Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

The Lost Southern Rock Mixtape

I started writing this as a short piece for my blog, but it turned into a 2,000-word essay on Southern Rock. I think I’ll save the long version for my essay collection The Colordeaf Chronicles. Enjoy this shortened essay and check out these great southern bands.

 

 Once upon a time in the eighties, I had a Southern Rock Mixtape. Now, that doesn’t sound that shocking, but I wonder how many other African American girls had southern rock mixtapes in the eighties. (Or even now.) I played the tape so much that it broke and I had to throw it away, apparently with the song list. But I’ll try to recreate it the best that I can.

Why do I want to recreate it? Because the best of southern rock reminds me of the best of the South, the reason I can proudly say I was born in North Carolina even though I was raised in Pennsylvania. Beyond the flag waving and the rebel yelling, a lot of good rock and roll came out of the South. The songs I do remember connect me aurally to nature and the family road trips of my youth – leaving the hills of rural western Pennsylvania for the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the blue grass of Kentucky.

I made the tape to play in my car when I drove from Pittsburgh to Virginia Beach in 1985. Most of the songs were from the seventies and most of them were album cuts. I can’t remember the order, except that it started with the Allman Brothers Band. So, with the help of several websites, few old CDs, and my flawed memories, I bring you the Lost Southern Rock Mixtape…

“Dreams” – Allman Brothers Band

 Nothing says or sounds like southern rock more than the guitar work of the late Duane Allman.  The way this song begins with Duane’s guitar and Greg’s organ still haunts me. The song is just so beautiful; with Duane’s guitar flowing and cascading like a waterfall. The jam in the middle expands the song to over seven minutes, but it is worth every minute.

“Melissa” – Allman Brothers Band

The song comes from the only ABB album that I owned, Eat a Peach.  “Melissa” is another slow, dreamy number that features the brilliant playing of Duane Allman.

“Blue Sky” – Allman Brothers Band

Another one from Eat a Peach. Duane and Dickey play dual guitar on this masterpiece – a great early morning driving song, especially if you are “Goin’ to Carolina”. You can almost see that river flowing…

“Green Grass and High Tides” – Outlaws

And while we are talking about water, who could forget this epic tribute to the Sunshine State? Next to “Freebird,” this has to be the most popular southern rock and roll anthem. The song starts out rocking and just keeps building. Then, about six minutes in, it becomes a full tilt boogie that grabs you at the neither regions and won’t let go.

“Prisoner” – Outlaws

But my favorite Outlaws song is from the Lady in Waiting album. This song starts out with an ethereal, bluesy guitar sound before Henry Paul’s wistful vocals start. A perfect southern love song, like a “Melissa” with more twang.

“I’ll Be Loving You” – Marshall Tucker Band

Talking about love – I love the Marshall Tucker Band.. Guitarist Toy Caldwell and his bassist brother Tommy cram a lot of jamming into five minutes, trying to keep up with vocalist Doug Gray’s impassioned affirmations. Turn it up and rev your engines like a NASCAR driver while the boys from Spartanburg, South Carolina take you home.

“My Best Friend” – Marshall Tucker Band

I’m not a big fan of horns in rock songs, but they seem to work in this one. It’s a good song to play while driving; no one could go to sleep with all of the ruckus going on in this song. It may be too busy for some southern rock purists, but I love it.

“Running Like the Wind” – Marshall Tucker Band

This title song from the band’s 1980 release features Jerry Eubanks’ flute, another instrument not usually found in southern rock. It has a hypnotic beat, but not too mellow to use as a driving song. It’s a song that encourages reflection.

“Desert Skies” – Marshall Tucker Band

Okay, I had to have one “cowboy” song on this mixtape. Say what you will about this selection from Carolina Dreams, but it is another song that makes me smile from the first note. The saxophone, and what sounds like a steel guitar and fiddle, help to create the lonesome aural landscape. This is as country as I get, y’all.

“Flirtin’ With Disaster” – Molly Hatchet

Danny Joe Brown is also part of that heavenly jam band now, but when this album came out, he helped to put some rock and roll fuel into southern rock. Molly Hatchet rocked with the best of their southern kindred. And like the best boogie band, the second half of the song sped along like a racehorse.

