Southern Snapshot

We just returned from a pleasure trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful town filled with stunning architecture, history, and restaurants with some of the best chefs on the East Coast. We enjoyed it all—from our charming hotel in the historic district to the incredible food to walking the sacred grounds of history. Nothing on our screens can ever replace travel and being there in person.

We took the first ferry of the day to Fort Sumter so we could see the flag-raising. A group of students, probably early high school age, were on the boat with us. They quieted as they lined up on either side of the flag, carefully unfolding it according to the ranger’s directions. Another student pulled the ropes to raise it into the stiff breeze blowing over the harbor. The students represented many different races and nationalities and seeing their hands working together on the flag in that particular place at this particular time in history gave me at least a whisper of hope.

We took a day trip to Beaufort because I wanted to visit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Pat Conroy was writing creative nonfiction in the form of popular novels long before it was recognized as a genre, and Beaufort is the place he called home. The quintessential southern town, Beaufort is filled with stately mansions, waterfront cottages and streets lined with live oaks dripping with moss. Scenes from  The Big Chill, Forest Gump, and Conroy’s own Prince of Tides were all filmed here.  (Barbra Streisand was stopped by the local police who did not recognize her when she sped down the highway in the white Mustang from Prince of Tides, without a driver’s license or registration.)

Beaufort scene

When we arrived, we asked two gentlemen lounging in hammocks with a case of Coors between them, if they knew anything about the Pat Conroy tours advertised online. One of them said, “Oh yeah, that’s Bill.  Lemme’ see if I have his number.” Bill re-arranged his day so he could take us on the tour. He couldn’t have been more gracious and knowledgeable and incorporated scenes from the movies on a screen in his van with what we were seeing outside the windows. He took us to Pat Conroy’s grave which is in a Gullah cemetery. Conroy spent a year teaching the Gullah children on Daufuskie Island (the basis for his book, The Water is Wide) and felt a deep connection to its people. Conroy is the only white person buried in that cemetery, and according to Bill, the decision by the church council to allow it was not unanimous. The grave itself is covered with pine cones and all kinds of random items—pens and pencils because he wrote all his books by hand, flowers, shells, and buttons and even a few miniature bottles of Jack Daniels.

Conroy grave

When you visit this part of the country, race is the elephant in the room. As you listen to the stories, you realize how much of our country’s growth and prosperity was built on the backs of slaves. I kept wondering if the tour narratives have evolved over the years. Everything is explained in accurate, but carefully chosen language. Nowhere did we see a confederate flag, even in the  trinket stalls of the City Market. And has that changed even more since the terrible shooting in 2015?

I felt almost uncomfortable with the deferential service offered by the African American men and women who served us breakfast in the hotel each morning.  Do the women who weave sweet-grass baskets in the markets and along the roadside do it out of pride for their heritage or because it’s an incredible money-maker with the tourists? Probably a little of both, I suppose. I couldn’t help but see the irony as a black security guard stood outside the museum with “Daughters of the Confederacy” inscribed in the archway above the door.

One of our last visits was to Boone Hall Plantation, located a few miles outside Charleston. (More irony – the cotton dock of the plantation, where slaves were once unloaded, is now an upscale event venue where the actress Blake Lively was married.) In front of one of the slave cabins, a gifted black actress and singer gave a presentation on the Gullah culture. She interwove her narrative with spirituals and reflections on the life of the slaves on that plantation. At the end she said the Lord’s Prayer in the Gullah dialect and then sang about how beautiful all of the faces seated in front of her were. I didn’t understand all of her words, but I didn’t need to, because she looked every single one of us in the eye as she kept singing over and over, “…and you, and you and you.”

