Saturday, July 21, 2007

Biltmore Connections

Remember this photo from the inside of my CD, "A Celtic Heritage?"  If you do, then you may already realize that this is a picture of my dad, as this photo accompanied the album dedication to him.  Here's the rest of the story:

My father, George Marsden Wallis, Jr., was born in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 29, 1926.  My grandfather, George Wallis, was manager of the Biltmore Dairy, and the whole family actually lived on the Biltmore Estate.  So this photo of Daddy and "Judge" was taken at their home on the Estate.  

The Wallis kids, along with the children of other Biltmore farm families, had free access to most parts of the Estate; in the words of Daddy's younger brother, Charlie, "I was 13 years old before I realized we didn't own the place!"  So growing up on such a vast estate must've had a glorious aspect, at least from a child's point of view, and certainly The Depression was not as much of a hardship for them as it was for most of America, especially the Appalachian South.  But then along came World War II, when most of the able-bodied young men were called away from farm duties to fight in the European and the Pacific Theaters.  My grandfather's work load essentially tripled, and more responsibility for farm work subsequently fell on the shoulders of my dad and his brother, who were still relatively young boys.  I remember hearing them talk about getting off of the school bus at the Lodge Gate (which was, and remains, the entrance to the Biltmore Estate) to find a parked truck awaiting them, which meant that they'd be driving to Burnsville or some nearby community for a farm-related errand.  My grandmother, Etta Dillingham Wallis, died during that time, no doubt adding to a certain -- what was it?  bitterness? -- that seemed to remain with my father all of his life.  (This photo of Margaret, my father Marsden, Grandmother Etta, Charlie, and Grandfather George was obviously taken during more carefree times.)

When Daddy left North Carolina, he vowed never to return to live there again, and he kept his promise.  He was careful to take my brother and me to Biltmore on our very first visit to Asheville, and we made many visits in subsequent years.  But he never talked too much about his life there; sadly, he even spoke very little about my grandmother.  I suppose that's part of my "fascination" with North Carolina; I am looking for clues to my heritage.  And perhaps, since Daddy's been gone for over three years now, I am trying to feel connected with him.

So why is this significant today, you wonder?  Well, yesterday, my dog (Maggie Muggins) and I visited Biltmore Estate.  She's not allowed in the grand house, naturally!  But we visited the farm and garden area near the Horse Barn, where we saw chickens and horses and sheep and donkeys (her first introduction to donkeys, which completely ignored her).  We walked around the gardens where they grow much of the food for the various restaurants located on the Estate, and saw nature's littlest farmers -- insects -- swarming happily over the flowers.  I'm not sure that I accomplished much in the way of finding clues to my heritage!  But it was a nice visit.  We went early in the morning, going directly to the farm and bypassing the house, which is naturally the first thing that tourists want to see.  So there were no crowds -- very few people out there at all, actually -- and it was very peaceful.  We had a very good time -- and after all that excitement, fresh air, and sunshine, Maggie slept all afternoon.  Since I have an annual pass, I'll make a point of taking her back once or twice more while we're in the area.  Who knows?  Maybe Maggie was the one making connections to the past: channeling ol' Judge! 

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


A poem shared with me by Bruce Wilmer ...


Solemn words and rituals

    And a young lady's heart-rending

        National Anthem

            Opens the 4th of July fair,

                As nearby church chimes compete.

Throughout the day,

    Musicians on stage

        Amplify their diverse styles

            For the scattered crowd.

Young dancers pound the holiday stage

    With emphatic rhythms.

Spirited children roll over and over

    On the cushiony grass

        And prance the green corridors

            Between folding chairs 

                In joyful display.

Face painters transform other children

    Patient enough to wait in line

        Into something bright and silly.

Artists and craftsmen magnet themselves

    To passersby

        From their canvas booths

            Crammed with creations.

Sizzling, smoking barbecue tents

    Summon mid-afternoon appetites

        To juicy snacks

            Heaped with fixin's.

Other tents tempt with frosty root beers

    And fruit smoothies.

Rain hides in the clouds

    But soon lets go and harvests

        A wildflower field of umbrellas.

During the shower, the dulcimer player 

    Charms us with her melodious mix

        And then poignantly concludes with

            "When You and I Were Young, Maggie,"

A piece my daughter, not long before,

    Had brought to life in piano and song

        While exploring my late mother's 

            Tattered box of sheet music.

This tune pierces my heart with recall,

    As memory leaps to my mother's lithe hands

        Dancing over the familiar keys

            In a far-off living room.

Sitting there in the town square,

    I roam time's vault of small moments,

        Painfully aware how priceless they turn

            With each passing season.

I look at you,

    In the evolving light,

Our forms pressed close

    On the low circular wall,

My thoughts unconsciously scanning 

    Our decades together,

Unable to keep from humming once again,

    Long after the dulcimer has left the stage,

        "When you and I were young."

Bruce B. Wilmer

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