Friday, September 06, 2013

Riding Shotgun with Dad



My dad in his garden in front of The Back Forty.
Grinding gears and dodging the ditch that cut a hundred feet or so into our deep backyard, I learned to drive a 1960’s Volkswagen Beetle that had one wheel in the grave. Our family of five lived on almost two acres that featured a rear section of wetlands. We called it the Back Forty.

Dad transfigured the soggy bottom with his tiller into an extended garden spot, only to see the valleys between his neatly formed rows repeatedly fill with the next downpour on our South Mississippi home. He joked about growing rice, but he found some success cultivating Silver Queen corn and okra. The land rising to our house featured better drainage where he focused his gardening efforts, so periodically the Back Forty would return to its natural state when Dad stopped tilling and mowing it. Crawdads loved it. Pitcher plants, too.

It was here I learned to finesse the withered clutch and brake system of a very tired and cranky old Bug.

Beneath my feet, the floorboard featured a gaping hole that only Fred Flintstone could appreciate. Driving through puddles meant your feet got soaked. The stick for the windshield wiper had long ago broken off. Somebody figured out a small flat head screwdriver substituted nicely. The hand-cranked windows functioned well enough, thankfully, as the air conditioning was non-existent. By the time you got the thing properly ventilated, your feet appropriately positioned and the windshield free of debris, driving proved to be a comparatively simple endeavor.

Early in my tutelage, my dad would fold his six-foot-two-inch frame into the shotgun seat, his right arm braced in the passenger window and his left hand poking around for a toothpick or shoving his silver hair from his sweaty brow. He smelled of wintergreen Skoal and Old Spice and dispensed short, obvious commands, like “Ok, back it up, “or “Don’t hit the Pontiac.”

My dad taught biological sciences for a living at a community college. Teaching was as second-nature to him as whining was to us kids. He exuded the kind of calm most folks appreciate when their nerves are raw and learning a new skill, whether that was mastering the release of clutch and application of gas in a rustic car or skinning cats for dissection. His was the kind of patience I wish we could mass produce as a cure-all for anger and apathy and distribute as needed, an elixir of Quincy Long.

Driving lessons with Dad left me laughing hysterically. He feigned cardiac arrest, white-knuckled panic and bladder emergencies. Or maybe that was for real? Either way, over what seemed like days to me or probably a good hairy year to him, I learned to drive. I looped through evenly spaced azaleas, turned on a dime past the burn pile, skirted the perimeter without damaging the fence (much) and found liberty behind the wheel when we wildly ventured out on open road.

More years have passed than I care to count since those days lurching past the pampas grass with my Dad in stitches as we careened just shy of the wisteria and too close to the Longleaf pines. He let me have the wheel before either of us thought we were ready. I remember the closeness I shared with a father who never let me know just how awful I was doing, an essential condition when learning to drive, whether you’re behind the wheel of a broken old VW or piloting life itself.

I remember riding shotgun with Dad. Even if I had hit something, he would have still taken that seat beside me. What he taught me were not driving skills but riding out life skills—with patience, tolerance, laughter and love.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Piano Man and Unicorns

Piano Man and Unicorns

A former newspaper columnist, I host this much neglected blog. But in light of depressing news (Syria) and my own bad health (falling apart at the seams), I indulged in a little word gathering in an attempt to feel good about SOMETHING. 

To all my artist friends out there, you are a gift to me. I count you among my greatest, most treasured blessings. Keep painting, drawing, writing, singing, playing...you are divine.

Saturday I woke up early. This is no small feat for a night owl of my caliber. Never do I rise before my husband who keeps an internal alarm set somewhere around dawn-thirty. My eyes opened and my brain, unusually functional for a pre-coffee state, immediately noted that we needed milk.

I dressed, hopped in the car and headed to the store. The sun peered from billowing cloud sculpture, the trees swayed in breeze uncharacteristic for August in South Mississippi. Dare I say it felt like fall?

We seldom speak openly of autumn here for fear of frightening it away or offending the sun gods. But the cool air and the morning sun lifted my spirits. I turned the radio up a little louder than usual.

An unexpected joy settled in, a smile that turned the corners of a surly scowl. There was that accepting look at myself in the rearview mirror that has nothing to do with the unkempt bed head or the impression of bed sheets on puffy cheeks. It’s an awakening, of sorts, that we get sometimes, that there remains much to be happy about in spite of the rotten old world.

