Category Archives: Memories

A little Springtime Nostalgia…

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It happens… if you don’t like the reminiscences and voyage into the sappy, softened memory-thing, scroll on by. I’m sure you will find something more to your taste. However, I’m going to spend just a moment traveling in my own past.

This morning (it is Easter), I visited a house of Christian worship. This is something that doesn’t happen over frequently with me as an adult. However, it was a rather common occurrence of my youth. It always manages to trigger memory overloads as I see familiar faces, and, whether I want to be or not, am recognized by those same faces. As the years have gone by, there are fewer of the faces I find familiar… and fewer still who recognize me. It’s bitter sweet for me because I love fading into the back and observing without inciting riots or high pitched noises. However, it is a very lonely feeling when you realize that many of those who would recognize you are gone, and those who are still there do not recognize you due to the changes (and age) that makes you… well, unrecognizable.

It is no wonder that my mind drifts on these occasions to points in my life where (and when), like the familiar watering hole in Boston, everybody knew my name… often the full one… and proclaimed it regularly at full volume because of something or other I had done. I remember Easter Sundays of years past when after all the prerequisite ecumenical festivities, my family would gather at my great-grandmother’s home to show off our new Easter finery (which was ditched in favor of jeans and t-shirts as soon as proper oohs and ahs were performed). Afterwards, there was copious amounts of food, fun, more food, egg hunting, additional helpings of food, laughing and practical jokes…passing out from food… you get the picture.

When I talk about these family gatherings, I am not speaking of a mere constellation or a few close relatives, I’m talking about nearly hundred individuals including the children, grandchildren, and great grand children of the woman for whom I was named. Many, many dozen eggs would be boiled and dyed to accommodate the traditional family egg hunts. There were rules… to which no one really paid attention. People played dirty. The only unbreakable regulations were for the “littles.” There were always eggs “hidden” in such a way that they were clearly visible and reachable by those under the age of 10 and the height of 3 feet. Adults, teens, and adolescents who were older and taller were forbidden these finds.

Everything else… fair game. There were years that acquiring some of the deviously hidden ova meant risking life and limb. Definitely extra points for courage and sometimes a strong stomach were given. Participants ranged in age from toddler to nonagenarian. The hiding was done in teams (there were several dozen eggs, remember). The teams generally consisted of the trickier members of the clan, and their favorite trick was to hide in plain site. Sometimes, however, they were so good at this, even the hiders could not find them afterwards… leading to some interesting occurrences in the warmer months of the year.

One of my favorite memories of my great grandmother’s home was the violet carpet. There was a patch of ground that was literally so covered with the small purple flowers that you could not step without stepping on several. In my young, imaginative mind, that one area became a magical place where the fae held sway and the courts of elven royalty hosted feasts and balls.

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As an adult, I know that many people work hard to eradicate the broad-leaved interlopers that mar their golfing green-like yards. I know it’s a weed. I really do, but when I found a similarly enchanted patch of ground behind my own house, I could not bring myself to rid the yard of the hundreds of tiny purple and white faces that sprang up each year. At least each time I see them, I can revisit, however briefly a time when I wasn’t rushing around, overwhelmed with obligation, or irritable from trying to be realistic and responsible all the time. For just a moment, I can look at the violet carpet and believe in magic.

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Real Plastic Snow, and Other Holiday Traditions

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It was November when we stepped off a very long flight from Houston, Texas. When, I managed to get my bearings, my first thought was… Brrrrrr and then, Um, I thought they always said this was a desert.

To say that the weather was dreary was a tad understated. It was raining, and while Houston had included me wearing shorts and t-shirt sleeves, I was really wishing at this point that we hadn’t packed away winter clothing. Seriously… I swear they said it was a desert. However, my excitement about a new adventure almost overrode the jetlag and general psychological dissonance that Saudi Arabia was not sunny with palm trees and sand dunes like all the artwork I’d seen in the bibles and the Tales of the Arabian Nights floating around various family abodes in my youth. Aside from the shock that it just didn’t look the way I expected, I suppose it answered pretty well for an adventure. It looked in all other ways very different than where we’d started the journey.

It was beige. I don’t mean a little bit here and there. I mean it was varying degrees of a tan color that embraced buildings and surrounding land. It was also flat. Coming from mid-Atlantic United States and the Appalachian territory, I was more used to hills and green. This was another clue that we were no longer in Kansas… or in our case Tennessee.

We crossed the wet tarmac with spots of standing water… I swear they said desert… and made our way into the immigration and customs hall. I don’t recall a whole lot else. I possibly wrenched a neck muscle trying to take everything in, but for the most part, it was all a blur. Once we were through the technicalities of visas and luggage search for contraband, we made our way to receiving where our employee liaison met us and escorted us to our temporary lodgings. It was called the Babtain Building. I think it was originally built to encourage the Bedouin to come to the town/city and forgo their nomadic lifestyle. It went over about as you might imagine. The indigenous tribes of nomads were quite pleased with life as it was (thank you very much) and the very nice accommodations remained empty. This is how we came to be living in what would probably cost in the 4-digit pricetag in any city in the United States: Fully furnished with a full bath, huge tub, marble floors, full kitchen and two bedrooms with very high ceilings… and completely alien. The fixtures were European (and the bathroom included a bidet). I might also say that the elevator was an adventure in itself, since it frequently wanted to stop between floors. I thought it was a hoot. My parents were quite as impressed. Additionally, we were smack in the middle of Al Khobar. Talk about your culture shock. Our guide did take us around to local markets and out to eat at what was soon to become one of my favorite restaurants, The Gulf Royal Chinese Restaurant (home of the best hot and sour soup, EVER).

