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. 

Come Back!

Having spent the last couple of weeks on the coast of South Carolina, I’ve had several opportunities to people watch, and one morning I witnessed less than a minute of a family’s life that spoke volumes about their dynamic. I think it might be good material for a Human Growth and Development discussion board topic.

Anxious to begin reading a new novel and just “chill” for a while, I was walking down the beach heading back to the chair when I noticed a teenager in the water. He had a different look about him that captured my attention, especially when I saw him angrily gesturing “go away” to a woman standing in the surf, probably his mother. The teen’s facial features, posture, movements, and expression all indicated some physical and mental challenges. A man, presumably his father, was standing in the ocean beckoning him forward at the same time the mother was stepping closer and closer to him.

“You’re going out too deep!” her manner seemed to say.

“Go back. Leave me alone,” the young man’s body language said. “Let me breathe!”

“Come on, Son,” the dad’s gesture said. “The water’s fine.”

As the son was angrily pushing his mother back towards the shore with his behavior, his father noticed and also waved his arms at her in a frustrated manner as if to say, “Go back!”

I understood perfectly what was going on in a matter of seconds and was saddened for all concerned. At the same time I recalled something I’d read years ago about the need for both mothers and fathers in a child’s life.

Both parents recognize that the world is fraught with danger. Undertows threaten to knock us over, slam us down, shake us up, and maybe even take our breath away. There are scary animals that bite and attack, some of them disguised as nice people. We could go out too far and lose our way back to the shore.

Both parents see the same thing, but they handle it differently. Moms want to nurture and protect. “Be safe,” they say. “Be careful.” Dads, on the other hand, say, “Yeah, it’s a tough world. Let’s get you prepared for it.”

This is an overgeneralization but there’s some truth in it too.

As I came up directly beside the threesome, the boy was continuing towards his father, trudging as fast as the heavy water currents allowed. Determined, he pressed on. The father was smiling. The mother began taking baby steps towards them both.

I wanted to yell, “Leave him alone,” but that inclination was replaced with a thought of how touching it was to see both parents on either side of the child they loved. Children deserve and need nurturing, security, direction, nudges, and encouragement. At the same time, keeping them too close, too safe, can do more harm than good.

I walked on, turning back only once for a quick glance. The boy was within arm’s length of the father; the mother, although she had walked out a bit farther, was standing still as watched the pair just a little beyond her, waves crashing all around them.

As a parent, have you ever had that conflict between hanging on and letting go? Come on, I know you have. Question is, how did you resolve 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.

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.

Stick to the Basics

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“Stick to the basics, Mom. Just stick to the basics.”

Those are the wise words spoken by my son a few years ago when I had gone a little overboard experimenting with soup recipes for a Christmas meal. Not content with chicken noodle and beef vegetable, I added navy bean soup AND potato soup. Before I finally got the four soups and several bread/meats/spreads on the table, I was beside myself with tense aggravation. I could hardly enjoy the laughter and good will around me.

I vowed never to be so foolish again.

I kept that promise until yesterday when my husband’s mother, children, in-laws, and grandchildren came over for the annual Christmas celebration. We’ve done this event often enough to be able to predict everyone’s contribution, so I decided to mix it up a bit. I had attended a “beachie Christmas” party last week and was longing to duplicate the yummy shrimp and grits that Carol and Randy served.

How hard could it be, right? Carol directed me to Pat Conroy’s shrimp and grits recipe, and while I saw dozens of recipes online, Conroy’s wasn’t among them.

I went into Books A Million in search of his cookbook, but the Sandhills BAM had sold their last copy that morning. Undeterred, I browsed through some cookbooks until I found one with an easy recipe for Shrimp and Grits. So far, so good.

About 4:30 yesterday afternoon, things began to go downhill when I tried to sauté garlic and green onions in one skillet and fry bacon in another. Don’t ask. I think I misread something. Let’s just cut through all of the drama and say that I botched the dish. The grits were lumpy, and somehow I’d missed the directions about the shrimp and sauce being in one pot and the grits in another. Everything ended up together in one giant pot.

When he heard of the near fiasco, Kacey the chef said, “I don’t understand. Wasn’t there a recipe?”

“Yes, and I did a pretty good job of following the first four steps.”

Kacey read the recipe and good-naturedly reminded me that I needed to follow the directions in order. “No skipping around or leaving out,” he said.

Fortunately for me, Kelly and Angie, my step daughters-in-law are angels. Without laughing or teasing, they simply began making a roux to go on top of the shrimp and grits. Before they did, however, Kelly had to make a Food Lion run to get the necessary ingredients. Again, no teasing or complaining.

An hour later, we were all sampling the shrimp and grits, broiled tomatoes, buttered bread, and a cucumber, tomato, and onion salad. Dessert was especially good, Jenny’s brownies and Angie’s chocolate trifle. The main dish was “okay,” just okay. It’s not one I plan to try again any time soon.

As the evening went on, I remembered that it’s being together that’s important. Little Charlie fell and hurt his nose, the blood splotching his shirt and Kelly’s. Kacey and Big Charlie animatedly discussed religion, Otis gave a nice talk about missing family members, and the kids all liked their gifts. The little girls modeled their scarves before leaving, and Little Charlie took several “interesting” pictures with his new camera. Cooper walked around checking things out, and sweet baby Daniel slept through much of the evening.

I think a good time was had by all. Honestly, I’m a little distressed about that gummy concoction in my fridge. Just thinking about it makes me more determined not to go overboard later this week when my children cruise into town. I’m sticking to the basics.

