Lessons from a Stranger

Today is my granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, a day that reminds me of the juxtaposition of “things,” things like emotions, events, and experiences. I’m thinking of a man I never met who had a profound effect on my thinking. Because of him, I’ll never take my blessings for granted; nor will I ever be insensitive to the feelings of others (or at least that’s my goal).

On that spring morning the other grandparents and I felt excitement, mine bordering on giddiness. We walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then as the big event became more imminent, the medical personnel shooed us out. We adjourned to the huge waiting lobby filled with clusters of sage vinyl couches and found a vacant sitting area. As we made small talk, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere.

“Dumas said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped. Anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for “the tour.” Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind those doors. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a code of some type.

Several medical personnel bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying about of doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. Because of the various seating combinations in the waiting area, and we had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assorted crew of people as the day had progressed. He was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my surreptitious glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

Looking straight ahead, the sad, silent man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness? Did eating them merely give him something to do, something to momentarily assuage his pain?

After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? Northside Hospital’s Women Center is a full-care facility that handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious distress, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his anguish. The candy man had built an invisible wall around himself and seemed to be saying, “I’ve got to get myself together before moving forward.” His grief was a private thing, and we all sensed and respected that; we too had experienced punctured hearts.

But that was eight years ago. Today I’m feeling jangled by the memory of a stranger whose sadness continues to haunt me. What is he doing on this May afternoon? Have his tears dried? If we met today, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

I think he’d tell me something that I already knew, that while there is suffering, there is also joy. And that perhaps pain serves to make us more aware of the exquisite sweetness of life. I hope that the candy man’s heartache has eased and that he has joy in his life.

Nowhere Boy Thoughts

 

 

I mostly agree with Anne Lamott on her Mother’s Day thoughts. To clarify, I agree that it’s a tough day for many people—motherless children; childless adults; parents of wayward, lost, deceased, or disappointing children; children of abusive, mean-spirited, dismissive, or absentee mothers. Then too, there are the mothers who cannot let their children go. Not now. Not ever.

You get the picture. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes it’s a wonder people turn out as well as they do.

One of the things I recall from SOC 101 is that one of the primary functions of the family is to raise the young. The family, not just the mother, has the responsibility to look after the development and well-being of children. It takes a village and all that. Aunts, mothers’ friends, neighbors, grandmotherly types (ha ha—like me), and other females can all play the mother role.

In church Sunday a woman who happened to be holding a baby for a young friend was asked to say the opening prayer. She didn’t hand the baby off to someone but promptly stood, walked to the stand, and babe in arms, said the prayer. Her husband later remarked that he couldn’t recall ever seeing a man give a prayer holding a child but had seen several women doing so. Women are coded differently, he intimated. Maybe they have a nurturing gene—or something.

On Mother’s day evening, I watched Nowhere Boy, a movie about John Lennon’s youth and his complicated and sometimes stormy relationships with his aunt who raised him, Mimi, and his mother whom he hardly knew. I’ll use estranged to describe the relationship between Lennon’s parents, Alf and Julia, and complicated to describe the one between Mimi and Julia, Lennon’s aunt and his mother.

For many reasons, John Lennon lived with Aunt Mimi and her husband for most of his childhood and adolescence. At some point, he became increasingly involved with his mother, to Mimi’s disappointment and concern, and Julia encouraged his musical gifts. A fun and free-spirited woman who eventually gave birth to three other children, Julia doted on John, and with her he felt acceptance. In the movie, he moved in with her and her family for a short time (just a few days as I recall), and Mimi was heartbroken.

I wasn’t there so anything I write is based on the movie and on my subsequent reading, but from my “research,” it appears that John was a resilient child who had the love of many adults, including his mother and her four sisters, especially Mimi. Julia loved him ferociously and was overjoyed to have him back in her life. As an aside, when John was finally reunited with his father, twenty years had passed.

