Friday, August 31, 2018


Last Saturday, I sat on the front porch of a log cabin where, nearly 200 years ago, a decision was made that determined my future.

The cabin, a few miles south of Abingdon in southwest Virginia, was built in the late 1700s by my great-great-great grandfather, David Dryden.

On that porch, high on a hill looking across a river into the mountains of Tennessee, two of David’s sons, Nathaniel and Thomas, decided in the late 1820s to strike out for the west. (Okay, I don’t know for sure they held this discussion on the porch — maybe they held it around the gigantic stone fireplace in the kitchen or as they were fishing on the river or hunting bears or whatever — but I'm telling this story and I’ve decided they were on the porch. If you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to read this.)  

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Nate: Bro, we Drydens have been moving west since the 1600s — from Scotland to Maryland, from Maryland to Philadelphia, from Philly to southwestern Virginia. It’s time for us to continue the family tradition. Where in the west should we go?

Tom:  Let’s pick a place that, two hundred years from now, will be as far as possible from a major airport so our descendants who leave the area will be inconvenienced to the max when they try to visit.

Nate:  Well, here’s a map of the new state of Missouri. Let’s move to the middle of that godforsaken place. No way there’ll ever be a commercial airport anywhere near that.

Tom:  Great idea. Our descendants will have to get to an airport an hour early, fly several hours into St. Louis or Kansas City, rent a car, then drive two or three more hours. It’ll take ‘em all day to get there!

And so the brothers loaded their wagons and moved to Missouri, putting down stakes two miles east of a Montgomery County settlement that was soon to be named Danville. 

The rest, as they say, is history: Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, begat Gilbert I, who begat Gilbert II, who begat Gilbert III, who begat yours truly. 

The view from the porch with the
Tennessee mountains in the distance.
David’s cabin is no longer in the family but the current owner, a sweet, white-haired lady named Betty, kindly allows his far-flung descendants to gather every couple of years to share Dryden stories and admire the breathtakingly beautiful place from whence we all sprang. Betty even made desserts for Saturday’s reunion, including a blackberry cobbler almost as memorable as the setting. Hanging in her kitchen are photos of Thomas and Elizabeth, taken around 1860, the oldest-known photos of any members of my family. They were given to Betty by cousin Leigh, who organizes the reunions, and Betty displays them proudly to show visitors the son and daughter-in-law of the man who built her home nearly a quarter of a millennium ago. 

This year’s reunion was sparsely attended. Only four of the 500 or so descendants who were invited showed up.  Little matter. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting relatives I never knew I had, was awed to tour my ancestral home, and hope someday to have the pleasure of sitting on that porch with the future of my branch of the family tree — my two sons and the two sons my oldest son has begotten, one of whom is named Isaac Thomas Dryden. He was named in honor of me.

I doubt my son knows this but my father always told me I was named after the Thomas who left Virginia for Missouri. And so, therefore, is the newest begotten Dryden son, Isaac Thomas.

He is still in diapers but it is my hope that someday, when he is an old man like his grandpa, Isaac Thomas will have the opportunity to visit that cabin and will experience the same reaction I had as I sat on its front porch and realized that, somehow, after all these years, I was home. 

My dad always told me, "If you're going to do something, do it right."
Maybe that's something that was passed down to him because David Dryden built his
two-story cabin right. Check out the way the logs are notched. No wonder his house still stands after 250 years.

Elizabeth (b 1802) and Thomas (b 1800) Dryden
crossed the mountains from Virginia to Missouri in 1829.
Their photos are displayed in the house his father built.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The silly (and almost tragic) saga of the hand-painted animal plates

I saw a news clip today about a quick-thinking TSA agent who noticed a smoking bag as a passenger was going through the security line at the Savannah airport.  A battery in a vaping device was on fire. It brought to mind one of my favorite family stories.

In the early nineties, my wife, two young sons and I flew to London for Thanksgiving. My wife, who has an eye for rare and beautiful things — which is why she married me —  spotted in the window of a china shop some colorful, whimsical, hand-painted animal plates. She announced they would look great hanging in our kitchen. There were, if I remember correctly, probably thirty or forty different plates in the series. She and the boys picked out 16 of them.

The shopkeeper wrapped the plates individually in newsprint, and placed them in two corrugated boxes he stuffed with excelsior to provide extra padding and keep them from jiggling around. He sealed the boxes with tape and wrapped twine around them to create handles.

The next day we went to Heathrow for our return flight to JFK. Back then, I was a United frequent flyer. This, of course, was when the friendly skies were still friendly — two decades before United started dragging passengers off planes and suffocating puppies. As a frequent frequent flyer, I belonged to the United Red Carpet Club. After check-in, we proceeded directly to the lounge where we placed our carry-ons, including the boxes containing the plates, on the floor, and headed for the free food. We didn’t notice we had placed one of the boxes atop a heat vent.

An hour or so later, as we were going through the security line, a fellow passenger noticed that one of our boxes was emitting smoke. The security agents went ballistic, ordered everyone to stand back, and pulled us out of the line, accusing us of trying to smuggle a bomb. I pointed out that if I were doing that, I wouldn’t be bringing my wife and kids, and told them the box contained plates. An agent ordered me to carry the smoking box into a nearby room and demanded I open it. 

