Category Archives: Family

Cook Until Done

I’m bringing the carrot casserole to our family Thanksgiving at Cowtail tomorrow. Any potluck, buffet or repast wouldn’t be a family dinner without it. I’m not even sure where it came from, but the dish entered the family cookbook after Daddy and Gay married in the early 1980s. Come to think of it, I’ve never been served carrot casserole at any other family’s table or at a restaurant so it may be unique to our family.

Carrot casserole. You can pretty much figure it out from here.

After 20+ years of making it a couple of times a year, I don’t consult the recipe or measure anymore. It’s about 2 lbs. of peeled carrots, sliced and parboiled. A half of a good-sized onion, minced. A good measure of the sharpest cheddar cheese at hand. Two dollops of mayonnaise. More salt than you think it will need but it needs it. Mix together and spread into a lightly buttered casserole dish, usually the Corning French White that I got for wedding gifts a lifetime ago. Top with some seasoned stuffing mix that’s been tossed with a little butter. Pop it into a 350 degree oven.

And that’s when I stop to smile as I remember the last line of Daddy’s recipe:

“Cook until done.”

I love the shorthand of it, the way that my father knew that I would know when the dish was right. Cook it until it’s done.

One Thanksgiving when I had just moved out on my own and was learning to cook for real, I wrote the carrot casserole recipe down on a sheet of yellow legal paper as Daddy dictated. My handwriting was young and strong and girlishly loopy. Back then, before keyboards and touchscreens and voice to text apps, I still used my handwriting all day, every day. Back then, I could call my Daddy if part of the instructions didn’t make sense. I can see his hand (back when he still had all of his fingers!), the way he punctuated instructions with his fingers splayed apart and used them to show a pinch or a stir or a scatter. Then when the instructions were over, he would do that little upward flip of the palm to show that it was finished and relatively simple and he had absolute faith that I could do it. Just keep going until it’s done.

When I went out to get some grocery things this afternoon, my heart was torn about–of all things–pie. Daddy was big into pie and Thanksgiving is the Pie Holiday. I remember a year at Joe and Beth’s house when we had SEVEN kinds of pie. I don’t know how to make pies. I usually choose cake over pie. But my heart hurts for pie this year. Emily posted a photo of an apple pie with a perfect scatter of autumn leaves cut from dough across its golden top. Daddy did that.  Diane’s pecan pie displayed geometric precision in both nut placement and fluted edges. Daddy did that. Jo had a couple of sweet potato pies going alongside her greens. Daddy did that. Mir baked pumpkin pie with gluten free crust and burned the first one then tried again until it came out perfect. Daddy did that too. Well, not the gluten-free part, but the trying again part.

So with my dangerous combination of heartache and enthusiasm, I found myself in the baking aisle this afternoon, talking myself into a 2 or 3 pie commitment on top of the carrot casserole, the cranberry relish, and the rosemary roasted butternut squash I was already down for. I don’t even own pie pans so there I was in front of the disposable aluminum pan display, trying to invoke the spirit of Sam Garrett (who would have been at Williams-Sonoma three months ago to stock up on pie tins).

As I weighed the difference between 9-inch and 10-inch with lids or lidless, a tiny woman at my left elbow cried, “Ten dollars for a turkey pan? Lawd, they got to be kidding me!” I helped her check to see if any of the sizes across the bottom shelf would work but none was cheaper than eight bucks. Three stair-step girls in winter coats and neat braids waited behind the woman. The youngest, about five, wandered over to a display. “Grandma, look! They got snowman marshmallows!” The tiny grandmother waved away the marshmallows with the turn of her hand, fingers pinching the air to sketch a silent “no.”

The girls stayed quiet as their grandmother pulled silver pans from the shelves. She asked me for my opinion on the turkey pan situation. I pulled out one for lasagna that would be big enough. “This one’s six bucks, with a lid…” I offered. The grandmother–who in all honesty was about my age–held up her hand to show me a folded bill. “But I got $5 dollars and that’s ALL. I got everything to cook but I don’t have a pan.” We both turned back to search the shelves again.

