THE LITERARY MEERKAT: Howard Denson

Memorial Remarks for Elizabeth Anne Bevill Breen, John Stephenson Denson / Rachel D. Stephenson, and David Burton Denson

JULY 16, 2018, KILGORE GREEN FUNERAL HOME

REMARKS BY WM. HOWARD DENSON III

 

Welcome this morning to our memorial service. I will give the eulogies, and I will be a lay minister to touch the life-ever-after bases. That’s appropriate because I would have become a minister if I hadn’t like to cuss so damned much.
First, let’s tend to the music. I like a New Orleans tradition. Buddy Bolden or Louis Armstrong might be in a band marching mournfully toward the graveyard. Going there, they played a dirge. In your program, on page 3, you will see the words to “Amazing Grace.” It’s actually quite uplifting, but it will do for our purposes. We’ll sing a few stanzas of it a cappella.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
   That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believ'd!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
   I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
   And grace will lead me home.


Thank you. I’m sure Anne, John / Rachel, and David would appreciate your singing.
Now, let me play minister and do the eulogy. Actually, I couldn’t do all that ministers have to do in visiting the sick, the dying, and the distressed, plus conducting funerals for those they knew well but often for those they may not have ever met. Back in 1980, after a competent funeral for my grandmother, Clare “Mammy” Stephenson, I told my brother John, “The minister didn’t mention that she was fun. She was always fun.” Lest you think my eventual remarks aren’t somber enough, keep in mind that I can’t talk and cry at the same time. If stage actors are in a sad and depressing scene, they shouldn’t actually cry. Why? If they do, they may not be able to say their lines . . . and the play with grind to a halt until the idiot with the crying fit has recovered.
So . . . let’s open the curtain on this memorial service.
I want to open with a few remarks about Elizabeth Anne Bevill Breen. She came along in January 1940, and I arrived a year later, so she and cousin Clare Drewry were the earliest exotic older women in my life. Over the years, we encountered each other during vacations and holidays. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the home 24/7 to see any amusing facts and foibles. Several years ago, Anne began her fight with cancer. She beat it for a while, only to have it come back with a vengeance. She died on June 28. Her son Patrick said in her last hours she had lucid moments now and then. She had requested cremation, and a graveside service was held July 5 at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Even if you didn't know Anne, she was a splendid citizen and a loving person. She had the warmest eyes in the Western hemisphere, and the kindness in those eyes probably made her excellent in her field. I suspect she got much of her warmth from her mother Annice, a nurse until her retirement. Of importance to all families, Anne’s life changed decades ago when her daughter Alice was playing in the front yard of their house in Fair Hope. A drunk driver ran into the yard, hit Alice, and put her into a coma for a couple of months. She suffered terrible head trauma. There was some hope for a decent recovery because this was the second time in our allied families that one of the cousins had been injured. Sweet Merry Drewry was put into a coma as a passenger coming home on a college break. She is still with us. Anne knew that federal monies were being given to the states to take care of head trauma cases, but she discovered that Alabama was taking the money and putting it into the general fund. Anne went to bat for Alice and other head-trauma victims and got the state to do the right thing and spend the money for the intended purpose.
She worked for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which covers child and adult welfare, food stamps, welfare-to-work, and other areas. For many years, she was a supervisor at the Jefferson County Food Stamp Office. She also worked for a time in the JOBS program in the Bessemer office. In earlier years she worked as a regular social worker, visiting people’s homes or apartments.
Her son Patrick says: “She was the most level-headed and solid person I’ve ever known. Others were very comfortable coming to her for advice and emotional support.”
Be sure to give Patrick your condolences.
Next, let’s have some remarks about the siblings. Let’s acknowledge that it is not proper for the oldest brother to be speaking at a memorial service for his two younger siblings, but life plays tricks on us, and here we are.
First, let me first tell you about John Stephenson Denson, who died in 2014. He was born in 1943 in Walker County Hospital on Christmas Eve. He either arrived about a month late . . . or they simply miscounted. In those days, a mother would be hospitalized for an entire week after the birth of a child. I was almost three years old back then and had been asked if I would like a baby sister. That was fine, so, when Mother and child came home, I’m told that I would run to the front door and call out to visitors, “Come on in and see my baby suster John.”
