Not just another January 15

The first January 15 that I ever remember is the one when I was five. 1974. We were at my Granny’s farm. Daddy had cows there, and I absolutely loved them. Mama had asked me to leave them alone and stay out of the pasture, as it was a special day. All kinds of goings on in the house, so after I poked my head in and spoke, I wandered back outside. Before the morning was over, I had found the cows. Yep. Mama wasn’t happy. With three little ones– me, age 5, Sister, age 3, and Mess Cat, 7 months, she had her hands full on a non-special day. But that day…..

it was my Aunt’s wedding day.

I adored her then and still do today. I remember how in awe I was of her that day. She has always been so beautiful, but I still remember how especially beautiful she was that day. And I remember thinking she was so calm finishing putting the roses on her dress. She had crocheted the whole gown. In Tiffany Blue, before Tiffany blue was in style. With beautiful crocheted roses. (And if I have these memories wrong, please forgive me. They’ve been rolling around in there for forty years now.)

Her special day, and I was starting to smell like a cow pattie, or at least a cow. I remember Mama bemoaning that I’d need another bath.

My memory doesn’t recollect that I’d done all that disobeying on my Mama’s birthday. But I had.

January 15 is the day this spunky precious treasure entered the world as well.

Check out my Mama.  The original Princess Leia buns!  Wasn't she a cutie!

Check out my Mama. The original Princess Leia buns! Wasn’t she a cutie!

I don’t remember how old I was when I “got” birthdays other than my own. But I’m hoping maybe by the next year. Mama was born in 1946 in January–her birthday became a light in the midst of the after Christmas blues. Eventually I wanted to make her cake. Over the years I’ve made her pound cakes (more than I can count of those), banana pudding from scratch (her and Great Aunt W’s favorites), and there was the year or two I made White Mountain Cake with lemon glaze (as she loved her citrus, being a born Floridian and she needed to cut back on her cholesterol). I loved baking for her. And vice versa.

She didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, but the amazing thing about my Mama was that no one paid the price for that. Except her I guess. She was an amazing and loving and fun Mama, despite the fact that she had had no example set by her own parents. I credit her grandmother, her aunts and great-aunts, and her mother-in-law, my Granny, for loving her through it and empowering her to be more. She was amazed by their love, and she worked hard. She even went to nursing school for a bit, something which I, a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, always appreciated. (Her usual response–“Tara, it will either get better or it will get worse, and then we’ll know.” Wise woman.)

Mama in her nursing uniform.

Mama in her nursing uniform.

She moved on from there to Valdosta State, where a friend named Cheshire introduced her to “The Joyner,” as he was referred to. Daddy wrote thoughtful and thought-provoking things, and this friend who was friends with Daddy too had already let Mama read his writings. I think it was at a Laundromat that they met for the first time. Where she said, “I could fall madly in love with you Mr. Joyner.” Oh boy. But I’ve already told y’all how that turned out.

Daddy was someone else whose love amazed her. Standing beside his bed, holding his hand, as he took his last breaths, Mama told God how thankful she was for having him in her life, what a beautiful gift he was to her. Y’all. Greater love did not exist. I promise you that. Theirs was one of the greatest love stories, a quiet one, mind you, but a great one.

That's my Great Uncle giving Mama away there.  He had nothing to worry about on that account.  And do you see how she's peeking up at him?  She adored him, and I know he thought she was pretty special too.

That’s my Great Uncle giving Mama away there. He had nothing to worry about on that account. And do you see how she’s peeking up at him? She adored him, thought she’d hit the jackpot in love, and I know he thought she was pretty special too.

They started their life out with Mama about to finish college, but during the spring semester she found out she was pregnant.  The doctors told her that it would be graduating or having a healthy baby. I’m glad she chose the latter, because by the time their first anniversary rolled around, I was a month old.

Mama doing what she did best--loving.  Me and my Mama.  How I miss her every single day.

Mama doing what she did best–loving. Me and my Mama. How I miss her every single day.

Three years later there was Sister, seventeen months after that Mess Cat joined the Fray, with her first words coming out–“My Turn.” Is it any wonder?

