Biscuit Guilt: Modern Southern Motherhood

My kids love biscuits for breakfast. They take a while, so we only have hot biscuits on weekends. Saturday morning, I realized that every time I fix biscuits for them, I get a side of guilt. It’s all part of being a mom in the modern South.

Before we get too deep into the story, I should share my recipe. Feel free to pin it:

Modern southern biscuits

Family biscuit recipe since 2004.

The buttermilk is the secret. Pro tip: use the kitchen scissors to open the bag. Keep your sewing scissors hidden from the children and Gennaro.

I got this recipe from my father, who knew how to make fresh biscuits. He also had the good sense to know that these frozen biscuits were 92% as good as homemade and they saved dirtying up dishes. They’re always ready to pop in the oven and you can make four if four is all you need.

But why the guilt when frozen biscuits make so much sense? My modern southern motherhood guilt stems from the fact that my Grandmama Irene kept a plate of cold biscuits on her kitchen table always. ALWAYS. Whatever she and Pop and Aunt Eula didn’t eat hot at breakfast went onto a plate to cool then they were covered with the lid of an old aluminum pot. Nobody had an excuse to be hungry at Grandmama’s house because you could always fix you a biscuit. She even kept the preserves and jelly right there next to them on the plastic tablecloth that covered up the good tablecloth.

I can see Grandmama Irene making biscuits. She took out the wooden biscuit bowl, which was never washed with soap, just scraped out good after each batch. A five pound bag of White Lily self-rising flour. A blue can of Crisco with the snap on lid. A half-gallon of buttermilk from the fridge door. Cut in the Crisco, make a well for the buttermilk, mix it together with fingers that have never thumbed through a cookbook for a biscuit recipe. Knowing how to make biscuits came down like family stories–watching the rhythm of her hands, hearing the scratch of the biscuit cutter against the side of the wooden bowl, smelling the sharp tang of buttermilk, that same gentle bite that you’d taste in the biscuit hot out of the oven. A little sharp to balance the sweet preserves.

She rolled her biscuits on a Tupperware pastry sheet, the white one with the red circles for measuring pie crusts. A wooden rolling pin dusted with flour. Then the tiny biscuit cutter–Grandmama’s biscuits are about an inch across, instead of the typical, sausage patty sized biscuits. She lined them up on a shiny greased baking pan while the oven ticked to the right temperature.

The next generation carried on the biscuit ritual, but with a little bit of a nod to busier times. My mom worked full-time but she made scratch biscuits too. Instead of rolled and cut biscuits, she made drop biscuits. Faster and less mess. The flavor is the same, but instead of uniform circles, her biscuits went more oblong, echoing the shape of the spoon that had dropped the dough onto the baking sheet. The tops of those biscuits peaked and rippled, not smooth and flat like her mama’s biscuits. In our house, biscuits were already becoming a dinner time or weekend thing because mornings were for getting to work and school.

I’m stuck in a strange middle land of the past and the present–on the one hand, I don’t make scratch biscuits like DeeAnn or Beth or Saralynn do, daughters of my generation who learned from their mothers. On the other hand, I also DO NOT use whop biscuits (that’s those godawful biscuits in a can that you have to whop on the side of the counter to open. As Jerry Clower used to say, that WHOP is the sound of a Southern husband’s heart breaking.) So I’m stuck in between whop biscuits and scratch biscuits and that is right where you find frozen buttermilk biscuits.

The guilt, though. Will my kids lose all connection to their floury shortening buttermilk heritage? Will my kids take one more step and–gasp!–feed their kids whop biscuits? THOSE ARE MY (theoretical) GRANDCHILDREN.

The children of every culture walk this line away from the past. We all cling to some recipe from our ancestors. Donaley spends Sundays making Dominican food for her family. Thien-Kim flies home from her mama’s house with a suitcase full of spring rolls. Luvvie pines for her mama’s jollof rice when she’s traveling. Beth makes biscuits in the south of France when she’s missing her granny. Martina makes sauerkraut like her mama taught. Ginger cooks red beans and rice on Monday because that’s laundry day, or it used to be before we all had a washing machine and a dryer in the house.

Yes. I am different from the women who came before me. I don’t make biscuits from scratch. I could if I chose to, but I don’t choose to. At least I don’t today. There will be a day soon from now when I wake up wanting to make biscuits. The recipe and the rhythm will be there in my DNA. It can’t not be there.