Tragedy struck one afternoon when Julia was struck by a car leaving Mimi’s house. I have no knowledge of the effect on the rest of the family, but John and Mimi were both devastated. Distraught, he cried out, “I was just getting to know her, and now I’ll never see her again.” (paraphrase). Much of his music was influenced by Julia, and his older son Julian was named after her.

The point of the above? I don’t know except to say that mothers, however imperfect, can and usually do make a difference in a child’s life. But so can aunts and grandmothers and teachers and others with the desire to nurture. According to what I’ve read, John stayed in close contact with Mimi until his death in 1980.

 

Live, Laugh, Love

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The beach is a happening place. People of all shapes, sizes, and ages walk past the dunes and let their hair down, and people watchers are guaranteed to see interesting sights, some that that make you smile and others that give you pause for thought.

Here are some things I heard, saw, and smelled within five minutes as I walked along the strand.

  • “Daddy, I caught one, the young boy said, holding up a tiny fish for his father to see. His dad laughed. I grinned.
  • A few steps further brought the smell of cigar smoke wafting my way, and instantly I saw its source—a middle-aged man sat in a beach chair, smoking cigar and fishing. Ah, the life of Riley, I thought.
  • And then there was a grandfather with frizzy gray hair walking along cradling his his sleeping blonde-haired granddaughter. The toddler was leaning against his chest and shoulder as he cradled her in his arms.

I realize the above might not seem that spectacular, but I jotted them down later for one reason: they all lifted my spirits. Love, relaxation, and joie de vivre were common themes of all three scenarios.

As I continued my walk along the beach, I began thinking about my hair and the hassle of coloring my roots every few weeks. Such a bother, I thought and wondered how much longer I would be willing to do it. Within seconds, I spotted a woman who appeared to be about my age or a little younger with no hair at all.

She was playing with grandchildren and talking with her adult children as though she were the happiest person on the beach. And it’s not like she was trying to hide her baldness. On the contrary, she was not even wearing a hat to protect her scalp. She wore large fashionable earrings in her lobes, and sported a lime green cover-up. Her message seemed to be live and love every day!

Embarrassed by my vanity and humbled by her appearance, I walked on. I observed people throwing Frisbees, football, darts, and horseshoes and soon forgot the grandmother. But not for long.

On my return trip I saw her from a distance as she stood in the edge of the water with several little children. The other adults, likely the children’s parents, sat in a semi-circle a few feet away. I looked from them to her and back to them again and locked eyes with one of the young women. She was taking a video of the bald woman in the lime green cover-up  who was laughing with the children in the surf. Mother and daughter? I wondered.

I backed up and walked behind the group rather than between them and the group in the ocean, and as I did, the photographer/video-taper gave me a thumbs-up. Sobered, I walked back to my spot on the beach. That evening, I shared that scene with some family members, reinforcing the fact that people and love and memories are more important than looks, money, and prestige.

“So does that mean you’re going to stop coloring your hair?” someone kidded.

“No, not yet,” I said. “I’m not as far along the path as she is.” They knew what I was trying to say, though. Live, laugh, love.

Six weeks later, I’m thinking of the little boy who caught a minnow, the cigar-smoking fisherman, the toddler-toting grandfather, and the grandmother in lime. Where are they today? Do they have moments when they recollect their moments by the sea and smile? I hope so, and I hope all will find a way  to rekindle the joy they demonstrated that summer day.

Perched on the Tree

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Scorcher of a day! Despite the miserable heat and the children’s occasional whining, we had a memorable afternoon.

We were in the bookstore across the road from the temple, Nephi’s Books, when Colton spied a small ceramic tree with a couple of bluebirds resting beneath it. As I stood beside him, he sounded out all the words and then looked at me with a smile. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of the message was, “I’m so happy to be perched on this family tree.”

We stood in the aisle talking about what perched meant, and then I pointed out a limb where he was possibly located. That led to a discussion about families and their many members, some past and some present, some here and others “there,” in California, Virginia, South Carolina, and Utah.

