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More letters from Mom about life in the old days in Suwanee, Georgia…

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June 12, 1965

Dear Rock,

Everything here is wet. It has rained for so many days I lost count. I feel like a swamp creature. We have hopes of clearing skies tomorrow.

Bible school is going on this week. We have all learned to hate each other working together in the church with the rain drumming on the roof. The kids have had to have their Kool-aid and cookies on the table in the back of the sanctuary, and well, you can imagine the crumbs, spilled grape juice and ice melting on the pews.

Brother Charles sat at home on his duff Monday and Tuesday. Claimed he did not know it is the preacher’s job to be at Bible School. Mrs. Gasser and I jumped on him and set him straight. He was there today and says he will continue to come. As I say, we have learned to hate each other, but it will blow over.

Outside of Martha Pierce, who almost wiggled out of it, the only people I could get to teach were Gloria, Mrs. Tate, the two Dianes and Peggy Puckett. Mrs. Tate got sick, so I have Helen DeLay in there now.

Martha and Peggy teach the juniors, Danny’s class. Today they made bookends out of plaster of Paris. Martha said Danny is a riot and keeps them all laughing. I said smart aleck is more the word for Danny.

Smitty took Old Shakey to Robert and had the brakes adjusted and had it oiled and greased. You ought to see the old thing. Daddy just loves it. It is black and looks like it might growl at you.

The other day, he went to Duluth to pick up some stuff at the farmer’s supply, and on the way there, the foot feed stuck. He said he was going wide open and couldn’t slow down. To stop it, he had to turn the ignition key off.

He would start up again, and it would go full blast, which really isn’t that much, then off with the key again. He finally pulled over and somehow fixed it.

Mrs. Hutchison spent the afternoon with me yesterday. She said that when Joe Jr. was 16, his dad put him to work with the construction gang, digging ditches. It was in the summer, and he had never done any hard work before.

One day he climbed out of the ditch and told the foreman, “When I get to be president of this company, I’m gonna fire you.” The foreman said, “Well until you do, you get back down in that ditch and dig.”

Joe Jr. was furious. That night, he told his daddy about it and said the foreman ought to be fired. The next day, Mr. H. called the foreman into his office and raised his salary.

Lee is on a date, Smitty is reading the paper, Dan is painting the bookends he made today, and Betty is asleep. I must get to the ironing board, as it is already after nine. I love you very much.

Mom

Betty and a struggling cat pose with Old Shakey.

Betty and a struggling cat pose with Old Shakey.

—————

July 21, 1965

Dear Rocky,

Your letter was most welcome yesterday and gave me more than my share of chuckles. I laughed heartily all by myself.

There has been quite a lot of tragedy around Suwanee this summer. Remember Winnie Burnett, James’s wife? They lived on the corner of Level Creek Road and Main on the left, where they always had a pretty garden. Two boys, 13 and 9.

She had a breast removed a year ago. Then some knots appeared on her neck several months back. They operated, but the cancer had gone too far. I never saw anybody deteriorate so fast. Saturday a week ago, she was taken to the hospital and died Sunday morning.

Doyle Moulder also died. He was Bonnie Moulder’s son, 28, asst. principal at Lawrenceville Elementary. He was at a lake near Madison with his family, had his little girl on his back in waist deep water, and he just suddenly went under.

The lifeguard saw the child floundering and brought her back to shore. Poor Doyle was stone dead at the bottom of the lake. They said he had no water in his lungs, so they think it was a heart attack.

Dan Brown took Rogers to the hospital in Buford in pretty bad shape. The doc said he needs an operation that involves going into his head, a four-hour thing. Dan thinks it’s just a sinus condition, but I heard that Rogers went berserk last week and was out of his head. Poor thing and poor Dan.

Rock, you know how we’re always discovering wonderful characters around these parts. I have discovered a simply marvelous one that is hard to beat. And the funny thing is, I’ve been hearing about him all my life.

His name is Forrest Turner, and he was a great pal of Leland Harvey. The two of them probably spent most of their adult lives in prison, and they were famous escape artists, especially Harvey, although Turner had a pretty good reputation, too. They never murdered anybody. Just pulled robberies.

Anyway, while in prison, Turner learned a trade. He learned to make false teeth. Now he is out for good, barring future misdeeds, and he makes false teeth.

He goes to the homes to do the work. For some reason, he always goes at night. He charges $55 for a set, uppers and lowers, whereas if you get them done at a dentist, it runs $250 or more.

It seems that most of the rural population of Gwinnett County goes around wearing teeth by Turner. Everyone says he makes beautiful, good quality teeth. Frank lost his teeth on his trip to Florida, so he is going to call Turner to come out.

Last year, Margie Tallant got wind of it and went to the judge in Lawrenceville and tried to get Turner stopped. But so far, he is still making teeth. He lives in Decatur. He must be an old man, because I remember hearing about him when I was a child. He was always escaping and would stay on the outside, the object of a manhunt.

I’ll bet many a poor devil is going around with teeth who otherwise would be gumming it, if not for this guy. When you think about it, he has no middle man and probably makes a good living at it. For example, say the materials cost him $10 and he charges $55. Not bad.

Well, I need to go to bed. This new typewriter ribbon makes more mistakes than the old one did. Daddy’s vacation starts Monday for two weeks. He can hardly wait. We are not going anywhere. Will vacation at home.

I love you,

Mom

Mom and Aunt Betty check the progress of Dad's beard.

Mom and Aunt Betty check the progress of Dad’s beard.

—————

More letters from home in my next post.

 

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More letters from Mom reporting on family life back home…

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Mon. night Oct. 26, 1964

Dear Rocky,

We have been having such beautiful weather for the past couple of weeks that I almost hate to mention it. Last Saturday, Smitty, Lee, Betty and I walked down to the river.

The trees all along the river bank were just gorgeous. Honestly, we didn’t see any prettier color when we drove up to the North Ga. mountains. Just more of it up there.

Agnes’ puppies are fat little butterballs. All they do is eat, sleep, squirm and holler. She takes good care of them. She is thin, but looks good. Her appetite is huge.

