GEORGIE AND FANNIE
Telling of a family
“Georgie” George Joseph Spain
George Spain Motor Company, at 6th and Lafayette, in Nashville Tennessee during the 1950s and 60s, was for many years the top new and used car lot in Nashville. My father – and a very fine father was he – had started life as the oldest son of a poor family who lived in the hills beyond Bordeaux; by the time he died he’d made and lost a gob of money selling fine cars and drinking and gambling and other things.
How poor was his family you ask? Well, he slept with two brothers in one bed, two down, one across. If any one tee-tee’d in the bed during the night the other two would beat him – and so, bed-wetting was cured. How poor were they? For play they used a decomposing, gas-inflated, dead mule in a back pasture as a trampoline. They bounced on it ‘til it burst. Can you imagine the smell?
His father, George Stainback “Papa” Spain was one-eighth Cherokee. He had olive skin and looked like an Indian. He was a tinsmith, storyteller, copper-still maker, fox hunter and sometimes moonshiner who - I swear it to you upon my sainted mother’s grave - never paid one copper penny of sales tax at a store or anywhere ‘til the day he died.
My father had a first class brain and world class ambition to make money and raise his own family to a “higher level.” One result being I was the first Spain to graduate from college. He made a lot of money and with it helped his parents. But drinking and gambling lost him a lot of money but we never wanted.
He could be tough, though never with his family. With his well-fed, thick-chested, broad-shouldered heft and muscle there was heavy power and authority in his appearance, someone you absolutely did not want to mess with. He wore expensive suits, fine, well-shined shoes, diamond rings, a gold watch, an eye that was so slightly askewed by an auto wreck it was hardly noticeable, oiled his hair down to his scalp, had immaculately manicured nails, and kept a premier pack of beagle hounds for rabbit hunting the fields and hollows of middle Tennessee. If you didn’t know him, and were to guess how he made his money, you might have said, “He’s a gangster.” And indeed, some things he did were a bit “on the edge.” He was involved with the number’s rackets and, in a small way, into the black market; during WW II he kept two long rows of new tires in the attic for his “customers.” Likely there were more than these things, but then I’d be guessing.
From the time I was five he took me almost everywhere with him: to wrestling and boxing matches, Vols baseball games at Sulphur Dell, rabbit hunting and, on Christmas Eve, drove me in his spotless, shining, spoke-wheeled, Cadillac, to deliver a bottle of the finest Kentucky bourbon to his best customers and favorite politicians, law enforcement officers and no telling who else.
His toughness? Let me give you a few examples:
When he was a salesman at Capital Chevrolet in downtown Nashville he knocked a cursing drunk through a plate glass door in the show room. And on a Friday night, at a restaurant in Brentwood, a man at a nearby table slapped and cursed the woman with him, then grabbed her by the arm and dragged her outside. Georgie and his buddy excused themselves from their wives and followed the couple outside where they proceeded to beat hell out of the S.O.B. It was my father, not church or school or the Bible, who taught me to never tolerate rudeness and bullying from others – not even from my patients. And I still don’t.
Lord Almighty, he loved his family. His parents and brothers and sisters called him “Son,” his nephews and nieces, “Uncle Son.” His children and grandchildren called him “Georgie.” My sisters and I called him “Daddy.” Police officers and politicians called him “George.” All black people and white people who didn’t know him called him “Mr. Spain.” Again, Lord Almighty, can you keep up with it?
Gradually, as I grew older, I began to see and understand he was a binge-drinking alcoholic - once he got going he couldn’t stop. He never drank around us. While my mother, Fannie, was little in size she had a commandment written in stone that he was to stay away when he was on a drunk. And he obeyed her commandment.
When I was in my twenties and working in the Vanderbilt Department of Psychiatry, Fannie called me twice to take him somewhere so he could be dried out and helped. The first time, I found him unshaven and smelly in a motel, the next at his parents. Both times, I arranged for his admission to an alcohol and drug treatment center. But then, and thank God for it, as the years went by he slowly controlled the demon of drink. And the demon left him and went looking for others – and found them - some among our family down to now.
