All Those Shades of Gray

The theme for this week has been gray.   Or grey.  Either way, that’s been the theme. All the shades of it. A lot more than fifty.

It started with going for paint chips.  It seems that we will be making a few improvements to help in the selling of my great Aunt’s house.  A little paint?  No problem.  Finding a color, fairly neutral, that will work in both rooms that need painting, well…..we’re dealing with carpet a yellow gold color (circa 1968? one friend asked–ahem, I’m thinking that’s a big ol’ YEP) and a light mint green.  So gray it is.  But which shade? I’m taking the chips down to the house to decide which shade best matches both and we’ll go from there.

A few of the many shades of gray that have been on my mind this week
A few of the many shades of gray that have been on my mind this week

So the color has been on my mind anyway.

And then the word should came into play.

We had a busy time last weekend and the beginning of this week–family visiting from out of town.  On the go.  All sorts of things going on.  Then Wednesday.  Quiet.  Back to some semblance of normal.  Whatever that is.

And I started contemplating the day’s plans.  What I wanted to do, what my body begged for, was to have a crashout day.  Full of nothing but the bare necessities (everyone clothed and fed as needed IF needed).  But there were other options.  Things I thought I probably should do.

It was when I talked with my Aunt last night that I realized it–“should” was a lot easier when we were little.

The shoulds of childhood, at least in my neck of the woods, were pretty much comprised of what was expected of you–

You should pick up after yourself.  Clean your plate.  Say please and thank you.  Yes ma’am and no ma’am, yes sir and no sir.  Mind your manners.  Don’t sass your folks. Be kind and don’t leave anyone out.  Take care of what you have.  Tell the truth and don’t wipe your nose on your sleeves.  Say excuse me when you burp.  All good shoulds.  Clear cut and not really open to debate or interpretation.  The end.

But the shoulds of my life today?  Without someone to lay down the law, it gets a wee bit fuzzy.  Cloudy.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of black and white–it’s all a lovely shade of gray. Many, many shades. All over the place.

The shoulds in my day to day are so constant, it gets a bit overwhelming.  This world of all the shades of gray.  The decisions of what should be done in any given moment are not always so clear cut.  I try to function on a take care of business first, then rest/read/relax mode, but that’s not always easy.  Should I continue cleaning house or do I give in to the aches and pains that beg for a moment of respite?  Should I plan and cook tomorrow’s lunch or plan our weekly meal out for that time?  Should I rally the troops and my get up and go, and go do {name the activity} or should I make it a day to be home? Is the timing right for the puppy I’ve been wanting, or should I wait? Should I call the attorney handling some business for us, or should I wait for him to call me?  In any given question or decision, there’s not really a right or wrong, just varying shades of grays–pluses and minuses and maybes.  And no one to tell me what I should do.  Maybe it’s the season of life I’m in right now, but even the simplest of “should deciding” can be quite overwhelming.

When I was little there were consequences if I didn’t do what I should.  Woe be the child who didn’t ma’am or sir a grownup in our house.  And sassing our parents–well that didn’t usually have to happen more than one time.  CONSEQUENCES could be memorable at times.  The thing is, in this hazy world of grownup shoulds, the consequences are not always clear.  It’s not always readily apparent that one choice or another was a poor one.  Or a good one.  It just is.

Then today I was visiting with a sweet friend, and we were sharing about people in our lives who can be challenging, who can be hard to be around or to understand at times.  Then other times we catch a glimpse of their story, of maybe why they are where they are, and there come those shades of gray again.  It seems that the older I get, the more I have to let go of the Disney-esque idea of villains versus good guys.  There is simply not a black and white, clear cut category to put most people in.  People are not absolutely 100 percent evil, and for sure there are none who are 100 percent lovely and fabulous and all things good.  No, most of us have varying mixtures of good and evil, light and dark, floating around inside, and, depending on the day/circumstances/amount of sleep we’ve had, one or the other will come out at varying levels.  It’s easy to be angry at someone, but when we hear the story behind what they were thinking or why they were compelled to do what they did–it all gets fuzzy and gray again.  Absolutes end and compassion begins.  We do not live in an Ursula vs. Ariel world.  Oh, how I wish we did sometimes, but it’s just not that easy.

