Thursday, November 22, 2012

Because I Said So: Thankful for times past, memories of family

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.

Thankful for times past, memories of family
It's the most nostalgic time of the year. There are memories everywhere today, in each shaker of spice, in the clatter of silverware and carried in on the aromas from the oven. Who doesn't equate the myriad scents and sounds of Thanksgiving with childhood and the kitchen of a grandparent or great-grandparent?

Today is one of remembrance, a main course of sentimentality simmered over years past when, as children, we looked on from the kids' table to where the adults ate, wondering if the food there just out of reach wasn't sweeter and more plentiful, the talk more substantial and promising.

Time's crawl seemed interminable then, as though it would never get us to the grown-up table. And then one year it did; chairs were shuffled, and a place was made beside a favorite aunt or uncle. We began to look back almost immediately, spending this time each year remembering what it was like to be so carefree and, hopefully, thankful for that time past.

It's been a tough year for our family. My father died in the spring, and just last month we lost my grandfather. Such happenings make the gatherings we're having today, surrounded by family but with an obvious empty chair, a bit more melancholy.

We give thanks for those in our lives today as well as those no longer with us for whatever reason, for those we knew and who enriched our lives for having known them. Look to the kids' table, to that island of innocence, a refuge with its spilled milk, half-eaten turkey leg and discarded cranberry sauce where nothing unforeseen could touch you, where no concerns from the adult world, never more than a few feet away, would ever be seated.

Give thanks for your children who still believe that nothing will ever change, that sickness and sadness are ghouls to be stopped at the doorstep of the family home.

As my grandfather's illness progressed, it was his seven children who came together to look after him, and my grandmother to care for him and wrap him up in their memories.

My aunts and uncles, my mother, have had to act the adult more than ever in the past year. Yet they've also, I believe, spent some time at the kids' table, whole meals of nostalgia eaten with their mother at one end of the table, and their father at the other.

I gave the eulogy at the funeral and, in it, talked of how my grandfather could fill up a room with his very presence. In the absence of his physical presence this Thanksgiving, he is still here with us, the dining room filled with his family and his memory.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Because I Said So: Kids so far unscathed by ravages of nature

I was in Panama City, FL, for several hurricanes in 1995, one of the busiest seasons for the storms on record in the Gulf of Mexico, and recall Hurricane Opal, in particular, a massive Category 5 that would be downgraded to a Category 4 just before coming ashore near Navarre Beach, some 70 miles from where we were. It was the only storm for which we evacuated, traveling 90 miles north to Dothan, AL, just ahead of the storm. It took us hours and hours, creeping along Highway 231, to reach a Ramada Inn where my family was already hunkered down.

That night was spent with no electricity while rain, wind and tornadoes raged outside. People milled about in the lobby and, full to capacity, sat in darkened hallways with their belongings and their family pets. It was a communal spirit that took over in the face of unrelenting nature as always seems to happen. Catastrophic occurrences, whether man-made or the wrath of Mother Nature, tend to bring out the best of the human spirit in survivors, neighbors, and those from across a continent. We've seen it time and again, and we saw it just last week when Hurricane Sandy landed upon the northeast.

I ran across this piece in The Paris Review, written by Spencer Woodman, on his thoughts as the storm raged outside his window and he read by candlelight from The Last Gentleman by the great Walker Percy:
For Percy, the transformative power of a hurricane lies not just in the immediate excitement, the break in routine it brings, but more so in a storm’s capacity to limit the range of human choice, its ability to deliver a whole city from the chaotic realm of the Possible back the unquestioning mode of the Necessary.
It's the Necessary that brings us all together, it's the common denominator in being alive, in staying alive, and it's what we will come together to provide for one another, as best we can, when times call for it.

The "Because I Said So" column this week is on natural disasters and my family's disastrous state of preparedness for such events. I make light, maybe because humor is part of the Necessary, but I also urge you to help the victims of Sandy, the recent earthquake in South America, and anywhere else people struggle at the hands of that which is out of our control.

Kids so far unscathed by ravages of nature
Other than last week's tremors sent across the river by an Arkansas earthquake that didn't even register on their sugar-addled seismographs, my children have, thankfully, never known a natural disaster. So when the windswept farmhouse of reality landed on them in the form of news coverage and classroom discussion about Hurricane Sandy last week, they were properly awed.

