Do Not Enter

I considered myself well prepared for motherhood, or as prepared as possible anyway. I took classes, read books, and got good prenatal care. I listened to the sage advice and wisdom of those who’d gone before me. I understood that my life and purpose would be irrevocably changed. I knew that the center of my universe had shifted from myself and my husband to those tiny humans, and that our needs and desires must naturally be pushed aside to ensure their well-being.

I embraced motherhood wholeheartedly and welcomed the change. I was even happy to give up my dignity, privacy and ownership of my body to nourish my children through pregnancy and that first critical year, but I apparently labored under a misapprehension.  I assumed that once my children could eat from the table and achieved a certain level of self-sufficiency, that I could, once again, expect a reasonable amount of privacy, that I would be allowed to bathe, dress, and use the facilities without company or interruption – for the most part.

Apparently, I was sadly mistaken because my children have an uncanny ability to intuitively detect the exact moment that my decency is in any way compromised and choose that moment to knock on the door and, quite often, enter before asked. I can predict with unfailing accuracy that if either of my children are in the vicinity, within five seconds of the removal of my clothes, one of them will demand my immediate audience.

Case in point, a few weeks ago we threw a barbecue for some friends passing through town. The day was warm; and I dressed accordingly, but with nightfall, we were still sitting out on the patio. I got chilly. My children were playing in the yard next door with their friends, and I excused myself from the group of adults to go inside and change into jeans and a light sweater. I had no sooner shucked off my dress than my youngest child knocked on the bedroom door! “Mommy,” she said, starting to open the door. I hustled over and pushed the door closed. “What is it?” I asked, impatiently. Undaunted, she replied, “Can I have more food?” Are you kidding me!?

The food was outside. Her father was also outside, and never mind the fact that we had never denied our children food, except maybe sweets. What bizarre, unseen force had compelled my child to leave her friends in the yard next door, walk through our yard, across the patio past four adults, through the backdoor, down the hall, up the stairs, and down another hall to seek me out at that precise moment?

“Are you bleeding?” I asked. “Uh, no,” she answered, confused. “Is your sister bleeding? Did she fall down and knock herself out?” Again the answer was, “no.” “So, you came up here just to ask me for food?” “Yes?” Her answer came out like a question. “Grace, go ask your father!”

What is it that makes my children seek me out the moment I choose to do anything which requires undressing? Because it’s not just Grace who does this, our 12-year-old, Breanna, does it, too! Just a few days ago, Breanna had three friends spend the night. The next morning, I left them in the kitchen getting their breakfast and went upstairs to the furthest bathroom I could use away from them. I had just disrobed when someone knocked on the door. Thoroughly exasperated, I snapped, “What is it?” Breanna answered and said, “Mommy, can I have the last brownie?” What?!?!

Now, this child should know that unless it is Armageddon and the end of the world as we know it, she’s not getting a brownie or any other kind of sweet for breakfast – not even a donut! She further knows that if my bedroom or bathroom door is closed, she better be hurt or the house on fire before she knocks on it. I made that clear after the barbecue incident. Maybe she thought the rules were different because her friends were here, and it was almost her birthday. I don’t know what went through the child’s head, but my answer was, “No! And if you knock on that door again, you won’t get another brownie as long you live!” Puberty must be eating holes in her brain because she actually said, “But, mom!” Suffice it to say, I ate the last brownie.



The Middle – Part Deux

Make your peace with the past…I’ve been thinking about incidents from my past a lot lately. Replaying conversations in my mind, saying or doing what I should’ve said or done, and visualizing the alternate outcome. I won a scholarship my senior year of high school. It wasn’t much, just $200 from some civic group. I don’t even remember which one. I received a letter on awards day congratulating me and instructing me to stop by their headquarters to collect the check. I never went. I don’t know why. I remember being disappointed that it was such a small amount, but still…why didn’t I go? I wish I could remember what group gave me the award. I want to write them a letter and apologize. Silly. I know. I think the letter is in my trunk where I packed away all my high school memorabilia. The trunk is in storage; so I couldn’t look if I wanted to, but things like that have surfaced in my memory, like flotsam from a long ago shipwreck.

I broke up with a boy in eighth grade because one of the “popular” girls made a comment in the gym locker room one day. She said something to the effect of, “I think it’s just so sweet that you’re going out with Brian.” But something about the way she said it indicated that she didn’t think it was sweet at all. She was making fun of me, and for some ridiculous reason known only to my 13-year-old self, I cared what that girl thought. So, I called him up that night and broke up with him. The really goofy part is that we weren’t even dating in the traditional sense. We just passed the occasional note in the hall and sat together at pep rallies and ball games. I think he called me twice, and I remember when he did that my mom commented on how polite he was. I wish I could apologize to him for hurting his feelings. There are other boys like that from my school days. Boys that I turned down whom I should’ve accepted. Boys that I dumped that I should’ve kept. I’ve thought of job interviews that I botched, arguments that I lost, and my one and only at-fault wreck. I play those memories over in my mind and pinpoint the exact moment I messed up.

I asked Jay one day not too long ago if he wouldn’t like to be young again. He asked, without taking his eyes off the Broncos, “How young are we talking?” Jay never answers any question no matter how innocuous or benign without as much information as he can possibly glean. “I don’t know…22?” Jay’s face scrunched up as though he smelled a foul odor, “And be poor again!? No, thank you! I like where we are now.”

Where we are now…which really gets to the heart of the matter. Life is a journey, a process. We aren’t meant to stay the same. We’re meant to learn and grow and change, and yes, get older. Our lives are very much like the process of writing this blog. Some of my posts just come to me and flow. I can write them in under an hour and publish them without a moment’s hesitation, but others, like this one, go through multiple phases – deletions, re-writes, edits, additions. Just like us as we age. We can fight it, or we can embrace it, maybe even enjoy it. Some of the phases of my life, I look back on with pride, for lack of a better word. Others make me cringe. I can’t believe the things I said or did, or (shudder) wore!

