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There is one last annual task to be done (which I dread—which is why I put it off until the very last day of the year)—which is writing the 2018 obituaries.  Usually I use the last week of the year to write about people whose work was important to me or who were overlooked by big media outlets (which have a facile fascination with interchangeable movie stars and pop musicians). However, this year I lost somebody important to me, so the unmet artists, scientists, politicians, and celebrities who died in 2018 will have to find someone else to write tiny blurbs about their lives. I will only write one obituary, for my grandmother, Mary Rose Ferrebee (March 24th, 1927 – October 30, 2018).

Grandma Ferrebee

As a nation, we tend to regard the crazy fearless people of the frontier and the wild west as lost into the distant mythologized past…but for me, I got to live up-close and personal with such people: my grandparents!  Grandma Mary was indeed larger than life in such a fashion, but in an especially down-to-earth way which makes it hard to quantify the breadth of her legacy. Let me explain by giving you the portion of her biography I know about.

Mary Rose Ferrebee was born  (Mary Rose Jarvis) in Granny’s Creek, West Virginia in the late 1920s.  She had an adventuresome youth spent flouting conventional mores and stereotypes—a trend which culminated during the Second World War when she entered into a career in aviation manufacturing. She described this phase as when she was “Rosy the Riveter, painting the fluorescent yellow tips on [Grumman] Hellcats.” Coincidentally, it doesn’t sound like that glowing yellow Hellcat paint was especially wholesome, since health problems led her away from aviation and back to more traditional careers in short-order cooking, bartending, and cleaning.  It was also during this era when she met Grandpa Dencil, back from the war early, who courted her with a banana (a rare and precious commodity during the war). Grandma apparently said “I don’t want a banana I want the real thing!”  This high standard of honesty cemented their relationship, but it also sometimes led to tensions in an era when most people did not always express what was on their mind so openly.

The family traveled to the West Coast in the fifties (my grandfather decided to take up the, um, aerospace trade, painting missiles and ICBMs at Vandenberg), and then back to West Virginia where Grandma ran a bar/restraint/hotel (an inn, I guess).  All sorts of folks from all walks of life came through there (Senator Byrd even played his fiddle at the Henry Clay Hotel, back in the day), but usually it was local people having a drink, playing pool, and gossiping.

I remember many exciting things from the hotel, like listening to “Whiskey River” on the jukebox, playing pinball and video arcade games (the first of my childhood), and listening to the tales about the secret lives and strange fates of everyone in the county.  As the keeper of a public house in a small town, Grandma knew everything about everyone.  She also, you know, ran a bar in West Virginia and she sometimes had to deal with particularly unruly patrons breaking pool cues over each other’s heads (for which eventuality she kept a chrome .357 Magnum snubnose somewhere back behind the bar, in order to invite unwanted customers to go home).

Operating the town’s beer hall privileged Grandma with a profound grasp of people’s desires and weaknesses and while other people maybe would have used such knowledge to aggrandize and enrich themselves, or at least to twist the knife with cruel taunts, Grandma more-or-less accepted peoples’ appetites, eccentricities, and flaws as a part of the broader tapestry of life (which is not to say she didn’t spend a certain amount of time feuding with people who had disrespected her).  She was particularly blunt about sexual and bathroom matters and although this made me blush and blush as a child (and a teenager, and an adult…and now), it strikes me as a wise choice for living a more healthy and honest life.  I wonder how many people live miserable lives or die long before they should because society has convinced them that ever talking about such earthy concerns is somehow indecorous.

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Grandma always had time and resources for the people in her life…or for anyone who needed help.  Growing up I often recall my parents being able to make important purchases thanks to Grandma’s largesse, and she likewise bestowed homes, cars, tuition, and mortgage payments to other children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Whenever I came to visit, she would give me cigar boxes of half-dollar pieces or rolls of two dollar bills from the bar safe.  There were many such presents and much praise, Not only was she enormously generous, she was also fearless and she always stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves .

After she retired some disreputable folk down the river had a big ill-mannered fighting dog which ran around the river bottom snarling at people and forcing them to abruptly rush inside.  Since this included Grandma’s little grandchildren and great grandchildren (who would be seriously injured or killed by a dog attack), she asked the neighbors to keep the dog fenced up or at least tied-up, but they laughed at the request of a seventy-something woman and went back to drinking and doing whatever else they were doing.  One day these neighbors were in their backyard drinking, carousing, and ineffectually shooting at cans.  Grandma went over and asked if she could shoot some cans too.  They laughed and acquiesced, perhaps thinking to teach an old lady some pointers or to have a laugh at her attempts, whereupon she pulled out the trusty .357 and blew enormous magnum sized holes in the cans which they had not been hitting.  “Tie up that dog!” she said as she left, and this time her wishes were followed.

