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June 11, 2017

Clare and I recently purchased a new flag to display on the front of our home. For years we have proudly hung the flag that draped the casket of Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, Jackson S. Long. Mr. Jack served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  His honor flag was presented to Clare at his funeral.

Over time the old flag that served us well for so many years became worn and faded. Made of cotton, the flag could not last forever.

The new flag is fashioned from heavy synthetic material purported to be more durable than the old cotton banner. We hung it on our front porch just before Memorial Day and will display it there until Labor Day. In the near future we will invite a local Boy Scout troop to help us properly retire the former flag.

Our grandchildren have been keenly interested in the new flag. They enjoy rubbing the shiny surface and watching it blow in the wind. Some of the older children have taken an interest in the history of the flag. Perhaps this brief refresher will help all of us appreciate the history of our flag.

June 14 is celebrated in the United States as National Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on that date in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; in August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. While Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, many Americans mark the day as our family does by displaying the flag. As Flag Day approaches on June 14, these reminders may help us pause and give the flag the honor it deserves.

The early flags of the United States of America were all hand sewn. Each flag has a unique history. For Flag Day, allow me to repeat some of those best-known stories.

The Stars and Stripes

Legend holds that George Washington visited Betsy Ross on July 4, 1776, and commissioned her to make the first American flag. Elizabeth Griscom was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She married John Ross in 1773. The couple began an upholstery business together, drawing on her needlework skills.

John Ross was killed in January 1776 on militia duty. Betsy married an American sailor who died as a prisoner of war. Then she married a soldier who died from the wounds of war. Betsy was three times the widow of patriots.  She continued the upholstery business, supporting and rearing her seven daughters.

The story of Betsy Ross’ commission to make the first American flag, as told by her grandson, was first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1873.  The account received wide acceptance. By the 1880s, many school textbooks included the story.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, establishing the standard for flags of the United States. The wording of that document describes the Stars and Stripes: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Tradition says that Betsy Ross made the flag, using fabric from a white petticoat, a red shirt, and a blue coat. The colors held symbolic significance – white for purity, red for valor, and blue for loyalty. The stars were placed in a circle to show equality among the original states.

The American flag was lightly regarded during the early years of the nation. Long before it flew on the moon or fluttered over the White House; long before it reached the North Pole or the summit of Mount Everest; long before it was hoisted by Marines at Iwo Jima, folded by an honor guard into a triangle at Arlington National Cemetery, or unfurled by firefighters above the ashes of the World Trade Center, the American ensign was just a patchwork of cloth. That all changed during the War of 1812.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The British fleet made preparations for an attack on the United States. In Baltimore, Major George Armistead at Fort McHenry was ready to defend the harbor. He expressed a desire for a large flag to fly over the fort, one the British could see from out at sea, miles away.

Mary Pickersgill, a prominent Baltimore flag maker, received the order for an oversized American flag to measure 30×42 feet. Pickersgill was an experienced maker of ships’ colors.

She and her assistants spent seven weeks designing and stitching the garrison flag. They sewed by candlelight, sitting on the floor of Claggett’s Brewery, the only space in East Baltimore large enough to accommodate the project. They assembled the dark blue field and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting.  Each of the fifteen horizontal red and white stripes measured two feet wide.  Each of the fifteen five-pointed white cotton stars measured two feet across. They were sewn into the upper left quarter, forming the flag’s canton, the rectangle of deep blue fabric which measured 16×21 feet. In all, the large flag required 300 yards of fabric.

Pickersgill’s flag was flying over Fort McHenry when the British fleet attacked on September 12, 1814. Intense bombardment targeted Fort McHenry on the evening of September 13. Heavy shelling continued for twenty-five hours.  British ships were unable to pass the fort and penetrate the harbor. The attack ended and the fleet retreated.

As dawn broke on the morning of September 14, the battered flag still flew above the ramparts of the fort. Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, celebrated the sight of the flag in a poem. His words became our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Old Glory

In 1820, William Driver, a young sea captain, was presented a flag by his mother in Salem, Massachusetts. The hand-sewn flag was designed to be flown from the mast of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett. The flag had twenty-four stars and included a small anchor stitched in the corner of its blue canton.

