The Ballad of Being Gone

— In honor of suicide awareness month

Where’s the old brown Victor AM box
with half a sandwich of what there was for dinner
and half a sandwich of peanut butter.
Going to visit myself again, and in that place,
Jack Benny’s scratching at his violin for Love In Bloom,
Ethel Waters piling up clouds of Stormy Weather,—alas—
as lost as a puff of wind in the grass.

And, Daddy, chewing his pipe in the northwest chair,
and Mama, who’s played a Brahms Waltz on the baby grand.
Then the lawn in the side yard, its badminton net
and the primal fig tree by the back porch,
and the glorious night of the Night Blooming Cereus.
Where’s that gone?

And that midnight ringing of the phone, 
wet and hot, to soothe the dolors of the skin,
near which Emily Dickinson
first made a vast hole in the air and drew me through
and shut the wind behind us.
And where’s that brave stony porch against storms,
and the port cochere, and my lonely sand-pile,
where’s what I was,
and our beautiful house of green?

and daddy hurrying down deadly, the last hateful night,
going to headlong ruin by anger destroyed,
his harsh forty-five chucked beside him on the seat,
all ready to kill the girl who dared disgrace him,
and bringing the end of all that we knew
of our house and our city and being young,
as lost as a puff of wind in the grass.

By Andrew Glaze, © 2002, from his book Remembering Thunder

In 2005, my father wrote an email to a friend:

“Dear Marilyn: re the last verse of the “Ballad of Being Gone”.
When I was 24 and in the air force, overseas in Wales, I received a telegram that my father had died, which was puzzling enough, since he had always been in good health. It was only after the war was over and I got home that I learned my father, (who was a doctor) had been involved in a love affair with his secretary and had shot her and himself.  My mother had to sell the house and go and live with her sister in Fort Worth.  Our house, which sat on 2 and a half acres over looking Birmingham from Red Mountain, went for a give away price, and all my things, including my record collection and books, went for little or nothing, so when I came home after the war, there was not much to come home to. Gone without remedy indeed!  Good thing I have always been a resilient soul. I got over it. But to this day my brother won’t talk about those days.”

As for my father, he eased his mind through his poems. There are three specific poems that wrestle with the repercussions of his father’s self-implosion.  Each one goes to a greater depth than the last.  First came his 1978 poem, “My Father Invented The Submarine” from his book The Trash Dragon of Shensi , followed by 1981’s “The Ballad of Being Gone” in Remembering Thunder.  The third poem is called “Loblolly” and is not yet published.

My brother and I grew up with the knowledge that our grandfather had killed himself before we were born.  However, it wasn’t until I read “The Ballad of Being Gone” that I learned it had been as part of a murder-suicide.  I still remember my father’s comment when I asked him about it; “It was just like daddy to bite his own nose off to spite his own face”.

Our grandfather was a highly successful dermatologist at the time, greatly respected, and well known for his gregarious personality, many talents, published medical research papers, and a high level of intelligence.  He and my grandmother were popular members of Birmingham society and the country club world.  They had a steady housekeeper, a beautiful mansion surrounded by other lovely mansions, and, before the war began, when my father wasn’t playing golf, or tennis, he was dating debutantes.  

As a result, when my grandfather abruptly left this world in tragic and dramatic fashion, it was the scandal of the decade, equal to the OJ Simpson trial.  My poor grandmother fled to Texas with my 14-year-old uncle in tow.  They stayed there for a year until the people of Birmingham had forgotten the headlines and moved onto other news, and then quietly moved back. 

Eventually, I learned that my grandfather snapped when the young woman he was having an affair with “tried to break it off, take the car he’d given her, and leave with another man.”  A few years ago, my brother tracked down a 1945 newspaper article explaining the sequence of events.  Apparently, after speaking with the girl on the phone, he furiously drove to her house in his car and shot her when she opened her door. From there he drove to his medical office downtown, called my grandmother on the phone to tell her what he’d done and explain what he was about to do, and then killed himself.

