Unwrapping the Cord and Letting Go

Today I started to use a steam mop that was my Mama’s.  It hit me as I was about to unwrap the cord and plug it in that she was the one who had wrapped the cord just so.  The last time it was wrapped it was by her hands.


Yeah, sometimes I get sentimental about the tiniest of things.

But they seem so huge.

When I worked for Hospice, we admitted a young mother who all too soon died from cancer.  Her best friend had been there through several years of battling the Giant, right there in the trenches with her.  She cooked, she cleaned, she cared.  It was a few days after the funeral when I stopped by the house.  The best friend was there.  She was talking, and all of a sudden she stopped and sat down.  The tears began to flow down her cheeks.

“I went in the bathroom to put the towels away.   The towels in the back were folded differently.  Those are the ones she folded.  Her towels that she washed and dried and folded and put away.  I don’t fold towels like she did.  It just hit me.  I don’t do it the way she did.  Her hands were the last ones to touch those towels,” the best friend sobbed.

I get it.

There’s so much of that, isn’t there?  Anytime someone leaves us, no matter how.  I remember when my sisterfriend married military and was moving away.  We always had these two cups that we used when she came over.  One was orange, one was yellow.  I am sure I found them at the Fred’s in town.  (It was my Super Savings place.)  I don’t remember what made me get them, but I did and we used them every single time.  I remember unloading the dishwasher the day after she left town.  There were those cups.  It just felt strange.  The cups are here, and now she is not.  I didn’t use them again.  I just couldn’t.  It would not have been the same.

Summer of 2012 Mama and I spent watering the tea olive we planted out at the cemetery for Daddy.  We hauled the water out there in washed out milk jugs.  The expiration dates were all different, but there was this one.  It was Daddy’s birthday.  And every time I filled that jug, I would think about how odd it was to see his birthdate on the jug like it was just any other day.  Which of course it never will be again.  It will always be his birthday.

It’s all a bit too surreal, isn’t it?  This is the point when Daddy would have asked me, “So did you unwrap the cord and take care of business or did you save it wrapped like that?”

I unwrapped it.  Painstakingly, hoping to remember just how she did it, but of course I can’t.  And so when I was done trying to achieve some semblance of clean around here, I just wrapped it up as best I could and let it go.  There’s some things I just can’t remember.

But there’s so many that I can.  And that will have to be enough.


Tea Olives and Tales and Teasing

The littles and I went to visit our “Pirate” at my alma mater–her college today.

I am not old enough to have a daughter in college.  Seriously.

When I started school and began first grade, I had Mrs. Partain and Mrs. Crouch.  Most of my time was spent with Mrs. Partain.  Everyday before I left for school, Daddy would tease me and say, “I’m not old enough to have a daughter in first grade.  You need to tell your teacher that.”  And every afternoon when he came home, he asked, “Did you tell your teacher I’m not old enough to have a daughter in first grade?” And everyday I said no.  Until one day in the spring, I surprised him.  I answered, “Yes.”  When he got over the shock, he asked what she had said.  “She laughed.”  Which made him laugh too.

He was 31.  Way younger than this Mama of a college student.

We wandered around the campus.  Do I miss it?  Yes.  I told my oldest last night that I would so “Freaky Friday” her in a heartbeat.  Those were good days.  (Only I probably didn’t recognize it each and every day.)

It’s home.  So many landmarks. So many memories. The fountain I got thrown into every birthday I had my four years there and when I was engaged.  (My friends weren’t crazy or mean–it’s a tradition.) And the place where my husband and I married almost twelve years ago.   The window to my freshman dorm room (turns out it was across the hall from where our resident ghost hung out–I did NOT know that at the time–thank goodness), my sophomore dorm room, and the manhole cover I’d always walk over because I like to hear the echo.  The window to the office of our favorite professor, who was known to poke his head out if he heard us calling.  The building where I learned how to fail and try again.  The pond where I rode the paddleboat with a classmate from India and she read my palm.  I could go on and on with the memories.  They’re all still there.

As we were heading back to our girl’s dorm and maybe for a walk by the pond, it hit me.  That smell. I sniffed again.  Intently.  I turned around.

“What are you doing, ‘Dre?” she asked.

“Tea olive.  I smell tea olive.”  As I turned completely around I saw it.  It was so big I had dismissed it as being a tea olive.  We went over and soaked it in.

Soaking in the smell of the tea olive

Soaking in the smell of the tea olive

There is NO smell I love better on this earth than the smell of a tea olive.  Except for maybe a clean baby smell.  I don’t know, it might be a tie.  I wish I could bottle it up and take it everywhere with me.

Years ago Daddy planted one at the house, Blackberry Flats.  The first time it blossomed and I smelled it, I found myself drawn to it, soaking it in.  I told Daddy that I hoped Heaven smells just like that.  It is the most perfect scent there is on God’s green earth.  Hands down.

Daddy's tea olive at Blackberry Flats

Daddy’s tea olive at Blackberry Flats

When we moved to our house here, there was one planted on the side of the house.  I just noticed it blooming the other day.  The scent hits you first as the blossoms are tiny.  Then you see them.  Precious.  In the midst of all the chaos of the past year, my wise gardener friend brought me one, knowing how much I love them, and planted it where I can smell it from the rocker on my porch.

