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THE SUNFLOWER 


To Georgia ... From Arizona

The Georgia clay bank 
   would surely erode 
Except for the Chinaberry tree 
   standing stark against the sky 

A sunflower bloomed 
   outside my patio door 
The sunflower was you 

September, somehow the saddest of months 
   except for October — 
      exquisite, mournful October 
Bringer of beautiful Autumn 

Now the mid-life crisis 
   takes a strange and different turn 
Some would say I’m crazy 
   though I would tend to doubt it 

Living on the fringe of civilization 
   like a desert cat 
I expend little energy 
   to find my food 

Trying to keep in touch 
   with the few friends I have 
I feel everything slipping 
   away from me 

Would you please 
   keep me informed 
      of any change of address 
Even after you marry? 

I promise not to interfere 
   with your new life 
Just to know 
   where you are 
      how you are 
To hear from you 
   once in a while 
      will be enough 

I can find 
   the minor key 
      in any song 

Because 
   I live my life 
     in a minor key 

Becoming used 
   to the freedom 
      of being alone 

I sit and suffer 
I mull over 
   all the things 
      that have happened 
And wonder why 

God, I have become 
   a desperate scribbler of lines 
Who doesn’t know whether 
   he creates or not except for 
A simple declarative act of love 

Besides, 
   every word 
      once spoken 
         becomes a cliché 

My head is full of poems 
But they won’t come out straight 
They are muddled 
   and mixed 
      and unintelligible 

I lie on the desert floor 
Looking at the Arizona night sky 
Looking at the myriad of stars 
That appear so 
   clear and clean and close 
Enough to touch 
Maybe if I could 
Then the thoughts 
   should come out 
      clear and clean 

Perhaps if I could touch a star 
A poem would come out right 

I love 
   this Golden Land 
      of Eternal Sunshine 

But I’ve had enough 
Of sitting in the sun 

A sunflower bloomed 
Outside my patio door 
The sunflower was you

      —Bill Matheny

THE SECRET 


When I first met my hero Art Farmer, he was spending half his year at home in Vienna and the other half on tour.

Occasionally concert promoters would pony up for his New York band, but most of the time Art worked with local rhythm sections. Regardless, he hired the best musicians everywhere, and his ensembles never failed to impress.

"How do your groups always sound so good?" I asked him after a knockout performance at Kimball's in San Francisco. "What's the secret?"

"Dmitri, it's simple," he said. "If you find that you're the smartest cat in the room, you're in the wrong room."

GENERATIONAL WEALTH 

What did I know, what did I know 
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
 
—Robert Hayden 

When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment. 

The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes. 

I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it. 
 

 

The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years. 
 


In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery. 
 


As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home. 

But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too. 

So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping. 

I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday. 

And maybe that fishing pole, too. 

I miss you, Daddy Bill.

HOW WE LIVE 

“The more we share, the more we have.” 
—Leonard Nimoy 

 

Early autumn, 1972. Rural Alabama. Late afternoon. 

Daddy Bill and I are winding our way home in our muddy station wagon. We’re in high spirits, both of us having just spent several gratifying hours, each in our respective happy place.
 


Since dawn Dad has been wading through the saltwater marshes of Eufaula Wildlife Refuge, beating back cattails, stepping over gators, peering through his binoculars at shorebirds and raptors. Meanwhile I’ve been hunkering down in the backseat, oblivious to flora and fauna, blissfully engrossed in a new fistful of Green Lanterns, fresh off the spinner. 
 

 

I know, I know. Daddy Bill isn’t likely to be voted Parent of the Year anytime soon. He thinks it’s a good idea to leave his seven-year-old kid alone for hours, in a parked car, in the middle of nowhere. But what can I say? This is how we live.

We relish our solitary pursuits then share our stories over catfish and okra at Bram's Diner. Dad holds forth on kingfishers, kestrels, sandpipers and snipes. I recount the latest exploits of hard traveling heroes Ollie and Hal. And so it goes. 

After supper I’m riding shotgun and fiddling with the radio dial as Daddy Bill pilots our wagon homeward. Just before the Georgia line, as Paul Harvey is about to tell us “the rest of the story” -- BAM!  A sudden jolt. A flash of white. The sound of crunching metal. Dad slams on the brakes as we skid along the red clay shoulder of the road. We lurch forward then slam backward again as a waterfall of broken glass cascades around us.
 


As soon as we tumble out of the car, we see him. There in the road, illuminated by our headlights, is the broken body of a very beautiful, very dead, white-tailed deer. The poor creature must have leapt right into us. 

“You okay?” Daddy Bill asks. 