An answer came to me as simple as “Cook until done.” I knew what right looked like in this situation. I opened my wallet and pulled out a $10 bill. “Here you go. Get what you need.” She flung her arms around my neck and we patted each other on the back. I whispered, “Grab a bag of those snowman marshmallows, too.” She squeezed my hand and chirped, “Y’all get you some marshmallows!” All three girls reached for a bag each, felt what it felt like to hold them, then the two older girls put theirs back down on the display so the littlest girl could carry them. We picked out a roasting pan and a couple for casseroles then shared one more hug before the family went on their way.

I walked away with a lighter heart and a much diminished need to bake pie. Pie was Daddy’s love language. Mine might be giving what I have to give.

Cook until done.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

Out Into the World

Dear Grant,

So Friday is the big day, huh? College.

COLLEGE.

College? How did THAT happen?

I looked at some pictures today of the campus at good ole’ F.U. and it got me all verklempt. It’s a beautiful place, filled with shiny happy people and I have a good feeling that you will grow there, from the kind and clever young man you already are into an even truer version of yourself.

There will be some rough spots along the way, no doubt. I was dying to go to college back in 1879, but even though I had dreamed of getting there for so long, I still turned my face to the wall and cried a few tears after the lights went out on that first night. There I was, under that brand new comforter and in sheets right out of the box–on my own and out in the world. Alone? Not really, but kind of more alone than I had been up to that point in my life.

So if you get a little lonesome Friday night and start to feeling alone in the world, I hope you will think back to these few stories and know that you are 100%, unequivocally loved by me and everyone else in this big messy family.

I came to meet you in the hospital right after you were born, but the nurses had you in the fishbowl for some nursey kind of stuff. We didn’t get to meet that day. Instead, your dad showed me a video that he had made right after you were born. In the frame you see your mom beaming with happiness. The nurses had you in the bassinet to do the Apgar test and get you cleaned up and you were screaming and yowling and shaking with fury. There you were out in the world for the first time and you were NOT HAVING IT. In the video, Joe walked over to where you are and reaches out his big ole finger. He said something calming, like “Hey, buddy” and he touched you on the arm very gently. You immediately stopped crying (and he started).

About three weeks later, you came to my house for a visit:

grant 4

Yes, we had pink carpet. It was awful. So was that marriage, but that’s another story for a different day. You were out in the world for real, out in the suburbs. I still didn’t get to hold you that day. Papa did. He held you in his lap and cried because he loved you so much. I’m glad y’all share a name. I’m glad we all share a name.

A few months later, Fartbuster and I came to babysit you, so your parents could go out in the world. That’s a tale I’ve told already in Saved By a Nectarine. I owe you a thank you for that episode, really. If it hadn’t been for your diaper catastrophe, Fartbuster and I might have had kids together. Thank you for scaring him off. I owe you one.

grant 3

 

You were too young to remember Fartbuster. Much like you, Aunt Ashweeeee spent those couple of years learning how to walk on my own and learning how to feed myself and learning how to move around out in the world. There was one night when I came over to babysit you and I was just gutted with sadness. As much as I loved you, being around you awakened this fear that I would never have a child. I’d never have someone to love me the way your mom and dad love each other. And to top it all off, I woke up the next morning with a giant zit on my chin. You asked me, “What dat?” and I almost sobbed the answer: “It’s a grown up kind of boo boo.” But with a simple little kiss, you made it better. You fixed a little part of my heart that day. Thank you. I got the courage to go out in the world again.

grant 5

 

I don’t know if you remember Uncle Richard. Y’all hit it off right away. I brought him to Callaway Gardens to meet everyone. You and Jackson were playing in a giant pile of leaves and Richard took a few steps back, got a running start, and did a flip right into the pile. Your face lit up like you had found one of your kind roaming around in the world. He was a lot of fun and loved you. He proposed to me on your sixth birthday–do you remember that? I called to wish you a happy birthday and said, “Hey, Grant! Uncle Richard asked me to marry him. Should I say yes?” You said, “Sure, I guess so.” I took your advice. Thank you for that.

grant

 

You were too young to know it at the time, but you’ve helped me through some of the toughest days of my life, just by being your joyful self. On the day Richard and I finally got married, your sass kept me focused on the happiness we made that day in our backyard, not on the sadness that was out there in the world. You ate a GIANT piece of cake (More Up, Please!) right under your mom’s nose.

grant 7

 

You and Jake rolled down the hill until you were covered in grass. Richard’s dad had such fun playing with you that day. Thank you for that, for being a little boy so full of life. You and I shared a toast, each with our own kind of bubbly drink. I raised my glass and said, “To the Student of the Week!” and we clinked glasses. You raised your glass and said, “To the bride!”

grant 8

 

Thank you for that.