When Daddy died, we were so fortunate to have a kind and witty and compassionate funeral home director work with us.  She asked about a spray.  We had no idea but knew that Daddy wouldn’t have wanted anything fancy.  She suggested we take cuttings from greenery at the house to the florist to be worked into it.  I remember well that crisp fall day, my Aunt and I out cutting small branches from the cedar that had come from their parent’s farm over thirty years ago and from that tea olive.  It turned out beautifully and it meant so much.  Daddy had planted and tended to both of those trees over the years.

So it was that in March of last year, on Daddy’s birthday, our first without him here, Mama and the crew and I took Daddy’s shovels and went out to the little country church where they both are buried now, and we dug a hole and planted a tea olive there.  It was not an easy task–us and the shovels vs. Georgia red clay.  I spent a whole lot of time getting to know that tea olive last year.  Mama saved her milk jugs, and she or I would haul eight gallons out there twice a week to water it all through the dry summer.  I spent a lot of time out there pouring water into the big bucket with slow draining holes my wise gardener friend had loaned us.  As I poured I talked to Daddy.  The conversations were private, but suffice to say, there weren’t always happy and grace-filled.  There were times I just wanted to lay down out there and give up, I missed him so much.  There were days the sky was filled with angry clouds gathering, but much like me, they were all talk and no rain fell, so still I watered.  I knew how to look for new growth on the tree because my Daddy had taught me, so I was pleased when I saw some, and I pointed it out to him.

I love the smell of a tea olive.  I think I may have to go out there and see how it’s doing.  I haven’t worried much about it with all this rain we’ve had this summer.  And it’s seemed harder to go out there lately.  But if there’s the promise of blossoms and that smell, well, that might just change everything.

I hope the smell will bring comfort to my children just as it has for me.  And maybe my oldest will find herself walking out of her way to sniff the tree that very likely was planted about the time I was there, oh-quite-some-time-ago.  And I think that would be just fine.  It is my hope that she too will take root there and grow and hopefully bless the world as she blossoms into who she is becoming.  I’m already seeing new growth in her too.  And though it’s not easy, what follows, just like the scent of the tea olive, will be downright beautiful and worth every bit of the effort.  I promise.

Taking the Ones We Love…..A Little Everyday

My littles have a joke they love to sneak in on me, on you, on anyone they can.  They learned it from their friend during one of our summer adventures.

L: Hey Mama, will you remember me always?

Me:  Of course I will.

L: Will you remember me in an hour?

Me: Yes.

L: Will you remember me in four hours?

Me: Of course.

L:Will you remember me in a day?

Me: Yep.

L: A week?

Me: Sure thing.

L: Will you remember me in a year?

Me: You know it.

They will fake me off with a few moments of quiet during which I’m unloading dishes (hopefully clean–don’t ask) or folding clothes or making one of the million trips between two rooms in my house.  Then–

L: Knock knock!

Me: Who’s there?

L: You already forgot me! (usually this is where he or she collapses in giggles because yes, once again, they got me)

It’s a cute joke.  I laugh every time they get me, because well, it tickles them and I have to laugh or I’ll cry over how easily distracted I am and how easy it was for them to get me.  Again.

The other day I saw this posted on Facebook. It’s a whole different, heartbreaking and very unfunny side of the forgetfulness.

pic of alzheimers request

Alzheimer’s is definitely no joke.  So many of us kid about having “senior” or “Old Timers” or even “Alzheimer’s” moments.  It is said in jest with no mal-intent, but the pain and brokenness behind the truth of this disease is almost too much to comprehend.

I remember meeting someone with Alzheimer’s twelve years ago when I worked for Hospice.  The sweet and gentle man was lying in a hospital bed in a nursing home.  Each morning very early, his wife of over fifty years came and sat with him.  She did not leave until dark, which unfortunately was much earlier in the winter.  She didn’t like leaving him that early, but she couldn’t drive after dark.  Perhaps the saddest thing of all was that I am not sure he even knew she was there most of the time.  And the sweetness and gentleness was fading quickly.  It broke my heart to see her dedication and how much she loved him, as she watched what someone once described as having your favorite book be torn apart, one page at a time.

We had been through it already with my great-great aunt, but I don’t remember a lot of the details.  I mostly remember Mama talking about how she was doing things that were very uncharacteristic of her.  Once a genteel Southern lady, she became aggressive and downright irrational at times. She too wound up in a nursing home before she left this world for a far better one.

I have had this on my mind the past few days.  Today four years ago we celebrated the birthday of my beloved aunt the day after her birthday.  My zoo crew, Mama and Daddy, and I all went to see her. I had even baked a cake in the shape of a crown.  She seemed to enjoy the day, which was joyful for all of us.  Her memory had been slipping a little and though I don’t know that there had been a definite diagnosis, I suspect that Alzheimer’s had been tossed around.  It was only a matter of time before we would have to make a decision about her living situation.  She was in the house she had been in for decades, and she probably knew it better than she knew the back of her hand.  It would be very hard to convince her to move, though it would have been for her own good.

There is a special tint to the memory of that day.  I look back through the lens of sentiment and sadness and gratitude.  It was the calm before the storm.  It was the last birthday we would celebrate with her, as she died peacefully in her sleep in her own home about eight and a half months later.  Though we still miss her everyday, we are thankful she didn’t have to leave what was comforting and familiar for her.