“Dreams I’ll Never See” – Molly Hatchet

I don’t think I was clever enough in 1985 to begin and end the tape with a version of the same song, but it works. When the first Molly Hatchet album came out in 1978, everyone was shocked that they would be presumptuous enough to cover an Allman Brothers Band song. But the band from Jacksonville, Florida, the hometown of Duane and Gregg, did just that and took the song to a whole new level.

Well, that’s as many songs as I can remember from the Lost Southern Rock Mixtape. Revisiting these songs brought back a lot of good memories. And isn’t that what a good mixtape is supposed to do?

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How It Went: The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band Rocks Sacramento

           

Once again, I didn’t fit in. It wasn’t because I was only one of about six African Americans at this classic rock/blues show. It was because of the age of the crowd. I’m used to going to metal shows, where the ages range from preteen to senior. But at the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band show at the Woodlake Hotel in Sacramento, most of the audience was in their forties, fifties and sixties. Yes, I realized that chronologically, these were my peers, but it just didn’t feel right. It was a hot summer night. Most of the men were dressed in cargo shorts or jeans topped with tee shirts or short-sleeved shirts. Besides a few Hendrix shirts, there wasn’t a rock shirt to be found. There were more Harley-Davidson shirts, even on the women. And some of the women wore summer dresses and strappy sandals. A woman with a conservative short gray haircut surprised me with a full leg tattoo below her modest shorts. This definitely wasn’t a metal crowd. What was I doing here?

The show started promptly at seven-thirty, which meant that this wasn’t even going to be a late night out. The stage was set up in front of some foliage. It reminded me of the last time I was here, probably about twenty years ago to see Spyro Gyra at what was then the Radisson Hotel. I thought back to that show. It had been a hot summer’s night and I had worn a dress. Yikes!

The opening act was a local musician, Johnny “Guitar” Knox. Knox was pretty good, but his organist (who’s name I never got) was even better. The only person I color I would see on stage all night, he rocked his Hammond in a manner that would have made the late, great Jon Lord proud. Many in the crowd were familiar with the band, as they were well known by the members of the local Blues Society. At the end of the set, there were a few sound problems, which I hoped would be cleared up before the headliners hit the stage.

And it didn’t take very long between sets. The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band took off from the moment they hit the stage. Vocalist Noah Hunt is truly a master of modern blues, with a melodic, yet gritty voice. I wasn’t very familiar with guitarist Shepherd, but after a few minutes, I understood why he has garnered so many accolades over the years. Bassist extraordinaire Tony Franklin provided a fine accompaniment to Shepherd’s fretwork, demonstrating why he is one of the rock world’s best four-stringed musicians. Riley Osborn, the band’s keyboardist, had played with Willie Nelson and drummer Chris Layton had played with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan – rounding out a band that had been perfecting their craft for twenty to thirty years. The sound problems continued at the beginning of the set, causing Hunt to comment that after only four songs, the band was blowing out the speakers. They played songs from the latest release, How I Go, as well as songs from previous albums. Even though the only song I knew was “Deja Voodoo,” I enjoyed the music and the blues songs of love gone good or turned bad.

The audience was immediately enraptured by the music. And so was I. It’s easy to lose track of time when the music is this good. The band was on fire. I soon found that I didn’t miss the lack of black tee shirts in the crowd. I loved this band. After leaving the stage for a few minutes, the band came back to entertain the standing, roaring crowd, giving them Shepherd’s biggest hit, “Blue on Black.” They also did some rock standards that I recognized – Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” blues standard “I’m a King Bee,” and Hendrix’s classic “Voodoo Child.” Near the end of the show, I think I caught Noah throwing some devil horns. In spite of the crowd’s demographic and apparel choices, the intensity of the music reminded me of a metal show. Shepherd was flashy, but tasteful, and the band was hot, but not loud. They filled the Grove with a sacred groove without blasting it with sound. Maybe I did fit in with this crowd, as least for a few hours.

