The First Day of April, 1957

Formosa azaleas from near Century, FL where I grew up. Seeing this photo on facebook today inspired this post. Photo: Pam Robinson Callahan

[Excerpted from my as-yet-to-be-named memoirs (a lifetime’s work in progress) recalling the day we moved from Grayson, Alabama (in the middle of the Bankhead National Forest) to Century, Florida (on the Alabama/Florida State line) in 1957. A friend posted photos of the local azaleas on Facebook today, inspiring this recollection…]

I rolled up my little brown quilt on the last day of the fifth six-weeks of First Grade, took my all-As report card, and said goodbye to Miss Olena and phonics forever. I’d like to think that Mama picked me up that afternoon, but if she did, I don’t remember it. Daddy had preceded us south a few days before our departure, and she was probably too busy attending to last-minute duties. And so it was that, by early the next morning, we were on the road in our navy blue ’54 Ford, Mama, Mimi and me, to spend the weekend in Birmingham with Grandmama and Granddaddy before driving the arduous six hours to Century. Even the main highways, in those days, were only one lane in each direction, and our route south on U.S. 31 was no exception. With actual farm tractors, considerable eighteen-wheeler traffic and rolling hills that made passing a rarity, the trip from Birmingham – past the domed capitol in Montgomery and around the squares of towns with mellifluous names like Georgiana and Castleberry – would not be speedy.

At last, it was the day we had anticipated for months, and all three of us were anxious and excited when we turned down Granddaddy’s winding driveway to head for our new home. Anxious, because none of us, not even Mama, had ever been where we were going – and we were going there to live; and excited because it was a new adventure, with new people to meet, new teachers, new preachers, and new opportunities. I was still depressed about leaving my entire seven years of life behind, but I had the promise of a return visit in my pocket, and was beginning to warm to the idea of living in a real town with other children and a school within walking distance. For her part, Mama, the sun worshiper, was elated that we would only be an hour from Pensacola Beach, and Mimi, well, Mimi just wanted to be out of the car. “Are we there yet” was rarely more overused, or more annoying, though I admit I was weary, too, and silently appreciated her persistence.

Finally, though, she got the answer she was hoping for. We were crossing the Florida State line, which was the cue for Mama to turn left onto Route 4 and slow the car to look for the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company sign on the right pointing to the turn-off. Once we found it and made the turn, she slowed even more – the better to take it all in – as we passed a few modest homes before coming to a cypress swamp on our left and some ancient frame structures on our right trying nobly to hide their neglect behind gnarly oaks so old and majestic they had undoubtedly shaded the Confederacy, all wearing thick shawls of Spanish moss with fringe hanging down to the ground. Then, as the swamp gave way to solid earth, and the road divided just ahead, we found ourselves in Wonderland. It was the first day of April and massive old azaleas in every direction were singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Everywhere we looked were great waves of blooms, each bank of color trying to outdo the next as they sang silently to angels in the afternoon sun.

“Look for Daddy’s jeep,” Mama said. “He said it would be easy to spot.”

Daddy’s jeep was always easy to spot. It was an old WWII surplus vehicle he had bought when he moved to Grayson because it would take him anywhere in the woods he needed to go, and he had painted it bright yellow both to alert the hidden moonshiners that he wasn’t a revenuer coming to get them, as well as to make it easy to find among the trees. It also made it easy to find that day, but we were so mesmerized by the astonishing floral display that we missed it the first time around, and had to go the full length of the boulevard, past the office, commissary and an impressive row of tall, verandaed Victorian homes with azaleas overspilling their lawns, before turning around to pass them all again. The houses were all identical in form, but there was whimsy afoot because the one nearest the mill, with the most luxuriant gardens, was painted bright orange. The next one had been painted bright green, and the third, bright blue. With the vibrant houses shining in the light and the mounds of flowers wherever you turned, it was a visual feast that has rarely been equaled in my experience. In a word, Century, on the day we arrived, was beautiful.

Originally named Silk-Stocking Street, a row of multi-colored “executive homes” greeted us upon our arrival. With horses and buggies, this photo preceded us by about 50 years, or so, but aside from the oak trees which had grown to completely cover the street by the time we moved there, it looks much the same.

Once beyond the blue house, we passed the community club house on our right and then, as we came to the first side street, the windshield filled with the most impressive sight of all. It was a gleaming mansion that dwarfed all the others, and, we would eventually learn, the only house in town allowed to be white. It looked for all the world like a square, two-tiered wedding cake surrounded with trellises, columns and pink-icing flowers climbing the walls and effusively mounded on every side. One of the most impressive homes I had ever seen, it said “old money” without shouting, and was a perfectly executed study in ostentatious restraint, if there can be such a thing. We would come to know it as the Hauss’s house, but in that moment we only knew it as a visual tour de force, and even Mama’s jaw dropped as we moved slowly closer.

This postcard from the 1930s shows the Hauss house as it looked the day we first saw it, only by then it was covered in roses and 40 years worth of azaleas.

“There!” I shouted, a little too loudly, “There it is.”

“Where?” Mama asked, her mind returning to the task at hand.

“Right there! Right over there,” I said, pointing down the side street.

Daddy had said he would park the jeep in front of our new house, so Mama turned right and we were soon pulled up at our front gate.

It was on a street with seven houses built for the superintendent class – mill foremen, logging superintendents, and such – and, while not as grand or large as those we had passed on the main boulevard, they were spacious enough and well beyond anything that had been supplied by the mill to the employees we had left behind in Grayson. All the houses were painted gray. In fact, except for the three colorful ones we had passed on the boulevard and the white confection, every one of the 40, or so, Alger houses, street after street, were painted the same color. Mr. Hauss, I was later told, had acquired a quantity of surplus battleship paint from the Navy after WWII, which accounted for it, though I always had the sense that it  suited him to paint them gray, regardless. It provided just enough contrast, even on cloudy days, to set off his sparkling showplace in the center.

There was a lot of movement in those days between Grayson and Century, as Mr. Clancy had called upon some of his best men to relocate to his newly-acquired mill and mill-town, and there were others, being replaced, who were moving on to new jobs in new places. By and large, this worked out for everyone, but the timing wasn’t always perfect and we were caught in a situation where the house we were supposed to move into – the green one – was still occupied. But then, due to the sad but timely demise of the widow McGee, we were given her house on the side street to use until ours was ready.

Daddy was there to greet us as we emerged from the car, and when he saw the look on Mama’s face, started in right away reminding her that the house was only temporary. She understood, of course, but it was a real come-down from our simple but elegant Grayson house on the hill, and I don’t think she was well pleased. The recently-departed Mrs. McGee had lived there for over fifty years, and while all her furnishings had been removed, everything was still in its original 1902 condition, including the kitchen and the bathroom. The rooms were relatively spacious, the ceilings very high, and every wall was paneled in dusty green bead-board, but the house was absolutely plain. I was excited to find that the single light bulb hanging in the center of the living room had a string pull long enough for even me to reach – Mrs. McGee had been very short – but my new powers of incandescence only lasted until Daddy tied a knot in it.

The rest of the day was spent moving furniture around and getting the house ready for living, but my mind was already on the day ahead, my first day of Florida school. I was confident it would go well. After all, I had been going to school for almost a whole year and thought I knew what it was all about. Miss Olena had made me her teacher’s pet, and I was fairly sure I could maintain that standing with my new teacher, whomever she might be. It never even occurred to me that I might need my scared-proof clothes.

The next morning at eight, Daddy and I headed out, hand in hand. I had my spiffy, Mama-made naptime quilt with tassels of bright orange yarn under my arm, Daddy had my lunch box, and we were both in an upbeat mood. The grammar school was only a block and a half away, past a row of foremen’s houses on the left (smaller than the superintendent houses, but bigger than the line workers’) and the nearly identical side-by-side Baptist and Methodist churches on the right, and we were there in minutes. Out of all the buildings in Century, the school was the most dilapidated, but a new, modern Century Elementary was already under construction two blocks away, so repainting the old one, or even patching the holes in the roof, had been forestalled.

Our first stop, the principal’s office, was also my first indication that this school might be different than I imagined. In Moulton, the principal was a jiggly, jolly old lady with severe elephantitis in her right arm who ruled through kindness; O. H. Hinson was different. To begin with, he was a man, which was my first surprise, and from the set of his chin and his permanent scowl, ruling through kindness seemed unlikely to be his accustomed technique. He was Ichabod Crane without the hat, completely bald, tall, lanky and humorless. I knew him for ten years and I don’t think I ever saw him smile except once, at his daughter’s piano recital. This was going to be interesting.

Our next stop – Mr. Hinson, Daddy and me – was at the classroom door of Mrs. Monk, my new teacher. More Mama’s age than Miss Olena’s, she was as tart a woman as one might ever hope to meet – Jane Hathaway of the “Beverly Hillbillies,” only brunette and bitter. It was hard not to notice her unhappiness. The principal made introductions, and the adults all shook hands, then Daddy gave me a kiss goodbye and left me to fend for myself on Planet X.

The next sign that things might not go as well as I’d hoped was when Mrs. Monk asked me about my little quilt.

“What is that under your arm, Tommy?” she asked.

“My mat. For naptime. My Mama made it,” I said proudly.

“Naptime!” she exclaimed. “We don’t do naptime in Florida.” Her nose seemed to be rising ever so slightly. “Just throw it over there in the corner,” she motioned dismissively with the top of her head toward the back of the classroom. “You can take it back home with you when you leave. You won’t be needing that here!”

“Now, where to seat you,” she said to herself. “I know, yes, that’s perfect.”

Then, to me, “Here, Tommy, let’s put you here, between Pam and Emily.”

“Class,” she said in an elevated voice, “this is Tommy Wilson. He just moved here from Alabama, and will be joining us from now on. Let’s make him feel welcome.”

“Tommy,” she said, turning to me, “this is Pam Wood, and this is Emily Hitchcock. Since they haven’t been able to learn how to stop talking in class, I’m going to put you between them, and we’ll see how that works.”

‘Uh-oh,’ I thought to myself. But that was only the beginning.

The rest of the day, at least until recess, is a blur, though I quickly realized that my position between Pam and Emily was going to be a problem. Just because I was in the middle didn’t mean they were going to stop talking, and every time they did, I got a sidelong scowl from Mrs. Monk.

Reading was also interesting since I had no trouble taking my turn in spite of not having learned the lesson in advance. Florida first-graders were taught to memorize a weekly list of new words so they could then read all about Tom, Dick and Harry. But memorization was completely unnecessary with my phonics skills, which made Mrs. Monk look somewhat superfluous. (Why any other system but phonics would be used in the classroom is beyond me. There is simply no contest.)

Finally, after lunch, recess arrived and I was happy for the relief, but it didn’t last long. I expected Drop the Handkerchief, or maybe Mother May I, but they didn’t pussyfoot around in Century. There were swing sets and slides beside the school for the girls and a sandlot across the street next to the churches for the boys, who made a beeline for it with a duffel-bag full of bats. I only vaguely knew what baseball was, and had never even been near a ball or a bat, so I assessed the situation and decided the better part of reason would be to head for the swings and play with the girls.

