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.

Oranges and Starlings

I’ve drifted away from this blog and have been spending more time on Gossip and Solitude, a blog about reading and writing. I began Mom’s Musings years ago as a forum to post thoughts about any and everything from family to work and religion to politics. I’m a grandmother now, not a “mom” with dependent children. Does Mom’s Musings still fit? Maybe. Like a friend told me last week, “You’ll always be a mom.”

So here goes.

Note to self: No more whining about anything. I’ve got more good stuff going on than the law allows.

Of all the memorable  things I saw, heard, and experienced this past weekend,the prize goes to a sweet image I’ll carry in my heart for the rest of my days.

I went to church in Myrtle Beach yesterday morning, and as I was chatting with a friend before Sunday school began, my attention was drawn to a sweet scene that involved two tiny people, my granddaughter Amelia and her cousin Fern. The tots were leaving the chapel hand-in-hand on their way to the nursery, and I knew that within their little psyches, they felt the power of love and unity. I could see only the backs of their heads, one blond and the other chestnut, but I didn’t have to see their beautiful faces to know they were smiling.

Backtracking a bit, we dined with Amelia and her siblings and parents Friday evening, and although it might have seemed ordinary to many, to me it was anything but. However, if I hadn’t been deliberately observant, I might have missed, or at least not savored, a few of the shining moments.

  • Ethan, my grandson rode with Elizabeth and me to California Pizza, and on the way, he spotted a huge navel orange in the back seat and claimed it as his own. His aunt Elizabeth told him she had brought it for Grandma Jayne, but that was his orange and no one was wresting it away from him. For dinner, he nibbled on pizza but ate the orange in its entirety.
  • Olivia, the first grader, began coloring and playing tic-tac-toe on her paper placemat right away. Always able to entertain herself, she “worked” and chatted until her mac ‘n’ cheese arrived.
  • Amelia Grace ate her pizza and some of her sister’s chips. Generous, she handed several chip pieces across the table to me. Paying no attention to my no thanks, she kept her little arm extended until I took one or two or three.
  • When we left California Pizza, it was pouring down rain, and Ethan sheltered beneath the umbrella with Elizabeth as we hustled towards the car. The other two children were with their parents, and I’m glad I got a glance of the four of them huddled together as they hurriedly splashed down the sidewalk.

Last Sunday, I attended church in Rincon, GA with my daughter Carrie and her five children. I usually leave after Sacrament service, but that day I stayed for all three meetings. My oldest granddaughter, Brooke, was giving her last talk in Primary that day because the following Sunday (yesterday) she was being promoted to Young Women’s. Lovely and serene, she gave her talk like the champ she is, and witnessing the moment was worth the two-hour delay of leaving.

Shining moments don’t have to involve children or grandchildren. One afternoon last week a friend and I were captivated by a small flock of starlings circling and swooping over downtown Camden. Glad I noticed.

What about you? What’s something that’s made you smile lately?

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.

 

Cherry Pie Tempation

It can’t be that fattening, right? And after all, it has fruit in it. At least that was my thinking when I bought the cherry pie a couple of weeks ago. Usually, I just scoot right by the pies when grocery shopping, but on this particular afternoon, my progress through the crowded aisle had come to a dead stop right in front of the dessert choices. The apple pie crumb pie looked good but not quite inviting enough to tempt me. That’s when I saw the cherry one. After hesitating about ten seconds, I tossed it into the buggy.

I maneuvered the cart though the rest of the aisles as I picked up yogurt, milk, bagels, apples, grapes, bananas, and a yellow onion. No cookies, chips, or ice cream landed amongst the healthy choices. But then, there was that cherry pie. The picture on the box looked so tasty. And well, it conjured up a memory of a Sunday afternoon decades ago.

Dinner was over, and the rest of the family had skedaddled to do whatever whatever they chose. I, however, was stuck with kitchen duty that day. As I removed the plates and leftover food from the table, I noticed two pieces of pie, tempting and tasty, left in the pie plate. I wanted one—or at least a sliver of one and asked my mother if I could have a piece of a piece.

