the stories behind the door

on the first day you walked through the door
did you stop to breathe it all in
with the hope of memorizing it all-scents, sights, and sounds,
the way you do now

did you gently pull the door to behind you
and stop for a moment and lean into it
knowing as you do now that a measure of strength
is gained from the place that watched you grow

and stretch and learn

and break and piece it all back together

did you listen for the sounds of the birds
the same families over all the years
and look for that pink in the horizon as the sun
set and closed its eyes for its evening slumber

on the first day you walked in
eager and excited for the new journey
did you shed a tear over the place you’d left behind
or was there none of that, with all the possibilities in the rooms before you

did you find a corner and sit,
dizzy with the emotion all this new change was bringing,
and did you wish more than anything that you could
turn the clock in your hands, the last thing left,

backwards by days and years

or did you simply run through and search through every room
looking for the memories yet to be made
having no idea the story
that was about to unfold
upon this stage
this new setting
this
new

home

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Be the Light

When I was in grad school and had a class called “Spirituality and Family Therapy,” my mind was blown.  So many good books, so many great thinkers and powerful conversations.  One of the ideas I was introduced to was “soul of place.”

I think I had always known about it and felt it, but this was the first time having words put to the idea.

The Soul.  Of place.

I knew this when I said goodbye to my Granny’s farm.  It was even more real the first time I returned years later, to walk around and see the shadows of the stories of the past.  The day I locked the door to my Great Aunt’s house, the one she lived in my entire life, where so much laughter and games of Go Fish echoed in the air, just before signing the papers to sell it to a new family…..I felt the soul of place in every fiber of my being.  Each and every time I set foot at Blackberry Flats, I breathe a little easier. The air is richer and it fills my soul.  The pasture where I learned to ride and the little building where I curled up on top of the hay with my cats and a book are all still there.  The tree that I sat under while still in college has spread its branches just as our family tree has.

Memories.  Light.  Love.  All the stories.

This has happened one other time for me.  It actually happened the first time I walked through the doors.

About five and a half years ago, I walked into a coffee shop that I had heard about long before it had become a reality.  It was a non-profit venture by a group of churches in the Presbytery—churches and church people who realized that not everyone feels safe or comfortable in a church building.  They were looking for a different way to “do church,” to be a community.

And they found it.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the lightbulb etched into the cement floor.

Light.

And that was the second thing I noticed.  How the room glowed.  How it was lit up with more than just the energy from the bulbs overhead.  It was bright with a beautiful spirit.  A calming spirit of peace.

And my soul sighed.  Home.

My family and I have spent countless hours in that little coffee shop in Kathleen situated alongside the GW Boutique, Stevi B’s, and the movie theater.  For coffee, for conversations, for book groups, for art classes.  It’s where I learned to knit and to pray out loud.  It’s where people see the best in others and listen with their whole hearts.  It’s the place I last sat with my dear sisterfriend before she left this world, where we shared our hearts and stories over soup and salad.  It’s where I learned to love pimento cheese and was actually captured on film sharing how good it was, “It’s toasted!” This little coffee shop saw me transition from lattes to black coffee, and my friends the baristas made the very best of both.  This coffee shop is where I sat for hours, set up to sell Beads for Life just a week after my Daddy passed.  It was a sanctuary, and it held my heart gently.  In those hours, in that light, I made my first tiny steps toward healing.  Something I’m still working on.

Grief is an odd duck, isn’t it?  It’s not like this information is new to me.  I know that, and each and every time I’m thrown back on the wheel, I realize it anew.  This whole experience, since we got the word at the end of November that our precious coffee shop was hurting and might have to close, I’ve felt the sting of a terminal diagnosis all over again.  The hope that maybe, just maybe, something or someone can change all of this, the ups and downs and ups and downs and finally, the overwhelming realization, that no, there really is nothing more that can be done…..

yeah, I’ve done this a few times already.

