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A POEM AND STORY FOR MOTHER’S DAY

May 8, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Angels Charge Ministry, which helps women transition from incarceration to a new way of life.  Angels Charge Ministry, 95 Ashley Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, (864) 529-5472.

My mother loved to read, and she enjoyed stories and poetry. Four years after Mama’s death in 2001, I heard, for the first time, a poem by Billy Collins.

Billy Collins was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. He served as United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. His other honors and awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

The poem reminded me of my mother. At the time, I wished I had been able to share it with her before her death. These lines brought to mind the Mother’s Day I literally spent my last dime to give Mama a ten-cent packet of sewing needles. And I recalled the Mother’s Day she received a pair of baseball shoes exactly my size.

The truth is we can never out-give our mother.

Here is the poem.

The Lanyard

By Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly

off the blue walls of this room,

moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,

from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,

when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one into the past more suddenly—

a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp

by a deep Adirondack lake

learning how to braid long thin plastic strips

into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not keep me from crossing

strand over strand again and again

until I had made a boxy

red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,

lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,

laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,

which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

“The Lanyard” from The Trouble With Poetry: and Other Poems by Billy Collins,

copyright © 2005 by Billy Collins.

On this Mother’s Day, I share a story about my mother.

During the Civil War, Zachary Taylor Hutson fought in the Wilderness Campaign with Robert E. Lee. When the War of Northern Aggression ended, Z.T. Hutson was mustered out of the Confederate Army. He took a train south to Spartanburg. From there, he walked all the way to his family farm in Barnwell County. He made the 130-mile journey, hobbling on a wounded leg and suffering from tuberculosis. The trek took a whole week.

In time, Z.T. and his wife, Simpie, had two sons, Willie and Joe.  Willie eventually took responsibility for the farm. He served as a representative from Barnwell County to the State Legislature.  Joe, the younger son, left Barnwell County and moved to the Upstate, where he attended Getsinger Business School. There he met Belle Haynsworth from Darlington.

After their marriage, Joe and Belle lived in Spartanburg. They were the parents of five sons and one daughter. Joe changed the spelling of his name from Hutson to Hudson. 

After his first wife died, Willie married Mollie Woodward.  Her father was Robert E. Lee Woodward.  Willie gained a stepdaughter from Mollie’s first marriage. Willie and Mollie had four sons and then a daughter, Louise. 

When little Louise was only six weeks old, her mother, Mollie, died. 

Joe and Belle traveled from Spartanburg to Barnwell County for the funeral.  Following the burial in the cemetery of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, Willie handed his infant daughter across Mollie’s grave to his sister-in-law, Belle.  

Willie said to Joe and Belle, “I don’t b’lieve I can raise this little girl on a farm with these four boys. I’d like for you to take her with you to Spartanburg. I’d ‘preciate it if you’d rear her as your own.” 

That baby girl was my mother.  Her aunt and uncle adopted her.  Because her adopted parents and her birth father were so closely related, she always regarded both families as hers.  In essence, she was the youngest of twelve children in the two families combined.  She had a good relationship with all of these older brothers and sisters from both families throughout her life.  She thought of both Willie and Joe as her daddies, calling them Little Daddy and Big Daddy.

I knew my grandmother, Belle Hudson, as Granny. In her Last Will and Testament, Granny included these words, “And to my niece Louise, whom I have always regarded as my daughter, my desire is that she share and share alike with my other children.”

My mother wept tears of joy.

Granny’s estate was very modest. Her love for her family was extravagant.

My mother’s inheritance was not wealth. It was acceptance and a sense of belonging.

In October 2011, Clare and I became grandparents of two precious children, adopted by our son and daughter-in-law. These two children are counted among our thirteen grandchildren. We love and cherish all thirteen of our grands. Each is a unique individual; each is created in the image of God, and each one is a blessing in our lives.