Returning home, I was excited. This was an adventure to me. The company had provided a box of basic supplies to start us off until we could do some shopping (though, to this day, I always wondered if the Campbell’s Cream of Asparagus soup was some sort of hazing ritual). I was exhausted and despite the jetlag, I found myself falling into bed… only to wake up to the sounds of what I knew to be crying. My mum. Unused to the marble and amazing carrying power of sound through the apartment, she thought she had escaped to cry in the solitude of the amazing bathroom. But I heard. I didn’t understand why she was crying, but I listened from my bed. To be honest, I didn’t even have a clue how to address this issue. Years later, I finally found out what prompted the tears. My mother thought she would never be able to navigate this alien world and find food and manage to keep us from famine and pestilence. I blame it on the jetlag and the immense amounts of Dramamine that was required to keep her from puking on the plane.

The next day, the cure for all my mum’s ills presented in a trip to the commissary (post exchange). The Dhahran Ladies Group managed to dispel all the woes and terrors my mother managed to concoct in her mind by the astoundingly western market. We were saved. There were shelves stocked with food items that had labels… in English. I know it sounds silly, but this was a serious fear of hers. After a couple of decades, she could go downtown and shop in the souk without blinking, but that first week, surrounded by tan landscape, unfamiliar smells (not all of them pleasant), and foreign fixtures, my dear mother who had never left the United States was suffering from some acute traumatic issues.

As it was, we managed to get through the end of November and Thanksgiving without any of the imagined concerns of dysentery or starvation. However… the month of December loomed with additional concerns. During orientation, we had been drilled on the customs of this new country we were calling home. We were informed of their religious laws and the fact that as a theocracy, there was no separation of church and state. Additionally, we had been told that anything that hinted at non-Islamic faith could get us into trouble ranging from deportation to execution.

Prior to the move, our family had a full calendar at Christmas. Aside from cantatas and choral shows, there were family gatherings. Christmas was a constant flow of lights and family and friends from mid-December through New Year’s. Now, we were in a country that we had been told might throw us in jail for a “Merry Christmas.” Queue the waterworks again. I heard mum in the night. This time, I had figured it out. We had packed away all the ornaments collected and crafted for years. There would be no smell of evergreen filling the home. In fact, I could read her thoughts, “We aren’t even going to have a tree!” Queue more involuntary ocular leakage.

Again, I’ve got to give it up to the Dhahran Ladies Group. First, they dispelled the horror stories pretty vehemently. While, our host country was not big on evangelism, they were not opposed to celebration of our Christmas holiday. In fact, in the main camp, people decorated much as people in the states did. There were tours of houses in the camp and their decorations. At night, for the houses lit up, many of the Saudis would bring their families and drive around looking at the lights. So… no jail time for having a little holiday cheer. Good to know.

But we still did not have a tree, much less ornaments to put on a tree if we had one. Queue the tear ducts. It was a rather depressing time. However, that is when we heard a rumor about a miracle worker and procurer of rare articles, Mr. Al Swami. That was the name. I’m not kidding. I never knew whether that was his real name or not. It was the name of the store. The best I can describe it is a cross between Hallmark and the convenience stores with tourist crap packing the shelves. It was a curiosity of Al Khobar that you might find Legos and Waterford crystal side by side in any given establishment. Well, the rumor was that you might be able to go to Al Swami’s and find, not a Christmas tree, but a Holiday tree. In my head, I had this scenario of sidling up to a swarthy man and saying “Psssst… know where I might get a… *looks around*… holiday tree?” As it happens… that is sorta what it worked out to be. My mother’s heart sank when the man looked at her with pity and shook his head. We were in danger of a flood… when, all of a sudden, the miracle occurred. Someone came from the back and it seems that a customer had returned shrubbery just that afternoon. Christmas… I mean Holiday… was saved! We were in possession of a lovely 4-foot fake tree. While there, we also managed to obtain some white fairy lights and a few ornaments. For whatever reason, it seems we also came away with something labeled “Real Plastic Snow.” Yes, we bought it for the comedic value (and I have it to this very day… yellowed through the years, which makes it even funnier than it was originally).

Our tree traditionally had been filled with colorful lights (those hot ones that blink and make patterns on the ceiling… and fire hazards), memento ornaments, handmade ornaments, and wrapped in gold garland, icicles (probably giving us lead poisoning), and popcorn and cranberry chains. It was a homey tree. It had tradition and memory on every limb. It had a star made of cardboard and aluminum foil, and a wreath made of computer punch cards sprayed gold hung on our door. It was a tree that spoke of lean pockets, but rich hearts.

