My great-grandfather, Papa Bates, has been on my mind lately. My duo partner, Jim Nunally, and I just put one of his poems to music. We have written a number of songs that we plan to release in an album called House & Garden. The themes are uncannily similar to Papa Bates’ poetry and I have felt his presence in the early-morning and middle-of-the-night twilights of the mind, when my dreams seem real and reality dream-like.
The poem (and now song) is titled My Soul, and I’ll enclose the words at the end of this story. Like many of Papa Bates’ poems, My Soul celebrates spiritual power in the natural world, through the imagery of flowers.
Allen Bates was born in Perote, Alabama in 1872. He was ordained a deacon in the Baptist Church in 1910 and remained faithful till his death. He was a man of his times and community, in that alcohol was the “demon rum,” and he did not go outside without a hat. On the other hand, unlike many men of that time, he raised his daughter (my grandmother, Thelma) to make the most of her innate intelligence and ambition, and encouraged her to go to college, continue on to graduate school and make herself a career. She worked for the Red Cross for many years.
I never knew Papa Bates, he had passed long before I was born. And I knew Mama Bates only as a very frail, bed-ridden granny we were not to disturb with our screen-door-slamming races through their Birmingham house. His garden was the pride of the neighborhood and I do remember my uncles taking me on a tour of the garden and mentioning what a gift Papa had with flowers, still evident from the colors and fragrance in the garden so many years later.
My father was Papa Bates’ favorite grandchild I am told. I know from Dad’s stories what a loving and strong man he was, and what great humor he had and shared with his family. In fact, that love and relationship got my father through some very difficult times as a child, when he was abandoned by my grandmother. She had married into a wealthy banking family in the 1920s and I believe had envisioned that that financial security would afford her the ability to avoid perhaps the more typical expectations of southern gentlewomen of the time. Ironic and interesting, isn’t it? She hoped for a career and academic scholarship with the freedom money would provide.
Then the Depression hit and the Perkins bankers used their own personal wealth and assets to pay their depositors. So the fortune and safety net disappeared. My grandfather Perkins joined the Army and went to India, my grandmother was alone, pregnant and with one young son (my father). We believe she suffered from post-partum depression; in any case, she had a collapse just after the birth of her second child. Grandmother moved in with her sister Bertha and left my father with her younger sister Mary for a couple years, at the tender age of three. My heart goes out to Grandmother – I think she would have thrived in the current more liberated era for women – but my father never completely recovered from that abandonment. The continuity of his relationship with Papa Bates, his status as favorite grandson, saved him in many ways. My song “Butch,” co-written with Laurie Lewis, recounts Dad’s story. When he was in his last days, and in the grip of severe dementia from Parkinson’s disease, he relived those happy times. He spoke of Papa Bates, he remembered parades and sunny days in the warm regard of his grandfather. I can’t tell you what a comfort that gave all us kids and Mom, to know that Dad’s twilight memories were happy, thanks in great part to Papa.
Papa Bates found simple beauty in his daily life, even when he was in the hell of WWI. As a pacifist, he would not fight, but he volunteered for the YMCA and Red Cross as a chaplain and was sent to the front in France. He wrote poetry through the war and after, and there are a couple poems that touch on how he looked for ways to help morale, to keep soldiers’ spirits from descending into utter despair. He wrote about what it meant to be a man in those times and in that place.
Papa Bates would have adored my mother – she has that same sense of awe and wonder at simple natural beauty. Our long trips in the car for family vacations or drives to visit kinfolk were dotted with a running commentary from Mom. Oh look at that beautiful tree! That light, that hillside! And we would look and be caught up in the excitement and the miracle of it.
I see now how my life carries a thread, a hundred-years long, to Papa Bates. As an introvert and someone very familiar with melancholy, I have long relied on finding something small, beautiful in the world to strengthen my hold on life. Sunlight. A particular blue in a patch of sky. A bright leaf. Sometimes they are to be found amidst ugly and depressing landscape. Black-eyed Susans in a traffic median. There is not a day that I cannot find a deep and satisfying sense of blessing and gratitude for that tiny spot of beauty, a miracle that enters my senses and opens a space in the darkest parts of my soul.
When I read My Soul, I feel a tug on that thread, the abiding love for gardens and flowers and the central place they had in Papa Bates’ personal religion. I wonder how far back this connection goes, and who in his life perhaps modeled this for him. If there is one thing – just one thing – that I could pass along to my daughter, of all the ideas and lessons and advice and hopes that I have for her life, it is this: A belief in every-day beauty. It may be tiny, noticing it may not overcome the challenges and struggles you face at any one time, but seek it and store it inside you and you will grow your own spiritual garden and that will sustain you.
Hilary Perkins sings as Nell Robinson. She and Jim Nunally will be premiering the new song My Soul at the Strawberry Music Festival on Labor Day weekend. For more stories, music and photos, visit nellrobinsonmusic.com.
Oh wonderful, the human soul
Too wonderful deep for me,
For why should such in a prison pine!
In a house of clay like me.
Methinks that the soul is purity
Possessing a love divine,
Longing for beauty and fragrance too
Past the rose and jasaemine.
Earthly flowers cannot compare
In scent and artistry rare
With the loveliness the soul would seek
In a morn of Heavenly air:
The flesh-bound soul it makes its way
Mid shadows and clouds and rain
And bows itself to the human will
Though it often cries with pain.
The soul would seek its God again
In the Eden land of love
Make sure a dwelling place with Him
Among ever-blooming flowers above
Oh flesh of mine: Oh house of clay:
Subdue thy earthly powers
And let this guest: this Heavenly guest:
Direct all of thy days and hours
A.P. Bates, poem, June 6th, 1919
(Nell Robinson, lyrics; James Nunally, music, July, 2012)