A GARLAND OF WORDS
Woven together after I picked them from the garden of my mind
There was a time I sought to become a poet, believing verse was in my soul, wanting out.
But to be a bard I had to intuit, poetry is my soul, winging about.
A GARLAND OF WORDS
Woven together after I picked them from the garden of my mind
There was a time I sought to become a poet, believing verse was in my soul, wanting out.
But to be a bard I had to intuit, poetry is my soul, winging about.
1. “My printer broke” has now replaced “The dog ate it” as the top excuse for homework not turned in on time.
2. English composition (“English Comp”) may now be called communication (“COM”).
3. COM employs more communication theory and less actual writing, thereby stimulating (in this observer’s estimation) less powerful communication than did English Comp.
4. Tell the class they can do an assignment for extra credit and students who don’t need extra credit will do it; students desperately needing the credit won’t.
5. Students who beg for a writing assignment extension will be the ones questioning why the teacher doesn’t have papers graded and ready to return to them at the next class meeting.
6. Nobody shows up to Office Hours for help until the final two weeks of class, at which point there will be a run on the bank of times available to meet.
7. Students will wait until the week before finals to text or email the teacher asking what they can do to rectify their inaction of the past four months. (They won’t word it quite that way.)
8. Teach of Helen Keller’s inspiring life and watch students continue spelling the icon’s name as “Hellen” all semester, despite pointing out the error each time it rears its ugly head.
9. Give reading assignments and class lectures on Karl Marx and Socialism, and then learn something new from a student: Karl Marx nailed his 95 Theses to a church door.
10. Introduce Henry Ford and the Industrial Revolution, and then read student essays to learn it was actually either Harrison Ford or Gerald Ford who was the great industrialist and auto innovator.
11. Provide handouts of biographies with timelines of Karl Marx and Helen Keller showing Socialism as the common theme, while also revealing the aging Marx died in Europe just as Keller, a toddler in Alabama, lost her sight and hearing; then learn from a student in a writing assignment that Marx and Keller were “great lifelong friends.”
12. The best students in class make it all worthwhile, doing every assignment beautifully; but the college allows you to award them only an “A” when you want to give them a triple-A rating, like a good bond that you hold as an investment for the future.
In the city at the center of the civilized world lived a boy who was born into all the privileges and pleasures appointed to a certain class of people. Namely, educated, wealthy individuals. Families, really. And associations of families. It was an orderly, prescribed, and proscribed system that seemed to be working well—at least for those of a certain station in life. People living the high life in places like inside the golden circle at the heart of Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties. Not the 1920s—the 2020s. But any circle can become a tightening noose, and this circle had begun to shrink in concert with the rising waters of the Atlantic.
The idea of placing billionaires’ mansions increasingly distant from the masses—vertically, atop ever-higher skyscrapers—ignores the fact that a strong base is vital to the support of any superstructure. Anything heavy at the top and feeble at the base is bound to fall eventually. It was a metaphor. Change was coming. It always does. The emergence of some new economic configuration was only a matter of time. The details would be determined by the unfathomable flow of the winds and waters of fate.
“In the year 2525, if Man is still alive” goes a 1969 song by Zager and Evans. Their timing for disaster was off by half a millennium. America’s unsustainable economic model crumbled in January 2025, when the president-elect vanished. The sitting president, at the cusp of the close of his second term, instituted marshal law and cancelled the inauguration by fiat—only temporarily, he assured the public. Time was needed to sort things out.
Time was working in the tyrant’s favor. The economic model allowing unbridled mergers and acquisitions had become a cancer overtaking its host. Or maybe it was more like the big fish eating the smaller ones. The point is that as the supply dwindled the system became unsustainable. All over America, more than just banks became too big to fail. From Boston to Chicago to Denver to San Francisco, and from L.A. to Houston to Atlanta to Miami, circles of power and influence were growing. Corporations became legal bubbles insulating and separating the wealthy from the majority of the population. The Supreme Court had ruled a corporation was a person. But corporations can’t go to prison for corruption. In truth, each company was a machine controlled by a powerful oligarch locked safely away in the control room—the corporation’s Boardroom.
Each city had its share of oligarchs. And each sphere of influence expanded until it touched another bubble—economically, if not physically. When bubbles touch, the walls collapse between them. They grow with each consolidation. Some thought the oligarchs’ competitive interests differed enough to keep everything in check. That image of counterbalanced power was a mirage.
To understand why free-market capitalism with no constraints failed, consider this. Jewelry isn’t made of pure gold. The element is simply too soft. A wedding band of pure gold would become scratched and warp out of shape, negating its value as a polished object symbolizing rounded perfection.