“My baby suster John.” Life has certain foreshadowings. You can decide if this was such a prophecy or simply a child saying the darndest things.
As John grew up, he was usually a solemn, handsome child and then a young man. He was more out of the mold of a future Tyrone Power or Montgomery Cliff. As a newspaper and Navy brat, he attended schools in Jasper, Marianna, Pensacola, Norfolk, and then back to Pensacola, where he graduated from Escambia High School.
As a youth, our father had played trumpet and kept his horn around. John and I took turns blowing into and blatting racket with the trumpet. Finally, John tackled it seriously and became proficient in double- and triple-tonguing such recital numbers as “Concerto for Trumpet” and “Flight of the Bumblebee.” He played solos at half-time for games in junior and senior high school. In addition, he played for youth orchestras and the Pensacola symphony and grumbled when the leaders preferred the softer cornets to trumpets (“I can play soft”). He eventually learned how to play trombone and clarinet, although, once he knew he could play them, he lost interest in them. He also appeared in college theatrical productions and traveled with the college choir to Louisiana and elsewhere. On one of these trips he came down with malaria, which resurfaced now and then. After graduating with a B.A. in music from Birmingham-Southern College, he set aside the trumpet and focused on the piano or organ and his own compositions. He also made arrangements of hymns when he played for churches of various faiths. Did he leave us with a folder of his compositions or a CD of his playing, as our Aunt Sarah Westbrook did in her nineties? Of course not.
He was extremely creative. Besides music and occasional drama, he tried to follow in the whimsical footsteps of the Swiss German painter Paul Klee and the Russian Wassily Kandinsky. Our allied families had several generally amateur painters: Mammy’s cousin Jimmie Cranford, my aunts, Sarah and Jane, our mother a little, and the professionals, Jane Root’s sons and their wives, Kimberly and Peggy. Did he pursue this after he discovered he could do them? Did he rise to the level of Tom and Barry Root? Not really, but he enjoyed his efforts. After all, amateur comes from the word “love.”
Often he did not have a regular job, but it would be wrong to say that he was lazy. He was a disciple of Henry David Thoreau, who said: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” John did that. In Birmingham, he worked as a full-time librarian. Later he worked part-time clerking in convenient stores and finally he owned and operated Hugo’s Convenience Store in Boldo and later in Jasper. He worked seven days a week and up to 80 or more hours a week. He endured burglaries and hold-ups, but even captured one burglar trying to break in. Later, he also edited and critiqued several book manuscripts and received plaudits for the recommended improvements. He introduced me to Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Gunter Grass, and Thomas Wolfe, plus Jean-Pierre Hallet’s Congo Kitabu.
He had a keen interest in various faiths and religions. As a youth, he went with the family to Baptist and Methodist Churches, but he later was a Roman Catholic, a Reform Jew, and an Episcopalian. For years, he was a key member of Jasper’s Temple Emanu-El. He learned Hebrew and often gave lessons here in Jasper to Christians who wanted to understand the Old Testament in the original language.
John was about the most stubborn person you could imagine. An older (and wiser) brother, such as myself, mind you, couldn’t tell him anything. Our father said, if you wanted him to do something, tell him to do the opposite.
John was also extremely patient, far more than I. For example, for a birthday our father once gave me a disassembled clock. You would put the gears and gismos together, and after a while you have a functioning timepiece, in theory. Our father clearly thought that I was clever enough to do it, but he didn’t realize that I lacked the patience. Put a clock together? Well, that’s something John could have done  . . . if he had thought of it first.
Take notes: Here is a Lesson in Life. In my middle years, I finally learned to quit giving him advice and, more importantly, to quit judging. When I visited during the holidays, I no longer tried to list the five or six reasons why he was wrong about this or that. Finally I learned just to listen. It only took me 50 years to gain that insight. He’d say that he wanted to do this, and I had finally learned to say, “Oh, really? Tell me more,” and he’d tell more and I’d reply with “interesting” or “hmmm.” One time, after about an hour, he came back to me and said, “Just ignore what I said earlier. Once I heard myself saying it, I realized it was silly.” I said, “Hmmm” and “interesting.”
