Uncle Willie

We lost one today.  A 90-year-old link to the past.  My Uncle Willie.  He remembered the stories, the old stories…of his grandparents moving across Tennessee when TVA flooded their valley, of the hungry Indians coming to their door asking for food when no one had any.  He was married twice, seven kids.  And alone at the end.

His house sits on brick-o-blocks.  On a back road, off a back road, in a forgotten part of Tennessee.  Not even a house number.   It’s the same house he’s lived in for 60 years or more.

Every winter morning, he went to his front porch and got wood for the cast iron stove that heated the house.  Everyday he wore overalls, sipped his coffee, scraped his plate and looked out the window into the back field, the field where his cows used to graze.  His voice grew quiet, raspy, from lack of talking.

Every Saturday he drove 40 miles to go dancing.  He had several pairs of cowboy boots for “the dancing”, each pair still kept in the original plastic wrap and box.

Uncle Willie was a dreamer, sentimental.  He kept the family photos, the old Bible.  He talked about the photos, the old times.  His blue eyes twinkled and he grinned, a mischievous smile.  Maybe in his mind he was still 21.

He wanted a woman’s touch, her attention.  Someone at the dances.  He kept her photo on a shelf by the door.  No one had met her.  He built an addition on his house.  Something to do, maybe.  It was for her, maybe.  It was nicer, lighter, with white carpet and a fancy bathroom.  She never came.  He cried when he spoke of her.

I hadn’t seen Uncle Willie for maybe 20 years.  Then in the fall of 2013, I visited with my father.  We laughed, we talked.  I found something familiar in him.  I photographed him.  I went again on Easter 2015.  I filmed him, his voice a bare whisper.  His attention seemed parsed, distracted by the thought of the woman.  I asked him about the past, about his mother, his father, his childhood.  My dad sat beside him and inserted little details along the way.   Uncle Willie’s cloudy blue eyes watered as he told the tales.

I last saw him at the end of September 2015, when we celebrated with an early birthday party.  In December he would turn 90, my Dad would turn 80.  He was in good form.  Laughing.  Joking.  Enjoying the attention.  His blue eyes glimmered with that old light.  He had new boots.  He had a gadget for helping him to take off his boots without touching them, and he demonstrated it for me.

We made plans to get together in the spring.  For another party, for dancing.  He told me that it would keep him alive, to think of that.

Uncle Willie passed away at 3:30 a.m. today, February 27, 2016.

Uncle Willie lights the old stove in his home in Tennessee.
Uncle Willie treasured this old photo of his grandparents.
Uncle Willie is proud of his boots. He has 9 pairs of cowboy boots, pristine, ready for a night at the dance hall.
Uncle Willie is proud of his boots. He has 9 pairs of cowboy boots, pristine, ready for a night at the dance hall.
Uncle Willie
Uncle Willie in his living room.
kitchen calendars farm
In the kitchen.
Uncle Willie
In the kitchen.
The back field.
Uncle Willie’s house.
The addition
The addition
The addition, living room
The addition, living room
Family Bible
Family Bible
Three Fletchers
Three Fletchers
Willie at his early 90th party
Willie at his early 90th party
Uncle Willie demonstrates his boot-remover contraption.
Uncle Willie demonstrates his boot-remover contraption.
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It’s been a hard year.  We’ve lost a number of family members and dear friends.  Had job changes.  Experienced new aches and pains.  Dealt with little annoyances like losing an iPad and a coat (how does that happen??  Are our minds slipping?!)  And we’ve suffered through continuing bouts of ennui and this great restlessness.  A combination of things that leaves our hearts hurting, our thoughts scattered and worried, our confidence tested, and our energy exhausted.