That day was also the last time we would do something like that as a whole family together.  It was less than a week later that Daddy went into the hospital to officially begin what would be over two years of fighting against the giant that would later be named Lymphoma.  Like memory loss and Alzheimer’s that one struck from out of nowhere and hit us hard.

This is a hard world to be in at times.  Sometimes we lose the folks we love suddenly, leaving us wishing for more time, for just a few more minutes to say what we left unsaid.  And sometimes we lose the ones we love little by little, almost imperceptible from day-to-day, but it continues and takes its toll.  Alzheimer’s is like that.  One little bit of memory, of personality at a time.  Lymphoma turned out to be the same way, only affecting the body instead.  One skill at a time…..little by little.

Tonight I am thankful for the memory of this day.  I am grateful we had just decided to homeschool, and that my oldest was able to be there and also has the memory of this celebration.  I turn back to this page in my mind often and the corners are soft and worn and comforting.  The laughter, the visiting, seeing the joy and the spark in her eyes, how she oohed over the cake that was made especially for her, how Daddy took the littles outside, just like he always did–such a beautiful day, inside and out.  Most of all, I am thankful for folks who are researching and studying both of these diseases, working so maybe fewer and fewer people will leave us this way.  I get that it’s just a label to folks who have never known someone with it, and that’s understandable .  But I also know that if you lose the people you love most to either disease, you will never forget it.

If you would like to join in the fight, here are just a couple of organizations who are working to change the world through research and support:

Alzheimer’s Association   http://www.alz.org/  Because September is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, there are many “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” events going on this fall to raise funds and awareness.  It’s not too late to get involved.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society  http://www.lls.org/#/ They have Light the Night events to raise funds and awareness as well.  Right now you can buy a balloon for $1, $5, or more at Burlington, a partner with LLS, and the funds go back to LLS.

We can all make a difference in the fight for someone’s life.   I’m thankful for that too.

Gone too Soon

Today, thirty-six years ago, just six weeks before my baby brother was born, we had a death in the family.

Elvis Presley died.

I am not being facetious when I say he was a member of our family. I really felt that way–about him and “Uncle Willie” Nelson too.  I grew up hearing his music constantly.  And seeing his movies.  And wishing I could be BFF forever’s with Lisa Marie.  I didn’t care much for Priscilla, because, really, how much sense could she have had NOT to be married to him anymore?

I was young, and I didn’t know any better.  Grace abounds, my friends.

Daddy talked a lot about how Elvis was a better conductor than he was a musician and for sure, an actor.  Daddy thought his “Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii” was proof that he was moving towards putting together musical “productions” rather than just singing a song–and he was good at it.  The other day I heard the beginning of that concert on the radio.  I once had the whole concert memorized.  In order.  It was awesome.

When I was little we had a little record player that we children were allowed to use. Daddy had a lot of 45’s that were Elvis singles, in addition to his LPs.  I used to play like I was a DJ and I’d intro the song better than anybody on the airwaves.  Or so I thought at the time.  I knew my Elvis stuff, and I’d ooze it out as smooth as anything, and then…..I’d play the song.  I loved his music and to this day, it’s a comforting thing for me.

Elvis and crew in "Follow That Dream"--my favorite Elvis movie ever.

Elvis and crew in “Follow That Dream”–my favorite Elvis movie ever.

We watched his movies–the bad ones and the not quite as bad ones.  I thought they were awesome.  And there must have been some nostalgia for Daddy too, because though he didn’t think Elvis was a great actor, he did watch them over and over with us.  And when Aub got old enough, that’s what she got for birthdays and Christmas–Elvis movies on DVD.  She loved them and always seemed happy to get another one. But her favorite?  Viva Las Vegas–with Elvis and Ann-Margret.  She adores Elvis, but she loves her some Ann-Margret too.  My favorite was the same as Daddy’s–anyone surprised at that?  Follow That Dream.  It was based on a book, and it was hilarious.  Love.  It.  (Gave a whole new meaning to saying one’s multiplication tables out loud.)

I thought that Elvis could sing any song better than anyone else with the exception of two–

Simon and Garfunkel’s version of “Bridge over Troubled Water” blows me away every single time. (Although Elvis was a very close second.)

Willie Nelson outdid him on “Always on My Mind.”  I’m sorry, he just did.

Having said that, while there are many Elvis songs that are so much fun that I can’t help but move (“Long Tall Sally,” “See See Rider,” “Blue Suede Shoes”), there are a few that have touched my heart and stayed there.

“In the Ghetto”–I was crying right along with the Mama, and I still do.  That song, much like Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” had me convinced I had to do something to change the brokenness in this world.  No other song painted such a picture and inspired me at the same time.

But I think it was his gospel songs that touched me the most.

“Crying in the Chapel”

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

“Peace in the Valley”

And in the American Trilogy, his “Glory Glory Hallelujah” gives me chills.  Seriously.  Sitting here blubbering, listening to it all over again.

pic of elvis flaming star cover

As I have been remembering the King of Rock and Roll today, I looked back at some album covers and the one from Flaming Star near about took my breath away.  So many of them make me miss my Daddy, because the love of Elvis and his music and movies was something I shared with him.  But that particular cover–I always thought Elvis kind of looked like Daddy in that one.  I had forgotten that.  Maybe it was the hat, I don’t know.  But yeah, today I am missing so many people who left this world too soon.