Not two weeks later, you helped me find a little glimmer of joy again when I was completely lost in grief. I was waiting in the vestibule of the church for the funeral director to bring Richard’s ashes in for the service. For a second, I was by myself in that quiet spot, right out there in the world all by myself. I didn’t know what to do to keep myself together. Then the door cracked open and I saw your dad and mom, looking sad. Before I could say anything, you came busting in and gave me the biggest hug. When I let you go, you rocked back on your heels and said, “Aunt Ashley! We got new shirts!”

Do you know how precious it is to me that I can look back on one of the saddest times of my life and that few seconds of joy is the thing that I remember most vividly? Thank you for that.

grant 9

Well, I better wrap this up because you’ve got a big day ahead. I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you go out into the world, remember that you are never alone. You’ve taught me that lesson over and over in the last almost 19 years. I will come running if you ever need me, Grant, whether you need cake or a new shirt or a hug. I owe you.

Go have fun.

Love,

Aunt Ashwee

Unca Joe, Aunt Fancy, Goose, Aunt Sassy, Aunt Smarty, Aunt Bossy

Unca Joe, Aunt Fancy, Goose, Aunt Sassy, Aunt Smarty, Aunt Bossy

Pour a Little Coke on Your Windshield

Saturday morning, when it was time to start the three-hour drive to fetch Vivi from camp, G handed me his keys. “You drive? I’m still eh-sleepy.”

Not a problem. Except I HATE driving his minivan. I can’t see anything in that vehicle. There are extra mirrors stuck to the side mirrors. DVD screens that block the back window. Paper and shit hanging from his rearview mirror (seriously, he still has the car rider pass from two years ago up there). The air conditioning is set on 62 and blowing hard enough to sweep Dorothy out of Kansas. Every control is opposite from my car. He puts the parking brake on even when he’s parked on flat ground. Makes me nuts but that’s why it’s his car and not mine.

I got over all of that stuff by the end of our driveway, but as soon as I started going up the hill to leave the neighborhood, the sun hit the windshield and I was blinded by…schmutz. Not rain or dew or ice…just blurry gunk.

I searched blindly with my left hand for the wiper/washer control. “What are you doing?” he sighed from the passenger seat.

“Trying to clean the windshield–it’s got crap all over it. I can’t see.”

“It looks fine to me,” he retorted, then showed me the wiper control. The wash helped some but I still felt like I was peering through a gray haze.

In the drive thru while we waited on breakfast, I kept squinting and bobbing around looking for a clean spot. “Is it on the inside?” I wiped the inside of the glass with a fast food napkin. It came away clean. I muttered, “It’s something on the outside…”

“DO YOU WANT ME TO DRIVE? IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT?”

“NO, I WANT TO CLEAN THE WINDSHIELD SO I CAN SEE TO DRIVE.”

“THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE WINDSHIELD.”

“Maybe you can’t see it…” I started, but G cut me off with a scoff-snorted “…oh for godsake! REALLY?”

I turned on him. “I’m serious! You forget I’ve had Lasik surgery! I have better than 20/20 vision! IT IS POSSIBLE THAT I ACTUALLY CAN SEE SOMETHING THAT YOU PHYSICALLY CAN’T!”

The sweet teenager with a blonde pony tail leaned out of the drive thru window to pass me our drinks with a worried smile. It wasn’t even 8 a.m. and she’s got people hollering about ghosts in a silver minivan. I jammed the massive cup of Diet Coke in the console and passed food and drinks to the boys.

dirty windshield

That’s when I remembered my Pop’s trick from his truck driving days: if your windshield is foggy, pour a little Co-Cola on it. So I pulled up to that spot where they make you wait when the fries aren’t ready and hopped out of the car with my Diet Coke and a handful of napkins. I poured a line of Diet Coke across my side of the windshield and started rubbing in circles. GUNK sluffed off of that glass enough to turn the napkin black on both sides. Pure-T GUNK.

