Monthly Archives: November 2014

The One and Only Bebo at One Hundred

Her full name was Mary Ellen Davis Jonas, but to my sister, my cousins, and me, she was always Bebo. We can thank my cousin Bill for that memorable moniker. My sister Ginger, the first of four grandchildren, originally called her Memaw, but Billy’s pronunciation came out “Bebo,” and it stuck. Everyone who knew and loved her agrees that it’s appropriate that she had such a distinctive name, because she was one of a kind.

She was born one hundred years ago today, November 20, 1914, in Ivanhoe, Virginia, and she missed living an entire century only by a handful of years. What a century she witnessed! Her lifetime spanned the administrations of seventeen United States presidents, and she approved of the Republicans. Why? Because she blamed the Democrats–Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson–for getting us into wars. So, she was a Republican, and she even had a poster of Richard Nixon on roller skates. “Poor old Tricky Dick,” she would say, “He didn’t do anything worse than the rest of them. He just got caught.”

To put her life in historical context, consider some of the other memorable events of 1914, the year she was born:

  • Babe Ruth made his professional baseball debut.
  • Henry Ford introduced the Model T assembly line.
  • Charlie Chaplin debuted his character The Tramp.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, beginning Europe’s downward spiral into The Great War, World War I.

Twenty-two days before her fifteenth birthday, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. The ensuing Great Depression coincided with her teen and young adult years. The seasons of her life that should have been the most fun and carefree were neither. I remember being surprised once when she told us that she had the opportunity to go to Radford College when she graduated from high school, but because she felt the need to help out at home, she chose to forego college. In retrospect, I’m sure that those days of subsistence and survival made college seem somewhat extravagant and fanciful anyway.

Through all the time I knew her, it was clear that the depression era had left its distinct impression upon her. She clearly remembered that time when, in her own way of describing it, “We didn’t have nothing.” Because of that lasting memory, Bebo was not a spender. She cut coupons and checked sale papers, and when she and my grandfather went grocery shopping, they visited several stores and got the things they needed where they were the least expensive. Once when I drove her to the grocery store, she picked up a canister of Morton’s salt, looked at the price tag, and put it back on the shelf with disgust. She couldn’t believe that it cost thirty-three cents, and she wouldn’t buy it because she remembered when it had only cost a nickel.

Because of her frugal nature, she was ahead of her time in reusing and recycling. That’s a polite way of saying that she was a borderline hoarder. She and Granddaddy had three outbuildings–a garage, a wash house, and a shed. All were packed to the gills with stuff she couldn’t part with and/or might need again. The stairway to their bedroom had a passageway only about fifteen inches wide because the stairwell doubled as storage area too. I never really saw the mattress in the other upstairs bedroom because it was covered with things that needed to be kept. Over several visits, I noticed that she rinsed and reused a styrofoam coffee cup from Long John Silver’s. After her Great Depression experience, she was going to be ready for the next “rainy day.”

Her strict self-discipline about her own spending, saving, and keeping, did not translate to strict expectations about her grandchildren’s behavior. My sister and I loved visits to Bebo’s house because it was like stepping outside of the rules for a little while. I remember jumping on the bed in the downstairs bedroom with my cousin Toby as our mothers called from the living room for us to stop. Within the safety zone of Bebo’s house of fun, we began to chant, “We don’t want to! We don’t have to!” We knew that Bebo would come to our defense. “Let ’em have fun,” she would say, usually followed by, “poor little ol’ things don’t know no better.” At Bebo’s house, we could play in the creek all day, go without baths, pee outside, shoot guns, and raid her kitchen cabinets to make what Toby and I called “animal medicine.”

At Bebo’s house, we could say things that were off limits elsewhere. I remember sitting on the porch swing with her one day when I was probably seven or eight years old. My cousin Toby and I were shooting blooms off of  the flowers in the garden with a .22 caliber rifle when she asked us what “dirty words” we knew. The best I had was G-rated, probably things like “butt” and “fart.” She told me that those weren’t any good and shared with me her preference for “shit.” I’m sure I giggled, and if I had any sense, I realized how lucky I was to have a Bebo.

Bebo loved and was very loyal to anything that dated back to her childhood in Ivanhoe. This was especially apparent in her culinary tastes and in her descriptions of her “good ol'” favorites. She loved good ol’ country ham and good ol’ beans and cornbread. Her favorite dessert was cornbread mashed up in a cup of buttermilk. Once as we ate country ham she said, “Ain’t nothing better than ol’ hog, is there?” Without really thinking (poor little old thing, I didn’t know no better), I said, “Well, I guess there are probably some things better.” Those were fighting words. She quickly looked up at me, eye-to-eye, and demanded, “Like what!?” I changed the subject.