I am trying to enter the next phase gracefully. I’m determined to be thankful for every birthday and to look forward to each decade as an adventure. I’m finally confident and content with who I’ve become and what I believe, but I wouldn’t be who I am without all that came before. My hair may be going grey, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to break out the velour track suit and the New Balance walking shoes. I still don’t feel any different on the inside than I did at 18, and as long as that’s the case, I’m just going to keep on “L-I-V-I-N.” (Matthew McConaughey as “Wooderson” in Dazed and Confused)






The Middle

Songs have been written about being in the middle. “Stuck in the middle with you.” “It just takes some time in the middle.” We’ve identified syndromes caused by being in the middle – the middle child syndrome, a mid-life crisis. The mid-life crisis happens to be where society would say I am now. The time when you step back and take stock of your choices and evaluate where you go from here, or you completely lose your mind and spend all your savings on a sports car, plastic surgery, and a 25-year-old cabana boy named, Sergio. I’m the former.

I once believed I’d do something great with my life. Today I realize that greatness is subjective, but as an 18-year-old kid contemplating college, I equated greatness with a high-powered career. The only problem was, when the time was at hand to decide what to be, I couldn’t. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had too many varied interests, and being highly intelligent (I don’t think it’s bragging to say that. At least, I hope it isn’t.) I had too many things that I was good at. Now, I know where my true passion and talent lie, but the die has already been cast. I had to decide the path then, and now I find myself as a wife and mother, a military wife no less, which makes it all the harder to change course, not only because I have people who depend on me to be the backbone of the family, the one who keeps the home fires burning, the one who can be depended upon to maintain the status quo no matter what, but also because we already have enough “course changes” being decided for us.

It dawned on me today, though, that mid-life isn’t one’s first foray into middle years. I was writing a letter for my daughter’s PTO newsletter, trying to urge parents to get involved and volunteer at the school, asserting that our children need us now more than ever as they attempt to navigate their middle school years, when it hit me that life is actually divided into thirds, perhaps even quarters, not halves. My daughter is in her middle years, too, which may account for some of the miscommunication between us recently as we both attempt to navigate the next section of our lives and figure out how to live up to this new level of maturity that seems to be expected of us.

She, too, is in transition, no longer a young child, but not yet a young adult. Ready to be treated as more grown-up but not yet ready to be a grown up. Here I am, grown up, knowing who I am and what I want to be, but finding that because of what I did when I didn’t know, I can’t do what I now know I want to do. It’s complicated.

By no means am I insinuating that I would change any of the major choices of my life which put me in my current role, nor am I an angry housewife, chaffing at the bit of domesticity and wishing to make a run for independence. Rather, I am simply trying to picture what might have been had I had more insight into, well, myself, as a young adult deciding on a college and then a major at college. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to stay in my chosen field once the moving started, instead of taking the first job to come along out of a sense of financial desperation.

“What if…” Horrible phrase. It should really be a four letter word, right along with “regret.” Both are pointless, useless occupations which serve no purpose other than to make one doubt oneself. Because when I look at Jay and our girls and step back and really consider the life we’ve built, the experiences we’ve had and the wisdom we’ve gained, I wouldn’t change a thing; because if I’d chosen differently, I might not have any of this greatness. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never be. Make your peace with the past and leave it there.


Finding Our Place

I’ve left bits of myself all over the country. My roots are in Tennessee, but my heart resides in North Carolina. There’s a chunk of my soul in Georgia, another sliver in Kansas, and a chip on Pikes Peak. If someone asked me right now, where I want to live the rest of my life, I’d have no answer. I love something about everywhere I’ve lived. Whenever I visit Tennessee, driving over Monteagle Mountain always makes me cry. The rolling foothills of the Appalachians that embrace my hometown are the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen. Every time I look at them, I see the ghosts of the Cherokee and Chickasaws, and the white pioneers who first built cabins among them. It’s an ancient land, proud and strong, with good earth and clear, clean streams.

Then, there’s North Carolina where I first settled at the tender age of 20, halfway through college and newly married. The ancestor to Tennessee, which shares our mountains, but has that lovely antithesis, the beach. From the Outer Banks to the Piedmont, the Sandhills, on down to Fort Fisher, North Carolina has something for everyone. You can hear the Scotch-Irish influence of the first settlers in the cadence and music of the mountain people today. The tempestuous weather of the coast belies the serenity of its inhabitants. The remnant of the band of Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears still live there today in their town of the same name. The modern urban centers of Charlotte and the Triad fly in the face of the old clichés about the South. I always feel at home in the Tarheel state, and I run to the mountains every chance I get to relax and rejuvenate my spirit.

Ah, but what about Kansas? Kansas is wholesome and good. The nicest people in the country live in Kansas, straight talking, “salt of the earth,” “give you the shirt off their back” kind of people. The soil is black there, it’s so fertile. No wonder we call it the breadbasket of the world. We used to joke that all you had to do was plant a seed, look at it, say, “grow,” and it would. We lived in a town where everybody came to every school event, whether they had a kid in school or not. No exaggeration, the whole town came to the elementary school’s fall festival. At least half the town travelled with the high school football team to away games. I’ve never seen a more invested, caring community, and one that was by no means affluent. But when a bond referendum was issued to pay for the expansion of the elementary school to accommodate fifth and sixth grades so that they could move them out of the rundown, older intermediate school, the bond passed overwhelmingly. I’m not even sure anyone voted against it.

