The Story of My Stuff

photo 4-2In terms of earthly goods, I am not a wealthy person.  As a matter of fact, I got most  of my furniture pieces as gifts many years ago or from thrift stores and Craigslist. However, over the years, they have meshed together to make my house my unique palace.  As I sit in my living room and look around, I remember the stories attached to each piece and suddenly they seem like valuable old friends.  As a founding member of the Byrd Family Memory Keepers, I know it’s my job to place them in the Family Museum where they can be looked upon as treasures to be admired and not just “some old stuff we used to have in the house.”    My story and life are entwined in these pieces of wood, glass and fabric.  To tell you the story of them, I tell the story of myself, my friends and family.

It was the summer of 1979 and Bill and I were getting married on the last Saturday of July.  Bill had just graduated from East Carolina University and had started his “real” job at Carolina Telephone and Telegraph Company.  It always amazed me that he got an engineering job with a philosophy degree.  I guess that was back when a college degree was a magic “calling card” that opened doors to employment.  Anyway, he had a job in the administration side of the company and starting pay was $11,500 a year.  With that and what I made as a church secretary, we were going to be rich!  I loved Bill, but a girl also marries a man for his potential.  His potential was already taking shape!photo 3-1

We got our first apartment a few months before we married.  Bill moved in first and we immediately started trying to put furniture in it.  He’d not worked long enough to pay cash for big ticket items and I didn’t make enough to pay for them either.

Luckily,  Bill’s earning potential got us credit at Davis Furniture Store in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and suddenly we were the owners of the fanciest cream colored couches I had ever sat upon and had the pleasure of owning!  Within the same week we also went shopping at Simmons Furniture Company in downtown Tarboro and bought pretty little solid cherry end tables with Queen Anne styled, cabriole legs and carved scallop embellishments on them.  Of course, I had to have matching brass lamps to sit on top of them.  We also purchased some framed Chinese prints.  I remember that it took me quite a while to make the decision on these purchases and Donald Morris (the salesperson who waited on us and a future Mayor of Tarboro)  was very patient with me!  It’s not every day that a girl gets to choose her first new living room “suite.”    To make me even happier, my brother Scot gave us a beautiful gilded gold mirror as a wedding gift from W.S. Clark and Sons Department Store (when they were still in the furniture business.) My brother had good taste!

I couldn’t wait to have them delivered to our new apartment and when the truck pulled up in front of our door, I was like a kid at Christmas.  Finally, I was getting a home of my own.  That night, as it became dark, we turned on our new lamps and walked back and forth on the side walk in front of our apartment.  “Look,”  I said in amazement to Bill.  “The lights are glowing from the windows. It looks like a home!”  I was already a “homebody.”

It was all coming together, but we were lacking something important; our dining room table. My grandparents pitched in proudly with their offering; a little kitchen table that they got when they were first married.  That was in 1928, which by the way was our first, home telephone number: 823-1928. Some things you never forget.

It was a humble little table, painted a tan/cream color.  I decided to strip it and bring it back to its former glory.  It wasn’t the prettiest wood and my grandmother told me it was painted when they got it.    Oh, well…I knew if I put some stain on it, the “uglies” would disappear.  What the stain didn’t cover, the place mats did!photo 1-3

Now, to find some chairs!  The table wasn’t very big and we needed four, small chairs.  This is when our friends, Victor Padgett and Lee Summerlin came to our rescue. These talented, creative guys owned a furniture company called Restoration Antiques.  They sold antiques but they also made antique reproductions.  We would spend many Saturday afternoons in their shop on Main Street in Tarboro, creating our wish list.