A little over four years after Mess Cat was born, and after some sadness and heartbreak, Mama’s Gem was born. Dark haired, blue eyes like his Daddy, Mama’s little cowboy entered into our family. She often talked about the first time she heard the song “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with the line “Don’t let ’em pick guitars and ride in old trucks.” My baby brother had just gone on his first ride with Daddy…..in Daddy’s old truck. She knew she was in trouble then.

Mama who considered us her gifts--it was she who was our greatest gift.

Mama who considered us her gifts–it was she who was our greatest gift.

She loved her birthday cakes. Or maybe she was indulging me. I just know she is the reason I bake now. She let me mess up (as long as I cleaned it up) and use her cookbooks and experiment. I love baking because of her and my Granny.

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That Bassett Hound candle was originally on my cake.  I don't think we ever lit him, so he would show up from time to time like an old friend or a comfortable shoe.  I'd forgotten using him for her cake that year.

That Bassett Hound candle was originally on my cake. I don’t think we ever lit him, so he would show up from time to time like an old friend or a comfortable shoe. I’d forgotten using him for her cake that year.

Mama was an incredible cook. The whole time we were in Japan, I heard from my Aub that my food was okay, but it just wasn’t Maemae’s. I know baby girl, I know. Mama didn’t always have a lot to work with, but she made some delicious food from scratch and we never went hungry. (Unless there were mushrooms in the spaghetti and I just couldn’t deal with it that night. Let me amend that–if we went hungry, it wasn’t Mama’s fault.)

This is her "Don't take that picture--I mean it" face.  Ha.  We always did anyway.

This is her “Don’t take that picture–I mean it” face. Ha. We always did anyway.

The next round of January 15’s saw Mama gaining more children. She and Daddy have sponsored children through the Pearl S. Buck Foundation since I was born–even when times were lean. It just mattered to them to help others. Always. So they welcomed others into their home from time to time. And then they started gaining children-in-law. For Mama, that in-law part didn’t matter. In her heart, she now had four daughters (plus one more she loved like a daughter) and four sons, and she loved them just as fiercely as she did her own children she’d given birth to. As a matter of fact there were times when I suspected she loved my Fella more than she loved me. (Surely I was mistaken here. Ahem.) She found things to love about each one of us, and never stopped right up to her last breath.

Then the grandchildren started arriving. She would tell anyone who would listen and even folks who would not how GRAND being a grandmother was. She loved it. She was made for the part. Aub and I lived with them for a period of time, and though I know it wasn’t easy, she balanced being a grandmother with being more than that very well. I am so thankful for that. Each one of my children has precious memories of her, and for that I give thanks. Mama has fifteen (plus three who loved her as their Maemae too) grandchildren now, two of whom she gave a kiss and a hug to before they joined this world. They were her greatest treasures. Always.

Mama and Aub.  Sewing on her machine.  They loved each other to pieces--they were like two peas in a pod.  So thankful Mama was so much a part of her growing up.

Mama and Aub. Sewing on her machine. They loved each other to pieces–they were like two peas in a pod. So thankful Mama was so much a part of her growing up.

Over the years we gave Mama different gifts on January 15 (and later some years–it’s a rule, we celebrate birthdays all week long, sometimes longer). But the gift she gave us whenever she saw us was that smile. Even in the hospital when she was in so much pain, she would try to give us that smile. And the wrinkle of her nose that said, “I love you.”

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Oh Mama, yes woman, you are FABULOUS!

Oh Mama, yes woman, you are FABULOUS!

She loved reading. Especially children’s books. Her favorite thing, next to spending time with her family, was reading to the children in my Joyful friend’s class and her friend’s class over the years. They adopted Maemae as theirs and loved the books she shared, the animation in her voice, and the science experiments she would bring to show them. She loved children. She believed that every child deserved to be wanted and loved. God bless her, she tried to do it all herself sometimes. And as for us, the four who called her Mama first, she loved us and spoiled us rotten, never letting us forget about the switch bush right outside the door. Who was her favorite? I claimed it, just ask the nurses and doctors at the hospital.  But if you asked her, she’d tell you, “My favorite is the one I’m with right at this moment.” You gotta love diplomacy, don’t you?

