Sunday, December 21, 2014

Are YOU ready?

“Are you ready for Christmas?”  That’s the question I was asked on Tuesday by the nurse who was clasping a blood pressure cuff onto my wrist and placing my arm against my chest.  I gave a simple answer, “Yes, I think so.”  That was the simple answer because no one really wants to hear the complicated answer.

Am I ready for Christmas?  If that means do I have a tree up and decorations around my house, then yes, I am ready.  If it is another way of asking if I have shopped for gifts and have them wrapped and ready for giving, then yes, I am ready.  If the nurse wanted to know if I am ready for two weeks off work, and spending time with my OFTP, then the answer is heck yeah, you better believe I am ready.

If you stepped onto my porch and peered through the wreath on the door you would see a home so ready for Christmas that the only thing lacking is a plate of fresh cookies for Santa.  If you stepped into my body and peered into my soul you would see something completely different.  I am not ready for time that passes so quickly that one Christmas runs seemingly seamless into another.  I am not ready for my children to be so grown they will open their presents on Christmas morning and disappear into their own lives a few minutes later.  I am not ready for the disappointment that I will inevitable feel because no Christmas ever measures up to the way they use to be when I was a child or when my children still believed in magic.

I am not ready for the awkwardness of exchanging gifts, especially when my offerings are meager.  I am not ready for the floodgates of emotions to open and pour as they do at every Christmas Eve Mass when the souls of my dearly departed are remembered, especially on the one day of the year that makes me desperately miss my parents.  I am not ready for the feeling of emptiness that comes when all the guests leave and the day that so much preparation was made for fades into plain old December 26.

Last night I spent time with some of my favorites who are good, Christmas-loving people.  I hinted at my dispiritedness and was met with responses in agreement to my own feelings.  As I listened to stories about fallen Christmas trees and other angsts my guilt was gently assuaged in the knowing that I was not alone.

I waked before the sun this morning, and in the darkness I lit all of the Christmas lights I’ve scattered here and there. As I sit here in the warm glow of the shining trees my Christmas spirit is beginning to wake as well.  I plan to bake my family’s favorite cookies today, and that will make them happy, thereby increasing the level of joy throughout the house.  The spirit will grow even more tomorrow as my OFTP and I make our annual tour of the cemeteries that hold our loved ones.  That may sound like a depressing thing, but to us it is more of a comfort.

My level of readiness is growing as well.  I am ready for some time with my family - nuclear, extended and otherwise.  I am ready for good food and good cheer.  But mostly I am ready for the sense of spiritual renewal that comes with celebrating the birth of Jesus.  I am ready for the Gloria to return to Mass.  I am ready to welcome The Way, The Truth, and The Life.  I’m getting there, and with God’s hope I will arrive on time.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


On this Thanksgiving Day I am thankful for all of the friends and family who have stood beside me and encouraged me throughout my life.  There’s one in particular I would like to focus on today.  I’ve been trying to write something about him for several days, but I have trouble concentrating sometimes.  My mind wanders down a winding path and stops to spend a minute at curious spots along the way.  Eventually it finds its way back to the present moment and sets me to task at hand.  A few days ago this happened when I was trying to write an epitaph about my friend, and it led instead to a prologue of sorts about all of the interesting people who have passed through my life.  Because, you see, my friend was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.

If you know me at all then you don’t need me to say the name to know of whom I speak.  If you’ve only known me for a short time you will eventually hear me speak of him in one way or another.  He was the One I Admired Most.  His name was Jimmy.

I don't really have a memory of the first time I met Jimmy which validates how long he was in my life; at least 22 years.  At my best guess I was about five or six when I first noticed him as a fixture in my home.  He and my pesky sister were the best of friends and I remember I resented him (like I did all of my sisters’ boyfriends) for taking her away from me.  I tried to keep them apart by sitting between them, or tagging along.  Eventually his charm won me over, probably when he gave me a Christmas present for the first time.  It was a plant starter kit, the kind you sprout seeds in clear plastic containers with gel inside.  I thought that gift was wonderful. My sister told me it was from the both of them, but I always imagined it was just from Jimmy.  That was the first of many gifts I was to receive from Jimmy in our 22 years, not all of them tangible.  The most valuable gifts he ever gave me were the gifts of his time and attention. 

