Thirty-four years ago, Graceland became a memorial shrine. The day before, August 16th 1977, the King of Rock and Roll had died in it, his home.
Despite liking Elvis, Graceland had never been on my ‘must-see’ list. But passing through Memphis once, it seemed wrong not to see Elvis’ house.
Even pulling into the parking lot, though, I had quibbles. “Our money will be going straight to Priscilla and Lisa Marie’s pockets,” I said, “there’s starving children who need this money.” Still, we bought our tickets and went in.
Oh, I hope the starving children can understand the cultural value of Graceland. It is wonderful. Not just the place itself but those touring it and those working in it. It is Mecca for American culture in the latter half of the 20th century.
Our tour group shuffled through the house, oohing and aahing over the opulence, the excess, the fact that Elvis the King sat in these rooms. The tour guide was informative and clearly enjoyed her job. She was a child when Elvis died but she “got” him – the house, the magic.
Next the outbuildings, the museums of Elvis stuff. His collections of firearms and police badges are laid out in glass cases. There are rooms of display cases filled with gifts he was given. His costumes, his gold records. There’s every award and honourable mention he received from anyone anywhere. Presumably there’s museum curators working behind these public rooms, sorting, preserving, cataloguing a life of a man.
You can tour the grounds. A paddock near the house had about six horses in it. A couple of them would remember Elvis. The others were Lisa Marie’s and Priscilla’s. They came charging over to the fence, looking for treats. I pulled handfuls of grass, fearful I was going to be yelled at. But no one said anything. The horses happily munched the grass I gave them.
Quite close by is Elvis’ grave. The true believers circle around it, taking pictures, looking down misty-eyed. They stay there a long time.
Beside the parking lot, near the entrance, Elvis’ planes are parked. The smaller one is called the Lisa Marie. Both have TCB with a lightning bolt painted on them.
My favourite moment happened while standing in line for the Elvis memorabilia museum. Over on the lawn by the house, a small elderly dog was tottering around with an elderly woman. I asked a young man checking tickets about the dog. “That’s Edmund, Elvis’ dog,” he said, “he lives with Elvis’ aunt.” I asked who the lady was. “She’s a maid and her job is looking after Edmund.” When I asked if I could go closer, he said no. “It’s really for your safety. He’s a nasty little dog.” I liked his candor but wondered if that was why he was doing crowd control in the blazing sun rather than leading tours inside.
Edmund has left the building, and probably Elvis’ horses have too. But I’m sure the magic of them and Elvis are still there in Graceland. Taking care of business.
The pictures of Edmund and the horse paddock are mine from 1990. My cousin Andrea Hutchison very kindly let me use photos from her 2011 trip to Memphis.
A couple weeks ago, I posted the family tree of the Mabees, my paternal grandmother’s people. It’s the family I knew least about, other than there are a lot of them in the Tillsonburg-Courtland area. And I claim as kin the fabulous figure skater Christopher Mabee, from Tillsonburg. Don’t know how he’s related* but I believe he must be, so I call him “Cousin Chris”.
Anyway, the internet allowed me to connect my limited knowledge of the Mabees with sources of a lot of information about them. The thing that I was delighted to discover is that the Mabees came to Canada from the US as United Empire Loyalists. That makes my entire lineage, both sides of both parents’ families, UEL.
So talking with my husband, who was born and raised in the US, about the Loyalists. His children are Canadian because of the Vietnam War. I am Canadian because of the Revolutionary War. Telling him about a Mabee ancestor whom the British hanged as a “spy” for the rebels. The rest of the family came north to Canada. The American rebels, later known as the government and citizenry of the USA, seized their lands.
So what was that like? Families divided by political opinion and geography. For those who left, returning to the US was not an option unless they were willing to risk arrest. Sounds like the American Civil War, doesn’t it? Only it was a national border between them in the latter 1700s.
Black, white and First Nations – all belonged to the group that the new United States saw as traitors and that Canada called United Empire Loyalists. All contributed to military efforts against the American “rebels” and all made new communities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario.
Voluntarily or not, the loyalists had already left their homelands at least once. Europeans like my ancestors had sought freedom from religious, economic or political oppression in a new land.
