Swimming In Memory

January 24th, 2013

Sometimes something you see makes you remember. You can close your eyes and feel the warmth of the sun, the cold of the water. You can see the girl.

Sometimes something you see makes you want to forget.

As published in The Daily News, January 25, 2013, and in The Memphis News, January 26-February 1, 2013

(photo: Miss Canton Beauty Contest, by the pool at Allison’s Wells, 1956)

Miss Canton Beauty Contest 1956 At Allisons Wells Copy


My first date was Ann Wiggs. I took her to a dance in the cafeteria at White Station at the beginning of the seventh grade. She was tall and all elbows and angles. I was short and dumpy and all nervous. We didn’t so much dance as run into each other to music. I was 11. She was 12.

I’m into older women to this day.

We met a month before at the spring-fed pool at Allison’s Wells, a fading Southern Belle of a place – sort of resort, part art colony, part retreat from change deep in the Mississippi woods outside of Canton. The fence around the tennis court was covered in wisteria as were most of the people. The owner had one of my all-time favorite names, Hosford Fontaine. Ann’s parents were there to take the water, my mother was there to paint and my father was there to buy everybody a drink, or so it seemed. It was all wraparound verandas and deep balconies, all Southern everything served family style to all white guests by all black staff in crisp black jackets. And it was also all wood so – symbolic of where it was and when it was and what it was – it caught fire and burned down to the chimneys in 1963.

Back in Memphis, Ann asked me to go swimming at the Nineteenth Century Club, the eponymous representative of past glory putting up a still stately front on Union Avenue. It was there that I asked her for that date. The pool has long since been filled in, turned into a parking lot, and the ailing building is facing an uncertain future, whether it lives or dies may well have been determined at public auction even as you read this.

I don’t know how Ann is doing, but I’m feeling a bit down.

We need our landmarks because they mark our memories and mark the time before us and the time for those yet to come. We don’t need to honor anything that shouldn’t be honored, return to anywhere best left behind, bring anything back to life that’s been properly buried, but we do need to mark our place here, our unique address on the planet. When one of our old goes, the one that replaces it should still look like us and improve the view. Otherwise, everywhere will look just like everywhere else.

Standing where Allison’s Wells once stood, on the grounds of a church retreat and conference center, looking through the trees to where the pool was, the memories are warm and green.

Standing along Union where so many of our grand homes once stood, displaced by the disposable architecture of fast food franchises and soulless cinder block boxes, the memories go cold and greasy like old french fries.

What we leave behind us, what we choose to save and what we choose to throw away, will be what we’re remembered by.

I’m a Memphian, and I remember meeting a girl by a pool.


Anne Carriere: If only we could have replaced the lovely architecture with something new that also had architectural value, instead of the worst in our culture. In the name of low cost and convenience we subject ourselves to ugliness until we glaze over and don't see it. We "dumb down" our standards. Sad, but who knows a solution?

Leigh Davis: What a nice rant ~ so true.

Claire Ryan: Yes, a great piece. Thank you.

Patricia Waddell.Situ: Dan, I began my little swimming life at the 19th Century Club. My memory of being pursued by a bee and falling into the pool, aged 4, is very clear. I have the paintings in my living room that Mother learned to paint there in weekly classes. Thank you for putting into words how important it is to honor our finest past. I do hope the building can be saved. It is still lovely after all these years, a lone holdout on that sadly modernized block. I can't understand how anyone with eyes and a brain could destroy it. Here's hoping...

Jim Beaty: Well done.

george larrimore: Great piece. Now you have to write something about Maywood

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