and he frequently returned from their tête-à-têtes with new angry red dots on his neck and arms, where he had lost a battle with a particularly fearless and wily kamikaze insect.

Late in the evening, frequently, the couple returned to the boarding house, only to irritate the landlady as Audrey inadvertently rang the door bell; “Riiiing!” it went, when she swooned against the door jam.  So romantic and dreamy were those goodnight kisses that she forgot to avoid the door bell button.   How blissful it was!  At least until the angry face of the landlady appeared in the crack beside the door jam.  Day-by-day the early spring gave way to late spring and the couple grew accustomed to their own company.  Was it love?  Was he (she) “the One”?

May 10, 1945

Amid the beauty of the azaleas and camellias, on May 10, so Mother often and precisely told me, “Your father asked me casually, ‘Would you marry me?’”  I suspect—knowing Dad as I did years later—that he intended his question to mean, “Do you care enough for me to marry me sometime in the vague and distant future if I were really to ask you?”  But that is not what he said.  He was hesitantly testing the waters, but he slipped and fell in.  Audrey did not hesitate.  She did not pause to test anything since her heart had decided weeks before.  She jumped into the water with both feet.  “Yes, I will marry you, Lewis Matteson! I will marry you!”

In the face of her delight and to Audrey’s dismay, Lew was disappointed in her answer.  He was unprepared.  He did not have an engagement ring.  He had envisioned a grander gesture and a more orchestrated scene when he did actually “pop the question.”   He had anticipated something different, more than a simple question and an overwhelmingly positive response.  Audrey joked years later, “He was disappointed because he wanted to beg me to marry him.  But I fooled him; he had asked me to marry him and I had accepted.  We were engaged.”

A week and a day later, the great events of the war swept over the lives of the newly engaged couple: the war in Europe ended.  V-E Day was a day of joyous celebration.  The war, the interminable war that had been both the background and the center of all thought and action was truly ending.  But for Lew the joy quickly faded, to be replaced by a gnawing dread.

The end of the war could mean the end of employment for Lew and Audrey. Lew had seen in the years before the war what unemployment could do to a family.  Lew had promised to marry, but he was determined not to marry unless he could provide for his bride.  After a long talk beneath the magnolias, the couple agreed to wait until the war had ended and their employment situation was settled before they “tied the knot.”

Cold Feet?

So the courtship languished, waiting, waiting for the great battles and struggles that blacked the headlines of the Mobile Press Register to end, waiting as if they were spies anticipating secret coded instructions from a clandestine operative among the public notices.  Thus, August 6, 1945 was a day that forever changed the history of the entire world and of the lives of Lew and Audrey in particular.

A bright, searing light blazed above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow earthlings were obliterated in the flash.  The world had finally reached the edge of the pit of global destruction and had begun its dance on the rim above the abyss.  The shock waves from that blast reverberated around the earth.

Within two weeks, after a second device detonated over Nagasaki, the Empire of the Rising Sun capitulated and unconditionally surrendered.  Peace and victory were at last a reality.  The world war was over.  V-J Day exploded, too, in a wild rejoicing of release for Americans everywhere; but amid the celebration, uncertainty and apprehension seized Lew.  “What will happen now?  I could get ‘riffed’” he wondered.

He dreaded the vision that haunted him: a jobless husband and an impoverished wife.  He had seen the drama played out before. That was not for him! He had always worked and provided for his meager needs, but far from the farmland of Marion County, Ohio, he was stricken with doubt that he could support them both.

Home to Dothan

Audrey saw things differently, however.   “His straddling the fence is not the act of a man in love,” she thought.  “He is gettin’ cold feet.”  She could not bear to see him again.  The pain of rejection was too great.  Audrey caught the bus home to Dothan.