This, however, only lasted for about ten minutes, until Mrs. Monk came out and saw me. She immediately launched into an impassioned lecture about which side of the street I was supposed to be playing on.

“But Mrs. Monk, I don’t know how to play baseball,” I pled.

“Then it’s high time you learned, young man,” she said. “Now get yourself over there and play baseball like you’re supposed to. I don’t want to ever catch you over here by the swings again!”

And so, my heart in my mouth, I reluctantly walked across the street.

“Mike, put him on your team,” she shouted. It would be the last time he ever did it willingly. For the next several years, school day in and school day out, the boys would choose up sides, and my name, without a single exception, was always the last one called. It happened at least a thousand times. There was no animus in it, and I did understand. I was simply terrible at baseball, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. I really tried, over the years, to get it right, but never could throw a ball worth a damn, and nothing frightens me more, even now, than a loose round airborne object headed in my direction. I wanted to be better, and gave it all I could. It just wasn’t in my genes.

Mrs. Monk seemed to like me less and less as the days dragged by. My phonics skills didn’t help, but from my point of view, it was mostly due to Pam and Emily, who never stopped talking to each other, or to me, and it was impossible to avoid being in the middle of it since, let’s face it, I was in the middle. Finally, one day, she’d had enough, and stood me in the corner. I was horrified. Nothing even remotely like that had ever happened to me in my life, and I protested the injustice. It was Papa’s apples all over again, and I was not going to have any of it. It was hardly my fault that she couldn’t stop them from talking.

My stubborn streak surprised her, I think, and soon I was tearfully walking the million miles from my classroom to the Principal’s office. I made no bones about why I was there and was defiant in my insistence that it wasn’t my fault. Mr. Hinson calmed me down and returned me to class, but I cried all the way home that day. It was definitely the lowest I had ever felt in my life. I was miserable. I’m not sure what happened next, exactly, but the best I can figure Mama must have called Daddy when I got home and told him about my misery because the next thing I knew, he had me by the hand and we were walking at top speed back to the school. It was the most angry I ever saw him get at anyone outside our family. He was red-faced and fully intent on telling Mr. Hinson a thing or two, and he wanted me moved out of Mrs. Monk’s class and into the other section of first-graders.

He told me to wait outside while he went into the principal’s office, and when he emerged a few minutes later he was a much calmer man. Mr. Hinson must have explained that I was in the more advanced of the two classes, and it would make no sense to move me. After all, he must have said, it was only a few weeks until the term was over, and it would all be behind us. And, he prevailed, because I wasn’t moved, though Daddy explained as we walked back home that he thought things would get better and Mr. Hinson was going to speak to Mrs. Monk about moving me out from between Emily and Pam.

She did so the next day, which solved the talking issue, but the baseball routine continued, even as it had for generations. I learned, soon enough, to take the daily humiliation in stride, since there was nothing else to be done. The game was a quasi-religion in Century – even the people who didn’t go to church would never miss a Little League game – and if I was going to live there, I would just have to deal with it. Scared-proof clothes were my new school uniform.

© April, 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

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Betty’s Bradford Pears Twenty Years On

Bradford Pears blooming today (March 7, 2018) in Dallas. Photo: Stacie Renee Hernandez

[I originally published this post in April of 2014, but a friend of ours posted this beautiful photo of the Bradford Pears peaking in Dallas on Facebook today and it inspired me to realize that it was exactly twenty years ago, March 7, 1998, that we lost our wonderful second mother, Betty, so I’m reposting this brief remembrance in her honor. Our father was truly a fortunate man.]

Our Mama, Jane, about 1953, five years after they married. Daddy took the photo.

In 1973, when my mother, Jane, died at 50 of pancreatic cancer, everyone agreed it was much too soon for one so vibrant, so giving, so clearly an instrument of the God she served to leave the earth. It’s a long story, but she died only two-and-a-half months after our family had relocated to a new town in a new State, Fort Valley, GA, and even so, the First Methodist Church was filled to capacity at her funeral with those whose lives she had already touched in such a short time. Further, as testament to her long years of generous service to others, her obituary took up a full column in the Alabama Methodist Christian Advocate and both the Rev. C. Everett Barnes, Head of the Council on Ministries of the South Alabama/West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, and the Rev. Edwin Kimbrough, Senior Pastor of First UMC Birmingham, the largest Methodist Church (at the time) in the North Alabama Conference, had traveled for over five hours from both ends of the State to jointly officiate.

Betty and Daddy shortly after they married and she began buying his ties, which she always insisted be Countess Mara.

So it is no wonder that I was very confused by her death. How could it be that God would find it necessary to remove one so young, so marvelous, as Mama; to elevate her to the next plane when there was still so much for her to do on this one? How could there possibly be any sense in that? What on earth was He up to?

Well, the Holy Spirit is a mysterious loveliness, and, dear readers, while we may not understand every move She makes, if we can just be patient, things do eventually make sense. I will always, of course, believe that Mama died too young, because she did, but looking back now, through the long lens of time, I can also discern the blessings that grew out of our sorrow, and at the top of that list would be my second mother, Betty Gates Wilson. I say “second mother” because, when I was 40, Miriam 37 and Mary 28, she adopted the three of us out of love both for us and our father, and so she literally was, from that time until her death a quarter-century later, our mom.

Me, Miriam, Daddy, Betty and Mary at the time of our adoption in 1990.

I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately because the Bradford Pears have finally bloomed in New York City. I’m sure they came and went in the south in early March, as they are wont to do, but up here, they have only now appeared. If you don’t know what a Bradford pear tree is, they are prized all across the country for their dense white blooms that appear in the early spring and turn the trees into gigantic balls of cotton. You have certainly seen them, since they seem to be everywhere these days. They were all the rage, and something relatively new, when Betty built her Fort Valley dream house in about 1982, and she planted a grove of them in the front yard where, for the next sixteen years, they were her pride and joy. Nothing made her happier than when, just as she had planned it, they flushed out each March with their display of bright white set against the dark caramel-colored brick of her house.

And so, it was perhaps only right that they were at their absolute densest bloom on the night that she died. Richard and I had been vacationing in Costa Rica, but, due to her failing health after years battling emphysema, had rescheduled our return trip to go to Georgia rather than New York, and arrived after dark on a Friday. She had known for several days when we would be arriving, and Daddy told us that all week long, as each morning arrived, she had asked him, “Is it Friday today?” and every day, when he said, “Not yet,” would look crestfallen and just a trifle annoyed as she continued pushing those tortured breaths in and out and in and out. Clearly, she was determined to be there to greet us when we arrived, and by grace and her own stubbornness, when we drove up about four that afternoon, she was still very much herself, if a diminished version of the Betty we knew.

We visited for a short while and then she rested for a bit while I helped get supper ready, then we gathered around her bed to eat while we showed her the photos we had “rush” developed so she could share in our trip with us. I also told her that her trees, which she couldn’t see from the bedroom at the back of the house, were blooming like crazy, and that brought a huge smile to her face. It was a lovely, touching, loving reunion, even though we were all aware we were nearing the end, and at four a.m. that morning during a tumultuous Georgia thunderstorm, she died.

The next night, after the miraculous women of the “Fort Valley Funeral Brigade,” as I lovingly called them, had cleaned up the mess and headed home (the same four wonderful women who had been in our kitchen to feed 95 out-of-towner family and friends when Mama had died fully a quarter-century earlier!), I curled up in Betty’s easy chair and wrote a few lines about those pear trees that would find their way onto the back of the program for her funeral service the next day.

Betty’s Bradford Pears

Her Bradford pears were peaking in a flush of radiant white
And clouds began to form above as day moved into night.

I would have wheeled her out to see, but she was just too weak,
So I settled for effusiveness when I began to speak.

I told her just how glorious, how flower-full they were
(Because I knew she knew I knew how much they meant to her)

And, soon enough, my tack began to generate a glimmer
That turned into a twinkle, as her mind began to simmer;

She looked at me with knowing eyes and said, “I’m thrilled to death.”
Then said it yet again, after a pause to gather breath.

As darkness fell, the sky began to shed its rainy tears;
The thunder boomed throughout the night as lightning lit our fears,

And as the roiling clouds moved on to other destinations,
Our Betty climbed aboard, at last relieved of respirations.

Yet, when the sun returned to start our first dark day without her,
Her trees stood bright just like the light that ever shone about her.

For hers was love that knew no bounds nor compromised devotions —
Outlasted every thunderstorm, outdistanced all the oceans,

So as we make our way through time, through storms and trials and strife,
May every blooming pear tree be a tribute to her life.

— George Thomas Wilson

© 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

 

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Ode to a Pew

Distinguished law professor, Dean Emeritus M. Leigh Harrison (1907-1997), makes a point during Contracts Class only a few years before I wrote this poem in the very same front “pew” shown in this photo that I was astonished to find online. The ancient solid oak pews were covered in the carved graffiti of decades of use and just wide enough for two aspiring lawyers to occupy with a slant board attached to the back of the pew in front for taking notes. Photo was taken about 1970 by Pat Graves, now a retired Huntsville lawyer, who posted it on the University of Alabama Law School website on the occasion of Dean Harrison’s induction into the Alabama Lawyer’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

With apologies to all my lawyer friends…

I’ve decided to leaven all the long-form posts I’ve either posted or have in the pipeline with occasional poems from my 1998 compilation, “Ups and Downs”. I called it that because they chronicle so well the highs and lows of the middle years – from 1974 to the late 90s – which included law school and the first two decades of my New York adventure. And, as they are arranged in chronological order in the book, I’m starting at the top and will work my way through.

This one, the first, was the result of several factors: it was the second semester of my first year of law school and 1) I had just pulled an all-nighter and 2) was sitting front and center in 3) a 9:00 a.m. “Contracts 102” class on “third-party beneficiaries” being taught by 4) a distinguished former Dean of the law school, so that I, 5) had to look at least like I was paying attention and taking notes. By the end of the class, this had landed on my legal pad:

Reading the Law 

The chair whereon I sit is but a pew
That on one look tells tales of quite a few
Whose derrières have spread themselves abroad
While minds above contracted to defraud
Debase, defame, delight in monies made
In consequence pursuant to the trade
For pedagogue of which was first designed
This seat that, for the moment, takes my mind
From strict attention to Socratic babble
Twixt learnéd Dean and an assorted rabble
Who, in idyllic notion of the Bar,
I had assumed would never get this far!
Yet here we sit, ensconced in Gothic couches
That someday we might fill our money pouches!

— Written in the spring of 1975

© 2018 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.

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The Family of God: Uncle Jesus

A 1975 gathering of Baker cousins (I’m on the far left) after the dedication concert of the Edgar H. Baker Pipe Organ, given by my favorite great uncle to the McElwain Baptist Church in Birmingham.