Before I knew it, the show was over. Even though it had been a fabulous show, I still wanted more. And isn’t that what a great band does – leave the audience satisfied, but not sated? As soon as I got home, I checked online to see where the band would be playing next. August in Wheeling, West Virginia? October in Sparks, Nevada? A road trip may be in order.

 

(Thanks to 96.9 The Eagle in Sacramento for the tickets! You guys rock!)

Brotherhood of the Funky Pants


I must admit it. For as long as I can remember, I have loved electric bass players and the music they create. And who doesn’t love funky pants?!

From Stanley Clarke to Larry Graham to Chris Squire to Glenn Hughes to Flea to Me’Shell NdegeOcello –  I love them all. And it seems that many of the famous bass players know each other. On Tony Franklin’s web site, there are pictures of him with Bootsey Collins, Verdine White, and Stanley Clarke. On Glenn Hughes’ site, there are pictures of him with Dug Pinnick of King’s X, the late John Entwistle, Duff McKagan, Michael Anthony, as well as a picture of Glenn with Tony. Could there really be a Bass Players Club?

So what would this club of four-string strummers and the people who loved them be called? When I was in Las Vegas a few years ago, I saw a tee emblazoned with the logo for an imaginary Metalheads Union. It got me to thinking…

 

“INTERNATIONAL AMALGAMATED FUNK MASTERS OF AMERICA

Bringing You the Funk for 50 Years

Brotherhood of the Funky Pants

From Motown to Midlands to Your Town”

 

Let me explain. Even though bassists come from all over the world, it seems like the best of them end up in the United States. And fifty years seemed like a reasonable amount of time. I know that upright basses have been around for centuries and the first electric basses probably were developed in the forties and fifties. In the book Funk, writer Rickey Vincent lists the beginning of funk at the early sixties, the pre-dynastic era when gospel, rhythm and blues, blues/rock and jazz were starting to influence each other. Around the same time, European musicians, especially British ones, were discovering the sounds of African American music. The Funk Brothers were getting together at Motown. And maybe not all bassists play funk, but all bassists can get funky if the need arises. How can one play those thick strings without wanting to slap them every now and then? Just like all drummers can play a stripper riff, all bassists can find the funk when they want to get down. Isn’t that part of the fun of playing a bass?

Okay, now about the funky pants. It seems like bass players have always liked to wear strange looking pants. Look at pictures of Glenn Hughes, back in Trapeze and Deep Purple days and even now. Look at pictures of Larry Graham with Sly and with Graham Central Station. Check out videos of The Firm and Blue Murder to witness Tony Franklin’s predilection for unusual trousers. Flea wore them, when he wasn’t just wearing a sock. So did original Living Colour bassist Muzz Skillings and even Sting. And can we even talk funky pants without mentioning Bootsey Collins, the bassists of Parliament/Funkadelic, and Verdine White in the heyday of Earth, Wind and Fire? If you have ever seen The Song Remains the Same, you know that Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones was no stranger to funky pants either.

There appeared to be a few breeding grounds for hot bass players. Many of the best American musicians came from the Midwest. Motown featured some of the best African American bassists of all time. Dug Pinnick and Verdine White came from Chicago. The Ohio Players came from Ohio. Some of the best hard rock bassists of the seventies and eighties came from the middle counties of England. Glenn Hughes came from Staffordshire, Tony Franklin came from Derbyshire, Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath and Ian Hill of Judas Priest are from Birmingham, and Rick Savage of Def Leppard came from Sheffield.

Okay, I know this isn’t an exact science. Maybe your favorite bass player doesn’t fit into any of the above categories or maybe you feel that some of the players I mentioned don’t fit as neatly into categories as I think they do. But so what? It makes me happy to think of a Bass Players Union. I would like to think there is a secret handshake, maybe even a secret decoder ring. I mean, there has to be something, doesn’t there? Guitarists have six strings, drummers have a battery of drums around them, keyboardists have eighty-eight keys, but bass players make it all happen with four strings and a vision.

So all hail the Brotherhood of the Funky Pants, those players who with four strings and sometimes no frets, create music that will live forever, that will resound in our minds and rebound in our nether regions as long there is music, ears to hear it, and flesh to feel it.