Pure capitalism was soft in much the same way. Once the people were tricked into phasing out government regulations, money bought lawmakers who increasingly skewed the laws toward the rich.
Oligarchs purchased the news media and made maximizing profits the sole motive. No more investigative journalism.
Unions, likewise, were strangled under the guise of “Right to Work” laws. The working people’s growing unrest was fanned and focused on accumulating guns for self-protection. It was us against them. But who was really the endangered “us” and who was the dangerous “them?” The real “them” won the class war without firing a shot. Well, many common folk were shot, but the masterminds of the takeover were literally above it all. Focusing the public’s attention on guns had been the perfect deflection.
The magician’s trick of distracting watchful eyes worked so well that no attention was given to “that man behind the curtain” who was pulling the levers on the laws and manipulating the strings on the puppets.
The middle class dwindled with remnants becoming totally dependent on the crumbs of the wealthy. The lower-class problem took care of itself. Starvation is a silent killer of the powerless, the voiceless, the doomed. People of means can simply look away and no unpleasantness need apply. The economy morphed into two classes—the true takers and the truly taken. A beautiful but malleable center of glittering gold developed.
But Robert Frost once warned us, “Nothing gold can stay.” And this treasure, while not fool’s gold, exactly, turned out to be foolish gold. Foolish because one oligarch saw the ultimate political opportunity presented by the collision of societal unrest and growing environmental change. Fear is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of a megalomaniac.
The grand American experiment suddenly closed. The economy that had been the envy of the world collapsed. People who had clung for centuries to the compassionate Christian values of shared abundance, of feeding, clothing, and protecting the poor were now hobbled. The middle class that had incubated the dream of America and then brought it to fruition had become the servant class to oligarchs.
America—the beautiful, the bountiful, the proud and the glorious—fell to one person who took sole control of the laws of the land. A boy born into the wealth and privilege of old America, which had been formed by and for the people, had climbed to the pinnacle of a new landscape created by and for himself. He was the financial equivalent of “The Highlander”—the last man standing—well, the last with legal standing—in a New America. Once he played his trump card of running for and winning the presidency, he made himself king. He demoted his fellow oligarchs to barons in fealty to him and his United Estates of America. At his coronation he said, “It’s good to be king, and I’ll be the best king ever—okay?” Then he added, “That I can tell you.”
Quilting is often a group activity, but the process of teaming up on a quilt often starts as a lone endeavor. The design has to be decided and pieced together, and one person—the quilt’s owner—often does that beforehand. The style is her decision. A Double Wedding Ring, often given as a wedding gift. A Log Cabin, recalls days of old. Or maybe a Crazy Quilt made from bits and pieces that yield no design, except the one that says nothing shall be wasted.
Once the quilt-top pieces are stitched together, the group must decide when and where to gather themselves for assembling the quilt. Likely it will be at the quilt owner’s house, but subject to a practical question: Who has room to set up the frame and leave it in the way for the several days it will take to complete it? Quilting entails layering the backing, the cotton-pad filler, and the quilt top like a sandwich and then stitching all the way through, top to bottom, while following the outlines of the design. As the thousands of hand-stitched loops are pulled over, under and through the material, something else is pulled together—strength from the bonds that come out of the camaraderie of people working together. That work will turn the three parts—backing, padding, and quilt-top—into a finished colorful quilt, a trinity to comfort the body that mimics the way the Trinity soothes the mind, warms the heart, and nourishes the soul.
The process requires a large, wooden frame substantial enough in weight and strength to form a rectangle. The frame hangs from the ceiling and floats parallel to the floor. It will define the borders of the quilt, which may be adjusted to hold the makings of a cover for a single bed, or maybe a baby’s quilt; but usually what will emerge from the frame, in full color like a butterfly showing off intricate wing patterns, will be a full-sized quilt for a standard double bed. The size chosen often reveals the stage of life of the planned recipient. A queen or king would be grand indeed. Whatever size and design is chosen, it will soon become a practical thing of beauty; a Grandma Moses work of art.
“Y’all be careful, kids,” my mother or aunts would say as my cousins and I passed through the room dominated by the quilting frame, ducking under if there was no space to pass around the edges. We’d be trying to get from the front door to the kitchen for a drink or snack, or racing to the bathroom to recycle what we had already consumed. Those warnings were always good-natured, and the conversation of the quilters flowed as easily and freely as water rushing downhill. Still, there were frequent patches of silence as each seamstress focused on the calling at hand. Not in sadness, but with seriousness.
