Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (12/19) — Chapter Twelve, Forsythia (1/3)

FORSYTHIA BUSHES BLOOMING now are also called yellow bells or golden bells for obvious reasons. This healthy forsythia reaches for the sunny sky from my mother-in-law’s yard near Morganton.


MORGANTON, N.C. (March 12, 2020) – I’m writing this installment on my phone as I wait for Timberley at the Burke Literacy Council this morning, so if it seems more disjointed than usual, that might be why. But maybe this half-fast, thumb-driven essay will be everything you’ve always wanted in my fare, and less! More taste, less filling? I hope not—the latter part, anyway.

I used a Miller Lite allusion there because I read an article online this morning about golfer Rory McIlroy saying that playing a golf course designed by Pete Dye is an acquired taste, like being turned off by one’s first-ever sip of beer before learning to tolerate it and then finally liking it maybe too much. A lot of things are like that—acquired tastes … and bad stuff we like too much.

Sometimes I think golf itself—not just a Pete Dye course—is one of those bad things. I never played the Pete Dye course at St. James Plantation near Southport when we lived in Brunswick County, but I’ve been watching too much televised golf on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for the past few weeks, and the Masters is still a month off. I’m itching to hit the driving range, even though I can’t roll over in bed or hop into the driver’s seat of our van without hurting my back.

But I can’t help myself. I want to cast off the winter blues and revel in the green of springtime by smacking a bucket of little white balls across an open field. I’m tired of being cooped up indoors. I want to go outside and soak up some sunshine, work up a good sweat, maybe even rub a little blister on the fleshy part of my ungloved index finger. Sunburn, sweat and blisters. Spring can’t come a moment too soon.

THESE FORSYTHIA BUDS came from our dying bushes in Boone, in hopes that we could force them to blossom indoors. Did it work?

Speaking of things that grow on you, this chapter is about forsythia—you know, yellow bells or golden bells, those wispy, bright yellow bushes that have been in bloom for the past week or so off the mountain. We don’t have one in our yard here in Morganton, but our driveway in Boone is—or was—lined with them until a wet-weather spring popped up in the gravel drive, then moved into our yard and literally swamped the forsythia bushes. Now they’re all but dead from too much water, too much of a good thing. We‘re gonna prune them way back and burn them in our fire pit.

Sitting around a fire is something I can get used to, even in the dead of winter. With a cold Miller Lite. Or a Natural Light—that was my first go-to brew that I’d buy at the old Space Station drive-around on the bypass, where if you were tall enough to see over the steering wheel, you were old enough to buy beer. (This was back when the legal drinking age was 18.) I still haven’t acquired a taste for all that hoppy craft beer everyone’s going gaga over. I don’t like Lady Gaga much either.

But back to forsythia, if I can avoid drowning in this stream of consciousness that has popped up through the gravel filling my noggin and threatens to swamp the tender shoots of urges sprouting in my petulla oblondalla. (I learned that from Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.) I’m sorry.

The other day I broke off some brittle forsythia branches upon which some buds had managed to grow, and I brought them inside to see if I could force them to bloom indoors. This morning I noticed that one bud had opened and that others were moving in that direction, with optic-yellow petals still tightly furled like the felt tips of highlighter pens. Maybe other buds will be open by the time we get home this afternoon. The branches sit in a glass vase on the south-facing kitchen window sill. Today is sunny and warm for a change, at least until the next cold front hits tonight.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER RIGHT — Beatrice Cobb at her News Herald desk; her pen holder; one of her travel diaries; and her last photograph in 1959.

Last week Timberley and I did some library research that I’d wanted to do for some time. In the Morganton Public Library’s Carolina Room, I scrolled through two rolls of microfilm for a series of newspaper articles published in the spring of 1958. These Morganton News Herald columns were written by late publisher and local philanthropist Beatrice Cobb, about whom I’ve already written several times. They were printed under the heading of her regular column, “Folks, Facts & Fancies,” and they appeared just over a year before she was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She died two months later, but not before taking one last month-long trip to merry old England.