[Note to my readers: If I am presumptuous enough to write a blog honoring angels, then it behooves me to periodically lay out for you exactly what I believe; to define, as best I can, just what my religious inclinations are. This is why I annually repost the first three essays ever to appear here (the second and third will appear in the coming days). Taken together, they draw a fairly complete picture of those grains of spiritual Truth I have allowed into my thimble through confirming personal experience. That said, I also know that if Truth is Truth, then the Truth of Science and the Truth of its Creator must, when finally fully understood, line up exactly, without deviation, and this blog, writ large, represents my best efforts to illuminate those places where these divine conjunctions can most readily be seen.

Thus, you will find that basic arithmetic, genealogy, and my personal journey of faith join hands to underwrite this first essay, even as the recent discoveries of quantum physics support the second (“The Flow of God: Living Water”), and geology and biology undergird the third (“The Love of God: Uncut Diamonds”). It is my sincere hope you find these observations useful to you in your own personal journey, but I simply offer them for what they are worth. [Of course, if you did read this when previously posted, there is no need for you to do so again. I have re-edited it, as I do every year, but the main points remain the same.]

[Originally published February 9, 2014:]

Uncle Jesus

Several threads of thought spinning in my mind – some for a lifetime – have recently come together in an unexpected way, presenting an idea so remarkable to me that it must be shared. Much as the bee buzzing from flower to flower is content to gather nectar with no notion whatever it is also pollinating the field it farms, these ideas all began as small things, snippets of experience, without a clue as to where my thoughts were taking me until we arrived: an insight I find so profoundly joy-filled that it still takes my breath away.

So, whether out of sheer, naïve enthusiasm, or perhaps an overly-inflated sense of my own perspicacity (as some will surely say), or – and this would be my choice – as the flowering of some unseen but manifest spiritual inspiration, I am letting you in on my epiphany. That said, it is one thing to hope that I can share the full emotional force of what, to me, is a cosmic-level realization, and quite another to weave the word-tapestry to do so. Ultimately, after several false starts, I concluded there is no shortcut and the only way to get to the end is to begin at the beginning – to follow each thread as it was spun, some for a lifetime and others only recently – that they may come together for you even as they have for me.

The First Thread: “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”

Christmas Card photo from those early years with my sister, Mimi, and me.

My parents were putting me to bed with nightly prayers long before I could remember it. I’m sure they started as soon as I could form the words. It was a tired world we lived in, where Norman Rockwell drove the Saturday Evening Post and the number one song on my third birthday was “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window.” After being held down as teens by the Great Depression only to be flung by the frightening excesses of WWII to the most exotic corners of the earth, all my parents Hank and Jane Wilson – and millions of their peers across the country – finally, really yearned for was the simple, the ordinary and the expected. So, it should be no surprise that the prayer we always, always said as they tucked me in – until I was at least of school age – was equally predictable: “Now I lay me down to sleep//I pray the Lord my soul to keep//If I should die before I wake//I pray the lord my soul to take.” And, then I would add my own personal coda: “God bless Mama and Daddy, in Jesus’ name, Amen.” Of course, as my perceptions enlarged, blessings for the grandparents were soon added, and when my sister came along, she also joined the list, which, as the nights turned into years, continued to grow until it embraced a whole “village:” neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles and dozens of cousins. Early on, it reached the point that my parents, well-versed in what was coming, would just leave me to finish when we got to that part, and many were the nights I fell asleep still thinking of people to add, never even making it to the “in Jesus’ name” part.

And – perhaps not as consistently as I’d like, or as humbly – as best I’ve been able in the decades since, I’ve tried to continue widening my prayer’s embrace, adding others to my list until, finally, I grew to realize that, if every human being is equally a child of the same Heavenly Father, then what I really should do is embrace everyone – include all the people of the earth in my prayer – for who would I, could I, omit without kicking sand into the eyes of God if we are all – every human being on the planet – loved with the love of a Father by Him who made us; if we are each and every one of us truly a son or daughter of God, without fear or favor, or respect of persons, places or proclivities?

Of course, logistically, even as a mental exercise, it is not easy to visualize seven billion people as individuals. On the other hand, everything, even praying, improves with practice, and when you start, as I did in those early days, with only your parents, then, over a lifetime, expand your conscious embrace as best you can, bit by bit, to include family, friends and, ultimately, a planetful of people, the step-by-step growth in “inclusion acuity” does help.

Here’s how it works: I still begin, as I have since those earliest days, with relatives and loved ones, then move on to our neighbors, actual neighbors. Living, as we do, in the midst of residential Manhattan, there are a great many neighbors, so I start with the ones we know who live next door and the families on the floors above and below, then stretch out my mind to include the unknown neighbors of the buildings beyond, and on out a little more until our ten thousand nearest neighbors – about the limit of my visualization capacity – are included. I pray for the shopkeepers and shoppers, the students and teachers, the parishioners and preachers, the elderly who live in the Jewish Home for the Aged just up the street and their caregivers, the sidewalkers and trash-talkers and derelict homeless sitting in the park. Whomever they may be and whatever they may be doing, I pray for our ten thousand nearest neighbors in that moment and their angels. This last part is important because, as my understanding of our astonishing spiritual helpers has grown over the decades, I have also come to appreciate how helpful they are for igniting the “Joy Profound” – that “peace that passeth understanding” – within each of our human hearts. They do it in all sorts of ways – synchronicities, ‘coincidences,’ perfect timings, close calls, personal touchstones, delightful surprises, ‘chance’ meetings – and praying for angelically-enhanced connections between our Maker and His children is about the best way I can think of to bless anyone.

Once I feel I have included the whole neighborhood, I then try to expand my embrace from ten thousand to the nearest ten million souls – more or less the entire city – from native New Yorkers to the most recently arrived tourists (and ten million are, after all, only 999 additional souls for each of the ten thousand neighbors I’ve already embraced). Then, after sufficiently envisioning this larger group as best I can, I ask for God’s grace to expand my prayer one more time, from the whole of the City to the whole of the earth, from ten million hearts to seven billion (which is actually less of a stretch, if you think about it, since it only requires adding 699 souls for each of those ten million already embraced). Seven continents, seven seas, and seven billion sisters and brothers, each and every one fully known and beloved by the same Heavenly Father Who, in loving each of us infinitely, loves each of us equally.

In other words, this first thread – that began on those early nights as a blessing for “Mama and Daddy” and grew to encompass the whole wide world – has wound itself into the essence of my being even as it has stitched together everyone on earth as family. And that ‘attitude adjustment,’ I find, is a source of imperturbable solace and strength. Richard asked me one day, after a passing stranger on the sidewalk had been particularly rude to us, why I wasn’t angry. “It’s hard to be mad at somebody you just prayed for,” I said, realizing, even as I said it, just how true it was.

The Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary

Okay, now please bear with me, dear reader, since this next question may seem ponderous, but I promise to lighten up quickly. The question is this: Who was Jesus, really?

There are many available answers, but none can be proved. He called Himself “Son of Man,” whatever that means, and even among learned theologians, opinions are so scattered as to be of little use. There are those who believe He never lived at all, or at best, was a clever charlatan with big ideas. Many others believe He was merely a man, but a man who could justifiably sit alongside Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Mohammed and, one supposes, many other sages of old who might be named if they could but be remembered. I’d even go so far as to say that many “Christians” who go to church regularly really only believe Him to have been a man, a great man, perhaps, but, still, only a human who died on a cross and then went to Heaven like the rest of us hope to do, and, after all, aren’t all people who go to Heaven really “still alive?” So, perhaps, to say that Jesus lives is no great stretch….

And, then there are others, like me, who actually believe Jesus was something beyond extraordinary: the Creator Son of the Universe we inhabit; The One who made us and then became one of us the better to know and love us; an All-Powerful Personality who was, by choice, both completely Divine and completely human. But don’t think for a minute that I just accepted what someone else told me. My journey of faith has been fulsome and vetted by living.

The thread of my belief began to spin early on, for, if those nightly prayers were started before my memory tapes, our days at the Church of the Forest began even earlier. Mama had named it that, and it is, to this day, the only church ever built in Grayson, Alabama, a tiny sawmill town that used to be located smack in the middle of the lush and verdant Bankhead National Forest.

Two years ago, Richard and I made a pilgrimage of sorts to see the church my parents built in the Bankhead National Forest. The town may be gone, but the church remains.

Think “Hansel and Gretel” and you’ll have the setting exactly, and, just as in the story, my forester father was the woodsman! His boss, a kindly lumberman named Clancy, was enlisted by my newly arrived parents to donate the materials to build the church in 1948, and then they rallied the townspeople to erect it. That was two years before I was born and, by the time I came along, it was a thriving little Baptist church. (They held an election – Baptist vs. Methodist – after it was erected. The Baptists won in a landslide.) Truly a “poor church serving the poor,” to quote Pope Francis, it had nothing like the resources needed to support a full-time preacher, so a succession of itinerant clergymen – from “fire and brimstone” to “down and dour” – made their way through, and, when there was no one else, Daddy filled in handsomely as a lay preacher.

It was there among friends – and everyone in Grayson was my friend – that I began to discover my singing voice, and “Jesus” was the first word of the first song I ever learned, and the second song, too, come to think of it. His name was said before every meal we ever ate, regardless of where or with whom we may have been. His story was always front and center, whether at Wednesday night fellowship, or at Church School and preaching twice on Sunday, not to mention that He was right there in the pew racks, staring back at us even as we prayed to Him, with His flowing brown hair and deep blue eyes printed on cloud-shaped cardboard fans from the Double Springs funeral home.

Jesus fan on a stick. When I was a child, every country church in the south had a supply of these scattered among the pews, a necessity when summer Sunday sermons ran long.

In short, Jesus was as much a part of my childhood as the pine trees and sawdust. Of course, that doesn’t mean I really understood who or what He was. After all, life was immersed in Him in those parts, and as is often said, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.”[1]

One of my favorite things about Sunday School in those early years was its exclusivity. Because I was the only child in town anywhere near my age, I was often the only pupil in the class, but like the good troopers they were, my teachers never seemed to mind, and would forge ahead using the Southern Baptist study guides, week after week, even if we were alone. And, it was in just such a class, when I was nearly five, that a frustrated Mrs. Lethcoe said to me with some insistence in her flat, North-Alabama drawl: “Tommy, Jesus just wonts to be your friend!” Well, now, that was something I could understand.[2]

Imaginary friends come naturally when you’re an only child living in the woods with nary a playmate for miles, and one of the reasons I took to Nell Lethcoe’s suggestion so instantly was because I already had relationships going with two friends who were, apparently, invisible to others (as neither Mama nor my babysitters could see them). They were little old British ladies who wore printed cotton tea dresses and flowery hats. Their names were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Coctiff, and I honestly have not the vaguest notion how I happened to cast them in those particular personalities. Nevertheless, they were my steadfast friends and we truly loved each other.

At some point in the last 40 years, the US Forest Service decided to leave the sawmill, but erase the mill town of Grayson, AL that surrounded it, the place where we lived from my birth to age seven. Now, all that is left of the simple but stately white house we lived in (and where this story took place), is this ivy-draped hole in the ground where our basement used to be. I had to clamber deep into the prickly underbrush just to find this. No doubt, the removal of Grayson from the center of a National Forest was an environmentally sound decision, but it is nevertheless, very sad to me.