And while it’s a place—yes, just a few square feet that we are losing, not a person—I still grieve.  I grieve for the soul of Bare Bulb Coffee.  I grieve because my littles have begged to sell lemonade or cupcakes or pictures they make to save the coffee shop they love.  I grieve because my oldest has found peace and comfort within the shop walls on more than one occasion when her world was falling apart.  Her love of playing music has been reignited sitting there on Sunday afternoons, or out on the patio in nice weather, just strumming and talking and doing life.  I grieve for all of the experiences my children will not have because the doors are closing.  It was our safe place, a place where we all felt “home,” and that’s not something that is easily found just anywhere.

Next Monday night the door will be locked for the last time, the last cup of coffee poured, the last smile shared as change is given, the last story told over the tables, the last hand held sitting on the couch in the corner.  The last backpack to fight hunger will have been packed, and the last book purchased for the literacy program that is a part of the mission of Bare Bulb Coffee.  These things might continue elsewhere, but it will not be the same.

I’m not sure if I will be there when the door is locked for the last time.  I’ve thought about it.  I have a week to decide.  I’m not sure if I can handle being present for one more passing.  It is precious and hard and beautiful and brutal and all of these things, and I treasure those moments in my heart.  But I know that the hardest moment will be when the Open sign is unplugged, and the lights are turned out.

That is when our work will truly begin.  For those of us who have loved her, who have found solace in her soul and light, we will have to become the light.  To welcome all as she did.  To offer a cup of water to the thirsty, just as she did.  To sit with those who cry, to celebrate with those who are joyful.  It will be up to us to light up the darkness and to show others the hope in the brokenness.  It is important for us to continue to do all of these things…..together…..or she will have been here in vain.

Tonight I’m thankful for the dreamers, for the ones who took a spark and created a bright light for our community, for the world.  It was so much more than a coffeeshop, so much more than its tagline—“hot coffee, cool mission.”  It’s where I grew up, where I asked hard questions and wrestled with them with folks who thought differently and who challenged me to do so as well.  It’s where I said so many hellos and a few heartbreaking goodbyes, this place where strangers became friends, and friends became family.  I am thankful for all of them, and my life is richer for this place, for her soul, and for the community she leaves behind.

Thank you, Bare Bulb Coffee, and all of your beautiful people.  Thank you for the ones we knew and loved and for the ones who taught us what being different was like.  Thank you for the books and the stories and the hugs and the tangled knots and the hands that helped each other with knitting and painting and life.  Thank you for being open to all of us, no matter what we looked like or what stories we carried in our hearts.

Thank you, Bare Bulb Coffee, for the Light.

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My last painting at Bare Bulb Coffee, and her task for all of us she leaves behind. (The class was taught by Terri Siegel, a talented artist friend–one of many gifts the Bulb has given me.)

the eerie light and Irish Spring

after a day of playing tag before the heat of noon
chased us indoors to have a sandwich or a buttered biscuit
leftover from last night’s supper

and marathon sessions of Monopoly
or building frog villages in the sand pile
under the big tree
complete with parking garages for the Matchbox cars
that all too often caved in
the casualties were regrettable
especially when Granny asked us where all the cars
had gotten off to

late afternoons spent in front of “Gunsmoke”
or “Andy Griffith”
cooling ourselves in front of the fan
with a cup of Granny’s homemade peach ice cream
she’d frozen in those individual cups
as the sun slanted through the front porch window
and began its descent

after a supper of fried catfish and homemade french fries
served by the hands that caught ’em, cleaned ’em, and cooked ’em,
we headed back outside for one more round of chase
but mostly we danced with the lightning bugs
enchanted, bowing, and following their lead
the music was silent but not in our hearts

and then it was time for baths
as the darkness surrounded the little house
all by itself out there miles from town