“I think so.” I reply. “You?” 

“Welp, I guess we’re both better off than he,” Dad says, nodding to the unfortunate young buck. 

“Give me hand, will you?” 

Pulling a tarp from the back of the wagon, we hoist the heavy carcass onto the roof and secure it with rope. Daddy Bill then turns on the emergency flashers and drives -- even more slowly than usual -- to the Columbus home of Coach Rutland. “Jim’s a hunter,” Dad explains. “He’ll know what to do.” 

A few days later at Brookstone School, Mrs. Simmons calls to me in her sweet southern drawl. 

“Deh-MAY-tray! What are you chewin’ back there?” 

“Venison jerky, ma’am,” I confess. 
 

 

“Bless your heart,” she smiles, “but it’s not polite to eat venison jerky in class unless you’ve brought enough to share with everybody.” 

Fortunately I have plenty! More than enough to feed the multitude. 

Roadkill. Sharing is caring.
 

KINKAKU-JI 

The foundation of any national character is human nature.
―Vasily Grossman
 

Of all the many magical places I’ve encountered in my travels, Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most magnificent. Set in a classical strolling garden by a reflective pond, the temple’s design is strikingly opulent yet perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape. 

 


Although I’ve only visited the historic world heritage site twice, I return so often in mind and memory that it has become comfortingly familiar. For me, this temple achieves what the great cathedrals of Europe do not. Instead of making one feel small and insignificant, Kinkaku-ji inspires a profound feeling of gratitude and connection to the natural world, inviting contemplation of one’s own role in the cosmos. As above, so below. 

Kinkaku-ji is a wonder of architecture and aesthetics. Each section of the three-story structure represents a different historical period and point of view. The first level, named Chamber of Dharma Waters, is rendered in the natural wood and white paneled shinden style of eleventh century imperial aristocracy, with verandas and open areas that bring the outdoors inside. The second story, called Tower of Sound Waves, is built in the tenth century manner of samurai warriors, with sliding doors and mullioned windows intended to convey evanescence. The top floor, Cupola of the Ultimate, is constructed in the twelfth century zen style suggesting meditation and spiritual insight. The top two levels are completely covered in shining gold leaf. Taken collectively, this singular architectural marvel confers both respect for nature and an awareness of the fragile, fleeting nature of existence. 

But it’s the luminous golden reflection of the temple on the surface of the pond that I find most compelling. The image remains constant as the seasons change. Even before you view the relics and treasures within, the building’s exterior design eloquently communicates the Japanese ideals of shokunin (craftsmanship, pursuit of perfection), wabi (understated elegance), sabi (the beauty of impermanence), yugen (mystery, grace) and ma (negative space, emptiness, and silence). 

Kinkaku-ji is a truly remarkable place. It’s also where I learned a valuable lesson about the absurdity of stereotypes and the gentle power of humor. 

A light rain was falling as I quietly admired the temple with my new friend Masa, an expert on buddhist culture who also happens to be the husband of a favorite visual artist), when our silent contemplation was suddenly interrupted by a boisterous busload of Japanese tourists. They tumbled out of the bus, photographers all, and immediately began to laugh and shout as they joyfully took pictures of one another on the temple grounds. 

I was offended by what I perceived as an inappropriate and unwelcome assault on my reverie. Kinkaku-ji is a sacred place! They should know better, I thought. But when I looked to my guide he was grinning ear-to-ear, delighted with their arrival. I wondered how he could remain so cheerful in the face of this intrusion.

“You don’t find them rude?” I asked, as yet another cluster of giggling girls pushed past us to pose in front of the temple. They squealed gleefully and flashed peace signs as their male companions snapped photo after photo.

“This is a happy place,” Masa explained, smiling benevolently. “Why shouldn’t they be happy?” 

Of course he’s right, I realized. Embarrassed by my own foolishness, I tried to make a joke. 

“Hey Masa, you’re Japanese. Where’s your camera?” 

He replied without hesitation.

“Well, you’re American...where’s your gun?”  

MEETING LELA | PART 7 — BISCUITS & GRAVY 


“We all grow up with inherited genes 
and inherited sensibilities, and 
they run very, very deep.” 

—John Lithgow 

 

To recap: it turns out that my estranged mother, who left us when I was a baby, was a singer. Although she never recorded, Lela had an active performing career singing torch songs in Tennessee nightclubs with her combo. And apparently my father was a fan who regularly attended her gigs before they met and married.

So music, my passion in life, is what originally brought my parents together, yet neither of them thought to tell me. I chased my dream obliviously ignorant of this history. I chose this path all on my own, or so I thought until age 46, when Lela showed up to one of my gigs and dropped a DNA bomb on my self-made origin story. 

