Tayde’s citizenship ceremony

Tayde moments after the U.S. citizenship ceremony at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

This morning, instead of going to work right away, I drove to the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar Avenue and stepped into the lobby a few minutes before 10. I was greeted by a sea of humanity. Some waited for the doors to open so they could use computers or check out books. Others—the ones holding flower bouquets—were there, like me, to witness the swearing in of dozens of new U.S. citizens.

I had come to see my friend and coworker, Tayde, who had traveled to the United States from Mexico as a 7-year-old for leukemia treatment at St. Jude. Now in her early thirties, she was a three-time cancer survivor, who lived each day with joy—it was a choice she had made. As an adult, she’d decided to settle in the United States permanently. She’d gotten a job as a hospital fundraiser, made good friends, fallen in love, bought property, gotten married, but had always wanted to become a U.S. citizen and make it official. I stood in the lobby with her husband, his family and my teammates, while Tayde was already inside, filling out paperwork.

Packed close together, we waited for word about when we could take our seats in the meeting room and when exactly the ceremony would begin. The posting online had stated the ceremony was open to the media, but not to friends and family; that didn’t seem right. Formal announcements, when they came, were inaudible.

I saw a man in military dress holding a bouquet of flowers and thought he might have information.

“Do you know when exactly it starts?” I said.

“They’ve broken it into two groups. One is at 10 hundred hours and the other at 11 hundred hours,” he said.

His use of military time made me feel confused. I worried somehow my group would miss the whole thing, standing out here in the lobby.

The crowd shifted, and we moved closer. Then came another announcement, again inaudible, and finally we were moving into the large meeting room, filled with row upon row of chairs. We got settled but couldn’t see Tayde.

A woman stood to make an announcement. She said there were more than 100 people from 48 countries getting citizenship that day. She asked each one to stand, say his or her name, and tell his or her home country. The first man was from Great Britain.

When they finally got to Tayde, I hooted.

I stood for the Star Spangled Banner behind an older man who kept his arm raised in a salute as he sang. Instead of singing with the group, I listened to the individual voices rising one above the other, then crashing and blending like a wave.

The keynote speaker gave a rousing talk, saying that, yes, this was a momentous day. We were all a part of something larger now, this dream upon which the United States was built.

A baby cried, and her mother took her to the hallway. You could tell by their colorful printed dresses and dark complexions that they were Africans—but what country?

We stood to recite the Pledge of the Allegiance, which took me back in my memory to childhood classrooms.

Then it was done and we clapped and clapped for the new citizens.

Tayde joined us in the hallway afterward, and there were lots of hugs. She and her husband, Scott, posed for photos. They both looked overjoyed, and he also looked proud. She’d been studying for weeks for her citizenship test and had kept a clipboard of study questions outside her cube at work so that anyone could quiz her at a moment’s notice.

There were so many reasons why she deserved this day and her happiness.

I asked Tayde to pick out her favorite moments from the ceremony.

“When we were all singing the Star Spangled Banner,” she said. “Well, it made me cry. And when the woman said that we should all bring our traditions to this country and not let go of them.”

Tayde’s mother-in-law, who clearly adores her, ushered her over to a camera guy from the local news channel. He wanted to interview her for his nightly broadcast.

She stood in front of the camera, beaming. “My name is Tayde, and I am from Mexico,” she began. “I’m so grateful to the United States because it allowed me to live. I was a patient at St. Jude…”

 

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Brantley Ellzey, post two: Brantley’s home at Halloween

For Brantley and Jim, Halloween offers an excuse to decorate their storied Midtown home to the hilt. All the photos you see here were taken by Kelly Cox.

It was a dark and stormy October night when Kelly and I arrived to Brantley and Jim’s home on Overton Park Street in Midtown. The house is on a slight rise and hidden by trees. I warned her about the steps, which were slick and steep. Then a man stepped from the shadows and startled us.

But this isn’t a scary Halloween story, not really.

It was just Jim, home from work. He said hello, and we followed him up. Brantley opened the door and greeted us before we’d even reached the top of the steps.

“I love your house,” said Kelly, who’d accompanied me to take photos.

The home of Brantley Ellzey and Jim Renfrow is warm and light and packed with family photos, books, art, pottery, antiques, a set of creepy cookie jars, and lots of other things, too—mementos of a life together. Right now, it’s decorated for Halloween.

Brantley and Jim’s cookie jar collection includes a Fred and Wilma Flintstone pair, a Barbara Streisand cookie jar, and this creepy but cute Halloween set.

But the house itself had a history before them, of course, and for a time, a secret life—secret to Brantley and Jim, at least.

Kelly and I know there’s a story; it’s why we’re here.

Brantley invites us back to the kitchen. Kelly and I take eager seats on the barstools of their kitchen island.

“Would you guys like something to drink?” Brantley asks, and we say yes, but he is stalling, building the suspense for us.

Then he begins to talk.

Little by little, down through the years, the history of Brantley and Jim’s home unfolded to them.

Little by little, down through the years, the story of Brantley and Jim’s home unfolded to them. They knew it was built in 1907. The first owners were listed on the census as a dad with two grown children. A housekeeper lived in back.

“Before the street cars, this place [was considered to be] out in the country,” said Brantley.

One day, two older ladies stopped by to say they’d lived in the house for several years, but had sold it in the 1960s to a couple who’d opened the property to boarders.

For a long time, that’s all they knew.

A few things puzzled them, like the weird locks on some of the doors.

“We couldn’t figure it out,” said Brantley. “Why would you put a lock on the outside of a bedroom door?”

There were pencil marks on the attic walls that must have meant something to someone once, but now were indecipherable.

There were strange notches cut into the attic wood.

The box springs in the old closet sat side-by-side.

Once when Brantley and Jim were doing renovations upstairs, they discovered an old closet space with a pair of ancient coil box springs sitting side-by-side.

“Talk about a creepy image,” said Brantley.

One day, while Jim worked in the yard, a man stopped and spoke to him.

This had been the man’s home for part of his childhood. In 1969 or 1970, he had lived here with his grandparents. He had been 11 or 12 years old at the time.

“Was it a boarding house then?” Jim had asked the man.

“Well, they had boarders,” the man offered.

Noticing Jim’s puzzled expression, the man began to tell the whole story.

“As it turns out, his grandparents had lived in Marion, Arkansas, as farmers,” said Jim. “They had to sell the farm, and they came to Memphis to make money, so they opened a boarding house.”

Jim gestures to the front of the home.

“The grandparents had lived in what’s now the dining room. The man had lived in the TV room as a boy. There were two women in each of the back bedrooms, and two more women in the unfinished basement,” said Jim.

“Wow,” I said and took a big sip of my drink. I was impressed by how many people had lived here.

“And in the upstairs where there’s the bedroom now and a big attic?” said Brantley. “That’s where there had been bunks, and 20 men had lived upstairs.”

Twenty men had lived upstairs.

Kelly and I gasped.

“No!” Kelly said.

“Did you say 20 men?” I asked. “Is that what you just said?”

It was all true.

Their home had been a halfway house for the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar (formerly the West Tennessee Hospital for the Insane). People who’d been locked up as “lunatics” lived here for a while, in this in-between place, before returning back to their normal lives.

“Neither of us is particularly superstitious,” said Brantley, “but we blame things on them.”

Did their keys get misplaced out of simple absentmindedness, or was a puckish spirit having fun at their expense?

“Someone announced to us once that this place had a ‘lot of spiritual energy,’” said Brantely. “People are always telling us things like that.”

