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rain

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

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

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Straw Stars cropped

Straw Christmas Star Ornaments, purchased at the Wien Kriskindlmart in Vienna, Austria in 1978 by the Matteson family. Photo Credit; Sam Matteson

Sitting beside my son of thirty-seven years, I bit into the grilled bratwurst and was instantly transported to Vienna, carried there in the same way that Proust was prompted to recall his youth while tasting a Madeleine and tea in Remembrance of Things Past. The salty and smoky taste of the sausage coupled with the tang of the spiced mustard filled me with a sense of inexplicable joy. To me this is the undeniable flavor of the advent season.

A little less than thirty-seven sevens before, a time when I looked very like my child does today, my family and I had completed our sojourn in Budapest, Hungary. The gray days of late November in Communist-era Hungary added an oppressive air to the already gray cityscape. We were well treated by our hosts, who earned our life-long friendship by their kindness, but we longed to return home to the United States, more and more as the months dragged by. At last, the day arrived for our scheduled departure. The day before I had shipped the majority of our clothing to Munich by train.

I experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating a rigid bureaucratic state that day. Only dollars would be accepted for international shipments I learned after standing in a long queue. The station shipping department could not accept traveler’s checks even if in dollar denominations. That was the job of the bank. At the bank in the station I stood in yet another line to have the checks cashed with a 3% fee, of course. The bank would only dispense the cash in Hungarian Forints, however. “But I need the cash in dollars,” I complained. I was directed to yet another line at the monetary exchange where for a high fee and a highly unfavorable but centrally determined exchange rate, I ultimately obtained the requisite cash to pay for the shipment. After nearly three hours of exasperation this task was accomplished.

I had heard the Hungarian quip that if you see a queue protruding from a shop you should get in the line. There was bound to be something good at the end of it. I also heard that a certain Gabor had been in a line so long that he said to the lady behind him that we was going to go to the ministry of commerce to complain. He left, only to return a few minutes later and reenter the queue with the explanation, “The line at the complaint department is even longer than this line. Mit tudok tenni?” The latter was a phrase meaning “What can I do?” that we heard often both as an offer of help and as a cry of resignation frequently rendered with a shrug. I understood the feeling well and experientially after my time in the shipping department.

 We Had a Plan

On the morning of our departure, we mapped out a plan and then proceeded to execute it. We cleaned the apartment, collected our three children, and packed all the remainder of our belongings into the Simca sedan we had purchased from a friend in Germany a few months before. It was a decent if modest conveyance, even if the floor board was rusting out from too many Bavarian winters and their salt. It would not have passed the TUV the next year, I fear. Since we had no garage, we had left the white car parked out front of the apartment building where it gradually had turned gray, as it acquired a thick coating of Budapest grime. I was concerned once when I came out to the car one morning a few weeks earlier to find a word drawn by a small finger in the dust on the rear window. It read, “PISZKOS.” I asked my host the meaning of this graffiti, to which he replied, “It’s dirty.”

I responded, “It’s okay, Peter, you can tell me what it means, I am a big boy.”

He then laughed and continued, “No! The word is not vulgar. It means, ‘I am dirty,’ you know like ‘Wash me!’ in the US. The school kids on your block were just giving you some advice.” Unfortunately our time was up before I could learn enough Hungarian to have the car washed so we traveled in a piszkos autó.

Our first stop the morning of our departure was to check out with the local police at their neighborhood rendőrőrs (guard house) as required by law for resident aliens such as we. For months we had been aliens all the while I had been a visiting researcher in an exchange between the United States National Science Foundation and the corresponding entity in the Magyar Koztarsasag (Hungarian Republic, what Hungarian call their nation).

Next we motored through the crowded streets of the capital city, dodging honking Ladas and Vilamos electric trams as well as thousands of pedestrians. We pulled up to the Intourist office and returned our keys to the manager and signed more paperwork.We now were officially homeless. We had also expended almost all of our Hungarian currency and dollars, since we were prohibited from “exporting” currency from the country. Thus, we were nearly penniless. We hoped to replenish our cash reserves by cashing a personal check at the AmEx office in the Austrian capital. This was in the days before international banking and the convenience of widely accepted US credit cards in Europe.

