Tag Archives: memory

Chili Dogs and Sawdust Make Me Cry

Last week, I ruined a pan of milk gravy that I was fixing with porkchops. I cried over that pan of gravy, but not because it had too much salt yet still tasted like cornstarch. I cried because I couldn’t call Daddy and laugh with him about how bad I had messed it up. He was the master of gravy. Back when he was feeling like himself, he would have gasped and squawked and cried, “How could my own child not know how to make milk gravy???” He would have carried on the same way he did when I confessed that I didn’t know how to cut up a chicken. We would have laughed about it and he would have told me to put a potato in soup if I ever add too much salt. And we would have talked for a while then said, “I love you” before hanging up.

I ate that damn gravy, every salty bite, because I didn’t want to let it go.


wood-877368_1920We’re replacing the boards on the deck. The day the nice man from Lowe’s delivered the lumber and piled it up in the driveway, I started feeling a little strange. A soft, gray sort of pining in my chest, a little lost echo. After the first day of construction, I stepped out on the deck and smelled the pine tang of freshly sawn wood. Instantly, I started crying. The smell of new lumber–that’s what had stirred up my feelings. My daddy is supposed to be around for construction projects. At least he was up until a few years ago when Joe and James took over. When I needed a fence put up or taken down, or a door hung or a cabinet replaced, it was Daddy who brought the saws and the nail guns and the levels. Now I hire a stranger.

All that sawdust flying around revealed a perfect little cobweb in the corner of the window, only visible once it was covered in bits of wood shavings. In the mornings, I sit on my corner of the loveseat and watch the dew and sawdust sparkle on the fine threads of the web. Memories are like that–here is this fine thing that you never noticed and now it’s visible.

A seed catalog came in the mail on a day when snow swirled outside the windows. I cried over that catalog and the thought of all those tomato plants that won’t get planted this winter. Daddy had a greenhouse and a green thumb. He started his vegetables from seed, in row upon row of white styrofoam cups. He started using those instead of seed trays a few years ago because he could write the variety on every seedling, never confusing a Better Boy for an Early Girl. At Easter, each of us would leave with a tray of tiny plants for our own garden plots. One year, he started 200 tomato plants. That was the year he learned how to can salsa, too.

Daddy and Big Gay waged a quiet battle of encroachment in their garden. It started out as a vegetable garden with one of the large plots set aside for Gay’s flowers. Then the next spring, the flowers had spread to an adjoining plot. Eventually, peonies and antique roses and poppies and larkspur and a carpet of dianthus took up half of the garden space. Just like Nazi Germany (to hear Daddy recount it), the flowers infiltrated borders and claimed land that was destined from the beginning of time for turnip greens and potatoes.

If there aren’t any tomatoes this year, I’ll understand. I can even grow my own but I’ll have to buy a few from the nursery, the week after Easter.

The worst bout of tears blindsided me on a Saturday while I stood over a frying pan of hot dogs. When I was little, there was no greater adventure than a Saturday spent “riding around” with Daddy. Country veterinarians work on Saturdays, too. Riding with Daddy meant going all over the county in a rattle trap Ford pickup truck that smelled like worm pills and Marlboro cigarettes. I felt so proud when he let me hop out of the cab to open and close cattle gates. Sometimes I got to see an actual horse and maybe even pat it on the nose if it wasn’t feeling too poorly. At every farm, he introduced me as his baby.

As we drove along on calls, Daddy listened to talk radio back when it was talking and not shrieking. He’d listen to Ludlow Porch out of Atlanta. I remember one time hearing Ludlow say that something cost “a grand.” I asked Daddy what a grand was and he laughed and said, “All the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.”

de3c02294fe0fa70fb4b5f064f8d71cdAround lunch time, we’d stop at a little gas station/grocery store like Red O’Neal’s or Mr. Connell’s and get us a pack of bright red hot dogs, a can of Castleberry chili, and a bag of Sunbeam buns. Maybe a couple of RC Colas or a grape Nehi. Back at his clinic, which was built onto the corner of a big cattle barn, so it always smelled like manure and fresh hay, Daddy would plug in the electric hot plate and we’d fix up a plate of chili dogs on top of the surgical table. When the chili dogs got good and hot, I’d get the bottles of ketchup and yellow mustard out of the door of the medicine refrigerator. I still remember how the well-sealed door popped open so hard that the little glass bottles of insulin and rubber-stoppered test tubes of blood rattled in their racks.

