There is one thing for sure that my big brother Bart, big sister Shara, and I agree on: our baby sister Susan – affectionately known as Blondie – is the wisest, sweetest soul of us all.
Sometimes, very rarely, we also tag her as the poutiest. Ha!
When I think of how best to describe our little sister, the most precise description is “old soul.”
Susan’s best friend growing up was Nanny Eakins, an incredible woman 70 years Susan’s elder. Susan and Nanny’s bond has always signified the epitome of friendship to me. So it made total sense to us all when, after college, Susan went on to do graduate studies in social work, specializing in gerontology, the study of social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.
Today, Susan is director of quality for hospice in our hometown of Henderson, Kentucky. Hospice is a non-profit organization that holds a special place in both Matt’s and my family’s hearts, something that we probably share with a lot of you reading this story.
So, I shared with you how we regard Susan as the wisest and the sweetest. Susan and her husband Mike came to spend the weekend with us in Nashville a few weeks ago. Over breakfast one morning, we were talking about life at home in Henderson – the kids starting school, how good the peaches were this season, and that Mom and Dad had only come by Susan and Mike’s house once the week before… and didn’t stay to visit very long! Little pouter!
Now, note that my mom sends out a daily morning email to all of us. We all banter back and forth via email or phone almost every day.
I sensed the real reason for Susan’s pout, though. She innately knows, and even more so because of her profession, the reality of our life’s cycle staring us all in the face. She just loves so deeply and feels it so important to spend time together.
I called Susan a few days after our talk at breakfast and gave her orders to go grab Dad for a few hours and take a drive out to Robards, Kentucky, tiny, rural northwest Kentucky railroad town where he grew up and where he and our mother chose to raise us as well. I wanted Susan to hear the stories of where we came from so that she could share them with you.
What follows is their walk down the train track, just a few steps away from where Susan’s childhood friend Nanny used to live and where Dad used to play as a little boy. To my family, it’s quite literally memory lane.
Much too often, we let the chaos of our lives get in the way of saying and doing things with each other that really matters. My parents have such rich life histories, and I worry every day that we don’t take the chance to soak up all they can offer us while we still have them. We need to be living by their hard-earned lessons!
At 71, my Dad still works 24/7/365. He is helping grow a small town bank into a vibrant financial center. He is leading a team that ensures our local women’s addiction recovery center runs like a well-oiled machine. He chairs the board at our local hospital. He answers the calls of alcoholics and addicts, day or night, and goes anywhere in the world in order to help them.
And despite all this, he remains the devoted patriarch of a global family that includes a wife, children and grandchildren who demand daily calls and emails, not to mention counseling sessions, business advice, joke telling, picture sharing, bike rides, recitals, birthday parties, soccer games and movie marathons.
When my wise big sister asked me to interview our Dad about what lessons he learned from his Kentucky childhood, it was the perfect opportunity to take him on a Sunday drive to one of the places that matters most to all of us: Robards.
On our way there, Dad pointed out the old family farmhouse where he was born. He told me about how he was birthed in 1940 in the same room that his father had been birthed in 1917.
Our walk through town and the accompanying history lesson Dad shared revealed some beautiful stories and lessons that have helped shape him and, in turn, all of us into global citizens with small-town hearts and souls.
Blondie: You grew up in this tiny railroad town and then you raised us here, too. I’m so thankful for that. What stands out in your mind most when you remember growing up in Robards?
Dad: Enough humor to last a lifetime. Most of the humor I have today that is such an important part of my life came from my childhood in Robards. The people who I quote most are people from here. They were indelible influences on me. My work ethic was founded in this little town, and my sense of community was discovered here.
Blondie: How did you all achieve community back then?
Dad: You talked. You gathered on the store porch. You gathered under shade trees. I remember as a kid walking from our house up on the hill down to the store where we made a living. I’d walk by houses where people would be sitting out on their porches and I’d stop and talk to them. At the store, men gathered on the porch. There was so much intellect and so much bullshit happening there. It was constant.
My mother would say, “Sometimes it takes you all day to get down to town and back because you stop and talk to everybody!” I’ve continued to do that throughout my life. It’s kind of a family tradition. My grandfather did it. My mother did it.
A lot of visiting happened on our street. Cameron and Augusta King were our next-door neighbors. Augusta’s dad, Charlie King, would always sit on his porch and it was so hard to pass his house on my way to the store because he always had a fishing story to share. Mr. Lesley McDaniel was on the other side of the street, then Nanny Lee and Bill Griffin, then Aunt Cecil…
Blondie: I love when you and Uncle Jon tell stories about growing up here. What did ya’ll do to pass the time?