“Just because you can’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’re not on the tree,” I said as he stared at the bluebirds and pondered my statement.

“In fact,” I continued, “In a few minutes we’re going to ride over to a different part of Columbia so we can visit Sarah Beth, one of your cousins.”

“Have I ever met her?” he asked.

“Sure, plenty of times.”

“Have we played with her?” he asked, glancing at his siblings.

“I don’t think so. She’s older. And really, she’s your second cousin.”

Realizing that was more information that he needed, I said, “Come on, let’s go find Mama and go see Sarah Beth’s new house.”

Twenty-five minutes later we seven, Carrie’s crew and I, tumbled out of the van and rang the doorbell. Sarah Beth took us on the grand tour, including a visit to the backyard. There in the far right corner stood a structure, a garage without doors, much like the one that had stood in my parents’ backyard. I knew Carrie would notice and remark on it. She didn’t disappoint. Sarah Beth said it was the first thing she’d noticed too

We walked back inside and checked out the layout of SB’s house, her huge laundry room, the itty-bitty closet in the guest bedroom, and the screened-in front porch. While we were standing in her dining room filled with unpacked boxes and a vibrant orange chair, one of the grandchildren said he wanted to have Thanksgiving there. Sarah Beth laughed that cool laugh of hers and said she had to find a table first.

We sauntered outside, and one of SB’s friends who happened to be visiting agreed to take our picture. Hot and bedraggled but happy to have shared some special moments together, we all smiled. Except for Seth, that is. We said our goodbyes, and moments later we were in the van headed towards Trotter Road.

Once there, the girls and I lazily walked over to some rocks and sat down to enjoy the scenery, including some beautiful trees flowing in the gentle breeze. Two loud helicopters buzzed over, momentarily disturbing the peace.

Beep, beep, beep I looked at my iPhone to see a message from my sister. “It’s official. We will have a new son-in-law soon.” I shared the message with Carrie and told her how auspicious it seemed to get the news while together in the temple parking lot.

A scorcher, yes, but what a day! One niece showed her cousins and aunt a new house, and another niece became engaged. Braden gave me a book, Brooke experimented with some light pink lipstick, Emma climbed a tree, Colton became better acquainted with his family tree, and Seth in his five-year-old wisdom instructed me on how to fasten his shoes.

We ate sweet vanilla ice cream, took turns sitting in Sarah Beth’s blue velvet chair, and said Cheese for the camera. But the activity on, between, and within the branches on the family tree is what sustained us.

 

Union Bound

 

I love Cookie. Who doesn’t? She always has a kind word and smile for everyone she meets, and that kind word is always just the right one. Last night as we stood in the lobby of Regal Cinema 16 in Sandhills after viewing Union Bound, she said, “I thought of you while watching it and was reminded of how important it is that we keep a journal.”

Cookie’s right. As I watched Union Bound, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other stories took place during that historic period of United States history and how unfortunate it is that we will likely never hear them. How many stories are playing out today that future generations will never know because no one is writing them down…or even taking the time to tell?

But first, here’s my take on last night.

We scarfed down our burgers at Five Guys and sauntered over to the theatre. Although it was thirty minutes until showtime, there were already a dozen or so people standing around in clusters, talking animatedly. We joined one of the groups and chatted a little about the event we had come to see, Union Bound. Excitement was in the air.

This wasn’t just any war movie. No, this one was based on an ancestor of a local person known to many. Although I don’t personally know the woman whose ancestor the movie was based on, I know two of her brothers-in-law. I also know that her husband is a Camden High grad of 1968. Go Bulldogs! That might not seem close enough of a connection to get the hubs and me out on a Wednesday night, but, well, it’s not every day that you get to see a local’s family represented on the silver screen.

