Category Archives: Family

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.

 

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.

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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.

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Wobbly

When we were on the spring break cruise, Carlos felt the roll of the ship under his feet and got the funniest confused expression on his face. He shouted, “WOBBBBBBBBBBBBLLLLLY!” every time we swayed from wall to wall walking down the passageway. He still says it when he slips and falls or stumbles. Well, his summer has gotten off to a wobbly start.

The camp we were counting on for the first week of the summer was full. Oops. There just aren’t that many options for a five year old who melts down at noise and crowds, so he spent days bouncing back and forth between G’s office and my office. He carried his little Spiderman backpack filled with Matchbox cars, Paw Patrol stickers, and tablet like he was getting paid to do it. I let him push all the elevator buttons and we played I Spy from the glass bridge between buildings at least once a day.

For the second week, we had both Carlos and Vivi signed up for the children’s theater camp that she loves. After the first day, the director reported that he wasn’t interested in doing any of the camp activities. She asked if we could send something to entertain him until he warmed up. The second day he spent face down in his Kindle Fire. By the third day, they emailed to say that he wasn’t ready for that camp and they would be glad to give us a refund when we picked him up. Before lunchtime, please and thank you.

Sigh. I flashed right back to last summer when he was getting sent home from daycare for tantrums. I felt those old fears of “life for him is always going to be difficult because he doesn’t know how to fit in.” He spent the rest of that week at his internship with me.

Seriously…my kid gets drummed out of THEATER camp? Can’t he just be a tree in the big finale?

We were counting on two more weeks of that camp and now the summer plan was crumbling before my eyes. G hustled around and found a spot for Carlos in a Montessori camp for the weeks that we needed. Excellent–the summer was saved!

I mean, how’s he gonna get kicked out of Montessori camp…not composting?

Just in case, we went out and bought this composting bin and it’s Carlos’ new favorite thing. He spins it like he’s calling Bingo at the VFW.

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Dang, that kid is cute, even with his do-it-yourself bangs and that crazy-eye face he makes when he says “CHEEEEEEEEESE!”

Today he went to yet ANOTHER camp. He’s signed up for four weeks of day camp at Extra Special People. His pre-K teacher suggested it and I’m so glad she did. It’s a program “where individuals with developmental disabilities don’t just survive… they thrive!” At first, I thought he wouldn’t qualify–his challenges aren’t really that tough. We’ve ruled out autism and developmental delay. The stuff on his IEP is social interaction. He takes his shoes off when he’s not supposed to. He tunes out talking if it’s not interesting. He hollers if he doesn’t want to go along.

I felt guilty sending my kid to “special” camp when he’s pretty ordinary. Except when he isn’t. I even checked with the camp director to make sure that we didn’t take a spot from someone else. I actually said, “he could survive the Y camp, but he might spend part of the day curled up in a ball.” They assured me that there was a place for Carlos at ESP.

He seems to agree.

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When I picked him up, he was downright chatty! He told me about saying the pledgeallegent, singing Rainbow Submarine, eating lunch, and going bowling! There was a scavenger hunt and circle time and apple slices with peanut butter.

I hope I will always remember how he starts every sentence with “Mommy?” I do think I will always remember something he said tonight. We were talking about tomorrow being tie-dyed shirt day and he said, “Mommy? Today? I love it there.”

Not so wobbly any more.

carlos camp

This Isn’t About Me. It’s the Penguin.

Sooooo…Vivi is at sleep-away camp for the first time ever in her whole entire almost nine year life. Yep.

camp vivi

I’m fine.

Seriously. Totally OK.

But I’m concerned about Pengy.

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He stayed like this the whole ride home.

He doesn’t look like he’s OK with this AT ALL. I think he thinks that she’s growing up so quickly. I bet he thinks that he’s not quite sure what to do with himself without her. I can just look at him and tell that he’s wondering if she’ll ever come back and if she’ll still need him then.

I’m fine, but the penguin is struggling.

Pengy and Vivi have been inseperable since she was about 18 months old. We met Pengy on a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. Since that day, there’s been no other friend for Vivi. He sleeps under her chin every night. He snuggles under her elbow while she’s reading a book. He even sits beside her at the dinner table some nights.

Pengy has been to many cities and a couple of countries. The rule is, Mommy carries Pengy while we travel. We have lots of rules about Pengy–Pengy stays in the car if we go out running errands. Pengy stays home instead of riding to school in a backpack. Carlos is not allowed to touch Pengy.

And she’s gone for a week. Who is Pengy without his Vivi?