Dad: My boyhood memories are woven with those of my best friend and brother, Jon, our Sellers cousins, Marion Lee Eakins, and the Edwards family. Our social life was Rook parties or get-togethers in people’s yard where homemade ice cream was made. There was a lighted croquet court where the men played. Our church was across the street from that. Much of our social life was centered on church. There were three in town and all the arguments about the validity of those prospective theologies went on and on.
Blondie: We’ve always had a diverse group of friends. Where did that come from?
Dad: There were such a variety of people in Robards. There was an African American community whose members were our customers and our friends. For example, the Johnson boys lived close by and were our great friends. We played together; they would run over and knock on our door on Christmas morning to see what Santa Claus brought us. We’d sit on the store porch together in the mornings, waiting on the bus; their bus would drive up and they’d get on to go to Corydon School, and then we’d get on our bus to go to County High. My friend Gladys would kid me and say, “There ya’ll go, getting on your shiny bus while we get on our bus with no paint.” I’d say back to her, “Gladys, that is no laughing matter to me.” Mother and Dad would allow no distinction between black and white in our house. I think the foundation for our liberal social views was born out of that.
Robards had family, friends, church, and integrity. Everything we needed was in this town, and communication was necessary to bind all of those qualities into a community.
Blondie: What else did you see here?
Dad: I got my first glimpse of human pain here. In addition to people who prospered, there were people who were very, very poor – people who struggled. I saw sickness. I saw discrimination. I saw violence. I saw prosperity. There were those who eked out an existence on small, poor farms, and then there were people who became highly educated. One of Dad’s best friends became acting director of the Atomic Energy Commission. Our cousin Wimberly Royster became dean of the graduate school at University of Kentucky. I truly believe that the privilege of growing up in a small town causes people to aspire to overcome and achieve.
Blondie: What were the lessons you brought with you when you left Robards?
Dad: That everyone plays a part. Repeated, slowly. That. Everyone. Plays. A. Part. And that some of the most profound wisdom I ever heard came from those who were less successful economically.
Blondie: That’s beautiful. What was that wisdom?
Dad: He paused, pensively, between each word.
Hard work. Forthrightness. Giving and sharing. And communication. Communication skills were learned in Robards because you had to verbalize things. The first value propositions I saw created were Mother and Dad creating them in conducting the family business, whether it was the grocery and hardware store, the restaurant, or the service station.
Blondie: Wait. Tell me what “value proposition” means.
Dad: Well. That’s a business term. A value proposition is used to convince a customer to buy a product or use a service. I remember Mother, particularly, selling in the store. She was very skilled. The product was the very best product in the world in her view.
Blondie: What part did Granddaddy play?
Dad:He spoke with emotion, a catch forming in his throat. This is really important: he never thought a job could be too big for him to take on. He wrote the book on courage. He was the ultimate risk taker. He would minimize the difficulty of tremendous tasks; there was nothing that he thought could not be done. And he pretty much proved that. He had courage beyond courage.
Blondie: In the face of what?
Dad: The Depression. He would start businesses that were always undercapitalized, without any experience, yet he succeeded in every venture – his last being one that culminated in a business that provided the foundation for every one of his children and grandchildren to go to college and make healthy livings. The person that I quote the most is my dad. How many times have I started something, “As Dad would say …”?
Blondie: His courage has given all of us a future. Where did he get his courage?
Dad: Well, his father was hard working and project-driven. Alva Edison Sights was his name. The conservation of time was a big thing to Granddaddy Alva. He didn’t waste any time. He worked even during retirement. So many of the men in retirement socialized a lot; he didn’t have time for that. He had no time for small talk.
Blondie: What did he do for a living?
Dad: He was a farmer. He was tremendously industrious. He got up in the morning and went to his garden. My grandparents’ property was immaculate; they took great pride in what they had. My grandmother, Carrie Clyde, was a classy woman. She was proud and stressed personal health, physical fitness, good posture and honesty. She really complimented my grandfather. Dad was a product of that parenting.
Blondie: What piece of Robards do you want your grandchildren to take with them through life?
Dad: First of all, I want them to have a sense of gratitude for those who preceded them, who laid the foundation. Secondly, I want them to pay that forward by helping people. Mother and Dad gave so much. She took care of people. She cared for Mrs. Galloway until she died, dressed her wounds and nursed her until the end. People would show up at our grocery store that had needs and it didn’t much matter if they had money or not. Mother and Dad always extended a helping hand.
Blondie: And so must we.
You never forget your first:
About our photographer: Steve Martin has been taking pictures in the Henderson, Kentucky, area for the last 63 years. Steve and his parents, Joe and Margaret Martin, have photographed several generations of Carrie and Matt’s family. See more of his work at www.martinstudio.com.