Tag Archive | Family


IMG_5194 (800x533)Calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved.  When I was young, we would go two or three times a year on the four-hour trip to visit my Aunt Doris.  On the one hand, a trip to Aunt Doris’s house was something to look forward to.  She lives in a fascinating place:  in a cedar log house in the middle of a redwood forest on the side of a hill with a small creek at the bottom of the ravine.  There are even banana slugs there.  And she did everything you want an auntie to do:  she gave us little presents, she baked homemade cookies and pies, she shared her extensive collection of movies on videotape with us (it was the 1980s; this was high-tech), she let us help her as she fed the wild birds and squirrels which flocked to her deck, and she took us to interesting tourist spots or shopping centers or other fun places.

On the other hand, though, I was a teenager, and even in the most interesting and nurturing of places, I could find a way to be BORED!  One time, I started to look at the gardening catalogs in the basket next to her rocking chair.  Park Seed had the most varieties of flowers to read about.  Jackson & Perkins was fine, with good pictures, but a significant majority of their volume was dedicated to roses.  My mom already had roses, and they seemed kind of obvious and even old-fashioned.  But Wayside Gardens was the best; the photos on the pages of the catalog were larger and glossier, and there was hardly a variety listed that did not have an accompanying color-saturated photo along the outer margin of the same page.

I am not saying this was cool; I was BORED, you understand, so these were desperate times.  But after a while, I found myself looking forward to seeing what was new and different and exotic.  I was most drawn to those flowers with particularly striking colors or interesting shapes.  That is how I found the calla lilies.  They were just so fascinating.  The unique outer petal IMG_5656 (535x800)wrapped itself in a circle, but without symmetry.  It wasn’t a cup, like a tulip, and it wasn’t a trumpet, like an Asiatic lily.  It was more like a cape worn by the kind of gentleman who could ride a horse, draw a sword, and charm a lady, all without losing his dashing posture or wit.  The colors featured in the photographs were always stunning, too:  solid, bold hues of yellow, orange, purple, fuchsia, and white, with perhaps one or two varieties that gradually blushed from one color to another up the petals.  I have heard these catalogs described as pornography for gardeners, and as an adolescent, I was every bit as captivated by the beauty, the mystery, and the sensuality of those photos as I might have been by the other kind.

I am not sure why I never convinced my mother that we should order some of those calla lily specimens for our very own; perhaps I did not think they would do well in our yard, shaded as it was by four large oak trees.  But ever since I have been a homeowner, I have sought out calla lilies.  When we lived in Boston, I would carefully dig the rhizomes out of the ground each year after the first frost, dry them, store them through the cold season in my basement in a small crate lined with shredded newspaper, and then replace them in the front yard after the ground had thawed and the danger of frost was past. Although the flowers were lovely, the whole process felt like an awkward mix between an amateur scientist’s experiment and a fussy craftsperson’s new project.

Since we moved to the South, I do not have to fuss like that any more.  A few years ago, I smothered the grass around the mail box under several layers of wet newspaper and two or three inches of cypress mulch.  And one of the first things I planted in the resulting flower bed the following spring were some pink and yellow calla lilies I found at a local nursery.  I was thrilled, and I have continued to be thrilled every year since then as they thrust the tip of their first leaves above the rotting oak leaves in the early spring, unfurling them in a dramatic foreshadowing of the petals to come, then sending up their stems to reveal those gentlemanly capes of pink and yellow.

Well, almost thrilled.  A flower bed is never really perfectly arranged, is it?  Over time, the Mexican heather and gerbera daisies which alternate in a line between the calla lilies and the edge of the driveway have grown, spreading to crowd the calla lilies.  So last week, I decided it was time to dig up the bulbs of the calla lilies to move them three or four inches to the east, giving everything room to continue to grow.