John seemed to be reinventing himself every two or three years. Perhaps that was partly why he switched faiths so often. When he was Catholic, he wanted to become a monk. When he was Jewish, he wanted to become an Israeli in a kibbutz, and he lived in a kibbutz for a month or three. I figured he was disappointed that he couldn’t become Pope for Christians or Pope for Jews. I was probably wrong. For a period, he called himself Hugo Clouseau, and we called him “Hugo.” And so on.
But when did John get the idea to change genders? He brought up the idea in the Eighties before our father died in 1986. Daddy tried to understand what John was experiencing and purchased and read a scholarly book on psychiatry and human behavior. John was convinced our father didn’t try to understand.
My position, then and now, is this: Don’t have doctors cut on you unnecessarily. When John first broached the idea of a sex change, it would have been indifference for me to say nothing, so, once I expressed that view, I hushed and said I’d be there regardless. Life Lesson No. 2: I had finally learned that individuals are entitled to make their own decisions about their lives. It wasn’t until the year 20-hundred that our sibling was able to fly off to Bangkok as John and to fly back as Rachel. She renamed herself as Rachel Deirdre Stephenson and paid homage to our beloved grandfather, Bert “Pappy” Stephenson.
In Birmingham, she met Mary Anne, who became wife No. 3. Rachel used her John Denson driver’s license to get the marriage license since same-sex marriages were verboten at the time. Both Mary Anne and Rachel said their time together was the happiest time of their lives. Rachel did seem more at peace than in previous years.
Eventually both were forced by circumstances and health to go down to Auburn into a very nice assisted living facility. Mary Anne didn’t care for the place, but Rachel enjoyed it there, perhaps because there was no yardwork or cooking. Unfortunately, old age brought with it such chums as mild dementia, frailty, and weakness (in Rachel’s case diabetes and eventual sepsis). It is not fun to see loved ones slipping away, but the inevitable happened. David and I were there at the end and tended to the cremation. We didn’t know if any memorial service was held. You may want me to elaborate, but, as Forest Gump says, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Here I need someone to play the old song “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Why? Because I still see John in my dreams, but I never see Rachel. I’m not trying to pour cold water on the LGBT movement. What you do is your business. I’m guessing that the Rachel persona simply did not register in my deepest consciousness where dreams are made. Instead, in the dreams, we are on a trip with our parents or on the front porch. They are all in their prime. Mammy, Victoria, Margie, Sarah, Joe, Jane (still with us at 94), and our parents--they are all strong and powerful. And John is there. And David, too.
So, goodbye John and Rachel. One day, you’ll have to tell me what all I got wrong.
Now, let’s time-travel back to 1951. I was about ten years old and John was about seven. Mother and Daddy were asking John and me if we’d like a baby brother or sister. Did I have any clue of what was going on? Not at all. We teased Mother for “getting fat,” and that was it. In those days, there weren’t any ultra-sound images of babies to share, and we weren’t encouraged to feel the baby kicking. One day in September, we were asked if we wanted to spend the night at Mammy and Pappy’s house on Sixth Avenue. We jumped at the chance. The next day, we learned that David Burton Denson had arrived.
Our father was working hard but not making enough to pay the bills. He operated the Westside Delicatessen in Jasper and later drove a bread truck for Rose’s Bakery. Finally he re-enlisted in the Navy as a photographer, and we moved down to Pensacola into a shotgun house in Brownsville. Our front porch was about twenty-five feet from the very busy Jordan Street, and, if given a chance, David would light out for the road. Daddy devised a harness that he tied around David, and, when David got the urge to run, he’d get six feet away, and the harness would jerk him back onto his butt. David was an expert in escaping latched screen doors. At Mammy’s house, he would jab at the latch with a broom handle and then hop outside. Luckily, the street was a hundred feet away.
At some point, we acquired an inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorder, and, when we were transferred to Norfolk in 1957, I was appalled at the Tidewater Virginia oot sounds: “Go oot side. Row, row, row the boot. What aboot that? I was horrified that I might return to Pensacola and oot everything. The tape recorder was handy for John to listen to his trumpet playing and for me to practice good enunciation . . . and to sing along with Tommy Dorsey’s “Yes, Indeed.”
