Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hydrangeas, Clocks and Piano Lessons

Think about one person who has been a constant source of value and encouragement in your life, even if from a distance.  Can you recall how that person became important to you?  I am thinking about one of those people right now, and I have been for some time.  I can’t remember the first time I met Nellie Rose, the mother of my Oldest Friend and Traveling Partner; even her name suggests the sweetness she endeared to me.  But I can almost remember the first time I stepped inside her home, up the steps to the back door, beyond the laundry room on the back of the house.  

The first impressions I had of her, though, were made by her flowers and her clocks. No one I knew had hydrangeas so I was in awe of the many bushes of the giant heads of blue, pink, and purples blossoms that grew effortlessly in her yard. And as far as clocks go, my father revered time pieces, so I was impressed she did as well.  I remember their asynchronous chiming, some weak, some strong.  I used to watch her pad around her cavernous house, starting in the ever-dark dining room, to wind them and adjust their hands to the correct time, each one just a few seconds off from the other.

My OFTP took piano lessons in those early days of our friendship so if I happened to go home with her on those days I would be alone with her mother until the lesson was over. It was awkward for me at first because I was always wary of adults, especially those who were not related to me, but she never gave me the option of timidity.

My friend was a late riser, and I an early one, like Nellie Rose.  We also shared a need for coffee in the morning, so when I slept over she and I spent some time alone in the early hours as well.  She sipped her coffee from a dainty china cup as she began preparations for lunch, the main meal of the day for her family. She was a talker and I was a listener, so our relationship was symbiotic in that respect.  Maybe our connection was born out of those few private hours over coffee and waiting on piano lessons.  Regardless, it wasn’t long before she was like a second mother to me. It was only fair since my mother considered my OFTP her fifth daughter.  I spent so much time in that gray house on Hall Avenue with a family that wasn’t mine that I seeped in somehow, slowly and tenaciously.  Like it or not, there I was, claiming them all as my own.  

Nellie Rose had a very open way of communicating and no subject was off limits.  To be honest I learned more about the ways of the world and the birds and the bees from her then I did from my own mother.  So, it isn’t surprising that in some ways I felt more open with her than I did my own, shy mother.  She was the one I knew I could turn to in times of emotional need without fear of reproach.  When my sister died, I called her, and at the sound of my voice she took over the conversation with soothing words of sympathy and comfort as I sat in my childhood room holding the receiver and listened and sobbed.

Now, as her time on this earth is winding down like her beloved clocks, I can’t help but remember her in this way; my comforter.  I’ve spent some time by her bed the past few days and looked into her half-closed eyes trying to find her. I teased her because that’s the way we were with each other.  I don’t allow myself to express sadness through my words, even though I feel it to my bones, because I think she can hear me even though she looks through me.  I can’t help but feel regret for all the years I could have made more effort to spend time with her, but I let the trivialities of life get in the way. I hate that about myself.

I know the pain her children are going to feel when she takes her last breath, and I feel for them. But I also know the bittersweet joy they will feel knowing she is released from her worn out body and Home with her Savior and reunited with the Love of Her Life.  I felt this same, albeit guilt-tinged, joy when my own mother passed because I knew she was tired and ready. Nellie Rose is tired, too.  I know because I’ve watched her struggle for sleep.

Godspeed, I prayed for my own mother years ago. Godspeed, I pray now for my other mother.  God, bless her tired soul.  

Friday, May 12, 2017

Commencing

In the last two days I’ve attended three graduation ceremonies.  Three.  I don’t even have a picture of myself at my own high school graduation; my mother breezed in from out of town to attend and back out again as soon as the ceremony was over. She asked me not to walk in my college graduation because she hated them so.  I obliged, and sometimes, like today, I still feel a little cheated. Then other times, like today, I swear the only one I’ll ever attend again is when my own son finally makes his way across the stage. But that's not true.

