Memoir for my father

Memoir of Albert Benton Atwood

July 31, 1931 – January 28, 2018
Written by Craig D. Atwood

Albert was the son of Charles Dewitt Atwood and Lillian Lucile Burke Atwood of Forsyth County. They were members of Calvary Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, and Albert was baptized into the death of Jesus on Dec. 31, 1931. His sister Emily was born a few years later. Albert was confirmed when he ten years old, and years later he could still recite things he had learned in Sunday School. His family owned the Atwood Dairy, and Albert grew up helping on the farm. His hands grew strong from milking cows, hoeing gardens, baling hay, and a hundred other chores. When he was in 80s he could still tell you how much five gallons of milk weighed and how hard it is to get eggs from guinea hens. He loved his family land, and long after the dairy ceased operations Albert kept up the barns, mowed the fields, planted large gardens, and cut wood. For some reason, every mule he owned was named Kate and most of the dogs were named Brownie. Except for two years in college and his first year of marriage, Albert always lived on the family’s land, no more than a mile from his parent’s home and his sister’s home. After his mother died and the land was sold Albert and Emily arranged for the oldest log barn to be installed in Heritage Village at the fairgrounds.

Albert loved to work on the farm with his father, but unfortunately he had asthma, which made childhood very difficult. He greatly admired President Theodore Roosevelt who had overcome childhood afflictions and explored the West. Albert tried to follow in the president’s steps. As a young man, Albert took up weight lifting and he remained strong well into his 60s. Albert attended Clemmons School and did well in his classes. He enjoyed books, especially adventure novels, and went to the movies every Saturday as a child. He especially loved Westerns whether John Ford classics shot in Monument Valley or serials starring Roy Rogers or Lash LaRue. In the 1950s Albert drove his father and three of his father’s best friends across the country in an epic and often hilarious odyssey to see the prairies, Rockies, and Yellowstone Park. He was amused that the thing his father was most impressed with were the farms in the Midwest. Albert also did a solo bus trip across the country so he could see the Great Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and other cities. He often told about taking an English tourist to her first baseball game at Wrigley Field.

His favorite author was Zane Grey who wrote a book about a natural bridge in Utah called Rainbow Bridge, which the native peoples of the area considered sacred. Albert read the book when he was nineteen, and for 45 years he wanted to see it and walk under it. He wrote: “In 1995, surmounting many obstacles he drove to the Four Corners region. He got on a boat in northern Arizona and went on a 140-mile round trip to southern Utah to the most impressive natural wonder he had ever seen. He loved the Four Corners region so much that he drove back six more times.” Craig writes: On each trip Albert chose to travel alone, but he carefully documented his trip on maps and with pictures for the family. In addition to the Rainbow Bridge, he visited several national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, but the most important location was Monument Valley where John Ford filmed several epic Westerns. Albert was very proud that a couple of the photographs he took on his travels won ribbons at the Dixie Classic Fair.

Albert loved the Grand Old Opry on the radio and television, and he often sang while out in the fields or woods working. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and in the 1970s and 1980s he often sang for weddings and funerals. Many people remember him singing O Holy Night and How Great Thou Art, but few people knew that his secret ambition was to be a country and western performer like Buck Owens or Porter Waggoner. Later in life he was proud of having won talent shows at church and work with his rendition of old timey classics like “Take an old cold tater and wait.” He sometimes called himself Waylon Nelson Cash. He could also do an amazing imitation of a train whistle.

Albert went to N.C. State University to study agriculture, but the Atwood Dairy was too small to compete with the new dairy conglomerates; around 1950 it ceased commercial operation. Albert left university and went to work at the new Western Electric plant on the east side of Winston-Salem. It was there that he met Elizabeth Brown Weatherman who was called Lib. Both of them had been previously married. Albert’s first marriage was brief and there were no children, but Elizabeth had two daughters, Reenea and Lynn, and a son, Keith. She was a member of New Eden Moravian Church and she was happy that Albert attended church with her. They were married at his family’s church, Calvary Moravian, on August 8, 1959. Their only child Craig was born in December of 1960, shortly after they had moved into their new brick house in the new development of Atwood Acres on Atwood Road. Craig had an easier time remembering his address than most of his friends!