As he left the harbor for a trip around the world, Captain Driver was the first to hail the flag as Old Glory. It served as the official flag throughout the voyage.

Driver retired from the sea in 1837 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, taking his cherished flag with him. He flew his beloved flag on all patriotic occasions. When the Civil War broke out some thirty years later, he stuffed Old Glory as batting inside a comforter to conceal it from the Confederate Army.

The Pledge of Allegiance

In 1985, I traveled with a group of scouts to the National Boy Scout Jamboree.   En route, we visited the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. We stood gazing at the original Star-Spangled Banner, the same one flown over Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words of our national anthem. We marveled at the large size of that tattered flag.

Spontaneously, an Eagle Scout from Georgia snapped to attention, saluted, and recited, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

Immediately, a host of scouts and other visitors joined in as we honored our flag and affirmed loyalty to our country.

On this Flag Day, we might all salute and to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.


June 4, 2017

Today is Pentecost. In many Christian traditions clergy don red vestments and stoles and members of the church wear red attire. Other congregations ignore the significance of the day, oblivious to the liturgical calendar, the ecclesiastical equivalent to forgetting a wedding anniversary.

Pentecost is a day to acknowledge one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on the Christian Church. This is a day of power. Today we remember a frightened, disoriented group of disciples bereaved by the departure of their Master, left alone, abandoned, and powerless.  Then suddenly they were no longer alone. They had not been abandoned after all. And, by God, they were empowered.

The wind blew at gale force. Fire fell, not to consume them, but to ignite them as if they were the burning bushes of Moses, the ones through whom God could now speak. The Spirit descended like a flock of doves perching on each one of the disciples. Now they were anointed, emboldened, equipped, and encouraged to make a difference in the world.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Christian Church.  It is a day for balloons, party hats, noise makers, and ice cream and cake. This is a day for laughter, music, and dancing. This is a joyful day of celebration.

Pentecost is a time for gifts. God grants to each of us spiritual gifts as varied as befits our diversity. On Pentecost our gracious God gives us presents, and God gives us presence, God’s invisible presence as they Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God visits us sparking in us, rekindling within us the freedom and the power of creativity, inviting us to join God Almighty in recreating this world. It is a time to painting or draw, to play and instrument or sing a song, to write a poem or a letter of encouragement. It is a day to allow the Spirit of God to guide our creative spirit to express joy and gladness.

On this Pentecost, hear the good news attributed to the Apostle Paul.

Now the Lord is the Spirit;

and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

2 Corinthians 3:17

For God has not given us a spirit of fear,

but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7

Let’s celebrate!


June 3, 2017

Which resident of the Lowcountry is tall, bald, and has knobby knees?

When I first heard the riddle, my Aunt Gladys Hutson Jowers came to mind. She lived with her husband and eight children in a cabin on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. The descriptive riddle would have fit Aunt Gladys in some ways. She was a slightly balding, thin woman with knobby knees who lived in the swamp.  Her hair loss probably came from raising those children. Maybe it was the frequent visits by alligators that crawled out of the swamp into her backyard, enticed by her chickens.

You can probably think of several acquaintances who fit the riddle’s description. But the correct answer is not a person at all. It is one of Aunt Gladys’ close neighbors, the bald cypress tree.

The South Georgia swamp behind Aunt Gladys’ cabin is Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Before that conservation effort in 1937, extensive logging operations had seriously depleted the boggy forest of cypress trees. Read more…


May 28, 2017

Here are two of my favorite stories for Memorial Day.

Dr. William Wilson served as President of the Center for Congregational Health until 2014. In January of that year he founded The Center for Healthy Churches. The following story came from his blog. It is about an experience Bill had at gate A-3 in the Charlotte airport.

“As I approached the gate, I saw that my flight was delayed. Slightly annoyed, I sighed over the coming inconvenience. I noticed a cadre of Transportation Security Administration agents in uniform standing in the gate area, and assumed they were in training, as the senior member of the group was clearly giving instructions about some pressing issue.

