So This Is Christmas

Except it isn’t, not really.  It isn’t even Advent yet.  Once upon a time I might have complained about the onslaught of Christmas when Thanksgiving is barely over, but no more.  I used up all my indignation fussing about people putting up decorations right after HALLOWEEN.
Since the rest of the world, it seems, is ready to celebrate, we headed downtown for the lighting of the downtown Christmas tree.  This is part of Knoxville’s Christmas in the City celebration, and our family has been attending this event since long before it became cool to do so.
I remember pushing Jake and Teddy around downtown in their double stroller, when we were almost the only people brave enough! to venture downtown at night, even for free doughnuts and eggnog.  This year we drove completely through one parking garage without finding a single space.  Market Square and Krutch Park were overrun with revelers, both those who came for the tree lighting and those who were eating at the restaurants and shopping in the stores, none of which were there when the boys were babies.
I’m glad for the success of downtown.  But I’m still a little nostalgic for the days when its awesomeness was a secret known to only a few of us.

Let the Preparations Begin!

That’s my counter, waiting for tomorrow.  We are hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in several years, and I expect to be cooking all day.  I hope to have only the turkey to deal with on Thursday.
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was so comforting, following the same pattern every single year.  We ate dinner at Mima’s at 2 p.m. and supper at Granny’s later on.  At Mima’s there would be turkey and giblet gravy; at Granny’s there would be ham and dumplings.  (And many other things too, of course!)
But divorce, marriages, kids, and deaths have intervened.  We’ve never really come up with a permanent Thanksgiving plan like we had back then.  Thus added to the stress of preparing for the holiday is the stress of deciding where and how it will happen.
We started hosting the dinner before we even had a house big enough to do it, with a table that filled the entire living room of our ratty apartment.  Once we’d moved to the Victorian house, which had a dining room made for that kind of thing, we were the natural hosts and we filled that role for a long time.  My sister and I took turns a couple of times once she had a house.  But for the past couple of years we have gone out to eat and then met later on for homemade desserts.
But if you are a parent you know that kids thrive on tradition and DEMAND that it be followed.  My kids have never approved of this going out to eat on Thanksgiving business.  So this year I am cooking again.
I’m making the turkey, of course (and I plan to document just how I am doing that for my post tomorrow),  the gravy (sorry, Mima, no giblets in mine!), the dressing (I’d like to try something adventurous but when I’ve added craisins or nuts in the past my family members have disapproved), sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes (something we added for John–we never had them growing up), pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and possibly apple pie if I don’t get burned out before then.  And I’ll also be supplying the tea (VERY sweet), the cranberry sauce (the kind that keeps the shape of the can only, please!), and the sweet pickles and olives (because Mima always had them).
My mother is making the rolls and the green beans.  My sister is making casseroles (she is big on casseroles and invents her own recipes) and her mother-in-law is (I think and hope) bringing a ham (I’m the only big ham fan in the family so we never have it; I hope she will leave me some leftovers!).
I feel like I am whining all the time but I do feel just a little melancholy about not having special china and crystal any more.  We used to set a beautiful Thanksgiving table.  That was John’s contribution and he always did a wonderful job.  He even did fancy things with the napkins.  Rather than even attempt to replicate that I think we will be more casual and do buffet style and sit wherever.  It is easier anyway–I used to get so worn out from serving all those plates that I was just about too tired to eat!
What about you?  What’s on your menu for Thursday? What Thanksgiving food can you just not do without?


I knew something was up when I heard the front door open this morning before I even went downstairs.  But I have a secret weapon:  thanks to our security system and the wonders of the iPhone, I can look on my phone and instantly know every time the door has opened in the past 24 hours.  This is great for keeping track of teenage movements.
Jake was out with friends when I went to bed last night, but my phone told me he had come home shortly thereafter.  It also told me that he was in and out of doors several times throughout the night, so I knew he’d been up all night.
The signs were clear when I came downstairs.  What had been left behind told the story.
Coffee cups.  Empty pizza boxes and plates with bits of crust.  Dead laptops.  A sooty hardback copy of The Lord of the Rings.  A notebook.  And most shocking of all, an Encyclopedia of Shakespeare.
And then Jake and his friend Jim popping back into the house.  “Good morning, Family!” Jake sang out.  Apparently he was none the worse for the wild night he had spent.  Oh, well, you are only 18 once, after all.

