Archive for the ‘Smith Family Tales’ Category


A time or two on this blog, I’ve mentioned my maternal grandfather, Bill Horne, who died when I was a kid. Based on what I know about the man, I can’t find it in my heart to have a good opinion of him, as hard as I try to be objective.

Bill, you see, walked out on his family when my mother was a toddler. He left my grandmother and my mom when they were living in Macon, Georgia. He started a new life in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and eventually remarried. He died of cancer at age 49.

After he left Macon, Bill had no further contact with his daughter. Mom had no memory of him whatsoever.

Growing up, I knew those facts, but not the reason for his departure. I was curious, of course, but I never inquired. It seemed best to leave the subject alone and move on, as I perceived that Mom had done.

But later in her life, it became clear that she hadn’t moved on. I began to see that the regret she carried was deeper and more profound than I thought. In retrospect, I suppose, it had to be.

Mom didn’t dwell on the matter, but you knew it was on her mind. You could sense the melancholy when the subject came up.

The matter came to the surface one last time in 2002, soon after Dad died.

As the sorting of Dad’s personal belongings got underway, I mused that I needed to start scanning and Photoshopping the best of the old family photos. Digital versions would last longer and could be shared easily with the family.

At that, Mom brought out a small photograph of her father. It was faded and very tiny — about two inches wide and four inches tall.

Mom had four or five photos of Bill, but this one in particular seemed to speak to her.

I can’t know what Mom was thinking and feeling, but the fact is, she spent her childhood not knowing her father, yet knowing where he was.

It isn’t hard to imagine that the photo signified, maybe even amplified, a lifetime of regret, loss, and disappointment.

When she showed me the photo, she opened up more frankly than ever before about those feelings. But I didn’t press her for more details than she wanted to share. I didn’t ask why Bill left, and she didn’t say.

After we talked, Mom asked me to make an enlargement of the photo, in hopes that would reveal Bill’s face in more detail.

A few days later, I gave her an 11″ x 17″ blow-up of the photograph, made on the oversized photocopier at my office. The quality was surprisingly good.

Mom was delighted. She beamed and gushed and shed a few tears. After some thought, she chose a spot next to her chair in the den and thumb-tacked the enlargement to the wall.

With Dad gone, Mom lived alone until she died in 2005. She had plenty of time to contemplate Bill’s photo and all it represented.

I hope it was cathartic. I hope she was able to put some of the old heartache to rest.


Mom’s photo of Bill Horne (1901-1950) fishing on a pier somewhere.


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Allie’s House

Last month, in a box of old family papers, I found a letter my dad sent to his brother John in New York in 1980. Inside the envelope were these items:




In 1979, Dad purchased two small houses in rural Hall County, which is north of Atlanta, and flipped them. At the time, he was retired from 20-odd years in the Air Force, plus retired from another 20 years in banking. He was working as a realtor, and remodeling the houses was a money-making project.

That’s because, by 1980, Dad had put two of us kids through college, a 3rd was attending, and the 4th was in high school. Financially, Dad had a rough couple of decades.

Where he learned residential construction, I don’t know, but he certainly knew how it was done. Over the years, in addition to flipping the aforementioned two, he built three houses. In the late 1940s, he built and sold two homes in Savannah. In the mid-1950s, he built the family home when we lived in Panama City, Florida.

Although the Panama City house was quite nice, the others were, as the above photos indicate, minimalist. In those times, minimalist was perfectly acceptable.

Dad was in his mid-60s then, and remodeling a house is a  lot of work. After the 2nd house sold, he allowed his career in home construction to end.

I remember the Hall County places pretty well. Several times back in 1979-80, I went there with him to haul supplies, sweep the floors, haul away trash, etc.

Their exact location, however, faded with the years. That area isn’t the same as in the old days. The peaceful country roads are now six-lane thoroughfares. Instead of houses like Dad’s dotting the countryside, there are massive gated communities.

But finding Dad’s letter changed all that. The flyer gives precise directions. I Googled it, found the spot easily, and, of course, made plans to go check it out.

Thus, late last month, 36 years later, I drove to the southern edge of Hall County and turned onto Williams Road. Honestly, I expected to find a subdivision there. Or a shopping center. Or an auto parts store.

Instead, there were Dad’s houses, both occupied, both seemingly in good shape.

I pulled into the driveway of house #2. A woman and a little girl sitting on the side deck watched me with interest. When I stopped and turned off the ignition, the woman disappeared into the house.

The girl was a pretty little thing with curly red hair. She stood at the top of the steps, studying me. A bit defiantly, I thought.

We stood there, looking at each other. Finally, I said, awkwardly, “Hi.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Rocky,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Allie. I’m four, and I go to school.”

“Wow, you already go to school?”

“Yes. I’ve been going to school for a long time. I’m smart.”

(When I hear a kid brag about being smart, I tip my hat to the parents. For the first dozen years of their lives, every kid needs to hear, and believe, that they are smart and special. It promotes healthy development, mentally and socially. It helps kids reach their full potential. In my humble opinion.)