According to the community newspaper, the Chronicle Independent, Bill Jay has always been a history buff, and knowing this, his father-in-law entrusted Bill with the diary of Joseph Hoover, his wife’s great-great grandfather. Intrigued by what he read, Bill transcribed the diary, and he and his wife Pam felt it would be a great film. They were right. Produced by Michael Davis, owner of Uptone Pictures, the story of Hoover’s escape from a prison camp in Florence, SC and his subsequent journey  North was riveting.

  • Something amusing—Before the movie began, we watched twenty minutes or so of snippets from other movies, and one included a youthful Matthew McConaughey. My friend Jeannette leaned over and said something like, “I really like him. “Me too,” I said. I then turned to my husband and reported our conversation. His only reply was, “Why?” Why???? Was he serious?
  • Something heartwarming—The turnout for the movie’s screening was wonderful. Not only was there a lot of support for the Jay family, but there was also a good bit of socializing and catching up among the movie goers.
  • Something I learned (or was reminded of) from the movie—We’re all in this together, and it’s our duty to be fair, loyal, and helpful.
  • Something reinforced by Joseph Hoover’s diary—We all have a story that needs to be told.

What’s your story? And when are you going to start recording it?

 

 

Biscuits, Toast, & Cornbread

My Grandmother Padgett was a marvelous cook. Even now, I drool at the thought of her walnut pound cake and the dark chocolate covered coconut candy she served. And it wasn’t just the sweet treats she excelled in. Her roast beef, chicken and dumplings, and angel biscuits were unsurpassed.

My other grandmother, Grandmother Clyburn, was my mother’s mother, and her cooking must have been fair (like mine?) because I never heard a single person brag on it. In all my years of knowing her and being in and out of her home, I don’t recall ever tasting any of her kitchen creations except toast and eggs. She broiled the toast after smearing it with real butter, and I loved it.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a mediocre cook at best. I can do it, but I don’t look forward to it like some folks. In fact, the idea of preparing a delectable dinner with several dishes is daunting to me, and I’m wondering if that’s why I’ve gravitated towards hosting holiday drop-ins with tasty finger foods for the past couple of years.

Last week as I began putting Christmas paraphernalia away, I came across three sets of Christmas china, none of which I had used for a “sit-down” meal,” a good old-fashioned family event. What is wrong with this picture? I asked myself.

Knowing I was going to see two of my three children over New Year’s weekend, I decided to prepare a traditional meal that included black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread. We set the time for late Sunday afternoon, and I was filled with anticipation and honestly, a little bit of dread. What if my plans for around the table sighs of gustatory delight backfired?

My daughter Elizabeth, always organized, helped me plan and gather what I’d need. With ham, rice, cornmeal, buttermilk, green beans, and spinach, we felt good confident about the meal.

That’s when the self-doubt came to call.

I felt like something was missing, so we dropped by the Piggly Wiggly  at Market Commons. They have the best deli in South Carolina, and I chose a loaded baked potato salad, a Waldorf salad, and a small chef salad to supplement our Sunday feast. Armed with the essentials for a memorable New Year’s meal, I was content.

But here’s what happened:

  • The rice that I had so cleverly prepared with chicken broth was a solid, gummy mass of goo. Apparently, I forgot to burn off the burner.
  • The ham was incredibly salty. Also, I had heated and added a glaze that was much too spicy. Live and learn, right? I won’t be doing that again.
  • The Waldorf salad had too much celery, and I removed each tiny piece of it and then added a sliced banana for that mellow taste. Everything was fine until little Ethan announced that he didn’t like the “white things” on his apples. Despite his mother’s reminders that he liked coconut, he couldn’t be persuaded to eat one bite.
  • The green beans in the steamer bag were so green that they looked almost artificial. They were waxy and chewy and tasteless, the latter because  because I forgot to add seasoning.
  • The loaded potato salad that looked and tasted so good after being warmed in the oven for a few minutes became a soupy mess after being forgotten for another half hour.
  • The cornbread was so-so without my mother’s cast-iron frying pan to bake it in.
  • The chef salad that was supposed to add some texture and color to the menu remained uneaten in its festive bowl. Without a drop of salad dressing in the house, the dish was unappealing.
  • The Star Wars cookies Elizabeth made were colorful and yummy.
  • I had planned to prepare spinach, but well, why waste the time?