Sweet Home Alabama

We took a whirlwind trip to Mobile, Alabama last weekend.  It was our last Family Weekend at Spring Hill College–Emily will graduate in May.  For the last four Octobers we’ve made (or some of us have, depending on who was available–I’m the only one who’s made all four) the 500 mile drive to spend some time with Emily, have fun at the events on campus, and explore a little bit of Mobile.
I’ve written about my family connection to Mobile before–it had kind of a mythical allure to me growing up, that place we came from.  My great-grandmother was born there, then migrated to Tennessee with her husband (whose family was from Kentucky).  My grandmother made frequent visits throughout her life, spending summers at the family home on the bay with cousins, bringing her own children for visits, and even into her later years heading down to see family and coming home with crabmeat to make gumbo.  So we were thrilled that Emily chose to go to school there, and welcomed the opportunity to get to know the area a little more on each of our visits.
This time around, besides enjoying seafood at Wintzell’s Oyster House and the Mariner (my favorite, that Emily and I discovered on my first visit there with her), out in the middle of nowhere (William loves it because of all the cats that live outside, fed by the owners on leftover seafood!), we went to see the USS Alabama.  This is something John had been wanting to do from our first visit.  I would never have thought of doing it myself, but WOW.


Talk about big guns!


We wandered the whole ship, above and below decks, and William especially was enthralled.
Afterwards, we had to make a stop at Magnolia Cemetery.  My great-great-great grandfather, a Confederate General, is buried there, and Emily wanted to recap the picture I took of her there four years ago.  Plus we all just love cemeteries, and this is a pretty cool one.
Emily on the gravestone of General James D. Hagan, her great-great-great-great grandfather.


Our trip did not have the best ending, what with our car starting to shake as though possessed, necessitating $500 worth of repairs and a six hour delay in leaving on Sunday while those were effected, but since we’ve had somewhat worse endings to vacations in the past, I’ll take it.


So I just heard about this–I mean, really, like just now, with less than 20 minutes to go in the first day!  And I think it’s a great idea, since I’ve been terrible about blogging lately–as much as I want to–and clearly I need some outside motivation.
But with only eleven minutes left to go right now, I will just post my favorite Halloween picture and plan to do better tomorrow. 🙂
I love the picture below because it was serendipitous.  After all, you can’t pose a cat, right?

College Search 2012

Twenty-eight summers ago, my family took me on a college-shopping trip.  Much of our recent vacation was a re-enactment of that journey, with the college-shopper this time around being my 17-year-old son Teddy.   The memories of that long-ago journey overlaid this one, giving it a faintly surreal feel.
We started with Georgetown University, which is only an hour from Baltimore, where we were lodged.  This was a highly-anticipated moment for John and me, since it’s our alma mater and we had not been back in several years.   When we drove across the Key Bridge we more or less spontaneously broke into song, starting with the Alma Mater and segueing seamlessly into the fight song, which is the most awesome fight song EVER.
Once we parked, Jake and Emily struck off on their own while the rest of us went to the Admissions Office for the information session. (That’s how college visits mostly work–an info session led by officials, followed by a campus tour led by a student.)  The session was overcrowded so the little people and I waited in the lobby, where I enjoyed talking to the student at the desk about how things have changed and some of our past escapades.
Georgetown is a noisy place, with airplanes flying overhead regularly, lots of people, and delivery vehicles chirping as they try to back up (The only roads are access roads–it’s not a driving campus.)  So although the tour was by far the most comprehensive in terms of the buildings we saw, it wasn’t the best because we had a really hard time hearing our guide.  Things that struck me:  Georgetown has the world’s largest student-owned and operated business; it encourages internships and has many available all over the country; it places emphasis on studying abroad.  Getting an opinion out of Teddy is like drawing blood from a stone, but I know that he approves of its awesome location in our nation’s capital.  If I were going to pick, I’d send him there.  But I’m not going to pick because I am not a helicopter mom.
What do I remember from my own visit to Georgetown was my father sweating through his shirt and therefore having to keep his jacket on in the intense heat (we were luckier with our weather this time and missed the Knoxville heat wave too!); being told that there were Masses offered every 45 minutes all day long (this time around we also heard about the rabbis and imams on campus); and that it was my favorite from the moment I set foot there.