Now, that was gone; packed away in a storage facility somewhere in the U.S. We had a short tree with no attachments to the past. Since there was no way to replicate our traditional tree, we elected to go a completely different route. We purchased ornaments in white and gold. It would be tasteful and generic, but it would work. We had managed to find cassette tapes of holiday music (very likely pirated). The little tree looked almost classy with the white and gold. One of our finds during the mad dash for holiday spirit was some needlework ornaments. Mum and I worked on the tiny little canvases and their intricate stitchery framed in brassy-looking plastic frames. It was a far cry from clothes pin toy soldiers and painted wooden animals, but it was hand-done and something to tie tradition to this new tree. It was our first Christmas in Dhahran. Through the years, the little gold and white tree gained new ornaments (always keeping to the gold and white theme). Soon, we ran out of room, and after moving into camp and having more space, we found a larger “holiday tree” that became the new gold and white tree in the main entertaining area of the house. The original fake evergreen moved into the den upstairs where it started collecting a new plethora of mementos from travel, friends, and family. Eventually, even those overcrowded the small, well-loved holiday symbol. It was packed away to possibly be a gift for another family that may arrive in kingdom without a “holiday tree” too close to the season. However, the old friend found a more important purpose in 1990.

That Autumn changed our lives in many ways, but most of you may remember it as Operation Desert Shield (see, I told you it was supposed to be a desert). I worked with the 85th Evac Hospital and 28th Combat Support, Candlelight Base, and the Desert DOGs with the military to provide support and MWR efforts during that and the Storm and Farewell that followed. During that holiday season, our little tree got a new life. We dressed it up in the finest, and it traveled into the field (sometimes even by Apache helicopter). It brought a symbol of spirit and warmth to the men and women of our armed services standing between “Iraq and a Hard Place” (as we sometimes said). We carried the tree to every base and encampment we could. We may not have been able to send those soldiers, Marines, and sailors back to family and home, but we could bring a touch of it to them. Not bad for a little tree that someone returned to a shop in downtown Al Khobar so many years ago.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may all of you have a Prosperous New Year!

My Internal Pandora is Stuck on a Loop

Every now and then, my brain has the oddest tendency to get stuck on a particular song. Like a needle on a scratched LP vinyl (for those who remember), I hear the same tune and phrase over and over. It isn’t even that I get the entire piece of music. It is just a short snippet of lyric and note that will wedge itself in my conscious, linguistic portion of my mind, and I am doomed to be singing it to myself all day long. No attempts to dislodge it with other similarly repetitive notes will work. Even when I become engrossed and distracted by the actual productive activities of the day, it is but a brief interlude before… “It’s a small world afterall…” And no, that is not the song that got stuck today. It just illustrates the point so beautifully; not to mention that you are all now sharing my grief with the proverbial soundtrack to the realms of Tartarus playing in your skulls… Muahahahahahahaha!

Ok, so maybe not. It is entirely possible that your will is so strong that the insidious seeds of mental torture are incapable of ensconcing themselves into your conscious and subconscious to play in a never ending loop. You might be one of the lucky ones who do not have the plague of songs waiting to absorb your neural energies with their continued repetition.

I, however, am not so lucky. It could happen at any point. A good many times, it occurs upon waking. There is the random song (or worse, an advertisement jingle) that has just *bamf* appeared in my forebrain waiting to tie up all my verbal processes while I try to get the record in my head to quit skipping and playing the same small section of music and words over and over and over… and over…

It might help me to even understand from whence the stream of notes and syntax has arrived to plague my thoughts. Sometimes, I can almost guess. I figure that I probably heard a random bit of something on the car radio or as elevator music somewhere along the path of my day. Sometimes, it may be that there were just a couple of words spoken with a lilt that called to mind a particular phrase in a chorus or a verse that remains glued to the inside of my head echoing for hours (and sometimes days). It might even be that I just read something in an email or instant message at work or even on social media at some point that excited the neural pathways in the auditory portion of my brain to make it light up like Christmas (because, yes, I am one of those people who actually “hear” the words when I read them on paper or screen). It could be any of these very logical and incredibly rational explanations for why a song gets stuck in my head like a shred of beef jerky between two molars in the back of my jaw, aching until a toothbrush or floss can be obtained.

And then… there are the other ones, the ones that pop into my conscious thoughts for no apparent rational cause. These are the ones that truly make me doubt my sanity and consider that perhaps there really are government or alien entities beaming thoughts into my head… where is my aluminum foil?!? While I’m not quite ready to subscribe to outlandish theories, I really do become extraordinarily curious about how my brain links up all the different pathways to bring those specific words and notes to rattle around incessantly until I want to pierce my own eardrums with icepicks.

When I imagine it, there are flow charts in my head that have yes and no dichotomies in a decision tree that ultimately results in the bizarre and random thoughts that seem to occur as if by magic or divine intervention. The scientific part of me knows that there are links somewhere, somehow… But the childlike wonder in me says “It’s magic. It’s a message.” Today is one of those days.

The song that presented to my brain unbidden was from the movie Meet the Robinsons. It is titled “Little Wonders” by Rob Thomas. I cannot attribute the presence of this musical interlude to any multimedia influence as television and radio had not presented it to my ears. Additionally, I hadn’t seen the movie (though I do like it a lot) in quite a long time. The song itself is one that, despite my best efforts to stave them off, will bring me to a wistful or even morose place. I have actually been brought to tears by this song, though the theme itself is quite positive.

