Sitting in my dining room this morning, the unmistakable voice of Maria Callas, filled a corner of the room, and Carlos immediately raised the volume.
And a mental picture of a time of my youth flashed into my consciousness. —- Backstage, in a dressing room of the old Atlanta Municipal Auditorium building. —-
I was nineteen, and had been away from the stifling, southern small town, population 2,000, for only a month. Oxford College had thrown me into a like minded group of culture hungry students, and Eddie and I had purchased season tickets for the Atlanta All Star Series.
It was October and Callas was to appear in concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. And on that special night, I was there, and afterward, with pen in hand seeking the autograph. In truth, at nineteen, and from Adel, Georgia, I knew nothing more about the Great Callas, except that she was an opera singer, and was famous for outbursts, affairs, scandal, and high art.
Backstage — a photographer from a chair behind aims his camera, and she wags her finger at him ” . . . the nose ! ” she says – there’s a French maid, uniformed in grey and white, a doily like diminutive apron and a small head piece of the same lacy material – a small grey poodle is also in the dressing room – and as she multi-tasks, talking, smiling, and autographing concert programs . . . my pen runs dry as she gets halfway through her second name, “Meneghini”, and I grab the ball point of my friend, who is standing behind me in line.
So, for years I had a collector’s item in the form of a Callas autograph, signed in two different pens.
The aria ended, and I shifted in my chair, jarred back to the reality of the day, in the breakfast room at Casa Mexilio, filled with a nostalgia for lost friends, old times, and the nascent awakenings of an artistic life.
Almost everyone meets Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings in a 101 appreciation class, but the first time the opposite colors on the color wheel really impacted me was while traveling in Switzerland in the early 60s. I had actually seen some of the originals, because I had lived a few years before within cycling distance from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and once had happened upon a ‘show’ in London.
But today – Walking through a sunlit dining room in a hotel overlooking Lago Maggiore, a combination of color, light and juxtaposition stopped me in my tracks.
The rustic stuccoed room was painted white, that shocking blue-tinged white that almost hurts your eyes, and there on a ledge was a blue and white hand-painted vase full of sunflowers. It took my breath away, and I hated for the moment to pass — but, in reality, it has not passed, for I remember it often and I fill my life with elements of that same scene.
These photos are from the breakfast service at Hotel Casa Mexilio, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
Living in the same room where I lived as an adolescent and high school boy, the same view, the same grass to mow, should have thrilled me and pushed me toward integrating into this community again. Truth is: I grew up and found a more accepting and diverse world, away from this bigoted and racist backwater.
The view is the same, and even though the laws have changed, the hearts and minds of the people have stayed the same, especially people of my age, the ones who grew up, lived, and were the products of the segregated society.
I never knew a black person on a personal or intimate level until many years after my escape. I was the product of the segregated school system, the Methodist Church, and a Southern Gothic social network, but with me, the racism of my village “didn’t take”. Who knows why? Perhaps because I was lucky enough to have escaped this view the summer I was nineteen and never returned until I was fifty.
It is here that the “city fathers” bulldozed down the sites of some of my fondest memories – the Adel swimming pool, where we spent the summers splashing and doing the shag to a jukebox selection in the adjoining social hall. After the Civil Right’s Act became law, the big machinery saw to it that the town’s Black citizens never enjoyed the municipal swimming pool.
The same went for the only Picture Show. They tore that down, too.
After this year’s Christmas and New Year’s tourist season at Casa Mexilio, we took a different direction, deciding to close the hotel to guests for a few months, and to use this approaching Spring to do, to see, and to accomplish some items on ‘the bucket list’. During the month of February we have prepared: to see the daffodils bloom at the mountain cabin the first week in March, and to drive through Virginia’s southern Appalachian foothills, to join a march in Washington later that month, and to visit Monet’s Garden in Giverny, again, at the end of May.
The southern United States can be beautiful, but it is fouled by Republicans and religious bigots, and is mainly populated by racists and homophobes.
Macon County, NC, has a unique racial makeup for a place in the ‘deep south’. And I suspect that, apart from the physical beauty of the mountains, it is one of the reasons my parents migrated there. The other being, mother’s maiden name is Jones, so she bought a place on Jones Creek Road, beside Jones Creek. And the other side of her family were Scottish immigrants from the Isle of Skye who came to the valley in the early 1800s.
Located a half mile from my home and dating from the 1880s. Beautiful, any time of year, it now serves as a community center for the valley people. I once asked if I could buy a cemetery lot, only to be told that “We’re gettin’ sort of crowded.”
As I leave the city limits of Asheville, on my drive through conservative North Carolina and Virginia, passing through the counties which Romney won, I’ll fold my rainbow flag until I reach the steps of the Supreme Court Building.
It was the truth when I said to one of my professors; that I was still stuck on “Russian Romanticism”. That was in my freshman year at Oxford College.
I had attended two extraordinary performances that Fall — a solo recital by Artur Rubenstein, at which I sat on the stage within 10 feet of the master, and a solo recital by Maria Callas with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — and now was well on my way to an unusually high level of music appreciation. It was 1959.
The Russians, and I refer to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, didn’t last into the sophomore year. When I fell for J.S. Bach, I fell hard. The love affair continues to this day, but in those early years, he caused me to leave vacant niches in my musical education. I ignored most other composers. After all, I was an organist, an activity which paid my way through college by working as a church musician on Sundays. But the greatest God was Bach.