Georgetown’s founder Bishop John Carroll in front of the Healy Buiding.

One of many student-run shops on campus, its name a play on “Hoya Saxa,” the phrase whence Georgetown’s athletic teams get their name.

Jake posing where many presidents have given speeches on campus, most famously Lincoln, in front of Old North.

From the wall of the Intercultural Building, where the School of Foreign Service is housed

A favorite professor, now resting in the Jesuit graveyard on campus

Our next stop was Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.  We drove up from Baltimore for their afternoon session and tour.  Teddy and I went to Nassau Hall for the info session while everyone else went in search of snacks.   It was a grand location for an information session with a lot of history–it was briefly our nation’s Capitol.  Emily and Jake joined us for the tour (and brought the snacks!) while John rested and let the little kids play behind the Frist Student Center (yes, it is the Frist you think!).
It was a really good tour and I think all of us were impressed with the beauty of the campus.  Also notable are the residential college system (think Hogwarts) and the upper-class eating clubs.  From my first visit I remember thinking that the campus was beautiful but the town was too small, and my opinion remains the same (30,000 people in the town).  They told us back then that New York and Philadelphia were close and accessible by train, and they said that again this time, only they admitted what I suspected from the first, that people mostly don’t do that.
The main library from a distance

Some of that famous ivy

The chapel at Princeton

Teddy with a Princeton tiger

We drove straight from Princeton to New Haven, in preparation for our appointment at Yale University first thing in the morning.  That visit started out extremely well, with our finding two parking places right on the street in front of our destination.  Emily and Jake took Lorelei and John, William, and I accompanied Teddy to the information session, which was held in a lecture hall to accommodate the crowd.  For the tour, we were divided up into smaller groups so that we were able to hear our guide very well.
Me, I don’t like campuses with actual city roads crossing through them, but Teddy didn’t seem to mind.  Yale’s architecture is the prettiest–which I remember thinking when I saw it last.  It’s modeled on Oxford so there is lots of stone.  A highlight of the tour was one library which houses the rare book collection, including a Gutenberg Bible.  The main library is styled like a cathedral, with a large collection of secular stained glass (Yale was determinedly secular, which naturally turned me off.  No mention was made of religious opportunities on campus, although there is a large Catholic church on the street where the tour began–the only non-Yale building on the street.).
Teddy liked the “shopping period,” a two-week time during which you can attend any courses you want before you commit, even coming late and leaving early.  Yale also does the residential college bit.  I like the sound of that better these days–it didn’t appeal to me when I was applying to colleges.  New Haven was downright scary back then, which was a major downer.  I can see that it’s been revitalized quite a bit, but I understand that it’s still considered a high-crime city.   But, hey, D.C. was the murder capital of the country when I attended Georgetown.
Rare books cube

Gutenberg Bible

Interior of the main library, a “cathedral to knowledge”

Library exterior

So, finally, we headed for Harvard University.  It wasn’t one of Teddy’s favorites to begin with, and the tour didn’t change that.  He and I went to the information session while everyone else went to find parking ($27!).  The session was held in a theatre also used as a lecture hall, and was unique on the trip for having student commentators along with the admission official–a good tactic, I thought.  The rest of the family were wiped out and thoroughly tired of colleges by this time, so they did not come on the tour with us either.
Our guide was fine, but the tour covered the least territory of any that we went on.  At some colleges, there is a definite sense that they are trying to “sell” themselves.  At Harvard, you feel that they know they’ve already made the sale, because they are, you know, HARVARD, so they don’t try as hard.  The points that stood out to me about Harvard were negative points.  They are so secular that they don’t mention religion and so “diverse” that they don’t officially sanction any single sex organizations.  Cambridge is great and lots of fun I’m sure, but you are constantly crossing streets and I just don’t like that.  The architecture leans brickward which just isn’t as pretty as the stone on other campuses.  They de-emphasize studying abroad or doing internships during the school year, because who would want to miss a semester at Harvard?  And you only take 32 classes to graduate!
Memorial Hall, where our tour began