There have been a few strange incidents.

Brantley gestures to a spot on the kitchen wall that holds four portraits of their beloved old dogs painted by local artist Celene Clark. Two of them are terriers, and all are now deceased.

“The two terriers were siblings, and they were both big on yawning. They’d wake up from a nap and give a big moaning yawn,” Brantley demonstrated opulently.

Kelly and I laughed.

Brantley nodded.

“They were strangely vocal,” he said.

I could almost hear them. I’d witnessed or seen videos of dogs making all sorts of noises, including this one of a small dog whose howl sounds like a man screaming.

He leaned in close and lowered his voice to almost a whisper.

“So one night when we were both asleep, we heard what sounded like a human saying, ‘Hellooooo!’” said Brantley.

“Oh my god!” said Kelly.

“Yikes!” I said.

“’Did you hear that?’ I said to Jim.”

“I think it was the dog,” Jim said.

“Turn the light on!” Brantley said.

But when Jim turned the light on, there was nothing there.

Had it been the dog—or the restless spirit of one of the lunatics? The incident remains one of the mysteries of the house.

We talk for a while about hauntings. I don’t believe in ghosts, but Kelly says she’s experienced something.

Kelly experienced something both strange and unsettling.

Once in high school, when Kelly was over at a friend’s house for dinner, there was a knock on the back door. Her friend’s father called out, “Come in!” but no one came inside. Everyone at the dinner table just looked at each other because it was strange that a person had knocked on the door, only to disappear. A moment later, Kelly felt a breath over her right shoulder. She looked around the table. Her friend’s father looked startled. Clearly something had happened to him, too.

“Did you feel that?” he asked her.

She had!

Kelly and Brantley had both lived in New Orleans as college students, and Kelly remembered the havoc the rising waters wreaked on the resting places of the dead.

“You’d find bits of clothing and bone and the fittings of caskets after the water had gone back down,” said Kelly.

Brantley talked about the ancient Peruvians and how they kept their mummies around in their daily lives.

“They’d prop grandma in the corner,” said Brantley. “They just thought she was super quiet…but good if you needed a hug.”

Jim said the man who stopped by their house that day had only happy memories of living there. He doesn’t stay in Memphis anymore, but when he comes in town, he always finds a reason to walk or drive past. Surely he wouldn’t do that if anything terrible had happened here.

Brantley and Jim don’t think any of the Bolivar patients came to harm in this house.

Freed from the extremely restrictive environment of Bolivar, yet still detached from the day-to-day stress of their normal lives, these halfway house residents of Overton Park Street may have felt optimistic about their futures–and then filled the home with their happy vibes.

A beautiful home, filled with happy vibes

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Brantley Ellzey, post one

In 2012, I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of artist Brantley Ellzey.

I met Brantley Ellzey in spring 2012 through my friend Savannah. The plan for the night was to go to a party, but first we met at Bari. There outside the Bari entrance, Brantley was holding court. His partner of 25 years, Jim, sat quietly beside him.

Jim shook his head no, vigorously, when I asked if he would attend the party with us.

“Oh no,” he said and smiled. “That’s Brantley’s thing.”

Brantley tells lots of funny stories, but I can’t remember a single one from that particular night. Instead, I’ll tell you about something silly he did the last time we hung out. He did a funny impression of Jerry Hall for a group of us sitting on his back patio.

Brantley pretended to flip his long, blonde hair and spoke with a thick, exaggerated, Texas accent as he spouted off factoids from Hall’s life–at full volume.

I’m Jerry Hall!

“I’m Jerry Hall!” he said. “I’m from Texas. I went to Paris with nothing but five dollars and a suitcase full of lingerie that my mom made for me, but I became the toast of the town. I’m Jerry Hall!”

Brantley is like a great issue of Vanity Fair, full of detailed information on designers, authors, artists and famous people from the past.

I don’t mean to make Brantley sound like a complete social gadfly, because there’s much more to him than that. The same night he mimicked Jerry Hall, he also told a story from his father’s life. It was so filled with affection that, by the time his story was done, I felt like crying.

I guess I like Brantley because he’s bold and puts himself out there, whereas sometimes I feel sort of wimpy. I wish I were more like him.

Brantley loves reading newspapers, and offers his editorial viewpoints on the major stories of the day. He is strongly in favor of gay marriage and thinks you should be, too. He’s also deeply attached to seemingly doomed Memphis structures, like the Nineteenth Century Club on Union. Each time a building like that is threatened with demolition, he takes his feelings to Facebook, balking at the shortsightedness of businessmen or civic leaders who’d let a beautiful building be bought just to raze it.

It happens too often in Memphis, he thinks, that gorgeous old buildings get torn down because no one in Memphis cares enough to save them. It can sometimes make him angry at the whole entire city and its reflexive love of itself.

“All you ‘I love Memphis’ people need to stay away from me right now,” go Brantley’s posts.

The possibility that Bass Pro Shops will come to Memphis and put their huge logo on the side of our downtown pyramid really bugs him.

From Facebook:

When Brantley Ellzey gets mad at Memphis, I suspect it’s because he’s deeply attached to this place. He’s been here since 1986. It’s the city where he fell in love and built his livelihood as an architect and artist.

Brantley makes artwork from magazine pages so tightly and precisely rolled, they look like no. 2 pencils. The rolls are placed side by side or overlapping until they form a larger piece.

I wanted to see how he constructed his work, so I invited myself to his studio. It was mid-September, the hottest part of the summer in Memphis, but his Crosstown Arts studio was nice and cool.

I had a dry, persistent cough, and he offered me lemonade. He asked after my son, Charlie, and told me about an upcoming trip with Jim to D.C. I’ve rarely known such kindness!

Before he showed me his process, he told me a little about his life. He was raised 50 miles up upriver from Memphis in Osceola, Arkansas (pop. 7,757). Even back then, magazines were kind of his thing. “I loved going to the dentist and seeing Highlights,” said Brantley. “My parents subscribed to National Geographic, TIME—the usual stuff.”

Brantley remembers Osceola as a charmed place. An old woman in town made paper craft items and gave them to the children.

Brantley remembers local characters and the cool craft stuff they made, like a woman in town who took rolled magazine pages and pipe cleaners and wrapped them around five gallon ice cream buckets, creating colorful garbage cans. Another made advent calendars out of wrapping paper and gave them out free to the neighborhood children.

“I would always see if I could snag one of those,” said Brantley.

In high school in the late 1970s, he bought fashion and lifestyle magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, attracted to good design and any biographical tidbits he could glean on the famous women and men who filled the pages.

“I had a fantastic childhood,” said Brantley. “I didn’t know any better.”

In college at Tulane, Brantley took a class in stage design and realized he was good at making models. “I wrote a letter to my parents and told them I’d had an epiphany and wanted to study architecture,” said Brantley. “I think they were happy I had my profession. They were supportive.” Brantley threw himself into the rigorous Tulane architecture program, but eked out time for acting and set design. “[The architecture students] gave me an award at the end of school: Best Impression of a Theater Major,” said Brantley.

After a brief foray at an architectural firm in New York that was kind of glamorous—“I hate to sound like a star struck bumpkin, but I really kind of was”—Brantley was persuaded by his father to move to Memphis. It was a good move.

“I quickly realized that here [in Memphis], I could do everything I loved to do,” said Brantley. He designed buildings, shop windows and theater sets. He worked on the ‘Ramesses the Great’ exhibit, as well as the Wonders exhibit series that followed.