I worked at a university for 27 years before I ever attended a commencement for the sake of watching my international students graduate. That was a mistake on my part.  I’m good at making mistakes.  I seem to make at least one every day to keep in good practice.  But every once in a while the stars align and everything falls into nice, correct order and I get something right, but it takes a day like today to realize it.

In the old days the cycle began with a blue piece of paper filled with scrawled words of great dreams and aspirations of how complete life would be if only they were accepted to my prestigious institution.  Now it’s usually a blip in an email, "it is my dream to study at USM".  I usually respond in a generic fashion with instructions for the first steps to making their dream come true.  When the application finally arrives our exchanges become more frequent and by the time they are admitted it’s as if we’re old friends. Months later, if the earth spins in the right direction and I throw salt over my shoulder and jump three times, I finally meet my correspondent face-to-face as they begin fulfilling their dreams of an American education.

Fast-forward a few years and they are sitting in a chair on a basketball court that has been transformed into a place of dignified order, and a velvet-lined hood is draped over their shoulders or a diploma is placed in their eager hands and they walk across the stage and into their future to accomplish great and wonderful things. That moment, my friends, is when the stars align and the earth spins in perfect timing and I know, I just know that for once, or maybe three times, I did something right.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dreams revisited

Recently, I had a dream that was both frightening and wonderful.  It centered around a great war, maybe it was Armageddon.  It was like when Voldemort was terrorizing Hogwarts and his voice surrounded the school with ominous doom.  It was like that but not exactly.  Instead there were terrible clashing mechanical noises and menacing voices booming in the distance. Then a darkness fell and a storm came with howling winds.  My daddy was there for a second and there were other people I don’t’ remember.  For a while I was with several people at my parents’ house, my dreams often center there, and we were powerless, sitting ducks. The house groaned from the storm like the sounds you hear in a horror movie haunting. I left briefly and saw my mother and then went back home.  I remember saying out loud that I was less afraid of the dark woods across the street then I was of going back into the house. Then I was all alone; divided and separated from everyone I loved. When I was younger sometimes I would wake in panic in the middle of the night and run through the house turning on every light to make sure I was not alone.  That is how I felt in my dream, panicked and desolate.

Then suddenly a calm came over me and I was at peace. Something inside told me the storm and the noises were just a ruse and all I had to do was go in the house and prepare and the storm would eventually pass.  So I did. I began closing windows and shutting up the house as if preparing for a hurricane.  In the front bedroom there is a door that leads to the front porch and I had trouble shutting and locking it against the hammering wind. When I finally clicked the lock securely I turned to shut the side window and I saw my daddy running in the yard along the side of the house.  Joy!  I no longer had to fight alone.  My daddy was there to protect me!  I began yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!!” but my voice was weak against the howling wind.  I couldn’t get out of the door I had just locked so I tore through the house still yelling, desperate for him to hear me.  I bounded out the front door and I met him at the foot of the steps and flew into his arms.  He flashed me the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen and said something I only wish I could remember.  All that mattered at that moment was I reunited with my daddy when I thought I was alone and doomed. 

I attribute this dream as a visit, for that hug was real and he was there with me in that moment.  I think maybe I was in heaven at that split second, and I was offered a glimpse of what it will be like on that day when I do get to heaven and am really reunited with my daddy and my Father.  If the joy I felt in my dream is only a miniscule fraction of what it will really be like then let me count the days.

Separation. Divide and conquer. How much is that dream like our relationships with God?  Satan works best when he can get us alone and use our temptations and sins separate us from God. But when we fight back and brace ourselves for the storm we can realize it is all a smokescreen and we can become closer to God and experience the reunion.