Last January 15 we didn’t get to celebrate or party. My little guy, Cooter, was sick. Our Princess had ballet and tap that afternoon. Mama herself had been in pain herself since Sunday, two days before. Mama had told me all she wanted for her birthday was fluorescent light bulbs to replace the ones over her dining room table. They were doing that annoying flashing thing and it was time. Mama, not feeling good, sicker than any of us–including her–realized, did not feel up to going to Lowe’s and picking them out. She asked me if I would. “That can be my present,” she said. “You pick them out. Put them on my card. My gift is I don’t have to get out and get them.” She was going to ask her neighbor or Leroy to help her change them out.

Our Princess and I darted in Lowe’s that afternoon, hurrying and scurrying and then there were all these choices. Different colors of fluorescent lighting?  Who knew?  I mean, I thought a light was a light. Alas, no. Fingers crossed that I’d chosen well, but keeping the receipt in case I hadn’t, we checked out and hurried over to Blackberry Flats, leaving only a short time to visit before dance started.

I don’t even think we went all the way into the house. Mama really wasn’t up for company, and she knew we had to go. I hugged her and encouraged her to call me or the doctor if things weren’t better. I put the lights in the laundry room, and we made party plans for Friday. Friday and Stevi B’s pizza–it was a party date. We just knew everyone would be feeling better by then.

Only that wasn’t to be. Mama never saw those lights put up, though Leroy replaced them the following Saturday. I’ve thought about it a lot today. Do I regret the time at Lowe’s that kept us from visiting a few more minutes with Mama that day? Before everything started?

My answer, strangely enough, is no.

Mama believed in taking care of business. Getting things done. I think having those bulbs where she was then back in control of them being changed out was a gift that she needed. And the truth is, while I can’t call her up and ask her what on earth I should be doing or saying or thinking about this or that or the next fire that starts, I feel like she is still very much with me. Believe me, I wish I could hear her voice out loud, even if only over a “Speak to Your Loved One in Heaven” app or something like that, just for a few minutes. But this morning, when I was taking Miss Sophie out for her morning constitutional, I wished Mama a Happy Birthday and told her I love her.

And I swanee, I could hear her in my heart, where it really matters, whisper back:

“I love you too, baby girl.”

And that will do for this January 15.

Me and Mama, decked out in our best 70's fashion.  Pretty sure she made much of what we are wearing.  In case you haven't gathered this by now, I LOVE THIS WOMAN.  Always.

Me and Mama, decked out in our best 70’s (or 80’s?) fashion. Pretty sure she made much of what we are wearing. In case you haven’t gathered this by now, I LOVE THIS WOMAN. Always.

Happy Birthday, Mama! Thank you for everything.

Tears on a Tuesday…..Loneliness, Laundry, and Living on the Streets

Whoa, Tuesday!  You sure did jump out of nowhere and grab ahold of my heart today.  Totally wasn’t expecting all of that.

There have been tears today.  Over the realizing all over again what Thursday is and that she isn’t here to make her dressing.  I’ve only not had Mama’s dressing three Thanksgivings in my life–the year we were in Japan and the two years that Daddy was so sick.  I just don’t even know.  But I know there are harder things in this life.

Later Sister called saying she was thinking about making gingerbread cookies. I laughed, as she often calls looking for a recipe.  Often the same recipe I’ve given her before.  More than once.  She knows it–she owns it.  When I asked if she needed the recipe, she began sobbing into the phone.  Oh baby girl.  I wanted to crawl through the phone line and hug her.  Turns out she didn’t need the recipe after all.  She just needed me to listen.  Whenever she makes those cookies she thinks of Mama and all the times she called and asked Mama for the recipe.  Precious memories.  And hard.  But still I know there are harder things on this journey.

I was with my Sister Circle this afternoon at Daybreak. We had a small group as some of our friends were out of town.  As we talked about forgiveness and what that looks like and what it’s like to apologize, our conversation eventually turned to the holiday season.  We eventually got around to whether or not the holidays were hard for each of us.  One of our sisterfriends said no, that it was about being with family and she was so happy for Thursday and the opportunity to do just that–be with her family all together.  I looked over at Miss N, our sisterfriend who is the artist, and asked her.  She shrugged.  She won’t be going to be with her family this year.  “It’s hard,” she says.  “It’s only one day.  It’s just one day.”  And I could hear her unsaid words echoing in my head and heart.

“Why’s it gotta be just one day?”