“Eventually, I wandered over to the windows to look out at the arriving plane we were to board, and was stunned to see that, as it arrived, it was being surrounded by five fire trucks. A crowd was gathering with me, and someone wondered aloud what was going on. A quiet voice said: ‘There’s a fallen warrior on board this plane’. In the cargo hold was a casket of a member of the military who had died in Afghanistan.

“Suddenly, the mood in gate A-3 shifted dramatically from annoyance to stunned silence. About then we noticed a small crowd gathering below us on the tarmac. A hearse arrived. The TSA agents formed a cordon through which walked two dozen members of the soldier’s family and friends. Dressed in black, they formed up into a small congregation alongside the plane. It was easy to tell the parents, and if there were any doubt, when the cargo door opened and the casket appeared, the mother’s knees buckled and she crumpled to the tarmac. Everyone in the gate area gasped as she went down. Immediately, her husband and daughter and their pastor all surrounded her and helped her to her feet and embraced her.

“Tears were flowing in a silent gate A-3, as this family struggled to get through the hardest day of their life. It was a holy moment as men and women, weeping openly, some reaching out to embrace or take the hands of strangers, murmured words of blessing and encouragement through the glass windows to those gathered below.

“At that moment, a military honor guard walked up to the plane, surrounded the casket and lifted it from the plane. With majestic precision, they marched to the hearse and placed the fallen warrior there. His parents and family trailed them, touching and kissing the flag-draped coffin.

“Slowly, the hearse pulled away and the family turned to leave. Their path from the tarmac led them up into our gate area and through those of us who had gathered to watch the events unfold below us. As they walked through the crowd of tear-streaked strangers, many of us reached out to touch and encourage them on their journey into the rest of their life.”


The second story was sent to me several years ago by my cousin, Captain Jim Hudson. I’m not sure where he got it, but it is certainly worth sharing for Memorial Day.

“Kevin and I, volunteers at a national cemetery in Oklahoma, had suffered through a long hot August day.  We wanted to go down to Smokey’s and have a cold one. The time was 16:55, five minutes before the cemetery gates closed. My full dress uniform was hot. The temperature and humidity were both high.

“I saw a 1970 model Cadillac Deville pull into the drive at a snail’s pace. An old woman got out so slowly I thought she was disabled. She walked with a cane and carried four or five bunches of flowers.

“The thought came unwanted to my mind; she’s going to spend an hour or more here! This old soldier was hot! My hip was hurting, I was ready to leave, but my duty was to help any visitor needing assistance.

“I broke post attention. My hip made gritty noises when I took the first step, and the pain went up a notch. I must have made a real military sight: a middle-aged man with a pot gut and half a limp. Though I was in Marine full-dress uniform, it had lost its razor crease about thirty minutes after I began my watch at the cemetery.

“I stopped in front of her, halfway up the walk. She looked up at me with an old woman’s squint.

‘Ma’am, may I assist you in any way?’

‘Yes, son. Can you carry these flowers? I’m moving a tad slow these days.’

‘My pleasure, ma’am,’ I lied.

She looked again. ‘Marine, where did you serve?’

‘Vietnam, ma’am. Ground-pounder. ’69 to ’71.’

She looked at me closer. ‘Wounded in action, I see. Well done, Marine. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

‘No hurry, ma’am.’

“She smiled and winked at me. ‘Son, I’m eighty-five years old, and I can tell a lie from a long way off. Let’s get this done. Might be the last time I can do this. My name’s Joanne Wieserman, and I’ve a few Marines I’d like to see one more time.’

‘Yes, ma’am.  At your service.’

“In the World War I section, she stopped by a stone, placing one of the flower bunches on the marker. The name on the marble was Donald S. Davidson, USMC, France 1918.

“In the World War II section, she paused at another grave.  With a tear running down her cheek, she laid flowers above the name Stephen X. Davidson, USMC, 1943.

“Just up the row she placed another bunch on a stone, Stanley J. Wieserman, USMC, 1944.

“She paused, wiping tears from her eyes. ‘Just two more, son.’

‘Yes, ma’am. Take your time.’