I felt magic in the air and fully expected a unicorn to cross my path. Just a whisper of autumn is all it takes for this gal. To see the thermometer register anything lower than 74 has me dreaming of hot toddies on the back deck, wrapping up in blankets and walking outside without breaking a sweat. It is definitely magic.

The music on the radio, a song by Pink, challenged “you gotta get up and try.” Considering my previous week of struggling with a complete lack of energy and enthusiasm, the message struck a chord. And then for no reason at all, I thought of the song “Piano Man.”

I love the lyrics about a vocalist in a bar at a piano singing the stories of his hard luck audience, from a man “making love to his tonic and gin” to pounding carnival chords from the keyboard. I picture a young Billy Joel writing that song and I wonder just what inspired him to tell that story? At what moment did he recognize the significance of composing his song?

Now, I share this story for only one reason. I am clearly crazy, which I think you have to be—at least a little— to do things like write stories and share them for anyone’s eyes but your own. But what happened next made me understand on some intrinsically cellular level that God or Billy Joel or maybe the unicorns at large needed me to hear something.

Do you know those moments, when you feel so connected to something or someone beyond yourself that you cast a suspicious glance over your shoulder? Am I on Candid Camera? Is there a secret webcam in here? Am I dreaming?

That very instant, “Piano Man” sailed from the speakers on my car stereo. I mean, as soon as Pink finished her call to perseverance, Billy Joel serenaded me all the way to Dollar General. I’m not sure exactly why, but I cried. I felt instantaneously connected with something so good, like suddenly reuniting with the very best friend I ever, ever had. But why?

Because timing is everything, people. 

Some would say it's Jesus, some would say Buddha’s calling, some would say a screw is loose and it’s all just a stupid coincidence.  But I allowed myself to have that moment of clarity. I considered that song played for a reason, when it could have so easily been one of countless others. It wasn’t just any song. It was the one that led me back to writing something good for my soul. It made me revisit my own purpose in writing and how I love to spend time with words. 

The Piano Man sang me a memory, and after a long absence from writing,  I hope that you’re feeling all right.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Our Spotted Hound Says Goodbye


They don’t write obituaries for dogs. At least, they don’t run them in newspapers.  But like so many families with pets, ours feels compelled to honor the memory of our lost canines and cats with something more than a swift and painful goodbye at the veterinarian’s office, which is what happened yesterday with our dear old boy, Spottie.

Spottie found us 15 years ago. He showed up out of nowhere in our front yard and cast a spell over our then seven-year-old son, Sam. The boy presented his newfound friend to me, the mother of all soft hearts, and announced that he was keeping him. There was no collar or identification of his owners. It wouldn’t have mattered. I’ve seen a lot of bonding periods between dogs and kids. Never has there been one that melded any faster. You would have come closer to separating oxygen from the air with a garden rake. 

Of course, the instant a new dog appeared on the premises, our daughter Katie wasted no time in loving him. There was something about that tailless white dog with black spots and pointy ears that proved dogs have souls. Spottie arrived full grown, probably a year old, but he acted like a very old friend, someone who already knew your heart and where to find the bacon.

Fortunately for us, no one came to claim him. My husband Steve made a meager attempt to establish Spottie as an outside dog. That lasted about two hours, just long enough to endear himself to his new daddy and to our beloved Winnie dog who was dying of cancer. She accepted him without question, and Spottie found himself inside, belly up on the carpet, further upping the ante on just how completely irresistible this angel dog could be.

Life loves to show us that timing is everything. I don’t believe for a second that Spottie materialized out of nowhere by accident. He slipped seamlessly into our lives and eased our grief when we took Winnie on that last car ride to the vet. Spottie more than filled the space. He was obedient, yet playful; loyal yet friendly; fearless, yet gentle. The dog was our super hero, a calming constant throughout the years who won favor with everyone, even our sore-tailed cat, Matilda. It is astounding to consider our children were in second grade and kindergarten when he graced us with his presence. They are now in college.

When you are a dog lover and you live long enough, you will no doubt feel the loss of a beloved friend. Words never do much to shore us up during this kind of loss, but memories have a way of soothing the raw edges, especially when those memories evoke the undeniable solace of  unconditional love.