And as I dug, I was amazed.  When I purchased the pink and yellow calla lilies, there were three or four stems growing in each pot.  Since they were already blooming, making them easier to sell at the nursery, I was careful to plant them without disturbing the roots any more than necessary.  And, of course, I had not seen anything of what was going on underground since then.  I suspected they had spread some, since the patches of leaves and flowers had increased in diameter each year.  But when I loosened the soil in my search for the rhizomes last week, I kept finding more and more and more.  In each place I dug, there were relatively large systems which included several nodules connected together, ready to produce multiple roots and stems in the coming weeks.  And there were even more independent little bulblets, each with its own small point on the top ready to push a tip through the rotting oak leaves and unfurl.  I kept sifting through the dirt, pulling out more and more, until I had two piles, one of the pink variety and one of the yellow, each with dozens of brown blobs ready to grow and bloom with my beloved calla lilies.

And I marveled for a few minutes about God’s abundance.  Our world was created as a place where, given the right conditions, beauty and joy can multiply over time.  Our world is a place where the asymmetrical, the dashing, and the fascinating can thrive and expand.  Our world rewards teenagers who are BORED, and homeowners who experiment and fuss, and gardeners who don’t have any idea what is happening under the oak leaves rotting on top of the ground.  Our world fosters growth by providing caring aunties, glossy photographs of bold hues, and flower beds that have to be rearranged every few years.  Our world never ceases to amaze me, and its Creator never ceases to deserve a doxology:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

I put the most complex systems of rhizomes back in the ground, alternating the pink and the yellow, in a line that is longer now, wrapping down the slope and around to the front of the mailbox.  I am not sure all of them will grow; the ground stays pretty wet as it gets closer to the street, so some of the roots might rot.  And the rest I potted this evening, reusing the cheap plastic containers from plants I have brought home from the nursery.  I watered them, and I will put them out in the sun tomorrow, hoping the tips of the leaves poke up in the next few weeks.  If these potted calla lilies grow, I will give them to the Windsor Forest Garden Club to put out at their annual plant sale at the end of next month.  Because calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved, and I want to share the abundance of beauty and joy our world produces with others.


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The intersection of Third Street and Cedar Avenue in South Pittsburgh, TN, where the shootout took place.

My great-great grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, was the well-respected Sheriff of Marion County, Tennessee, when he was the first one killed in the Christmas Shootout of 1927. The incident made the newspapers all over the country. The town of South Pittsburgh, where the gunfight happened, was caught up in a labor dispute between the owner of the factory which was the largest employer in town and his unionized workers. But, as is usually the case in these sorts of things, it was more complicated than that. Among the five other men killed that night was the man whom Wash had defeated in the election for Sheriff the year before.

When he got the call that he needed to respond to an incident that night, Wash took with him two deputies and his revolver. He left his revolver on the front seat of the car when he got out. One of his deputies was killed with him in the gunfight; the other waited in Wash’s car and got away unhurt. That deputy who survived was my great grandfather, Roy Beene, who had married the second-oldest of Wash’s seven daughters 28 years earlier.

After the killing, everyone in the county seemed to agree that the man most qualified to succeed Wash as Sheriff was his eldest son and Chief Deputy, Turner Coppinger. But somehow, Roy Beene got to keep the revolver. When Turner had completed a couple more terms as the Sheriff, he decided not to run again in the election in 1938, and threw his support to Jack Beene, his nephew and Roy’s eldest son. After his success in the election, Jack’s younger brother, M.C., moved his young family back to Marion County from California so he could take a job as a deputy. M.C. was my grandfather.

M.C. didn’t have a gun of his own, though, so his father let him have Wash’s revolver.  M.C. kept the gun after his law enforcement career ended when his brother did not win in the next election. Later, Jack made it clear that, if M.C. should ever want to part with the revolver, he would be happy to have it. At one point, though, M.C. lost the gun. When my dad pushed his father about what happened, he swore someone stole it; my dad thinks it just got lost somewhere along the way. Either way, it is gone.

Sheriff "Wash" Coppinger

Sheriff George Washington “Wash” Coppinger

When that gun was just a gun, Roy’s generous offer to let my Grandpa Beene have it made sense; the young man needed a gun to do his job, and no one was using that revolver. But by now, we have figured out that it was not just a gun. Because of who had carried it before, and because of the noteworthy way that he had died, that particular revolver had become an artifact. Like others in the family, I wish it had never been lost. I do not wish our family still had it because it was a gun. I wish we still had it because it was an artifact. Although I do not keep any guns in my house, I imagine taking it off of a high shelf and using it to tell my own child the story of his great-great-great grandfather: of the position of respect he held in his community, of the turmoil of labor relations in a small Southern town that aspired to be an industrial center in the early 20th century, and of what happens when people let political rivalries become personal vendettas. All of those seem like good things for my child to learn about as he grows up.