Over the years not a Christmas passed that Jimmy was not there.  He was there for every Easter.  He was there for birthdays.  And he always seemed to be there when my sister was giving me perms. If the phone rang on a Sunday afternoon there was a chorus of “It’s Jimmy” before the phone was answered.  It usually was.  My mother would even make him his own pone of cornbread if she knew he was coming.  He ate like he was wearing a badge of honor.  

So why was he the most interesting person I’ve ever known?  I can’t pinpoint it, he just was.  He lived his life to an off-beat.  He was smart, funny, sarcastic, and serious, all at the same time.  He liked rabbits.  He found enjoyment in irony.  He was tall and broad but walked and spoke softly.  Coolness oozed from his demeanor.  He wore his hair long, faded blue jeans, chambray or flannel shirts, and white leather tennis shoes (K-Swiss or Adidas?) and always, always a silver Jack-o-Lantern lapel pin my sister gave him.  He gave me some of his cast off flannel when I was a freshman in college, and I wore them like my own badge of honor. 

Come to think of it, maybe I can pinpoint it.  Life was very hard for me as a child.  Other adults in my life were not always understanding of my shy ways and they teased me.  It was hard enough to be teased by children my own age but I was teased, sometimes viciously, by adults. By all standards Jimmy was an adult to me, but he did not torment me.  I know I was the pesky one in those days, but he did not treat me as if I were an annoying gnat as some others did.   As I matured he regarded me in respect to my age instead of always treating me like a child.  

One of my favorite times was when he took my Oldest Friend and Travelling Partner and me to New Orleans the day after Thanksgiving.  He took us to his favorite places on the off-beaten path.  He treated us to lunch at the Camellia Grill and gave us a quick tutorial on their ordering etiquette so we would be in the know.  We visited a record store, newsstands, and unique shops all over town.  We were silly teenagers but he treated us like friends.  You don’t know what it means to an insecure child or teen to be given attention as an equal by an adult they admire most.  To me it meant the difference between walking around with a feeling of worth or sleeping the day away in a dark room.  To me it meant everything.

I can associate many events in my life with phone calls.  Phone calls bring surprises, good news, mundane updates, and grief.  I associate two phone calls with Jimmy, and they both brought grief.  The first was from my sister telling me he had cancer.  The second one was from my mother telling me he had died. I saw that moment, 21 years ago this week, as if I was outside of my body watching myself answer the phone.  I was wearing a white blouse and sitting at the secretary’s desk in my office.  I knew he was in his last days, but even knowing the inevitable does not make the moment digestible.  I hung up the phone and pushed some pencils around on the desk and thought I would be fine because I knew it was coming.  After a few minutes I went to my boss’s desk and told her I had to go.  She wasn’t the type of person you told anything, but that day I did and I left.

My biggest regret was that I did not go see him in those last months.  I felt I failed as a friend.  The next few months were very difficult for me.  I was a sleep-deprived new mother with fragile hormones and to add grief and guilt on top of my unstable emotions yielded many, many tears.

I’ve kept all of the letters I’ve received from friends over the years.  Some are good, some not so good.  Some are fantastic, some bring nostalgia, and some are creepy.  I’ve consolidated most all of my letters, cards, and notes from Jimmy into one collection.  They all fall in the good – fantastic category.  One day a few years ago I visited the box that holds them and found the one pictured above.  It brought back such a good feeling that I framed it and set it on a shelf in my office.  I think the words he wrote were more from his heart than the song he quoted.  In hindsight those words define what I think was Jimmy’s outlook on life.   Be young, be foolish, be happy.  I try.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'm not strange, I was just shaped that way

With Thanksgiving just days away I read and hear people giving thanks for the things that they consider blessings in their lives.  Last week at a holiday dinner for the international students I work with I was put on the spot and asked to tell the gathering why I am thankful.  Setting aside all discomforts of a live mike and even livelier humans sitting and listening I managed to utter some profound words that moved the audience to tears as they waited for their smoked turkey dinner.  Nah, not really.  I almost moved myself to tears from the agony of the delivery.  What did I say I was thankful for?  I babbled something about my family, and my legs and hands, and then I said something about being thankful for them, the students, for giving me the opportunity to travel the world.  It was a jumbled mess from my point of view.  What I should have said was that I am truly thankful for all of the interesting people I have had the privilege of knowing in my life.