Interior of Memorial Hall

In Harvard Yard

Interesting building sighted on the way to Harvard Square

So where will Teddy go to school?  I suspect he will narrow it down by 1) Where he gets in and 2) Where he gets the best deal financially.  We shall see.  After my college tour, I made exhaustive pro/con lists (Georgetown won!) but still ended up applying to all of them (plus Brown, which Teddy did not want included on his tour–he is also considering Vanderbilt and Notre Dame).  I got into Georgetown early, was wait-listed at Brown and Princeton and outright rejected by Harvard and Yale.  Which was a blow to my ego but for which I am forever grateful, because I feel like you just don’t say no if you get into Harvard and I am so, so glad that I went to Georgetown.
When Emily looked at colleges, she loved Spring Hill right away and knew it was the place for her, just like John and I knew about Georgetown.  So I asked Teddy, “Did you get a special feeling about any of them?  Did any one place make your soul sing?” He responded, “Mom, I’m not a girl.”

Note of Thanks

I’ve posted variations on this theme on Facebook, in my church bulletin, and in various letters that have gone out to the many communities that helped our family recover from the fire that destroyed our home and belongings four months ago.  In case I’ve missed anyone (I know I have) I want to offer thanks here as well.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.
— Psalms 46:1-2.
It is natural for people of faith to turn to God for help and solace in times of distress.  When our home burned we looked for Him and found Him in the generosity of those around us.  An anonymous poet once said “What is bitter to endure may be sweet to remember.”   Truly the loss of our cherished possessions is bitter to endure, but we will always remember the way so many people embraced us during this time, even many who were not personally known to us.  We’ve all heard that during our trials we learn who our friends are.  What we have learned is that we have many friends whom we never even knew about until this happened to us, and for that blessing we are grateful.
Just look at where we were four months ago.

Here’s where we are now.
It was the generosity of family, friends, and yes, strangers, that enabled us to afford to rent this house, which has sufficient rooms for a family of seven AND our home office.  It was their donations that furnished it.  On September 23, 2011–Moving Day–our “crew” went out with the 28-foot moving van.  That morning we owned no furniture.  By that evening we had enough to fill the house–beds, mattresses, sofas, televisions, housewares, linens . . . it was amazing.  Gift cards enabled us to to fill in the gaps and to purchase clothing and personal items.
“Blanket” notes cannot go far enough to express our appreciation.  If you gave us something, and it wasn’t anonymous, you can expect a personal thank you at some point.   Please accept this as a first installment, with the balance due to arrive in the future–not that we could ever thank everyone enough.
[I continue to feel guilty that I never finished all those thank you notes, even though we did have a housewarming party to which we invited everyone who had helped us.]

Images of the Past

Every morning when I go to my computer for my modern technology fix, my desktop wallpaper reminds me of a very different time, almost 100 years ago.  Taken in 1915, in Mobile, Alabama, this four-generation photograph includes (standing, on the right) my great-great grandmother, Mary Anne Davis Hagan; (standing, on the left) my great-grandmother, Mary Becker Hagan Higgins; (seated) my great-great-great grandmother, Luocretia Hall Davis, born in 1830; and (in her lap) my great-uncle Walter Martin Higgins, Jr., my grandmother‘s oldest brother.  I love the way his mother and grandmother are looking at him with such delighted smiles, which I imagine he is returning.  I think of how he would grow up to be a Brigadier General and how Mima worshipped him.  I wonder about the dog–what his name is and who he belonged to.  And I wonder if the houses behind are still standing and if on one of my now frequent trips to Mobile (where my oldest child attends Spring Hill College) I might be able to find out.

This photo is more formal and I don’t like it as much for that reason, although it is clearer.  I wonder about that day–if they were posing for this formal photograph and then the photographer decided to play around a bit as he was leaving with the smiling shot on the front lawn, so different from most older family pictures.  We will never know, but I am glad they took the time that day to have these pictures made.  There is something awe-inspiring to me about seeing Luocretia, who was born in 1830, owned slaves, and  lived through the Civil War, holding in her lap my Uncle Walter, whom I remember from his yearly visits to my grandmother, always around Halloween for some reason, as a kindly gentleman in a cardigan sweater.