And so here I sit… tune stuck in my head… tearing up, and so very thankful no one can see me as I wail away like a big derpy girl. Why did this one pop in for a visit today? I guess I’ll take the message this time as “Appreciate the positives and take the win…” I guess if we can all learn to appreciate the moment we might stand a better chance of moving forward instead of getting stuck in the past.

Let it go,
Let it roll right off your shoulder,
Don’t you know the hardest part is over,
Let it in,
Let your clarity define you,
in the end,
We will only just remember how it feels.
Our lives are made in these small hours,
These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate,
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain.
Let it slide,
Let your troubles fall behind you,
Let it shine,
Until you feel it all around you and I don’t mind,
If it’s me you need to turn to,
We’ll get by,
It’s the heart that really matters in the end,
Our lives are made,
In these small hours,
These little wonders,
These twists and turns of fate,
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain.
All of my regret,
Will wash away some how,
But I can not forget,
The way I feel right now,
In these small hours,
These little wonders,
These twists and turns of fate,
These twists and turns of fate,
Time falls away but these small hours,
These small hours, still remain,
Still remain,
These little wonders,
These twists and turns of fate,
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These little wonders still remain.

                                (Rob Thomas, 2007)

Cornbread and Buttermilk

Some of the strangest things can trigger memories.

Today it was a random commercial. To be honest, I don’t even remember what they were hawking. That is a sad, sad statement on the people who designed that particular commercial just to draw the attention of the viewer to their client’s product. Regardless, I was drawn because the commercial showed a very tired man coming home at dawn with his wife disparaging the rigors of the “graveyard” shift. This was followed by the magical passage of time to the man getting ready to go back to work and finding his young son at the refrigerator. In a scolding tone he asks the boy what he is doing up so late. To which the child replies, “I wanted to eat breakfast with you.”

Touching, isn’t it. Brings a tear to the eye. In these hard times, so many people are having to make compromises and give up time with loved ones just to make ends meet. This brings up a whole other conversation/argument/battle royal with my best friend about the cost of living vs. the potential wages earned. Not really where I was going.

That commercial stirred a memory, actually a couple of different memories. Both my father and my grandfather worked some non-traditional hours. Dad worked long hours. I often wouldn’t get to see him except for the brief time we got to spend as he drove me to my grandparents early in the morning to catch the bus to school. Dad’s old Volkswagon station wagon. It smelled like smoke and mustiness from his firefighting gear. The ride every morning was usually less than 10 minutes, but still those rides are some of my best memories of my father from early childhood, listening to the AM radio and shivering because the heater was practically non-existent.

My grandparent’s house was where I spent a lot of time, before and after school and during the summers. My grandfather, worked shiftwork. Sometimes days, sometimes 3-11, and sometimes graveyard. When Pappy worked the 3-11 or graveyard, I would sneak up well after my designated “lights out” to tiptoe into the kitchen. My grandfather’s favorite after work snack or pre-graveyard repast was a glass of buttermilk with homemade cornbread (you know the kind, cooked in a cast iron skillet) crumbled into it. Pappy always pretended to be surprised to see me, no matter how many times he found me at his elbow. He would pour me my own glass and slice me a piece of the cornbread for me to crumble into my own glass. The two of us sitting at the very 50’s-style Formica-topped kitchen table eating cornbread and buttermilk in silence while the rest of the house slept.

When asked about their best memories from childhood, many people think of beloved pets, winning the big game, or a trip to Disneyworld. Like a few of us, my best memories of childhood are quiet, purely mundane moments: A 10 minute car ride on frosty mornings with the smell of old smoke and the sound of classic country music on a tinny AM radio… and the taste of cornbread and buttermilk.

Taking the tally… Still in the good

Memory is a blessing and a curse. Most of the time people talk about the ghosts of the past that highlight regrets or bring back times that remind us of what we missed or lost. We think about “good old days” and “back when”. Primarily, that particular ability for recall brings up all the deficits of the present as we put on the rose colored glasses of “yesteryear”.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as guilty as the next. There are some terribly painful missing elements in my present existence and some glorious victories of days gone by that make me feel every second of my *cough* years. I have aches of grief and regret. I pine for times gone by that history has graced with a veneer of soft reminiscence. I miss the people gone from my life. I miss… my youth, my choices not taken, and I consider the alternative pathways I might have explored.

And now I will call for a full stop, before I start traipsing down that depressing road.

I had a reminder this very evening that memory can also be a blessing. I stepped into one of our regular haunts. For those who understand the concept of “the pub,” there is no explanation required. For the rest, a pub or “the pub” isn’t a bar or even just an establishment serving adult beverages. It is the local gathering place, where people share news and gossip, where you celebrate you victories amongst friends and your griefs amongst family. It is, to borrow from an iconic television cliche “a place where everybody knows your name.” These establishments are rare in the U.S. (we had prohibition, remember), and even more so in the south. I’ve been lucky enough to find a few places that fit the bill. It isn’t about the liquid refreshment or food. It is about the staff and the patrons who frequent these rare gems that give them the distinction of “pub”.

I’ve gotten distracted, as usual, but tonight, I had a plethora of stimuli that set up the internal playback mechanisms. The jukebox had evidently been loaded by every family member and friend wanting to visit my recollections. Every musical interlude called to mind a different person or particularly vivid event to mind. The time of year primed my mind to drift towards the past and all the elements missing from my present.

