Connections

Lately I’ve been walking down Memory Lane more often, and I’m fairly sure it’s because I’m older and have more to remember and more time to reflect. I’m still busy, but it’s not the kind of frenetic coming and going and getting and spending that accompanies young and middle adulthood. Getting an education, raising a family, developing a career, and adjusting to all sorts of changes can be challenging—rewarding, yes, but challenging too. 

A week or so ago, I got together with some friends I’ve known since I was a child (two of them) and teenager (the other two). We talked about some of the challenges of aging, including health issues, hearing loss, and cataract surgery. That wasn’t the hottest topic, though. The most popular and recurring theme of the day and evening centered on connections and relationships, the ties that bind and those that sometimes come unraveled.

As friends who’d known one another for decades, those lasting bonds surfaced many times as we shared memories and inquired about those not present. Some of those absent from our circle at the table were “in heaven,” others were living with illness or misfortune, and still others were probably right in their own comfy homes planning trips, knitting fashionable ponchos, or watching Netflix. And it wasn’t just our contemporaries who came up in our conversations. Families, immediate and extended, came up, too. A couple of the “girls” are still fortunate enough to have their mothers, but no one’s father still walks the earth these days.  

As we waited for our checks at J Peters that evening, I recalled some impressions of a brunch in Rapid City, South Dakota in June. The hubs and I breakfasted one morning Tally’s Silver Spoon, and the atmosphere, service, and food were all phenomenal. As we neared the eatery, we saw several people dining outside, and an infant was sitting in a man’s lap. The baby had that terrified “Where in the world am I?” look, and it occurred to me that both the little one and his parents were fortunate. There he was securely sheltered in the crook of his dad’s arm sitting at a table among family members on a bright June morning in Rapid City, SD. Everyone was laughing and talking. They were jolly.

Once inside, we were seated at a table affording a close up and personal look at the family. The only other child I saw was a little girl who looked to be about four years old. Done with her chocolate chip pancakes, she walked haltingly over to some rocks in a corner decorative area. Her mother (or aunt or family friend) joined her. Sweet. The group was spread out across a couple or three round tables, and as everyone split up to go their separate ways, a lot of hugging and fond farewells were exchanged.

I felt happy watching them—and a little melancholy too. I told my husband we’d been lucky our whole lives, too. Even though we didn’t dine at outside eateries as babies or small children, we’d always been in the midst of family…as babies, children, young adults, older adults, and so forth. We had played and are still playing the roles of everyone in that scene. Coming together like those gathered that Saturday can fortify people and imbue them with confidence and strength and love as they separate and go back to their other lives, the ones shared amidst another group of people.

As one of my friends and I walked out to our cars that evening in Murrells Inlet, we chatted a minute (really just a minute) about how our lives had changed since we had met as children. 

“We’ve played so many roles,” I said. 

“Yeah, and we were babies, too.” she replied.

Yes, we were. It’s funny how we arrive on the planet as tiny, helpless beings who develop and mature and survive and thrive—or not. But regardless of our choices and circumstances, our lives are enriched (if we’re lucky) by connections and love. 

It’s Complicated

Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.

That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.

As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture. 

We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.

In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.

I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….

I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life. 

One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.

I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.

Change or Die

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Evolve or repeat; change or die; don’t look back; inhale the future, exhale the past; be proactive. Do those phases look familiar? I bet they do. We’re inundated with reminders and recommendations about change, improvement, and moving on.

Last week I saw Evolve or Repeat on Facebook and immediately thought of a similar phrase: Change or Die.

It’s been a while, probably fifteen years at least, but I’ll always remember the moment when I first saw the words: Change or Die. I had l seen them before, but this time was different. The title of an article, they were capitalized, and the font was large. The students were taking a test while I read updates on the computer. I glanced up at the class immersed in their work and then began reading.

“Change or Die” referred to businesses that refused to get with the program, so to speak, those who continued to follow traditional ways of attracting and keeping customers. The author of the article advised that unless they became internet savvy and kept up with the changing times, they would soon become defunct. Although I already knew this to be true, there was something about the title that forced me to sit up straight and take notice.

 I walked through a huge Sears store two weeks ago and recalled the days when such stores were bustling with customers in all departments. On this day, I was one of three people walking through the aisles, and truthfully, I was there because I was trying to get a walk in, not to shop. I thought things would surely be better when I got to the tools area, but no. Row after row of Craftsman air movers, garage door openers, hook sets, work benches, pocket planes, saws, tool sets, wrenches, and drills lined the shelves. The two employees stood talking to each other, and I wondered if they did that all day, every day.

I thought of the days when my children delightedly pored over the Sears catalogue choosing Christmas gifts. The huge books were even used as seat elevators when little ones couldn’t reach the dinner table. I’d love to see one of the catalogues today. Who could have foreseen their end? Who could have predicted Amazon? Not I.

I recall when the college where I worked began online instruction. Excited about the possibilities, I jumped on the bandwagon. When some naysayers resisted, one administrator was overheard saying, “This train is leaving the station. Climb aboard or be left behind.” There’s a lot of jumping, leaving, and climbing in this paragraph, but I’m not a good enough writer to write without a cliché or two. Those terms imply action and change.

For the record, the students above were taking the test on their computers, one of my first forays into paperless tests. A younger colleague mentioned that he planned to go paperless with just about everything work-related, and he graciously volunteered to be my mentor. As a retiree, I’m still teaching online classes. There are virtual schools everywhere. Teaching has changed, and if I hadn’t adapted, well, you know.