The one cherished memory that my father held close for the rest of his life arrived in the form of a letter, written by my grandfather a few months before he died.  It said, “Everybody else has seen it before I did, forgive me for not recognizing that you are a first-rate poet.”  My father later wrote, “I memorized this letter. To me it meant, ‘After all this time, you’re free.  It’s okay to be you.’  So, I decided to go back home after the war, study medicine, and, when he retired, take over his practice.”  “Years later, Mama was able to say ‘The only good thing about Daddy’s death is that it let you do what you wanted to do.’ At last, I was free.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t until my grandmother died, in 1981, at the age of 93, that my father visited the cemetery in Birmingham and viewed his father’s grave for the first time.  He returned to Manhattan afterwards and confided in me that, at some level, because the burial took place while he was abroad, he’d never really accepted that his father was dead until that moment of finality. I guess he’d never had the courage to face it before then. 

Thirty-six years after the drama unfolded, he finally had a form of closure to work with.

Andrew L. Glaze Senior. Photo taken by Andrew L. Glaze Junior in 1938.
Property of the Andrew Glaze (Jr.) estate

— E. Glaze

God’s Various Enterprises

                                    For Bessie Blevins

A divine visitation came to our house
that year.
In a dream, God sent Bessie a business gift,
a radical formula for straightening hair.
Rinsing the long black mop in grease,
you run a hot iron through it,
to the sweet reek of blue smoke!
“Brother, she asked, “lend me eleven dollars.
Then I can go into business.”

In 1932, that was more than a cook’s wages for two weeks.
Three times what his father gave him a week
for the savings bank against college.
Where to find it?
But he finagled, somehow,
and gave the dollars to her by the kitchen door.
Later she unveiled an epiphany.
Row on row
of grey‑black cans of petroleum grease, like a factory–
like Henry Ford’s flivvers
stuttering through the factory door.

She was born in Demopolis, once a failed vine and olive colony.
At Renault House
she wrung chicken necks on the back porch.
Her Papa’d gone blind
staring in the fierce bagasse fire,
boiling molasses down out of sugar cane.
She never went to school.
Children she nursed taught her to write a little,
mumble through the bible verse by verse,
and the man of six foot four she married,
used to get drunk and beat her,
giving her two kids. Her favorite songs
were “Precious Love”, and
“The Waltz You Saved for Me.”

Lay any guilt?  To her, life don’t argue.
And for the eleven dollars– bless him,
that little boy did the best he knew.
She was right. Life is what it is,
and we can only climb the barricades it rears,
against all thoughtless, ill-regarded, acts of love.

© 2021 by Andrew Glaze, from his unpublished book Sideways Tales.

In 2010, my father e-mailed his friend Irene Latham to compliment a book she was writing for young readers. Leaving Gees Bend is about a young girl in an Alabama town known for Black women who are skilled quilt makers.

“Irene,
The whole heartedness with which you tackle a sad, and practically helpless society and people, breaks my heart. I can’t read more than a few pages at a time because I start crying. I know these people, because I grew up with them. I can’t help thinking of my friend and our maid, Bessie, and the time she asked me to lend her $11 to start a business (hair grease). I took money out of my college savings to help her—thank God.
–Andy ”

Bessie worked for my father’s family for many years, both as a maid, and as a nanny to him and his siblings. At the time she had her dream, my father was eleven or twelve and she’d been with the family since he was three.

Her birth-town of Demopolis was founded by French exiles from Napoleons empire and is one of the oldest continuous settlements in the US. It’s likely that her ancestors were slaves to those residents. Her daughter’s name was “Belle”, with the French spelling that translates to “Beautiful”. According to my mother she also had a son.

Her 6’4” husband lost his life at a relatively young age when someone broke into the Dry Cleaners where he worked as a night watchman, and shot him. My grandparents attended the funeral with all three kids in tow.

Like all Black members of her generation in Alabama and the South, Bessie had to follow extremely specific, mostly unwritten, racial guidelines.  And yet, she was more fortunate than most. My grandparents were modern thinkers at the edge of Civil Rights awareness and they treated her well. Derogatory names for African Americans were banned from their household. “Colored people” was the socially acceptable term used by both Blacks and Whites in those days..