But for today, I’m going to put down the guilt. While the frozen biscuits were in the oven, my daughter sat down next to me to show me what she was doing on her laptop. She was coding in Scratch. She dragged an orange cat to the center of the screen then added another version with his legs in a different position. She made him say “Hello there!” She flipped him sideways and it looked like he was swimming, so she drew air bubbles. She changed the line width and color to add a tiny white arc on each gray bubble–voila. We talked about animation and if/then statements and loops and timing. All while the smell of hot biscuits whispered from the kitchen. For her, Saturday mornings aren’t about watching cartoons. They’re for creating.


And that feeds her spirit and her soul and her future.

Our kids are growing up differently and that’s not so bad. In our house, Sunday morning are for pancakes. Daddy’s in charge of pancakes. Daddy lets you sit on the counter in your underwear and mix in food coloring because blue is your favorite. And Daddy gets you to count how many pancakes will fit on the griddle. He makes little ones and big ones. Daddy teaches you to watch for the bubbles and when there are enough bubbles, how to flip the pancake. Maybe that’s what seeps into your DNA. Maybe that’s the recipe that keeps us connected to each other. The time together, not the taste.


Know How to Receive This Gift

I owe y’all an update on the kitten! If we’re friends on Facebook, you already know the surprise ending (spolier alert: WE GOT A NEW KITTEH!) As with just about everything in my life, this adventure got me to thinking Big Thoughts that I like to share through Barely Adequate Words.

As soon as I wrote that blog post about the kitten in the tool shed, the kitten left the tool shed. And like the 100% sane and stable person that I am, I  started thinking, “Great–now that I’ve told everyone about the kitten, Huck probably ate it. This is all my fault!”

Nevertheless, the kitten showed up again. Turns out, it was living under the deck, in between the decking boards and the tin roof of the screened porch down below. I caught a photo of the teensy baby one morning when it came out to explore the sourwood tree. One golden leg like something out of a classical myth…

kitty tree

And then I made the mistake of giving Vivi my phone as a distraction at lunch and she saw the photo.


kitty vivi

Operation Kitty Katcher was launched about 20 minutes later when we got home. We deployed cheap tuna fish, long crinkly ribbons from Vivi’s birthday balloons, leafy twigs, and flashlights after dark. Vivi sat on the deck with her tablet in hopes of catching a photo. We got close a time or two, but kitten was too wily.

kitty ribbon

We dropped chunks of tuna fish through the railing and onto the tin roof below. Slowly but surely, the kitten began to trust us. I taught Vivi to tap the spoon against the wood every time she fed it to call the kitten out. We brushed our fingertips against the kitten while it ate. We wiped tuna fish on our fingers and eventually the kitty licked them clean.

kitty catcher

It was so stinking hot that weekend. Yellow jackets like tuna fish–did you know that? Me either. But we kept at it.

At one point, Vivi said, “How do you think the kitten ended up here?” I told her that Nana said Papa sent us the kitten. “I know that’s not really what happened, but I like to think of it that way,” I told her. Vivi knows I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. Her thoughts flickered across her face then she smiled, “I agree with Nana–I think Papa sent us the kitten.”

We sat there together with our arms contorted through the deck railing, dangling our stinky fingers over the edge in hopes of luring the kitten out. “Well, even if Papa didn’t actually send us this kitten, he taught me everything I know about catching kittens. He taught me where they hide and how to feed them and ways to get them to trust us. He taught me that it’s good to take care of hungry little kittens. So in a way, Papa is part of us getting this kitten.”

This is the first kitten I’ve had in my lifetime that wasn’t handed to me by my father. There were allllll those kittens when we were growing up–Slick, Jasmine, Farrah, Wildfire (I gave my cats stripper names). When I was out on my own and ready for another heartbeat in the apartment, he found Jane for me. The most beautiful meanest butterscotch bitch you ever reckoned with. I thought she might be lonely when I started working full time, so I went back to see Daddy. He reached blindly into a cage of stray gray tabbies and put Mr. Kitty in a box for me. Jane bit him on the neck as soon as he climbed out of the box then she spent the next 15 years hissing and spitting at him. When Jane and Mr. Kitty both passed on, and Richard’s Nixon followed a year later, I went back down to Griffin for Thanksgiving and came back with Rufus and Jinx. Someone had thrown Jinx in a trash can when she was three weeks old, and Rufus had been dropped off in the parking lot. Daddy got an earful when Rufus gave Vivi ringworm right before school picture day. Anyway, I’ve had a good run of cats, thanks to Daddy. But now I’m on my own. And my daughter has been begging for a kitten. I’m the grown up in charge of kitten procurement now.