Now, you may scoff, if you like, at the idea of “real” imaginary friends, but, dear reader, ineffable are the realities of faith, as they were meant to be. Author J. K. Rowling got it right, I think, in that last pivotal dream conversation between Harry Potter and Dumbledore, when Harry asks his mentor, “Is this real, or is this all just happening inside my head?” and the Professor looks at him with love and replies, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why should that mean it’s not real?” Were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktiff actually angels that only I, the innocent child, was permitted to see? I cannot say, but they were as real as real could be to me.

Every afternoon I would set the child-sized card table in my bedroom with my sister’s toy Blue Willow dishes and, at precisely four o’clock, the three of us would settle in for tea. We talked about all manner of things over the months of our association, from the death of an elderly friend to the love of my baby sister, and, so, once Mrs. Lethcoe had introduced the notion of a friendship with Jesus, I wasted no time asking the ladies that very afternoon if they agreed that we should invite Him to join us.

Well.

Within a nanosecond of my posing the question, there He was, sitting right across the table from me looking a lot like His picture on those funeral-home fans, only vital, robust, alive. His familiar appearance put me at ease, and His voice was low and gentle like a mountain brook burbling over rocks worn smooth. We loved each other instantly, or, at least, I loved Him instantly, as I gathered He had already been loving me for some time. The ladies, not a little astonished at what had just happened, were tickled to a rosy hue, and we had a wonderful visit together for the rest of the afternoon as He and I locked in a friendship that has only grown stronger with each passing year for, now, six decades. It is often said that to truly believe, you must believe as a child. I know what that means.

We continued our afternoon teas for some weeks until, the final time, He told me it would be our last tea, but that He would always be as near as my desire; that I need but knock and He would never fail to answer any question or rise to any occasion. And, dear reader, after all this time enjoying His close association, nay, friendship, I can attest that He has been as good as His word to that little me all those years ago. To illustrate, I could relate many specific and moving examples, but this essay would be a book if I tried to tell them all in the fullness they deserve, so I only mention a few here without details [but with end notes]: when I was seven, I found myself unwittingly, though not inappropriately, maneuvered into signing an official Baptist commitment card to be His missionary for life[3]; at nine, I received a special dispensation from the Bishop for early baptism and confirmation as a Methodist[4]; at thirteen, in a profound prayer on the night of JFK’s assassination, I was led onto a professional path that held me fast for seventeen years, all the way through law school and ultimately to NYC; when I was seventeen, He helped me maintain my sanity through a very difficult relocation just before the end of my junior year in high school [5]; when I was nineteen, He confirmed to my satisfaction in another intense prayer that who I am was not a mistake and that my having been born gay was as natural and as much a part of His plan as the sun rising in the morning; and, when I was 23, during and after my mother’s losing battle with pancreatic cancer, two profoundly personal, inexplicable mystical interactions between my Friend and me occurred to absolutely seal the deal of our relationship for eternity [6].

In the crazy days of my youth, I used to ask Him for signs that I was on the right path, but I long ago stopped needing them when I began seeing them all the time, and the long and short of it is that for me to say, “I believe in Jesus,” is to understate the case. I know Jesus. We are BFFs in the most literal possible sense. I have seen Him with my own eyes sitting right across the table from me, and heard Him with my own ears in the most unexpected of times and places. I know that He lives because He is my ever-present Companion, my long-time, oft-disappointed, ever-forgiving, proactive Loved One, and the thread of our association has only grown stronger and more resilient through the mercerizing years I have spent dog-paddling, as best I could, through life.

Oh, there have been times, even years, when my attention to our relationship has waned, but even then, when I finally came around, it has always been as it should be when old friends meet: as if there were no time between. That said, we are now far beyond those days, and the bonds of our companionship – of our real, true, living relationship – are, for me, unmistakable, undeniable and unbreakable.

The Third Thread: An Unexpected Obsession

Mama, age 8, 1933

Several years ago I received a letter addressed in an elegant hand on engraved blue note paper from someone I did not know, and, when I opened it, a confetti of small black and white photos fluttered to the floor. These, it turned out, were first- and second-grade school portraits of my mother and her siblings from the early 1930s, and had been sent by a distant cousin who had found them in one of her grandmother’s old trunks. I was thrilled, and was soon writing back to thank her and, while I was at it, to ask some questions about her branch of our family tree.

She did get back to me in great detail, but once the questions had

Uncle Ned, Age 7, 1933

surfaced, I decided to look for some answers on my own by logging onto Ancestry.com. The site was new and offering a two-week free trial membership, and, well, oh my word but did I fall down a rabbit hole! It was some months, as Richard will attest, before I finally resurfaced.

And, what a Wonderland I found! The more I uncovered about the people from whom my parents and I sprang, the more I wanted to know. It was like the best novel ever, full of surprises and sudden turns to drive me forward, or rather, backward in time, as I met thousands of

fascinating forebears and – as a quite unexpected delight – reconnected with history in a fresh and much more personal way through the stories of these real members of my family who fought wars, built log cabins, or traveled aboard clipper ships. It was an extraordinary journey, and as I continued, generation before generation, it became ever more clear just how rich the marvelous tapestry of family can be.

Aunt Peggy, age 6, 1933

Predictably, of course, there were some dead ends – family lines for which the information just petered out after a few generations – but a lot fewer than you might imagine, and I was surprised by just how many lines continued back for hundreds of years. Indeed, there were so many leads to follow and historical eddies to explore, that after following one line all the way back to the first century BC just because I was astonished that I could, I ultimately limited myself to researching only as far back as the “original immigrant” in each line. (But not, fortunately, before I clicked on yet another little green leaf “hint” to discover Lady Godiva, of all people, was one of my 30th great-

Uncle Joe, Age 9, 1933

grandmothers! Now, that was a rush.)

And, though I did ultimately put down the genealogy for other pursuits, there were at least two great lessons that I came away with about the true nature of family and our intense interrelatedness across time and place.

The First Great Lesson: Families Don’t Grow on Trees

A family is not at all the vertical construct we generally imagine. In fact, families are shaped nothing like trees at all. Rather, picture a field of daylilies where expansion comes both from family groups of tubers multiplying underground, as well as from their seeds – pollinated by butterflies and planted by birds – spreading the beauty into every corner.

Now, this is counter-intuitive because the shape of the family we know is actually treelike, with a trunk and branches that leaf out into our loved ones. However, even with 20/20 hindsight, we don’t perceive the reality. Instead of envisioning the great flowering field of more than a million 18-greats-grandparents – let me say that again: more than a million, 1,048,576 to be exact, 18-greats-grandparents  – that each of us, by definition, must have had only 450 years ago, we hardly think beyond those we can actually remember.

I have struggled to find a way to illustrate just how VAST every family tree is but here’s another go. If every blue square in this chart represents a direct forebear (i.e., actual grandparent) the chart runs off the page after only six generations, and by the 20th would use up 9620 sheets of paper laid end-to-end at the same scale! If you could actually make a chart going all the way back to the time of Christ, you would need over 82 TRILLION sheets of graph paper, probably more than exist in the world, I’m thinking. Our interrelatedness is irrefutable.

But the math doesn’t lie: 2×2=4 x2=8 x2=16 x2=32 x2=64 x2=128 x2=256 x2=512 x2=1024 x2=2048 x2=4096 x2=8192 x2=16,384 x2=32,768 x2=65,536 x2=131,072 x2=262,144 x2=524,288 x2=1,048,576. And, as hard as it is to believe, if you keep doubling it all the way back a thousand years, Lady Godiva, as it turns out, was only the most notorious of my 4.2 billion 3o-greats-grandparents!

The Second Great Lesson: We Are All Cousins

But that, you might well posit, is impossible. After all, there weren’t even 4.2 billion people on the planet in the 10th Century, and, of course, you would be right. But in the end, it’s not about the size of the population but the number of fruitful copulations, and it only took 2.1 billion of those. Plus, as it turns out, some of our ancestors were extremely good at conceiving. Consider two examples: Genghis Khan and the passengers of the Mayflower.

It has long been known that Genghis Khan was fond of procreation. It was even reported by Chinese observers as early as the year 1272 – only forty-five years after he died – that there were already twenty thousand of his progeny in positions of power across several neighboring regions.[7] And, in 2003, the American Journal of Human Genetics reported that over sixteen million men – and, by extrapolation, their sixteen million sisters – were all Genghis Khan’s descendants: thirty-two million literal cousins sired by one man only eight-hundred years ago![8]

The case of the Mayflower is similar. She landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 with just over a hundred survivors, but forty-five of them died the first winter, leaving a colony of only fifty-seven Pilgrims. Consequently, if you are related to one of them, it is almost a slam-dunk certainty you are related to several, since they and their children had only each other for “acceptable” mates, and even after additional ships arrived, their numbers were exceedingly small for scores of years.

Additionally, mindful of this shortfall and being made of hardy stuff (especially the women), the early settlers tended to have a great many children – very often in excess of twenty – who, in turn, had a great many more. The result, in hardly any time at all, was similar to that of the Mongol Emperor, only this concentration of genetic inheritance included twenty-four procreating men rather than just the one. An article in the September 20th, 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner relates: “a staggering thirty-five million people claim an ancestral lineage that runs all the way back – sometimes through fifteen generations – to the original 24 [Mayflower] males. That number represents 12 percent of the American population” [9] [emphasis added]. Twelve percent!

In other words, we are all – and I do mean all – far more related than we think. Everyone reading this – however far away in time or space you may be from the here and now of this writing – is almost certainly my blood-kin cousin. And, even without the concentrated hubs arising from isolated populations or overreaching despots, this would still be unavoidable. Look at the math the other way ’round. Lady Godiva had eleven known children, but, again, for the sake of being ultra-conservative, let’s say she only had two who bore children, giving her four grandchildren who then only gave her eight great-grandchildren, etc., so that you generate the same multiples over generations as with the grandparents. Well, then, given a perfect progression, over 4.2 billion people living today share my 30th great-grandmother. And, the same calculus would also have to be true for every other one of my 4.2 billion 30th great-grandparents! How could we not be related? Seen through such a distant lens, the fabric of family is tighter than canvas and covers the whole of the earth.

Now, it is no doubt the case – at least common sense would allow – that Europeans are more related to each other than to Africans, who are more related to each other than to Asians, etc., but that said, we humans have been prone to cross-fertilization as far back as the Neanderthals,[10] and, it only took one 12th Century marriage between a Crusader and a Mesopotamian, for example, to join millions of previously distinct forebears into one family that, by today, has extended the bloodlines of both to a great proportion of the planetary population.

[Also, lo and behold, in the week this essay was originally published, The New York Times published an op-ed by A. J. Jacobs entitled “Are You My Cousin?” which made exactly my point using new insights arising from the growing list of genealogy-related websites.[11] Did I say “synchronicities”?]