As I stood there frying up hot dogs for my own kids, I realized how we have no idea which memory will stick. What will it be sixty years from now that brings a tear to Vivi’s eye when she remembers me? Will she have a photograph (or a story on the ancient internet) to jog her memory? If only I had a picture of a hot plate of chili dogs bubbling on an operating table. Or if that clinic still existed so I could go back for a moment to capture its sharp clean smell of disinfectant, its rattling refrigerator, and the baying of a dozen dogs in the kennel wishing for a bite of whatever was smelling so good.

What I wouldn’t give for a Saturday morning driving around the countryside with my Daddy, learning about grand things and simple things and picking out a bag of potato chips from the wire rack by the cash register of a gas station.

I’d give all the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.

The News In Gay: My Best Summer Internship EVER

There’s been talk this week about giving your kids a 1970s summer. It got me thinking about those days of playing outside, drinking from the hose, watching reruns and soaps on TV, heating up a can of Spaghettios on the stove for lunch, then maybe wandering across the pasture to the creek and playing until Mom honked the horn on the Ford LTD when she got home from work. HEAVEN, right?

I am the baby of my family, so there were a couple of summers right around 1979-1980 when I was the only kid who still needed to be watched when school let out for the summer. My brother, Joe, spent all day with Daddy going on veterinary calls and my sister, Gay, sold peaches at a roadside stand. We didn’t have summer camps and all those ACTIVITIES back then. Maybe a week at Vacation Bible School–maybe two if you had cousins who went to another church. There might be some swimming lessons at the community pool, but that was it.

So I lucked out and got to spend weekdays every summer with Grandmama Eunice. Grandmama Eunice lived in an old white farmhouse about halfway between Gay and Greenville, right up the road from Jack Findley’s store. Mom dropped me off on her way to work at the DFCS office in Greenville. The screen door smacked behind me as I stepped into the wonderland that was Grandmama’s house.

It was HOT. Even though she had a big airy bedroom with purple velvet curtains and a vanity table, Grandmama slept in the dining room during the summer. It was the easiest room to cool with one window unit air conditioner, so she had a little cot in the corner next to the kitchen wall. She had her TV on a rolling cart, her big black telephone perched on the corner of the dining table, her makeup mirror on the corner of the mantle.

I sat on the scratchy carpet and turned the TV on while she made me a hot breakfast the likes of which you normally only saw on Christmas morning. Biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, sausages. She’d scrape up that sausage grease and put it in a coffee can on the back of the stove. That TV was tricky. The sound came through right away, but some days it took a while for the picture tube to warm up. Price Is Right came on at 10, so I turned the TV on before 8 a.m. when I got there, in hopes that we’d be able to watch Bob Barker. It was OK to listen to the news with no picture, and the Rozelle show out of Columbus was OK, but we needed to SEE the Price Is Right to make our guesses.

phoneMid-morning, Grandmama’s phone would start to ring. She had the COOLEST little job ever and I observed the mystery of it like a novice nun. Grandmama Eunice wrote a weekly column in the little county paper, the Meriwether Vindicator. Her column was called “News In Gay” and it ran every week under her by-line and a picture of her with perfectly coiffed black curls and Sunday best lipstick. She kept a yellow legal pad and an “ink pen” next to that heavy black rotary phone on the corner of the dining room table. When people called with a bit of news, she would jot down some notes as they talked. The “News In Gay” covered everything from who put the flowers in the First Baptist vestibule that week, who was in the hospital and who was recovering at home, who had driven over to Newnan to have dinner at Red Lobster with their daughter and her new husband, a dentist. Who had extra tomatoes for sale, who hosted the Methodist Women’s Union, who was having a milestone birthday. My grandmother decided whose name GOT IN THE
PAPER. That was a huge deal from where I sat, right there on the carpet waiting for Bob Barker.

In the afternoons, we would get in Grandmama Eunice’s baby blue Mercury Cougar and toodle around doing errands. She’d stop at Jack Findley’s and let me get a cold drink from the metal cooler with the sliding door on top. We’d drive over to Woodbury and pay the gas bill, or maybe go to visit a shut-in. Everywhere we went, people told her their stories for the paper. It was mostly good news, things they wanted to share.


As best I recall, the Vindicator came out on Fridays, so on Thursday mornings, Grandmama would sit down at the table and turn her notes into her column for the week. In her beautiful Palmer script, she wrote out each tidbit longhand, with a blank line between each story. I wish I had some of those old columns. I searched on-line and the Vindicator only has digital archives back to 2002. Her language turned those ordinary events into NEWS. “The patriotic red, white and blue flowers on the altar at First Baptist Church were given by Mr. and Mrs. Lee Nash in memory of his great uncle, Mr. Hiram Nash.” “Please pray for Miss Willie Fish, who is recuperating at home after surgery.” “Vacation Bible School will be held June 3 – 7 from 8 a.m. – 12 noon each day at First Methodist Church in Greenville. All school-age children are welcome to participate.”