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The Oldest People in the Water

That would be my husband and me. We’re in the ocean alongside the kids on boogie boards, the teenagers hot dogging way out in the breakers, and the young parents steering toddlers around  the shallows at the edge of the beach. I still love to get in the ocean. I am cautious, especially with a reconstructed back, and stay close to shore, but I am not too old to enjoy being immersed in the water and feeling the shifting sand under my feet. I like the sticky clean-ness of salt against my skin. I like waiting and watching for the next wave, even if it means an occasional head-over-heels toss into the surf. I like how the ocean decides how much of you is going to get wet when an unexpected wave washes over the part of you that’s still dry and warm.

We are reaching the age when some of us tend to stay on the beach and out of the water. I refuse to do that until I absolutely must. If my body says, “OK, let’s go,” I’m in. I’m not yet ready to succumb to fear, at least not at the beach. There’s enough to be legitimately afraid of in this world over which we have no control, but I’m not ready to give up some of the things I love because of what might happen. I refuse to live my life based on what-ifs.

I’m reminded of the meme that occasionally spins by on my Facebook feed—something about life is short, go ahead and eat the cake. I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the finger-wagging or the latest article about what food or activity is going to kill us next. Danger lurks in the plastic water bottle or the deli meat or the hamburger cooked rare, and that may be at least partially true, but I’m sorry, no health risk warrants a pizza crust made from cauliflower crumbs. Preying on our fears, especially as we age, has spawned an entire industry. Don’t eat this, don’t drink that, what if I fall, what if this or that happens, I better not risk it, or I better buy this product to prevent it from happening.

I am well aware that I don’t have the same physical capabilities I did twenty years ago. I think I usually make sensible choices based on that knowledge, but I’m not going to limit myself if it means missing out on the good stuff. So, yeah, I’m going to swim those laps in the pool even though every year it takes a little longer. I’m going to enjoy every bite of the occasional indulgent dessert despite my slowing metabolism and only eat pizza with a real crust, carbs be damned. I’m going to risk sending my essays off to publications that will probably shoot them right into the slush pile, because once in a while, there will be an acceptance which will feel amazing. And I’m going to keep swimming in the ocean, letting the sights, sounds, and smells of the sea remind me how wonderful it is to be alive.

 

The Signs Around Us

You don’t need a calendar to know it’s August, and summer is growing weary. Mornings are often foggy with humidity, and I walk into the gossamer silk of spider webs spun on the porch overnight. The zucchini plants gave up a few weeks ago and although the tomatoes, peppers, and a smattering of green beans are still making a valiant effort, for the most part, garden season is over. The pots of annuals planted with such optimism in May are now filled with leggy petunias. Once-beautiful flowers have withered to a few stunted brownish blossoms and been overtaken by the greens in the baskets. The insects hum 24/7 and goldfinches are happily removing seeds from the cone-flowers. For the next few weeks, there will be a frenzy at the hummingbird feeders as the amazing little birds tank up for their long journey south and then one day, they’ll simply be gone.

For those of us who are students or teachers, or former teachers, August brings with it that Sunday-night-syndrome feeling—a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. We savor those last days at the pool, which has grown bathwater warm, or the beach or cabin in the mountains. The blissful indolence of staying up late and sleeping in even later is over, and responsibility descends upon us once again.

Even though we’re tethered to our phones and devices to tell us what to do, when to do it, and what time of the day, week, or year it is, we are still guided by the signs around us. We respond to sensory stimuli, whether they be man-made or created by nature. This summer, especially, I have been overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of violence and fear infiltrating the lives of ordinary people–the sound of gunshots coupled with cruel and abrasive words being shouted into a microphone, and the views of people running from a building with raised hands, followed by scenes of flower-laden funerals and weeping family members. And then, a few days ago, I saw a sign in a grocery store parking lot that brought me up short.

Parking lot sign

Attached to a light pole near the center of the massive parking lot was a sign that read “Emergency Evacuation Gathering Point.” I understand that it was probably recommended by the store’s security people, but never in all my years of going in and out of public buildings have I seen a sign like that, nor have we ever needed signs like that until now. I tried to tell myself that its most likely purpose was to safely evacuate and account for people if there were ever a fire or some kind of building-related emergency, similar to the assigned places for our classes in school fire drills. But with El Paso’s Walmart fresh in my mind, I realized it was also there in case someone came into the store and started shooting.

