Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kentucky: From Mom's Memorial Service

Through clouds of cotton
Checkered green fields speak of home
But my ship jets on.

Virginia Honchell Jewell, February 2006

Mom would have enjoyed writing her own obituary. She would have plunged in, fingers flying across the keyboard. She would have researched, confirmed, redrafted. She would have spell-checked with a vengeance.

The traffic pattern in our house flowed from Mom’s chair to the dictionary. The family joked that we couldn’t get through a meal without Mom leaving the table to confer with the Unabridged. As a child I was her proofreader--chanting features, weddings, and obits back to her before they were mailed or phoned in to The Gazette, The Paducah Sun, The Memphis Commercial Appeal or The Cairo Evening Citizen.

Mom’s childhood was spent in the coal fields of West Virginia and East Kentucky . Her father and Burt Combs were cousins and it was one of her few points of pride that the whole clan understood the value of education.

Barlow, in Ballard County, was home to Mom’s maternal grandparents. When she was twelve, the family moved there – Crystal and Ben, Frank, Virginia, and baby Evelyn. Mom was a spelling bee champ and found her niche in a high school history class taught by Ira Simmons, Sr. She left her journalism studies at Murray State College for a year--drafted by Harry Lee Waterfield as interim editor of The Gazette in Clinton.

This uncharacteristic decision led Mom to the man she married, Ramer Jewell Jr. It also led to her other great love–the history of her adopted county. Her books, Lick Skillet and The Cat in the Pillowslip, are collections drawn from a lifetime of writing. They document the architecture, archeology, oral history and revised , most of all, the social history of the county. Without editorializing, her message was clear: This place and its people have value.

In establishing the Hickman County Museum, she created a place for the things the people of Hickman County leave behind. With over 5500 individually described and numbered items, the museum is a living, evolving monument to the history of the county. Just before her death she wrote what she called “The Playlet.” It was a short historical drama about citizens of Columbus who were banished to Canada during the Civil War. As usual, Mom multi-tasked – she was writer and researcher, cast consultant and costume assistant, elocution coach and cheerleader. When asked how the play went, she ignored the fact that she was the author. Instead she talked about the team of actors. “They were wonderful,” she said. “They were all just wonderful.”

She loved puns and poetry. She enjoyed good conversation and the sound of voices raised in song. One of the few things that “got her goat” was when her email was down and she couldn’t write notes to family and friends. Hearing "Fiddle!" from the computer desk meant something was seriously wrong. Meetings of her poetry group were bright spots on the calendar. For a half-century, she played the organ at church. Her walks through town, down Beeler Hill to the cemetery and back, were punctuated by waves and chats. “I used to just walk,” she said, “but now I like to stop and talk.” There were always old friends and new families. She and her dear friend Frances Warren formed an unofficial bread-baking welcoming committee for every Methodist minister who moved to town..

Talk and poetry; the woods blooming with wildflowers; picnics with family at Hailwell Farm; surprised laughter and new words to look up—for Mom, there was always something to learn, and life was never complete, never finished, always a draft.”

Last winter when she visited me in San Francisco we made a project of writing haiku together. The spare, controlled stanzas seemed to expand with her philosophy: an abiding sense of the spiritual, a reverence for nature, a knowledge that every moment is precious. During the last day of that visit we exchanged our verses at a table overlooking the breakers of Ocean Beach. We edited and polished our writings, surprised at our own insights. Mom was in her element as she counted syllables and debated the correctness of each word. “Let’s remember this day, “ she said.

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