My saving grace met me shortly upon entering the pub. Making customary greetings, I happened upon this dear friend (family of choice). He remarked to me, “Remember how we met…”

I did. In that particular instance, he had been helping out on a busy night waiting tables. We had been new patrons. He smarted off. I smarted back. The rest is history. No. It isn’t. It is present. It is future. We recognized something in each other: A sense of humor, a spark of something… In days past they might have called it kindred spirit. From there so many friendships and feelings of family grew…

It reminded me of all the people that circumstance and synchronicity has brought to my life. Not all good, but if I am honest (and I suck at lying) more good than bad.

This year… It’s blown chunks. I can’t lie (see above). There have been some extraordinarily bad times about this year. But tonight, I was reminded that if I examine the account, my balance is still the the good. Take the win. Worry about the margin another time.

When the Frost is on the Punkin’…

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“The frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock…”

~James Whitcomb Riley

The mornings have a crispness that heralds the shortened days and chill of winter, but the sun still holds warmth of the aging summer that softens the transition and holds off winter’s grasp for just a while. The blue of the sky is clear and particular to the autumn; it’s a color that is not present at any other time of the year.

Even for an inveterate sun-worshipper such as me, the fall of the year holds something very special. There is something mystical and magic about the fogs that creep along the ground and crawl out of meadows and fields to cross roadways and paths. The smell of campfires, bonfires, and burning leaves on the cool evening air calls to mind the sounds of laughter and chill up the spine from ghost stories told around the fire. The flashing lights of fireflies give way to the sparks rising into the cold night air with the smoke.

I am not a big fan of colder temperatures, and I am certainly not a fan of less sunlight. However, I have to admit that there is something about the autumn that makes me happy.

I think that it is a lot of memory is stored up in the sensory experience of this season we call the fall of the year. The science involved refers to the olfactory bulb and the temporal lobe and hippocampus being all there nestled together, but the truth is that there is just a lot of really fun stuff that happens during this time of the year. The smell of bonfires and leaves burning mixed with the sweet smell of hay just put in the barns and even the scent of curing tobacco hanging from the rafters… these are all smells strongly associated with my childhood and memories of my family, now many of whom are now absent from my life, departing in greater numbers in the last decade to leave very few of us to carry on traditions and remember.

I still revel in listening to ghost stories around a fire while drinking warm cocoa or possibly hot cider. There is a thrill that goes up my spine with a really good spooky tale or a haunted house, wood, or corn maze; and I love the fog that creeps across the low fields and meadows like something out of one of those stories. I love the sun hitting the side of the mountains and illuminating the flames of color off-set by the deep greens of the evergreen conifers native to the southern United States.

Maybe it is true, what they say about the veil being thin at this time of year. It always seems that those people I miss are more frequently in my thoughts. Their memories pop up at various times, sparked by some trigger of my senses. I miss them more. I find myself wanting to share my observations and thoughts and plans. I feel their ghosts around me, but I still feel the gaping absence as well. It is as if I turn my head quickly enough, I can see one of them looking over my shoulder now as I type… but like Orpheus, the shade is gone when I cast my glance behind me.

It is a romantic time. It is a time when the chill in the air and the hint of a goblin coming to get you is an excuse to cuddle closer and sneak off to darkened alcoves. It is a time for laughter, fun, and friends. It is the opportunity to dress up and be someone else entirely for a night (or possibly more often, depending on your social engagements). It is a time for carving jack-o-lanterns and roasting pumpkin seeds and baking and indulging in a few traditional superstitions… just because it is fun to remember.

It is time to make wishes and see omens in nature and visions in the firelight. It is time to heed the owl’s warning and ask for wisdom in dreams. It is time to remember. It is time to reflect. It is time to revel in this “in between” season as the earth relinquishes the warmth of the sun and turns herself back to the darkness and cold until the days grow longer again.

And because James Whitcomb Riley’s are the words and dialect that always come to mind during this time of year, I’ll leave you with a snippet of another of his verses:

An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you
Don’t
Watch
Out!

Did You Finish It?

Doyle, Dale, and William "Butter" Haren c. 1987
Doyle, Dale, and William “Butter” Haren c. 1987

I have about three other articles I really need to be writing at the moment. However, I couldn’t get my heart into it for some reason. Looking at the calendar, it finally dawned on me what has been floating around the edges of my consciousness since my eyes flew open pre-alarm…

I have never forgotten the extraordinary luck I had in having so many in my life that were supportive. I’m not sure exactly how many of them believed that I could accomplish my goals or dreams, but at least no one ever discouraged me from pursuing any particular path that suited my fancy. However, there was one who always seemed as invested in my future and my aspirations as much as I was myself.

My paternal grandfather and I had a very close relationship. It wasn’t that any of my other known forebears were less loving or that I loved them less; it was that for a good portion of my childhood, he and I spent most of the time together. Before and after school, summers, and when I was sick with chicken pox or other childhood ailments, my pappy was my companion. I have very strong memories of hearing my pappy sing to me. I think he actually knew more than one song, but the one he always sang to me was “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” His voice was one of comfort. It was a baritone that sounds in my memory to this day much like Bing Crosby. Perhaps this is why I love those old songs so much. Pappy was a trickster. He liked playing jokes. He loved to laugh, even if he had no part in the cause. And he loved me… The only time I ever saw this man who retired after 30 years in the Navy cry was the day my parents took us across the seas to live for what came to be about 20 years. My pappy cried that day. I saw it when I turned for one last look before walking out on the tarmac. I remember being puzzled and frightened because I had never seen him shed a tear.