At that moment, the woman emerged from the house. “Allie, leave the man alone. Go inside.” Allie didn’t budge.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said in my best aw-shucks manner, “I stopped because my Dad built* this house a long time ago. I haven’t seen it in years. Do you mind if I take a photo to show my brother and sister?”

“My husband is on his way,” she said. “Better ask him, but I don’t see why not.”

“Rocky, can I be in the picture?” said Allie.

“Honey,” said the mom, “He doesn’t want you in it. He just wants the house.”

“What’s going on?” the dad asked sleepily as he stepped onto the deck. It was, after all, a Saturday afternoon, and a working man deserves to sleep in.

I repeated my request to take a photo, adding that Dad also built* the house next door.

“Sure, no problem,” he said, then turned and went back inside. I felt a sudden urge to yawn.

“Thanks very much,” I called out as I walked back toward my car. I took a few photos, trying to make it quick.

“Hey, Rocky!” Allie yelled from the deck, her mother’s hand on her shoulder, “Take my picture now!”

I tried to imagine how the parents would react if I actually took the child’s photo. Not well, I suspect.

But the mother defused the situation. “Come on, sweetie,” she cooed. “Let’s go inside and have some cake.”

“Okay, Mama! Bye, Rocky!” said Allie with an exuberant wave.

Dad, your houses are doing just fine.


House # 1.


House # 2, Allie’s house.

* Built, remodeled, whatever.

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Back in the 1990s, the genealogy bug bit me, and I spent some time trying to expand the family tree as we knew it at the time.

You can imagine the challenges — the obstacles, the frustration, the dead ends, the false leads — of researching Smiths. I pretty much got nowhere.

All my life, what was known about our family history had been simple and brief: in the late 1700s or early 1800s, three Smith brothers arrived in Georgia, supposedly from North Carolina. One of the three, Archibald, settled in South Georgia. We are his descendents.

The names of Archibald’s brothers and where they settled, nobody knew. Where the brothers came from, we had no clue.

I wasn’t the first Smith to try to solve the mystery. Lots of enterprising folks had tried before me, examining census records, leafing through the pages of courthouse files, digging through the documents of the departed. They all came up empty.

Part of the problem was the Smith factor. Smiths are maddeningly numerous. That’s even true of Archibald Smiths. When I did my search, I found five Archibald Smiths in Georgia in the early 1800s.

In addition, there are crucial gaps in the historic record. As I discovered when doing research in North and South Carolina, census records for certain years are missing. They were lost at various times in accidental fires.

And then, of course, there was the biggest factor of all: in the old days, there was no such thing as Googling. Online research had not been invented yet.

But, ah, online research is now a reality, and it is truly wondrous to behold.

Based on a couple of promising leads, and using Ancestry.com, my son Dustin hit the jackpot. He identified the three Smith brothers and traced them back to Maryland.

We now have pretty solid information about a passel of early Smiths — names, dates, and places regarding parents, siblings, and children going back another five generations.

Most fascinating of all, we may have found the original Smith — the first to arrive here by boat from the old country.

It appears that a James Smith (1620-1693) came here from England (maybe with his parents, maybe as a young adult) and settled in Somerset, Maryland.

James married a local girl, and they had a son, who had a son, who had a son, whose son was our man Archibald.

I’ll spare you further details, because nobody cares about the Jameses, Georges, and Archibalds in someone else’s family.

The point is, thanks to these recent revelations and other data we’ve found online, we know twice as much about the family as my parents, or anyone before them, ever did.

The genealogy resources available online today are staggering. Consider one anecdote.

Recently, I decided to consolidate all of my scattered “family tree” information into a single document. The finished item is 16 pages of cryptic who-begat-whom data, and I’m very pleased with it.

While building the file, I found that I didn’t know the date of birth of my great-uncle Sidney, who is buried in Savannah. Probably, the missing date is in one of the boxes of family papers in my garage, but I wasn’t ready for that step. So I Googled him.

What popped up was this photograph on Findagrave.com:



For a long time, I was of the opinion that the most impressive, most amazing, most consequential invention in the last 200 years is the telephone. That was premature.

The winner, hands down, is the Internet.

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I am the oldest of the Smith children, and when we were growing up, I was hard-wired — compelled from deep within — to pick on my younger brother Lee for sport. That’s the way of things with siblings in their youth.

Today, that same scenario is playing out with my granddaughter Maddie, 12, who gleefully needles her nine-year-old sister Sarah.

I’ve tried to convince Maddie that she is simply instructing Sarah in the art of taunting — that Sarah will become highly skilled at cunning and trickery and ultimately will have her revenge.

But, just as Cassandra was cursed so that no one would believe her prophesies, I am ignored. Maddie’s continues to tease and torment her sister at every opportunity.

But then, I didn’t listen when I was Maddie’s age, either. Call it irony. Call it destiny. Karma. What goes around, comes around.

And, based on how things are progressing, Retribution Day is not far off.


Last Tuesday, I was on kid-sitting duty for the afternoon. When I arrived, a steady rain was falling. Maddie and Sarah would be housebound, cooped up with me and the dogs, left to pass the time with music, television, and laptops.