Granny let us fill the tub as full as we wanted,
a luxury to be sure
the feel of the footed tub worn smooth with all the scrubbing she did
the black rubber stopper on the chain keeping the water level up
the smell of Irish Spring a sure sign of summer
and all that was right in the world

the only light in the bathroom, the one up high on the wall,
gave an eerie almost green glow to the room
made all the more curious by the window up next to the ceiling
that faced the back porch
which was always pitch black during bath time
unless Granny had to go out to the washer or freezer

anticipating the ghost stories we were sure to share
as soon as the lights went out
I could almost imagine a face up there
and so I would duck under the water
and lay there for a second
closing my eyes, holding my nose
and listen to the world echo around me

all was quiet
and warm
and safe

there under the eerie green light
the scent of Irish Spring greeting me as I rose to the surface

and all was the best it could ever be
only I had no idea of any of that,
so I dried off and put on my pajamas

and hurried to the pallet Granny had made for us with her quilts
when the 11 o’clock news was over, she turned the TV off,
told us good night, reminded us to keep it down and go to sleep,
and then she turned off the lights

tonight as I reach over to turn off my own lamp
I find myself wanting one more bath under that light
one more sniff of Irish Spring and
and wanting, once more, to feel my Granny’s hand as she patted me on the shoulder
on her way to bed

more than anything though
I want to dance with lightning bugs
and the people I love
and have feet so dirty they leave a ring in the bathtub

just as they once did
beneath the eerie light
in the little house
that built me

All Hallow’s Eve–on haints and scary stories

While the littles and I were visiting my dear Aunt a couple of days ago, they came across this in her play closet and pulled it out for me to see.

A puzzle from my Granny's I grew up playing with.

A puzzle from my Granny’s I grew up playing with.

Suddenly I was our Princess’ age, and I held out my hands, barely able to say the words, “Hand it to me. Please.”  But I did eke them out, and she handed it over.  My hands, the same ones that held it over thirty years ago, immediately set to work solving the puzzle without my brain really putting any work into it.  I had done it so many times before, so long ago, that the memory of how seemed to be in my fingers.

And then it was done.

Done.  My fingers remembered.

Done. My fingers remembered.

I asked my Aunt how long it had taken me, still dazed and overwhelmed with the memories that came up unexpectedly.

She laughed.  “Let’s go with 87 seconds.”

I’ve still got it.

I did finally let my littles play with it.

A place from the past--my Granny's house.

A place from the past–my Granny’s house.

In those moments of first seeing it and working the puzzle out, I was transformed back to this place, my Granny’s house.  And once again, my heart ached with the longing for that place, that time, when things were simple and my worst fear was losing one of Granny’s matchbox cars in a frog house or…..nope, that’s it.  I loved everything there from waking up to Honeycombs and milk to sleeping on a pallet made of her old quilts in the living room with my cousins.  I miss it, her, those days.

So much so that yesterday I found myself taking a quick detour.  I turned left off the main road and drove up that old dirt road, the same one I first rode my bike solo on.  And there, in the midst of some overgrown grass, was one of the houses that built me.  I got out of my vehicle and stood, not wanting to go any closer and disturb the memories that are tucked away inside.  I just looked and remembered.  I could almost hear the sound of children playing and cows mooing and Granny calling us in for dinner.  I could feel the warmth of the sun through the window and from the old heater at our backs.

Today, being Halloween and all, some folks like to talk about ghosts and “haints,” as some of my favorite writers call them.  Folks like to tell scary stories and sit on the edge of their seats until there’s nothing left to do but scream, run away, or pass out.

Growing up, we used to tell the story of the 13 steps over and over during this time of year.  There were others that were passed around from one to another, but as I grow older, I know that ghosts are real.

The ghosts of the past–the memories of times there at my Granny’s are very real.   If I had opened the door to that house, had it been okay, I might have seen us gathered around a Monopoly board on the floor, my three older cousins and myself.  I would have heard us challenging each other to do the puzzle, and the one with the smile that was so much like his Daddy’s, once again, he’d be here, and not gone.  And I would take more time to memorize his face, his voice, and to tell him how much I always was in awe of him.

