When kisses came with a little Tube Rose Extra Sweet Snuff

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Dollie didn’t accomplish much by the world’s standards.

Born on July 10, 1905, she was a widow for the last 50 years of her life; one who proclaimed she “never wanted another man.”

She had no children, save her stillborn first-born in the early 1920s.

She never voted. Born almost a generation before the 19th Amendment she chose not to engage in politics because she new she was equal to any man, like most Appalachian women.

She didn’t drive a car, nor did she care for pants and rarely left home without wearing a headscarf with some sensible shoes.

Beans and “taters” were her staples, always having cooked some variation of the local favorites.

She was an otherwise wiry and small-framed, country woman with snow-white, feather-light and wispy hair, and a no-nonsense wit to match.

She was quite literally among the very last of her generation.

Her penchants were Tube Rose Extra Sweet Snuff, knee-high stockings in basic tan, the local Southern Gospel radio station, and Christmas cards or calendars from the Rev. Billy Graham. She always made sure to write the reverend personally and request an extra for me—an equivalent of asking the Pope for a blessing on her family.

Her only accessories were a black leatherette purse from the 1960s and a recycled tin can she used for a “spit cup” with a couple Kleenex stuffed inside to accommodate the remains of her snuff.

Mandatory kisses on the cheek often came with a little tobacco powder.

For a couple decades before I was born until I was age four, Dollie lived in what my family called “The Little House,” located on my grandparents land. It was the house where my grandmother—Dollie’s sister—and my grandfather “took to housekeeping.” After they built a new home next door, Dollie came to live in The Little House with her mother, Effie, who was born in 1880-something and passed before my time.

Dollie’s “Little House” was a living history museum.

Inside was a place the early 1980s had forgotten—a mashup invented by the Victorians, adapted by the mountain folk, and the old ways of Dollie’s world.

A skeleton key opened the wooden front door. The heavy, creaking screen door that covered it would’ve been the envy of a movie sound effects technician.

Inside, a light smell of coal soot with hints of burnt wood wafted through the living room. A woven, multicolored rug lay flopped in the center of the small space, surrounded by a couch, a chair and a rocking lounger—all were covered in a heavy, orange and brown floral burlap from the 1940s.

A coal-burning stove in the corner kept the room at a paint-peeling 70-plus degrees.

Scattered throughout the room were pieces of Dollie’s past, mostly handmade tables and carved, wooden knick knacks from her late husband, Blaine, who passed away in the 1950s.

On the wall, next to a bedroom door that led to the kitchen, hung an ornately-framed Daguerreotype of Dollie’s mother and two aunts, Neva and Cora, taken around the turn of the 20th Century. They served as a stark reminder of the history that lived there, though visiting my Aunt Dollie was everyday life for me.

To sit on The Little House porch thumbing through picture books, or using my tiny hands to “help” shell some green beans, was a typical day. Sometimes I’d sit in the threshold of the kitchen door out back, staring through the steps at the hen and chicks pecking around beneath it—a homemade apple jelly and butter sandwich in my hand. The fragrance of a wood-burning stove and the biscuits baking inside would always pass my nose as it wafted through the screen door.

The bucolic times I spent at Dollie’s Little House were made easier by the fact my parents and I lived just beyond the adjacent field. I dropped in to see my Aunt Dollie on the daily stroll to my grandparents,’ while my mom and Dollie made sure I arrived without a hitch.

Around 1983, Aunt Dollie decided to leave home for more modern digs, which included the indoor plumbing her Little House never had. At The Little House, water was carried from a spigot attached to the side of my grandparents’ house next door, and the toilet was an outhouse in the pasture.

Her new, smaller apartment was a little closer to town. When I was older I’d walk there from school, just across the railroad and up the hill. The smells were different, newer than before. The old Daguerreotype was put away, but the air was still fragrant with Tube Rose or something cooking on the electric stove.

In the late 1990s, in her ninth decade and sharp as a tack, Dollie took a fall and decided to check herself into the local nursing home.

As a college student, I would often study in her tiny room which was shared by a roommate selection of very grumpy curmudgeons.

Not long after Dollie moved into the nursing home, her hearing was severely affected by some attendant’s malpractice—the thought of which still makes me angry and sad. I still have nightmares about her sitting there; about forgetting to visit with her as if she’s still waiting, although we saw each other most every day.