In family court on adoption day, I saw a group of caring adults gathered around these children. There were smiles all around. The judge was all business until the legal proceedings were concluded. Then he posed for photographs along with adoptive parents and two sets of grandparents. Because it was October, he offered our new grandchildren their first trick-or-treat gift, a Tootsie Pop.

When I shook the judge’s hand to thank him, he commented, “In family court, I hear many sad, even tragic, stories. A case like this where two children are placed in their forever family brings me joy. This makes my work worthwhile.”   

In our family, we regard adoption as a blessing, but it is not that way for some. At http://www.adoption.com, there are numerous stories of people for whom being adopted has been a painful experience. Nearly every person who has been adopted has questions about their birth parents. Many know that their adoptive parents have loved them and provided for them in ways that their birth parents could not have. However, for some, adoption carries a lifelong stigma.

In the church that I served for eighteen years, we were fortunate to have several adoptive families. It has been my privilege to dedicate children who are chosen through adoption at birth. I have baptized young people who were foster children and were later adopted by their foster parents. Adoption is a blessing to the child, the parents, and the church.

Those, like my mother, who are adopted, have a special place in the world. In a very real sense, they are the chosen ones. 

A list of famous people who were adopted includes people of diverse backgrounds and occupations. Moses, the biblical leader of the Jews, Lakota war chief Crazy Horse, and comedian Art Linkletter, are on the roll.

Among the politicians on the list are John Hancock and Nelson Mandela. Civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson were adopted.

The list includes inventor George Washington Carver, naturalist John Audubon, Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, and Steve Jobs of Apple computer.      

Philosophers Aristotle and Jean Jacques Rousseau are included. Authors Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes were adopted.

My mother knew, perhaps better than most, that all children are gifts from God. She knew that every child needs to be accepted and loved unconditionally. As the oldest of her eight children, I will never be able to thank her enough, not with sewing needles, baseball shoes, or even a lanyard.

The wisdom of Hebrew literature says of the virtuous woman, “Her children rise up and call her blessed.” (Proverbs 31:28)

On this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my mother, for her faithfulness to God, and her unfailing love.

What a blessing!

Thanks, Mama! Happy Mother’s Day. I love you.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

FUNERAL HUMOR

May 1, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Children’s Advocacy Center, a trauma-sensitive, child-friendly organization that provides services for children and families who have been affected by sexual or physical abuse. Children’s Advocacy Center, 100 Washington Place, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 515-9922.

A friend was the purveyor of some of the finest barbecue in the Upstate. After his death, his family asked that I offer a eulogy for him. Prior to the celebration of his life, I said to the family, “I can’t imagine having a memorial for this good man without humor. He enjoyed a good story and a good laugh as much as anyone.”

The family appreciated that approach, as did those gathered for the service. Of course, there were tears, but there was also laughter as we remembered a joyful life well lived.

Recently, a friend sent an e-mail containing tombstone inscriptions collected from old cemeteries. One of my favorites from the extensive list was this.

From East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia

Here lies Ezekial Aikle

Age 102.

Only the Good Die Young

Some may find humor about death or at a funeral to be inappropriate. I personally find humor in the face of death to be a tender mercy and a gentle blessing. Folks who have grieved deeply know that humor can bring welcomed relief. If all we do is cry, bereavement quickly becomes oppressive.

After more than fifty-five years of pastoral ministry, I have accumulated an interesting collection of graveyard stories. 

Every mortician and every pastor knows that funerals are fraught with opportunities for things to go awry. A funeral is a somber time, a time to attend to the needs of the bereaved, a time to be solemn, reverent, and, well, funereal. Still, the final service for a dearly departed loved one can be the occasion for humor.

The late Reverend Grady Nutt, a friend from my seminary days, was dubbed on the television program “Hee-Haw” as the Prime Minister of Humor. Grady was a master storyteller whose favorite targets were other preachers, men and women of the cloth.