We left Kansas for Colorado. Now, there’s a state that is complex and heartbreakingly lovely. The weather can be a tad schizophrenic, though. It snowed on May 14 one year, and then the pool opened on Memorial Day. You can see all four seasons on any given day. You can’t grow anything in Colorado by just sticking it in the ground. It’s too sandy and arid, but the landscape is awe inspiring. When I first saw the Rockies, I thought they were the ugliest mountains I’d ever seen. Brown and rocky with nothing but pines and Aspens, I considered them against my native Appalachians and found them pale in comparison, but the Rockies woo you. They wear their snow like a white mink and sparkle and shine, drawing your eye to their peaks and making you long to see what’s up there. Just take an oxygen mask when you give in and accept their invitation. Their beauty is deceptive. They’re as dangerous as a femme fatale. The idea of people settling and surviving in that landscape with the primitive tools and privations of the 19th century boggles my mind. Those pioneers had to have been made of granite as hard as the mountains themselves. While we lived there, we experienced wild fires, drought, blizzards, and floods, and yet, I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s where the sunshiny, happy people live, and it suited our active, outdoorsy lifestyle.

While we lived in Colorado we vacationed twice in Taos, New Mexico. “Land of Enchantment” is the motto of New Mexico, an apt description if ever I’ve heard one. New Mexico is bewitching. You pass miles and miles of sagebrush fields and red rock formations with tiny, sad towns in between. The people are quiet and dark, advertising their Spanish and Pueblo heritage through large, brown eyes, and straight, blue-black hair. They are kind, generous people, and proud. More than once, while Jay was out mountain biking, he received directions or help from someone because they recognized his affiliation with the military and befriended him because they’d served or someone in their family had served. They are storytellers and warriors. When you ask one of them a question, you must wait patiently for the answer and listen to the story that precedes it. We took a couple of day trips to Santa Fe, but it’s pretty much like any other big city, just more colorful. I fell in love with the idea of living in the green Taos valley or up on Angel Fire in a pueblo style house with satillo tile on the floors and colorful Mexican ceramics in the bathroom, and miles of sagebrush all around.

It’s a hard choice, deciding where to stay. Maybe we’ve been gypsies too long, but I don’t think it’s the idea of permanence that’s the problem. I like the thought of having my own home where I can paint the walls and renovate the kitchen if I want, but where do we find the house? What if there’s someplace marvelous out there with the perfect house and a kitchen that doesn’t need renovation? After all, there are still a lot of places we’ve never been.


The Cousins Visit

We had some cousins come for a week-long visit at the beginning of summer. They are Jay’s first cousin’s children, which makes them his first cousins once removed and our children’s second cousins; or it may make them Jay’s second cousins and our children’s third cousins. To whatever degree of kinship, they are cousins, and they came to visit for a week, accompanied by Jay’s father.

The cousins are Anne, 14, Robert, 12, and Emma, 9. When Jay and I first married, we thought we wanted four children. After having five for a week, I see why the Lord denied me that particular blessing. I do not possess the organizational or arbitrational skills to handle more than two children, and that’s saying something because I am pretty doggone organized. At any rate, the afternoon they arrived they were content to tour the house and play outside with the horde of neighborhood kids. Actually, we spent most of the afternoon fetching them water, shooing them back outside, and assuring them that it was “really not that hot” and that they would “get used to it.” They’re mountain children. The morning they left their home to come visit us it was 45 at their house and 80 at ours.

I’d made a list of things to do during the week, but had no set schedule since the weather was forecast to be a bit sketchy here and there. One thing I’d not taken into account was the difficulty involved in getting five children to agree on an agenda.

Tuesday was sunny and hot, perfect pool weather. We made all the required preparations: suits, sunblock, towels, goggles. The older kids elected to ride bikes there, which solved the seating problem in the car. They left before me and were all standing outside waiting when I got there. Something wasn’t right. There were no cars in the lot and the gate was closed and locked. Uh oh. I gulped, got out, and went to read the sign on the gate. “Closed for lifeguard training.” I turned around to five dejected faces. “I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t know. You can run in the sprinkler instead.” I said this brightly and hopefully, as though running in a  sprinkler is just as much fun as the pool. No dice. I cast about in my mind for an alternative and remembered the smaller pool at one of the adjacent housing areas. I ran home, located the pool pass, and hoped it was open. It was. Salvation was at hand!

Wednesday dawned cloudy and rainy. I’d known this to be a possibility and thought they’d just enjoy spending the day together at home with board games, crafts, and maybe popcorn and a movie. But Brianna awoke with no appetite and running a fever. She went back to bed for the rest of the day, and I ended up with four shadows who nixed every entertainment idea I suggested. They ended up seated on my basement stairs, playing music on my phone, and watching me chalk paint a large bookcase.

Thursday was our second target date for the big pool. We, again, went through our preparations and, with the addition of Brianna’s two best friends, drove over with bated breath. It was open! I gathered all seven kids, made sure they had everything, and strutted into the entrance to show my military ID, patting myself on the back for pulling the plan off. The lifeguard studied my ID, then surveyed the children. He pointed at Brianna, her two friends, Anne, and Robert. “Where are their ID’s?” I proceeded to explain that although Brianna and her friends did indeed have ID’s, we hadn’t brought them to the pool (obviously!) because they might get lost. Then, I added that Robert and Anne were visiting relatives and had no ID’s. I could tell by his face this was going to be a problem. He informed me that I am only allowed to bring six guests to the pool. I inquired as to whether returning with the ID’s of the three children who had them would alleviate the issue, and he assured me it would.