So tomorrow when I lay the paint chips on the carpet–the many, many shades of gray I have to think about and try to choose just one, I’ll be doing something I should do.  But there will be gray area in choosing the right shade of gray because, being a grownup, I have to make some decisions all by myself, many of which I don’t feel qualified to make.  I don’t know what consequences my choice will lead to if any, but, like so many of the shoulds in my life, I’ll just have to make a decision and let the paint chips fall where they may.  Our lives and the decisions we make and the people around us are not all good or bad, black or white.  There’s an awful lot of in-betweens.  And that’s where I live.  In the shades of gray.

If It Were Just a Little Hotter…..

This evening as I started out on my walk, I breathed in the fresh air and just soaked in the warmth from the sun.  The breeze kept it from being uncomfortably hot, and it just felt great.   I guess I am my Papa’s granddaughter.  He is known for having said in the middle of a sweltering summer, “If it were just a little hotter, it’d be right nice.”

That thought made me smile, as I dug through my memory bin and pulled out those of my Papa.  I was only five when he died, so the few I have are very precious and even more vivid as time passes.

My Papa, whom I adored
My Papa, James, whom I adored

I loved my Papa.  He was somebody special.  You just knew it.  He was very patient with me.  Papa is the one who taught me to play Chinese Checkers.  I loved lining up the marbles and getting it ready.  He also taught me about making folks feel at home.  He and I were playing one time (who knows if I was really capable of playing by the real rules at the time), and a car pulled up.  His niece was there to visit.  Papa said we should put the game away so we could visit with folks.  Another time he and I went to the candy store.  I don’t remember much about that one, except that I got a big round swirly sucker and he had us pick one out for his niece too, “so she won’t feel left out.”

Daddy and Papa raised cows together, so we were over at their house and farm a lot.  I remember getting silage with Daddy to feed the cows.  If I got out of the truck when the truck was weighed, then I had to get out again when the silage and truck were weighed after loading it up so they’d know how much we got.  Honesty was important.  Still is.  And to this day the smell of cows can make me cry with happy remembering.

My Papa and Granny
My Papa and Granny

Papa also raised pigs.  I can remember being there on hog killing day, but that was more about the hustle and bustle and pots over a fire in the yard.  Some of those blanks may have been filled in by imagination over the years, so I apologize to you who know what really happened–you know who you are.  The thing I most definitely remember are the baby pigs in the barn.  Papa put down red carpet for them.  I always thought that was the most special thing.  Forget Wilbur, those must be really, truly special baby pigs if Papa put down that beautiful red carpet for them.  I can still remember it, me leaning over the old wood rail to see them on their glorious red floor.  Sweet little baby pigs.  I was filled with delight and wonder.

I also remember Papa being very sick.  I didn’t know it then, but he had a brain tumor.  I remember him being in the bed in the front bedroom.  The room with the windows and light.  The grownups did a good job of carrying their sadness and worries on their own, because I don’t really remember being upset in the middle of everything, and for that I thank them.  The main thing I remember about that time was we were not to let the screen door slam.  We had to carefully hold it and return it to its frame.  Not an easy task for the six and under crowd, happy and carefree at their grandparent’s home and excited to be with each other.  I can still remember the feel of dashing out that door and leaping off, our feet barely touching the steps as we headed out into the yard to play.

Granny and Papa's house as it is today--I spent so many happy times there
Granny and Papa’s house as it is today–I spent so many happy times there

The day the call came I remember vividly.  A cold fall evening.  I was in the kitchen with Mama at our little house on Boy Scout Road.  I had turned five less than two weeks before.  Mama stood holding the black wall phone.  She turned her head and started crying as she hung it up.  My next memory is being at Granny’s standing out under the cedar tree with my cousins, looking back towards the sadness that hung over the house.  We were the most somber group of five, six, and seven year olds you’d ever want to see.  Someone said, “He was a good person.”  Nods all around.  Another said, “Yes, he’s in Heaven.  With the angels.”  We all nodded seriously and with certainty in every fiber of our being.  We KNEW.