I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this. I didn't fully appreciated those MACOS nature/nurture lectures at Brookstone until this moment.

After Lela returned home to Michigan we took up where we had left off as penpals. She shared more wild yarns about America McGee (whose very existence I doubted), but the primary focus of our correspondence had now shifted to our shared interest in music.

“When you were singing, who were your influences?” I asked. “Any favorite artists or albums?” 

“Well, if you ever get a chance to hear a record that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley, that one is very special to me,” she replied. “I played that album to death when it came out and learned all of it by heart. I was probably singing those songs while you were in the womb!” 
 


This revelation struck me like a thunderbolt. To find out that a classic jazz recording I’ve admired and enjoyed all my life also happened to be formative and personally significant for my mother? Damn. I wondered how much more we might have in common. 

Lela must have been curious about this as well, because a few days later a Zune portable media player arrived in the mail with this note: 

Here’s my music collection. 
This will tell you more about me 
than words can ever say.

 

She was right. Her cherished music encompassed many genres, from classical to country to jazz and blues, and I loved all of it. Our likes were so eerily similar, in fact, that it would feel self-congratulatory to compliment her excellent taste.

The overlap in our music libraries was uncanny. Of the several thousand songs and artists in Lela’s playlist, nearly all were already prized plums in my own collection. She sent Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Elly Ameling singing Schubert, Ahmad Jamal Live At The Pershing, Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz, all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Patsy Cline Showcase, Anita O’Day Travelin’ Light, nearly everything Miles Davis did in the 1950s and ’60s, some recent recordings by Diana Krall and Shirley Horn, and soooo much Nancy Wilson, clearly her favorite. Lela even included Willie Nelson’s cover of “Stardust!” Amazing. 

Only a handful of the artists in her list were new to me (Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, June Christie) and their songs resonated so deeply that they immediately became part of the soundtrack of my life. Driving around the Lonesome Desert at night, listening to my mother’s favorite music, made me feel a profound sense of connection to her in spite of the fact that we were basically strangers to one another.
 


I met Lela only once more. 

In April 2014, while on tour in Michigan, Sassy and I accepted an invitation to visit her at home in rural Potterville.

Lela and Bill Horton (of Mr. Bill’s Adventureland), her husband of 23 years, received us warmly. Lela even cooked biscuits and gravy for us! Sitting there at my mother’s kitchen table, watching her fix me breakfast for the first and only time in my life, flooded me with conflicting emotions. Gratitude. Wonder. Comfort. Melancholy. Loss. 

After our meal Bill gave us a tour of the rambling, ramshackle Horton house. The place was a packrat’s dream, filled to the rafters with papers, boxes, books, knickknacks, old computers, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and more. As Bill led us from room to room, Lela toddled behind, randomly tidying up and apologizing. “We don’t get many visitors.” 
 


I remember thinking how beautiful it was, that this frail and fragile couple were lovingly taking care of one another in their declining years. Will Sassy and I do the same? 

Bill was especially eager to show me their collection of records, tapes and compact discs. Lela had already sent me MP3s of most of it except for one major omission: the Hortons had amassed an impressive, damn near comprehensive stockpile of Dmitri Matheny CDs!

I was astonished. Not only did they own all my albums as a leader, they'd also somehow acquired a bunch of sideman recordings from my early years in San Francisco. Seeing this stash of obscure, out-of-print discs, I realized that Lela and Bill must have been quietly following my career for years, buying each new recording at the time of its release, long before I found Lela online. 

Flattering, yes, but also infuriating. I’ve had a website since 1995. Lela obviously knew where I was and what I was doing. Why had she never contacted me? I’ll likely never know.

In August 2018 I received a phone call from Bill Horton letting me know that my mother had died. He didn’t mention her cause of death, but I assume it was severe emphysema after a lifetime of smoking. 

“I also wanted to tell you that some years ago Lela and her brother inherited a parcel of land on a mountain near Chattanooga,” Bill said. “They sold it and she put her half of the money into a Vanguard account. You’re listed as beneficiary after I die. I’ll send you the paperwork.”

I remembered Lela's cryptic “mountaintop inheritance” call back in the 1980s. How about that? Another mystery solved.

I'm grateful that Lela and Bill Horton had so many good years together, and glad I had the chance to visit them before she died. Bill and I have stayed in touch since Lela’s passing and I’m glad. I’ve come to think of him as part of the extended family, especially now that both my mother and father are gone from this world.

The other day Bill sent me an antique sepia photograph. 

“Lela would want you to have this,” he said. 