One Last Stop

The Ministry of Culture was our final stop before embarking up Bécsi utca (Vienna Road) for the 250 km (150 mile) trip to Vienna and the approximately three hours of driving (plus one hour at the border station at Hesgeshalom). We were, we had been told, to return our “staying permits” and reclaim our US passports at the ministry offices. Thus, as properly documented aliens we could depart by vehicle. When I was able, after several minutes of futile inquiry, to reach an English speaking official, I was told that the request was supposed to have been made two weeks prior to our departure, a fact nobody had informed us of.

I told the assistant that that was unfortunate, indeed, since we had been informed otherwise and that we now had no apartment, no money, and must drive to Vienna before the American Express Office closed so that we could find accommodations for the night. The image of Carolyn sitting with our three children in the echoing hallway is seared into my memory. I gave my long-suffering wife a hasty brief of our situation, then added “If little Peter [our six month old] starts to cry don’t try too hard to pacify him. You don’t have to pinch him or anything, but the more annoying we are, the more motivated they will be to get us on our way.” Anyway even a communist bureaucrat cannot be unmoved by a crying infant, I reasoned. Whether, our desperate measures were the reason or not, we will never know, but the passports eventually materialized hours later and we were on our way, but well after noon. All that lay between us and Vienna were two hundred fifty kilometers and a heavily armed border.

In the days of preparation before funds were exhausted, snacks and juice had been purchased for the trip at the local fruit stand and at the government-run ABC market at the train station. These victuals fortified us as we sped through town past empty shop windows. I noticed an irony: finally a shop was displaying clothes pins for sale that had been unavailable for the nearly four months of our visit. As we headed out the Vienna Road, I also recalled a story my host had told me. István and Gabor were chatting.

“That is a beautiful coat you have on Gabor. Where did you buy it?” István asked.

Bécsi utca, the Vienna Road.”

“I was out that way yesterday. I saw no coats like that for sale.”

“Ah!” said Gabor, “”You went to the wrong end.”

We were on our way to the other end, now. But the clock was ticking. Would we make it by 1700 hours?  That time, 5:00 p.m., was when we though the American Express Office would close. If we arrived too late. what then? My mind reeled at the potentially awful scenarios.

To Be Taking Picture, Forbidden!

Photo TilosAt the border, the cars lined up waiting to be searched, for what I was never certain. The scene was intimidating. Gray flannel clad soldiers carrying machine guns paced before the barbwire-topped fences. Nearly an hour passed as we incrementally crept forward. We have no photographs of Hegeshalom, by all accounts a lovely village. On the highway were posted signs of cameras with a forbidden slash symbol that we had seen before near Soviet military posts. We learned that this Hungarian phrase Fényképezni Tilos means the taking of pictures forbidden! We complied as quickly and courteously as we could with the instruction to completely unpack the car, then repack it when none of our suspected contraband or our hidden defectors were uncovered.

Vienna, At Last

We roared into the Stadt Mitte of Vienna a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. and ran as fast as a couple, two toddlers, and an infant can move to the AmEx office. They were open! Until 1800 hours, thankfully. We cashed a check, learned of where we could book accommodation, and what was happening in the city center that evening. Across the cobble stone square we made reservations for that night at one of the most luxurious hotels of our entire European adventure. All the Mattesons were exhausted by our headlong flight from Eastern Europe and the adults decided that it was foolhardy to ask the children to submit to sitting in a civilized restaurant in our condition.  We strolled the Wien Kriskindlmart (Vienna’s Christ Child Market), a wonderland of glittering lights and Christmas festival foods that runs daily during advent. We marveled at the opulence of objects in the shop windows of Austria’s jeweled city. The lights and the tree shed a soft and welcoming glow across our path. Hot tea and cocoa warmed us. Pretzels, strudel, and cookies satisfied our hunger. Indeed, it was for us Wiener Adventszauber (Viennese Advent Magic). Among the ornate and expensive items we found more humble but equally delightful ones. We selected traditional straw stars that even at this Christmastide adorn our tree. I found my grilled bratwurst and senf (spicy German-style mustard), and it tasted of joy, the joy of freedom, the joy of knowing that we had completed something significant in our lives, and the joy of a faith affirmed that though the way may be hard, by God’s grace we can triumph over hardship. This I feel again every time I taste once more my Viennese Advent. May your advent be filled with joy also.

