Monday, January 28, 2008

My late, great Aunt Barbara

Barbara Ellis was for many years recognized as one of the finest science teachers in Georgia, a distinction that only begins to tell what a fascinating personality she was. The obituary from the LaGrange Daily News is brief:
Mrs. Barbara Kirby Ellis, 66, of LaGrange, passed away Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at Hospice LaGrange.
Mrs. Ellis was born November 17, 1941 in Winter Haven, Florida, the daughter of the late Hermit and Eucal Moses Kirby. She was a member of the First Baptist Church on the Square and MENSA. She was a retired educator from the Troup County School System.
Survivors include her loving husband of 45 years, Casper Ellis; a daughter and son-in-law, Pepper and Chris Hagebak; a son and daughter-in-law, Scott and Robin Ellis all of LaGrange; grandchildren, Amber Ellis, Caleb Ellis, and Saga Hagebak; a sister Pat Huber of Atlanta and several nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be at 2:00 Saturday at Hunter-Allen-Myhand Chapel with Rev. Kathy Lamon officiating. The family will receive friends at the funeral home one hour before the service. ...
There is a lot that a simple obituary can't tell, but then again, there are a couple of things there I didn't know:
  • Aunt Barbara was born in Florida. Our folks came from Randolph County, Ala., so how is it that Aunt Barbara was born in Winter Haven? Well, my maternal grandfather, Hermit Kirby, was a very entrepreneurial man, and one of his enterprises involved real-estate development in Florida. My Grandma Kirby used to talk about the Great Depression, and she'd quote my grandfather (who died before I was born) as saying, "If a man wants to work, he'll find work." That attitude explains why Grandpa Kirby did not merely survive the Depression, he thrived.
  • Aunt Barbara was a member of MENSA, the international society of those whose IQ scores place them in the top 2%. I'd forgotten about this, although now I vaguely remember Aunt Barbara telling me about applying for membership, just for kicks.
Of course, no one who knew her could doubt that Aunt Barbara was a genius, and a polymath, to boot. Her interests were wide-ranging and eclectic, and her mind was a storehouse of knowledge and abilities.

One little anecdote: When I was about 21, and still planning on a career as a rock star (before I settled on being the Karaoke King), the family gathered for its annual Christmas party at my Aunt Pat's house.

That year, Aunt Barbara had decided to study palm-reading, and offered to read each of our palms. When it came my turn, Aunt Barbara said that my "fame" line was very clear -- which I, of course, took as a certain sign that I was destined for rock-and-roll greatness.

But what about my "fortune" line? Surely a famous rock star would be fabulously wealthy? Aunt Barbara gazed at my palm. "Well, Stacy, I've got to tell you ...." Great wealth did not appear to be traced among the furrows of my palm.

This disturbed me. Who gets famous without also getting rich? Serial killers?

Ah, but in looking back, I realize that Aunt Barbara thus predicted, in Delphic manner, my career in the newspaper business, where notoriety is seldom accompanied by an equivalence of remuneration.

Speaking of which, following my own bad example, Aunt Barbara's daughter, my cousin Pepper Ellis Hagebak, has joined the ranks of ink-stained drudges, penning a weekly column for the LaGrange Daily News. Here's part of her most recent column on her adventures as a cat-sitter:
I recently read an article claiming that home alarm systems were a waste of money, and possibly dangerous. . . . I’m going to dig that article up and write its author a strongly worded email. . . .

I simply walked into the house and promptly forgot the alarm code. I punched in what I thought was the correct code again and again, only to hear the impatient “Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!” as the system begged me for the series of numbers that would put it to sleep.

It gave up before I did, and everyone between Hollis Hand and LaGrange College was treated to a siren wail that threatened to deafen small animals and knock birds from the sky. . . .

“Hello! This is Amelia from Acme Alarm Systems. Is everything all right?” . . .

I chattered away, telling her about pet sitting and how long it had been since I’d had to remember that particular code. We talked about the weather. I think I gave her my email address.

But when she asked me for the password, I drew a blank. I couldn’t remember it to save me. I stalled, humming into the phone while I racked my brain. I remembered my driver’s license number. I remembered my SAT score. I remembered the preamble to the Constitution. But I didn’t remember that one itty-bitty word.

"I remembered the preamble to the Constitution" -- great punchline.

Pepper's only been at it a few months now, but she shows an excellent sense of comic timing (nature or nuture?) and she's already got the key to good column-writing: Make every word count. Don't just write, but re-write -- improve and polish it. If you're writing one column a week, there's no reason to publish your first draft. Keep re-writing it until you think it's perfect, then print it out. Now, read over the printed version, and mark the typos and less-than-apt phrasings. Correct it on the computer, print out the improved version, and repeat the process.

Pepper tells me she's already starting to experience the unparalleled pleasures of being a local newspaper columnist, with people stopping by her frame shop to tell her how much they love her latest column. There is no celebrity so rewarding as the celebrity enjoyed by a small-town newspaper columnist. When I was a columnist for the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, I could cash a check in the grocery store without showing ID -- that is what I call famous.

My friend Don Surber -- of the Charleton, W.Va. (not London) Daily Mail -- can probably share some other tales of small-town celebrity. The great thing about small-town celebrity is that, unlike the paparazzi-plagued celebrities of Hollywood, you get fans who are also genuine friends. You don't get rich, and you're not going to be on the cover of US Weekly, but there's nothing like being the local columnist when you walk into your favorite diner and the waitress tells you how much she loved your latest column.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Pepper's husband Chris Hagebak is an excellent artist. He has his own gallery next door to the frame shop where Pepper works but, apparently, doesn't have his own Web site. Call me, Pep -- we'll fix that.

UPDATE 8:45 a.m.:

Correction: Chris does have a Web site. It's just that I had the surname spelled wrong when I was Googling.

1 comment:

  1. I am a distant cousin of Pepper and Scott and Barbara. I remember babysitting them once many years ago. My dad was first cousin's with Eucal Kirby - I remember her fondly. Condolences on Barbara's death - she was obviously too young to pass on.

    Sandra Fincher-Rauhe
    Pasadena, CA