When they learned that we had a table but no chairs, they gave us a call.  “Hey, guys,” Victor said.  “Lee and I want to offer y’all some chairs to go with your table. They are a matching group of four, oak plank bottom chairs.  You can have them for $25.00 a piece.  They are actually worth much more than that but that will be our wedding present to you guys!”photo 2-1 photo 1-2

We couldn’t believe it!  We were getting chairs to match our table!  We went and picked them up the next day.  They were the perfect size.  It was like the prince putting on Cinderella’s lost shoe.  They fit!  After we loaded them into the car we thanked them and Victor said, “If you ever want to get rid of them, don’t give them away or sell them.  Let us buy them back from you.  It’s very rare to find a matching set of plank bottom chairs.  They’re well over a hundred years old.”

We took them back home and put them around our table and tried them out.  Old and rare, huh?  We felt like we could get into this “antique” stuff.  We set the table with the new china we had received as wedding gifts,  lit some candles and went outside to see what how our apartment looked.  It was looking full and homey as it glowed in the ivory candle light.

I can’t tell you about our bedroom.  Bill wouldn’t let me see it until our wedding day.  It was my surprise and he decorated it and found the furniture for it himself.  That was when he was romantic!

I look back on our first apartment now and I enjoy my memories. In July, Bill and I will celebrate our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. We’ve lived in over thirty places within ten or so cities. Between all the years, the moves and six children, we’ve been through many living room,  dining room and bedroom suites.  After ten years, when we were moving away from New Orleans,  we gave our beautiful couches away to a ministry couple who had three children and very little else.  We still have the Chinese prints, the end tables (although now they are painted a cheery red to cover the scars,)  the beautiful gold mirror and my grandmother’s kitchen table.

We never sold the matching oak, plank bottom chairs.  They’ve received more wear and tear than any other pieces of furniture we’ve  owned and I dare not paint them.  As our family grew and the children got older,  the chairs became the “extra” chairs lining the dining room wall that the children’s friends would grab and pull up to the table when the regular dining chairs were full.  After years and years of fannies and bottoms sliding in and off of the seats, the metal snap on the back of their jean pockets wore groves into the famous planks.  I look at the deep scratches etched into the wood and I can only smile as I remember the good times we had sitting in the little chairs around a table, eating, talking about the day, settling family issues, making important decisions, writing songs and being creative. They are like winkles, showing age, wear and character.

The little oak chairs are on my back porch now, around an oak table Daddy got from a lady he worked with at Long Manufacturing Company.  Her name was Mildred and when she gave the pretty round table to Daddy,  she said it was as “old as the hills.” He later passed the table to me.  It’s even older now and it looks really nice with my scratched up chairs.  They are sitting there all alone  for now, waiting for our grandchildren and cousins to come and scratch them up some more.  At the Byrd Family Museum, wear and tear are allowed!photo 3

Here’s your song!  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did when I first heard it!  It was Dean Martin’s biggest hit and was number one on the charts for six weeks in 1956, the year I was conceived!  Whoops…Hope that wasn’t too much information!






I Remember How It Made Me Feel

I remember it was an Autumn day in Miami.  The humidity was low and the sky was a brilliant blue. There was almost a hint of chill in the breeze as Bill and I were driving around discovering our new city.  We thought we were the luckiest people on earth because we were living in an older resort on Collins Avenue.  The property was being renovated and Bill was selling time shares at the resort.  Our entire family was able to live in one of the condos while he worked.  We were having a working vacation and it was marvelous after having ministered in the inner city and red light districts of Orlando.

miamiocean I loved Miami more than I thought I would.  It was as if it was the capital of South America and I felt as if I was living in a foreign city.  I was on sensory overload.

The water views were eye candy to me and I couldn’t believe how many shades of blue there could be.  From our fourth floor window,  I looked out each day to the ocean and the painted canvas “The Artist” had painted for me.  My attachment to the water was almost like crack to an addict, a child to its mother or oxygen to my lungs. It completed me as I stared out at it, healing my hurts, speaking life to my spirit and telling me its secrets of the deep.

I thought the sounds of Miami were wide open loud.  You could stand on a street corner and hear three or four different languages coming from car radios.  The music was either wild and sensual or soft and sensual.  Everything was alive and pulsating, breathing and rhythmical.

