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While we wait for the end of this month and Howard scholar and TGR contributor Tim Arney’s meeting with Winona Morris Nation’s son John Nation in Asheville, North Carolina to review Harold Preece’s papers (along with Winona’s) here are some firsthand memories and photographs provided by John’s former significant other, Cheryl Cassidy:
Memories of Harold & Winona
by Cheryl Cassidy
I had the deep privilege to share a room in Winona’s second story apartment, somewhere in the 80s. I am such a poor historian when it comes to dates and times. I later rented an apartment downstairs from her. I was intimately involved with her oldest son over a period of seven years, and thus was in her sphere of influence for all of that time. The time I spent living first with her, and then in an apartment below her, was at least one year, but not two. These details can be obtained through her son John, who has a fine mind that seems able to recall all the pertinent details of any event.
I have not thought about these things in any detail for some time, and as I try to organize my thoughts about it now, it seems the best approach is to simply write what comes to mind. If any of what I share is of interest to you, feel free to take what’s relevant and discard the rest. The very act of sharing these thoughts has brought deep comfort to my soul.
The first impression that comes to me is recognition of Winona’s great generosity. I had met her briefly, once, when she came east to visit family. I was a friend of the family, and have a vague recollection of an eccentric woman who smoked brown cigarettes, or whatever anyone else was smoking, with a wonderful sense of humor and a kind of “Joie de vive” that fascinated me. She was so unlike any “aunt” that I had ever known. They called her Tuffy. I must have asked about the origins of this nickname, but I can’t recall the answer. Fast forward a number of years. I arrived at her apartment in Edmond Oklahoma, not as a dinner guest bringing hostess flowers, but as a semi-permanent house guest bearing luggage! If she felt dismay at my arrival, she never let it show. I was welcomed into her home like a long lost member of the family. I was now involved with her son John She did not look upon me with suspicion, or judgment. There was no sense of being sized up as a suitable companion for her son. I was fed and settled in. If I passed muster with him, then it seemed, I passed muster with her and her home was generously offered as mine, for however long we chose to stay.
Housekeeping was not her strong suit and she was not beyond literally sweeping the dust under the rug, or leaving it piled in a corner until some later time (often weeks). Yet, when I remember the apartment, I experience only a feeling of warmth. It was a house overflowing with love and good will. That first night, over copious amounts of wine, she laughed as we regaled her with stories of our adventures and misadventures. She displayed appropriate outrage over injustices we were stinging from, dispensed sage advice, and generally behaved like a new best friend. I remember being struck by the casualness of her relationship with John, who lovingly called her “Chub,” though never in public.
There was also physical warmth to the apartment. Sun seemed to pour in from every window at once, regardless of the time of day. There was a little porch off the kitchen, enshrouded by a large tree, the type of which escapes me. It was very much like being in a tree house. We used to love to sit on the porch when storms were coming and feel the changing wind and sky. Oklahoma style storms were new to me and I never really got over the thrill of their advance. In winter, her world closed in, as Winona would close off most of the apartment to conserve heat, but the rest of the year, light prevailed. We were all on tight budgets, with John driving a bus while working on a novel, I doing temporary secretarial work and Winona living on money from her brother, and social security. Yet, it never felt like a life of poverty. In retrospect, it was one of the most “abundant” periods of my life.
Winona would often lie on her bed with the sun streaming in the window, just thinking. She called it the “spa.” She used to say she’d traveled the world in her mind and felt her experience was just as rich as if she’d actually gone…to China say…during the Ming Dynasty. Sometimes she was composing poetry while lying there. Other times, she might be revisiting images from her past. Often, she was just soaking in the impressions from bird song, warm breezes, and sunlight filtering through trees. She never expressed frustration at being disturbed from these musings, but one always had the sense that she was being drawn back to the room from a tremendous distance. It was as if she really was traveling in a far away country, from some period of immediate or distant history, integrating the most perceptive details of the senses, with the grand landscape of personal or historical events. Her work was internal. Many hours of contemplation illumined the “spa” before a gem of a poem appeared on a napkin, a scrap of paper, or a blank page from a book. The poems were everywhere.
I recall a family story, told by John’s brother Jack, of how he was traveling with his family and Winona, from Fort Worth Texas to … somewhere, when they came upon a terrible multiple car pileup. Lights flashed, sirens wailed, and the carnage was terrible to behold. Traffic crawled along at a snail’s pace, among the rescue vehicles and general mayhem of the scene. When they finally broke through the other side, Jack turned to his wife and commented, “Wow, that was a really bad wreck!” Winona, it is told, piped in from the back seat, “Oh, was there an accident?”
Never, before meeting Winona, did I understand how the richness of mind and imagination could eclipse the “real” world for individuals who were not “psychotic” but fully functioning in both the present pedestrian events of day to day living, and that deeper, more layered and nuanced place of paradox and insight known as contemplation. I realize now, in hindsight, how Harold’s understanding of this deeper place, inspired her great love and affection for him.