One tyrant or a thousand tyrants
Presumably, my kin in the Mabee, Burwell, Anger and Lymburner families had found that in the beginning. But when total independence was being discussed and fought for, they preferred political ties with Britain to living in the proposed republic. “Better to live under one tyrant a thousand miles away, than a thousand tyrants one mile away” was how UEL Daniel Bliss put it. And, to the north, there was a country/colony that agreed with that philosophy. So they picked up stakes again and moved to British North America.
Double rebels, and divided families. Family members maybe never saw each other again. Those who left had to abandon the land and homes they’d built up. They had to homestead all over again in new country. New generations became American or Canadian, maybe not really thinking much about their connections to the other country and their family there.
From New Jersey to New Brunswick and New York to Niagara, those United Empire Loyalists, rebels against the United States of America, are my people.
*I have found out! We are related through Simon Mabee (1700-1783), making us half 6th cousins, 3x removed.
The first time I saw Sarah Palin on television, I was impressed. It was soon after she was announced as John McCain’s running mate for the 2008 US presidential election. She was forthright with her opinions and seemed level-headed. I liked how she talked about being a woman – and wife and mother – with a political career. I might not agree with her political beliefs but I could respect her as a politician. That’s what I thought.
It went downhill from there, pretty rapidly. But never, even in my most extreme thoughts of “what stupidity is this woman going to do next” did I imagine she would post a list of Democratic party targets online, and show their geographical location on a map of the USA with marks that are very similar to gunsight cross hairs!
Gun imagery and reality
I had heard on tv about her statement that it was time to “reload”. Her choice of that word seemed incendiary and irresponsible to me, and I was sure it was deliberate on her part. Still, giving her the benefit of the doubt, I thought maybe she was just playing up her self- or media-created image as a rifle-toting, sharp-shooting “momma Grizzly”. Had I known about the list and map! I only found out about that on CNN today, the day a US congresswoman was shot in the head, 6 people were killed and many more wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson Arizona. The Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Gifford, was on Sarah Palin’s list of targets.
Maybe there is no connection between these killings and Sarah Palin’s postings and tweets. But if there isn’t in fact, there is in spirit. An Arizona sheriff, shortly after the shootings, spoke of the spirit of “vitriol” in Arizona. That, CNN commentators agreed, could be extended to the whole of political discourse in the US at this moment. I don’t know what gets more vitriolic than marking a map with something very much like cross-hairs, even if it’s not meant to be taken literally. It is exactly that image of Palin – the gun-totin’ momma – that she has created for herself that makes her use of such language more problematic than with other people’s use of it. With her, it’s hard to hear the words ‘target’ and ‘aim’ without thinking of firearms.
Sanctity of fish life?
I watched a couple episodes of Sarah Palin’s Alaska recently. The one I watched had her and her daughter working on a fishing boat. They were processing halibut before putting them in the boat’s hold. Bristol, then Sarah, held the still-beating heart of a halibut. Both looked at it as the camera zoomed in for a close-up. I thought probably they were marveling at this little organ, strong, still beating, still alive even after it was detached from the halibut’s body. That’s what I was doing.
But nope. Bristol said something like “eew, gross”. Sarah looked at it solemnly for a minute and, just when I thought she was going to talk about the miracle of life, she shrugged, said “weird”. Then she flicked the still-beating heart over the side of the boat into the sea. So much for the sanctity of life, I thought.
Dogs and cats have always been a part of my life – an important part. Most of them, from my childhood and adulthood, have just come along and stayed. An agreement was reached, a negotiation and relationship I suppose. Once part of the family, they were not ‘disposable’ if inconvenient. Also, rarely were they actively sought out like a purchase you decide to make. Both my present dogs are “official rescues”, adopted through a local dog rescue group All Breed Canine Rescue. So they broke my pattern: they were actively sought out because we were in need of a dog. We didn’t really plan on two, and hadn’t really decided on these two. They were to be fosters, but they made up our minds for us. Their backgrounds are, unfortunately, two all too common stories of dogs who end up in need of homes.