The smells of Miami came in on gentle breezes and down the hallways and out the windows of Collins Avenue.  They teased you with specific scents you couldn’t quite identify and they made me hungry.  I’m sure they smelled of Cuba and Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica and little Islands whose names I’d forgotten.  They smelled of food exotica born on sea breezes and salt air.  They made their way into my conversations and manifested as spices in my kitchen cabinet.  The smells were like magic and I thought that if ingested them, I would automatically think Hispanic, speak Spanish or bleed Latina.  Sensory overload is a powerful thing.  4qn2ek6-1

I loved my new city and our new friends, almost all of them Latino.  The managers of the beach club were Puerto Rican and so were some of the other salesmen.  Many of the staff were Cuban and their parents had immigrated to the United States by boat during the 1950’s or 1960’s.  More recently, some of the younger ones had come by boat.  I was fascinated with these brave people.  One man worked in maintenance but he had been a doctor in Cuba.  He came to Miami on a boat and was so glad to be in America that he didn’t mind working well below the professional status he had enjoyed in Cuba.

We also knew some illegal aliens who lived amongst us.  Bill held Hispanic church services at the resort each week and we knew that these were good people.  They had come to the US with Visas that had since expired and were doing the best they could do to make it in America by “flying under the radar.”  We decided it wasn’t up to us to judge them but to befriend them and help them spiritually.  We even helped some of them with government paperwork so that they too,  could become legal residents.

On that beautiful Fall day,  as we were returning to the resort,  we noticed that several helicopters were flying low over the water.  We soon realized that they were news “eye in the sky” helicopters from the local news channels and that there was something news worthy happening on the beach. We quickly parked our car and ran into the building.

The first thing I saw was a line of employees on their knees looking out of the windows toward the beach.  Their mouths were moving in frantic prayers of teary Spanish and when I asked a friend standing nearby to interpret, she told me that they were praying: “Lord, let their feet touch the sand.  Let them walk up to the shore.  Keep them strong and don’t let them drown.”  Tears were rolling down their faces.

We ran out to the beach to see what could cause so much agony on the faces of our friends.  What we saw and heard will always be etched in my memory.  CG25423-001 Right beyond the shoreline,  there was a tiny boat or glorified raft.  There were what appeared to be illegal Cubans on the boat but some of them had jumped into the water and seemed to be trying to reach the beach.  A US Coast Guard boat was circling the raft and trying to do everything in its power to discourage the Cubans from jumping into the water and making it to the shore.  They were spraying the people and their boat with water cannons.  The water pressure was strong and hard to fight against. Plus, there was the terribly loud wail of the Coast Guard siren and boat horn.  The low riding helicopters also made the ordeal even more frightening.

A large group of Latino Americans had gathered on the beach, almost as if they had expected the little boat to come there onto the shore.  Like in the resort lobby, some folks were on their knees praying and some were standing right by the water’s edge, like coaches cheering their team on.  “Come on, you can make it!  Just a little bit further and you’ll be on the shore!  Don’t give up!  Don’t be afraid.” To make it even more unbelievable, there were news reporters with microphones and cameramen reporting live to their local channels or getting their stories ready for the 6:00 news.  In the chaos there was fear and hope, standing next to one another like old friends, holding hands on a battlefield.

I knew what I had seen but I didn’t know what the laws were pertaining to the “mess” we had just witnessed. I went back to my condo and did some five minute research on my computer.  I found out that there was a policy in place that made that  scene on the beach a legal one.

It was called the “wet foot/dry foot” policy. President Clinton had made an agreement with Cuba’s Fidel Castro to help regulate the number of illegal immigrants coming into the United States on boats.  If the immigrants were deterred by the US Coast Guard and not allowed out of the water onto the shore, (wet foot) they had to be sent back to Cuba unless they had reason to file for political asylum.  If they made it to the shore on dry land (dry foot) they could stay in the states and proceed with becoming legal US residents.