Pages from a 1909 score of the opera Madame Butterfly form the fan design in the background of this mixed-media piece by Brantley Ellzey. Book and magazine pages rolled up tight are primary elements of Brantley’s artwork. Choosing just the right written work to inform the piece is “the fun part for me,” says Brantley.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Brantley sold his first piece of artwork. It was for a fundraising auction with a “shelter” theme. “I’d been interested in using magazines as a structural element and had been looking for ways to explore it,” said Brantley. But instead of using magazines to create a building model or full-scale structure, he used copies of Martha Stewart Living to create a framed piece. The finished product looked cool, like modern art, and went over better than he could have imagined.

Brantley, who’d been visiting Seattle, had planned to attend the auction, but then Sept. 11 happened. Planes were grounded and he had trouble getting home, so he made the long trip back to Memphis by car, too late for the auction. He was happy to hear the painting had been sold to Ellen Hornyak, a local art collector and tastemaker. She held a party in his honor so her friends could meet him. “I came home flabbergasted,” said Brantley, “and I really wanted to keep going.” Soon after, he won a FedEx commission, and a second career was born.

The day I visited, he took me on a tour of the studio. It started with a TV cart piled with DVDs. On TV, as he does his work, he watches classic movies, like the 1940s version of Anna Karenina starring Vivian Leigh. Music is too distracting, but movies—especially ones he’s seen a million times—help get him in the zone.

He told me about a scene he’d just watched with Anna and Count Vronsky together at a ball.

“How beautiful your dress is,” Vronsky says to Anna.

“It’s one line of dialogue,” said Brantley, “but it’s such a charged moment. And I would have missed it if I hadn’t already seen this movie a dozen times.”

I nodded like an idiot because I love old movies, too.

We walked to the back of the studio. Brantley was working on an 8-by-10-foot commissioned piece for the lobby of Methodist Hospital in Olive Branch of a dove holding an olive branch. Brantley had initially presented Methodist with two scale drawings of the dove to pick from. “I approached it like an architectural project,” said Brantley. Once they picked their favorite of the two doves and signed off on his vision, the fun part began for Brantley. He learned the history of the building, of the project, and of Olive Branch itself, then identified and found printed materials to inform the work.

Each Brantley piece is composed of thousands of magazine pages. Sometimes, like with the Olive Branch project, people are eager to donate magazines to the cause (in this case, Mississippi-themed magazines and tourism and visitors bureau publications.) Other times, he purchases the magazines himself, including the cost to the budget of his commissioned work. “The people at the Mississippi visitors’ center were great. They were totally excited about the project.”

Brantley cuts the spines, then sorts each page by color.

We walked to one of several large roll-away tables where work on the Olive Branch piece had begun. He cut the spine from each magazine so that all the pages were loose, then placed the spines in a basket because he’s always being asked the question, “How many magazines did it take to make this piece?” and this helps him keep track. Then he set a few cut magazines side by side and collated the pages. There were several copy paper box lids in front of him, labeled with the names of colors. He showed me how he evaluates each magazine page for the predominant color. A red page goes into the copy top labeled “red,” and so on. “You build your palette repetitively,” said Brantley.

He rolled the magazine page tightly onto a dowel rod, fixed it with adhesive, then dispensed with the rod. I stood beside him and—working much more slowly than he—created my own rolled piece of magazine paper. I smiled and showed it to him. “That’s perfect!” he exclaimed. He might have been lying to make me feel good, but I felt proud anyway.

“It creates a column that’s very sturdy,” said Brantley.

Once he has his rolls complete, he begins the assembly process, using dissecting needles to pin the magazine columns to a foam core backing. Once everything is assembled and adhesive is applied, the dissecting needles and foam core will be removed, leaving a surprisingly structurally secure piece that can then be framed—or not—depending on Brantley’s vision.

Work from a recent show at L Ross Gallery

The dove project presents a special challenge because of its large size. “It won’t fit through the door of my studio,” said Brantley, “so I’m assembling it in two parts, which I’ll fit together later on site.” The finished piece will be 10-inches deep and lit on the perimeter interiors.

I could picture it.

“I think it’s going to be very pretty,” I told him.

“Teenage Dream” is composed of pages from J-14, Bop, Tiger Beat, Twist, Pop Star!, Word Up! and Teen Dream.

And that’s all I learned. He taught me how to roll columns, but I still didn’t know how to make the columns adhere to one another or lock in place, not exactly. He told me it was all about planning and knowing in advance what diameter the columns needed to be to meet the structural needs of the project, and all of that made sense, I suppose, but I still didn’t know how to do it.

It’s like those articles I used to read in Sixteen magazine that promised to teach you how to ace your first kiss by giving advice on how to tilt your head and telling you, “Just be yourself!” It was comforting to think you could follow that stuff like a procedure manual, but nothing’s really that simple.

I’m in awe of his beautiful work.

Then I say goodbye and walk outside with my roll of paper in hand, my souvenir.

I rolled this page by myself.

Next Brantley post: Brantley’s house at Halloween

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The story of how Charlie came home to stay

 

This photo was taken by our friend Kelly Cox on June 8, 2013. We adopted Charlie two days later.

I learned my body probably wouldn’t work for having children, so my decision became: What would I do next? Fostering appealed to me because at various times in my childhood, I’d been raised by other people besides my parents.

My aunt and uncle had brought me and my brother home to live with them when I was a toddler, after my mother suffered her first psychotic break.

After Mom got sick, things changed.

And when I was in high school, I lived with my best friend’s family once my father died from lung cancer. Each day, Mrs. McCarthy prepared sack lunches for her four children—and one for me as well. I stayed with them until I graduated.

These two bookends of my childhood taught me family is subject to change, but where there is love, there is home. My own parents weren’t always able to take care of me, so some of the nicest families on earth stepped in to fill the breach.

In late 2010, my friend Dorothy Pinkston sat with me during our lunch hour and showed me how my husband and I could sign up to become foster parents. Earning our certification was a months-long process of paperwork, coursework and background checks.

Then finally it was done.

In July 2011, we said yes to our first child. She was a toddler whose mentally ill mother had threatened to harm her. When the state employee told me this, I cried—the parallels to my own life were obvious. The baby stayed just until our first court date, at which time a family member claimed her.

Holding Mason

In December 2011, I got the call about Mason*. His mom lived in a group home, but had gotten pregnant anyway. There was no question the state would take this baby—she had done extreme harm to her first child. For days, the State of Tennessee looked for relatives. Finding no one who could take him, they called us.

“If you say yes to Mason,” our caseworker told us, “You need to be prepared to adopt him.”

The caseworker warned me that both parents were mentally ill, so there was a likelihood we’d be dealing with the child’s mental illness down the road.

“My mom has schizophrenia, and I turned out OK,” I told him, “so I think we’ll take our chances.”

Mason came to us as a newborn in December 2011 and left in mid-April 2012 when a family member stepped forward to adopt him.

The saddest days with Mason were the ones just before he left, when I had him in my arms but knew I wouldn’t have him much longer.

Mason rides a baby bottle derby car in this 2012 painting by Alex Warble.

Charlie didn’t come until June 11, 2012—almost two months after Mason left—so the two boys were never in our home at the same time.

The experience of raising two newborns, back-to-back in a compressed timeframe, was like living one long, continuous day. Fostering didn’t warrant FMLA leave, so I portioned out my vacation days as wisely as I could, using my time for mandatory court dates, home visits, team meetings and doctor appointments. I leaned on our babysitter, Carrie Crawford, and hardly slept.