The dialogue for Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune and the humming of an oxygen tank made for background noise at the nursing home, but in those final couple years Dollie would sit and tell me tales of days long gone. Sometimes we’d get out and ride around the country to see places where she’d lived, overgrown and ghostly. They seemed so far away, in sepia tones to me, but so vivid and colorful to her.

In 2001 my Aunt Dollie passed away. Fortunately, together we documented many of her stories and identified many of the photos in her old albums before her death.

Yesterday would have been her birthday and though she’s been gone for 16 years, she still ranks among the world’s top strong women for me. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge what would have been Emma Marie Pannell’s 112th year.

In a new age, when folks today continue to “soar above their ability” as Aunt Dollie would say—in love with forgetting the past—to have had such a living history figure would, or should, be the envy of anyone. I’m thankful it was me who had the opportunity.

Six Minutes Is Not A Story

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Before I lost my job amid the corporate shuffle of a 21st Century newsroom, I spent 15 years working to become the writer my philosophy professor declared I would never be.

Since then I’ve learned that some nights are sleepless, filled with thoughts of undeveloped stories; colors are more willing to reveal their secrets; conversations are fodder for unwritten fiction; and people are often characters who may or may not make it to a page. Most importantly, I’ve learned that time passes too quickly.

I like to think of myself as an observer of “la belle vie,” the beautiful life. Sometimes it’s why I’m so critical of the everyday world and its sloppy abuses of nature. I see the hourglass unapologetically draining its sand while so many people never see those millions of unique specks glistening in the sun.

Even as a writer-in-progress (I like to think I’m still progressing) I didn’t truly value my own surroundings until I began to meet the people who lived the stories I wanted to tell.

From the centenarian who remembered riding in her first car—one with tasseled window curtains and a rumble seat—to the nonagenarian with flowing silver hair, her mind locked away while her voice echoed Bible verses and the Songs of God laid upon her heart during a bygone Sunday Service, I learned most everyone has a story that wants to be told.

In today’s technological hustle and flow, articles and even works of fiction are churned out by the hundreds every hour. Most of them, despite their value in Likes or Upvotes, carry nothing more than a superficial, glittering half-life filled with typos and generalities gathered from other likeminded resources around the Web.

Last week, having clicked one I couldn’t help notice below the headline, even before the author’s name, the article’s “Average Read Time.”

“Six minutes,” it stated in bold type. Because life’s so busy we have to microwave our knowledge like a Hot Pocket?

Maybe a six-minute read makes for good time management, but considering that the general public’s ability to retain only 10 percent of what it reads, I thought less of the story, its relevance and ultimately the person who wrote it.

Unfortunately, one of our most valuable tools for free speech, the Blogosphere, has introduced the world to uninformed citizen journalism. Despite authors who use it to weave the fabric of their stories, many self-proclaimed writers are only in it for the Five Steps to Online Success:

Step 1: Grab a topic; Step 2: Google some details; Step 3: Make them readable; Step 4: Click “Publish;” Step 5: Get followers to obtain “Guru” status and win a Pulitzer on “How to Knit Socks For Cats.”

Meanwhile, most of them think George Washington was the first King of England and the Cold War was about life below 40 degrees.

Six minutes isn’t a story. That’s time to become involved in content and want to learn more. Not journalism. Sadly, that seems to be the approach that works for Pop culture.

Real stories are seldom found in fashion tips and trending hashtags. They’re in the careworn faces and calloused hands of the everyday woman and man. It takes longer than six minutes to read about their songs and listen to their tall tales, hear a tremble in their vocal cords, eager to tell their stories. And it’s up to us to get it right.

 

 

My Professional Hindenburg: The day I lost my job

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It was 9 a.m. on a typical Friday. All six members of our skeleton crew knew someone from corporate was headed over.

Our company was under new ownership by the Wizard of Oz—a big head with no name—and big changes were constantly being made around the Emerald City, but we shrugged off the visit with uncertainty.

“Maybe it’s some health insurance thing.”

“Maybe it’s one of us.”

“Maybe it’s all of us.”

[Silence.]

As I edited material for the coming week, my phone rang. It was 9:30.

“That was fast,” I said to myself, answering.