Yes, I have known some very interesting people; some for only moments, and some for lifetimes.  The people I am referring to aren’t celebrities or particularly important to the general public, but interesting nonetheless.  I can’t remember my parents actually telling me to be tolerant of people who were a little odd or different.  Instead they ingrained it in me by leading by example.  Sometimes when I think of my childhood home I compare it to the family in the Frank Capra movie, “You Can’t Take It With You”.   There was always a little bit of chaos happening.   We had people from all walks of life in and out of our house all day, every day.  There were people who were rich, poor, black, white and Hungarian.  There were people with questionable sexual orientation, alcoholics, young, old, delinquents, invalids, mentally ill, non-native English speakers and Hungarians.   There were some who were just wonderfully eccentric and some of them were Hungarian.  And all of them were treated equally.  My mother fed, clothed, mothered, sheltered, anyone who needed it, and she did it all with respect to the person no matter the circumstance.  My father was a good man, a very good man, but he demonstrated tolerance by leaving it all up to my mother.  I learned tolerance from both of them but neither of them taught me Hungarian.

These people were not odd to me.  They were my normalcy. I credit them 100% for my ability to do my job and willingly communicate and interact with people from so many different cultures.  The word, “willingly” is key.  So many people are unwilling and close-minded.  They are missing out on so much and the sad part is they think they are better for it. 

So, today I am thankful for the eccentric, the rebels, the angels, the talented, and the non-native English speakers and the Hungarians who shaped my early life and continue to sculpt me even today. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Ghosts of Halloween Past

How much do I dislike Halloween?  Let me count the ways; three, to be exact.  Actually, Halloween is fine for anyone who enjoys it, but it just isn’t something I get into.  Costuming does not suit me, and suits look like costumes on me.  I keep away from both.  I did enjoy a few years of trick-or-treating with my children when they were little and I always enjoyed the school Halloween carnivals, both theirs and mine.  During my college years I used to do the Rocky Horror thing with my OTFP and some other friends, and that was always fun.  I also went to a Halloween party once, 1986 if I remember correctly.  So, Halloween really hasn’t always been a bad thing except for these Three.

One.  I was a socially inept, selectively-mute first-grader who was mortified at the thought of going to a stranger’s door, ringing the bell and hollering “Trick or Treeeaat!!”  No, I did not do that.  My mother did it for me.  I stood there dumbfounded, or just dumb, and waited for candy to be dropped in my sack.  Then, it happened.  She rang the bell at a house I did not know and a young boy from my class at school answered the call.  He was excited to see me and ran to tell his mother that the girl who couldn’t talk was at their door.  I wanted to melt into the pavement and fade away. Did my mother do that on purpose in an effort to help me? It’s been 42 years, and I haven’t forgotten it yet.

Two.  It was another formative year in early elementary school and I was having a blast at the Halloween Carnival.  No Fall Festival for us, it was all about Halloween down at the Catholic school.  My mother was chief chili-burger maker, and had run of the school cafeteria’s kitchen.  I checked in with her every so often, probably for more money to buy cherry-bell tickets (yes, elementary school children were encouraged to gamble at the Catholic school’s Halloween carnival) or some other treat.  I remember being in the kitchen alone and a tall man in full Dracula costume and makeup eased into the kitchen slowly and leered at me.  I ran and hid in the pantry, and my mother couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, and I certainly wasn't going to tell her.  That would be too easy.  In hindsight it was probably an eighth grader in a K-Mart costume looking for the bathroom, but to me it was terrifying.  That was somewhere between 39 and 42 year ago, and I haven’t forgotten it yet.  I still avoid vampires at all costs.

Three.  Twenty years ago I was still hanging on to weight I gained in my first pregnancy so I did something completely out of character and joined the YMCA so I could take (gasp) step aerobics classes.  I was terrible at it and always stood in the back of the class so there would be no one behind me to witness my lack of rhythm and coordination.  I did it though, and that’s all that mattered.  I went that Halloween night, a Monday if I remember correctly, exactly 20 years ago today.  I knew the Trick-or-Treater was coming, but I thought I could run do my aerobics and be back in time and still manage to miss the majority of the strange children who would be at my door looking for a handout.