Why do we turn tools like that gun into artifacts? I wonder if we have come to see it as a tangible sign that the people in our family are important. Somehow, our lives would be more meaningful if we had an object to connect us to the meaning which Wash Coppinger’s life had. Somehow, it seems like the respect that his fellow citizens showed him would add to our self-respect, the honor with which he carried himself would make us more honorable, and the significance of his life and death would make our lives more significant. And even when an artifact like that gun evokes tragedy, then somehow possessing the artifact gives the owner a feeling that, in the way the owner lives, there is an opportunity to redeem that tragedy. And so, I would even be willing to make an exception to my distaste for the idea of keeping a gun in the house; it is a small price to pay for such a tangible sign of importance.

And I wonder, too, what is the alternative to craving artifacts to connect us with our history?  Are there other ways to evaluate the significance of our own lives, remind ourselves what it means to live respectably, and even redeem the sins of our parents?  Can we tell the stories anyway:  honest stories of people who did some good things, who made some mistakes, who participated in the events of the places which surrounded them, who allowed themselves to be swept up in the movements of the times in which they lived?  Can we learn whatever we can learn from our forebears without objects to connect us tangibly to them:  how to build up our communities, how to deal with the turmoil of our own times and places, how to show grace in ways that lead to peace instead of rivalry and murder of the bodies and spirits of the people we share this world with?  Or do we need our ancestors to give us that gun to serve as a tool once again, something which we can use to do the job we have to do?

Recently, we learned that the South Pittsburgh Historical Society and the Tennessee Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker in the center of downtown, near where the Christmas Shootout of 1927 took place, describing the incident. It is a nice sign telling the story of the labor dispute and political rivalries that swirled together to cause the tragedy, and it lists the names of all six men who were killed without making judgments about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I have photos of the sign now to show my child, and I hope to take him to see it for himself soon, so he can hear the story and learn whatever he can from it about honor and history and politics, about self-respect and significance and even redemption. But still, I wish I had something more tangible to show him.


IMG_3083 (534x800)One day recently, I found myself longing to talk with my grandmother. There was nothing in particular I wanted to talk with her about; I just wanted to have a chat: to comment on the beautiful afternoon, to tell her about the stunning view I was seeing, and to let her know what is going on in my life.

This longing came over me because I was standing by her gravestone in the Chapel Hill United Methodist Church cemetery in Sequatchie County, Tennessee, the place where she was laid to rest after she died 15 years ago this summer. Well, it was the place where half of her was laid to rest. When she died, my dad and my uncle deferred to their sister to decide where she would be. My aunt had been the one who had done the most to care for their mother in the last years of her life; she helped make the arrangements to see that Grandma got the care she needed, and she and her daughter went to see her almost every day. Aunt Susy decided that she wanted Grandma to be remembered with a grave in the small town in New Mexico where they had lived since the early 1950s. But she also realized the importance of Grandma’s connection with her family in rural Tennessee. So she put a stone and a portion of her mother’s ashes in the public cemetery in their town, and she put another stone and the other portion of the ashes in the church yard, up the street from Grandpa Hamilton’s farm where she was born 88 years earlier, right next to the grave shared by her parents and her sister, Ellen. It seemed like a fine arrangement to me.

In some sense, it was strange, though, to have this longing to talk with my grandmother. I don’t believe I had ever felt such a longing before. I knew my grandmother as I was growing up, but we never lived close to her. Every year or two, she would come to visit us, and she made a special effort to make it to big events like graduations and weddings, even when the trip was hard for her. We would go and visit her, too, for holidays or on family road trips in the summer. My dad would talk with her on the phone. My mother would write her letters, and as I got older, my mother would help me read the letters Grandma sent back. And when my grandmother sent a five dollar bill in my birthday card every year, my mother would make me write a nice thank-you note, detailing how I spent it or saved it for something special later on.