“It’s a picture of your great-great-grandmother ... Matilda America McGee.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 6 — GIFTS 

“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.” 

—William Faulkner
 
 

The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?” 

She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!” 

“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?” 

Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?” 

“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…” 

“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?” 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. 

“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of SpainRound About MidnightKind of Blue…” 

“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?” 
 


Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz. 

Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales? 

I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.

I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.

“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.” 

He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.

Another glorious Arizona sunset.
 


“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?” 

He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.” 

“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?” 

“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.

“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.” 

My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.” 

“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?” 

“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.” 

Unbelievable. 

“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 5 — UNDER THE STARS 

“The only thing new in the world
is the history you do not know.”
 
—Harry S. Truman

 

Since Lela’s last Irish goodbye, I’d grown up, moved out, finished high school in Michigan, graduated from college in Massachusetts, lived in California for twenty years, and traveled all over the world. I’d made my bones, married, divorced, and moved on. Suffice to say, it had been awhile. 

Then in 2009 I returned to the Lonesome Desert with my girlfriend Sassy. Daddy Bill’s health had taken a turn for the worse, so I bought us a house in a bedroom community outside of Phoenix and fixed up a room for him. He would often come to visit but always left after a day or two, stubbornly refusing to move in. “I don’t want to be a burden,” Daddy Bill said. “Besides, I prefer my little Hermit House by the Pinaleños.” 
 

 

In October 2012 the Dmitri Matheny Group played Music Under The Stars in Tucson. The open air concert felt like a homecoming. Presented by the very jazz society that gave me my first scholarship when I was fifteen, the event was held at Tohono Chul Park, my not-so-secret hideout during the CDO years. I’d spent many soul-restoring hours in the desert gardens of Tohono Chul back in the day, and I had returned to the Old Pueblo many times over the years for concerts. But this event was special. Both my father and biological mother were in the audience. 
 


The show was a grand success. The crowd was warmly receptive and our performance could not have gone better. I was so proud of my band, especially Akira Tana, who’d flown in from California for the occasion. But the great highlight, for me, was re-introducing Dad and Lela to one another after the show. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Daddy Bill said upon seeing Lela. “I thought you were dead.” 

“I thought you were dead,” Lela replied. 

Delightful.

I left them alone to chat a bit while I packed up my gear and settled up with the band. Eventually the old man hit the road back to Hermit House, and I returned home with Sass and our surprise overnight guest. 

Back at the Maricopa Cabana, Lela and I sat side-by-side on the living room sofa. Tee many martunis later, story time was in full effect. For all her past reticence, my mother was now a free-flowing fountain of information, and for once, not just about America McGee. In vino veritas! 

 

To summarize, Lela never wanted children but she loved my father and “decided to give him a son.” It was an especially difficult and prolonged pregnancy. Lela was in labor for days. The delivery, when it finally came on Christmas Day 1965, nearly destroyed us both. I was a breach birth. The doctor had to extract me with forceps. My father cried when he saw my misshapen skull. Everyone feared I might not survive. Eventually my head retained its natural shape, however, and I turned out to be perfectly healthy. 

 


“You were my miracle baby,” Lela smiled, shaking her head, “but you nearly killed me. I never blamed you, of course. But I had to get the hell out of there.” It was the closest thing to an explanation I’d ever heard. 

We continued to talk and imbibe into the wee hours until both of us were slurring our speech. When we finally called it a night, Lela was a little wobbly on her feet, so I gathered her bony frame in my arms and carried her down the hall to the guest bedroom. I could scarcely believe that this little old woman, this tiny weightless bird, had ever given birth to anyone. 

“Oh, about your concert,” she mumbled as I turned out the light.

“You and I do a lot of the same repertoire.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 4 — AMERICA McGEE 

“Myths are lies and therefore worthless,” CS Lewis told 
JRR Tolkien, “even though breathed through silver.” 
“No,” Tolkien replied, “they are not lies.
 
—Joseph Pearce 

 

“Dmitri, I can’t believe it! How on earth did you find me!!?” 

How indeed! I cannot account for the bizarre sequence of events that led me to Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, nor can I rationally explain how I knew that Mr. Bill’s Lela and mine were one and the same. But somehow, whether by fate, synchronicity or merely coincidence, at the age of 43 I became penpals with my long lost mother. 

We didn’t converse so much as trade soliloquies. She ignored my questions, so I volunteered details from my own life hoping she might respond in kind. I told her about my successful music career and failed marriage. I shared all my hopes, dreams and fears. 