My idea of having a traditional around the table meal panned out. We used plates that had once been my mother’s, and we decorated the table with Christmas items that had not yet been put away. The scene was pretty. But the food. Well, it was so unappetizing that the experience has helped me come up with my word for the year: IMPROVE.

Improve in cooking, writing, loving, painting, teaching, helping, and every other area of my life. Vying for first place was learn, but since that’s something I already make it a point to do every day, improve wins the day.

Has anyone else decided upon a word to guide behavior, thoughts, and feelings this year? If so, what is it? And why or how did you decide on it?

Building a Wall

In my previous post, I mentioned an object lesson from one of Sunday’s classes that made such an impression on me that I went to Wal-Mart in search of some children’s wooden blocks. Someone on Facebook asked what the blocks demonstrated, and I told her I’d follow up with details later.

Later is now. Now is the time to share what the significance of the blocks. But first, here’s part of the original post.

“In the final meeting of the day, the teacher shared ideas about making homes places of order, refuge, protection, and holiness. I was already familiar with everything she said, and yet there was something about the spirit in the room that caused me to sit up and take notice.

“Throughout her lesson, I kept looking at a collection of children’s building blocks that she had on the table. What was their purpose? 

“Anne, the teacher, built a wall with the blocks, an object lesson that literally rocked my world. I told my husband about it last night, and something in the story prompted him to wash the dishes! I shared it with my daughter Elizabeth, and even she, a teacher, was impressed. I’m going to buy some wooden blocks and carry out he activity with my grandchildren soon. It was that good!”

Anne asked the class what kinds of things a person could do to add a sense of order, refuge, protection, and holiness to her home. At first, there were customary answers of prayer, Family Home Evening, and keeping the Sabbath holy. Each time someone spoke up, Anne added a block until she had four lined up in a straight row.

As the moments passed, the responses reflected more of the day-to-day living that takes place in a household. For example, someone said that attitudes, both good and bad, were contagious and that if a person made more of an effort to smile instead of pout or complain, that might help the overall spirit.

  •  “And what about having more of an attitude of gratitude? It’s really irksome when I prepare a meal and people complain about it.”
  • “I encourage the kids to share–and to just spend more time with each other.”
  •  “Things would be better at my house if my children did what I asked them to do the first time. By the time I’ve  asked them three times, my patience is wearing thin, and I just about lose it! That can’t be good for creating a refuge, much less a place of holiness.”
  •  “We don’t watch R-rated movies, not because we’re prudes but because we don’t want that spirit in our home.”
  •  “We have dinner together whenever possible.”
  •  “Music. Beautiful music wafting throughout the house, that’s what we do.”
  •  “What I think makes things smoother is when we help each other out with chores. Without being asked,  sometimes one of the kids will empty the dishwasher or set the table for a sibling.”
  •  “How about just saying something nice, something complimentary to a family member?”
  •  “Since we’re talking about it, everyone likes to hear ‘I love you.’”
  •  “We limit TV time.”

Each time someone made a comment, the teacher added another block. Within a couple of minutes, she had four rows of horizontal and vertical blocks, a structure that resembled a wall. As the class looked at this simple design, Anne added that if each person did the things that had been shared, we could all have a wall of order, protection, refuge, and holiness between our homes and the world.

There are bullies, pornography, drugs, rejection, disappointment, heartache, meanness, evil, and Satan enticing you with “a silken thread,” but that wall can help in a myriad of ways. I’m not sure that I’m always successful in this endeavor, but I earnestly do try to make our home orderly, welcoming, safe, and yes, even holy.