Dorothy Reifenstahl Hicks

It’s great to see you all here today as we honor and celebrate my grandmother, Dottie Hicks, or “grandmamma,” as I called her for some reason I have forgotten. I say celebrate because I don’t feel this only a sad occasion, though sadness certainly is a necessary part of events such as these. When she was born, on March 26, 1915, Babe Ruth would still have to wait almost two months before he hit his first home run; _The Birth of a Nation_, extolling the virtues of the KKK, had just been released. Pluto had been photographed for the first time just the week before. WWI was just beginning. Czechoslovakia does not exist. Pancho Villa was raising cain down in Mexico. The Lusitania was sunk by the Germans.

Tough times for those in America named Reifenstahl. Only to get worse some years later.

The ever enlightened then Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigns over the Lusitania. The U.S House had just denied suffrage to women, again. African-Americans were not be seen unless they worked for you. Commuter rail service was electrified for the first time. The first tank was prototyped. Detroit got its first stop SIGN. Not only the theory of relativity but also pangea was first proposed. Emory college became emory university and moved from Oxford to Atlanta. And, who could forget the great locust plague from March to October of that year?

These were the times and events that directly and indirectly shaped her world view. One that jars and chafes and at times contradicts truths we’ve redefined as self-evident. That day was a long way from a women and an African-American and senior citizen nearly my grandparents age! competing to be the next President of the US with the African-American being the odds on favorite.

Grandmamma lived 93 years and spent many of those years with a man she dearly loved and respected, a man who also dearly loved and respected her. Together they raised two wonderful children, my mother, Tam Martin, and my uncle John Hicks. They got to know and take pride in four grandchildren. And we were lucky to have gotten to know them both. Together they survived the worst life can challenge us with: cancer, heart attacks, war, the death of her brother, “Uncle Mark,” whom she admired and loved.

Of course, I didn’t know her when she fell in love with my grandaddy. I never got to see their early, giddy love, which even people of their much more stoic generation certainly felt. Rather, I learned from them both, from my granddaddy’s example and my grandmamma’s words, what marriage means, what mature deep love is. Putting eye contacts in your husbands eyes every morning for years; that is love. Nurturing your husband through three heart attacks; that is love. Nurturing your wife through cancer, a double-mastectomy; that is love. That is commitment.

They had each other for many years. They were very lucky.

In one letter she writes to me (fuzzing the math just a bit), “I was 26- almost 27 [when we married]. Granddad was 30. However, he was divorced with no children (thank goodness!!),” she writes, I surely miss him ’cause he did so much repair jobs around the house, buying (in those days) _antiques_ for a “song” from junkshops–perfectly beautiful. Many we still have–most he re-touched and gave to your Dad & Mom for furnishing their first houses in the States!, Love you, Grandmother.”

After granddaddy’s death just over eight years ago, he himself in his 90s, grandmamma, still full of energy, finally travelled abroad for the first time, with “her precious daughter, Tam.” Not a letter that she ever wrote to me didn’t modify “daughter” with “precious.” On a visit at mom and Jim’s lake house in 2001, I can remember her literally doing a skip; you know the one that says, “let’s go! I’m ready!” Incredible. And at 87 years old! We could all be so lucky to be able to do such things at such an age.

Indeed the last time I saw her, at this dreadful nursing home which thankfully she was able to escape, her energy was unbelievable. Although I’m convinced she recognized each and every one of us, she certainly had a hard time connecting the dots and finding the language to describe our relationship to each other. Yet despite this, she knew we were on her side. We were on her team as we huddled and discussed ways to manage, “the great escape,” as I will stubbornly remember her calling it. Amongst the overpowering lysol-scented hallways and the dementia-riddled babbling of largely, and sadly, undignified humanity, she knew she did not belong there. She turned to us at one point and said, “What is this place?” And she raised her hand next to her ear and made that circular motion we all understand as she explained in her wonderfully Southern accent, “why I think these people are off their rockers!”

And then she chuckled.

We, herself included, were a team; she belonged with “us”; she was not of those others. And she was right. She broke the land speed record using that four-legged walker getting the heck out of there. Indeed, I think the walker was merely a prop in her great escape theme. She was not ready to blankly stare at caged birds as those others did to a Beatles muzak sound track (oh the irony; Milton could not create a better Hell! Imagine a generation who thought Elvis was pornographic and the Beatles were uncouth and way too shaggy are now forced to listen to them over and over and over again as they sit in a cage staring at birds themselves caged!); Not this grandmamma. She was not yet ready to live in some anachronistic David Lynch film, where he pairs Roy Orbison’s “blue bayou” to a death; rather this painter, my grandmamma, was writing her first film, a Wes Anderson-type piece, something like “Bottle Rockets,” or “Darjeeling Limited” escapes “One flew over of the cuckoo’s nest.” A great escape, indeed.