Vienna Christ Kildl Mart

Vienna Rathaus Kriskindlmart 1978 Photo credit: Sam Matteson

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Lisa Noelle-3 (left) and Carrie Susan-4 (right) enjoy a ride at Lions’ Park Waco, Texas as Christmas approaches. You can almost hear the carols ringing in the background. (Photo credit Sam Matteson 1976)

Do you hear that? . . . There! In the background. I hear it so often—on every street corner, in the mall, spilling from churches and from offices—that I hum along without even thinking about it. It’s the sound of December, the music heralding the approach of Christmas, like the distant sound of the brass band in the Thanksgiving parade. More than any other season, December has its own joyous accompaniment.

Many things I anticipate with pleasure as December approaches, but the music—Ah! the music—cheers me most. Carols, impatient as children, begin in the last weeks of November like the overture before the real symphony. We know that it’s really December when the winter middle school band concerts happen all over town. The presentation must always include a rendition of Jingle Bells performed by the gaggle of Christmas geese, the seventh grade clarinet players, who have studied the wicked reed for only twelve weeks. Their merry approximation of the tune fills the gym and makes us smile (or grimace):

“Honk, honk, honk!
Honk, honk, honk!
Squawk, honk, squeak, honk, squawk!”

Sweet Carols in Memory

"Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views" by Godofbiscuits - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

“Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views” by Godofbiscuits – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons – https://commons. wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

But not all the sounds of the holidays are strident. Hark how the bells, the sweet silver hand bells, resound in my heart! In a long ago December bell concert my wife (eight months pregnant and great with our first child) worried that she would be delivered on stage, red robed and white gloved even as she was. Baby Carrie was moved as well—in utero—by the stirring melody and responded with her own lively dance.

I, too, have loved music from childhood. I can still recall singing in the “cherub choir” on Christmas Eve. The candle light, the stained glass of “big church,” the smiling faces of the people are colored with crayons in my memory. What I most recall, though, is my fascination with the starched surplice and red bow that hung beneath my chin as if I were a Christmas present. The white fabric made a delightful crackle as I flapped my arms like angel wings. The director was not amused, however.

Perhaps it was then that I began to be persuaded that the human voice can be the most glorious instrument in all of the world. As I grew older I looked forward to December, when I again could be transported by making music myself. And what more majestic piece in which to be immersed than Handel’s Messiah? And so it came to pass that in those days my wife and I joined the choir. Every Wednesday evening after work, from Thanksgiving to Christmas week, we practiced the trills and runs of the grand baroque oratorio, while our sweet toddlers, Carrie, and her younger sister Lisa Noelle played and colored Xeroxed line drawings of the manger and wise men under the watchful eyes of “Granny” Slade.

Afterward, homeward bound to baths, story books, and bed the girls were parceled to each parent for some quality one-on-one time. So it was that Lisa Noelle rode with Daddy in the old blue Volkswagen. After placing my almost three-year-old— clad in corduroy overalls and lady-bug-and-flower sneakers—into her seat, I climbed in and started the car. I could not restrain the music that only minutes before had swelled from a giant choir. A rousing chorus of the oratorio spilled from my mouth:

“And He shall purify.
And He shall puri-fi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-y the sons of Levi.”
Lisa looked puzzled as she studied my face. Then she held up her tiny hand as if to say “Stop!” Her brow wrinkled and she admonished me in a tone that I had never heard before.

“Daddy! Your mouth is scribbling!”

I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. It is difficult to drive when you are doubled over in laugher. Decades later, I cannot hear the strains of Handel’s masterpiece without thinking of my little one. I smile at the memory and at the irony of the woman she has become—a wife, a mother, a school teacher and a classically trained soprano who knows well the scribbles and curlicues of bel canto.

Joyfully Seeking the Messiah

So I soak it all in, all the music of December. I note the Messiah performances at the Schermerhorn and at area churches. I am disappointed to find that the Messiah Sing-Along, (note: BYOS, that is, bring your own score) is sold out already despite my preparation. I absorb all the music I can in December because it must last me the rest of the year. For come Boxing Day, the carols will be silenced, put away with the tinsel and the tree. But I for one will still be singing, well outside the lines, joyfully scribbling in my heart:

“Unto us a child is born.
Unto us a son is given . . . .
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah, indeed!

