“I’ll be going to the poorhouse soon.” I used to hear people say this when some unexpected expense came up. A hardship. An appliance broke, the house needed a new roof, the cost of gas went up. Something they couldn’t readily afford. I even said it myself. When the kids needed braces. When Air Jordan basketball shoes came out. When the baby son wanted guitar lessons and drum lessons at the same time.
If you’re of a certain young age, you may not know about poorhouses. Or what that common expression meant. Counties ran poorhouses, back decades ago, and people down on their luck would have to go and live there and work on the county farm that surrounded the dismal building where they all slept in common quarters. The poor, the old, the young not born normal physically or mentally.
The poorhouse in my county was on Highway 8 going west out of Cleveland toward Rosedale and the Mississippi River. It was set back with cropland around it for the poorhouse folks to work on so they could eat.
The youth group from First Baptist visited the county farm and the poorhouse one Sunday afternoon back in the mid-1960s. We rode out there on our green church bus, in our crisp and clean and neatly ironed cotton dresses and Oxford-cloth shirts and shiny Weejuns and shiny hair. I don’t remember why we went. Maybe it was to see, for educational purposes, how America took care of her poor, as in it was a good thing. We put them away and kept them up on county-run land to live among other hard-pressed souls with nothing and no hope. Or maybe it was to take them an hour of our joy, a smile, and a good word that Jesus loves them, too, and God is good all the time.
I remember two things about that day. One, the common room where these poor folks lived together, families and singles mixed, and the frightful darkness, and all the little beds, and all the blankets turned brown with age or filth. Two, it was not just for old folks left behind, or for middle-aged folks who ran into debt and had no place else to go, but there was a young man not much older than I who lived there. A boy, a kid. Someone’s child. Someone had to put their child there. He didn’t fit in with society. He wasn’t born perfect to the standards of society, mentally or physically. He couldn’t go to school and learn like the other children. His family had to work and couldn’t take care of his needs. Sticking him there was their only choice, where he would live out his days lying in that bed in his own stench with his mouth open, no sunlight, no fresh air to breathe, no one to talk to or care, no future, no hope.
All the years that have gone by since, and I still remember the scene of my young self standing in that dark, dank, dirty, smelly room with low beds and filthy covers, and I can still see that boy lying in bed because he wasn’t like the rest of us and he didn’t fit in. I guess he was considered a burden to society and to his family.
I see commercials on TV now showing dogs neglected and abandoned. They bring tears to our eyes and prompt us to donate for the care of these poor little animals.
I see news on TV now that tells of the coming cuts for services to disabled children, to education and special education, to Special Olympics, Medicaid, and insurance that protects pre-existing conditions. Why does America go after the poor, the ill, the disabled? People, that is. We’ll jump in and take care of dogs. I think of that boy in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and the bleakness and nothingness of his existence back in the time before none of these services were provided in the name of mercy and compassion.
I see a new America now trying hard to be the land for the rich, the healthy, the ones born perfect mentally and physically.
We’re going back to the poorhouse days.
Finished my novel (first draft)
Traveled to the beach four (4) times
Walked in the Nashville Women’s March
Took my granddaughter to a lookout on the Pedestrian Bridge in downtown Nashville and showed her where I made history by participating in the first Women’s March in 2017
Wrote a seven-thousand word essay
Met family in Destin, then spent a day and night there alone with my dog
Planted a butterfly garden, with butterfly lights, a house, a bath
Tried for the first time planting a vegetable garden in containers
Made eggplant parmesan for the first time
Visited the Biltmore in Asheville and attended a lecture by one of the “Hidden Figures”
Took yoga, spin, and barre classes
Provided river tonnage statistics for the governor of Ohio
Wrote a poem for the re-marriage ceremony for my son and daughter-in-law
Hosted a wedding reception for the above two
Went to a Titans game for the first time in a lot of years
Went kayaking on the Duck and hiking at Timberland Park
Went to Art Crawls and book festivals (three!)
Went to a play at Chaffin’s Barn
Chose titers for my dog instead of re-vaccinations
Said goodbye to a longtime friend (and missed our lunches at Chop House and talk about poetry and essays)
Saw my grandson make his first touchdown—a 65-yard run!
Hosted Thanksgiving for seven
Reached a milestone of ten years following the loss of my husband
Stepping into 2019!
I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.
I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.
In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.
I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.
Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.
Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.
And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.
Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:
“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”
The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.
* * *
It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.
I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.
I descend from immigrants.
My fourth great grandfather came here from Ireland. My third great grandfather fought in the resistance and revolution to separate this land from Britain and establish a new country of immigrants. At the end of the war he fought on the frontier, tracking and killing native people, the originals who owned this land.
Two hundred forty years ago today, John Mahaffey signed up to fight for America’s independence.
Here’s what happened to some of America’s first heroes, now rock-stone and dusty bone stiff and piled up in a quiet graveyard of Revolutionary soldiers in Ohio.
Here is the original stone for my Revolutionary era ancestor.
Granted, John Mahaffey did get a new tombstone.
John Mahaffey was born August 31, 1759, in Sussex County, New Jersey, one of seven sons of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Moses and Jennet McIntyre Mahaffey. In the fall of 1774, at the age of 15, John moved with his parents to Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where they resided two years. In the spring of 1776, near the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in nearby Philadelphia, in his seventeenth year, John accompanied his parents to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
The War of Independence began in 1775. John Mahaffey served four voluntary terms, totaling twenty-five months, during the War of the Revolution.