I’ll never forget her reply. In fact, it’s become somewhat legendary among the females of my family.

“Of course, you can a second piece, but you need to know that’s how people get fat.”

She didn’t say “gain weight” or “get chubby.” She said “get fat.”

At that time, I was on the skinny side of the curve. Seriously, maybe the 35th percentile for weight. Not only was I not in any danger of becoming “fat” (hate that word), but also there was no talk anywhere about the dangers of kids’ diets and exercise. Those topics were just not part of the social conversation. We played outside A LOT, and very few people had sedentary lifestyles—at least not the people I knew.

But when my mother warned me about the perils of a second slice of pie, though a small one, I cringed. Even as a child, probably ten or twelve years old, I recognized the truth when I heard it. Choices count.

“No Ma’am, “ I told her. “I think I’ll pass for now.”

Now whenever I think of having a second piece of fried chicken, a extra dollop of ice cream, or a loaded baked potato instead of broccoli, I remember a Sunday afternoon exchange between my mother and me.

Big deal, you might be thinking. Who cares about cherry pie? What I knew then was something that has been reinforced over and over and over throughout the years. Choices count. As Sartre said, “We are our choices.” Do your homework or go to class unprepared? Pay your bills on time or get a bad credit rating? Clean your house or allow it to get so cluttered that you feel unsettled? Walk around the block (or do some type of exercise) or do your laps on the couch? Finish college or drop out?

It’s your choice.

I succumbed to temptation and bought that cherry pie a couple of weeks ago. I also bought some small cups of ice cream to plop on the top of our warm slices. Right before beginning this post, I got the pie out of the freezer to read the directions and learned that there are 340 calories and 17 grams in one eighth of a pie. Seriously.

When I told my husband the bad news, he asked, “What about the sugar?” I could hardly believe my eyes: 17 grams of sugar in one eighth of a pie. And this is without the cup of ice cream!

We decided to wait for another day to enjoy that tart, red, juicy fruit cooked in the flaky crust. I also decided to go for a short walk around the block, do a little work on my fall classes, and sweep the kitchen. Choices count.

499 Steps

I was surprised to learn the fee was only $13, and the woman selling tickets said the price had been reduced because the elevator to the top wasn’t working. No one said anything. Not a word.

Tender to the touch, my left shin serves as a reminder of last week’s adventure My sister, her daughter, and one of my daughters took off on a girls’ trip to North Carolina, and after “doing Asheville” on Friday, we decided to make Chimney Rock State Park Saturday’s grand finale.

We cruised into town around 10 o’clock after oohing and ahing over the sights along Hwy 64. We wondered aloud how it would be to attend Bat Cave Baptist Church the next day, and that led to yet another discussion about how many different ways there are for people to live and love and play and worship. We heartily agreed that it was important, imperative in fact, to get out of Dodge once in a while to see more of the world than our own narrow corners of it.

Once in Chimney Rock, the park entrance was upon us before we had a chance to signal and turn in. No problem. We rode through town and took in the sights, and since Lake Lure was right down the road, we went there too. I wanted to have a look at the beach. There were no ocean waves or roaring surf, but there was a beach. Water too. And a lifeguard. The area was fenced in, off-limits to us, and people were lined up to plunk their money down.

We headed back to Chimney Rock, not turning again until we got to the park. I was surprised to learn the fee was only $13, and the woman selling tickets said the price had been reduced because the elevator to the top wasn’t working. No one said anything. Not a word.

“So we’ll have to walk up?“ I asked.

“Yes. Is that a problem?” she said.

The general consensus was that we had come this far and by golly, we were going to get to the chimney and touch the flagpole.

“Let’s do it, y’all,” I said.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Feeling overdressed and hot, we stopped at the restroom area and changed into lighter clothes and bought some water. I had learned from an earlier experience not to hike any distance on a hot day without H2O. We got back in the car and around and around the mountain we rode until we got to the parking lot.