I can recall accounts of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 that hit South Florida, where my kids' grandmother now lives, and of Floyd, which struck North Carolina in 1999. I was there for Hurricane Opal when it devastated the Gulf Coast in 1995 and was amazed by the brutal force of Mother Nature on those small coastal towns where so many Memphians vacation.

Even without experience, my kids are ready. Their bedrooms are natural disaster preparedness zones. Several years ago, I witnessed a search-and-rescue planning exercise conducted by the city of Memphis and the Medical Education Research Institute in which a nondescript office was transformed into a panic-stricken site of destruction. The scene had nothing on my kids' rooms. Watching them pick among the ruins for an errant shoe or long-lost textbook is like watching Tennessee Task Force 1 brave shards of concrete and fire to find survivors. I'm thinking of leashing some kids and leasing them to the rescue team.

The weather-related catastrophes of my children so far have been limited to heavy rains and lost electricity when they've had to suffer through an evening of no television or Internet access. The candles amuse them for a while, like tiny torches in a cave; the flashlights entertain them longer, until the batteries run out.

We have only the rudiments of a survival kit in our home for when the big quake that the experts promise us is coming finally does arrive. We have 6 gallons of fresh water stockpiled and, as of this writing, half a box of Pop-Tarts, one working flashlight, five Bud Light Limes bought by mistake, an untold number of plastic Kroger bags we keep forgetting to return for recycling and a closet full of board games to keep us entertained or to burn for warmth.

Hurricane Sandy was mild compared to some, but the area she hit is densely populated, and much havoc has been wreaked. Though I kid here, the hardships and loss felt by those in her path are real, and should you be inclined, I urge you to contact, or another relief agency of your choosing, to make a donation and help those in need today, and those who will certainly need help in the future.

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Telegraph Avenue

I’m not a writer with a set time of day to work on fiction. I’m more comfortable letting the mood strike me and putting down what I want to say, though I do try to touch on it each day, whether it’s writing a new piece or revising something previously written. A lazy writer, the mood does nevertheless tend to strike me at the same time each day, in the late afternoons and early evenings. It’s not an ideal time for someone with a house full of people, dinner to tend to, laundry, dishes, homework and bedtimes. I should be more disciplined, perhaps, I should set my clock for sometime deep in the a.m. or burn the midnight oil well into a new chapter. I have friends who write each day at the same time and I envy them their discipline. I’ve done this before, but only when I’m near the end of a project and want to push through, when the light at the end of the tunnel flutters my eyelids and wakens me before the alarm clock.

I’ve read that Michael Chabon, if he’s near the end of a novel, or on a particularly difficult portion of whatever he’s working on, will say goodbye to his wife and four kids for a stay in a hotel where solitude and peaceful working conditions help him realize his goal. I can’t imagine even suggesting such a thing in my home. Then again, I don’t have a Pulitzer, or any bestsellers, (or a published novel) to back me up. Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012), is more evidence for why the man should have his own suite at the Chateau Marmont.

The book is the story of Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, longtime friends who are struggling to keep their record store, Brokeland Records – a haven for the denizens of Telegraph Avenue, for the hip, the has-beens and the policy makers of pop culture – open in the glare of a corporate megastore, Dogpile, threatening to take up residence in the neighborhood. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are partners in a midwifery practice and face their own struggles for acceptance in a world of ever-increasing medical convention. Archy’s estranged father, Luther Stallings, a one-time kung fu champion and blaxploitation film star, is a source of concern for his son like a migraine sneaking up from the back of the skull. And there are so many more, a whole, colorful cast of characters carrying the backbeat of plot like Parliament Funkadelic or the MGs.

In Telegraph Avenue, I imagine Chabon takes to heart the old adage “Write what you know.” Maybe he did a lot of research for his story based in Berkeley and Oakland, and the worlds of vinyl soul albums, 1970s film noir, leisure suits and all manner of vintage and pop culture from the late 60s and 70s. But maybe, when he had a question, he simply walked across his office to a wall-length bookshelf and took down a comic book or album to peruse, read, listen to and study. He loves this world he inhabits and wants nothing more than to give us a tour with a soundtrack provided by his very own mix-tape.

All Chabon books will forever be compared to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay (Picador, 2000), which is unfair, but it is a book I carry with me; not physically, though I probably could the way Nate Jaffe’s son, Julius, carries his portable, plastic eight-track player, but inside me where it hums just as Nat keeps a constant beat in his head. It is a book that astounded me the first and second time I read it. The characters of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay live in a real world swirled within the magic and fantasy that their dreams, fears, relationships, and lives are hinged upon. Telegraph Avenue isn’t so different, though the nostalgia – and there is nostalgia, to be sure, try not to overdose on it – takes us back, not to pre-World War II Prague, but to post-Vietnam San Francisco, and into the bedrooms of every 14-year-old boy ever, replete with the sloppy experimentation in music, sex, pop culture, and the independence they all precipitate.