Lord have mercy, this was a grocery store! But there is no longer safe ground— schools, churches and synagogues, movie theaters and nightclubs, stores and outdoor concerts–every place where people gather is vulnerable. This list grows longer as we become almost inured to the news footage. Another day, another shooting–we recoil in horror for a day or two and then go about our business because we have not been directly affected. Yet. Meanwhile, our lawmakers continue to squabble and fight like schoolyard children, retaining their power on the dead bodies of innocent people.

I don’t live my life in fear, but I am sensitive to the signs around me. The signs of nature tell me that another summer is drawing to a close, which I always find rather depressing. I’m also increasingly aware of the signs that our society is changing and not necessarily for the better. Perhaps that’s the typical mantra of those of us who have reached a certain age. “The world’s going to hell in a hand basket and hey, kid, get off my lawn while you’re at it.” But I don’t think it’s just my age talking. This is different. The world is different, and the signs are all around us, including those found in a grocery store parking lot.

 

The Man in the Back Row

Every summer we sing at a retirement facility where a good friend and former organist from our church currently resides. The room where the vespers service is held feels like a conference room in an upscale hotel—tastefully decorated in understated luxury complete with cushioned chairs and hideous carpet. It appeared to be deserted until I glanced up and noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in the back row with his head bowed. He looked rather dejected or perhaps he was just dozing but didn’t appear to be in any kind of physical distress. I almost felt as though our presence was infringing on a private moment. I wondered how long he had been sitting there and why. Did he just need a place to be alone for a while? Did he come too early for the service and after realizing it,  just decided it was easier to stay and wait?

We warmed up and practiced with our friend and he paid us little attention, although he watched with interest as we sang during the service. Afterwards, lots of his fellow residents spoke with him and he seemed animated and engaged. Maybe, like all of us, he just needed some time to rest, to gather his strength, to think things through without anyone bothering him, before he was ready to face the world again. Maybe he just needed a place to hide out for a while.  Did the service or the music rejuvenate him? Was it the pastor’s message (which was a good one) that helped lift him up from wherever he was?

Our choir director often reminds us that we never know for whom we sing. Someone may be hearing a song for the first time or they may be hearing it for the last time, and we owe it to them to give it our best effort. We never know what burdens someone is carrying or what news they received that day or how they came to be sitting in the seats in front of us.  But the gifts we extend–whether it be through music or dance, spoken words or theater–may be just what that person needs to feel even the tiniest shift in their perspective. What we can offer may open a door to let a sliver of light shine through what had been an impenetrable curtain of darkness.

I will never know why that man chose to sit by himself in the last row of a large empty conference room in the late afternoon of a beautiful summer Sunday. But I do know that he appeared to be refreshed and strengthened when he left, walking unassisted into the hallway and back to his room or apartment and the life he now leads, perhaps for the first time in many years, without a beloved spouse. I was reminded that every time we perform, there is always a gentleman in the back row who needs to hear us.

Family Reunion

Fourth of July afternoon brought mid-Atlantic summer weather at its worst—thunderstorms on repeat and in between, steaming, swampy humidity. My first inclination was to curl up with a good book or binge Stranger Things on Netflix. But a year ago, my cousin planned a family reunion at a park in Maryland, a little over an hour’s drive from where we live. My husband and I looked at the rain pelting the windows, and, since the pet-sitter was coming anyway, decided to brave it. We figured if the party was rained out, we’d go to eat somewhere in Baltimore.

Driving down 83 and onto the beltway, I kept having second thoughts. I am one of those high-functioning introverts who would happily speak before a crowd of 500 rather than walk into a social situation where I may not know people and need to make small talk. But we soldiered on through the rain, arrived at the park and found my family happily gathered under a pavilion. The picnic had been going on for a while, the food looked a little tired and damp, but none of that mattered. Re-connecting with people I have rarely seen, some for almost forty years, was, just like the commercial says, priceless.

