Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Massengill Side

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Mamaw and Papaw and why I’m glad I knew them…

Mamaw and Papaw were Dad’s parents, and the only members of his family who stayed in Knoxville.  All Dad’s brothers and sisters lived out of state, following job opportunities, or husbands’ job opportunities, to places like California, Florida and Massachusetts.  Aunt Alberta was the closest of Dad’s siblings geographically, living near Atlanta.  She was also the furthest from him chronologically, being the oldest, with Dad the baby of the family.

Frank Britton Massengill married Mattie Gertrude Dunn in 1918 and they spent their lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, raising their 6 children.  They lived to see their 70th wedding anniversary a few months before Papaw was diagnosed with liver cancer and died at age 89.  As I remember them, and as anyone who knew them would attest, Mamaw was a tough little birdlike woman who could shoot the crack of a gnat’s ass (sorry for the language!) at 100 paces and work circles around women half her age well into her senior years.  When Reed and I were kids, Dad would generally go and visit with them on Sunday nights and have supper.  Sometimes Mama and Reed and I all went with him, sometimes just us kids, and sometimes only one of us would go.  Without fail, after supper was eaten and the grownups had retired to the living room for coffee and conversation, Mamaw would get down “the dishes” from the hook above the sink for me to play with, a small yellow funnel, a tea ball and some measuring spoons that provided me endless entertainment while the grownups sat and talked.  When Mamaw made biscuits, there was usually a little remnant of dough left over. Since that little dab of dough was too small to make another biscuit, but too big to waste, she would make it into a little snake and sprinkle cinnamon on it.  The cinnamon snake was the best treat in the world for a little kid like me.  She played piano and organ, so some of the musical genes come from her, as well as my prominent chin, dark hair (she was part Cherokee) and sharp tongue.  She once described herself as having a tongue like a circular saw, and I definitely inherited than tendency from her.  She could be blunt and opinionated, but I never thought she was mean.  There was a mischievous sparkle in her eyes and smile that I hope I inherited along with that chin of hers.  She and Papaw always had a garden, mostly vegetables to enjoy in season and to can and freeze for winter provisions.  They didn’t have a lot of indulgences, but Mamaw did enjoy growing flowers in the backyard.  She had a thumb so green she could have grown roses out of rocks.  A beautiful pink rosebush of hers now lives in Dad’s yard, transplanted from Mamaw and Papaw’s house.

Papaw was always…eccentric.  Mama said that as long as she knew him he was different.  Physically, he was as strong as an ox and, like Mamaw, he could work circles around men half his age.  He did lots of different kinds of work; he worked on Knoxville’s streetcars and spent years as a house painter.  Emotionally, though, he was…fragile.  I remember hearing about him leaving a desperately needed job because something didn’t go to suit him or someone said something he didn’t like.  Raising 6 kids during The Depression and The War, walking away from a job was just not done, unless you were my Papaw.  Dad talks about how poor they were, and it might not have been so bad if Papaw had held his tongue and stayed with the job.  And I remember times when he took to his bed because he “didn’t feel well”.  I realize now that he was probably bi-polar, although back in those days they didn’t have a name for it.  And even if there had been a name for it, Papaw was not the sort who would have sought treatment had it been available and/or affordable.  The Papaw I knew was, I suspect, a very different man from the father my Dad and his siblings knew.  The Papaw I knew was not perfect, but I always knew he loved me.  I never remember him calling me by my name; he always called me “Sister”.  His sense of humor was dry and pithy.  It was Papaw who convinced Reed and me that there was a right sock and a left sock.  To this day, if my socks have discernible feet prints on them, I put them on the corresponding feet.  (And yes, since I walk around in stocking feet a lot of the time, my socks do get feet prints.  Don’t judge me.)  It was Papaw who said if you painted your toenails red your feet wouldn’t stink.  (And yes, I actually recall seeing him once with red toenails when I was very little.)  One of my favorite Papaw memories is of the time when Jeff and I were dating and Papaw asked Jeff, “Boy, do you read the Bible right smart?”  Jeff blushed and squirmed, mumbling, “No sir, I’m afraid I don’t.”  Papaw responded “That’s all right, I don’t neither.”  Yet, it was Papaw who explained to me the principle of tithing, adding that when he and Mamaw gave the Lord His tithe, He always made the rest go further and they never missed that money.

I was blessed to have Mamaw and Papaw until I was a married adult, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to know them as well as I did.  A lot of who I am came from them, after all, both genetically and in the memories I have of times spent in their company.  I wish everyone could have the chance to know them like I knew them, because they brought so much color, humor and love into my life.  Knowing I’ll see them again someday in Heaven brings me a lot of comfort.  I can imagine Papaw up there painting one of Heaven’s many mansions, and Mamaw tending to roses in God’s garden.

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The Change

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Changes, changes, everywhere…

A couple of years ago I took a ministry class that required me to put together a genogram.  A genogram is basically an expanded family tree of sorts, with the standard names, birth and death dates, but also including other relevant family information such as marriages, divorces, patterns of disease and addiction and other such family skeletons.  It is a tool to help figure out why our family relationships and dynamics are the way they are, and in turn, why we are the way we are.  In putting my own genogram together it dawned on me how little I know about my family history beyond my grandparents.