“Walking down the path in the Vietnam section, the lady stopped at several stones before she found the ones she wanted. She placed flowers on Larry Wieserman, USMC, 1968. The last bunch was for Darrel Wieserman, USMC, 1970.

“She bowed her head in prayer and wept openly.

“After a few moments she was ready to leave. ‘Please help me back to my car. Time to go home.’

‘Yes, ma’am. If I may ask, were those your kinfolk?’

‘Yes, Donald Davidson was my father, Stephen was my brother, Stanley was my husband, Larry and Darrel were our sons. All killed in action, all Marines.

“Whether she had finished, or couldn’t finish, I don’t know. She slowly made her way to her car. I waited for a polite distance to come between us and then double-timed it over to Kevin, waiting by the car.

‘Get to the gate quickly. I have something I’ve got to do.’

“Kevin drove us to the gate down the service road fast. We beat her there. She hadn’t made it around the rotunda yet.

‘Kevin, stand at attention next to the gatepost. Follow my lead.’

“I hurried across the drive to the other post.

“When the Cadillac came puttering around from the hedges and began the short straight traverse to the gate, I called in my best gunny’s voice: ‘Tehen hut! Present haaaarms!’

“Mrs. Wieserman drove through that gate with two old soldiers giving her a send-off she deserved, for service rendered to her country, and for knowing duty, honor, and sacrifice far beyond most Americans.”

On Memorial Day we remember, not only those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in military service, but we also remember the families who will always grieve their passing.


May 21, 2017

More than fifty years ago my picture appeared in the very first Stroller Cookbook, the collection of local recipes published annually by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  Seymour Rosenberg wrote the daily Stroller column and compiled the cookbook.

Inside the front cover of that publication is one of those family pictures that you wish you could avoid when you are almost thirteen and the oldest of eight children. I was embarrassed.  In the photograph, taken by B and B Studio, I am standing behind six of my seven younger siblings. My right hand is on my mother’s shoulder. My left hand is on the shoulder of my brother Bill.

Mama had submitted a recipe for caramel cake to the Stroller a few days before my youngest sister, Kitty, was born. Seymour Rosenberg called Mama several weeks later to arrange a time for Harry White to take the picture. Kitty was six weeks old. Dad was hospitalized with a serious infection following knee surgery. Mama agreed to the photo but said she had no time to bake a cake.

I rode my bicycle to Community Cash Grocery Store located at the end of our street on the corner of Lucerne Drive and Union Road. I purchased the out-of-date angel food cake pictured in the photograph; the one Mama is pretending to cover with caramel icing. She was actually spreading Peter Pan peanut butter on the store-bought cake. After the photographer left, we all tasted the cake, but we fed most of it to the dog.

Mama died sixteen years ago. A part of her legacy is old-fashioned, down-home Southern cooking.  With a good bit of motherly cajoling and masterful delegating, she compiled and published her own Neely Family Cookbook in 1991. Her goal was to preserve many of the favorite family recipes and the stories behind them in the cooks’ own words. Her cookbook has become a collector’s item, at least in our family.

“People just do better when they’ve been fed,” was her wise advice.

My culinary repertoire is limited to outdoor grilling, boiled shrimp, made-to-order omelets, bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches with mozzarella cheese, and my world famous peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sometimes with the deluxe banana and mayonnaise addition.

If the old saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” is true, the men in my family may be the best examples.

Mama, a graduate of Winthrop College, majored in home economics. With eight children and forty-five grandchildren, it’s a good thing she was an excellent cook!

Dad learned to cook grits in Barnwell County from my step-grandmother, Miss Maude. Dad made the best grits I have ever tasted. And his sweet tea, oh, my!

My grandfather was not much of a cook, but he had some of the best culinary advice: “Don’t get married and hire a cook; just marry the cook.”

Pappy did exactly that. He met my grandmother at a Cakewalk at a Methodist church. Mammy was born and reared in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Pappy traveled to her hometown, twenty miles north of Savannah, to install the electrical wiring for a sawmill. On a Saturday night, Pappy entered the Cakewalk. When the music stopped, he won Mammy’s pound cake: And Mammy won his heart!

