26 April 2011

Remembering Mama

Mother, Dad and me 1956

I’m not the one for all the ooey-gooey, mushy, sentimental crap that accompanies most holidays. In fact, when I used to shop for Mother’s Day cards when I lived in the States, each card only served to further enhance the taste of the puke at the back of my throat. Who the hell writes the crap they put in those cards?? By the time I finally found one that was acceptable I was milliseconds from violent projectile vomiting. It’s not that I’m not a nice guy. I’m about as nice, I reckon, as any old curmudgeon you’re likely to meet. But all that saccharine sweetness? If you were hoping to find it in this column, I reckon you've come to the goat’s house for wool. Consider this:
God made a wonderful mother,
A mother who never grows old;
He made her smile of the sunshine,
And He molded her heart of pure gold;
In her eyes He placed bright shining stars,
In her cheeks fair roses you see; 
God made a wonderful mother, 

And He gave that dear mother to me.

Don’t you just want to drive a rusty nail into your eye after reading it? God knows I do!

Thanks to Cousin Kaila for this picture of Mother
My mom has been a mother for nearly 56 years. Considering what I've put her through, the old girl is holding up pretty well. But it wasn't me only; don’t get that idea at all. No; we were three ‘door-step’ boys. Jim, Tony and Michael. But of course she and Dad screwed things up beginning in early 1959 when they started their second “litter”. Kathy, Dwayne and Bonita came along and suddenly things were never the same again. Dwayne was always sickly as a child and had to be handled “just so”. If we beat him up for some real or imagined reason we caught 49 kinds of hell for it because he was “delicate” and couldn't tolerate the roughness we older three dished out. What’s the point of having a baby brother if you can’t beat him up, play tricks on him and generally make his life a living hell?

Kathy was the first of the second bunch. Sadly, she didn’t last long. She died in her sleep. In those days we called it crib death. I think they call it SIDS now. Doesn’t really matter what they call it, the result is the same. I was only four when she was born, but I remember it like yesterday. Her skin was like alabaster and made all the more so by the shock of dark hair she sported on her head. She slept in a bassinette in my parents’ room. I never could say that word when I was a lad, so I called it Kathy’s basket. Sounded good to me! The day she died will be etched in my memory forever. Mother screamed like the very banshee when she discovered the little tyke wasn’t breathing. Her mother, who lived across the road heard her scream, even inside the house where she was making Granddaddy’s breakfast.

I’d never seen an old woman run before, but Nannie was dashing down the driveway lickety-split to see what had happened. I was pushed out of the room so I’ve no idea what transpired after that. The next thing I remember was being at the graveyard where they were putting her in the ground. That concept was far beyond my understanding. I was standing with Papaw Wright and I must have asked him fifty times why they were putting Sister in the ground. He just kept telling me to hush and be quiet, and I never did get an explanation for it. I was never able to understand why Sister wasn’t living with us anymore.

In subsequent years I have lost many friends and relatives. I was closer to some than to others. The grief that relentlessly grips your very soul is merciless. I cannot even begin to fathom the pain of losing a child to whom you have given life; for whom you had dreams and hopes. I do know it’s a pain that never leaves, because I can see it in the faces of both my parents. It happened to them twice. My brother, Tony died at the tender age of 16. That was 38 years ago. We all still feel that pain, but I don’t even want to know how it feels to Mother and Dad.

Life quickly got back to it’s normal pace, as it must. We three older boys now had a new brother to torture. It wasn’t that we actually wanted to torture the little feller but circumstances just begged for it. As I look back now, I reckon the torture was even harder on Mother than it was on Dwayne because she tried her best to shield him from us. But, you just know there’s no escape from three demon kids who suddenly have a whipping boy. O happy day!

A couple of years later Bonita came along. Dad let us go with him to hospital to collect Mother and the new girl. The excitement was almost palpable! A GIRL!!!! We’d never had one we could keep before! I was standing, looking over Mother’s shoulder at Bonita as she looked round exploring her new world. I asked Mother “Did you name her Kathy?” That must have been a painful question for her, but how does a boy of 7 know that? She explained the new one was going to be called Bonita. I was oldest and she was youngest, and the only girl. I think I formed a bond with her from that moment. I felt I had to protect her from everything…especially Mother and her infamous ‘hickory’. As we have begun to age somewhat, Bonita assumed the role of my protector. Interesting how those things change, isn’t it?

