Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lil' Washington

UCLA Week 7 - Literary Journalism Piece:
Lil' Washington
We could have chosen anywhere near here; New Bern "The Birthplace of Pepsi” or Bath “Home town of the infamous Pirate Black Beard”  we chose “The Original Washington” or as the locals affectionately refer to it: Lil’ Washington.

Washington is a town of storytellers.  Its rich history is bountiful in tales of the Civil War, as evidence some of the historic buildings still wear cannon balls imbedded in their walls. The old county courthouse standing on Market Street dating from about 1786 currently houses a library on its ground floor but the top floor courtroom remains untouched. Famous for a murder trial in the mid 1800’s, a clergyman found his wife in a tryst and shot her lover dead.  Found guilty the clergyman shot the jury! Locals say you can still smell the cigar smoke and hear the gunshots ringing out from its walls.  One of these days I’ll be brave enough to ask for the keys so I can go and find the ghosts for myself, but for now, I’m happy to reside in a fascinating town of tales.

Washington, North Carolina sits at the junction of the Tar and Pamlico Rivers. When Col. James Bonner founded the town in the 1770s, it was referred to simply as "Forks of the Tar.” The town served as a supply outpost during the Revolutionary War, and in 1776, Col. James Bonner changed the town’s name to Washington in honor of General George Washington whom Bonner had served under during the war.
The town of Washington is steeped in history. Family names of Grimes, Blount, Bonner, Alligood and Woolard are still prominent amongst the community. 

My neighbour, Jake Mills said, “A wedding hosted by the Alligoods and Woolards is known as a Wooly-Good Time.”

I putter my neighbourhood admiring the historic homes lining picturesque Main Street. These homes date as far back as the 1850's. They stand testament to the resilience of the town's people after Washington was burned to the ground by Union troops during their evacuation after the fall of Plymouth, NC during the Civil War in 1865.

Located on the corner of East Main Street and Bonner Street sits the most wonderful church cemetery. St. Peter’s Episcopal church circa 1822 and churchyard are shaded by live oaks with fern growing off their branches up-up overhead. It’s spring and the camellias are just ending their bloom. Lining the lens of my camera to catch the perfect angle to photograph a headstone with the inscription:
In Memory of Thankful
Wife of William O’Cain
40 years and 22 days.

I’m pulled away by the sound of footsteps. I look up to see a chap smiling at me.

“Say, hey there, I’ve a few minutes before my appointment. You want a tour of the prominent gravestones?” 

His southern drawl as smooth as butter has got my attention.

“Yes please!” I reply. 

“A large number of the stones predate the Civil war. Recently we found some really early stones when we dug the foundation for the addition. They’re preserved in the church basement. This here has always been the town’s cemetery. That lot over there – he points to a parking lot- stood a single church structure shared by several denominations. They all buried their followers here." He says as he waves me to follow.

Over the next fifteen or so minutes this gentleman walks me through the churchyard. He points out the grave stones belonging to John Grey Blount 1752-1833 chain bearer for Daniel Boon who helped found Washington, Col. James Bonner the founder of Washington, and to my delight the DeMille family.

THE Cecil B DeMille was born right here in Washington, but, he’s not buried in the family plot. He’s laid out somewhere in New York. We still claim him.”

My tour guide waves a greeting at another gentleman and says he has one last grave he wants to show me belonging to a soldier of the Revolutionary War.

It reads:
James Ronner Foreman
Dec 1785 – 1807
22 years, 21 Days
Come view my tomb as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Therefore prepare to follow me.

“Ponder that. Good afternoon Ma’am.” He slips away. 

I do ponder it and then try a little research. The dates are wrong this soldier was born after the Revolutionary war ended!

Washington and The Pamlico 1976, East Carolina Joyner Library Digital Collections, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Website and Wikipedia.

Monday, August 15, 2011

UCLA Week Six: Personal Essay

I come from a family of pack rats. My Granny Dodie had an entire bedroom in her two-bedroom apartment devoted to boxes of stuff she wasn’t using. My mother had sets of good dishes we only looked at, and never used, unless it was a special occasion. My sister saved paints and markers lest they were used up rather than enjoy them for creative endeavors.

I have acquired a lot of stuff. This stuff takes the shape of family heirloom antiques, photos and memorabilia from my childhood and now my daughter’s. I’m really getting tired of carting it around and I’m wondering if I could be just as happy to walk away from it all? I’m an emotional hoarder if not on some level a material one too, and it’s beginning to hamper my freedom.

Recently, my favorite baby dolls were liberated from an old box for my daughter to play with. “I would have thrown that out if I’d known you were keeping it all these years.” Steve said to me.

My husband has little attachment to anything material. He buys and sells his toys as soon as a new one catches his fancy. He does not affix an emotion to an object. That’s one reason why we fit. If only I’d met my husband before I chose to buy a breed of dog that lives for 20 years. Sigh.

The Indian sage Patanjali says; the essential companion is non-attachment. Learning to let go of the many attachments, aversions, fears, and false identities clouding the true self is the way to freedom. I meditate on this logical concept with every yoga practice trying to make my peace with the release of the burden of my attachments.