We made visits back to the U.S., at least once per year. Eventually, I moved back to the states permanently after the first Gulf War, before my folks retired, to complete school and start my own path. I lived in Atlanta for a while and would drive up to Tennessee for visits to all of my grandparents. Living in North Carolina, the trip to Northeast Tennessee to see my paternal grandparents was significantly shorter than the long drive to Southeast Tennessee to see my mother’s parents. I tried to make it back as often as possible to spend time with all of them. Pappy had some significant health issues, not the least of which was bone cancer. I never consciously thought about it, but perhaps living away from family so long made me realize that time is precious.

I moved back to Tennessee eventually to become a student once again and get a Master’s degree. I did well enough in school, but working multiple jobs and going to school full time wasn’t always without its bumps in the road. Nevertheless, my pappy was the person who was always my cheerleader on the sidelines. I never really knew why that degree seemed to mean so much to him. No one else in the family seemed to pay much attention to what was going on with my classes or progress, but my pappy would ask every so often, “How much more do you have?”

It became our own little game. Eventually, I was able to tell him that all my classes were over, and all I had to complete was the thesis. If going to classes and trying to work full time (plus some at times) was difficult, trying to conduct a research study and write it up in any resemblance to scholarly work was a bit of a nightmare. I admit, I became a crispy critter. I was burnt. I procrastinated. At one point, I considered just leaving it where it was. I had a full-time job by then working as system administration and technical management for an internet company. It wasn’t precisely what I had dreamed of doing, but it would pay the bills and put food in my mouth. I was tired of school, and I just didn’t care anymore. One voice kept me going. One simple question that I heard every day, “Did you finish it?”

Every day, I would go to see my pappy. We had a hospital bed in the den for him by then. The cancer than he fought off and on for years had gotten into his bones. We had home health nurses who came to take care of him. I always kept my appointments, though. I would go by after work or take a little detour if I had a meeting that took me closer to their house. Every day, he started the conversation with “Did you finish it?” And every day I would tell him, “Not yet, pap. Not quite yet.”

Eventually, something changed. Slow though it was, I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Some part of me saw it and started, like a long distance runner, to push a little harder in the last leg of the race. My committee chair saw it as well and scheduled my defense. I took the whole week off that week to finish up the final chapters and edits and prepare for the “grilling.” I saw my pappy the day before my defense, and he said, “Did you finish it?” To which I replied, “We’ll see…”

The following day, I’m still not sure how I got through. I think I threw up three times before going into the room before the committee to defend my work. As you have probably gathered, it was all right. They passed me. I was congratulated and moved into the less “nail-biting” but more frustrating portion of trying to get through the graduate school’s editing requirements. Regardless, I was DONE!

I drove, miraculously without breaking the sound barrier, to my grandparents’ house. I walked in, and heard the familiar question, “Did you finish it?” But that day, I said, “Yes, Pappy Dale. I did.” It took a moment to sink in, but then he laughed. It was the same laugh I had heard my whole life. It was a contagious, deep laugh. Then, I sat down and we watched some pre-season baseball and discussed what we thought would happen with the Braves pitching staff.

The next few days involved multiple trips to the graduate school offices and the stationery store to make sure I had the correct weight white paper. On the following Monday, I was back at work. I had a week of catching up to do. On Tuesday, close to quittin’ time, I got a call. They needed me at my grandparents’ house. They said my pappy would not make it through the night.

I don’t remember the drive over there. I remember a house full of people. I remember when we could no longer feel a pulse and my father and I performed CPR, though there was an order for “no heroic measures.” I remember my father and me, standing silently together and hearing the life leave my grandfather’s body. The rest of the evening was a blur. I was elected to break the news to my grandmother and Pappy’s sisters (who were at the house). My cousin and I managed to put dinner together… I think we made taco casserole. The rest was the usual ritual and responsibility of providing that last goodbye for one who has departed.

That was 16 years ago today. I don’t miss him any less. I think it was his voice in my head during the last difficult months of my doctoral dissertation. “Beth, did you finish it?” I think it was realizing that I had neither him nor my father with me this time when I finished my defense successfully that prompted the unexpected tears. I can imagine that he laughed and laughed, just as he did that day more than 16 years ago when I gave him the news. Other challenges have faced me: Personally, professionally… Each one that I faced and continue to face, I feel that part of me fights to overcome the obstacles because I still want to be able to say, “Yes, Pappy Dale. I finished it.”

Finding Spring

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Spring is here

Spring is here

Time for joy

Time for cheer

Little children love to sing

The happy song of spring

For most, there is something inspiring and rejuvenating about spring. The temperatures increase and the light lingers. Yes, some will be complaining about the heat before too many weeks have past, but for that brief glorious time, Mother Nature seems to give us a tiny glimpse of hope that at the end of every difficult time, there can be a reward.