We returned to each of the respective houses and retrieved the required ID’s. Back to the pool we went in a slightly less jovial mood. When we re-entered, there was a different, younger lifeguard on duty at the check-in stand. We presented the requisite ID’s and waited, sweating, to be released to the water. “Uh, ma’am, you have too many guests.” I looked at him through my Ray Bans, with the stern face of the field grade’s wife who’s had just about enough of the run around. “Are you telling me that if all seven of these children were my dependents we wouldn’t be allowed in the pool?” “Well, uh, your husband would have to be with you.” “My husband is at work. Where is your supervisor?” Enter stage left the lifeguard who’d sent me in search of the illusive ID’s. The young lifeguard explained the issue, as I stood watching the exchange in absolute stillness, posture erect, arms crossed, authority oozing from my aura. I’d seen Jay do this many times, and it always worked.

The head lifeguard mulled over the situation and finally told the young man to admit us. I spent the next two hours either standing in four feet of water, repeatedly throwing dive toys for the kids to retrieve, or treading nine feet of water, keeping a watchful eye, as they went down the slide at the deep end. We all went to bed at about eight that night.

The most interesting event of the week happened during an impromptu baseball game with the neighborhood kids. One of the older boys from a large family down the street was pitching. As your typical 10-year-old boy has a tendency to do, he was taunting the batters, especially the ones who struck out. Emma got up to bat. She quickly struck out, and James started his taunt. Now, Emma was already fed up with James who’d teased Grace, my 5-year-old, earlier that day for crying when the chain came off her bike. Emma is particularly attached to Grace and became her self-appointed defender. When James started teasing her about striking out, he dropped the last straw on the camel’s proverbial back. She charged at him with the bat and gave him a solid whack across the upper arm. James’ mom went running to the scene at the sound of the yelling. I appeared a bit later after one of the kids came to get me. After questioning all the witnesses and examining James, we determined he wasn’t seriously injured, just a bit bruised. Thankfully, his mom has a common sense approach to parenting and decided he’d learned a valuable lesson about the potential consequences of being unkind. I, in turn, had a lengthy chat with Emma about not letting your anger dictate your actions, only using physical violence for self-defense, and how she could get in huge trouble at school doing such things. Then, I gave her a big hug to let her know there were no hard feelings.

Our last two days were spent touring the local military history museum and with a zip lining trip across the river. All things considered I think everyone enjoyed the visit. The kids did ask to come back next year, which is always good sign. As we watched them drive away, Jay put his arm around me and asked if I still wanted four. No, I think I’m cured.

A Greenish Thumb

Jay and I are what might be described as food snobs. We like to eat whole, healthy foods, which means that I make most things from scratch, even tortillas. The simplest explanation is that if I make it, I know what’s in it. A few years ago, when our oldest daughter was four, she went through a severe tantrum phase and showed signs of what I feared might be ADHD. The nurse practitioner at the medical office where I worked at the time pointed me toward some research about the correlation between food additives and sugar and the rise in behavioral problems in children. I read the research, threw out all the processed food in the house, and switched to an organic, all-natural diet. Within a week, the tantrums ceased. Within two, Breanna was like a different child. We never went back and over the years I’ve learned how to really cook, the way our grandmothers did.

This year, Jay and I decided to take our organic lifestyle to the next level and put in a small backyard garden, just a couple of 4×4 raised beds and some herbs in pots. We’d done some reading, talked to a couple of gardeners selling vegetables at the farmer’s market, but we figured the best way to really learn how to go about it was to just do it, a trial by fire. We called it the “great experiment” and vowed to take note of what worked and what didn’t and not get too upset if the whole thing was an epic failure.

Now, the sad part is, I really should know what I’m doing. My grandmother always had a substantial vegetable garden, and my dad has always had a garden. He grows everything from corn to tomatoes and squash, and my stepmother puts it all up, as the saying goes, meaning she cans or freezes it. I grew up helping in the garden, but unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention. I merely pulled what they said pull, hoed where they said hoe, and ran off to play as soon as released from indentured servitude.

Every summer and fall, my grandmother canned vegetables. I sat in her kitchen and watched, pitching in where told. Again, I paid little to no attention to what she did. I perched on my stool, out of the way, until sent to fetch more jars, and otherwise gazed out the window and daydreamed. I’m kicking myself now.

We bought our cedar 2×4’s to provide the boundaries of the plots. I purchased more bags of organic gardening soil than I care to count, and we methodically dug the grass out of the area down to the red Georgia clay and filled it in with the soil. I bought organic seeds for two varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, watermelons, pole beans, okra, and zucchini. I purchased two kale plants, already started, from a man at the farmer’s market and took meticulous notes on everything he said to do for their care. A friend down the street started more herbs than she needed and gave me her extras. We were set. Some of you are doing the math right now, and if you know anything about gardening, you know we were already in trouble.

I started some of the seeds in pots in our sunroom. When they were big enough, I took them out to the garden and transplanted them alongside more seeds sown directly into the dirt. I wanted to see which way worked best and produced the hardiest plants. Initially, I was concerned the transplants wouldn’t take. They looked kind of droopy, but now at a couple of months in, I can’t tell which is which.

What we really didn’t know, which would’ve been helpful information, is how big the plants would get and which were helpful to one another and which weren’t. Knowing nothing about proper placement, we just started planting. We put the cucumbers and tomatoes, in cages, along the back edges. We did know that much. We put the zucchini and kale in the middle on one side, and the watermelons and carrots in the middle and along the edges of the other side.

We got a lot of rain in April. The six zucchini plants flourished; then, began to take on the size and appearance of something from the Jurassic period. They completely overshadowed the kale and began encroaching on the cucumbers. We’d failed to thin our plants, and to make matters worse, we’d caged them. You see, zucchini  should really be planted on a hill or a mound. We didn’t have a hill and had no way of making a hill, or actually we just didn’t understand what was meant by “plant on a hill.” I’d seen some magazine at the grocery store about gardening in small spaces. It showed a lovely picture of a patio garden with vegetable plants in pots, one of which was a zucchini plant with a tomato cage around it. I didn’t read the article, just flipped though while I waited in line, skimming here and there, but that’s what gave me the bright idea of caging the zucchini.