Her dietary rule of thumb was “Eat what your appetite calls for.” I guess that’s why I walked into the kitchen late one Thanksgiving night to find her eating some of the fat we had trimmed from the country ham earlier that evening. She was dipping that “ol’ hog” fat into horseradish and enjoying a nice little bedtime snack! I guess that’s what her appetite called for at the moment.

Speaking of appetites, you’d better have one around Bebo. She wanted you to eat, and she wanted you to look like you had been eating. We used to say that if Bebo told you that you looked good, it was probably time to lose some weight. Her habit was to put food on your plate as the meal progressed. I tried to warn my brother-in-law Wayne about that habit the first time he celebrated a holiday at Bebo’s. I told him to get only about half of what he wanted on his plate the first time around, because Bebo was going to provide the refills whether he wanted them or not. Wayne didn’t listen (poor little ol’ thing didn’t know no better), and she loaded him up with substantially more than his appetite called for.

She had a fairly unique home remedy for small maladies. As she would say, “I take me a Contac and a laxative.” I think I’ve figured out her logic–if you had some kind of germ making you sick, the Contac would help you to blow it out your nose and the laxative would help you to blow it out the other end. It’s genius, really.

One of the things that I loved most about Bebo was that she loved her sports! She loved the University of Virginia (“poor ol’ ‘Hoos”). She loved the Washington Redskins (“poor ol’ ‘Skins”). She loved Tommy LaSorda and the Dodgers. She loved any of the good guys and underdogs in professional wrestling (“poor ol’ Igor, Wahoo, etc.). On the other hand, she had no patience for their rivals. The University of North Carolina’s Dean Smith was “ol’ Schnoz” because of his prominent nose. More than once, she let us know that she “despised” the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. Once, when an announcer had the nerve to refer to wrestler Ric Flair as a “great champion,” Bebo invoked one of her favorite words and said, “Hmmph. He was a shitty champion.”

Bebo drops back to pass!

Bebo drops back to pass!

Of all the pictures I could share of Bebo, this is my favorite, taken when she was about seventy-five years old, as she prepared to throw me a pass in my back yard. How lucky was I to have a grandmother who would play football with me? Through our childhood and teen years, Bebo walked the tightrope between happiness that we grandkids played sports and fear that we would get hurt. That protective streak carried over into our adult lives. As we got ready to leave her house or to end a phone call, she often said, “Don’t let nobody run over you.”

I think she felt run over, or at least knocked sideways by my grandfather’s death in 1990. From that point on, having spent over fifty years as half of a couple, she was never content alone. In many ways, they exemplified the principle of opposites attracting. He was a quiet man. She was not a quiet woman. He was more reserved. She gladly spoke her mind. I guess they were counterweights to each other, and after his death, she was perpetually off-balance. She often talked about “poor old Payton.” She missed him, grieved him, and wanted to be with him.

On her ninety-fifth birthday, surrounded by her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, I tried to tease her into making a speech. “Ninety-five years,” I said, “That’s a lot of years to acquire wisdom! What do you have to tell us?” She frowned a little and said, “Well, I’ll tell you this–when I die, just have a graveside service, because I’ve outlived everyone!”

Seven months later, we gathered for that graveside service. I tried to lead the service, though my voice faltered and tears blurred my vision. Years earlier, she had come to hear me preach once, and as she hugged me at the door, she said, “J.B., you’re going to be a good preacher.” I thought I had touched her in some way until she continued, “Look, we’re getting out of here already, and it’s only 11:57!” That June afternoon in the Fletcher Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery, I wished that I could have been a better preacher. But, the tears that kept me from being good that day were tears of love. I guess their tribute was more eloquent than my words anyway.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m so grateful to God that Mary Ellen Davis was born one hundred years ago on this day in the little town of Ivanhoe, Virginia. I’m grateful that she and Payton Jonas found each other and spent their lives together. I’m glad that she became my father’s mother and my grandmother.

I believe with all my heart that there are millions of grandmothers out there, but there was only one Bebo. I’m thankful she was mine.

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Recent Distance: Twenty Years

I drove past Tri-State Livestock Market yesterday, and I could hardly believe that twenty years have passed since I stood in its sawdust or leaned against its office counter. Twenty years–nearly half my life! It’s remarkable that I’ve been away so long simply because it was such an important place for the first twenty-three years of my life.

