Alpha Mell Stanley Stuart was 98 years old when she died. If you’re wondering about that “Alpha,” she was the first-born. At that age I can’t say we were cheated of any time with her. She led a long life, but more importantly a full one. She was a poet, a preacher’s wife, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt to my 16 cousins, and a sixth-grade school teacher and assistant principal for 30 years. I never forgot how to spell principal: the principal is your p-a-l, as she taught me.
The last years were difficult. The once agile wit became ever more calcified by dementia, though there were the occasional flashes of mom. It made me wonder how this person could have grown out of that person and that person have grown out of a young girl from East Texas in the Depression.
She loved the natural world, her garden, and when we visited places like Colonial Williamsburg, she would often jump over the ropes meant to keep the public out of the gardens because she had to reach down into the earth and feel the soil, had to taste the herbs and smell the flowers close up. As embarrassed as I was back then, she taught me that boundaries are meant to be crossed—maybe not a lesson she intended, but one she lived by.
And she taught me that words were something you cultivated as well. She showed me where to jump over the ropes to get at Shakespeare, Donne, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Crowe Ransom, James Thurber, and S.J. Perelman. I’m lucky. I have notebooks, scrapbooks, papers, poems, notes, letters that I can read and visit with her anytime.
Even though she was a Stanley (no relation to Carter and Ralph), her taste in music ran to a sometimes odd combination of classical and pop. She particularly liked Blood, Sweat, and Tears for a while, and then ABBA.
A few years ago I wrote a song for her called The Last Yellow Rose (of Texas, of course). When she was able to come to a few shows, I sang it for her. She liked to talk about imagery and rhyme, but I also noticed that she started tying a yellow rose to her wheelchair—all but a sign saying, “Ask me about my yellow rose!” And I wrote about her in a Blue Yodel Mother’s Day piece earlier this year about, yes, Bluegrass Dead Mother Songs.
Though she would have raised an eyebrow at this public wailing, I feel closer to her just putting a subject with a verb. But right now, these words seem so immensely inadequate. What’s that, mom? Too many syllables? Something more Anglo-Saxon? These words seem so poor. I miss you.
Here’s a poem by her:
Let Others Thank Thee
Let others thank thee for immensities—
For earth and sun and outer galaxies.
Magellan-like, their gratitude
Can circumnavigate the globe,
Jet leap through barricades of space,
And mysteries of moon unprobe.
Does adoration need a universe?
Must vastness be the caller of our days?
I would not minimize thy grandure, Lord,
But ask instead for simple things to praise.
Today my son and two young friends
Explored the hills of Bethany,
Found fossils in the pebbled dust,
Rang dinner bell unstintingly,
Poked fingers in the critter cage,
Plowed furrows through the swimming pool,
Discussed the salamander’s sex,
Shared pocket knife for whittling tool.
Let others thank thee for immensities—
I’m glad for three small boys upon their knees.
—Alpha Mell Stanley Stuart
Category: Opinion and commentary
About the Author (Author Profile)
Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at www.chrisstuart.com. On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.
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