I remember when I heard the news back in 1977.  For some reason I was the one to hear it first.  I went in and told Mama.  She didn’t believe me at first, that’s how far-fetched it was.  After I remember just feeling hollow.  And everything seemed so surreal.  And today it seems like it was just yesterday.

The awesome thing is that Aub and I have passed our love of Elvis down to the littles.  As I was playing one of his songs a few minutes ago, they came running from the back of the house, “It’s Elvis! It’s Elvis!”  Daddy would be pleased I think.

So much seems in turmoil these days.  It has been nice to sit down and remember simpler times and the joy that the music and movies of this man brought to our little family.  I am thankful I have found a few moments of peace in the listening and remembering.

There will be peace in the valley for me, some day  

There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray  

There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow  

No trouble, trouble I see  

There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

–Carole King and Toni Stern

A Bicycle Ride Down Memory Lane

Last week after much anticipation and watching the local “yard sale” website, this joined our happy little family.

pic of awesome bikeOur little guy, Cooter, was beyond excitement.  He had no idea that I had finally found the one, and when he saw it, well–it was totally worth it.  And it was quite the bargain as well.

He put on the cool helmet that came with it and took off.  I was surprised at how well he did, considering that for the past couple of years he’s only ridden his Big Wheel .

pic of happy rider

Only as he took the curve the bike wobbled and he fell over and this happened.

pic of his booboo

Poor little guy.  We went from best day ever to the worst. thing. that. ever. happened.   He was so pitiful.  And in soooo much pain.  The red stuff made it worse, I’m pretty sure.

So the next day, after Leroy came over and lowered the seat and tweaked the training wheels, Cooter set off again, and this time my boy was prepared.

pic of jeans kneesNo comments please about the foot safety and lack thereof with the whole flip flop thing going on.  Ahem.  I’m actually surprised he was wearing shoes at all.  Not that I care too much.  By the third child, I find that my standards have relaxed.  A lot.  We all go “butterfeety” around here.  But I digress.  The jeans.  His choice.  To protect his knees.  I was impressed.  He saw a problem, and he problem solved.  But he didn’t give up riding because of the fall.  Seems like there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

It reminded me of when I was in first grade.  I was learning to ride my bike without training wheels.  My bike was a beautiful red one that my cousin had graciously passed down to me.  I thought it was all the more awesome because he was pretty cool.  And I was bound and determined to ride it.  Without training wheels.

The road to my Granny's house.  It hasn't changed that much in all these years.  At least as I can recall.

The road to my Granny’s house. It hasn’t changed that much in all these years. At least as I can recall.

Daddy drove me and my bike over to my Granny’s which was maybe a half hour from our house.  She lived at the end of a long and winding red dirt road, which now carries our family name.  Daddy pulled over to the side of the road, let me out, and pulled my bike out as well.  He set me to riding and sent me on my way.  I think at some point he passed me and went on up to the house.  I was riding along, free as the wind.  That feeling of being on my own, pumping those pedals, careening along, utility poles flying by as I rode past–there’s nothing like it.  And then I caught a glimpse of her mailbox.  Not much further now.  And I made the curve turning towards the house like a champ. There was Daddy and Granny waiting.  I was so proud and thrilled and full to bustin’.  And then as her porch steps grew closer and closer, I realized something very important.

I couldn’t remember how to stop.

And, unfortunately my knees caught the brunt of Granny’s steps making the stop for me.  That little booboo in the picture above?  Nothing compared to my knees people.  It was ugly.  Fortunately Granny had the right medicine to make it all better.  Mercurochrome and a big glass of Coca-Cola.  We all sat on those steps together while I sipped and heard what a good job I’d done right up to that point.  Fixed me up just right.

Until a few days later when, filled with joyful glee over a day going well, I decided to skip down the catwalk at school on the way to run an errand for my first grade teacher.  I skipped and tripped and opened those knees back up.  The worst hit was on my heart because skipping was not allowed on the catwalk.  I just knew I was in trouble.  And yet somehow it all turned out all right.  My heart.  My knees.  And only a small scar or two to help me remember that day.

Of that first time without any help, riding along, on my jazzy red bike that was a gift from my cousin.  And sitting with my Granny and Daddy, two of my all-time favorite folks. Then there’s the Coca-Cola of course.  Good memories, good times.

I hope one day Cooter will have some cool stories to share of his adventures on his awesome yellow bicycle.  As I watch him sleeping tonight, it occurs to me that I’ve bought my last bike with training wheels, and that this is the bike that he will have his first independent adventure on.  Sigh.  I know that in this life he will fall down, but I hope there will always be someone to listen to his hurts and encourage him to try again and cheer him on when he does.  Most of all, I hope he will always have the spirit and strength to try again, no matter how many times he falls.  And if it takes a little Coca-Cola to help boost that spirit, well, that’s okay too.

Now off to find a bottle of Mercurochrome to keep handy.  I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need it.


Christmas a Hundred Years Before

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been a lot of talk today about Christmas in July, so it brought back one of my favorite Christmas memories.

In December 1989 a friend came home with me from college well before Christmas.  One morning we were awakened by the sound of jingle bells jingling.  Mama and Daddy had looks of surprise on their faces.  “It looks like the Christmas Spirit of 1889 came last night.”