There are small, insignificant issues I have with a storyline or two, but I’m willing to let those go because of the writing. There is nothing quite like a Chabon sentence. It’s like a steak dinner or a chocolate cake dessert, not just a slice, either, but the whole damn thing eaten in one sitting, with some ice cream on the side, and maybe a glass of ice cold milk.

Regarding writing sentences, Chabon told NPR’s Fresh Air:
“Sentences are the purest, simplest, most pleasurable part of writing for me. And it's the part that comes the easiest to me. … I love that aspect of it: the shaping of sentences, the crafting of sentences, that's the fun part of writing for me.”
And it shows. He packs so much into one sentence that I tend to read a page or two and then back off, lean back on the sofa, loosen my belt and digest it all. There is, of course, Part III, “A Bird of Wide Experience,” with its single, 12-page sentence, but that’s just showing off and, frankly, unnecessary. It’s more a testament to Chabon’s standing in the publishing world, and an overeager editor, than his writing ability. Can you imagine an unknown author including that bit in a query letter to an agent? “Oh, and in the middle I include one single sentence that goes on for a dozen pages. People will love that.” The rejection letter would be much more brief and written immediately after reading that queried sentence.

But that’s nitpicking because the writing is beautiful, all of it, every adjective (plenty), comma (many), clause, phrase, digression and aside. Chabon hooks his words together like train cars to take us on a journey through descriptive lands peopled with fanciful citizens, all dressed to the nines in their flamboyant Aztec numbers, and all strutting to their own brand of funk.

Monday, November 05, 2012

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Back in September, I took C over to Elmwood Cemetery where he and some friends, having read The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby, were making a documentary on the Yellow Fever Epidemic for school. I stopped in the main office to get a map of the grounds and take my other three kids on a tour of Memphis’s past. I’d been there as a kid many times but it had been a while since my last visit. I was immediately impressed by the offices, the architecture, the old-world feel and the contemporary use for such a space. I asked a few questions of a staff member and later pitched Phillips Cottage as a Hidden Memphis story to my editor at The Commercial Appeal.

The idea was for a story, to run the Sunday before Halloween, not on Elmwood itself, which has deservedly received much press over the years, but on this one, 146-year-old, continuously used structure within the cemetery. She liked the idea, but didn’t think there would be enough for a whole feature and suggested finding something else to go along with it. My immediate thought was the Crystal Shrine Grotto in Memorial Park, the elaborate, cave-like shrine built in 1938 by Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez. It’s another place I visited as a kid.

Grave of cemetery founder Rev. Morris Henderson

As I sat around searching the internet from home, I came across this great story on Zion Christian Cemetery by Paulene Keller in the October issue of The Downtowner magazine. Surprisingly, I’d never heard of this cemetery on South Parkway founded by a group of former slaves in 1876. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.

I spent a morning interviewing Kim McCollum, the executive director of Elmwood, complete with tour of Phillips Cottage and the cemetery, then I drove over to Zion, not far away, and was struck by the stark difference. Elmwood is orderly in its own way, historically cited everywhere you turn and seems intent in its orderliness on preserving and educating. Zion, on the other hand, is overgrown, unwelcoming, mostly neglected and, well, sad. The headstones, where they still exist, are crumbling or leaning or have fallen over. They bear names and dates of death, but in many cases there are no dates of birth or, if anything, only a year. I walked the grounds, interested in the gravesite of Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, one of the first female African-American physicians. She died in 1900 at the age of 36 after giving birth to a son. She asked that a magnolia tree be planted to mark her grave and it towers now, surrounded by other markers, and its growth and size has knocked to the ground an ornate obelisk marking where she, two of her young children who died within their first years, and her mother, all lie. Looking back at my notes from that day, I wrote that “much of the 15-acres is unused” but that is a misconception as I later learned. While there are relatively few grave markers, there are nearly 40,000 buried there. Elmwood holds 75,000.