And as I realized how little of this information I knew, I began to miss my departed loved ones in a whole new way.  Now that I am in the throes of menopause, I can’t help thinking what I’d give to have 15 minutes to talk to Mama and my grandmothers and ask every question I could blurt out in that quick amount of time, to find out more of our “female” history.  I know it’s a natural part of life, but it sure would be nice to get some answers from my female forbears about how their experiences might be influencing my own.  As it is, I have to rely on my memory of the stories that circulated around the women in my family going through The Change.

Granny’s last period nearly killed her, apparently.  Aunt Ruby was living in the little house on Wynn Street, just down the road and around the corner from Granny’s place on Arnold.  Granny was in the habit of walking down to visit with Aunt Ruby every afternoon, but one day she didn’t show up.  Aunt Ruby told me that Uncle Otto got ahold of her and said, “You should probably get to Mama’s house, she’s up there bleedin’ like a stuck hog.”  Before it was all over, the doctor had to come and pack her to get the bleeding to subside, and that was the very last of it.  In those days such things were not discussed, other than to say in hushed tones that someone was suffering from “female trouble”.  Which could mean anything from having her period to cancer.

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Mama’s menopause did not come on gradually, either.  I remember being at home with her when she started saying that she felt funny and sick, hot and weak.  She paced the floor and eventually laid down on the living room floor and put her feet up on the couch.  I got cold compresses for her and prayed hard.  I thought she was having a stroke or worse, and it scared me to death.  It scared her too.  She said she had never had such an awful feeling in her life before.  When she went to the doctor, he did some blood tests and something startling showed up.  She was producing no estrogen at all.  Like, yesterday she had some and today she had none.  NONE.  He said that would definitely explain her strange symptoms, and they went about formulating a treatment plan to get her feeling better.  For a while she went in for monthly hormone injections.  ”I go in on Tuesday for my Hot Shot,” she would joke.  Her traumatic entry into The Change was brought on, in part, by emotional stress due to some drastic economic changes.  She and Dad had 2 kids in college when Dad’s company demoted him and several other senior managers (Dad suspected possibly due to age), resulting in a severe drop in income.  Dad said he got demoted while Mama was having a period and she never bled another streak again.

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Aunt Mary and Aunt Martha both seemed to have some trouble during The Change as well, from what I can remember.  I was a kid and Aunt Mary was always hot, and Aunt Martha was always nervous.  Aunt Martha’s recollections of her experience with The Change could be funny.  ”They Lord, I felt like my nipples was on fire, so I stuck ice cubes down my brassiere!”   She also suffered from headaches later in life and would rub Icy Hot arthritis gel on her forehead.  I have never tried this and I don’t intend to…but I also never say never.

Aunt Ruby and Aunt Elaine both had hysterectomies, so their Changes weren’t typical.  I exchanged messages recently with “Aunt” Helen, who is actually my first cousin, and with Debbie, another first cousin, to pry into their experiences.  Both of them were very sweet in sharing what they could with me, and offered encouragement and love as I navigate the waters of my own Change.

Not having to worry about periods and birth control anymore will be a wonderful relief.  But the night sweats are disrupting my sleep enough now that I think I am losing IQ points.  I’ve joked that every time I wake up sweating, I can hear brain cells screaming as they die.  My Change may also be more challenging because I’ve never borne a child.  I just hope and pray that my transition through this stage of my life will be…wait for it… A Change for the Better!

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Long Life

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Prophetic treasures and simple pleasures as Valentine’s Day approaches…

As I have asserted before, I am a collector, of objects and of memories.  Gathering has been a lifelong pursuit for me, and each object I have found (or received) and kept has a story.  Some of my collections are large. I own more neckties than most men I know, for example, and most of them are outrageously colorful, ugly or interesting in some way.  And yes, I actually wear them, usually styled with a tailored shirt, a vest and girly jewelry. The Necktie Collection deserves to be displayed in an art museum, but it will have to settle for its own entry on Patchwork And Potpourri at some future date. Be on the lookout for that!

My collections include figurines of angels, dogs and pigs.  I have collections of baskets and wreaths.  A favorite wreath, heart-shaped and made of grapevine, contains dried flowers from weddings I have sung for, funerals of loved ones, flowers I have received from Sweet Pea and other friends and loved ones, and flowers I’ve sent to Sweet Pea over the years.  Of course, there are also the hymnals and Bibles that came to me from Mama and other forebears, as well as treasure boxes filled with priceless cards, letters and pictures.  I must be the most sentimental person in the world.  Each item I have received or found has a story behind it, a reason why it belongs with me.

Someday when I am gone from this world, someone may wonder why I kept so much…stuffPart of what I hope to accomplish with Patchwork And Potpourri is to explain my collections, and to make other people contemplate their own, and share the stories behind the stuff.  Hence Longlife.