I tried not to gloat.

(I think it’s the citric acid in the Coke that works the magic, so Diet works just as well as raglar. And I guess you heathens who drink gagPepsigag could try that. I would ask our resident chemist but he still swears there is nothing wrong with that windshield. AHEM.)

((Oh, and of course after all that drive thru drama, the story took a stupid turn 20 minutes down the road when Carlos announced he had a tummy ache which precipitated us turning right around for home, them staying there all day while I drove across the state in my own dang car. And damn if the windshield was covered in bugs but I was low on Diet Coke at that point and had to prioritize.))

Anywho.

This incident got me to thinking. I honestly do think that maybe this windshield thing that G and I have argued about every time I have driven his car for the last five years might be grounded in a very real physical difference. He thinks I’m just making it up because he doesn’t see anything there. I think he’s being a stubborn ass because IT’S RIGHT THERE. But the crux of our disagreement is data-based: my eyes take in a different range of data. My experience of the world is different than his when it comes to looking at things. He looks at the glass and sees the same level of gray as he does elsewhere (honestly, there are 40-11 pairs of reading glasses laying around this house and none of them are mine). I look at the same glass and see a problem that needs fixing. Instead of assuming that the other person might see it differently, we start arguing with each other about who is RIGHT.

There are people who can’t see the difference between red and green. I’m not going to argue with them about that in the drive thru. There are synesthetes who can smell colors and see sounds–I hope they wouldn’t blame me for not knowing what blue smells like. People lose taste buds as they age, so maybe the dinner really is too spicy for the kids.

The longer I spent in the car by myself, the more I thought about how often we forget (or ignore) that other people might be experiencing the same world in a vastly different way. They’re really not doing it just to be stubborn asses or precious snowflakes or whatever word we use to mock those who react to the world in a different way.

If I, as a white person, have a hard time seeing racism, that doesn’t mean it’s not there–it means I don’t see it. It’s up to me to polish my lens so that I can see it. I sure can see misogyny that a person who hasn’t moved through the world as a woman might miss. No one can tell me that we live in a post-sexism world because I have a lifetime of experiences that are grounded in the inequal balance of power between the sexes.

We cannot argue people out of their lived experience. We shouldn’t even try.

Imagine how different our morning would have been if I hadn’t needed to make G admit that the windshield was dirty–that I was RIGHT. Imagine if he had helped me clean the windshield even though it didn’t interfere with his driving? What if we had met each other with grace and generosity?

Meeting people with grace and generosity, even when they are describing a world that is different from what you see. Helping fix a problem that doesn’t affect you. Asking questions to understand another’s experience–that’s like pouring some Coke on your windshield. Clears things so we can see each other better.

Living or Nonliving

How do we know if it’s living?

A few weeks ago, after he had spent an afternoon with me at my office, Carlos and I stepped off the curb and cut a diagonal across the parking lot towards my car.

“Mama? What’s trees–living or non-living?”

“What do you think?”

“Living.”

“What tells you that they’re living?”

“Trees can grow. They drink water and eat…what trees eat?”

“Um…They absorb some nutrients from the ground through their roots. And I guess you could say they eat sunshine–they can turn it into energy like you turn food into energy.”

I pointed to a sleek gray Tesla parked in the spot reserved for the radiation oncologist. “What about a car? It drinks gas and it can move around. Living or non-living?”

He giggled. “Cars are non-living.” Before I could ask him, Carlos asked, “Why cars non-living?”

“They can’t grow or change or make more cars.”

He clambered up into his car seat and while I fixed the tangled straps he pulled his prized rocks out of the cup holder.

“Rocks are non-living.”

“Exactly. They don’t eat or grow or change.”

“There are fwee types of rocks,” he told me. “Igmeous, selementary, and mectamorphic.”

“Good job, bud.”

I love kindergarten science.

 

beach-2217043_1920

 

The Thin and Sudden Line Between

A few hours after Carlos and I talked about living and non-living in the hospital parking lot, I got word from my cousin that her mother was going into hospice care. Aunt Dixie, who baked the prettiest pink cake that ever was, had been sick for over a year with a lung infection that just wouldn’t give in. But even as sick as she was for as long as she was, she was still 100% living. I pictured the delicate green chair that she had been sitting in on Christmas Eve. Everything else in that room is the same, the chair waits for her, but she is gone. That’s the way it goes–we’re absolutely alive and suddenly we are absolutely not.

