Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (14/19) — Chapter Fourteen, Iris (2/4)

THIS BLUE IRIS stood proudly in our front yard Saturday evening, across the street from the Sloan house.


MORGANTON, N.C. (May 3, 2020) – We take pictures of everything these days, don’t we? Thanks to the technology at hand, we photograph everything we see and do that we fear might be forever lost, as if our memories are only as long as the sleep settings on our screens. We make pics of our food, drinks, dogs, cats, old folks, youngsters, landscapes, seascapes, and—my favorites—flowers, mountains, sky and clouds.

Like many of you, I share my best photographs on social media—or maybe that means I’m donating all those images to Facebook, Instagram, or the Cloud that captures everything, not just water vaper. Or, if you prefer conspiracy theories, all of my pictures may be going to the Deep State so that they, whoever they are—Google, I guess—can track me until Kingdom Come (Donald Trump’s second term in office, right?).

Sorry about bringing up politics so early in this essay. It’s just that I’d made the mistake of mentioning social media and couldn’t help but make the leap—well, the baby step, rather—to the topic that again dominates our discourse, if I dare call it that, on Facebook and Twitter, in particular. I’ve come to view Instagram as an oasis in the desert of hate and lies that is social media. But that will change too, sure as shootin’.

FIRST METHODIST CHURCH at the corner of King and Queen Streets in Morganton, sitting at the end of the rainbow during Timberley’s Wednesday night choir practice several years ago. I waited in the parking lot.

I shouldn’t be so negative, I guess. Many things on Facebook have been good lately. Timberley and I have started back to church during the Pandemic, in a manner of speaking. We watch the quarantined Facebook Live services on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings, if not in real time (don’t you just love that term, real time?), then later when we can give the words and music our undivided attention.

As valuable as Facebook has been during the current stay-at-home order, the communications platform Zoom has been even more so. Zoom has allowed Timberley and me both to work from home, even with a reliable internet connection (except when it rains) at only one house. Also, I can Zoom, if that’s a verb now, with my Project Flower girls. And Timberley gets to Zoom with her sorority sisters in other places around the state and nation.

So technology isn’t all bad—even though I’ve always said, even back when we kept a bag phone in the car, that the truly privileged people of the future will be the ones of us who don’t have to carry a phone. Maybe that’s the case now. Maybe Donald Trump doesn’t have to torture us with his daily tweet storms. Oh, sorry. Lately, other twits have also been tweeting and posting their shares of hatefulness and deceit.

How in the heck did we all survive from one day to the next back before smart phones and their multi-megapixel cameras were invented? No, that’s a serious question. It wasn’t that long ago that Timberley and I were high school teachers, and I remember how attached our pupils were to their phones, not for the all-seeing eyes on their cameras so much, but for the devices’ functions as virtual umbilical cords and electronic crib notes.

Aren’t we all looking for connections, for better or worse, in sickness and health, till death we do part?

Saturday evening I was photographing some irises in our front yard, and I noticed the old Sloan house across the street. When Timberley and I started dating, her grandparents lived there. When they moved a couple of streets over to save on expenses, we moved into the huge old house and lived there for about a year as we house-hunted and eventually bought a cottage on East Avenue. But the Sloan house was special.

THE SLOAN HOUSE in the Avery Avenue Historic District was built in 1901. Timberley and I rented the house for a year in the mid-1980s.

The two-story, stucco or pebble-sling sided structure with the wraparound porch in front and the two-story, brick carriage house in back has always been our dream property, as a matter of fact. In the first place, the house sits on high ground in the Avery Avenue Historic District. But when we lived there, I could climb through a trap door onto the roof and sit or stand on a flat, four-by-six, tin-covered roof cap that felt like a magic carpet, and see Table Rock and Hawksbill mountains on the western horizon.

Sometimes I went up on the roof to mess with the television antenna I had mounted on the chimney. Other times I just climbed up there for the heck of it—to sit and look and think, about what I’m not sure. And even though I was a former newspaper photographer—with my own 35mm camera, flash, motordrive and various lenses—I never thought to haul all that onto the roof for pictures of the view.

As far as that goes, I’ve been looking for any old photo of the Sloan house itself—to see again that flat roof cap—but a picture of it apparently doesn’t exist, at least not in our collection. That’s odd, because not only had I been a former news photographer, so had Timberley’s dad. And neither of us took a shot that shows that roof. The best I could find were pictures of the house’s front door, with trees up above.

EASTER SUNDAY MORNING in 1967, seven-year-old Timberley, her four-year-old brother Tony, who died the following year, and their mother Ruth pose on the front walk before church. (Photo by Nat Gilliam)

Now I look up there and see that one of the owners after we left rebuilt the roof line, took away the cap and added skylights. As we haven’t been inside the house since we moved out, I don’t know if the new roof is better than what we had there years ago or not. But I know the view of Table Rock and Hawksbill can’t be nearly as nice as it was for me sitting up there on my magic carpet back then. And I have proof positive.

My blue eyes were the only cameras and lenses I needed to record the Blue Ridge’s beauty against the western sky.

That’s one thing I thought about last night as I trained my phone camera on two blue irises and held my breath before tapping the touchscreen. I also considered that Iris, goddess of the rainbow, also carried messages for the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. No, I didn’t use an Olympus camera; I used Minoltas and Nikons. Nat, my father-in-law, started with an old Yashica-Mat, then moved up to a matching pair of Nikons.

MY FATHER-IN-LAW Nat Gilliam and his cameras from his work as a photographer for local newspapers and for one of Winston Cup racer Dale Earnhardt’s sponsors.

That other connection I made wasn’t the camera name; it involved the film—or, rather, how no film has been needed for years and years. As everything now is digital—images and sounds encoded in series of ones and zeros—I can store thousands of photos on my phone or on a small thumbdrive or tiny digital storage card. But I think something is lost in not having actual pictures to hold onto—like all those paper prints or even film negatives.

We’ve come to depend on our smartphones and screens perhaps too much, especially when many of the cheap messages they can instantly convey are hurtful. Like guns and knives, words can be deadly, and so we need to keep in mind that what we write or say can be thrown right back at us. Also, words that aren’t true can misfire. We have 20/20 vision about times past but only if we were paying attention way back then and did remove the lens cap of love or hate or pride that was blinding us to the whole truth.

Maybe the way to handle old Iris when she comes calling with her digital message is just to turn her off and go for a walk. We did that this afternoon. We drove over to Forest Hill Cemetery, parked the Goose under a big oak tree on the crest of the hill and visited several people there who have been important to us in our lives. We do own two plots at Forest Hill, but hopefully we won’t need them for many years.

TABLE ROCK AND HAWKSBILL mountains as seen on one line of sight in Forest Hill Cemetery in Morganton.

Still, I stood on my grave today and checked out the vista. I was pleased to see I’ll have a great view of Table Rock and Hawksbill, much like from the Sloan house roof. And I did snap a quick pic for proof. There were no irises blooming in the cemetery or rainbows hanging in the Carolina blue sky. But I got the message.