He told the story about a young pastor who conducted his first graveside funeral during a Texas rainstorm. Things went pretty well in spite of the steady downpour, that is, until the closing prayer. In order to be heard above the rain drumming on the funeral home tent, the novice minister was speaking loudly to the Almighty. Suddenly, he fell silent. After a few moments, some of the gathered faithful cautiously opened their eyes. The young cleric had vanished from sight. It seems he had stepped too close to the muddy grave,  and he slid, feet first, under the suspended casket, into the vault below.

Even a seasoned pastor can make embarrassing mistakes at funerals. A dear friend and colleague had to do two funerals on the same day. Each service was for a fine man, both members of the pastor’s congregation. One of the deceased had been an outstanding high school and college athlete who had spent most of his life as a coach. The other had been a more reticent, studious young man who had become successful in the financial world. The first was an avid sports fan; the second had little interest in athletics.

In the second funeral of the day, my colleague started eulogizing the wrong man. He waxed eloquent about the athletic prowess of the person who had never participated in organized sports. When the pastor caught himself and realized his mistake, he apologized and added, “He always wished he could have been a great athlete.”

A recent seminary graduate, newly ordained, accepted his first pastorate in a rural area in northern Spartanburg County. Soon after he arrived at the church, he was asked to conduct a funeral for an elderly man. He was a longtime member of the church but had been unable to attend services in several years because of ill health. The family explained that the funeral service was to be graveside at the family cemetery located at the old home place in southern Union County. The service was to be brief and would be followed by a covered dish dinner provided by the good folks at a nearby church.

The young pastor was nervous as he prepared for his first funeral. He rehearsed the service in his mind. In the days before cell phones, he followed a set of complicated directions to the remote home. He became hopelessly lost on the back roads of Union County near Sumter National Forest.

Finally, almost by accident, he came upon an old house. As he turned down the long driveway, he could see two men under the shade of a large oak tree. The men appeared to be gravediggers. One stood beside a backhoe; the other leaned on a shovel.

The young pastor approached the two men. Though his dark suit and the Bible in his hand gave him away, he still felt the need to explain that he was a pastor.

“Is the family here?” the minister inquired.

“Nope, just left.”

“I see,” the pastor said, embarrassed that he was so tardy.

“Please give me a few minutes,” he requested.

With that, the pastor moved to a freshly dug hole, noticing that the concrete vault was already closed. He read a passage of scripture. Though he dispensed with his prepared sermon, he offered a lengthy prayer. He thanked the men for their patience and drove on to the church for the covered dish dinner.

As the young pastor took his leave, the man next to the backhoe lit a cigarette. He turned to the man leaning on the shovel and said, “I’ve been in this business for thirty years, but this is the first time I have ever seen anybody read the Bible and pray over a septic tank!”

Mr. Jack was my father-in-law.  He was a storyteller with a quick wit and a wry smile that endeared him to almost everyone.  His speech was as colorful as my grandfather’s, salted with Southern witticisms and profanity.  Shortly before his death from congestive heart failure, Mr. Jack and I had a private conversation.  His acceptance of his impending death was evident.  “The path that I’m on is getting mighty narrow.  I don’t believe I’m going to be able to turn around this time.” 

He asked me to conduct his funeral.  He said, “Kirk, you’re going to have to look out for Lib (his wife, my mother-in-law).  She’s going to need help, and I know I can count on you.”

I felt the burden of that responsibility, but I would not have had it any other way.  He told me that he had written two letters to the family.  One was to be read immediately after his death before arrangements were made for his funeral.  The other letter was to be read immediately after his funeral.  I would find both letters inside a ledger in the top right-hand drawer of his rolltop desk.

Two weeks later, Mr. Jack died. The family gathered the morning after his death, and I read the first letter aloud.  He had included so much of himself, so much humor, that we laughed together for nearly an hour.  His directions on finding pallbearers were especially funny.  “Now that I’m gone,” he wrote, “they may all refuse to attend.  But they all owe me in one way or another.” 

He went on to say, “Kirk, I know you’re a Baptist preacher, but you may have to give them bourbon whiskey if they’re to be pallbearers. They’ll do better if they’re liquored up.” 