She used words to build community. I think I fell in love with writing on those hot summer days, traveling beside her as she gathered the news. Watching her turn everyday life into something special.

Sweet Cheeks

November 8, 2014

November 8, 2014

He was born at 6:25 a.m., the morning after Christmas.

The whole world lay quiet under a snowy blanket, glowing in the lavender light before sunrise.

Eight pounds, five ounces.

Twenty inches long.

His first word was Da-da.

I’ve seen him eat three bananas in a row.

I have video of his laugh, how he laughs until he has to gasp for breath.

I have his first curls from his first haircut.

There’s a picture of him pulling up for the first time, on the corner of his great-grandparents’ traveling trunk.

He’s finally getting the hang of talking. He’s even learned how to complain “Aw, MAN.” I write down the funny things that he says in his journal.

I try to remember, to hold on.

But how will I ever remember the feel of his cheek?

One day, if he is lucky enough to live a long and ordinary life, his cheek will grow rough and prickly. How will I remember the silky curve of his cheek beneath my fingertips?

Touch is a sense we can’t hold on to. What our fingers have known, we have to let go.


Happy Birfday, Mommy

balloon-406208_1280Today was my birthday. It was happy.


The alarm went off. The kids had to be fed. The socks are never where they’re supposed to be. The dog wants out. The dog wants in. I wasn’t expecting much, but dang. G was the only one who had acknowledged my birthday in any way.

Finally, from the kitchen, he asked the kids if they had wished me a happy birthday. From the dining room, Victoria spoke in that perfectly flat teenage voice, “happy. birthday.” Vivi didn’t even look over from the couch as she echoed the sentiment with the same enthusiasm.

OK, it’s early. But dang.

Then Carlos, sitting beside me on the couch, looked me straight in the eye. “Hap-py Birfday, Mommy!” The kid who gets speech therapy. The kid who wasn’t connecting with people.

What color pony do you want, little boy? Because right now? Mommy wants to give you anything you want. I made such a fuss over him and he giggled and wiggled.

Three little words. The gift of those three tiny words carried me on through the business of the morning.

A while later, I met a man who looked familiar on the sidewalk outside my office. His son and Carlos are in class together. We introduced ourselves and started talking about our kids. We got deeper into the Spectrum Talk, about how our ideas of who our kids will be have to shift as we learn more about how they live in this world. This dad said, “I used to hope for throwing the football with my son. That’s OK if that doesn’t happen. But I would like to hear him call me ‘Dad,’ just once.” This beautiful son, who holds his father’s hand as they walk into school, has never called either of his parents “Mom” or “Dad.” Those words aren’t gifts that he can give just yet.

My boy’s birthday gift to me grew even more precious after that chance meeting on the sidewalk.

It was a lovely day, filled with kind messages, lunch with friends, sweet gifts and so much laughter. G had offered to fetch all three kids after school so I could take my time. I drove home with the windows down and the sun patting the top of my head. Simply happy and feeling loved.

Then the strangest thing happened.

I turned onto a little street where Richard and I once looked at a house that was for sale. It belonged to an older couple who were eager to sell so they could move closer to their daughter. The father had become ill and the mother needed her daughter’s help. The small, tired woman had told us this as we stood under a kiwi vine in the backyard. I remember it so vividly because I knew already that we didn’t want this house, but neither Richard or I was going to leave while she still had things to show us. She was enjoying having someone to talk to. We admired her yard and promised that we would call the realtor for more information. Then we left and went on with our lives.

So today, as I was driving past that same house, I caught a glimpse into that yard through the patchy hedge. Tables and folding chairs sat scattered across the grass. Pink tablecloths and bunches of balloons shifted in the breeze. Paper plates and ketchup bottles, bright bags and wrapped boxes. A birthday party.

I got this odd feeling, it being my birthday and all, and me having once thought of living in that house with the person I loved then–I got the strange idea in my head that it WAS a birthday party for me, for the me in a parallel life who bought that house and made a life there.

I drove right by that other me, having a party, and it was strange but OK. Maybe I don’t know how to explain this, but my life has taken such drastic turns that I sometimes cross paths with a ghost or a memory or a maybe of what might have been my life. Like that time I got the letter from the retirement company that listed Richard’s age as 46. He died when he was 38. But for a second, looking at that letter, I had the feeling that he was off somewhere on one of those parallel tracks. Maybe throwing a football with his son. Even that was strange but OK.