Mary Elizabeth Higgins Carroll, 1918-2008

I was blessed with the obligation and opportunity to write Mima’s obituary, which follows.
Mary Elizabeth Higgins Carroll, age 89, died January 30 at her home. She was a member of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church for over 50 years. 
 Elizabeth was born to the union of Mary Becker Hagan of Mobile, Alabama and Walter Martin Higgins of Louisville, Kentucky on October 11, 1918. She was one of five children; her brothers, John Higgins, Brigadier General Walter Higgins, and Major James Higgins preceded her in death. Her sister, Patricia Higgins Harkins of Baton Rouge, Lousiana survives her. Family was everything to her. “Blood is thicker than water,” was one of her favorite sayings. She was very proud of her Irish and Southern heritage.
After attending the University of Chattanooga, Elizabeth married Jesse Willard Carroll on October 16, 1943 in Birmingham, Alabama. They settled in Knoxville and reared two daughters. After her children grew up, Elizabeth worked for the Social Security Administration for many years, retiring in 1980, shortly after the death of her husband.
In her retirement she traveled to France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the Holy Land. She was an excellent and passionate bridge player. She was a gardener who passed her love of growing things to her children and grandchildren.
Elizabeth’s first grandchild christened her “Mima,” and she came to be known as Mima to all her grandchildren’s friends. Generosity was the hallmark of her personality. She crocheted hundreds of afghans for her family, friends, nursing home patients, and newborn babies in need. She was an active member of the Ladies of Charity for many years. Even when two strokes left her in a wheelchair, she would save fruit and candy given to her so that she would have gifts to offer her great-grandchildren when they visited.
Her zest for life was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. She was a woman of strong convictions who always let people know just what she was thinking. Although her first stroke left her with aphasia, she continued to do her best to speak her mind. She acquired a love for seafood as a child spending summers on the Mobile Bay, and shrimp remained her favorite treat. She was confined to a wheelchair for her last four years, but she looked forward to a day when she might walk again. She was still following national politics, and she enjoyed a game of Bingo the night before she died.
She is survived by her daughters and son-in-law: Elizabeth (Beth) Carroll Hunley of Knoxville and Mary Leslie Carroll Dotson and David Dotson of Sevierville; her grandchildren and their husbands: Leslie Hunley Sholly and John Sholly of Knoxville, Melissa Simpson Weatherspoon of Knoxville; Marcia Simpson McCormack and Peter McCormack of Knoxville, Elizabeth (Betsy) Hunley Rueff and Andrew Rueff of Dallas, Jeffrey Simpson of Nashville, Anne Hunley Trisler of Knoxville, and Sarah Simpson Keiser and David Keiser of Nashville; and her great-grandchildren: Emily Sholly, Alexander Langston, John Sholly Jr., Richard Sholly, Zachary Trisler, William Sholly, Ella Trisler, Tristan Weatherspoon, Jadin Weatherspoon, Lorelei Sholly, and Nathan Weatherspoon.
She was a true Southern matriarch and her clan will miss her deeply.
The family will receive friends at Rose’s Mortuary Broadway Chapel Friday evening from 6-8, with a prayer service at 8 followed by the recitation of the Rosary. The Mass of the Resurrection will be celebrated at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church by Father Marcos Zamora, C.S.P. on Saturday at 10 a.m. Interment will be at Clark’s Grove Cemetery in Maryville immediately following the Mass. Pallbearers are David Dotson, Richard Hunley, David Keiser, Peter McCormack, Andrew Rueff, John Sholly, Jeffrey Simpson, and Eric Trisler.

