Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for May 2008

Mother’s Day Supplemental and Glass of Rosé

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Some say the death of a loved one becomes easier to process with each passing year, but I’m not so sure that will apply to me regarding Mother’s Day.

Especially after writing the tribute column posted here Friday night, I really wanted to indulge my sentimental side and spend Sunday in a type of constructive tribute. Fortunately, I had the perfect material and plenty of it.

Settling into a new apartment is rarely easy, even more so when you are single and relegated to doing the work around a 42- to 44-hour work schedule. On Sunday, however, I was at the point of being ready to put up a few shelves and bring out the bunnies. The poor things have been neglected too long now and it’s high time these assorted figurines, these power symbols of the Rabbit Goddess herself, were brought out to be admired and cherished once more.

So, that work has begun. What I have with me is a sumptuous collection, yet it’s only a small percentage of all that my mom had acquired over a 10-year period. Thank God for two younger brothers when it comes to suddenly having to split up a literal rabbit figurine and collectibles museum.

I think what I miss most about Mother’s Day is the previously mentioned quest for a new rabbit item to present her. Without fail, a big smile spread across her face and her eyes reverted to those of a young child every Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter, and birthday. I liked making her happy on special days, not that she was unhappy the rest of the year, but it was a wonderful scene as she would ask where I found the gift and, later, show it off to all of her friends in the neighborhood.

There were certain gift shops I could usually count on, both here in North Texas and in Memphis, but I soon learned to scope out other stores. Garden centers, for instance, usually carried rabbit ornaments of some description for the yard or flowerbed. The great thing about Mom is she didn’t care what it was, as long as it had a rabbit prominently depicted.

I’m not a gardener (well, not since I was a child and my maternal grandparents kept a huge vegetable garden), so when it came to divesting the inherited “outdoor” rabbit items, I made a suggestion to my two brothers, who readily agreed.

The morning before we all went our separate ways again, our mom’s four best friends on the block awoke to find a garden rabbit and a Tiki torch sitting in the front yard of their respective homes. It was a way to leave them with a special memory of our mom and the awesome block parties, knowing the likes of neither would ever be seen again in that neighborhood.

Sunday evening, I decided to partake in another tribute to my mom. She enjoyed the regular box of blush or Grenache wine and I can’t remember how many times I would trot off to the nearby liquor store for her. Sometimes I didn’t even have to have any money with me; in yet another example of the high regard the neighborhood held for her, she was the only person anyone knew or remembered being given standing credit at that liquor store.

Well, in honor of her, I went over to Savannah Winery and Bistro and settled on a glass of Messina Hof’s Mama Rosé (how appropriately named), which is actually a white cabernet but with enough characteristics similar to my mom’s favorites. For me, it was just right for raising a very special toast.

The only difference is that I was sipping the wine from a proper wine glass. Mom would have had it in a red Solo Cup.

Next year, I’ll have to think of something else to do to remember her.

I’m not worried, though. Some people just give you plenty of material to work with.

In a perfect world, Terry Britt would open a place called the Ella Faye Britt Memorial Rabbit Museum and Wine Bar. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

Written by terrybritt

May 12, 2008 at 7:11 pm

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The Strange Life and Times of Ella Faye Britt

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It’s usually not a good idea for individuals to make guarantees, but I feel very safe with this one: This Mother’s Day column will be unlike any other you’ve ever read.

A mother’s love for her child is unending and without parallel, and that is the main reason each of us think our mom is really special. They all are and always will be.

But what if you discovered your mom was like something you had only read about in ancient mythologies, scriptures, folk legends or tales of the Old West?

With that, let me offer you a posthumous introduction to the one and only Ella Faye Britt.

The Rabbit Goddess: Anglo-Saxon mythology included a certain spring-associated female deity named Eostre, who was generally depicted with rabbits by her side (and, yes, this is the pagan origin for the name of our modern Easter).

I’m convinced my mother was a late 20th-century emanation of her, although it didn’t become apparent until about the last decade of her life. I can’t pinpoint exactly when all the rabbit figurines started taking over the duplex my parents had in the Cooper-Young section of Memphis, or exactly when the real rabbits – her “second set of children” – began showing up.

It wasn’t long, though, before a virtual “Bunny Republic” had sprung up within the confines of a white picket fence, with my mom as its energetic, happy ruler. If that sounds a little exaggerated, consider that she had a full-color Peter Cottontail flag hanging outside the main window, embassy-style.

The collection of rabbit items eventually grew to about 3,000 pieces, by an estimate from me and my two brothers, and included not just a lighted display case filled with rabbit figurines, but boxes more of those, coffee mugs, stuffed toys, magnets, pictures and oil paintings, and a handcrafted lamp presented to her as a surprise birthday gift by employees at the custom lighting studio where she worked as a cleaning lady.