Although I knew my grandmother, I knew that she loved me and was proud of me, and I loved her as much as I could, my longing to have a chat with my grandmother did not come from warm nostalgia of memorable conversations with her. Instead, as I stood in that church yard, I felt a longing in my soul to belong somewhere in this world. For good or for ill, friendships, professional relationships, church connections, and even marriage are all understood in the postmodern world as personal choices. I felt the need to be affirmed in a connection that went deeper than that. I wanted something tangible I could see and touch and listen to and speak with to reassure me that I would be welcome whether the one welcoming wanted me there or not. Seeing that slab of granite which represents my grandmother, sharing an eternal resting place on a hill with her parents and sister, I wanted to sit and visit a while.

After I left the church yard, that unexpected longing had not gone away, so I drove the forty five minutes or so to the Bean-Roulston Graveyard, where portions of six generations of my ancestors have chosen to spend eternity, including my grandfather. He died in 1962, eleven years before I was born, so I only know him through the memories my father and other family members have chosen to share with me. A few years ago, I had a chance to ask my dad’s cousin about my grandfather. She said he was very attractive and very charming, and she always found him quite likable.  But he was also never settled, and she always thought his troubles later in life tied up with his feeling of never being really satisfied where he was.

My grandfather died when he was only 46 years old, a week after his daughter’s wedding. By the time he died, he had been divorced for five or six years. He was an alcoholic, and although his younger sister had taken him in and cared for him when he had surgery to treat his colon cancer, he had alienated much of the rest of his family with requests for money and other kinds of help over many years. His only friends in town were his drinking buddies. And so it fell to my dad, at the ripe age of 24, to take care of him as he was dying and to make arrangements for his burial after he died. I remember seeing my grandfather’s death certificate in a trunk my dad keeps in the garage when I was young. It listed his place of death as a “sanitarium” in Albuquerque. I didn’t know that was just another way of saying that my dad got him into a hospital before he died, rather than letting him die in the apartment my dad rented for them with his wages working for the railroad in the last months of his father’s life.

I don’t know, but I imagine that my dad had help from his aunts and uncles with my grandfather’s burial; it is neither easy nor cheap to get a body from New Mexico to Sweetens Cove, Tennessee. He is buried in the shadow of his own parents’ gravestone. Next to their large stone, which reads “Beene:  The Family of Mamie and Roy,” are his siblings who died young: his brother Lemuel, who was not yet two when he died in 1910; his brother Alton, who died of appendicitis at age 12, four months after my grandfather was born in 1916; his sister, Clara, who was what we would now call developmentally disabled, who died in 1932 when she was almost 30. In the two rows in front of my great grandparents, though, are their sons who survived: Uncle Pete, Uncle Jack, and M.C., my grandfather. Those are not their real names; they were nicknamed at birth by their grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, whose imposing plot is directly behind his daughter, Mamie, and her husband.

Looking at that plot in the Bean-Roulston Cemetery, I saw the grace of God for my grandfather. I let myself imagine that he had found there a peace that comes with being settled. He belonged there: connected to people whom he both charmed and frustrated when they were all alive, who welcomed him back into that place when he died too young, who were connected to him in a way that went deeper than simply a personal choice.  I enjoyed a picnic supper with my grandfather that evening. I am sure he had no idea what I was eating; as I spread my roasted red pepper hummus on crackers, then scooped out my Greek yogurt flavored with blood orange, I could only imagine how his face would have gone from puzzled to indignant and back to puzzled again. At least he probably would have recognized the Triscuits. But it was a calm evening, with only the cows bellowing in the field on the other side of the stone wall to disturb the peace, and we had a nice time. The memories of that evening calm my soul.

Grandpa Hamilton’s Forest

IMG_2861 (800x533)In 1907, my great grandfather bought a farm in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. He had lived in the Sequatchie Valley all his life; in fact, his family had farmed in that valley since his own great grandfather settled there long before Tennessee became a state. Grandpa Hamilton had deep roots in farming, and even deeper roots in that part of the world.

