Monday, January 13, 2014

A Great Tree Has Fallen

Charles E. Allen, Jr. 
I learned this week that a great man died.  A man I knew as Uncle Charlie, but who was actually my mother’s mother’s cousin’s daughter's husband. Though not directly relevant to this blog about Catherine LeDuke, I still feel compelled to honor him here, as I know she would allow.  They probably didn’t meet more than a handful of times… my parents' wedding I’d imagine, perhaps my sister’s too, plus a few other occasions where our particular branch of the family tree intersected.  But I can only imagine that she liked him well, and would approve of the poem I’ve attached at the bottom of this post.

For years, as a child, my memories of Charlie Allen revolved around long, rectangular envelopes at Christmas, the kind with presidential faces peeking through, usually tucked into the Christmas tree. And then, of course, the obligatory thank-you note afterwards.  “Mom, who are Charlie and Gracie again?” I’d always have to ask.  They were lumped into that amorphous group of extended family I couldn’t quite find a place for in my head.  Gracie was his wife, and the story almost always went back to how my mom was a junior bridesmaid in their wedding in 1954, when she was 10 years old, and how Gracie's mother was like a second mother to her.  My next memories start in my teens, when my sister went away to college at Vanderbilt, in Nashville, where Gracie and Charlie lived.  We began to see them more frequently, or at least I began to take note of it, and their place in my family story became much more clear. At that time Charlie ran a business furnishing all the TGI Friday’s Restaurants with their dining room antiques and artifacts, and as someone who has always loved random items, a trip to his warehouse full of old washboards and horseshoes and typewriters was a treat. 

But those were all vague memories, and though he seemed neat, it wasn’t until a few years later that I began to really appreciate all that he was.  On the night of my sister’s college graduation, a large group of family went to eat to celebrate and Gracie and Charlie came along.  I remember sitting next to him by chance and we began talking that night, about politics and religion, about humanism and humanity.  I learned something I probably once knew, that he had been an ordained Presbyterian minister, but left the church when his faith wavered.  I was a fiery atheist at the time (as opposed to the more mellow one I am now), and I loved talking to him.  I remember him saying we were “kindred spirits” and that delighted me. At some point the subject turned to various projects he was working on – building a log raft to float down the Cumberland River, and one that I think of often, his invention of what he called Dream Houses.  Dream Houses are little playhouses for kids that can be built easily, quickly, and cheaply, out of two pieces of plywood and a couple of 2x4s, and then painted or decorated however a child chooses.  He wanted to get Dream Houses built in low-income schools, and in developing countries, and in rural counties, to spur the imagination of little minds and make sure every child had a place to escape to that was their own, and there are hundreds if not thousands of little children who could confirm that he succeeded at that.  One of the last times I saw him, about 15 years or so after that graduation dinner, he was still talking about new places that were building new Dream Houses, and still talking about it with the excitement of a child. 

There were more places his conscience took him – he fought against the lottery in Tennessee on the grounds it is essentially a poor tax, and against a new football stadium in Nashville because of the fear public money would be diverted away from more essential services for people who certainly couldn’t afford to go to football games.  And I am sure there is so much more. I suspect that my knowledge of his philanthropy and good deeds is extremely limited and I am likely doing him an enormous disservice by omitting so many other causes he fought for, or inventions he made, or people he championed, all in the spirit of leaving the world a better place.  Whenever we met, there was always a new idea, always delivered with great passion and with tremendous knowledge. I thought of him often, and though I doubt he ever knew it, I admired him greatly, as one of the greatest men I have ever known.  

I didn't see him often, but I thought of him frequently.  We both have a connection to Louisville: he was born and raised here, I live here now.  His father, also a minister, helped found the recently-closed Presbyterian Community Center, not far from my house.  And not two weeks ago, at a party, I found myself in conversation with someone from the neighborhood where that community center thrived for decades.  Upset about the closing, he brightened when I said I knew the son of the man whose name was etched out front. "Charles Allen is a name I saw everyday going in there. He was known as a good man," he said.  "So is his son," I replied.

The last time I remember seeing him was when my dad and I were embarking on our retreat to begin serious work on the book of letters Catherine and James Neville wrote to each other just before getting married.  Dad and I met in Nashville and drove to a cabin a couple hours away, but first we arranged to meet up with Gracie and Charlie for lunch.  We told them about the project, and they were as excited as if it was their own, and I remember leaving there once again wishing we’d had many more hours together.  And tonight, I wish that still. 

When Great Trees Fall
Maya Angelou
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly.  Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.  Be and be
better.  For they existed.

Here is a link to his full obituary.  As my sister Jennifer said, "Get comfortable before reading his obituary, as his list of accomplishments is as long as the number of lives he touched."


These days, great men leave evidence of their greatness behind on the Internet.  Here are a few links:
* A school in Charleston, SC builds a Dream House
* More on the flatboat
* A story on the Louisville Presbyterian Community Center closing