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We are preparing for Thanksgiving here in America. In our houses, that means that MKL is replacing toilets, scrubbing floors, and vacuuming carpets, because he is hosting this year. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was a small family thing, sometimes with guests in the morning or early afternoon, a few paper decorations around the house, football, and just the four of us for supper, which was always a traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes (that my Dad made), gravy, and pumpkin pie (again, from my Dad). With MKL, the family is sons and parents and sisters and nieces and grand-nieces – maybe 13 people. This will be the first year that Kelsea hasn’t been home for Thanksgiving. She’s staying in Washington and, I think, hosting other Thanksgiving “orphans” at her house. Perhaps I will coach her on cooking a turkey, as my Mother coached me, during countless phone calls, when I made my first one, which was just for my Dad and me when I was a senior in college. We had Thanksgiving dinner on a coffee table on the red-shag carpeted floor of my little attic studio in a house long gone in Boulder. That was a very happy Thanksgiving.

In these times of political turmoil in our country, it is nice to have an occasion to try to bring families together. Our differences are so intense, and in some cases, unforgiveable, that togetherness may not be possible for everyone. Politics today is not something that just matters during elections – and while that has never been the case, we have been passive in our approach to it, up until now, when many are finding the need to exercise their freedom to speak and finding their voices. I hope that all individuals can find something to give thanks for this week, regardless of our differences.

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Boulder, Colorado.

Quote of the day: “The most important political office is that of private citizen.” — Louis D. Brandeis

Daily gratitudes:
Doing the right thing
My current read
A hot bath
A beautiful day
The cooing of iridescent pigeons

Once upon a time, a little girl lived with her brother, her mother, and her father in a happy brick house in a smallish sort of town. It never got too terribly cold in this smallish sort of town, but winter still did come, as winter does to every town, not matter how big or small.

The little girl’s father loved to walk. And the little girl loved her father very much. He worked a lot, and most days, no matter how hot or cold or wet or dry, her father would walk to work. He would make his way down the cement sidewalks from the happy brick house, around the dangerous yucca plant by the mailbox on the corner next to the old infirmary, and between the tall pillars in the stone wall that surrounded the university campus. Then he would walk briskly past the acres of green grass and majestic buildings with their white marble columns and tall casement windows, down the little hill, and beneath the dark underpass, where the trains ran clickity-clackity above his head. He kept going still, for miles, past the tangled thicket of woods, past tall, fragrant pine trees, and past wide meadows, until he reached his work. It seemed to the little girl that is was a very long way to walk, but she knew that walking made her father happy.

The little girl and her father used to take walks together on the weekends. She loved their walks, when it was just the two of them, and he would hold her small cold hand in his big warm one, and they would talk about everything. They walked in the spring, when she would see the leaves starting to emerge from their slumbers. They walked in the summer, when she would take her shoes off and feel the soft grass beneath her feet. They walked in the fall, when she would kick through ankle-deep piles of crunchy brown leaves. They walked in winter, when her mother would wrap her feet in plastic bags to keep them warm inside her tall red boots.

One day, the whole family decided to walk together. To decorate the happy brick house for Christmas, they were going to gather branches in the tangled thicket of woods that her father passed each day on his way to work. The little girl wasn’t very happy about taking this long walk, because it was very long, and that day it was VERY cold, so cold that there was even some snow on the ground. Her mother dressed her warmly, in her little red coat, and her white hat with the pom on the top and the black and orange pattern around it, with its matching mittens. The little girl loved her hat and mittens. She thought they were the prettiest things she’d ever seen (after the Easter bonnet and parasol purse her grandmother had given her), and since she knew she wouldn’t be able to hold her father’s hand the whole way (because her brother was there), she was happy to have them to help keep her warm. But she was still grumpy about the walk.

They walked and walked and the little girl was so cold, and exceedingly grumpy because no one would carry her. After what seemed like weeks, they reached the tangled thicket. The whole family tromped across the snow to enter the woods, and began to collect branches and boughs and sprigs in bags to adorn the house. The little girl’s mittens kept getting stuck on the branches, so she took them off and tucked them in her coat pocket. It got colder and colder, and then dusk started to settle into the shadows of the trees and the family started for home. But when they had left the thicket, and the little girl went to put her mittens on…. one of them was gone. She began to cry. She begged her parents to go back and look for it, but to no avail. They promised her a new pair of mittens, but she was inconsolable. She knew that mitten would be cold and lost and lonely and would never know why it had been abandoned. She wept as if her heart would break, and would not be comforted. Not even when her Mother told her that it had probably become a nest to keep some baby animal warm.

