Saturday, July 31, 2010

False Teeth

I recently returned from Oklahoma where I went through My mother's things for the last time before the estate sale. I hated to get rid of anything. My mother had gone through the house with me several times, and almost everything she saved had some significance to her.
"This mirror was a wedding present from my boss at the state capitol."
"A print of this picture hung at the head of the stairs in Mamma's house when I was growing up."
"They served us tea from these cups when we toured the Forbidden City in China."
There were several porcelain statues that she had antiqued herself.

The drawers were full of keepsakes. There was a manger scene Jim had bought when she had finally decided to try to celebrate Christmas the year that my uncle was missing in action after his ship went down in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There was a broken string of beads Jim had bought in Ada when she had gone there to sing at the district meet when she was in high school. Jim had saved little pieces of ivory that Uncle Tom had brought back from Morocco. There was Pappa's shirt collar. These scarves belonged to Aunt Kaliteyo. This pin was one Mamma used to wear.

The kitchen cabinets were full of china pieces and cooking utensils Jim used when I was little. There were the canisters which were among the first kitchen supplies she had bought before her wedding in 1941.

I had never realized how much sewing Jim did. There were three sewing baskets and a drawer full of needles, pins, thread, scissors and other sewing equipment. There were sacks of unfinished knitting projects, stacks of patterns for dresses, table cloths, children's clothes, drawers full of material, some cut into shapes ready to be sewn together, sequins, beads, glitter, designs to be sewn. Jim also hated to throw anything away. She hasn't had a sewing machine for years.

The house was full of big artificial plants. I counted ten. Jim and I had a big argument about six months ago before her death, when I tried to take them outside to dust them off. There are little statues scattered around the back yard, statues of cherubs, leprechans, nymphs, frogs, rabbits, and of course a bird bath. I used to tease Jim about all the creatures lurking in her back yard.

Jim's jacket and her clothes pins were in the utility closet. Jim refused to buy a clothes drier. She said that clothes aren't crisp when they come out of a drier. There were her aprons - my favorite had the image of the Tweety Bird on it. Her broad brimmed sun hat was hanging there, the same one she had worn when she worked in the garden when I was a child. Also leaning against the wall were her stool and her ladder. Jim didn't hesitate to climb up on a stool to get something off of an upper shelf. Once she accidentally set off her Life Line alert button while she was on the ladder cleaning out the gutters.

Jim had several closets full of clothes. She loved clothes. One thing she regretted as she got older was that she wasn't able to go shopping. Shopping was recreation for her, whether she bought anything or not. She met friends to go shopping. Don used to drive her to Dallas to shop. Sometimes she would meet Aunt Oteka there.

I remember teasing Jim about being such a picky shopper. One day when I was little she took me with her shopping for shoes. That was when all the clothing stores were down town. Jim went down one side of Main Street stopping at each store to try on shoes. Then we crossed to the other side of the street and she tried on shoes in the stores over there. Finally, when we had been to all the stores, Jim went back to the first store she had visited and bought the first pair of shoes she had tried on.

Jim always wore a hat when she went out, and she only wore one style. It was round on top with a brim all the way around that curled up. There were red ones, green ones, brown ones, black ones. Some were felt and some straw. Some were plain and some had designs. There were 20 or 25 of them.

I went from one room to the other, crying. There were pictures of me everywhere: pictures of me as a baby, pictures of me with my violin, group pictures in orchestras, pictures in my acolyte vestments from church, and finally a large portrait of me that she paid an artist to paint when I was in high school.

I found an old trunk in the garage that I thought was empty, but when I opened it I found my mother's wedding dress and the suit my father had worn at their wedding.

I saved the cedar chest for last. Jim's cedar chest was given to her by her father when she was only a small girl. It has been repaired, but it still looks relatively new, and the cedar smell which Jim loved still fills the room whenever you open the lid. I don't know what I expected to find inside. It was probably the oldest storage space in the house, having stood at the foot of Jim's bed ever since I can remember, but for some reason Jim hadn't gone through the contents with me. I thought there might be ancient clothing or jewelry inside, possibly with notes about their significance - Jim often left notes for me so I wouldn't forget, but I was disappointed. There were just more patterns, material scraps, thread, frames for crocheting, some old shoes, some old costume jewelry, and right on top, a set of false teeth - they must have been Mamma's. One more thing that Jim couldn't bear to part with.

I think that's what did it for me. That's when I started throwing stuff away. I can't hold on to my mother by saving her stuff. I've already written down her stories. The furniture and the artificial plants, the sewing baskets, the hats - I did save one hat - the knick-knacks, the cooking utensils, all went. I kept the manger scene, the canisters, the wedding dress, the Tweety Bird apron, and Jim's sun hat.