Charlie, a little terrier mix, was in an overcrowded pound in the States. Perhaps he was a victim of the house foreclosure crisis in the US, directly or indirectly. I don’t know why a small, cute, young dog wasn’t adopted, but he’d outstayed his allotted time and was scheduled for euthanasia. He was pulled from the pound and brought to Canada. He ended up with us, and he and we are very happy about that.
Leo, a Standard Poodle, was a victim of commerce and exploitation. He spent five years as a stud dog in a puppy mill in the US. I don’t know how old he was when he first got there, presumably old enough to be of service to them. So maybe 6 months to a year? I don’t think he’d ever been in a house in his life, prior to coming into ours. He didn’t know how to walk on a floor or climb a stair. He “marked” pretty much everything in the house. White-haired men frightened him and he kept distant from everyone else – except me. He glued himself to me, I guess recognizing me as the one safe base he had in this new world after leaving the puppy mill and enduring a very long ride to Canada.
Puppy mills and negligent owners
Both these dogs have given me an abiding anger toward people who callously or irresponsibly breed dogs. Charlie was young, but old enough to be neutered. He wasn’t until the rescue group did it. Leo was making Labradoodles. There’s nothing wrong with developing a new breed of dog. But there is something very wrong with churning out puppies without regard for genetic health problems, ante- and post-natal care, temperament, and socialization. There’s something very wrong with treating dogs as a cash crop. That, I believe, applies to large- and small-scale puppy mills and to people who think that a litter of pups is a good way to make a few extra bucks by selling them on online sites like Kijiji.
Equally, just not getting around to getting your dog fixed is wrong. There will be pups and someone is going to have to deal with them. If it isn’t you, it will be rescue groups or kind-hearted strangers, or animal control officers and a gas box to kill them.
Leo, the puppy mill dog, is unrecognizable now from what he was. In appearance and temperament, he’s a true Poodle – showing off, meeting and greeting everyone including white-haired men. But a lot of time and a lot of money went into making a healthy and happy dog out of the sick, scared animal that I first saw. And I’m sure that puppy-mill operator is still churning out puppies, making money and passing off his breeding stock to people like me to rehabilitate after he’s got all the use he can out of them. Laws need to be stricter, not to punish responsible breeders but to shut down people like him.
The thing that annoyed me most about the movie Secretariat was that the horses playing him were not in the credits. In particular, the one who played him in close-ups was superb – playing to the camera, acting the ham. Just like the real Big Red, so those who knew him say. I hope I will learn his and the others’ names and more about them on the dvd.
Ok, that’s my criticism. Other than that, I loved the movie. It’s the story of Secretariat’s fabulous 1973 Triple Crown win, and the story of his owner Penny Chenery Tweedy. Now, I’m a Man o’ War girl when it comes to that important question – who was the greatest racehorse of the 20th century? It’s not a decision based on any real knowledge of thoroughbred racing, just that he was the first racehorse I knew anything about. I had a put-together model kit of him when I was a kid, and it caused me to find a book about him in the library. And, even if you’re in the Secretariat “greatest horse” camp, you can’t deny the magnificence of Man o’ War, the original “Big Red”. His stride, as marked out at the Kentucky Horse Park, is still the longest of any known horse, including Secretariat.
The 1973 Belmont
But that win by 31 lengths! Nothing has ever been seen like that. I didn’t see the actual race. I was living outside North America and didn’t have a tv set. I’ve watched replays since but, thrilling as even that is, I cannot imagine what it felt like to actually see the race not knowing what the outcome would be. By 1978, after Seattle Slew and Affirmed won back-to-back Triple Crowns, I felt that having a Triple Crown was pretty exciting but not particularly unusual. I never imagined that it would not be done again for so many years. No horse, before or since, has won even one of the individual races that make up the Triple Crown in such a spectacular fashion. Especially the Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three. Watching him is like watching a horse fly. It’s magic and majesty and pure joy.
The sheer magnificence of Secretariat is why I didn’t find jarring the overvoice of a passage from the Book of Job at the movie’s beginning and end. Such beauty and strength as a horse possesses calls up reverential words and imagery. The solemnity and beauty of the words fit the magnificence of the animal, one of the most beautiful in creation.