It was very hard on her since it was her first litter, and six big ones was quite a task. She had the pups in the storage room, and I could not get near them or her for two days. I wanted to get them all to the basement, but she was determined that I would not touch a thing.

Finally, she decided to come in the house. We had fixed up a nice bed in the basement with a clean, soft blanket. Dan took the puppies around to the basement door, and then we let Agnes down there with them. She was all upset for a while but is fine now.

We finally got the hogs butchered. They are now resting peacefully in packages in the freezer. We thought we had lockers reserved at Gann’s, but not so. Daddy had to scout around for a used freezer on the very day the meat was due to be picked up.

He found one at Goodwill Industries for $70 and had to rent a trailer to get it home. We used Danny’s roller skates under one end to maneuver it into the basement. You should have seen us.

Guess there is no more news. Mama and Frank are fine. Write when you can.

I love you,

Mom

In those days, the Suwanee Smiths lived on eight acres of pine trees and pastures.

In those days, the Suwanee Smiths lived on eight acres of pine trees and pastures.

—————

Thursday night, Feb. 4, 1965

Dear Rocky,

Before I forget, be sure to watch the next Jonathan Winters Show because his guests will be Bob and Ray. It’s bound to be hysterical.

Here is the news from Suwanee and outlying areas. Earl English’s wife had an accident and tore her new car asunder. She was in the hospital for a few days but is home and on the mend.

Faye Roberts’ husband has a new company car, a Chevy with all the trimmings. He gave Faye a mink stole which she hesitates to wear to church for fear people will make derogatory remarks either within her hearing or otherwise.

Ann Smith has a new permanent. She also just finished making a tan jumper and a tan and white checked blouse. She drinks too much coffee and smokes too many cigarettes. She still weighs only 100 pounds.

Donald is going into the Marines right after he graduates. If he graduates. I know Clifford will be relieved for the Marines to get hold of that boy.

The Hutchisons are going to Europe for three weeks. Margaret is going to have a baby in June. Fred Tallant had to oust a bunch of drunks from the apartments last Sunday. Margie Tallant’s mother is now a housemother at the U of Ga. Cute-Face is pregnant again.

Camel breezed into Mama’s kitchen last Sunday morning when the temperature was about 9 degrees, wearing shorts and sandals. Mama said he did it just for the pure hell of hearing her fuss at him. Anyway, she said he was three sheets to the wind and probably didn’t feel anything.

The Titshaws moved over near Lawrenceville and rented their house out to some logger. He parks his truck full of pulp wood half on the front lawn and half in the road. When you drive by, you get the feeling it is in the process of backing into you.

During the last siege of snow and ice, the preacher drove into a ditch and hit a tree. Dented his pretty black car, but nobody hurt. Hardy DeLay swapped his Valiant for a Dodge pickup. Anita Payne was in a beauty contest at her school recently, but I don’t know how she came out.

The Manns, who moved into the house where the McElwreaths used to live, have a daughter who rides the bus with Danny. She asked Danny if there is a whiskey still in the woods on the Browns’ property. She said Mr. Brown is always going into the woods at night with a flashlight, and one morning they woke up and everything smelled like wine. How about that?

Well, tonight is school night, and it is about time for Daddy to get home. I have to get his supper going. Take care. Write when you can.

Much, much love,

Mom

Relaxing at the Smith place. Left to right: Nuisance the Beagle, Mom, Betty, Lightning the Dalmatian, Lee, his girlfriend Sherry, and Danny. Danny is holding Dora, a Beagle pup. Dora's sister Doris is peeking out from behind Danny's shoe.

Relaxing at the Smith place. Left to right: Nuisance the Beagle, Mom, Betty, Lightning the Dalmatian, Lee, his girlfriend Sherry, and Danny. Danny is holding Dora, a Beagle pup. Dora’s sister Doris is peeking out from behind Danny’s shoe.

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More Chronicles in my next post.

 

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A few weeks ago, I hauled out of the closet a box of old cards and letters that hadn’t seen the light of day in 50 years. Literally.

I received the correspondence from various family members and friends in the 1960s, when I was in college and the Air Force. Fully half the letters in the box are from my mother, bless her.

Back then, people didn’t communicate the way we do today. Cell phones, email, instant messaging, social media — they didn’t exist.

The land-line telephone system reached more or less everywhere, but it was unreliable. Long distance voice quality was never good. It was sort of like the dial-up internet of its day.

For most people, letter-writing was a much bigger thing than it is today. And we Smiths were prolific letter-writers.

Soon after I went away to college, the family moved to Suwanee, Georgia, population 400, where my grandparents Leila and Frank Byrd lived. Suwanee was Frank’s hometown.

As it turned out, the town was a lively and interesting place with a cast of characters worthy of Faulkner. Suwanee had plenty of upstanding citizens. It also had scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells.

Virtually everyone in town went to church. But for years, the proprietor of one of the downtown stores sold moonshine from the back door of his establishment. Clearly, the demand was there.

Half of the town’s phone lines were party lines. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Gossip was the sport of choice.

What made Suwanee different from any other community in the land? Nothing whatsoever.

Mom was a natural writer who clearly enjoyed sitting down at the typewriter, and her letters are delightful to read. They’re funny, entertaining, and certainly revealing of her character.

Which, of course, is the point of presenting them. I’m deeply biased on this subject, but I assure you, Ann Smith was a person well worth knowing.

In the letters presented below, she refers to local people you don’t know. For the most part, it doesn’t matter.

But there is one exception. The “Camel” she mentions is Campbell “Camel” Hamilton, Frank’s cousin and next-door neighbor. Camel was a jovial, middle-aged country fellow, a bachelor living comfortably with no visible means of support. He was one of the more colorful characters in town.

Here are two of Mom’s letters. Welcome to Suwanee.

—————

Aug. 25, 1964

Dear Rocky,

Lee just crept off to football practice. He had entertained the thought briefly that he might skip practice this morning, but the coach announced that anyone who didn’t show up would run laps equivalent to 10 miles.