Finally I took one last look at the cedar chest with the false teeth inside, and walked out of the door, crying.


Ela Teecha and Smith Paul, my great great grandparents

John Paul Jones was only the first in a long line of our family's outstanding members, and my mother began early to teach me about them. After John Paul Jones there was Smith Paul, who ran away from his home in Newbern, NC, at the age of eleven, and was adopted by the Chickasaw Indians. He was Jim's great grandfather. When the Chickasaws were forced to leave their homelands in Mississippi in 1837, Smith came with them to the present state of Oklahoma, on what the Indians called their "Trail of Tears". There he married a full blood Indian woman named Ela Teecha. They raised a family together and Smith became a wealthy farmer. When the railroad was built in 1887, Smith Paul gave up part of his corn field for a town site, and the town was named Pauls Valley in his honor.

As Smith Paul became older, his son Samuel, Jim's grandfather, took over the farm, and became a prominent politician in the government of the sovereign Chickasaw Nation. Sam Paul was assassinated for his political beliefs in 1891, making orphans of his sons, Buck and Jim's father Bill. After statehood Bill became a wealthy real estate broker and Jim's family were prosperous. When I was a child there was a large building in downtown Pauls Valley with Jim's father's name, "W H Paul," engraved into the cornice.
I also learned that Jim's older brother, Homer, had been the youngest man ever to be elected to the Oklahoma state legislature, and that her brother Haskell was a prominent attorney in Pauls Valley.

And that was just the Paul side of the family. Jim's mother was a Rosser, and her 'people' had been wealthy plantation owners from Georgia. 'Grandpa' Rosser had fought for the South during the Civil War, and when the fighting was over he took his young bride and joined the stream of emigrants heading west. Despite the hardships, Grandpa, or "Captain Rosser," as he was known, together with his wife Emily, managed to provide Jim's mother, named Victoria after the English queen, and her four sisters with an education in literature, art, music, and etiquette. The girls were not raised to work but were expected to marry well and become mistresses of an estate. They learned to garden, and to arrange flowers, to crochette and to knit, and to make beautiful dresses and artistic table decorations.

When Victoria fell in love with a handsome Chickasaw Indian, her family was horrified, but they consoled themselves with the knowledge that he was rich. I have a letter to 'Mamma' from her grandmother in Georgia in July of 1898. Grandma Lumpkin - she had married a Lumpkin after Grandpa's father died - commented that 'Pappa' seemed "a fine substantial looking fellow, and strong," admonishing Mamma to "be a very good wife - amiable and sweet tempered, as you will have everything that you desire without having to work and make it."

Jim had been taught that her people were special. Gentility and culture had been bred into them from the Rosser side of the family, and a native toughness and adaptability from the Pauls. I grew up thinking that being a Paul or a Rosser was kind of like being a Kennedy or a Rockefeller. We were all capable of greatness, and if we failed, it was because something had gone terribly wrong.

Well, something went terribly wrong pretty often in our family. Maybe that's why Jim clung so hard to her belief in our nobility.

I eventually questioned Jim's attempt to instill this family pride in me, and I came to view it with a kind of embarrassment. I remember asking her fifteen or twenty years ago why she spent so much time on her scrapbooks. She replied that she was saving things for me, and maybe some day I'd appreciate them.

I don't want to imply that my mother went around with her nose on the top of her head. Jim was very personable, and gregarious. She took an interest in everyone she met, and everyone liked her, but Jim was complicated. She liked or disliked people on different levels. There were people of quality, and people with good qualities, but most important was family. "Blood is thicker than water" was what she used to say.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Keeping Us Safe from Lions

I spent last week in Oklahoma making arrangements to sell my parents' house.

On the drive down, I was thinking about a story my mother told during a visit from my kids, shortly before her death. The incident took place when they were little and were staying with her. My youngest, Donald, was having trouble with bed wetting at the time. Jim would go in during the night, wake him up, and take him to the bathroom. Her method worked, and I think both she and Donald felt proud of themselves.

Anyway, one night when Jim went in to wake Donald for his regular trip to the bathroom, he was having a nightmare. Jim asked him what it was about and he told her that lions were chasing him. Jim said to him, "Now Donnie, don't you worry. No lions are going to get you while I'm here."

Later, while I was driving Donald to the airport, he told me that he remembered that night when Jim promised him that she could protect him from the lions. His comment was, "I believed her, too!"

