Category Archives: People

A Tribute from Across the Pond

This past Monday Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London was watched by more than 4 billion people worldwide. It was an historic occasion, the likes of which has never been seen in the United States and rarely anywhere else. There were the inevitable comparisons to the funerals of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill, but neither could match the stature of this one, nor did those of her royal predecessors, all of which took place before the rise of the global media that now connects the world in ways that were unthinkable before.

No funeral of a US president will ever rise to anything like the level of public mourning and grief that we witnessed for twelve days in Great Britain. And there are many reasons for that. American heads of state are elected leaders who, at best, now have the support of about half the electorate. There simply is no unifying figure here whose death would bring us together—not in politics, or sport, or popular culture. If you can think of one, I’m willing to listen. The sad truth is that when one former president dies, many people will gleefully dance in the streets; when another former president dies, people on the other side of the aisle will do the same. In both cases, it will be a sad and sorry spectacle for our country, but somewhat inevitable in the hyper-partisan world in which we live. In this country, politics is now a winner-take-all, no-holds-barred war to the death. It may be in the UK as well, but the Queen transcended that.

For this reason and others, I found myself over the last two weeks envious of our British friends who could and did unite around the Queen in the days after her death. I’m not so naïve as to believe that all Brits liked the Queen or support the monarch—they most certainly do not—but in that unmatched British way, those who don’t kept mostly quiet while the rest of the country paid tribute. What we witnessed instead was a dignified and historic national commemoration of a life that was unmatched in duty and service.

I asked an English friend to talk about this historic moment, to sum up what the Queen and these two weeks have meant to the British people, and what it was like to witness it all close up. What follows is an eloquent tribute.

“Uniquely, we have a constitutional monarchy where the Head of State is unelected and so is ‘above politics’ but nominally has a constitutional oversight of government business. In practice, of course, it is unlikely that the Monarch would over-ride the government, whereas an elected head of state probably would. I don’t need to give you examples of elected heads of state acting like dictators, fixing elections, and over-riding government, most of whom are already in their pockets. We have one or two people who would love to be elected our President, but do we want them? The problem is that if there was an election for head of state, one of them would get in and then probably go the way of others in other countries!

This was the Queen’s strength. She never made her political views public, never criticized the government, but undoubtedly made her views known by suggestion to the Prime Minister of the day in her weekly audiences. King Charles III, when he was the heir to the throne, often meddled in Government business and policy, giving often sensible but unwarranted advice, albeit in private, to Ministers. This will now have to stop, and it is to be hoped that he understands this.

The other strength our late Queen showed was in her character. Although surrounded by the trappings of royalty, away from the limelight, so one reads, she was down to earth, amusing, sharp as a tack, highly intelligent and a thoroughly nice person with a backbone of steel. She had the unfailing knack of getting on with all she met, and this can’t have been easy on State visits: Nicolae Ceausescu, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, to mention a few and then, of course, at the Commonwealth conferences there were people like Robert Mugabe!

I believe that her crowning show of tact and diplomacy was shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, a reformed senior member of the IRA. This act did more than anything else to find a solution to peace in Northern Ireland

The issue for the future is whether or not Charles can continue in that vein. He will never be his mother, but on the strength of the last few days, while he might not have all her qualities, he has shown an awareness, compassion, and sensibility which I don’t think many people thought he possessed. All this while grieving in public for a mother he adored.

The Queen’s funeral was watched by 28 million people in the UK, a quarter of a million filed past her coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall and the numbers who witnessed the coffin as it was carried on its various journeys were impossible to count. One only has to look at the TV coverage to see the numbers involved. This perhaps will be her greatest legacy, that in her death she united the country. Divisions of race, creed, and culture were ignored, and people came together, some in grief and some not, to remember her.

The King’s Consort, Camilla, summed it up. When the Queen came to the throne, she was a lone woman in a male-dominated club of world leaders. When she died, she was revered and respected by nearly all and was perhaps the most prominent statesman in the world, a fact borne out in that over 100 countries were represented at the funeral. This was ‘soft power’ working to the good of the UK, and the world.

The funeral itself was simple, but the pageantry and precision which surrounded it will never be forgotten. Could any other country have put on such a display?

We have lost a much-loved Monarch, the likes of whom is unlikely to be seen again in the country, or indeed, anywhere else in the world.”