My mother always had a saying about this time of year. She would always say, “Spring is just around the corner!” It was her little way of greeting the new season with a childlike aspiration of starting fresh. In my own childhood, she attempted to instill the same wonder and joy of nature in my heart and mind. To that end, we had our own special ritual. Each year, she would drag me out to go look for spring. It wasn’t nearly as much of a chore or punishment as I made that sound, but as the years passed, it became more difficult to pretend the same innocent wonder that she was able to incite when I was 3 or 4 years old.

Magic often loses its power to awe when you see behind the curtain of how the trick works. As a child I was so excited to find the joy of those signs that spring had made an arrival and summer was on the way. My mother always miraculously knew just were to find it… Yes, I figured out that she had planted the crocus bulbs in that particular corner where they would “wake up” first. However, it never failed to impress me that we had managed to sneak up on the Printemps and catch her just waking from her long winter’s sleep.

Now, passing through some remarkably dreary winter times of my own this year, I wish that I could recapture that sense of discovery and glee at something so simple as a planted perennial. Perhaps it is also that I find myself approaching my own autumn that my mind turns so frequently to my younger days, or perhaps it is that the darkness of my own responsibilities has pushed me to flee to the time when I had none and could truly enjoy the world around me. Whatever the reason, I started noticing some of the little gifts of nature that signal renewal.

Living in the south has its benefits and its challenges, but there is nothing that quite compares to springtime in the south. The glory of redbuds with their almost lavender pink blossoms that coat the branches in beautiful pastel foam; the dogwood in white or pink that line subdivisions and the edge of wooded groves; the glorious riot of tulips and crocus in beds everywhere, and the fields of daffodils that line even interstates. It is as if the whole landscape is putting on taffeta and crepe accented by the faintest green that is only seen in spring. Lastly, the carpet of white and purple violets that most consider weeds reminds me of running and laughing in the days when I did such foolish things as running and laughing…

When did it become foolish? When did I lose the time and joy of just being and noticing?

So, today… I went looking for spring around the corner, and I thought I would share it with you…

Snow Day

There is something different in the air when you expect a snow. Living in the south, we do not get the opportunity to enjoy the experience of a covering of white very often. The memories are still with me, though. When I was a child…

Mom was a school teacher. It worked well for all of us as a family, because her schedule matched mine. I went to school in the same county, though not the same school (that would have been too much for my independent ego to have my mother in the same building). That meant that our daily schedules during the school year were pretty close to the same, and during the summers, she was home while I was out of school. The benefits of the arrangement extended to snow days.

Snow days were magic. From sometime towards the end of November through March, there was the expectation that there might be some of the glorious precipitation we call snow. People would start counting the fogs in August and watching the wooly bear caterpillars to engage in the age-old art of weather witchery and predictions determining whether we would have a gray and brown season of cold or a winter wonderland. During the cold months, each evening would bring the prognostications and questions of whether someone’s elbow ached or the “snow headache” were present to give the hope of something wondrous in the morning. Sometimes, it wasn’t necessary to rely upon the divinatory infirmities to provide the weather watch. You could smell it in the air and feel in on your skin, that cold with the moisture that said “Snow!”

Nothing compared to waking before dawn and turning on the radio to listen for the school closings. Crossing fingers in anticipation that the radio meteorologist would proclaim that Washington County schools would be closed (not on a two hour delay). The joy of hearing those words buzzed through the house, and unable to return to bed, I would gaze out of the window observing the familiar landscape brilliantly covered with a dense white icing that soften the familiar features of the neighborhood and even seemed to muffle any sounds to make the world silent and mysterious.

Snow days were not like any other day. Sick days, while allowing absence from daily activities, required bed rest and ginger ale. There was no fun in that. Planned days off involved an agenda and a “to do” list of chores that filled every moment, and then some, often resulting in the feeling that there were not enough hours in the day and going back to work or school was a relief. But snow days… those were different. By definition, they were unplanned, a gift of nature to slow down the frantic pace of our everyday lives. Snow stopped time and the world stood still for a day. The beautiful, white icing made driving treacherous. So, no errands, no fieldtrips, no rushing about was possible. We were effectively captive in our forced day of inactivity. Let the fun begin!

Without fail, there would be bundling up in layers upon layers of socks, thermal underwear, clothing, and overcoats so that for all intents and purposes, I frequently appeared a more colorful version of the Michelin tire mascot. The old wooden sled with metal runners would be dragged out to act as a magic carpet as I flew down the driveway and the circle, carving thin lines in the unblemished surface of the snow. Snow angels and sculptures of all kinds decorated the yard and soaked me to the bones with the damp cold. Eventually, I had to return inside, despite my protests, cheeks and nose brilliant red from the cold and extremities numb. We stomped off the packed snow from boots and attempted to dust of the worst of the frozen encrustation from our gloves and outer clothing. Without fail, some of it would cling tenaciously to come with us into the house. There by the wall register, we would remove the soaked coats, scarves, hats, gloves, boots, socks, and even pants to drape by the heat to dry and warm, filling the air with a damp steam as the clothing dried.