Years passed, and the little girl grew and grew, as all little girls will, until she was a young woman. She had never forgotten her lost mitten, and, as a rational person, she found this odd. She knew that she had lost many things over the years. Why had the loss of one small mitten been so profound?

At 17, she found herself walking back to that same thicket, which was much less dense and tangled than it had been so many years ago, to look for the mitten. She knew it was beyond fanciful, but she felt she could not leave the now not-quite-so-smallish town without looking for it one last time.

Of course, she didn’t find the mitten.

More years passed, and the woman, who was not quite so young anymore, had moved thousands of miles away from the town, that was now an actually-pretty-big-town. She herself had a little girl, and the little girl, probably because she was so close to the ground, had a wonderful talent for finding small and beautiful things whenever they went anywhere. She would find coins and marbles and jewelry and all sorts of treasures.

She made the woman remember the mitten.

One day, when the dog ate one of her little girl’s favorite little winter gloves (which were black with bright orange and red flames) and she could not be consoled, the woman went to shop after shop until she found another pair that was exactly the same. She knew just how her little girl felt.

Even more years passed, as years do, and the woman’s little girl became a young woman herself, so the woman went to work in the big city. Because of her daughter, the woman still kept an eye out for treasures that others had lost, and whenever she found something, like a hat, or a nice pen, or a handkerchief, she would put it somewhere up off the ground, near the place she found it, in case the person who lost it came back looking for it. She never knew if they did, but she hoped. She hoped that they did, and that they would be happy when they found it again.

The woman still loved to walk, just like her father had. One day, the woman was walking briskly down the street in the big city, for it was a cold winter day. She was going to meet her fiancé for lunch, and she was very happy because she had been able to stop to pet a pug named Duke, and she was wearing her favorite sparkly earrings, which were old and unique, and which swayed and played softly about her ear lobes and made her feel pretty. When she got to the restaurant, she hugged her beloved, and took off her hat and realized…. one of her lovely, sparkly earrings was gone.

The woman was sad. She knew it was silly to be sad. She had reached an age where she knew that things were just things, and that everything goes the way of all flesh, and you can’t take it with you, and numerous other platitudes that people tell themselves to make themselves feel better when they lose something they were fond of.

She knew in her heart that she was still just a little girl who had lost her mitten.

She kissed her fiancé goodbye and walked back down the busy street, back the way she had come, back to work, with her eyes on the ground, looking for a small sparkly earring among the shiny patches of ice on the sidewalk. She knew the chances of ever seeing it again were so slim that they were nearly invisible. She crossed where the buses ran, looking for a telltale sign of crushed crystal and gold. She passed the planter where she had stopped to pet Duke the Pug. And out of the corner of her eye, on the corner of the last planter in the row, someone had carefully set a sparkly dangly earring, just so, so that in case the person who had lost it came looking, they would be sure to see it, if they had faith, and if they noticed.

The woman knew that there was another kindred soul in the big city who understood about lost things.

And for the rest of the day, the woman (and the little girl inside her) smiled with her eyes and her mouth and her heart.

The End

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Ashes
(for my Father)

The leaves still fall in November
carpeting the dying grass
beneath the oaks and magnolias,
each tree offering a
variation in the sound of footfalls.

Your footsteps are silent now,
only remembered,
only by me.

Our late afternoon Sunday walks,
sharp as the light edged past
the tops of the now-bare branches,
cradled in the arms of a seasonal death.

You held my hand
as I walked along the wall when I was small,
and carried me on your shoulders
when I grew tired.

Both of us older,
we would ramble for hours
talking of everything and nothing
until my nose and toes were chilled
and my fingertips hurt
from the dampening cool.

And still your hands were warm.
Always warm.

I cannot think of your hands being cold.
It’s a comfort in some strange way
that you are ashes now
and not lying in the cold earth.

It fits that you are ashes and air
As you burned to me
so bright and warm
all those years.