On the Road Again

Back in June, John had a wreck while driving my car.  For once, it was not his fault (he is kind of famous for rear-end collisions, unfortunately).  But the other party disputes his version of events, and it looks like a lawsuit may be necessary (why, you may ask, has my attorney husband not ironed all this out by now?  Because “shoemakers’ wives go barefoot and doctors’ wives die young” and attorneys take their own sweet time when it comes to their own families’ legal affairs–or at least mine does.). [edit: He never did file that lawsuit.]
We rented a car for awhile and we’ve limped along as a one-car family for about a month, with constant assistance from my long-suffering mother.  See, my vehicle is so old and battered that we weren’t carrying collision insurance, and the damage was estimated at more than half its value. Finally we decided to ask my uncle and cousin (the owners of Bright’s Paint and Body in Strawberry Plains–out in the country, we used to call it) just to pound out the dents and make it driveable.  Assuming we recover from the insurance company, we can pretty it up some later.
So yesterday we picked up the car and really, it doesn’t look half bad–bloody,  but unbowed, because it was so beaten up to begin with.  And I felt a burst of affection as I drove away in it, with the almost-forgotten sensation of being high above the road, enjoying the lovely fall day as we drove home the long way down Thorngrove Pike.  When I come out to the driveway and see it sitting there, I am positively gleeful.  My feelings about it haven’t been so positive for a long time.
John surprised me with the car–it’s not really a car, it’s an SUV, a Dodge Durango to be precise–on my birthday, nine-and-a-half years ago.  I’d been wanting an SUV for awhile, because I wanted to be different from all the moms in minivans.  I’d always made fun of the families who ran out and bought a minivan upon the birth of their first child.  We had four kids by this time–William was not quite two months old–and we were shoe-horned into my grandmother’s old Chrysler LeBaron, with Jake in the death seat up front because he was the skinniest.  Of course, this was also the time that SUVs really took off and became the new soccer mom car, so I ended up being a cliche after all.
Oh, how I loved that Durango at first.  It had power windows and front and rear air and real leather seats and a CD player as well as a cassette player!  There were seats for all six of us and even room to bring home a friend.  It wasn’t new but it had only 24,000 miles on it and was no doubt originally owned by a somewhat more hip version of the proverbial old lady.
Then came one of the stupider days in my life.  I don’t feel like recounting the details at the moment, but I carelessly almost allowed myself to be run over by my own truck.  To be more accurate, I WAS run over, but miraculously only my foot and my leg.  Having watched the wheel of the Durango rolling up my leg towards the more vulnerable rest of me, and actually having the thought, “I guess this is it,” I no longer loved my erstwhile birthday gift.  I feared it and looked on it with suspicion.
And there was more to come.  Google “Dodge Durango and Oil” and you will read many tales of woe.  The engine burned up and the vehicle sat idle for months.  We bought an old minivan from a friend, and even though it was pretty grim I grew fond of its spaciousness.  We were a one-car family for about a year until we decided to put a new engine in the Durango.  But I was happy to let John drive it.  That was, I believe, when he had his series of rear-end collisions, which gave me new respect for the Durango.  Let me tell you, that thing is like a tank.  It’s been in so many wrecks and it comes away with a ding or two and some scraped off paint.
It became my car again after my second near-death experience, when a drunk driver rear-ended and totaled the minivan, hitting us so hard that we ran into the side of a house and knocked a hole in it.  The jaws of life and stitches were involved.  We were back to one car again, and I chauffeured John to and from court, and was grateful that there were seven seats in the car to hold our expanded family.
As SUVs go, the Durango is tiny.  Parked next to the $50,000 models that go on forever, it looks downright petite.  And, damn it, minivans just have a lot more space.  I’m carting two teenage boys who are at least six feet tall in this thing.  It’s got no leg room to speak of.  When Emily is home all three teenagers cannot fit comfortably in the middle row.  As the shortest, she has to sit in the way back with one of the little people, and she is far from enthusiastic about that.  The tailgate won’t open for some reason, which makes vacation packing difficult.  But it gets us where we need to go, and after all it has been through I am grateful for its seeming indestructibility.
My mother was upset when I told her we were going to drive the Durango as is, dents and scrapes and all.  She said the kids would be embarrassed. (William, who was listening, said, “No, I won’t!”)  But that got me thinking.  So many people have something in mind when they buy a car, just like I did when I first wanted the Durango.  I wanted it to show that I wasn’t like everyone else.  Others may want to show that they are cool, or wealthy, or knowledgeable about good cars, or trendy, or whatever.
What I love now about the Durango is that it is real.  I am not driving it to say anything.  I am driving it because it is paid for, and it still works, and it holds all my family and their stuff, and it gets us where we need to go.
[Postscript:  Here is how the Durango finally met its end.  I still miss it.]