I loved Charlie dearly, but often called him Mason by mistake.

I was overjoyed to have Charlie, but heartbroken to have lost Mason.

Yesterday, I sorted through the baby’s closet in preparation for a garage sale, and I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of clothes and my memories. Born in different seasons, my two boys had needed different clothes. Mason’s newborn outfits provided coverage neck to foot to protect him from the wind and cold. Charlie’s newborn outfits, on the other hand, were barely there—little short-sleeved and sleeveless onesies he’d worn that punishing summer of 2012.

My friend Jesse Holt took this sweet photo of me and Charlie in September 2012.

Charlie was born dependent on cocaine. His mom had self-reported a once-a-week habit. She had used drugs two days before giving birth. For three days, Christopher and I visited him in the hospital NICU while they sorted out a heart arrhythmia. The caseworker finally brought him to us when he was five days old.

He was a little fussy baby with a dark thatch of hair. He cried when awake, and only his bottle soothed him. He ate compulsively, screaming for more, long past the point of fullness.

In the beginning, the world brought him so little joy that we paid attention to his likes as they developed, and we did those things that would make him smile again and again, like all parents do.

He hated noise and sudden movements and loved being held close, chest to chest. Music began to calm him, and so did his stuffed panda bear. One day as I held him when he was several weeks old, I remember it dawned on me, “He’s not miserable anymore.”

I knew he needed us for comfort, but I also saw his strength. He lifted his head and pulled up early and became obsessed with details like buttons, zippers, stitching, and jewelry.

I kissed him probably too much and gave him little silly pep talks, like, “I love you, Charlie. You’re very handsome and special. You’re going to be President of the United States.”

We didn’t think he would stay, although it was what we wanted more than anything.

Two times, I packed up all his clothes into a suitcase, expecting to have to surrender him in court.

Charlie’s first word was “Daddy.”

The first time, a family friend backed out and decided not to take him. The second time, his birth mother was supposed to get him back, but her addiction proved too strong a foe, and she relapsed before our court date.

“I want you and Christopher to adopt him,” she told us in January 2013. I’d been taking Charlie to visit her weekly, and she knew how much we loved him.

Charlie began to crawl. He said his first word, “Daddy,” and his second word, “dude.” He teased us and went from being a serious baby to a funny toddler. His favorite book was Polar Bear Night about a bear cub who leaves her mother’s side to explore “the snow and sky and sea and ice” of the arctic night. It’s a beautiful book, and I can see why he likes it. (Polar Bear Night, read by author)

He finally started saying “Mommy.”

He hated daycare at first, but then became accustomed to it, and now I think he likes it.

I know for a fact he loves us, and we love him.

In Charlie, I see all the best characteristics of his birth mom, who has always been kind to me and who’s often hilarious. She takes a lot of joy in seeing her son.

He’s had a few developmental problems, but only a few.

Charlie is black, and my husband and I are white, and it’s something people ask me about sometimes. At home, I don’t even think about color, but out in the world, I know it’s an issue.

I take him to a daycare that’s a lot like the makeup of the city of Memphis—mostly black, some white, a little Hispanic.

One day a pretty black girl no older than six walked up to me at daycare, introduced herself, and asked this question: “Why doesn’t your son like black people?

It freaked me out.

“He loves black people,” I insisted.

“No he doesn’t,” she said.

Spreading the news about Charlie’s adoption. Memphis courthouse, June 10, 2013.

“Please don’t ever say that again,” I said. “Charlie loves black people, and so do I.”

She finally nodded—satisfied—and walked away.

I still think about that weird conversation.

Maybe she thought Charlie had chosen to have white parents?

People ask me what I’ll tell Charlie about his past, and I honestly haven’t figured that out yet. I think I have a little time to think about it.

For now, I’m still basking in the glow of how it felt that day in the courthouse downtown on June 10, 2013, to promise, for public record, that I would always take care of Magnus Charlie Carlson.

I loved him from the moment I first saw him. The day of his adoption was the happiest day of my life.

*The child’s name and a few details of his story have been altered to protect him.

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Post one, Brandon Sams: a Memphis comedian

Brandon Sams at Poplar Lounge, December 2012. Photo courtesy of Savannah Bearden.

When I decided to write these blog entries about Brandon Sams and the local Memphis comedy scene, there was one thing holding me back: I’m not that funny. How could I write anything remotely entertaining? I decided to just describe what I saw and felt—to take an anthropologic approach. Surely I had just as much right as the hilarious person to write about people who tell jokes. So that is what I did.

My older brother, Johnny Taylor, is one of the funniest guys I know, but I’m pretty serious, most of the time. A few years ago, he moved from Memphis to Los Angeles and got into going to comedy clubs. He’d see a well-known comedian like Louis CK, and he’d call me afterward to have a witness. “Guess who I just saw?” he would say. If I didn’t know the name, he sounded disappointed. If only he had a sister who was more plugged in.

Aimee Mann is best known for Voices Carry, which her band, ‘Til Tuesday, released in 1985. In the video, her jerk boyfriend ridicules her rat-tail at the opera.

The first time I visited him there, we went with our friend Savannah Bearden and my husband Christopher to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Aimee Mann and Michael Penn were in the audience, and I kept sneaking looks to see what made them laugh.

The next time I visited, my brother and I went to a club tucked into a strip mall and binged on comedy. My favorite was Aziz Ansari, who was testing jokes for his upcoming gig as the host of the MTV Music Awards. When a joke was especially good, Johnny slapped me on my arm.

Last August in LA, Johnny and I sat in on a comedy podcast hosted by Doug Benson, perhaps best known for his documentary about pot smoking. The night we saw him, his guests included Dax Shepard, a few of the stars of Shepard’s movie Hit and Run, and native Memphian Chris Hardwick. (Hardwick hosts Talking Dead, the hour-long live talk show that comes on right after each episode of The Walking Dead.)

Chris Hardwick, pictured here, is the son of bowling legend Billy Hardwick, the proprietor of Billy Hardwick’s All Star Lanes in East Memphis.

Benson’s panel shot the bull about movies, and there was kind of a fun quiz show format. Dax Shepard’s mom and dad sat directly in front of us, looking proud. I noticed his mom wore a sleeveless shirt, and her bra straps were showing. We were just a group of friends, being casual together.

Eventually, I began to wonder about the comedy scene in Memphis. Where do people go to see comedy, and who are the comics? So I became involved, you know, as an audience member. I learned that there are comedians who are just as funny as the ones I saw in LA, but here in Memphis, they can’t make a living at it, so they do it on the side, purely out of love for the craft.

I have a number of favorite local comedians. Brandon Sams is one. His comedy consists of true-life stories where the goof is usually on him. He’s hilarious and a very nice guy. A fixture at the weekly Poplar Lounge comedy nights, he also hosts his own podcast from P&H in Midtown.

Brandon Sams podcast, P&H, 2012

I remember the first night I saw Brandon Sams perform. I had asked my friend Savannah to come with me to Poplar Lounge to see the Monday night comedy. When we got there, she pointed out Brandon and let me know he’d recently interviewed for a hosting gig at a casino. Her video production company had been auditioning local comedians—someone who wouldn’t be afraid to address a crowd of strangers. Brandon had nailed the audition, she told me. She hoped they would hire him.

“He’s really great,” she said. “He’s married, and I guess his wife is a comedian, too.”

