Jeanne-Marie and I are in Memphis only in spirit this year, but we were blessed to have experienced Elvis Week 2014. Jeanne-Marie had the honor of judging the very first EPIC (Elvis Presley Impersonator Championship) competition while I had the pleasure of photographing ETAs and many historic Memphis sites. Many of the sites, such as Graceland and the Lorraine Hotel, really moved me and inspired me to write My Graceland Moment during our pilgrimage to Graceland.
My Graceland Moment
MEMPHIS, TN. It’s strange being here in Memphis. Maybe strange isn’t the right word; different is probably better. The weather is hot, humid, and the air echoes with the sounds of large buzzing bugs, noisy birds, and the chirp of frogs 24/7. The Indigenous wildlife of a river habitat has adapted to humankind’s industrial progress and is very noisy about it. It’s a daily protest about our encroachment upon their dwindling habitats.
The demographic is not as diverse. It’s black and white in a literal sense. There is a large African-American population serving as a reminder of America’s sin when it enslaved a race of human beings. Many, of course, are descended from slaves. The reality of this horrific part of American history is all the more real in the southern states. Racism is, perhaps, dead in the rule of law, but I have to wonder if racism has really been overcome. Living in the diverse population of Southern California there seems to be an illusion all is right among the races. I guess it is, but after visiting Memphis, I don’t really know.
What does any of this have to do with Elvis? Nothing, really, it’s just an observation, but Memphis is the city Elvis called home. He is now as much a part of its history as the Mississippi River, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I didn’t expect to wonder about such things. I also didn’t expect to feel a lot of other things while visiting Graceland. I was nine years old when Elvis died and I cried upon reading about his death in the newspapers. Years later with the invention of the VCR I watched the docudrama, This is Elvis. At the end of the film they play American Trilogy as the film recaps Elvis’ life. Yep, I cried again like I did in 1977. Now, it’s 2014 and I am visiting Graceland for the first time. I didn’t cry; however, I had to choke back a tsunami of tears and that was before I made it to the Meditation Garden.
The Trophy Room exits from a side of the house where there is a small pool and across the way is the Meditation Garden. It smacks you right in the face. As a first time visitor I was unfamiliar with the layout and not expecting to see the Meditation Garden when I exited the Trophy Room. My heart was wrenched by the mere sight of it and I immediately looked away towards the Racquetball Room. I focused with tunnel vision determination on the door leading into the exercise room with Jeanne-Marie following closely behind. I knew she felt the same way I did when we exited the Trophy Room and saw the grave site.
We opened the door to the Racquetball Room which leads into a small exercise room set upon a grey, carpeted floor above a lounge which looked more like a living room den. The lounge is a resting area for winded racquetball players and a place for friends and family to hang out comfortably on brown, leather couches or chairs. I didn’t realize there was a piano in the lounge where Elvis played and sang his final two songs: Unchained Melody and Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. Some accounts state he played and sang a few gospel songs, too, but the number of songs he may have sung doesn’t matter. It was the last time Elvis would ever sing.
A small flight of stairs leads to the racquetball court where it is wall to ceiling Elvis artifacts with several jumpsuits displayed and encased in protective Plexiglas. American Trilogy plays on the TV monitors and the music pipes through the stereo system reverberating hauntingly off the walls. There are a dozen people in the room all fixed on the TV and listening. The only sound is Elvis singing and a few sniffles. The tears made every effort to break through my emotional defenses, but I held the tears at bay and just kept snapping pictures to direct my focus elsewhere. I did not want to cry and kept my distance from Jeanne-Marie. One look at my wife and it would have been over for the both of us. Later, when we reminisced our experience, we both felt stupid because it looked like we were the only two about to lose it. The song was over and we exited the building and made our way to the Meditation Garden.
We didn’t rush to it. We moseyed along separately at our own pace for about 20 minutes, maybe more, I don’t know. For a time we sat on a bench at different times and looked at the various mementos displayed in mini memorials along the fence surrounding the pool. I snapped a few pictures of the tiny shrines, but did not look towards the grave site except for a glance to test my fortitude. Jeanne-Marie and I were still avoiding direct eye contact with each other and kept our distance until we were ready. I wandered along the brick wall with inlaid stained glass windows imported from Spain and admired the colors and architecture of the wall. Jeanne-Marie wandered to the wreaths displayed on a portion of asphalt adjacent left of the Meditation Garden. The wreaths were from various fan clubs from all over the world paying their respects for the man they love, admire, and miss.
Our eyes met and we knew it was time to pay our respects. The two of us were finally composed enough to visit Elvis together and we made our pilgrimage hand in hand. The sadness was still present, but the wave of emotion had moved on along with the overwhelming feeling of losing it and crying ugly. We read each of the epitaphs of Vernon, Gladys, Minnie Mae, and Jesse before moving to Elvis’ grave. We squeezed our hands together a little tighter as we stood graveside and read the epitaph. Standing in front of the grave made me suddenly realize Elvis is dead. I know that sounds silly, but I suppose it’s because reading about his death and compartmentalizing it intellectually is not the same as accepting it. It’s not I believe he faked his death, but his death was not made real until I stood in front of the massive headstone reading his epitaph.
I don’t know if I ever want to go back to Graceland. I think it was the end of an unplanned, lifelong journey that started at the age of seven when my Uncle Randy introduced me to Elvis via Burning Love on his guitar. The funny thing is I didn’t realize I was on a journey. So, where do I go from here? Part of me just wants to walk away from it all–Elvis and Pompadour. To end it here and leave it grave side by Elvis, after all, it was the end of a 37 year journey I didn’t know I was on. Then I talk to the people who knew Elvis and were his friends–people like Charles Stone and Sam Thompson. Maybe they felt the same way on a much greater scale, but realized if they had walked away from all of it Elvis could have been forgotten. Though Elvis is dead they are still very much a part of his life. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
I guess we all have our Graceland moment. This was mine.