Even worse, and this is where my real ignorance shows, I didn’t understand what the seed packets meant by “thinning.” I figured it out fairly quickly and in plenty of time to do it, but the thing was I just couldn’t stand the thought of pulling up any of my little baby plants. They were all doing so well, and it was difficult, impossible even, to tell which were the hardiest or best producers. Jay being the big softy that he is where I’m concerned said, “Just leave them, and let’s see what happens.” As far as the tomatoes went, no harm no foul. They’re all doing well and producing well. Although the sweeties turned out to be the size of cherry tomatoes, which was disappointing since I thought I’d planted the ones I typically buy on the vine, which are about medium. Oh, well. But the zucchini really should have been thinned because as the blooms began to turn into fruit, we discovered they were staying skinny and only about four inches long. Then, they’d start to shrivel. The only one producing proper looking zucchini was the only one not caged. It had come up later and had therefore escaped. It flopped over on the ground, and it finally dawned on me that as long as I forced the others upright, they’d never properly produce.

This really was a pickle. The plants were huge, completely enveloping the cages, and there was no way to uncage them without ripping them out of the ground. Jay said, “Well, now we know.” But I couldn’t just accept defeat. One night after watering, I stood looking at those humungous plants, and thought, “I’m doing more harm than good.” I started pulling. I pulled up four plants and managed to uncage one while still leaving it in the ground. I apologized to them before throwing them over the fence and into the wood line. Fortunately, the gamble seems to have worked, and now the remaining two plants are flowering and green again. They have yet to produce.

As for the herbs, once again, my ignorance got the best of me. I had basil, parsley, chives, thyme, dill, and cilantro. I planted all of them together in a large bushel basket. I don’t use much dill or cilantro, and they kind of got away from me, growing tall and flowering. One day, I noticed that the cilantro looked like cilantro at the base but took on a distinctly dill-like appearance as it neared the top. I did some research. Turns out, they are actually part of the same plant family and will cross-pollinate. I’d inadvertently grown “dillantro.” I, of course, had to taste it. I pulled it up immediately, once the spitting and gagging abated. I cut back the dill, hung it to dry in the basement, and replanted some cilantro in a separate pot well away from the dill.

We ran out of space in our raised beds; so, we put the okra and beans in a little 3×4 section by the back steps that only ever grew weeds. Of course, we tilled it and mixed in generous amounts of the gardening soil. The okra came up within a couple days, but the beans took awhile. Finally, I spotted little sprouts in the general vicinity of where I’d placed the bean seeds. The plant was about six inches tall when Jay’s dad came for a visit. He has extensive gardening experience, having grown up in a large mountain family on a small farm. He surveyed the plants and told us where and how to cut the suckers off the tomatoes and when to pick the cucumbers. Then, he looked over the okra and beans. He pointed to my bean plant. “What’s that?” he asked. “Beans,” I replied. He tilted his head to the side and took a drag on his cigarette, probably debating how to the break the bad news. “Naw, that’s grass,” he stated and sauntered away to sit in the shade. He’s a good man for not laughing out loud. I don’t know how he did it.

Un-Common Courtesy

Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, then you have good manners.” People today only seem sensitively aware of their own feelings. For the past 20 or so years, thanks to the push to build “self-esteem” in children, we’ve created a culture of proverbial monsters. You see it everywhere. People so self-involved they barely notice there are other people on the planet, much less have any idea they should care about them. They run into you without saying excuse me. They loudly curse in public places. They go around everywhere talking on the phone, even while at dinner with other people. I overheard a woman talking to someone on the phone while she was using the restroom!

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity in essence equated it with a God complex. He wrote, “The moment you have a self at all, there is the possibility of putting yourself first – wanting to be the centre – wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race.” It’s an interesting point. One that gives me chills, but what both Post and Lewis were driving at is if you care at all about others and how your behavior affects them, you’ll treat them with courtesy.

As I drove my children to ballet class the other day, a man in a pick-up truck, missing his driver’s side mirror and with two tires going flat, sped past me on the right and cut over into my lane barely missing my front bumper. He never signaled. He didn’t look. His right hand held a large smart phone up to his ear. His left arm lay on the open window. So, my question is: What was he using to steer? Ten years ago, that would have made me mad enough to spit. I probably would’ve called the police and given them his tag number. Now, it’s become so common place, I just shook my head and kept driving.

I drive like an old granny woman, as my sister would say. I do the speed limit. I signal. I look twice before I merge. I check my rearview mirror every couple of minutes because I like to know what’s going on behind me as well as up ahead. I keep both hands on the wheel. I drive this way not only because it’s correct and legal, but because I carry precious cargo, because I am precious to my family, and because other people are precious to someone, too. I am not the only parent on the road, and I’m not the only one carrying children. “Horrible” doesn’t begin to describe how I would feel if some action of mine caused the death or injury of my children or someone else. People today routinely drive with a reckless abandon that demonstrates their utter and complete disregard for anyone except themselves.

The lack of common courtesy isn’t just seen on the road or in the failure to use “please” and “thank you.” It’s infiltrated every aspect of life. People no longer hold the door for one another. Only older men ever stand and offer their seat to a woman. Once the generation of men born prior to 1970 die, I fear that particular custom will be extinct. Today, a young boy of about 10 was approaching me on the sidewalk. Just before we came abreast of each other, he dropped his bottle of water, and it rolled into my path. I bent, picked it up, and handed it to him. He took it without a word and kept walking. I was affronted, but, once again, just shook my head. The next time something like that happens, I’ll do the same. Perhaps my small act of courtesy will make an impression and be paid forward.