Oddly enough, pretty soon after Mom had told me that Grandmamma had passed away, in a strange confluence, “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry and Jane Fonda and Katherine Hepburn came on the TV. I just happened to catch this film from the beginning. You may remember that Grandaddy and Grandmamma, at their lake house, had a laser disc player, pretty heady technology for those days. I remember watching Charlton Heston’s, “The Ten Commandments,” there. I remember watching some Barbara Streisand/Ryan O’Neil piece, I’ve forgotten the name, there. I remember watching what still today is my favorite movie, _The African Queen_ starring Bogart and Hepburn, and which I later found was written by a fellow Knoxvillian, James Agee and a plot which centers around the Lusitania.

But I also watched “On Golden Pond.” A story about a mother with her boyfriend, played by the ever gross Dabney Coleman (like Jane Fonda would ever!) and his young, rather belligerent son, going to visit her parents, Henry and Kate. Henry, ever the curmudgeon, and the devious, smart alecky soon to be grandson, however, strike up a bond as Jane and Dabney go off on some week-long excursion. I never realized the connection till this latest viewing. I had the good fortune on a couple of occasions to spend the week my grandparents at their lake house. They taught me how to fish. I remember catching the tiniest little blue gill. Truly a Darwinian event. And grandmamma took that miniature thing, knowing full well it was worthless, yet nevertheless, cleaned that thing and cooked it up and we ate it. What little of it there was. Of course, I also remember casting a line and it getting caught on the prop of a neighbor’s ski boat. Granddaddy was none too pleased with that. I think he got over it sometime during bingo with the Hardcastle’s. On another visit, mom took me to see a remake of “Little Shop of Horrors.” When we returned, Upon reciting the film’s name to grandmamma, she was aghast that mom would take me to such a film. She thought mom’d taken me to a film about prostitution.

Although I am fortunate to have memories of them visiting us in Boston, and in our first house in Knoxville on Glen Cove, where I remember fiddling with various ways to write the letter “g,” trying to create my own font, you know, I showed them to her. She chose her favorite one, and I tried to keep it up from then on, but alas to no avail. I even remember building a snowman in the house in which Mom and Uncle John grew up. Although, I don’t remember her visiting us in Maine, she certainly did. Indeed, she wrote to me on May 17th, 2001, “Getting back to Maine when you were almost 2 years old and your mom & dad rented a cute little cabin on the lake. (Can’t recall that famous lake.) You seemed, (at that age) more interested in picking the flowers (perhaps dandelions) in the field behind the little cottage. I only wished I’d had a _camera_! ” Of course, I have something better. A painting she did of my first birthday in Maine.

Although I have these memories, my favorite visit, and I think hers as well, was the time on Duncan Rd. when mom and dad had journeyed to some place I have too forgotten, Granddaddy and Grandmamma came to the house and baby sat. It snowed and it snowed. A huge storm. We lost electricity. We lost the phone. Our water was well-pumped. We had no water. We couldn’t flush the toilet. As we were discussing the perils we faced, I exclaimed, “well we might not get snowed out, but we might get stunk out!” She loved that line and repeated to me in letters again and again as I was living in Prague. She concluded a letter on May 7th, 2001 by saying, “Oh, how exciting that snow storm was on Duncan Rd. I think I took some photos of that around that pool area. Remember??” I don’t actually remember her loving how the pool looked, but I do remember granddaddy and grandmamma driving me to my bus stop, an extremely topsy-curvy mile and half away, and them getting in a wreck on the way. I definitely remember that!