By the time I discovered César Franck, I had studied in Harlem, Holland, taught music to school kids in The Hague, lived in New York City represented by my own agent, and to have sat on the organ bench of at least fifty or sixty churches around the world, for pay. So, at the age of 45, Cesar Franck became my new master. Who knows why his lyrical chromaticism grabbed me at such an advanced age. The Trois Chorals still pull me strongly toward God. And it was before Franck’s tomb in the Montparnasse Cemetery, that I made the pact with myself which endures today.
. . . but while dealing with local hometown officials, elected and unelected, I find errors, mistakes, a society dependent on “the Good Lord” , rather than their own reason, science and human intellect.
My hometown in South Georgia has a communal Sarah Palenesque mindset, with some of my nearest neighbors actually home schooling their children and denying global warming, even though the azaleas were early, basically skipping Spring and throwing the land from Winter to Summer, and the bugs have eaten up our lawn and the trees are dying from the invading species, and the fire ants are marching north, and they don’t believe in evolution . . .
In the lower left side of the Google street map appears a small sub-division built by my father in the 1940s and named for our family. It has only three streets, named for his three children, but through the years some idiot secretary or ” good ole’ boy” has taken it upon himself to rename the three streets — all, incorrectly. The populace is mainly Republican. They don’t own passports and they don’t want them.
The local high school devotes most of its budget and enthusiasm to sports.
Who needs science or language arts, when we have Cornerstone Church ?
Monet planted them along the walkway at his house in Giverny. Here they are running riot in the main garden.
Monet’s relation with nasturtium begins in the year 1872, during the first ‘’Impressionists exhibition’’ in Nadar’s work-shop, situated ‘’boulevard… des Capucines’’ (Nasturtium’s boulevard) ! This orange corolla standing out against a light green foliage has then become one of the artist’s preferred flowers, who offered it a predominant situation in the central lane of the ‘’Clos Normand’’. In his book « Giverny along the seasons », Vivian Russell supposes he so wanted to cover the gravely surface which was flouting at him when he had lunch at the veranda.… For this author: « circular leaves of nasturtiumwere echoing, in advance, tonympheas’ ones. ». Some witnesses also related that the painter was making bamboo stakes in order to grow ‘’climbers Nasturtium’’ in the whole garden.
And here, the last of the September garden at Jones Creek. My mother has planted nasturtiums at every home and in every garden she has ever owned.
These crutches have been part of my Christmas decorations every December for the past two decades. These are not the original muletas. The first ones were also handmade and with a patina hard to recreate, and they obviously were made with care, love and the experience of an expert joiner.
But I had to leave them abandoned in the street.
The first pair I purchased were found in “An Olde Curiosity Shoppe” (A.K.A Muebles Usados) on 65th Street. For me, they provided the maximum icon or symbol for the holiday season. I left them standing in strategic corners of the hotel for guests to find. With the brief iconic message of Tiny Tim attached.
To date, almost twenty years later, not a single person has commented on the crutches.
The original pair which I left on the sidewalk, came with a curse. Because shortly after bringing them into the building, I started to complain about my legs. The leg pain increased as their usefulness diminished that Christmas Season.
A person, after observing my distress, commented that perhaps something evil had entered the house with the crutches. Another person, a mystic and weird relative of Jorge, who sometimes practiced voodoo, told me that the old crutches were affecting my legs and that I should get rid of them immediately.
They were taken to the nearest street corner and left against a post where they disappeared.
But — the next Christmas, on cue, I found another pair of child’s hand-made crutches in the very same curiosity shop — and I brought them home. They are not as well made or lovingly made as the first ones, but they represent for me, my childhood and the Dicken’s story, which was part of my elementary education.
Happy with the anticipation of being there within the week, and packing the hooded jacket and flannel nightwear, I move toward the first, cold test of my stamina, to the remote cabin which is to be my ‘retirement home’. The weather report shows rain and snow flurries even tonight. I hope reconnecting the pipes to the spring head will not be too difficult.
At last year’s Cartoogechaye Community Club meeting which Mom and I held at the Old Watt’s Cabin, a surprise guest appeared. The oldest daughter of ol’ Joe Watts was visiting from her home in Oregon, and when I asked her if she remembers being cold, here, as a child, she answered, “I don’t remember that part of it”. Well, the life of a child, one of seven, growing up in a wilderness, mountain valley, in a cabin with only three rooms and two fireplaces would have made an impression on me. She chose not to remember the hardships of that life.
And when she could, she married and escaped to Oregon, because “that’s where the jobs were”.
These chilies grow in front of a house on the street where I was born. It’s an ethnic neighborhood now – thrown away, unkempt and sad. With little pride in the old buildings or the street, this scene is only two blocks from the town center. It’s not the immigrants’ fault. This town is not proud of itself.
A southern racist farm town whose “city fathers” bulldozed down the City Swimming Pool and dance pavilion, and the town’s only movie theater, in the 60s, to keep the blacks out. I mentioned the Civil Rights Act recently in a gathering of blue bloods, just in passing – and heads turned and the room hushed. My home town is still shabby, unlovely, and filled with religion based bigotry.