I would have seen the cabinet over in the corner, with the Tupperware containers of cereal inside.  The bowls on the shelf in the kitchen, waiting for us to pull one down and fill up each morning–was breakfast ever more fun that at her house?  With the anticipation of what we had planned for the day and the smell of sunshine enticing us to hurry up and eat so we could head outside for hours and hours, with only a little more than our imaginations and each other to play with.

The sounds of laughter and the weekday afternoon Gunsmoke theme song might have echoed off the walls in the living room.  The breeze blowing through the window in the front bedroom was the sweetest I’ve ever felt.  Thinking about it now makes me weep, longing to be there in that exact moment when I looked up from my newfound copy of Witch of Blackbird Pond and saw the white curtain billowing perfectly away from the window as the breeze bowed, danced, and dipped the curtain, as though they were partners at a fancy ball.  It took my breath then over thirty-five years ago, and it still does now.

Ghosts are real, but they don’t scare me.  I am surrounded by them every day.  Memories and sounds and smells and tastes and stories–all lingering from the past. What does scare me more than anything else is the thought of living without so many of those I loved in these memories–for the rest of my life.  That knocks the wind out of me.  I just have no idea how I’m supposed to do that.

Tonight I’m thankful for the ones who are here, who share my love of the past and also love those who have headed on Home.  I give thanks for precious memories, worn paper-thin from my playing them out over and over and over again in my heart.  I appreciate the ghosts of the past, and all of the love and comfort I feel when I sit with them for a bit.

Today is All Hallow’s Eve, and tomorrow is All Saint’s Day.   A good day to remember and give thanks for those who are no longer with us in the way they once were.  Tomorrow I will light a candle and remember.  Much as I do every other day.   Remember.  

Ghosts?  Scary Stories?

Light a candle in the darkness, and never forget.  It comforts the soul like nothing else, and chases away the fears.

If only for a moment…..
Love to all.

 

for the three

 

I packed up my things,

along with my talismans from Mama, Daddy, Aunt Wease–for courage

and peace, I hoped

and drove the same road I’ve traveled for over forty years

to one of the houses that built me

to say goodbye

one more time

As I drove through Hawkinsville and saw the 45

mph

sign

I heard Mama say, “They’ll get you through here.

Watch your speed.”

I smiled and drove on over the bridge,

the long one that made her nervous,

the one that, as we crossed one time, she told me

about her fear of bridges

I always think of her when I cross it

Then down the Golden Isles Parkway

past the sign for Bembry Road–one day maybe I’ll have a

grandchild with that name

I always say how much I like it, and they all agree

Then the turn and Congo Lane

I always looked for the gorillas when I was little

and sometimes

I still do

And then

The house.

As I entered with the key left by the realtor,

I could smell

oh that smell

Her scent still lingers

Even now, four years after she left us

I wish I could bottle the smell and carry it forever

and pull it out for special occasions like she did with her silver

I wandered from room to room,

remembering the wall that was once full of clocks

how proud she was to finally have that sun room

the CB radio room that was later a lovely sitting room

after he died

The spot where Toogie their Chihuahua ate

or hid, I could never be sure

The bookcase behind the door where she kept toys for my littles

The bedroom where she had Lucy and Ricky beds

and where I took the best nap I’ve ever had–

first time Mama kind of tired, you know

and where the lidded vase sat–

I was convinced it held ashes, but no

The pink bathroom I rarely went into

and the black and white tiled bathroom, so fancy

with the dimmer light that seemed magical

and still does

Cooter tried it out as I once did, fascinated,

“Look it’s a storm,” he said, turning it up and down

And the bedroom where she took her last breath, I quietly

bowed my head

And the tears flowed

I grew up here, played here, spent nights staying up after having ice cream

and playing Go Fish

It was where I could go and be the only, and for a day or two

that was just fine

It was where I visited with college friends,

in what Daddy and I lovingly called,

“One of the finest homes in that there Eastman, Georgia”

And now it looked old and tired and weepy,

just as I was

The voices echoed off the walls and the little girl I was

peeked around the corners

Cooter ran in the formal living room and I stood there,

laughing through the tears

I had no memories of this room without him.

