My father used to say that this was his inheritance, this concrete THING, that I want to say is shaped like a curvilinear triangle. I might or might not be right on that.
Perhaps it’s more of a paraboloid, as one of my high school friends explained.
There was a whole run of these that lined the driveway of my great-grandparents’ house in Russellville.
My great grandfather would not have had anyone parking his or her car in the yard.
Not customers of the pick-your-own strawberry farm he maintained in later life.
He was a man of many barriers. Is it any wonder he opened one of the first concrete block companies in Eastern Tennessee?
If this were a work of fiction, I’d skip mentioning that obvious bit of symbolism.
My great-grandfather was a harsh sort of man. By all accounts, he was enormously gifted and smart and knew how to turn know-how’s into money-making ventures.
He was not always kind.
He initially turned his skills toward bootlegging. He excelled. It was a family affair. He and my great grandmother would be set up along side of the road. You’d come up and pay your money, and he’d reach up her skirt and pull out a jar of premium distilled corn whiskey.
He took pains to make a good product.
It was in high demand. As though this were one big Appalachian cliche, the sheriff and the deputies loved the product.
Distribution was of concern, so he went into the ice business. It was a legitimate means to transport the liquid illegality into people’s homes.
My grandfather’s first job was delivering ice to folks. To his dying day he called the fridge the ice box. He could be counted on never to tell what he saw in other people’s ice boxes.
As I said, my great grandfather was harsh. He was also very competitive and was known to contend with the competition in extreme ways. My grandfather watched all this as a child. He took it all in and he learned to take on a steely silent stance. In a sense, my grandfather never escaped being the ice man.
As electric ice boxes became more available, it was determined that the inside of a cinder block was the perfect space to place and convey a jar of whiskey all over the region.
The concrete block company in Russellville was the business my great grandfather built as a front for illegal booze.
Business grew. Trucks were going all over. But we will set aside that narrative for another time.
The concrete object.
I remember my grandmother once calling it a “boob.” It was said in a disparaging tone. I don’t believe she ever loved her in-laws. But she was nice to their faces.
The story goes that as my great grandfather was getting the concrete business off the ground, someone had the bright idea to take the headlamp off a rusting Ford Model T sitting in the back yard and make a mold of it.
This concrete thing is the result of that.
When my great grandmother died, the left-over contents of their lives were auctioned to high bidders.
I saw my father place the losing bid on at least 7 of these.
Looking back at my “on this day” from 2012, I see that I’d made reference to finding a 35 mm camera that had film in it. The original post went something like this:
“Found an old 35mm camera with a half-used roll of film in it. I got it developed and it was nothing out of the ordinary, just people in the middle of living their lives, not knowing what was ahead of them good or bad….”
What I didn’t share at the time was that this was my dad’s old camera. A Pentax k1000 that I think he bought at Kmart back when Kmart had quality items. It was a popular camera and not the high end of the pricing spectrum.
When people still used film, it would not be uncommon to find a roll left in a camera. Generally, it would stay until another special event and people would often struggle to remember just what was on a given roll over time.
In this case, the beginning of the digital era and the accessibility of good quality digital cameras corresponded with my father’s declining condition of a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange exposure. Those circumstances caused this roll of film to become trapped in that space between eras and advancement of technologies.
What strikes me now is how the pictures on that film captured my parents in their usual state. The commonality of my mom sitting at the dining room table at home or of my mom while they were on one of their frequent vacations. I see my mom standing there in the butterfly sanctuary at Callaway Gardens, a place that remained special to them long after they left Fort Benning. I guess it always reminded them of a time when everything was new. And before my father’s innocence was stripped away in Vietnam.
It strikes me that though my father was seldom in any of our family pictures, his presence is always implied. For several years, he only appears on film as half a finger that he carelessly left touching the lens when he wasn’t paying attention. These are things you can correct easily in this digital era by taking another picture. In those days, you had to conserve your film.
My parents had no idea at that moment that things were about change drastically for them. My father would soon begin his 12 year decline due to Agent Orange exposure. My mother would do all she could do and sacrificed her own health to ensure some kind of quality of life for my father as first he could hardly get out of the chair, then lost his ability to walk, then to feed himself, then to speak, then to….
And, as for me, I had already been away from home for a long time. On a visit to see them, I grabbed up the camera from their home while they were staying at an assisted living for my dad’s final year.
I didn’t connect it at the time, but I was taking lots of pictures of abandoned buildings and was on the verge of becoming some kind of photographer myself. I see now that perhaps this camera that I will never use was a kind of symbolic gift from my dad that set me along a certain path. He liked taking pics of my mom and sometimes close-ups of flowers in the yard. I like abandoned structures and have fascinations with the items people leave behind.
