In the spring of 1975, I discovered a new kind of relationship to single men. It was partly the fault of those guys who lived at the house on Oriole Place. I’ll never forget the night Jack Milam danced with me in that living room. It was just a short dance, I have no idea what the music was, but it was the first (and last) time that a truly gifted dancer had led me, and I found out I could respond and feel incredibly graceful and together with him. Mind you, dancing in my high school and college days was either far apart, with psychedelic gyrations, or if it was a slow dance, the feet were hardly moving and the emphasis was on pressing as much flesh as possible. I had never met someone before who could really partner me in a dance. This was a revelation to me as a way of experiencing and expressing the differences in masculinity and femininity.
You’ll remember those two guys I rode back from Abilene with, Clark Collins and Fred Walker. Well, Fred and I had some sort of instant connection. I felt comfortable talking to him, I felt his affection for me, and I wanted more of whatever this “brothers and sisters in the Lord” thing was. There was an intimacy and vulnerability and openness and willingness I had never met before in a male person of my own age. I wrote about it. This friendship with him made me feel for the first time how very untrusting and untrustworthy my heart had been up to this point, and made me want to change, and be changed.
Father, these are some of the gifts You have given me in these days:
“Do you want to come get coffee with us?”
“Praise Jesus!” (in answer to my “I’ve gotten spoiled to seeing you.”)
“We need to do some sharing, heart to heart.”
“Father, we just want to do Your will.”
“Sister, I’m trying to walk in the Spirit.”
A warm Spirit-filled prayer of a hug…
An extended arm that says, like Jesus, “Come…”
A grip on my shoulder…
Arms that encircle me and lift me in the spirit towards God…
Someone in whom I see Jesus working through a yielded spirit…
A man who prays with me and for me…
A gentle, reassuring touch that says God loves me.
And Father, what have I given You in return?
The groanings of a disappointed child
Attention paid to fleshly desires
Time stolen from relationship with You
The schemings of one who doesn’t trust her Father’s love
Fears and comparisons and spiteful thoughts
But I confess before you, God, that You are doing a work.
You are working in me trust, and patience,
a greater freedom in Your Spirit,
the conviction that Your mighty plan transcends
momentary human desire,
but the corresponding conviction that Your love for me
is mighty, and that my heritage is really beautiful,
the hope and the faith that You are in me to will
and to work Your good pleasure,
and the desire to be pure and wholly Yours.
I praise and bless Your name
I magnify Your glory, and confess that You are
exalted above all creation
I bless the name of Jesus
and I praise and bless God.
Make my life the life of Christ.
Make of me a blessing.
I praise You.
Take our futures and make them work
completely according to Your holy will.
Praise You for the faith that You can do it.
Praise You for the hope that You will.
Praise You for the assurance that You are at work.
Thank You, Lord.
I wrote my mother sometime that spring. I had never lived in a real barren winter or lush springtime before, and it astounded me. “Dear Momma, I’d love to talk to you but I’m just about broke and last month’s phone bill was a tad embarrassing. So I’m being conservative, and besides you can keep a letter. This morning I felt like I had to write you just to tell about the beauty. I drive down Fairfax between West End and 21st and it’s as though the street were planted to be beautiful in spring. This is the first week the leaves are really bursting out, little crinkled pale green and yellow, and that looks fairytale-ish to me all be itself. Then there’s lots of redbud trees, and the cherry trees are mostly in bloom, and the daisies (“weeds” Daddy called them) and daffodils, etc. are all over. The sweetest blessing for me is that our yard is full of wild violets! like the Pink House used to have on 29th. Not so lush, but they’re all over. Today it was warm and humid and green smelling (70º) and the sky was tremendous, lots of clouds. So the day itself was a blessing. Of course, there’s a tornado watch tonight but I’m not too worried.
“The activities of the day turned out to be even more exciting. I got to go to ladies’ Bible class this morning, about six young mothers and six old ladies (70s) and Martha Finto and Martha Allen (one of Naomi’s roommates) all shared a scripture and talked a little. The theme of the morning turned out to be anxiety, and it was such a thrill to hear those sweet women who’ve walked with the Lord seventy years tell about His faithfulness. One lady read the 23rd Psalm and another commented, “Can’t be beat.” I loved it.
“This afternoon was really exciting too (it gets better and better, just like life in the Lord). If you’ve ever heard of William Stringfellow, I read a book by him in about 10th grade about his experience being a Christian lawyer in Harlem and it really moved me. He was invited to speak to a class at Vanderbilt called “Death and Dying” and I got to go hear him. He nearly died two years ago of a rare disease and he talked about the same thing that he had said in the book ten years ago – that the power of the resurrection is available now. In other words than these he said that if you’ve already died you’re free to live, free from the fear of death. Death is the moral force against God and it’s what most ‘sins’ stem from – materialism, hunger for power, violence come from fear of death and are forms of idolatry of death. Anyhow, in essence he preached the gospel to these Vanderbilt students, who didn’t seem to get it. But we did and it was so neat to hear him speak in such faith and commitment and yet in such scholarly, sharp, intelligent terms. Whew. You might really appreciate the book My People is the Enemy.