Papa was a wise man.  He and Granny raised bright and thinking and thoughtful, caring children.  One bit of wisdom that has been passed down and shared with me more times than I can count is, “You got a car, you got car trouble.”  Amen to that, Papa.  When my Daddy and his older brother were little and they saw my Granny disciplining a puppy that she was raising, they got very upset.  They packed their bags and were headed out.  They told Papa they were running away.  He pulled them to the side and gave them each a nickel for their journey.  I think Daddy said they might have gotten to the end of the road before their second thoughts and lack of plans sent them back home.

Tonight I’m thankful for the breeze that blew in warmth and warm memories.  I am thankful it’s happiness that I feel when I think about my Papa and not the sadness that was a part of the last year or so of his life.  I give thanks for the cows and trucks and silage and pink pigs on red carpet that are the backdrops of my childhood.  And for Chinese Checkers and big colorful swirly suckers. Good things the happiest of memories are made of.

Waving At Strangers

This morning was perfectly beautiful. The sun, the blue skies, the trees waving in the breeze. We were all up earlier than usual, so the littles were dressed and fed and out the door well before 9, enjoying the reprieve from the busyness of the past few days and playing with their friends down the street.  I sat on the porch with a book I’ve just begun, rocking and reading and soaking in the beauty and calm of this summer day.  As I sat and listened to the sound of children’s voices laughing and squealing and calling to each other, I saw another neighbor driving down our street to his house next door.  I automatically threw my hand up in greeting.

As I pulled my hand back, I thought about the tradition of waving at folks and how instinctive it has become.

pic of country road

My little brother, the youngest in our family, is almost nine years younger than me.  When he was little, I would take him on walks down our country road.  His hand in mine, we would walk along looking for rocks and talking about all kinds of somethings and nothing much in particular.  I remember one time when I waved at the rare car that passed by.  He asked me why I was waving at them.  Did I know them?  Well, why was I waving?  What are strangers?  Who were they?  Questions.  So sweet to remember.  I told him that it was just something we did to say hello, to be friendly.  He seemed okay with that, and he waved at the next car that came along.

His little hand in mine.  That little guy who was still so small when I left for college.  The guy who came over and saw my first new little baby girl every Friday during his senior year of high school, bringing a hug and a tickle for her and a grilled cheese with extra dill pickles and sweet tea from Nu-Way for me.  Who left for his study abroad in England when I moved back home for sanctuary with my little one.    Who came to work where I was working, wearing his cargo shorts and workboots.  Who is now a grown man, a minister, living twelve hours away, now a Papa to three little ones of his own.  A good guy.  A good friend.

But today I remembered the little one who was my buddy so long ago.

And when, this morning, my own little guy just reached up and put his hand in mine, without my prodding, I smiled in sweet remembrance.  He reminds me of my baby brother sometimes–the youngest of big sisters, trying to make his way, even down to wearing the boots with his shorts.  Yep, when I looked down at the little one who was holding my hand and gazing up at me, I saw him with his shorts and t-shirt and these on his feet.

I don't think he even notices the holes in them.  I wonder if my brother would have at this age.
I don’t think he even notices the holes in them. I wonder if my brother would have.

I don’t even think he notices the holes.  And well, I just pick my battles.  Wearing holey boots with shorts is not on my list of battles to fight.  It’s just not worth it y’all.

There’s a joke that Southern folks are known for their friendliness because they are constantly waving….at the gnats.  I think in this world of “stranger danger” (which I support and teach/preach all the time to my own littles), waving at strangers may become a thing of the past.  Just like walks with baby brothers on old country roads.  But today, for a few minutes, I was back there, and life was good.

I wonder if he will go for a walk with me when he comes home again to Blackberry Flats.  One more time.  And together, we can wave at strangers.  As we travel down Memory Lane.

The Pineapple Story

Last Tuesday afternoon I stood out in the sun in the backyard at my folks’ place, Blackberry Flats.  The heat of summer was bearing down but the shade of the tree and the gentle breeze made it bearable.  I was visiting with Mama’s neighbor who lives across the road, and who has been such a huge gift throughout the past four years.  A quiet and gentle soul, he had finished doing the yard the day before and it looked great.  I told him how much we appreciated him keeping it up just as Daddy would have.

He said, “Yeah, I don’t know why, but it was something mowing this time.  I kept looking over there, expecting her to come to the back door.”

I laughed softly, as the emotion crept in.  “Yes sir, probably to ask you to help her with something else?”