One of my greatest pet peeves is dress. It is not, nor has it ever been, appropriate to go out in public and conduct business in pajamas. Nor is it appropriate to attend an official ceremony in anything other than that which the formality of the occasion demands. My family and I attended a Memorial Day wreath laying ceremony. The stewards of the event and all the honored guests were dressed in full military dress or the civilian equivalent, but more than half the attendees were in shorts and tee shirts. It’s wrong. It’s disrespectful, and it’s rude, but that too has become commonplace. They filed down the aisle and took their seats with not a moment’s hesitation.

Jay and I took our children to the ballet recently. Jay wore a coat and tie, and the girls and I wore dresses. I even carried an evening bag. The usher who gave us a program actually stopped us to say thank you for dressing appropriately. He said, “People have no idea how to dress for an evening out anymore.” He  was sadly correct. The outfits ran the gamut from ripped jeans to full-length evening gowns. I am reminded of the scene from Sabrina, the original with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, where Sabrina refuses to go to dinner and the theatre with Linus because she’s wearing (gasp!) pants and not an evening dress.

My mother works for the government. She is a paralegal and daily comes into contact with judges and attorneys and on occasion goes to court, as do her co-workers. However, in her office, the dress code basically amounts to being covered. People literally come to work in all manner of dress, including pajama pants, flimsy tee shirts, and flip flops. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead dressed like that at work or anywhere else. She grew up in the era when little girls and women wore dresses and men wore shirts and ties in public. She dresses in business attire for work, just as she always has, but she was recently reprimanded for “setting the bar too high” by a supervisor three decades her junior who wore jeans, a tank top, and the requisite flip flops. I have difficulty wrapping my mind around that. How does an employee get chastised for looking too nice?

When I was a child, the way we dressed to go anywhere would today be considered dressy. I miss those days. I hate going to the store and having to stand behind someone with their pants so baggy their underwear is showing or worse, their backside. That actually happened recently. A man was leaning on the customer service counter at a store with his pants slid half way down his bottom. Another customer, a woman, went over to him and whispered something to him, and he pulled them up. He didn’t bother to apologize or excuse himself to her or any of the rest of us. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it really is plain old selfishness. Perhaps there is a general lack of pride and dignity in one’s appearance, but whatever it is that is causing such laxity among the populace with regards to personal grooming, it needs correction. As Woodrow F. Call said in Lonesome Dove, “I hate rude behavior in a man. Won’t tolerate it.”

A Lesson in Values – Part 2 or This Old House

The last few days I’ve worked on my office, trying to make it into a room rather than a storage facility with a desk. I love old books and over the years have collected several. In organizing my bookshelf yesterday, I ran across a small, tattered book, the title no longer recognizable. Upon opening it, this is what I found on the first page:

“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our father did for us.’ ” – John Ruskin

Subsequent pages revealed the book as a builder’s guide called, “Audels Masons and Builders Guide #2 A Practical Illustrated Trade Assistant on Modern Construction.” The copyrights are 1924 and 1945. I remembered that I found the book in a box full of other old books and tomes given to us by Jay’s father who saved them from the rubbish heap in front of an even older house in Asheville, North Carolina. My eyes welled with tears at the sentiment that quote conveys, an attitude held through centuries by every major culture and society that ever existed until now. Now, it’s been discarded like the cheaply made technology we hold so dear, yet replace so easily.

John Ruskin was an interesting and, I dare say, very intelligent man. He was what might be called a “forward thinker.” Professionally, he was an art critic, a draftsman (or draughtsman, in the English spelling), an artist, and a prolific writer of critiques, lectures, letters, and articles. He lived from 1819-1900 and believed that future generations would one day look to the past to seek out its wisdom and ways in their quest to preserve the natural world and reverse man’s damage to it.

Sir John Everett Millais painted Ruskin standing alongside a Scottish waterfall in 1853-54. I consider the piece an apt representation of Ruskin’s personality and beliefs. Mallais was a pre-Raphaelite, and Ruskin was one of their greatest patrons. In researching Ruskin, for although I went to art school I don’t recall his name, I ran across a lecture he’d written and delivered to the London Institution in 1884. In it he describes his attempt to document a new cloud, one that darkens the sky heralding rain, yet never yielding it. He called it a “plague cloud” and said, though he tried, he found no mention of such a cloud in any historical writings, going back as far as Homer and Virgil. He goes on in his lecture to blame the cloud on the Industrial Revolution and air pollution. My research afforded Ruskin a new admirer in me, as I, myself, seek to preserve in some small way the wisdom and artifacts of the past.

We live in an ancient house by society’s standards. It is a grand old nonagenarian (I just wanted to use that word.), built in 1925, and still largely in its original form. It is exactly the type of building of which Ruskin would have approved. The only “updates” include the addition of central heat and air, a modernized kitchen, and a coat closet converted into a half bath about five years ago, although a coat closet would’ve been nice to have, also. The floors are all the original hardwood, and they still lay even and straight. The planks are scratched in spots, but they shine and glow with warmth after a Murphy’s Oil Soap bath.

The tiny one inch tiles in the bathrooms were laid individually by hand. The grout is greying in places, but the tiles are still whole, white, and smooth. The subway tiles on the walls lay flat and even, with barely a grout line in between. There are multiple tall, wide windows in every room, letting in warm, happy sunlight. When summer storms rage as they so often do in the South, with great gusts of wind that bring down large oaks and poplars, our house withstands the onslaught with not a tremor. Our house in Colorado, built in the 1990s, would shake and groan in a wind storm to the point that I was convinced it would implode in the next gust, but not this old girl. She stands up to every blast as easily as she did the first she ever encountered. Our garage is too narrow and short for most modern cars, built as it was to house a model-T, but a prius would fit. We use it for storage. When I go out there, I never fail to admire the brick work. There isn’t a crack in the mortar or broken brick anywhere. The cement floor is still just as smooth as the day it was laid. I must credit the craftsmen who built her with how beautifully she still stands. They meant her to last and she has.