Did I mention a hickory? Some people called them ‘switches’. Even as a boy I thought that name was far, far too benign. A hickory now, in Mother’s hand became a non-lethal weapon. Funny I should call it “non-lethal” now that I’m approaching my dotage. When we were kids we saw nothing “non” lethal about it. It had, in our minds, all the potential of killing, maiming and utter destruction. Mother could snap a keen branch from a bush and with a “pffffft!” sound, skim the tender leaves off it in under one second. I don’t know until this day how the hell she did it! With each step she made toward us she swished the hickory so it made a high, keen whisssssss sound as it cut through the air. That sound held the promise of pain of the most exquisite kind! We never wore shirts or pants in those days; only little tiny shorts or panty-like things. Oh, she could move that hickory up and down the length of your body so that no portion of your posterior aspect, from shoulders to ankles, could escape the stripes! She grabbed the hand or forearm of her current victim with her left hand and with the hateful stick in her right, the beatings commenced! Of course we tried to run but it only had the effect of causing her to spin in circles as she meted out her punishment. Now, this was actual, physical punishment. Much as we dreaded it, much as we knew it was inevitable (thanks to our antics), there was another punishment we were never quite clear about. Believe it or not, we three boys would sit on the ground and discuss whether it was actually possible for Mother to “slap the hot wax” out of us. It was one of her favorite threats. We agreed none of us had eaten any candles that we could remember, but on the other hand we had chewed many honeycombs after the beehives were harvested. Could it be that there was wax still in us, and could be slapped out? Being unable to resolve this mystery we sometimes moved onto another threat. Western television programs like Bonanza and Gunsmoke told us that Mother really could “slap you to sleep” if she really wanted to. I think we feared this one most because we’d seen Matt Dillon and Hoss Cartwright do just that very thing! It was resolved by the “council of three” that of the three threats; “I’ll slap the hot water out of you!”, “I’ll slap you to sleep” and “I’ll slap the hot wax out of you!”, only two were actually feasible. When she occasionally told us she would slap us into next week, we assumed it was an extension of being slapped to sleep… it would just take a week to regain consciousness.

Mother and Dad at Bonita's house 2008
Whilst I am on the subject of punishment, I have to tell you that Mother had a very interesting theory. As I mentioned, we were three boys who were constantly together and constantly getting up to everything our wild imaginations led us to. Occasionally… OK, frequently our adventures weren't unanimously agreed and led to fights. At other times, one or the other of us would go off on his own to experience his own adventure. But, the theme of all these adventures is that they always led to trouble. That takes us to Mother’s theory on corporal punishment. He idea was that if one of us did something that warranted the hickory (a “whupping”), it stood to reason the other two were involved. Since each of us did something pretty much every day that was on Mother’s list of crimes, we could usually count on a minimum of three whuppings a day! You’d think that would keep us in line, wouldn't you? Think again. Before I leave “Norma Grace’s Chamber of Horrors” I must mention that every now and then she felt the need to punish Bonita. Can you imagine that? The only girl we ever had and she wanted to “take the hickory to her” for some imagined infraction! Well, don’t you think for one minute that we three brothers were going to stand for that! Since a frontal attack was obviously out of the question, we would grab Bonita whilst Mother was selecting her instrument of punishment and slip out the back of the house. Once outside, we picked her up and ran for the woods like the devil was on our heels. We always kept her hidden out until Mother’s anger had subsided, or Dad came home from work, whichever came first. Hell, Dad was as protective of Bonita as we were, so we knew when he came home that was the “all clear” signal. To this very day, when we are all together as a family we invariably rehash our memories of these and a million other things and get some really good belly laughs and revel in the affection we feel for one another. Mother of course, through her giggles, laughs and smiles good-naturedly denies any and all of the stories. But, these stories bind us together as family and reaffirm the love we share.

As I review this column, I see I’ve spent what may be seen as an inordinate amount of ink on punishment. Truth to tell, these are some of the funniest stories of our growing up years. Our entire family tells and re-tells these stories and virtually dissolve in laughter! I wonder if I had to raise five kids during the 1950s and 60s how I would have done it. After years of consideration I’ve reached the conclusion that I would beat the hell out of them and then slap the hot wax out of them!

Mother and Dad 2010
As we grew, and the family grew other extended family members sometimes came to stay with us “for awhile”. Sometimes they stayed a week, sometimes a month and on a couple of occasions more than a year. As I remember those times now, it makes me realize what Mother is made of. Naturally, since we were just kids Mother was mostly a pain in the ass, but with a flash of kindness here and there. I reckon all young kids feel that way. But, when the relatives “came a’visiting” Mother always made sure that the meagre goods in the cupboards and pantries were stretched enough to ensure everyone was fed. First, and above all, she made biscuits that were feather light; and she made loads of them! A working man, a couple of women and anywhere from 8 to 15 kids can “hide some groceries”! Mother’s biscuit pan was an ancient baking sheet that would hold 48 of her biscuits. She made that pan filled with biscuits two and three times a day. If the crowd was bigger, she would make two pans for each meal! The meals themselves were simple affairs. We have a family joke that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday we had “beans and taters”. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we had “taters and beans”. In reality, though she took what she had and made it work. No one left the table hungry and no one could ever say my parents were stingy. They shared what they had and shared it gladly. The example set my Mother and Dad has been firmly embedded in the psyche of each of us kids. For example, I have never in my life known a more generous and caring person than my sister, Bonita. Where did she learn that? She learned it by seeing how our parents lived and practiced ‘Southern Hospitality’. Now, the traditions and values of our parents are being passed to Bonita’s daughters.