These were the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my mother’s brothers and sister. I could look around and see glimpses of my mother in their eyes, in their gestures, in the way they spoke. I could see my Uncle Morris shucking oysters in our backyard on Thanksgiving, while the adults gathered around to watch, sipping their old-fashioneds. I could see myself terrorized by my older cousins at Hershey Park, way back in the unsafe days of fun houses, bumper cars and the turnpike. As the youngest child of the youngest sibling, I was fair game for all kinds of abuse.

I could hear my Aunt Harriet playing the electronic organ she had in her home when I talked to her great-granddaughter, a talented young teen who loves to sing. I could taste my Aunt Norma’s fudge and feel the chaos of holiday dinners filled with too many over-stimulated children high on Hawaiian Punch. I could hear Uncle Tom’s rumbling laugh as he shot pool or ran the electric train set in his knotty pine basement. And I remember how Uncle Herman, a brilliant retired physician, pulled every string he could to save my mother’s life, and how all of us were forever changed when the irrepressible and beloved Aunt Gussie was the first to pass away, taken by breast cancer at fifty-eight.

Rannels, Denney Misc. (3)

As we go through our lives, we carve out new relationships and many of those relationships turn into our family of choice, if not of blood. Unless we live in close proximity, our childhood family fades away until someone like my cousin herds all the cats and insists that it’s time to get together, marvel at the grandchildren and tell the stories that keep us forever bound to each other, no matter how inconvenient or awkward or even if it happens to be in the pouring rain.

We original cousins are older and grayer now, mostly retired and a bit the worse for wear. But we still showed up to sit on rain-slippery picnic benches, eat food from soggy paper plates and watch a new generation of kids become over-sugared, this time from the snow-cone machine. We showed up to remember how much we have in common, how much we miss the parents and aunts and uncles who loved us and who we see reflected in each other’s faces, and how grateful we are to be a family, together once again.

Rannels house & store 2

 

 

Family History

I remember the old black Underwood typewriter sitting on a rickety metal table in my grandparents’ den. I would roll a piece of paper onto the carriage, poke random keys with their inlaid letters, slam the carriage back at the sound of the bell and play “secretary” until one of the type hammers got stuck. I can still see my grandfather seated at that table, pecking out the occasional letter or medical report.

Young Dr. Denney

The papers I hold in my hand today were typed on that machine by my grandfather as a young man in 1912, shortly before his own grandmother passed away. They are yellowed and fragile, and I need my reading glasses to see the slightly fuzzy words, especially those on the carbon copies. They are first-person accounts of the history witnessed by a woman who lived in a small south-central Pennsylvania town from the mid-1800’s until her death in 1913.

Rachael D. Denney

My great-great-grandmother, Rachel Denney, saw William Henry Harrison’s body being borne back to Ohio on a canal boat passing through Columbia in April 1841, when he died after barely a month in office. Several years later, she described seeing, “a very red faced, gray haired man, who in the full military regalia of a general mounted on a white horse gave a stirring address on the dangers confronting the country in the event of his rival’s election.” That man was Zachary Taylor, campaigning for President in 1848. There is also an incomplete description of a regional cholera epidemic in 1854 which began when an infected patient was removed from a train stopped at the local station.

Perhaps the story that has received the most publicity, especially at this time of year, is her recounting of fleeing from the confederate army in June 1863. Rachel and her children were smuggled out of town in the back of a furnace cart, while her husband, John, remained at home, and together with other citizens, burned the bridge across the Susquehanna to prevent the confederates from advancing toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia. This action, perpetrated by ordinary citizens, not the military, was a turning point in the Civil War.

john-q.-denney.jpg

These first-hand accounts are incredible to read, and I love picturing my grandfather as a young man listening to and then transcribing his grandmother’s words. One version he wrote appears to have edits from one of his instructors at Cornell where he was a pre-med student at the time. There is also an outline of the story, complete with an estimated word count, (known in the writing world as a “pitch”) which I suspect was submitted to the same professor.