Most of the columns were actually letters that Miss Cobb had mailed home to Morganton from a five-week tour of the Middle East and Europe from late March to early May in 1958. Unlike the correspondence from her trip around the world in late 1948, she did not publish a compilation of her 1958 travel letters in book form. The only reason we knew about this particular trip—I wasn’t a News Herald reader back then—was because we inherited the diary that Miss Cobb carried on this Eastertime journey to Jerusalem and back. That was the main reason for the trip—to put her in Christianity’s holiest spot, where Methodists like Miss Cobb believe Jesus died and came back to life, on the religion’s two holiest days, on Good Friday afternoon and Easter Sunday morning.

After having studied the notes in Miss Cobb’s handwritten diary and having read her 20 columns about that trip, we don’t know for sure whether or not she knew then, over Easter 1958, how ill she was. It is apparent, however, that she tired easily and didn’t feel well physically at several points along the way from New York City, where her journey began, through England, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Spain and Belgium, to its fog-forced end in good ol’ Philadelphia, Pa., instead of back in the Big Apple. From its very start, though, Miss Cobb’s trip was plagued by travel delays and more serious problems, so those complications might have caused her occasional malaises.

I don’t know, though. I suspect she knew something was wrong, bad wrong. I’m kind of like Paul Maclean, the fishing newspaperman and wild, younger brother in Norman Maclean’s true-to-life novella, A River Runs Through It, about family, fly-fishing and religion (he says Methodists are Baptists who can read). And, above all, the story is about love. Brad Pitt plays Paul in Robert Redford’s film adaptation of the semi-autobiographical work. “Just give me three more years,” Paul tells Norman, “and I’ll be able to think like a fish.” Norman, who did go on to become an English professor at the University of Chicago, waited until he was 74 to tell his late brother’s story. In the movie, at least, Paul does not live those three more years. It is the only film whose closing narration, taken straight from the book, unfailingly chokes me up, even knowing the end.

Oh, my—another tangent. I meant to say that I’ve now read two collections of Miss Cobb’s travel letters from trips abroad, and that after I read her letters from a third journey, I’ll be able to think like her. Maybe I already do. I also read News Herald editor Stanley Moore’s lengthy tribute to Miss Cobb after her death, and I felt as if I were reading about a dear friend whom I knew well. The term “family” is perhaps overused in work environments. But Miss Cobb’s old paper really was like that—a family whose members cared about one another. Timberley had two godfathers there: Mr. Moore, the old editor who retired in 1977, and J.D. Fitz, the publisher who hired me.

MISS COBB KEPT SECRET the severity of her illness and took a month-long trip abroad after being diagnosed with acute leukemia. She died at age 70 on Sept. 11, 1959, at Duke Hospital in Durham.

EIGHT HOURS LATER – Damn. It’s a different world this evening. Everything is shutting down all over the country. Some are pursuits I’ve been complaining about being too important to us in modern society. But distractions aren’t all that bad, I guess, not if they take our minds off things that are worse. And sometimes the synchronicity is just weird—like, for example, Rick Steves’s travel show on UNC-TV tonight is “The Best of Israel,” and he visits all the places in and around Jerusalem that Miss Cobb wrote about in her letters home. I mean, we could have kept watching the news on Channel 3 at 7 o’clock—the news never ends, you know. But we needed a break. We needed a distraction from all the coronavirus coverage on the local and network news programs.

Right now, there’s no point in playing the blame game, either, over the fix we Americans seem to be in these days. That would be a waste of time and effort. The time to have headed this situation off was back on Election Day 2016. And we as a nation made a decision that we’re now having to live and die with. I’m not sure anything can be truly corrected this coming Election Day. I predict that neither Donald J. Trump nor either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders will still be president by the next Election Day—the one in November 2024—and that the incumbent will be our first female chief executive. So will our Madam President be Elizabeth Warren, Nikki Haley or some woman who isn’t on the political map yet—like Barack Obama before the 2004 Democratic Convention? Speaking of him, I do miss that “skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too.”