Before long, tired of those options, they decided to get out some blankets and make tents in the living room. This is a regular rainy-day thing.


The girls soon were inside their tents, Maddie with her laptop, Sarah with Leroy, their new Black and Tan Coonhound puppy.

Sarah and Leroy

The TV was off. The living room was silent. I settled back to check the news on my tablet.

Moments later, Maddie’s arm reached out from under the blanket and felt around for her water bottle. She found it and brought it inside the tent.

Moments after that, the arm reappeared to return the water bottle from whence it came. As Maddie probed for the spot, the hard plastic bottle dinged against the hardwood floor, making a loud bonk that interrupted the silence.

“What was that?” said Sarah from inside her tent.

“What was what?” Maddie replied.

“That loud noise. That knocking sound.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Maddie, sensing an opportunity to exploit the situation.

“There was a loud noise! I heard it!”

“Sarah, you’re hallucinating. Leave me alone. I’m trying to rest.”

The room grew silent.

After a brief pause, Maddie reached out from under her tent, held the water bottle a few inches above the floor, and rapped it against the floor. Another bonk ensued.

“There it is again!” Sarah exclaimed from beneath her blanket. “What is it?”

“What is what?” said Maddie.

“That knocking sound! I heard it again!”

“I didn’t hear anything! Hey, Rocky! Did you hear anything?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth. “Me? No, I didn’t hear anything.”

“Well, I heard it, and I know I heard it!” said Sarah. “Y’all are just playin’ with me!”

“You’re demented, Sarah,” said Maddie.

The room got quiet again. For the next few minutes, there were periodic bonks, followed by the same conversation of inquiry and denial.

Finally, after what turned out to be the last bonk, Maddie slipped up.

“Sarah, something is wrong with you! That sound you hear, it’s just in your head!”

Suddenly, Sarah popped up from beneath her blanket.

“‘That sound you hear’? ‘That sound you hear’?” she bellowed, pointing a finger at Maddie’s tent. “So, you admit it! I’m hearing a sound!”

Quietly, Maddie came out from under the blanket, her hands covering her face. She was busted, and she knew it.

Simultaneously, the three of us began laughing.

The sudden noise frightened Leroy, who wiggled out from under the blanket and scampered off to seek the protection of the other dogs.

Leroy 7-16


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My youngest granddaughter Sarah, age nine, raked in a lot of cash on her birthday last April.

The birthday money, plus her share of the proceeds from the girls’ recent lemonade-and-cookies sale, adds up to about $300.

Sarah, it turns out, is quite frugal. She is loathe to spend money, especially if a parent or grandparent can be cajoled into footing the bill.

Her sister Maddie, age 12, is wired somewhat differently. Maddie (who also has finely-honed cajoling skills) believes money is for spending, and the sooner the better.

That being so, Maddie usually is “bereft of coin,” as my high school English teacher used to put it, and she often is envious, even covetous, of her sister’s comparative riches.

Maddie’s birthday was last week, and a few weeks earlier, she told me — no surprise — that she hoped she would get money from the family, not gifts. Greenbacks. Moolah. Cold, hard cash.

But she realized that asking her relatives for money would be rude. What to do, what to do?

Well, I told her, if the suggestion came from me, maybe it would be less rude. So I emailed the greater Smith clan about it. Everyone was okay with giving money.

Thus, at her birthday lunch, Maddie ended up with an impressive amount of the green stuff. As she sat at the head of the table, counting and recounting it with relish, her eyes sparkled.

And she already had plans to start spending it. She made me promise that immediately after the lunch, we would go to the mall to shop.

More about that directly, but first — about the lunch.

This year, Maddie had two birthday parties. The bulk of the relatives took her to lunch that day, and her parents took her to dinner.

The birthday lunch worked out well. We booked a party room at an Olive Garden near the Mall of Georgia — the mall being  a convenient location for the Smith relatives, who are scattered all around north Atlanta.

The unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks flowed without limit. The cake, at Maddie’s request, was red velvet with one symbolic candle.

My brother and his wife livened up the event by bringing her six-month-old great-nephew.


He entertained us by sucking on a slice of lemon and reacting as you would expect.

Maddie was surprisingly good with the baby, as well as gracious, polite, and on her best behavior.


With intermittent exceptions.


Sarah, as always, was the life of the party.


Later, among the various conversations going on, I spotted Sarah and her grandmother Deanna off to the side, talking in whispers. I noted that Sarah had relocated the Olive Garden sticker from her eye to the center of her forehead. I walked over.

“But Grandy,” Sarah was saying, “You said to leave my money at home.”

“Honey, I meant you should bring a little spending money, but not all $300,” said Deanna.

“But now I don’t have any money,” Sarah moaned. “And we’re going to the mall!”

“Sarah, how about this,” I said. “I’ll give you $40. It’ll be yours to spend as you like. When we get home, you just pay me back the $40. A simple business transaction.”

“Do I have to give you back $40 AND all the money I don’t spend?”

“No, no, you get to keep the change.”

So the deal was made. Two 20-dollar bills changed hands.