The Sower (image courtesy of Duke Photography)

Kelsea and I are off to North Carolina tonight, leaving the kitty and house in capable hands. E-Bro and the fam are coming on Sunday. MKL will join us on Tuesday. For the first time since Kelsea was born, we are staying in a different cottage – one called Two Suns.

Two Suns from the front

It’s only about 10 houses north of “our” house, but it’s amazing how different that makes both the view and the energy.

Two Suns from the back

When I first started going to Topsail, we stayed in a little tiny house called “The Willard”. I remember the night we first arrived. It was unmarked, we had no idea if we were in the right place, and a hurricane was passing by. It’s not called by that name anymore, but it’s still there and still tiny, though it has been fixed up some. I suggested to Kelsea that we stay there this year, but we decided we wanted to be south of the Jolly Roger Pier.

Once when I was younger than Kelsea, and once again when I was about her age, we couldn’t get “our” house, and so we stayed elsewhere. It was interesting and different, but we still liked “our” house best. I am thinking that will be the case this time, especially since we don’t have a front porch on Two Suns, and Kelsea loves to hang out on the front porch in the afternoons, reading and watching the world go by where the sun is not so ripe and flaming.  She’ll have to make do with the side porch at this house.  I guess she can play sentry at the top of the stairs.

A change of scenery is never a bad thing, and my photos will have a different perspective, which I hope we will all enjoy.

Having MKL join us is a change as well, since no one else has stayed with us since my parents died, and ex-Pat didn’t even come with us most years.  MKL will be meeting the rest of my family for the first time.  In my old-fashioned Southern way, I am hoping for my brother’s blessing as head of the family.  It’s been two years since I’ve seen E-Bro and the fam, so I think we’re all prepared for changes all around, especially in the kids.

I’m considering whether we want to make time for a side trip this year.  Last year’s trip to Bald Head Island didn’t work out as quite the fantasy I’d hoped for, but it certainly was interesting. As MKL has never been to North Carolina, I’d love to be able to share a little more of my home state with him.

Possibilities for a day trip are Moore’s Creek, a Revolutionary War battlefield not too far from Hampstead, or perhaps the Arlie Gardens, where Kelsea and I had… technical difficulties on our last visit, way back when she was three, or maybe even Swansboro. After all, it’s been two years since I’ve made any grievous errors getting lost on the military base. I’m pretty sure they miss me.

But you won’t have to miss me, as Two Suns has wireless, and I promise to keep you posted. (Get it? Posted? HA!)

Bon voyage!

I can get homesick for a memory, not a place.

Does that sound strange?

Homesickness is fairly rare for me anymore. It happens mostly in spring, when I know that North Carolina is turning green and blossoming while Colorado is still buried under a winter shroud.

But sometimes, it is triggered by a visual, like it was this morning. The bus stopped at one of its usual stops on Hwy. 287, and across the street, a Mo-Po-Po (translation: a police officer on a really cool Harley) was giving some poor guy a ticket, which was not a good way to start his day. At the edge of the small hill on that side of the street is a small pond (more of a giant puddle) and at the edge of the puddle are cattails.

My Mother loved cattails, so I loved cattails.  Their brown velvet casings are so soft, and the down that emerges from them is like a blessing, an indicator that it is time for this lovely thing to move on to its next phase of life (or death).

I remember at Topsail, towards the North end of the island at the curve just before the big bridge, stopping at the side of the road for my Mother to burrow into the marsh and cut cattails to take home. They would live for a long time, dried in an old bronze-toned vase with dragons etched and curling up its sides.

I think I have that vase somewhere.

And at Buxton, where a walk on the Maritime Forest Nature Trail in the chill of a beachside March dusk would yield cold fingers and runny noses, she would see cattails, but never disturb them, as the Nature Trail was a protected area.  (Though she would snitch a few leaves from the Bay Laurel tree to ensure she had enough to carry her through the year.)

The sight of cattails this morning made me homesick.

We are going home very soon, to a different beach house for this one year, which will be good but strange, and we will start some new traditions, and welcome MKL into some old ones.  And I will drive by the curve in the road where the cattails live, and remember.

Image aptly entitled “Fuzzy Corn Dog on a Stick” by Vagabond Shutterbug from www.flickr.com

The verdict in the molestation trial of Jerry Sandusky is in: Guilty.