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300x168.jpg

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300×168.jpg

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Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Johnny’s sailor hat, atop his Mexican head, is an image that always reminds me of a truth I only realized later in life: inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them.”

Perhaps it is just our “nature.” Deep within our brain lies a small but powerful organ in the most primitive part of our brain. This master of emotion is called the amygdala. Evolutionary biologists explain that it is a remnant of our hunter-gather past. This feature of our cognitive equipment, they argue, was selected for by the preservation of “our” kind, a drive to protect the gene pool embodied in our family and clan from the danger posed by the “others,” who do not value or bear our genotype. The amygdala is source of the unthinking start we experience when we see out of the corner of our eye a sinuous shadow in the woods. Before we can think “stick” the primitive part of our brain shouts “Snake! Run!” and our heart races and our muscles contract with an unannounced rush of ephedrine. This is the famous “fight or flight” syndrome.   Thus, we might say, “It’s only nature” when we wish to justify our fears of others, just as we might claim it is natural to feel our heart race at slithering shadows.

I call for a new resolution: Question instinct! Examine intuition! I challenge what is “natural.” I contend that all that we call “natural” is not necessarily good, healthy or right. Too much adrenaline will stress the heart and other vital organs unnecessarily.  Moreover, morality is decidedly unnatural. Much of ethics is counter-intuitive. Consider the Judaeo-Christian injunction to empathy and doing good to all, even those who would harm you. Indeed in the Levitical law the Almighty enjoins us, “When an alien lives with you in your land do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens.” Apparently, divine admonition is insufficient to cause us to modify our behavior. The problem is not that we do not know what is the right thing to do; rather the problem is simply in doing the right thing. It often is amygdala versus cortex, fear against reason. Too often our lower nature wins.

Sad that, while we live in a different technological world that is so distant from the archaic horizon where our brain arose, we are still captive to the automatic, instinctive, intuitive “natural” brain of the first humans. What Jeffrey Kluger wrote about worry is true about our unreasoning xenophobia. He remarked in a Time feature article, “The residual parts of our primitive brains may not give us any choice beyond fight or fleeing. But the higher reasoning we’ve developed over millions of years gives us far greater—and far more nuanced—choices.”

Ironically, the very clannishness of our species may have made possible a way to reveal who we really are and where we have come from. I am fortunate to know my lineage, the genealogy of the “Matteson’s,” at least in America. Thanks in no small measure to the research of cousin Porter Matteson, I am aware that ten generations ago, Henry Matteson (1646-1690), called “The Immigrant” arrived in Rhode Island around 1666 at age twenty. Two or three years later he married Hanna Parsons recently arrived from England. I am designated J.411.a in the family record, tenth generation three hundred forty years here on this continent.   Most who bear my family name in the United States are descended from Henry, who is reported to have originated in Denmark. It gives a strange irrational satisfaction to know where one’s forefather lived so long ago.   Yet, the plain fact is that no matter how long one’s family has been in the America’s they immigrated here at some time.

A Genetic Decoder Ring  Recently I read that a project was underway to determine where all of humanity migrated from the first reaches of prehistory. I gave myself a sixtieth birthday present when I purchased on-line a participation kit. I was as expectant as the time that I sent off box tops for a decoder ring.

I went to the mail box expectantly every day. I had a premonition that the kit would arrive soon, and there it was, in the over-sized compartment of the communal mail box. I was sure what it was from the return address: “National Geographic Society.” I could barely restrain myself from tearing open the brown cardboard box immediately, but my prefrontal cortex did its work and reigned in my impulsiveness with an appropriate, rational inhibition. “Later when you can give it my full attention,” it told me. The rest of me agreed reluctantly.