A Joining of Threads

All these were fascinating, fun discoveries, but I still could not quite fathom my compulsion to keep looking deeper and deeper into family history. Why the obsession? What was my inner Father trying to tell me; teach me? I often took the question to Him in prayer, but the answer remained elusive. I did, however, after many hundreds of hours, finish the job of naming my forebears back to the original immigrants as best I could.

Of course, I should have known, having prayed the question with a sincere heart, that an answer to my quandary would eventually appear, and, though it took its time falling into place, it was more than satisfactory.

As I did my research, my growing understanding of family ties did have an impact upon my prayers for others – from the neighborhood, to the city, to the planet as described above – since I began thinking of all our neighbors as something significantly more, as actual cousins however distant, and it really does feel differently when you visualize them that way.[12] There is an undeniable intensification of the emotional investment when you truly see those you are praying for, however unknown, as literal family. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water, and what had become increasingly clear to me was the utter impossibility of drawing any dividing lines between our one family of seven billion cousins. Family, as we learn from our very cradles, is always to be accepted with love and – in spite of foibles or follies, if necessary – not to be judged unkindly. How wondrous it would be, then, were all embraced as kin, to dismiss unkindness altogether!

And then, at long last, one marvelous morning as I prayed, all these threads of understanding, some having taken a lifetime to work their way up through my consciousness, came together in a blink, as most revelations do. Prostrate in the dark of my bedroom, I came to that part of the prayer where our nearest ten-thousand neighbors are my focus, and, almost without realizing it, prayed “for our ten-thousand nearest cousins… YOUR ten thousand nearest cousins…” And then I stopped as the full force of what had just happened washed through me. Of course! That was the point! I finally understood what my oldest Friend, my dear Friend Jesus, who had been holding my hand since those days around the tea table, had been trying to tell me. He had inspired my inquiries, step-by-step, until I could finally, fully see the reality that we – He and I and, yes, you – are not only friends, but literal, blood family!

And with the next breath came the next realization – flowing from my long-established understanding that Jesus was the eldest of a large family of children – that if they, too, had been my long-ag0 cousins, then He was also, by definition, my long-ago uncle! Uncle Jesus!

The “brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God” is an old but valid trope that relies upon a wondrous spiritual nexus: God as Heavenly Father of all His material children. But how much more tangible is this newly seen connection: to be a member of the actual family of God? And, better yet, to understand the Son of God to actually be one of your own? It’s one thing to ask a loving spiritual, but Heavenly, Father for forgiveness, and quite another to ask your favorite earthly Uncle for a favor.

The Family of Jesus

With all the emphasis upon the twelve Apostles, Jesus’s actual family gets short shrift. With the exception of Mary, we don’t really think much about them at all, though most experts agree He had several siblings.[13] Matthew, Chapter 13, tells us of four brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Jude, and “sisters,” so one may conclude that, at the very least, He had six.

There also can be found records of later generations, including Judas Kyriakos (the last Jewish-Christian “Bishop of Jerusalem”), great-grandson of Jesus’s brother Jude,[14] but, of course, we have no way of knowing exactly how many nieces and nephews Jesus may have had. Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let us continue taking an extremely conservative approach and assume that only two of His siblings had children. If we then assume the same progression and double the number in each generation, by the 30th, around the year 1000 AD, Jesus would already have had 4.2 billion great-nieces and nephews, and given that it would take another thousand years to bring us up to date, each and every one of those 4.2 billion would likely, by now, have their own 4.2 billion descendants!

And, if that isn’t assurance enough for you that we are all, almost inevitably, the nieces and nephews of Christ, add into the equation the undeniable consequences of the Diaspora – the spreading out of the Hebrews to the furthest ends of the earth – which began with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem six centuries before Christ and would seem to be entirely unrelated to His arrival. Nevertheless, for the sake of making the point, if the Universe wanted to ensure that Jesus might ultimately – in the fullness of time – be the literal blood Uncle of His entire human family – of every human on earth – it could not have gone about it in a more systematic or effective way. That said, I don’t believe any loving Father (or Uncle, for that matter) would purposefully so displace His family as has been done to the Jewish nation throughout history, but it is an inarguable fact that the result is a far more interrelated world today than would otherwise be the case.

Of course, if you believe, as many do, that Jesus was conceived immaculately, then any DNA endowment would theoretically be purely that of His mother. However, (and I’m bound to get into trouble for this) if, as I, you believe that His Divinity is actually enhanced and His sacrifice ennobled by His having been the Creator Son of our Universe who chose to be conceived in the normal way – as the utterly vulnerable firstborn Son of Mary and Joseph – His endowment would, of course, include the inheritance factors from both families. Either way, the point remains the same. Whether His DNA was only hers, or some combination of hers and God’s, or a combination of hers and Joseph’s, her son was still the blood brother of James, Joseph, Simon, Jude and His sisters, and He was still the uncle of every child born to them and great-uncle of every grandchild.

Uncles are Cool

As it happens, benevolent uncles were a big part of my childhood. My grandfather had several brothers, and my favorite relatives in the early years were my Great-Uncles Edgar and Powell, both of whom were long-widowed and doted on me at every opportunity. Beyond that, my mother’s brothers, Ned and Bubba – yes, Bubba – were fundamental to the health of my self-esteem as I grew up a stranger in a strange land. They were always there with a word of encouragement or even to help with more mundane things like buying a used car, or refilling the honey jar from the 55-gallon drum of Tupelo kept on Great-Grandmama’s back porch.

So, the realization that Jesus was not only my BFF, but my Uncle, as well, was a wonderful discovery, and one I took instantly to heart. Of course, it may not mean very much to you, if you don’t believe, as I do, that He is the Master Creator Son of the Universe who made not only our world, but the millions of similar worlds that populate our heavens; or if you don’t believe, as I do, that out of all the worlds He made, He chose this one as the site of his materialization experience – from defenseless infant to Divine Teacher – the better to know us and love us as one of us, as well as to show not only us, but all His vast, starlit creation, the Way of Love through His perfected example. But, I do believe all of those things, so for such a God to be, also, my literal Uncle is more than unimaginable, it is a gift far greater than anything I could possibly deserve or even ever have dreamed. God is my Uncle? Not only is He mine, but yours, as well.

And, that, my dear cousin, is news worth sharing.

– February 9, 2014 [Fifth revision, January 31, 2018]

© 2018 George Thomas Wilson, All rights reserved.


[1] I have been utterly unable to track down the source of this quote, though there are thousands of uses of it cited by Google, most of which attribute it as “an old Chinese proverb.” Nevertheless, the sentiment is sound.

[2]  For years I have called Nell Lethcoe’s simple, emphatic statement to me the “most profound theological point I’ve ever heard.” And, as an aside, in all the years following that day, in spite of spending countless hours in countless churches, I had not heard one other person put it quite so well until until Pope Francis appeared and said the same exact thing. It turns out that “friendship with Jesus” is also one of his favorite themes. As recently as 1/4/14, for example, he actually tweeted (tweeted!) “Dear Young People, Jesus wants to be your friend, and wants you to spread the joy of this friendship everywhere.” You have to love it when the Pope quotes your childhood Sunday School teacher!

[3] It’s a long story, but had my Great-grandmother Baker died either one day before or one day after the day she actually passed away, I would not have been shipped off for a week in mid-July of 1957 to Cook Springs Baptist Women’s Missionary Union Camp, and would not – as a seven-year-old! – have found myself, at the end of that week, compelled to sign a 3”x5” commitment card that, of all things, I would continue to be a “missionary for Jesus” for the rest of my life. I may have been too young and too innocent, but in full consultation with my teatime Friend, I made a knowing commitment and I am still striving to live up to it.

[4] Two years later, when I was nine – and still very much in the glow of my innocence – I discovered our preacher was to be transferred (we had become Methodists in a new town by then) and since I found Brother Langford to be the most Christ-like of all the preachers we had ever had, I asked him to confirm and baptize me before he left. It took a special dispensation from the bishop because I was three years too young, but I succeeded in confirming my commitment to my good Friend in the best way I knew how.

[5] When I was only six weeks away from the end of my Junior year, I was suddenly transferred from the tiny (300 students in six grades) rural Florida high school where my mother had been a revered teacher, to an Alabama city school of 2000 people in 3 grades where no one knew me and I had no time at all to learn an entirely new curriculum for finals before spending my final high school summer working in a bread factory as a union trainee. I was utterly miserable and had it not been for the embracing group from the Campus Crusade for Christ led by a wonderful woman named Cook, I’m not sure I would have made it through my senior year intact. But, thanks to my Friend, Jesus, and my angels’ particularly strong and consistent overcare during these days, often demonstrated to me in real, perceptible, ways, I managed to suffer through with only minor scrapes and bruises. I truly do not know how I could have made it through those torturous months without my faith.

[6] The first of these occasions may sound insignificant in the retelling, but it involved several entirely unlikely, nearly impossible, sightings of an out-of-place dragonfly that appeared in response to my prayers for guidance and strength during those painful months, and the message received was, essentially, “Your prayers are heard. Do not worry. Worrying only depletes your energies and accomplishes nothing.” From that moment on, though I did the best I could for her in the weeks that followed, and mourned her passing when she died, my worry ceased and those energies were put to better use. [since the original version of this post in 2014, I have written about the dragonfly experience in detail. The link is here and I encourage you to read it.: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/the-dragonfly/ ]

The second event was an actual, as-God-is-my-witness, cloud-based vision that included a clear-as-a-bell image of my Friend Jesus standing tall with the sun streaming through His flowing hair and beard, His right arm raised in a blessing. Of course, as is the case with all such personal “for your eyes only” touchstones of faith, I cannot prove either of these contacts really happened, but I know, and He knows, that they did.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/11/science/a-prolific-genghis-khan-it-seems-helped-people-the-world.html “As for Genghis himself, Dr. Morgan cited a passage from ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, a Persian historian who wrote a long treatise on the Mongols in 1260. Juvaini said: ”Of the issue of the race and lineage of Chingiz Khan, there are now living in the comfort of wealth and affluence more than 20,000. More than this I will not say . . . lest the readers of this history should accuse the writer of exaggeration and hyperbole and ask how from the loins of one man there could spring in so short a time so great a progeny.”

[9] Article by John Galluzzo printed in the September 20th 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner and reposted on the History News Network website of George Mason University on October 23rd of the same year. Link: http://hnn.us/blog/7360#sthash.DzfuEwh8.dpuf

[12] Or, as A. J. Jacobs put it in his article “Are You My Cousin” in The New York Times on 2/2/2014: “…a mega[family]tree might just make the world a kinder place. I notice that I feel more warmly about people I know are distant cousins. I recently figured out that I’m an 11th cousin four times removed of the TV personality Judge Judy Sheindlin. I’d always found her grating. But when I discovered our connection, I softened. She’s probably a sweetheart underneath the bluster.”

[13] It is incumbent upon me at this point to allow that there are many who dispute whether the brothers and sisters of Jesus were His full brother and sisters, half brothers and sisters, or somehow the children of some other couple. For me, I go with the writer of Matthew, who said “His Brothers” and “His sisters,” without qualification of any sort.

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See It. Know It. Do It.