“Hey, can you come up to my office for a minute,” the boss asked.

I placed the receiver on the handset and turned to look at the only other full-time newsroom employee. We sort of grinned, stunned maybe, and stared at each other.

“Well,” I said.

“You…,” he questioned.

“We’ll see,” I said, but I could feel certainty wash over me.

It was a long walk up that hallway. Passing the water cooler, with its dusty blue faucets that leaked a little, I thought briefly as I did every morning about how I was the only one who really drank any water from there anymore. Through the worn Dutch door with ink stains on the knob and a sign exclaiming “Employees Only” I walked, knowing that sign would harbor a different meaning when I passed it again.

There was nothing I could do, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be.

A decade of mental sweat equity had put me in the editor’s chair six years ago.

The role had been a lengthy construction project that included a foundation in public relations, walls built of writing and graphic design, budget and payroll, and numerous hats worn from Historian to Preservationist for one of the state’s oldest newspapers.

Toward the end it also included daily doses of debasement with constant angst in my spirit. Nevertheless, that Friday wasn’t the way it was supposed to end, at least not now and not on someone else’s terms.

Ten years ago, as a staff writer I wondered if five years was too long to stay in one place, but I took an immense amount of pride in my position. It landed me a promotion to Features Editor.

As I climbed the corporate ladder to second-in-command, Managing Editor, I hung blue ribbons on each rung having won several honors for my work. I even earned props from the legislature, and it felt good. Not power trip good, but good to know I was making a difference and my peers appreciated it, even when my superiors didn’t.

It was my life’s station to pen feel-good, fluffy features about Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Jane Q. Public—many of whom were octogenarians, even centenarians, who had barely left our rural region—who held treasured stories of bygone days that would’ve otherwise been untold, save a solitary name in an obituary headline. It was my responsibility to make them feel good and preserve a small piece of their hometown legacy for everyone to remember.

The pay was always measly. I won’t lie and say it was ever good. It wasn’t even on par with the regional scale, but the sense of personal responsibility to the public was all mine. I earned it through attending many a late-night meeting, driving many a mile to get there, and learning many a lesson about every…single…terribly exciting, and tearfully boring, facet of the publishing industry.

Making my way down the hall that Friday morning, all that work—those years of mental preparation, looking forward to a future emblazoned with my own logo and letterhead—seemed very far away and out of reach.

The boss’ door, closed when I arrived, was difficult to maneuver. I first saw a long, cold conference table waiting at the other end of the room. The execution chamber was flanked by two henchmen. My boss sat quietly, head bowed, eyes staring into the table’s faux wood grain. HR shuffled a few papers in-hand and smiled blankly as if to follow some Stepford protocol.

“Get you a seat,” one said. I can’t remember who.

I sat and immediately exhaled, realizing I’d held my breath for the better part of a minute. Grinning in their general direction, I wondered what the breeze outside would feel like against my flushed face.

The conversation didn’t last long, standard and scripted.

“As you know [ABC Corporation] has been making some cuts, and as much as I hate to say it your position is one of those,” said one.

“We want you to know this is not a reflection on you or your abilities,” said the other. “It’s companywide….” The rest of their spiel blended with the swooshing in my head.

“When does this start,” I interjected.

“Unfortunately, it’s today,” HR replied, “Effective immediately.”

In the eggshell-colored blankness on the wall behind them, my brain projected a home movie of the corporate ladder I’d been climbing. I watched it catch fire as I prepared to free fall.

In reality, the scene was very anti-climactic though it was my professional Hindenburg.

I started building my helium dirigible 20 years ago, when my college philosophy professor told me I would never even amount to a mediocre writer. So, I became an award-winning editor, but that’s another story for another day.

“Pack up and go” is all I heard, despite the empathetic smiles, vacuous niceties and empty promises of a Going Away lunch the following week.

I’m still waiting for that pro bono pizza, or at least some published acknowledgement that the community’s feel-good guy was set out on the ice flow to save the tribe.

Yes, I’m a little bitter.

I’m bitter because I had no choice; because it was sudden and in the moment; because I had to leave without a goodbye; because I didn’t get the farewell column I had planned out in my head years ago, on days when I was so frustrated with the job I loved that I wanted to scream.