Later that evening, I did allow myself to unpack the shipping box. Inside was a strikingly illustrated carton, six by nine, that bore the silhouetted image of a lone man walking an empty landscape. This figure suggested to me the unknown ancestor or ancestors who more than two thousand generations ago fathered all who would live today, all we could call human. From what I read, I concluded that this earth, the Adamah, is such a harsh place, at times, that only one family has survived from that time 60,000 years ago. Gone are the thick muscular children of the cold dwellers whose bones were first found in the Neanderthal; gone, too, are the tiny children of Florens; and gone are all the other hominids, all the other man-like creatures that have walked on two legs on this unforgiving and lethal planet. What is more, only one clan, the offspring of one Homo sapiens survives, a man who lived in north east Africa about sixty millennia ago. We humans are the children, the great-many-times-over grand children, the progeny of one individual or a small family. For good reason geneticists call this man “Adam.” The word is a Biblical Hebrew name that meant originally both “man”-kind and “earthling.”

Hnry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religioous leader Roder Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Phot source NPS www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

Henry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religious leader Roger Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Photo source NPS http://www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

I conclude after deep reflection that, no matter how superficially different the “other” earth dwellers that I encounter on my way, we are family, the Family of Man. In fact, “they” are actually “us.” This is what Johnny’s hat taught me those many years ago, and for that additional gift, I thank him.

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In Dothan three radio towers stood together as a beacon of our arrival.  Originla photo source : www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/010/pictures/Towers-Radio.jpg

In Dothan three radio towers stood together as a beacon of our arrival. Original photo source : http://www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/010/pictures/Towers-Radio.jpg

Dothan always seemed the closest thing to heaven that I could imagine. It is, as I remember it, a magical place trussed up like broom straw in the red-hill-and-wire-grass corner of the state, as nearly Florida as you can be and still claim to belong to ‘Bama. They tell me Dothan, at least the original Dothan of the Bible, means “two wells,” the place where Joseph found his hateful half-brothers plotting a swift end to a dreamer. Lucky for Joe Jacobson that one of the wells was dry and that’s the one they chose to drop him in. Seems I remember, too, a Sunday-School story of Elisha pursued by an army near there. Shaking in his sandals, Elisha’s servant cried out “We’re doomed, there are too many of them.” But old Elisha saw with different eyes the valley filled with angels. And I, too—though not a prophet or the son of a prophet—see Dothan with different eyes.

Ma and Pa Moates Lived There

Dothan was home to my maternal grandparents, Ma Bertie and Pa, the place where they homesteaded in ’04 or so. Because my Father’s widowed Father was exiled “up north” in Ohio, I rarely saw him. But Ma and Pa Moates filled the role of grand people most ably and most happily. Grandparenthood is a special state to which only those are entitled who have endured the trials of infancy, childhood, adolescence and the declaration of independence of at least one offspring. My grandparents epitomized unconditional love to me, and I loved them in return, although they were already “three score and ten” before I first knew them. Despite the distance between their generations (or perhaps because of it) children and their grandparents are natural allies in a gentle rebellion against the intervening generation of parents.

Ma taught me to love the earth. The dirt there, the color of iron or old blood, is ancient, elemental and alive. When the rains fall, iron nodules stand exposed on toe-high pedestals, with all the dirt around washed clear, an earthen lithography. Beneath a broom straw a tiny siege ramp leaned against the orange brick foundation of the house, after a rain. I liked to lean on Ma Bertie sometimes, just like the cow did when she milked it. But she did not slap my side as she did Bessie’s broad brown raw hide or shout “Stand up, Lazy!” in her high reedy soprano voice.

Pa taught me to love wood: the smell of it and its touch and the way it tells the story of its life in the grain and burl and knot. Mornings I would rise when the dew-chill was still on the field and hear the “chug-chug” of the sawmill, down the red dirt road, its refrain punctuated by the trill of a meadowlark. I would smell the pinesap spilling as the saw ripped the flesh of the tree and made boards for people to use. Today when I run my hand over an oak tabletop and feel the ripples of the grain, I know that each is a year, lean, fat, dry, wet, like the lines the years have drawn in my face or that of Pa. I know, too, that the tree has come down to make a table, or a chair or a house, or a pencil.

Across the road in Dothan a wood lot stood; pines growing up for harvest someday. Twenty, thirty years maybe, then clear cut and begun again. I wondered if people were like that too. We would only be useful after we were cut down. I still wonder.