I read Yahoo Sports writer Dan Wetzel’s article just after breakfast. His previous articles about the case have been fair and shown no bias, which in itself marks him as an excellent journalist, particularly in the sports universe, which often rushed to the defense of its heroes and legends when their worthiness is challenged. With this article, it was as if Mr. Wetzel had let a dam burst. There is no mistaking his personal feelings about this case. And I admire him for expressing them.

I am glad that Sandusky’s victims have found some justice. What happened to them can never be undone, and has left permanent scars but perhaps this gives them an opportunity to live somewhat more peacefully with those scars, knowing their stories have been told, and believed. They have been vindicated.

My own reaction to this verdict has fascinated me. This man is guilty. And yet, somehow, when I read the verdict, I felt a strum of guilt, sorrow, and doubt in myself. Like my childhood self remembering how I must have been mistaken about what was happening, how I should respect and pity my abuser, how it was me that was crazy, not him – not an old grandfatherly figure.  Shit.

This has stirred up a lot of stuff for me. How we protect our abusers by our silence, and how we are mentally manipulated by them so that the concept of right and wrong is twisted into something like a cheap candelabra pulled from the ruins of an incredibly hot fire.

I am not one to revel in the misfortunes of others, even when they brought those misfortunes – and this guilty verdict – upon themselves. Perhaps I should find more peace in justice. Perhaps part of my own issue is that my abuser died before I (or anyone else) could confront him. And his sins died with him, except in the minds and souls of those others (and I’m sure there were other, not just me) that he abused. There was no justice there.

I guess I will have to think on this some more.

In my new job, I do a lot of editing, mostly of my own writing or things I’ve adapted from our internal proposal library.  I don’t edit as well on-screen as I do from hard-copy – maybe I’m old-fashioned.  But at editing time, I leave cube-land and go curl up in a quasi-armchair, iPod going, San Pellegrino at hand.  My co-workers know my routine now. 

I usually use a red pen and don’t think twice about it. But today, on my quest for a highlighter, I found a box of red pencils.  Cool, I thought, I’ll take a red pencil.  It sharpened up to a killer point, and I sat down to work.  And suddenly, I was overcome.

Back when I was growing up, the universe had switched over to ballpoint pens only fairly recently.  People still used fountain pens.  The latest and greatest writing instrument innovation was the Flair pen.  My father always had half a dozen on his “butler”.  The red ones were my favorite – in fact, that’s what I used to write my numbers on the pale green wall above the sofa early one Sunday morning.

But teachers back in those days of yore did not use pens.  They used – you guessed it – red pencils.  As I held this innocuous instrument in my hand today, I was transported into the skins of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Jones, and my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Woods.  And into my own little 6-year-old self, getting back papers with red pencil marks on them.  Gold foil seals for a perfect paper,

 red seals for great,

 and blue seals for good work.

OK, not quite that kind of blue seal, but you get the picture.

Yes, having that red pencil in my hand gave me some kind of strange, secret teacher-power that I had never been able to tap into, only be subjected to by others throughout my early life.  It was a really interesting feeling.  I loved it.

So to all of you long-ago teachers and childhood authority figures, I now understand you a little bit better.  But I will use my new-found power with compassion and impunity.  And I think I’m going to stock up on colorful stickers.

Not as metaphysical as the title sounds.  I’ve been watching (on and off today) the Twilight Zone marathon on the SciFi Channel.   (And can anyone tell me why they changed it to the SyFy Channel?)  I remember almost all of these episodes from when I was little.  While the show only ran from 1959-1964, and I know we didn’t get a TV until around 1967, they must have been big in reruns on one of the three channels our TV got, back when I was very small. 

How do I know this?  Because many of my childhood fears were stimulated by the scenarios in the Twilight Zone.  I didn’t realize this until today, and it’s been an interesting trip down Repressed Memory Lane. 

The one Kelsea and I just watched was “The After Hours” about a department store mannequin who becomes human for a month and then has to return to mannequin status.  Those of you in my age group may recall that store mannequins back then were made to look human.  So different from what we see today, where mannequins are abstract, headless, wire, almost anything BUT human.  I personally believe retailers instituted this change because it was less expensive to manufacture generic mannequins, and because the humanity of the mannequin distracted shoppers from envisioning the clothing modelled by the mannequin on themselves.