Given the year we had, it seemed important to turn the page in a memorable way, and I took this photo from the Boom Boom Room at the Standard Hotel just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Cozy and spectacular on a frosty night with Gloria Gaynor waiting in the wings!

Okay, so I realized a few days ago that, as of December 20th, I’m exactly two-thirds of the way to being a hundred years old. Wow. Not that I’m concerned about it. I’ve always said – you can ask any of my longtime friends – that I plan to peak at eighty, coming, as I do, from a line of long-livers (no puns, please), so it never made sense to me to set my trajectory, as so many others apparently do, to begin arcing downward at fifty or sixty. After all, who wants to diminish for decades? And, I’ve always been an advocate of shooting for the moon, which might, at least, get you into orbit.

Of course, I never imagined, in anticipating my future, that Richard and I would be subjected to such a comeuppance as occurred last June, when our beach house burned and took with it so much of my life’s focus and activity.

Here are links to the garden photo tours over the last few years: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2016/06/03/first-flowering-2016/ OR https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/summers-bounty-june-to-september-2016/ OR FOR RECIPES just type “recipe” into the search window upper right on this page.

“Seek beauty, goodness and truth” is the Second Commandment of George, and as most of you already know, if this blog is my stab at sharing whatever grains of truth I’ve been able to fit into my tiny thimble, Cedar House and its grounds had become both my canvas for spreading beauty, as I tended the colorful gardens that have given back so much of the content here, and my laboratory for discovering goodness, as I sought to perfect all the recipes that made up another big fraction of the posts you have read here. Whoosh. Poof. Up in smoke. Gone. And the walls came a tumb-a-ling down.

“Whoa, Nellie!” as Keith Jackson used to say.

It was roar upon roar upon roar as I stood there in a gale force wind with the roiling, storm-tossed surf behind me and the raging fire in front, lapping and snapping and thrusting up pyrotechnics to rival any along Dante’s downward trek, and, fully-consumed in my own way by the otherworldly sight, I knew I was watching a life-changing moment; that there would be grieving to be done; that I could not possibly even begin to get my simply-human mind around such a massive event as the one occurring right before my eyes. “Even if my angels have lived for a million years,” I said to someone nearby, “they have never seen a fire like this.”

As fire consumes our living room it shoots a halo of white hot flame out the chimney in the fierce southeasterly wind.

First it was just the house next door, the middle one of three along Ocean Walk between Cedar and Pine. (Fire Island Pines properties are all arranged along elevated wooden walks; there are neither streets nor cars.) And, while the wind was blowing fiercely off the ocean, it was angled favorably away from our house, so for a few minutes I thought we might have a chance, but a white-hot, fully-consumed, wind-fueled, two-story cedar house just 20 feet away from ours proved impossible to resist, and before much longer, not only our house, but then another and another were taken, until finally four large cedar houses were joined in one great conflagration seen over twenty miles away.

In this shot with the pools covered for winter, you can see just how close the house next door, lower left, was to our house in the center of the photo. Once it was fully aflame, there was no stopping it from latching on to us.

An indelible experience, I can fast-forward it all in my mind and watch as more than one-hundred firepersons arrive in twos and threes over the next hour; hear the rhythm of the news helicopters circling above; relive the kindness of strangers and neighbors and friends in their volunteer fire helmets, as, lit by the golden glow, they hug and cry and offer help; marvel as our 93-year-0ld neighbor Bill spends all night watering the front of his house with a garden hose. It was a three-hour symphony of explosions, crashes, sirens and splashes until finally, traumatized and spent, housemates Daniel, William, Tom and I took refuge at The Madison guest house next to the harbor, where I climbed into a cloud of crisp white sheets, turned on the early-early edition of The CBS Morning News, and there it was again: our house on fire.

I imagine pretty much every one of you of a certain age has had moments when your life was turned upside-down. Sometimes, it’s the death of a loved-one, for others, it might be a natural disaster, a broken marriage, a shattered dream. Well, for Richard and me, on that night, it was a fire.

With my brand new Google Pixel melted in the fire, this is the first photo on my new iPhone (thank you Guy Smith!) taken the day after as Richard worked his phone to find new housing for all our summer housemates and I covered social media as your comments and concerns came pouring in.

There have been other times when my life turned upside down and “recalculating route” was the order of the day. It happened when Mama died too young of cancer in my twenty-forth year. It happened again, twelve years later, when my business partner of five years hanged herself one sunny Tuesday morning. It happened slowly but no less surely as I lost fifty-two friends to AIDS and the entire social network I had anticipated would travel alongside me for life was eviscerated – a Picket’s Charge in ultra-slow motion, and it even happened to our whole country on the morning of 9/11. So I have learned, over time, how to deal. I have also learned that to do so – to truly masticate and digest fully the whole meaning of an upending event – takes time, sometimes even a lifetime. What does it mean? What are the silver linings? How can I carom off this edge to rise to an even better place than before? All of these questions take time to answer.

So, while you might say that I have been silent for so long in this space because so much of  my creative means went up in smoke, the larger part, I can testify, is because it has taken all this time just to get my head around my new coordinates. Looking back, it is no wonder that an acute bout of vertigo – the only one I’ve ever had – came upon me without warning about 10 days after the fire, and then left just as mysteriously as it had appeared after a few days of bed rest and a few pills from the Pines Care Center. I’ve said ever since that it was my angels slowing me down, but truly, given the upended world that I was newly inhabiting, vertigo was surely the logical consequence.

But that was then, and in a flash, it seems, fully six months have flown by and here we are at the beginning of a new year that can only be a great improvement on the last – in so very many ways – so I am very pleased to see it arrive. And further, to finally get going on all my creative work that has lain frustratingly fallow and truly needs doing. It is not lost on me that in devoting so much space to the gardens and recipes in these last few years that I have neglected other writing projects that deserve my attention, and hopefully yours, if one can say that.

First and foremost, of course, is my series of “Gone Too Soon” profiles to reanimate, as best I can, those 52 friends who died of AIDS in the 80s and 90s [For an overview of this series I posted last spring: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/a-word-if-you-will-about-my-gone-too-soon-profiles/]. When the fire struck, I had already done much research on the next few people on the list with the result that there are many family and friends across the country who are looking forward to reading about their loved-ones, and I will be posting them as soon as I am able. That said, having completed the first few, I have learned they take time to do fully, but they are my first priority for this space, and you may anticipate seeing several in the coming weeks that were already well along before the fire intervened.

Photo is of the house reputed to be both the home of John Mark and his parents, as well as the site of the “Upper Room” and last supper between Christ and His apostles.

Secondly, I really need to post the continuation of A Boy’s Tale, my historical-fiction account of the ministry of Christ as witnessed by John Mark, the 14-year-old water-boy of the Apostles. However, since it has been two years since I posted Part I (the first eleven chapters) and many of you may not have seen or read it, I’m going to begin again, and post those first chapters here, a chapter at a time, and then follow on with the remainder of the book as best I can.

In addition to these two priorities, my list is long of creative projects that are either already in process, already completed and never published, or are simply still figments of my imagination.  I also hope to season the larger projects with occasional poems, short essays, and anecdotes, as they appear in the timeline of my life.

But first, as I begin every year, will be my fifth annual posting of the three foundational essays that, taken together, represent my little thimbleful of truths that have congealed, over time, out of my daily prayers: “The Family of God,” “The Flow of God” and “The Love of God”. If you’ve already read them, you are welcome to skip over them since they remain much the same from year to year. If you haven’t, I hope you will. “For Truth is Truth. By God, it is.”

What, alas, you will not be seeing here anytime soon are the Cedar House gardens and recipes. There is appropriate progress in cleaning the lot where the house used to stand, and there are drawings afoot for a new one that will have echoes of the one we lost (but with a few new wrinkles that we hope will make it even more inviting and comfortable than ever) but it will take some time, and while there is still a garden in there somewhere under the ashes, there will be more trauma for the plant life as construction moves forward in the days ahead. I can only pray that the roots of my hostas, hydrangeas, day lilies and roses will hang on till we get to the other side. Whatever happens, their re-emergence once re-ensconced behind a deer fence, will be all the more joyful for their having survived.

This day lily root ball survived the fire as first the deck upon which it stood, and then the pot into which it had been planted were both destroyed around it…

That said, some of you may have seen my Facebook post about the dense day lily root balls that I discovered among the ashes and hoped to resurrect. This proved more than possible, and they, along with the “homeless hydrangeas” spent the summer in ‘temporary housing’ on the deck of the replacement house we rented after the fire so that all our housemates would have a beach home for the rest of the season. Though I added a few things for color, every one of the 25 pots shown in the photos below (from our temporary deck; I couldn’t resist posting just a few 2017 garden photos, even if abridged) has at least

And here, three months later, is that same recovering ball of roots on the deck of our rental house, which mercifully came equipped with a generous stock of enormous terra cotta pots.

one plant rescued from our gardens, and they have all now been transferred again to the yard of a neighbor to safely overwinter behind a deer fence.

The Best of the Summer’s Replacement Deck

As you can see, the homeless hydrangeas (see “A Burning of Stories” previous post) were also, by October, recovering well from their traumatic burning up next to the house.

Though the house we rented came with a great supply of empty, enormous pots to work with, not only all the plants to be rescued, but all the soil, as well, had to come from our yard, about a block away, so I must have made at least 20 wagon trips just for the dirt. (And, of course, once the season was done, it all – plants and dirt – had to be removed.) Nevertheless, the work paid off as the deck was transformed in the doing for the three months we were there.

The deck, as we found it on 6/24/18, and as we left it on 10/9, but it didn’t stay this way for long.

Early summer, a couple of weeks after setting out the plants.

Looking back the other way. I ordered a replacement sun float as soon as we had a new pool to put it in to keep at least a hint of continuity in our lives.

By late June, portulaca and verbena were about the only flowers still available to add a touch of color.

This may just be a lowly coleus, but I marvel at the astonishing artistry contained within its DNA.

Recovering hostas and sedum, with verbena and coleus for color.

Except for the red verbena, these are all recovering plants, including the pink petunia which was an angel gift that grew from seed out of the day lily roots from our garden.

By the end of the summer, it had all grown in pretty well. Just in time for me to remove it all!

And so, for now…

One of the things I love most about Richard is his irrepressible optimism, as these new beach towels he bought the week after the fire, attest.

Earlier, I mentioned my daily prayers, and the three essays that I will be reposting for the fifth year in the coming days, but this is not to suggest that these supplications between my Maker and I have become formulaic. Indeed, as they reflect our living, growing friendship/partnership, they likewise evolve and continually perfect themselves. And, so it is that lately, as I have been confronting, dealing with, and overcoming as best I can the trauma of these last few months, I have found myself, when I ask for God’s help in following the path He has set before me, hearing the words in that still, small voice: “See it. Know it. Do it.”

And, as it has been my experience that those prayerful words/phrases/lines that repeat themselves over and over in my mind are generally the most important ones, I have taken these to heart in the sense that it is time to get on with all these projects; to truly deliver on whatever God-given potential I may have. After all, I only have 13 more years till I get to 80.

