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This article is an old book and old movie lover’s dream. Names like Woolf, Dickens, Forster, and Bronte are scattered throughout, like beautiful, slow burning leaves flavoring autumn with their timeless scent. Their related books are the crispness in the air. Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, Mrs. Ramsey, her family and their guests, Mr. Wilcox and his younger bride overshadowed by his late wife…these are the people of some of my favorite literary treasures. They all leave their footprints preserved in this article, along with the houses that serve, in their way, as characters as well. Some of the houses that inspired stories like Howards End, Rebecca, and Jane Eyre are described in a way that brings back memories of reading the novels and wanting to read them again. My favorite segment is about Talland House that inspired Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. There’s a black and white picture of the actual house that makes me wish I was in Cornwall, so I could photograph it myself and perhaps look to the lighthouse from the garden. Some of the article’s descriptions evoke imagery from the books or scenes from screen adaptations. Reading it is a mental tour through cherished places brought to life by authors with often surprising connections to their characters’ homes. 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/29/pemberley-manderley-howards-end-real-building-fictional-houses?CMP=twt_gu

My mom died a year ago today. I’ve been trying to think of how to best mark this sad anniversary here. It’s tempting to devote this post to how wonderful she was. Remarkably. How much I miss her. Terribly. How there’s a hole in my life that will be with me forever. How I’ve managed to stumble and stagger my way back into my writing life, eventually writing every day for  almost three months to finish a brand new novella. How proud she’d be of me for that and for intending to live the best life I can in honor of her steadfast faith in my dreams and ambitions, and the unconditional love she gave me every day of my life.

So, in that brief paragraph, I gave in to the temptation. And now I’m going to tell a story that incorporates several she told me many times. Some of her favorite memories that show just how cool she was.

I’ve written about her older brother Earl here before. When she was a young woman, he would find her jobs in Memphis and take her there to live with his family while she worked, until the needs of her parents or just plain homesickness would pull her back to the family farm. Before that she would go for extended visits, so as they all grew up his children felt almost like siblings. 

She was especially close with her oldest nephew, Paige. Having grown up very near the airport (You can see the airport behind his back yard in the picture below), he loved planes. One might say he had flying in his blood. As soon as he was old enough, he took lessons and then took to the skies. 

Since one of her jobs was as a waitress at a little restaurant at the airport, my mom was very familiar with and comfortable around airplanes, especially as part of her job was loading meals into the galleys in preflight prep. Uncle Earl arranged for her to go up with his pilot friends on occasion, and she loved it. She leapt at every opportunity to leave the ground and soar over the Mississippi Delta.

Her favorite pilot was, of course, Paige. When she was living back at home, on occasion she would be awakened in the early morning by the roaring engine of a small plane coming in for a landing in the pasture behind the house. She would hurry to get dressed and join her parents in the rush outside to greet their visiting pilot. 

“Sarah! I have to go get refueled. Wanna come?” She was always eager to climb aboard and join him. They would fly away to the nearest town that had the fuel he needed, enjoying their time together in the early morning sky. She took great pleasure in his willingness to fly low and buzz the homes of her girlfriends. I always wondered if those girls were envious and/or a little in awe of their friend zooming over their heads, waving to them when they went outside to look up. I also wonder if it registered with them how brave and cool she was.

One particular flight must have tested her bravery, though when she spoke about it there was no trace of lingering fear. Just the thrill of adventure and faith in her pilot. As they neared their landing field that was literally a field, Paige took his attention briefly from the controls. “Sarah, I don’t want you to be scared, but I have to tell you there’s a problem with the plane. I’ve got to bring us down anyway. We’ll be okay. I promise.” She must have been scared, but she was also too courageous to fall apart as many people would. “I know we will!” And   they ended up safely back on the ground, just as she knew they would. My mom had an amazing capacity for rock solid faith in the people she loved during treacherous times. It was not only his tremendous piloting skills that brought them down safely that day, but that he also flew on the faith in him radiating from his passenger. I know, because I flew through every day of my life on the wings of that same unshakeable faith.

When I call his piloting skills tremendous, it’s not merely as a cousin who has always hero worshipped Paige, though we never met. He never, ever lost his love of flying, went on to become an Air Force jet fighter pilot, and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was critically burned in 1956, when the flaming F-89D Scorpion he was piloting crashed into the same Mississippi River he’d flown near as a young man, though his final flight was over Minnesota. One of his two engines exploded. He died from his injuries the next day. There was nothing he could have done…but he did anyway. He stayed with his fighter to guide it away from a densely populated residential area. I grew up so very proud to have such a hero in my family. Some say that as we die we see our life flash before our eyes. If that’s true, among the memories of his wife and young son, parents, siblings, and extended family, there was his whole great flying life before him, like a cherished dream. Among the wings and clouds and blue skies, was the green grass of a pasture landing field and the echoing words “We’ll be okay. I promise.” “I know we will.”