He shook his head. “No.  She usually sent me home with something. Like fruit.”  He looked over, and we said the word in sync. “Pineapple.”  We laughed as the tears formed and the memories came flooding back.

As I walked into the grocery store the first time after Mama died, as soon as I rounded the produce section, I saw it.  The already prepared pineapple.  I felt like I’d had the breath knocked out of me.  “Who will cut my pineapple for me now?” I whispered to myself.  I almost left the store then as the tears and sadness and raw grief threatened to engulf me.

One of Mama’s love languages was cooking.  And sharing food.  Such as leftover biscuits (some of my favorites), leftovers in general, and fruit she’d pick up on sale and prepare for her grandbabies.  That whole Wal-Mart price matching–Mama took that stuff seriously.  She would pore over the sale papers and kept the current ones for different stores folded in a stack on the stool next to where she sat at the kitchen counter.  She would make her grocery list accordingly.  And when Aldi or Giant or Freshway had their {fill in the blank here} on sale, Mama put it on her Wal-Mart list and tucked her sales papers in her purse and headed out.  Love it.  Did I mention already that we were raised on sale?  With a coupon?  Yep.

And so one of the stores would occasionally have a great sale on pineapples.  And Mama liked the pineapples from Wal-Mart, so she would pick up a couple.  Price matched.  She had a special knife for the job. With it she could take a whole pineapple down to delectable bite-sized pieces, throwing the rest of it out in the compost.   The funny thing is, Mama really couldn’t eat pineapple.  Maybe a bite or two now and then, but it tended to bother her, so she avoided it.  But she knew how much my babies, especially my oldest loved it.  Daddy also enjoyed it when he was with us.  I’m not sure how or when but Mama later found out that her neighbors–one on the side and the other across the road–also loved it.  So she would prepare each of us a container (you know, the odd Cool Whip or yogurt or sour cream container) full and send it home to be enjoyed.  What a treasure!

Mama's cutting board and pineapple knife.....she brought joy and sunshiny sweetness to friends and family with them.
Mama’s cutting board and pineapple knife…..she brought joy and sunshiny sweetness to friends and family with them.

When my girl graduated a few weeks back, we had a gathering to celebrate.  A sweet friend prepared delicious goodies for us to enjoy.  As she was placing things on the countertop, she pulled out a single pineapple and sat it in a bowl.  Y’all.  For the love of all things Mama.  I had to walk away for a moment, and then, well, y’all who know me won’t be surprised, I shared the story of Mama’s pineapple legacy with my friend.  It.  Was.  Just.  Right.

The pineapple that made us smile and remember at Aub's graduation festivities.
The pineapple that made us smile and remember at Aub’s graduation festivities.

Tonight I am thankful for sweet reminders of my Mama and her love for us.  Her generous spirit.  Her kindness.  Her spunk.  Her thriftiness and determination to be a good steward of what she had.  All things I hope to have even a small bit of one day.  And though I am sorry others are sad, it is nice to be reminded that others miss her too.  That together we can talk about her and smile and cry and laugh and remember.   And for a Tuesday night, that will do just fine.

Ice Cream Sandwich Memories

Yesterday evening at the meal we take the drinks to each Sunday at Daybreak, our friends supplied and served the dessert. The joy in being with our friends at this place that means so much to us, with folks we have come to love as family–that’s the good stuff of life right there. The joy and giggles overflowed.

Ice cream sandwiches served last night as dessert--and PET no less.  Y'all know how I love me some PET dairy products.
Ice cream sandwiches served last night as dessert–and PET no less. Y’all know how I love me some PET dairy products.

As it was Memorial Day weekend, it was decided that a special treat was in order–Ice Cream Sandwiches. It was a couple of years ago that one of my friends had the idea to take them for dessert on a hot Sunday night, and they were the hit of the night. Last night as I looked around at the smiles on faces and the messy fingers with chocolate wafer clinging to them, I thought of our own ice cream sandwich memories.

We had them growing up as a special treat, but I really love that they were the “thing” my children enjoyed at “Maemae and Cap’s” house. Mama would pull one out and peel the paper back about halfway down, so they had something to hold onto and could still eat it. Then she’d finish peeling it for each child, when he or she reached the paper. When Daddy was still able to go outside easily, we’d take them out and eat them on the swings under the tree in the summer heat. When my little guy was much smaller, I wouldn’t get my own. I would wait until he hit the halfway mark and was full, and I’d finish his off. It seemed all the sweeter. When he reached the point of only giving me the last bite, I decided I’d better start getting my own. They are one of the foods that just taste like summer to me.