Age and arthritis took their toll on Spottie. He was blind. And deaf. And diabetic. His hindquarters hadn’t worked well in years. Stairs proved to be his most formidable foe. He never stopped, though. He showed us how to go with the flow and recognize the simple rewards of ordinary days, where a tummy rub and a piece of cheese can be pretty darned awesome.

Spottie taught us well. He lived an exemplary life of love, trust, tolerance and forgiveness (even for Matilda). He would remind us, even today—especially today—that life is a gift of opportunity to simply be the good and constant friend in the lives of others. And then there’s spaghetti. There’s always glorious spaghetti.

Godspeed, Spotter Dawgie. We love you!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Birds, Biloxi and Being Home



Birds, Biloxi and Being Home

We moved into a rental house on Big Lake in Biloxi from our house in Oak Grove. From these rear windows lies a panorama of waterways, marsh and endless sky that instantly reaffirm my need to live in the Coastal south. Although we lived in a lovely wooded place, I have felt landlocked for the last 14 years. It’s amazing what a great view can do.

Moving back where the salt air and the rise and fall of tides govern a deep sense of well-being reminds me that there remains no substitute for living within minutes of the beach or riverbanks, that the seamless horizon between gulf and sky serves as a homing mechanism for me, one embedded when I moved here as a toddler. Birds flock here in droves, close to the rivers and bayous, and my own need to nest here is being richly served by the fact that my family loves it here, too.

As soon as we could break away from unpacking, my husband and I rode out in an old bass boat given to us by our dear family friend, Miss Tommie. She will celebrate 90 years in September. She and that boat spent more than 40 of those years together, anchoring off favorite fishing holes in these same waters and landing countless fish both solo and in the company of my Aunt Ora, as well as with other family and friends. Her fishing and filleting skills are legendary.

On our afternoon jaunt, the boat glided knowingly past bulkheads and cattails, through the brackish water among other vessels of all shapes and sizes. We sailed under Popps Ferry Bridge and zipped past the massive homes of Biloxi Back Bay. And though there linger sparse remnants of Katrina’s onslaught, the overall view is one of thriving water dwellers and rejuvenated communities. The healing has been monumental. The recovery, nothing short of miraculous.

We saw egrets and herons, gulls and purple martins. This place teems with wildlife. The flora and fauna of the Mississippi Gulf Coast never fail to astound me with its diversity and resilience. The brown pelicans and least terns can tell the best stories of our role as their stewards. Brought back from near eradication due to pesticides, they boast a triumphant and prolific return.

I know that there are plenty of places on this planet that would make a great place to live. For me, the requirements are few, but essential, to my ability to feel at home. There must be water, salt and fresh, ample trees both deciduous and evergreen, and people who appreciate the value of these things and each other. Sunsets viewed without obstruction, full and magnificent from our most southern shore treat us to a daily reminder of our unique and invaluable heritage here on the Gulf of Mexico.

 
Perhaps that is why that of all the places I have visited, my South coast home pleases me to no end. Here, my most basic needs are met simply by stepping outside. Like the birds who navigate these spectacular waterways, I am drawn here because it is where I belong. Wherever you are, I hope you find that same satisfaction, the wonderful gratification of being home.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Katie Mo


Katie Mo

When I was kid, I didn’t give much thought to the fact that I didn’t have a sister. I had twin brothers, six years my junior. I didn’t have time for sisters.
Plus, I heard the horror stories of sisters swiping each other’s stuff, of sibling sabotage so sinister, only a sister with sisters could understand. I guess, at times, I was actually glad not to have a sister.

Then one day, I became a mom for the second time, to a daughter. Suddenly, there was a new and spectacular female voice within the family. I know a lot of mothers claim strong bonds with their baby girls at birth. But there truly was something extraordinary about ours. She completed me.

Mary Katherine slept all night her first night at home. She rarely complained, cooed this incredibly adorable sound that proved impossible to resist, and exuded contentment. She begged attention, not because she demanded it, but because she was so completely lovable, endearing and funny.

She always slept with her arms thrust directly above her head. When we’d pick her up from her nap, she looked like a miniature Sumo wrestler, hence her nickname, “Katie Mo.” She watched every move her brother made. Her greatest frustration as a baby was the fact that she could not walk and talk like him. Her greatest satisfaction was to hold his attention for even a few uninterrupted seconds.

Whether he realized it at the time or not, Sam had the ultimate sister. She idolized him.