Bessie took the public bus to and from their house each day, which required walking up and then back down a hill. At times they drove her or picked her up from her home just outside the center of town (my uncle describes it as a “shack”). Truth is, the majority of “colored people” lived in very small rectangular cabin shacks in neighborhoods they were relegated to. Segregation laws kept it that way. Only occasionally did she stay overnight in a room above the detached garage that was designed for the hired help, but mainly used by my grandfather to store his fishing equipment.

My uncle says she was a natural, self-taught musician. It began when she would try to pick tunes out by ear on my grandparents’ baby grand piano. She enjoyed it so much that my grandmother supplemented the cost of a secondhand upright piano of her own. It sat in her “shack”, where she taught herself to play, and was her most cherished possession.

However, Bessie’s major advantage turned out to be my M.D. grandfather’s medical connections. At a time when Birmingham was becoming a major medical center in the South, she was diagnosed with Pernicious Anemia; normally considered a fatal disease. So, my grandfather took her to see Dr. Thomas Spies. He was the Director of the Hillman Hospital Nutritional Clinic and soon to become the USA’s foremost expert in nutritional diseases. Bessie became part of a major study that involved treatment using an unappetizing substance made from liver. The medication was expensive, but my grandparents footed the bill and Bessie recovered. Spies went on to publish his study and the report mentions a female participant identified as “B.B”. He went on to find nutritional cures for Pellagra and Tropical Sprue and by 1938 he was Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year, in comprehensive science”. According to my uncle, when she had other health issues and needed a mastectomy later in life, Spies’ Clinic took care of her. Nowadays, Pernicious Anemia is easily treated with Vitamin B12. Capsules or coated tablets disguise the taste.

A different perspective of Bessie’s life comes from a memoir my late mother wrote. It describes what was an everyday occurrence for Blacks in the South.

“In 1949, I was 18 years old and full of youthful idealism about race relations.  Yet, somehow segregation was far from my mind when I invited Bessie, a longtime servant in my future husband’s family, to the wedding.  Racism in the context of religion had never truly penetrated my mind. Yet at the same time, I knew very well that Blacks and Whites had separate Methodist churches.

I was waiting in the vestibule for the traditional music cue when Bessie arrived.  The groom’s brother, who was one of the ushers, came to me with Bessie on his arm and said, “Where do you want Bessie to sit?”  “In the pew with your family,” said I. The only thought in my mind was that Bessie would be the most comfortable with them, and that she was, in a sense, family.

Bobby, my future brother-in-law, escorted Bessie through the doors and on up the aisle.  After a couple of minutes, back again they came through those doors, Bessie still holding Bobby’s arm and closely followed by an unfamiliar man of middle age.  Bobby said, “This man says that he’s a church official, and he wants to talk to you.”  The church official informed me very courteously that it was against church policy for Bessie to sit in the main auditorium.  She would have to sit with the black church employees in the corner of the balcony.

I was amazed.  I knew that my world was racist, but I never thought my church would be this petty, to embarrass a gentle, elderly woman like Bessie on what, I thought, was a personal occasion. I said to the church official, “Bessie has been working for my fiancé’s family since he was a little child.  She should be with the family.”  He politely disagreed.  A tornado of righteousness rose up in me. I was an 18-year-old struck with shock that my religion wasn’t what I had thought it was, and I was going to set it straight.

“You know that my family has been going to church here since I was six years old.  My brothers and I went to Sunday School all those years.  My mother taught Sunday School here.  My grandmother goes to church here; my uncles and aunts went to church here.  We went to Vacation Bible School and revival meetings and everything”.

He said very quietly, “Yes, I know that.”

I said, “Well, what about ‘Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight’, that we used to sing in Sunday School?  What about ‘The Brotherhood of Man?’  This doesn’t seem like Christianity to me.”

Quietly, he said, “There are several of us Church Stewards here.  Would you like to speak with the others?”  He gestured toward the auditorium. “Yes, I would,” I said, and started toward the auditorium door.

Bessie touched my arm.  “Please, Miss Dorothy, I don’t want no trouble.  I’ll just sit in the balcony.”  As she walked toward the balcony stairs, I said to her, “I’m so sorry, Bessie.  I never dreamed this would happen”.  And that was that.  We all went to our appointed places and proceeded with the wedding.