That's the way Jim was. She made you believe she would take on anyone or anything to protect you. When I was a child I actually felt sorry for people who tangled with my mother, like the teacher who tried to tell her I didn't need any outside help learning to read, or the one who waited until school was out to call to tell her I had hurt my arm in a fall. In fact, I was reluctant to tell Jim any of my troubles at school or in the neighborhood, for fear it would set her off.
I was an overprotected child. As I grew older Jim decided which of my friends were a bad influence, and when I started dating, which of my girlfriends weren't good enough for me. This caused a lot of arguments at first, and even estrangement later on, because Jim couldn't force herself to see me "ruining my life."

It's not that I wasn't welcome at home. I always got plenty of affection and sympathy from my mother because of what I was "going through."

As I thought about the lions, I suddenly realized how much my mother loved me. She spent her life worrying about me, and she would have fought lions if that's what it took to defend me. No one will ever love me that much again.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Loose Ends

This blogging thing is a little new to me, and I don't really have much of a plan. It occurred to me that you might not see much connection between these stories so I thought I'd try to write a post from time to time to let you know what I'm thinking.

The first blog I wrote was one about our Indian heritage. I thought it was appropriate to start with since that meant so much to my mother.

After starting to write about Wenonah I realized that I just couldn't refer to my mother by that name since I always called her Jim, so I wrote an explanation about how she got her name.

It wasn't until then that I decided to communicate some of my reasons for writing a blog about my mother. The first thing that came to mind was the sadness kindled by those funerals at Pauls Valley, and how as a child it seemed that the wonderful spirit of those I loved was being overshadowed by their death. I don't want that to happen to Jim.

Celebrating your mothers' death isn't so easy though. Almost every day something - like the story of the baby robin - reminds me of how much I miss her, and I end up crying, just like she did when her loved ones died.

Finally, I talked about how surprised I was to learn about Jim's regrets for not being able to develop her musical talents. She was always so consistent in talking about her goals for me, I was actually surprised to learn that she had any ambitions for herself.

What I'm trying to do, I guess, is to follow my mother's example. She spent her life collecting pictures, letters, and newspaper clippings about our family, and she spent the last ten years telling me their stories. In sharing these stories I hope to help fulfil Jim's purpose in honoring our family, and in the process maybe you can see just what a remarkable person she was.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rocky Ridge

Last weekend my wife and I attended the Rocky Ridge Music Center alumni reunion. It was 54 years ago that I attended Rocky Ridge, a summer music camp for aspiring young musicians located at the foot of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I found out at the reunion - I didn't remember - that the tuition back then for seven weeks at the camp was $350, a pretty big expense at the time, at least for my parents. My mother scrimped just to pay the $15 per week for my violin lessons out of the money Don gave her for groceries.

Jim supported my interest in music ever since the fourth grade when I came home from school asking if I could learn to play the violin. Playing the violin has always enriched my life. It has taught me the value of dedication and commitment, and it has always been a source of satisfaction and a refuge from the tensions of my work.

A couple of years ago my mother mentioned during one of our conversations that she wished she had an opportunity to develop her musical talents, and for some reason this came as a big surprise to me. I had never suspected that Jim ever had any ambitions other than raising me. I suddenly felt foolish and selfish.

I knew that Jim had been a very good singer in high school, and that when she first enrolled in college she had majored in fine arts. I had heard the story about how she had to change her major because Uncle Haskell, who was supporting her, couldn't afford the $25 fee for the chorus. Jim never forgave him for his sarcastic comment to her the day she came home excited about winning the audition: "Do you think you're going to be an opera star?"

Then I recalled that Jim had taken a class in Italian at OU. I asked her why and she told me it was so that she could sing Italian opera. She really did want to be an opera singer!

I remembered a letter that Jim had written home from college to her younger sister Oteka, raving about hearing a performance of the opera, Carmen, so during one of my visits home I played a recording of Carmen for her. As Jim listened she commented, "The lead role calls for a mezzo-soprano. That's what I was."

Jim went on to say that she was working on one of the arias from Carmen when she had to drop out of the fine arts school. She told me how she regretted never learning to read music. She said, "If I only had the fundamentals, something to work with."

Jim said that when she auditioned for the OU Chorus she had to find someone to help her who could read music. She told me about how later on when she sang in our church choir, she had to struggle to learn her part, having only a rough idea of how notes got higher and lower in pitch as they went up or down on the musical staff. She also had no idea about how to interpret the rhythms. She just had to try to memorize her part.

Another time Jim told me about watching a TV news segment about a town in Italy where opera singers went to retire. They continued to enjoy their music by singing together and performing for the community. "That would be nice," she said.

