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Othella's Letter

At the risk of crossing the line into self-indulgence and talking about stuff no one else is interested in - kind of like that boring slide show of somebody else's vacation - I have included the following more personal thoughts on James and Grace, and how this song was written, for those who might be interested.

 

First of all, I knew James and Grace. Every year, the extended family would gather at James and Gracie's farm in North Vernon, Indiana, on Thanksgiving Day.

These pictures were taken after James' death as a memento
of his small farm - before the family sold it off

There was a guitar at James and Grace's house but I never saw anyone play it - except me. Here I am on the couch in the front room

I'm the oldest child, standing with my brothers and James and Grace on the front porch of their house, October 14, 1964

This would be James' 81st birthday, Jan 31, 1965. These are all the great grandkids at that time. 
They are all Opal's grandkids. I'm the second tallest - standing behind Grace.

That's Brian and Chris Scott on the left - good friends to this day. Brian is a drummer,  we played in several bands together in the seventies, but our friendship transcends our shared musical experiences. Andrea and I are in the middle and my brother Lon and his future wife, Becky, on the right, standing in the driveway of James and Gracie's house - Thanksgiving Day 1977

April 24, 2001

 

Jay,

 

I am sorry I took so long to answer your letter. I will probably have someone type this. It would be hard for you to read my writing.

 

I think my memory goes back to when I was about three years of age. I remember dad carrying me to church. At that time he was a Christian. Later he turned his back on God for a few years. He was a heavy drinker for about ten years and also gambled. He would lose all of his money and mom would buy groceries on credit. They knew dad would pay them later. He was never mean to us. He usually would whistle or sing even if he couldn't stay on the sidewalk. He always loved children and would buy candy for all the children that played with me. Mom and dad never cared how many played in our yard. They did not want me to go away from home.

 

In 1935 my mother fasted and prayed nine days. Dad said he actually felt devils all over the bed. He prayed through and asked our pastor to take him to the Seymour church and he told them he was sorry for the way he lived and the things he said. From that time until he died he was faithful to mom and worked hours for the church and put hours in bringing people to the church. He bought an old truck and put benches in the back. He put thousands of dollars in the church.

 

Mom was sick for years. Lloyd [Lloyd was Othella's husband who was the preacher that James had marry him and Grace again in 1951] and I did all we could to help even when I worked. I would cook one meal a day and Lloyd stayed with them til I would get home at 11 pm from work. The last two years before mom died, dad slept in a recliner in the living room next to the bedroom so he could hear her if she needed something. Even when her mind was not good, he was so good to her.

 

When Lloyd was pastor at Rising Sun, dad asked him to marry them because he always felt bad about being married by a justice of the peace. In those days a preacher only came around the country about twice a year.

 

Three days before dad died he saw an angel in the field in back of the house. After mom passed away dad slept on her hospital bed in the kitchen. We were in the kitchen with him and he didn't even draw a long breath when he passed away.

 

As for dad's early life, the only one I know that knew him then is his nephew over by Brownstown. He said he never ever knew of dad being mean. Dad's mother died when Uncle Jake was born. His father married a younger woman but I don't think he recovered from dad's mother dying and he killed himself. That left dad at age 15 with six children to take care of. He moved in with mom's relatives. The only time I ever heard them say he got upset was when his grandfather whipped one of his brothers or sisters and dad threatened him if he ever did it again.

 

I don't know how long dad lived with them. I know he laughed about the first pies and biscuits he tried to make. This is probably all mixed up, I hope you can sort it out. Mom and dad had seven babies but only two lived. That was your Grandmother Opal and myself. Mom said dad put seats on his farm equipment and Opal went with him when he worked in the field. The horses were trained to take her back to the barn but not go in till he got there. No one could love his children any more than dad. He also never turned anyone away. He would give them his last dime. He had $400 dollars when he died but didn't owe anyone. He loaned people money when he knew they wouldn't pay him. Mom finally told him they would not sign any more notes for people. He had a big heart.

 

Your grandmother came over to see them about every week until Mildred Williams passed away. I think that was her name and Opal didn't want to come by herself. Mom and dad prayed many hours usually twice a day for their girls and all their grandchildren. This is about all I can remember. If I can find out any more about them I'll write to you.

 

Thank you for your letter and  I pray you do good with your music. I love the tape you gave me. I'll never forget that vacation. The best I ever had. Zenol and I still talk about it. I m sending a Picture of Dad's mother & dad, brothers and sisters. Jacob wasn't born yet.

Love, Othella

 

P.S. I am not sure about the picture you talked about. I will try to get a copy of the one I think you saw.

 

I have many warm childhood memories of the smell of turkey and chicken and dumplings cooking in that kitchen, and of the family circle around the kitchen table. I played with my brothers and cousins in the cornfield behind the house. I laughed at the chickens and wrinkled my nose in disgust at the hogs. I explored the old barn. I would watch my great grandfather James, my grandfather, my dad, and various uncles take shotguns out and shoot clay pigeons for a couple of hours.

I was at Gracie's funeral in 1972 - I was 16 or 17 - and James' remark about Gracie being the best wife any man could have was made directly to me. In 1977 I took my wife-to-be to North Vernon for Thanksgiving and had a long, rambling conversation with James about, among other things, theology, God, life, death and the hereafter. I will not get into his views on the matter, but they were surprisingly (to me) unorthodox. It was at that time that I gained my appreciation for the amazing scope of his life.

And then of course, 3 years later, on that last Thanksgiving Day in North Vernon, when James held my infant daughter. I think we somehow knew it would be the last one. We (myself, Andrea, our new daughter Amber, and my Mom and Dad) left Kansas City at 1am, driving in a snowstorm, after I got off a gig. We were tempted to turn back, but persevered. What is normally an 8-hour trip took 12 hours. I am so thankful we made it.


I did not attend James' funeral, I was probably out on the road somewhere.

 

Part of the reason I wrote this song is because James looms large in my psyche. I have dreamt of him and his farm many times. He is a potent symbol in my dream-language. I have been told that what was once his farm is now a parking lot. I have not seen it, I don't want to. I want to remember the place the way it was.

 

In early 2001 as I was mulling over the concept for this song, I decided to write my great aunt Othella. She is James and Grace's only surviving child. Her sister, my grandmother Opal, had died in 1989. I told her that I was thinking about a song that involved a word-play on Grace's name and since I had known James only after his religious conversion - he'd been retired longer than I'd been alive - I asked her about James' early life. I had heard that besides being a drinker and gambler, he was also a fighter. She denied the stories I'd heard about James being mean or quick-tempered, but verified the drinking and gambling, and perhaps - reading between the lines - some sexual misbehavior. Much of the information she gave me wound up directly in the song or as the background for it. Any information is valuable, even if it doesn't wind up explicitly in the song. It gives a flavor of the man that informs the song, even on a subconscious and also a musical level. I have decided to include Othella's response to me in the web notes for James and Grace for those who might be interested in more detail about James and Grace - directly from their own daughter.