My father set me up to do my own thing, which is what he himself would have done. He didn’t live long enough to see what that “gift” has spawned. It’s gone from being a fun hobby to a thriving small business.
Back to the picture of my mom in the butterfly sanctuary. I always associate butterflies with transformation. They are often a sign for me when I’m going through a period of great change.
My father’s illness and death was, obviously, a hugely transformative process for all of us. I believe that transformations leave us in a better, more awakened state than before if we are willing to be in that teachable space. Although it achieved that end, this transformation was a bit more than we asked for.
And never let anyone fool you.
The process of awakening is not for the faint of heart.
My father’s illness and death changed me. It opened me up in such a way that I understand pain more. I am more in touch with my own pain. I am more empathetic. I can see more. And I can feel more. I can be of greater service. These are beautiful gifts.
It allows me to do the spiritual work that I do, and it has allowed me to see beauty in things that other people disregard.
I often ask people “just how much enlightenment, just how much transformation can you stand?”
Think before you answer that. Myself, I’m grateful for what my father taught me in life, in death and beyond.
But it’s profoundly saddening that it had to go down that way.
Playing the piano at the assisted living where my mom and dad were staying at the end of my father’s illness was more emotional than I had planned.
My father was wheeled in by a nurse. It was an ordeal for him to get out of the bed at all. All I knew to do was keep the music coming. It was hard to watch. I used the piano as a buffer between that sight and a certain sadness I held in the background.
Their friend Cleta Byrd, who many of you who’ve known me a long long time will recognize, introduced me by saying that “Scott is their only son, no grandchildren [which must have sounded suspect to her, given her tone] but he’s young…sort of young…. They sent him to all kinds of music teachers and they couldn’t teach him a thing, so his mother had to teach him how to play the piano.”
Keep in mind that my mother does not play the piano. She was a strong, strong influence on my music growing up but she never really has played the piano. I had a few teachers. I took lessons for a long time. My parents wanted that for me. So did I.
But I smiled…and I said “yes yes….”
And I realized why my mother told me beforehand, “remember, you were asked here to play, not to talk, so just play, will you?”
At any rate, this is a sad story with some comic relief. As sick as my dad was, and as clear as the signs were, I had not accepted that he was nearing the end of his time here.
He died the following March from neurological problems consistent, according to the Mayo Clinic, with Agent Orange exposure. My father served in Vietnam and one of the functions of his unit was to carry Agent Orange from one location to the other. After they’d used up a barrel of it, they would hose them out, put their clothes and belongings in the barrels and take them with them to the next location. A perfect delivery method for a neurotoxin
Being asked to just play was fine with me. I could focus on the songs and not have to process that my dad was leaving us a little day by day.
This was the last time I played for my father. At least when he was on this plane.
Again, a sad story if you stop reading here.
But it really hasn’t ended. I have played the piano for a small congregation in Bristol for many years. Often, I’ll sense his presence right there behind me.
I can feel his gentle soul. Just letting me know he’s there. Never obtrusive, just as in life, but still encouraging me and loving it when I go for one of those big full gospel chords or when I do one of those speedy runs halfway up the keyboard.
Today, I suppose it’s high time I honor the fact that my parents made sacrifices for me to have my first piano and lessons. They also sacrificed the peace and quiet of their home for me (except when the Braves were playing). They got me to and from lessons and they gave me access to lots and lots of record albums.
It has been just over a month and a half since I started yoga.
I had known for some time that I should do this. Many years, in fact.
But I guess we can only do what we can do when we can do it. And not until then. In the meantime, I somehow became Facebook friends with a good number of the yoga teachers in town. I don’t even know how that happened. Also, in the meantime, several of my friends started doing yoga and had even taken the teacher training. And, then, my amazingly cool cousin in Michigan that I don’t know very well in person, opened her own studio and appears to be legendary in her yoga community.
In many ways, this is the story of how I had an experience I judged to be unpleasant, created an entire mythology around it and then acted upon it as if it were immutable truth.
It goes something like this:
Many years ago, myself and my co-worker Sharon Stephenson found ourselves the newbies in what seems like now must have been some kind of advanced class. I now see that it would probably be what is referred to as an “all-levels” flow yoga class.
