Who never to himself hath said,
'This is my own, my native land!'
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand? ...
Sir Walter Scott
I don’t get up to Tennessee much anymore. I love the land and I love the people, but ever since we shoveled six feet of our land over our people, there just hasn’t been much reason to visit. Sure, every Spring I get the uncontrollable urge to go back to Tennessee and spawn, but this year there was a family reunion. It was up in Red Boiling Springs.
Red Boiling Springs enjoyed immense popularity as a resort town in the early 20th century. People would come from far and wide to enjoy the healing powers of the mineral waters. It was *the* place to go back in the day. Want to cure dyspepsia *and* catch a minstrel show? Red Boiling Springs is the place! Mammy!
Oi! What a drive.
After six hours on the road, I was tired. I was hungry. I wanted a drink. And I had a few pictures on my Flash Drive to print out before the reunion so my cousins would praise me for my foresight and family spirit. Rah-rah-rah.
I guess I should have known that this place was a little out of sync with the rest of the world when we finally got to the town and couldn’t find Main Street. In fact, from all the evidence I could find, only three things had ever happened in Red Boiling Springs since it was founded in the late 1700s: There was a Confederate Hospital during the Civil War; Woodrow Wilson Slept there; and there was a big flood in 1969. “Water was shoulder high if it was a foot! And I don’t mean maybe!”
After taking two wrong roads in our search for Main Street, I asked directions at an antiques store. I don’t know if it was originally an antiques store or if they’ve just had a little trouble moving merchandise for the past hundred years or so, but either way, they gave me directions to the hotel. (Go to the caution light and turn left. Red Boiling Springs doesn’t have a real traffic light. Apparently a caution light is all that is really necessary to ease congestion on this major artery into town.)
My plan was this: to reach this “resort” – the Donoho Hotel – check in, hit the business office, print my stuff, ditch my traveling companions and hit the bar. Then I’d go to the room, kick off my shoes, watch something on cable and see if I couldn’t find a mini bar. That’s what I always do on business trips. It hasn’t failed me yet. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
The Donoho Hotel has been a fixture in Red Boiling Springs since 1914. And I hear it was even renovated once. Shoot, yeah, it’s been renovated! It’s been brought into the 20th century. Unfortunately, the rest of us have moved on to the 21st.
So, I pulled the PT Cruiser up in front of the Donoho. I’d seen photos. I was expecting the Grand Hotel from “Somewhere In Time.” What I got was the Shady Rest from “Petticoat Junction.” Or possibly that hotel from “The Shining.”
I slowly walked across the lawn and up the steps onto the veranda, going back in time nearly a decade with every step. There on the veranda was a little woman in a rocking chair who resembled a pot-bellied pig . Or, from the way she was smoking, perhaps she more resembled a pot-bellied stove. Whatever. Just imagine, “There’s Uncle Joe, he’s a-movin’ kind of slow …” She was the desk clerk.
So we checked in.
“I’m going to give you 12 and 14” Pot-Bellied Betty said. Fine by me. Off to find the rooms!
The rooms fronted on the veranda, which must have been very high-class at one time. You could just open your door and spit your tobacco right off the porch. In fact, I saw one of the employees do just that.
“12 and 14. 12 and 14. Here’s 12.” I had reserved two rooms with two beds each. Number 12 had one double bed. “Uh-oh!” There were four of us and one was a 16-year-old girl. That just wouldn’t do. We’re Southern, but we are not barbarians! This is *not* Alabama.
There was one last hope. Let’s look at 14.
One bed in 14.
“Stay calm,” says I “I’ll go ask PBB if we can get at least one room with two beds.” Ah! But first wouldn’t it be a grand idea to make sure the key to 14 works?
So, key in hand, I pull the door to and try to lock it. No soap. Let’s pull up and twist. Nope. Let’s fiddle with the dead bolt, pushing pulling and twisting all at once. Nope. Let me pull *really* hard and see if I can't get it to catch. I couldn’t get the lock to catch, but the doorknob did come off in my hand.
O.K. I get it! I’ve driven all day and now I’m in “Green Acres.” Now that I know what I’m dealing with, I can work with it.
I walked around the veranda to find PBB having a smoke in her rocking chair. “’Jee have any trubble wi’ yer roooms?” She said. (I’m not being mean … that’s what they sound like up there. That’s what I sounded like, too, until I was in high school. I’m not judging, just adding a bit of verisimilitude.)
