By RAHN ADAMS
BOONE, N.C. (Sept. 18, 2019) – A couple of months ago when I asked Timberley what flowers bloom in the fall at our houses, she listed the aster as one of several. What do asters look like? I asked. Her description didn’t ring any bells, so I looked up the tiny flower on Wikipedia—the greatest information resource on Earth, despite what English teachers say—but I still couldn’t recall seeing an aster in either yard, on or off the mountain.
According to Wikipedia, the aster’s name comes from the Greek word for star, in reference to the small bluish blossom’s star-like shape. The aster makes our world a more productive and beautiful place, as it is food for butterfly and moth larvae. The aster is a hardy plant that can grow almost anywhere.
Now I see asters everywhere I look—in the yard, along the creek, by the driveway, in the pastures and ditches along the highway between our house and town. They’re everywhere. And they are so beautiful—so small, so easy to overlook, but so, so beautiful.
Some people are like that.
Over the next couple of weeks I plan to write about six individuals who have been stars in my life but never did anything flashy enough to merit their own Wikipedia articles. You could probably guess who they might be—two grandfathers, a former co-worker, an old boss, a namesake and an old soldier, all of whom were my heroes even though I never told them so.
I didn’t really know my paternal grandfather, Milton Adams, who died when I was four years old. My only clear memories of him are of seeing him at my grandmother’s funeral, then a few months later at his own obsequies. A stoic farmer in central Pennsylvania, Granddad Adams had started disappearing without explanation for a time every day after Grandmother’s death. When family and friends gathered in the country churchyard to lay him to rest beside her, we learned from neighbors who lived close to the church that they had seen Milt standing at his wife’s grave each day.
But Granddad Adams wasn’t my hero, his devotion and other admirable qualities notwithstanding. My maternal grandfather in North Carolina, however, was my role model, though he died when I was only five and lived just as far from me and my family as my other grandfather had. Back then we lived in Illinois, where my father pastored two evangelical churches—Towanda Community Church in a farm village near Bloomington, Ill., and then Zion Bible Church in a suburban town north of Chicago. The year after my N.C. grandfather died, we moved back home to Morganton, where I had been born and had spent my first six weeks of life almost seven years earlier.
According to his obituary in the Morganton News Herald, Jesse B. Duckworth was a retired farmer and carpenter who had been an active member of Hopewell Baptist Church all his life. At church, he had served as an ordained deacon, Sunday School superintendent and Baptist Training Union director. He and my grandmother had recently marked their 50th wedding anniversary with a celebration that our family had missed because we lived so far away and had so little money left to spend on travel after having attended two funerals in Pennsylvania. My mother—the youngest of Granddad and Grandmother Duckworth’s four children—always regretted that decision, which, for what it’s worth, probably wasn’t hers. My father was much like his own father. That’s how it works, right?
Most of my information about Granddad Duckworth came from Grandmother, as I’ve already noted in an earlier discussion of how much her story-telling influenced me. Over the next three decades, she told me and my cousins and their spouses, children and grandchildren everything we might have wanted to know about Jesse Duckworth—from his teenage years as a son of “one of Burke County’s most highly respected country merchants and farmers,” according to The News Herald, to the morning she found him lying dead of an apparent heart attack on the ground next to his tractor in the utility shed. I could fill a book with all the stories.
But what I remember about Granddad Duckworth was enough to make me want to be like him, for better or worse. I’ve already mentioned that he had built in a wooded hollow on his farm an idyllic picnic-ground called The Park that was used for family and church gatherings in the 1960s. Beyond constructing that sacred space in my memory, Granddad had a hand in creating my love of music. He played guitar and piano, and he encouraged my mother to pursue her musical avocation as a pianist for Southern gospel quartets, then as pianist for my father’s churches. He and Mom started teaching me to play piano when I was four. My earliest memory of him, though, is from that same year when I watched him play his Kalamazoo guitar, a modestly-priced model that he had bought from the old Kirksey & Company store in Morganton. I now own five guitars and have some of the same bad playing habits that Granddad taught my mom and that she, in turn, taught me.
Speaking of bad habits, I also started smoking cigarettes partly because I had seen Granddad smoking them when I was little. In fact, the first pack I bought was what Grandmother said was his brand—filterless Camels. Granddad kicked the habit after a cancer scare late in life. I stopped smoking filterless Camels after the first one kicked my butt, but it took me 15 years to give up Salems, which I started buying in the early 1980s when, according to Wikipedia, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company “rebranded their product toward a younger demographic and launched a new campaign called ‘Salem Spirit.’ … Internal R.J. Reynolds documents described the Salem smoker as self-confident, up-to-date, and as younger adult smokers (18-23) who were characterized as social leaders/catalysts since they uniquely possess that sense of humor/wit, spontaneity, warmth and unpretentious style that made them fun and exciting to be with.” Yeah, that sounds like me back then—when I wasn’t hacking up a lung in the morning after getting out of bed.
That’s what I meant earlier by “for better or worse.” But that phrase doesn’t take into consideration that some influences on other people are both good and bad at the same time—or, rather, bittersweet. Maybe that’s a better way to say it.
Above all, Granddad Duckworth was soft-hearted. My clearest memory of him—and there are no old, yellowed photographs of this event to have influenced me—is of him and Grandmother standing at the end of their sidewalk, waving good-bye to us as we drove away in our station wagon after our last trip to North Carolina to see them. From my seat in the rear cargo area, I waved back, and I could see that Granddad was weeping over our—more likely, over my mother’s, his youngest child’s—departure. That was the last time we saw him alive. That memory has always made me sad.
According to Wikipedia, another name for one type of aster is Michaelmas-daisy, which “symbolizes a farewell or a departure.” In Greek mythology, the tears of Astraea, goddess of falling stars, fell to Earth and grew into the star-shaped wildflowers, thus their name. The aster is September’s birth flower.
I don’t know what flower either of my grandfathers liked best—red roses on both of their casket sprays are the flowers I associate with them—but they both probably appreciated the aster late in their lives much more than they ever did as young men. I know I do.