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Friday, May 24, 2019

Coda: Tennessee



1aa concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structure

ba concluding part of a literary or dramatic work

2something that serves to round out, conclude, or summarize and usually has its own interest--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

T. and I left our house on the 19th of May 2017. According to our original plan, we should have been on our way back from the eastern United States two years later. We were going to travel to New Orleans and work our way through the Deep South, up to Washington, D.C., and ultimately Chicago. Among other things, we would follow a trail of African-American history and visit sites of the civil rights movement.

We didn’t manage it, at least not on this trip. But just before 19 May I did squeeze in one more place, where I was born and spent the first seventeen years of my life. First I had to negotiate Manchester airport, which was mostly fine. The guy at security pointed to the latest addition to my daypack—the flag of the first country we traveled to, Wales. “That’s mine!” he said. On the other side of security, prominently placed, was a water bottle refilling station. I was glad to see it. This was the first time I’d been able to refill my bottle after security in a U.K. airport. Think of the thousands of plastic bottles people don’t have to buy now.

The backpacks are always a talking point. I was glad to have plenty of time to make my connection in Atlanta, where the agent who printed my boarding pass wanted to talk about the relative merits of my Osprey bag or the 40; “I was thinking of buying one!” And an agent in Tri-Cities said she had the same bag as mine, and had carried it on no problem. So had I on the way out.
Tennessee state flag--not to be confused with the other one. The three stars represent East, Middle, and West Tennessee. 

On the plane I had time to watch The Hate U Give, a movie I’d wanted to see since we were in Toronto. The story of an African-American girl who witnesses a police shooting, it did an excellent job of showing the character, appropriately called Starr, and the pressures she is under from all sides. I found it surprising and moving, and it also set me up to observe my home state. I went to East Tennessee to visit my parents, of course, but I’ve been traveling long enough also to want to look at it through new eyes.

Whenever I mention Tennessee to someone who has never been there, I get one of two responses: “Memphis?” (the largest city) or “Jack Daniels!” These are the Tennessean things people have heard of, but they have no connection to my experience. Carter County, outside the Elizabethton City Limits, is dry (for that matter, so is Moore County, where Jack Daniels is distilled). Tennessee whiskey was as foreign to me as England; I don’t honestly remember seeing a drink of alcohol in my home state the whole time I was growing up. As for Memphis, the state of Tennessee is so long from east to west that I felt more connected to Cleveland, Ohio, where my parents and their accent came from.

One of the cool things I did on this visit was go on a road trip with my mom. We went to Knoxville for the day, and in both directions, stopped at a rest area. On the way down, a bunch of women in the restroom had pulled the “closed” grate down in front of them and were screaming for us to take their picture. “This is the beginning of our girls’ weekend!” one explained. It was Wednesday!

We were going to Knoxville because my maternal grandmother, who is 94, lives there. She is in residential care and can’t really see, but there are glimpses of the old Mam-ma, chiefly when she smiles, or plays her keyboard! After tapping out “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?,” she asked, “Who sang that?”
Mom guessed Patti Page (who did make the song famous), but Mam-ma’s roommate kept saying “Doris Day” loudly from the next cubicle. And she wasn’t wrong. This was Mom’s cue to ask if roommate minded us singing and playing guitar, which we always used to do for Mam-ma and Pap Pap. Often, we did it for ourselves too.

On the way out of Knoxville we stopped by the downtown public library. Twenty years ago I made my living there, and there are still a few colleagues from my day, so it was fun to say hi to them. One asked what I’d been up to and after I had (briefly) summarized our travels, I said, “I guess this is the climax. East Tennessee, I mean.”

“Oh,” she said, “I thought you meant the library!”

The rest area along the freeway also had a historical sign about the nearby Greeneville Convention. This was one of multiple attempts by East Tennessee, after Tennessee had joined other states in seceding from the U.S.A., to secede from the rest of the state. In other words, East Tennesseeans were by and large unhappy being part of the Confederate States of America, and wished to remain part of the Union. The East Tennessee Convention failed because of political dominance by the rest of the state, and because of occupation by the Confederate Army.  