When I got home my husband told me I had missed Her.  By Her he meant my Godchild.  And by Her he meant my Godchild’s mother (my sister) who was leaving early the next morning for Birmingham to have a heart surgery she was sure would only have her down a few weeks.  It was no big deal.  The previous day I did not wish her good luck or tell her that I loved her or any of those things you should say to your sister before she has her heart cut open.  I knew I would see her when she brought the Godchild to trick-or-treat so I waited to give my wishes for well then.  But I let my ridiculous social anxieties get in the way and left for an aerobics class where I clumsily clomped to some techno/rap/’90’s remix instead of facing the awkwardness of sharing my feelings with my sister. Listening to “Are you ready for this?” blaring and hearing my own heartbeat pumping in my ears was my cowardly escape from awkwardness.  I wasn’t only running from the trick-or-treaters, I was running from myself facing Her.  It was hard for me.  It is harder for me now thinking about it and wondering if she was hurt that I didn't wait for her. It would have been our last real conversation.  It’s been twenty years to the day and I haven’t forgotten it yet.

This morning when my snooze alarm went off, aka, hungry cat yowls, I rolled over to check my phone for the weather report.  The date hung there suspended in digital magic, and I remembered that night as I have every Halloween since 1994.  I was reminded of missed opportunities with no second chances.  I cried as if she died yesterday.  It’s been twenty years but some days it still feels like she died yesterday.

On my way home from work today I listened to one of my favorite short stories in my New Yorker Fiction podcasts.  It’s a story by Miranda July about an awkward woman who is given an opportunity she does not realize only to understand years later what it would have meant for her.  Her whole life would have been completely different if she had only dialed one phone number, but she did not understand the reality of situation until it was years too late. When the cold comprehension dawns on her she is stunned and regretful.  I had forgotten that part of the story when I decided to listen again today.  Driving home with those words sounding in my ears I felt her pain as I always do, only this time it was on a new level.

I’m a different person than I was twenty years ago.  Sharing my feelings through writing has given me a hint of confidence I didn’t have even five years ago, and that confidence builds layer by layer each time I make a new post.  There are many things I will do and say now that were impossibilities for me in 1994.  Like tonight, for example.  I bought candy, turned on the lights and waited for the trailer loads of children that parade my street to come to my door.  They didn’t and I knew they wouldn’t (no one wants to drive a trailer load of children down my dirt drive) but hey, I gave it a shot. 

Maybe next year I’ll wear a witch’s hat, tease out my taupe locks, and stand at the mailbox and throw the candy at them as they pass.  One step at a time, right?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

More Dream Diary

Last night I had a very good dream.  It was so good I forced myself to get up at 2:30 a.m. and write it down before I forgot it as I knew I would.

The dream began as a jumble of things.  I was sleeping in my mother’s bedroom but I had to get up and go to a distant country road to see who was in a truck that would be coming down the road.  It was all a part of some mystery.  I was in my nightgown so I grabbed my mother’s robe off the back of the door and headed out on foot into the night to the road which just happened to be the road near my daddy’s old homestead.  I was watching a mystery unfold like a spectator, but I was a spectator who was actively involved.  It was like watching a movie except I was an extra with one line to deliver.

After that jumbled bit I started for home, and on the way I encountered some farm animals that were mine and they followed me and repeated letters I gave them to say.  I was teaching them how to talk.  Instead of going home I knew I had to go to a prayer service my sister, the pesky one, had arranged for my daddy who was away somewhere.  It was going to be a sing.  The room was actually a pod, like an airplane, and it was very dark in there.  But there was a back wall with a large open window and the scene beyond was so beautiful it was like paradise.  It was a pastoral scene at sunrise with a light spray of water, like a fountain, in the foreground.  I knew I had to get a picture so my sister told me I could go get my camera.  So off I went, talking to animals on the way there, got my camera and came back, talking to the animals again.  They were so much fun. I'm still in my nightgown and robe, by the way.