But this TZ episode caused me to have a weird relationship with mannequins as a child.  I felt very sorry for the mannequin-turned-human-turned-back-to-mannequin on the show, empathetic child that I was, and it made me feel very compassionate towards mannequins in the department store.  To the extent that I used to like to put my trusting little hand in each mannequin’s, just to ensure that each knew that there was someone who cared – and who perhaps guessed at their secret humanity. 

I was broken of this affectionate gesture when I mistook a live woman who, for whatever reason, was standing very still, for a mannequin.  I slipped my hand in hers, and she turned to look down at me, and you can imagine the results.  I was shocked, surprised, terrified and embarrassed.  She was very nice about it, but my poor Mother had to deal with me burying my face in her skirts for the rest of the abbreviated shopping trip.  Between that episode and my pathological fear of the cage elevator in said department store, she had enough of our outing.

There are other episodes that burn dimly in my brain like a flickering light in the darkness that shines on something you don’t want to look at too closely.  It was a show that played on people’s psychology better than almost any other I’ve ever seen even to this day, and it was unafraid to have political overtones, which I now appreciate.  I think as a child, I learned a lot from The TZ – it made me ask questions. 

But it left me with some pretty strange answers.

Tobacco is the second largest cash crop in North Carolina.  (Marijuana is the first – similar growing conditions.)  My home state is the largest producer of tobacco in the USA.  Brightleaf tobacco, sweeter and milder than other available tobaccos, was a favorite of Civil War soldiers.  In fact, its popularity was a major contributing factor in the growth and development of the city of Durham, where I was born, with the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory being the first major factory in town in 1874. 

Bull Durham was a consolidation of rival tobacco producers, with the merger being initiated by the Duke family.  (Yes, THAT Duke family.)  This company morphed into American Tobacco, which was split by federal anti-trust laws into five separate companies in 1911.  By the time I came along, three were surviving and thriving in Durham: American Tobacco, Liggett & Myers, and R.J. Reynolds.

When I was very small, my parents took me to the tobacco auction.  I think we went for two years in a row – I must have been two or three for the first one.  I don’t recall that first auction at all, but my Mother told me that they put me up to sit on one of the high bales, and I cried because I was afraid I was going to get cancer from the tobacco.  Now, how bizarre is that, that a child of three would know that tobacco is a cause of cancer?  The second time we went, I remember enjoying myself, and I remember how strong the smell was. I always wanted to go back, but it seemed we couldn’t after that.  I don’t know if they stopped holding the auctions or if they just stopped being open to the public.  It’s funny to see the black and white photos, because my memories of the auction are in color.  Everything seemed sepia-tinged, the color of teeth stained from smoking for fifty years.

Driving to the beach, we would pass miles and miles of tobacco fields.  The leaves were indeed bright and lush and seemed as if they went on forever.  I was always amazed at the endless rows, stretching to the horizon.  I never saw anyone working the fields and wondered how they were tended, how they were harvested.  Tobacco was the first crop I could identify by sight.

In downtown Durham, that scent of tobacco was amazingly rich.  Pungent, sweet, smokey, fresh, it smelled like the color of spring green in the Crayola crayon box.  The yellow-green color of the tobacco in the fields was the color of the smell.  Driving under the L&M bridge walkway on Main Street, there were days when I would hold my nose until the smell was gone.  However, as a teenager, I found I loved the smell, practically basked in it when I was driving to work at the restaurant.

Most of the tobacco factories closed down before I left town.  American Tobacco was still open, and when I headed downtown for work after school, I had to be sure to avoid one particular street during shift change at the factory – so many people were crossing that it delayed me for ten minutes. 

That factory closed in the late 1980s, and was redesigned into offices and shops.  From a distance, I lamented the passing of this industry that gave birth to the town.  On the positive side, several organizations in Durham (and several developers – pardon me while I spit) have been dedicated to keeping the historic facades of the factories and warehouses alive, so that the character of certain parts of downtown have remained the same for nearly a century.  Old Liggett and Myers warehouses were turned into trendy condos, and old American Tobacco warehouses have been developed into Brightleaf Square, a mixed-use complex. 

The South’s devotion to retaining its architectural history is both impressive and pleasing.  Unlike many other areas of the county (the West in particular), the fact that a building is old does not necessarily mean that it needs to be torn down and replaced with something new.  No where else in the country have I seen so many hand-hewn barns and sheds, some canted crazily to one side or another, unused except as a support for rampant kudzu, but still revered for the significance of their past. 