The Road Trip Was Long

We went often, as often as we could to Dothan. The trip from Mobile along highway 90 and the Florida coast took us across many rivers, the seven rivers at the head of the Bay, the Escambia, the Styx, and others. A wag in the highway department had hung a sign on the bridge, “Styx River, Charon retired.”   Years later I learned that Charon was the boatman of Greek mythology that demanded the coins from dead men’s eyes as the fare to cross the Styx River to Hades. But we paid no visible toll on our way.

The trip to Dothan was also eternal. Einstein was right; time is relative. To children, five minutes seems a long time; an hour is agony; and four hours a never-ending purgatory. My parents had heard the universal questions, “Are we there yet? How much farther?” so often that they told us, “Watch for the red lights of the three radio towers. That’s how you will know we are close to Dothan. Look for the lights of Dothan.”

There are many towers that stud the night outside of every town in the panhandle of Florida I learned, but none but Dothan had three together. My Mother would turn her head so that her hair was illuminated in a kind of holy light from the headlamps of the on-coming cars and whisper in my ear. “Why don’t you sleep now, Sammy? The night will seem shorter. I will wake you when we get there.” And often I did, and she was right, it was shorter. But I always missed the lights when I slipped into sleep, and then I awoke, disappointed.

My Grandmother’s death was my first loss.   I was in college at the time but I could have been a child. Now, I think I was a child. I did not think so then. We are always children when death comes to those we love. They say in Alabama that death comes in threes. I don’t think that it is really so, but I think we could not bear an unbroken string of loss. When the third has fallen, we can exhale and wipe our eyes until the next sad triad. But often a single death is overwhelming and two is devastating. As I sat to write these words, a friend was burying her mother, her son lying dead and undiscovered in another city. Then my friend and former boss died. Three. I can breathe again. But death does not come in threes for us; it comes singly for each of us. We must face it alone and in the dark. But I hear rumors of another life and I hope. As I approach my Dothan, though, I look hard into the dark night. I am looking for the lights before I sleep, the lights of Dothan.

Robertia and Noah Moates, Sammy's Maternal Grandparents. Source: Family heirloom photograph.

Robertia and Noah Moates, Sammy’s Maternal Grandparents. Source: Family heirloom photograph.

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Poem For Carrie

Original poem and photograph by Sam Matteson. Permission is granted for non-commercial use. (Click on figure to enlarge.)

We can often learn much from the most innocent among us if we are really listening. As my wife and I visited the gulf coast of Alabama during the past week that included my 50th high school reunion, I was reminded of the story of the first visit to the sea shore of a young girl who had just learned to swim. She ran down the dunes to the beach but stopped short of the surf and looked from her toes in the foam that swirled about her feet up to the horizon in the distance. After standing for several minutes silently contemplating the expanse of blue before her, she said in a small voice: “I think that I will swim in the shallow end.”

The picture above is of our daughter Carrie when she first visited the Pacific Ocean in the late1970s. I held her hand that day as we played in the ocean, just as my father had held mine in the years before when I was a child and we visited the gulf and played in the surf. I recall the feeling of the swells rolling into the shore lifting me, with the help of my Dad’s strong grip. My feet often did not touch the sand beneath the waves, but Dad was always there.

Then I grew up. My father did not hold my hand very often after that, until the day he died and in an unnatural reversal, I held his hand—though he did not know it, stricken by an ultimately fatal stroke as he was. In that dark night, I thought again of sweet Carrie’s plea from years before: “Don’t leave me alone my Daddy. I don’t want night to get into my eyes.” Yes, too often it seems to me I have let night get into my eyes and darken my soul. Too often I feel at sea and like Peter who began so well bidden by Christ to come to him upon the sea, I seem only to sink down. Yet, I take comfort in the words of Matthew’s gospel that follow: “ [W]hen [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” (Matthew 14: 30,31)

I did not choose to swim in the deep end of the sea, but life has cast me there. Many times I have seen the waves and felt their swell and was afraid. It was then that night began to get into my eyes and I reached out and caught hold of a hand not my own. So I persist swimming on without touching the bottom, fearfully at times but hopefully as well, swimming in the deep end of life.  My own child taught me this.

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Poem Call it GoldenThe Cousins

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

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

The Jenkins Clan

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

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

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

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

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

Two Sisters in Conspiracy

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

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

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

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

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

Days of Luxurious Indolence

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

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

Call it “Golden,” Indeed

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

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