A few years later, in 1958, Bobby got married in New York City and Bessie came from Birmingham to attend his wedding with the respect she deserved.”
—Dorothy Elliott (Glaze) Shari

It’s notable that my mother never returned to her childhood church again, and completely rejected all organized religion from that day on.

By the 1950’s, my aging grandmother was widowed and living in a condo apartment. Bessie or her daughter still came once a week to polish the silver, dust, and vacuum. My father stayed in touch with Bessie for the rest of her life, and although she could not write back, her daughter was able to. When I was a child, and we still lived in Birmingham, I remember driving to her home to drop off Christmas gifts.  After we moved to New York City in 1957, we sent a Christmas card with cash tucked inside.

Sadly, one day a phone call notified us that Bessie had died. However, it wasn’t from natural causes. It turned out that as she grew older, she began to develop cataracts. Eventually she tried to cross a street and was hit by a car.  The consensus was that she hadn’t seen it coming.

Nonetheless, she still lives her simple life within my father’s poem, and in our memories, and now you know her story as well. Sometimes a legacy is measured in the love you leave behind when you’re gone. Sometimes it’s by swallowing a truly awful tasting liver compound to help find a cure for a fatal disease. And on rare occasions, if our stars are aligned correctly, even if we don’t realize it at the time, some of us are able to do both.

—E. Glaze


Although there may be other photos of Bessie, this is the only one in my possession.  The baby in the wicker carriage is my aunt Martha, the toddler in the foreground is my father Andrew, and Bessie is the “Hidden Figure” in the upper right corner.
Photo property of the Andrew Glaze estate.

A Little Han Horse

 

Tail in a rainbow curve,
his mouth ruffling the air like a golden flute,
his hooves glittering in rapture,
with cocked ears, he’s off,
to what improbable sapphire mountain?
Above the thick reek below of rage and grief,
of fire-blasted cities, starving children, skewed old men
proffering grey worn-out eyes
and great bellies, he skims.

Where he goes, also,
is afflicted with wild armies,
furious combustion and loss.
So, he flies as part of it,
through, between, beneath,
hooves flickering sparks, nostrils flaring,
his heart knows it all.
He skips a little dance of joy.

© Andrew Glaze, from Remembering Thunder, 2002

 

My father’s love affair with Asian art, poetry, and culture, was particularly passionate in the 1970’s.  At that time, he read and experimented with writing Haiku poetry, enjoyed taking us to an authentic Japanese restaurant in our neighborhood, and purchased a variety of books on Asian Art.  I think of it as his “Asian Period”. It was during this time that he wrote “The Trash Dragon of Shensi”, ” A Little Han Horse”, and began writing a poem titled “Issa” which is about the Japanese poet and Buddhist monk named Kobayashi Issa.  The latter is included in his 2015 book Overheard In a Drugstore.

The little Han horse that inspired the poem is actually a statuette that sat on a shelf above my father’s desk in Manhattan. Of humble origin, it arrived at our home when he subscribed to a Sculpture of the Month Club that was probably affiliated with the Time-Life publishing company.  It is based on “The Flying Horse of Gansu”, a statue from the Chinese Han Dynasty that was unearthed from a tomb in 1969 and which captured the public’s imagination.  The horse is said to be standing lightly on a flying swallow or hawk.

I remember my father telling me how much he loved looking at it. At some time in later years it was accidentally knocked over and the tail separated from the body. Then, during the move from Miami to Birmingham, it went missing among my parents packed belongings and they thought it was lost entirely for a long time. At that point a kind relative presented him with a replacement that was very similar and my father was literally moved to tears.

I currently own the original along with its detached tail. At some point I’ll find someone to reattach it.  In the meantime, tail or not, he continues to flare his nostrils, skip his dance of joy, and bring me inspiration from a well placed shelf in my living room.

E. Glaze


My father’s little Han dynasty horse statuette.  At the time he wrote the poem, it sat on a shelf above his desk in our Manhattan apartment.