Lee thought the coach would mellow out after he got married. He didn’t.

I wish Lee wouldn’t play football. He isn’t big enough. He eats like a horse but still only weighs about 140.

I ought to have my head examined. I have never learned to say “no.” The chairman of the Retarded Children’s Drive called and buttered me up, saying what a wonderful job I did last year, taking charge of the drive in Suwanee, and would I do it again this year. I was so blinded by flattery I agreed instantly and have hated myself ever since.

The drive is less than a week away, I have to go to an executive PTA meeting tonight, help with choir practice on Friday, have to get Betty a shot before Thurs., have peas to shell and freeze, the house is dirty, my ironing is piled up to the ceiling, my hair needs attention, I’m behind about two years on mending and sewing, all the closets need cleaning. I could go on and on. What a rat race, and I take on something else.

Cute-Face had five kittens this week. They look just like the other batch except two of them are black as the ace of spades. I’ve threatened many times to cause Cute-Face to disappear, but it won’t happen. Danny keeps tabs on her too closely.

Joe at the Post Office is still imbibing. Last count was that he has been inebriated going on three weeks. I noticed we were getting more of other people’s mail than usual. Poor Joe. Wish I could help him.

Frank is off from work for a week, orders from the doctor. He was having trouble with his leg. Mama seems fine. Liz Hutchison is coming to play with Betty this afternoon.

Last week at church, I didn’t stay for the service after Sunday School, and the preacher sent word by Danny that I was missed. Subtle, eh?

So that is the state of affairs here. Already I can feel the Fall of the year creeping in. Either that, or it is old age.

I love you, sweetie,

Mom

The Suwanee Smiths, left to right: Betty, Dad, Mom, Danny, and Lee. The pets are Susan Cute-Face, Blacksmith, and Agnes.

The Suwanee Smiths, left to right: Betty, Dad, Mom, Danny, and Lee. The pets are Susan Cute-Face, Blacksmith, and Agnes.

—————

Oct. 1, 1964

Dear Rocky,

Tonight is Daddy’s school night. He goes on Tues. and Thurs. and gets home around 8:15. Betty and Danny are watching “The Munsters” on TV. Lee is doing homework. Agnes is asleep in my chair. She thinks I don’t know she is up there.

Big news in Suwanee. They moved into the new Post Office today, and you will be amazed at what a nice-looking thing it is. Joe and Frank are as proud as new papas. Frank is going to be working there permanently. At least that is what I gather.

Rock, those two black kittens are just darling. They have the longest white whiskers and are little devils! The kids named them Peggy and Tiger. Tiger, after Tiger Hutchison, who ran away and never returned. He jumped out of the car at the 1-Stop one day and took off like a striped ape.

Actually, I was not surprised. The treatment he got from Liz was rough. He probably was just waiting for his chance.

Buck Buice came rambling by late yesterday afternoon. Hardy DeLay was walking the cattle back over here, and Buck saw him and came over. Buck was about three sheets to the wind. I couldn’t help but get tickled.

Every time I see Buck, I think about the time he came to take Lord Ashley to the slaughterhouse, and he was backing up his truck so fast, with you hanging onto the back end. You said it was like being strapped to the front of a speeding locomotive.

Camel took Mama down to Statesboro on Sunday. When he got back the next day, he was pretty well snockered on his home brew. He complained that he “couldn’t get that sorry-ass Ford past 90.” Pardon my French.

The place is real pretty now with a lot of Fall color. We have a blazing fire every night. We always have good frozen veggies from the garden, plus a nice beef roast or some pork chops, thanks to critters like Lord Ashley who sacrificed their all. Do you see how terrible I’ve become?

Rock, we enjoy your letters so much. Keep them coming.

I love you.

Mom

Mom at the lake, summer 1964.

Mom at the lake, summer 1964.

—————

More of the Suwanee Chronicles in my next post.

 

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In the eyes of family and friends, I am that fellow who is obsessed with going hiking. The one who, for years, has spent most of his weekends and vacations on a trail somewhere, either locally or on the other side of the country. The guy who has been to Grand Canyon 23 times, for Pete’s sake.

To them, I am an eccentric — slightly unbalanced, but in a harmless way. The family reputation is in no real jeopardy.

That’s how they think of me. What they probably don’t think about is how I came to be the fanatic that I am — how the obsession started.

I know exactly how and when it started.

In the summer of 1979, frustrated by boss problems at work, I quit my job in Fort Lauderdale. We sold the house, packed up the family, and moved back to Georgia. I was 36, married with two kids.

For two months, the four of us lived in my parents’ basement in the little town of Suwanee, population 400, located 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. As happens in a decent economy, things quickly fell into place. I found a job, and we bought a house, and life settled into a routine again.

One Saturday morning during that two months in the basement, I woke up with an urge I didn’t experience often: the desire to go for a solitary walk in the woods. The woods, in that place and time, went for miles in every direction.

The morning was sunny and pleasant, and job-hunting wasn’t done on Saturdays, so I announced to the household my intentions to disappear for a while and go for a stroll. I would follow one of the old dirt roads that meandered through the piney woods, just to see where it went.

No one seemed to care one way or the other. I got comments like, “Well, that’s nice” and “You have fun” and “Be careful” and stuff like that.

Fortunately, nobody wanted to go with me. That meant I could get away alone and have time to think my own thoughts.

The towns in that part of Georgia — Norcross, Duluth, Suwanee, Buford — grew up along the Seaboard Coast Line railroad, which runs through Atlanta and northeast into South Carolina and points beyond.

(Each town had a small railway station, but the trains rarely stopped. They did, however, deliver the U.S. Mail. That was accomplished when the stationmaster put out “the hook” each day to snag the mail pouch as the train zoomed through. I know this because my grandfather was the Suwanee Postmaster. As a kid, I never tired of watching that ritual.)

The main road in those parts was, and still is, Buford Highway, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks. The few other roads in the area were small county roads, some paved and some dirt, dotted with occasional houses like Mom and Dad’s.