That way of life produced a reassuring calmness. But things change, and even an idyllic life in a pastoral land can’t last forever. Eventually, the number of participants began to dwindle. Some members of that quilting circle died off. Others lost interest as their financial fortunes improved. Factory salaries meant cash to buy more perfectly formed eiderdowns made by machine and sold in stores.
Yet, my mother never gave up her quilting—although, the large wooden frame eventually became too much for her to handle alone. So she downsized to a wooden ring. That small quilting ring was about two feet in diameter. It still provided the necessary tension to allow easy stitching, but it limited her access to one small section of cloth at a time—and while held in the lap, not while hanging from the ceiling and spread flat across the room like a large map of the world.
“Everything needs a frame,” my mother said when she’d been concerned about giving up her original, large frame. In recent years, the fence around her world has been shrinking. “Good fences make good neighbours,” said Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall. My mother doesn’t know this Frost, but she has always known the warmth and comfort of good neighbors. Like Frost, she believes in the utility of boundaries.
One might expect the best thing about the experience of Chefs to Dine For would be the incredible food. Chefs to Dine For is the name of Lynne Ryan’s Manhattan fine-dining adventures. You feast in the best restaurants of Manhattan and then meet with the famous chef who created a special menu just for you and your dining partners. That is the initial draw to these exclusive events, and it’s a magnificent experience indeed. But there’s more to the story than that.
Imagine starting the evening with a few before-dinner drinks—and you decide how many count as a few—as you meet other guests and sample the passed hors d’oeuvre. Soon, you find yourself sitting expectantly awaiting the first course.
Always, there will be new flavors in unexpected combinations of foods, textures, and plating presentations. It’s generally a three-course dinner that includes a sumptuous dessert, and the whole meal is paired with wonderful wines. Yes, this is an experience to be treasured—one that you can enjoy every month or two during the fair-weather season. And yet, after you’ve attended a series of these feasts, your perceptions, like mine, may begin to shift. I’ve discovered there’s something even better than the scene I’ve just described. But I had to take a step back from everything before I could see it clearly.
With my busy schedule, I had missed the last few dinners, but I came back to the fold for a Monday night in May gathering at db Bistro Moderne. My return was almost a necessity, given that French Chef Daniel Boulud was to be our hosting chef for the evening. That evening was also when I gained my new perspective. I came into the City from Westchester via a train on the Metro North New Haven Line. The weather made for a pleasant stroll from Grand Central Terminal up to 55 West 44th Street, just a block east of Times Square. As I approached the facade of db Bistro Moderne and attempted to walk on by (I’m always dreadfully early for such events), I ran directly into Lynne with a passel of ladies all around her, and they were headed inside.
Even now, I can see that rendezvous clearly. Lynne immediately stops right there on the sidewalk and proceeds to introduce me to her friends: Jeanna Brannon, up from Atlanta (with her sister Kim); Sue Downey, who was celebrating her birthday that very evening; and Missy Mathis. These were friends from back in Alabama, plus Mar-cee-ah O’Neill was in their company—a regular to these dinners from upstate New York. The warm greeting made me feel welcome even before we entered the restaurant.
Moving into the bistro, I begin to see some of my old friends. I may encounter them nowhere but here—well, perhaps on Facebook or through an occasional email hello—yet they feel almost like dear friends. I see Lorraine Bell, a Canadian who also lives here in the City. On a previous occasion, Lorraine had introduced me to Judy Lauder Cecconi, a cousin from British Columbia, and we’d all had a great dinner together. It was a meal worth remembering, one filled with wonderful conversation over ample glasses of wine. Now I count both as real friends and follow their comings and goings on Facebook. Chefs to Dine For made our friendship possible.
I also see Chef Thomas Kacherski and his wife Becky, owners of Crew, a fine restaurant and bar in Poughkeepsie. They almost always attend or send one of their chefs to these events. Quite a few of the folks dining this evening are from Dutchess County. Also present were Bob and Cherrill Geehan, Adriene Conrad, Joyce Heaton, Lori Decker, Ann Barton, Kristy Grimes, Tresa Veitia and one of Lynne’s sons, Mutala Ibrahim, who had arrived home fresh from Connecticut College. Finally, I see the amiable Men Who Dine, Gennaro Pecchia and Alan Watts, a wonderful duo of sharply dressed men who are true connoisseurs, and who specialize in attending fine dining events.
Of course Lynne’s husband Dr. Tim Ryan, President of the Culinary Institute of America, was also in attendance, as he always is when his busy schedule permits.