I handed her the doorknob.
Now you’ll have to follow closely. This is like the three card monty.
“I’ve got one with two beds. I don’t know if the lock works.” Forget the lock. A doorknob is a plus.
She walks me down to the other end of the veranda and shows me room 4. Two beds. Great. Let’s make this happen.
We go back to the lobby. She scrabbles through a desk drawer for a key …
(Maybe it’s just me, but aren’t they supposed to have a bunch of pigeon holes for keys and if someone wants, say … room 4 … the clerk grabs a key from the proper hole, rings a bell, says, “Front!” and a boy in an organ grinder monkey’s outfit appears to take you to your room? That’s what *I* thought stepping into the past would be.)
… “This is it. Wait right here, I’ll go check it out.”
Pot-Bellied Betty disappeared with the key leaving me alone in the lobby. Hmmm-hmmm-hmmm. I ring the bell, but I don’t yell, “Front!” It sounds like a cowbell. Hmmm-hmmm-hmmm.
She comes back. The key works! Hosannah!
I drag the niece and nephew down to the rooms. Room 4? Yep, it’s room 4. Why doesn’t the key work? I look at the key. A yellow Post-It Note is Scotch-taped to the key and it says 3. Ahh! … of course. She showed me 4, but she put me in 3. No problem.
Number 3 (all the rooms had their doors open to the veranda to begin with) only had one bed. And the key didn’t work. Back to Pot-Belly’s rocking chair.
“Oh! No! You’re in *this* room! Three is already taken.”
So she had shown me 4, given me a key marked 3, and the real room that the key unlocked? Wait for it ... Five! Who wouldn’t be tickled by such genuine, down-home, country ineptitude? But the kicker is, when we were making all our key exchanges, and told her we originally had 12 and 14, she says, “14?! Oh! I meant to give you 13!” And that’s the room my father got.
You know, most hotels don’t have a 13th room or a 13th floor. It’s unlucky, they say. From what I had seen of the ol’ Donoho so far , it didn’t make much difference.
“Dinner will be served promptly at six o’clock in the dining hall,” said Pot-Belly as our heads turned as one to the ancient grandfather clock in the lobby, watching its arthritic big hand slowly inch its way across the eight, patiently marking the twenty minutes until supper.
Well … It was actually more like, “Y’all come back at seex for supper, now. It’s in the dining room right back yonder.” But the old hotel took on a whole different mien after dark. Everything seemed just a little more … theatrical.
We went to our rooms to freshen up, then met back in the lobby to wait for supper.
The kids and I had a look around.
In the hall was a display of photos of the damage sustained by the town in the Flood of ’69. One photo depicted a lady pointing at the wall outside her business. “The water came up to here,” the poignant expression engraved on her cheerless face seemed to cry out. “The water came up to here,” the caption read.
There were a half-dozen other photos of people pointing at walls and wearing the same poignant expression on their own cheerless faces. It seems people in Red Boiling Springs had been poignant and cheerless ever since Woodrow Wilson left office.
Farther down the hall was was a display of ephemera from the Donoho’s long history. A straight razor, newspapers from the 1920s, cloche hats, fedoras and the like. I guess it was a display of ephemera. Maybe it was the counter you go to to buy your incidentals. I don’t know.
I looked closely at all the photos thinking that, after dinner, I might somehow go back in time like Christopher Reeve and meet a flapper who looked like Jane Seymore. Or that I might at least meet Pot-Bellied Betty before the flood (of ’69) and see if she put out. Yowza! Now, there’s a pig I want to slap some lipstick on!
There was an inviting parlor beckoning us to enjoy its warm, Victorian elegance. Shelves and shelves of ancient tomes lined the walls. Every great work of literature – prior to 1920 – smiled down at me as I sat contented in a cozy, overstuffed wing-back chair.
A piano stood against one wall of the parlor and a Victrola sat in the corner opposite, beseeching me to play music not heard by the ear of man for a hundred years or more. It was all I could do not to give it a crank and see what enchanting euphony from the past might embrace me.
I might have smoked a cigar.