For the most part, it was blips of civilization surrounded by undeveloped woods. Between Mom and Dad’s house, on the edge of Suwanee, and Duluth, five miles south, there was little but oak and pine forest and a few small creeks.

That changed in a hurry. Starting in the 1980s, land developers descended on Gwinnett County. All that territory was turned into housing subdivisions, industrial parks, and shopping centers. Here is a Google Earth map of the area today:

Suwanee to Duluth

The red dot at the top shows where Mom and Dad lived on the outskirts of Suwanee, on a bluff near the Chattahoochee River (the green line). The north edge of Duluth is at lower left. The black line is the railroad, and the single yellow line on the right side is Buford Highway.

In 1979, nothing was between the river and the railroad tracks except forest. No divided four-lane highway, no subdivisions, no nothing.

Where I intended to go that morning, I didn’t know. I took a bottle of water, a package of cheese crackers, my shades, and a bandana. I wore a baseball cap and ordinary tennis shoes. Back then, I didn’t own hiking boots.

For a time, I walked south, following an abandoned dirt road that was cut off from civilization and probably hadn’t seen a vehicle since the horse and buggy days.

The area was former farmland. I passed the ruins of a few old homesteads that had collapsed into piles of rotted boards. In most cases, the pine trees, undergrowth, and kudzu had grown up and swallowed them, covering everything except the chimneys.

Sometimes, the road disappeared, and I had to make my way across a field. But progress was easy. I kept going in the same southerly direction with no destination in mind.

I encountered a lot of wildlife that morning. Deer, rabbits, and quail were everywhere. They weren’t accustomed to seeing people in so remote a spot.

The deer and rabbits were startled to see me, but the quail always gave ME a scare. They have a way of waiting until you’re within three feet of their hiding place, then taking flight in a mad frenzy.

Eventually, the old road intersected the right-of-way of a row of mammoth electrical power lines and disappeared for good. I continued south, following the power lines.

Then I reached the edge of a large swamp formed by Brushy Creek, which flows west into the Chattahoochee River. I faced an impassable bog from horizon to horizon.

Well, not completely impassable. Crossing the swamp near the transmission lines was a pipeline — carrying water, natural gas, or whatever — elevated on six-foot pilings.

The pipe was huge, about three or four feet in diameter, painted an unpleasant shade of milky turquoise green. The pipe emerged from the ground, crossed the swamp on the pilings, and went back underground again.

I hopped onto the pipe, walked across the swamp, and resumed my journey.

A short time later, I spotted the railroad tracks in the distance and abandoned the power lines. I began walking south along the tracks. For the first time, I had a goal: going all the way to Duluth.

At that point, I figured I was about halfway there. I had progressed a couple of miles in a couple of hours. Shortly before noon, I sat down on a crosstie and ate the cheese crackers for lunch.

I also picked up and placed in my back pocket a memento of the hike: a rusty railroad spike that I found discarded next to the tracks.

Walking along the tracks was easy. I crossed Suwanee Creek, a fairly large stream, via railroad trestle. I crossed a second creek by trestle, and then I was back in civilization again — houses and traffic at the edge of Duluth.

Almost immediately, I attracted the attention of some local dogs. It was time to turn around and go home.

Late that afternoon, having retraced my steps and arrived back at Mom and Dad’s house at last, I walked into a hornet’s nest.

My lovely wife was furious.

How could you just disappear like that and leave us wondering whether you were alive or dead?

Do you realize we were on the verge of calling the police? Nobody knew what happened to you! Do you understand how worried we all were, how inconsiderate it was to do that to us?

My dad was indignant.

Son, your mother was worried sick. You were gone way too long. She thought you might be hurt or something. I’m really disappointed. You should know better.

Mom didn’t say much, which meant she was angry, too.

That was, quite literally, my first formal hike. And, yes, I did learn a valuable lesson vis-à-vis loved ones waiting back home.

However, except for the unpleasantness that ensued in the aftermath, I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I decided I would do it more often.

Since then, I have hit the trail hundreds of times. How many hundreds, I don’t know, because for years, I kept no record of my hikes. At some point, I began to document them — by date, location, distance hiked, and the dog, if any, who accompanied me.

These days, I don’t go hiking as often as before, and I don’t hike as far as I once did. But Paco and I are still at it. I still have a blast, still love the whole experience.

It’s true, I’m a fanatic. Obsessed, even.

Eccentric, but in a harmless way.

Spike

 

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If you’re familiar with this blog, you probably know that I’ve been trying to cope with the loss of my aunt, Betty Smith, who died in April.

Betty was a charming, gracious, truly delightful person. She never married, so her life revolved around the greater Smith clan, which is a growing and widely scattered bunch, and her friends and co-workers in Savannah.

Betty was the heart and soul of our family. The axis we revolved around. The force that held us together. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.

The last time I saw her was in February, when I went to Savannah for a periodic visit. At the time, her health and spirits were fine.

Betty always insisted that I bring Paco to Savannah with me. She understood that Paco is a prince among dogs, and she was very fond of him. In the evenings, as we sat in the den and chatted, Paco would sit next to Betty to receive a leisurely petting and ear-scratching.

My February trip was typical in every way. I was in Savannah for four days. Twice, we went to the Smith family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery to pay our respects to the departed. We spent one evening visiting Cilie Sutton, Betty’s best pal for an astounding 86 years. We strolled around the downtown squares and along the riverfront. We ate seafood twice a day.

The morning Paco and I were loading up to drive home, I took these two photos:

Betty & Paco-1

Betty & Paco-2

The two shots work so well together that when I got home, I made prints and placed them in a double frame. I keep them in a prominent spot where I see them often.

At the time, I didn’t know they would be my last photos of her. They mean a great deal to me.

If you’ll notice, Betty is holding a camera in the photos. As I later learned, she took a photo of me as I drove away, which was unusual. This is the photo.

Rocky departing

That shot may not look like much, but it’s meaningful if you know about the “departure ritual” we Smiths followed for many years when it was time to leave Savannah.