New York City dwellers included: August Ceradini; Ted Rothstein and his wife Janice Grace, along with his brother Alan; Victoria Guaglianone, owner of the Tiny Kitchen, along with her husband Victor; Lauren Flacco; Kent Alley; William Cochrane; cookbook author Hillary Davis; Steve Weissman; Jerry DiStefano, from the Fireman Restaurant Group; and the owner of Raoul’s, Karim Raoul.
I’m ready to circulate and make new friends. I meet Randall and Jennifer Goldman, who are visiting from Charleston, South Carolina. He’s CEO of Patrick Properties—a company that buys estates in need of restoration and proceeds to do just that. “Not for flipping the properties, mind you,” he tells me, “but to preserve them for posterity.” The passion shows. Their Hospitality Group hosts corporate events and personal gatherings, up to and including lavish weddings.
I also meet Pamela Fisher, founder of New 2 NY Tours, and her mother, Carol. Pamela’s business takes tourists off the beaten path “… to see the real city behind the scenes,” she tells me. If you’re coming to visit this great city, consider this avenue to see the real streets and avenues, just as the natives see them.
Also present were Randy and Betsy Wolgemuth, along with their friends and neighbors Pat and Brenda Moran, who drove in from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to treat themselves to this festive occasion. Regulars Tracy Pantahos and Tracey Paulsen from Long Island—yes, Tracy and Tracey, and they don’t mind if you call them that; Kathy Colicchio from Princeton, New Jersey; Maureen Powers and daughters Courtney and Kerry from Westchester; and Barbara and John Daly, with their guest, David Chiapetta from Greenwich, Connecticut. It was a full house for our private dining room.
After the dinner concluded, Chef Daniel Boulud paraded the entire kitchen brigade out of the back and marched them to our tables. Daniel Boulud is consistently listed as one of the top chefs in the world, so I was impressed that for this dinner he insisted on giving complete credit to his chefs at that restaurant—one of about a dozen that he owns and runs in New York and beyond.
As the entire crew stood proudly before us, looking like a chorus line decked out in white linens, Chef—in his wonderful, lilting French accent—began introducing each person to us. He started with the executive chef (Brian Loiacono), followed by the executive pastry chef (Miguel Cazares), and then went on down the line, allowing each one a moment in the limelight. We rewarded every beaming face with a huge round of applause, mine as enthusiastic as any.
What I had discovered upon returning after my hiatus—beyond the glorious food and, of course, the chefs who are always so charming—was that what I had missed most was the camaraderie that Chefs to Dine For hostess, and Chef in her own right, Lynne Ryan always manages to infuse into the evenings. Like the perfect wine pairings or the marriage of complementary flavors, Lynne manages to bring together individuals and couples from dissimilar backgrounds to create ensembles that work.
It’s that social aspect that Lynne does so well. She accomplishes her mission by way of introductions during the before-dinner drinks and with her choice of seating assignments at table. I’m Southern myself, so what I’m about to say could perhaps be perceived as slightly biased. Nevertheless, I suspect it’s the fact that Lynne is a Southern belle who hails from Alabama and who has extensive experience in such social settings that makes her a natural. But whether it’s nature or nurture, the way she nurtures her guests certainly feels natural.
The variety of new people I meet and the joy of seeing again people I’ve connected with intellectually at prior dinners, now that’s the real deal. It’s what makes this excellent dining experience truly extraordinary. Lynne sure knows how to put on a party. Oh, and the dessert was to die for. There were two to select from. I picked the malted chocolate bar with salted caramel ganache, buttermilk gelee, and espresso ice cream.
Oh. My. Goodness. You may want to join us next time. Sign up at www.chefstodinefor.com to be invited to the next dinner series, starting in September.
(All photos by Rodney Bedsole Photography)
Last week I learned that Sarah Lawrence College has accepted my application for admittance this fall into their Master of Fine Arts Writing Program. While I’m certain this will be a rewarding journey, it won’t be an easy one. I will still be writing and editing full time at the headquarters of a global bank, doing so in gratitude for the fact that they make my monthly house payment here in Westchester County, just north of New York City. It’s one of the most expensive (and most lovely) places to live in America.
Why would I do this, at this stage of my life, almost four decades after earning my undergraduate degree? Bear with me and I’ll attempt to explain.
I’ll start at the beginning—the very beginning. The Bible states that in the beginning God spoke, saying let there be light, and there was light. Later, reinforcing that, we are told that in the beginning was the word, and that the word was God. Yes, our ancestors understood the powerful tools that words can be. Metaphor can be more real to our perceptions, more satisfying, than mere bare-bones scientific facts. Metaphor is a cluster of words on steroids and on edge ready to strike.