My grandfather, Lloyd Blair, was the market’s founder. It was his little domain, and he was the unquestioned king. On sale days, he sat in the auction box facing the buyers and sellers, occasionally turning to the full-size window behind him to oversee the action in the barn. At times throughout the day, he would walk along the catwalks over the barn–lit Pall Mall in hand–looking every bit the commanding officer inspecting the work of his troops in the pens below where they sorted and herded the livestock into and out of the sale ring.

During the week, the office was his throne room, where he held court with the office staff and with the clients and customers who came to pay or to be paid. Here at the market, he was the tough version of himself. Here, he spoke with authority and with words I never heard him use when my grandmother and mother were around. Here, everyone knew him, most respected him, and some probably even loved him. Here, he was king, and because I was his only grandson, I felt a little like royalty at “the market,” as we always called it.

In the office, I reclined, revolved, and rolled on the squeaky office chairs. I used the rubber stamps to mark dates, “for deposit only,” and “PAID,” on checks and invoices. He teased me because I couldn’t seal a pile of envelopes nearly as quickly as he could. He let me turn the dial to the last number and lift the latch to open the safe, and when no one else was around, he let me make fake announcements on the public address system. I must have put thousands of pieces of scrap paper through the time clock, just so that I could hear the “thump” of the time stamp, and I knew that I should never, ever touch the security alarm button on the underside of the office counter.

In the barn, I ran down the sawdust alleys between pens, dodging the manure piles! I swung (that really is the proper past tense of “swing”) on the heavy wooden gates. As my granddad would have said, I “clumb” (that’s not the proper past tense of “climb”) on the tall wooden fences. He weighed me on the cattle scales, and we walked along the catwalks above the pens together. We proudly called it the largest volume livestock market east of the Mississippi River.

There at the market, I got into the livestock business myself when I bought my first calf just after my ninth birthday. Granddaddy did the bidding, and I used sixty-five dollars of birthday money to buy Puddin’. Over the years after that, I bought and sold several others. In fact, I sold a calf at the market in 1991 to buy the college class ring pictured on my hand at the top of this blog. Soon after that, I worked at the market a few summers to earn a little extra for my college and seminary education. There, in my granddaddy’s kingdom, I was kicked, stomped, butted, and knocked down by nervous animals on several different occasions. I remember thinking how much easier it was in the childhood days of running, climbing, and swinging.

Once, my grandfather sent me down the hill to chase away some penhookers–people who came to buy livestock directly off of someone’s truck before they could be sold in the market, thus depriving the market of its commission. He said, “J.B., you’re the biggest employee I have, and they don’t know you’re in seminary. Go run ’em off!” I did it, but I was glad that they didn’t know I was in seminary and really didn’t want to fight!

Still, I was proud to walk down that hill both as an employee and (as I thought then) as an heir apparent to my grandfather’s life work and legacy. I walked down that hill not only because I worked there, but also because I belonged there.

Things changed, though, and the last day I worked at the market was the last time I was there. That was in the summer of 1994 . . .

 

Just before I drove by the livestock market yesterday, I visited another place that reminded me why I haven’t been to the market for twenty years. Only a few hundred yards away, on the hillside at Forest Hills Memory Gardens, my grandfather’s name is on a bronze marker right beside my grandmother’s. Under his name are two dates–January 20, 1921 and November 14, 1994. How is it possible that tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of his death?

In some ways, nothing has changed. I can still imagine the sound of his voice. I can still smell the mix of Pall Mall and Old Spice. I can still see his face. Occasionally, he still shows up in one of my dreams.

In some ways, everything has changed. He never met Suzanne or my children. He never knew me in what I now consider my defining roles–father, husband, pastor. He never saw me with gray hair or no hair.

Though the market is still there, it has changed over two decades. The formerly blue building is now brown. Now, the insulation hangs in shreds from the roof of the huge barn. I grin as I remember the motto: “Every hoof under a roof.” Maybe it’s still the largest volume market in the region. I hope it is, but I just can’t make myself care whether it is or not.

It was easy to walk down the hill that summer day long ago because it was his market. It’s difficult to drive up that same hill now precisely because it’s not his market. His absence makes it foreign. Honestly, I don’t even go back very often to the farm where I grew up, because it just isn’t the same without him either. Lots of things aren’t . . .

2nd Lieutenant Blair, I saluted your memory this week on Veteran’s Day.

Mr. Blair, founder, manager, and king of Tri-State Livestock Market, I remembered you with pride yesterday as I drove past your domain.

Granddaddy, I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll always love you. I wish we had gotten to spend more than twenty-three years together our first time around. I still blame and hate Pall Malls for that.

My consolation is this–as good a time as we had in twenty-three years in your little kingdom on the hill in west Abingdon, just imagine how great a time we’ll have in The Kingdom that never ends.

I’ll see you there.

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