“Then since I wanted to go to his speech I missed Vultee and got to go to Belmont. I’ve only missed about three Wednesday nights all year so I figured I deserved a break (small joke – you understand). Anyway, the service was a real blessing, as always, and afterwards I got to talk to Bob Mason and several other fine people. Then as I was talking to Fred Walker (my dear crush, the first one I’ve ever tried to walk completely in the Lord’s will) he asked me to go with a bunch of them to eat. I was delighted, since two weeks ago I got to be with him so much, in that way twice (it was three weeks ago) and then the past two weeks I was really praying that the Lord’s will be done and I hardly saw him at all. Anyhow, as he dropped me off, he said we should get together sometimes and ‘do a little sharing heart to heart,’ and got my phone number. Now I’m trying to stay completely calm and just ask the Lord to work and thank Him for each little blessing. But it’s such a major encouragement to be with fine strong growing men who belong to Jesus and seek God’s will.
“The Lord never did a better thing than bringing me here. I keep getting to know and be with more people every few weeks, as though I were settling in for a good while. Wouldn’t that be a funny turn of events. The fellowship here is just constantly available and always a great strength and blessing. If I thought I could keep you at Belmont I’d almost wish you would come live here. Never to Nashville for itself, just for what God’s doing. Bob Mason and I prayed for you tonight.
“There’s been a crazy little thing happening this week which I should tell you about on the condition that you only pray about it and not worry. I’m concerned enough for both of us. I’ll tell you first that Don Finto and Bob Mason both know all the people involved and are somewhat excited about it and are praying. I’ll tell you names even though they won’t mean anything to you. Two fellows, Don Woerner and Jack Groschmal, and I got together at a well-known man’s home recording studio this Saturday and cut two demo tapes which will likely be sold soon. Demos are like sample recordings of songs that people take around to music and publishing companies to promote songs, etc.; but one of the songs may be sold as a final version and we’ll get the profits. Here’s the basic story – it all fell together last week without any planning. There’s a guy at Belmont who does the recording of sermons, etc., who’s a pretty well-known song writer, Gary Paxton (Tell Chip he wrote “Alley-Oop”) who talked to Don about getting a group up to do demos for him regularly, and if the group developed and was good he’d be glad to help it in whatever way.
“Well – all this has rather bowled me over, to the extent that I’ve been nervous about it, sort of felt like it was all so quick that it might go on developing at breakneck speed and be like a whirlpool and suck me in against my will or deceive me somehow. But the Lord knows (because Don Finto and Bob Mason and others and I are telling him) that I want His will. That if it’s supposed to go, it’ll be amazingly obvious, and if not it’ll just be defeated. The real point in its’ favor it that everyone involved is a Christian and wants to praise the Lord only, and the songs are all gonna be about Him. So you can pray. It may fizzle out.
“Bob Mason was funny tonight – he got all excited as I was telling him and said in his prayer that if this meant I should stay in Nashville and not go to Yale he was so thankful because that’s what he wants. (On the other hand it could be the way I could finance the year and not have to kill myself working. God’s will be done.) I told Bob I was trying to have a crush in the Spirit and he should pray God would find me someone (everybody’s so fired up about Christian marriages being made around here) and he said, ‘Some fellow’s in for a real blessing.’ So sweet…
“I miss old Sharyn and Chip a lot. Give them both hugs, and Sara and Caren, and Mrs. and Dr. Young, etc. etc. I love you so much, sweet Momma. Bless your heart. Father God, bless us both with your peace and strength— Love you, Gwen”
Well…it wasn’t the right time or the right people yet, but it turned out that this little flirtation with the music industry was a portent of things to come which I could hardly being to imagine.
I’ll introduce a few more players to the cast of Tennessee characters that came from my parents’ life. Momma and Daddy’s first home together had been in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Daddy had the nerve to be a conscientious objector during World War II (as were both his brothers), so his service time was spent at Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, where German prisoners of war were eventually brought. He worked at least part of the time as a supply sergeant, and managed the officers’ club. Someone said he had a silk smoking jacket (he didn’t smoke) and looked quite the elegant gent for an enlisted man. The story goes that there was a $500 governmental limit on how much one could spend on new construction, and they cobbled together a one-room home for that price in which many house parties were enjoyed, with folks spending the night on the fold out bed and in chairs.