But as the creationist Bible story reveals, words aren’t just instruments and stories aren’t simply created from words. Words themselves create reality—or form the space of possibility that action then makes real. Words shed light on our long and chaotic night as human beings, showing us the way forward. Even a single, right word can uncage the spirit and make it soar like a bird on wing, or one lost in the midst of a song.
I have heard the siren call of such a song and it pulls at my spirit. I am drawn to its creativity and, joyfully, I’m now yielding to it.
The faculty and staff at Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) have been informative, supportive, and affirming. The highly professional faculty includes Vijay Seshadri, director of the graduate writing program in creative nonfiction. He is the 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Graduates of SLC include Barbara Walters (media), Vera Wang (fashion), J.J. Abrams (screenwriter/director), Julianna Margulies (actor), and Alice Walker (writer), to highlight a few and to show the incredible range of creativity represented there. All this from a college of fewer than 2,000 currently enrolled students.
Words have a mystical majesty. I learned long ago that they bring order out of chaos. Words can be strung together like pearls to make a beautiful necklace, just for the art of it. They are the fusion, the genesis, of art and science. I want to associate with others who feel the power words possess, people who adore words, as I do. I love the music of words and I want to learn to be a better composer.
Back in my youth, my father, who passed away just over a year ago, wanted me to be a teacher. My mother just wanted me to be happy. I’ve been both through the years, for no matter what I did, I taught. It’s my nature. Now—and for me, as well as for my father—I want to be prepared to spend the last quarter of my life as a “legitimate” teacher. One who learns still more deeply by teaching others what he has learned already in life. I have so much to share, and I know I have so much more to learn. Tempus fugit. I can’t wait.
He was born Jerry Leon Richards, on January XX, 19XX. He came up out of Lyles, a hardscrabble hamlet in Hickman County, Tennessee. But forget all that. He chose to forget it, or at least to put it behind him, and so I do too, out of respect for his conviction of who he really was. Sui generis. One of a kind. Self-made. Ora birthed the child who would become the man. She delivered the baby, and then, in the fall of 1971, she delivered-up her boy to the campus of Martin College in Pulaski, Tennessee. From 1971 to 1973, her son remade himself within the cocoon of that campus. The old passed away so that he could be born anew as Peter Richards—and I watched as Pete emerged. We were classmates and more for those two years, and yes, it was that long and that hard of a birth. The second time around, Pete had to deliver himself into his own version of manhood.
How much more than classmates were we? I’m still trying to figure that out. We were both gay, but didn’t know it or couldn’t admit it, even to ourselves. We lived in the same dormitory, worked together in the college library as part of the Work-Study Program, and held long, private talks in the dorm late at night. But we never slept together. Never kissed. Never touched intimately. Except for the meeting of like minds.
I heard him clearly the minute he arrived on campus at the start of our freshman year. His voice was high. Soft. Nuanced. Smart. It was all there in his intonation. Pete didn’t see me. He was busy resisting his mother’s direction—rebelling. But doing so in that exasperated tone we save for those we love. Rebelling, as all youth must, against those closest to us, so that we can become who we are meant to be.
I sneaked a peek out my dorm window from behind the curtain. They stood at the rear of the car, trunk up, two mouths open, two sets of arms flailing. A few items already decorated the pavement of the parking lot. He was holding a box with clothes laid out across the top, but I could see him as clearly as I heard him. Not too tall. Very slender. Smooth, creamy skin. Flowing like liquid in his movements. A dark lock of hair half concealed one eye. I was intrigued from the start.
We didn’t meet until weeks later, when our work schedules brought us together in the library. Over the course of that first year—on shared shifts during slow periods at the library, or in his dorm room or mine—we often talked about the challenges of the day. We also shared our dreams of what we wanted from life. Of what we hoped was to come. Of who we were and who we wanted to be.
Even with our early acquaintance in the dorm and our joint work at the library, we migrated into different clicks. The drama club called to Pete. I avoided participation there, beyond that of an audience member, fearing association with that group. Shamefully, I was afraid of being linked by my other friends with such a seemingly gay troop of people. Yet, I inexplicably chose to be friends with Pete anyway. He had no fear of being who he was becoming. He was good in his acting roles, too. Very talented, and I told him so. I expected he’d pursue it as a career, but he didn’t. I think he finally decided he’d had enough drama in his life.
Back in that dorm, he was bullied when bullying wasn’t a popular thing for society to rail against. I guess those straight boys sensed his vulnerability. I was better at hiding my true self, and worse off for it. During that time, he endured verbal abuse. Threats of physical attack. Buckets of water thrown under the door to his room—a flood made so much worse by the giggles of drunken boys just having a little fun. The school eventually agreed to move him to another wing and floor where the testosterone flowed as less of a flood. Things slowly got better for Pete.