She really did love her pet rabbits like children, not just providing food, water, and shelter, but spending time in the yard with them. Needless to say, she was a hit with kids and adults alike in the neighborhood, and more than once she was given a new rabbit when one eventually died.

I’m not sure I’ll ever face a tougher challenge in life than the years I spent trying to find a rabbit item for her birthday, Easter or Christmas that she didn’t already have. Amazingly, I succeeded every time.

I often liked to think she was giving me divine guidance in my shopping.

My Mom Was A Real Clown: No, seriously, my mom was a real clown.

For a few years, she donned the full makeup, wig, big red nose, silly overalls and big shoes and became “Bubbles” – a name she picked to match her signature prop, a handheld liquid bubble blower. “Bubbles” usually made an appearance during special promotions at the gourmet popcorn shop my mom managed for a time, or at birthday parties for children of friends, if requested.

And that wasn’t even the most unusual job she ever held.

After dropping out of school soon after the beginning of her ninth grade term, she took on a myriad of odd jobs to earn money, including a stint as a gravedigger.

I don’t mean backhoe operator, either. I mean old-fashioned gravedigger with a shovel.

If that’s not enough to give you the spinal shivers, try this: While a gravedigger assisting her father (who was the town cemetery’s chief caretaker), she helped exhume and relocate coffins when the town established a new cemetery.

I once asked her if doing that ever gave her the creeps at any point. She looked me straight in the eye and replied, “No, not in the least. Because you know what was in those coffins? Nothing but dust.”

That woman was far wiser than any ninth grade dropout.

But to go back to the clown for a moment, she had a wicked sense of humor that would leap out at the least expected times. My youngest brother discovered that for himself one year during a Christmas visit.

As I and his two children watched, our mother gave him a small rectangular wrapped gift, which he opened to find a stylish silver-plated office pen. He loves those, something she knew, and can’t wait to try out a new one, which she also knew.

Sure enough, he clicked the top and the rest of us in the room got the laugh of our lives when the poor man leapt about a half-foot off the ground from the voltage going through his thumb.

God’s Fountain of Benevolence…: I don’t think I’ll ever know another person – man or woman – who made so certain not to just give pious lip service to charity, sharing, and kindness.

Growing up, I remember a lot of months she opened our home to someone, whether friend or family member, who needed a place to stay for a while. Later on in her life, that generosity didn’t wane.

One day, she and a friend were inside the Cooper-Young duplex getting something together for lunch while holding a yard sale. Looking through the front window, her friend suddenly spotted a strange man rummaging through one of the tables, so she got my mom’s attention.

Apparently realizing he had been spotted, the man jumped the picket fence and started to run, but my mom poked her head outside the door and yelled for him to stop and answer a question. It turned out the man was homeless, and wasn’t trying to steal any of the sale items, but thought there might be a bit of food somewhere on the table.

She didn’t call the police or tell him to go away. She invited him into the house and had him sit while she made him a stack of tuna fish sandwiches. When he had finished eating, she gave him three dollars, which was enough to buy a night’s stay at one of the local shelters.

In summer 2003, the midtown section of Memphis was heavily damaged by a straight-line windstorm that knocked down trees, damaged homes and left people without power for days. By chance of being on a different circuit than the rest of the block, her duplex was one of the few in the neighborhood that still had electricity after the storm, so she made an open invitation to anyone in the dark to come in and cook their food.

A few days later, a utility crew finally made it to her block to repair lines, replace transformers and deal with the removal of a huge oak tree that had been uprooted. She fed the entire crew, some of whom were on a 24-hour shift.

It wasn’t quite the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but I have a feeling they were just as grateful.

Faith and a sense of doing the right thing was of the utmost importance to her, and despite her lack of formal education, she was so deceptively eloquent and convincing as to gain audience with congressmen and newspaper editors to get across her point.

One of the best stories about her was the day she unexpectedly found herself in an impromptu religious debate with a local Muslim man while visiting a friend. According to the friend, she held forth so completely and convincingly on her spiritual convictions that by the end of it, the man proclaimed her to be the most fascinating woman he had ever met.

…And His Terrible Sword of Vengeance: Then again, my mom – 5-8 and a stout build – could just as quickly introduce a person to the true meaning of the fear of God.

There are witnesses to at least two incidents where a man was being helped off the floor of a neighborhood bar after saying the wrong thing to my mom. And those are just the cases I’ve been told about.