We were not allowed in there as children, but him–

she let him run and tackle the pillow from the couch she held in her lap

and she laughed with joy

as I stared and thought, “Who are you?”

and it was as it should be.

 

We locked the door and drove away,

leaving behind the ghosts and memories of growing up

and returning as an adult and the roles reversing

and suddenly I was caring for her…..

and now it was time for someone else to make their own stories there

 

As I sat down to sign my name–oh how I’ve come to loathe doing that

It once felt so grown up to sign my name in full, and now

Now I hate what it usually means

Someone, something I have to let go

 

I touched the remembrances of Mama and Daddy, of her–

the one who loved this house

and felt safe there right up to her last breath–

oh please, I hope that is so–

and yet, when I looked down and took a deep breath, it was there

in what I saw

that my heart steadied and I didn’t feel

alone

Three other signatures, already there, waiting on me

to join them

The three that came behind me, yet have always

walked alongside

Those three names, typed yes,

but then handwritten with care by each one

First Sister, then Mess Cat, then Bubba

and I felt steadied

The pen didn’t wobble and neither did my voice

For as much as we may have bickered and picked

and teased

all those years ago, or last decade, or year, or month, or week

It turns out Mama was right–

and we are “all really very wonderful, I’m sure”

And together we stand strong

and can do what life requires next of us

No matter what blows our way

For in them, I see the lines of faces of loved ones gone

and I hear the echo of their words

and feel the dust of their love in the hugs

or waves from the back porch

In that moment the four were one

and for that, I am thankful

There is strength in numbers, yes

but there is something even stronger than that

in love

 

My last time pulling into this drive.

My last time pulling into this drive.

 

My Daddy built this handrail years ago.  Like anything he did, it is strong and has weathered the years well.

My Daddy built this handrail years ago. Like anything he did, it is strong and has weathered the years well. That door always made me happy because I knew I would get a hug and hands cupping my face as soon as I knocked, and her looking me in the eye, oohing over seeing me. Each and every time.

The lovely stained glass light over the table where I had my first cup of coffee, lightened with PET milk.  Which always seemed extra special.

The lovely stained glass light over the table where I had my first cup of coffee, lightened with PET milk. Which always seemed extra special.

 

I had forgotten about these beauties.  If I had had a screwdriver on me, the two she had in her bedrooms would have come home with me.  I adore these.

I had forgotten about these beauties. If I had had a screwdriver on me, the two she had in her bedrooms would have come home with me. I adore these.

The black and white magical bathroom. Fancy.  I loved this room.  Always.

The black and white magical bathroom. Fancy. I loved this room. Always.

 

Cooter creating the "storm" turning the dimmer up and down.  Yeah.  I let him.  For a minute or two.  I used to do the same thing when I was his age.

Cooter creating the “storm” turning the dimmer up and down. Yeah. I let him. For a minute or two. I used to do the same thing when I was his age.

I spent many a day visiting in this room, laughing over shared stories, listening to tales of the past, and smelling the delicious meal my Aunt and Uncle fixed for us.  I never sat in this house and felt less than special.

I spent many a day visiting in this room, laughing over shared stories, listening to tales of the past, and smelling the delicious meals my Aunt and Uncle fixed for us. I never sat in this house and felt less than special.

Cooter holding the sketch drawing of the house that was done in 1976.  I am thankful that I have this art to remember this precious home and the love freely given there.

Cooter holding the sketch drawing of the house that was done in 1976. I am thankful that I have this art to remember this precious home and the love freely given there.

 

Love Ya, Dear–remembering her

 

just need the zipcode for Heaven

Dear Mama,

Well, we are just about done.  The house at Blackberry Flats is almost all cleared out, Mama.  I know you’ve probably been shaking your head, wondering what was taking me so long to get it in gear.  I can’t say, really, except that it was just too much to think about.  To get myself together enough to do.  I know you sure must be proud of Mess Cat and Leroy.  They really made it happen, didn’t they?  And Sister, she helped too.  And the prayers and ideas and help from Bubba and Coey–thankful for those too.