I shared the treasured Cakewalk recipe that I inherited from Mammy in a Stroller Cookbook several years ago. Her melt-in-your-mouth pound cake was beyond compare.

Mammy’s Pound Cake


1 pound sugar                                                                         3 tablespoons cream

1 pound butter                                                                        3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 pound flour                                                                          1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 pound eggs


All ingredients must be at room temperature. Cream the butter. Gradually add the sugar. Mix alternately small portions of flour and eggs. Add cream, vanilla, and lemon. Beat mixture hard for 10 –20 minutes.

Grease and flour a tube cake pan. One inherited from your grandmother works best.

Pour batter into the pan. Pound the pan on a hard surface 20 to 30 times to remove all bubbles from the batter. Our distressed antique butcher block is the perfect hard surface.

Wham! Wham! Wham! This explains all the dents in the antique pan.

As a child, I thought the name, pound cake, came because Mammy pounded the cake pan on a wooden cutting board before she put the cake into the oven. The name actually comes from the exact weighing of the principal ingredients on kitchen scales. That includes weighing the eggs. Be sure to weigh them out of the shell.

Put the pan containing the batter into a cold oven. Set the oven to bake at 200 degrees for one hour. Then, increase the heat to 300 degrees and bake for about two hours more or until done.

Check the old-fashioned way, with a broom straw. Pull a straw out of a real straw broom. A plastic broom will not work. When you think the cake is done, stick the straw into the cake. Quickly take the straw out of the cake. If the straw has batter on it, the cake needs more time to bake. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. Turn the cake onto a cooling rack and let the aroma fill the house.

Mammy’s pound cake is delicious! It can be served warm. Thin slices toasted and buttered make a delightful breakfast treat. For special occasions, serve a warm chunk of Mammy’s pound cake with fresh homemade ice cream

Mammy’s pound cake might change your life. Pappy and Mammy had nine children and thirty-six grandchildren. It all started with her pound cake.

When I got married I took Pappy’s advice. I, too, married a wonderful cook. Clare is a high school history teacher by training, but she is a professional homemaker by vocation. One of the many things I appreciate about my wife is that she has always fed our family well. When I children were small she made peanut butter soup to encourage them to get good protein on cold winter days. She made light fluffy cottage cheese pancakes insuring that even with whole-grain batter our family would receive the added dairy benefits. While she bakes excellent cakes in the style of her mother, Miz Lib, Clare’s specialties are loaded with chocolate. Her hot chocolate chip cookies are so yummy the kids like to eat the dough before she puts it on a cookie sheet.  Her double fudge chocolate brownies are to die for.

I am not at all sure my theology is on solid ground when I affirm that I believe heaven will include banana pudding, strawberry short cake, apple pie, peach cobbler, Mammy’s pound cake, and Clare’s double fudge brownies.  We’ll just have to wait and see!


May 15, 2017

On a warm spring day last week, I was working in our yard. I was weeding a flower bed and adding new plants to our garden. Down on my knees digging in the good earth, I enjoyed the smell of the soil, the gentle breeze at my back, and the songs of a mother wren tending her fledglings.

Suddenly in the distance I heard a loud disturbance. A pair of blue jays were squawking, a sure sign that something was threatening their nest. I looked around for Stormy, my garden feline. She was taking a catnap in the shade. I searched the sky above for an alien bird of prey. Maybe a hawk posed the threat. I saw nothing in flight or waiting to attack from a tree high above the ruckus. Upon closer investigation I saw a black rat snake climbing a winged elm tree. The hungry serpent was anticipating a meal of young birds. Using a rake, I lifted the snake from the limb and moved it to the back of the property. As I did a mockingbird made several hostile passes at the intruder dangling from the end of my rake.

Before long, order was restored. The mockingbird found a perch high in a wild cherry tree and sang the rest of the afternoon.

A lady in our acquaintance takes her newspaper and a cup of freshly brewed coffee to her backporch every morning. “I always have my cell phone with me,” she explained. “I never know when one of my children might call.”