My niece sat at the antiquated piano in the room, not unlike an exquisite porcelain doll sitting at the antiquated piano in the room, and began to play Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”:
“DAH-dah-dah-dah-DAH … dah-dah-dah-DAH … DAH-dah-dah-dah-DAH(minor)-DAH-dah-dah-DAH …”
Ah! I reveled in it like Salieri reveled in Mozart before he slit his own throat!
My heart rose in my chest. As I brushed away an uninvited tear, I realized that this little girl – my sister’s child whom I had held and cherished as an infant, given succor as a toddler when she cried over every abrasion, and whose delicate hand I had held on numerous tender occasions – was playing “Heart and Soul” on an out-of-tune piano and the dust was about to make me sneeze.
So we went back to stand by the crackling fire in the lobby and wait for dinner.
One by one the other guests joined us at our vigil.
There were a few distant cousins just arrived from various exotic locales around the Southeast, and there were a few random guests who weren’t related to me at all. I hope.
There was an uneasy silence as we all stood waiting to be called to dinner. Some warmed their hands by the fire. Some relaxed on the divan. Some stood uncomfortably upright, hands clasped tightly behind their backs at the edge of the firelight avoiding eye contact with their companions, obviously hiding some dreadful secret.
The fire crackled and spit.
“Someone in this room is a murderer!” I said.
No I didn’t. But, there could have been. Stranger things have happened.
About that time, the dinner bell rang …
Dong-dong … dong-dong …
We all meandered to the dining room like cows to the slaughter.
Family style they call it. That’s where you sit at a big table with folks you don’t know, pretend you like them, and someone brings you Southern food from someone back in the kitchen you pretend is Grandma, but it’s not quite like the Southern food Grandma cooked.
So, out it comes! Fried poke chops … mashed taters … green beans … collards … mac and cheese (a favorite Southern vegetable) … curious pepper steaks … beeskits … dinner rolls ... sweet tea. Mmm-Mmm!
Loved those poke chops! But, they could have given us sharper knives. A whole table full of people trying to saw their way through the Other White Meat with butter knives … it looked like something out of a Japanese game show. And the pepper steak! Flat, tasteless, shingles of meat somewhere between meatloaf and whitleather. Remember those … they come back again in Part III.
We enjoyed our meal in the company of our brand new old cousins. Then we all repaired to our rooms to await the impending Family Reunion.
If we had only known …
(Yeah, I thought I’d end with a cliffhanger.)
Sunday morning, the kids and I were up at cockcrow.
And, after our morning ablutions … morning ablutions … morning ablutions … “Did anybody bring shampoo?” … “I forgot!” … “Shaving cream! I forgot shaving cream!” … “I forgot my razor!” … “Does anybody have floss?” … “I forgot!”
A brief trip to the Chevron station back at the caution light “downtown” was in order. I put the kids in the PT Cruiser and off we went. We missed it, naturally, and had to turn around and come back. A police car followed us into the Chevron parking lot.
“Cheese it! The cops!” I cried.
“What, Unca Bobby?” asked the kids.
“Quit texting your friends and read a freaking book!” I said. “Haven't you ever seen the Bowery Boys? Watch a movie in black and white for a change!” Actually, they’re both avid readers and they’re good kids.
So, I went in the Food Mart at the Chevron and Barney Fife followed me in.
“Mornin’, Jim!” the cashier shouted, real friendly-like.
I looked around, bewildered, because I’m not Jim, I’m Bob. I’ve got a driver’s license to prove it.
Turns out, Jim was the local constabulary’s name and he had just stopped by to show off his accent and buy a couple of lottery tickets.
So, I purchased my toiletries and we headed back to the Donoho.
After our morning ablutions, we strolled back to the dining room for breakfast.
Scrambled eggs, a big ol’ platter of bacon, biscuits and red-eye gravy. And some curious little sausage patties. They were flat, tasteless, circles of meat somewhere between meatloaf and whitleather. I know there was someone in the kitchen with a cookie cutter and last night’s pepper steak making the sausages. One pepper steak, then *Wham! Wham! Wham!* You’ve got breakfast sausage *and* a new gasket for your tractor. These are a resourceful people.
We hurriedly poked our breakfast down our greedy gullets and washed it down with a gulp of hot coffee. Family members were due to begin arriving at any moment.
My great-grandmother squeezed out 13 children between 1889 and 1917. She was a regular Play-Doh Fun Factory! Of the thirteen, two died as children and a couple more died in the ’20s of tuberculosis.