I know.  I get it.  She’s lonely every other day of the year.  Why go and do this for just one day when she’ll have to go back as it was the very next day?  And every day after that.

Broke my heart.

I also saw my friend Mac today.  I guess I “conjured him up.”  I hadn’t heard from him in about two weeks, and last week some folks shared how concerned they were about him.  I called his Mama this afternoon to see if she’d heard how he was, and so yes, of course, he was right there in front of me after I hung up with her.  I was glad to see him.

He hung around for us to visit after Sister Circle was over.  It’s been cold, and today it rained all day long.  He looked like he was doing all right though.  But he’s tired.  He teared up as he talked about it.  He’s done with living on the streets.  Again.  He wants to go back to the transitional program he was a part of out of town.  Again.  He had lost the number to the contact there, a man who really cares about Mac.  I have it, so I handed Mac my phone with the number ready to dial. Was I calling his bluff, wondering if he was just telling me what I wanted to hear?  Maybe.  But he took the phone.  He made the call himself.  And he called back.  And he did this for himself.

Turns out he can’t return there.  Long story, but I understand.  And I agree.  But the person there cares so much, he called me back with two places to contact and see if they have an opening for Mac.  I am thankful for him and his caring heart.  Funny thing is, I didn’t see it in the beginning.  This tough love thing is hard to discern sometimes.  And judging someone at first contact almost always gets me in trouble.  He’s a good guy.  I appreciate him.

As I sat visiting with Mac, a volunteer called out a name, and a young couple went over to the half-door at the laundry room where several washers and dryers were working hard to keep up with all the needs for the day.  The volunteer who is there without fail every Tuesday afternoon handed over a basket of clean clothes.  What caught my eye was the look of sheer joy on their faces.  The young woman (honestly she didn’t look much older than my Aub) closed her eyes and breathed in the clean smell.  They both pulled their still warm clothes close to their chests and sighed contentedly.  The woman squealed with delight and her companion laughed loudly at her joy.

Y’all.

I had to look away and wipe my eyes.

I’m a spoiled you know what.
I have my own washer and dryer.  I have a precious family whose clothes I get to wash.  Whenever I want.  We have a place to store our clothes rather than shoving them back in a backpack…..and having to carry all of our clothes on our back or risk having them taken away.   Oh, how I have taken it all for granted.  How many times have I whined or moaned over the laundry, the washing the folding the putting away?

Watching that beautiful couple and their sheer joy over something that is so basic for me and mine…..

it made me thankful.  And ashamed.  And it put things into perspective.

At least for today.

So in the morning, in the midst of the traditional baking and remembering who is not with us this year, and trying to figure out if I even want to attempt Mama’s dressing, I will be making calls for Mac and waiting for him to call me and keeping my fingers crossed that something will work out…..and that this time he can hold his own in his battle with that demon alcohol.  And I will be playing catch-up with the laundry.  I am sure at some point I will find myself breathing in the clean clothes and holding the warmth close to my heart.  And remembering the joy I got to see.
Yes, I know there are far harder things in life.  The realization that the loneliness will return after one day of being with others keeping you from even trying, the horror of fighting a demon that puts your life in danger each and every day–and cold, wet night, and the life of carrying all the clothes you own around in a backpack…..I’ve seen them all today.  All I’m left with is the tears.

Oh Tuesday…..

Maemae’s Special Ingredient

English: Own Camera

Mama could even add her special ingredient to frozen macaroni and cheese.  She was just that good.  English: Own Camera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every third Saturday the men of Trinity UMC have a Men’s Breakfast.  What a great group of folks, so welcoming, and you can tell they really, really enjoy being together.  As a matter of fact, if you are male of any age, you should head on out and join them next month.  I know you’d be welcome, because this morning they were so gracious to me.

I suppose I was already a bit sentimental.  This was Mama’s church.  She went every Sunday she was felt up to it and attended two Sunday services and Sunday School in between.  She loved her Sundays at Trinity.  The good people there took her under their wings and gave her sanctuary, a place to mourn and heal in the fifteen months after Daddy died.  They were there for us, her children, after she died and we started our own journeys of mourning and healing all over again.  Good people, I tell you what.

I parked and went into the building where Mama attended the second service each Sunday.  I was greeted by one gentleman who welcomed me in and took me to meet the person who had invited me to speak.  I had been asked to come and share about one of my favorite places ever–Bare Bulb Coffee.