He died in 1973, age sixty-two. Asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, cigarettes and probably too much alcohol finally killed his strength. But my Lord, what a man he was. What a father he was! He was buried at Whipporwill Cemetery in Schochoch, Kentucky. A few feet away were Fannie’s parents. From his grave, across the fields and the backs of the lowing cattle, not more than a mile away, you can still see Fannie’s childhood home; the farm - still in the family - where my mother was raised. You stand there, in Whippoorwill on a blue-skyed, spring day and they are there all around you: grandparents, uncles, cousins - and side-by-side – there lie Georgie and Fannie. She died in 1992.
“Fannie” Elizabeth Crossley Spain
You might think from what you’ve just read about my father that I idolize him. I do. But now, let me tell you about Fannie and let’s see what you think about idolizing. She was raised on a small farm in southern Kentucky, near the Tennessee border in Schochoh, a village with two country stores – the big one sold caskets - two or three churches, a blacksmith’s shop, a school about the size of two blackboards, and three cemeteries: one for blacks, two mainly for whites – Whipporwill - and an old, old one, Red River, within an old grove of oaks and cedars. Halfway toward the back of the cemetery, on the left side, my great grandfather, Jeremiah Turner, is buried. He was in the 7th Tennessee. He fought with Lee and was captured four days before Appomatox. A replica of the one room log Red River Baptist church stands a hundred or so feet away.
In my mother’s years, burley tobacco was the hard, cold cash for most people. From the rich, red soil of Logan County, from beneath the hoofs, the plows, the wagon and tractor wheels and the heat of the life giving sun and sweat of men, women and children, money stretched away in row after green row of shoulder high stalks with broad leaves.
Levi Thomas Crossley, Fannie’s father, was from the village of Dyserth in northern Wales. He left home and the mines as a youngster for Liverpool to become a cabin boy. He sailed the world over, eventually becoming a Master officer. As a small boy I would sit in his lap as he told me of the roaring of the winds and crashing of waves higher than the masts of his Windjammer going around the Horn and then of the calm seas and the rich smells coming on the breezes from the wild coasts of Africa. He sailed for long years and then – still a young man - came ashore in Charleston, South Carolina and never went to sea or Wales again. He came inland and somehow found gold in Tennessee; her name, Lillie Jane Turner, a good-looking schoolteacher who married him and gave him four good-looking children.
My mother was the best of the lot. She was small, finely shaped with fair skin, dark hair and dark eyes and, best of all, was a woman secure in herself. You can see it in an early photo I have of her in the front yard of their house. She’s in her mid teens. Her Hollywood handsome brother Willie is leaning on her shoulder in his white shirt and pants as she, in her white sleeveless dress, looks straight into the camera, not a hesitation or doubt in her face with her shoulder length hair parted toward the right. L T, her other brother – the farmer to be of the family – stands there on the other side of Willie, arms to his side, stiff and straight like a soldier in bibbed overalls. Their parents sit in chairs before them, my grandfather’s hands on his white collie stock-dog “Shep.” Gracie, Fannie’s equally fine looking older sister is not in the photograph – did she click the camera?
My mother came fifty miles south from that small farm in Schochoh, Kentucky to the big city of Nashville, where she lived in a Church of Christ Girl’s Home for women, worked at a store and went to Hume Fogg High School. And met Georgie, married him and not long after began having three children – me first followed by my two sisters..
There is so much about these years I don’t know about, especially those first ones after I was born. Memories are tricky, most so are those of childhood. At best they are fragments; even those may be colored by later events and tellings that may have changed what was in your brain. For example: I hear Fannie crying in another room. In another, she and Georgie are arguing in the front seat of the car as I pretend to be asleep in the back as we ride home in the dark from Papa and Mama Spain’s where there was the making of Christmas eggnog heavily laced with bourbon. And in another, I throw a puppy down some inside steps. Are any of these true? I don’t know, but they are in my head.