There are two things we can do for our children. We can give them gifts, and we can teach them how to receive gifts. My dad did both. He gave me kittens. He also taught me how to see kittens as a gift. How to receive another mouth to feed with joy and a light heart. How to see a kitten as an increase in love, not an increase in burden. How to spend a sweaty Saturday stinking like tuna fish and getting a crick in my neck because my daughter wants a kitten to love on. And her mama can give her that gift.

On the Monday before school started, I pounced.

kitty carrier

It’s a girl. She was Socks for a couple of days. She was Sammy Socks for a while. But she does that thing that kittens do–kneading her front paws back and forth with her purrbox cranked up to 10. One time I asked Daddy what the clinical name for that motion was and he said, “Makin’ biscuits.”

Meet Biscuits.

Thanks, Papa.

kitty puzzle

kitty biscuit portrait

The Long Growth: There to Here; Green to Gold

“I looked it up–we need to get a male and a female,” Richard said as we stood over the muscadine vines at Cofer’s. I picked up a gallon size bucket with a thin green vine growing inside. I held it up above my head and looked at the bottom. “This one must be female.” I picked up another container. “Shoot, this one must be too…nothing dangling under here!”

He shook his head and smiled at my silliness. “Seriously, how do you tell the difference?”

He stretched out the narrow white label that was tied around the base of the vine. “Here we go–this one has an M. Look for an F.”

We paid a lot of money for those straggling vines. That afternoon, we planted them on either side of the small archway in the backyard that had been built by a previous owner. I remember wondering if the plants would be close enough for the male and the female to matter or if the vines needed to intertwine. Once the roots were buried in the clay, the vines barely reached to the bottom of the trellis. We tied them up with some twine and left nature to do its thing.

Muscadine vine, 13 years later.

Muscadine vine, 13 years later.


Its slow, slow thing. Nature’s veeeeery slow thing.

Richard died before ever getting to taste a muscadine from those vines. We stood under that bare archway after our wedding, with vines that still hadn’t reached waist high. I neglected the yard that summer, and the next. But the vines kept growing.

It took years for them to creep up and cover the top of the archway, their male and female tendrils twining together at last. After about five years, I spotted tiny fruit, but the birds got every grape.

I’ve never pruned it, fertilized it, watered it, nothing. Just let it be. One autumn, when the leaves changed color, I noticed that the muscadine vines had grown all up in the redbud tree next to the arch. All that growing, at long last.

But last weekend, while cleaning the pool, the light hit the vines just so and revealed heavy bunches of golden grapes. I couldn’t stop smiling. I stood under the dark shade of the covered arch and ate those sweet muscadines right off the vine. I made a basket with the tail of my t-shirt and picked all I could reach.

Muscadines are wild grapes; scuppernongs are the golden variety.

Muscadines are wild grapes; scuppernongs are the golden variety.

That thick pop of the skin and the sudden sweetness. When I was a kid, I used to buy a pint of scuppernongs every year at the Cotton Pickin’ Fair from Owens Vineyard. Back then, I’d enjoy the juice then spit out the pulp to avoid the seeds. I’m older and wiser now, and as I stood there in the shade of those vines we planted thirteen years ago, I enjoyed every bit of the grape.

It takes a while.

Back then I was young and willing to trust that this would lead to that. You look things up, you read the label, you plant things on the sunny side and you wait. And wait and wait and wait. I got swamped by life for all those years and I lost sight of the idea of grapes that we had entertained over a decade ago. During the growth years and the bird years and the years I was too busy with babies to worry about what was going on in my own backyard.

Then one Saturday I taste the sweetness that we had planted so long ago. From there to here. From green to gold. From all of that…to sweetness.

You just have to hold on and keep growing. It takes longer than I ever imagined.

Scuppernong tendrils

Scuppernong tendrils

The Curious Incident of the Kitten In Our Tool Shed

The first sighting happened on a Sunday morning. I looked up from my spot in the den to see an unfamiliar kitty face peeking through the bottom pane on the French door. G saw it too, but the kitten melted into the backyard before we could get the door open.