We all gathered in the living room where, in a few weeks, we would celebrate Christmas around our yet to be chosen and decorated tree.  There was a sock laid out for each of us.  Inside the socks were a huge Bob’s peppermint stick, an orange, some nuts, and a penny, and the other matching sock.  I think that’s about right.

The cool thing is that my friend thought it was cool.  She talked about how neat it was that my parents would do something like that.  Looking back, yeah, I get it.  They were trying to help us GET the meaning of Christmas.  They had given us our own version of a “Little House” Christmas.  (I loved the Christmas episodes so much!) And I love that about my parents.  They were never much for letting us crawl back in our comfort zones and just hang out.  Both through their actions and their conversations, they challenged us in our thinking and beliefs, while at the same time being a safe place to land.  I want to be just like them when I grow up.

The other day my children were talking about underwear.  Stick with me here for a moment.  My little guy asked, “Mama, does it really mean that Santa loves you if he brings you underwear?”  Yes, I told them that.  And yes, Santa puts new underwear in your stocking around here–but only if you’ve been really, really good.  It means he REALLY loves you.  And that was going pretty well until Santa put “Olivia” underwear in our Princess’ stocking and she decided that maybe she was a little too grown, that she really didn’t want Olivia underoos. She was sweet about it though.  She appreciated them, but would ponder aloud every now and then, “I wonder why Santa thought I would love Olivia underwear.”   The oldest–she’s used to it.  Santa’s been upgrading her underwear drawer every Christmas for years.  And she never questioned it.  It’s these two littles and their questions that have made me wonder why Santa chose to make that a tradition.

And as I thought about it, I remembered that visit back to Christmas of 1889 and how Santa brought treats and things that were useful.  I guess maybe the underwear is a tip of the hat to that spirit of Christmas–where it doesn’t all have to be battery operated or come with instructions that take half the night to understand and the other half to follow.  Just good stuff, usually much needed, and a little fun.  (Well unless you’re me–they just don’t make fun underoos for us big girls.  And NO, the stuff from that place does not count.  We also want fun, whimsy, pictures of our favorite characters, and comfort.)  Anyway, it occurred to me that Santa remembers that year and what my parents were trying to instill in me back then, and he hopes to pass it along to this next generation.

Today when someone on the radio announced it was Christmas in July, I saw my littles’ eyes light up.  They asked what it meant and I told them.  I halfway expected them to ask how we were going to celebrate.  They were smart, and they didn’t; but if they had, we might have had to take a trip for new underwear.  Or socks.  (I think those things are bailing on me by the boatload.  Where do they go?!)  But that’s a story for another time.  May the true spirit of giving and Christmas be yours today and everyday!

Mama Read Books and Daddy Listened

My brother is working on a special project, and he mentioned something that has me thinking about Mama and her books.  Mama loved books.  She read a lot of different kinds, but mysteries were among her favorites.  She also liked novels like “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” and “Salvation at the Dairy Queen”–novels about people and their “real life” struggles and how they worked through them.

But Mama’s very favorite books?

The ones written for children.

Mama loved reading aloud to us as we were growing up.  And for the past almost eighteen years, she loved reading to her grandchildren.  For my oldest’s first birthday, she got a tire swing in the yard from Daddy and a book and little stuffed kitten from Mama.  It’s always been about the books.  Mama loved picking out books for different children of the family.  It was like a treasure hunt to find just the perfect book for each child.  She and Daddy always kept copies of “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” in the trunk of their car.  We loved it growing up, and they loved sharing it with children they came across on their day to day journeys.

Our family favorite growing up--Mama and Daddy loved sharing it with children they met

Our family favorite growing up–Mama and Daddy loved sharing it with children they met

One of my happiest “Mama reading” memories is her reading “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” aloud.  Her voice was so animated.  The best sound was the hippo chewing gum “Grum, grum, grum.”  Mama would work her jaw and you just knew that was exactly how it sounded.  I also loved hearing her read aloud, “Listen Buddy.”  She brought Buddy to life in such a way that you just couldn’t forget the story.  And there were so many more.

Mama brought just such books to life for her children and grandchildren and hundreds of elementary schoolchildren over the years.  She loved reading aloud at Byron Elementary to many children in grades kindergarten through third.  I recently found her storytime plans, complete with booklists and the fun experiments from  “Apples, Bubbles, and Crystals: Your Science ABC’s” that she shared each week with the children.  It was something she and Daddy enjoyed planning together.

Daddy supported Mama and her love of reading to children.  (It’s funny to think that he and I heard her reading out loud to children the same number of years.)  He helped her plan her storytimes for the children at the schools by going shopping with her for just the right treats, science experiment materials, and helping her come up with themes and ideas.  He even asked me to embroider “Lady Reads-a-lot” on a shirt for her.   There was one time when Mama was reading aloud that I really realized the abundance of love Daddy felt for Mama.  Daddy wasn’t always vocal about his emotions, but his actions more than let you know how he felt.

One of Maemae's more recent favorites--"Counting Crocodiles"

One of Maemae’s more recent favorites–“Counting Crocodiles”

One afternoon in October of 2011 I was sitting in the living room with Daddy, who was resting in his hospital bed set up in there.  My brother and his family were visiting, so my littles and his were in the “big room” with Mama.  She was reading aloud to them.  We could hear her voice but not necessarily the words as she read.  Daddy was talking and then he grew quiet.  He closed his eyes and smiled so big.  He opened them and looked at me with so much love on his face it took my breath away.  “You hear her?  There she goes.”  He chuckled softly.  He turned his head towards the window and listened.  And Mama was off, reading another story with her animated voice.  I think it was “Little Red Cowboy Hat,” another family favorite and one that Daddy also loved to read.