In Tullahoma, they met a couple at church who would prove to be dear friends for the rest of their lives. Jack and Frances Thomas were older than my folks by a few years, and well established in the community. He ended up the high school principal, and Frances would walk across the street to substitute teach “with a Bible under one arm and Uncle Remus under the other,” as she wrote in a letter to me. Frances was the one who taught me about B’rer Rabbit and the Brier Patch, a classic tale of brain over brawn.
Here’s a party at the Whitesells before most of the children were born, with Norvel and Helen Young, Suzanne Moore in Grandmommie Whitesell’s arms, Dot and J.C. (my folks), Frances and Jack Thomas and Marian Whitesell Moore. Her husband Paul (my dad’s brother) was probably taking the picture, as was usual for him.
I didn’t know this until a few years ago, and was properly horrified when I heard the story. Apparently one day after church Frances had invited a large gathering to their yard for a Sunday dinner picnic, and my dad walked up to her and said, “You know, you’ll be ruining a perfectly wonderful meal if you don’t make some hot bread to go with this.” So she dutifully returned to the kitchen and whipped up a batch of hot buttermilk biscuits to satisfy him. I couldn’t believe it.
But the story fit with my mom’s tale that when they married, he said she needed to learn how to make perfect cornbread. She tried recipe after recipe until she hit upon the one that pleased him most, and indeed I’ve always thought her cornbread was the best I’ve ever had. Of course, most people think the way their mother made cornbread or biscuits is the way it should be done. I’ve included the recipe in the Appendix. I titled it “Grandmommie’s Cornbread” because that’s what Momma called it when she gave it to me. Could it be that after trying numerous recipes, Daddy settled on his mother-in-law’s cornbread as the winner? It seems so.
Frances was a great hostess. Even after she stopped cooking, she would take her own placemats and napkins to the restaurant where she and Jack would feed us. And both of them always made me feel as if I were part of the party, instead of an appendage to be relegated to the den. The day after Momma’s funeral, Chip and I went to visit them, and Frances remarked, “Now this is true friendship. We couldn’t come to you, so you came to us."
More dear friends from the early days remained part of our family circle. Harold and Helen Buchi were also a couple a bit older than my folks who show up in the pictures of parties and gatherings from the Nashville days before children, and continued being dear to us till their deaths. You’ll note the photo of their daughter, Barbara, who was my age, standing with me in the Youngs’ driveway the summer we moved to California, 1958. They also had another daughter and a son closer to Chip’s age. He established Buchi Plumbing, and sadly was killed in a car accident not long after my dad’s death, so Helen and my mom began to take trips together from time to time. His accidental death occurred tragically just after they had completed their “dream house” which held many elements that also became my idea of a dream house.
It was on a short block called Cantrell, and featured a round three story stone tower as part of the front door, with a spiral staircase to the basement. Dividing two separate guest bathrooms was a rough stone wall with natural ledges where Helen put tiny objects like a gnome or fairy. There was a landing on the second floor that overlooked the library, with a free-standing stained glass window in a frame, and in that library there was a great find, one of the study tables from a Peabody building that was being discarded.
There were Persian rugs and a grand piano in the living room, and a real Japanese rock garden outside that room. A wonderful brick fireplace in the family room at the back of the house made a cozy corner where we would sit and chat with Helen in easy chairs. She was such a delightful, positive, lively person. She had a collection of “ABC” books which I added to every Christmas, and she built my collection of Arthur Rackham fairytale illustrations with a Christmas gift each year.
Naomi had found a young man I would have described as “stone country”. He was named Clay Taylor and the three of us became friends. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tillman Taylor, lived in Clarksville and one day we went to visit them. On their door was a calling card on which was printed “Mr. and Mrs. Tillman Taylor” and in pencil, “Come in. Back soon.” Clay said I could keep that, and it’s taped in one of my journals still. The day was so rich that of course I had to take notes. It turned out that the Taylors had known Dieter Alten, one of my favorite German preachers. When the American missionaries send him to school at Lipscomb, he would preach at the Taylors’ congregation. Mr. Taylor said, “Dieter Alten had compassion for a little orphaned opossum, and he fixed up an incubator and tried to feed it milk with a nipple.” Here are more quotes:
(Apparently, when he was a little boy, Clay used to go outside and preach sermons to his pets or the side of the barn.)
“I remember the subject of one sermon – it was shorts. Wearing shorts.”
“Were you for or against it?”
“See all the girls he knew was his sister, and all she knew was what her parents said, and so that was the way they saw things.”
I gleaned a series of classic Southernisms for my collection:
That’s a whole different set of dogs.
He was choppin’ cotton trying to get something done.
We searched for dear life…
Cute as a speckled puppy under a red wagon…
Slow as sorghum in January…
He probably preached to the barn what he and the fireplace had discussed that morning.