Decades later, after we’d reconnected, I asked him about those times. He didn’t remember the details the way I did. The human mind likes to forget the bad and remember the good in life, and that’s a wonderful thing. He’d forgotten how he used to set his clock so it would awaken him late, late in the night. He’d get his shower at a time that would leave him less likely to face a sneering band of boy-man-apes ready to mark the hall and the communal shower as their exclusive territory.
During the summer between his first and second year, Pete discovered the wonders of connecting with someone like-minded in spirit—and in body. It was there on campus during the summer that he unlocked the mystery of his love. He told me about it as soon I returned to school in the fall. I was inquisitive, asking many probing particulars. Inquiring with way too many questions for such a delicate subject. Too many except for someone really, really interested in the details. He answered frankly, responding without grilling me on why I wanted to know. We were friends and we’d always been able to talk honestly about our feelings. He knew how seriously I took my Baptist upbringing. Maybe he was relieved that I wasn’t passing judgment.
Pete and I maintained our friendship during that second year. I credit him with opening the window on my own sexuality, even though he was unaware of it. It would be decades before I reconciled myself to reality and found the courage to open the door to greater integrity, so as to pass through it myself. But the start of it was our friendship and the peek he gave me of the bigger world beyond Martin College and Tennessee. His honesty with himself and with me would stick in my mind and prod my conscience for years to come.
And then came our graduation. Junior college was over. We were moving on. I headed south and Pete went north for further education. We lost touch. Later, after we’d reconnected, I learned that he’d legally changed his name. He’d converted to the Jewish faith from his family’s Pentecostal Christian tradition. He’d gone on to Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, to become a Registered Nurse. He’d found his partner in life, as I had mine. They’d lived in Illinois and Iowa and Palm Springs. He never went back to Tennessee, other than for the rare visit with family. Eventually, he became a university professor in the medical field. Throughout, he nurtured to the sick and those in need.
He seemed to have been given little in money, or cultural geography, or even sexual orientation that would jump-start a life of success. He and I had all that in common. But he made something of himself. And then he gave back to society with a level of compassion not shown to him by many early in his life. The best I have to give back are these memories of him. And to him, I give my admiration, my praise, and my love.
“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation,” according to Tennessee Williams. But the playwright also said, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” It was Pete who had the courage to contact me across that distance a few years ago, after finding me on Facebook. “In hopes,” he told me, of “accomplishin’ an endur(h)ing re-acquaintance.” He hadn’t retained that Southern accent; it was a joke at my expense, for I have stubbornly hung on to my twang. I must admit, I liked the gentle cajoling.
We had been out of touch for four decades. Those missing middle years matter little, as far as friendship goes—just as Tennessee Williams said. We’ve treasured the time we had together, starting with those formative, precious college days—the sunny salad days of our lives—and concluding with the diminishing days that are presently upon those of my generation—what I like to call the apple-pickin’ season. This is the season we make time to remember and be grateful for the twists and turns our lives have taken. We stand in the lengthening shadows, with ripened apple in hand. We feel the smooth texture and smell the shining skin, recalling the essence of the blossom it was just last spring. Then we take a bite and taste the sweetness that’s present within, finding again that joy we felt—way back when.
I’m sitting in my home office gazing out the window onto a small backyard made lush by raised flower and vegetable beds. Down South, we’d call this converted porch lacking heat and air conditioning a Florida room. Florida rooms aren’t ideal for the winters we get here in New Rochelle, New York, but they are great for displaying the fall harvest still on the vine. I arrived at this window on Eden last December by way of a decade-long stint in Brooklyn. Preceding my big-city experience, I had made a much longer stay among a few of Alabama’s hamlets and small cities, where I accumulated fond memories around college life and raising a child. Before Alabama, there was a rural landscape outside Nashville, Tennessee, where I was the child being raised.
My early life was mid-century, like the furniture. It was a simple life filled with the hard work of being a farmer’s son. We had a hundred-acre farmstead, but I was no Christopher Robin. Yes, there were opportunities to explore the wonders of the woods, but it was mostly a time of hard work. Of fighting for survival. That makes it more wonderful in memory, not less.
Our garden on that farm was huge. It had to be to sustain us. First, it would have to provide ample fresh food throughout the growing season. Then, paired with the miracle of canning, its bounty would need to get us through each barren Tennessee winter. The gated, woven wire fence on the perimeter kept back the competition—wild deer with a taste for tender shoots of all kinds. Those deer were relegated to munch on the more beautiful but less satisfying morning glories, all dripping with daybreak dew and sun dappled in their purples and blues and pinks and whites. Over the course of a summer, they’d weave their way up the wire mesh to stand atop the wooden posts and reach even higher for the sun. Looking back on it now, I see how that animated garden was much like a colorful scene from the Land of Oz.