When Sweet Pea and I returned from our honeymoon, he immediately went back to work at his job, and I set about unpacking and setting up our very humble little household.  Cardboard boxes filled our tiny rental house, which to us seemed like a palace even though it was really sort of a dump.  We made it home and filled it with love as newlyweds always do.  The first day of married reality when he went to work and I started unpacking, I was thirsty. It was the end of June, 1986, record heat and no air conditioning.  We had stocked the fridge and pantry and started getting the kitchen in order, but I didn’t know which box contained the glasses.  I checked boxes and scrounged around the kitchen to find something to pour my icy-cold Mello Yello into so I could fuel myself for the day’s work.  In a corner of the counter I saw a grimy old pint-sized Mason jar.  Just the right size for my frosty beverage once I cleaned it up! 

Unlike the Mason jars Mama and The Aunts used for canning their green beans and tomatoes, this little jar did not bear the name of Ball or Kerr.  It was stamped “Longlife”.  Long life.  What a wonderful omen for a newlywed couple starting life together in their first little rental house, filled with love and dreams and optimism.  I cleaned out my new little jar, filled it with my bubbly beverage of choice and began unpacking our life together, one box at a time. 

So someday, when I am gone, someone may wonder why, among the china, silver and crystal, a humble Longlife Mason jar has a place of honor in the china cabinet from Mom Cutshaw’s house.  These days I don’t drink from it very often. I usually use a larger, lidded 32-ounce bottle to make sure I consume enough liquid each day, and I keep the lid on to avoid spills because I am a bit clumsy.  And, truthfully, I don’t want to risk breaking my precious little jar, again, because I am clumsy.  It means more to me than I could ever explain.  I hope someday, now that I have told its story, it will mean just as much to someone else.

Longlife…long life. 

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Vox Humana

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“The human voice is the organ of the soul.”—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Mama always told people that when I was born I came out singing.  I certainly don’t remember it, but I would like to think that my birth cries were at least a little bit musical!  Today’s church services and the choice of operatic soprano Renee’ Fleming to sing the Star Spangled Banner for the 2014 BIG FOOTBALL GAME (which, apparently cannot be called by its more “super” moniker unless one has permission to do so) have gotten me thinking about the human voice, mine and other people’s.

I’ve been singing pretty much all my life, from the time I was a small child.  It was just how I expressed myself and the thing I loved most to do in the world.  Those things are still true.  I took voice lessons beginning in the 8th grade and continued through college, earning a Bachelor of  Music in Applied Voice (it’s called Vocal Performance now).

As a voice student and musician, my fascination with the human voice led me into many other areas of study.  Classically trained singers, for example, need to have at least a shallow working knowledge of several foreign languages.  My first ever voice teacher started me with “the singer’s language”, Italian, a language of pure vowels and the art of bel canto, which means “beautiful singing”.  Singing in a foreign language made me feel very grown-up, but it also gave me a desire to learn how to make my foreign language diction as convincing as possible.  The ultimate goal is for listeners to think whatever language I am singing is my native tongue.

Singers also need to know certain things about how the human body is put together and how it functions, more than the average person generally needs to know.  Our bodies are our instruments and we have to understand how they work.  The voice doesn’t start in the throat.  It starts deep in the abdomen with the diaphragm, a muscle which we spend years strengthening in order to breathe deeply and efficiently, and to control the expulsion of air in long phrases.  We are trained to imagine filling our lungs up from the bottom in order to maximize their capacity.  Once the air is in, it is all about controlling how it comes out, but we have to be able to relax certain muscles even as we exercise this control.  The air passes through the vocal cords, two of the tiniest and strongest muscles in the human body, producing vocalizations of all kinds…singing, speech, laughter.

In college one of the classes I took and enjoyed was Physics of Musical Sound.  It fascinated me when my professor showed us an oscilloscope, an instrument that measures the human voice and other sounds, producing a sort of “sound print” of what it has recorded.  And much like fingerprints, these sound prints are unique.  I remember thinking how much I would love to have a picture of my very own voice print.  Now, with modern technology, one of our computers here at home has an oscilloscope, and I can capture my voice print!

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I spent a number of years working in radio, primarily as an on-air announcer and commercial copywriter/producer.  My musical training kept me mindful that I needed to be careful with my voice.  Even though it was not singing, radio work was also a very specialized use of the voice, and I knew both radio people and singers who developed voice trouble due to improper technique and bad habits.  My radio years were a lot of fun, and I think they gave me a different appreciation for the communication that is only possible with the human voice.

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I still do a bit of occasional voice-over work for a friend’s radio stations, but my first love will always be to sing.  I let my singing go for a long time, making the excuses we all make about not having enough time or energy to commit to music… something I would not allow to happen if I could have a do-over.  As it is, though, I sing as often as I have the opportunity.  Singing is, for me, a way to express the feelings for which there are no words, a way to thank and praise the God Who spoke the universe into being with His Voice. I will hope to sing for as long as l am able, expressing, thanking and praising with my own vox humana. 

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“I will sing unto the LORD, for He hath dealt bountifully with me.”

Psalm 13:6