Invariably, lunch would be grilled cheese and cream of tomato soup. It warmed all the way down to get rid of the last of the chill clinging from expeditions out of doors. The afternoon might include more play in the snow, but there were also books to read, sometimes together aloud, and sometimes alone by the heat registers. At some point, it would become necessary to bake cookies, as well. Piling into the kitchen, I would do my part measuring and stirring with the oven providing additional warmth to the house. Before sunset, I always went back out in the snow. The afternoon light shining off the surface made me squint painfully with the brightness, but I wanted to drag those moments out for as long as I could, because the next day might mean the roads were once again clear and the magic would be gone. Life would resume its normal pace, and there would be no more time to spend together away from the rest of the world. I could feel the spell breaking with the melting snow, and time started again.

Today, the modern technological conveniences have made this scenario of a snow day haven from the world less possible. Telecommuting and access to online classrooms and emailed assignments don’t give the opportunity for time to stop. The pace of life has changed, making all the more poignant the memory of our snow days of the past.

Wrapping memories…

Wrapping Memories

It was a tradition, always, that my father wrapped the presents. I’d even seen it go so far as for him to wrap his own, cleverly camouflaged in nondescript boxes provided by department stores the year before. I often questioned how the tradition came about, and considered whether his yearly holiday task had started in his tender years. I found myself imagining him as a small boy, rummaging around in the bin of colorful paper and juggling scissors and cellophane tape.

There was no question as to why the tradition continued. No one compared. His skill in fitting the paper. Always efficiently using only what was necessary to conceal the package within. The corners never gaped, and no matter the shape, he managed to create neat edges on all those brightly covered items arranged decorously around the tree.

At some point my independent spirit rebelled and I demanded my share in the holy wrapping ritual. I was graciously allowed to try my small hand at the task. I cannot precisely recall whether my efforts resulted in triumph, but I must not have done too badly as it soon became our shared chore. Not so much dreaded as relished. The time spent together estimating paper and ribbon, drinking hot chocolate or coffee, and listening to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, or Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The lights that made patterns on the ceiling changed through the years from multicolored flashes the small, white twinkling points. The tradition remained.

And as the time passed, new parts of my life invaded my sacred rite. Frequently working holidays in the emergency rooms, I would cross my fingers and race to the house, not even daring to pray that the pager would remain silent for fear of rousing the crisis gods and keep me from my wrapping with dad. It didn’t always work, but he tried to save me at least one, to keep our pact as the family wrappers.

It almost seems a metaphor now, as I think back. My father wrapped those gifts just as he wrapped our family, smoothing edges, tying loose ends, managing the dodgy elements that would mar someone’s experience. Yep, my dad did that. I never realized it for so long.

Then, he was gone. I remember that first year. I think I put everything in gift bags. It was a cheat. I just couldn’t bring myself to attempt the task alone. And I couldn’t ask anyone to help. Everyone else was suffering the same, well… almost the same grief. We all dealt with it our own way.

Little by little, I found myself stepping back into the position. Never fully. I could never fill those shoes.

So, as I sat in the middle of the living room floor, wrapping presents, the memories flooding  back. It wasn’t the same, sitting here alone and thinking as I fold each corner. Then, I caught myself. That frown. The way my hand folded the corner and I was carful to fold the cut edge to make a smooth edge on the end of a difficult package.

I stopped, stunned for a moment. I looked down at my hands at the nails that were more rounded than my mother’s. I saw my hands, built on a larger scale than most women, but the lines more delicate than would be considered masculine. I saw through the lens of memory my father’s hands guiding mine to fold the edges and place the tape. My eyes clouded. Had I hardened myself so much to fear of pain that I had also blocked the other part of my sacred charge, joy? That was what my dad always tried to protect, even when we moved and we didn’t have a tree or our old vinyl albums or any of the other anchor to the holiday traditions of home half way around the world.

I stared a while longer before returning to my task. I wrapped every gift. I regretted the reduction in number. Sadly, the reduction of individuals in our holiday gathering has changed the way we approach gifting. In years past, the sheer number of people created a mountain of gift offerings under the bedecked tree.

Through the years, those of us left have attempted to replicate the appearance through expenditure (that most of us could ill afford). This was a mistake.

The number of packages or zeros is inconsequential to the love and good will of spending time will of family and friends. Yeah, that’s all kinds of cheesy. I know it. It makes my back right molar ache a little typing it. Regardless, it is the realization that dawned upon me as I tried valiantly to coral the few boxes that were before me to bedeck with festive paper.

I finished my self imposed “chore”. I looked at the packages, arranged beneath the tree to best advantage despite the diminutive number. I realized that I had chosen paper as dad would have. No tags necessary because of the number, but also because of the way the paper and package spoke of the recipient.

I was correct in my anger towards the television commercials that stressed the importance of spending more money. Spending time is what matters.

So, this blog has turned into one of those sappy, emotion-ridden, epistles chastising you, like Ebeneezer to repent your monetary ways and seek the true meaning of Christmas (Ham? No, not ham you fat @#$%). However, that was not the intent of this particular (wordy) first entry into the world of blog. It was to say that this Grinch’s frozen heart was thawed slightly today. In memory of one who quietly loved the season, loved his family, and held it together without ceremony or letting anyone else know it.

May I carry that spirit beyond holidays to safeguard those who are dear to me, and may any reading this have a blessed holiday (with no reservation to any particular faith) and may your new year blessed in every way.