The red dirt roads led through familiar fields of cotton arrayed in their summer green.  A month more and the pickers would take to the fields with their long sacks slung over their shoulders, bent at the waist, moving slowly, stripping tufts of snow from the withering plants.  The cotton gin on the acreage next to the house would be sending up billowing clouds of lint, smelling of earth and dried leaves.  But now the air smelled of pine needles and wildflowers.  Instantly she felt safe in the clapboard house that wrapped its comforting arms around her.  Soon she was absorbed again in the domestic routine of home.   She could finally put out of her mind the pain she had suffered in the cemetery.

Then, only two days after she had walked up the broad pine steps of the back porch with her plaid suitcase in hand, a letter arrived postmarked, “Mobile, Ala.”  She recognized the handwriting.  In the kitchen, shelling peas with Nell, Audrey shared the “pitiful” letter from Lewis.  He pleaded with her to marry him as soon as possible.  He professed his love and begged her to forgive him his uncertainty.  Nell looked up from the pages and the pea hulls and said, “This man loves you. Marry him!”  And Audrey agreed.

Events developed quickly then.  Lew had also earlier written Pa, Audrey’s father, to ask for her hand in marriage.  Pa’s only comment had been, “That was some letter!”  He had no other response.  Now he stood by, stoic and silent as ever.

Among the heirlooms that sweetly document the reality of these events is a telegram dated August 29, 1945, 12:32 pm.  It was a practical itinerary at its inception but has become a public declaration over the years; it reads:


When he did arrive on the 4:30 bus, the couple proceeded directly from the Trailways station to the courthouse, where veterans of the other great wars of the twentieth century gathered under the pecan trees and relived their battles in clouds of Bull-of-the-Woods and Prince-Albert-in-the-can tobacco smoke and reviewed the strategies of remembered campaigns over battlefields of red and black checkers.  Inside the courthouse the obligatory blood test was performed and the license inscribed.  The legislated three-day wait began.

The Zbender Parsonage

The time was not wasted, however; there was not a minute to spare; plans must be made.  The wedding would occur at the parsonage of the Headland Baptist Church with Pastor Zbender  presiding.  Lew was prepared this time, with a gold band he had purchased in July at Gabriel’s Jewelry of Mobile.  The flowers, a bouquet of yellow sweetheart roses, were ordered.

“If only Pa would take a few hours off from his carpentry job and come to the wedding,” Audrey sighed.  “It would be perfect.”  But Pa did not attend weddings.  He rarely went to church and always seemed uncomfortable with the formality of such occasions.  He had no time for such things.  Weddings and such were for Bertie to attend to.  His was earning a wage to put food on the table.

At last it was time.  The wedding party included a few family friends, the couple, and family members: a brother, Ma Bertie—“Mother”—and three sisters, Nell, Mary and Vivian.  And what sisters!  Mary and Vivian, the very image of legendary elder sisters, loved to tease and torment Audrey with pranks.  They did not stop with a wedding; it was too tempting an opportunity.

Fresh Flowers

Mary volunteered to collect the bridal corsage from the florist.  “How thoughtful!”  But she had another agenda.  She asked the florist to show her out back to the garbage can in the alley behind the shop.  There she carefully selected from the wilted and decaying compost the components for a second disgusting bouquet that she tied with a yellow ribbon and placed in a second fresh floral box.

Back at the house, Mary delivered the box dramatically.  As the couple prepared to depart for the parsonage, the box was opened.  Lew was crestfallen with dismay and disappointment when he looked at its contents.  But laughter filled the room at Audrey’s sweet, innocent reply to his consternation: “Flowers don’t really matter. All that matters is that we’re together.”  But the couple did not share everyone else’s amusement when the real flowers were shortly produced.  They only blushed—relieved but embarrassed—embarrassed at their gullibility and flabbergasted by an impish sister’s mischief.

