Friday, January 27, 2012

Monkey See, Monkey Do?

I warned y'all in my last post that I would be throwing out questions. This one has been tumbling in my head of late and I just have to ask it:

If you are married, how did the marriage (or lack thereof) that you grew up with influence your marriage now?

On a related front, if you have children, how did that marriage influence how you raise and relate to your children?

To be really specific: IF your parents divorced, what impact does that have on your marriage and your parenting?

To be really, really specific: IF your parents divorced, do you find yourself holding your breath until you have been married longer than your parents were?

I think every person, no matter how awful or wonderful their family of origin, enters adulthood, marriage and parenthood with an idea of what they want to repeat and what they want to change. I certainly did. Mostly, I wanted to change things.

My parents didn't have a good marriage. They managed to stay together for 31 years and 11 months, but it was not a good marriage. I may or may not, one day, make my best attempt at a detailed analysis, but I know that my conclusions would be skewed by limited information and my own subjective experience. But as I moved my way toward adulthood and seeking a husband for life, I already had in my mind so many ways I wanted things to be that were different from my parents' experience.

On the whole and by the grace of God and with the help of my most awesome husband, I have experienced a marriage beyond my imagination. There is nothing like sharing my life, my whole life, with my best friend. When I have been fed up on a husband/wife level, I have hung on anyway because, after all, he's my best friend and what would I do without my best friend? I know that this level of companionship was not something that my parents ever had. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being darn near perfect) I would currently put ours at perhaps an 8.5. Room for improvement, but overall a pretty good thing.

Yet with all of this goodness given to me, I get uneasy. The other day I was thinking about how we are closing in on being married for 24 years. Statistically speaking, that's pretty good. Yet I was struck with terror. My parents were married for almost 32 years. Twenty-four doesn't mean anything, it doesn't guarantee anything. If my parents could throw in the towel after 32 years......All the marriage books and all the sermons and all the articles and all the counseling in the world still doesn't take away that uneasiness for me. In my world dads leave and moms are left holding the bag and cleaning up the mess.

That is just one example of how my personal experience still colors my marriage. Parenthood isn't excluded either.

Matt always remarks how I tend to take on more responsibility than is actually mine, especially when it comes to parenting and guilt. Only today was I able to explain to him that when I say that I feel like I've failed as a parent because I didn't do this and I didn't do that, that I'm NOT saying this because I feel he has no right or no role with my children, I am saying this because this is all I know. My father was absent physically and/or emotionally for most of my life. Other than the dispenser of the really, really hard spankings (in my tender tush experience), he pretty much had very little role in my life. In my experience it all falls on the mother (and is therefore always the mother's fault). Sometimes I even forget that there is a role for the dad in our family because I don't really know what dads do.

Again, it isn't that there aren't enough books out there to detail every jot and tittle of family life, it is just that, when the rubber meets the road, it's a case of Monkey See, Monkey Do.

I know that God is in the business of changing lives and changing patterns. But I think he usually does this by first pointing out to us that which needs changing in the first place. How can we give him the glory if we don't even know what he has done? If we aren't aware of the influences in our lives, we aren't aware enough to ask, "Am I doing what is best or right or healthy or am I doing what I know?" For some of us it is a matter of having to drive the truck out of the well worn rut and blaze a new trail.

The Written Word and Questions

In case y'all haven't figured this out yet, I'm a relationship kind of person. Not just in a task oriented vs. people oriented sort of way, but also in a cause and effect sort of way. I am fascinated with how our experiences color our thoughts and our thoughts influence our feelings and how both our thoughts and feelings, for better or for worse, govern our behavior.

So the other day I got the hankering to ask a question but, alas, there wasn't anybody around to ask it to. I suppose that my kind of questions would be appropriate for group discussions but finding a venue is tedious and my topics aren't necessarily the stuff of riveting social amusement. I could try to ask some of my questions in a church type setting, but I rarely have an audience. Anyway, I suck at the spoken word.

There is something about opening my mouth in a group of people that renders me, well, speechless. My brain circuits fry and my mouth dries up and my tongue turns to stone. I stammer a bit and look to my husband with pleading eyes and beg for help because of course he is bound to know exactly what I am trying to say. He gives me that helpless, exasperated, amused shrug and I, realizing that I am on my own, manage to blurt out a tumble of words and phrases that make about as much sense as the instructions for my washing machine which were translated into English by kindergartner from Seoul.

I learned long ago, after a rather unfortunate transaction with a realtor who must have authored the book Bulldozing for Dummies, that I could stand my ground much better in writing than on the phone with someone who took the descriptions of demanding and ruthless to new levels. On the phone I'm a wimp, but in writing I'm a confident, information machine and can turn bulldog, if need be, to protect my client.

