Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the Company of Cousins (Knoxville, TN)

(L to R) Alisha, Savannah, Ryan, Debbie, Terry, Dawn, Misty & me on Saturday

Late Friday afternoon I had just reached the outskirts of Knoxville when a car pulled up next to me and stopped. The window rolled down and I prepared myself for the inevitable question. I thought the driver was about to ask for directions. I had my standard, "Sorry, I'm not from around here" answer locked and loaded.

"Are you Garth Poorman?" the driver asked. I was not expecting that. I paused for a second before regaining my composure and said "yes." Upon closer inspection I saw the unmistakable Freeland resemblance. As I was figuring it out she said, "Hi, I'm your cousin Carol."

Carol is the daughter of my grandmother's brother Donald Freeland. She and I have never met as adults but she heard about my journey from the family and happened to be driving home from work when she saw a journeyman walking down Asheville Pike. She looked closer and saw a striking resemblance to my father, so decided to pull over and ask.

It was a serendipitous meeting. I was on my way to see another cousin Misty but still had another two and a half hours before she was expecting me. Instead of using that time to weerily limp into downtown Knoxville I spent it talking to Carol and her daughter Shannon in the comfort of Donald's nearby condo.

It just goes to show that I can't be in Tennessee long before I bump into one of my cousins. My grandmother Christine was one of eight children of Mama and Papa Freeland but the only one who left Tennessee to settle up north. I sprang from that thin northern branch of the Freeland family. Meanwhile the rest of the family tree spread out from Oak Grove, TN to Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Knoxville, Crossville and points beyond. The Freeland diaspora has all the Tennessee population centers covered.

It was for this very reason that I choose my route as I did. I am mirroring on foot the car trip my family and I would take every August until we moved to Zimbabwe in 1984. My dad would load up the station wagon in West Hebron and we would head south, my brother and I cavorting seatbelt-less in the "way back", unwittingly celebrating the waning days of lax car safety standards.

Aaron and I loved going to Tennessee. Up until the mid-80s the only cousins we had near our age lived in Tennessee. Brad and Jeff in Chattanooga. Angela, Allen and Tonya in Nashville. David and Julie in Adams, just to name a few. I was the youngest of that crew, but it didn't stop me from throwing on my shorts, mesh shirt and tube socks every morning and running around with my curly blond hair frizzing up in the hot Tennessee summer.

Like Carol, Misty Dykeman wasn't one of my cousins I got to know during those trips in the late 70s and early 80s. Whereas Carol was already an adult, Misty wasn't even born until the early 80s. Thus we grew up knowing of one another, without actually meeting. This weekend remedied that.

Misty enthusiastically offerd to be my host for the weekend and my cultural attache for understanding all things Knoxville. Appropriately that introduction started on Friday night with .... sushi? Okay, so Tennessee might not be known for high end Japanese cuisine, but I have to say that the Royale Roll from Nama in downtown Knoxville was as good if not better than anything I have eaten in NYC.

Saturday took a more conventional turn. It started with lunch at Cracker Barrel with the entire Dykeman family and ended with a night UT football game on campus. Going to a UT football game is as much a cultural experience as a sporting one. In the hours before kick off Knoxville functions like a giant human vascular system pumping orange clad fans in the direction of Neyland stadium. In my bright red jacket I was like the single red blood cell in a sea of orange. I might as well have had a stamp on my forehead that read "first time fan".

What those fans didn't know was that my attendance pretty much guaranteed a UT victory. Forget about the fact that the Vols were already 25 point favorites over the Memphis Tigers. I am the guy who went to Charlottesville and cheered the Cavaliers to a 49 point explosion again Indiana. My gridiron mojo next touched down in Rural Retreat, VA where the local Indians cruised to a 41-7 route. What would I do for an encore?

Try Tennessee 56, Memphis 28.

Anticipating the patented Poorman bump I asked Misty before the game about the songs and cheers that go along with UT football. She had a hard time answering. "I've never been asked to explain a culture before," she said. Fair enough. The glut of early scoring gave me plenty of opportunity to practice the fight song. Fifty six points later and I finally memorized the chorus:

Rocky Top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ole Rocky top (WHOO!)
Rocky top Tennessee ...

Misty, Brad & Me basking in the glow of impending victory

At halftime my cousin Brad, who had driven up with his brother-in-law Adam from Nashville, managed to find Misty and I amidst the sea of Big Orange. "Tell him to look for the red jacket," I quipped to Misty as she tried to direct him on the phone. That did the trick.

Brad and his younger brother Jeff are Misty's first cousins, grandchildren of my Nonnie's older brother Dewitt. They are also the cousins who were closest in age to my brother and I. We would look forward to visiting them most of all. Being with them as kids in Chattanooga meant trips to water parks, football on their front yard and, on one occassion at least, an attempt to covertly watch Deer Hunter and stay up all night unbeknowst to our parents. Unfortunately our blearly eyes and grumpy attitudes the next morning betrayed our poorly kept secret. A young Jason Bourne I was not.

Brad returned to his seat for the second half and UT returned to the field, but the result was never in doubt. By the fourth quarter the Vols had their second team in and half of the fans contentedly headed for the exits. I enjoyed myself as much as any of the fans there, but I allowed myself one heretical thought. I looked around and wondered, "Would the dissolution of any entire academic department cause 1/10 of the protest that would result if it was announced that the football program was being disbanded?" The answer was as glaringly obvious as my red jacket snaking through the sea of orange toward the exit.

The weekend reminded me of something else that has always been glaringly obvious. I have a wonderfully loving extended family. From Nashville to Crossville to Knoxville to Chattanooga, I have cousins and great aunts and uncles who are supporting me on this journey and sharing a bit of their lives and their culture with me. I might be a Yankee who can't sing all the words to Rocky Top, but a Freeland I will always be (WHOO!) and Tennessee still feels like home, sweet home, to me.


  1. Good things come to those who walk in LOVE:-)

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