Mackerel tabby. Image courtesy Pixabay.

Mackerel tabby. Image courtesy Pixabay.

Another morning, I saw the same teensy face peeping out from a crook in the sourwood tree that grows beside the deck. We held eye contact until I reached to open the door, then the kitten slipped into the space between the deck boards and the tin ceiling of the patio beneath it. Our cat Rufus saw it too. He sniffed the tree then hung over the side of the deck to see what he could see.

At that point, my overworked mother mind thought, “Dammit. If Vivi sees that kitten, we are DONE.” She’s been asking for a kitten for years and I’ve finally got her convinced that kittens happen around your twelfth birthday. No sooner.

I reacted to this kitten as one more thing to manage. What if it stayed feral too long and couldn’t be tamed? What if we fell in love with it and it turned out to have feline leukemia? What if it eludes us long enough to get knocked up? How many kittens can that tool shed hold?

I am mother, hear me sigh.

Being the suckers that we are, G and I started leaving food out in a blue plastic bowl behind the grill. Someone kept nibbling at it, either our stowaway kitten or a lucked out squirrel or Huck thinking every day must be his birthday now.

Days passed without a sighting. Then one night the unmistakable sound of caterwauling from the deck. I opened the door and Rufus stomped in with his tail all in a puff. Rufus is a white cat with an orange tail and a bright orange patch of fur on top of his head. Come to think of it, that howling happened the week of the Republican convention.

G spotted the kitten slipping into the toolshed by the deck stairs. Now we know where it’s been hiding. But it’s not like we can get to the kitten, what with the old lawnmower, an archery target, three plastic sleds, six tomato cages, a bag of birdhouses, a trash can filled with hoes and spades, and a decade of yard work good intentions. The kitty has holed up in a stronghold.

A couple more flits past the French door. An empty food bowl and another. A shake in the tree sometimes when I step out on the deck. Vivi’s still none the wiser, even as G and I walk outside every morning with the little blue bowl.

Something shifted in my heart last week. After a brutal and long and disappointing and confusing year, I let some hope back in. I thought about that little kitten and instead of seeing it as one more in a litany of responsibilities, I saw this little stranger as a gift. I thought about how delighted Vivi will be once we let her in on the kitten situation. Nothing about the situation had changed. Just my attitude about it. So last weekend, I wrote “cat” on my list of things to accomplish.

Mackerel kitten in the grass. Image courtesy Pixabay.

Mackerel kitten in the grass. Image courtesy Pixabay.

We made real progress on Monday morning. I looked over the edge of the deck to see Rufus sauntering around the sidewalk with the mackerel kitten less than a foot away. Each time Rufus turned in his direction, the kitten hopped sideways or skittered under the steps. Coming a little closer, getting to know each other. Nobody fussing.

The board beneath me squeaked. The kitten turned its bright tiny face up to me and froze. I smiled gently and made that tuk-tuk-tuk sound that we make around kitties. We held gazes for a few moments then the kitty disappeared into the tool shed. I crept down the stairs. The small face watched from behind the lawnmower. I picked up the blue bowl and tukked. Associate me with food and tending, little one.

That little interaction had me smiling all day. The kitten and I, we were getting closer. Maybe we were both feeling some hope.

Today, though. Today. I worked really hard all day on a project for the CEO. When I sent it to him, he made it clear that he was delighted with what I had created. Isn’t that a great feeling–when you work hard and it WORKS?

Well, then I let the fear in. The place where I work is going through a lot of changes and we’re navigating spaces we’ve never been in before. I love where I work and I love what I do. I’m good at it. But now I might not be necessary. Maybe there’s someone else who’s better at my job or can do it more efficiently somewhere else. Within minutes, I went from joshing with the big boss to a full-blown fret about my future.


And that’s when I had to laugh at myself. That kitten hasn’t changed at all over the last three weeks. It’s just trying to make a place for itself in a brand new world. But me? I am a constantly changing equation. I am projecting ALL my feelings onto this innocent little cat. My thoughts create my reality. If I’m stressed, the kitten is a burden. If I’m happy, the kitten is a gift. If I’m fearful, the kitten is one more statement from the universe that all good things will be taken from me.

I might as well see the kitten as a gift. I can decide to choose joy. Even if I get canned tomorrow or in a year or even if I retire in fifteen years at the top of my game, TODAY was better because I locked eyes for a few seconds with a wild animal that might decide to trust me. I offered it food and clean water. I kept the door of the tool shed open so that it would have a safe place to tuck in for the night.