I remembered my dream last night when I listened to the Gospel at the Easter vigil.  The feeling I experienced in my dream must be like the emotions the Marys felt when they met Jesus on the road after his resurrection.  They fell to the ground and grasped His feet in worship, so says Matthew.  Maybe it was also to assure themselves He was real, like I did when I held tight to my daddy at the foot of the steps to my childhood home.  And after communion when we sang, “I will raise you up on the last day”, I could no longer hold back the tears. Let me count the days.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Last words

Dear Scott,

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last wrote you. Well, it hasn’t been too long if you count the few Facebook messages I sent you, but that’s nothing like paper and pen, eh? Whatever happened to those good old days when we took time to sit down and scribble out a letter, even it was only to get a few words down on paper, stick a stamp on an envelope and leave it to the Post Office to deliver the message?  We used to do that.  In fact I found your letters to me and read them again tonight.  I have them stored in a dusty old suitcase along with probably every other letter and card I ever received in the mail.  It was fun to read your words again and remember simpler days when school and part-time jobs were our biggest worries.  You wrote often of your baby brother, documenting his birth through first steps.  It wasn’t long after that we lost track, but I never forgot your friendship all of these 30+ years.   Sometimes I get out the old photo albums and reminisce about our Mexico trips and reunion parties.  Those were some good times with good people.

When I saw you in June I told you how sorry I was you were sick.  We talked about a lot of things in that short afternoon, didn’t we? I heard all about your trip to Universal Studios and you listened to some things I told you about my life.  I was sure nervous going to see you that day, I mean, what do you say to someone you haven’t seen in three decades?  You don’t know this but I even prayed for the words to say.  But when I walked in the door and you said, “hey, girl” I knew I didn’t have anything to worry about.  We just picked up where we left off and that was that.

Another thing you probably don’t know is I felt led to reach out to you, divine intervention and all that stuff.  I thought God must have needed me to get a message to you, but I think it turned out the other way around.  I think He needed you to get a message to me.  I’m not sure what that message is yet, but I think it has something to do with kindness and reaching out to those in need.  Now that you have his ear maybe you can find out for me and send me a message in a dream.  That would be so cool.

I read your sister’s post on Facebook a couple of days ago, and I knew things were getting worse for you.  She asked your friends to send her their memories of you and well wishes so she could tell them to you to keep your spirits up.  I sent her an email right away because I wanted to make sure you knew I was still thinking about you and praying for you. 

Last night I prayed real hard for you before I went to sleep.  I prayed God would release you from your pain and hold your family tight during this hard time.  Little did I know that you were already gone; released, relieved, free.  When I woke up this morning I was thinking about you again and reached for my phone for an update before I even got out of bed.  That is when I knew.  I appreciate your sister sending me a personal message.  That was very thoughtful of her.  I wrote her back, just like you used to ask me to do so long ago when we wrote letters to each other.

Scott, I hate that you had to go so soon.  I know how much you loved your job and your family, especially your nieces and nephews.  I know because you told me.  And that day I saw you in the hospital telling the respiratory therapist what he needed to do for you I knew that you had a good life and were well respected by the people you worked with for so many years.  You had so much to left to give, but your body didn’t cooperate.

Well, I’ve got to go now, it’s getting late even though we are setting our clocks back an hour tonight.  I get an extra hour of sleep tomorrow!  You?  You get eternity with an Almighty God.  I think you get the better end of this deal.  Speaking of deal, don’t forget ours.  I hope she was waiting for you.  I went shopping today and stopped by the Clinique counter and took a big whiff of her perfume.  It made me cry to think of you and her there together, but they were tears of happiness not sadness. 

I don’t feel sadness for you, Scott, because I know you are wrapped in glory now.  I do feel sadness for your family’s loss, and my loss of you as a friend.  It will be really hard for your family for a while now, but I know from experience they will one day fill that loss with good memories and find joy in the place of their sadness when they speak your name.  It will get better for them in time, so don’t let it worry you.

I’ve stayed too long, I know, so I’ll sign off now.  Tell everyone up there “Hi” for me and write back real soon.  I’ll see you in heaven.