I remember that look on his face, and I am thankful for it.   Daddy loved Mama with all his heart, and in that moment it shone through every fiber of his being.  He was an encourager and pushed Mama to chase her dreams.  He knew she was talented and believed in her even when she couldn’t believe in herself.  We all should have at least one person like that in our lives, someone whose love for us shines through and who runs alongside us, cheering for us as we go, believing that we can…..and helping us see it through.   That’s the best stuff there is–having a cheerleader when you are going for it, a party-thrower when you make it, and a shoulder to cry on and arms to hug you when you don’t.

If you have someone like that, go now and tell ’em you love ’em or give them a big hug or write them a note.  Whatever.  Just appreciate them and love them right back.  Know you are one of the lucky ones.  Because you really are.

Inappropriate to One, Survival to Another

pic of survival doodle
When my Daddy left this world, his two sisters, my Mama, my two sisters, and I were all right there with him. Less than thirty minutes later, my aunts and I were in the other room. We’d been sitting vigil since before daybreak, and we were all emotionally and physically exhausted. One of my aunts teased me about something, trying to lighten the moment. I looked at my aunt and offered an exaggerated pout, “I can’t believe you’re giving me a hard time…..my Daddy just died!” They laughed softly. “Oh, that was good, Tara. Good job.”

Inappropriate? Maybe. But they understood. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been inappropriate in my grieving and it probably won’t be the last.

A couple of months after Daddy died, I was so bogged down in the loss that I was crying in the shower regularly and just missed him so much. I was talking with my sister about it. She said, “You know Daddy wouldn’t want you being like this.” And without even thinking about it, I replied snappishly, “Well he ain’t here, is he?  So he doesn’t get a say.” Just the other day I told my Aunt that I kept doing things, half expecting Daddy to come back and stop me. And that I wish he would. I am pretty sure that if I don’t get my act together about some things, Mama will figure out a way to come back and set me straight. She’s always been resourceful like that. I told someone that and wondered if I really should have said it.  I do that a lot.  I say the first thing that comes to my grief-stricken mind, and then later think, “Uh oh. That sounded just about sacrilegious and downright disrespectful.” If any of those comments have fallen on your ears, I am sorry. I don’t mean to be disrespectful or offensive at all.

You see, in the past several years, that has become our relationship. Mama and Daddy knew I loved and respected them more than anything.  I ma’amed and sirred them right to the end.  But I would play at sassing them and they’d play fuss back. It was never about anything serious, just goofy stuff–like me giving them a hard time at letting my children have treats or watch a movie, all of which I was totally okay with. Or when Mama would want to send home the leftovers with us, and I’d sigh and say well, if I have to for goodness’ sake, but don’t expect me to do this again. Good-natured sarcasm was a mainstay. We lived for the playful banter.

And I miss it.

I was thinking about this the other day when I remembered a particular family I worked with in Hospice shortly after I was hired. A young mother, metastasized cancer, they waited until the very end to admit her to our program. I was at the house a lot, especially in the few weeks after her death, spending time with the children. The patient’s brother stayed in town for a little while after the service. One day he was trying to convince his brother-in-law, the grieving widower, to take a day off from work and go play some sport with him. The widower was reluctant; I think he’d taken a lot of leave over her several year battle with cancer. The young woman’s brother said, “Come on man, you can play the ‘my wife just died’ card. It’ll be fine.”

Quite honestly I was shocked and appalled. All at the same time. How could he even think such a thing, let alone say it out loud?

Ah, the indignation of youth and ignorance.

Because I get it now. I look back now through the lens of my own grief and realize that it was his way of dealing with losing his sister. He was flippant and irreverent and some might say inappropriate. I know I did back then. But he was surviving. He was making light of a horrible, tragically sad situation in order to hold it together. Because if he–if I–really shared any of what was in our hearts, the floodgates would open, and there would be no turning back. All of that brokenness, shattered and scattered like a mirror that has been shot clean through, would be so far gone there might be no putting it all back together.

And so we joke. We kid. Around here if someone says “Maemae wouldn’t like that,” it’s quite likely a “Well then she needs to come back here and tell me to my face” will follow.  We miss them. We miss their laughter, their wisdom, their love, their hugs, and just being with them. Being with them and taking their presence for granted, that would sure would be nice. Because, unfortunately, that’s how we lived…..before the cancer, before the illness, before the surgeries, and the sadness. We took each other for granted. It sure was good.

It has taken a dozen years and tremendous heartbreak for me to look back and understand the words and reaction of a young man whose sweet sister lost her battle with a horrible disease. I wish I could go back now and whisper in the Tara of yesterday’s ear–“Hey, cut him some slack. It’s not inappropriate. It’s survival. Give him the grace he needs. Because one day, sooner or later, we’re all going to need that grace.”

Survival and grief are gritty and hard and raw.  Not pretty.  Or easy.  And the only way to find that out, unfortunately, is to go through it.  Which is why I didn’t get it twelve years ago.  But today, today I understand.  All too well. What looks like indifference or irreverence is often just a way of holding the pieces together.  One moment at a time.  Sometimes that’s just the best you can do.