August 31, nearly September, had come.  The parsonage was ready, they knew.  Mrs. Zbender would have seen to that.  The party rode excitedly to the parsonage, but Pa was not among them.  All of Audrey’s pleading would not persuade him to agree to come with them.  Yet, as the bride and groom—with Ma Bertie beside them—walked up the path to the front door of the Zbender home, they saw a figure reclining in the shade of a magnolia tree beside the door—a tan, lanky frame clad in white carpenter overalls and smoking a Camel cigarette.

It was Pa!  As they approached, he silently rose and greeted them, expressionless. His nervousness was not immediately apparent even though his hand shook as it always did with “the palsy,” until he mumbled “Glad y’all could come,” as he shook his wife’s hand.  Then he leaned down and kissed the groom on the cheek!

Mrs. Zbender had exerted her best efforts to make the ceremony memorable.  The parlor was arranged with a large mirror behind her husband so all could see the faces of the bride and groom.  Pastor Zbender did his best too.  The ceremony was mercifully brief but meaningful.  After the “plighting of troths” and the “’til death do you part,” the couple kissed and the deed was done.

From simple promises life-long compacts issue.  Lew was so impressed with the proceedings that afterward, while the crowd exchanged hugs and congratulations, the groom, in a typical fit of generosity, instead of the ten dollar honorarium that he had planned, slipped the surprised pastor an “Andy Jackson,” a twenty dollar bill.  The pastor’s wife was pleased.

The License

One last formality remained—the signing of the marriage license.  Before the ink was dry, Bertie snatched up the document and declared that they must immediately proceed to the courthouse to register it and have an official seal attached.  As the matriarch marched the wedding party out the door, she explained that her girls, married to service men, had had so much trouble getting their allotment checks from Uncle Sam that she would take no more chances assuring the legal status of any union of her children.

Then it was a short ride to the bus station and the newly weds were on their way to Panama City, Florida, for their honeymoon.  Audrey blew kisses with a gloved hand as the bus pulled back from the station; Lew leaned over and waved too, smiling. The air was still and the sun shone unblinking on the tarmac.  It was the hottest day of the year, the hottest any of the veterans under the pecan trees could remember, but with the windows open and the air streaming through the coach, it was bearable.  Audrey and Lew were resplendent, she in her new teal dress and midnight blue sequined pillbox, he in a light-colored tweed suit with maroon and cream silk tie with matching handkerchief.

The passengers shot knowing looks at the couple and then exchanged smiles, as Audrey and Lew whispered to each other and bowed their heads together like mourning doves.  The countryside slid by, the rows of cotton plants fanning across the window pivoting on the horizon, the telephone wires dancing up and down in time to the music of the tires on the pavement.  As the bus approached Hathaway Bridge the passengers began to relax and settle in for the journey.

Hathaway Bridge

At the exact mid-point of Hathaway Bridge, black smoke began to stream from the rear of the bus and the comforting rumble of the diesel engine stopped abruptly, with an alarming “cough” and “clunk.”  The motor coach coasted to a silent stop.  The driver opened the hot, shiny metal doors at the rear of the bus and a dark cloud roiled out and rose straight into the still August sky.  The engine was hopeless.  Soon the bus was an oven, and Audrey’s beautiful dress began to darken under the sleeves.  Lew removed his coat and tie, and Audrey tried to take off her smart pillbox hat.  When she did, her forehead was dotted with sequins that adhered to her perspiring face.

Hours passed.  Finally, a second bus hissed to a stop beside the stricken vehicle, and the honeymoon couple resumed their Odyssey.  Audrey’s dress bore large indelible purple water marks under the arms as souvenirs of the ordeal of the trip, but that only made the sight of the sugar-white beaches of Panama City more welcome.  The couple did not go to the beach that day, however; it rained.  And it rained every day they were there.  But as Mother told it to me, it was “perfect honeymoon weather—no place to go, nothing to do except only be together.”  Thus, was born the family maxim and superstition: “It always rains on important days in our family.”