After the party was over and the other Smiths had departed, Maddie, Sarah, Deanna, and I drove to the mall.

“I want to go to the Lush store and then to Bath and Body Works,” Maddie said. “They have cosmetics, lotion, perfume. Things like that.”

“Yeah,” said Sarah, “Maddie is really into cosmetics and soap lately. She –”

“What’s wrong with that?” Maddie barked.

“Nothing. I’m just sayin’ you’re into that stuff.”

Lush, I learned, sells handmade soap, cosmetics, and such. The store is very colorful, very fragrant. In fact, Deanna said the scents were too much for her, and she left to wait outside.

I endured the aromas a bit better, but had to step outside a few times myself while the girls browsed.


After about 15 minutes, Maddie took her basket to the counter and paid for her selections. We rejoined Deanna.

“Bath and Body Works is this way,” said Maddie, heading away with Sarah skipping along behind her and the grandparents hurrying to keep up.


Around the  next corner, Sarah suddenly stopped. It was a Build-A-Bear Workshop.

The store was loaded with countless bins of unstuffed animals beckoning to be stuffed and accessorized. Sarah was enthralled.

“Deanna,” I said, “You go ahead with Maddie. Sarah wants to stop in here and look around.”

Build-A Bear sells a variety of ready-to-be-stuffed plush toys, including teddy bears, dogs, cats, rabbits, Disney characters, Star Wars characters — you name it.

After you choose an unstuffed toy, you take it to a large fluff machine, where an attendant fills the toy with stuffing and sews the body shut. Then, on the way to the checkout counter, you pass a wide selection of clothing and other accessories offered at additional cost.

“I’ve never bought anything at Build-A-Bear,” Sarah said, pacing in front of the bins, sorting through the animals. I kept quiet to allow her to concentrate.

Finally, she announced, “I like this one” and held up a Pink Cuddles model, a shocking pink teddy bear. The cost was $16, one of the lowest prices in the store.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she added nervously. I assured her that a Pink Cuddles was an excellent choice.

Our next stop was the fluff machine. Sarah handed the bear to a smiling attendant, who sat down at the controls.

“Do you want to add a scent packet for $3.99?” asked the attendant. Sarah shook her head no.

“Do you want to add a beating heart for $6.99?” Sarah said no.

“Okay, pick out a regular heart to place inside your bear.”

Sarah selected a small red satin heart from a bucket of red satin hearts.

“Okay, hold the heart in your hands to warm it up.” Sarah held the heart in her hands.

“Place the heart against yours.” Sarah did.

“Give the heart a kiss.” Sarah looked at me quizzically, kissed the heart, and handed it to the attendant.

“Now make a wish,” said the attendant. Sarah gave me another look.

The formalities having been concluded, the attendant inserted the satin heart into the bear, then rammed the bear onto the end of a metal tube through which the stuffing would be blown.

“Honey,” the attendant said to Sarah, pointing at the floor, “The stuffing starts coming out when you step on that peddle.”

Sarah gave it a stomp, and the procedure commenced.


After the bear was stuffed and sewn up, we moved to a computer console to fill out the bear’s birth certificate.

Date of birth: 6/14/16
Parent: Sarah Smith
Height: 16 inches
Weight 8 ounces
Name: Sprinkles

Sarah decided not to buy Sprinkles any clothing or accessories. The total cost of the transaction: $16 plus tax. I was very proud.

“Rocky,” she said as we left the store, “It was awful when that lady rammed the metal pipe inside poor Sprinkles! How terrible! How gruesome!”

“And you know,” she continued, “I did NOT make a wish like she said. What does that have to do with anything? And kissing the heart? Seriously?”

“Well,” I said, “Build-A-Bear has a lot of very young customers. The younger kids probably enjoy all that.”

“Yeah, I guess I’m getting too old for Build-A-Bear — but I’m glad I did it!” She gave Sprinkles a heartfelt hug.

I learned later that Maddie spent about $100, not quite half of her birthday money, on cosmetics, soaps, lotions, fragrances, and essential oils. Sarah spent $16 plus tax on Sprinkles.

It was, in both cases, entirely in character.

And neither of them had the slightest regret.




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Here in Jefferson, the school year just ended. That means my Jefferson granddaughters Maddie and Sarah are loose for the summer, and kid-sitting duty has commenced for us grandparents.

Conveniently, all four of the girls’ grandparents live in town, so we each have the duty one day a week. The fifth day usually manages to take care of itself — a parent working from home, a Rec Center field trip, a play date, or whatever.

Maddie is almost 12, and Sarah just turned nine, so having someone stay with them is just a formality. The girls are fully self-sufficient. They prefer to fix breakfast and lunch for themselves. They pass the time with laptops, music, TV, swimming, etc.

All in all, they are enjoying the indolence of summer vacation, as they should. For the grandparents, being there is merely an opportunity for face time with the girls — when they haven’t disappeared into their rooms for reasons unexplained.

Last summer, Maddie and Sarah caught heat from their parents for obsessing over MineCraft, and their computer usage was restricted to certain hours of the day.