Katie turned 16 on March 21, 2010. She’s come a long way from that nearly bald bundle of drooling, giggling glee. I have marveled at how intelligent and capable she is, wondered over how it is that Steven and l landed such a truly remarkable daughter. She is beautiful inside and out, and I treasure our time together. My dad said it best. She is one of a kind.

And though for some inexplicable reason she has been saddled with a medical disorder that defies definition, she remains that completely lovable, endearing and funny gal who won our hearts 16 years ago. At times, her pain and physical challenges have been more than any kid should have to endure.

She has weathered ridicule, misunderstanding and alienation from people who should have known better. She harbors no anger, no grudge, in spite of having every right to do so. She has shown strength of character and powerful will in the face of daunting discomfort and exhaustion. Her faith is unwavering, her spirit undaunted.

She doesn’t have a sense of smell, something we didn’t determine until she was nearly 13 years old. Why did it take so long? She’s resourceful. We just didn’t see the deficit because she never realized she had one. I still laugh when I think about taking her to Bath and Body Works and asking her to sniff a dozen fragrances or more. She thought I was crazy. And I thought she was odd to say they all “smell good…I guess?”

I have laughed harder and longer and more gratefully with her because anyone who can find the funny among countless needles and pills and procedures bordering on torture inevitably can make even the most stolid Ice Queen crack a smile. She takes one day at a time and makes each one richer for the rest of us.

So I never had a sister. It’s OK with me, because I have a daughter who is second to none.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Who Would Make Your Top 10?

Who Would Make Your Top 10?

A friend sent me one of those inspirational power point slideshows attached to an email titled “Voyage.” It featured a lot of pretty pictures of flowers and some clever thoughts on what’s important in life.

It had the desired effect, I suppose, in that it got me thinking about those things that make me glad to be here, that life is a journey, not a destination, and it's a good idea to take stock of those things that truly matter along the way.

Things like...

Have you ever come to know someone who is truly humble and selfless? They are rare beings. But my Grandma Long was that way. If she had one stick of gum, one leftover biscuit, one bit of energy left to spare, she’d give it willingly to just about anyone. She was a giver, never a taker.

With her, you always felt worthwhile and cherished. And that’s important.

Did you ever love a dog who could make you laugh and cry within the same breath? Dogs are incredibly gifted that way. Our Winnie chewed new shoes, ripped the insulation from beneath our rental house and rolled in putrid carcasses at every opportunity, but she had a way with our children that made me know they would never lack for a champion protector or devoted friend.

That crazy yellow hound always made us feel comforted. And that’s important.

Will you remember countless hours spent in the business of raising children? Kids are enormous investments of time. They come into this world by our invitation, completely dependent on our ability to provide.

There is this blur of birthday parties, tooth fairy visits and award ceremonies that I find difficult to recall. But I once stood beneath the boughs of newly leafed pecan trees in our back yard, watching my small son and daughter sleep in a stroller while the warmth of spring and the promise of the future rushed me with unforgettable gratitude. I can still remember every subtle nuance of that ordinary day.

Moments like that make a parent feel utterly complete. And that’s important.

Can you sing something for every season, read stories that inspire you, dance for the purpose of just pure indulgence and love unconditionally?

Have you forgiven the unforgiveable and received the same?

Do you laugh often and loudly, especially at yourself?

When you find solace and reassurance, is it based in an innate and unfailing faith that is as much a part of you as your DNA?

Do you do nice things for others because you want to, not because someone is looking?

Somewhere in your history have you ever taken the time to write a letter to someone for the sole purpose of reminding them that they are loved, they are special and they matter?

Because these are the things that make our lives as humans worthwhile and enjoyable. And that’s important.

In the slideshow I watched, the author reminds us that while most of us can’t name various “top tens” among celebrities or athletes or historical figures, we will remember the names of people who made a difference in our lives─ the teachers, the friends, the mentors. Some people, like whoever created that slideshow, take the time to remind the rest of us that kindness, compassion and a good sense of humor make all of our lives richer and far more memorable.

And that really is important.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Doing Business at your Friedly Kangaroo

"'Doing Business at Your Friendly Kangaroo"

My daughter has chronic health issues that have led our family on some pretty interesting trips to medical destinations near and far. While we continue the pursuit of a unifying diagnosis, she has adopted an approach of “laughter is the best medicine” and tries to take one day at a time.