I went twice and decided I just wasn’t “cut out” for yoga. The teacher was nice and affirmative but it was so difficult for me because, although I’ve always had a lot of strength and quite a good level of stamina, my flexibility was practically non-existent. I also felt like the fact that I have flat feet made it hard for me to balance. Of course, added to that was that I was sure people were looking at how awful I was doing all of it.
(Aside: Back then I was convinced that people cared. Since then, I’m not convinced they care at all. And even better, if they do happen to care, which I doubt, I don’t care that they care. That may, in fact, be some kind of progress on my part.)
Over time that hardened into “I’m not able to do yoga because I have flat feet.” I held onto that for many years. I said it over and over, and it became a belief. The flat feet excuse had become a familiar trope for me by that time. When I had to register for selective service, I hatched a secret plan inside my head of how I would use that to evade the draft if one were ever instituted. I had used it for years in gym class in school to get out of doing all manner of things. Even dodge ball.
Flat feet became a nice metaphor for the real reasons I avoided certain things.
What I see now was what I’m confronting in myself as I move forward with yoga presently:
Scott doesn’t like to do things he doesn’t instantly excel at. How quickly that became apparent. It accounts for my aversion to math in grade school, the reason I dropped Spanish after after a few days of class and transferred into French, and why I was absolutely miserable for the 11 months I worked in the academic technology office on my campus providing technical support for our online teaching platform (well, maybe I just didn’t like that one, period, but you get the idea).
I do have flat feet. It means I get to practice balance more. That’s all. I see now what the teachers mean when they say something to the effect of “there are as many different yoga practices in this room as there are people.” It’s not about just getting into the right pose.
It’s not about being right.
It’s more about just BEING. Period.
As Jason, a former student who has become a trusted Facebook friend said to me, when I was still contemplating yoga and told him I had to have a beginner class:
“No you don’t. All yoga classes are a beginner classes. You do what you can, stay in the present, don’t compare yourself to others or what you could or think you should be able to do.”
Ouch, point taken.
Those are exactly all the things I did when I found myself in the all-levels class in 2006. His words helped me adjust my mindset. I only have to relive the 14 year old Scott who was self-conscious in gym class if I allow myself to indulge that mindset.
I’m an adult now.
I can shift my thinking to make things better.
My thinking has a profound effect on the reality that I experience.
The beautiful thing, and frightening thing, so far is that I’m getting opportunities to confront those shadow aspects of myself that I’d often like to pretend away, what some friends of mine would characterize as “character defects buried in shallow graves.” These things have to raise their heads before they can be healed.
For the moment, I’m willing to go there.
Interestingly, just a few days after I begun this journey, I developed an aversion to coffee. Anyone who knows me knows that black coffee is like an integral part of my whole persona. Like George Burns’s cigar. I don’t miss it and I don’t crave it. I’m not exactly sure what happened but I’m going with it.
My skin is better. I don’t feel compelled to have a nap in the late afternoon. I feel better overall and I think I’m feeling more connected.
Who knows what can happen if I keep doing this? I might get more flexible and that’s certainly a goal, but even if that doesn’t happen, I think this is going to help me get more real, be more at ease and most importantly just plain BE period.
So, this is the story of how my Uncle Hugh Ballard stuck a knife up his nose and died. Or perhaps that’s not really the story at all. Like all my stories of late, this is perhaps yet another story of a story.
For many years, this was all we knew — that my grandmother’s dad’s brother died by sticking a knife up his nose. My grandmother was fond of repeating this story in what now seems like an obsessive loop as she was prone to do. It was a strange story she liked to tell the grandchildren when we’d be staying at her house. And then she’d pull out the family bible and show us the entry where he died in 1890. It was mildly scary and kind of annoying to me at the time.
I remember asking if there were pictures. She said there weren’t pictures back then. I was never satisfied by the story. Even at my young age, there just didn’t seem to be enough context to make the story credible.
A little on the family background: the Ballard family came to the area in the late 1700’s. My ancestor, Alexander Ballard, was granted land by the federal government near Morristown, Tennessee, for his service in the American Revolution. Of course, when he arrived, he quickly realized the land was not the government’s to give, so in order to preserve his claim, he married the daughter of a local Cherokee leader. The Ballard farm is still there, though significantly smaller, and it’s still owned by some distant cousins of mine who use it as kind of a family retreat.
Many years down the line, my grandmother’s dad was born to a family who eventually went on to have “officially” (and more on this later) 11 children. The span from beginning to end was 1877 to 1906. That would make 29 years between the first child and the last child. My great-grandfather was toward the end of the brood and was born in 1897 or so. All of this is to say that my grandmother had an array of first cousins — many who were old enough to be her parent and many who were closer to the life of Hugh Ballard to have more insight than she did. My grandmother was born in 1924. I knew in order to find something closer to the truth, I’d need to seek out one of the older cousins. All the aunts and uncles were dead.