The Grim Reaper’s Hit List

Photo from picturedwithin.com

This morning, I learned of the death of Jon Lord of Deep Purple. I saw him with Deep Purple in 1985 and 1987. I even got to hang out on their tour bus for a few minutes. It is harder to accept the deaths of those musicians whom I have seen perform. With their music, they become part of our life experiences, but by attending their performances, they become a part of our good memories. Whenever I hear “Smoke of the Water,” I’ll think of Lord’s mustachioed countenance. I wrote this essay a few years ago when Michael Jackson died. It is from my music essay collection, The Colordeaf Chronicles.

I was surprised at my reaction to the death of Michael Jackson. The last time I seriously listened to his music, we both had medium brown skin and wide noses. But Michael, who was two years younger than me, was a part of my preteen and early teenage years. My first concert, in 1971, was the Jackson 5 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Also, his passing was a few months after the death of my cousin Darrell, who was about a year younger than Michael, with a birthday ten days after Jackson’s. With both of these deaths, I feel like part of my childhood is gone. As a little girl, Darrell was like a brother to me. Michael was the symbolic little brother of many African American girls who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies.

When I called my best friend Mary on the night of Jackson’s untimely demise, she did not share my feelings. Sure, she liked the music, but she is seven years my junior. As a young Caucasian girl in the Steel City, she did not feel the same attraction to the Jacksons as I did. But there are many musicians we have both felt close to over the years. We started to ruminate over which musician deaths have affected, or will affect, us the most. Since we are both middle aged now, we have to prepare ourselves for the time when the creators of the soundtracks of our lives will be called back to the Ultimate Creator, or wherever it is that dead rock stars go.

Mary has been most affected by the murder of John Lennon, one of her childhood idols. As a worshipper at the altar of the big bloated blimp in the seventies, the death of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham in 1980 was the death that rocked my world. In the eighties, we used to go to Grateful Dead shows together on the East Coast, and the death of Jerry Garcia stunned both of us. A few years ago, I called Mary when I heard about the death of Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright. Her mother, who was with her when she got the call, couldn’t understand why we were so upset about the death of someone we didn’t even know. But Wright’s death was also the death of a dream, the dream of a full scale Pink Floyd reunion. A few years earlier, we had watched Pink Floyd perform in London, sharing the moment on television and by telephone even though we were thousands of miles apart.

But we do know our favorite musicians. We know them through the music they have shared with us over the years. After thinking about the many musical deaths we have lived through, we agreed that the loss of musicians in our favorite bands and the loss of musicians we had seen live or met would be the worse.

Eric Clapton may not be God, but he is the closest thing on four strings. After decades of sharing his personal triumphs and setbacks, his passing would be heartbreaking. Mary met Clapton about ten years ago, getting his autograph on the “Crossroads” booklet accompanying the boxed set I bought her one year for Christmas. Mary’s favorite band is Yes and the death of Jon Anderson or Alan White would be a big blow to her. In fact, I promised to come back to Pittsburgh to console her when those musicians head to the pearly “Gates of Delirium.” Led Zeppelin is still my favorite band, and when Jimmy Page goes to wherever fans of Aleister Crowley go, I don’t know how I will react. But I will need my friends around me. In 1985, our friend Kathy was devastated when Robert Plant cancelled his Pittsburgh concert, so I know that when he does buy that “Stairway to Heaven,” I will have to take bereavement leave back to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Elton John was my first rock and roll love, and when the sun finally does go down on him, it will leave my life a lot less bright. Even though I was never a big Stones fan, the loss of Mick and Keef will be the end of an era and leave a little less “Satisfaction,” in the world. There are other deaths that will also be hard for me to take, such as the demise of past and current members of CSN&Y, Genesis, the Moody Blues, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, the original remaining members of the Grateful Dead, and every hot, hair sprayed pretty boy I liked in the eighties that did not go on to star in a reality show. And I’m sure you can come up with your own list.