We can now preserve our stories in multiple ways, but we must tell them, and we must take time to listen to the storytellers. No amount of scholarly research can replace the words of someone who experienced the event, especially if they come from a family member or close friend. First person accounts breathe life into history and put us smack-dab into the realm of a world far removed from the one we live in today.

Last year, for a class, I wrote a piece called “Flight” about Rachel’s Civil War story braided with my own experience fleeing from the TMI meltdown over a hundred years later. It still needs a lot of work, and I hope to revise it with a new writing coach/editor this summer.  I like the feeling of family connection that writing gives me, of sitting down at my own version of the Underwood and continuing the story.

An-Occurrence-at-Wrightsville-Bridge-1 (2)

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance Always Makes Me Cry

The brass fanfare introduction to Pomp and Circumstance raises the hair on my arms and brings an unexpected tear to my eye, every single time. There’s just something about the anticipation of music that’s so familiar it verges on the trite, yet so evocative that it reaches down and pulls on your heartstrings no matter how many times it’s played.

At some point during my teaching career, my colleague and I decided it would be a cool idea to invite the eighth-grade string players to sit in with the high school orchestra when they played for graduation. It became a rite of passage—the seniors dressed in their caps and gowns got up after the last orchestra piece in the prelude to join their classmates in the procession. The eighth-graders, nervous in their black slacks and crisp white shirts, not yet wearing the formal gowns and tuxes of the high school orchestra, would walk onto the football field and sit in the chairs vacated by the seniors. I would wait with them along the sidelines and then get in my car to go home, leaving the windows open so I could hear the opening measures of Pomp, knowing another class of string players was being welcomed into the orchestra, just as the seniors were being welcomed into the world beyond Dallastown. I always left the campus with tears in my eyes, especially the last time, which was six years ago.

The high school orchestra director can only be described as a formidable presence. He is passionate, brilliant, volatile, and was born to wear white tie and tails and stand in front of an orchestra. There is rarely a filter when he speaks. He loves to be in the spotlight and is in his element directing that magnificent graduation orchestra before the biggest audience of the year. He walks out onto the podium on those beautiful early June evenings and you know you are going to hear something incredible. These are high school students playing at a world-class level, thanks to the leadership of this man.

This week would have been the last time he directed the high school orchestra at graduation because he is retiring and moving on to a long-anticipated life of travel and leisure. This was to be his last round of playing Pomp and Circumstance over and over again until all the seniors were on the field. I kept thinking about him, wondering if there would a be a lump in his throat when the final notes of the recessional died away, knowing he would never have to yell about those up-bow triplets again or keep a bag of clothespins nearby to keep music from blowing off the stands. I wondered if all those people in the stadium seats would realize what a legacy he has left in this community. Not only did he inspire students to become music educators, performers and lovers of great music, but he showed all of us, students and colleagues alike, what it means to have high expectations, and that we can play it better than we think we can—that, despite our doubts, those expectations are attainable.

Sadly, my long-time colleague is not going be on the podium for graduation this year due to a sudden and serious health challenge. But I know he will go after it with a vengeance. He’ll make this disease cower in fear of him just like he did that poor kid in the second violins who wasn’t watching and missed the entrance. He will fight and bitch and swear and make the medical people laugh and occasionally want to bang their heads against the wall, just like he did with those of us who worked with him for so many years. He’ll yell until he gets what he wants and ask any administrator–he always gets what he wants.

I assume the eighth graders still join the high school orchestra at graduation and that it  remains a meaningful rite of passage for those young string players. I’m sure the band director will step in and do a spectacular job conducting in difficult circumstances. But graduation in this little community will never be quite the same again without The Maestro on the podium, baton poised and ready, eyes laser-focused on the trumpet section as the first notes of Pomp resonate across the field and the seniors begin their march.