John was almost nineteen years of age when, on July 3, 1778, he originally enlisted for four months. He volunteered for two seven-month periods in April, 1779, and in April, 1780, serving as a “spy or ranger, watching the Indians and giving the earliest information on the approach of the Indians.” During the year 1779, in the frontier settlements of Pennsylvania, British Loyalists and Indians attacked American settlers. The Loyalists soon were defeated, and Americans destroyed many Indian villages whose residents were fighting on the side of the British. The British surrendered October 19, 1781. America was officially independent.
John Mahaffey’s blood now runs through my veins. I take after him. I stand up for this country. I will resist anything that makes her less and harms her, that which keeps us from worshiping in the religion of our choice, that which makes us less equal and takes us toward authoritarianism.
Last week I went to the eye doctor. As expected, I had to fill out a standard medical form—you know, the one where they ask your name and age, medical history, insurance information, and social history. The form that’s not really important because nobody ever looks at it. So I did on this form the same thing I have done on all forms for ten years. I left the Social History blank. I refused to check a box.
Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.
Nope. None of their business. It’s odd how I picked this one little thing to have an attitude on. If they added a box that said All the Above, I might’ve checked it. But I refuse to check the appropriate little white square sitting beside the “W” word. If they really care, they’ll ask, and then they’ll get a piece of my mind.
Once a nurse did ask. “My husband is deceased,” I answered. I got shot a look that said, There’s a box for that, to which I replied, “I refuse to be labeled that word.” My look back said, Don’t mess with this.
Ten years ago today, after thirty-six hours of surgeries on my husband, I became that…that word I abhor. After all the heroic efforts by surgeons, the not being able to pink him up, the flatline, he went, and I was left with a social status I didn’t understand and didn’t want. That was the visual summary of the chaos I was thrown into, like a rag doll in a wind strong enough to blow the seams apart, a wind strong enough to blow the accumulated dust out of it, a wind strong enough to blow the red stitched smile right off its face.
Picking out one insignificant thing to take a position on, while holding on to the only self I knew, was within my rights, I figured. It was one simple way I could keep some control of my life, which was in splinters up in the air in a tornadic swirl of dust and debris and cloud and earth particles.
That is one of the important things I learned after my husband died. State what you need and want. If something bothers you, let it be known. (Be reasonable, be firm, and don’t be unkind in your positioning.) If it doesn’t hurt anybody, hold to it. Take some control where you can. Because you’re going to be tossed, bruised, banged around on many fronts. Getting the steam of grief out where you can is important to healing.
My husband always told me that if anything ever happened to him, I’d get married again, fast. I always came back with, No, I’ll get a yellow lab. Well, something happened to him. Ten years ago today he had an aortic dissection, throat to groin. He had surgery at Williamson Medical and then was life-flighted to Vanderbilt for two more surgeries. He died during the third.
I dated someone for about five years…and he died.
I did not get a yellow lab. I got a yellow cocker spaniel.
Life can come at us fast. Loss wrings us out. Losing someone who lives in your house every day, someone you depend on for the life you’re accustomed to living, someone you’ve built a history with, someone you’re joined to physically, emotionally, and mentally, is about the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I say “about” because I’m thinking losing a child is in that “hardest” category, too.
One of the key figures in my grief journey was my friend, Nancy Fletcher-Blume, whom we buried Monday. About two weeks after Charlie died, the shock started wearing off. I could feel my skin peeling up at the edges and exposing the raw bloody tissue under it…and a pain greater than any I’ve ever felt, a pain far greater than I could bear. I still remember the exact moment I thought, “I don’t have to feel this pain.” I’m not sure where that came from, but I instantly knew it was a thought of suicide and I didn’t need to be having it. This is a normal thought, but we have to get control of it quickly.
I called Nancy. She’d lost a husband and two sons, one just a few years earlier. I knew she’d had counseling, and I asked her who she went to. I told her I needed help. She took the ball and ran with it. She called her church and set me up with the family counselor. She told me when and where to go. I did. And that was the beginning of taking back some control in this new wild and mean and chaotic world I was living in. And for months and even years after, Nancy told me, Take care of you. And in many ways, without even knowing it, she showed me how.
After five years on my grief journey, I published a book about my loss, about my experience with grief, about my path from “our” to “my.”
And now, ten years. And it’s my house, my car, my decisions, my job, my dog, my choices. There have been some happy and satisfying moments, and there are some lonely moments. There are still the familiar “four walls” and then there’s the example of Nancy telling me to take care of me by getting out of the closed-in, isolated-from-people space. Sometimes I’m happy being there. That’s a good thing for my writing and editing. Sometimes I’m not. Do you know what it’s like to not talk to another human being for five days running?
That’s why I’ve got to be proactive, to take steps to make sure I am out and among people.
Maybe it’s time to explore ten years of changes and discoveries and growth along that road after loss. I have an opportunity to watch others as they negotiate this path. Nancy was one of them. I share this status with four others I’m with regularly. How do we live alone for the rest of our lives?
How do we live alone meaningfully?
My son worries about me and tells me not to write gloom and doom on Facebook all the time. Well, hell, that’s what life has given. I’m in it whether I write about it or not. Writing about it lets me process it and live this life more effectively, and if by chance I can speak to someone else along the way, then that’s good. That is fulfilling my life’s calling.