Dear friends, I am so very grateful for your time, attention and love, for they are these honors from you that make the doing sweet. “Gifts are love made real,” I say in one of my poems, and, if one can say this without sounding completely pompous, these writings are my gifts to you.

And, what better way to close out 2017 could there be than Gloria Gaynor singing “I will Survive”?

And, so on with it. Please forgive the very long time it has taken me to get this out. For all the five years this blog has run, I have felt it important to err on the side of quality, which is to say that I have resisted posting too many entries out of a concern that I might overtax you, my readers, and also to maintain a level of writing that takes time to do. Well, if I’m to catch up with all I’ve missed in the last few months, I feel like I’m going to have to post considerably more frequently than before, so I hope you don’t get worn out. Again, Thank you all for your patience during these trying months, and for your never-fading support and lovingkindness. With life upturned, your gifts of the spirit have been even more precious than usual.

© 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

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A Burning of Stories, Part I

Flames shoot out in a circle from the top of our chimney as over a hundred volunteer firepeople from both Fire Island and Long Island (brought over on a commandeered ferry) worked through the night to limit the fire to only the four houses that were lost.

Good afternoon, everyone. My apologies for being so long away from this blog, but I have the best excuse ever. Our house burned down. Yes, that house. Cedar House. The one from which so much of this blog has sprung. The one where our gardens grew so lush I could post photo tours here. The one with the best cook’s kitchen ever, where all the recipes appearing here were perfected over 22 years of experience. The one just steps from the sea on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world where we were given the honor of welcoming and hosting hundreds (at least 300) time-sharing housemates around our glass-topped table for a minimum of six weeks each – enough time for us discover and delight in the myriad ways each and every one of them revealed the Glory carried within, as well as the spiritual gifts so frequently contributed to our fellowship by their ever-mindful angels (whether their charges knew it or not). Of course, if you’re my Facebook friend, you already know all this, but for those few of you who only follow this blog, you might not have heard.

Even before we took it over in the winter of ’95-’96, Cedar House had seen twenty years of rich history. Built during the architectural heyday of Fire Island Pines, NY when so many modernist cedar statements arose from the sand that there are even coffee-table books about them (if you’re interested, Google “Horace Gifford”), at first, with stark lines and tiny windows, Cedar House followed the

The original Cedar House, c. 1974

prevailing austere esthetic. But it was bought in 1980 and converted to an early B&B, when both the living and dining areas were built out, a sixth bedroom was carved out of existing living room space, and our beloved 6′-wide stainless steel US Range was added (along with a restaurant’s-worth of professional cookwares – from 24-quart stainless stockpots to wok skimmers – that were such high quality that they were

Cedar House the first day we looked it over. Note that both the near and far sides had been built out in the intervening years, though there were still only the five tiny clerestory windows to light the expanded living room.

still just as good as the day they were bought until the fire consumed them).

It was during those years – the early 80s, before the epidemic that would utterly devastate the whole community took hold – that “Cedar House,” with room for a dozen inspired, eager souls around its great white Formica table (8′ in diameter and so large it was built in place, and required a Saws-all to remove when we arrived in ’95) first gained its reputation as a maelstrom of

I actually posted this photo on Facebook the day before the fire. Not quite the same angle, but you can see additions on the second floor and a vastly expanded roof deck.

gay culture out of which sprang much creativity, most of which has been lost to time, but with two grand exceptions that were born and nurtured there: first, the 1984 Rick James disco hit “Oh, What a Night” (originally published on the “Cedar House Records” label, we had an original 78-rpm pressing of the album in a plain white sleeve (that came with the house)  tucked away for safekeeping in the living room armoire) and, second, an early, all-gay Monopoly knock-off – Gay Monopoly – originally created in 1983 by Fire Island Games, Inc. (Although the Gay Monopoly was completely shut down after the creators were sued by Parker Brothers, it is a sought-after collector’s item today, with the going price for a set in good condition ranging from $250-450 on the Internet. Alas, we had four complete mint-condition sets, now ashes, that also came with the house.)

A photo found online since all of ours were burned.

Of course, as AIDS laid waste to these rich creative energies, Cedar House, too, suffered, and by the time Richard and I came along and took a look in the summer of ’95, it had been on a rental carousel for a decade or so as no continuity was possible when so many were falling so fast in every direction, and was in a sad and sorry state. Nevertheless, even through the neglect, we could see that it had three great things going for it: 1) the location was ideal by every measure, 2) the design was unique and inviting, and 3) it was the best stove we’d ever seen in The Pines.

By Thanksgiving week, the deed was done, and, as it turned out, it was truly a time for Thanksgiving since a new treatment for AIDS was introduced at the same time – the ‘cocktail’ – that fairly instantly converted a positive diagnosis from a death sentence to a difficult-but-manageable condition, so that, by the time we began welcoming our housemates to their new home in May of ’96, much of the scourge that had been dragging us down for so long (we had lost three housemates during the winter of ’93-’94) had lifted.

Much had been accomplished over the winter months to return Cedar House to it’s storied past. The living room had been transformed into a regal, inviting space by removing the bedroom that had been so rudely carved out of its original 24’x 24’x 12′ dimensions, adding seven 5’x2′ picture windows to drench the room in summer’s light, and moving the interior fireplace to an exterior wall. At the other end of the house, we had found enough roof space available where the kitchen had been built out in 1980 to add the two additional second-floor baths required to provide each bedroom with its own W.C. By the time we were done, almost all the cedar paneling on the inside of the house, and the cedar siding on the outside had been replaced and all five bathrooms were made new from the subflooring up with  eight different kinds of marble and granite plus thousands of glass blocks. In addition, a long list of other improvements – all new solid-core interior doors (each one given two coats of stain and three of polyurethane), all new fixtures (lighting and plumbing), all new appliances and all new, stunning furnishings gathered from many disparate sources by both of us throughout the winter months – had been accomplished as we did our best to optimize the house in every way we could. As a couple, we were at our most powerfully creative during those cold months of construction, and when it was done, we had accomplished much of which to be proud.

We have both marveled at how, in the last few weeks before the fire, we were particularly attentive to so many of the little things around the house, and the memories that went with them. Perhaps some metaphysical inkling of the future was at play that inspired us to take it all in with renewed appreciation and gratitude, but whatever it was, they were the stories that went with those little things that made them worth our time.

It has been my unhappy task, for the last few weeks, to compile a list of all the contents of the house, from wash cloths and serving spoons to all our wonderful art and antiques, but even as I was making the list – what it was, where it was bought, how much it cost, etc. – I knew that a greater tragedy would be the loss of the stories that went with the things on that list, the stories that were the heart and soul of Cedar House. But, this is a tragedy I have the power to prevent by telling these tales; by reviving the associations and aromas that each little thing evoked when Richard or I spent a moment or two taking it in, recalling the love that came with it, often the love of those who long ago passed on to higher planes. Yes, the house may have burned, but not the sensibilities, and there are stories to be told, so many stories. Here are the first three..

The Homeless Hydrangeas

Close-up of a few of the blooms on our Homeless Hydrangeas. Note the tiny purple centers!

“Wanna buy these?” asked the bedraggled, clearly homeless man as he came straight for me out of all the dozens of people near us on the sidewalk, and thrust the shoe-box top in my face.

It was a sunny day in early March of ’95 and I was walking down Broadway just short of 106th Street, about a block from our apartment, and once I had recovered from my surprise, I was astonished to find, nestled precariously within the edges of that shoe-box top, four tiny green plastic flowerpots containing four utterly wilted baby hydrangea plants.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

“Twenty dollars,” he “replied.

“What?,” I asked incredulously. “I’m not giving you twenty dollars for those things.” But then, feeling more sorry for the hydrangeas than the man, I continued, “But I’ll give you ten.”

“Sold,” he said, as he handed them over, and my orphan hydrangeas and I went home.

His timing had been excellent, because what he didn’t know was that we were even then doing the rebuild of Cedar House, and that one of the very first things I had done was chart out gardens for one half of the yard and had already anticipated using hydrangeas in several places. And, for the next several months – until I could finally erect a deer fence in June – the little hydrangea plants remained in our sunny Manhattan living room windows, gaining strength for their eventual move to the beach.

Three of the original four plants, en banc along the front of the house, taken last year.

When the time finally came, I placed them against an East-facing wall, where they thrived in the morning sun and the sandy soil, and by the next summer they were ready to bloom and we discovered their wonders: enormous pale pink blossoms (often more than 12″ across) and at the center of each little flowerette, a tiny spot of purple. They are, in short, the most spectacular hydrangeas I have ever seen. More than a few friends and neighbors have asked for offshoots, happily given, and in all the years since, I’ve never seen any others quite like them. For 22 years, they held pride of place along the front of Cedar House, where they welcomed so many astonishing souls to our home with their exuberant beauty,  and I am determined that they shall do so, again, since I have already rescued and replanted them in enormous pots for safekeeping until they can be put back where they belong.

Also, just for the record and to the best of my knowledge, I had never seen that haggard homeless man before that day, nor have I ever seen him since. And you know how I do go on about angel gifts…

The Memorial Mermaid

“George…,” Alex asked in that timid tone that implied he was about to need a favor, “Do you think we could ask my new friend, Tom, to join us for dinner?”

I’m sure I gave him one of my patented looks, but it was rare for him to ask, and he looked so hopeful that I said “yes” as soon as I calculated in my head whether or not there was enough food, and that was how we met Tom.

It must have been about 2003, or so, and I think his last name is now lost to history. I called Alex to ask but he doesn’t remember, either, but we both remember Tom.

For one thing, he was very tall (Alex is very tall, too), but more importantly, he was just a delightful guest to have at our Saturday night table. We were all in our 30s or 40s in those days, and Tom fit seamlessly into the Cedar House dynamic. A farmer from northern Wisconsin (as best we can remember), he was charming and funny and a real breath of fresh air at our table full of jaded New Yorkers.

He told us it was his first trip to Fire Island, a pilgrimage of sorts that he had been hoping to make for a lifetime, and how his week had been everything he wanted it to be, and that topping it off with dinner at Cedar House was icing on the cake.

Now, we have had many wonderful dinner guests at Cedar House, and after 22 years, I’m sure I would be hard pressed to remember a great many of them, but the next day, before he left the island, Tom did something that made him unforgettable. He dropped off a beautiful thank you gift for us that he had just purchased in a local shop: a heavy cast-iron mermaid about 17″ long in a sitting position with a bronze patina. In other words, it was a not-insubstantial gift, and I can say without fear of contradiction that it is still, to this day, the most extravagant thank you we’ve ever received for nothing more than dinner. We were touched and surprised and delighted but by the time we discovered his gift, he had already left the island and was on his way back to the Midwest.

Since Alex was the only one of us with contact information, we asked him to please let Tom know how much we appreciated his generosity, and we assumed that, in the fullness of time, we would hear from him again. But, quite to the contrary,  it was only a few weeks later that Alex told us that Tom had died. He had apparently been afflicted with inoperable stomach cancer that had taken him quickly following his return to Wisconsin. It is Alex’s recollection that Tom was unaware when we met him of just how ill he was, but I have to wonder. Maybe it was just intuition, but it surely seemed to us that Fire Island was on his bucket list, and judging by his gift – our mermaid – that dinner was important to him.