Learning about Jim's lost opportunities in music made me sad. Maybe it's something about the time she lived in, or maybe it's something about the relationship between a mother and a son, but Jim was always so committed to my success, it never occurred to me that she might even have any other goals.

It wasn't until Jim was in her 90's that she gave me this slight glimpse of her personal dreams. Suddenly I understood how she could look at my enjoyment of music, and envy me.

Friday, July 9, 2010

My Purpose

Almost ten years ago my father died, and after that I phoned my mother, James Wenonah Paul Gunning, or "Jim," every two or three days to check on her until her death two months ago.

Our conversations usually lasted more than an hour.

We would start by talking about her health. Jim was always having trouble with her "stomach." It wasn't that she was a hypochondriac. She suffered from diarrhea and constipation, and even when I was a child she would lie for hours curled up on the sofa with abdominal cramps. Jim had tests done from time to time, tests for infection, tests for malnutrition, xrays, colonoscopies, all of which were negative. Her symptoms were consistent with what is usually called "irritable bowel syndrome," for lack of a better term. It makes patients miserable and there's no effective treatment. Since I'm a doctor Jim would ask me for advice, and I tried to recommend things that might help: simple things like a high fiber diet, multiple small meals, avoiding spicy or salty food. I tried to go over her medication to make sure she was taking it right.

Jim had to have a reason for everything. That's the way her mind worked. When I got sick as a child she always grilled me about what I had done before the symptoms started. I had eaten something I shouldn't, or I had gone out without a coat, or I had overexerted myself. I never told her, but I eventually labeled this line of reasoning as the "It's your own damn fault" theory. She applied the same theory to her own symptoms. She blamed each episode of diarrhea or cramps on the last thing she had eaten.

After reviewing Jim's most recent symptoms, we would spend most of our time talking about her memories. She didn't talk about the past because she was losing her short term memory. Far from it. Jim never ceased to amaze me with her knowledge of current events, but I did my best to steer the conversation away from them because I didn't want to get her started on politics.

Over the hours, weeks and months of our conversations Jim told me hundreds of stories. She remembered everything she witnessed, where she was, what people said, their gestures, their expressions, and she remembered the stories that people told her. She told me about her ancestors. She told me about her parents, their childhoods, their early married life, their tragedies. She told me about her childhood, about climbing trees and riding horses. She told me about her hopes and dreams, her struggles to decide what to do with her life.

My mother came from a long line of talkers and story tellers. I still think the best speach I ever heard was given by my Uncle Haskell, but my older cousin Tom insists that Uncle Homer was a better speaker. I used to be spellbound by my uncle Tom's stories, but my cousin Christeen swears that Grandmother was the best story teller she ever heard. Still Jim claimed that no one could hold a candle to Aunt Kaliteyo. I never heard Aunt Oteka tell a story but her letters are some of the most beautiful prose I've read.

I don't think my mother ever gave a speech, but I've listened to her talk all my life, and I'd put her up against any of her family members. Jim was eloquent, effortlessly. She had a lexicon of old southern expressions that gave her speech a quaint touch, and she always arranged her words to give them the optimum effect. For the last couple of years I recorded our phone conversations, and when trying to write down one of her stories, I could always find a better way to say something by listening to her on the tape.

Through Jim's stories she expressed her pride and her love for each member of her family. In recording them I hope to communicate these feelings, as a tribute to our family, but even more so as a tribute to Jim.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Baby Robin

A few weeks ago - come to think of it, it was right after we got back home after Jim's funeral - I noticed a long piece of straw hanging down from under our deck framework. Our house is built on a hill sloping up toward the front, so the front door is on the ground level in front, and our partially finished basement opens on the ground level in the back. If you go out the basement door you can look up at the framework of the deck which extends back from the house on the main floor.

Anyway, the dangling piece of straw led up to a very sloppily built bird's nest. I politely left the nest alone, including the untidy piece of straw, and waited for developments. Actually I kind of forgot about it until my step daughter, who was visiting with us last week, noticed that a mother robin was flying back and forth up to the nest. I investigated and sure enough there were three baby birds inside, sitting with their necks extended up and their mouths open, patiently waiting for one of their parents to come and feed them.

Since then I've been spending some time downstairs working to rebuild a small deck off our bedroom, and every time I would go by the nest the baby chicks seemed to grow a little bit larger.

One day after I had walked under the nest I heard a thud. When I looked around I saw a baby chick lying stunned on the cement. He (or she) had jumped out of the nest, fluttered across the porch, and hit the screen door. I thought, "Oh no, I walked too close to the nest frightening the chicks, and one of them jumped out of the nest too soon." Pretty soon however, the little fellow got up, fluttered his wings a little - they didn't look like they were big enough to do him much good - and hopped into some bushes.