The rain ended only when they returned to Mobile. When Lew and Audrey arrived at their upstairs apartment, their new home, they found a basket of “goodies” that Ma Bertie had sent by way of Audrey’s elder brother, Louie: a quilt, some preserves, some sugar and other rationed items.  From the windows of the second floor apartment the couple looked out over the century-old oaks.  In a “tree house” they began their life together, one they shared for fifty-three years, until Audrey died in 1998.  “’Til death due us part” was more than a motto to them from beginning to end.

Small History

I joined the couple seventeen months later, but that is another chapter. So there is the story, their story, and the start of my story, too.  It is a small history that was repeated with varying filigrees of woes and joys by millions of other couples in the middle of a century of struggle and of hope.  It is a story that can be told simply in one breath: they met, they loved, they married, they made a life together.

Simple to tell, but the intricate twists make it uniquely their history and my history, also, and that makes it important to us who are their family and yours, for while the singular grand epics play large on the stage of history, the myriad quiet and private scenes lack no significance for their walk-on players who deliver their few quiet lines and then depart , stage right.  In retrospect all of history was ordained; yet, in the living of it, all is contingent.  And there lies the romance, the drama, the comedy, and the tragedy.

History is writ both with two inch headlines and eight point type.  Thus the impact of a single weapon that split the impalpable atoms of a kilo of uranium and that instantly destroyed a hundred thousand lives is, in truth, monumental, but no more so than the repercussion of the union of this single couple repeated one hundred million times over.  A hundred million times were we born with the Bomb; thus, Boomers, we are—indeed, siblings of this age. Verily, we are children of the boom, all of us, and this is our story.

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“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man,
seeking goodly pearls.” Matthew 13:45

I always feel a little hypocritical when I eat fried oysters.  I rarely eat other shellfish or crustaceans—mollusks, shrimp or crayfish.  You see, I don’t eat bait.  I prefer to eat what you catch with those kinds of things: real fish—snapper and flounder, or even catfish.  Every time I see the shrimp pink of sea bugs, I remember the over ripe smell of the gray Jurassic-scaled thoraxes that I pierced with a hook.

And I don’t eat crab, either, if I can help it.  I have too often seen crabs at the bay shore devouring a carcass: pick, pick, pick.  They are the vultures of the sea.  And I remember the “Jubilee” of Mobile Bay when thousands of crabs would crawl out of the shallows to invade the wetlands.  Fiddler crabs, in particular, in a Night-of-the-Living-Dead exodus would swarm across Terrell Road, making walking impossible and driving disgusting and tire threatening.  So, I don’t eat most shellfish.  But I really enjoy a dozen or so fried oysters.

Colored Photographs

Why I lack culinary integrity is, probably, because of the pictures that I carry with me.  All the Kodaks that I have seen of the 1950’s, the ones in albums with black paper corners half fallen out, are in black and white—fading apparitions of gray silver iodide, really—yellow around the serrated edges.  However, my memories of those days are different; when I close my eyes I see colored pictures, but not written in the primary chromatic alphabet of RGB—simple red and green and blue.  Instead, I see all the tints of a full box of Crayolas: crimson and fuchsia and carmine, jade and aqua and emerald, or azure and lapis and lavender.

That’s how I remember and see those days: with subtle colors, rich smells, and vivid tastes.  I often wish that I could dream with the palette of my memories; then I could be there again.  There are special things, though, that sometimes really do allow me to slip back sweetly to my childhood, as when I sample again fried oysters.  Something about the unique Gulf Coast shellfish specialty is for me peculiarly evocative.


I admit it doesn’t make much sense; who would rationally eat a gelatinous indiscriminant blob that is mostly a liver and that is sustained by ingesting every microscopic thing that floats by on the tides of Mobile Bay or of Mississippi Sound?  Who sensibly would eat an organism that is linguistically circumscribed?  One that you should eat—if you want to avoid illness— only when they have been harvested with oversized tongs from the shallow bottom shoals of the Bay in months containing an “r”—at least in English?  Growing up, I often wondered if it were okay for a Chinaman to eat an oyster in, say, the month of May, since none of his months have r’s in them to begin with?  I must have asked such an impertinent question, and I must have been told not to worry, that a Chinaman would eat anything.  So, I confess it plainly: I am definitely a shellfish hypocrite; I say one thing but do another.