I was there when Richard slipped across that profound line between living and non-living. When I leaned over him to check his oxygen cannula, he was living. The strange clatter of his ragged breath disappeared into the air between us. I straightened the clear plastic tube under his nose to make sure he was getting all he needed. Was it the silence or the stillness that I noticed first? He took no next breath.

I think now about that first blustery day when we met on the side of the highway, the first time we stood close to each other and our breath mingled in the living air. Saying hello, and help, and thank you for the first time. I value every breath from that first March day to the last March day. He was 100% living and NEVER gave up. I suppose that’s why, even after 10 months of watching cancer eat away at him cell by cell, the moment when he slipped across that thin line took my breath away.

 

Left: Beach gravel Right: Leukemia cells

Left: Beach gravel
Right: Leukemia cells

Some Things, Say The Wise Ones

By Mary Oliver

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
You live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said, Thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

The last trip Richard and I took together was to Maine. We sat beside a harbor like the one Mary Oliver captured in this poem. He ate a cinnamon roll that was bigger than his head. I took a picture of our feet with the boats as a background. Richard had burned with a strange and painful fever the night before, but that morning we were 100% living.

At a beach made of smooth pink stones in Acadia National Park, I slipped two small rocks into my pocket. All these years later, those rocks are asleep upstairs in a bowl on the book shelf. A pair of ancient and silent stones that aren’t living and never have been, but when I hold them in my hand, something else comes to life, a memory. A memory of living, a generous time when I lived my life my way and cheered on the clouds. A memory of the days when our life was blindly and blandly about living. A few days after that, Richard was diagnosed with leukemia and our days became consumed with staying alive.

Given the fear and sadness that entered my life on Richard’s last breath, given the hollow fact that Carlos won’t remember his Papa, my Daddy who would have been 75 today…How will I teach Carlos about living? Not just the facts about living, but the giddy joy of living? The living in a world of pink smooth stones, whether we can say if they are igmeous or mectamorphic. The living in a world of roses and starfish that are always going to die, every one of them every time.

I will teach him to love it all. Oh, my dear boy, the easiest way to tell whether something is living is to know that it can die. Love anyway.

18922053_10211322459570270_2852039268482776682_n

He Simply Doesn’t Know Better

Our Snowmaggedon turned into Snowmanothin’.

The kids were full-on, wide open RAMPED up about having snow this weekend. I got pretty excited too after my trip to Fresh Market to lay in a weekend supply of brie, crostini, cornichons, sushi, and bruschetta. We went to sleep Friday night to the sound of rain on our roof and temperatures dropping quickly. Friends to the west were already posting pictures of fat fluffy flakes. Wheeeeee!

I woke in the middle of the night and went right back to sleep with a smile on my face. The sound of rain had been replaced with a serene quiet that whispered, “Snow.”

I woke just after dawn and rolled over to peep out the window at….the browny browness of our deck.

Clusterflake 2017

Clusterflake 2017

“Aw, man,” I muttered. “The kids are going to be so disappointed.” I went back to sleep with a little gray cloud of gloom over my head. There goes our special excitement for the weekend.

I finally dragged myself out of bed late in the morning, sure that the children would be piled in a warm and dry heap of despair by the back door, their sleds quietly dry rotting in the tool shed.

Instead, Carlos met me in the hallway, dancing with glee (and nekkid, because that’s his weekend ethos).

“MAMA!!! IT SNOWED! IT SNOWED OUTSIDE! IT SNOWED!” He pulled me to the deck to show me the SNOW.

And that’s when it hit me–he doesn’t know any better.

Carlos is my snow baby, born during the big Christmas snow storm of 2010. That was a snow that I’ll never forget, but it’s not exactly a part of his memory. He also got a fat lip and a black eye during the ice storm of 2014, but I don’t think he remembers much of it.

He’s never been to Utah for snowboarding in a foot of fresh powder. He’s never made a snowman. He doesn’t know what the world looks like from atop a glacier in Austria. He’s never watched the giant pandas at the National Zoo play in the drifts of snow. He’s never been in a snowball fight. He’s never stood outside in the dark and marveled at the quiet of fat fluffy flakes falling all around.