When my friend first brought them two years ago when we still gathered outside at the park, I remember several of our friends there were overjoyed to have them and did not hesitate to say so. But it was Mr. U who especially touched my heart. He and his wife seemed to live in their car–we were never quite sure. He had a hard time walking, so in harsh weather, we’d take his meal to him in the car. But that day, he had gotten out and was eating in a chair under the big tree with many others. He pulled my friend aside, and told her how much the taste of that ice cream sandwich reminded him of his own growing up. The sheer joy on his face, his eyes lit up with remembering–that’s something I won’t soon forget.

Last night another volunteer and I were remembering him. Mr. U died some time a few months after that day. I miss his smile and his stories. He loved to share his stories with anyone who would listen. I know he would have been smiling about those ice cream sandwiches last night, and sharing stories, but not before finishing his slowly melting treat.

Today I remember him. And others who have left this world. Left it a little better, a little stronger, and a little sadder because of their absence. And I think I will toast their memories with an ice cream sandwich of my own. Joyful remembering to you all…..

Listen Here!

My husband told my son the story of how his Dad would grab his ear when he was little and wanted to get his attention. So my little guy has very unwisely decided to try this technique himself. Daddy is on the computer, grab his ear. Mama is reading, grab her ear. Aub is listening to music, grab her ear. Ummmm, no. We have corrected that behavior. Ahem.

So this happened. I saw this video.

Oh. My.  Stars.  I grew up hearing this story.  Of Helen Keller, who was born in 1880 and died just a few months before I was born in 1968.  Who at 19 months contracted what was likely scarlet fever or meningitis and lost her ability to hear, see, or speak.  And the story of Anne Sullivan, her teacher, governess, and later companion who started teaching her to communicate in 1886.  But to see them in action?  I’m in awe.  My mouth dropped open and I was entranced.

The thing is, we are very fortunate.  We can all speak, hear, and see with only the minor problems associated with age (my eyesight) or with stubborness (my children’s selective hearing).  We may have to grab someone by the ear, but communication should not be an issue.

And yet it can be.  We have all of these distractions.  Busy schedules, phones dinging to notify us anytime anyone we know sneezes or eats at their favorite restaurant, and the tv shows taking us far away from the reality of our family life.  Never mind the to-do lists and want to-do lists.  It all takes us away from simply sitting down and having a conversation.  With each other.

Growing up the best conversations were at the supper table, where we would all gather together and share the stories of our day.  We would laugh, commiserate, fuss, and listen.  Together.  I guess I’ve thought about that a lot this week, because with Aub working three nights this week, I’ve missed our gathering around the table, catching up.  Talking.  Listening.  Seeing.  With our eyes and our hearts.

And then I saw the video.  And my heart soared.  There is hope for us all.  We can learn to communicate again.   If Helen Keller, who had every excuse to stay inside her own world with her own thoughts, found a way through listening and learning with Anne Sullivan to communicate with those around her, surely we can too.  The world that opens up to us when we do–just as it was for her–is amazing and beautiful.  A priceless treasure to be appreciated.

So I’m off to visit with my family.  And tonight I’m actually kind of thankful for a little boy pulling my ear to remind me.

 

What I’d Say

pic of class of 1986It was twenty-seven years ago today that I graduated from high school. Wow. I graduated from the same high school that my Daddy graduated from, and we even had a couple of the same teachers. He graduated before segregation and before the new campus was built–his school combined with two other schools to form the one I attended. The administration let me wear his honor cords in addition to mine, and that meant so much to me. Twenty-five years after him, I walked down the aisle and had the honor of speaking at graduation.

My uncle called a few days ago to ask if Aub had ever read “The Prophet” by Khalil Gibran. It touched my heart that he cared enough to call and ask. And it reminded me of Daddy–because he often suggested books that she should read (or that I needed to read), and because Daddy liked Khalil Gibran too. I was pleased to be able to tell my Uncle that I had given Aub a copy of the book for Christmas, to remember and honor Daddy and to enlighten her. She read it right away.

