Connecting the Dots

Dad didn’t come around much as I was growing up.   We only lived together for about three years in Panama City, Fl., before Mama left him.  He stayed in Florida, moving eventually to Orlando.   Mama and I headed to Rome, Ga., then Pensacola, Fl., and then back to Rome.   Mama’s home base was Rome because her parents lived there; they were our safety net.   Dad hated Rome, though it was his hometown as well.

I stayed connected to Dad through his mother, Mama Cotton, who still lived in Rome.  Mama Cotton owned a little neighborhood grocery on the run-down side of the railroad tracks, i.e., where the black folk lived.   Mama Cotton was a tough woman, not liked by many — including my Dad.  She lived alone in the back of her store, having run off her fourth husband long ago. Born in 1896, she was always old to me.

Mama was committed to making sure I maintained connection with Dad’s family.  Bless her heart.  When we were living in Rome, Mama would “force” me to go with her to visit Mama Cotton every few months.  Like a normal teenager, I resisted going to sit in an old house in a “sketchy” neighborhood while she and my grandmother talked about people I didn’t know.  Later, I came to appreciate Mama taking me on these forced visits.  Otherwise, I would have never come to know this strong-willed, independent woman whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose hand cast a long shadow over my Dad.

Dad was the youngest of a large brood of kids.  Mama Cotton had given birth to over 10 children, though quite a few didn’t survive long.  Dad was the only child of Mama Cotton’s third marriage, which also didn’t survive long.

Best I can tell, there was nothing happy about Dad’s childhood.  Not only did he grow up poor without a father in a rough part of town, but he was terrorized throughout his young life by his half-brother, T.W.  T.W. routinely threatened to kill Dad, sometimes with weapon in hand.   When T.W. , often drunk,  came looking for Dad, he would run.  Dad jokes about how he was skinny and fast as a kid.  You know, survival of the fittest.

T.W. was well known by the Rome police.  Legend has it that while he was serving time in a prison in Atlanta, he managed to escape and take the warden’s wife hostage.  In any case, years later, T.W. was shot and killed by his own son.  My cousin had enough of his father beating on him and his mother.  The police looked the other way.

Yep, this family history explains a lot about my Dad.

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Strong Mountain Women

I love the Appalachian mountains.  I was born and, for the most part, raised in Rome, Georgia, a small town nestled in the foothills of Appalachia.  My Mama, her parents and I would “go riding,” at least once a year, deep into North Georgia mountains, sometimes in the fall to see the leaves and buy apples and sometimes to see Bertie,  wife of Granddaddy’s first cousin, in Clarksville.  Bertie, as Mama describes her, was “a good ole mountain woman.”  There was a lot of gossip, laughter and just hanging out on these trips.

Mama was very close to Bertie’s daughter, Linda.  As a teenager, I really admired Linda.  As far as I could tell, she could do most anything.  She made — among other things — dolls and ceramics.  Her and her husband even built a house by hand deep in the woods.   Linda also took care of her daughter, B.J.

B.J. and I were born about the same time.  There is a cute picture of her and me on a blanket, just a few months old.   But while I developed mentally and physically at a “normal” pace, she did not.  BJ was a constant reminder to me of how fortunate I was.  In 1980, BJ had a stroke and had to be taken care of around the clock.  Linda took on this responsibility, and like many a strong mountain woman, Linda found a way to survive in the dark times.  As she sat day in and day out by her daughter’s side, Linda discovered a talent for art.   A video of Linda and her folk art can be found at http://www.gpb.org/stateofthearts/term/anderson.

Welcome to my world!

The stories have been pent up within me for a long while.    I have told many of them, but I struggle to write them.  Yes, there is the busyness of life, but there is also the emotional toll the stories take.  I hope to put them in a book one day, but “one day” seems to never come.  So, this blog is a place for me to record them, at least for now.

For thirteen years, I represented a group of men and women on North Carolina’s death row – all of whom I first met between 1993 and 1995.   Over the thirteen years, I had six clients die.  The first died in January 1997 of “natural causes.”   His death was, strangely, a victory for us both.  The other five were executed, with the last being killed in 2005.   I witnessed all but one of these executions.  For the fifth, I buried him.

Lawyers are our clients’ storytellers.  All the while, often unnoticeably, our clients become the shapers of our story and, often, the revealers of our character.  My story is intertwined with my clients’ stories in a way that I could have never imagined when I entered the work.  Thus, as I record my clients’ stories so that history will not forget, I also record the story of a little girl from the poor side of the tracks of Rome, Georgia who became an advocate for society’s most despised during one of the darkest times of criminal justice in North Carolina.

All our journeys are shaped by those who join us along the way – for ever how short a time.  I am keenly aware of the many people who have left a patch — or more — on my life imagined as a quilt.  I hope that those whose lives have crossed mine will contribute to the posts here and that those who have never met me will provide feedback.  Maybe then, after all is said and done, a book will emerge.