And I bought two cans of tuna fish because I am the daughter of Sam Garrett DVM, and we are kind to kittens.


Damn if that kitten didn’t just thunder across the deck while I was saving this!

This Space Is Yours: A Message For Our Daughters

nasa carlos

Four years ago, G and I took the kids to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch a real live rocket launch. Not just any rocket–we got to see the launch that carried the Curiosity rover away from Earth on its way to Mars. For a geek like G, this was a once in a lifetime deal. (I thought it was pretty cool, too.) The kids? Carlos was 11 months old, Vivi 4.5, Victoria 12. They were mostly thinking about getting back to Disney World.

From the closest observation area, we looked out across a mile-wide lagoon to where the giant white rocket waited on its scaffold. The red countdown clock ticked each second as it passed. An announcer explained the built-in holds as each came up. They are cushions of time that give the team a chance to calibrate the launch to hit a specific window. After each hold, the clock started down again.

Rocket Family

Rocket Family

When the countdown clock dropped below 10 minutes, things really got exciting. As I put headphones on the little ones, the launch director started the “go/no go” poll of all the teams who had played a part in coordinating the launch.

Excitement swelled as we listened to the launch director call each team and its leader responded “Go!” Talker? Go! Timer? Go! FSC? Go! ACC? Go!

Years of work, billions of dollars, so many mistakes and so many victories–we got to hear it all distilled into two joyful letters–GO.

And I started to cry. A suburban mom standing there in the Florida sun with her kids gathered round and looking across the water at something that would leave this world and go to Mars. To get to witness people as they revel in the successful completion of hard work–what a privilege.

But what really got me crying was the fact that my daughters were hearing female voices declaring “Go!”

Want to be an astronaut? Go! Want to be an engineer? Go! Want to write a program that steers a robot on the surface of another planet? Go!



Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon in the summer of 1969, when I was about the same age as Carlos was that day we watched the Curiosity launch. My mom took me out into the yard to look up at the sky. “There are people up there!” She wanted me to participate in this historic event, even if I wasn’t old enough to comprehend.

I did something similar tonight. While Vivi used Scratch to code a game about cats, I switched the TV from Netflix cartoons to the roll call of delegations at the Democratic National Convention. We tuned in round about Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi. She poked her head up and said, “Is this for President?” I explained that this was how the Democratic party decided who they would back for president. “Sounds like Hillary Clinton is winning,” she said, her eyes already drifting back to the keyboard.

Jerry Emmet, 102 yr old delegate from Arizona. Image courtesy

Jerry Emmet, 102 yr old delegate from Arizona. Image courtesy

I walked into the kitchen to start dinner and found myself getting misty-eyed, just like that morning in Florida. The voices that stepped up to the microphone to declare for Sanders or Clinton–so many of them were female voices. One woman had been born before women won the right to vote. My daughter gets to hear people who sound like her cast their support in favor of electing a President that looks like her (albeit a little older and wiser).

We got to the moon before we got to here. But it’s progress.

I didn’t try to stop the tears. Rainbow leis in Nebraska. Puerto Rican accents. Black Lives Matter t-shirts from Wyoming. Native Americans recognized as sovereign groups by the delegates from New Mexico. Senator Sanders, a Jewish socialist, pulling us all together for the finale. All of those voices rising together to shout “Aye!” This is the country I want my daughter to see. This is the voice of America that I want her to hear.

Even if they seem busy with other things, our daughters are listening. I want mine to know that this is their space. Here. There. Everywhere. On the podium. In the laboratory. Pushing the stroller. Pushing the envelope.

Check out this photo of some of the women currently working on Mars (they tele-commute from Earth but they work on the Mars Science Laboratory):

Women of Mars Science Laboratory

Women of Mars Science Laboratory

One last thought from Sally Ride, the first American woman in space:

Sally Ride

Sally Ride


Even the News Is In French

Spiral perm, fanny pack, white Keds. Paris 1990

Spiral perm, fanny pack, white Keds.