This summer, the parents are trying a different approach. The girls were given a list of chores to be performed daily. As long as the chores are done by the end of the day, the girls are free to do as they like.

When I reported for duty that first Monday after school was out, the chore list was the main topic of conversation. The girls’ obvious goal was to get the chores done quickly, painlessly, and with minimum intrusion on play time.

For the record, both girls take the chores edict very seriously. They posted formal lists of the assigned tasks on their respective bedroom walls. This is Sarah’s list.


And this is Maddie’s.


Before I continue, some context information about Sarah would be helpful.

In the last couple of years, Sarah has blossomed creatively in a major way. She especially enjoys sculpting with clay. Her room is filled with countless tiny creations that she formed and painted, all from scratch.

Last year, for example, she made this impressive figurine, which is about two inches long.


The doll’s feet snapped off recently, and Sarah had to make repairs. No problem. It was just another creative project.

A few weeks ago, she made this 4-inch-tall Starbucks latte, also from clay. It’s either a Molten Chocolate or a Pumpkin Spice.


With kids, you never know whether an intense interest like Sarah’s artistic streak is an ephemeral thing or the real deal.

But for now, it’s serious enough that her parents set her up with this very nice work station. This is where the serious creativity happens.


Now that you know a bit about Sarah’s artistic inclinations, you can better appreciate the gadget she created in connection with the summer chores.

“Hey, Rocky,” she said as we waited for Maddie’s chocolate chip muffins to bake, “I made a ‘chore wheel’ to help me decide which chore to do next.”

“A ‘chore wheel?'” said I.

“Yeah, I cut out a paper wheel, and I wrote all my chores around the outside edge, and I put a thumbtack in the middle and stuck it to the wall. I spin it, and wherever it lands, that’s the chore I do next.”


Sarah’s chore wheel.

Amazing, I thought. This is true artistic expression. It’s clever, creative, and entertaining.

“Well, don’t just sit there. Go get it. I can’t wait to see it.”

A few moments later, she was back with the chore wheel.

She allowed me a few seconds to study the thing, then snatched it away and bounded across the living room. She chose an open space, affixed the chore wheel to the wall with a pushpin, and gave the wheel a spin.

“It landed on ‘Feed hamsters!'” she yelled over her shoulder. “That’s my next chore!”

At that moment, Maddie walked into the living room and saw the chore wheel tacked to the wall.

“SARAH!” she bellowed, “You made a hole in the wall! You can’t do that!”

Sarah rolled her eyes.

“Come on, Maddie,” I said, “It’s just a pushpin. All it made is a tiny pinhole. I’ll patch it with a muffin crumb.”

“Well, Mom doesn’t like holes in the walls! She’s gonna have a COW!”

“Let’s see what chore I’ll do next,” Sarah said calmly, and she gave the chore wheel another spin.

The chore wheel landed on “Feed hamsters” again.

Maddie leaned in and peered closely at the chore wheel.

“Ha!” she snorted, “The thumbtack is off-center, so your wheel is off-balance! It’ll land on ‘Feed hamsters’ every time! Nice going, Sarah!”

“Easy enough to fix,” said Sarah. She plucked the pushpin from the wall, grabbed the chore wheel, and headed upstairs to the work station.


The artist displays her certificate for “outstanding art achievement,” bestowed earlier this month at the 3rd grade Awards Day ceremony.


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A Geechee, as you may know, is a person from coastal South Carolina or Georgia. The term can refer to:

– African Americans, including those from both the Gullah culture in South Carolina and those known as Geechees on the coastal islands of Georgia, or

– the local Anglos, who also embrace the name.

According to some authorities, the word Geechee derives from the Ogeechee River, which flows into the Atlantic below Savannah. Others say the term came from one of the languages brought to America by African slaves.

I’m familiar with all this because Savannah is the long-time home of the Smith family. My dad and his three siblings were born and raised there. They proudly called themselves Geechees, and they spoke Geechee because they couldn’t help it.

Indeed, part of being a Geechee is the distinctive manner of speech. Among blacks, the dialect can be baffling to the listener; among whites, it’s a hybrid of Irish and Scottish brogues, heavily influenced by Gullah/Geechee words, style, and delivery.

In Geechee-speak, most “R” sounds are discarded except at the beginnings of words. Thus, Cousin Roger is Cousin “Rah-juh,” and the Lone Ranger is the Lone “Range-uh.”

To a Geechee, Charleston is “Choll-stun.”

A Geechee will wish you a Happy New “Yee-uh.”

As for my dad, he was not Walter, but “Wall-tuh.”

The four Smith kids — Walter, Allan, John, and Betty — were of the World War II generation. The three boys enlisted and went off to war.

Dad became a bomber pilot in Europe. Allan was an Air Corps mechanic in China and Burma. John was an Army infantryman who, as he liked to put it, pursued the German army on foot up the length of Italy.

Happily, all three brothers made it home. Dad, who spent months in a prison camp, came back with a bunch of medals. So did John. Everyone had stories to tell.