How the ritual began, no one remembers, but we all followed it religiously. It involved driving past Betty’s house and giving her a final wave.

Betty’s house is on Kinzie Avenue, a double street with a median. The lane in front of her house is one way eastbound. The lane on the other side of the median is one way westbound.

The median is there because for many years, a street car line ran down Kinzie Avenue. Both sides of the street are extra wide, so cars can park at the curbs and still allow for passing traffic.

The departure ritual involved driving away in the required easterly direction, making a U-turn at the end of the block, returning west past Betty’s house on the other side of Kinzie Avenue, and waving goodbye.

Betty and any remaining house guests would be standing on the front porch, waving back.

The finale of the ritual was when you reached the next stop sign, a block away, and gave your horn a tap.

About a month after Betty’s funeral, I found the photos she took during my February visit. The processing envelope from the camera store identified the date. The above photo of my departure was among them.

(Betty stubbornly stayed with her film camera. We couldn’t convince her to go digital.)

So, from that morning in February, I have the final photo I took of Aunt Betty, the final photo she took of me a few moments later, and a reminder of our longtime departure ritual.

Considering all the siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins who visited Aunt Betty over the years, that ritual played out hundreds of times.

How sad that we won’t be doing it anymore.

 

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I live in the little town of Jefferson, north of Atlanta, well up onto the Piedmont Plateau. Up here, we are spared the worst of the heat, humidity, gnats, and mosquitoes you find down on the coastal plain. The North Georgia seasons are downright moderate.

But this is the South, and I live in the foothills, not the mountains, and summer is still summer. Which is why, when I find myself retreating indoors by noon and turning on the air conditioning, it’s time for a restorative road trip.

One of those times was the last week in June. Daytime temps were creeping into the 90s, so I packed a bag, loaded up the dog, and set out to spend a few days at some higher, cooler elevation.

My plan was to drive into North Carolina, head up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and take side trips as the spirit moved me. It would be a qué será, será sort of thing.

For the record, I was traveling in my trusty RV, “Old Blue” — so named because the interior is upholstered in velour of a jarring cerulean blue. It was a 90s thing.

So, this would be a camping trip. But camping, I assure you, of a civilized nature.

The kind of camping where you stay at an RV park, plug into AC power, fish a cold beer out of the refrigerator, and crank up the hot water heater for your shower.

The kind of camping where, after sitting outside and watching a beautiful sunset in the invigorating mountain air, you retire to the RV to listen to some tunes, or maybe watch television, while the dog snoozes at your side.

To me, the appeal of RV camping is the adventure of it all. When you stop for the night, you’re in new surroundings, meeting new people, having new experiences. It’s invigorating.

On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the experience will be positive. You never know how the conditions, the surroundings, or the people will turn out. It’s always a roll of the dice.

—————–

It was late afternoon of my first day on the road. Paco and I had traveled 150 miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it was time to find a campground for the night. I exited the Parkway in the small mountain town of Spruce Pine.

Signs advertising RV campgrounds were everywhere, so I picked one at random. It seemed on arrival to be a good choice. The sites were nicely shaded, and the mountain views were impressive.

I stopped in front of the office, and a smiling man emerged. “Howdy, friend!” he said. “Welcome to [name redacted] RV Park! I like your rig!”

I thanked him, and we chatted agreeably for a minute before getting down to business. Yes, he had vacancies with hookups.

“I’ll put you down there next to my friends Joan and Bob,” he said, pointing down the row of sites. “They’re regulars, here all summer. Real nice, friendly folks.”

I nodded, mumbled more pleasantries, and paid him for one night. The man set off toward the campsite, and I followed in the RV.

As I backed into the site, my new neighbors Joan and Bob waved at me from a carpeted screen house behind their RV. I turned off the engine and got out.

“Hello, neighbor! Welcome!” said Joan in a loud and gratingly high-pitched voice. “I’m Joan, and this is my husband Bob!”

Joan was a seriously obese woman of about 60 with a jolly face and a bright yellow pixie haircut. She sat slumped in a large deck chair like a miniature version of Jabba the Hutt.

Instead of Carrie Fisher in chains, she held a tiny brown mongrel-looking dog that was yowling and straining to get at me. In a friendly way.

“This precious little fella is our baby, Dusty!” said Joan. “He is six months old and a rescue pup. We love him SO much!”

I introduced myself and expressed admiration for young Dusty.

Bob, a tall, lean man with a shaved head, thick moustache, and a face pocked with acne scars, chimed in. “We fell in love with Dusty because of his teeth — those silly snaggle teeth!”

Indeed, Dusty had a severe bulldog-like overbite. The splayed teeth looked terribly uncomfortable. Not that Dusty would know that.

“Well, come on in and have a seat!” Joan screeched. “We’ve got plenty of room and lots to talk about!”

I protested that they would have to excuse me for a minute, because I had a dog, too, and I needed to get him out of the RV.

Joan and Bob were thrilled to hear that I had a dog. They peppered me with excited questions, which I tried to answer as I inched backward toward my van.

Finally, I reached the sanctity of the far side of the RV. I got Paco out, hooked him up on his rope, and set out his food and water.

When my new neighbors saw Paco, they went bonkers. Joan and Bob, as apparently was their nature, were delirious with joy. Little Dusty began wailing in terror, probably convinced that 45-pound Paco was coming to kill him.

Paco ignored them all and calmly ate his supper.

Dusty’s wailing continued unabated, and the campground manager soon appeared. He joined Joan and Bob in trying to get Dusty to calm down.

“Dusty! Dusty! Take it easy, buddy!” said the manager. “The nice dog won’t hurt you! See? He’s a friendly dog!” He patted Paco on the head.

Dusty whimpered from the safety of Joan’s armpit. Ten feet away, outside the screen room, Paco stood next to me, benignly wagging his tail.

Slowly, Dusty got a grip, and the noise level subsided.

“Dusty is my god-dog, you know,” said the manager. “If anything happens to Joan and Bob, Dusty will come live with me!”