Changing or dying applies to all areas of life, personal, business, emotional, social, spiritual, physical–everything. Want to share how changing has kept you afloat–or how refusal to change led to stagnation?

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.

 

Change and Loss

One of my pieces in Serving Up Memory is entitled “Hats and Cornbread,” and it begins by telling of the Thanksgiving after my mother’s passing. My father had predeceased her by two years, and so we were, her children and grandchildren, trying our darnedest to make this holiday festive. By golly, we were not going to let the grim reaper steal our joy.

A number of us, including two of my siblings and I, gathered on Chesnut Street with a  “take-in” meal. I don’t recall the victuals, but I do remember that we ate in the kitchen and not the dining room and that we felt strange and happy at the same time—strange because our parents weren’t there in their own home and happy that we were together. At some point, we rummaged through our parents’ (and grandparents’) hats, and we each selected the one we wanted to wear. My nieces picked up pocketbooks of my mother’s, remembering that she always made sure her purse matched her shoes.

When I submitted that story to the group for critiquing, I wasn’t expecting the feedback that I received. I expected every person to make recommendations for improvement, and I even wondered if a couple of writers might think the story too sappy. Boy was I surprised!

Sure, there were some recommendations, but the consensus was that the events of that Thanksgiving afternoon had universal meaning. Although it was a personal story, “Hats and Cornbread” has implications for every family who has suffered loss or change, whether by death, divorce, remarriage, relocation, or any other reason. People leave us, and we are left to rebuild the structure of not just holidays, but of everyday life.

Back to that Thanksgiving afternoon, here’s the passage about it from Serving Up Memory:

We wore our hats hoping to keep that holiday spirit alive. Did it work? Not really. The picture snapped by my son-in-law late that afternoon looks like everyone is having a good old time, but looks can be deceiving. Despite our fake smiles, we were all still heartbroken, our psyches raw with fresh grief.

It probably hit me for the first time that evening: My family holidays with kith and kin in the manner I had known all of my life were over. Sure, I’d share turkey and dressing, red velvet cake, and other seasonal fare with various relatives each year, but my mother’s passing on October 20, 2000, marked the end of gatherings in the family home. Marjorie Ann was the heart of it all. It was never the same after her passing.

As the season creeps nearer each day, thoughts of earlier gatherings and traditions fill my mind. John and Margie’s children have all moved on, yet we hold those memories of love and good cheer in our hearts. I have other families on my mind today, and I hope that they’ll all find their way into and through the holidays without stumbling or experiencing crippling heartache.

The death of a loved one, regardless of age or status, changes everything. You can’t ignore the loss, the empty place at the dining room table. And yet you must not succumb to grief. As I write this, I’m thinking of dozens of people whose holiday season has been unalterably changed, some just within the last few days. I’m hoping they’ll all find a way to feel peace.

Changing and Looking Ahead


My son and his family left Myrtle Beach this afternoon. It was marvelous to see them again…and heart wrenching to tell them good-bye last night. Atlanta, GA is a long way from here, and although I know I’ll see them at least once before Ethan Paul makes his debut in March, it was still hard to watch them drive away last night.

Still, if I’ve learned one thing in my life it’s that it (life) goes on. Despite separation, trials, loss, and pain, it goes on. Whining and feeling sorry for myself won’t bring the young family back. Nor will it bring back my parents and grandparents who no longer walk the earth. I’ve known people so sick or discouraged or miserable that they simply didn’t want to go on anymore. Fortunately, so far they’ve had the fortitude to keep on keeping on.

Here’s another thing I’ve learned: those whom you’ve loved never really leave you. They’re always in your heart and mind, and sweet memories of them can be conjured up at a moment’s notice. Hundreds of these recollections  have flooded my mind during this special season, thus making it challenging to spotlight just one. Many of them sort of flow into each other, like the dozens of Christmas Eves at my grandmother’s house when all of my cousins were there. Invariably, one of the adults would look out the window and declare that he had seen lights circling the area, a sure sign that Santa wanted to land. If I had to choose just one Christmas memory, I’d go with the one in which my grandmother read me an article from the newspaper about a little girl named Virginia who wanted to know if there was a Santa Claus. Spellbound, I listened to MaMa Padgett as she read Virginia’s letter and the editor’s response, thrilled to know that indeed Santa existed.

My sweet daughter-in-law seemed to have a case of the doldrums when I saw her yesterday, and I suspect it’s because she and I were feeling some of the same emotions. She’s on her way back to Atlanta now and probably won’t see her parents for several months. They’re serving a mission for the LDS church and only came home for a couple of weeks at this special season. They’ll be back in June. By then, Amanda and Paul will have another baby, Ethan. Hmmm. That brings me to a third thing I’ve learned: The only constant is change! Seriously, you can count on that one. Nothing ever stays the same. For better or worse, things (people, events, circumstances) are always in a state of flux. All I have to do is look at my grandchildren to see that!

I think of my sweet mama every day, and naturally she’s in most of my Christmas memories. Of the many, many lessons I learned from her, one is that a person always needs something to look forward to. Whether it’s a visit from a friend, a favorite television show, or a shopping excursion, having something to look forward to can give us momentum and buoy up our spirits. Having a hopeful expectation that something good is going to happen can make the crucial difference between happiness and misery.

As 2011 comes to a close, I realize the truth of the above even more. Life goes on, people never really leave you, change is constant, and hope is important. I’m looking forward to 2012 and all of the changes that it will surely bring. I hope that we can all adapt to whatever lies in store for us and, all the while keeping our loved ones in our hearts.