Actually, I probably owe this gastronomic peccadillo to Mother and Dad, Audrey and her accomplice, Lew.  It’s not that I inherited a recessive oyster-loving gene from either of them. And they did not force-feed me anything on the half shell, either.  Instead, my peculiar appetite wells up from a picture I only half remember but that contains the Taylor House, a Sunday afternoon, and our venerable automobile.

The Taylor House

I recall riding in the backseat of the gray ’41 Ford coupe that our family owned for over fifteen years (it was not new when it entered our service, either) days and nights, coming and going, up and down with Michigan Avenue and Church Street and the “Loop” with the tires and the road singing a comforting duet: “Thumpity bump!” and “Bumpity thump!”

I am hearing again the cramped up tar squeezing from the cracks in the cement playing the tire drums in a calypso rhythm.  I hear, too, my father’s loud, deep Yankee voice like the boom of surf blowing back in the wind from the driver’s seat; it is filling the back seat of the car with the sound of strength.  Mother is whispering to us like breezes in the Southern pines, her head turned to watch over us; she is spilling “Aah love y’all” over our childhood from lips of carmine, scented with Evening in Paris Eau de Cologne.  I am sheltered, slumped in the backseat with my sister.  My brother chortles up front in Mother’s lap.

“Why don’t we…uh…go to tha Taylor House…uh…for dinner today?” my father unexpectedly blurts after “big church” at Dauphin Way, one April afternoon.

“Ken we affo’d it?  Aah could just fry up thah poke chops Aah got in the Fridgeda-ah,” Mother replies.  Then she pauses….“But they all ken wait until tomorrah nahght, if y’all want.”

“Well, yeah….It’ll be okay.  I got some overtime comin’ ‘n ya need a break sometime ‘n the kids like it swell there.”  And Mother nods.

So Dad turns the car left onto Fulton Road, heading for the small cinder block building that sits back twenty feet from the GM&O railroad right of way.  It is the one, I know, with a rose-shingled roof that is marked by an elaborate neon sign and it fascinates me.  “T-a-y-l-o-r H-o-u-s-e” it spells out in scarlet fluorescent and sinuous characters, letter-by-letter, then blinks twice and begins again.

The rhythm of four wheels bobbing down Fulton slows and we turn sharply; then a gentle bump, and another, accompanied by a distinctive sound of crunching scrap roofing shingle.  I know this sound well. The parking lot is covered over with a flattened tangle of strips of recycled roofing like a plate of foot-long multicolored and granulated asphaltum noodles.

A Big Boy

I am six and a half—a big boy.  I do not want to wait for anybody to open my door, but I must.  I watch through the oval rear window the neon dance above, but I am oblivious to the full significance of the threading shapes that glow in the heavens. The lights, I know, invite me “Come inside, Sammy; y’all’ll eet good in he-ah.”  I know that this is the special sign announcing that we have arrived at the “Tayluh Hows.”

That these tubes are symbols of crystallized speech writ with torch-bent glass and glowing electrified plasma of neon gas is a cipher that is lost on me.  They are merely a beautiful, colorful mystery.  I am a big boy, but I am also only six…and a half.  I cannot yet read words but I drink it in nevertheless with wide-looking eyes.

Soon my Father is out and tips forward the front seat that has barred my escape.  I pause to glance through the windshield and see him limp around the front of the ornamented hood, displaying surprising speed and grace despite his shortened right leg and malformed foot, forever gimpy from his private war with childhood polio.  I close my door with two hands, leaning hard.  It slams shut.