When I got back to the pod I had to squeeze in and make my way to the front of the room which was really in the rear.  The light had changed so the scene wasn’t as breathtaking as before, but my sister had already started the program so I had to sit down and sing.  We were singing obscure songs from the musical Oklahoma.  I didn’t know the words but there was sheet music to use, so I sat down next to Becky and left an empty seat for Julius who was not there yet.  We sang a couple of songs and then I heard Daddy in the back of the room say, “Let’s just talk to each other.”  My first thought was, “Oh, he made it after all.”  He began singing in his serious voice.  Daddy’s serious singing voice was very soft and very low with a slight quiver, and that is the voice he used to sing these words, “Oh, what a burden, my God, ba ba ba ba bom, to…” By the “to…” no one knew the rest of the words so the song just faded off.

It was then my conscious began to surface over my subconscious and I realized that I had just heard my daddy’s voice from heaven, and he wanted to spend his few seconds to “just talk to each other.”  I then came fully awake but had to lie there in the dark with my eyes closed and repeat it all to myself so I would not forget.  Then I got up and wrote it all down.

As I was getting back in bed my tablet, which I had set to charge last night, suddenly lit up.  I guess it does that when the charging is done.  The ironic thing is the wallpaper photo on my table is the picture above.  The people in the photo are my daddy’s family.  He is the only one missing in the photo which leads me to believe he’s the photographer.  I got up to turn it off fully expecting to see him appear in the picture.   That’s how close he felt at the moment.

My daddy sang to me last night, and oh, what a blessing it was.  Thank you, God, for giving him a minute off.  I know heaven is a busy place with many things to do.  And thank you, Daddy, for stopping in for a brief visit.  I appreciate you taking the time to sing to me.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Food for thoughts

Fall is finally showing its golden presence.  The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and there’s a wee nip in the air.  This combination of goodness puts me in the mood for two things - cooking and changing out my closet.  I’m never really in the mood for changing out my closet but October is going to be a busy month for me, and if I don’t get it done this weekend it won’t get done until sometime in November.  And I really don’t want to be wearing white capris and cotton lawn blouses in November.  Fall is the time for denim, fleece and flannel even if South Mississippi temperatures still hover around 80 until Christmas.  Fall is fall, by golly, and I plan to dress like it even if I have to carry a handkerchief to dab the dew off my forehead.

When it comes to cooking, though, I’m not as seasonal.  I cook the same foods year round with the exception of dressing at Thanksgiving.  That’s the one time in the year I cook dressing since I only know how to prepare it for 25 people instead of just four.  But since there is a snap in the breeze today I decided to stay with a fall feel and throw together a pot of chili. 

I’m more of a throw-it-all-in-one-pot cook anyway.  Soup, stews, chili, spaghetti sauce, and dried beans are my specialties.  Cook it one pot, eat it in a bowl.  That’s how my children are going to remember my cooking when they are my age.  My children are going to write about me one day and say, “Gee, I sure do miss mom’s beef stew; meat, potatoes, and vegetables all there together in one bowl.  Mmm boy, that was some good cookin’!” 

While my chili was simmering I had a flashback of my mother’s cooking.  She was not a one pot cook.  She cooked in many pots and served multiple dishes with each meal.  We never just had spaghetti.  We would have spaghetti and a vegetable or two and fried chicken and maybe even potato salad.  I never said she was a healthy cook.  Her food was flavorful, comforting, and inviting but rarely was it healthy.  The meal I was thinking of this morning was a typical Sunday lunch of roast beef, baked broccoli and cheese, mushrooms sautéed in butter, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and/or green beans, cucumber and tomatoes in Italian dressing, U-Bake rolls and dessert.  

As good as her meals were her desserts were even better.  Mama rarely made one of anything.  She didn’t make one pie she made four.  She might make one cake but it was as large as two.  I remember coming home from school one day and the entire kitchen table (and it was a big table) was covered entirely with cinnamon rolls.  She was on a cinnamon roll kick that year.  The same can be said of her dalliances in pecan tassies, cupcakes, Rice Krispy treats, and brownies. 

I do so much miss my mother’s cooking.  I miss her, of course, but I’ve missed her cooking for much longer.  She stopped cooking after her bout with West Nile in 2005.  That dreadful disease zapped her of her energy and her memory.  One little mosquito took it all away.  

I may be a one pot cook but I try to put as much love into cooking as Mama put into hers.  Maybe that is why it tasted so good.  She truly enjoyed cooking it and she truly loved to see her family enjoy it.  Now if only I could put as much love into changing out my closet I might get the job done before bedtime.  Nah, I doubt it.