Mother and Aunt Frances 2010

Many, many times over the years Mother and I disagreed, argued, and had ‘heated discussions’. When it comes to religion, politics, lifestyle and a hundred other things we still disagree and I’m certain we always will. We both have habits the other doesn't like. She does things I hate. I do things she hates. For many years I did my best to avoid any conversation with her. I regret those times because I’ll never know what I missed by avoiding them. Through it all, she has been true to her maternal feelings for me. There were so many perceived errors, on my part, that I tried to hold against her. As in any parent-child relationship things happened, things were said that were hurtful. Rather than let them go, I nurtured them as though they were my children. Without realizing it, when I nurtured those hurts they were covering the affection I should have been feeling. Eventually, they could have obliterated it. I’m grateful that didn't happen. There comes a time in a man’s life when he should let go of the past. Sadly, for me it happened later than it should’ve.

Mother, Cousin Sheila, Aunt Frances 2010
Interacting with Mother as an adult, without resentments and unforgiveness, has been an experience more rewarding than I ever would have imagined. We share memories and laughs. I can tell her a joke that’s just a bit off-color and there’s no embarrassment. Or, as often happens, we can just chat about the commonplace events and people and enjoy a camaraderie that was too long coming. Ironically, now that I have moved to the other side of the planet, we chat even more than ever, thanks to the internet. I almost feel like we are physically together when we chat like this. It’s a “warm and fuzzy” feeling I’m still not fully accustomed to (you know, curmudgeons don't do "warm and fuzzy"). The most important part of dealing with Mother as an adult is that I can tell her I love her and mean it without reservation. I can say “I love you, Mother” without the childish expectation of a gift or praise. I know she accepts the sentiment as her (over)due and that she returns it in the same spirit.

Happy Mother’s Day, Norma Grace!
Aunt Frances, Mary Frances, Mother

Mother, Angel's wedding

She's about to say something, but....what the hell is it??

Mother at Angel's wedding

Dad, Angel, Mother

Bonita, Dad, Angel, Mother, Jerry

Who'da thought it? The whole gang: Michael, Bonita, Dad, Mother, Dwayne, Jim

Ashley, Angel, Lacey
Michael, Bonita, Dad, Mother, Dwayne, Jim

Boy, I'll slap the hot wax outta you! (I hope she's saying it to Dwayne!)

Mother's smile engulfs her entire face

Aunt Barbara, Mary Frances, the back of Aunt Grace's wig, some girl, Bonita

Angel, Lacey, Dad, Me, Mother, Bonita

Mother and Bonita

05 April 2011

Ol' Big Jim's Place

Ol' Big Jim's Place

Wadi al-Seer

Thanks to the urging of my friend Brian who has an excellent blog called Pilgrim Without a Shrine, I finally made it up to Wadi al-Seer a few days ago. The spring weather was just beautiful with an achingly blue sky and a few puffy clouds scuttling lazily across. Thanks to the recent rains the grass and vegetation was breathtaking! So much green! I had quite forgotten how much I love the green of nature back in Alabama.

The drive up from Amman was pleasant enough, but once we left the highway it was stunning! We traveled several kilometers along a one lane track with grass growing in the middle. Along both sides were the ever-present stone walls separating fields and grazing areas. The grass was thick and lush and the sheep and goats were visibly enjoying the sweet taste. At last we arrived at the castle, Qasr Iraq al-Amir.

This castle was built by Hyrcanus, a member of the locally powerful Tobiad dynasty in 2nd century BCE following his expulsion from Jerusalem.

The historian Josephus described it in his Antiquities XII, 230 as a strong fortress constructed entirely of white marble up to the roof, with beasts of gigantic size carved on it. He reported that it was called Tyros (Greek; mountain, or rock) which translates to Seer in Arabic. So, it is from this name that the local valley gets its name...Wadi al-Seer.

Over the years there was a great deal of debate over the utility of the site. Some scholars contended it was a palace, others a temple, and still others a combination of the two. Nowadays, most agree that it was in fact, a palace. The tiny rooms at the ground floor were almost certainly storage areas. The upper floor was used for living space and religious functions. It is believed that the palace was part of a large estate, surrounded by a lake or reflecting pools with a network of aqueducts to supply water to the fields and orchards.

Upon being defeated by the Seleucid forces of Antiochus IV in 175 BCE, Hyrcanus committed suicide. Qasr al-Abd was still uncompleted. Soon after his death the Tobiad dynasty appears to have died out.

The building was occupied and substantially modified during the Byzantine period. It is believed to have been a monastic settlement. in 362 CE the palace was completely destroyed by earthquake.

Notice the hole in the lion's mouth similar to the panther on the other side of the building. I believe these were fountains.

Nowadays the Qasr is occupied by pigeons and lizards

A great deal of rubble still lying about
Ruined columns

Interior view, showing some of the storage rooms

Notice the vines growing in a defect in the marble

A half-buried pediment. Note how sharp some of the carving is after 2300 years!

Fields near the Qasr that are filled with beautiful poppies

Enjoying her day off
Altogether, it was a grand day. The castle is only about half-hour or so drive from Amman and the villagers there are very friendly. As we drive through the tiny villages people in the streets would wave and shout greetings to us. Arab people are, without a doubt, some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.