Early one sunny day as she enjoyed her coffee, she heard the familiar ringtone of her cell phone. She took the phone from her pocket. “I thought that the call had been lost. Then I heard the sound again,” she said. “It wasn’t my phone at all! It was a mockingbird ringing from high up in a sweet gum tree. That bird had heard my ringtone so often that he memorized it!”

The scientific name for the mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek mimu, to mimic, and ployglottos, for many-tongued. The mockingbird’s song is a medley of the calls of other birds. The mockingbird imitates short units of sound, which it repeats several times before moving on to a new song.

Species with repetitive songs, such as the Carolina wren or the cardinal, are easily copied by the mockingbird. A mockingbird usually has 30 to 40 songs in its repertoire. These include other bird songs, insect or amphibian sounds, and even the noise of a squeaky gate or a car alarm.

The mockingbird is not only a good mimic, but it is also a loud, vocal bird. Unmated males often sing through the night, especially when the moon is full. These bachelors are singing to woo any available female.

I enjoy sitting in my backyard at night. It is my favorite time to meditate.  Eighteen-wheel petroleum trucks groan by on the four-lane in front of our home. Long freight trains rumble along the railroad tracks in back. Dogs bark in the distance. An occasional siren pierces the night, prompting the dogs to howl. I breathe a prayer for whatever family is involved in the emergency.

When these sounds fade away, I am treated to the symphony of nature. Bullfrogs in the pond and tree frogs in the woods are joined by crickets and cicadas in a chorus. In the spring whippoorwills sing from the meadow behind our property.  Last week, beneath a bright moon, a mockingbird sang for hours from the top of a pecan tree.

The mockingbird is closely identified with the South, where it is a year-round resident.  It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. My grandfather, a Tennessee native, told me it was his favorite bird. From him I learned to identify the mockingbird by the distinctive white chevron markings on the wings and the long tail that constantly moves up and down.

Mockingbirds have an adaptable diet. They eat insects in summer but switch to a menu of berries and seeds in winter.

Mockingbird males establish a nesting territory in early February. They tend to be monogamous.  Both mates are involved in the nest building. The male does most of the work while the female perches nearby to watch for predators. The nest is built 3 to 10 feet above the ground. The mother bird lays and incubates three to five eggs. Once the fledglings hatch, both the male and female feed them.

Mockingbirds aggressively defend their nest. I have seen a pair harass a red-tailed hawk until the encroacher left the territory.  They have been known to peck bald spots on the rear end of a cat and inflict a wound on a dog that required stitches from a vet. Mockingbirds will even target humans, as my dear wife can attest. Clare walked though a gate into our backyard. Unbeknownst to her, she was too close to a nest. A mockingbird, diving like a kamikaze, struck her on the shoulder.

2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. The story’s hero, Atticus Finch, gives his children air rifles for Christmas, warning, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  A neighbor, Miss Maudie, explains to the children, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Many know the song “Listen to the Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1855. My favorite rendition is an instrumental guitar arrangement by Chet Atkins entitled “Hot Mockingbird.” In his recording, Chet makes his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar sing like the gray and white bird.

Most parents have sung the “Mockingbird Lullaby” to their children. Carly Simon and James Taylor recorded a version that was a popular success in 1974. One of the joys of being a grandfather is singing to our grandchildren. They provide the only audience that will listen to my warbles without complaining.

Recently Clare and I were babysitting for one of our young granddaughters. After she had supper and a bath, a fresh diaper, and clean pajamas, I took her upstairs to bed. We followed the usual routine, a sip of water, a favorite book, a little rocking chair time, and a song.

I started the lullaby.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.

Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.

Outside of the bedroom window from the top of a sassafras tree, we heard the sweet music of a mockingbird. We listened together for a few minutes. I put our granddaughter in her bed. Without a whimper she closed her eyes and went to sleep, serenaded by the mockingbird’s song.


May 13, 2017

For Mothers’ Day I repeat a story that captures the essence of motherhood.

On May 10, 1908, Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia. Neither a wife nor a mother herself, Anna wanted to encourage Americans to honor the women who are the strength of the nation. When the holiday became so quickly commercialized, Jarvis protested. The sale of cards and flowers and the proliferation of Mother’s Day advertising, detracted from Anna’s initial vision of a simple day to express gratitude for our mothers and grandmothers.