I’m sad because I had to leave behind the carefully planned history of those who came before me in the hands of a corporation instead of a community.

Yet, I’m grateful for being released, sans classical allusions of wild horses yearning to roam freely.

Being laid off isn’t easy. It’s jarring.

I might not have always been satisfied. Who is? But I was comfortable; overstuffed, brown leather, reading chair in the corner of a library filled with antique books, a sleeping cat, and a glass of red wine on your side table “comfy.”

I feel like somebody stole my wine and burned my library.

Keeping my head above water is an everyday challenge and there have been days when I’ve worked harder tying up post-employment loose ends than I actually worked when I had the job.

It’s exhausting.

I’ve spent several weeks regrouping and decompressing. Now I’m rebranding, rediscovering, refreshing, and beginning to reapply.

Being laid off continues to be a push for rediscovery, and I’m still catching my breath.

It’s a little like Daddy throwing you in the ocean and saying, “Okay, son. Swim!” I’m still in a doggie paddle, but my head’s above water and my feet are kicking. We’ll see what happens when I spot some land.

International Mommas: The Women I Know

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While a surge of females are hashtagging themselves into the history books for A Day Without A Woman (#ADayWithoutAWoman) on International Women’s Day (#InternationalWomensDay) I celebrate those who stand strong in the shadows.

Everyday, I’m thankful for my momma and all of the strong, Appalachian women who came before her or stand beside her; the women who guided me and, together with my dad and grandfather, helped me become the man I am today.

I’ve never known the women of the wage gap, those who feel unequal or unheard, the bra burners, the disenfranchised, the devalued, the Middle Eastern and Third World voices who are never heard behind the veil; who can’t vote, drive, dance, or be a woman.

The only women I’ve known were stronger than most men, and they don’t or never would have put up with misogyny.

The women I know have a gentle spirit with hands that know how to hold on and love with all their heart, or smack and grab to make you mind.

The women I know? They know how to mend your cuts, tend your bruises, till the soil, lead the people and win their run for office, love their God, respect their family, shoot a pistol, ride a horse, instruct a classroom, mend a shirt, cook a mean pot of chicken and dumplings, and do most any job a man can do. … And they know it.

The women I know have always known it.

Knowing the women I know fills me with pride. It also makes me sad for women marching today; those who live lives so devalued, who feel so degraded either among themselves or their peers, that they believe it takes more than one voice to be heard and more than one body to be seen.

Trust me, if you see my momma coming at you with purpose, you don’t need a mob to tell the world we need strong women.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always known the women of the world are the glue that holds us all together.

Not only did my momma show me so, but The Bible does a fine job telling me, too. From my point of view, you could argue its finer points depending on your religion or lack thereof, but Proverbs says, “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”

That’s where I stand and this is my honor, to my momma and the women like her—the real feminists—whom I choose to praise today and always, because it’s difficult to show the world how valuable you are by taking a day off.

“This is the moment.”

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Walking through the Valentine candy aisle, I met a slight, very kind, elderly woman. Her hair was tied into a bun so tightly, her horn-rimmed glasses just so, that she looked like a Hogwart’s professor. In my mind, she’ll always be a teacher from another era.

She looked at me from under those glasses and giggled a little as she pulled a small bag of chocolates from the shelf to throw in her basket.

“I know this looks silly, me buying myself a Valentine,” she said, “but I’ll only eat two pieces a’night. I think we all need a little something to look forward to–something that makes us happy. Don’t you?”

We talked for awhile about Valentine’s Day, politics, people, and life in general, but before parting ways she turned to say, “You know how they say you should live in the moment? Well, this is the moment. We’re in it and we’d better live it.

“Right now, this candy is my moment, because life’s too short. Things shouldn’t be so serious all the time. There’s too much to enjoy and we all need a little something. Give me my chocolates, a book to read and I’m happy.”

Sometimes it’s the little things.

Vagina Couture & Arranged Marriages: 21st Century Feminism at the Women’s March on Washington

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Donning pink “pussyhats” and dressing as human vaginas, participants in the Women’s March On Washington (WMOW) last Saturday ensured their place on Wikipedia while pro-life women across the country expressed disdain and discrimination from fellow protestors who devalued their beliefs.