When he got onstage, he looked a little distraught. He took the microphone from its stand, laid down on the ground and let out a great moan.

“I’m getting a divorce!” he finally said.

The reaction of the crowd was a mix of sympathetic groans and high-spirited laughter. I looked at Savannah. She looked at me.

“I had no idea,” she said.

Brandon did the rest of his set from the floor and talked about how awful the whole thing was.

Savannah and I had come to Poplar Lounge–by chance–on one of the worst nights of Brandon’s life. Still, the primary emotion I felt was elation, not pity. Brandon commanded the room and told a good story, transforming the sad details of his recent life into something universal.

I looked around the room at everyone else who was laughing, and I felt connected.

Brandon’s pain was laid bare for all to see, and we took great delight at it!

Next week’s post: Two years later, a happier Brandon takes the stage at Poplar Lounge

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Post three: Jeff Lee’s tour of his Midtown office

Jeff’s postcards provide a map of the Downtown Memphis criminal court. He sends them to potential clients, hoping they’ll appreciate his thoughtfulness.

On a recent Saturday, I met Jeff Lee at his law office at 1303 Madison Avenue. He showed me around and talked about his approach to his work. 

Here are the interview notes from that meeting:

Jeff: I’ve got some promotional items for you: a bullet keychain, a pen, a postcard. When I got a big box of these key chains, I was trying to twist them, and I said, “These are all broken!” I didn’t know you pulled them. And Lindsey, my girlfriend, was like, “Let me see one,” and I said, “Don’t worry about it because it’s broken.” [laughs] So Lindsey’s the one who figured out how the key chains worked.

She also designed this for me. It’s a postcard that shows the floor plan for 201 Poplar. [201 Poplar is the Memphis jail downtown.]

Betsy: This is handy.

Jeff sees people in Just Busted and hopes they will be clients.

It’s funny. People will pay $100,000 for a bond, but then they lose it because they can’t find the right courtroom. It’s ridiculous. There are no maps at 201. If you go to their website: again, no maps. It is so user non-friendly. There’s nothing to guide people around.

I spend probably 15 minutes a day in court saying, “I’m headed that way. Walk behind me.” People need a map! So now I’ll mail them out to the families of people who got locked up.

I troll through Just Busted for people with really serious charges. I find out their address online, and I send them my postcard with the map. It’s really for the family members, and then hopefully they’ll say, “This map was really useful. I like this guy. He’s looking out for us.”

And then I have pens. Do you want a blue one or a gunmetal one?

Gunmetal.

“I intend to use this to impress clients.”

Did you see this ridiculous ring I bought? [He flashes a gold and diamond horseshoe ring.]

I was going to ask you about that.

I told Lindsey, “I’ve got the funniest nineteen dollar ring I bought from Amazon,” and she was like, “Don’t wear that for your picture.” But I intend to use this to impress clients.

Like you’re a big-time Philadelphia lawyer?

Yeah, Lucky Lee.

And this is my American flag pin because who can argue with that? [laughs] Who can argue with America?

Right! No one can!

I put that pin on right before trial.

[I take a few pictures.]

Your office is great. I like the exposed brick.

I really like my office, but I had a client come in one day, and I’m thinking, “Oh, he’s really eating up the atmosphere.” And the guy says, “Jeff, you did a great job on my case, and don’t worry, one of these days, you’re going to have a beautiful office.” [laughs]

That’s funny.

This kid came in once. He was a really nice 13-year-old boy who was out of school and trying to find some pick-up work, and he said something like, “Is the person in charge here right now?”

And I said, “I’m the only one here.”

And he said, “OK, well, when the person in charge comes, could you tell him I’d love to do some work?” [laughs] And I thought, “Boy, I need to spiff up the outfit.”

I should have told him I was the one in charge, but I didn’t want to be like, “I’m in charge! I’m Jeff Lee, and when you walk in this door, I’m the one who’s in charge.”

So you let the kid leave?

Yeah. [laughs]

Some large law firms in Memphis have a gazillion people working for them. On your website, you market yourself as a one-man shop who’ll give your client personalized attention.

Yeah, if you go with one of these lawyers on the TV commercials, you may never talk to them. People are always surprised when they come in, and it’s me sitting right here. I don’t hide behind a secretary. They provide a good service, but a lot of attorneys use them because someone is mad at them, and the secretary is the gatekeeper. But people can come in, and I’m right here. And I give them my cell phone, and of course they call day and night, but yeah, I market my accessibility.

I kind of like to think of myself as the light cavalry. Someone says, “I need someone tomorrow morning. I should have hired somebody six months ago.” I say, “Fax it all to me. I’ll read it tonight, and I’ll be prepared in the morning.” That’s one thing the big firms can’t or won’t do.

Have you ever had a client get mad at you about a verdict?

I’ve never had anyone get mad at me. They may be mad at the situation, but they don’t ever bear a grudge against me. I have had people say, “Oh, I should have gotten Leslie Ballin.” [laughs] People complain, but I never take it to heart because I never think it’s a valid complaint. If they said something like, “You didn’t know the facts enough to present that,” then I would feel awful. But if they’re just saying, “You stink!” then I’m like, “OK.”

They might say, “I knew I should have gotten a high-priced lawyer,” and so I’ll say, “Well, you can pay me more.” [laughs] They never offer.

You actually have a good record for winning cases or arguing them down.

Yeah, I do.

What’s a typical day for you?

I usually go over to criminal at 9 a.m.

This 201 Poplar baby onesie, offered through Cafe Press, is marketed as follows: “Whether you’re from the north side, south side, East Memphis, Midtown, Germantown or Orange Mound, chances are you’ve once called 201 Poplar home.”

Where is criminal?

At 201 Poplar. And then, opposite there, at 140 Adams, is civil, and I’ll run over there and do a couple things. Usually by 12 or 1, I’m done with court.

What are you doing when you’re there? Are you filing paperwork?

No, you appear in a court setting and give the judge a status report on where you are. You know, bail hearing, bond or doing a guilty plea. I mean, it’s not like a jury trial. There are a lot of little hearings. I’ll come back to my office at 12 and eat lunch, and then I have a lot of appointments in the afternoon. Or if I don’t have many clients that day, I have plenty of writing to do on appeals.

How late does the work go?

I probably work until 9 o’clock at night. Every night, I remind my clients to come to court the next day or else I’ll be standing there without them. You don’t want to treat people like children, but everybody needs a little reminder.

Texting makes it easier, I’m sure.

I do a lot of that. Like, “I’ll see you tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Division 12, and I don’t really want to talk about it. [laughs] Don’t forget to bring the money.” [laughs]

And then at night, I really will troll Just Busted. I’ve got like 5,000 of these postcards.

Jeff shows off his well-thumbed copy of Drama Games.

Look at the awesome cover of this book. [He shows me a book called Drama Games, which is a guide to using psychodrama in the courtroom. The cover of the book has a decidedly 1980s look and feel, from the font to the color palette.]

That’s great. Did you read it?

Uh…yeah! They’ll have an exercise, “I am a feeling,” so then you’ll get up and present that feeling.

How many times have you used psychodrama in court?

I’ve done it at least ten times. I’ve acted from the perspective of bags of money, guns. I’ve done a hotel room.

How do you act like a hotel room?

It’s kind of hard to physically.