However, the language we used that dealt with the garden was built on practicality. We didn’t just plant beans. Coming in many varieties, beans were a major staple, substituting for meat, except on Sundays. We first categorized them by characteristics based on their requirements and our needs. We planted stick beans that required tall poles to climb, and also colored half-runners that would sprawl only a limited distance on the ground, and thus not interfere with their neighboring plants’ needs for light and moisture. We sowed long rows of snap beans, string beans, purple-hulled butterbeans, and Crowder peas. We planted Rattlesnake beans, so called because of their curving purple streak in the hull. That’s the only encounter we ever hoped for with that word.
Then we added Russet potatoes and white sweet potatoes, yellow onions and white onions and scallions and radishes. We sowed all sorts of tomato seeds and cucumber seeds, bought in early spring from bulk storage at the Farmer’s Co-op. Seeds that were purchased only after being carefully apportioned by small scoop onto a flat sheet of paper for ritual inspection. After an approving nod of my father’s head, I’d watch as the salesman curled that paper into a funnel for depositing the approved seeds into small, brown packets.
We made room in our garden for straight and crooked yellow squash and flat white squash. We placed seeds in the moist soil at just the right depth and time to grow okra and lettuce and beets and turnips. We favored Hickory Cane sweet corn for the garden, which we purchased anew every year by seed kernel. Field corn, being less important as to quality, was saved on the cob from one year to the next by storing it in the barn’s corncrib. It was not as sweet or tender as the garden variety but it was cheaper and satisfactory for taking to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal for our bread. And, on the years when the crops were bad—from draught-induced or flooded out low yields, or blight or insect damage—it was still good enough to serve as feed for the cows. Always, the stripped cobs would go to the hogs. Nothing was wasted.
Is it any wonder that with so much work to be done in preparing the ground, planting, hoeing, weeding, picking, processing for canning, storing seeds over winter that I grew tired of the garden? I went off to college and suburbia, never looking back.
Never until now—this fall, in the fall of my life.
Leaving Brooklyn and the co-op lifestyle behind to rediscover the joys of a house in suburbia has meant also rediscovering the luxury of having a backyard. Sitting and enjoying the good weather with friends, sunning and napping on the deck, grilling outdoors, and simply admiring the ever changing view that flower and vegetable gardens provide—all this harkens back to my Tennessee childhood.
It’s a well-established literary concept that, in our youth, we often become restless and leave home in search of … something. Ourselves, maybe. What we learn on our personal odyssey, after many years filled with adventure and danger and boredom, is that we had all we needed back in our youth. Ask Dorothy. Oz was a nice place to visit, but there’s no place like home. I’ve tried it all, from rural to suburban to big city. And what feels like home? Home is where the garden is.
–The Chicago Times
–Patriot and Union (Harrisburg, PA)
–The Times (London)
What can we learn from this highlight of history and its continuing echoes? Time distills meaning, so we can recognize and appreciate that it’s often difficult to see the significance of—and be on the right side of—history as it’s made. My beloved Southland was on the wrong side of history in fighting for slavery during the Civil War. Now, that lesson could well be applied to the present battle over gay civil rights. Unfortunately, the South still seems not to have learned the lesson: Since we are made in God’s image, the Spirit of love, creativity and diversity is within the human spirit–and Spirit shall prevail.
Then, to focus on writing, I tell myself this: Let my appreciation for brevity grow: In good writing, less can be more. Elegance is a dance between brevity and clarity.
Carl Roosevelt Garland was born June 24, 1926, in Lawrence County, Tennessee, and died February 24, 2013, six weeks after a debilitating stroke. His official education was limited to eight years of schooling. A few years later, in July of 1950, he decided he needed to go where the jobs were, Detroit, finding work with the Hudson Motor Car Company at $1.53 per hour. Within months of moving, however, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After receiving his basic training at Camp Polk, Louisiana, he was assigned to the Army’s Heavy Tank Division, with training at Fort Hood, Texas. The truce in the Korean Conflict came just weeks before his scheduled departure to the battlefront. The corporal was soon released from service and returned home to Tennessee, in 1952, to elope with his love interest, Ruby Lurline Self, a girl he’d known since childhood and with whom he had been corresponding since his move to the Motor City.