On a more personal front it is just easier to let thoughts tumble in my head for a while until the words spill out. If it takes me 38 seconds to think of that word that was just on the tip of my tongue, so be it, and nobody's the wiser. I am also someone who really, really needs feedback. It is totally unnerving for me to speak up about something in a group only to be met with those awful blank stares and hollow eyes and question marks hanging in the atmosphere like half inflated helium balloons. Yes, I can see them there.

So it is with the written word I will stick. And I will ask questions. And I will want answers and discussion. Be aware that an invitation to written dialog is coming soon to a blog near you.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Wonderful, Awful Bathroom

I find it interesting that just one hundred years ago you could still buy house plans that did not include a bathroom. The concept of indoor plumbing was pretty new and I suppose that for those with limited means or access to technology, or perhaps for those prone to the thrill of adventure, the indoor "necessary room" just wasn't all that necessary.

Best I can tell from what I've seen (I'm a realtor) and read (I like history), by the 1920s most new homes came with a full bathroom and by the '50s the concept of a master bathroom or at least master half-bath seemed to be catching on, but it wasn't until the '70s that having 2 full bathrooms seemed to become the norm. Nowadays, any house with only one bathroom is considered "functionally obsolete," yet there are plenty of people out there perfectly willing to live in these houses and share their most basic facilities. However, the first thing that most home buyers will do when encountering a one bathroom house is try to figure out how to squeeze at least another toilet into the landscape of the home, stomach bugs being what they are and all. It is one thing to have only one tub, but yet another thing entirely to really need to go when the only bathroom is otherwise occupied. This may explain why I've seen so many toilets in basements. By themselves. Lonely, but useful.

Our first house was built in 1926 and had only one bathroom. When we lived there only two of us needed to make any real use of it (other than for bathing, of course) while the other two were too young and undeveloped to catch on to the concept and need. Our second house was built in 1925 with only one bathroom, but long about 1939 a half-bath was added when a porch was closed in. (We know that it was 1939 or so because that was what was stamped on the underside of the toilet tank lid. Isn't that a nice little trick?)

It was a wonderful, awful room at all of 3x5 feet. The toilet had been placed so close to the wall that you had to sit on it sideways if you were taller than a toddler. You could simultaneously throw up in the tiny, adjacent sink, if necessary, making it an excellent oasis for the gastronomically challenged. Efficient? Yes. Comfortable? No.

Because the toilet had been manufactured long before green building, long before low-flow toilets and water saving devices, long, even, before the first Earth Day, it flushed with passion and style and authority. Our kids wore cloth diapers and it was customary to dump and rinse out the solid waste (AKA poop) before exiling the wads of cotton to the pail. The first time I used this toilet for such a purpose I darn near lost the thing in the fight. I had not before and have not since encountered such sucking force from a piece of plumbing.

Once you were done with your business, whether it was sitting or dunking, came the hand washing adventure. The sink was original as well with a hot faucet and a cold faucet and never the twain shall meet. This made for a brief and, at times, uncomfortable hygiene experience.

By far the worst part about this room was its location: on the exterior wall of the house (correction: UNINSULATED exterior wall of the house). There was no heat source. One day I got the brilliant idea of putting a thermometer in the room to get a read on just how cold it really was in there. The little red line never got above 40 degrees. Over time the flushing mechanism in the toilet broke and so, in order to flush, you would have to take the tank lid off, plunge your hand into seemingly near frozen water, and pull up on the flap. It was pretty close to using an outhouse. In the winter we just waited our turn elsewhere.

For all the frigid, cramped, broken down-ness about this room, I loved it. A lot of "firsts" (of which I will not elaborate for fear of certain estrangement) happened there. In September 1993 I found out I was pregnant in that room, thanks to the window sill that held my pregnancy test. I managed to give my kids baths in that teeny, tiny sink with the hot and cold faucets. More paint and brownie batter and mud were washed off of hands and faces and feet than I can now imagine. It took me a while to discover that the old plaster on the walls served as entertainment and a certain someone, with great pleasure, sat and peeled it away, while taking care of other business.

After we had lived in the house for 7 years we decided to remodel the kitchen. Involved in that was moving the half bath to an interior wall. We demolished the old and built in the new. It was a great new bathroom with it's own character built-in and for the next 4 years we actually gathered a few memories in that room as well. But there was something just so wonderful about that old bathroom. That wonderful, awful bathroom.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fit for a Queen?

Back in early '95 some friends were getting rid of a queen sized bed and asked if we wanted it. At the time we had 3 kids under the age of 5 who, strange as it seems nowadays, actually liked being with us. Especially at night. Our bed was full so an extra 6 inches of horizontal sleeping surface seemed like a dream come true and we took it.