I visited Memorial Park that day as well and toured the Grotto, and I spoke later with Ken Hall and Rhodes professor Milton Moreland, both of whom have worked extensively on the Zion Community Project and were enormously helpful. As I began writing the story, it quickly became unwieldy. Our initial thoughts were wrong and it turns out there was enough for a feature on Phillips Cottage alone. There was more than enough for a feature on Zion, and all of these places deserve their own write up. I decided to focus on the Cottage and Washington’s magnolia, and to save the Grotto for another day. (During the time of the initial story pitch and near-publication there had been some upheaval at the CA and my longtime editor had, unfortunately, been one of those laid off. My new editor, understandably, had a full plate made even more so and this confusion is in no way her fault.)

 I sent in my 1,500-word story and had to leave town unexpectedly the next day for a family matter. I returned on a Saturday and the next day opened the newspaper to find a shortened, 600-word, single-source feature on Phillips Cottage alone (Hidden Memphis: Elmwood Cemetery's caretaker cottage endures as treasure-trove of history, Oct. 28, 2012). My editor was out of town so I couldn’t find out what happened until today. Turns out there were only photos of Elmwood to run with the story, so they went with that portion instead of both. Any issue with a story I’ve written has had to do with photos and never with the copy I’m hired to write.

But these things happen. I just hate it for Zion which deserves some recognition. The  40,000 souls there, many of them former slaves themselves, deserve their dignity. To learn more about the Zion Community Project, visit

Below is the version I wrote.

The Cottage and the Magnolia
There are 95 acres in the heart of Memphis, two disparate plots of land that are nevertheless equally important to the city, reverent to the families of those entombed there and meaningful to any who seek to understand how a city is built and nearly destroyed, who its staunchest defenders, outlaws, leaders and healers were, and how such information might be saved or lost over time. 
Elmwood Cemetery was founded in 1852 and has maintained Phillips Cottage on its grounds as a memorial to its history, and the history of Memphis, for nearly that long. Zion Cemetery was founded in 1876 and has deteriorated over time through neglect, lost records and a lack of attention, its greatest monument now a towering magnolia tree planted at the grave of a forgotten, though remarkable, woman.

Phillips Cottage - Elmwood

A picture tells a thousand words, and the black-and-white images decorating the interior of Phillips Cottage in Elmwood Cemetery are no exception. But the plaster walls of the cottage have more stories to tell than just those captured in the earliest days of photography; stories of grieving loved ones remembering their dead, of a fever that spread and threatened to eradicate the population of Memphis, of generals, mayors, and the men and women whose final journey, whether on horse-drawn carriage or by automobile, passed by its front door.

Phillips Cottage was built as a one-room structure for Samuel Phillips, the cemetery’s second superintendent, in 1866, 14 years after the founding of the cemetery, as a place to conduct the business of overseeing funeral arrangements and tending to the grounds. Despite its utilitarian use, the cottage was designed in the ornate Victorian Gothic Carpenter style, popular at the time with its gingerbread trim and church-like windows. A steeple-shaped finial decorates the northern peak of the original standing seam metal roof.

Phillips Cottage has been used consistently since its construction, but is much more than mere office space today. It is a living, working museum with records and artifacts dating back to the 19th Century. The small staff welcomes the public to peruse and take a trip back to that Victorian era when the cemetery itself was outside the city limits and only the first of its 75,000 bodies were interred. “We are a repository of historical information,” said Kimberly McCollum, executive director of Elmwood. “We have lot books that go back to the founding of the cemetery, we have an amazing collection of archives. Anybody is welcome to come inside the cottage and look at it. In fact, we encourage people to.”

In those first years there were two entrances to the cemetery – one at the south end and the second, the only entrance still used today, at the north end of the 80 acres just off of Dudley St., is where Phillips Cottage stands.

Circa 1900, a second room and a walk-in vault were added to the existing cottage, as was a full-length front porch, altering the shape of the original gothic-style windows along the front. The added room is now an office and communal space with worktable, furnishings and floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with volumes on Memphis history for use by genealogists and researchers. The vault, brick-lined and left open to the public, holds old city directories, more photographs and a small gift shop.

In 1998, more space for offices and an archival-grade vault to the east was added. “We are interested in historic preservation and keeping everything with the same feel, and Jack Tucker was very specific that he wanted to honor that tradition,” McCollum said. To that end, the late architect Jack Tucker kept strictly to the design and style of the original cottage so that no matter where a visitor goes, the woodwork and sense of the old is seamless.