None of the Cubans made it to shore that fateful day.  The story broke on the 6:00 news and by 11:00 that evening,  the Cuban American population in Miami was showing its displeasure and agitation at the US government. In an effort to show solidarity, hundreds of them and others in the Latino community went down to the bridge that stood beside the US Coast Guard building and lay down side by side across the expanse shutting down the bridge and blocking traffic for hours. I can only tell you how it made me feel.  The whole scene had made me heart broken and sick on the inside.  I almost had Bill take me down to the Coast Guard Station so that I could lay down next to the Latinos.  My heart was on emotional sensory overload.Oh, I knew that laws were laws and  policies were policies, but to get so close to your goal, your destination, only to be thwarted by intense water pressure wasn’t fair.  I could have sworn if you cut me I would have bled Latina that week.

P1010503 A few months later, the Elian Gonzalez story hit the news.  Remember the six year old little Cuban boy found floating off the coast of South Florida in a small inner tube? He, his momma, her boyfriend and eleven others had set off to “look for America.”  The aluminum boat they had crowded into capsized  off Florida’s coast and Elian’s mother and ten others drowned.  The INS sent him to stay with his father’s  relatives in Miami but Elian’s father wanted him to be returned to Cuba to live with him.  It was an international custody dispute but in the end, Elian’s father won.  He was sent back to Cuba.

I thought about his mother and her sacrifice to give Elian a better life in America.  It was her desire that he live in the US.  That wish had cost her everything. Yet, laws are laws and they are made so that our country can stay strong and powerful.  But the little voice in my head said over and over,  “No, laws are made to be broken.” What kind of American citizen was I becoming?

I looked out to the sea a lot during my time in Miami after what I had witnessed.  My dependance on its ever changing colors and movements kept me fascinated  but it held secrets that it no longer told me.  How many had died in its watery arms as they sought a life their mother country could not give them?  Embarrassed by the tragedies, it danced along the thin slice of sand that could give illegal aliens freedom, pretending nothing had happened.  I stretched out my thin arms as if to embrace it; to tell it that it was not its fault.  There were laws…  immigrant

Now, I know that there are children being sent from Latin America, through Mexico, to the American border.  I hear that their parents pay thousands of dollars to put their beloved children on a bus and send them to seek a better life than they can give them in their mother country.  The parents know that the chances are slim to nil that they will ever see their children again.  They know that if they make it to the American border, the welcome mat will be rolled out for them. It makes me wonder,  should the sacrifice of their parents  be honored and our nation embrace the children and absorb them into our culture.  Do the foreigners believe in America more the the Americans do?  On the other hand, is it child abuse to put your children on a bus and put their lives into the hands of others in a different culture?  Is it child abuse to put your unsuspecting child into a boat and send him to a foreign land when the chances are slim he will even make it to the shores of that land alive?  Oh, the questions adults must agonize over to consider laws!

I just remember how it made me feel when I think back to the day I saw the illegal Cubans off the shore of Miami Beach,  humiliated and broken in the water.  There was a breaking in my soul and the soul of a city that day. I feel that breaking again as I view the pictures of the illegal Latin American children laying on pallets as they sleep,  somewhere in Texas, awaiting their fate and trusting the friendly Americans.  Something inside me, I don’t know, maybe the Latino blood I acquired fifteen years ago in Miami,  as I ingested the magical Hispanic spices and listened to the rhythm of their sensual music, did something to me.  Maybe the friendships I made in Miami made me have an affinity towards these brave, happy people.  And if I could, I would  go and take my pallet to lay down with the scared, homesick children who have found themselves miles away from home and tell them that “It’s OK. Everything’s going to be alright,” even though I would have no assurance that would be true.  Then, I’d stretch my arms over them and tell them, “It’s not your fault either.  There are laws.”

Here’s your song…  

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