The first time I went to Paris was in May 1990. The week after graduating from Wesleyan, about 20 sisters and I, led by a intrepid professors, took a trip to London. The adventure was the brainchild of Dr. Darlene Mettler, professor of English literature and 100% Anglophile. She taught us to wear a raincoat over our grubby clothes when attending the theater, and to pack grubby clothes for travel so they could just be tossed out to make more room in the bag for souvenirs. After 10 days in England under Dr. Mettler’s wing, four of us decided to hop over to Paris instead of going back home with the rest of the bunch.

Wanda and Mary were full-fledged adults, with jobs and mortgages and such. Constance and I were newly minted graduates. Constance is on the shy side. I am not. But I cried in silent panic in the back of our black cab as we left Dr. Mettler and our friends on the sidewalk in London and our driver took us towards the station for the boat-train.

WHAT WAS I THINKING????  Of the four of us, I was the only one who spoke any French and it seemed to have all dissolved on my tongue. Not a one of us had ever been to France. We didn’t even have a hotel lined up. Who was letting us do this????

Oh. Wait. We were the adults. We were in charge. I took a deep breath and remembered Dr. Mettler’s #1 rule for travel: Be Deliberate. Don’t worry about everything–focus on the next thing then the next then the next.

We made it onto the ferry. We watched the white cliffs of Dover slip away into the West. We landed in Caen and boarded the train. I started to relax because we were Doing It. Out the window, the French countryside whipped by in a parade of church steeples, late spring fields, tiny cars, and country lanes lined with poplar trees. In my heart, I thought, “This looks JUST LIKE FRANCE!” Because, you know…France! I had been looking at pictures of France my whole life–in World Book encyclopedias, art history classes, and World War II movies. I was delighted to discover that France looked just like France.

My nerves came back when the train pulled into the Gare du Nord in Paris. We gathered our bags and shuffled in a tight pack through the throngs of people. For 10 days, we had been world travelers in a country that still sounded like home. But now? We were plunged into the gabble of a busy train station with ears still filled with English.

We found a tourist information booth where the multi-lingual attendant scratched an address on a white square of paper. Hotel du Delta seemed to have the last affordable room in the 1st arrondissment. Using her crude map, we found our way there.

In 1990, it was kind of a given that everyone in Europe hated Americans. Maybe not hated, but they were pretty tired of us stomping around in our white shoes and fanny packs. I had read that we should tell people we were Canadian instead. Slick, huh? As we walked into the rather time-worn lobby of the Hotel du Delta, my three traveling companions shoved me to the front of the pack as the interpreter.

“Parlez vous anglais?” I asked the man behind the desk. He shook his head and flapped his hand at me and turned away. This was not going as smoothly as my French 101 textbook had led me to expect. All four of us exchanged worried looks. This was the last hotel room in Paris.

Right before I fainted with panic on the threadbare carpet, a teenage boy in a red Adidas track suit came out from the office. “Hi! You need English?” What a relief! He started our reservation and the other man lit a cigarette and watched over his shoulder.

“Where you from?”

“We’re Canadian.”

“Oh…what part of Canada?”

I froze. I looked at Mary, whose eyebrows shot up so fast they disappeared into her hairline. I looked at Wanda, who looked right back at me.

I couldn’t remember which part of Canada spoke French. I looked back at the teenage boy and said, “Ummm….Edmonton?”

He laughed. “You Americannes, yeah?” We confessed. His family was from Egypt. He spoke Arabic, French, English, and a little German. I was so nervous at that point that my English was starting to fade.

We made it up four flights of curling stairs to our rooms. We marveled at the bidet. We flung open the windows to see a scene straight out of a Hollywood lot: a narrow street, a shop selling oranges, and a painter sitting in a window to catch the light. I started to hum Edith Piaf.

La Vie en Rose, Paris street scene

La Vie en Rose

That night, on my broken French and a lot of good will, we managed to buy ourselves a picnic, make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and make it back to the Hotel du Delta where we finished off the last of the wine (which was about $2 a bottle with the exchange rate). We were IN PARIS, doing Parisy things! All on our own!

The next morning, my adrenaline left and the $2 wine headache took its place. I didn’t like going down the hall to pee. I didn’t like the noise that came through the old windows. I didn’t like the lumpy bed. I didn’t like having to clumsily translate every word for everyone. I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. But PARIS awaited.

We went down for “continental breakfast.” Instead of the English pot of tea, bowl of marmalade, and rack of warm toast that we had grown to love, we found a tired baguette and coffee with grease floating on top. I don’t even drink coffee…but PARIS. I sat in silence with my friends as we gnawed on yesterday’s bread and kept our English to ourselves.