Above the 1900-era vault, attached to the roof and hung from scaffolding, is a bell that was used to call the students to class at the State Female College on McLemore, donated in 1885 after the school’s closure. That bell has rung for every funeral procession that has passed over the narrow entrance bridge for the past 127 years.

Inside, one will find the cottage’s cat, Howard, with its half-tail, walking among a hall tree once belonging to Robert Church, landowner and Memphis’s first black millionaire, donated by his family in 1983; a desk that once belonged to Alfred Jefferson Vaughan Jr., confederate general and Shelby County criminal court clerk in the late-1800s; and a refurbished sofa once owned by Mayor E.H. Crump.

“I think that I might have one of the most beautiful offices in Memphis,” McCollum said. “I am very fortunate to be surrounded by this beauty, and this history.”

Washington’s Magnolia - Zion

Just over two miles from Phillips Cottage and Elmwood, on So. Parkway East, there is no ornamental bridge leading to ample parking. There is no parking at all to speak of. Arching from stone feet, a metal, paint-flecked sign above the rutted entryway reads: Zion Christian Cemetery. A nearby historical marker denotes its importance as having been founded in 1876 by a group of former slaves known as the United Sons of Zion Association, as “ … a respectable burial site for African-Americans.”

For decades, the private cemetery, inherited by descendants of the founders and eventually given over years later to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, has languished in disrepair and neglect, at the mercy of the elements, vagrants and crime in the neighborhood. At one time, though, “it was by far the most active African-American cemetery in Memphis during the postbellum period, the period of Reconstruction and so forth,” said Milton Moreland, Chair of the Archaeology Program and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

In recent years, a group of individuals and organizations, including Rhodes, has begun the Zion Cemetery Project, leading tour groups and volunteer clean-ups to restore the cemetery itself and to instill pride in the surrounding neighborhood. “If we can revive that cemetery as a major tourist destination, then that helps the community,” Moreland said. “The success of Zion will also be the success of the South Parkway and South Memphis community along with it.”

“The first day I stepped foot in there in 1999, the brush and bushes were six or seven feet tall all the way up to the fence at the road,” said Ken Hall, who, as executive director for the volunteer organization HandsOn Memphis at the time, was contacted by neighbors to the cemetery tired of the rodents and crime the lot harbored. “We’ve gone in foot by foot, yard by yard, with machetes, axes, hoes and knocked that back.”

On a recent crisp, fall day when the leaves were turning from green to gold, and beginning to cover the plots, a crew worked to clear weeds and brambles, to tend to the resting place of those who tended to others while alive. The most notable detail in the cemetery, other than the headless angel leaning over the grave of Rev. Morris Henderson, one of the founders, and the myriad other toppled stones, is the lack of exact birthdates. In some cases there are only birth years given to further infuse the facts with uncertainty, but in most cases, there is only a date of death.

Dr. Washington's magnolia
A ledger full of those buried there, as well as the records of T.H. Hayes Funeral Home, closed in 2010, but which conducted some 5,000 funerals at Zion, have been obtained and scanned by Rhodes College. The ledgers can be viewed at, a site built and maintained by the school.

It is difficult to believe there are upwards of 40,000 buried underfoot as you walk among the 1,000 or so markers still standing. The last burial in Zion Cemetery was in the late 1960s, Hall said, though most of the plots were filled by the 1920s.

The scattershot and weather-worn headstones are monuments to history and, among the sweet gum trees, oaks and vine-choked maples, on a rise midway within the cemetery, soars a stately magnolia. It’s not a man-made, chiseled monument yet it marks the resting place of Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, born in 1864 and died in 1900, who was one of the first female African-American physicians. “She’s talked about extensively in Ida B. Wells’s Memphis Diary,” said Moreland. “In her day, she was quite an active person, missionary and practicing doctor.” Washington asked that a tree be planted at her grave and now, in the shade of those waxy leaves, her official obelisk lies on its side, still readable, yet marking little.

While Elmwood has been a resting place for well-maintained and detailed records since its beginning, Zion is having to play catch up to cobble its history together. Any cemetery, first and foremost, should be a dignified place for those laid to rest there, a place where family can visit to remember and pay homage, but it also acts as a city’s memory where the names and dates act as plot points on the timeline of our people’s history.

“You kind of forget what was happening in the 1880s or 1890s unless we can memorialize them in one way or another,” Moreland said. “Cemeteries really are part of a living community, and when you have a vibrant cemetery, you actually have a vibrant living community.”

For more information on these cemeteries, Phillips Cottage or Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, visit and

All photos by the author