My Heart Overflows

This afternoon a dear friend told me I seemed happier than I had in a long time.  And that made me even happier.  I showed her pictures of where my day had taken me so far and she agreed–stuff worth being happy about.

Leroy, my big brother, invited my crew to come over to the new house and play today.  And he told me to go do “whatever.”  Whatever?  I thought through the possibilities and then picked up the phone to call my Aunt.  I asked if I could come and pick beans, as we’d been talking about this for a couple of weeks.  After questioning my thought processes that led me to decide to pick beans in my “time off,” she said well sure.  I guess it might seem an odd choice to some.  This is my first “free without plans or a doctor’s appointment” time in a very long, long time.  I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.  Picking beans without folks with me who might whine about the heat?  Bring it.

I can’t remember my first time in a garden.  I just remember always picking with my Daddy.  My Granddaddy planted quite the garden at Granny’s when I was small.  I can remember sitting on the edge of the bucket picking butterbeans, trying to be so careful not to pull up the whole plant.  Later when we moved to Blackberry Flats Daddy planted and we all picked and snapped and shelled and Mama canned.  I remember helping him plant as recently as just a few years ago.  Using the bricks with a string tied between to line up the row, and then dropping the seeds along every so often.  Oh I miss it.

So, time in a garden today?  Yes please.

My destination today

My destination today

My Uncle pulled corn, and he, my Aunt, and I sat and shucked and silked it under the shade of the trees in no time.  My heart was full.   So often I spend my time with my children trying to make a good moment that will become a precious memory.  Today was for me.  I will treasure the memory of how it felt, sitting there with them, shucking and visiting and smelling the smell of summer.  A treasure.

Summer sunshine growing on a stalk

Summer sunshine growing on a stalk

After we finished with the corn, my Aunt and I headed out to pick beans.  What a treat a pot of fresh beans and cornbread is for supper.  Throw some onion and a few new potatoes in the pot and it’s a veritable summer FEAST.  And now I have corn as a side dish.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The beans that will be my supper tomorrow night

The beans that will be my supper tomorrow night

We picked a mess pretty quickly, sharing stories and visiting the whole while, which made it seem like it took no time at all.  After that it was time to take off my garden boots and head off for the next adventure.

I was rockin' the garden boots, right?

I was rockin’ the garden boots, right?

But first I wanted to say goodbye to this glorious place that turns water and light into food for the body and this land that was food for my soul.  There’s something about being outside that does that for me.  And being with family.  I was hot and had sweat running down my face, but oh boy, were my spirits lifted.

A beautiful day

A beautiful day

Next I picked up our Princess from Leroy’s and took her to an art class at our favorite coffeehouse.  It was a surprise for her.  She was a bit nervous because the last time she did this over a year ago, she didn’t think her picture turned out so well.  I hugged her and told her no matter how she thought it looked, I would love it.  I left her to her class, had a quick impromptu visit with friends at the coffeehouse, and then headed next door to the GW Boutique for a quick once-over.

When I returned our Princess had finished her painting, and it was FABULOUS.  She even used my favorite colors.

The puppy's name is Teresa, according to our Princess.....that's a "t" on her collar

The puppy’s name is Teresa, according to our Princess…..that’s a “t” on her collar

I loved that when we were helping clean up, she pointed out what was left where she’d been working her artistic magic.

What was left around where she created her work of art

What was left around where she created her work of art

It occurred to me that we should do that in whatever we do.  Be so enthusiastic and thorough that we overflow–with light, with love, with compassion, with grace. We shouldn’t be so cautious in any of those things that there isn’t overflow.  Makes me kind of wish I had kept that tablecloth.  Maybe my word for next year will be “overflow.”  It sure was my word for today–my heart overflowed.  So much so that my friend saw the joy in my face.

And on the way home, after the littles had their summer gymnastics class this evening (yes it was a VERY full day), when my spirits were sinking over something that happened late in the day and my heart felt very fragile, my littles pointed this out to me.

I kind of have the feeling this was my Mama's way of letting me know she's around

I kind of have the feeling this was my Mama’s way of letting me know she’s around

My Mama showed me the rainbows in the midst of the storms of life.  And tonight, when I felt like one was blowing in, this rainbow caught the eyes of my precious gifts who still get excited over rainbows and bugs and tadpoles and good stories.  When I saw it, my heart knew and I felt some peace.  I am pretty sure Mama was saying, “Don’t let anyone take the joy of this day from you.”

Tonight I am thankful for family who loves me despite all my craziness; for the generosity of my family with their time, their love, their listening, and their vegetables.  I am thankful for friends who pay attention and who know me and are happy when they see me happy.  And for the same friends who walk the path of brokenness and heartbreak with me.  I am thankful for a little girl who loves bright colors and tells everyone, “Mama couldn’t quit smiling when she saw my picture.”  I am thankful for loud cousins playing and growing up together and for their parents who make that possible.  I am thankful for the bounty of the sun and rain this summer and for my Aunt and Uncle who share it.  And I’m thankful for my Mama who hasn’t stopped talking to me just because we are separated by that thin veil.  I needed that rainbow tonight, to remember the joy of today, and not let it slip away. Joy.  Overflow.  Yes.