So you’re standing there, as a hotel room, describing a scene…

I’ll stand very still, and I’ll say, “I am room 228.” [laughs] If you look inside of me, you’ll see a bed, you’ll see…” And it’s just more like a story device. And then you’ll step away and say, “There were no human witnesses to this event, but the stories that room could tell…”

I used to think of being theatrical as having a negative connotation, you know? Like, “That’s a very theatrical lawyer,” and then I realized those are the guys who are interesting; they’re winning cases. So now I’ve learned that if you’re talking about the sale of goods, if you’re talking about medical malpractice, if you’re talking about breach of contract, if you’re talking about something unpleasant, you can at least be interesting. That’s where psychodrama comes in.

Princess Diana was a self-identified INFP. Sometimes we just need to be by ourselves.

Just curious: Do you know your Myers-Briggs profile?

Yeah, I’m an INFP.

Really? I’m an INFP with some E tendencies.

I read this thing that said, “The perfect trial lawyer is an ESTP.” I thought, “Great.” When people say to me, “Oh, you’re not anything what I expected,” I take that as a compliment. It’s not always intended to be one. People want a certain thing, and if they want someone to be really aggressive, then I’m not a good match. But people aren’t always looking for that, and they’re pleasantly surprised.

I just finished reading the book Quiet, which is about introverts, and it talks about people who are out in the world doing things that require them to be very social, and then you hear that they’re an introvert, and you think, “How could this be?” and apparently what’s key for these people is that they’re acting like an extrovert in the service of something they believe in. They’re able to perform for the role that’s so important to them.

That’s a good point. For example, in high school, I didn’t want to be in theater. I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention. But when you get in front of the jury and it’s somebody else’s life, you’re like, “OK, get over yourself. You can’t sit back and hold it against the audience if they want to be entertained.” If they want to be entertained, then I’ll be entertaining—for my client. But I don’t go home at night and think, “I want to do stand-up comedy” because I don’t have that desire to be up in front.

There are so many lawyers who are extroverts, and they’re ready to shoot from the hip. I’m not like that. By the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt stupid about it, I’ve practiced it, I’ve talked to people to death about, “Am I really going to do this?” And then I go out there, and I know if I do it and it’s going to work at all, I’ve got to commit 100 percent. I mean, it’s a calculated move if I’m going to do something so far outside the comfort zone.

Back when I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I thought that I would be transactional: draft contracts, wills, trusts… And I remember when I was a first-year law student, and I worked at this firm in East Memphis. It was really funny because there were two groups in that office, and the lower floors were the transactional lawyers, and the higher floors were all the litigators. And there was such a different power scheme. I mean, all the people on the lower floors were only interested in having a mayonnaise sandwich. We were ready to go to lunch and, otherwise, just drafting, and you would never see us come out except to use the bathroom.

And then the litigators were throwing their jackets on the shoulders and saying, “I’m going downtown!” [laughs] And they were basically in charge of the firm, and everyone was in awe of them.

And there was a moment when I thought to myself, “Thank God I’m not going downtown.” [laughs] I didn’t care if it made me a second-class citizen in that office, so long as I didn’t have to go downtown.

But now I’m getting comfortable with this trial work, and I enjoy it.

Law office of J. Jeffrey Lee, the man in charge.
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Post two, Jeff Lee: the psychodrama defense technique

Items in the Midtown law office of J. Jeffrey Lee.

Jeff Lee and I met at the Trolley Stop Market to talk about his law practice. He was punctual and wore a suit. The restaurant was crowded. We waited patiently for a table and ordered. Our meals came quickly, but our waiter hadn’t provided us with napkins or silverware. We didn’t mind too much.

The mashed potatoes looked delicious, but there was no silverware.

A first reminder brought us napkins but no silverware. A second reminder brought me silverware, but none for Jeff. Meekly, we gave up and made due. I handed my fork to Jeff for his mashed potatoes and used my hands to pick fruit from my cup. Still, it was a good meal.

The most well-known defense lawyer in Memphis might be Leslie Ballin, the Harry Dean Stanton lookalike, who never saw a high-profile crime he didn’t like and who probably eats waiters for breakfast. My friend Jeff was cut from a different cloth. He’s a nice guy defense lawyer and comes by it naturally. He’s been a nice guy since I met him in high school and probably even before that.

Leslie Ballin, Memphis lawyer.
It surprised me to learn Harry Dean Stanton turns 87 this year. I think he looks like Leslie Ballin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’d recently stumbled upon a defense technique called psychodrama and offered to tell me about it.

“To defend your client properly, you can’t just say your client didn’t do it,” says Jeff. “You have to give the jury something else to latch onto.”

Jeff Lee uses psychodrama in the courtroom to defend his clients.

Psychodrama involves acting from the perspective of another person or thing, and if you do it right, it takes your jury out of the courtroom and into the scenario you’re dramatizing. It also looks a little silly. Because while some defense lawyers will act out the part of a witness or the victim, they’re just as likely to act the part of a chair, gun, stove or eagle flying overhead.

But acting the part of a kitchen stove can make jurors take notice.

“The jury leaves the room, and the first thing they talk about is that goofy thing you just did and how silly it was, but then they say, ‘How about that argument?’ Now all of a sudden, they’re focusing on exactly what you wanted them to, and it removes you from the realm of ‘which lawyer do I like better.’”

Jeff first heard of psychodrama at a law seminar. He thought the technique seemed ridiculous, but during the course of the seminar, he changed his mind. During one session, the facilitator asked for a volunteer “who has something heavy weighing on your heart.” Why anyone would volunteer such personal information in a crowded space, Jeff has no idea, but one woman did. She confessed her father wouldn’t stop using drugs.* It still weighed heavily on her heart.

Dr. J. L. Moreno

A man was picked to play her father, and the two sat across from one another uncomfortably.

“Tell him what you think about him,” the facilitator said.

“I’m angry you won’t stop abusing painkillers,” she told the stranger. That’s when the facilitator stood behind her and did what was called “mirroring,” which was written about in a creepy little poem by the father of psychodrama, Dr. J. L. Moreno, near the turn of the last century:

“A meeting of two: eye to eye, face to face.

And when you are near I will tear your eyes out

and place them instead of mine,

and you will tear my eyes out

and will place them instead of yours,

then I will look at me with mine.”

The facilitator stood behind the woman and grabbed her shoulders, yelling at the father, “I hate you, you asshole! You ruined our lives! I’ll never forgive you for what you did as long as I live.” Then the facilitator asked the two to switch places. Now the woman played the dad, and the “dad” played her.

“How could you do this to us?” the man said.

The woman was now face-to-face with her own anger. According to the rules of psychodrama, she had become her father, forced to defend his position after having caused years of pain.

“I can’t stop,” she said, “You know that I love you even when I can’t love myself.”

“By the end of it, we were all bawling,” said Jeff, “It was just a reenactment, and we all knew it, but we were experiencing the emotions instead of being told, and that’s very powerful.”

Jeff used psychodrama to defend a man who killed in self-defense. Without the technique, Jeff would have probably asked the man, “What would you say to John Doe if you could talk to him?” And his client would have mumbled, “I would tell him I’m really sorry,” but the emotion would be blank.

Using the psychodrama technique, the question is a little different. Jeff tells his client on the witness stand, “I am John Doe. Tell me what you want to say to me.”

The face of the accused changes at that moment, as if he sees a ghost.

“Sometimes I’ll coax my clients along and barely touch them and say, ‘You killed me,’ almost in a whisper. The clients’ lips tremble. They begin to cry. They say, ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ but you can barely understand them because they’re bawling. There’s something about psychodrama that gets the emotions right to the surface. It’s good storytelling, that’s what it is. It’s the difference between showing and telling.”