The Great Grandparents and the siblings at the family reunion about 1938: First Row (l-r) - Sam, Reba, Tommy, Orion, Carmack (Grandpa); Second Row: Mary D.; Lucy; Thad; Fred Gordon; Mama Key; Daddy Key
Of the ones who lived to reproduce, there were: Sam (1889-1971); Thad (1893-1979); Sadie (1895-1922); Lucy, somehow Lucy’s clan was overlooked when the invitations went out (1897-1990); Carmack, my Grandpa, (1908-1995); Orion (1911-1997); Fred Gordon the only one of the 13 siblings still living, (b. 1915); Tommy (1917-2005).
Aunt Reba (1901-1987) deserves Honorable Mention. She didn’t have children of her own, but she raised three generations of the rest of us.
On with our story …
They came in ones and twos – maybe threes, I don’t know – from all of your more important Southern states and a few even drove in from Indiana.
From all around the Donoho property, I heard calls of, “Haay! How oar yeew?!” and the lilting response, “Fiiiine!” as families long separated bonded again like carbon and hydrogen to form methane. We are a gassy bunch.
Jean (Sam's clan) salutes me for my youthful enthusiasm and vigor.
I tried to brace the kids for what they were about to witness when someone appeared by my side out of nowhere and addressed me. “Haay! How oar yeew?!”
Trumpet in a herd of elephants; crow in the company of cocks; bleat in a flock of goats. “Fiiiine!” I said. This seemed to satisfy her and she continued her turn-greet-repeat arabesque with the newcomers.
I turned to explain to the kids who she was and that, it’s O.K., everybody talks that way up here, when I found myself face to face with Jerry (Sam’s clan).
I almost didn’t recognize him at first. I only see Jerry at funerals, and on those melancholy occasions, he always wears the same navy blue leisure suit. Every funeral I’ve attended since 1986, Jerry has been front and center in that navy blue leisure suit. I guess he dressed down for us this time, since he wore a work shirt and hat.
Somehow, we made eye contact and that was all it took for him to launch into a lengthy monologue of our family and its origins. Jerry might look and sound like Joe Everyfarmer, but he has an engineering degree from Tennessee Tech and a great memory. He knows his stuff. Unfortunately, he has absolutely no social skills and my “please, please, please get away from me” facial cues went unnoticed.
As he droned on and on about our forbears, I couldn’t help but notice that since the last time I saw him three years ago, he had apparently had some sort of surgical procedure, as a gusset had been cut out of the side of his face – taking part of an ear with it – and replaced with skin of a different hue. A graft from his leg? I wondered. If I had seen leg hair growing from his face, that would have been it for me.
[Note to self: I might have found a way to finally grow sideburns.]
I kept nodding as I half listened, my eyes straying from the half ear, down the new skin on his jaw and coming to rest on a sizable goiter. I’m sure by that time my facial cues were going like flashing lights at a railroad crossing, because my nephew Jake swooped in and rescued me. Jerry immediately attached himself to another cousin and picked up where he had left off.
I tried to explain to Jake who he was. All that came out was, “Hamanahamanahamana …”
I shook it off and brought the kids around to introduce them to people:
Rutledge (Sadie’s clan). 92 years old and still getting around pretty well. Must have been that new hip he got in the ’70s. I shook Rutledge’s hand and exchanged pleasantries. This might have been the first time I’d ever spoken to him. Every time I’d seen Rutledge, I’d been with Grandpa. You didn’t get a chance to talk when you were with Grandpa.
Frances (Sam’s clan). Frances is 88. She had a baby when she was 16. That was in 1936, but there were still whispers. If you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.
Elizabeth (Orion’s wife). 88 years old and, along with Fred Gordon, the only surviving member of that generation. She lives in my hometown, so I’ve known her since I was a kid. She used to work at the Carthage Chamber of Commerce, and, since I went where I wanted, when I wanted in Carthage, I remember stopping in the Chamber when I was a young fellow and having her give me cookies and lemonade.
Richard (Orion’s clan). Richard was there. On crutches, of course. When Richard was little, he ran out on Main Street in Carthage and was hit by a truck. His leg has never been right since. Let that be a warning to you young folks.
Mildred (Frances’s sister). Nice lady. 86 years old. She had a stroke last year and her speech just isn’t quite what it once was. But she was a trouper. Everyone knew what she was saying.