With that first letter, Mr. Jack had established an attitude of joy for his own funeral. The men agreed to be pallbearers. I didn’t have to get them liquored up. They took care of that themselves.

The family went to the local mortuary in the small town where Clare’s parents lived to make the funeral arrangements for Mr. Jack.  We selected a polished pine casket because he had enjoyed woodworking. The funeral director then showed us a selection of vaults. 

“We have three to choose from,” he said in a somber tone.

“What is the difference?” I inquired.  

Pointing to the top one, he said, “This is our top-of-the-line model.” He paused and added, “It comes with a lifetime guarantee.”

I stared at him in amazement. “Whose lifetime are we talking about?”

He stammered, “I don’t really know.”

“How can a vault have a lifetime guarantee?”

“No one has ever asked that.  That’s just what they told me to say.”

We purchased the bottom-of-the-line model.

You can imagine the laughter in Mr. Jack’s service when I told the story of the vault selection.  You may also be able to guess the chagrin of the funeral director.

Following the drive back from the burial in the country churchyard, I again gathered the family to read the second letter.  We could hardly wait.  It was a sweet, touching letter about his love for each of us.  He included a section on how he had tried to provide for his wife and his children. 

Then this line, “Lib, I believe there will be enough for you to live out your days in contentment and comfort.  You will not be able to live in the lap of luxury, and there is certainly not enough for you to have a live-in boyfriend.  If you take up with somebody, I may have to come back and straighten things out.” 

The wisdom of the Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Laughter is a natural tranquilizer, and, as far as I can tell, it has no adverse side effects. “There is,” as scripture affirms, “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”

In my experience, grief is a time for both.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

A DEAD MULE

April 24, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Adult Learning Center Spartanburg, 114 Commerce Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29306, (864) 562-4100.

In 2010, my book A Good Mule Is Hard to Find was selected as a finalist for the best in Southern literature by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.  My book finished second in the nonfiction division. Rick Bragg’s book The Prince of Frogtown finished first. 

I don’t mind one bit coming in second to Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Bragg. He speaks my language. I have enjoyed reading his “Southern Journal” column published each month in Southern Living magazine.

Bragg wrote in the April 2011 issue, “Scholars have long debated the defining element of great Southern literature. Is it a sense of place? Fealty to lost causes? A struggle to transcend the boundaries of class and race?  No. According to the experts, it’s all about a mule. And not just any old mule – only the dead ones count. Ask the experts.”

            Rick Bragg goes on to explain that the demise of mules has permeated Southern literature. “They have been worked to death, bludgeoned, asphyxiated, bitten by rabid dogs, stabbed, starved, frozen, perished of thirst, murdered on the blind curve of a train track, and in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, hung from a chandelier.”

            Bragg offers an impressive list of authors who have told stories about a dead mule. Richard Wright, Reynolds Price, Larry Brown, Robert Morgan, Jack Farris, and Clyde Edgerton made the list. My name was not on the list. I didn’t expect it to be. But, I somehow felt included because I, too, have written a dead mule story.

            Not all Southern storytellers have a tale about a dead mule. In Run with the Horsemen, Ferrol Sams told a marvelous mule story. Though some might have thought of killing the animal, that didn’t happen.

I read the Larry McMurtry novel Telegraph Days. A stout woman, Hroswitha Jubb, rides a white mule across the open prairie.   As she is known by Nellie Courtright, the main character in the novel, Aunt Ros is the most popular travel writer in the West. Though we are not told of the four-legged albino’s demise, the unusual mule and his ample rider mysteriously disappear.

            I recall William Faulkner’s account of the Bundren family’s difficulty at a river crossing. Strong currents wash away the coffin of the deceased relative they are transporting on a wagon for burial.  Furthermore, their entire team of mules is drowned in the swirling Yoknapatawpha River.

            Rick Bragg is a Southern writer who also tells a dead mule story. Uncle Jimbo wins a bet by eating a sandwich while sitting astride a mule. The mule was already dead when Uncle Jimbo climbed aboard.