When she first started talking about sleep-away camp, the question of Pengy came up–would he be safe in the woods? Was he too old to sleep in a tent every night? Santa brought Vivi a Siamese kitty, which she named Artemis and declared to be her second favorite friend. Artemis went to camp. She’s young and strong and not afraid to sleep in the woods at night.

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Things change, right? Kids are supposed to grow and move on to other stages in life and sometimes we put away childish things. Pengy will always be #1, the original beloved. Nothing can take the place of Pengy. Still. It’s hard.

So yeah. I’m fine. But the penguin is lonely for his girl.

Give What’s Left of Me Away

Daddy’s birthday was always so easy to remember–the last day of May.

A sadness hung around the edge of today. I did a pretty fair job of keeping it at bay, but it knocked some tears out of me about 4:30 this afternoon. I was cleaning out files from my computer at work and I came across this picture. A reader named A.L. sent me this poem a few weeks ago. She said it had helped her and she thought I might want to read it too. I did. Thank you.

when i die

 

“So when all that’s left of me is love, give me away.” That’s where we are today, on what would have been Daddy’s 74th birthday. Looking for a way to give away this love that I can’t give to him anymore.


After work, I had to go to Kroger. In the checkout line, a voice behind me whispered, “Hey, purdy!”

I love Hank because he always always always says, “Hey, purdy!” when we bump into each other at the hospital or around town. Not hello pretty lady or hi beautiful. “Hey Purdy.” This is the language of my people. He’s a sweet soul.

Hank’s buggy was loaded down with big bags of Cat Chow. In addition to being a kind-hearted hospice nurse, he’s a one-man cat rescue operation. He feeds a couple of colonies of feral cats (and catches them for spaying) and finds homes for as many kittens as possible.

I pulled out my wallet and handed him a couple of twenties. “My daddy loved kittens, so here’s something for the fund. If you see any yella ones, feed them a little extra for his birthday.” He did so love a yella cat.

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At his memorial service, Brett told a story from right after Daddy and Big Gay got married. Daddy was still trying his best to make friends with his new step-daughter, so he asked Brett to ride along with him on a call to a farm. After the doctoring was done and they were about to leave, Daddy told Brett that there was a litter of kittens in the barn. “Go pick one out and you can bring it home.” So Brett did, even though they both knew her mama was not going to be pleased. Later that night, she heard Big Gay complaining about the kitten (because their house was already busting with animals, naturally). In a commiserating tone, Daddy straight up lied to his bride: “Gaaaay…What was I supposed to do? Brett BEGGED me for that kitten!” That’s how much he loved kittens.


I’ve put in four tomato plants this year and they make me happy and sad all at the same time. I wasn’t going to put any in, but our neighbor, Coach Cavin, had some plants left over from the ag class that he teaches at the high school.

Those plants have shot straight up over the last couple of weeks. I can’t look at a tomato plant without thinking of Daddy. He loved starting plants from seed in the greenhouse. Instead of flat orderly seeding trays, he started his plants in white styrofoam coffee cups so he could write the variety on each container. By the time Easter rolled around, each of us left the house with a flat of tomato plants to grow as best we could. A couple of years ago, he started something like 200 plants!

I think of the summer that Vivi toddled over to the corner of the kitchen where he kept his harvest. Before anyone noticed, she had taken one bite out of every tomato in a half-bushel basket. There was the bumper crop summer when he made shelf after shelf of salsa. He and Big Gay lived most of the summer on tomato sandwiches with great gobs of mayo.

Daddy came from a long line of farmers. He once said that most people today were so out of touch with how food really gets to their tables, that if an apocalypse happened and we had to rebuild the food supply, most people would start by building a grocery store.

YUF

 

Tonight, I got another chance to give love away in his memory. In addition to the West Broad Farmer’s Market (my new favorite weekend destination!), the Athens Land Trust runs a program called Young Urban Farmers.  In conjunction with our county high schools, YUF gives students a chance to earn and learn. “Throughout the program year, the students develop business plans, create sustainable agriculture-based products and sell them at the West Broad Farmers Market.” Last weekend, I bought a beautifully constructed cedar bluebird house and a tie-dyed shirt colored with blueberries from students in the program.

Students who complete all of their assigned work in the farming program are paid $7.50/hr. The Athens Land Trust is raising funds right now to keep the program going. I made a donation of $74 in memory of the greatest tomato fan who ever lived. These kids will know that the food system does not begin at Kroger!


That’s how I got through today. Giving away all that’s left of my father–love.

Your Name Is Your Shield

At my nephew’s Jackson’s graduation last week, the valedictorian–Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo–thanked one in particular.

“Mrs. Prothro always called me by my full name.”