Every one of us who has made any choice or survived any kind of change or gotten any surprises along the way has felt that shadow of the other life that might have been. We’re going about our day, but out of the corner of the eye, just a glimpse through a gap in the hedge.

My car kept going and it wound up at home, in this life with the three kids and G and the house that Richard gave to us.

When I walked in the door, Carlos pointed to the fruit snacks G had given him and said, “I ate red AND blue!” (Mean old Mommy makes him choose one or the other, but Daddy…Daddy has his own ways.)

Then that son–the one I got and not the ones that I imagined–my son looked at me and said, “Happy Birfday, Mommy.” Unprompted.

What a gift. May I always treasure it.


The Truth Is

Forget Me Not

Forget Me Not

The truth is…I didn’t even notice that it was June 30th until lunchtime today, when someone made an offhand comment about it being the last day of June.  The last day of June was the last day of my old life, the last day that had an hour in it when the man I loved wasn’t dying of leukemia.  June 30, 2004 was the last day I woke up next to Richard without having cancer lying between us.

His diagnosis was official at about 4:00 p.m. on June 30, 2004.  The truth is, I used to mark the hours each June 30 anniversary. In the morning, I would remember with chagrin the way I went off to work in my cancer pants (not knowing, of course, that they caused cancer).  At lunch, I regretted the timing of that day, that I wasn’t with Richard every minute.  I took a long break from my Microsoft Access class so that I could run home then deliver him to the eye doctor for an exam.  June 30, 2004 was the day we were so worried that he might lose his vision.  I was so busy working and trying to have a normal day that I couldn’t come back again to get him to the hematologist–he took a cab.  When an eye doctor looks at a CBC and tells you to go straight to a hematologist, it’s bad.  We were still calling Dr. Marrano the hematologist, not the oncologist.  The truth is I feel like a shit because he stood in our driveway and stepped into a cab and he already knew in his heart what the answer was going to be.  All the while I stood in front of a class of people, maintaining the illusion that I was in charge of something, anything.

The truth is that I used to mark those hours as they went by, but today I forgot.

There were times today when I thought back over the ten years that have passed since that day.  Tonight when I stepped out on the deck, I thought of that evening.  I stepped out on the deck that night to talk to Richard’s doctor friend Erik.  I read him the numbers from the CBC.  He sucked his breath at the hemoglobin and hematocrit.  He whispered “Shit” as I read the numbers.  He told me not to let Richard brush his teeth before his transfusion the next morning.  My eye fell on the corner of the maple table in the den and I remembered how we sat there at as he told his parents over the phone.  

The truth is, this is the same bed.  The same window.  The same frog chorus outside.  The wobbly ceiling fan.  The river brown paint on the walls that I thought he would like.  The same floor where his feet stepped.  The room where he died.  The room where I continue to live.  The room where my babies and I passed all those hours in the nights that have spun out since June 30, 2004.  

The truth is…I may have forgotten because it’s been 10 years.  Or maybe I had happier things to occupy my mind today.  I took my daughter to the river park to learn how to pedal her bike with confidence on the long flat stretches of sidewalk.  I took my son to the pool so that he could hold tight to my thumbs as he grows more comfortable with the feeling of floating.  At the hour when 10 years ago we were getting The News, I took a nap.

The truth is, today is a day in a different life.  I feel guilty sometimes that I’ve lived on.  I’ve become a mother.  I’ve found another love.  I’ve planted marigolds on the deck.  I’ve bought a new refrigerator.  I’ve got a different car, a different job, a different path around the grocery store.  I cheer for Brasil in the World Cup now because my kids have green passports in addition to their blue ones.  It’s a new world.  This world.  Not that one anymore.

The real truth is, June 30th was a shitty day that year.  A few of them since then were darkened by that habit of looking back, of retracing steps I never wanted to take in the first go round.  Maybe it’s been long enough that I can honor the love I shared with Richard by remembering the happy days, not the horrible ones.  I don’t have to go back through it every year to pay some penance for all the lovely June 30ths since then.


Thank you, Alice Bradley, for this advice:  “When you are feeling stuck, start writing with ‘The truth is…'”  I needed to get this off my mind and into words.  

With This Ring

Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art


I hit one of those grief loops today–the portals through time that sweep me back into another moment from another life.

As I was washing my hands in the kitchen at work, a memory came back to me from the day Richard and I moved into our house back in the fall of 2003.  We were unloading a truck filled with my stuff (mostly boxes of books).  Our paths crossed in the garage as he was walking into the house and I was walking out.  I saw his left hand gripping the corner of a gigantic cardboard box and for a fleeting second, I imagined that I saw a shiny gold ring there.  A simple wedding band.  The image seemed so real, in that instant, that I stood there kind of dumbstruck.  He paused as he walked past me and gave me a funny look.