Davy Crockett and coonskin caps were big back then, and I coached David in the singing of “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee.” Except . . . David would say, “Born on a leetle-lop in Tennessee.” We’d try again, and it came out “Born on a leetle-lop in Tennessee.” Again still again, and once more we had a “little-lop.” Somewhere in the kitchen-midden of my life is a reel with David singing those immortal lyrics. He also had trouble pronouncing his own name. David Denson came out “Waywee Dent.” As an adult, when he was whimsical, he’d sign into this or that account as Waywee Dent.
David and John often had sibling squabbles. Don’t ask me what about. At other times, John was busy with his friends at Birmingham-Southern, but David was free to go with me to movies or to high school football games that I covered on Friday nights. I was anchored near the line of scrimmage to cover a game and to tabulate the statistics, plus take a few pictures. David was able to wander about with a 35mm Pentax and take better pictures than I was able to get. When my story appeared on Saturday, he also was pleased to see a credit line: “Photo by David Denson.” Not bad for a ten- to twelve-year-old.
On Graymont Avenue in Birmingham, he was close friends with David Coan (two or three houses down), the Brinkley family, and others, including Philip Griffith, who had a pretty sister named Linda who would come into his life and remain a friend to this day.
After he graduated from Ensley High School in 1969, I wasn’t surprised that he went into social work. He was always more of a people person than John or I was. He obtained bachelor’s and then master’s from the University of Alabama and UAB.
He interned down at Spring Hill near Mobile and metaphorically was thrown into the deep end of the pool. One patient, for example, had a habit of putting into his mouth—how shall I say this?—ah, a solid substance that came from his own body. Got it? David would ask him in a stern voice, “Do you have THAT in your mouth?” The patient would shake his head and temporarily hide the substance in his arm pit. I never did learn if the fellow was weaned off THAT and onto Smith Brothers cough drops.
In Tennessee, David did social work during the daytime and was a late-night DJ and radio announcer. He had a great broadcaster’s voice. He did occasional commercials but was too reluctant to consider doing audiobooks.
In Denver, he continued with his social work for the Child Welfare Division of the Denver Department of Social Services. When he was checking on children from abusive homes, he even got beat up by a blind man. During that visit, the man got between David and the door and managed to get in a few licks before David escaped.
On the positive side, he met a whole family of friends: a wonderful young woman named Lucy and the staff at Kempe Center and the hospital at the University of Colorado.
His long-time supervisor was Dr. Donna Rosenberg, now retired and living in England. She said she hired him to be the Social Worker on the Child Protection Team at the Medical Center. “There were several excellent contenders for the position, but David had qualities that were not just the result of his education and considerable experience. He had beautiful manners. He was kind to everyone, no matter who they were, even those who had committed terrible crimes. He had an exceptional voice (no small thing when four of us were sharing a tiny office). Not once, in the eight years we worked together, in the context of seeing hundreds of abused children every year, was there ever a harsh word between us. It was a joy to work with him. He was an exceptional colleague: capable, cheerful, never-complaining, always willing to do whatever was needed, funny (with an infectious laugh), sturdy, and understanding. He always had my back.”
Dr. Rosenberg proves what Will Rogers once said: “If you want to get a line on a fellow, ask somebody who works with him.”
After his time at the Kempe Center, David served as the director of the Child Abuse Central Registry for Colorado. The state was in the process of phasing out the office and assigning the duties to other departments. I don’t know if that process had a psychic reverberation and affected his decisions about staying in Denver vs. coming back to Alabama.
During this period, David would later say that he made the biggest mistakes in his life. I don’t think he would be embarrassed for me to share this. He left the Denver job market and returned to Jasper, alone, where he entered the social work arena at the main hospital.
On the very big plus side, he was here in town to help our aunt Victoria in her final years. I didn’t know what to do and would have to spend hours trying to find out what to do next, who to call, but, from his training and his job, David already knew what services should be used and how to get them. In short, he made Vic’s last years as tolerable as they could be.