We got out of car and looked up at the tall stone chimney. I had climbed this rock before, but it had been a beautiful fall day with brisk temperature. Now it was July. Truthfully, I think we all felt a bit of trepidation. Elizabeth had misgivings about walking in flip-flops, but since she had no extra shoes, it was wait on us at the gift shop or step forward. She started walking.The journey of 499 steps began with the first one. On we went, stopping to peer into a cave, look over the edge at the parking lot, or simply rest a minute. At one point, Elizabeth muttered to me, “This is the worst day of my life.” Lucky girl, I thought, understanding what she meant but knowing she could do it.

“You can do hard things,” I reminded her. No response. She just kept climbing in her flip-flops.

I took dozens of pictures and listened to the encouraging words of folks coming down. “It’s so worth it,” they all said. Some lied and said, “You’re almost there,” when in reality we had quite a way to go. The four of us made small talk and continued climbing—together.

At last we ascended the final twenty or so steps and walked on the rock itself. We laughed and shared “war stories” of the trek. We took selfies, and snapped photos of other people for them. There were so many people with us at the top that I had to carefully maneuver my way between them and the several big rocks. At one point, I got pushed (accidentally) and scraped my shin. Immediately, a goose egg puffed up, and a reddish purple contusion appeared. Ouch.

 After relishing our accomplishment for a few minutes, we began our descent, reluctant to leave the mountain top but anxious to begin the next adventure. Going down was so much easier than going up, and we gleefully told the tired looking climbers that they had a treat in store. “Keep on climbing,” we said. “The view is so worth it.”

Today I’m aware of my tender shin and the memories it conjures up of a day four of us, united by blood and purpose, ascended Chimney Rock. We encouraged one another, swigged our water, kept putting one foot in front of the other, stopped for breathers, and reached the top—together. It’s easier that way.

Reunion Weekend

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While most people don’t know or care that Camden High School had its 50th reunion last weekend, 200+ graduates and their families and friends do. Even those who couldn’t attend because of sickness, distance, prior obligations, or fatigue are probably interested in how it played out.

Since last week, about a dozen people have asked, “How was it?” In a word, fabulous. Read on for a summary and some noteworthy tidbits.

On Friday evening, classmates met at one of Camden’s historic locations, Proctor Hall. A two-story house with lots of character, it was the perfect setting for a gathering such as ours. According to its Facebook page, “Louise C. Proctor Hall epitomizes the gracious hospitality and antebellum ambience that characterizes Camden.”

Classmates walked across a lovely lawn beneath trees lush with the greenness of summer to get the entrance hall where they received names tags, information about weekend events, and a booklet with short bios of classmates. With a beautifully decorated dining room on the right and a grand parlor on the left, the downstairs area offered three rooms in which to mingle, and classmates crossed from one area to another to greet old friends. From time to time, I spotted clusters of people chatting on the porch.

On Saturday, several opportunities to get reacquainted with one another and with Camden were available. I can’t speak for other classmates, but I enjoyed visiting the Archives where dozens of mementoes from school days were available for all to see. What made this activity especially enjoyable was sharing it with others and hearing their laughter as a photograph triggered a memory of a teacher, student, playground prank, or classroom experience.

I also joined several classmates (25?) for lunch at one of Camden’s favorite eateries, Candy’s at the Granary. Not really expecting that much of a turnout, I was surprised and pleased to see that so many folks gathered to break bread together and just “visit.” From Dr. Hoffer who sat next to me I learned that the arthritis in my knuckle is likely the result of a traumatic injury and not the kind that comes with, well, you know, the aging process. Good to know. From Wanda and Bryan, I learned about the Apple Festival in Hendersonville, NC on Labor Day Weekend. Count me in.

On Saturday evening, the BIG event took place at the Shrine Club. Meeting there has become somewhat of a tradition. There was music, entertainment by some excellent shaggers, delicious food, and nonstop conversation. Someone had been hired to take a class photograph, and what could have been an ordeal turned out to be a fun half hour. We got a little cuckoo before it was over, and when we began singing the Alma Mater, the photographer directed our musical efforts.