Larry (Tommy’s clan). Larry is a dentist in Lafayette. When my grandmother died, Larry and his family came to visit my grandfather after the funeral. Grandpa gave a synopsis of his life with names and dates. Larry’s wife said, “You remember the day you were born, you remember the day you were married, tell me this … do you remember the day you were saved?” I held my breath. Grandpa said, “FROM WHAT?”
Larry’s daughter, Michelle. She was born the same day I was, so when we were very small, they used to always trot us out together like some circus sideshow. When we were a little older, I remember running around Reba's farm with her trying to kill a chicken with a dime-store tomahawk.
And, of course, Fred Gordon. 93 years old and the only one of the 13 siblings still living. He may have been the hit of the whole party. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite so happy.
Fred Gordon; Frances; Mildred; Rutledge
And dozens of others. I’d name names, but they wouldn’t mean anything to you.
One of the kids sidled up to me and said, “Everybody’s talking about Reba. Reba’s house ... Reba’s food!” That’s because there were about a hundred people in one room who all missed their Aunt Reba.
We gathered in the Donoho’s free-standing auditorium-type building and enjoyed a catered meal. I sat by cousins I’d never met and shared a nice, anticlimactic afternoon.
Then everyone went their separate ways and I guess I’ll see them at the next funeral. Which, realistically, can’t be too far in the future.
Since that ending really isn’t exciting and there really isn’t any real payoff for my readers, I’ll add my own ending. This is the way it should have gone down:
As we were eating, Pot-Bellied Betty slipped in the back door. With a nod to her tobacco-chewing colleague, Chaw-Chaw Charlie, they chained the doors and dimmed the lights in violation of every fire code in the state.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Someone coughed. Jerry droned on in the background … something about our ancestors from France. I think a lady screamed.
A spotlight split the darkness and shone on the stage in the back of the room.
A slight little woman with a snow-white coiffure that looked as if it had just been styled by a woman on Jefferson Street in Carthage over the latest 1980s gossip stepped up to the outsized, vintage microphone.
Silence grabbed the room by the throat. Even Jerry was struck dumb.
What? I don’t … by Jingo … that’s Reba!
“Cough-cough!” somebody said. “Shut up!” I said, “That’s Reba!”
She began to sing:
“There’s a garden, what a garden
Only happy faces bloom there
And there’s never any room there
For a worry or a gloom there.”
… There was scattered applause. Reba began to strut like a Ziegfeld girl, but with more panache. …
“Oh there’s music, and there’s dancing,
And a lot of sweet romancing,
When they play the polka
They all get in the swing.”
… Reba was lifted on a pedestal which rose from the stage. The stage lights came up and the set grew to a size that would have done Busby Berkeley proud. From stage right of the Donoho’s meager theater, the rest of the thirteen siblings came out clad in white tuxedos and evening gowns, walked gracefully down a wide, stately, white staircase and raised their voice in song. …
“Every time they hear that oom-pah-pah
Everybody feels so tra-la-la
They want to throw their cares away
They all go lah-de-ah-de-ay.”
… There was Sam and Mary D. and Thad and Sadie and Lucy and Albertine and Cordell and Fannie and Carmack and Orion and Tommy. Fred rose out of his wheelchair, grabbed Aunt Elizabeth by the hand and they jumped onstage and joined the chorus line. …
“Then they hear a rumble on the floor
It’s the big surprise they’re waiting for
And all the couples form a ring
For miles around you hear them sing …”
… Then, their beloved spouses came down another staircase stage left, joining the siblings. They all lay on their backs on the floor in a big circle and we saw them as one would see the June Taylor dancers. They all picked up the chorus as they moved their ancient limbs in suggestive ways …
“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun
Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run
Zing, boom, ta-rarrel, sing out a song of good cheer
Now’s the time to roll the barrel, for the gang’s all here!”
They all took a bow to thunderous applause and a dozen maidens, some who looked like Mary Pickford and some who looked like Clara Bow, threw forget-me-nots from dainty baskets.
Then Louise Brooks nudged me with her elbow, we took a to-go plate and drove off in the PT Cruiser to the envy of all. We drove to the ’20s and lived happily ever after, eating Southern food every night until the flood of ’69 ruined everything. (But, that's a whole different blog. )
And I called it “The Aristocrats.”