In 1965 the family joined Hope Moravian Church, which was closer to home. It seemed like the family was always at church. Albert served in various capacities through the years including vice-chair of the Board of Elders, Sunday School superintendent, teacher, band member, choir member, and volunteer for almost every building project. With the exception of Reenea and Craig, the whole family sang in the choir or played in the band. Albert often led the Sunday evening worship service where he led singing out of the shaped note hymnal. He loved singing lead on old gospel hymns like Beulah Land. Albert also enjoyed being part of the drama performed for the congregation’s two hundredth anniversary. Perhaps the happiest time of his life, though, was working on the reconstruction of the original Gemeinhaus of the congregation with other men of the church. He was so proud of that project that he published an article about it in Country magazine. Hope Church truly was his second family.

Although most of the Atwood farm was sold for a housing development named Atwood Acres, Albert’s four children grew up working with him in the gardens and woods. The whole family had large gatherings with Emily and her family at the old farmhouse where Lucile was the matriarch. Christmas grew larger each year as the children married and had children of their own. The Atwood clan would eat at the large dining room table and sing carols in the parlor. Every Fourth of July they would attend the Alspaugh Family reunion in Miller Park. Albert sometimes took Keith hunting and fishing, and he bought Reenea a horse that could be a little wild. Lynn always had dogs or cats to play with. Craig has fond memories of riding the tractor through the woods each December in search of the perfect cedar tree for Christmas. In 1975 Albert took Craig on a wonderful trip to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky where they took every single tour, including one by lantern light. During one particularly difficult bit of the cave Albert had to sit in a bit of the cavern by himself waiting for the rest of the party. He turned off his lamp and just sat in total darkness. Forty years later he would still tell people what it was light to sit alone in the darkness when the only sound was the beating of his own heart. And how happy he was when a light shone in and he heard human voices again.

Albert worked at Western Electric for sixteen years, but during a labor strike he left to work for Western and Southern Insurance. He was not a natural salesman, but he had a loyal set of clients. One of his clients called him every year on his birthday for years after he retired. One advantage of his insurance job was the flexible hours, which meant he had the opportunity to keep working on his mother’s land. Albert loved to be in the open air on his tractor. He would also sometimes surprise Craig by taking him out of school to watch them putting up tents for the circus, go to the Dixie Classic Fair when it wasn’t crowded, go looking for gems at Hiddenite, or see any other event that had caught his fancy. Once he picked Craig up and took him on a surprise three-day trip through mountains to see Pidgeon Forge, Copperhill, and other sites. Family vacations included trips to Rock City, Cherokee, and Ghost Town in the Sky. Life with Albert Atwood did not follow normal routines! The children remember fondly those rare times it would snow enough for Daddy to take them sledding and how he would read the poem Snowbound to them in front of a roaring fire.

Almost every Sunday afternoon he would take the family on drives through the mountains, especially on the Blue Ridge Parkway. He dreamed of living in a log cabin in the woods, but he wasn’t willing to give up indoor plumbing. When he was a boy, he would sometimes go with his mother and Emily to stay in a cabin at Shatley Springs where he loved to play in the creek, much to his mother’s consternation. At least once a year as an adult he would take the family there to eat the best creamed corn and ham biscuits in the world. In the 1970s Albert read in the newspaper about an effort to preserve the New River as a scenic river: Canoe the New was the slogan. So he and Craig went up and rented canoe one Saturday. He liked it so much that for the next several years he would go at least once a year with various members of the family: Keith, Craig, Erik, Mark, Jodie, Nicole, his nephew Kenneth, and his brother-in-law Joe. Some of Craig’s fondest memories of his father were floating down the river and the having dinner at Shatley Springs. Albert also loved to visit the beautiful fresco of the Lord’s Supper that was painted on a little Episcopal Church near West Jefferson.