Dispatches from Off the Deaton Path: Georgia’s Royal Connection

With the death of Queen Elizabeth dominating the news, Stan looks back at Georgia’s historic connections to Great Britain, the monarchy, and the British Empire.

The Power of Things Left Behind

“I carry you with me,
A ghost inside,
And in these shattered arms
You’re still alive.”

Heather Nova, “Walking Higher”

My father died one year ago, on September 5. A Sunday afternoon. 5:25 p.m. To say that I miss him doesn’t do justice to the wound that occupies the space he filled. I feel as if I’m drifting downstream, and I can still see him, standing on the riverbank. But I cannot swim back to him, against the current, and he can’t hear me calling for him. Every day, the waters that rush us along in life enlarge that gulf.

Some days I just want to call and talk to him about the latest Braves rookie phenom, or how good the Bulldogs look, or the best way to fix the belt on my lawn mower. I want him to know my knees hurt, just as his must have, when I painted the porch at our cabin this summer. Other days I want to hear his laughter, the way he laughed years ago when time and disease had not robbed him of the ability to let loose when something really tickled him.

Some days I just want to hear his voice say, “Hey Doc,” the way he always did whenever I called, and he picked up the phone. These are things I knew I would miss long before he was gone and knowing it has softened the blow not one whit.

Dad was a devoted Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Braves fan, and both teams won their respective championships in the months after his death. I know how much he would have loved to watch them win. I keep wanting to talk to him about it, to relive those glorious moments together, and it bothers me deeply that I can’t and never will.

I want to tell him that I know now how hard it must have been for him when his own father died in 1979, when Dad was 46 years old, how sorry I am that I didn’t try harder to comfort him and be there for him. But I know that, even then, he expected no comfort from a 14-year-old boy. Still, I wish that I could have shared that pain with him in a more meaningful way, now that I fully comprehend how crushing that loss was.

I regret the things we never talked about, but the truth is, I asked him everything that I really wanted to know. Except one. In his last weeks, when he could no longer stand or walk, when he must have known the end was near, I wanted to ask him if he was afraid of dying. And I wanted to tell him how badly we would miss him when he was gone. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want him to think there wasn’t hope, that we had given up, and so I remained silent.

I think I know what he would have said, though, given the example he lived throughout his long years. Afraid? No. It always seemed to me that Dad was incapable of fear. Death is part of life. I’m sure there were some days he welcomed it. But knowing him, I doubt he spent much time thinking about it. For Dad as for T.S. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

The last month was hard, but after reading about others who suffered from cancer or Alzheimer’s, there was much to be thankful for. His mind was clear up to the last 24 hours before his death. As he battled idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, we feared in his last moments he’d be gasping for breath. When the end came, however, it was as peaceful and easy as if he’d gotten up out of his chair and walked out of the room. Sometimes that’s what it seemed like. It still feels at times as if he’s just gone somewhere and will be coming back. The finality of it, the eternal-ness of it, knowing I won’t see him again if I live to be a hundred—that part has been hard to accept.

I remember walking into my parents’ bedroom shortly after his death, and there, peeking out from the dresser, was a pair of his shoes. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know about the power of things left behind, but I wasn’t prepared, in that moment, for those shoes. He would never wear them again. The reality of it seized me, strangled me, reduced me to a quivering mess. I fought through it then, as I’ve done many times since. Sometimes I can’t.

I have many of his things left behind. The hat he wore when he first began driving a truck professionally in 1959. His pocketknife. Many of his shirts, his smell living in them still. His belts. And his handkerchiefs. I tuck one in my pocket every day as I go off to work, just as he did. A tangible reminder in a small piece of fabric of a loss still deeply felt. I owe him everything.

Grief is ever constant, silent, unseen by those around you. Grief is navigated on muggy morning runs, on quiet walks, on Sunday evenings, watching a crimson sky fade to black. It sits with you in the silent watches of the night.

James Baldwin wrote that “after departure, only invisible things are left.” The world, he said, is held together “by invisible chains of memory, loss, and love.”

Podcast S6E1: Star Trek, Horrifying Cliches, & Goodbye Georgy Girl

This week Stan looks back at one of the most popular TV shows ever, a Mad magazine cartoonist who left his mark on the holidays, a critical day in the American Civil War, a milestone birthday of a legendary football coach, one of the most momentous days in Olympic history, Travis McGee novels, and much more.