The oldest cousin I had access to was my grandmother’s cousin Kathleen. My grandmother and everyone in my dad’s family called her “Kath-uh-leen.” My grandmother had a habit of referring to people old or young as “that old _________.” I always thought it seemed about-half disparaging, but it was also endearing, too. Kathleen was very nice, but my grandmother always scoffed a little because “that old Kath-un-leen always acts high and mighty. And she won’t eat no ham or nothing.” Kathleen was among the family who had become devout Seventh-Day Adventists, and when they’d come for Sunday dinner, my aunt Shirley would alert my grandmother when they were pulling into the driveway so my grandmother could yank the ham-hock she used for seasoning out of the green beans. Kathleen et al always RAVED about my grandmother’s green beans.
Kathleen’s mother was the third of the 12 children, and Kathleen was born in 1906, which incidentally made her the same age as the youngest of the 12. There was one older child, Blanche, who belonged to Uncle Charlie, but she was more known for her drinking and partying than for her family knowledge — at least by the time I came along. Later she was in a nursing home with “hardening of the arteries” as they called it then. I finally had occasion to ask Kathleen about it at Blanche’s funeral.
She did not seem at all surprised at my question. And she was able to flesh out the details.
“It was on his 5th birthday,” she said. “They were having a cake, and he was running around in the kitchen. He slipped and fell and the knife went right through the roof of his mouth. And he died right there on the kitchen floor. In front of everybody.”
Fascinated, I went home that evening and wrote that account down on some papers. I found it before writing this. But I was not done with the story. My Aunt Shirley and I love stories, and she is a master storyteller with a curiosity about her that keeps her asking more questions. Like me, she knows that the answers you receive don’t always get you closer to the truth, but it does get you closer to more stories and more viewpoints upon the agreed-upon versions of things.
A few years ago, she visited my grandmother’s oldest living cousin, Sarah Ellen Hamilton. Sarah Ellen was born around the time of my grandmother to one of the older sisters, Aunt Mollie. In our Appalachian dialect, she was known as “Surrey-Ellen”. Shirley and I both agreed she might know something else, something different or just something that we didn’t know already. She offered a few surprises in her telling.
Her first response was, “Hell, Shirley, that’s the past. It don’t even matter now.” My Aunt Shirley has a Barbara Walters-like skill at getting information out of a person, so she gently cajoled her into more. Sarah Ellen’s take on it was that grandma was cutting tomatoes. And Hugh Ballard was running around in the kitchen and he fell on the knife and it killed him. There was nothing about it being his birthday and nothing about it going through his nose or the roof of his mouth. She did offer the following admonishment, however: “Keep your knives put up and leave the past alone.”
Over the years, I’ve thought about Hugh Ballard and what it must have been like for him, his parents and the brothers and sisters to have this happen on their watch. No one knows much of anything about Hugh Ballard, and the only reminder that’s left is his death date in the family bible of January 22, 1890. Strangely, he’s not listed with a birth date in the family records. My notion is that he would not have lived long enough to show up in any census records. And the Tennessee census of 1890 was destroyed by fire anyway.
And there is the issue of the accuracy of the bible. Any time you see evidence of records written all at once in the same handwriting in a family bible, you can pretty much rest assured that someone was doing it from memory. Memory serves well in a smaller family, but records such as these written long after the fact may not be entirely factual. It is said that cousin Blanche wrote these older entries. It was also suggested much later by members of a neighboring family that the final two children of the original brood were not in fact children but grandchildren. The story goes that Alice Mae and Howard were the offspring of the oldest daughter Gilley by her husband, Jake Purkey, who was allegedly murdered in California. Jake Purkey was allegedly shot by a man with whose wife he was sleeping. No one will ever know, and after a point the facts don’t really matter all that much. After a certain point, the past becomes a series of stories that we choose to believe or not.
I’ve personally used the Hugh Ballard story over the years in places I’ve worked. As I became the director of an office on the campus where I work, I inherited a set of outmoded policies based upon events or situations that either no longer existed or were mis-interpreted by people who were not there when such events allegedly occurred.
I guess Ol’Surrey Ellen had a point about the past. Perhaps we all find a certain comfort in letting the past rest and settling on a specific version of it for our comfort and convenience.
In the meantime, just keep your knives put up, I guess. And, as Sarah Ellen also said, “let the dead rest in peace.”