When I met Harold, he was already an “elderly” gentleman. His clothes were frumpy and his gait was measured. Observing only the surface of things, I wondered at the attraction, as Winona was arresting even in her later years. I believe it was the intensity of her eyes that caught one’s attention and colored the overall lasting impression of her. Yet over time, I came to see that his unwavering commitment to social justice, his belief in the goodness and endurance of the human spirit, and his sharp intellect, would be a compelling draw for a woman like Winona. I often heard him speak of, what I thought of as his “glory days,” when he was a passionate writer for some “subversive” publications (I wish I could recall which ones) fighting, with mighty words, for the end of racial prejudice and equal opportunities for all people. His commitment remained even in his later years. I can remember that living nearly at the poverty level, in subsidized housing, he would still send his $10 or $15 contribution to the causes he felt were just and important. I also recall his telling of an incident, where as an elderly gentleman he found himself walking down a dark street in some city, when a black man fell in step behind him. He spoke with some dismay of the paradox that he, who had spent a lifetime working for the end of racial hatred and inequality, should suddenly feel afraid, that this young black man was walking behind him. Our prejudices run deep. To the end of his life he was committed to the higher path, while remaining humble enough to acknowledge when the path became obscured by fallen debris. He never stopped searching until he found the way back.
Harold and Winona both had a remarkable quality of attracting friends of all ages and intellectual accomplishment. I recall a trip to Oklahoma University to hear a poetry reading. I had never been to a poetry reading in my life, and felt as though I were being included in some inner circle of great and avant-garde thinkers. There was a young couple there, whose names I regrettably cannot remember. They clearly admired and looked up to Harold and Winona. I recall the young woman referring to Harold as her “Rasputin.” I remember this, because I had no idea who Rasputin was and immediately felt myself to be in over my head. Only now, in sharing these memories, have I been moved to actually look up Rasputin. Though Harold was certainly not “religious,” in fact, I think he was an atheist, I could see that she saw him as both mystic and advisor, and held him in the highest esteem. From my perspective, the loveliest thing about Harold and Winona was that while they loved challenges of the mind and a high level of intellectual discourse, they were also quite happy to join those of us with average intelligence and simple thoughts at our level of discourse. Never did either of them make me feel in any way inadequate. They also had many friends, to whom even I felt a certain intellectual superiority. It didn’t matter. They loved people. They were interested in everyone’s perspective and could relate to all the trials and triumphs of our human condition, as our common experience. For a time, Winona had a job (I’m not sure if paid or volunteer) working with a group of mentally retarded adults. She was wonderful with them. Always kind, but never condescending. They seemed to love her and she loved them. I had the privilege of seeing her in this setting when John and I went to do a little performance with banjo and guitar. We were not particularly comfortable. It was amazing to me, seeing how naturally at ease she appeared to be in this setting. Really, she looked nearly as contented as the night of the poetry reading.
Just as Winona was not a great housekeeper, neither was she a great cook. This never deterred her from hosting dinner parties, nor did it discourage guests from attending. Harold of course, thought everything she concocted to be the best in “haute cuisine.” And really, by the time the 3rd or 4th cork had been popped, I was inclined to agree. I was no great cook myself and felt deep gratitude toward anyone who prepared a meal for me. Her one true claim to fame was her apple pie, made with golden delicious apples and more butter than I would have thought possible to consume and live to tell the tale. I helped myself to large portions of many of those pies, with eager anticipation and much smacking of lips…but I never dare to put so much butter in my own pies and so am always disappointed in the result! Here lies the difference between steadfast competence and wildly abandoned greatness…or so I suspect. In any case, the parties were always great fun. By the end of the night, wine would have insured that the great intellectuals and the solid (though rarely conventional) citizens looked across at each other with recognition that, at the heart of things, we shared many more similarities than differences and the world was a beautiful yet challenging place where we all had to pull together if we were to make it through with an honorable legacy. I loved learning that Harold’s ashes were spread on her grave. Their legacy was honorable indeed.
Another thought that pops into my mind as I remember those carefree days, is that Winona was a notorious flower thief. She did not drive. When she needed to go somewhere she walked if it was within a mile or two, or caught a ride with friends. She passed through an alley on her way to the grocery store, where flowers spilled over a picket fence, or bordered close to the road. Any flower that jumped the fence or came near the roadside was fair game. I’m sure had she been there under cover of darkness, no flower in anyone’s garden would have been safe. She got such tremendous pleasure from flowers, a legacy from her mother I believe, that I finally planted (well, if truth be known, John did the heavy digging) in the neighborhood of 50 or so tulips in her yard. She delighted in them. I have always felt it was the one gift I was able to give her that began to approach the great gift of her friendship to me. Like her friendship, they warmed the soul long after life pulled us in separate directions.
Winona had a lovely practice of lighting a candle each night. Sometimes the candle was lit for a particular person in need of a guiding light home. More often, the candle was lit for those unknown individuals who were lost in the night and needed a beacon to draw them to the safety of a lee shore, at least for a little while. Over the years, I have lost touch with this practice. Writing this brings back my awareness of the beauty in this simple act. I will light a candle now, and think of her. I hope she will be remembered for the great poet she was. I cherish my volume of If I Still Hold Earth as Dear. But I remember her most for the great human being she was. A laughing Buddha. An “awakened” being who continues, through her work, to light a steady candle that can lead us home.
While no one is expecting for Messieurs Arney and Nation to uncover the Holy Grail or the True Cross, we are not going to see a repeat of the emptiness of Al Capone’s Secret Vault as uncovered by Geraldo Rivera. Something new will be found — of that I am certain. It may only be a handful of Howard memories or a chapter from an unfinished REH biography. But it will be something not previously seen.