(Photograph that ran with his obituary)

I honestly don’t know what exactly comes after death. But for right this moment I know what I want it to be for my mom and her beloved Paige. So I’m imagining them sitting together on the highest cloud, swinging their feet as I’m sure they did fishing with Grandaddy as children, then a smile, a nod, a whisper of wings, as they take flight together once again.

When she told Paige that she worried about the danger he was in as a fighter jet pilot, his answer told its own story of the kind of man he’d grown up to become.

“Don’t worry about me, Sarah. If I die flying, I’ll have died doing what I love to do.”

​These were taken on Friday a few miles from where I grew up. It was dusk, when the sky is still clear blue and the shadows lay interesting patterns across the fields. Mere minutes later true twilight falls, and the world is not quite dark, yet not still light. Then the sky often turns so deep a purple it’s almost black. Crickets chirp, frogs croak in dying ponds, and small animals rustle leaves in low lying brush. 

This is my favorite view from this area. Right below the sun, a few miles away sits the farm where I grew up. I can stand there and look away toward the place that is the home of my heart. It’s a fascinating kind of landscape. Just beyond the back fencerow, if you enlarge the image you can see a small bright green spot. On close examination, it becomes a crop covered steep hill. The general area is like that all over. Very flat land, rubbing shoulders with surprisingly steep hills. Far from being mountains, these hills still add texture and beauty to what might otherwise be bland flatlands.

Sweeping curves of shorn wheatfields hug the lay of the land like a low flying helicopter navigates the nap of the earth. Though more beautiful when fully ripe and waving in a breeze, sometimes scattered with purple blooming vetch just as green turns to gold, the stubble left behind by harvest boasts its own rustic charm.

The light of the lowering sun diffuses among the leaves of wooded areas to render the scene into a paintinglike image.

While that same light throws geometric patterns across the rolling field.

The entire vista looks as if it’s viewed from the porch of a rustic home in the country. It would be easy to imagine I’ve been visiting relatives to enjoy this beautiful, peaceful, and quiet place that invites thought and memory. That’s actually very true, though not in the way I’ve described. While there is no porch, this is a place to be near my family. These photographs are of the views from the edge of the cemetery where my parents are buried. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins are all gathered there, where when the wind blows just right particles of rich soil from the farm we all loved fly across the creek and fields and bird-sheltering trees to bring a little bit of home to the place that now shelters them all.

​I should know by now that something amazing may be encountered at any time. Shopping is a particular activity that provides opportunities for random fascinating conversations. Once, among the treasures of a Macy’s purse sale, a woman noticed my subtle Phantom of the Opera T-shirt and struck up a conversation about the musical, different versions, Michael Crawford, Broadway in general, and eventually my obsession with all things Wicked. Best Buy was host to a chance conversation with a young army veteran who worked there. We both enjoyed exchanging tales of foreign travel and historical landmarks so much that he would subsequently spot me across the store and come over to resume our conversation, as if it hadn’t been weeks since our last encounter. And a handicapped man at Walmart once told me about his sad, courageous life, obviously a very rare occurrence, spurred into an unfamiliar need for a sympathetic ear after a car almost ran him down in the parking lot. A simple shopping trip can lead to memories that become woven into the fabric of daily life.

Yesterday, I stumbled into a conversation with a sales girl at Pier 1, while lamp shopping. As random discussion will, it started simply, with my love of art glass. Eventually it wound around to some of the cool glass I’m finding among my mother’s things, from Depression Glass, to antiques, to very old photographs. My century old badly faded image of my maternal grandmother, in Edwardian attire complete with a giant hat similar to the awesome ones I was dazzled by in the movie Howards End, tends to trump anything most people have in their family collections. Many modern families don’t even have more than a handful of old pictures, if that. The woman I met had what will probably be the greatest antique photograph story I’ll ever hear.

I mentioned that many people find my mom’s stories of her life fascinating, since she lived through so much history. When I said she was born just a few years after the Titanic sank, this articulate and intelligent young woman quietly stated that more than one of her ancestors were on the Titanic. One of them was a member of the orchestra that famously accompanied the doomed ship on her tragic swansong. A particularly poignant event that’s become a point of consternation among those deeply interested in the fated first and last voyage of the most famous ship in history was that the orchestra member’s wife was charged for his lost uniform. Imagine being informed that your beloved lost spouse’s company uniform must be paid for…as it was lost to the depths of the sea. These are parts of the story I’ve heard about in countless TV documentaries. It was breathtaking to talk about them as someone’s family memories.

People Who Died on the Titanic

Yesterday, while I searched for old family graves, I discovered this beautiful, poignant statue. It speaks so eloquently of loss and sadness, youth and great age. I couldn’t find dates that were most likely worn away by time, but it’s obviously very old. She wears not only clothing of stone, but also a patina that marks the passage of time. While we can’t know her silent and steadfast story, it’s impossible not to imagine that this perpetual child marks the final resting place of a beloved little daughter lost too soon. I hope her beautiful presence brought her grieving family a measure of peace.

