Whatever misapprehension or concern Leslie's parents may have had about me - my Yankee ways or "he ain't from around here" attitudes - clearly vanished when we brought Kate into their lives. A grandchild was the one thing they wanted that they didn't have and Kate fulfilled their dreams and desires, and then some. Kate was nine years old when Jim passed away so his experience of her, and she of him, was limited. But Faye has gotten the full dose. And now, twenty-five years later, roles are reversed and Kate is more likely to be holding her grandmother although not wearing curlers.
One day a few years ago, not long after Jamie began working with me, he was looking through contact sheets, familiarizing himself with my work. He found this photograph. I can't say it was one I had ever even looked at, much less thought about printing. Jamie said he liked it and was able to talk about why and his thoughts got my attention. We set out to scan and edit it.
At this point, I had no idea who the person in the photograph was or where I made it. For the longest time I thought it was taken over at Berzilla Wallin's house, during one of her homecomings. But her granddaughter, Lana Robinson, said she didn't know the woman and reminded me that Berzilla's house was log.
It was a bit of a mystery to me. It was a singular negative - the negatives before and after it from two different situations where I knew the people or the place. I copied it to my ex wife thinking she might know who it was as the other images were of our home or with her good friend, Becky. She had no idea.
By now I had grown to like the image - the quietness of it, the easy posture, the far-away look - and see how it could easily fit with a current project I'm working on. But the project is particular to place and theme and how to include an image from an unknown origin of an unknown person I know nothing about.
I talk a lot about photography providing us with memories of our shared and personal pasts and I think that is so. But with this photograph, my memory fails me and I'm left wondering who is this person? who came into my life for 1/125th of a second and has never entered my mind again until now; and not as a memory, but only as a beautiful image.
Hanging around in Sodom in the mid-1970s, one was sure to meet Morris Norton. He was in his early 80s at that point, cantankerous, not working much, but fit enough to wander around the community dispensing wisdom and opinion. I thought of him as the unofficial Mayor. He fathered many children, ten or twelve I think, mostly boys, most of whom were the nicest people you'll ever meet. Morris played at music, picking a banjo and playing harp. He could flat-foot dance pretty well for an old guy. He also made and played tune bows, an instrument I had never seen before, similar in sound to a jews harp. It's old and basic, but in the hands of a skilled player could put out a rollicking lick and keep people on the dance floor.
Two or three years after first coming to Sodom, I was in Maryland visiting family and took a day trip to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Wandering through the numerous and incredibly detailed displays I came to one on early American music. There was a section on instruments and there in front of me was a tune bow, accompanied by a tag that read: Tune bow made by Morris Norton, Sodom, North Carolina. I remember thinking, "Wow. I know this guy." But with the thought came an understanding that History isn't just the grand events, the things and people we know from books and the classroom, but also involves the lives of everyday people.
One of Morris's sons, Emmett, is a singer/songwriter who regularly plays on Friday nights at the Depot in Marshall. Not too many years ago, he approached me and handed me a tune bow. Identical to one his father might have made, he offered it as a gift to me, his signature on the inside face - a piece of local history and, for me personally, something that evoked memories of a photograph, a man and his family, and an instrumental time in my life.
It was 1984. Someone, I don't remember who, suggested I go over to this farm in Spillcorn to photograph some Mexican farmworkers picking tomatoes. That there were even Latinos in the county was news to me so I went. Spillcorn, back then, was about as remote as you could get in Madison County and the creek I followed was stereotypically Appalachian, littered with junked cars, appliances and all manner of plastic. I turned off the main road and forded the creek into a little holler, which opened to a beautiful, contained cove. At the lower end was a field of ripening tomatoes.
At the edge of the field was a lone woman, squatting over an open fire warming beans, meat and corn tortillas for the workers. There was a tape player blasting mariachi music to the hills. The men, six or eight of them, were picking the tomatoes into five gallon mud buckets, which they then transferred to shipping crates.
I had picked tomatoes for my neighbor McKinley for a couple of summers and I knew what the men were dealing with. Hot, the tomatoes wet with dew and coated with chemical residue. You stayed stooped over, each bucker heavier than the last. It was work I was glad to no longer be doing.
Since that time I've had the good fortune to meet many Latino workers across our state who do jobs that are scorned by Americans - hanging sheetrock, building fence, cutting and hanging tobacco, picking the food we eat. My experience with these people as workers, neighbors, and photography subjects has been only positive.
The fear and hysteria surrounding this group of kind, hard-working, family-oriented people are totally misplaced. They are not our enemies. They are not here to harm us. Rather, if we are looking to place blame, or find a cause for our fear, we should look to the politicians and their supporters who seek to turn us against one another.
We often hear we are a nation of immigrants and with the exception of our Native American citizens, it's true. My family migrated from Italy and Germany, my wife's from the British Isles. All were seeking freedom from oppression or poverty in a place that promised a new life. And they found it here. We should let others find it, too.
For much of the last two weeks, I’ve heard the phrase, It’s Not Who We Are,” used in response to the Executive Orders signed by the new president: The banning of Muslims, The border wall, Eliminating health care benefits for veterans and others, The gagging of government agencies, The refusal to separate from his businesses, The Nepotism, The ignoring of Federal Courts. The phrase rings true for me and for most people I choose to be around. These hideous actions are not who we are. I’m proud of that.
However, those of us who are not supportive of these edicts, and many more yet to come, do ourselves no favors when we ignore the reality that, This Is Exactly Who We Are. Not me, or us, per se, but millions of people around us, citizens of this country like you and me, are in complete agreement with these new principles and policies. And they are now in a position to bring many of these ideas to fruition. Many people simply wanted a change from the way things were and I can understand that. But for a significant number of the new President's advisors and supporters, the nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and bullying are exactly who they are and what they want. Those people scare me and I fear will take us to places none of us want to be.
Anyone paying attention understands our country has always been divided, which at various times in our history has erupted into civil disobedience, bitter dissension, and violence. Mostly, the antipathy has been kept under wraps. But, encouraged and emboldened by our present administration, the divisiveness is growing more intense and deep. The distrust, ridicule, anger and outright hate on both sides of any issue are far more extreme and unyielding than in the sixties and seventies. People are lining up in a way we've not witnessed since the 1860s. I fear for our present and future, things will get much worse .
It's making a comeback.
DO NOT LET IT.
We don't want it.
Love your neighbor.
IT'S THE AMERICAN WAY.
LIVE IT DAILY.