When he arrives on the passenger side, he pulls hard on the chrome door handle to open it for the “ladies,” and takes Dale from Mother as he holds the door back with his elbow.   Then our flock of five galliard the way toward the door that beckons to us from under a striped awning.  We leave a discernible track of overturned scraps as we chirp and flap across the yard.

Her Flock

Audrey biddy-herds her flock of chicks, like a broody pullet with outstretched, sheltering wings, simultaneously clutching Cindy’s hand and clucking periodically with a reciprocating head to Lew, who totes a squirming two-year-old on his shoulders like a sack of feed.  At six and a half, I am sure that none need hold my hand.  Our covey scratches forward, too slowly for me.

Three yards from the screened door I fly away, and fling it open.  I stand holding the door ajar with my backside pressed hard against the fly screen and the decorative bent-aluminum scroll; over my head the sign reads to adults “Open/Come In.” To me it whispers, “This is it!”  The inner eight-pane glass door is blocked open with a brick and somewhere in the dark interior an oscillating fan stirs the air to waft to my nostrils the oily and sweet aromas of cornbread hushpuppies and French fries, peanut oil and other good things to eat.

“Ahn’t y’all thah little gent’lmin?” Mother chirps.  I look up at her as her pink-gloved hand pats her fair-haired boy on the head. I smile and mentally photograph the pink faux pearls around her neck and the matching black and pink straw hat; its black net pulled back over the crown for the morning.  With her other hand she propels Cindy forward into the darkness of the dining room, a hand on her shoulder.  Cindy blinks; and, as she lifts her own gloved hand to rub her eyes, it catches on the crinoline of her petty coat.

“Honey, be modest!”

“Yes, Momma,” she mumbles as the five-year-old lady brushes down her rumpled dress.

“Ooo-ah! Thank ya, Sammy,” Dad crows as he sways by with my toddler brother, whom he swings to his hip.

Audrey looks back over her shoulder disapprovingly. “Lew, pleeze!  Yo’ so loud.”

“Yes, dear,” he replies in a hushed and more dignified tone.  The sun glints from the chain securing his propeller-shaped tie clip that reads something in blocky indecipherable letters.  I know it is a prized badge of an aircraft maintenance school now tethering his tie, dapper wide and silky floral.

“Someday, I’ll wear a suit and tie, too, on Sundays,” I think but do not say.

“Cindy Lou, Sweethaaht,” Mother directs, “Y’all sit ovah they-ah by yo’ fathah….Now don’t-cha’ pout. Ya’he-ah?”   With a crimson fingernail of an outstretched index finger she guides my sister to her assigned seat on the worn plastic of the booth opposite, as she clutches the empty pink glove in her other still-gloved palm.  Slowly, as if she were dragged by an invisible leash, Cindy glides into her place in the corner next to the beadboard wall.

“Ah wan’ fried chickin, Momma!”

“Of course, Dahlin’….   Sammy Gene, you sit raht theh-ah aside me….  Lew, De-ah, will y’all take cayah of the chayah for Baby Dale?”  So we sit, parent and child, child and parent, on opposite sides, mirrored like the checkered tiles of the floor.  As usual, my sister and I perch next to the parent whose patience we have each least exhausted that day, and three-year-old Baby Dale, like an infant king apparent, the Dauphin, on his throne in a high chair at the end, already leans forward to reach for proffered oyster crackers.

I look at the black and white linoleum tiles, the cracked red vinyl bench cover, the white cotton stuffing protruding here and there.  Cindy and I scribble on the paper placemats with crayons that appear magically from Mother’s “pocketbook.”

Aah wan’ fried oysters

“Aah wan’ fried oysters,” I say.  My parents only nod but Cindy looks up, makes a face and spits out “Ugh! Sammy, how ken ya eet those thangs?”

“It’s ah-raught if he likes ‘em, ‘long as he cleans his plate,” Mother replies.