After seeing the movie, I checked online reviews. My interpretation of the use of the Book of Job is at variance with most of those I read. Quite a big deal was made of the fact that director Randall Wallace is an outspoken Christian. I did not know that going in so it didn’t influence my viewing of the movie.
Oh Happy Day
Two other scenes of the movie are focused upon as evidence of the Christian message of the director and/or Disney Studio. The choice of Oh Happy Day, as music coming from the stable radio, and as the horses are coming down the final stretch in the Belmont. The first time, when it’s coming from the stable radio, I just heard it as a popular song by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and fitting when everybody in the scene was happy and feeling good about Secretariat and his prospects. The second use of it, in the ultimate race, I found distracting just because it was loud and I’d have rather just heard the hooves pounding on the track. Music accompanying that beautiful sound is gilding the lily. Not necessary, not an improvement.
Two reviews stood out for me. One is by Steve Haskin in Bloodhorse Magazine. This is a fair and insightful review both about the movie and the story of Secretariat and his connections. He points out a number of inaccuracies and glossovers of actual fact. One he doesn’t mention is that the coin toss which decided Secretariat’s ownership was actually more complicated and dramatic. To save movie time, I suppose, it was abbreviated. Still tense with drama, but if you want to read the real story, look for The Secretariat Factor by Tom Kiernan (Doubleday 1979). That’s where I read it, but I’m sure it’s also told in other books.
The second review is by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon. He says that he wanted his review to be provocative and well, yes, it is. His reading of Secretariat is as “Tea Party-flavored” propaganda for a mythical American past when all was well. For this, he holds the director and Disney responsible for perpetuating the myths of nostalgia and inaccurate simplification. That, I believe, is hardly news. O’Hehir for sure has read Critical Theory and wanted to be sure that we all knew he had. The argument is along the lines that popular culture is a particularly effective way to create political or ideological propaganda because the consumers are entertained primarily and therefore unaware that they are being fed propaganda. Ok.
Can you, as does O’Hehir, read Secretariat as Christian right wing propaganda? Of course. Just as you can read iconoclast comic Dennis Leary’s tv drama Rescue Me as anti-Muslim propaganda. Everyone in North America developed a heightened pride in and respect for police officers and firefighters after 9/11. Leary became a well-known advocate for firefighters in thanks to them for their efforts after that tragedy. The tragedy was caused by anti-American extremists – Muslim extremists. So do the math the same way, and you can consider Rescue Me propaganda just as easily as you can consider Secretariat right-wing Christian propaganda.
The movie Secretariat and real-life
O’Hehir argues that the movie’s negligible mention of the social and political upheaval in early 70s America is evidence of its propaganda/mythologizing of the past. Maybe it is. Maybe, too, those events didn’t directly affect the lives of the people whose story this is except through the schoolgirl political activism that is shown. Like O’Hehir, I lived through that time period, but my conclusions on the inclusion of sociopolitical context differ from his. I don’t think you need to cram in historical context just because it exists. Not if it doesn’t fit with your characters’ story.
As a teenager at that time, I was aware of what was happening in the US. I was active about it at about the same level of political acuity as Mrs. Tweedy’s daughter. My social concern got about the same kind of attention from my parents as did hers. It wasn’t that my family was living in a rarefied zone of privilege and wealth.Nor were they unaware of political and social events. It was that they had their hands full just getting on with their own lives without worrying about other people and cerebral political notions.
I think perhaps the same thing would have been true for the Tweedy-Chenery family. It may not be any more complicated than that. Mrs. Tweedy was a housewife with four kids and ailing parents. She had enough on her plate. If I asked my mother, I think I’d get the same answer.
A story of horses
Anyway, I loved the movie Secretariat. Steve Haskin said that the actor horses didn’t “capture the majesty and physical presence” of Secretariat but that there “isn’t a horse alive who could’ve done justice to him”. Secretariat is a feel-good story with a happy ending (except, of course, for Secretariat’s main competitor, the magnificent Sham, who made him run the race he did). And Secretariat’s story is not told in its totality in the movie. How could it be? What is told, however, is worth watching – and cheering and crying.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.