To this cheerful lark of a child, IT SNOWED. He saw this snow for what it was, not for what it wasn’t. Sometimes it’s good not to know better, because it keeps us from comparison. It’s hard to allow happiness to float if we’re always comparing each experience to all of our other experiences to see how it measures up.

Oh, to not know any better so that I can enjoy what is before me.

Pants added in post-production.

Pants added in post-production.

G captured this photo of our boy “playing in the snow.” Boots are for snow. Jackets are for snow. Pants are for SUCKERS.

Build Me a Son Like Joe

For 50 years, the world has been home to my brother Joe. For 48 years and 2 weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of being his little sister and sometimes making him cry.

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

When we were little, I’m sure I made him cry in frustration a time or two. Now that we are older (some of us more than others…), I like to make him cry happy tears by holding up a mirror to show him what a fine man he has become. I wrote that piece a few weeks ago called What Does Love Carry In Its Hands? My brother is the perfect example of how to be good at loving the world. His hands are never empty–he carries hammers and hams and small people who need strong men.

He’s made me cry a time or two. Like that time when Richard was in the hospital and I invited the family over on Labor Day. When I mentioned how much I hated the chain link fence around the pool, he and Daddy set to work and by the time I got back from Kroger with dinner, my family had that fence rolled up and gone. I stood in the bedroom window and watched them, crying. Joe is the kind of man who always has tools around, in case something (or someone) needs fixing. After all that sweaty work, Joe manned the grill when it was time to cook dinner. I handed him a pack of tofu dogs. He cried.

Mr. Fixit

Mr. Fixit

A few months later, everybody cried when Richard died, but Joe didn’t show up with empty hands. We had planned to greet family and friends after the service at the church, so there were sandwich trays for that crowd. I hadn’t planned on all the folks who gravitated back to the house afterwards. We didn’t have much lying around to feed them. Then Big Gay opened after a knock at the kitchen door and there stood Joe with a glistening glazed ham. “Did you just drive around with a ham in your car?” she asked. “Yep,” he said. “Someone died…you make ham.” I cried.

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Now that I have a son of my own, I cry when I see my little boy run to his Unca Joe for a hug. Back when Carlos wasn’t very social, Unca Joe was the first relative that he identified with, that he sought out, who was allowed to love on him, whose name he remembered weeks later. Joe picks Carlos up and tosses him over his shoulder, toting him like a sack of giggling potatoes. That sight always makes me cry. Joe teaches Carlos that he is loved and he is safe. Last year, we were at Cowtail for Easter. Joe had a drill out, fixing an old chair. The loud noise made Carlos cry. Instead of telling Carlos to toughen up, or saving the task for later, Unca Joe called Carlos over and explained the drill to him. He helped Carlos hold the weight and aim the bit then let this little boy do the work. Carlos crowed with delight. I cried.

Sack of taters

Sack of taters

When Joe’s oldest son was christened, I didn’t know what kind of gift to give. Instead of a thing, I found this prayer and shared it with my brother. He cried.

A Father’s Prayer for His Son

By General Douglas MacArthur

Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee—and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here, let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those that fail.

Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously.

Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the meekness of true strength. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

He read it, standing there in the colorful nursery of his own tiny boy. He cried. He handed it to Daddy, and Daddy cried too. The only person in that room who understood how much Joe loved Grant was Daddy, because he could look upon a son who had been built strong and funny and kind and gracious and brave and gentle.

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

Joe, I hope that you know you are loved and admired every day, not just early in November. I hope that you know that, judging by the men you are raising, you have not lived in vain. I hope you know that our father, who loved you so, could dare to whisper, “That’s my boy. I have not lived in vain.”

Happy Birthday. Now let’s eat some smoked pig. We can blame the smoke if there’s any crying.

Household Spirits

“Mommy, I’m having that anxious feeling again.” Vivi and Pengy curled up on the couch next to me, ten minutes past bedtime. I stretched her legs over mine so i could rest my hand on her knee.

“What’s got you feeling anxious?”

“I’m scared of ghosts.”

Roman statue

Roman statue

I gave her a skeptical look. “Are ghosts real?”