In Spoon River Anthology, the deceased citizens of Spoon River, Ill., reflect on their lives against a stark backdrop.

Jeff says you don’t need props with psychodrama. It’s all very minimal. He likens it to the staging of Spoon River Anthology, where the characters stand and speak in a stark space, with only their words to fill in the facts of their lives.

No one wants to be in the room where a crime takes place, but psychodrama puts the jury members squarely there, and once the jury is in that room, they tend to look around for a while. “What do I see here?” they begin to wonder. “What would I have done under the same circumstances?”

That’s when Jeff Lee, the defense lawyer, has his audience exactly where he wants them.

* Facts slightly altered for privacy.

Next post: Jeff Lee gives a tour of his Midtown office.

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Post one: Jeff Lee, defense lawyer

I have a friend named Jeff Lee from high school, and I don’t get to see him much. He and his girlfriend, Lindsey Cross, are hardworking entrepreneurs—Jeff with his law practice at 1303 Madison, which is a one-man shop, and Lindsey with Mrs. Post Stationery at Chickasaw Oaks Plaza.

Jeff Lee

When I do hear from Jeff, he always shares a story of an eccentric client or a funny courtroom gambit. He has a good sense of humor and a gift for storytelling, and he makes lawyering seem like great fun…most of the time.

Some lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom, but Jeff is different. He arranges pleas for his clients, but if the deal isn’t good or he otherwise thinks his client is getting the short end of the stick, he’ll push for trial. From the moment he agrees to a trial, he dreads it. That sick-in-the-gut feeling keeps him working hard, so by the time he steps into the courtroom, he knows he’s prepared.

If, God forbid, I should ever be accused of a crime, I’ll call Jeff Lee to be my attorney.

A Facebook message I received from Jeff in late October made me realize I wanted to write about him for this blog. I’m posting the message here in its entirety because I think it would be a shame not to:

 

As always, my practice has taken more interesting turns – I’ve had several recent victories representing sex offenders, and I’ve become the “go to guy” for alleged Memphis perverts. I would have preferred to be “Attorney to the Stars,” but I somehow ended up as “Attorney to the Sex Offenders.” But I suppose it beats “Attorney to the Scrap Metal Thieves who obviously have no money.”

The nice thing about these cases is that nobody else wants them, and the defendants are usually grossly overcharged, so I can actually get somewhere at trial. Most of these cases should be dismissed for lack of evidence, but the DA doesn’t have the steel to do it.

I’m trying to reinvent Jeff Lee into a high-profile, big personality, big money lawyer. I’ve been suiting up with a big obnoxious pocket square and wide stripe ties, visiting inmates in jail, and telling them that I’ll take their case for $5,000 and not a penny less. It only has to work once or twice and then the word will get around! You know if a guy has an attorney that cost that much, he won’t shut up in the jail about it. I already tried the ‘courteous and generous reasonably priced, try to help the down-and-out defendant’ attorney, and there’s no market for that guy. These days, I’m reading books about ‘closing the sale’ more than how to write a winning appellate brief.

In my last few trials, I’ve brought big poster board exhibits and done some really zany stuff. I got these ideas from the National Criminal Defense College in Georgia, where they train you to do stuff like roll around on the floor and do a closing argument from the point of view of the crime weapon: “Hi, my name is .22. A lot of people have been talking about me today, but nobody ever pointed me at the victim – that was my friend, .45. I couldn’t see anything from the glove box where my owner left me all day.” It’s so stupid that people can’t take their eyes away. You wouldn’t believe that it would work, but it’s getting amazing results with bored, frustrated jurors.

By next year, I’ll either be on the front page or the funny page, but at least I won’t still be broke! That’s the hope, at least!

 

Back when I lived in Minneapolis, I had the exquisite bad luck of living next door to this prince of a guy, so I have the utmost sympathy for victims because I feel like I was one. I won’t recount the things he did, but I will say that when I wasn’t actively terrified, I had a free-floating anxiety that made the rest of my days in that house a misery.

So there’s that.

But I believe if you’re accused of a crime, you should have the ability to mount a defense, and the job of the lawyer is to help with that. Being a lawyer is a good profession…and a fascinating one. And I wanted Jeff to tell me more about what it’s really like to be a lawyer in Memphis–the unvarnished truth.

Next week’s post: Jeff Lee argues from the point of view of a loaded gun.

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Kate Hall, post two: Hall in the Family

This is a record of Hall family life in early October 2012, before Ramona came.

Kate’s flowery sewn goods share space with Luke’s skull-emblazoned tees at the Cooper-Young Festival.

Kate Hall likes vintage fabrics and nautical things. Her husband Luke likes skulls and heavy metal. Together, they make sewn and silkscreened goods and sell them under the name Hall in the Family.

“It’s a very eclectic mix with my flowery purses and his evil masks,” said Kate.

They do their work at home in Cooper-Young. Kate’s sewing table sits beneath a window facing their front yard. She finds time to sew during breaks from school, where she works as a librarian.

“Early in the morning, I’ll get up, take a shower, eat breakfast and then open the windows,” said Kate.

Even though she’s inside sewing, she still feels part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

Kate has a window above her work desk, so she can see the comings and goings of the neighborhood.

“A while back, I was sewing,” remembered Kate. “It was pretty early, and this guy walked by with two dogs, and his dog went to the bathroom in our neighbor’s yard, and he didn’t pick it up. So I walked outside and berated him.

She grew thoughtful.

“So I feel like I’m still participating in the outside world, watching my shows and making stuff.”

When Kate and Luke moved into their home three years ago, it was kind of a disaster, but they figured they could fix it up, and they have. Their house is charming.

Kate says her favorite Wes Anderson movie is The Royal Tenenbaums, set in a rambling pretend home in New York City. There’s a room in the Tenenbaum home hung with images of Margot, the adopted daughter. Each was painted by her brother Richie, who adores her, hopelessly.

The Hall family fish tank.

“My brother sent me a still from the movie and said, ‘This is what your house reminds me of,’” said Kate, “and I could see what he meant. There was lots of color.”

Kate’s walls are crowded with family photos and art, including paintings by Andrea Manard, a local artist who’s a favorite of Kate’s. The furniture is older, with a mix of styles and eras. The kitchen curtains are made from vintage aprons.

 

Royal Tenenbaum home

 

When I visited in October 2012, Kate and Luke were preparing for the arrival of their first child. They’d bought Ramona’s furniture set from an estate sale and were in the process of painting everything a light gray color.

If the nursery carried this family’s hopes for the future, the dining room was a tribute to the past. The dining table belonged to her great-grandmother on her mother’s side. The chandelier above it was forged by Kate’s great-grandfather on her father’s side, who had an ironworks business in Forest Park, Illinois.

Kate’s dining room is full of family photos, like this one of Kate’s grandmother on her wedding day.
Kate’s inherited this chandelier made by her great-grandfather.

Kate can’t ask her great-grandfather about the chandelier. He’s dead now and beyond asking. But the Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis recently found clues to the history of the lighting fixture that also hint at the industriousness of the man who made it.

“We took it to get cleaned and painted, and they found it was made up of three or four different kinds of metal,” said Kate. “It was leftover from things he’d done for other people, and then he put something together on his own.”

Kate has inherited her grandfather’s craftsmanship. Her sewing work includes brightly colored bibs, baby blankets, coasters, bookmarks, stuffed animals and purses, yet her personal style is more subdued.