(I suppose some could argue that the owners are just too lazy to tear them down, but I choose not to subscribe to that theory – I like my own better.)

I was living in Colorado by the time the movie “Bull Durham” came out, and I loved it.  I watched wistfully as Kevin Costner walked down Morgan Street in the dark, past the old tobacco barns turned into condos.  Parts of the movie were filmed at the old Durham Bulls Ballpark, which I’ll write about someday.  Talk about a ballpark with character.

Although it seemed as if almost everyone smoked in North Carolina, my parents didn’t.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  My Mother did for a short while before she met my Father, and again during a stressful period when she was in graduate school.  I never saw her smoke, but I discovered cigarettes in her purse one day when I was looking for change or gum or kleenex or something.  I felt as if I had discovered a betraying secret and it disturbed me terribly, so I had to ask her about it.  She wasn’t angry – she was open, but I think she asked me not to tell anyone.  It had been drilled into us that smoking was bad for you and a stupid idea.

I didn’t have my first cigarette until the night I graduated from college.  I smoked a couple of Marlboros as a peace-offering with a woman who had been cheating with my boyfriend.  I actually liked the taste, but I never felt the addictive elements.  (E-Bro is the same way.  He likes the taste, but could take or leave the whole smoking thing.  No nicotine addiction.  I wonder why?)  After that, I would have an occasional bummed cigarette when I was out in a bar.  I only bought one pack in my entire life and my cheating boyfriend smoked most of that.  I still have a pack that I found unopened at a catering event some 10 years ago.  Pat was a respiratory therapist in his youth, and so was an avid anti-smoker, but he would, on very rare occasions, have a puff of a cigarette to cure a severe case of the hiccups.  I have found that a teaspoon of sugar is a better and tastier cure. 

(I did smoke herbal cigarettes in college for a month or so, until I discovered that they were worse for you than regular cigarettes and I was asked to leave the student union because they thought I was smoking pot.)

I can’t remember the last time I smoked a cigarette.  Maybe it was a hit off of Bubba Sue’s a year or two ago.  But my last whole one?  Long, long before Kelsea was born.  I don’t miss it.  The Captain smoked, but that scent was just part of who he was, and I was never tempted when I was with him. 

Now, the occasional cigar…well, it’s been a long time since I had one of those either – mostly because I didn’t like tasting it for two days.  But in my business travelling days, Davidoff was my favorite brand, and I could only find them in a little cigar shop near Rockefeller Center in New York City.  I remember my first cigar.  But that too is a story for another time.

I’ve had North Carolina and Durham at the forefront of my mind lately, so I expect I’ll be writing more about growing up Southern.  It feels good.  And I like things that feel good these days.

Today is the day that the shot that started the Civil War was fired from Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  While this wasn’t one of the “shots heard round the world”, it was certainly a shot heard round the United States.

From a born and raised Southerner’s perspective, the Civil War has many layers of meaning and significance.  (Let me say here that I’m not a historian, so this isn’t going to be a history lesson. And I am fully aware of the failed and magical thinking of Southerners of previous generations, so don’t shoot the writer.)  The war was called many things – the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence – and to this day, when I go home to North Carolina, there are still traces.  The side of barn outside of Hampstead still bears a faded wall-sized Confederate flag.  Those flags appear on license plate holders of trucks, and on flagpoles outside of small old houses.  I still get the sense that the South is biding its time, waiting for the right time to strike – that the war isn’t really over – it’s just in hiatus.

In high school, which is when we first started studying the Civil War, we were taught that it was a war about economics – not about slavery (though slavery was inseparable from economics, wasn’t it?).  When slavery was discussed, the focus was not on the philosophy behind it, or even the politics surrounding it, but on the unfair portrayal of slavery and slave owners in histories created by non-Southerners.  I also had an English teacher in senior year who sent students out of the room if they said that the South lost the War.  Mention of Generals Grant and Sherman were not permitted in her presence.  But Robert E. Lee had achieved demigod status in her mind.