“What?” he asked.  I laughed and shook my head to clear it.  “Nothing.  Just daydreaming.”  He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.  Then he said, “I love you…and you didn’t have to say it first this time.” And he went on his way.

I was usually the “I love you” and he was the “I love you, too.”  That moment–sweaty and stinky and tired in the garage– made me so completely happy.  We were starting our life together, blending our stuff.

I guess that moment was prescient–seventeen months later he did wear a simple gold ring on that finger.  We picked out our wedding rings while sitting on the side of the bathtub in our house, the night before the ceremony.  Big Gay had brought a black velvet tray of them from our jeweler friend, Tony.  Richard wasn’t much for jewelry.  He didn’t even think he would wear a ring.  But it was important to me to give him a token, so he chose a simple gold band.  There was no time for engraving.

The next morning, under a white tent in our backyard, I put that ring on his finger.  The minister bound our hands in his silk stole for the blessing then whispered to us, “You’ve tied the knot!”

Richard agreed to wear the ring for the rest of the day because I enjoyed the sight of it so much.  He kept it on into the night.  In between IV meds, he joined the rest of us out on the deck where we sat telling stories in the dark.  He kept it on when we went to sleep, past midnight when his drugs were finished running their course.

The ring was still there the next day, on his finger.  It stayed there for the eleven days that we got to call each other husband and wife.  He never took it off.  After he died, I took it off his finger and put it on mine.

That’s the memory that came back to me today–the imaginary vision of a gold band when he was so strong and happy, and the memory of the gold band when he was dying…and happy.  It’s hard to believe that we found a way to be any kind of happy in the middle of the end of his life.  We did.

So I dried my hands on a paper towel and went back to work.  If you passed me in the hall and wondered why I had that strange look on my face, this is why.


Holding Hands


A few weeks ago, in the flurry of prom snapshots on Facebook, I saw an image that took me right back to being young and aflutter.  In the photo, my friend’s daughter posed with her date.  Smiles and smiles and smiles.  Poses with their friends and with just the two of them.  They weren’t a “couple” couple, but not “just friends” either.  It was a date date.  And they were young and so so sparkly.

The picture that got to me was a candid snap of the crowd of kids.  The boy had taken the girl’s hand as they turned to cut a path through the crowd.  The look on her face, and the look on his face, even though they weren’t looking at each other–it was clear that holding hands was a big deal.  They both looked a secret kind of  happy, like maybe it was the first time they had held hands right there in front of everyone.  The energy that flowed through their hands made them one as they moved through the group.  The touching was something new, but the way it marked them apart as a pair was something new too.

When’s the last time you felt a secret kind of happy because you were holding someone’s hand?

Really.  Think about it.

Now that we’re Adults, most of us have moved on to more…expressive forms of touch.  Sure, G and I still hold hands when we’re out on a date, but most days we are holding the hands of those tiny people that we created (via the previously referenced “more expressive forms of touch”).  At this stage of life, we hold hands to keep people from darting into traffic, not to declare our coupledom to the wider world.

Richard and I used to joke about “who got to be on top” when we held hands.  I liked to be the hand on the bottom.  I liked the protected feel of my hand tucked into his.  Besides, I already had a good five inches on him in the height department, so I didn’t want it to look like I was dragging him down the street to a dentist appointment.  He liked being the bottom hand because he believed that it gave him more steering control–he swore this was a lesson he learned as a ski instructor.  So we joked for years about who got to be on top.

Anywho.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, high school….

Right in the middle of all this thinking about hand holding, I read a book that I cannot recommend highly enough–“Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell.  I give it five stars then I would color in two more stars with a Sharpie.  That Good.

If you lived in the 80’s, read this book.  If you ever felt like a misfit in high school, read this book.  If you ever got swept up in first love, read this book.  If you lived an absolute perfect life through your teen years, shut up because you’re lying then read this book.  If you know how to read, read this book.  As John Green, author of “The Fault In Our Stars,” (the other book that knocked me to my knees this year) said in his NYT review:  “Eleanor & Park” reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.

Eleanor and Park begin their courtship on the school bus.  It is a slow and furtive reel of comic books, mix tapes, snark, and sentiment.  It is sensuous in the truest sense of the word.  Rowell’s characters revel in the touch, smell, sight, and sound of each other.  And eventually, the taste–but there is so much that comes before that.  Remember the days before kissing and all that comes after kissing?  Remember leaning in to read something together just for the excuse of being that close?  Remember when it took weeks to work your way up to hand holding, and then only if no one was watching?  Remember?