I’ve spent hours visualizing the families that have lived here over the years. Trying to imagine the women in their neat dresses with matching hats, handbags and gloves, heading out for tea or bridge club. I’m particularly intrigued by the maid’s room in the basement, barely big enough for a twin bed and a chest-of-drawers, but with a private full bath. Who slept down there? Did she like working in this house? Did it take her as long to clean it as it takes me? I imagine her shooing the children of the household out of the kitchen, then slipping them cookies through the back door. I wonder if she was happy living in the bosom of a family, yet separate from it. There’s no way to ever know. These days our guests sleep down there on a queen bed that fills the room. They’re always skeptical of being comfortable when I show them to the “guest room,” but no one ever complains of a bad night’s sleep.

This house makes me nostalgic for times and places I missed by being born too late, but I’ve always considered nostalgia a pleasant feeling with its poignant, fleeting combination of sadness and joy. Southern summers also illicit my nostalgia. There’s a smell, an effervescence to the air, that transports me to other times, particularly to my childhood. July family reunions at my grandmother’s with my cousins. The reunions a bit superfluous since we most of us lived within 30 miles of each other and ate Sunday dinner together almost every week, but still, every Fourth of July, we piled in on Mema and spent the night, crowded into a house with three tiny bedrooms and one even smaller bathroom. The kids were generally so dirty at the end of the day that the aunts washed us on the back porch with the garden hose before we were allowed back in the house.

We never noticed the heat. We drank from that garden hose and rolled down the grassy bank behind the swings till we itched. Sunburned noses and scraped knees were slathered in aloe. The singing of katydids in the trees provided the soundtrack of those long days of freedom. The tinkling of the ice cream truck heard from down the street set off a mad dash for the adults who doled out quarters soon exchanged for the tangy sweetness of orange push-ups.

As I walked our dog the other day with my daughter riding ahead on her bike, the sun shining a lovely 80 degrees, enjoying the blooming azaleas and dogwoods in front of other houses as old as my own, a breeze wafted down the street, and I caught a scent that instantly brought back that feeling of childhood freedom. I was happy and sad all at once. The cousins have scattered; my grandmother died five years ago, and those family reunions have fallen by the wayside. But I still have summer and my grand old house, and regardless of the changes in society or technology, the smell of summer is still the same as it was 100 years ago. The katydids still sing, and the azaleas still bloom.

I think Ruskin was right about we future generations wanting to reconnect with the past. If I resist the pace and “convenience” of the modern world, there must be others who do, too. I can’t be the only one with a desire to learn to can food and sew clothes, wishing I’d paid more attention when my grandmothers did such things. I can’t be the only one with a desire for a phone call instead of a text or an email. I thank the Lord that I have a best friend who writes me letters, real handwritten letters with stamps that you have to wait days to receive. It’s a lovely feeling seeing my name and address written in that looping hand of hers, to know she took the time to write. What greater commodity do we have other than our time? We have no greater gift to bestow on another person than our time. Those letters are the embodiment of her time, solid proof of her caring and friendship.

I think Ruskin saw the advancements of society and the encroachment on the natural world and realized things would move too fast, be built too fast, be replaced too quickly. He knew we’d want and need to slow things down eventually. I look at my house, and I know that they don’t build houses like this anymore. Houses that with love and appreciation will stand another 100 years if they escape the frustrated destruction of some person who considers them too outdated for convenience. Sometimes I wonder if they still make men like John Ruskin. I pray that we do.


A Lesson in Values

I recently got a lesson in value from my children. Jay and I don’t like to dye eggs at Easter. In our opinion it’s messy, and it’s wasteful. You boil and dye a dozen eggs, hide them a few times, then they end up in the trash. Jay’s mom, however, has a gaggle of geese that are prolific layers. So, every year at Easter, she boils a few of their eggs, wraps them carefully and sends them to the girls to dye. The eggs are huge, and the kids have a blast coloring them. We combine them with the plastic, pop-open eggs that we typically use for hunts and mark one as the “golden egg.”

In years past, I’ve filled the plastic eggs with candy like Starbursts and Hershey’s kisses, and whoever finds the golden egg typically wins $5. This year, however, I decided I didn’t want the girls inhaling all that artificial crud and sugar; so, I baked a pie and some cookies for everyone to get their sugar fix and put gold $1 coins in a few of the eggs, leaving most empty. The golden egg had four $1 coins inside. Then, on Easter day, just as Jay and I were preparing to hide the eggs, I had the brilliant idea to put messages inside a few.

Jay cut narrow strips of paper, and I wrote things like “stay up an extra 30 minutes,” “1 extra bedtime story,” “1 hour of mommy/daughter time,” “choose a movie for family movie night,” on the strips and put them in some of the eggs. There were maybe 10 strips in all. We had to hunt inside this year because it rained all afternoon, which turned out to be really fun and forced us to get pretty creative with hiding spots. With the hunt finished and the baskets checked, we discovered that our oldest found all the eggs with coins and our youngest had all the eggs with strips. That’s when, to our amazement, the fighting ensued. Our oldest got terribly upset that her sister had all the strips, and all she had was the money. “She got everything good!” Breanna fumed. Our youngest just grinned and clutched the strips to her chest. She climbed up on Jay’s lap, “Read them, Daddy,” she said.

Breanna stormed up to her room, and I heard her fling herself across her bed, yelling, “It’s not fair!” But the hunt was fair. I’d followed the girls around and made sure it was fair, and there was absolutely no way anyone could tell which eggs had messages and which were empty. Poor Grace thought she hadn’t found anything except empty eggs until we told her to open them.