As the years go on, the angels in Rock and Roll Heaven will be standing room only. But we will always be left with the music, which was what we had at the very beginning. That is the reason why Amazon sold out the Michael Jackson catalog so quickly after his death. After the smoke clears and the television tributes fade, I will still remember the strong, high, clear voice of a little boy from Gary, Indiana. We “never can say goodbye” to those who entered our hearts with the tunes they carried.

Driven To Tears

I wrote a longer version of this essay last year, but unfortunately it is still relevant.

 After three years, I was finally going back to work! I felt confident as I entered the building for my second interview on Monday morning. During the call on Friday, the coordinator told me that the competition for the position was down to me and another candidate. The job sounded like a great opportunity.  I would be able to help others improve their lives – that was the reason I had worked in social services for most of my life. I prayed as I sat down in the reception area.

The interview was going well. I felt like I had established a rapport with the three women who were asking the questions. My answers were good ones, establishing my commitment and interest in working with disadvantaged persons and handling stressful situations. In less than thirty minutes, it was almost over. The coordinator told me about the starting date, the pay and the benefits. “You will receive a mileage stipend for your gas expenses. Is that okay?” She smiled as she waited for my answer.

Mileage? I thought back to the job announcement posted on a local job website. Nowhere in the ad was there any mention of car ownership. It had said, “Must possess a valid California Driver’s License” and indicated that a clean DMV record was required. I had both of those. I smiled back and took a deep breath, “I don’t have a car.” Her smile faded. I mentioned that I had done other jobs without having a car, including being a test proctor for the US Census Bureau. She shook her head sadly. Even though it hadn’t been stated in the job announcement, a car was required to visit clients at their job sites.

“Why can’t I use public transportation to get to job sites? I’m sure that many of your clients use public transportation.” She thought about it for a second and said she would ask her director if she could hire me even though I didn’t have a car. I mentioned that due to the local pollution problems, employers should be encouraging their employees to use public transportation as much as possible. She nodded, but looked skeptical. The coordinator said she would check with the director and call me back later in the day after they had interviewed the other candidate. I tried to hold back the tears I felt forming. I knew it was over.

After the tears dried, I started to get mad. I wanted to stay in the social services field, working with the homeless and poor. Each day, I scoured the ads online. Almost all of them required access to reliable private transportation. In the three years since I had last worked, employers had told me that even though my qualifications were excellent, they couldn’t even interview a carless candidate. When I told some of my friends and acquaintances about what happened, some of them suggested that I should have lied and told them that my car was in the shop for repairs. But I couldn’t bring myself to give false information to a potential employer.

Now, instead of working with the poor and homeless, I am one of them. Instead of helping others overcome their barriers to employment, I am being bludgeoned by my own. But I refuse to go down without a fight. I am a victim of discrimination. How am I, a single woman with no family, supposed to maintain upkeep, insurance and fuel for a car while being unemployed for three years? And why should I, a single woman with few transportation needs, be forced to have a car? It is widely known the most of the pollution in the Sacramento area comes from automobiles, so why am I forced to become part of that problem? Sacramento has always been against affordable, reliable and practical public transportation. Sacramento non-profit agencies are echoing that resistance, eliminating agency cars that can be shared by employees and refusing to consider alternate transportation methods.

I don’t want a car! I would not mind sharing one on an as-needed basis, but I have no desire to have a car payment and insurance premium and spend each day checking the fluctuating gas prices like other people check the California Lottery. I have no desire to contribute to the dingy cloud that hangs over the Sacramento valley like the one that follows Pigpen in the cartoons. I can’t believe that in 2012, ownership of a car is a life-or-death requirement. I ponder my demise and attempt to restrain my rage as I check the RT schedule for the train that will take me to the Department of Human Assistance to apply for benefits.

Adventures in House Sitting

Patch & Echo

Last month, I spent a week house sitting for a friend of a friend. My duties included feeding two dogs, one cat, and thirteen tortoises. Besides animals, there were a yard full of plants, trees, and flowers. I discovered some important “don’ts” during that week. I don’t want to be a professional house sitter, unless it involves nothing more complicated than literally sitting in a house. I don’t want to grow anything more challenging than a tomato plant. And even though tortoises do have personalities, I don’t want one.