In these letters, a large stack of which I keep and carry with me across oceans and apt. to apt., she details what is most important to her: her family. These letters, which she often times and oh so craftily refers to me as her #1 grandson, craftily because it is literally true. I am her first grandson. Craftily as well because it leaves it to me to feel as if I were her favorite grandson. Of course, that’s not what she meant at all as her pride in Jonathan and Jason’s accomplishments (from her I learned Jason’s straight A’s and acceptance to Vandy and Emory and of Jonathan’s exploits on the diamond and his activities at Centre College and SAE (which she dutifully reminded was my “wonderful” father’s fraternity. These accomplishments as well as some of Laura’s (I remember her mentioning how heart broken she was to not be able to attend her Rhodes College graduation) are detailed in every single letter I have from her, but she did mean for me to feel as if I were special. On December 6th, 2001, she writes, “Speaking of Christmas, Uncle John & Aunt Deb are coming to get me Xmas eve afternoon & take me there for several days & bring me back. They did that last Xmas and it was great since it snowed for Xmas. Very deep beautiful snow [. . .] Jonathan and Jason were there and their lovely girl friends each. So much for me to see them stretched out on the floor in front of the (electric) fireplace playing cards and laughing a lot. They were playing my favorite Skip Bo and new one for me “Uno” that I’ve never heard of! I’ve never heard of a lot of things these days!!!” She adds in a P.S., “I presume you know that Jason is now at Vanderbilt in graduate school–& making all AA’s; he’s very studious. Uncle John & Deb are coming this weekend & may spend the night after the football game!”

I want to let her speak just a bit more because I find these next few stories relevant to who she is. Returning to May 17th, 2001, this perfect letter representing all her love and lovely contradictions, after mentioning her mother’s day gift from the Martin’s, she writes, “My family means everything to me. It’s a _small_family and each one is cherished by me. (Of course, your Dad is also!! [contradiction and now returning to the snow storm] Didn’t we have a good time in that snow covering all the posts surrounding the pool. I think I took a photo of that, however, I’ll have to look thru the albums to see.”

I could go on and on quoting her happiness when Uncle Jack (ret.) and Aunt Bonnie came to visit and her joy at granddaddy’s various recoveries and the story she relates about he and she both together and alone at the Richmond Place Soda Shoppe (she expresses particular pleasure knowing he was down there with the men discussing “how to run this country” and her pride in her childrens’ and grandchildrens’ accomplishments, for these events comprise the overwhelming bulk of her writing, and the cicadas big ugly red eyes invading Nashville. But I must relate two more stories.

She writes on Oct. 29th, 2002, she begins talking about health (eat nutritious and delicious things!) and how she regulates her own eating: “You are very smart and I love you-but _please don’t forget to be healthy–being careful what you eat–it all counts up to living or not taking care of yourself. I love sweets and yet I don’t eat them because one & you want another and my mother didn’t want to lose my dad and he was only 62 where bad lifestyle got him. He was very brilliant. Health is so important to life.” She then moves on to explaining the “the infamous wreck” that, of course, happened to her and she concludes thusly: “However, my John & Debbie and my precious Tam want me to give up my car. I’ll just die. I have to go out and buy my necessary and needed items & some foods. Most women here in their 90’s and later than 98 (men) still drive. One man has knocked the garage door down & is still driving!! [. . .] I do wish you would tell John & your precious mother to do something–or I won’t have any money left for my precious family! Hugs- love you, Grandmamma.

I thought that was cute. And her writing of the crash is itself pure slap-stick. Faulkner couldn’t do better.

As I reread these letters upon her death, these tropes become self-evident. Her fascination with beautiful snow. Her love for her family. Her love and care for her husband. Her advice on how to live healthily, certainly stand out. But something else lurks within the pages that accumulate as you read them. Another contradiction perhaps. A stoicism blended with humor. These two words don’t seem likely bedfellows yet for her they dance perfectly. They allowed her to survive psychologically and physically whole. I leave you with her words composed Sept. 12, 1997, (of course, the “enclosure” is a letter John had written her updating everything going on in his family’s life, with “the edges trimmed to cut the weight,”:

“Well-happy day on Sept. 8 when your precious mom arrived to be here for my _Second_ try at the right eye implant for the following day Sept. 9. Tues. When your mom arrived we had a little glass of wine and went down to the soda shoppe for a sandwich & iced tea. Tues. 9 your mom drove me to the Centennial “out patient” medical center at 10 am. Your Dad was right when he told you cataract implants are seldom any problem. The left one about two years ago was “a breeze”–however, this one was so interesting and amusing and — a joy !! Guess what –they played country music for me since I told the opthomologist that my grandson in the Czech Republic like country music. I really couldn’t believe it when there was pleasant-country music wafting through the operating room. One hears and relaxes but you do ot feel a thing. So, Hunter you can understand the next morning when your Mom drove me to my office checkup & the girls at the reception desk asked me how everything was it really shook them up into roars of laughter when I said: ‘Oh it was so interesting , and a _real joy_! I meant it — good country music you couldn’t ask for more — could you??”

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