If I close my eyes and picture Kate, she has a black bob haircut with bangs. Even when the details change, the overall look is consistent. She resembles the Morton Salt Girl and dresses a little like her.

She wears a great deal of black.

“I feel uneasy otherwise,” said Kate. “I might put on a flowery t-shirt, but I’ve also got big black boots, and it might just be that I never graduated from the nineties.”

Kate’s girly tool belts are a hit, especially with teachers.

She seems comforted by a certain amount of predictability. Kate says she enjoys sewing because if you stick to the pattern, nothing bad happens.

“Cooking and sewing are both good because if you can follow all of your steps, then it will come out looking good or tasting good,” said Kate. “Same with being a librarian—it feeds my need to be organized but still coming out with a good product.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t sometimes innovate.

“A friend wanted me to figure out how to do a tool belt for her, and it needed to be girly,” said Kate. “It was the first thing I did that was all trial and error, not from a pattern. And they’ve gone over really well, especially with teacher friends.”

If Kate is careful and methodical, then Luke is spontaneous. The day I interviewed Kate, Luke was putting the finishing touches on a corn hole game. That’s the game where you throw the bean bags into the hole. He’d never made one before, but it wasn’t a big deal for him.

Luke designed costumes for Theater Memphis for five years before becoming a geologist. These days, his silkscreened t-shirts comprise most of his creative output. His most popular seller is the 901 shirt, where the zero has been replaced by a skull.

901 is the Memphis area code, and while it’s tempting to think the t-shirt offers social commentary about crime rates in Memphis, Luke insists he wasn’t trying to be deep.

“I asked him, ‘Do you like skulls?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’” said Kate. “He grew up listening to metal and hardcore, wearing things with skulls.”

Luke grew up listening to heavy metal.

Luke designs his t-shirts with a friend named Andy Morris.

“He burns the silk screens upstairs,” said Kate. “We have a little finished attic. He calls it his bromain.”

Kate considers.

“Actually, I think the outside space is the bromain, and the upstairs space is the brojo, like dojo,” said Kate.

Luke does his sewing in the garage.

“He doesn’t sew so much anymore,” said Kate. “I say that, but he’s about to make someone’s wedding dress.”

Kate describes the bride and groom as friends of theirs who are “kind of tattooed from head to toe.”

Luke’s Day of the Dead portraits reflect the characteristics and interests of the people being painted.

“I think her dress is gunmetal gray with red,” said Kate. “So she’s getting exactly what she wants. The groom is a plumber, so he’s been re-plumbing our house in exchange for the dress.”

Luke also paints Day of the Dead family portraits.

“He’ll take little things about the people and use it in the painting,” said Kate. “Our friends Barry and Genie and their family love to go to St. Louis, so you’ll see that in their painting. Luke included the clothes they wear, and Barry always has the creative facial hair, so that’s in there too.”

I think about what a Day of the Dead portrait of Kate and Luke would look like. Luke might look like a metal head. Kate might have on big black boots. Their cute dog Digby would be sitting right beside them. Perhaps there’d be a sewing machine in the foreground.

And there in Kate’s arms, you’d have little Ramona. On Dec. 27, 2012, she was born. Ramona is the smallest thing in our portrait, but she’s so important.

Already it’s hard to imagine a pre-Ramona time. Kate and Luke are sleep deprived; their memories aren’t so good anymore. What was life like before Ramona? It’s getting really hard to say.

It’s good we have this blog to help us remember.

 

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Kate Hall, post one: how Kate started sewing in the first place

Luke and Kate sew, silkscreen and sell crafts together under the moniker “Hall in the Family.” Kate says a brief move from Memphis to California several years ago gave her the focus she needed to begin sewing, and helped her find her direction in life.

On Oct. 7, when I sat down with Kate Hall in the living room of her Cooper-Young bungalow, she looked calm on the outside, but something dynamic was happening on the inside. She had hit her twenty-ninth week of pregnancy, and strange and marvelous things were afoot. Her baby now had eyelashes, and her eyes could move. Her head had gotten bigger to accommodate her growing brain.

The baby had also reached a new stage in neuron development, becoming increasingly sensitive to changes in light, sound, taste and smell. This meant that little Ramona—because that’s what they had decided to name her—already had likes and dislikes.

Kate asked me if I wanted something to drink, and I told her water would be great. She cradled her belly for a moment, reflexively, and went back to the kitchen to get it.

People say babies are miracles, but I’m not sure. I do think they’re pretty wonderful. I’m in awe of how they got here and how their personalities form.

My foster son gave a little cry of complaint from where he sat buckled in his car seat. He was one day shy of being four months old. I could tell he was sleepy, so I put a blanket on the sofa and laid him down to rest.

Kate sat back down, and we talked.

Kate was a school librarian, and her husband, Luke, was a geologist, but they did sewing and silk screening on the side. They had launched a Facebook page called “Hall in the Family,” where they promoted their wares.

People like Kate’s baby blankets, which have a vintage appeal.

Luke had gotten a lot of sales on his 901 shirt, where the zero in 901 had been replaced by a skull.

Kate had good luck selling her bibs and baby blankets.

I had always adored Kate and wanted to post about her craft work. I liked the idea of a married couple starting a crafts business together, right before having a baby. Those two couldn’t stop being creative!

Kate had taken up sewing when she 28, at a pivotal moment in her life. She had moved from Memphis to get away. She hardly knew a soul in the Bay area, save her friend and roommate Will.

“Were you lonely when you lived there?” I asked.

“Yeah, extremely,” she said.

But the move to Oakland had felt necessary.

For the past three years in Memphis, she’d been waiting tables at the Beauty Shop on Cooper Street. Back then, its waitresses wore bouffant wigs.

A child holds one of Kate’s creations.

“I was working at this nice restaurant, but it was somebody else’s creation. I was 27 and waiting tables with a wig on my head and a Sociology degree,” said Kate.

She also had a few classes toward a masters in teaching, but says it “wasn’t a perfect fit.”

San Francisco was beautiful, but she experienced much of it alone.

Kate said she needed to get her head out of Memphis, and that’s why she moved. In California, she encountered hundreds of people per day—all strangers.

“I would go to restaurants and eat alone and go to museums alone,” said Kate.

She’d go most of the day without speaking to anyone, so when she finally did speak, her voice sounded strange to her.

She took a sewing class by herself—something she never would have done back home.

“If I had been in Memphis, I would have waited for a friend to do it,” said Kate.

Some of her first sewing efforts spoke to her homesickness.

“I sent postcards home with stitching on it using the sewing machine,” said Kate.

It was in California that she decided to be a librarian.

“I was waiting tables out there, but it was different because I was exploring and thinking,” said Kate. “One day I thought, ‘I really wish I could work at a bookstore.’ Then it was just like a light bulb. I knew I wanted to be a librarian.”

Not all of her friends back home were surprised by her career choice.

Kate admired Dave Eggers, who had started The Pirate Store in San Francisco, a tutoring center/pirate supply shop. She says her Bay Area experience made light bulbs go off. She finally knew what she wanted to do.

“Some of them were like, ‘Duh,’” said Kate.

All told, she lived in California for only six months.

“It was pretty stupid because I took everything I owned out there with me and then paid good money to move back,” said Kate, “but the move served its purpose.

She felt more independent now. She’d found direction in life and a creative outlet.

“If I had the chance to do it all again, I would,” said Kate.

And that’s the story of how Kate began to sew.

Next post: Hall in the Family

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