Love, Your Friend,


Elizabeth


Monday, October 24, 2016

My life as I wore it

Over the past year I have lost a little weight, so as the scales go down so goes the inventory in my closet.  Last week I finally found time to donate my stockpile of clothing.  Honestly, I felt a little ashamed at the amount of clothing I own.  Even after culling for the last 10 months my closet is still full and haven't even cleaned out my winter clothes I packed away in the spring.  How did that happen? I wasn't always this way. Growing up I didn't have many clothes.  My parents had six other children they also had to feed and clothe, so fashion for the youngest child wasn't a priority.

In my final push to prepare for donation day I decided I had better lift the lid on my cedar chest, one of the first grown-up Christmas gifts my mother gave me.  I don't know when I last actually opened the chest, but I can say for certain it hasn't been opened in the 10 years it has sat in my closet where I put it the day I moved into my current home.  In the spirit of adventure, I popped the heavy lid to take a look inside, allowing the earthy scent of cedar to waft over me. Pilfering through the contents was like working an archeological dig, each layer like sediment of an era of my life.  At the top of the pile were more recent acquisitions like a quilt I had forgotten I owned and my children's baptismal outfits.  The next layer were things I wore in the 1990s right before I put on the weight I have carried for 20 years, then further down still were things from days even longer passed.  I decided to take everything out and weed through the wreckage, so to speak, all the way to the very bottom.  Here a few of the treasures I found long forgotten and locked away enveloped in darkness and fragrant wood.

Because of my shortage of clothes the things I wore were worn often.  Then again, I tend to only wear things that are comfortable, so even if I did get something new I probably wouldn't have worn it much if it was scratchy or felt strange on my skin.  Polyester was not my friend.  Those who have known me the longest will recognize different versions of me here.


These are my oldest pieces; remnants of the childhood I often recollect.  The first is the dress I wore for my First Holy Communion.  I remember getting dressed on that important, sacramental day.  Some girls wore veils, but I wore a halo of flowers around my head.  I was supposed to have a special prayer book to carry, but the order never came in.  I guess it went by the way of the abacus I was supposed to get in first grade that was lost in the mail as well.

Yes, I was a National Enquirer TV Blooper Spotter and I have the shirt to prove it!  I don't remember the TV show I reported, and I certainly don't know why I was reading the National Enquirer at that age.  Apparently lots of children reported bloopers because that shirt is child sized.

The bottom two shirts were results of school art projects.  The flying initials were screen-printed in the eighth grade, and the other was the result of having too much fun with paint on another project.  If my old Sacred Heart Elementary School buddies look closely they will surely find their fingerprints.  I wore those two shirts for years.  Don't think I didn't hold them up to me to see if I could get them on, because if they still fit I would be wearing one right now.

The flashbacks continued as I pulled out some things from my high school years; Army-issue fatigues, a souvenir shirt from a trip I took to Mexico, some shirts I bought in Mexico, and a preppy monogrammed sweater given to me by my oldest sister.  Then there is the sweatshirt.   My OFTP had one with her name, too.  Why did we? I have no idea. I tried to put it on, too, but I'm not quite there yet.  Maybe it will fit by the end of winter; it's given me a new goal.

Here are my college years in a nutshell.  A credo, purple cotton parachute pants, cabbage-rose printed skirt, and British Studies.  The only thing missing is a multi-color striped button front shirt. The pants and skirt were my very favorite because they buttoned down the back.  No, I did not wear them backwards, they buttoned down the b-a-c-k.  Sadly, my purple pants have a little dry rot in the elastic, but I returned them to the safety of the cedar anyway.

Then one day I went from a First Communion dress to wearing my mother's vintage red velvet fitted dress to a Christmas party. Then, in a blink of an eye I was a maid of honor. Actually I was a maid of honor twice but I loaned out the pretty green one and didn't get it back.