The owner of the hotel, who had waved me off the day before, came into the breakfast room and flipped on the television that hung in the corner. I perked up at the familiar sound of static, the ritual of listening to the morning headlines. When the channel came in and the man turned up the volume, my disgusted little 21-yr-old sheltered American heart thought:

DAMMIT. EVEN THE NEWS IS IN FRENCH! How does anyone know what’s going on?

Then I laughed at myself. Of course the news was in French. Much of France speaks French, all day every day. As I sat there chuckling at my own provincialism, something in my small sheltered heart cracked open and I got a little closer to The World.

I drank my coffee with the pearlescent swirls of grease on top. I wiped enough fresh butter on that baguette to choke a goat. I checked my fanny pack one last time then went out to see more of Paris. Where they speak French, to this day. Even when I am there! Traveling always reminds me that the place I grew up in is not the center of the world.

This was the last photo I took on that trip to Paris in 1990. As we waited at the station for the train back to England, I saw a soldier and a priest standing beside each other in the same posture, soaking up the morning sun.

Gare du Nord Paris

Gare du Nord

I tell this story today because my heart hurts for the people of Nice, who gathered to celebrate Bastille Day but ended up fleeing for their lives. I just wanted to say, “Je suis désolé. Nous sommes avec y’all.”



Sunset With the God of Horses

Poseidon was the god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses. All the things that thunder. The things that shake the ground beneath us and remind us that we can be moved.

Wild horses on Cumberland Island, Georgia.

Wild horses on Cumberland Island, Georgia.

Tonight, when I went walking along the sand bar at sunset, I remembered that title “Sunset With the God of Horses.” I started this post last summer, on the night my sister sounded the alarm about how sick Daddy really was. How he wasn’t going to magically get better with some rest and the right care. How Big Gay had been holding on with all she had but she needed help. Last summer, on that sad and confusing day, I took a walk by myself onto the sand bar at Saint Simons Island at sunset to think.

The waves of the rising tide raced each other to the sand. A long time ago, Richard and I took a small boat from Mykonos to the holy island of Delos. I looked out over the dark blue swells of the Aegean Sea and understood for the first time why the god of the sea would also be the god of horses–the movement of the water looked just like the stretching necks of a herd of running horses. Raw power, thundering out ahead of itself.

And here I sat, missing Richard because he was the only other person in the world who remembered that boat ride on that day. How was I going to live in a world without my dad too? The curve of the sand bar and the beach created a narrower inlet that penned in the waves. They clambered over each other, but by the time they reached the shore, they had sorted themselves into regular shapes, like the scalloped lace on a little girl’s collar.

These were the things I tried to think about so that I wouldn’t think about my father dying.

When I was little, I wanted a pony just as desperately as most little girls do. And it seemed like it shouldn’t be all that hard. My dad was a veterinarian. We lived in the corner of a pasture. There was grass EVERYWHERE for a pony to eat. What was the holdup?

One day, we showed up at my dad’s clinic, and lo and behold, there stood a little spotted grey and white pony in the paddock. Daddy called it a “Pony of the Americas” but all I heard was “blah blah PONY.” One of his clients had turned it over to him as payment on a bill.

Can you imagine what my heart did at the sight of that little horse? Daddy said it was a good cow horse. He got up on it and roped a couple of the calves in the pen. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My boring old Daddy, who came home every night and collapsed in a chair to read spy novels and fart–riding and roping! Who was this person who could do stuff that we never heard a peep about at home?

Well. We didn’t get to keep the pony. Daddy took it to the sale barn the next week and sold it off for cash money, which we needed way more than we needed a pony.

That night on the sandbar at sunset, I couldn’t get that little pony out of my mind. That little pony allowed me to see a part of my dad I never knew. I saw him rope calves and flip steers in the air like it was nothing. He had this whole other life, of powerful things, that I knew nothing about. That’s what I was thinking about on the sand bar. What else would I never know about my father? Now that we found ourselves at sunset. Sunset and the god of horses.

I sat there by myself and I cried a few tears for the confusion of it all. The end of his life, coming like the relentless waves. The things he had given me, like my love of stories. The things he hadn’t been able to give me, like that pony. All flying away in the wind. All heading to the silent lands in the west, like the setting sun.

Endings and leavings. Here I am a year later, standing beside the ocean with the same questions in my heart.