Caught Between Generations

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I spent some time visiting cemeteries today. I’ve often excused my absence there by saying, “My parents aren’t really there. Their spirits live elsewhere. In fact, I can sense their presence quite often.”

Still, I needed to go. I was somehow compelled to go. I parked in the church parking lot and ate a couple of Chick fil-A nuggets before summoning the nerve to get out of the car. I hadn’t been in a while and was feeling ill-at-ease.

“What’s wrong with you, Jaynie?” My mother often called me that, and I could almost hear her asking me that question. Not wanting to disappoint her, I got out and walked to the gate. I pushed it open and headed right. Seconds later, I was staring at my parents’ headstones. Their names and birth and death dates were clearly etched on them. I stared at them for a few moments, incredulous that it had been over 15 years since I’d heard my father’s voice. I can still hear him saying, “Never better,” whenever anyone would ask him how he felt. That response always struck me as strange because he had emphysema and died of COPD. Breathing was a challenge, a scary and painful one (I think).

The main thing that struck me while standing there, however, was how names and dates reveal so little about what a person was really like. She could sing so beautifully. She could dance too. And she was a little zany at times. She was a real lady, and I loved her so much. So did my children. Even now, it’s Granny, Granny, Granny. What about me??? And my father had this cool walk. He sort of loped along in a casual stride, and my son walks the same way. Gulp.

Before I get too carried away, let’s move on.

I then went to another cemetery about seven or eight miles from the first one. My little grandson is resting there beside his great-grandfather, and I needed to see his stone today. His mama, my daughter Carrie, celebrates Spencer’s birth on December 8th of each year, and I wanted to let him know that he hasn’t been forgotten. I think the little angel healed a lot of family wounds. Maybe that was the purpose of his brief mission.

I’ve always loved my son-in-law, but the day that he told me they wanted to bury Spencer in Camden marks the day that I fell even harder for the guy.  He said he knew that there would always be family in Camden, and thus a reason for coming back here to bring Spencer’s younger brothers and sisters to visit his grave. What hope. What optimism. What faith. My daughter had already had two miscarriages and a stillborn child. And yet, Rich was confident that little Spencer would have younger siblings.

And Rich was right. I remember his statement every year when I go with Carrie, Rich, and their five children to pay Spencer a visit.

It was a day of connecting with family. Whether still walking the earth or abiding in holier habitations, people continue to affect each other. Caught between generations, my mind awash with memories, I again marveled at the web of connections.

Bravery at Harbour Town

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One of the many things I’ve learned about writing is that you (a writer) have to pay attention. You have to become increasingly mindful of the events going on about you, including sights, sounds, gestures, expressions, breezes, hummingbirds, and just about any and everything else you might have ignored before. You have to zero in on conversations and mood changes and sound inflections. AND you need to have a pen and paper nearby to write these things down before they’re forever gone from memory.

Until a year or so ago I would have smiled at a couple of phrases uttered by my grandchildren and perhaps written about them in my gratitude journal. But now, these words and the accompanying experiences have taken on new meaning, and it’s not because I’m one of those doting grandmothers who thinks that everything the little darlings say is worth noting for posterity. It’s because little ones have so much to teach us if we’d only pay attention.

 Last Friday we rode caravan style to the Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head for the sole purpose of climbing atop the Harbour Town lighthouse. We wanted to do a little something different to celebrate my daughter’s birthday, and climbing the 114 steps to the top of the red and white striped lighthouse appealed to all of us. We’d never climbed a lighthouse together before, and this one overlooking the yacht basin seemed to beckon us to “come on up.”

By the time we finally arrived at Sea Pines, it was already a sweltering afternoon. Everyone, even the usually adaptable children, was sweaty, sticky, and a little out of sorts. Once we saw the lighthouse and realized how miserably hot it would be and that someone would probably have to carry the 2-year-old all the way to the top, his mother decided to stay behind with him.

Undaunted, the rest of us went into the museum/lighthouse and plunked our money down. As an aside, the cost is now $3.75 per person, something tourists need to know. One website advertised $3 person, and another announced a fee of $1. When I mentioned this to the nice lady selling tickets, she said that although their prices had changed this year, the website(s) had not been updated. Good to know.

My daughter Elizabeth and I began the ascent to the top of the lighthouse with four young children, and all was well for the first flight of steps. Emma, the 6-year-old, got scared and begged her aunt Elizabeth to carry her. Despite the insufferable heat, Elizabeth complied…at least for a while. Then 4-year-old Colton’s courage began to flag, and he wanted to be carried too. Upon reaching the next landing, we stepped to the side and explained that we could either continue climbing the museum/lighthouse to the top with everyone walking OR we could go down and miss the view from the top. After a moment’s hesitation, it was onward and upward.

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Slowly and haltingly, we began our ascent, moving aside a few times to let faster, braver people go by us. Little Colton reached for my hand, and I was surprised to feel that he was shaking. “Hold on tight,” I said encouragingly.

Elizabeth turned to look at us, and Colton announced, “I’m teaching Grandmama how to be brave.”

“I see that,” she said.

We continued to the top and felt pretty proud of ourselves for making the trip without further hesitation. There’s a neat little gift shop at the top of the lighthouse, but instead of stopping to browse, we walked right outside to the observation deck for a few photo ops. We circled the deck, snapping pictures and mingling with the other tourists who were also enjoying the view. I took pictures of a family, and the father in the group took a few pictures of us.

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I’ll go back again, and next time I’ll pause long enough to study the photographs and other artifacts placed along the entire ascent of the lighthouse. I’ll also remember a courageous little boy, who despite his fear, bravely held my hand and went forward, never looking back. The lessons:  (1) Hold hands and as Joyce Meyer advises  (2) “Do it scared.”