She was large (not to say fat) and strong and she also had that .357, which taken in combination with her maverick personality to make her sound like an intimidating person, however I think anyone who knew her would characterize her foremost as kind and generous to excess (and also as fun and funny).  My mother would despair since she (Mom) would give my grandmother the gifts the latter wanted—fancy dishes, kitchen gadgets, or new towels or what have you—only for Grandma to give them away in turn.  Grandma, however, seemed to think that owning a bunch of junk was not really the principal fun of life—another laudatory perspective which we could all learn from. With characteristic generosity, she decided that, upon her passing, she would donate her mortal remains to science (the medical teaching hospital at WVU).  As she said “I sent so many people to college, that I decided I would like to go there myself.” Not only is this helping the family save some money (a final cigar box of cash), but it is helping a new generation of healers learn.  However, it robbed Grandma Mary of a fitting eulogy, which is why I am writing this.

Frankly though, Grandma never yearned for the fame and universal acclaim which other people pursue so doggedly. I don’t think Grandma thought of greatness as being all that great (perhaps she recognized that “great” people have money troubles, erotic misadventures, and go to the bathroom like all other people). Or to explain it better, I think she saw that every life was great to the person living it and the glowing esteem of the world was a sort of political trick, mostly unrelated to the actual important business of life like making sure people are fed, children are cared for, and the sick or infirm have somebody to look after them.

When I was a child, I thought it was normal to always live in a glorious golden halo of love where people tell you how great you are and give you things.  It is NOT the norm (thanks so much for the update, New York), but it always seemed like it, thanks to my family. Grandma Mary was an especially big part of that. I suspect everyone who knew her would say the same.

Grandma gave me so many things—big home cooked meals, toys, whatever book I wanted, tvs, video games, musical instruments, boxes of money, jewelry, a truck…you name it, and I took and took with both hands. But now that she is gone, it strikes me that what I would really like to have is her generosity, her warmth, her courage, and above all her loving heart (I think she would smile, too, to hear me still asking for more).  She was such a big part of the world that I never really thought about how it would be with her gone.  It is like the mountain or the forest or some other ancient & impervious force of nature vanished.  However, her love is still here with all of her family and friends (who are numerous).  Her tireless care, affection, and kindness are woven into the very fabric of existence, not like the ephemeral works of models, rappers, or tv charlatans, but in a truly integral way that sustains people for life and holds up the world.

Readers, I hope you don’t think I am ending on a down note for the new year.  Grandma lived life to the fullest, and it is up to us to do the same in this new year and in all the others to come. Her gifts of generosity and compassion could indeed be ours too, if we just muster the strength of character to give with such an open heart.

Good bye Grandma, I love you.

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Apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia somewhere around Turkey/Georgia/Armenia–where the wild apple (Malus sieversii) still grows.  These delightful members of the rose family have been continuously cultivated, hybridized, grafted, and cloned since prehistory.  Apples are shockingly promiscuous and their seeds are different (sometimes extremely different) from the parent, so varieties (“cultivars”) are cloned and grafted. There are more than 7500 cultivars of apples grown and each is really a clone—or a still living clonal scion–of the original tree they come from. The history and meaning and delight of the apple is beyond my ability to even begin to discuss, however I want to talk about the best variety of apple which is widely available in the United States, the Golden Delicious, because it comes from the same place as me.  The first Golden Delicious tree comes from Clay County, an obscure county in West Virginia where my whole family hales from (well, at least for the last 250 years or so, I guess we are from Africa by way of Europe originally).

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Golden Delicious apples are a bright yellow (or yellow green) apple which are extremely sweet and fragrant.  The original tree was found on the Mullins’ family farm in Clay County and the fruit was locally known as “Mullin’s Yellow Seedling” and “Annit apple” until 1914/15 when it was renamed the Golden Delicious by Stark Brothers Nursery to whom Anderson Mullins sold the cultivation rights and the tree (for the then princely sum of $5000).

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Golden delicious apples are wonderful for cooking, salads, and sauces, but their sweet taste makes them perfect for eating too (although their bright crisp flesh and nearly transparent skin makes them susceptible to bruising). Wikipedia tells us that “In 2010, an Italian-led consortium announced they had decoded the complete genome of the Golden delicious apple. It had the highest number of genes (57,000) of any plant genome studied to date.”  To my eye, Golden Delicious apples also look like the golden apples of Aphrodite which sometimes play a saucy role in Greek mythology or even the forbidden apples of the Hesperides which conferred immortality (if you could get past Hera’s dragon).   Anyway I picked a bunch of them upstate this past weekend and I can’t stop thinking about them…or eating them.  After Halloween week is done, I will share my favorite apple pie recipe.  However next week is not about apples…it is about snakes!

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Soybean Field (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Soybean Field (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

I’m sorry I didn’t write a post last Thursday or Friday: I was away from Brooklyn on a whirlwind family trip to see the farmstead and visit my parents and grandparents.  Now I love Brooklyn with all of my heart, but it was a great relief to be away from it for a little while.  It was lovely to feed the thousand gentle farm creatures, to assess the growth of the plums, apples & nut trees in the orchard, and to walk back through the soybean fields into the true forest.