Lela answered these confessional data dumps with imaginative tall tales in which distant relations appeared as folk heroes. Often embedded within these homespun legends were non sequiturs of a more personal nature (e.g. “the scent of oranges always reminds me of Christmas”). I jumped at these crumbs like a starving orphan.

One day an envelope arrived with no letter at all. Inside were a one page single-spaced typewritten genealogy labeled “The Brown Family” and two photos. In one of the images a group of adults stands in a distant row facing the camera. On the back, in crayon block letters, they are identified as “(L-R) Mama Zulah, Brownie, Jo, Allene, Sissy, Evelyn, Frances, Sara, Jim, Willard.” The reverse of the other photo, a mother with two children, is annotated in Lela's handwriting, “I was about 8 and my little brother was 6 when this was taken, so it was about 1950.”


(


A close study of The Brown Family genealogy reveals “Mama Zulah” to be Lela's maternal grandmother. Following is the final paragraph, together with Lela's pencil notations in bold italics: “James Andrew Jackson Brown (1877-1961) PAPA son of William J. and Sarah Catherine, married Cornie Perdue around 1900. They had 2 children, V. R. (Brownie) 1904- and Vera Estelle (Sissy) 1906-. After the death of Cornie, James Andrew married Zulah Estes Cummings (1888-1963) MAMA in 1908. She was the daughter of Nancy Docia Brown who was the 13th child of Jeremiah Brown and Nancy Hodges Brown. Jeremiah Brown was the great grandfather of James Andrew and the grandfather of Zulah. James Andrew and Zulah had 7 children, Evelyn 1909-, Allene 1912-1972 MY MOM, 5 FEET TALL, BIG BOOBS, TINY WAIST, Josephine 1913-, Frances 1920, Sara 1923, James Andrew Jr. 1927- MY UNCLE WWII PURPLE HEART and Willard 1929-1977.”

This convoluted “kissing cousins” report represents the sum total of what I know about Lela's roots. More often than not her letters would only recount the superhuman exploits of America McGee, the larger-than-life (and likely imaginary) Native American ancestor who, according to family lore, worked miracles, healed the sick, communed with animals and angels, predicted future events, and inspired everyone in the community with her wise counsel.

I doubted the very existence of this messianic figure, but eventually came to appreciate her significance as a mythic hero. Fictional or not, America McGee was my mother’s personal avatar, the embodiment of her highest aspirations. Perhaps McGee was, to Lela, what the Green Lantern is to me. 

I’ve never had much use for religion but I must admit to enjoying these quasi-biblical stories a bit more after having experienced McGee’s magic for myself. After all, a Google search on her name was the deus ex machina that brought Lela and me together again. Even if I never find confirmation of America McGee as an actual historical figure, I will always be grateful to her mythos for moving our plot along. #AmericaMacGuffin 

Every once and awhile my mother would let her guard down and reveal something personal. I briefly regarded each of these revelations as precious nuggets of truth until they, too, were inevitably contradicted by Lela herself.

For example, in one of her letters, Lela cast herself as a child prodigy and honor student who “tested at the genius level” and graduated from a prestigious university while still a teenager. In another she appears as a college dropout who never took school seriously and scandalized everyone by “running off with a professor” during her freshman year. In yet a third version of events Lela skips college entirely, having been recruited right out of high school to join a prestigious national advertising firm as a professional commercial artist. 

Lela mentioned my father exactly twice. “Bill Matheny was a hopeless romantic,” she complained, “and I was his child bride. He smothered me with too much affection.” In a subsequent email she wrote “The man never said I love you, and I was the kind of girl who needed to hear that from time to time.” 

Bill Matheny: Hopeless Romantic? 
 

The two of us corresponded regularly for the next four years.

When you consider the sheer volume of words we exchanged, it’s really quite remarkable how little I learned about my mother’s actual thoughts, feelings or life experiences. Her fraught relationship with the truth was frustrating, but after so many years of silence, I was grateful for any contact at all. 

Then, in October 2012, Lela called with big news: 

“I bought an airline ticket today,” she said. “I’m coming to your next show.” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

BILL MATHENY on LONELINESS 

“In Toni Morrison’s wonderful novel Beloved, one of the black men from Sweet Home -- can’t remember whether it’s Paul D. or Stamp Paid -- says there are two kinds of loneliness.

One kind is the loneliness that looks inward, rocks back and forth, sits and stares at the walls, finally just curls into the fetal position and withdraws from the world. The other kind is roaming loneliness. That’s where the feet can’t keep still. This kind of loneliness just keeps roaming around the country. 

Well, I’ve had the first kind of loneliness. It’s hell. It ain’t very healthful either. 

From now on I’ll take roaming loneliness. At least it’s alive

At least that.”