“Not that anything’s gonna happen!” Joan bellowed. “I outlived two husbands before I met Bob! I’m here for the long haul!”

“Ever since we got married,” she said with glee, “Bob has been a real light sleeper, if you know what I mean!”

Bob chuckled like a good husband, scooped up Dusty, and cooed soothingly in the dogs’ ear.

The manager drifted away to other duties, and Bob ushered me to a seat inside the screen room. Paco and Dusty ended up sprawled next to each other on the carpet.

For the next half hour, we sat and chatted in a neighborly fashion. Joan did most of the talking.

I learned that they are from Ocala, Florida, and they stay at [name redacted] RV Park every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

I also learned that Joan’s second husband left her a boatload of money, and Bob worked at a hardware store before he met Joan.

I probably should explain that I am not, by nature, a gregarious person. I have a limited tolerance for socializing. I get restless. It wasn’t easy to listen politely as Joan and Bob waxed eloquent about subjects of little interest to me.

Some people would have excused themselves on a pretext and retreated to the privacy of their RV. But I’m a polite, conflict-averse guy, so I sat there, enduring it.

Ultimately, it was Bob who broke up the confab.

“Joanie, honey, it’s almost six,” he said. “Why don’t we invite Rocky to go to supper with us?”

“Thanks,” I said quickly, “but I’m not going out tonight. I have some leftovers in the fridge. If you folks need to get going, please — don’t let me hold you up.” I stood up expectantly.

“Aw, come with us!” said Joan. “This town has lots of good restaurants! It’ll be fun!”

Somehow, I managed to beg off, and we said our goodbyes. With great effort, Joan struggled out of her chair. While Bob put Dusty in the camper and locked up, Joan plodded in laborious slow motion toward their car, teetering on a cane.

After they were gone, I put Paco in the RV and drove into town to find a quiet supper.

I know, I’m a terrible person.

Ten minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant that advertised the best home cookin’ in North Carolina. When I walked through the front door — oh, the irony — a familiar voice greeted me.

“So, you changed your mind!” said Joan in her familiar shriek. “How did you find us?”

“I, uh, spotted your car as I was driving by.”

The meal turned out to be pretty good. To my surprise, Joan ate like a bird, Bob like a ravenous beast. Joan talked continuously and effortlessly.

By the time we got back to the RV park, they were ready for bed. Joan said they were early-risers.

The next morning, I was up early, too. I ate breakfast, fed Paco, got showered and dressed, packed up, and was on the road by 6 AM.

Lest they think me rude, I left a goodbye note on their windshield.

Paco and Old Blue at [name redacted] RV Park. That's Joan and Bob's campsite on the far side of my van.

Paco and Old Blue at [name redacted] RV Park. That’s Joan and Bob’s campsite on the far side of my van.

The pastoral mountain view from the RV park. Joan and Bob said they spend their evenings watching the corn grow.

The pastoral mountain view from the RV park. Joan and Bob said they spend their evenings watching the corn grow.

J&B-3

 

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I’ve spent a lot of time lately in Savannah, sorting through the papers and photos of my late Aunt Betty. Betty left behind a substantial volume of personal and family memorabilia, and it needs to be perused, assessed, and dealt with.

Now and then as we proceed, one of us will uncover a treasure. Sometimes, it’s an item we knew about and were searching for. At other times, we find something unexpected, and occasionally amazing.

On my last trip, while going through the contents of yet another cardboard box in the den, I found a sealed envelope. It was labeled, in Betty’s handwriting, “Thoughts of Harry & Mama Cat.”

Betty was a committed cat person. She took in a succession of cats over the years, most of whom are a blur to me now. But I remember Mama Cat and Harry very well. They were mother and son and Betty’s favorites.

The envelope was packed tight with folded sheets of paper, 23 numbered pages in all, written in longhand. I flipped through the pages to get the gist of it.

It was an ode — a long, eloquent, heartfelt tribute — to her two precious cats.

Betty wrote the first part after Harry died in 1993, then added more when Mama Cat died in 2007. At some point after that, she sealed the letter in the envelope and put it away.

Far from being remarkable or unusual, the letter strikes me as being typical. It expresses the emotions of someone who has come to understand and love her pets.

Many of us, perhaps most of us, have had similar feelings. Betty just took the time to write it down.

Below is the tribute she wrote, including a few of the cat photos that were glued to the pages. I’m sure Betty wouldn’t mind that I’m sharing it.

——————

Mom
— Born 12-25-88

Harry
— Born 5-8-92
— Died 6-20-93

Harry

Cutest cat I ever saw. Smartest, too. Very curious about anything moving or new. When I walked or stood by a chair or the bed, not knowing where he was, he would reach out & pat me on the foot.

Loved to sit by me, yet only tolerated my holding him for a few minutes, before he wanted to get down. (Mom same way until she got old.) Loved to open the hall folding door & the bathroom door, when almost closed. Also, watched me bathe.

Every time he walked by the kitchen stove, he would pull the dish cloth off of the handle, then walk away & leave it on the floor. Very curious about the heat from the refrigerator & would feel all around underneath. Also, the floor furnace & air conditioner concerned him.

He liked to aggravate his mother when she was asleep. He would go sit & look at her for a minute then tap her on the rump & run.

He loved to sleep on the foot of my bed & awaken me each morning by walking all over me. (Mama pats me until I get up.)

Harry liked to sit on my car leaving muddy footprints & twice I actually saw him walk down the side of the car along the windows. How he balanced himself I do not know.

He spent a lot of time catching birds and lizards. He was very fast. Also, caught at least 3 squirrels this spring.

He loved me especially during the winter. He snuggled up to me & purred his heart out when we were in the bed.

Young Harry.

Young Harry.

Hazel gave him some toys when he was recovering after we think he was bumped by a car, & he liked playing with them & his toy mouse. He also found the bowl with the seashells & he would pick a shell out & play with it in the kitchen. (Mama Cat does the same thing.)

Harry & his mother would fight while she sat in the chair & he sat up like a rabbit & boxed around the opening of the wooden part of the arm.