Since the publication of A Good Mule is Hard to Find, I have discovered that a surprising number of people don’t know the difference between a donkey and a mule.

Mules are crossbred between a donkey and a horse and may be either male or female. Both genders are sterile and cannot reproduce.

Though they have a reputation for being stubborn, mules are generally more intelligent than a horse. They also have more stamina and are better able to adapt to the climate of the South than are horses.

            Many a poor dirt farmer tilling the Southern landscape has found a hardworking mule an indispensable commodity. My grandfather, K. E. Neely, was no exception. Pappy, as I called him, his wife, and their nine children would not have survived the Great Depression without a mule. Here is the story I have heard since I was a boy.

            Pappy bought Old Dick at auction down near Dutchman’s Creek for a mere fifteen dollars. Having spent most of his life working on the chain gang, Old Dick had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. He had been harnessed so many times that the trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides.

            Pappy bought a jar of Bluestone Salve to put on the mule’s sores. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Old Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent working mule.

            Though good at plowing, Old Dick never liked to be ridden. If a person tried to mount him like a horse, the mule would kick and bite.

            As boys, my dad and his brothers would lead Old Dick underneath a chinaberry tree. They’d drop a pillow on his back to get him used to carrying a little weight. Then, from a limb above, they would ease onto the mule’s back. If they rode him down to the highway, Old Dick would balk, refusing to go out into the road. All those years on the chain gang made him leery.

            Pappy used to tell the story about a farmer who found himself in dire straits. He was having trouble making ends meet.  He tried to cut corners in every way that he could.  He owned no farm equipment other than a mule and a plow.  The mule, Humphrey, was a fine, strong animal essential to the making and harvesting of crops.

            One of the farmer’s cost-saving measures was to mix a little sawdust into the oats that he fed Humphrey.  At first, it seemed to be a workable plan.  When he told his neighbors about it, they thought it an odd way to take care of a good mule, but Humphrey seemed to hold up.

            The months passed, and times got worse. The farmer mixed more sawdust with the oats he fed to Humphrey.  The mule grew weaker but still worked as hard as he could.

            One day a neighbor asked, “How are things going?”

            “Not good.  Not good at all.  Just about the time I got Humphrey on all sawdust and no oats, that mule up and died.”

            Humphrey died just before spring planting. The farmer had to buy another mule. He scraped together thirty dollars and went to the closest mule sale.  He couldn’t buy a mule as good as Humphrey had been, but he found one that met his budget. The farmer was satisfied with the animal, so he paid the thirty dollars to take the mule as is.  He made arrangements to return the next day with a borrowed truck to pick up the mule. The dealer agreed to keep the animal overnight.

            When the farmer returned, he was greeted with more bad news.

            The mule dealer said, “I’m real sorry to have to tell you this. I know you were countin’ on that mule for your spring plantin’, but he died last night.”

            “I want my money back,” demanded the farmer.

“Nope. You agreed to buy the mule as is, and there he is. A deal is a deal”

            After the dealer refused to refund the money, the frustrated farmer loaded the dead mule on the truck and left.

            A couple of months later, the mule dealer happened to drive by the farmer’s place. He was astonished to see him working his land on a Ford tractor. He called the farmer over to ask how in the world he had managed to buy a tractor when, not too long ago, all he had was thirty dollars to spend on the dead mule.

            “Well,” the farmer explained, “after leaving with the dead mule, I stopped off at the local print shop. I had some $2 raffle tickets printed up to say, ‘Grand prize: Used Gardening Equipment.’ I sold the raffle tickets to people around town.”

            “Okay, but where did you get the gardening equipment?”

            “From you.”

            “But all you got from me was a dead mule.”

            “I know. That’s what I raffled off.”

            “You raffled off a dead mule? I’ll bet it really ticked ’em off when they realized the mule was dead.”

            “Nope. Not really. The only fellow that got mad was the winner, and I gave him his $2 back.”

            A good mule really is hard to find!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com