If it takes a woodchuck with a rubber bill nine months and thirteen days to pick a hole through a cypress log big enough to make a bundle of shingles selling for 65¢, how long would it take a grasshopper with a cork leg to kick the juice out of a dill pickle big enough to make a meal for a bull snake and a rhinoceros?
I’m so grateful for that year spent “getting to know the relatives better” because it was mostly about Grandmommie, who was not going to be with us all that much longer. If V.M. hadn’t asked me to “carry” her over to his house every Wednesday night, I wouldn’t have been able to collect these precious quotes from her and save them in my journal:
“My dad went to college, you know; he said it was a waste of time, he didn’t encourage his children to go to college. Anyway, he had numerous volumes of Thackaway and Miltons and do you know, I read them, and they were bastards from start to finish!”
“But I thought Milton was a Christian…” I offered.
“Well, who was another well-known English writer?”
“Maybe Wordsworth?” I guessed.
“That sounds terribly familiar. But I remember that Thackaway. Why, the terrible lives they led, why I just couldn’t imagine. I was 14 or 16, a young girl when I read them. Just bastards from start to finish.”
“I thought it was such a pretty name – Dortherea –
“Well, what’s on her birth certificate?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
~ o ~
“Yes, your great-granddaddy was a ‘jelly bean,’ a real sporty young man. Dad Long owned a liquor store – it wasn’t so bad in those days, people didn’t get drunk so much – and when he went to courting my mother, she said, ‘I won’t marry a man who owns a liquor store,’ and he said, ‘Tonight’s the last time those doors will close.’ If he said something, he’d do it, so he went out and sold that store and bought a grocery store, and they went to live in the hotel.”
~ o ~
Grandmommie told me that her mother used to put her nine children out of the house in the morning after breakfast, and tell them they were not allowed to come back in until dinner time. If they got hungry, they were welcome to eat sugar cookies from a barrel she kept on the back porch. “I don’t like sugar cookies to this day,” she told me.
~ o ~
Mildred Thurman asked Grandmommie, “Which of your children are you partial to?” and she responded, “Whichever one needs me the most.”
~ o ~
Little Bob said, ‘Did you know I’m going to heaven? You’re going to miss me.’ It was almost more than I could take.” (Bob was V.M. and Lois’s first child, who died at the age of five.)
~ o ~
Momma told me to ask Grandmommie about the lady who got fatter and fatter until she wouldn’t go out of the house. “I don’t know why that strikes me so funny,” says Mom, cracking up one morning. The prisoner of her own girth turned out to be Eva Stinson, Uncle Gid’s daughter.
~ o ~
“Aint Addie, Virgil’s sister – you know, they’re all Cumberland Presbyterian – ”
No, indeed, I had never heard about any non-Church of Christ folks in the family tree. And I found out that a Methodist had snuck in there too!
~ o ~
“You’ve been a right industrious child…”
~ o ~
“That’s like my dad…he built a two-story house with half a saw and a hammer.”
~ o ~
“You know, Virgil proposed in a letter, and I answered him with that Ruth passage about ‘Entreat me not to leave thee…’ Dan Harless preached on Ruth the day Virgil died, and I told him, ‘Why, you like to killed me with that.’ He said, ‘I’m glad you told me.’”
~ o ~
“Now, be sure you know what you’re doing!! – and then you don’t.” (She laughed at herself, and the foibles of being human.) “A Ph.D., I guess it’s nice to have one, if you have your religion too. Now you make sure you have that.”
~ o ~
I asked her, “You know what you said to me one day?”
“There’s no tellin’,” she replied, with a smile.
~ o ~
“Pappy Whitesell’s sister married ‘Font’ Harris. My great-great-grandmother, Martha Jane Harris, married a Stinson; her daughter Betty married a Long; and they had me, Bonnie. Uncle Gideon Stinson (a great-great uncle to you) was a big man in Lewisburg. Jim (James Gideon Long) was named after him. Cud’n Pokey (Pocahontas) Considine, Virgil’s cousin lived to be one hundred years old.
“Pap (J.L.) and Mammy (Betty) Long had nine children. I’ll tell you their names and who they married”
Vance and Ina Claxton had J.V. and Melissa (who married Trine Starnes).
Ross and Inda McNatt (these live in Huntsville, Alabama)
Raby and Mattie Lou McNatt (these live near Shelbyville)
Carl and Mary McNatt; Carl died, then Mary married O’Dell McKinney
Wilburn and Bess McKnight
Virgil and Bonnie Whitesell
Jim and Christine Long
Lester and Grace Mallard (Methodist!) Long
John Leon and Leona Long had Louise, a librarian who lives in Deckard.”