A large black waitress in starched apron and cap arrives, and smiles with glistening teeth.  I have seen her before.  She listens as Mother and Dad place their orders.  She scribbles on a green pad. Then she smiles again and speaks to me, “Le’ me g’ess.  ’Bet y’all be wantin’ fried oystahs, Honey.  Am Aah raught?”  I nod.

“’N ketchup,” I add.

She returns in a few minutes, not long after I have completed a seascape complete with a three-masted galleon; her arms are loaded with plates of food, a juggling spectacle worthy of the Bailey Circus.

At a subtle cue from our mother, we bow our heads and fold our hands against the table edge.  Cindy opens one eye to peek and sees me looking at her.   Before she can blurt her accusation, “Sammy’s not prayin’ raught! He’s lookin’ ‘round,” I quickly close my eyes tight and Dad begins:

“Our gracious Heavenly Father, we comta  Thee t’day
to thank Thee for all that Thou hast bestowed upon us:
this good food before us, our home ‘n thah strength t’doo Thy work.
Forgive us our trespasses ‘n sins, ‘n bless this we are about
ta partake for thah nourishment of our body….
’N bless each ‘n every one of Thy children around this table.
In the name of Jesus, Thy precious Son, we pray.  Amen.”

Dad rocks to his side to retrieve a handkerchief from his rear pocket to wipe the tears from his eyes.  I look down; “He always cries when he prays,” I whisper under my breath to no one.

But Mother leans forward, reaches across the table and pats his arm and whispers to him, “Thank ya, Lew.” And then we eat.

I feel a warmth that flows over the Formica table and spills into me.  I am not a stranger in this circle even if I seem a little strange and show an inexplicable fondness for illogical shellfish of exotic origin.  I need not understand nor explain myself to anyone nor make excuse even to myself.    It is enough to be warm and fed and welcome at the table.

Blessed Ketchup 

It was there at the Taylor House that I learned the eternal joys of the genus ostrea.  It was in that circle that I ascribed meaning to their taste.  It was there that they became forever tinted in my memory.  But there was more to it than a culinary preference for shellfish.

I liked the oysters, for sure; but I think I loved the ketchup even more—the way it ran down between the golden morsels onto the triangles of toast carefully arranged to sop up the surplus peanut oil.  The way it tasted tart and sweet and purest red.  A wonderful invention, ketchup.  It was more, yet.

As I dined, I dreamed of finding a pearl of great price hidden there among the crispness and ketchup, worthy of all I had. A pearl that I could sell and spend on me and share with my family.  After I had spent all of the money, I would still be known as the boy who found the wonderful pearl.  I looked for a long time—then and afterward.

I did at last find a pearl among the oysters.  Like much in life, though, it was not what I expected.  It was rough.  It was brown.  It was mean.  I nearly broke a tooth on it, too.  I could not sell it to anybody.  Ultimately, I lost it when it slipped though a hole in my pocket.  I was at first crestfallen, but later I changed my mind about it all: maybe I did come away with a treasure, in the end, one that I could not lose.

Of Pearls and Hypocrisy

Perhaps I found something else of even greater value, an under-appraised asset hidden there among the oyster fries.  Indeed, I did find something early that, these days, I unexpectedly run upon again and again, every time I taste the dark bay-shoal flavor of oysters.  Whenever “now-a-days” I taste the oyster and close my eyes, I see again the warm colors of the faces of my mother, my father, my sister, and my brother, their smiling eyes—their unfeigned but tacit acceptance shining through—and I feel the vibration of the road drumming comfortingly beneath me. I smell the bay breeze coming onshore, as I fit neatly into the pentagonal assembly.

Soundlessly, inchoately, blessedly they all hold up fingers of benediction to me like iconic saints in a Byzantine mosaic that speak “grace and peace to you.”  I am home.  This is what I remember.

Yes, to me, my shellfish hypocrisy notwithstanding, fried oysters taste very special, indeed, very much like the taste of…family—my family, of the Alabama gulf coast and of Mobile Bay.

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