I guess it was just me that was the bump in the road.

And I’m sorry, Mama.

It’s just none of this seems real.  Still doesn’t.  Like one day I’ll wake up and we’ll have a long talk analyzing THIS dream.  It’s been a h— sorry.  Yes ma’am, I’ll watch my mouth.  But you have to admit.  If the past three years, the past fifteen months even, have been a dream, it’s been one for the books, right?

We tried to be good stewards with all of your “things,” all your “stuff.”  I know you’d just as soon we packed up most of it and given it to folks who needed it.  With the exception of the few things you talked about and pointed out where you’d like for them to go.  And one day I will be able to let go of more of it.  Just, not quite yet, okay?

Saturday we came across your “Backdoor friends are best” plaque that hung at the back door.  Remember how I used to be embarrassed to have folks, friends of mine, come in through that door?  You had that old-fashioned wooden clothes drying rack back there, remember?  And you’d hang all of our unmentionables on it to dry.  If we knew someone was coming over, one of us girls would make a mad scramble to go and hide those things.  We couldn’t have folks coming in the back door and seeing that.  Now I miss that life of knowing folks well enough to go in through their back door.  It speaks to the relationship and to the trust and the love.

As I held the plaque I knew.  Aunt.  She needed this.  I hoped she would be okay with us offering it to her.  I knew you would be.  They are our oldest and best “backdoor friends,” aren’t they?  I sent it to her by way of Cuz’n.  She and I talked yesterday.  Turns out that was the right place to send it.  But you knew that, didn’t you?  The only thing was, she wanted to know if I’d be okay seeing it at her back door.

Oh Mama.

Today I’ve thought about that question and how quickly I said “Oh please yes!” as my heart leapt with something akin to joy.  At first I thought it was because it would have a good home (you know how I anthropomorphize things–and yes, Daddy, used that one just for you!).  But as the day wore on, I heard from Mess Cat.  The last of the things have been delivered to a thrift store that will help families who have gone through what we did with Daddy.  Bless ’em.

And my heart crumbled just a bit.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy that Mess Cat and Leroy and Shaker are going to make so many new and wonderful (I love hearing you say that word in my head right now) memories.  Have you seen Leroy out in the building?  It’s about to enter a new heyday for sure.  They have beautiful plans and ideas for the house too, Mama.  But most of all, it will be filled with love and laughter again–your favorite way to decorate, the way you decorated it best.

But for a moment this afternoon, as I drove home from Macon, I saw the empty house in my mind’s eye.  And what my eye stayed on was that freezer.  Oh, it’s not there, no ma’am.  Going to be put to good use.  But between it and the refrigerator–you covered them (in your organized way of course) with pictures of our babies and pictures our babies had colored.  Or drawn.  Or scribble scrabbled.  Just for you and Daddy.  There on the windowsill was the little baking cat figure that Aub picked out for you.  The plate we painted for you and Daddy hanging on the wall.  All around you, Mama, you decorated with love.  Your placing these things throughout your home, all the way back to your dresser and the wooden bead necklaces that first Aub and then Princess made for you, spoke volumes to me over the years.

And today, in thinking about them not being there, I realized what they all said.

All of those things you placed freely around your home, said–

You belong here.

You are loved.

You are special.

You are mine.

 

And that’s when the tears came, Mama.

It’s not that I won’t ever not belong there, but it’s time to move on and let new stories come to life in that house.  I’ll knock first and I’ll enter through whatever door Leroy and Mess Cat decide they want folks coming through.  And it will be okay.  Better than, even.

But if Aunt does decide to hang that heart with the back door friends message by her back door–

well, that will be just fine with me.

Because you know, then, for just a moment, I can remember that I had a place that I belonged, a house that always said, “you’re mine” or “well, hey, it’s you again, where you been? what you been up to?” And I can smile and give thanks and know.

I was loved.

Miss you Mama.

Always, and always and always,

love,

t. annie