He liked to untie the bow on my shoe every time he could, & he always bit my toes if I were barefooted. (Mom is fascinated with my toes & slippers also.)

He was my heart, & when I held him like a baby he was a ball of fur & was so lovable.

When he had to be in the hospital after being hit by a car, everyone there loved him. When he came home, I had to confine him for a week & keep him in the house for two additional weeks so his bones could heal, so we got to be good buddies.

I noticed that while we watched TV he never blinked his eyes, so I put my hand in front of his eyes, thinking that he needed to rest them, & he pushed my hand away with his paw.

I feel that it is my fault that he died, because I noticed that he was losing weight. But I thought it was due to the heat, & the cats did not eat as much as usual. Maybe the vet could have found out that he had a problem.

I adored Harry & his mother, Mom, but I never will have another pet, as much as I love cats, because it has broken my heart to lose him. I think he really loved me.

When I returned from Lawrenceville, I called & called & searched for him. When I found him he was dead, so I buried him in my garden. He was the love of my life — the personality kid of all time.

I never went outside to work in the yard without Harry & Mom appearing. Not knowing where they were when I went outside, they always showed up & would watch me work. If I took trash to the lane or worked in a different area they followed me.

Harry liked to scare me. I would be pulling weeds & he would jump out of the bushes & grab my hand, but never scratched me. (Mama bites me when I pester her, but she never clamps down.)

When I would dig a small hole in order to plant a flower, he would dig the hole bigger, like a dog would dig.

He loved to sleep under the azaleas where the ground was damp. (Mom also.)

Another favorite sleeping place was on the dining room chairs, where he could be hidden by the table cloth. I could find him because his tail would be below the cloth.

Harry liked to sleep on my liriope & the maidenhair fern. I guess it was soft.

He chased anything that moved, like butterflies, bees, lizards & birds.

Most cats don’t like to get wet, but Harry did not care. He sat in the bird bath, investigated the spray from the hydrant, put his paw in the bucket when full of water & played in the commode if the top was up.

Harry.

Harry.

Harry & Mom liked to sit close to me or sleep close to my feet & legs but did not like to be held but for a few minutes. One night I felt as if I were in a straightjacket because they were so close, one on each side of me.

Harry & Mom wash all the time. They get into the most unusual positions. They look just alike. Mom is a little greyer on her back, where Harry’s stripes are a little more prominent & he is not quite as heavy. He would have been bigger than Mom had he lived, according to the vet.

At present, Mom is sitting on my note paper watching me write. She is a wonderful cat also, & was a good mother when she had kittens. She belonged to the family next door, & they moved away & left her, so she became my cat. She stayed here all day anyway because they worked & went to school, so were gone most of the time.

(At present Mom is sitting about 3″ from my pen watching me write. She tried to grab my pen & the paper.)

Mom taught Harry to fight. They had a good time playing, but after he learned to defend himself she was ready for Harry to move on to his own territory. But he stayed, so they hissed & picked at each other about once a day. I don’t think that he could understand why, after playing with him so much, she did not want to play any more.

Every day after Harry ate his food he washed himself, then walked to the end of the flower bed by the back door & sat & looked around. After a few minutes he would go under the bushes in the shade & take a nap. Mama Cat does the same thing.

The reason for his being named Harry is because he was born May 8, which is Pres. Harry Truman’s birthday, so he was named for the President. I named his sister Stella because May 8 was also Mother’s birthday.

I gave Stella to a young lady on 63rd St. and gave Harry’s twin Smoky to a little boy on Goebel Ave.

Harry was born 5-8-92, the President’s & Mother’s birthday. He died on 6-20-93, Father’s Day. Was buried 6-22-93, Mother & Daddy’s wedding anniversary.

Mama Kitty was raised around 3 children next door so was used to people & confusion, but Harry only knew me, therefore, he was shy of confusion & people & would go hide in the bushes. If you talked to him, he would come out & be friendly to adults, but he did not seem to trust children. He liked Allan, Hazel, Ann & Walter & played with them.

The first time Harry saw himself in the hall mirror he thought it was another cat & his reaction was a show. He looked around the corner & when he saw the other cat he would jump back. Later he hit the cat with his paw.

By the time I thought about taking his picture he only bristled up his fur once. Glad I got that picture because he was not scared of that cat after that night.

Harry & Mama are so different. She is a real lady. The way she walks, taking short prissy steps & she never comes into the house unless invited. She is slow deciding what she wants to do. Harry is in like a bullet as soon as the door is cracked.

When he digs a hole & covers it up, he goes at it full force, really making a project out of it while Mama is very gentle & slow & does not scatter kitty litter all over the area.

I often thought people were silly to make so much over a pet, especially when they died, but now I know how they feel. It is as if I lost my best friend & I am to blame for not taking him to the vet when I noticed his weight loss. I do not know what killed him but I feel sure it was internal.

The minute I drove up or came outside, he came running to greet me & rub against my legs. (Mama also always greets you when you arrive home.) Although I adored Harry, I had no idea how much I would miss him.

When Harry was on the screened porch & someone walked by & he could not see who or what it was, he sat on his haunches like a rabbit to see over the bushes.

I bought 2 rocking chairs for the porch & they needed to have the rockers put on, so I had them stacked in the breakfast room & covered with towels until Allan came home to assemble them for me. Mama Kitty loved to sleep in her new secluded spot, but Harry found out about it & delighted in getting there first.

He had a place below her spot that was just like her spot, but he wanted hers. Of course, when she found him there, she hissed at him.

When Harry was a kitten, I took him to the vet for his shots & he crawled up around my neck as far as he could get under my hair, where he thought he was safe. Later I took him for his adult shots & he stood on the table as close as he could to my body. He knew who would protect him.

Someone sent me a card with a cute kitten on the front. Harry spotted it & jumped up on the cabinet & stared at it, I guess deciding whether or not it was real. After a while he walked over & touched it & when the kitten did not move, he walked away.

When Harry was on the porch & the door was closed & he wanted to come in, he got on the back of the rocking chair & banged it against the window sill to let me know that he wanted to get in.