Georgie and Fannie meet. They marry – the date I do not know. They have me on October 5, 1936. What did I cost to come out of my mother into this world?
St. Thomas (Catholic) Hospital
TERMS: ALL HOSPITAL CHARGES PAYABLE IN ADVANCE
Room Five Days 40.00
Operating Room 10.00
Pharmacy Account 2.75
Anesthetist’s Fee 10.00
Care of Inft. 5.00
Look again at that bill. Now you see why I - a fully immersed beneath the water Church of Christer - have always had an affinity for Catholics; plus, the Miller’s (Catholics of the blood) kind treatment of me as a boy. And of course their enjoyment of beer and of that which is stronger. As far as I know my wife, Jackie, and I were the only C of C’s who voted for Kennedy. I’m sure that hospital bill and the Millers influenced it.
Fannie’s mother was a teacher; her father a sailor-farmer, scholar who loved books and learning. He went to David Lipscomb in Nashville for two years. I have photographs of him sitting with David Lipscomb on the Lipscomb’s front porch, and a few of his books in Welsh and Greek and English. In the summer I stayed for days, sometimes weeks, on my grandparent's farm. Sitting in his lap in front of the fireplace, or beside him on the wagon seat as we went to the mill, he would tell me tales of sailing the seas the world over and of storms and the smells of Africa – and still he is within me.
Jane and Jill were born after me. Not wanting for anything, Jane, Jill and I attended Lipscomb, a private school, were well clothed, well fed and taught manners and loved – I thought equally. But as the years passed a separation occurred. Jane and I are friends and talk weekly. Jill? She hasn’t talked with us for years nor have we with her. A loss. This happens in families. Why?
Fannie gentled Georgie a bit and raised us to be polite and kind to others. She took us to church and Sunday school, taught us how to behave and how to dress nice. We were whipped when we needed it and taken care of us when we were sick. She gave us strength to stand up for ourselves and, though not perfect, she was right up there next to it. And here now, written by her two oldest grandsons, are tellings that tell the core of who she was.
On a beautiful summer Sunday morning in late May 1978 there was a wreck at the road at the end of our driveway. Listen to our second son, Lynch, tell it in a letter he wrote to me on 10-26-17…
“Daddy…We [he and Brad] were going to church…in that orange Toyota pickup. We came to the bottom of the drive…[where Jack Martin’s truck] hit the right front corner…[His] truck turned on its side…The driver’s window was facing up and rolled up…
“…Brad’s head struck the steering wheel which stunned him…I saw fire. I ran around the back of the truck…Brad was now out and ran around the front.
“Inside I could see fire. I couldn’t open the door and was yelling. Inside they were yelling and burning. I remember letting out a loud yell and striking the driver’s side window with my hands breaking it out.
“Jack was crawling out. I pulled him and got him in the ditch. His clothing was on fire as well as his skin. I took my Sunday coat off to put him out. One thing I’ve always remembered was his body. It was like a white candle that was melting. It was shining.
“By now Brad kicked in the front windshield. I saw him throw two children, one by a leg and one by an arm away from the truck toward Jack. He gathered them as he could. We then went back to the window I’d broken out to get Jack’s wife out. The fire burned us. For some reason I’ve always seen her hair as red. Maybe that was because she was on fire.
“We reached in and she to us. Writing just now I wonder did she know she would die? I’ve never wondered that til now. As I recall Brad grabbed the left arm and I the right. When we pulled it was like she had a rubber glove over grease. Her flesh (skin) slid off. I also remember I wish I had a gun to shoot her or a knife to cut her throat. It would have been so kind. The best deed of my life. I can see her eyes, her hair burning, and hear her so plainly.
“Then the flames reached us. Hair on our head was burned. You draw back from fire. And then it blew up. Later in life I saw this, a mother and sons. I got away from the car before it blew. I thought that was God’s gift to me.
“She was dead so I ran to Fanny’s house fifty yards away, almost chanting, ‘They’re dead, they’re all dead.’ Maybe I’m wrong but that’s what I recall.