The men there made me feel right at home and shared their breakfast of sausage and biscuits and coffee and orange juice with me.  I sat and we talked about volunteering and life after retirement and grandchildren.  It seems that this is the first month they haven’t had a full-on breakfast buffet of sorts.  They are trying to be responsible with what funds they have, and they hope to get to a point where they have enough to provide breakfasts and contribute to missions.

Wow.  That touched my heart.

That’s good stuff.

They get it.  They realize that what is bringing folks to the breakfast is not really the food.  What keeps folks coming are the camaraderie, the friendships that are being built, the relationships that are already there.  That is what really matters.  The sausage biscuit or whatever else they decide to serve is just icing on the cake, so to speak. (And it was quite good “icing” I must say.)

It made me think about Mama and her love language.  That woman could put a hurting on a kitchen.  She could prepare a huge dinner with all kinds of vegetables and fried chicken or pork roast and gravy and biscuits and have a homemade dessert to chase it down with.  And don’t even get me started about Thanksgiving.  There just about wasn’t room for us to sit down and eat after we put all the food on the table.  It’s a wonder that table is still standing.   Oh me.  My mouth is watering just remembering.

On your birthday she would ask what you wanted for your special supper and she made it happen.  I dearly loved her pork roast and gravy over biscuits, but I am sure I asked for other things over the years.  Her homemade pizza was the best pizza ever.  Each year she made a Swedish version of Gingersnaps for me and used the Happy Birthday cake cookie cutter.  I miss all the little things she did to make the day extra special.  And she always said we had to celebrate for at least a week, so there were other times you could request your favorites too.  Oh how she loved us.

After Daddy was diagnosed with lymphoma four years ago, Mama wasn’t able to cook like she had been.  As it should be, her top priority was taking care of Daddy and making sure he was okay. If there was something he was hungry for, she started preparing it almost before her feet hit the kitchen.  But it wasn’t often that he was.  I can remember a few times that she cooked like before, but quite frankly she was exhausted and scared and worn out.  We encouraged her to let us cook or pick things up.  Picking up Stevi B’s was a special treat.  Daddy always teased me that I couldn’t just get a couple of pizzas–I had to bring the whole buffet to him.  Well, yeah, he was my Daddy and he deserved every bit of it.

After Daddy died, Mama so wanted to cook for us all again, but she was still so tired and, as we later realized, very sick.  Always a bargain shopper, she expanded her shopping list to include some already prepared things.  When Publix put their Stouffer’s meals on buy one, get one free, she was so excited she would call to let me know.  Our meals together when Mess Cat and her family came down from Atlanta would often be a Stouffer’s Lasagna, a Macaroni and Cheese, broccoli put in the oven to roast (y’all that is the BEST way to fix it!) and sometimes she’d feel up to frying okra.  She’d add applesauce or some kind of fruit in bowls and carrots and we’d have us a feast.  She always apologized, but we all had a good time, and that’s what we remember the most.  The joy of being together, the laughter at all of the stories we shared.  I remember the food being pretty good and how we’d all say how far those freezer meals had come over the years.  The macaroni and cheese mixed with the broccoli was really quite good.  It was time together and because Mama wasn’t spending all her time in the kitchen cooking, we had more time to visit with her.

And that’s what the men of Trinity UMC have figured out.  They have a good time, those Iron Chefs in the kitchen in the wee hours preparing all the food for their brothers.  But they realize that it’s the relationships that count the most, not what’s on the menu.

Don’t get me wrong.  I miss my Mama’s good cooking.  Something.  Fierce.  But as thankful as I am for her good cooking all those years, I realize now that what really fed us, filled our souls as well as our bellies, was her most special ingredient.

As our Princess tells it, one day she asked her Maemae why everything she made was the best thing ever. She asked Maemae what she added to make everything so good.  My Mama hugged her and laughed and said it was her special ingredient.

“Do you know what she said her special ingredient was?”

No, what?

“Love.  That’s what she added to everything she fixed.  That’s what made it extra good.”

And that’s what really feeds us, isn’t it?  I am thankful to the Men of Trinity UMC for their hospitality and for reminding me of something very important today–that special ingredient that we should add to everything we do.