The war also set the three brothers on their eventual career paths. Dad stayed in the Air Force and flew jet fighters. Allan became a civilian instructor of Navy aircraft mechanics. John, an Army cartographer, pursued an art career.

Clearly, art was John’s thing. As early as grade school, he showed genuine talent. He did the oil painting below at age 15. (The white material flowing from the coffee cup: grits.)


After the war, John moved to New York City to seek his fortune. He attended art school at Pratt Institute and began working as a commercial artist in Brooklyn. As often happens, he met and married a nice local girl, Annette Conlin from Connecticut.

A few years later, John was hired by the design department at Fisher-Price Toys in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo.

John and Annette raised four children in East Aurora, and John rose to became the chief product designer at Fisher-Price. Most of the classic Fisher-Price toys you may remember from your childhood, including the “little people,” are John’s creations.


In 1993, Fisher-Price was acquired by Mattel, Inc., the toy manufacturing behemoth. John’s department was disbanded, and Mattel took over the design duties. John was invited to retire.

But the new Mattel designs didn’t measure up, and Fisher-Price sales quickly nose-dived. Before long, Mattel asked John to return to the company in a consulting role.

John agreed, and ultimately, Fisher-Price rebounded in the toy market. John’s consulting fees, I’m told, were eye-popping.

A few years later, having put Fisher-Price back on course, John retired again. He and Annette settled into a quiet life in East Aurora.

It’s worthy of note that, even after decades of living in New York, John never lost his Geechee accent. Neither did Dad, Allan, or Betty.

Despite drifting into commercial work and product design, John had a fire in the belly to paint. For him, it was both artistic expression and therapy.

He preferred maritime subjects,  landscapes, and architecture — which Savannah, and Buffalo and Lake Erie, provided aplenty.

This watercolor of a stately downtown Savannah residence is typical of his style:


So is this watercolor of the Savannah Cotton Exchange, where my grandfather worked years ago as a broker.

Cotton Exchange

Sometimes — in fact, many times — life takes an unexpected turn. And, when life is really on its game, the turn can be wonderfully ironic.

Not long after college, one of John and Annette’s daughters took a job, strictly by chance, in Charleston. Soon, the other daughter joined her.

As often happens, both girls married local fellows. They had children and became Charlestonians — Geechees, if you prefer — but with New York accents.

John and Annette spent their golden years in East Aurora, but naturally, they went to Charleston often, sometimes for visits of a month or two. Charleston became the subject of more and more of John’s paintings.

Through the years, John enjoyed good health and remained mentally sharper than people half his age. But a few years ago, his time came. He died in East Aurora at age 91.

It took a while, but Annette got the estate settled, got the house ready, and sold it. Last fall, she relocated from upstate New York to Charleston.

There, she moved into a comfortable cottage near the beach, which was fixed up for her by a son-in-law in the landscaping and construction business.

Because the cottage is on stilts (required by the hurricane code), and because Annette is 85, the son-in-law installed an elevator. Annette says it’s quite handy for taking in the groceries and taking out the garbage.

In the Geechee vernacular, a true native is a “been-yee-uh” (been here), and a newcomer is a “come-yee-uh” (come here).

Annette will never be the former, but she is now a Charlestonian. As are three of her four children and all of her grandchildren.

Last month, Annette invited me to the coast for a few days to see her new place, join her for her daily walks at the beach, and visit with the cousins.

Her cottage is impressive. Nicely renovated and beautifully landscaped. Tastefully decorated with her treasures from East Aurora, plus lots of new beach-themed items.

And, parked beneath the house, convenient to the elevator, is a gift Annette gave to herself to celebrate her new life down South: a handsome Mustang convertible.


The new wheels.


Annette enjoying the ocean breeze on the pier at Folly Beach, in the land of the Geechees.


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The Dragon Lady

When I retired, I made two solemn vows: I would never again set an alarm clock or wear a wristwatch. I have kept those promises with zero exceptions.

When my dad retired years earlier, I’m not aware that he made any symbolic vows. He simply planned to embark on every retiree’s dream, a life of calculated indolence. But there was a small bump in the road.

When Dad retired, my mom, a homemaker for 50 years, announced that she was retiring, too — from the task of cooking the daily meals.

Literally and figuratively, Mom hung up her apron. Fair is fair.

Having no say in the matter and no meaningful recourse, Dad accepted the situation with a calm dignity.

Soon, the two of them worked out new mealtime procedures — a combination of dining out, doggy bags, frozen dinners, pizza delivery, Chinese takeout, sandwiches, soup and salad, pre-cooked microwavable entrées, and what-not.

From that point forward, when the family got together for holidays and birthdays, it fell to us kids to bring the food; Mom was retired.

Dad did not, of course, step forward to cook. Being helpless in the kitchen was an integral part of his self-image. A man must draw the line somewhere.

After the dual retirements, Mom managed the household as before. She made her regular excursions to the library, the grocery store, and Blockbuster Video. Dad exercised at the Y, did the yard work, and handled the finances. Life went on.

To understand my parents at that stage of their lives, you need to know that, over the decades, the dynamic between them evolved significantly. The change was slow, but inevitable. And it was a fitting, beautiful, wholly positive thing.