“I do remember my legs so heavy and how the last bit was as my many nightmares when you need to run but can’t. Yet I made it, then feared Fanny having a heart attack and dying.
“She didn’t. Of course she was alarmed but had the ability to function. Fanny made the call for help then gathered up what was felt to help [bed sheets]. I said, “They might kill Brad” and ran back. I found him if I recall correctly sitting at the fence holding his head.
“Soon help came. You and Mama, police, ambulances, neighbors. Eddie Adcock [friend of Lynch and Brad] almost got into a fight with a Deputy that wouldn’t let him pass.
“And that was it. Jack died later. The Shriners burn center took the two boys. All just a bad thing that happened. A bad thing that had great acts by normal people.
“We were on our way to church. It was the beginning of summer. I’d have worn short sleeves under my coat. But with my hands I’d broken out a window of a big flat bed pick up truck. On my left palm is an S shaped scar. A piece of glass was in my palm. They took it out at the old Williamson Co. Hospital. Jack lay about three yards from us. On the right side of my left wrist is another scar. My hair was burnt a bit. I had her grease on my hands. A burnt human is a bad odor. It lived in my nose for years. My clothes had truck grease on them. I was my grandmother’s favorite. She told me this once. Sorry.
“Fanny, who had once suffered a heart attack, had this grandson in front of her. I was burned, bloody, a smell of death, and speaking of death, below was wreckage. A large vehicle in flames. Another grandson she could not see. Still she functioned.
“I hoped that I could.
“With love and respect, Lynch”
On November 10, 2017, Brad wrote –
“My grandmother, ‘Fannie’, Elizabeth Crossley Spain, was, among other things, a craftsman. From her perspective though, she may prefer the term craftswoman. Webster’s says a craftsman is ‘a person with special skill in making things with wood, clay, metal, or other material.’ Her materials were flour, lard, salt, butter, sugar and eggs in the kitchen, and fabric, thread and buttons and such in the sewing room. She was an expert both as a seamstress and cook, so the word master should be added, master craftsman.
“I have a good friend, Paul Pitts, who is a master craftsman. He works with wood. One time a mutual friend was examining some of Paul’s work and remarked. ‘Wow, you’re a real artist.’ Paul’s response was, ‘No, I’m a craftsman. An artist can do whatever they want and call it art, a craftsman does it right,’ Fannie did it right. Choose anyone of her creations and see if you can duplicate it, see if you can even come close. Expertise like this only comes from a lifetime of pursuing excellence and not tolerating anything less than the best from her self. That is the way a master works.
“Fannie made lots of things, but the things she’s most remembered for are her biscuits, small and light, melt in your mouth, perfect, pies with perfect crust and meringue, and the best banana pudding with perfect meringue. Baby clothes and gowns with delicate fabrics and perfect tiny stitches, tiny hand stitched button holes, exact, perfect, extremely difficult work that was flawless. Some of these items still exist, and are now treasured family heirlooms, like her. They are all one of a kind.
“Life as we all know, sends its challenges, and hers was no exception when on a morning tragedy came our way and entered our lives. It came in a furious rush, monstrous and all consuming. Into that turmoil and upheaval she comes. Her tools, love, empathy, and calm steady resolve, ready. Out of the chaos, and from her command start to come control and form and direction. The challenge is met and we survive,
“Like her perfect stitches and beautiful button holes, she left a stitch in my heart and soul and in my being that forever remains and is part of the fabric that holds me together. That’s how you do it. That’s how it’s done. A craftsman does it right.” She died in 1991.
George Bradford Spain
But this terrible tragedy wasn’t over. Jack died. Soon after his death came a large lawsuit charging us with responsibility for the accident. Because there were no other witnesses I knew attorneys for the litigants would show the two horribly scarred, orphaned boys to the jury and would declare we were wealthy and Brad and Lynch would be put through hell. And so, with Jackie’s agreement, I decided to settle, to sell our house and land and move to Nashville.
Jackie died in 2009 and our third son, Adam, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 – and still we continue.