All this got me to thinking about my own graduation so many years ago. I had just found Khalil Gibran myself, and my seventeen year old self was very enamored with the thoughts and words he wrote. I even started my speech with a quote from him: “Only once have I been made mute. It was when a man asked me, ‘Who are you?'”  And went on from there.

Yeah, I was quite the great thinker back then. Ahem.

And so, I’ve thought a little more today about something that came to me when I attended my daughter’s graduation two weeks ago. What would I say today, if I were asked to speak at a graduation.

First I would tell them they won’t remember a thing I’m going to say. Because that is probably the way it will be.

Then I’d keep talking anyway. There’s some irony in that, I guess. Like the person who buys what they would want as a gift for someone else.

But I digress.  I would continue–

pic of khalil gibran truth quote

Seek truth.  Not the truth.  Just truth.  Seek and then act.  For justice.  For love.  For widsom.

The adults in your life will disappoint. As you grow older, they will, at some point, let you down. They are not perfect. They are human.  We all are.  Don’t let the disappointment change who you are.

At some point, you will make a choice and you will disappoint yourself. It’s going to happen. More than once, most likely.  Give yourself grace. Learn from that choice. Admit mistakes.  Ask forgiveness.  Move on.

It’s easy to waste time on things that don’t matter. Just make sure you don’t waste time or energy on things that can hurt people.   Like judging those different from you. Or hating the person rather than the action.

Or letting your frustration with one part of a person or church or  job or situation make you blind to the good in it or them.

Don’t waste time not letting your authentic self shine.

Be authentic. Be you. But don’t make it about you.   If you are a crocheter in the midst of knitters, crochet away, but love those knitters.  If you are a yellow in a sea of green, shine on so we can see their green too.  If you are a singer surrounded by dancers, belt it out and smile while you’re doing it, singing a tune the others can dance to.  Don’t go against who you are. Life is too short to pretend you are what or who you are not.  Or to pretend that you are not who you really are.

But on that same note, don’t take yourself so seriously.  You’re going to do great things, but you’re also going to mess up.  Truth.  And the only way you can do great things is to try.  So when you mess up, try again.  The great will come.  As my parents used to say, “Keep on keepin’ on.”

Take lots of pictures of you WITH the people you love.  Not just OF the people you love.  One day you will be very glad you did.

Surround yourself with people who get things done.  People who laugh.  Laugh a lot.  People who celebrate the small things as much as the great things in life.  People who find reasons to be joyful.  People who can encourage without knocking you down because they are insecure.  People who love like the stuff grows on trees.  Yeah, those folks.  Hard times are not an IF scenario, but a WHEN.  These folks are the ones who will help you through.  Just as you will help them as you sit with them in their darkness.

You can never say “I love you” or “I appreciate you” too much.  Make time to find something to be thankful for and give thanks.  Learn to see beauty when you look in the mirror.  And in things and people around you.  Be a good listener.  Share your stories, but not your drama.  Take walks and breathe deeply.

Read great books.  And fluff.  Try new foods.  You never know what you might like.  Put the cell phone down and talk with those around you.  Look them in the eyes. Say hello and learn the names of the people whom you see–the mail carrier, the parking deck cashier, the person who makes your coffee, the people who live on your street.  They matter.  You matter.  In the end, that’s what we all want–to have sought truth, found some, to love and be loved, and to have mattered.

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Today I’m thankful for an Uncle who cares what my girl reads.  I am thankful for the memory of my own graduation, the most precious part being the connection I felt to Daddy throughout the whole thing.  I appreciate those who have the courage to speak at these ceremonies and to share their thoughts, especially those who tell it like it is.  And I’m thankful for my Daddy who introduced seventeen year old me to Khalil Gibran, who had some great things to say, and I’m thankful for my seventeen year old, who has found her own love for the words written so long ago.

Picture from Gibran Monument by Julie Flygare
Picture from Gibran Monument by Julie Flygare

“You are my brother and I love you. I love you worshipping in your church, kneeling in your temple, and praying in your mosque. You and I and all are children of one religion, for the varied paths of religion are but the fingers of the loving hand of the Supreme Being, extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, anxious to receive all.”–Khalil Gibran