The young man had thousands of people listening, and he used that stage to thank a teacher for calling him by the name his parents gave him. Born in Mexico, an immigrant to America, there’s no guessing how many names he’s been called. We can be casual about learning foreign names. Anunziata becomes Nancy because it’s just…easier.

His story reminded me of a day 25 years ago when I was calling the roll on the first day of ENG101 at Auburn. “Srinivas Pochana?” A lanky young man who had folded himself into a desk in the front row raised his hand slightly and nodded.

“Did I say your name correctly?”

“You can call me Tom.”

“Do you prefer Tom or Srinivas?”

He laughed softly. “I grew up in Alabama–I’m used to being called Tom.”

I think of Richard’s grandfather Jack, who was given the surname Grayson by a bureaucrat because it was “more American” than his Russian Jewish family name.

We show respect to one another when we learn each other’s names. I knew Grandmama Irene had accepted Gennaro into the family when she said, “What a minute…it’s not Geronimo….I think of that old movie star Ray Navarro and then I put the G on there….Gennaro!”

Names matter. Learn to pronounce them. Ask what they mean. Ask how your new friend was given that name.

Honor names. If Tiara become Terrence, honor Terrence’s name. His father does, why shouldn’t you?

If we can learn how to pronounce Tchaikovsky, Monet, and Kardashian, we can learn to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m all for nicknames and endearments among friends and family. My grandfather called me Punkin Snooter, Miss Priss, or sometimes Lucretia because he said I looked like his mama. He called my cousin Pat by his middle name, Luke, to the point that someone at our family reunion once asked about the twins, Pat and Luke. He himself was named Meredith Gaither Mathews by his own parents but went by Dick. My sister, his first grandchild, was given his name. My brother is Samuel Joseph after our father, Samuel Fuller and his father, Milton Joseph. Joe passed along Samuel to his first son and Joseph to his second. We like family names.

 

roots

 

With all this thinking about names, I started watching the reimagined “Roots” tonight on the History Channel. It’s tough to watch but deeply worth it. No fact in it was a surprise. Every story of the slave trade takes us back over the history but this one tells the story with such excruciatingly relatable detail that the story of Kunta Kinte breathed for me. He was a young man in the trading city of Juffure (in Gambia), a man whose father taught him to ride a horse and whose mother sang to him at night. A man who prayed when he felt lost. A young man with a history and a duty to his family. A young man whose family connections got him taken captive and sold as a slave by a family his father had angered a generation before.

Even when Kunta Kinte is enslaved in Virginia, and dubbed “Toby” by the lady of the house, he insists on his own name. It’s not a spoiler (since the original miniseries has been around almost 40 years and 50% of Americans who owned a TV watched the original) to say that even when he is whipped and the overseer screams, “Say your name so you know what you are!” Kunta Kinte will not surrender his name.

Because as his father had told him under the stars back home, “You are Kunta Kinte, son of Amoro Kinte….your name is your spirit. Your name is your shield.”

Our names, and the family they connect us to, are our key to connection and our shield against being lost.

rufus mccrary family

We inherit so much along with our names. This is a photograph of my grandfather’s grandfather, Rufus C McCrary, and his family. Rufus fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and was one of the few members of his unit who survived. When this photograph was taken, his eldest daughter Lucretia was already married and away. In 1902, Lucretia gave birth to her youngest boy, Dick, would one day have a girl, Janice, who would one day have a girl, Ashley…whose grandfather told her she looked like Lucretia. Whose father fought in the Civil War.

It’s all that close. Still.

In the Big Gay Library

I got to spend 24 hours with The Gays this weekend–my stepmother, Big Gay, and my sister, Little Gay–which means we spent about 18 of those hours talking about books. It. Was. Heaven. All three of us are voracious readers, each in her own genre, but with enough overlap that we can give each other great recommendations. I read mostly literary fiction. Big Gay prefers non-fiction, mainly history and memoir. Little Gay has been reading a lot of fantasy lately and she’s not sure why. And she and I both dabble in Young Adult. We can’t wait for Vivi to be old enough for Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy (both Little Gay’s discoveries).

On the walk over to the football stadium to watch Jackson’s high school graduation on Thursday night, Big Gay and I hung back to talk books. When I told her I had finished The Map Thief from the stack of books she had passed along to me last time I was home, Big Gay gasped, “Ayshley! Could you believe THE NERVE of him?” Oh, to have the confidence of a mediocre white man who makes a living stealing rare maps from libraries then selling them to his cients.