As I’ve said before, Miss Cobb was involved in Democratic Party politics on state and national levels most of her adult life. She was secretary-treasurer of the N.C. Press Association from 1933 until her death in 1959. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Burke County Historical Society and Burke County Christmas Cheer, as well as construction of scenic U.S. Highway 181 connecting Morganton and the county’s northernmost community, Jonas Ridge, in the mountains. In the 60 years since her death, her estate trust has earned millions of dollars for its beneficiaries, mainly local churches and non-profit organizations. But that final fact isn’t without controversy.

When I first worked at The News Herald in 1977—I was the advertising department’s lowly tear-sheet boy—the publishing company was owned by the Beatrice Cobb Trust. It was a good, really good, five-day-a-week, afternoon daily, and a reporting job there was seen as a steppingstone to positions at much larger, metropolitan newspapers across the state and region. By the time I was hired four years later at The Valdese News, which had been part of the News Herald Publishing Company, the whole kit and kaboodle now belonged to Park Communications, Inc., of Ithaca, N.Y. That was the fly in the ointment—that The News Herald had been sold at all. But who was going to fuss? Certainly not any individual or institution who was benefiting financially from the trust. Before the newspaper’s sale, the trust’s annual distribution was in the $22,000 range. Now, four decades after its trustees sold the paper, that yearly payout exceeds $350,000 each October.

In a 1974 News Herald editorial marking the 15th anniversary of Miss Cobb’s death, the writer—presumably Mr. Moore, who was still editor—outlined how and why the newspaper’s matriarch had set up the trust, quoting from her will: “I express the hope that the trustees of the trust hereby created will retain as long as possible any shares of stock held by them in the News Herald Publishing Company … and vote such shares of stock in such a manner as to preserve the historic role of The News Herald … as an instrument of community service.” The rub of that statement is evident when comparing editions of the paper from 1958 with those of today, two or three new owners later. The News Herald most definitely isn’t the excellent community news source it once was.

In his own voice, the editorial writer then talks about the trust’s annual payout (this being about three years before the paper was sold) and goes on to say: “It isn’t likely that Miss Cobb herself ever envisioned beneficience on such a scale but we are sure—(engaging in a favorite pastime of theorizing as to what her reaction would be to a given set of present circumstances)—that if she were here she would heartily commend her trustees as well as her ‘newspaper family.’” And now?

Last week when Timberley and I were doing research on Miss Cobb in the Carolina Room, we learned a couple of things from the published materials on file there. First, since my focus was on her 1958 trip, I found that she was disappointed with what she encountered in Old Jerusalem, even on Easter morning. I’ll save my discussion of her comments about that experience for a few weeks from now, when we’re all in more of a post-Lenten mood (unlike today). Believe it or not, our lady’s favorite part of that trip was her impromptu visit to Granada, Spain, and specifically to the palace and fortress complex called the Alhambra. After weeks spent in the burning desert of Egypt and in bone-dry Jerusalem and its environs, Miss Cobb’s spirits soared when she reached lush Spain.

As always,” Miss Cobb wrote, “the flowers attracted me—lilacs, daisies, a yellow shrub, similar to our forsythia, and countless others I can neither name nor describe.” I also saw in Mr. Moore’s long tribute to his late boss right after she died that she had never learned to type, and so she had been forced to write everything in longhand. That knowledge cast the pen holder of hers that we also own—the one sitting on her desk in a familiar photograph of her—in a special new light for me.

This evening that pen holder sits on our mantel in Morganton, bearing not Miss Cobb’s fountain pen but a resurrected sprig of forsythia from Boone. We’re sure that Miss Cobb … Beatrice … okay then, Miss Bea … that she would heartily approve. Yes, she would.