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Dozens of scenes from the evening continue to run through my mind, but this afternoon, the primary ones are:

  • A graduate who brought two of his grandchildren rather than miss the gathering.
  • The numbers of people who gathered to watch a 1960’s DVD that featured events, music, and news.
  • The photographs of forty-four deceased classmates. There was rarely a moment when their names and faces weren’t being studied…and remembered.
  • The handsome caterer who appeared from time to time, shaking his head in wonderment and saying he had never seen anything like it. “Y’all ought to put this in the paper!” he said.

 

Here’s the concluding paragraph from the preface of the bio booklet, Here’s to the All of You. “Despite our relative homogeneity as kids, we’ve evolved into quite a diverse group. We served our country, nursed the sick, raised children, traveled the world, taught school, weathered personal storms, experienced tragedy and loss, run businesses, managed banks, and lent a therapeutic ear. We’re artists, dancers, camel riders, marathoners, golfers, coaches, and musicians. And we’re survivors.”

So far I haven’t encountered anyone who didn’t enjoy the reunion. As for the committee, we’re already planning for one five years hence. Next time it will be in the fall or winter. We seniors (yes, we can admit it) can’t take the heat as well as we used to.

Will someone please share a memory? Someone, anyone, everyone, tell something you liked, enjoyed, and would like to see repeated.

Roses and Thorns

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We sat in the breezeway between the Welcome Center and the gift shop at Brookgreen Gardens, Grandpa and I. While I don’t know for certain that Grandpa is what his grandchildren called him, that was clearly his role that spring afternoon.

I was holding a sleeping three-year-old, and Grandpa was watching the antics of his grandchildren as they scampered about in front of him. It was probably inevitable that we would strike up a conversation.

“Do you live in South Carolina?” I asked.

“No, Washington. But we have a place here, and we try to get together with our children and grandchildren as often as possible.”

After a moment, “Everyone’s so scattered about.”

“Tell me about it,” I replied. “Who would have imagined that little kids sitting around the dinner table would grow up so quickly and move so far away?”

“Yeah, imagine that,” he said, smiling wistfully.

We chatted about our former jobs, how we felt about retirement, our travel plans, and the joys of grandparenting. Like me, he saw his grandchildren in a condensed sort of way rather than a steady, everyday exposure. While sharing our experiences at the coast, I told him that I knew everyone was having a good time because of my oldest grandson’s request the night before.

“Hey, I’ve got a good idea,” he said. “Let’s go around the table and everyone tell what their most fun time was.”

After the sharing began, it soon became evident that choosing just one thing was well nigh impossible, so Braden changed the guidelines to one thing per day. Even that proved challenging because there had been so much seeing, doing, and sharing. They had searched for Easter eggs, flown kites, walked on a jetty over the sea, eaten specialty cupcakes, played with cousins, seen an otter, gone on a pontoon boat ride, and learned about the Gullah culture. And did I mention the Butterfly Exhibit?

Gramps listened politely and then shared his family’s version of sharing experiences, an ongoing tradition that began when his children were small. At day’s end, they sat around the dinner table and played a game called “Roses and Thorns.” Intrigued, I turned and gave him my full attention.

“The rules are simple. Everyone shares one highlight from the day and one “thorn,” something that didn’t go quite right. Like being scared of jelly fish or getting sunburned.”

I thought that was a splendid idea and made a mental note to incorporate the thorns aspect at some future date. As grownups, we all acknowledge that life is not all sunshine and roses, but it’s not something we discuss on vacation. But why not? It’s foolish to think that every single thing is going to turn out perfectly, especially when there are several people involved who have their own agenda. And the weather. Let’s don’t forget that.

Here are my roses from this past week: Easter dinner (lunch) with my extended family, including a six-week-old baby: cupcakes from Cocodots to celebrate several special occasions, including the opportunity to be together; walking a wide stretch of Huntington Beach with my daughters and grandchildren to get to the jetty; flying kites on the beach with my children, their father, and all eight grandchildren; seeing alligators, otters, foxes, and goats at Brookgreen Gardens; watching a feeding frenzy in the aviary at Brookgreen when the caretaker brought tiny fish for them to eat; and being with sweet baby Amelia on her first visit to the seashore.

My thorns? It ended all too soon.