​Even in the rural south a long time ago, some people just weren’t satisfied to be like most others. When my mom told me about her oldest brother, there was always a thread of pride running through her voice. Uncle George was a true Renaissance Man, though I doubt he ever knew it. 

My mom and her brother George.

His love of music was the paramount focus of his long life. The family had a piano at home and he took great advantage of its presence. His mother played. Maybe he inherited his musical inclination from her. I don’t know how old he was when he learned, but my mom said he would play that piano long into the night, with her at his side, as they sang, and sang, and sang. Their parents must have enjoyed listening to them enough to tolerate the long hours, or perhaps they merely learned to sleep through the impromptu concerts. This was during the historical period we can barely imagine now, when people made their own entertainment at home. Until the advent of a radio in every home, at least. Even listening to duets when you’re usually asleep could very well have been a real treat. At some point Uncle George wanted to branch out, so he saved his money until he could buy a guitar. He took mail order lessons and became quite good. 

Uncle George at the piano, with  Aunt Ruby’s eternal support.

My childhood memories include gathering around his piano to sing. He had married Aunt Ruby along the way and acquired a collection of instruments that hung on the wall or rested in cases near the piano. I heard him play piano and guitar, while she would occasionally take down the violin for a brief demonstration. I remember seeing her play her trumpet a time or two. I say I saw instead of heard, because in true Satchmo style, her cheeks puffed up as her eyes practically bugged out of her head. I was fascinated to the point of not even paying attention to her music. Just wondering if her head might soon explode!

Blessed with a deep, resonate bass singing voice, Uncle George sang in a gospel quartet for many years. It was always a bit of a thrill to turn on the radio at the designated hour and wait for my very locally famous uncle’s voice to boom out into the living room from afar. 

The mail order guitar lessons were such a success that when Uncle George became interested in learning to type, he bought a typewriter and ordered lessons in that as well. Those too were a success. My mom never said whether he used that skill for anything beyond writing letters, but it was another nice self-taught ability under his belt. I’m sure she would have been glad to have him take over the dictation chore that fell to her, when their father wanted to write to his brother John in California. She said Granddaddy would go on and on, for many handwritten pages, while she grew weary and wondered if he would ever sign off. She taught herself to type a little, hunt and peck style, but that would never have kept up with the loquacious dictation fed by brotherly affection.

Uncle George and his Model T.

As times changed and technological wonders appeared, Uncle George was the first person in the community to buy a car. Not only did he drive it hither and yon for his own pleasure, he also chauffeured his family anywhere they wanted to go, thus breaking the lifelong dependence on horses for travel. Until the arrival of that Model T, they had walked to church, gone shopping and visiting horse and buggy style, and my mom and her closest in age brother Uncle Billy rode horseback to school together on “Old Charlie”. Uncle George’s fascination with his car wasn’t restricted to driving it. He would periodically take the motor apart, laying each piece out in order, clean it all, then put it back together. Apparently with no pieces left over. The Model T changed all of their lives, and he made sure it was up to the challenge at all times.

Uncle George and Aunt Ruby, happy at home.

Uncle George even spent some time using the mail to search for love. He corresponded with several young ladies, probably found through newspaper ads. Newspapers and the mail were as close to the Internet as they got back then, and he took full advantage of the opportunities they afforded. A longtime bachelor, he eventually found the love of his life closer to home. Uncle George and Aunt Ruby farmed and fished together, moved to town together, and spent their final years together sharing a nursing home room after she broke her hip. They were sweet and loving, always with candy for nieces and nephews, smiles for everyone, and always, always, a song in their shared heart.

There’s no telling what Uncle George might have done with all of his interests and skills in a different place and time. The unwitting Renaissance Man certainly knew how to make the best of every opportunity and live a full and varied life.

So here’s a twist on Valentines I didn’t know about, even though it’s Victorian in nature. This article about Vinegar Valentines is fascinating. Somehow it manages to be eyebrow raising, disgusting, and a bit charming all at the same time. Far removed from our own commercially overridden holiday of love, the Victorian Era brought not only lovers to their special day, but haters as well. Googly eyed with adoration? Why, send your beloved a card with a pretty picture and prettier flowing, waxingly poetic verse. Squinty eyed with loathing? Just send along a card displaying an insulting poem, often accompanied by an ugly caricature! As time passed spinsters, suffragettes, and medical practitioners that quacked like a quack doctor could all look forward to missives of disgust. Also known as Penny Dreadfuls, these little insult bombs went off in many an unseemly heart, even as loving tributes were showered upon the beloved and beautiful. The contrast and idea of how unpleasant Vinegar Valentines must have been to their recipients make the sight of our modern store shelves, festooned with red heartshaped boxes full of everything from the disappointing questionably flavored chocolate like substance to the good stuff that’s gobbled at breakneck pace, a little more palatable. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!