We wonder, how many more Christmases will we have?  How many more summers?  How many more times will I get to hug this person–or hear that story again–or ask those questions?  How many more times can I say “next time, we’ll do that” –before there is no “next time”?  So, this Christmas, when I went home to Nashville to see my Mom and Dad, I also made plans to see some extended family–people I love, and used to spend more time with, but who I don’t have a lot of chances to see on quick visits home from Chicago.  It was good.  We shared laughter, stories, meals.  I need more of this.  And I have made a promise to myself to do more of it in 2015, and make it count.

I also spent a little time driving around Nashville…visiting some places I love…places that are scratched into my memory.  Former homes, old neighborhoods, favorite streets and parks.  Maybe I only spent a little time there–or maybe a lot.  But these places remain in my heart.  And while I can see them –any day– when I close my eyes, I wanted to touch them again.  It was good.  This too, I need more of.

Things change.  Buildings get knocked down.  Trees get cut down.  We change.  People move in and out of our lives.  It hurts sometimes.  And while we can’t always see them anymore, they live on in our memories.  And there is this magical kind of peace and grace in remembering those memories, and visiting those old places.

So, here’s to peace, and to a new year spent making good memories.  Happy New Year!

sledding hill
This is my old street and the neighborhood’s best sledding hill. When Nashville got snow, this hill was covered with kids and sleds. If you had good slick snow and a strong push off at the top of the hill, you could make it all the way to Valleywood.
This place will always keep a few pieces of my heart.  My precious grandmother passed away there.  Three dogs are buried in the backyard, along with two pet turtles, three goldfish, and a few wild birds.  Those two strong maples were plucked from the woods by my father and grandfather–planted in the little front yard of our other house and then moved to this yard as saplings.
Shelby Avenue old tree and old house
Roots and foundations on Shelby Avenue.
Pond by the Parthenon
Gone are the paddle boats and swans:  The Parthenon’s pond in Centennial Park
Centennial Park Swing
Centennial Park Swings:  These are the best swings in the world. It’s all in the footboard…
Elliston Place Restaurant Diner
Neon sign from the old fashioned soda shop on Elliston Place. Milkshakes and grilled cheese…yum.
Exit/In wild posting by Krispy Kreme
Exit/In brought the music to the locals. And in a town like Nashville–“special guests” could mean a Rolling Stone, a Beatle or Johnny Cash.
Train tracks over the Cumberland
My grandparents had tomato plants…lots of tomato plants in their tiny backyard. One summer, they came to this spot in Shelby Park every day to dig dirt–buckets of good dark river dirt.  We’d go home each day with 4-5 big buckets of Shelby Park dirt for those tomato plants in the trunk of their car.
Long Avenue dead ends into Shelby Park
I once flew in a red wagon down Long Avenue’s alley hill into Shelby Park–zooming with more speed than control–with my laughing and elderly Aunt Tiller.  “Don’t you take that baby down that hill Tiller!”, my grandmother yelled from the kitchen window.  “Wave at her,” my Aunt Tiller whispered in my ear as she kicked the wagon into motion.
Spring Hill Cemetery
One of the most peaceful places I know. The tree in Spring Hill beneath which my grandparents rest.
Fletcher's Shoes
Daddy’s shoe shop, closing early on a rainy Christmas Eve’s Eve:  No matter where I am, I think of him whenever I smell shoe leather—or wear my Converse with no arch support.
Sage dressing
“More sage!”:  says my step-dad Marvin every time we test Mama’s homemade dressing.
Christmas Eve
Bill Monroe sings, “Christmastime’s a comin’, and I know I’m going home”:  There is a special comfort in being at Mama’s house on Christmas Eve. The smell of dressing and vegetables cooking, the lights on the tree twinkling on the bows & ribbons below, and you know that after eating, you’ll sit in that room chattering for a few welcome hours.
Awaiting the holiday meal
Anticipation:  Setting the table with the holiday china and Mama’s place cards for the Christmas Eve feast.
kitchen bar with christmas tree and microwave
Later at Daddy’s house:  We sit at the kitchen bar and talk about old family photos, health, and those little Christmas trees Aunt Robbie made all those years ago.