In fairness, WMOW maintained a pro-choice platform in the days before the march, inviting anyone to attend as long as they kept the Skull and Crossbones credo in mind.

With that in mind, the organization’s website womensmarch.com states it “will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society” and will “work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”

Sounds like a plan or at least it was until, according to the New York Times, WMOW removed pro-life women’s movement, New Wave Feminists, from its website then allegedly ignored Students for Life of America, a pro-life student group.

Knowing these facts, and how Americans love a good prequel, I couldn’t help but wonder why pundits aren’t talking more about Women’s March Co-Chair Linda Sarsour.

Despite Sarsour’s growing role as a 21st Century feminist and civil rights leader, a 10-year-old news story, “Arranged marriages ‘alive’ in Brooklyn,” published by Dubai-based Al Arabiya News, presents a square peg in her fight for “justice and equity.”

Painted by mainstream wordsmiths with a gentle brush, Sarsour is depicted almost ethereally despite her Brooklyn-born frankness. New York City is her home, where she’s well noted and highly respected from all accounts. And who could disagree after reading her tweets about sisterhood and the rights of women?

Sarsour was even a little self-deprecating about WMOW’s decision to include pro-lifers in its march, telling the NY Times it was “a mistake,” and back on Nov. 11, 2016 from her Twitter handle @lsarsour she tweeted, “We can disagree & still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression & denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

That sounds like an all-inclusive outlook, right? What could possibly be oppressive?

Let’s take a longer look at her Al Arabiya interview on Dec. 21, 2007.

In it, Sarsour is so vehemently against the “oppression and denial of [her] humanity” that she was wed through an arranged marriage.

She’s okay with that though, because most marriages formed from love don’t work.

“Like most girls in her community, Linda always knew her husband would be chosen for her, and she accepted it because it is the norm,” Al Arabiya wrote.

Wait. What?

“‘They don’t really force you into it,” Sarsour told the reporter. “‘They convince you. And for me, it was normal. I expected it to happen that way.'”

It’s okay. Arranged marriages are normal—widely accepted among independent, American women. She expected it. Besides, Sarsour’s husband “spotted her at a wedding ceremony when she was 16 years old.”

“‘And in that community, this is how most find their spouses,'” Al Arabiya noted. “‘They come from all over the United States to attend weddings and engagements, and meet single girls who they could potentially marry. Then, the traditional steps are taken.'”

“’First, the guy sees the girl. It is physical attraction that draws them,” she said. “Then, he tells his parents about it.’ And the process is launched.”

March on, ladies.

Liberated “women like Linda accept being set-up because they don’t really believe in ‘love story weddings.”

Besides, Linda replied, ‘If I fight with my husband, I can always run to my father because he is the one who chose him for me.’”

Al Arabiya thought it was important to note, “‘In the United Sates, most people marry for love,” but Linda believes “that marriages based on love are the ones that usually end up in divorce.”

‘When it is an arranged marriage,’ said Linda, ‘I think you develop a tolerance…. Love comes after the wedding….”

Sarsour liberated herself from marrying for love though. She got permission from her husband to go to school and make something of herself.

“‘Linda made herself clear: she wanted to go to college, get a job, and have enough independence to feel like her own person. And when he agreed to her terms, she asked to get it in writing.'”

I’m assuming that “get it in writing” was for “parity and equity,” per the Women’s March mission statement. Because obtaining written permission from your husband to go to college, get a job, and have [just enough] independence to feel like [your] own person” is definitely not “rooted in [Linda Sarsour’s] oppression & denial of [her] humanity and right to exist.”

“‘My parents aren’t even that religious at all,'” she added. “‘It’s mostly about the culture, the reputation, you know, what people will say.'”

Weird. I guess a woman’s right to be Pro-Life has nothing to do with her body, nor her “culture, the reputation, you know, what people will say.”

There is some light at the end of this liberated uterus though.

Sarsour was clear. She “will not ask her own daughters to go through an arranged marriage.” All she wants is for them to choose someone who is from their religion, cultural/ethnic background “and that will be traditional enough.”

So, if you’re an emancipated American woman who marched for your rights on Saturday, but you’re still looking for that takeaway moment while you seek “parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society” don’t forget to ask your husband before you march anywhere again.

If he disagrees with you, you can always run to your father. He chose him for you.