It is therefore doubly ironic to see the Confederate battle flag around East Tennessee, as one sometimes does. It’s ironic first because East Tennessee was Unionist, and second, because the Confederate flag is usually flown by the same people who wrap themselves in the American flag. That one flag represents a country defeated by the other seems lost on the flag-fliers. But I understand where they are coming from, because I once had a Stars and Bars myself, hanging on my bedroom wall.

Such an admission, I guess, will preclude me ever having a career in politics (though nothing seems to be disqualifying anymore). It’s appalling now—as appalling as homosexuality was in that time and place, including to me. I got the idea from my beloved fifth-grade teacher, who said that generations of Southern children had played with a Rebel flag in their treehouse. She made it sound as innocuous as a pirate flag, and for white children, I suppose it was.

Not until I was an adult did I think about, or try to imagine, what it might have been like to be a black child in the place where I grew up. I knew black students, and I don’t remember hearing any abuse directed towards them; but I did hear racist terms. Not by any means from all white students, but certainly from kids who knew better. I remember one who was my friend, and another who later turned out, like me, to be gay. I wish I could say that I spoke out against the n word. In high school, I was concentrating so hard on denying my sexuality, even to myself, that I guess I wasn’t paying attention. But one oppression does not excuse another.

I mention this now because another of the things I got to do on my trip back “home” was see some girls with whom I went to high school. There were people at this impromptu gathering whom I had not seen since I graduated, and one of them was in my first grade class. Seeing them brought home a truth: The place has changed, and so have the people who lived there. And the change I observed was for the better.

I could not have imagined going to my tenth or even twentieth high school reunion. As soon as I got to Chicago and turned eighteen, I came out as a lesbian, and that was not a self I could imagine taking back to my high school. Let alone a partner.
I had the Apple-achian!
Getting together with this unprecedented group of acquaintances opened my eyes. For one thing, we were in Erwin, a nearby town that has long had a reputation of being more racist than its neighbours. (When I still lived at home, a young woman from Erwin told me that she grew up in a county where black people dare not be found when the sun went down. Lynchings were recent history.)

One of the girls remarked that when she was on our high school basketball team, the star was a girl we all remembered, one of the few black students. “As soon as we crossed into Unicoi County,” she recalled, “the bus would get egged.” The fact that we were talking about this was a step forward from what it had been like in high school. But so was the fact that I was there, everyone knowing I have a female partner and, as far as I could tell, no one minding at all. “How is your—wife?” one of the women gamely asked. Another chimed in, “I didn’t even know you were gay!”

I cannot convey in this short space how inconceivable it would have been, for me in high school, to come back to my hometown and have the kind of normal conversations I have now. And that gives me hope. So does seeing a person of colour on a billboard (the first I ever remember seeing along that particular highway), and a Spanish-speaking Baptist congregation, and the presence of Mexican-American residents, not just migrant workers picking strawberries. The place I grew up is still different from other parts of the country, but it’s also different from how it used to be. And after all, today’s white-supremacist-in-chief is from Queens.
The Christian flag flying, for once, above the U.S. flag. The latter was at half-mast because of yet another school shooting.
Some things are different, while others stay the same. A car wash advertised “He is Risen!,” sort of like the Jesus is Lord minibuses in Tanzania. On the other hand, what used to be an unassuming veterinary clinic now sells New Age soap and other products. And the Blue Circle Deli is now called “Poor Trav’s” instead of Poor Jim’s.

Another friend, with whom I closed the bar (downtown Erwin not being especially exciting), was Sheila. I hadn’t seen Sheila since we spent a summer together in Chicago more than twenty years ago, but she’s part of the inspiration for our travels in Southeast Asia. Sheila grew up in Thailand and Penang and was always up for Thai food, and talking about the country, especially the area around Chiang Mai. When we were there, I often thought about Sheila and her observations of everyday life, not just tourist things.