Arthur Brisbane, a famous newspaper editor, gave this advice to his fellow journalists, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Picture a woman whose face you have seen and probably recognize. She is not a famous celebrity; neither a beauty queen, nor a film star. When she gave permission for her most familiar photograph, she was not strutting on a red carpet. She was under a makeshift tent, nursing the youngest of her seven children. Though the photograph became an immediate success, the mother in the picture never received any compensation. For the photographer, the picture brought fame. For the woman pictured and her family it became a source of shame.

The thirty-two-year-old mother could have been on the cover of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Her story is similar to that of Steinbeck’s Ma Joad. The mother of six, Ma is a poor but strong woman married to a tenant farmer. Driven from their Oklahoma home by the Dust Bowl drought, the Joads set out for California.

In 1936, three years before Steinbeck published his work of fiction, Dorothea Lange snapped several black-and-white photographs of a destitute mother with three of her children. Lange worked for the United States Government Resettlement Administration as a photographer. While visiting a migrant workers’ camp near Nipomo, California, she captured the picture that made her famous.

Lange selected one of the pictures to send to the San Francisco News. The newspaper printed the picture immediately, along with the caption that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California. Within days, the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. By the time the shipment arrived, the young mother and her family had moved on to another camp.

The iconic portrait of an American mother living on the brink of starvation was entitled “Migrant Mother.” As an illustration of severe poverty, the worried and worn woman in the picture unwittingly became the face of the Great Depression.

Because Lange had been funded by the federal government when she took the picture, the image was always in the public domain. As a collection, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography. Ken Burns included many in his recent The Dust Bowl, a documentary film which aired on the Public Broadcasting System. The film recounts the impact of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This picture appears in the episode entitled “Reaping the Whirlwind,” a phrase taken from the Old Testament book of Job.

The connection to Job’s suffering is appropriate. The Library of Congress entitled the image, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

In Lange’s field notes preserved with the photograph in the Library of Congress, she recorded that the young mother and her family were “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.” Lange later wrote of the meeting:

“I did not ask her name or her history.”

Who was the mysterious woman in the mythical portrait?

Because Lange failed to get the woman’s name, it was more than forty years later that the woman in the picture told her story. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Florence Owens Thompson at her mobile home in the Modesto Mobile Village. He recognized her from the forty-year-old photograph.

Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on Sept. 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her father had abandoned her mother before Florence was born. Her mother remarried Charles Akman who was of Choctaw descent. The family lived on a small farm outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

At age seventeen, Florence married Cleo Owens on February 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy. The family migrated west with relatives to California. Cleo worked at a sawmill and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley.

By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933 Florence had another child. She became the common law wife of Jim Hill.

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Florence and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville where they hoped to find work in the lettuce fields.  On the road, their automobile broke down, and they coasted to a stop at the crowded migrant camp on Nipomo Mesa.  The crops had been destroyed by freezing rain.

Florence remembered setting up a temporary camp and cooking vegetables that had been frozen in the field for her children while her husband and two of her sons worked to repair the car. It was then that Dorothea Lange drove up and started taking photos including the one that bears witness to the deprivation and suffering of the Great Depression.

During the 1930s the family labored as migrant farm workers following the crops in California. Florence would later recall picking cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to see. She added, “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”

Florence and Jim Hill had three more children.

The family settled in Modesto, California in 1945. After World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson.

In a television interview with Cable News Network (CNN), daughter Katherine McIntosh, remembered her mother as a strong lady who was the backbone of the family.  She said, “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her. She loved music, and she loved to dance.”

In 1998, the photo of “Migrant Mother” became a 32-cent postage stamp in the 1930s Celebrate the Century series. In the same month the stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold at auction for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York. Florence, the woman in the picture, never got one red cent.

Florence died on September 16, 1983. She was buried in Hughson, California.

Her epitaph reads:


Migrant Mother

A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood

Anna Jarvis had the right idea. On Mother’s Day we celebrate with gratitude the women who, like Florence, have been the strength of our nation.