People used to think I was joking about my mom walking alone to and from work in Memphis, sometimes leaving the house before sunrise. She told me there was one day when she realized a man was trying to sneak up behind her, but instead of panicking or quickening her pace, she whirled around and growled “You got a problem, MISTER?”

The guy quickly decided he did not want his ass carted to the local trauma center that day, and chose a different direction to start walking.

She would be the first to tell you she had a mean streak that would equal any gunslinger of 150 years ago. I listened to her talk with glee about, as a child, picking up snakes – and half the time not bothering to see what kind she was grabbing by the head – and mercilessly chasing her two older sisters, screaming bloody murder, through the neighborhood.

She also told me about a day at school when a boy thought it would be funny to make her cry by spitting chewing tobacco juice on her shoes. He did, and then stood frozen with horror when my mom jerked the bag of tobacco out of his pocket, dumped a huge chaw in her mouth and then nailed him right between the eyes with it.

At a professional wrestling show she attended as a teenager, she sent one of the wrestlers sprawling to the floor by purposely tripping him as he passed by – just because she didn’t like him.

On the final day of cleaning out the Cooper-Young duplex after her death, I found one of those collectable cigarette tins that had somehow been overlooked with my brothers and other people helping the week of the funeral.

What was inside the box? A switchblade, two pocket knives, two hand daggers, a bootstrap dagger, a six-inch unhandled Bowie blade and one functional stun gun.

I have no idea if the Memphis Police Department was looking for any of those.

Toast Life, Celebrate, Dance: In her final years, my mom and I did a lot of this together and with friends in her neighborhood.

She loved living among friends, conversing, joking, cooking with them and sharing a few drinks. More than anyone else I’ve ever known, my mom understood that you don’t have to have a lot of money to live a wealthy life.

At age 60, the woman was still throwing block parties that would make a grown man cry out of sheer admiration: chicken, catfish, soul food, chips, dips, her own special hush puppies, plenty of beer, margaritas that could have been sold as prescription narcotics, tiki torches and a boombox helping us rock the night away.

Of all the things I never imagined as a kid, dancing with my mom in the front yard at 3 a.m. to Booker T and the MGs is pretty much top of the list.

Other days, she and I just enjoyed sitting together on the front porch, drinking a beer or some wine, and just talking about whatever crossed our minds.

One February afternoon, I had just packed up to return home to Arkansas for the workweek ahead. My only assistant at the newspaper there had left for a better job in Florida, and I was unsure how long it would take to find another.

Before I drove off, I turned back to my mom, still sitting on the porch, and said, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but I just want you to know how much I love you and always will.”

It was the last time I saw her.

But like any true legend, not even death itself could completely end her story. The evening after a funeral no one there will ever forget, I was standing on the back porch with one of her best friends, both of us having a beer in commemoration of her.

She turned to me and said, “Terry, I have to tell you a true story that I’ve never told anyone else, because your mom and I were sure people would think we were crazy.”

And that’s when I found out my mom had been involved in an unreported UFO sighting.

The two of them, along with my mom’s duplex neighbor, were on the front porch one night talking when one of them suddenly noticed an eerie set of red lights in the sky to the west, seemingly rotating in a circular pattern. Being in a neighborhood that is beneath one of the flight patterns into Memphis International Airport, they knew it probably wasn’t an aircraft they were staring at.

No one said a word for several minutes. Finally, the friend whispered to my mom, “Faye, what do you think that is?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are we seeing a flying saucer?”

“Maybe.”

More total silence. Then, the friend told me, she and the duplex neighbor suddenly felt a sensation as if their blood had frozen solid in their veins.

But it wasn’t from some ray or force field that had come down from the object off in the western sky. It was because my mom, who had been sitting behind the other two, quietly arose to the top of the steps, and in a voice I’m sure could have been heard three blocks away, yelled “Beam me up, Scotty! I’m ready to go!”

Wherever you are in the cosmos, Mom, I hope you have a wonderful Mother’s Day.

Terry Britt has never seen a flying saucer, although some people seem to think he was dropped off by one. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

This column is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Ella Faye Britt (1941-2005).

Written by terrybritt

May 9, 2008 at 9:17 pm

Stars Were Worth Staying Up

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I really thought I was going to make it to bed before 11:30 Sunday night.

I should have known better, for such is life in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when you’re a Dallas Stars fan. They have now been involved in three of the 10 longest Stanley Cup Playoff games in National Hockey League history.

But unlike the marathons against Anaheim in 2003 and Vancouver last year, this one sent me to sleep in the wee hours of the morning with a smile – and Brendan Morrow’s game and series winner on a deflection during a Stars power play in the fourth overtime was just one reason.