It was an interesting week. I spent my days and nights in the company of two dogs, Patch and Echo, a strange situation for someone who has only lived with cats. But besides barking at the mail carrier, other dogs going on their walks, and whatever made a noise in the middle of the night, they were on their best behavior. I bonded with Patch, who joined me when I sat on the sofa reading or watching television. The cat, Ditto, only stopped by in the morning and evening for a bit of food and a quick cuddle. It was a joy to be able to see some of my favorite music programs and watch some of my favorite movies. Maybe one day, I would have a house of my own again – a small, funky abode where I could recharge, renew and refresh my soul.

But there are several things that will not be a part of my home of the future – tortoises, bonsai trees, and flowering plants. Each morning, I opened the garage door so Thor and Henry, the two largest tortoises, could begin their day. Every day, I shredded and cut vegetables for their meal, spending more time preparing their food than I did my own. By mid-morning, the eleven guys and gals in the tortoise compound would be milling about, waiting for the diner to open. They especially loved the bright colored food, squashing cherry tomatoes and chopping on carrot pieces.

Lots of plants

In spite of my four typed pages of notes, I got the plant schedule mixed up. Not knowing anything about plant life, I could only identify them by their location. There were plants by the utility room door that got watered only twice during the week, but the plants by the family room door were watered more often. The plant next to the hot tub was not watered at all, but the tree next to that plant was watered for thirty minutes daily. I knew to take good care of the bonsai and small cedar trees, but with the flowering plants, I was afraid of watering them too much. Unfortunately, I did not inherit my mother’s green thumb – my digit was more likely to be the Thumb of Doom. During the week, there were several hot days as well as several windy days. Many of the flowering plants lost their blooms – was that human error or Mother Nature? But no trees died on my watch. The abundance of green in the yard was soothing, though, and several evenings I sat on the patio, relishing my leafy surroundings.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. One day, I locked myself out of the house. The family room door was kept ajar so the dogs could go outside at their leisure. On the next to the last morning, I got up, took a shower, put on sweatpants and a tee shirt, and went out the family room door to open the garage door for the tortoises. As I walked out with Patch trailing behind me, I heard a soft click. I knew before I walked back on the porch that the door was locked. By then, Echo was in the family room looking out. Did he have to obey nature’s call? Patch was looking in at him, and looking back at me, wondering why he couldn’t go inside of the house. I felt like I had wondered onto the set of a classic situation comedy. What would Lucy do?

I had to think this through. One of the neighbors had called to see how I was doing – maybe she had the cell phone number of the owner. I couldn’t let Patch out of the yard, but if I went for help, he would follow. I locked the dog in the garage with the tortoises and walked over to the neighbor’s house, as I did have the back gate key. She didn’t have a number for the owner, but she had a number for the owner’s son, who I had met earlier in the week. I took the number and walked up to my friend’s house to use her phone. But right before I got there, I remembered that there was a phone in the garage. Apparently, my powers of reasoning hadn’t kicked in yet that morning. I went back to the house, let the now-howling dog out of the garage, and called the owner. When she stopped laughing, she told me where to find a spare key. As soon as I opened the door, one dog ran in and one ran out. I was thankful that I didn’t have to call a locksmith.

The week passed quickly. The owner came home and did not seem upset that some blooms were missing. She was mainly concerned about the bonsai and cedar trees, which were fine. As soon as she opened the front door, the dogs forgot all about our week of bonding and rushed to greet their favorite person. She seemed happy with my service and even gave me a tip. I gathered my things for the walk back to my friend’s house. I would miss the dogs, the flat screen television with unlimited channels, and even the tortoises – but I would not miss those plants and trees. I hooked my Thumbs of Doom onto my jean pockets and walked away without looking back.

Two of thirteen tortoises

I Wish They All Could Be Carolina Girls


Carolina girls grow up proud of their state. July 8 is the birthday of my cousin Kathryn Shade Davis. Cousin Kat was proud to be from Lenoir, North Carolina. She made me proud to be from the Tar Heel State too.