Back to the point of today’s post.  One lovely summer afternoon, I was wandering through the Virginia Military Institute Museum with a friend.  I peered into a glass case and gasped.  There was a photograph.  A photograph of a man who I’d known my whole life (until he died.)  What on earth was his picture doing here?  But wait, he looks a little different – he has long hair.  And the photograph is a tintype.  It’s not possible.  I’m so confused!  All that ran through my mind in about 5 seconds. When I found the caption for the image, I realized I’d been mistaken…but I’d been as close as could be.

Edmund Ruffin claimed (and many accept the claim) to have fired the first shot of the Civil War.  A farmer, writer, ardent believer in state’s rights, and Fire-Eater (a group of extreme pro-slavery activists), he was on the fringes of politics for his entire life.  He joined South Carolina troops at the age of 67, which is how he found himself at Fort Sumter for the historical moment.  While there is much debate about exactly what his role was in initiating the battle, it is definitely the case that he was present at the firing of the first cannon shot.

Where does this tie into my life?  My Mother worked for years for Edmund Ruffin’s grandson, a gastroenterologist in Durham.  Dr. Ruffin, a gruff, irascible soul (like his grandfather) had  a heart of gold, a green thumb passed down through generations, and a dry sense of humor.  Having lost my only grandfather at age 7, Dr. Ruffin served as a sort of surrogate grandfather (without the laps and snuggles – he was far too dignified and scary).  He had three daughters, a loving wife, and two faithful servants, a husband and wife couple.  I spent much time at his office at Duke Hospital (later at Croasdaile Clinic) and at his plantation-style red-brick house in town, which looked eerily similar to his ancestral home of Evelynton Plantation.

Behind his house, Dr. Ruffin had a garden.  This was no ordinary garden.  This was at least an acre of seemingly endless vegetables, and a lovely rose garden tended by Mrs. Ruffin.  E-Bro and I would go work in the garden in the summers, helping Dr. Ruffin tend the crops.  And these could legitimately be called crops.  He had rows of cucumbers growing on tall fences.  Vines heavy with green beans.  Corn, tall and golden. Onions and potatoes dug from the ground.  Yellow and pattypan squash. And more tomatoes than anyone could know what to do with.  (It never occurred to me to ask what he did with the harvest – I’m sure it was something good for the community – that’s the sort of man he was.)

Summer thunderstorms would chase us inside some afternoons, and the female half of the hired help would give us sandwiches and milk at the small kitchen table. I remember drinking out of the hose from the side of the house, the water icy cold and sparkling, with the metallic tang from the brass hose head.  Fresh mint and parsley grew alongside the house by the kitchen door.

I remember Mrs. Ruffin as looking coiffed and lovely.  Even though she may not have always worn pearls, she was one of those women who gave the impression that she was always wearing pearls.  Her rose garden had little benches and a pergola.  I used to try to smell each different type of rose – there must have been a hundred.  Even at that age, the adage “Take time to stop and smell the roses” was engrained in my little head.  Mrs. Ruffin developed Alzheimer’s, much to the family’s extreme sorrow, and passed away in a nearby nursing home.  I think it broke Dr. Ruffin’s heart.  I can’t imagine the pain inherent in being a physician yet being helpless to heal the one you love most.

To  this day, the smell of sun-warmed tomatoes on the vine takes me back to summers in Dr. Ruffin’s garden.  I still laugh at a particular memory:

E-Bro and I were picking tomatoes, and he found one that had been bored into by hornworms.  He took it over to Dr. Ruffin.  “What do I do with this?” he asked.  Dr. Ruffin said, “Well, you take it, and you take this one,” splatting a second such blighted fruit in his hand, “and you take them both down to the end of the row and you throw them over the fence.”  OK, it doesn’t seem to translate, but with the seriousness of his delivery, you’d have thought he was about to reveal some mystical gardening wisdom, not just instructions to toss tomatoes into the woods. Guess you had to be there.  I’m glad I was.

In 1865, Less than two months after Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, Edmund Ruffin wrote the following:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!”

He wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and shot himself in the head.  Some historians have described this as “the last shot of the Civil War.”

Edmund Ruffin and his grandson were both Southern Gentlemen, with a code of honor that is rapidly becoming a ghost of itself in the South today.  I could – and will – write about that concept of the Southern Gentleman, but not now.  Today, it’s overcast in Colorado, and I’m a long way from whatever home is now.  I’m feeling the need for a quest to reconnect with my roots and discover the directions in which they’ve spread, beneath and above the soil of my soul.

In other words, I’m ready to start something.

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