I looked over at Jay after Breanna’s stormy exit and said, “Who knew those strips would be such a hit?” Jay just looked back at me wide-eyed and shook his head. After about 10 minutes, Breanna returned, contrite from her tantrum and apologized to us. Then, she turned to her sister and held out three gold coins to her, “Grace, can I have some of your strips? I’ll give you one coin for one strip.” Grace thought about this for a minute and replied, “Two coins for one strip.” Breanna, affronted, gasped and left the room again. Jay and I talked to Grace about sharing and encouraged her to work out a deal with her sister. She dutifully went upstairs with her strips, and a few minutes later both girls returned, smiling, having worked out a deal.

Perhaps it’s a lesson in intangible values, or maybe it’s just an example of how our values change as we grow up, Jay and I thinking the coins would be more valued than the prizes on the papers. Whatever the reason, we received a definitive lesson in our children’s values, and it warmed our hearts.

Adventures in Moving

Jay and I moved nine times in the last 18 years. We’d only been married for a few months when we made our first move from Georgia to North Carolina. We packed up our two room apartment (yes, you read that correctly – two rooms.) into the smallest U-haul truck you can rent. I spent all day scrubbing those two rooms in hopes of getting the deposit back. It was my first apartment, and I assumed the place needed to be pristine, especially considering it was newly renovated when I moved in. I was so young and inexperienced that I took a toothbrush and scrubbed all the grout in the shower and went around with a pencil eraser erasing marks off the walls. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed when the manager only spent about five minutes inspecting the apartment, deeming it “passable” and telling me my deposit check would be mailed to my new address. We could’ve gotten on the road hours earlier if I’d known she was only looking for a basic cleaning. Oh well, we got the deposit back, and I learned a valuable life lesson. Being in the Army, Jay hadn’t known any better either, accustomed as he was to weekly white glove inspections of his barracks room.

We only owned three heavy pieces of furniture back then; but it was a second floor apartment, and Jay needed some help. His buddies were in the field doing training; so, Jay posted a sign in the barracks reading “Free Beer” and listed our phone number. Trouble was, Jay neglected to tell me of his plan for enlisting movers. The first time the phone rang and the guy on the other end said, “yeah, I’m calling about the ‘free beer,'” I told him he had the wrong number and hung up. A few minutes later it rang again. A different guy said approximately the same thing, and I started to smell a rat.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

“The sign you posted,” the guy answered, exasperated. “It says, ‘Free Beer’ and has this number.”

“Look, dude, I’m sorry, but someone is obviously playing a prank,” I said, annoyed.

“Fine,” was the reply, and he hung up. I was fuming. Who would play a joke like this on us when we were trying to move? A couple of more calls came in, and I again told the guys it had to be a prank. I guess one of them finally ripped down the sign because the calls stopped. An hour or so later, Jay returned ,and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Did anyone call about the beer?”

“You did that?!” I asked, shocked. “Why would you do that?!” I still didn’t get it.

Jay was equally surprised. “Because I need help loading the couch,the chest of drawers, and the entertainment center, and most of those guys will do anything for beer. What did you say when they called?”

“I told them it was a joke! You should’ve told me. It never occurred to me that you put up that sign,” I almost shouted.

Jay glared at me for a minute. Then, he turned around and walked out the door. I don’t remember exactly how the stuff got loaded. I remember Jay taking all the drawers out of the chest and carrying it down the stairs on his back. I guess I helped as best I could. At any rate, we got everything in the truck and left town about 8 o’clock that night. We’d made it about two hours into South Carolina with Jay driving the U-haul and towing his Nissan pick-up. I was following behind in my car. The U-haul had dual tires at the rear, and suddenly the inside tire on the passenger’s side blew. The deflated rubber flung around, reached up, grabbed the exhaust pipe and yanked it away from the undercarriage of the truck. I don’t know how in the world Jay kept that truck on the road, but he held it in his lane and managed to get it to the side. After surveying the damage, we pulled out the rental agreement and found the roadside assistance number. I hopped back in my car and headed up to the next exit to find a pay phone. This is before cell phones were a common commodity.

I was on hold forever, but I finally got a person on the line who said they had a repair service in the area that was currently closed, but he would call the after hours number. I gave him the number on the pay phone and waited for a call back. When he called back, he said we had to get the truck to the gas station where the pay phone was, and the mechanic would call us back. I went back to Jay and explained what they wanted us to do. Somehow we got the truck back on the road and limped it up to the gas station. We sat on the curb next to the pay phone and waited. It finally rang two hours later. The mechanic had been out but got the call from U-haul on his machine and called us to find out where we were. He met us at the gas station half an hour later and towed the truck back to his repair shop. I sat in my car waiting, while Jay helped with the repairs. I eventually fell asleep and awoke to Jay knocking on the car window at about 3 o’clock in the morning to tell me the truck was fixed, and we could get back on the road. I mutinied. Jay, thanks to his training, can go for days on virtually no sleep, but me, not so much.

At first Jay flatly refused to get a hotel room on the grounds that we had neither the time nor money to waste, but I started crying and won the argument. He rented a cheap room for what remained of the night, and I happily went back to sleep while Jay sat at the window guarding our U-haul, which I considered asinine. We got back on the road about 10 the next morning after a Waffle House breakfast, another luxury Jay grudgingly conceded to after I stubbornly refused to drive on an empty stomach. I was a bit of a brat back then, and four hours later, we finally rolled up to our new apartment. Every subsequent move has had its adventure or mishap, and we finally figured out it’s better to let the Army send “professionals” for the heavy lifting.  We’ve survived them all still married and with only minor scratches, dents, and losses. As much as I hate moving, I think one day, when it’s all said and done, I will look back on our gypsy days with fondness and perhaps a little longing.