“What else have you read that you liked?” she asked as we walked past the police cars blocking traffic. “Language Arts!” She thought on it but it didn’t ring a bell. “The book I gave you for your birthday and when you found out it was about autism you told me not to read it?” She was still at a loss. “You know, the one about the father of the boy with severe autism, and the boy is aging out of his group home so the divorced parents are setting up private care and the father flashes back to a friend he had in elementary school…(and then I told her the twist)” She grabbed my arm. “Yes! It just about broke my heart.” I nodded. “I had about 30 pages left one day after reading on my lunch break and I had to go back and shut my office door so I could finish it.”

Big Gay asked if I had read The Elegance of the Hedgehog because it was the last book to leave her in a puddle on the floor. I pulled out my phone and sent myself an email with the title so I wouldn’t forget to read it. “There are passages in it where the language is so beautiful that I cried when it was done, not because it was sad but just because someone could write something so breathtaking.”

Smiles, everyone!

Smiles, everyone!

We found our seats in the stadium and settled in for the ceremony and the heat and the bugs. The valedictorian, Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo, gave a charming speech about how proud he is of his Mexican heritage and how thankful he is for the opportunities he’s had in America. He encouraged his classmates to “take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” like he had. Little Gay and I started talking about immigration–we have a family friend who needs papers. “I’m reading this book Americanah about a Nigerian woman who comes to America to study then ends up staying on a work sponsorship and getting her green card, but her boyfriend can’t get a sponsor so he tries to go to England and he overstays his visa there and has to go through all these awful things to try to work…” I told Little Gay to read that one and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other novel Half of a Yellow Sun. “I learned so much in that book! It’s about the Nigerian civil war in the 1970s with the Biafrans–have you ever heard of any of this?” As we sat there whispering about books through the boring choral tributes to high school teachers, we concluded that our education had been totally Euro-centric. There was ancient Egypt, something about Rommel in the desert, then apartheid. That was it for African history at our high school.

The morning after all the graduation hoopla, we got right back to talking books. Big Gay and I went into “the rat hole” (the utility room) where she keeps her recently read books. I whooped to receive a copy of The Nest because ever since Jill wrote about it on Bookreasons, I’ve been 15th in line on the library hold list for it. I can’t wait to read this story of four wobbly siblings and their joint inheritance that’s in jeopardy. I saw she had read All the Light We Cannot See–all three of us agreed it was sublime. On the theme of women’s stories of World War II, Little Gay and I agreed that The Nightingale really delivered but Big Gay hasn’t read it. She gave it to me for Christmas but had to wrap it before she had time to read it! I promised to bring it to her on my next visit and then I told both of them to read The Light Between Oceans, a between the wars story about a childless Australian couple who live on a lighthouse island in the Indian Ocean and what happens to them when a child comes into their lives.

Little Gay and Big Gay

Little Gay and Big Gay

We went into the library (most houses have a den, but Big Gay and Daddy made theirs a library with floor to ceiling book cases and two comfy chairs in front of a double window). Big Gay moved stacks of gardening magazines off the wooden chest and I held the lid open so she could pull out more books. The Monuments Men led us to talk about art theft, which scored me Big Gay’s marked up copy of Museum of the Missing and got Little Gay and me talking about taking a trip to Boston to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, site of a yet-unsolved robbery in 1990. That led to talk about the great art collections of the American industrialists and the long history of thievery among cultures–the Elgin marbles and the looting in Iraq and how we all want to read The Lady in Gold, about one family’s fight to get a Klimt painting returned after it was stolen by the Nazis.

That reminded Big Gay of a quirky little book called No Voices From the Hall, the memoir of a man who snoops around English country houses that fell into disrepair after World War II when families didn’t have the resources to maintain them. I pulled out a biography of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, who during that same thin time turned Chatsworth into a thriving estate. Big Gay and I are both fans of the Mitford sisters (Deborah being the youngest of them) and have swapped many books about them and by them over the years. Little Gay didn’t know their story, so we talked about Debbo, Diana, Unity, Nancy, and Jessica. And apropos of interesting women and British history, I took a copy of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.

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We sat in the sun in the comfy chairs and talked across the morning about Catherine the Great, bad marriages, Marie Antoinette, Paris, Napoleon’s sister Pauline. From Daddy’s big leather chair, Little Gay confessed to never having read To Kill a Mockingbird and I confessed that I had read Go Set a Watchman. We talked on about Truman Capote and Nell Harper Lee and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Molly the Yorkie curled up on the back of the chair and nodded off once Big Gay pulled out her notes from book club so she wouldn’t forget to tell us about any gems on the “To Be Read” list.

This is my happy place, surrounded by briliant women, new ideas about old things, patient dogs, and comfy chairs. Read on, read on, read on.