There is one thing that draws a lot of outsiders to visit East Tennessee, at this time of year in particular: the Appalachian Trail. Every year, more and more people attempt to “through-hike” the entire trail, north from Georgia to Maine. On our day hikes, Mom and Dad and I encountered many of them, as well as others who were just hiking sections. It’s pronounced AppalATCHian around here, by the way. Like hatch, not like H.
White blazes mark the Appalachian Trail.
In all, we hiked on five different days—close to what we were doing in the national parks last summer. Considering all the health problems and pain Dad had several years ago, this was a wonderful development. Indeed, hiking in adjacent North Carolina was what Mom wanted to do for Mother’s Day! She also asked for Carolina BBQ on the way back. Boy, did we miss T.

When I am “home” on a Sunday, which is not often, I like to visit church with my parents. It was not our church for most of my growing up and I never joined it, but I still know a lot of people there. And just like outside the church, there have been changes. One change was the renovation of the building to make it more accessible, in more ways than one.

A few minutes before the service started, an old friend, who was celebrating Communion that morning, asked if I would be the fourth person serving at the table. I agreed without having time to think about it; I’ve done this many times at Holy Trinity in Toronto. I’ve participated in Communion services that vary from going up to the altar rail and kneeling to receive from the priest, to passing the elements from person to person—and that’s just within one denomination! But as I finished, someone thanked me and said what I had done was important.

I remembered then what a big deal it was when I first saw a woman serving Communion. I wondered then if an openly gay person had ever served at this church before. Or if that was why I’d been asked. It’s just as well I hadn’t had a chance to ponder any of this beforehand, because the same person was now offering the prayers of the people: “for our president Donald; our governor Bill; our senators Lamar and Marsha.” Powerful people named familiarly. I could not have gotten a clearer message about praying for leaders, which we are supposed to do even if we are not happy with them. Perhaps especially then. 

God can do what we cannot do by ourselves; if we don’t believe that, why are we in church?

Several years ago Dad retired as a professor at Milligan College. Growing up around the campus, I knew a lot of people he worked with—the overlap with the church was and is very close. So when a luncheon for retired faculty happened to coincide with my visit, I was looking forward to going. I’d planned to wear my sandals, but it was cool enough I wished I'd brought that pair of Converse (the one time I hadn't packed them!) I did catch up with lots of folks I remembered, including our old friends whom some blog readers will remember, Roy and Joy Lawson.
The Lawsons stopped being permanent residents of anywhere a year before we did, and they're still going. We may be younger, but we can't keep up with them!

There was also a professor nicknamed “Rabbi,” for his knowledge of Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Years ago Dr. Gwaltney and I had a professor in common: he learned Arabic from Norman Golb, who taught me Judaic civilization at Chicago. Norman Golb is gone now, but I got to tell “Rabbi” Gwaltney that, as I was about to finish the Books of Chronicles, I would be concluding my long-term project of reading the entire Hebrew Bible. “It’s only taken me 22 years,” I said.

“I hope you haven’t been reading Chronicles for 22 years!” (No, but it feels like it.)

At the end of my trip, perhaps because of Mom, I found my bags stuffed so full that I had to check the larger backpack. When I asked to do this at the airport, the agent was taken aback by what the British airline wanted to charge. “Meet me at the gate,” she said—this is a small airport and she was it. Not only did she gate check my bag for free, but she checked it all the way through to Manchester! As easy as it is to complain, people are nice, including at airlines.

On the flight back to England I was sitting next to a lovely Welsh couple (booked the aisle seat; totally worth it). They’d been on a whirlwind trip from Nashville to Memphis, Natchez, and New Orleans, and now back to Atlanta. I told them they’d seen about as much of the South as I have!

But in the Atlanta airport, where I’d had several hours, I came across one of the free displays, quite by accident. This one was on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is associated with places in Alabama, which T. and I had planned to visit, but he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. There were pictures of his childhood, items that had belonged to him, and this original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963).

One of the greatest speeches ever delivered, King’s “I Have a Dream,” is listed as simply, “Remarks.”

So, a coda to a coda. It seems I caught a glimpse of civil rights' promised land after all.

“Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see…”
—Reginald Heber
Save the Humans.


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