Sometimes it is good to take out things that are fond reminders of certain events in your life.  Enjoy the memories but do not dwell there.  It is necessary to find the balance and learn to let go.  There is happiness right now that needs to be captured so don't waste time trying to squeeze happiness out of a moment from a lifetime ago.  Don't miss the here and now or you'll have nothing to make fond memories for later.

My cedar chest is only half as full as it was, I am proud to say.  I let go of many things, but some things are worth keeping and revisiting, like the things here.

There is one more thing I found, and I will just leave it here like an Easter egg that's been left in the weeds and found the following Easter.  That's all I have to say about them; they speak loud enough for themselves.



Saturday, October 8, 2016

My life in a lunch hour

Most anything can spark a memory; scents, textures, colors, or even a beautiful clear blue-sky day in October.  Yesterday I spent my lunch hour with a friend at the Lucky Rabbit, a monthly indoor flea market in downtown Hattiesburg. Our route from work was down W. 4th Street to Main so we had to pass my childhood home street on the way.  As we came closer to my street I couldn’t wait to point it out to my friend and claim it as my first home. Funny, because there was a time in my teenage years I would have been embarrassed, maybe even ashamed, for my peers to know where I lived.  Today I would empty my bank account to have one more day in that old damp and drafty gray house with my parents and my extended family who also called it home.  One more of my mama’s home cooked Sunday dinners and a lazy afternoon on the front porch would be a priceless gift no amount of money could buy.

My friend isn’t very familiar with downtown Hattiesburg so I directed the way. Each block, every turn brought back some childhood memory, and even though I know I sounded like an old, lonely woman facing senility I narrated my memories as we went. 

Daddy drove me to school every day, and on the way we stopped at the post office so he could get his office mail.  I don’t remember if there was parking in front of the post office or not in those days, but if there was he never used it.  He always stopped at the corner on Main Street and walked down the block.  In hindsight, and with a better understanding of the man, I now realize it was so he could continue going straight to my school and avoid unnecessary turns.  Daddy did not like anything that was unnecessary.  Some mornings I walked with him and explored the cold, marble halls of the old building and peeked into the tiny glass windows of the perfectly aligned boxes.  Some mornings I waited in the car, or jeep, or truck or whatever he might have driven home from the armory the previous evening.  In those days it must have been safe to leave your child alone in a vehicle on Main Street, even if that vehicle did not have doors or a roof.  It must have also been safe for your child to be the first one dropped off at school before the doors were opened and she had to sit on the steps and wait for the principal.  Surely, or else my father would have never done such things.

Leaving downtown, my friend and I headed west on Hardy Street back to our jobs at the university. We passed the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, Triangle store where my mother shopped for her Lenten seafood suppers, and the old Blue Ribbon Bakery building where we stopped with Granny for French bread on Sunday mornings and rainbow cookies on random days on the way home from school.  I always wanted a cupcake but my mother wouldn’t buy me one for fear I would poke my eye out with the plastic stick decoration. 

Further up was the cinema where I saw my first film, Alice in Wonderland, the old Winn-Dixie grocery store where my mother would sometimes, but not always, give me pennies to buy gumballs, a.k.a choking hazards.  Next to it was the laundromat where my mother bought me Sprites and Bugles and I fished for changed under the vending machines.  A little further down on the right is the old Pizza Hut where I ate many meals with high school friends.

My friend needed lunch so we went through the drive-thru at Wendy’s and my mind was back in the 11th grade when going to Wendy’s for chicken sandwiches with mustard and pickles after school and before play practice was like a ritual. Those days of play practice were the highlight of high school for me.  Across the street from Wendy’s is the local zoo and park, a place for senior parties, long conversations and first kisses.