Roaming my neighborhood I discover two very curious looking white houses situated side by side. From my vantage I can see the front porch of one house has a narrow pathway clear to the door, otherwise both verandas are piled high with junk. In the corner of the second house by the top step sits one of the most gorgeous mirrors I have ever seen. I decide I want this mirror. I’m already attached to it. Curiosity over the house has got the best of me. What does it look like inside? Is it filled with cats? Clearly this is the home of a hoarder.

According to the Mayo Clinic definition: hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. This is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder often triggered by an emotional loss.

The hoarder spots me and waves a greeting. I compliment her on her hydrangeas, which are heirloom in size and grandeur, full of beautiful blooming blue flowers.

“Come.” She says, “I have a knife in my pocket, I will cut you some.”

While she works at cutting branches off the hydrangea she says; “ I’m Velma I’m 95 years old, I was born right here in this very house!”

Without pause, Velma launches into her history. She tells me of the train stopping on the track behind her house to let all the circus animals off to bathe in the river before the handlers marched them in a parade up Main Street. She tells me of the ice and milk truck deliveries and of her brother in-law named Lolly Pop running his butchery in the out building behind the second house, now crammed with junk. She points to the trees, each one planted for her four sisters upon their first birthdays.

Waving her arm towards the front porch she tells me she wants to have a garage sale but has been too tired to sort through the piles. Then Velma plunges into another story and I see my opportunity to ask about the mirror slip by. Taking Velma’s mirror would come at a cost too great for her, I could not ask after this kind soul so freely gave me a reflection from the mirror of her life. Unlike Velma, I learned I truly do have the capacity and freedom to move, houses, states and countries. I can move beyond my stuff.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

August in the Carolinas

Tobacco Flowers in a Field in Eastern North Carolina
iPhoto By: Moi

UCLA Week 5: Memoir

Eight weeks into working for The Comedy Network, I’m sitting with my boyfriend Steve at a VIP table at a comedy club. It is my job to meet talent, pair them with producers, meet producers, take pitches for TV series and take them all along the production line from development to on air. I love comedy, I love socializing, and this new job is a perfect fit! Most of all it is the perfect distraction from the life I lead outside of work. Outside work, life is not funny.

Concentration failing me, I miss most of the comedy. A shock of applause brings me back to the room, clapping I and throw a smile of encouragement toward the performer. I grasp at the neck of my shirt feeling as though don’t have enough air.

Arriving home from the club I surrender to bed. The phone rings, Steve still awake answers.

“Hello, yeah? Oh, okay. Michelle it’s for you. It’s your sister.” He hands me the phone.

“Hi.” Sue says.

“Hi.” I echo, a silence comes over the line.

“The nurse called and told us mom looked like she might be going. We were just there. We left the hospital to go out for dinner. The phone was ringing as we came through the door at home. Dad said to sit tight we’ll call ya with an update.”

“Okay.” I hang up.

Repaying the conversation to Steve. He comes over to hug me.
“Hon, she’s gone. Hospitals tell families that so they can safely drive back, so they are not overcome when they arrive.”

“Oh.” I break from his grasp and calmly head to the armoire to pull out all the black clothes I own and begin to stuff them into a suitcase. Steve watches me. Next, I move toward the sink and begin to wash dishes. When my world spins out of control I clean. I can control the dirt.

A telephone ring cuts the silence. Quickly I grab the extension before it rings a second time.

“Hello.” I say.

“She’s gone. Can you come? They’ll hold her here in her room until you can get here.” Sue’s voice is shaking.

The drive from Toronto to Ottawa is fast. We pull into a vacant spot on the street in front of the building. The wet shiny road is sprinkled with the cheerful reflection from Christmas lights. The dark night sky is broken by the waltz of large fluffy snowflakes. It’s almost five o’clock in the morning. Steve places a hand on my back encouraging me forward. I look up at the hospital and see a giant black raven perched on the overhang of the front entrance. It takes off into the night. I move forward again with a little coaxing from Steve.

“I’ve never seen a dead body before. Like, not before they are done up at the funeral home.” I say to Steve.

“Hurry sweetie, a body can only be held so long before it must be moved and they’ve already been waiting five hours. You’ll be okay, your family is here.”

My father ushers me into the room, “She told me I was handsome, then she was gone.” He hugs me tightly pulling Sue into our embrace. “Your mother loved you both so much – the only thing she ever wanted was to be a mother.”

Looking over his shoulder the vision of my mother in bed shocks me. She is so tiny, considerably smaller than she was when I saw her last. She is not peaceful looking. Her face shows signs of fight and struggle and her mouth hangs open. Tucked under her hands is the little bear in a bee costume along side a Beanie Baby that looks just like my sister’s son, little gifts from my sister and I.

“Let’s not let anything ever come between us.” Dad says hugging us tight. We hold each other and cry both out of sadness and relief. After six years it is finally over. I replay this scene over and over in my head wishing his statement rang true. So much has come between all of us.