In the early years, Dad was the undisputed boss of the family. Such was the way of things in that era. Mom was like an adjutant, reporting to Dad and commanding the household and the children.

That command structure endured for a long time. But as the years passed, we kids could see it bending, buckling, morphing.

In the partnership, Mom slowly ascended, until she and Dad essentially stood as equals.

Then, for reasons never clear to me, Dad seemed consciously to acquiesce even further. It was subtle and unspoken, but Mom assumed the role of family boss.

In her later years, Mom relished the assertiveness and confidence she had awakened in herself. She was deeply proud of the transformation.

One day, spontaneously, with great panache, Mom referred to herself as “the Dragon Lady.”

That term, in case you don’t know, is a stereotype of a powerful, strong-willed Asian woman. In the old comic strip Terry and the Pirates, the Dragon Lady was a recurring character and a formidable villain.

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Lai Choi San, the beautiful pirate queen and arch-nemesis of American adventurer Terry Lee.

For Mom, that moment was a wonderful epiphany. The term was so delightful, so perfectly descriptive, that she promptly adopted it.

Over the years, when Mom wrote to Dad’s family, she signed the letters with her middle name, “Myrtle.” (Mom had chosen to embrace, rather than lament, that unfortunate choice.)

But that changed, and Mom began to sign as “The Dragon Lady,” or sometimes as “D.L.”

Dad also embraced the name. He used it freely, always in the rakish manner intended.

Mom was an amazing lady. Everyone who knew her thought so. She was — and I say this as an objective observer, not as her kid — incredibly intelligent. Scary smart, a voracious reader, insatiably curious.

To Mom, the greatest disappointment of her life was that she never knew her father, Bill Horne. Bill walked out on his wife and daughter when Mom was just a toddler. She had no relationship with him, no memory of him. And she lived with that regret all of her life.

I had a different take on things. To me, it verged on the tragic that Mom’s path in life did not allow her to nurture her intellect properly. Like many other women of her generation, she married young and devoted herself to being a mother and homemaker. She didn’t attend college, had no career outside the home.

By any measure, she was a wonderful person. She had a good and comfortable life, and she was beloved by her family. But she had the potential to achieve much, much more.

I thank God that Mom blossomed into the Dragon Lady.

I thank God that her greatest disappointment was not remaining an unassertive and subordinate housewife.

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Mom with my sister Betty.

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With Dad.

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The original movie Star Wars — the first Star Wars, before the sequels, the prequels, and all the tinkering and revisions by George Lucas — opened in theaters in May 1977. I was among the throngs of hopeful science fiction fans scrambling for tickets.

I say hopeful because up until then, Hollywood had done a poor job of making science fiction movies. To the industry, sci-fi meant “Mars Needs Women” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”

But in the highly-touted Star Wars from young George Lucas, we fans had detected, if you’ll forgive me, a new hope.

We knew good sci-fi was possible. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick made “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which treated sci-fi as a genre for adults. In 1971, Lucas directed “THX 1138,” also a serious sci-fi movie. Maybe, just maybe, Star Wars would be the film we were looking for.

From today’s vantage point, we can look back on some good science fiction movies. But in early 1977, most of the good stuff — “Blade Runner,” “Close Encounters,” and the “Alien,” “Terminator,” and “Matrix” films — hadn’t happened yet.

In 1977, I lived in Fort Lauderdale. I was 34, married with two kids, working in an office, wearing a tie. I wasn’t typical of all the young sci-fi nerds awaiting the movie’s debut.

But I was as excited as the nerdiest of them. I dutifully stood in line (Fandango was still decades away) to get a ticket to see this new Star Wars thing.

The film didn’t disappoint. Lucas did well, pushed all the right buttons. He appealed to the kids and the inner kids. The special effects were revolutionary and awesome. The heroes were virtuous, the villains were unambiguously evil. Star Wars was an instant classic.

That first time, I saw the film alone. No one else in the family showed any interest.  But coming out of the theater, I knew with certainty that my two boys would be utterly captivated by it. The Force would lock onto them in their seats and pull them in like a tractor beam.

Britt was then a few months shy of 12. Dustin had just turned six. Both should have been clamoring to go see the thrilling adventures of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, et al. But they weren’t.

Maybe they were turned off because I had raved about it so much and for so long. Why would I like some stupid movie Dad likes? He can’t tell me what I like.

But I knew I was right. And I didn’t want them to miss out because of misdirected stubbornness.

So, I bought three tickets to a Saturday showing of the film — one for me, one for Britt, one for Dustin.

When I made the announcement, it wasn’t pretty.

Britt was indignant. Not being one to blow up or lash out, he went into sulk mode and coldly retreated to his room.

Dustin, being more given to dramatics, wailed like a lost soul and fled to his room in tears.

To my credit or discredit — decide which for yourself — I stood my ground. I insisted that, by God, I was taking them to see the blasted movie.

The worst that could happen, I pointed out, was they would hate it. Then they could say, What a stinker of a movie! Old Dad got it wrong! Boy, was he wrong!