And so, we have thought of Tom many times over the course of the last decade-and-a-half as his gift has been dusted, held, and admired. Her perch was on the corner of the piano from which she could survey all who passed by, until both she and the piano were consumed by the fire.

Nevertheless, the gift shop is still there, and still selling her sisters, so I guess we shall see if another will take her place…

J.W. the Dancing Bear

J.W. Bear in his accustomed chair, facing the ocean.

Our late friend, Father J. W. Canty, who grew up in Chicago, started his college career in the mid-60s at Michigan, then moved to New York as he began to spread his wings, where he completed his first degree at Parsons School of Design, was never really in anybody’s closet, so by the time he graduated and headed off to divinity school for his next academic adventure, his parents were already coming to terms with what might loosely be called his idiosyncracies, which were many. For most gay people in the 60s, coming out wasn’t even an option, although, to be fair, it would have been nearly impossible for J.W. to keep his lifestyle to himself. In many ways, he was “out and proud” long before it was a “thing” and he wore it on his sleeve, so if his family was going to accept him, even in those early days, well, they would just have to accept him the way he was.

And, much to their credit, they did. I will be writing a full profile of J.W. in the coming months as part of my series on those dozens of friends we lost to AIDS, so I won’t go into it all here, but he was ever and always on the cutting edge and it should be no surprise that he discovered Fire Island Pines during it’s very earliest days as an LGBT destination and comfort zone, and soon joined with a friend to rent the house that had originally belonged to Jerry Herman (creator of the Broadway smashes “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame”, among others) as the first of many Fire Island addresses he enjoyed over the next quarter-century.

And, it was in that house, around 1970, when he was joined for their first Fire Island summer by his parents, who had decided to demonstrate their support of their gifted son by taking their own room in the house, and for the next several years they continued to spend their summers with him and his friends at the beach. “Those were the best times of their lives,” J.W.’s sister Trudie told me. “They truly loved The Pines and spending their summers there.”

It was during those early years that another tradition took hold in The Pines, the Fire Island Tea Dance, which was inspired by the afternoon “tea dances” that took hold during prohibition in the 20s in resorts like Atlantic City and the Poconos. Held on the expansive deck of The Blue Whale, a local restaurant and bar, these afternoon gatherings were truly the birthplace of what, today, we call disco as the innovative DJs who headlined these gatherings kept the beat going and growing year after year until Studio 54 took it up and channeled it into the mainstream. And, Gertrude Canty, J.W.’s mother, just loved spending her Saturday afternoons at tea dance more than anything, and, she told me, more often than not she wore her special tea dance outfit that featured a full-length peasant-style skirt in a patchwork print (it was 1970, after all).

Now, fast forward about twenty years, to the early 90s, which is when we first met J.W. through a friend, and for a couple of years he took space with us in the house we were then renting in The Pines for our still-forming group of summertime companions. Unfortunately, in about 1993 his health began to fail, and it was in the spring of 1994 when he died, but not before Richard had become one of his most attentive caregivers, attending to his needs as best he and a few other close friends could. It was telling of his unique contributions in earlier years that when he died, the fabled Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of the New York diocese, who had been one of J.W.’s mentors, officiated at his funeral before his ashes were permanently placed in the Columbarium of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

And, as it turned out, even after he had been laid to rest, there was much to be done for J.W., for he had been something of a hoarder, and his Manhattan apartment was filled to the ceiling with his acquisitions from years of worldwide travel, and once again, it was Richard (and our friend Richard Plumbon) who rose to the occasion and agreed to tackle the clearing of the apartment’s contents with J.W.’s father, a process that took weeks, not hours. (Among the adventures that had generated so many worldly goods, J.W. had served as the on-board chaplain for the QEII for several years as it sailed the globe, had roped Carol Burnett into traveling with him to the U.S.S.R. to introduce Alcoholics Anonymous to that country for the first time (and set up the first Moscow meetings), and spent significant time in the East, including Bali and Chou En-Lai’s China, so his over-stuffed collection was both wide-ranging and daunting for those who took on the task of disposing of it).

And, largely, I believe, as a result of his tireless work over those weeks, Gertrude took a special liking to Richard, and from those days until her death in her 90s, only a few months ago, she would regularly ring us up just to chat, catch up, and, in some small way, at least, keep her son alive by retelling those Fire Island tales and rekindling those memories.

And so it was that, not very long after we moved into Cedar House in the spring of ’96, a package came in the mail from Gertrude, by then living in Michigan near Trudie, and nestled within the box on a bed of tissue paper lay J.W. Bear with a note from Gertrude that said something like this, “Going to tea and dancing the afternoon away at the Blue Whale was one of my all-time favorite pastimes, and my favorite outfit included the peasant skirt from which I made this bear for your new house. His name is J.W., and please place him where he can see the ocean. Sending with gratitude and love, Gertrude”

Naomi, daughter of our friend Amy Zimmerman, and J.W. Bear in the early days. Naomi just turned 21.

And so we did, and perhaps a thousand times over the years when he was inadvertently moved I would replace him to face the ocean from one chair or another. I had even sat him up in one of the blue Betty chairs (another story) the night he burned, but not before he had been hugged, over the years, by many children of every age, and, as Gertrude undoubtedly hoped, introduced on many occasions through the years the colorful stories of his inimitable namesake.

“I have many bears my mother made,” Trudie told me just a couple of days ago, “and I’ll be happy to send you a new one. It won’t be made from her skirt, unfortunately, but if you want one…”

“That would be just wonderful,” I said. And it will. J.W. II is coming soon.

Finally…

Literally hundreds of you have reached out and touched us with your notes, comments, loves, likes, teary faces, prayers, words of sympathy, understanding and support during these last two months since the fire, and there are really no adequate words for expressing just how uplifted, sustained and gob-smacked we have been during these challenging times by your outpouring of love. There is not a single one of you who is not loved and valued from our deepest places, and I’m sure I can speak for Richard, too, when I say that we both thank you all so very, very much. Every gesture of lovingkindness grows exponentially when received in times like these.

© 2017 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in AIDS, Angels, belief, Death, faith, God the Father, Holy Spirit, Love, prayer, Rebirth, religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mama’s Butterscotch Pie

Jane Wilson’s Butterscotch Pie

The main reason I decided to take up cooking for myself  – many years ago – was purely selfish: I wanted to taste again all the wonderful foods that Mama had been so good at producing, and, given that she died in 1973 at 50, it was pretty clear that if I was ever to revisit those flavors, I’d have to figure out how to make them for myself.

There were some things she made that were quite simply the best I ever ate, even to this day. Some were savory casseroles like “Martha’s Company Casserole” or side dishes, like the baked onion recipe I published here a couple of years ago, but the truth is that the things I missed the most were her baked goods; her marvelous desserts. These included her famous pecan pies, a rich super-moist banana bread that was one of my favorite after-school snacks to come home to, a lemon icebox pie that was Daddy’s favorite, and that 1,2,3,4 cake with caramel icing that has now become such a favorite with our beach house guests that it’s practically a staple.

But there was one recipe down deep in the box, still in her handwriting, that I’ve always wanted to try, but just never got around to: Butterscotch Pie. In the scheme of things, it was a johnny-come-lately to our table since it was a recipe she only discovered a few years before she died, but it was an immediate hit, and since I have never, in all the years since, seen another butterscotch pie on any menu anywhere, I decided to give it a go.

Decatur Daily photo of Mama Serving the Decatur, AL, Newcomer’s Club in 1968.

Like many of Mama’s file-card recipes, it omits basic steps that she didn’t need to write down because they would have been automatic for her, so I had to read her mind to know if it was a pie for which the filling needed to be cooked on top of the stove and cooled before pouring into an already baked shell (as opposed to, say, a key-lime pie, also custard based, which I bake to set the eggs). Nevertheless, after puzzling it out and getting a good idea of the best way to proceed, I decided I was ready to go.

But then, upon reading the recipe more carefully, I discovered that, after mixing together a few dry ingredients, it calls for adding 2 1/4 cups of water to the filling. Water! Now, I thought to myself, surely it would be better if you made the custard with milk rather than water. It just seemed wrong, somehow, so I decided to make two pies. One with milk and the other, as Mama had indicated, with water. I tried the milk version first, and, to be sure, it was a delicious treat and Richard really liked it, but I was mindful as I tasted it that the filling was definitely heavier than the one I remembered, although not so much that it would have made much of a difference.

Then, just yesterday, I made the second one, this time with water. And, much to my astonishment, I actually like the second one better. The filling is quicker to melt in your mouth, and the balance between the filling and the whipped cream topping is just right.

So, it would seem, Mama knew best after all. It may feel strange pouring all that water into a pie filling, but trust me, it really works. And, as a happy result, for the first time in at least 44 years, I have finally had another piece of her tasty Butterscotch Pie.

RECIPE

NOTE: This is for a 9-inch pie. For an 8-inch pie, reduce all ingredients by one-third.

Ingredients:

1 Pie Crust, pre-baked and no longer warm. (Place rolled-out piecrust dough in a well buttered pie dish (I use clear Pyrex because you can see the bottom of the crust as it browns), prick liberally with a fork to let steam escape, then cover with a baking parchment sheet trimmed to size and filled with a pound or so of dried beans to weight it down. Bake at 350º for approximately 20 minutes till just turning golden.)

2 1/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar
3 TBS. corn starch
4 1/2 TBS. all-purpose flour
3/8 tsp. salt
2 1/4 cups hot tap water
3 egg yolks
1 1/2 TBS. butter
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla plus a few drops for whipped cream topping
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
2 TBS. sugar

Directions:

In a large mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, corn starch, flour and salt and stir well with a wire whisk until uniform in color.

Place dry ingredient mixture in 3 quart heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in hot water (NOTE: hot water from the tap is just right. Boiling water would be too hot and the egg yolks would curdle, but if you use just regular hot water from the tap, you should avoid any danger) until the mixture is smooth, then stir in the three egg yolks and continue stirring constantly for several minutes until the mixture is thickened. Remove from stove and immediately stir in butter and vanilla.

Optional: As it cooled, I returned to the mixture several times to whip it vigorously with the wire whisk to blend in air and make the resulting filling just that much lighter, but I’m not sure it made all that much difference. Nevertheless, I will do it that way again next time because it did help a bit, I think.

Once cooled, pour filling into the prepared pie shell and place in refrigerator to cool while making the topping

Place whipping cream in bowl of electric mixer and using wire whisk attachment, whip up the cream to desired consistency (thick enough for peaks to form), adding the sugar and a few drops of vanilla as soon as it begins to foam.

Remove pie from refrigerator and top with whipped cream topping. Return to refrigerator until ready to serve.

Enjoy!

© 2017 George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

Posted in Angels, caramel frosting, cooking, desserts, Love, recipes, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment