I have witnesses. Let’s establish that fact. Most of my major oh no moments have had someone in the wings to say no. She did that. She really did. This woman is obviously not me. But I don’t have a photo of the day that I blew part of my hair off from lighting a gas oven after I had let the gas build up a litttttle to long while talk to my sister. We were telling important stories. She was listening until she heard an explosion and a scream and then. Silence. I was living in Pensacola attending the University of West Florida and studying Theatre. It was the morning for Dr. Yolanda Reed's Playwriting class which always made things more interesting. My sons were so young they weren't in school yet. They hung out with their gypsy mom and went to rehearsals with me and went to daycare when I was in class and when I was studying for midterms or finals they went to Panama City to hang out with Nana and Pawpaw at the creek. They ate a lot of Ramen Noodles and PBJ's. To their credit, they rolled with it.
And they got to witness on more than one occasion their Mom doing dumb things. Every family has it's stories. I've given them material for a lifetime long after I'm gone.
My sister and I can not have conversations that are a result of both of us being to tired to speak and our plates too full. We've gotten pretty primal with it. Down to a few grunts that we understand. A shorthand for communication. We understand one another. But back in the day we had looooonggg conversations on the phone catching up and telling stories. In detail. When I lived in Kansas City we once talked through an entire episode of some mini-series - for three hours. This was back when there were such a thing as long-distance charges. Then our Daddy got the bill. My younger sister was still living at home and the phone bill of course was still a Daddy thing. Then he went through the roof. But we took our storytelling time seriously. Which was really just us having a nice, long visit. Frequently. Catching up. With what had happened just the day before. In detail. Now when I hear Mama telling me a story that includes all the - And he said, and then she said, and then he told her and she said - I think - and people ask me where I got inspiration as a writer. We are made up of story. Completely. I find it odd when I get stuck somewhere and people are actually managing to have a conversation that doesn't include a story about something.
And on this day I was in the middle of a story when I started the gas on the stove to light the oven and since the pilot light was out I had to strike a match and stick it into the oven where the little flames would ignite. Only being in the mid stream of a story I kept talking after I turned on the gas. And, talking. And, talking. Then I lit the match and opened the door. This is where my sister heard the explosion, my scream, and the sound of the phone flying across the room and hitting the wall.
It's a few minutes before she hears anything else, she keeps calling me, yelling hello, wondering if she needs to call 911 and I pick up the phone and in an exasperated voice say - my hair.
FORGET ABOUT YOUR HAIR!! Are you burned? Are you alright???? She was screaming at me in that kind of frustrated I just thought my sister was dead but she is just complaining about her hair kind of voice.
Yes, I was ok. No, unbelievably I was not burned. But I did have a new-do. The distinct smell of singed hair all around my face. I had bangs where I didn't have bangs a moment ago. A shag where I'd been unlayered.
It was just a stupid thing. A human error caught up in a story kind of thing. No loss of life or limb or eyesight. But there had been a moment.
I"m just fine," I told her. The hair continued falling around my shoulders.
"Jesus, sister. Just, Jesus," she said.
Yes, I inspire people to pray. But not always for reasons you might imagine.
I went on to class, made it almost on time, and declared I blew up my hair. The smell alone as a witness.
My advice for the day - Don't stick your head in gas filled ovens - with or without a match.
It's most important that you keep living your story. And that you survive to tell it.
This morning the sun just ever so early was shining through the cloud of fog hanging low over the ridge, my view was like that of being above the clouds. Looking out. Tired. Sleepy. Debating. Coffee and writing or going back to bed? Coffee won. And finishing an advanced reading copy of a book about a boy on a quest who turns out to be an angel, and finds his wings. It's a message for all of us. Don't slouch. Don't fear. Stretch your wings. Know thyself and be true.
I walked downstairs and went out on the porch, found the one piece of sky where I could lean way out and look out at the fog. Looked back at the blocked porch where the plastic hangs to protect Mom's plants from the freeze. Where it's actually nailed in. I don't have the tools or strength to take down the contraption made to hold it. It blocks the light, blocks the view. Creates a constant shadow. The living room looks out on grey floating plastic.
Rescue Kevin looked at me sleepily, stretched from his four blankets with heating pad and rose. He favors it finally in the wee hours of the dawn when the cold earth has stirred up the pain in his bones. An old accident. A run in with a car that was never tended. I can tell when it's stiff, when it pains him.
Mama's got a green thumb that Saint Peter would envy. She can bring the dead to life. Grow anything. Transplant. Transfigure. She has tried her best to bring cuttings of her plants to Tennessee. A rose bush she planted thirty years ago. It bloomed this summer. It's still potted and too heavy for me to move. It attacks me when I walk on the porch. The vines now wrapping around and clinging to me. Prick, prick, prick. Probably trying to tell me something in her absence as she visits Cousin Deb. Feed us. Sun us. Trim us. Fertilize. I tell them to hush. That I have words to write. That I have decided to never plant, feed, or nurture anything that will make me bleed. I'm beyond it.
I applaud my mother's gift. I recognize it for what it is. Something incredible. Wondrous. Magical. My entire life, her plants, the yard, the roses, the tulips. My entire life - my mother outside at the end of the day watering, watering. Tending and trimming. Summer grass, winter grass, pear trees. Beauty and bounty. Running roses all along the fence. Daffodils, Azaleas, Iris's, And those really big, huge, orange, Florida flowers. A bush six feet tall full of them.
My hands are better on the keys than in the dirt. I have come to accept this. Truly. Just now.
This morning I turned my palm up, held it in a ray of sunshine falling on my desk. Was mesmerized by the complex beauty of the lines it holds. How many stories residing there. Years ago, many many years ago, cousin Deb and I would visit a palm reader on occasion. Teenagers. Bored with car keys and five dollars to burn. Let's get our fortunes told today, we'd say. Then we would make the dark eyed woman living in some small rental shelter read our palms at the same time together. Refusing to separate and take our turns. We got no secrets, we would say. My life line was never long. Deb's stretches around the world.
I've outlived many friends. I thought of that this morning as I turned my palm this way and that. The lines form crossroads upon crossroads. Which brought to mind my grandmother as I whispered two lines of a prayer. Or maybe it was a country song.
Already old when I was born. Me her late-life grace. Her smiling and saying, I'm just a wrinkled, old woman now, as she rubbed Noxema cream on her face. Me standing beside her all of five looking up and saying, You are beautiful. Knowing it to be true. She of rocking chairs and chocolate cakes, of long fingers, bending my hair gently behind my ear, being pure magic in my universe. Like Mom's green thumb, She nourished me. I was watered by her presence.
Today they say it will climb to fifty and beyond. How my bones crave the sun! A long, bake like a lizard on a rock. I need tending to. My soul.
Lent. It's my season. One I normally feel most akin to. A season to languish and lament. The melancholy and denial. Artist shadow, writer heart. Everything I gave up I've given into. Perhaps this is a different kind of lent. One that shows me something yet anew. Perhaps God's hand holds out a new request of me.
This week. The shootings. No words still. No words. I looked at the photos of those now lost. Slowly. Reading about their lives. Crying. Later that day I took myself to the movie. My medicine to be lost in story and reset.
The Shape of Water.
It. Wrecked. Me.
Reminded me of Big Fish in some stylistic ways. I warn you here. There is nudity and a kind of sex. Should you take offense. I haven't read Fifty Shades and never will. That is not my cup of tea. But the movie is not about these things. I won't say what it's about. But love and monsters, maybe. But to each his own. The story that comes home the one you were mean to see or read.
I sat down alone. Seven other people scattered about in the dark. The movie started. One third way through I started crying. By the end I was a mess. Waited for the theatre to empty. The last to leave I passed the one, lone young girl standing there with a broom to clean who looked at me concerned. "That movie just broke my heart," I said in some kind of gulps. She said something, like, take care. I passed the restroom but didn't stop. I exited through emergency, went straight to my car, drove home to Ashland City sobbing. Went to bed.
The next morning instead of writing I built a fire. Ate creamed goat cheese with strong coffee Went to lunch where a friend said, Well, you must have needed a good cry. I guess. That and something more. Something I'm still pondering.
This mornings reading for Sunday Lent in the prayer book, 2 Corinthians, 6. After a long list of the patience and kindness and unfeigned love of those seeking out and serving God the list continues: "By honor and dishonor, by evil report and good: as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.
And, it. wrecks. me.
It is something about the fragility of this human life. The beauty and horror of it. The longing to be loved. The desperation to be seen, to be heard. To be known. The tender improbability that any of us have made it. That we are still here, alive this morning.
There's a lone hawk circling. I watch him ride the airwaves. I am above him. This is what I can see from my office window. The brown of the bare trees, the distant ridge. I am high above the little valley. I have room enough for wisdom and understanding. For discernment. I pray for these things in the midst of my troubles and my triumphs.
Last night I had three littles - 9, 5, 3. My sister had given them two brand new BIG lego trucks to play with. I had envisioned a quiet, happy dinner then some snuggles on the couch while we watched a movie. Perhaps pajamas and sleep overs. Fighting over who was playing with what truck and how they were playing with it ensued. Zaza made dinner. Truck parts lay all over the room. The nine year old realized I kept fast forwarding through the movie. Skipping parts. The other two did not. They were still fighting over trucks. Two more ounces of energy I would have put up trucks, passed out baths. With a splitting headache I made their little bowls of strawberries, grapes and blueberries with yogurt on top. The one that Damon little calls his regular mix. Like he's ordering at a restaurant. I'll have my regular mix. Sure kid. Anything for you. As soon as they ate them I was saying, 'Get in the car. All of you. You are going home.' Love, love, love you. Gotta say bye, bye now. Kisses, kisses.
They. wrecked. me.
We don't always know what may show up that hurts or hinders. A bad medical test. News of a shooting. Weonly know that we have the moment at hand. That we are not perfect or far from it. That we will achieve some goals and miss others. That seasons come, stay, leave, change.
We can only hope that little by little we evolve as human beings. That like the complex lines across our palms we thread the moments of our days into the brutal, beautiful realities of our lives with all grace and mercy.
May the force be with each of us as we undertake such a monumental, tiny task.
Yesterday was one of those Sundays that could have been a Saturday because it turned out to be sweep and shake rugs day. Not very Sunday-ish at that point but on the Sabbath of Saturday Me and mama had rested and watched Grantchester on DVD's we discovered at McKay's. It was a quiet and peaceful day in the midst of a dusty house.
Sunday began with me cooking breakfast for us - eggs, bacon and rye toast. I don't like to make breakfast. Except on Sundays. I heard Mom tell someone on the phone as I placed her breakfast on her tray, "Yes, she's made me breakfast. She is being nice to me because it's Sunday. Fact is - I am nice everyday - but the week is so busy and I am always behind deadline on something so breakfast is a quick thing like cereal or oatmeal or protein shakes and then its off to the races. But Sundays are special. They are all about the long breakfast and God and church and football and the paper. For me that means grabbing the New York Times out of the driveway, snatching the Book Review, The Travel Section, the Arts section, a second cup of coffee and then beginning to read about faraway places and books I long to read, the plays I'd love to see. It's a vicarious traveling experience without ever leaving our hill.
In the midst of this ritual when Mama's phone rang I suggested she just tell whoever it was that we were having a leisurely Sunday breakfast and reading The Times. She replied, I don't read the New York Times and answered the phone. (Insert the -She's being nice to me comment here because its Sunday here) I passed her another section of The New York Times she claims not to read. (She has a preference for the wedding section but is enthrawled with the new things she learns about education or science or amazing things that have nothing to do with politics. I sip my coffee, turn a page.
After breakfast we started cleaning. And cleaning. And cleaning some more. For those of you who don't know we have been in the midst of moving Mama in with me forever and ever. It has also been in the midst of trying to repair this old house in a hundred ways and then searching for ways to move more things in from her 50 year stay at the little house in Panama City where I grew up. She is a squatter. I am a gypsy traveler with squatter tendencies - because there is no place like home - after you roam. The roaming part is crucial to the homing part being just right. But right now it's been all about blending our lives and lifestyles. More on that later. For now I can say WE bicker. I tell her what to do. She tells me what she won't do - which I consider talking back. It's a lot just like this -
You don't need to watch TV first thing in the morning.
Don't tell me what I need. I'm 80 something years old. I think I know what I need.
Well, I don't think it's good for you. I think you should read a newspaper in the morning because you learn something and it's quiet.
I want the news that happened last night. By the time the paper gets here it's old news.
(She's from a generation that barely had cars and got their news from a neighbor. It's her Iphone that's poisoned her to think this way?)
Look, Mom - if anything really major happens there will be sirens going off or guns firing or something. Just read the paper. You don't need the noise of the TV in the morning.
I know what I need.
OK, let me rephrase that - I don't need to hear the noise of you watching the tv in the morning.
Now, that's an honest statement. And that, I can understand that.
That was all the honesty we could take that early neither of us being the kind of morning people that like to talk to other people in the house so we just shut up and read the paper and drank coffee and watched the birds. Then she wanted to play music and I wanted it to be quiet for an hour while I wrote. So I wrote a little and thanked her for all that understanding and then we played loud music. She asked me if I wanted to hear Creedence Clearwater Revival and I said, Yes, and we cleaned things.
The reward for all our hard work was that we were going to use that fabulous extra hour of daylight to take the dogs for a car ride through the country. We finally had the car loaded up right after sunset, a slight glow of pink in the hovering clouds. By the time we were winding our way though the dark with me determined to show her Bells Bend there was nothing but scraggly trees in the shadows. The timing too late after sunset to see anything. The bare winter trees scraggly points blowing in the wind, rattling against the dark, catching headlights, shaking them off, catching light again.
It's spooky down here. Don't go this way.
No, really Mom. It's nice, It's nice here.
Well, I can't see anything. Let's go back.
We were going to go for a ride and we are going for a ride.
I don't want to ride. I want to go home.
You complain about being stuck in the house so we are going on a ride. 'm gonna show you the park.
You need to Slow down.
I'm going ten miles under the speed limit.
Are there deer out here?
(A few years ago I hit three deer at once, killed all of them and survived. She is using this knowledge in a sneaky way.)
Yes. There are deer everywhere.
So, slow down.
There are nice places here, and a new restaurant down here.
Who would want to build a restaurant way out here and who in the world would want to drive out here to eat? It's spooky.
It's not spooky during the day.
Well right now it's night and its spooky and I want to go back.
I am not speeding but I still pass the entrance before I can swing in.
There it was, that was the entrance to the park. We just passed it.
Thanks for pointing that out to me.
Sorry, I couldn't see it coming up.
Cause it's dark. Nobody can see anything out here.
Okay, we are turning around and then I'm driving in there for just a minute..
The sign posted says park closed at sundown. Only campers are allowed to stay. (She infurates me when she reads the rules. Always has.) We don't belong down here.
I'm just showing you. Look, see? There's a path? A real path where you can walk that stupid dog. (He's not really stupid but he's little and a bother. My 200 pound dog however is no trouble at all.)
Well, that is nice. It looks like a nice path. Now, let's go.
I didn't even know they had camping here. I'd like to come back here to camp.
You would? Really? You like sleeping with sticks poking you in the back and mosquitos and bugs biting you all night.
The woman can douse the smallest dream before it ignites.
No. I like sitting around a campfire and looking at the stars and climbing into a tent really sleepy and snuggling into my sleeping bag.
If you say so. Are we going home now?
Yes, Mama. We are sure enough going home. Straight home.
I turned the car around the path, drove back towards the entrance and we encountered a vision. A low slung yellow moon. So big you would have sworn it was the biggest moon you ever saw. It was a word stopping, awe inspiring moon.
Would you just look at that? I think that's the biggest moon I ever saw.
Me and Mama sat there in the basking in that glow. For that moment life was threaded in perfect balance - us tethered to the moon in the dark. And for once instead of being late for something we were exactly, precisely right on time.
A little advice. Don't take your mother to the doctor and then feel guilty about leaving Big Dog and Little Dog so you tell them they can go for a RIDE when the doctors office is the designation. They think they are going to the PARK. They think they are going for a WALK. They do not think you are late for an appointment and need to take six bags, a bottle of water, a blanket, a coat, and get all in the door while leaving them behind, noses pressed out the crack in the windows.
A very special shout out and Thank you to Dr. WayneDay and his crew at Belle Meade Dermatology. They made mom's visit as painless and quick as possible, were downright genuine and put her at ease. I had picked up six magazines to take back to the little room where we expected to wait two hours for a doctor. Someone saw us before we could turn the first page. Bravo guys on being a beautiful exception to the rule. (But you still have a great mag selection. Might just arrive early next time to catch up on some reading.
Any Doc appt can be a little stressful in spite of how great everyone is so I decided getting Mom something cold to drink and a Fat Mo's burger would be just the ticket followed by a drive through our very own Central Park - Warner Parks in West Nash. So Beautiful. Watched the waning light looking out over the steeplechase field as the dogs alternately whined and tried to eat our hamburgers. I shared one with them, cranked the car and hit the trail. Mom pointed out -
It's really pretty and would be prettier if someone would pick up all those dead trees.
Ummm, kinda big place. Like, really big place. Nature doing it's thing and all that.
I'm just saying.
Big Dog and Little Dog got a chance to pull me through the cold across a field.
Back in the car I put in one of Mom's mixed cd's and drove on. Titan and Duncan stuck white noses out windows, sniffed the air. We spotted three deer. And mom said -
Look, it's just a baby.
Creedence Clearwater sang - I see a Bad Moon Arising.
I just love this song.
I turned up the volume. The sky grew darker. Drove left/right/round in circles like we were lost, like we would never find our way out, like lost was the only way we knew.
Then we emerged from the woods, cleared the trees, the lights of Nashville glittering.
Look, at the lights. And, there's a church steeple. We made it. We're not lost.
I turned due West and let the music take us all the way home.
My mother has moved in with me. It seems like only yesterday that we were just like this, her in the drivers seat, her being the one to keep me steady on my feet, her keeping me balanced so that I didn't go careening off into the dark night, bad decisions, high fevers, or swampy creeks.
Now I'm the one that is trying to keep things balanced. Keeping them from tipping over. We are having such a great time. Really, we are. You laugh? You doubt it? I can see why. There are days that I stomp through the house exhasperated by her every sigh or comment. Days where I turn fourteen and want to go to room and slam the door. But my door doesn't slam because its just one more thing I have to fix in this house so there's no point. Instead, we find something we can agree on to watch or we tell old stories and laugh. Thank God she has a sense of humor. Most days I have mine. She follows me around the house with lipstick trying to get me to just "put a little color on" and reminds me to use lotion on my face. A lot. Like every time she looks at my face. She is also the Queen of the List. There is always a list of things we need. As soon as I leave for the store a new list has begun. Daily trips to the store are a bizarre part of my family history. It's as if we can only buy one thing a day. Or three. But never all of the things. When I was in high school and was sent to the store that was fine because Cousin Deb was with me and we always took the really, really long way which means we did everything we wanted to between the house and the store. Now the store is a chore. Particularly when someone is following your around the house with a plastic bag that has the name of a particular brand of three ply double roll extra size super soft paper with no truck tracks in the middle of it so that you can "READ every word so you get it exactly right." This is why I studied literature. I just know it. It's come to this.
But I get it. The little things matter when they seem to be the only things you might possibly have control over. The pressures of giving up your home after fifty years, making a move to the mountains after being a flatlander all your life (her words) and giving up so many shades of independence are challenging in every way. Trying to still find things when many are still in storage, reaching for the light in the middle of the night and realizing it's in the wrong place. That everything is in the wrong place. Mourning an old house like a family member. Because it was such a part of the family for so many years. The shelter for every tropical storm and hurricane. That little brick house held every family member far and wide while the storms raged outside. It was our lifeboat and our arc. Through the literal Florida storms and from life's storms. When grandparents grew sick and elderly and moved in with us. When there were car wrecks and bad news. The death of pets. Of bad grades. Broken hearts. Celebrations. Birthdays. It was all right there and my mother was the captain of that ship. Period. My Daddy was in the Army and away much of the time until he retired. Then he came home and took his place without ever removing her from hers.
Now so many things fall to me. Just cause this is the way that life shook out. It has a way of doing that. Taking a road we didn't expect but then that is life. And as family we make the best of it. As a writer I empathize with my mother making a change so significant we don't discuss it too much. The decision to let go of the car keys - one of the hardest of a lifetime. My mother's parents never owned a car, never drove. If I felt the day I had my own set of keys and eventually my own set of wheels represented freedom - for her that had to be a kind of rising up and driving out that came from a much deeper place. It represented more than sixteen year old I gotta be me. It represented a rise out of poverty, a way to have a job and keep a job, a success that meant she could buy a little house, build a family, have a little girl that would ride shotgun some day.
And, I did. Those were glorious times. My mother finally bought the car of her dreams. A big Oldsmobile convertible. White with red leather interior. A dream machine. She drove with confidence behind the wheel wearing scarves over her hair and streaming behind her, cat eye sunglasses. She was amazing, looked like a movie star. Riding in that front seat beside her, the sun shinning down, the radio playing, I knew that Mom was in control, that we were traveling down that road, and that all was well with our world.
Now, a blink of an eye later, I'm behind the wheel. She's riding shotgun. And I can only pray that I will exude just a little of that air of confidence she possessed. The kind where she can truly I believe that it's okay. In spite of her home being shifted beneath her feet, her keys having slipped away. That in spite of it all - all is well with the world. That the road before us is a long one. To trust me enough that I do know the way. That life is still a great adventure. We just have to take it one day, one moment at a time.
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