“No…I know, but Myca was talking about maybe Biscuits is a ghost cat. Like there’s this cat spirit and it lives in the woods until it decides to come out and haunt a family…”

Biscuits heard her name and promptly hopped up on the couch with us. I tucked a long curl behind Vivi’s ear. “Honey, if you know ghosts aren’t real, it doesn’t really make much sense to get worked up thinking about them.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about them. They might hurt us.”

“OK. Well, if you are going to think about ghosts that might want to be hurtful, then why don’t you also think about the ghosts who are on our team?”

She twisted up her face and gave me a sideways look.

“So let’s say there is some kind of life after this one and there are some ghosts that linger on. If that’s the case, then the spirits that want to take care of us hang around us too?” She was thinking about it. “Like Papa. You’d have Papa on your team of friendly ghosts.”

“And he’d be…” She threw her voice down into a gentle growl. “…you better get in here!”

“Right! When you were a little baby, there was one night when I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep. I remember leaning over your crib and wishing I could quit worrying and go to sleep. So I summoned my protector spirits and asked them to sit on the roof of the house and watch over us.”

She lit up. And I did too.

“I imagined my Pop on one corner, and my Grandmama Eunice on another corner and Daddy’s daddy–the first Carlos Jose–was out there, and I imagined Richard right up on top of the roof because he wasn’t afraid of heights. Now we’ve got Papa up there too, watching out for us.”

Vivi shook herself back into worrying and stuck her finger in her mouth. “But how could they keep us safe from mean ghosts?”

“Papa was a really good shot when he was young. He won riflery medals. And he was strong! He could throw a cow to the ground with a rope and his bare hands.”

She caught the tail of the story and held on. “What about your grandmama?”

“Oh, well she was a gentle lady but she would not tolerate any foolishness. And if you messed up, she made you pick your own switch. Do you know what that means?”

“Like you had to spank YOURSELF?”

“No, you had to go out to the yard and break off a switch and then she would spank your bootie with it.”

“What about your Pop?”

“Pop wasn’t a fighter that I know of, but he chewed tobacco…”

“So he could SPIT AT THEM!”

“Yes!”

G walked into the den. I asked him, “Hey, Daddo. What would your father do to protect us if he was a friendly ghost?”

“Oh, my father, he was a pretty laid back guy.”

“Right, but if someone threatened you?”

“He’d get his father’s Beretta from the war.”

Vivi hooted at the idea of all these fiercely friendly ghosts hanging out on the roof.  “What about Richard?”

“I always pictured him right up on top of the roof, sitting lookout. Richard knew a lot about how to take care of himself. He knew how to fight…”

“Like karate chops?”

“Not exactly, but, well, just stuff. He wouldn’t let anybody get in this house.”

It took a few more minutes, but eventually we sent her off to bed with no more worries about ghosts in the night.

Our talk got me thinking the Roman belief in household spirits. The lares domestici were the spirits of family ancestors who watched over the home and hearth. Each lare protected a specific physical spot (for example, a 1961 ranch house with a little girl trying to avoid her bedtime).

If the family moved, they took their lares with them. The lares sat out on the table during meals. They received offerings on important days and they witnessed family events like marriages. Remember, in the movie “Gladiator,” those small carved figures that Maximus carried with him in a little leather pouch? Those were his lares.

Roman bust

Roman bust

On that night several years ago, when I couldn’t imagine a way to let myself rest now that I was responsible for a tiny sleeping wonder of a child, I called upon my lares domestici. Pop, who smelled of Levi Garrett and I can hear his smooth fingertips glide over the pages of a Louis L’amour novel while he guards his corner of the roof. Grandmama Eunice, dressed for church in a purple pantsuit with her purse on her lap, keeping watch over her corner with a Sunday school teacher’s all-seeing and all-loving gaze. Carlos Jose the First, quietly singing a lullaby in Portuguese and watching over the dark backyard where the hummingbirds sleep. Richard sitting watch on the crest of the low shingled roof, never in need of sleep, never daydreaming.

Now I see Papa sitting beside him. Telling stories, talking politics, enjoying each other’s company. Keeping watch until morning.

When my child finds herself wandering off into the frightening dark maybes of the world, I call her back and remind her that there is more good, more protection, more fierce and unfailing love around her.