The heat hadn’t ignited the excelsior but it was, indeed, smoking.  If we had boarded the plane with that box, the excelsior would have continued to smolder and would have eventually burst into flames — probably in the middle of the ocean. A jumbo jet would have disappeared and nobody would have known why.

But the cardboard box, amazingly, was just slightly charred so, once the security agents calmed down, we were able to repack the plates, wrapping them in dirty underwear from our carry-on bags, and allowed to board our flight. We placed the boxes in the overhead bin and settled in.

Halfway across the Atlantic a passenger opened the bin and the boxes tumbled out and crashed to the floor. We assumed all the plates were smashed to smithereens. When we got home, we were amazed to learn they had somehow survived intact.

For years the plates were displayed in our Connecticut kitchen and today hang above the cabinets in our Florida kitchen where almost everyone who sees them comments on them. We always tell the story of their bizarre journey to America, a tale I have now told for probably the 100th time. 

Postscript: As I was taking the above photo, my wife asked if I noticed anything different. Looking at the plates, as I have every day for twenty-some years, I realized there were a number of new ones. There are still 16 plates hanging there, but some I had never seen before.

A few years ago while changing a light bulb, the top of my ladder struck one of the plates.  It fell to the floor and broke into 100 pieces. My wife was heartsick. While the plates aren't particularly valuable, we love them, not only for the playful artwork but because of the story associated with them. She began scouring the Internet for a replacement and, months later, found one -- not the same one I broke -- at an antique shop in England which I dutifully hung in place of the one I had broken.

What I didn't realize -- and, knowing her as I do, shouldn't have been surprised to learn  -- is that she has continued buying more plates as she finds them online, one or two at a time, from individual sellers and shopkeepers on eBay UK.  She says she even struck up an email correspondence and friendship with one of the sellers, a woman who bought her plates the same time we did. My wife has been taking down old plates and replacing them with new ones for more than a year. I didn't notice. She now owns more than two dozen plates but there are still only 16 hanging in the kitchen. 

What'll we do with all those plates? The same thing we'll do with all the stuff we've accumulated over the years -- leave them for the kids and grandkids to deal with when we're gone. Not our problem.

In the meantime, they're kind of cute. And the silly saga continues.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Obituary: Billy R. Dryden, 8/22/03-7/20/18

Billy Ray Dryden went to be with Jesus on Friday, July 20, 2018. Moments after greeting him at the pearly gates Jesus is reported to have announced, “I can’t deal with this nonstop barking,” and took off for parts unknown.

Billy was born on Aug. 22, 2003 in Pomfret Center, Conn. On Nov. 22, 2003, he was adopted by Judith and Thomas Dryden but he rarely acknowledged his father; Billy was, heart and soul, from the moment he was placed in her arms as a two-pound puppy, his mama’s boy. Their love for one another was pure and absolutely unconditional. Billy could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. For nearly 15 years he was tucked under her arm 24/7 and, on the rare occasions she was out of his sight, barked hysterically, even when she tried to have some privacy in the bathroom. 

As those who knew him will attest, Billy was vocal. He barked at thunder. He barked at lightening. He barked at fireworks. He barked whenever the phone or doorbell rang. He barked whenever a phone or doorbell on TV rang. He barked at the pool man, the yard men, at postal workers and UPS/FedEx drivers. He barked at his neighbors George and Mary. He barked at children. He barked at adults. He barked at other dogs, at lizards on the lanai and he barked especially loud whenever his father attempted to hold a conversation with his mother.

He loved Costco rotisserie chicken, frolicking through the snow of his native Connecticut, and riding in the car where he always slept on his mother’s lap, the one time his parents could talk to one another without having to scream.

Billy was a hero. In 2007, he discovered that a miniature shark his human brother Stuart had adopted years before — a fish that was supposed to live for a year or two but was six years old at that point —  had somehow leapt out of the aquarium and landed behind a chair. Billy began barking. His mother took no notice since Billy always barked whenever she wasn’t holding him. His barking became increasingly agitated, as he tried to paw his way under the chair. She realized he was trying to tell her something, just like Lassie used to tell Hugh Riley and June Lockhart that Timmy had fallen into a well. His mother was able to pick up the shark with a spatula and slip it back in the fish tank. The shark, alas, suffered brain damage because, from that day until his death several years later, he could only swim counter-clockwise, but his life was saved thanks to the bravery and persistence of a nine-pound long-haired black-and English cream dachshund. 

Billy was predeceased by his dachshund sister, Bonnie, who tricked him out of his breakfast every day for 13 years by standing at the door barking, pretending to see something, which always made him run to the door where he would bark at nothing for 10 minutes as she doubled back and inhaled his food. Survivors include his dachshund brother, Rupert, whom he welcomed into the family last year and loved dearly; his mongrel Great Pyrenees/Greyhound bitch of a niece Topanga, whom he despised, especially after she tried to swallow him whole under the Christmas tree when he stole the toy Santa had brought her; his father; and the love of his life and reason for being, his mother. 

He was cremated and, at his mother’s request, the little lacquer box in which his ashes repose will someday be placed alongside her body in her coffin, so they can spend eternity the same way they spent their life on earth together—with him tucked safely under her arm.