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Traveling in Rural Tennessee

Abandoned Motel, Tennessee, rural roads
Pre-interstate, Nolensville Road was the main route from Nashville south to Georgia. Along the route are many empty little hotels.
Chimney, stone, cedar, tree, abandoned, rural road
Framed by cedars, an old chimney still stands on this old farm in Tennessee.
Keep Out sign, Hickory tree, rural Tennessee
The Keep Out tree.
See Rock City, barn, rural Tennessee
Years ago, Rock City figured out a way to advertise all over the rural South…paint “See Rock City” on as many barns as possible.
Estill Springs, Tennessee, rural roads
A lonely road in rural Tennessee.
Trash, bag, rural Tennessee
A black trash bag along the road in Estill Springs, TN…litter?  or a sign of roadside clean up?

Early one morning, two days after Thanksgiving, my best friend and I met to go on a photo jaunt.   When I’m home, it’s a tradition for us to meet early in the morning when the sun is coming and the mist is still fogging over the roads, and head off into the wilds of Tennessee.  We are Nashville-raised girls–so these old roads, falling down barns, abandoned buildings, lonely graveyards and remote train tracks draw us to them like birds to a nest.  We drive for a while, jabbering about our lives, and stopping every few miles for some shots of something that speaks to us.  Later, we stop in some little diner for a late breakfast before hightailing it back to town.  These scenes, these drives, these little traditions remind me of what matters in life….family and friends, and roads to be traveled.

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6 hours on the Road for 5 hours in Memphis, TN

Five hours in Memphis, Tennessee on Friday, April 28, 2006

This quick trip was designed around 3 things: the Maxfield Parrish exhibit at the Brooks Museum, Sun Studios and BBQ ribs.

We left Nashville around 8 a.m. on a Friday and pulled into Memphis a clean 3 hours later. First stop, the Brooks Museum to see the Maxfield Parrish exhibit.

Maxfield Parrish’s work is a wonder of colors and details. It’s full, dreamy, magical. Blues of every nuance…and that’s just the mass produced prints. Standing in front of the actual 1922 Daybreak oil on panel was like looking into a window of heaven. Blue, violet, periwinkle, cerulean, lavender, mauve and the light. It was as stunning 10 feet away as it was with my nose nearly pressed against the glass.

Some things I learned: Parrish never mixed colors, he instead painted in layers–60+ sometimes–layering in gouache, glaze and more color. He photographed friends and family in the poses and then sketched them onto his paintings to get the details. And he kept rocks in his studio to “model” for the backgrounds. He was a perfectionist with an eye for light, color and nature–and a keen sense of humor. He aspired to be considered more a fine art creator versus being the illustrator.

Next stop was Sun Studios: recording home to Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash during the 1950s. The studio tour starts with a memorabilia tour next door. They have early recording equipment, scratchy recordings of Howlin Wolf, Elvis, Johnny Cash and more. Plus, they have Elvis’ social security card and high school diploma (on loan from Graceland), and some pre Ed Sullivan video of Elvis’ hip shaking. Back downstairs, you enter the Sun Studio reception room from the side. The studio itself is behind the reception room. It’s much smaller than I’d imagined. But not so difficult to imagine a young Elvis coming in one afternoon to record a song for his mother. The very intuitive receptionist, running the studio solo that afternoon, smartly made a copy of Elvis’ first recording for her boss Sam Phillips. It’s the stuff of legends! Old microphones, pianos, photos, and guitars line the walls. And it is still a recording studio…for $75/hour, you too can record at Sun!

Next stop, Blues City Cafe on Beale St. for ribs. A no-nonsense kind of place with huge portions. The full rack of ribs was moderately priced and some of the meatiest ribs we’ve ever seen.

We walked down a few blocks to pay our respects to the mighty Mississippi River and then headed east on I-40 back to Nashville. Wishing we could have spent the night on Beale St…they were gearing up for that music in the streets. Next time…

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