Cousin Kat was an ever-present force of nature when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania. She lived at the end of our street with her husband, Cousin Bill, and my cousin Darrell, who they raised as a son. Darrell’s actual mother, Barbara, lived in Cleveland, but Cousin Kat raised him from the time he was three years old. She helped to raise me, too, from the time I was adopted and brought to Hills Station from Greensboro, North Carolina. Next to Momma, Cousin Kat was the most influential woman in my life as I grew up.

Cousin Kat was a privileged preacher’s daughter and the beloved only sister of a handful of brothers. She knew she was something special. I have a photo of Cousin Kat as a young woman with her parents. She stands between them, wearing a stylish dress and a determined look. She was a short, round, walnut-brown woman. She was a hairdresser and her own thick black hair was her best advertisement. She had an energy about her that lit up a room. That energy must have been concentrated in her right foot, because she was the fastest driver I knew. She drove an aqua blue Chevrolet and her head barely cleared the dashboard. When she drove by, all I could see was the top of her perfectly-coiffed head, and even that was a blur. I’m not sure how we were related, but I think her mother and my mother’s grandmother were sisters. I don’t know how she ended up in Hills Station, either. Maybe she came up from Lenoir to visit my mother.

But even though I didn’t know her personal history, I learned a lot from Cousin Kat. When I was little, she was my babysitter. During the few times that my parents went somewhere without me, I stayed at Cousin Kat’s house, spending hours playing with Darrell, who was three years younger, and looking at Cousin Kat’s magazines. She did my hair, giving me my first perm and accepting my first Afro. When I started school, she helped me with my homework. I spent hours with her, learning fractions and the capital cities of Europe. Her magazines taught me about life. Besides sharing her copies of Jet, Ebony, and Sepia, she also shared issues of True Stories and Secrets, magazines filled with stories of women, love, and trouble.

Long before I became a woman, I learned about trouble. My parents were older and not in good health. When both of them went to the hospital at the same time when I was thirteen, I stayed with Cousin Kat. When Momma died in July of that crucial year, Cousin Kat took me to the store to find a dress for the funeral. She did the same thing when Daddy died five years later. When I graduated from college, she drove me to the ceremony and cheered from the stands. I still have her graduation present, a gold necklace with a Capricorn goat. Over the years, we spent a lot of time together, as she helped me grow from a girl into a woman.

Cousin Kat made the best sweet potato pie in the world. I also loved her potato salad and her pecan pies. I tried to make the potato salad once, but it tasted nothing like hers. I never even attempted to recreate her pecan pie. She had a Betty Crocker cookbook filled with her favorite recipes, written on slips of paper in her loopy cursive writing. She loved to set a nice table, which she did every holiday – getting Cousin Bill to add the extension to the dining room table and using her best china, along with her nicest tablecloth and matching napkins.

After I left my first full time job and moved to California in 1988, Cousin Kat developed Alzheimer’s disease. Each time I saw her, she remembered less and less about our lives together. It was hard to see the woman who once knew everyone’s business not able to remember who I was. On a visit home in 1994, I took one last photo of her, with Cousin Bill and Darrell. But she no longer looked like my Cousin Kat. A confused countenance had replaced the warm, smiling face I was used to seeing. In May of 1995, Cousin Kat died. I couldn’t afford to return home for the funeral, but I talked to Cousin Bill on the phone hours after her funeral. “I’ve lost my heart,” was all he could say. Less than a year later, he was gone, too, following His Heart. In 2009, her beloved Darrell died. With the three of them gone, I feel like part of my childhood is missing. I wished that I could have gone home for her funeral. I wish that I could have gotten my hands on that cookbook. There is no one left to remember the happy and sad times that we shared over the years.

No one but me. I’m reminded of her when I hear a warm western Carolina accent. I think of her whenever I see a red and white Betty Crocker Cookbook. Or an aqua blue Chevy Impala. I’m thinking of Cousin Kat on this anniversary of her birth. I can still feel the strong spirit of that quintessential Carolina girl, captured in a faded photograph so many years ago and in a photo of the two of us, together with proud, happy smiles.

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