Sometimes, those days find us on the road and out of our minds.

Our family of four set out for Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN one late October afternoon. We stopped for dinner, drove a bit, then nature called and we pulled into the next quick stop. Katie headed directly to the ladies’ room while her brother, dad and I browsed the aisles.

We immersed ourselves in shopping, beginning with a rack of tee shirts emblazoned with biker motifs and state logos. We moved onto the candy section, followed by the chips and crackers. We checked out the hot bar, the coffee station, the ice cream freezer, and the automotive supplies.

After 20 minutes or so had passed and we were reduced to second-guessing our snacking selections, I surmised things might not be going so well in the bathroom. Just then, my cell phone vibrated in my purse. As I made my way to the bathroom, I extracted my phone and noted the incoming caller.

It was Katie.

“Why is she calling from the bathroom?” I asked myself. “This can’t be good.”
I pictured the possible scenarios in my head: out of toilet paper, massive regurgitation, explosive diarrhea or a treacherous combination of all three. Who knew what lay on the other side of that restroom door? I answered the phone.

“Hey, girl, what’s going on in there?”

“MOOOOOOOOOMMMMMM! FINALLY! WHY DIDN’T ANYBODY ANSWER THEIR STUPID PHONE? GEEZE, I THOUGHT Y’ALL HAD LEFT ME!”

Somehow, this high-decibel screech comforted me. She was breathing. She was conscious. And she was some kind of mad. Bravely, I motioned to the others that I was going in.

“Whoa. Calm down. I’m on my way in there. Are you OK?”

“Just get in here! Hurry up!” And with that, the phone went dead.

I was just past the oatmeal cakes and Ho Ho’s, almost to the nuts and pork rinds, when an unsuspecting woman cut in front of me and headed toward the sign marked “WOMEN.”

My mind raced as I considered the very real possibility that this gal might soon be rendered completely senseless by noxious fumes or worse, but I was helpless to stop her. She heaved the door inward, and what appeared to be a vacuous hole of pitch black darkness suddenly erupted into a glowing cubicle of searing white light.

In that split second, the ears of every creature within a ten-mile radius would splinter with the guttural boom that echoed from the confines of a single bathroom stall in a Kangaroo quick stop near Memphis, TN.

“THANK YOU!!!”

I would have loved to see the expression on that woman’s face upon her triumphal entry, but she ducked for cover in the stall next to Katie’s before I could gauge her reaction. What I did see was a completely benign bathroom environment, remarkably clean, actually. Thankfully, it smelled harmlessly like lemon cleaner. What I heard was far more sinister.

My daughter doesn’t cuss, but the blend of growls and pitches behind that metal door sounded much like the kind of muffled swearing grown-ups use in the presence of children and clergy, indecipherable but clearly not born of happy thoughts and well wishes.

“Katie, are you OK?”

“YES, NOW THAT I CAN SEE WHAT I AM DOING, YES. I AM JUST FINE.”

This was followed by several spins of the toilet paper dispenser, more grumbling and the type of telltale noises that make a mom know her services are no longer needed. I waited outside.

A few minutes later, the girl child emerged. Anyone with female adolescent offspring can testify to the fact that when they are ticked off, you best give them plenty of time and space to decompress. The problem in this particular scenario is that we were all about to crawl into a minivan together and finish what was left of a 20 hour drive to the northern limits of these expansive United States.

“Geeze, Katie, what took so long?” her brother asked.

To which she replied, “Grrrrrrrrr.”

But, to her credit, the outrageous circumstances evoked appropriate hilarity on her part, and within minutes, we were all laughing like a bunch of baboons on a big banana high.

Apparently, this particular bathroom came equipped with an energy-saving sensor that turned out the lights when no movement is detected after a certain period of time. Maybe five minutes or so into her bathroom retreat, it all went to black.

“You try doing what you need to do on the toilet when you can’t even see your hand in front of your face!” she spat.

She had called us, and we didn’t answer because two phones were in the van and one was on “vibrate” in my purse. So her only safe option was to wait in the dark on the pot wondering why her family had abandoned her.

All’s well that ends well, but I have to wonder what that woman thought when she was welcomed with such vigorous and appreciative cheers as she entered the bathroom. Perhaps she chalked it up to superior customer service--a big “thank you” for “doing business” at your friendly Kangaroo.