At work, he spent hours creating elaborate Powerpoint or AV presentations to share with his clients and to generate their involvement in the recovery process. He didn’t share client information with me and other outsiders, but his clients often flagged him down in grocery stores, the mall, or Walmart to interact with him. He wrote quite specific reports on each client after every session, even though the bureaucracy would have been just as happy with something brief to put in the file and forget. A marriage came, and went, but then something happened.
It became harder for him to do the reports, and eventually the job ended for him. Life got more complicated when he had to hold things together long enough to get the money from his retirement account in Colorado. He was helped out by Lucy, Stephen Singleton, the late Joe Deavours and Harvey Jackson. When he finally was able to access the account, he paid back the loans and paid off his house and car . . . but took a major financial hit in federal and state taxes. He ran into ill luck when he hired a shady state certified contractor, who failed to complete the renovation of his house. The case against this former felon dragged on for years with a state commission ruling in David’s favor—although no restitution of funds ever occurred. His good friend Stephen gave him emotional and financial advice and guided him through the intricacies of worst case personal finance.
If we all had known what was going on earlier, he could have gotten a disability retirement and avoided some of the financial stresses. But he was having strokes and blood clots that caused his legs to swell up, plus other problems. His loving neighbors helped him out with yard chores and brought him food. In our frequent phone calls and visits, he would say, “It wouldn’t be so bad if I just knew what was going on.”
The pain and ailments made him feel most isolated, but he was heartened by the visit of three of his Denver friends. Nancy Gary flew into Jasper’s tiny airport with Dr. Rosenberg and Dr. Richard Krugman. They asked questions, got his permission for them to study all medical reports, and kept in touch regularly. The UAB doctors probably kicked into a higher gear with their own diagnoses, and the suspects were lined up: For a while, it was Corticobasal degeneration (I had never heard of CBD, which is related to Parkinson’s). Continual strokes? No, apparently not. It wasn’t ALS. No, it was something else. Toward the end, they settled on Multiple Sclerosis.
David told me he was scared to death at the prospect of ending up in a nursing home. He said, “I hate it, I hate it.” That worry may have triggered the shingles virus that all of us carry in our bodies if we have had chicken pox. Two of my friends in Jacksonville suffered from shingles. It’s agony. (Life Lesson No. 3. Jot this down: Do yourself a favor and get a shingles shot to head off the misery.) David said he couldn’t touch the affected area. If his hand even got close to the skin, he began to feel pain. He liked long soaks in the tub and discovered that the warm water gave him some relief. As an older and, of course, wiser brother, I was just one of three people who pointed out that there are some inherent dangers in long soaks. Finally, he was taking stronger pain killers. The combination may have been enough to take him out altogether.
A tragedy? No, not at all. We must keep in mind what was on the horizon for him. He went through the stages of life. A character in one of Shakespeare’s comedies tells about this human narrative:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
 

David made it to the sixth age, and Anne and John Rachel to the seventh. Even so, they adhered to the advice of Will Rogers: “Live your life so that, even when you lose, you are still ahead.”
So John Rachel and David, and Elizabeth Anne, your plays have ended, and we drop the curtain and bid you adieu.
The program says additional responses can come at this point, but I’d like to vary the matter and go straight to the song and then have any responses.
In New Orleans, after Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong had seen a loved one buried, they switched from a dirge to a joyful song. I think the African American spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” is about as joyous as you can get.
So, a capella, once again, let’s sing.

Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the drums begin to bang
Oh, when the drums begin to bang
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the stars fall from the sky
Oh, when the stars fall from the sky
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
 
After any additional responses, you are welcome to break bread with us at Victoria’s Restaurant. If you are new to Jasper, go down Birmingham Avenue to old Highway 78 and turn left. Keep driving until you go under an overpass. Get into the left lane and look for the large Super 8 sign. Victoria’s Restaurant will be in the next motel.

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