Onward west we drove back to the university I attended, the place where I met new, interesting people who were born in places other than my hometown.  I met people who made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe, love until my heart ached, and loathe enough to have to ask God for forgiveness; and that was just my first year.  My university years taught me more than just fascinating history or how to start a story with a lead.  It was then I learned there was life outside of the boundaries of Highway 42 and Interstate 59.  I learned how to be an adult and take responsibility for my accomplishments as well as my mistakes.  I learned money truly doesn’t grow on trees, but student loans will you send you to wonderful places around the world.  It is the same university where I have spent a career introducing generations of burgeoning adults to these same life lessons.

Yesterday’s lunch hour took me through a lifetime of memories and left me with one conclusion.  No matter where I am, who I’m with, or what I’m doing, at the core of my soul I am still and will always be that girl from the damp and drafty gray house on Rawls Avenue four lots down from W. 7th Street.  That place and those years are what made me who I am today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

27


On my way to work today I had to first stop and pick up my car from yesterday’s oil change.  It was blocked in by a double-parked truck, and although I tried to wriggle my car free, I know when I’m beat, and I graciously allowed the owner of the shop to move it out for me.  To my good fortune I found five pennies from heaven in the parking lot while I waited on his expert driving skills to get me on the road to work.  At some point during my drive the largish chocolate-banana-protein shake I took time to make this morning spilled over in its carrying bag, and even though I righted it quickly I guess it was not soon enough.  Because…walking in from the parking lot, as I was holding the bag closely, I began to feel the wetness seeping through.  I rinsed my blouse as best I could in the first-floor bathroom sink, and I’m hoping I do not reek of soured chocolate-banana milk by the end of the day.  This part reminded of a short story I dearly love by Miranda July called “Roy Spivy.”  If you’ve never read or listened to it, please do.  Four, is all I have to say about that.

Spilling, dripping, tripping, or dropping are not new to me, so why should I even note my botched morning on this day?  Well, because today is June 1st, and exactly 27 years ago was the first day of the job I have held ever since.  I admit 27 years is a long time to be in the same job. I think to some people it marks me as unambitious or incompetent to do anything else.  True, ambition has never been my strong point, I’m still trying to figure that one out.  But lack of ambition isn’t the anchor that has kept me moored to The University of Southern Mississippi for 27 years. The fact is, (shhh, don’t tell) I like my job.

When I walked into the ELI building, the one with the rotunda, 27 years ago I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew is I needed a job other than the retail job I had, and this one presented itself by pure fate.  I had only a few encounters with international students in my undergraduate years, not for lack of interest but more because I didn’t pay attention to the world outside my bubble in those days.  I had traveled and studied abroad, but my global interest extended only to those particular countries I had visited. Suddenly, in a cramped office that was once a storeroom off of the kitchen, I found myself face to face with international students with a myriad of accents, some heavy, who amazingly to me were not hard to understand.  Three days after my first day on the job the Tiananmen Square massacre took place, and for the first time in my young life my bubble burst, and I began to pay attention to the world outside my new office door.  A desire was lit in me to learn everything I could about the cultures of the people I would be meeting.

Not a day on the job has gone by in the past 27 years that I have not learned something new about a country, a culture, a religion, or a personality.  I’ve had to talk students through breakdowns, meltdowns, depression, grief, and joy, and these things aren’t in my job description.  I’ve met South Americans, Central Americans, further North Americans, Africans, Eastern Europeans, Western Europeans, Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, Caribbean Islanders and people from every other nook and cranny of the world in between.  They have been Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and godless people who have lived under communism, socialism, republics, democracies, and dictatorships. 

I have learned that religion and politics really do not mean a thing when it comes to the soul of a person.  Sure, some students I’ve met have been narrow minded when it comes to these things, but the vast majority of them have displayed big hearts and open arms ready to embrace their new experiences and the people they meet along the way.  To me it all boils down to a story of hope.

International students are the embodiment of hope and optimism.  Maybe that’s why I have stayed in the same place for 27 years.  Negativity is not for me.  Bring on the hope.  It assures me that, yes, the world IS an awesome place after all.  I’ve got 27 years of experience to prove it.