Exactly nine months after marrying, he and his new wife welcomed to the world their first son, Larry Ray Garland. Initially renting shelter in whatever structures became available in the community, the family moved among several dwellings across the north end of the county, sometimes sharing quarters and costs with one of his many siblings and their families. In 1956 he signed with a local bank to purchase a small farm—“107 acres, more or less,” as the deed read, contracting to make five annual installments of $500.00 each. Had any of those years included serious sickness, a flood, drought, blight, locust infestation, or other natural disaster, he would have lost his cash crop of cotton, and the farm would have been lost as well.
Soon after paying off the farm, he saw an opportunity. The Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company—a bicycle and pedal toys production business—relocated to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the county seat, and he went to work there on the assembly line. It was during this period that he and his wife lost their only daughter, when the expectant mother slipped and fell on a wet “steppin’ stone”—a rock used at that time at the front door of simple country homes as a doorstep. Within a year thereafter, they celebrated the arrival of their second son, Allen Lee Garland.
One evening, near the end of a cold winter, while sitting around the wood stove for warmth in the dwelling to which they had moved without the luxury of plumbing or electricity, he took out a pad and pencil and drew up a basic house plan. That spring, he began digging the trenches and laying the cinder blocks for the foundation.
Work on the new house started and stopped throughout that year. This was necessary because he had to log trees from the woods of his farm and get them hauled to the sawmill for processing into lumber for the house. That was paid for “on the halves,” with the sawmill keeping half of the lumber as payment and the other half coming back to be used in the construction. Other delays came from waiting for money to be earned at the factory to purchase nails and other necessary building supplies.
Each morning, he’d arise before daylight, build a fire if needed, and head “to town” to work in the factory. That evening, he’d return to the farm and resume his construction project, hammering and sawing as long as the light held out. Once darkness fell, he’d climb atop his Farmall tractor and plow long rows of cotton stalks until almost midnight, arising the next day to do it all over again.
He stayed on that farm and within the house and home he’d built until well past his retirement from the factory job. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, by his older son who works for a global financial firm in New York while residing with his partner in New Rochelle, and by his younger son who is married and still lives in Lawrence County, Tennessee.
Carl Garland was interred at Macedonia Cemetery in Lawrence County, Tennessee, on February 27, 2013, following a Veteran’s sendoff with 15 shots fired into a cold sky on a wet and windy day. The empty shells and folded American flag were presented to his widow at graveside.
[Aside] The filet mignon wins Best in Class and the potatoes are To Die For.
• Variety: “The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of “Chaplin” – this fall’s first Broadway offering – have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp.”
• The Chicago Tribune: “Despite an enigmatic, career-making performance from Rob McClure in the title role, an earnest turn from Wayne Alan Wilcox as his tag-along brother Sydney, and an engaging performance from Erin Mackey as Chaplin’s late-in-life love Oona, ‘Chaplin’ is a musical where the material is just not up to the complexity of its enigmatic subject.”
In couples and in bunches, actors and cast members begin to appear. Hostess Lynne Ryan and producer Mindy Rich are standing at the bar, near the entrance at the top of the stairs. They are welcoming guests back and greeting cast members as they arrive. Guests are soon posing questions about acting or regarding the play itself. Special guest Bill McCuddy, an entertainment reporter who is a former host of TV’s Fox & Friends and a past writer for Saturday Night Live, seems to be a favorite that guests want to be photographed with—along with the cast of Chaplin, of course. Playbills are being autographed and this writer is not ashamed to be groveling for the signature of Wayne Alan Wilcox, who played the role of Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney. Unfortunately, the amazing Rob McClure—Mr. Chaplin himself (well, the Charlie Chaplin of this play)—was unable to attend.
[Aside] Mr. Wilcox and I both hail from the state of Tennessee, and I managed to extract the promise that he’d take my calls and grant an interview once he’s a world-famous actor. His credits include performances in The Normal Heart, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Suddenly Last Summer, The Light in the Piazza, and The Full Monty. His TV/Film appearances include Gilmore Girls and Law and Order.
Here is my review of the Broadway production of “Chaplin”:
• Of the real-life Charlie Chaplin, with his flexing cane and distinctive gait, it could be said that he lived a brave and creative interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words on diplomacy: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Starting with nothing, Chaplin applied his negotiating skills to the world, first for survival and then for mounting success—and the whole world still lauds his achievement.
Likewise, this production should be applauded for taking on the monumental task of portraying the life of the giant “Little Tramp” in such a fearless fashion. The play opens with Rob McClure—Chaplin—walking a tightrope high above the stage. He doesn’t fall down on the stage and he doesn’t fall down in his performance. The supporting actors are there for him and we, as an audience, are there for the whole cast. Long live the memories of, and praises for, Chaplin—the man and the show.