He’s One of the Good Guys

You know, you have family you are born into, and then you have family that comes up on the porch, opens the screen door and walks right in, sits down, and enters into the story seamlessly.  You kind of have a hard time remembering when they weren’t there.

My brother-in-law is one of those folks.

I like to call him Leroy.

I remember when I first heard of him, but I don’t remember when he walked in and I met him.  My sister had been staying with me and my girls over the Christmas holidays in 2005, while my husband was deployed.  My BIL worked with my sister in Atlanta, and they were just friends.  He had called her and said he was coming down to Macon for New Year’s Eve, that he wanted to get out of Atlanta.  She started to go meet him but decided not to enter into the crazy foolishness that can be New Year’s Eve in the “big city.”   When she called him and said basically, hey, just kidding, I’m not coming, his reply was that’s okay, I’ll be in town through tomorrow.  They had a New Year’s morning breakfast the next day.  I guess the old saying about what you do on New Year’s Day you’ll do all year long is true, because after that breakfast I just don’t remember Leroy not being a part of our lives.

This man is somebody really special, though if he sits down to read this, he’ll probably say, oh please, and push it to the side because something needs doing.  That’s one of the things I really respect about him.  He’s a guy who gets things D-O-N-E–done.  In looking back through my old photos, I don’t have very many, because he’s rarely still long enough for one to be taken.

See, he's hardly ever NOT doing something--my awesome BIL taking care of the yard at Mama's a couple of years ago.  Love.  Him.

See, he’s hardly ever NOT doing something–my awesome BIL taking care of the yard at Mama’s a couple of years ago. Love. Him.

He’s a great Daddy.  My sister stayed at home with their son for a year.  After that time, with many factors playing into the decision, my brother-in-law left his job to stay at home with their son.  He sacrificed five years of his career to be a big part of his son’s life in a society–let’s face it–that doesn’t always know what to do with that choice.  He gives his love and affection so freely with his words and actions that it moves me to tears.  He’s a tough guy, but not always.

Leroy’s an awesome uncle too.  Two years ago my oldest was away in north Georgia on a youth trip.  She had some health issues come up and needed to come home.  It was this guy who drove and picked her up since he was closer.   I drove and picked my girl up from their house in Duluth, and we had a nice unexpected day with him and my nephew before heading back.

It was in 2009 that he truly shined.  And has since then.  When Daddy was admitted to the hospital in town on August 24 and transferred to Emory five days later, it was the beginning of a period in our lives of exhaustion, worry, frustration, and coping.  Daddy was sent home after about a month at Emory.  It was Leroy who drove Mama and Daddy home.  He had been so good about checking on them at the hospital or holding down the home front so my sister could be there as much as possible.  When Daddy came in the door at home that night, it was Leroy in the background, making sure everything was going smoothly, toting bags, making a pit stop, grabbing a slice of pizza and driving back to Atlanta that same night.  He made so many of those trips.  He got up at oh-dark-thirty, drove the two and half hours to my parents’ house, arriving soon in the morning, helping them into the van, and taking them up to Emory for Daddy’s treatment.  Later that day he made the trek back down to bring them home before he headed all the way back to his house.  When things needed doing, he was the one who talked it over with Daddy, such a gracious respect, and then he did them.  He and Daddy had something special.  It was Leroy who went with me over to the cemetery to pick out Daddy’s plot on what turned out to be one week before the funeral, five days before Daddy left this world.  He was patient as I wandered somewhat aimlessly around the old country churchyard, reading gravestones and calling him over to see them too.  It’s the quiet moments like this that truly make me appreciate all he is.

For the fifteen months that Mama lived without Daddy, this man was right there to help with things as Mama needed.  She respected and appreciated his opinion and would often ask him what he thought.  He always had her best interests in mind.  He’s a good guy like that.  And when she went in for her HospitalStay, he never blinked an eye at my sister staying indefinitely down here.  He came down as often as he could.  He took that time to make things better for Mama around the house, straightening up some things–for example, getting and putting together a shoe organizer for the back door–he wanted things to be just right when she came home.  Which, unfortunately, never happened.  And his heart broke too.

Mama loved all of her children’s spouses like they were her own.  And Leroy was special to her for sure.   She fussed at me or my sister when we would tease him–you leave him alone, she’d say.  I accused him of trying to be her favorite.  She’d grin really big at me and say, “Trying nothing.”  And he’d laugh.  Yeah, he was her oldest.  And seeing as how that used to be my spot, I think I’m okay with that.  And sometimes, just maybe, he was her favorite too.

Mama and her "favorite" cogitating on things back in 2011.  Love those two.

Mama and her “favorite” cogitating on things back in 2011. Love those two.

I always wanted an older brother.  I thought it would be cool.  And what do you know, I was right!  Because my BIL, whom I will henceforth call my big brother is giving us all a great gift–that of togetherness.  He and my sister are moving back to our hometown.  I’m so thankful for that gift, and I won’t let them forget it.

Today is my big brother’s birthday.  In honor of him and his special day, I won’t tell how old he really is (but yeah, older than me!) and I share this video.  Because he’s who they’re talking about in this video.  He is that friend.  He’s one of those legendary good guys.  I’m lucky he walked through that door and joined us.  (And didn’t run away hollerin’.)  Seamlessly.  Love you Leroy.  Happy Birthday!