The Small Light Still Burning

My aunt Corine turned 95 on Sunday, August 7. She is my father’s oldest sister, the last remaining child of nine born to my grandmother and grandfather, who were both born in the first years of the 20th century, 120 years ago. As a historian, I probably appreciate this kind of longevity in a different way than most people.

Corine was born on the first Sunday in August in the summer of 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was president. He was the 30th president of the United States, and we are currently on number 46 (and remember that FDR served four terms). Coolidge has been dead since 1933, 89 years.

When she was born the Great Depression was still two years in the future. World War II was fourteen years away—and has been over now for 77 years.

Consider this: There were nearly 400,000 veterans of the American Civil War still living when she was born, a war that had ended 62 years earlier.

The very first major talking motion picture, The Jazz Singer, debuted that year on October 6. Philo Farnsworth transmitted the very first electronic television image in history on September 7. Charles Lindbergh flew the first solo nonstop airplane flight across the Atlantic in May. Forty-two years later she would witness the moon landing. The 1927 New York Yankees, widely considered to be the greatest baseball team in history with its famed Murderers Row that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, won 110 games that summer and then the World Series. Forty-seven years later she saw Hank Aaron break the Babe’s homerun record, and 47 years after that she watched the Braves win the World Series again.

She was born into a region where segregation and all its ugliness would reign supreme for another 40 years, and in an era when many of those formerly enslaved were still very much alive. She lived long enough to see the first African-American president serve two terms.

Corine remembers the 1936 Gainesville tornado, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the day President Roosevelt died in 1945.

She also remembers the sound of people’s voices who were born more than 150 years ago. She is the last living person on this earth who knew my great-grandfather (her grandfather), the man she called “Grandpa Deaton,” born in 1873.  He died in 1943, almost 80 years ago. She remembers not just him, of course, but every other relative alive then, all of them now only names on a family tree, their voices long silent. In her memory alone they survive as flesh-and-blood people.

Mother Teresa said that “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” Corine’s life has been a life of service and sacrifice. She was the oldest girl in a family of sharecroppers—six boys and three girls—with long years of hard toil in hot Georgia summers. (Dad used to jokingly tell listeners, “There were six of us boys in the family, and we each had three sisters.”) She revered her mother and father and lovingly helped to raise the seven siblings born after her. Indeed, she witnessed the entirety of those seven lives, literally from cradle to grave.

She labored as hard as her six brothers on that farm and remained on a first-name basis with work throughout her life. One summer afternoon years ago my father and I were repairing the roof on the garage at her house, and I went down the ladder for more supplies. When I climbed back up, there was Corine on the roof next to Dad, hammering away. She had seen her opportunity and didn’t miss it. Whenever Dad went to her house to do some work, he’d inevitably turn and find her by his side, whether yardwork, carpentry, or something mechanical. They were cut from the very same cloth. 

Her cooking is legendary, and for good reason. Generations tucked in at her table, always groaning with fried chicken, fresh-cooked vegetables, delicious cakes and pies, every mouth waiting for her gentle invitation to “take out and eat.” Not for her the cookbook or the recipe on a 3×5 card. It’s all in her head and every attempt to learn how she makes her biscuits (unmatched), or her sage cornbread dressing (a Christmas staple) was met with a laugh: “Lord, Stanley, I don’t know, I just make it like mama always did.”

Corine (top right in the photo above) is now the last of Hubert and Reba’s nine children still alive, a singular fate that she neither understands nor welcomes but accepts without complaint. Age gains ground, little by little, and then in bursts. She is still in strong mind if faltering body, still living alone though lovingly cared for by two of my cousins, Susan and Kelly, who are surely angels on earth. She is a lone messenger from a long-distant and irretrievable past, the last living link to a vanished time and place, to the people who passed through those years with her, who laughed and prayed and sang and loved, now all left behind with tears and a promise to meet again.

Corine’s long journey continues, day by day. As she has always done, she faces the future squarely, with courage, strength, and quiet dignity, patiently awaiting the summons, prepared, as Elizabeth Gray Vining said, for the great change that comes after this life of so many changes, whenever that may be. She enjoys life, and she endures it.

On her birthday and every day, we honor her and all that she represents, the living embodiment of the love that shaped her and has radiated outward to all of us through all those years and the lives that live on through her. She is dearly loved and treasured.