Parkersburg (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Parkersburg (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of writing time (and there isn’t much internet access in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio anyway).  However I have a few little drawings which I doodled while I was home.  My favorite is at the top of the page—it is a view of the soybean fields as the viewer emerges from the forest and is struck by the dazzling deep green of the plants.  Soybeans are a critical crop in numerous ways, but I never really noticed them as a child–perhaps because I didn’t yet love edamame, or maybe because I hadn’t become used to living in a world of asphalt and bricks.  Anyway, I will write a post about soybeans, but I wanted to share a quick impression of their overwhelming glowing greenness.   The second picture is a drawing from the road of Parkersburg, West Virginia.  The town is actually both much prettier and much uglier than the sketch—there are numerous picturesque Romanesque and “Jacobethan” churches and buildings, but there also some truly dispiriting strip malls along the outskirts (which I represented with a Kia dealership).  Still the town has been improving incrementally for decades—perhaps thanks to my parents’ lovely yarn shop and quilting shop (which you should totally visit if you are ever in the Midwest/Appalachian region).

Paisley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Paisley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Speaking of quilting, I also drew a purely abstract picture of paisleys after I became fascinated by the printed patterns of the bolts of quilting cloth. Ever since the age of the Mughals, paisley has regularly come into fashion and then fallen out of it.  Yet the concept seems to be much more ancient than the Scottish textile makers of the early industrial revolution or the Mughals.  Paisley is another subject I need to blog about—because I think it is tremendously beautiful.

Goose Pond (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Goose Pond (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Finally there is a little drawing of the goose pond.  I sketched it quickly (and from a distance) just before we drove off to the airport, but you can still see a few little pilgrim geese swimming about on it.  My parents’ flock of these creatures has succeeded beyond all measure and now it is like their farm is infested with miniature dinosaurs.  Everywhere you look there are geese busily gnawing on grass, biting each other’s tails, or jumping sadly (with expectant open beaks) beneath tantalizing green apples.  I am sorry I didn’t do a sketch that really does justice to the lovable avine miscreants, however I am afraid that if I had stood among them long enough to draw them, they would have begun to nibble on me like a big ear of corn (which is their affectionate way of gently reminding visitors that geese get hungry for corn and lovely for attention).  Thanks for looking at my drawings—now that I am back from my trip and my mind is refreshed I will try to blog about some of these new subjects!

A magnificent Bald Cypress towering over Weston, West Virginia

When I was on vacation last week, I took some pictures of the tree in my grandparents’ garden, a magnificent bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Whereas the Norway maple in my back yard is like a rat or a pigeon (ubiquitous and worthless–yet amazing for its hardiness and success) the bald cypress is huge, ancient, and stately–a monarch among the trees.  Bald cypresses, which are native to the great southern wetlands of the United States, can grow to immense size and live for over a thousand years.

Today bald cypresses are found in parks and gardens, frequently as stand alone specimen trees, but such was not always the case:  ancient bald cypress forests, consisting of huge groves of thousand year old trees, once dominated the southern swamps of the United States. An old-growth stand of the trees can still be found near Naples, Florida–the grove is around 500 years of age and some of the trees exceed 40 m in height.  Unfortunately for the great trees, they were extensively overharvested for their water-resistant rot-proof lumber.  Nutria rats, which gnaw the seedlings to death, have prevented the forests from growing back. Furriers brought these large invasive rodents from the jungles of South America.  The voracious creatures escaped into the Louisiana marshlands and have defied all predators and control efforts and proliferated throughout the southern states.

Argh! Why, oh why are the nutria's teeth so red?

Bald cypresses are deciduous conifers–they shed their fine leafy needles during the winter (and are hence “bald”).  Coincidentally, “cypress” is a misnomer: the tree is not in the same genus as the funereal cypresses although it is in the same family (the Cupressaceae) along with some of the world’s most spectacular trees, the redwoods, the sequoia, the dawn redwoods, and the Japanese Sugi (Sequoia, Sequoiadendron, Metasequoia, and Cryptomeria respectively).

Another View of the Same Tree

The specimen in my grandparents’ yard lives in the mountains rather than the swamp, yet it is among the largest known.  I’ll let the placard speak for itself, but it was written in 2005 and the tree has had a good 5 years of warm wet summers (which it loves).

Taxodium is an ancient genus of tree and various taxodium species were widespread throughout much of the Mesozoic Era.  Fossil specimens date back to the Jurassic period so once these giant trees towered above the dinosaurs.

Olympiad Hybrid Tea Rose

I’m off for my summer vacation!  During the next week, I might post a little or a lot (depending on internet availability in West Virginia).  Before leaving though, I thought I would share this photo of the beautiful hybrid tea rose my munificent otter gave me as a birthday gift.  In the background you can also see some morning glories and pink petunias.

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