On the other hand, maybe I was right. Maybe Star Wars would be great. Maybe they would enjoy it.

Either way, I said, lighten up. It’s just a movie. And we’re going to see it. End of story.

You can imagine how events transpired. From the first scene, they were entranced. Enthralled. Enchanted. Enraptured.

The subject of their fit of youthful intransigence never came up again. Today, both are loyal Star Wars fans who have seen the movie more times than they can recall.

A few weeks ago, Britt treated his parents, wife, and kids to a 3D showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After the movie, as we walked out of the theater, I casually mentioned his resistance drama from the old days.

This was news to his two daughters, who are 15. They thought it was hilarious.

A week or so later, I asked Dustin if he and his bunch had seen the new Star Wars movie.

“Leslie and I went to see it,” he told me. “We liked it. Maddie and Sarah didn’t go. They just weren’t interested.”

Maddie is 12, and Sarah is nine, so the irony is obvious. Where it falls on the line between the comic and the tragic, that eludes me.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Queuing up to see Star Wars in 1977.

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Last week, my son and daughter-in-law dropped the hammer of parental authority on their two daughters due to excessive computer usage.


In a calm and deliberate email, they informed Maddie and Sarah, ages 11 and eight, that they need to take a break from the virtual world and “explore life.”

For the rest of the summer, the girls are allowed to use their laptops only from 10-11 a.m., 1-3 p.m., and 8-10 p.m.

(I assume they chose email to deliver the message because the girls are on their laptops constantly and were sure to see it.)

“New Computer Policy — Effective Immediately” was the subject of the message. We grandparents were copied on the email, owing to the fact that all four of us live in town and will be called on to enforce the new rules.

In large part, the cause of all this drama is the computer game Minecraft, which the girls discovered some weeks ago. In Minecraft,  you create virtual worlds using a variety of building blocks that, for unexplained reasons, look like Legos.

You can erect buildings, plant crops, raise livestock, dig mines, stockpile supplies and equipment, and trade goods with other players.

You also can enter game modes that introduce malevolent creatures, lava flows, and other mortal dangers. If a player gets snuffed out, no worries. You simply regenerate and start over.

Minecraft is clever and addictive, and Maddie and Sarah were promptly sucked in — so much so that their parents felt obliged to intervene.


A Minecraft virtual world, this one especially elaborate.

When the new computer usage rules were announced, the girls made no attempt to circumvent them. After all, they are responsible, sensible children, and they understand the folly of invoking the wrath of the parental units.

The only thing is, during the hours they are allowed to crank up their laptops and are on the clock, they play Minecraft with an even more feverish intensity.

The hammer was dropped at 9:45 a.m. on a Monday. When I arrived at the girls’ house for babysitting duty that day at 12:30 p.m., they were in their respective rooms upstairs.

Their laptops, I observed, were on the kitchen counter, charging.

I was there to take over from my ex, Deanna, who had the morning shift. She said the girls had been somewhat jolted by the new policy, but seemed to accept the inevitability of it.

Deanna and I sat down and chatted about grandparent things. The clock inched toward 1:00 p.m.

At precisely 1:00 p.m., Maddie and Sarah came bounding down the stairs. Both girls gave me a fleeting Hi, Rocky, snatched up their laptops, plopped down on the couch, and began Minecrafting. Deanna and I exchanged meaningful looks.

A few minutes later, Deanna announced that she was going home. The girls paused Minecraft to see her off, then resumed play.

The house was quiet except for their game chatter…


“Maddie, do you have any dirt and wood planks?”


“Yes, you do.”

“I can’t spare any. Where are you? I don’t see you.”

“I’m at the portal. PLEASE let me buy some dirt!”

“Okay, I’ll trade you some dirt for some coal.”

“Maddie, look out! There’s a cave spider!”

“Cave spiders won’t hurt you, Sarah.”

“Oh, okay. Rocky, what time is it?”




“Maddie, I fed my pigs carrots, and they breeded and spawned babies.”

“Yeah, the rabbits and pigs eat carrots. The horses like apples best.”

“I want some horses — Maddie, look out! There’s a Creeper!”

“Stay away from him, Sarah! If he gets close, he’ll explode, and you’ll be dead!”

“Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no! — Maddie, he got me. I’m killed.”

“Sarah, I told you to stay away from him. Do you have a potion so you can regenerate?”

“Yeah. Hey, Rocky, what time is it?”




2:55 p.m. — Maddie suggests that they wrap things up with a quick round of Minecraft virtual hide-and-seek. She tells Sarah to hide first. She averts her eyes from the laptop screen as Sarah hides in the dark corner of a basement.

2:58 p.m. — Maddie finds Sarah. Panic sets in because time is running out. Sarah averts her eyes while Maddie digs a hole in the side of a hill, climbs in, and covers herself up. Sarah begins the search.

3:00 p.m. — The designated afternoon computer session has ended, but Sarah has not yet located Maddie. Benevolently, I grant them extra time.

3:03 p.m. — Sarah discovers where Maddie is hiding. They close their laptops. We turn on the TV and watch SpongeBob SquarePants.







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