One day I was bent over by the car working & something patted me on the fanny. Harry was sitting on top of the tire on the car & reached over & touched me.

Mama Cat sleeps different places on the porch & in the house most of the time. Early each morning, usually between 6-8 AM she gets on the foot of my bed & watches me. After a while she pats me on the leg, body or arm. If I don’t wake up she pats me with both paws like a dog digging a hole. She is hungry & wants me to get up & feed her.

Mama is a very pretty, lovable cat. She lets me hold her longer than she used to, but like Harry, she wants to be near me but not held too long. Her coat is thick & soft & she washes all of the time.

Mama can sense a dog anywhere in the area. She can be in the kitchen eating & if a dog walks by she growls & her hair stands up. I go look outside & there will be a dog. She does not tolerate other cats in our yard.

Mama Cat.

Mama Cat.

After Harry died I saw Mama sitting by Harry’s grave, just looking at the spot. Matter of fact, I went to several stores & when I returned, she was still there. Makes you wonder if she knew that he was there.

I have a backscratcher that has ribbons tied to one end & Mama loves to play with it every night. She loves to grab it with her claws & especially when I pull it under the edge of the rug.

She also is fascinated with my toes in my slides. She spies them & grabs them. Her claws are sharp!

She always checks out anything new & has to get involved, like when I am writing or on the new step ladder or wrapping a gift. Just curious & wants to be part of what is going on.

The cutest thing Mama did was one night she went to sleep on the back of the sofa & was so relaxed that she slid down around Allan’s shoulders. She was so sound asleep that she was not aware of it when he slowly moved & she slid down to the seat in a big lump, sitting on her backbone. She looked as if she were drunk. Even her eyes were dazed looking.

When I am looking for Mom & cannot find her, all I have to do is go outside & walk around the yard, & she will appear from somewhere.

She also likes climbing the dogwood tree & going on the roof in the winter because the dark shingles hold the heat & it is warm. Also, likes to sleep on the hood of my car because it is warm when I have driven somewhere.

If I say nice things about Mom or talk to her, she sits & looks at me & squints her eyes & looks as if she is smiling. Other times she stares at me as if she is not interested.

When I feed Mom she knows where the food is kept so she runs over to the container & we pick out a can of cat food. If she does not like it she goes through the motions of burying it! Then she goes to the cabinet & reaches for the dry food box on the counter.

Mama Cat can also open the back door if it is cracked but not open far enough for her to walk into the kitchen. I tell her to put her paws on the door & push. She does it every time, opens the door & walks in.

Mama has pretty green eyes. Every visit to the vet, someone comments on them. The eyes are very green & bright & clear. She is 8 years old now & is very pretty, active & healthy.

She hates to ride the half mile to the vet. She cries all the way there & back. Must be the sound of the engine because she does not cry until the car is turned on. She weighs 13 pounds.

4-24-2007

Today is a sad day/week for me. I lost my old friend from Atlanta, Mary Arnold, who was buried in Savannah on Sunday, the same day my long time friend from Louisville, Ga., Phil Denny, died.

Margie Purvis died today at Hospice. Another good friend, Betty Ann Beldin, was also in Hospice and died today.

All of the sick people above are special, but nothing to compare with the loss of my Mama Cat. She was my best and most faithful friend.

Mom’s health has been bad for a year or more. Not eating hardly any food but drank lots of water. She was so soft and had a beautiful face. She lost so much weight that she was very weak the last few weeks and could hardly walk.

I took her to 4 vets over a year & was told that she was old, & loss of appetite was normal. Not in Mama’s case. The 4th vet gave her 3 shots & it was amazing how much better she walked, & ate well for a few days before going back to not eating much.

For months she could not retain the food so it was no wonder she lost weight.

Mama sat on my lap every time I sat down & I loved to pet her soft fur & listen to her purr. Today I knew that she was going to die. Her pupils enlarged so big her eyes looked black. I held her like a baby (which she did not usually like) but she lay in my arms & just looked at me. After several hours she made a coughing sound several times & then her heart stopped.

I placed her little body on a white towel in a box & placed her in our garden next to Harry.

I will miss Mama Cat. She was my best friend. She never failed to meet me when I drove into the carport. She woke me up every morning & was a wonderful mother & friend to everyone.

The only time she ran & hid was when workmen came. She was a friend to other men, but not repair men.

Our neighbor has a very friendly, beautiful orange colored Persian, Thomas, who comes over several times a day to visit. Mama does not like for him to come into her yard, so when she comes out the door & Thomas is present, she hisses & takes a swing at him.

He and our other cat named Monte (the man who came to dinner & stayed) always had nice manners & sat about 6′-8′ away until she ate her food, then they moved in.

Mama was born 12-25-1988 & died today 4-24-2007. 19 years + 4 months. She was a beautiful lady. My friend.

Mama lost her hearing, & if I wanted to call her I banged on the side of the house & she would appear.

Mama & her son Harry looked just alike. I loved them dearly.

When I was taking a bath one day, the door slowly opened & she came in & sat on the counter & watched me bathe. She always liked drinking from the faucet instead of a bowl.

Mama Cat had a beautiful, sweet little face with pretty green eyes & soft fur. I loved holding her. As she grew older she spent a lot of hours in my lap.

Harry was missing & when I looked for him, he was by the opening to go under the house. Both of my kitties were such a pleasure to have in my life.

Mama is buried in our garden next to Harry. I really do miss her.

——————

After losing Harry, Betty resolved never to have another pet. No one believed her, of course.

In 2008, the neighbor who owned Thomas announced that he was moving, and he asked Betty to take Thomas. He said the cat was too old to handle the stress of a move.

Actually, it was an act of kindness. The neighbor knew Betty loved the cat dearly. Thomas spent his days and many nights with Betty anyway.

Betty accepted graciously. Thomas died in 2012 at the amazing age of 25.

Betty and Thomas at home, 2010.

Betty and Thomas at home, 2010.

Some of the graves in Betty's garden.

Some of the graves in Betty’s garden.

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