My wife Sarah said, "Why didn't you put him back in the nest?" but my uncle told me long ago you can't put a baby bird back in the nest because his mother won't accept him. I still don't know if this is true or not, but I was also afraid he would die of fright even if I was able to catch him.

The next day Hansy, our miniature dachshund, was sitting with me while I was painting some wood for the deck, and low and behold, the baby bird hopped out of the bushes, fluttered clumsily across the yard and then hopping into another bush. Hansy, of course, is no threat to the denisons of our back yard. He just sat calmly with me, watching while the little chick risked life and limb to cross the yard. We have a few rabbits and squirrels living in our yard, but Hansy has never shown any interest in chasing them.

Later that afternoon I heard some chirping from the chick's second hiding place, and then saw an adult robin fly down behind the bush with a big worm. Sarah observed, "Animals take better care of their children than some humans do."

Today, as I was clipping the hedge in front of the house, Sarah called to me, saying, "There's your little bird." Sure enough a baby chick was hopping around on the front porch. Pretty soon it flew over to a nearby bush. He's getting stronger. I looked in the nest later, and his siblings are no longer there, so maybe he was old enough to leave the nest after all. I hope so.

My first impulse on seeing our little robin neighbors was to call and tell Jim, my mother, but she's no longer there for me to talk to. She loved to hear stories about animals, like when a family of racoons visited us one night, or when a fox chased a squirrel up onto our roof, or when a couple of bighorn sheep walked right past me on the trail while I was hiking. I'd always take pictures of the animals I saw or cut clippings out of the newspaper with stories about animals, and send them to her, but I can't anymore.

I've talked with my mother on the phone every two or three days for the last 10 years - ever since my father died, and I miss her.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


I had a happy childhood, but also it seemed that there was a lot of sadness too. First my mother's older brother Homer - known as "Snip" in the family - died. Then there was the death of my mother's youngest brother Tom, who was almost like a big brother to me since he lived with us off and on while I was growing up. Finally my grandmother - my mother's mother - died.

My mother, Jim - I have to call her that because it's the name I knew her by - reacted to each of these tragedies with hysteria, and with weeks, and months of deep depression. My mother was very emotional. She would scream, faint, and cry. She would run around the room frantically searching for comfort, and not finding any would run out the door and down the street crying and holding out her arms for succor from above. Every tragedy hurt her deeply and left a permanent mark on her soul.

My words are inadequate to convey the trauma of these occasions. My father tried to shield me from witnessing my mother in this agitated state by putting me under the care of relatives during her initial reactions. Possibly for this reason I sometimes felt more like a spectator than part of the family. It's not that I didn't feel pain, but the pain I felt was more from seeing my mother's suffering than from my own.

The funerals for my mother's family were all held in the little town of Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, the family home, and they were no help at all. They seemed contrived to display and to dramatize the family's suffering. There always seemed to be a big turnout, perhaps because everyone knew they were in for a good show. The family members were all ushered down front, where they could be seen by everyone, and where they were close to the casket, containing the deceased's remains, prominently displayed at the front of the church.

The minister's sermons were all works of art, describing the deceased, how they were taken in the prime of life - in the case of my uncles - or after many years of devotion to their family - in my grandmother's case - and how they would be missed by their loving family, with a nod toward the family, seated at the front of the congregation. It seemed to me that the minister would go on and on until he got one or more of the family to break down and cry, as if he used this as a sign to guage his success.

To cap off the procedings, the casket would be opened and the congregation would all file by for one last look at the deceased. It was here that there was the most potential for fireworks. I think my mother surprised everyone though. She had too much sense of propriety to make a scene in public.

I hated this part of the funerals even more than the eulogies. The bodies looked unnatural. They certainly didn't resemble in any way the life and vitality of anyone in my family. One of my cousins, Homer Dean, who hated those Pauls Valley funerals even more than me, told me about going to our grandmother's funeral. Now Homer loved Grandmother probably as much as any of us grandchildren, having spent every summer with her from the age of seven up through high school. Anyway, when it came time to go up and view her body, Homer stepped out of line and walked to the back of the church. Seeing this, Homer's younger brother Steve went over and asked Homer why he didn't go forward with the ohers.

Homer replied, "I'm not going up there. It's barbaric."

Then Steve said, "Well, if you're not going, neither am I."

Seeing his sons standing at the back of the church, my uncle Thurman walked over and said, "You two should walk by the casket. It's the proper thing to do."

Homer told his father, "Well, I'm not going."

And Steve chimed in, "I'm not going either."

At that Thurman just sighed, and the three of them stood there together until the end of the service.