Albert loved working with his hands, and he made several pieces of furniture by hand, some of which have a unique design. One year he decided to make his own forge and teach himself how to blacksmith. It was fun, but the truth is that you can really teach yourself how to blacksmith. Albert often admitted that he was eccentric, and it was evident to anyone who visited his house. It was like a curiosity shop with various antique items on the wall and pictures of his adventures. Anyone who ever tried to work with Albert can tell you that he insisted that things be done his way even if the logic of doing that way was not immediately evident to others. Tools had to always be put in their proper place, but no one else quite understood the organizational system.

Albert was proud when Keith joined the Army, and he took the family to visit Keith at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri in 1972. He and Keith sang a duet in the base chapel with the base general in attendance. They sang one of Albert’s favorite songs “How Great the Bliss to be a Sheep of Jesus,” and Albert donated a Moravian start to the chapel. In the mid-1970s Reenea and her three children had to move into the house with Momma, Daddy, and Craig. It was crowded and difficult, but Albert grew very close to his grandchildren, especially Jodie who somehow understood his moods better than anyone. He was happy that Lynn, Keith, and Reenea and most of grandchildren remained active at Hope Church and he could see them on Sunday mornings or at least Christmas and Easter. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren all called him Papaw. Going out to lunch at the Mayflower restaurant after church became a high point of his week.

After he had a heart bypass in the 1990s, Albert took up walking and swimming as exercise, and he got in very good shape. He took early retirement from Western Electric, but he quickly got bored and so he went to work in a local Sara Lee warehouse driving a type of forklift. That was one of the happiest times of his life working with the men in the warehouse. He was working at Sara Lee when his mother died, which was a terrible loss for him and his sister Emily. They had to have an estate sale and supervise the selling of the last of the farmlands and the historic family home. Each of them saved the items they most valued from their childhood, which are now being passed on to another generation.

People who knew Albert love to tell stories about him. Many of them begin with phrases like “He could be a difficult man” or “he was a complicated fellow.” But many of those stories end with some act of surprising kindness or generosity or a gem of folk wisdom. As his son, I learned how to face my fears, keep my promises, be honest, and have the courage to follow my own path through this confusing world. He taught me to be self-reliant and to approach the world with curiosity and a sense of adventure. The world is a more interesting place because of eccentric people like my father. As the years passed he kept to himself more and more and let the world go on its way, but he was so amazed that his son could call him from places like the Cape of Good Hope in Africa or Herrnhut.

Albert was married to Lib for fifty years until her death from cancer on Thanksgiving Day 2009. He never fully recovered from that loss, and he began to age more rapidly. He managed to live alone in their home and even learned to cook his own meals. He was really proud of his pinto beans. But it grew harder for him to walk or drive or even sleep through the night. His hearing got progressively worse as everyone in church could attest, and he began to lose his vision. Though he hated to be dependent on other people, he let Keith and his wife Susan help take care of him especially by providing food he enjoyed. His sister Emily Cheek and her husband Odell lived nearby and often came to help with groceries and other tasks. His niece Jodie is a nurse, and as the years passed she cared for him as best she could, but in the summer of 2017 he developed a wound on his foot that would not heal. His heart problems also grew worse. As his maladies increased, he was afraid that he would have to move into an assisted living facility. Mercifully he never had to do that. On the morning of January 28, 2018 Craig went by to visit him after church, but Albert had died during the night from his maladies. He lived and died on the land of his ancestors, and his ashes will be buried in the God’s Acre where he celebrated the resurrection of Christ every Easter.

As a young man Albert memorized the poem Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant, which he sometimes quoted through the years. He especially liked the last verse:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

 

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