For those who didn’t see it, Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series between the Stars and San Jose Sharks exemplified the passion, the excitement and the sometimes unreal athleticism of the game of hockey. Guys who had been out there on the ice for over two hours of game time were literally pouring every bit of energy they could muster to make a play and keep the game going. Goaltenders Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov made some of the most incredible saves you’ll ever see on a highlight reel. The eruption of joy in the American Airlines Center at Morrow’s goal was just beyond description.

It was one of those games that would make you a hockey fan if you weren’t already.

As for me and the rest of the Stars fans, it was a game that confirmed how things are really different this year – in a good way. As the traditional end-of-series handshake between the teams took place, years of disappointment and shortcomings seemed to quietly skate away, not to be seen the rest of this spring.

With the Cowboys stuck in a rut of one-and-done in the NFL playoffs, the Mavericks’ swift fall from grace after blowing it in the 2006 NBA Finals and the Texas Rangers perpetual dreadfulness, Dallas hasn’t exactly been a ripping sports scene in recent years. It is again, as of 1:24 a.m. Central Daylight Time Monday morning.

Of course, the Stars now have perhaps the biggest challenge of all starting Thursday – the Detroit Red Wings.

Frankly, I will be extremely shocked if the Stars do what they have done in their last two playoff series, which is to win the first two games on the road. As great as they have played in the last three weeks, they face a Red Wings squad that tossed aside Colorado in four games, and in a building (Joe Louis Arena) where successful outcomes for Dallas have been sparse.

I do expect a tremendous series, though. The Marty Turco who left all sorts of questions about handling playoff game pressure is no more. Morrow is playing like a man possessed, Brad Richards has proven to be a gem of a trade acquisition, and you can expect Mike Modano will be playing like a man who wants to hoist the Cup at least one more time. The young Stars defensemen have proven themselves nicely and are that much better with Sergei Zubov back in the lineup.

Whether or not the Stars make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, one thing is certain: The excitement we haven’t seen since 1999 and 2000 is definitely back.

And it’s worth losing a little sleep.

Terry Britt doesn’t ice skate, but used to have drinks in a pub overlooking a rink where a local team practiced. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com

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May 5, 2008 at 12:55 pm

After the Storm

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I really thought nothing of the sound of thunder and heavy rain Friday morning as I got dressed for work. It was nothing unusual, especially during the spring.

I still though nothing was unusual when the emergency vehicles whisked past me and a few other drivers headed toward downtown Canton. ” Hey, it’s First Monday Trade Days weekend and it’s raining,” I thought. “Might have been an accident on the highway.”

I suppose ignorance really is bliss sometimes – it wasn’t until I stepped into the office that I learned a tornado had just passed over my apartment and dropped to the First Monday grounds, not even a quarter-mile away.

We completely changed the front page of the Van Zandt News, our countywide weekend newspaper, to get photos and coverage of the destruction. Fortunately, we didn’t have any deaths or major injuries to write about. It was scary enough for all of us concerned, but nothing like what happened a few hours later in Arkansas. Seven people lost their lives from tornadoes there, and my heart goes out to the towns and families affected.

Here in Canton, Texas, it struck me how rapidly life on a First Monday weekend returned to normal almost as quickly as the funnel cloud came and went. Within an hour or so of the emergency crews taking care of the damage and freeing some people trapped in cars, people and vendors were out and about doing their monthly shopping. I was in the county courtroom, taking notes during a long day of business in a special county commissioners’ session.

It was suddenly life as usual once more.

Life as usual will come back to the other areas as well, though it will take longer in some places and will be decidedly different for some. But that’s the tentative nature of life and all that we accumulate in it – homes, clothing, personal possessions and loved ones alike.

Lest you think I’m sounding too detached, consider this: I and my family lost just about everything we had twice due to house fires before I had reached the age of 11.

Truly appreciating what you have in life is a subject given a lot of lip service. I’ve long felt that Texas’ destructive spring storms serve as a mighty memo to us all that nothing is exempt from suddenly being snatched away from us like a dream.

It certainly makes for exciting journalism when something happens like what took place in the blink of an eye Friday morning. People will likely will talk about for some time and marvel at some of the photography of downed trees and power lines published on the front page.

More than anything, though, it should give them a moment’s pause to look at what was spared, the people they care about still walking the earth, and the realization that not everybody was so lucky when the sun set on Friday.

If you miss that opportunity, though, don’t worry because tornadoes are like public transit buses – another one will come along any minute.

Terry Britt has vowed never to get into the bodily contortion forced upon him in tornado drills during his elementary school days. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

Written by terrybritt

May 3, 2008 at 12:57 pm

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