The Hamiltons were not wealthy; he bought the land only after he sold another farm which had been given to him when he was married 18 years earlier. I would love to know who gave him a farm as a wedding present, but I don’t. Once he bought his new farm, he built a small house on it for his family to live in. There are three rooms in the house, plus a kitchen and a hallway, and off the side porch, there is another small room. In the back, there is a small building which covers the well and a small room behind it. I am sure there was an outhouse in the vicinity at one time, because there is no way to meet those needs in the house. There is a shed out front and a barn a hundred yards or so to the north of the house. In 1907, he had six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16; two more children were born in that house before his first wife died in 1916. I have no idea how ten people all got along in those four rooms, plus a kitchen.

Although the house is not large, Grandpa Hamilton did not seem to skimp on the details. Every room in the main part of the house has a brick fireplace. The ceilings are high, and there are plenty of windows. There are porches on three sides, a few cabinets and a good-sized sink in the kitchen, and a crawl space underneath. There is asbestos siding on the outside, a hazard now but a quality material then, and a metal roof on the top, although those may have been added later.  The house was built to last a long time.

And it has lasted a long time. 107 years later, it is still standing. The porch floors have rotted in places, and one corner of the roof covering the front porch has caved in. The wallpaper is peeling to reveal the lath boards underneath. Some of the faces on the fireplaces are crumbling, most of the windows are broken, some of the doors don’t close all the way, and the floor is a bit uneven. But the house is still there.

Besides building that simple but sturdy house, though, Grandpa Hamilton did a remarkable thing. With roots as deep as his in that valley and in the business of farming, he knew the value of the land he owned. However, he set his house off the road a good bit, and around the house and between there and the road, he preserved several acres of trees. They were large trees of species native to that area: walnut, hickory, oak, cedar, and others. My dad wrote to me a few years ago recalling about his grandfather that “squirrels and birds thrived, and he allowed only very limited hunting when damage could be observed in the barn bins.”

Grandpa Hamilton and his sons mowed the weeds around the woodland, and they planted acres and acres of corn and other crops out back. But they left that land around the trees undisturbed. His grandson and great-grandsons who still farm the land have kept up that practice, and the woodland has remained so thick that it is impossible for a person to penetrate. It is much like I imagine most of the land in that part of the world looked before people came along to cut down the trees, hack out the undergrowth, till the soil, and sow their crops.

For the past 30 years or so, no one has cleared the brush from around the house, either. And while Grandpa Hamilton’s trees and their offspring have almost overtaken the house now, with some of the trunks so close that they seem to climb the exterior walls, I wonder if the trees he preserved are part of what have kept that simple building standing for so long. The unused houses and barns up and down the valley which are not surrounded with trees show their vulnerability to the wind and the rain. They have roofs and walls which are caving in and frames which are leaning. But protected from the wind and all but the heaviest of rains, Grandpa Hamilton’s house still stands in the forest he set aside out of his farmland.

Grandpa Hamilton was no progressive. From what my dad tells me, he called Franklin Roosevelt one of the worst things to happen to this country. I can just imagine my father as a young boy listening as his grandfather repeated that strongly-held opinion to him, loudly, over and over again; he would not have been the first old man who held tightly to his view of the world as the world changed around him. But he was ahead of his time in at least this one regard: he valued nature, and he worked to preserve it, even if that meant giving up some of his precious farmland.

In the suburban community where I live, I recently had a conversation with someone about trees. I have made my feelings about trees and the way they are treated in our suburban community known before. In this conversation, I talked about whether it would be possible to plant some new trees where some ancient but dead specimens of native magnolia, sweetgum, live oak, and hickory nut have recently been removed. The person I was talking with agreed that it would be good to replace the removed trees. But the varieties were another story. “Those trees are all messy,” she said. “They drop leaves, branches, and litter all over the yard. Maybe we can find some modern hybrids of those same kinds of trees. No one is going to want those trees around that they have to clean up after!”

And I was mystified. I wanted to scream: “They are trees; of course they drop leaves and branches. The leaves and branches can be removed, or even better, they can be chopped up and used to enhance the soil under the trees. That is the way those varieties of trees have thrived in our area for millions of years before we came along!” But I let my suburban sensitivities get the better of me, and I just smiled politely.

I think Grandpa Hamilton and I would have at least a few things in common.