This had been our friend's bed before he got married and he was not a small man. Plus, he had done what anybody does when you don't have to share a bed; he slept in the middle. Therefore, by the time the mattress made its way into our possession it was really less of a mattress and more like a large, springy bowl.

The mattress made its way in the wear 'n tear department serving as trampoline and changing table and sleeping surface to sometimes upwards of five people, the kids piled up like puppies on all sides of us. Within a year the bowl had deepened significantly. By then I was hugely pregnant (I was always hugely pregnant) and found getting out of the bowl a useless fight against laws of physics. Without the wherewithal to rig a pulley system or a catapult, Matt took to shoving me from the back any time I needed to exit the bed.

By the time Baby #4 made her appearance (ON the bed, by the way), we knew the vast expanse of springs, fabric and dust mites had to go. I would spend the entire night attempting to defy gravity by not rolling downhill into my husband. Sometimes I was unsuccessful and we crashed in the night like a couple of bowling pins laid to waste. Then one night I had just finished nursing my newborn to sleep. She was peacefully snoozing on the outside edge of the bed when I sat up and watched her roll, literally ROLL, downhill toward the middle. Like a burrito or maybe an egg roll caught in an avalanche.

From there on out my memory is fuzzy, likely due to lost sleep. The mattress was passed on to some unsuspecting soul or perhaps to the landfill, I do not remember. I do know that I have never taken a good mattress for granted again.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flannery Meltdown

It's been a week since I had my Flannery Meltdown. I had always heard that her stuff gets to the heart of you but I never believed it. Maybe it was because I had only ever read Good Country People, which, to my limited and shallow literary mind, was a humorous story of a brooding girl who thinks she's going to get lucky with the Bible salesman only to have him run off with her prosthetic leg. A sad but embarrassingly funny little essay, I thought.

So, the other night I hijacked Su's literature book and ambled through the pages, stumbled upon another Flannery O'Connor, and set to reading. The story is the relationship between a befuddled and quirky woman with her traditional views of society and her brooding, self-centered, progressive son. I was reduced to sobs.

I remember so well trying to divorce myself from everything my mother stood for. I remember my need to establish myself as a separate person. I remember the irritation with every little thing in her. And even after I should have known better and should have related better and should have loved better, how I still kept her at a stiff arm's length. I didn't know how to get close without getting smothered. Instead of navigating the whirlpool of her unrealistic expectations and emotional needs, I opted to sit on the sidelines. I kept my safe distance. I didn't risk anything to love her.

But there, in the story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, I see this selfish and haughty son behaving as badly as I did. Or rather I see that I behaved as badly as he. And I want to shake him out of his contempt and replace it with compassion before it is too late. As the mother drops to the pavement of a likely stroke, O'Connor penned:
The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.
There is nothing like the regret that seizes you when the person you have failed to love adequately is swept from this earth. In the case of my dad's death, my regret came immediately. "Why didn't I go visit him before he died?" "Why didn't I call him more?" "Why didn't I push as hard as I could to have a relationship with him after my parents divorced?" Some of those questions are likely a normal response to a death. I was unfamiliar with death at that point. And losing a father, even one I had hardly known, was a blow.

After my mother died it was different. Perhaps God knew that, after the trauma of her last weeks, I couldn't deal with the regret/guilt nuclear meltdown. He gave me a total peace that even though she may have doubted my love for her while on this earth, now she knew better. Now she knew that I had loved her, I just wasn't able to do it in the language she understood.

But something has happened in the past 2.5 years since her death. I have gone from being the cold, heartless, arrogant son to the quirky, clueless, irritating mother. It is a harsh realization. I guess I had it coming.

Up until recently my experience with motherhood was dimensional, I guess. I was never a "good mother" type: the Supermom, complete with cape and freshly ground wheat berries and chore charts and precious Bible times with each child. I knew I could never be that kind of mom. But I could be the kind that talked about anything and was open about my own failures and had fun and majored on the important things and let the little stuff go.

Maybe it's a rite of passage, but I seem to have morphed into someone whose very presence on the planet is an irritation to my offspring. Whether it is from hormonal teenagers with their explosive emotions or young adults struggling with far more serious and sinister and heart wrenching issues, I have now been on the receiving end of eye rolls and sarcastic comments and stiff, stiff arms and, on occasion, the emotional (but not actually physical) big middle finger. I didn't think it would happen to me and if it did, I didn't think it would hurt so much.

On my worst days I feel that this is my due, that God is getting me back for how I treated my own mother and blamed her for every pain and weakness in my own life. On other days I know better... that God doesn't exact revenge in those ways. That my sins are removed as far as the East is from the West. Either way, I now see how easy it is to dish it out and yet so hard to take.

It really does beg me to ask the question: Was I really so arrogant to think that I could do a better job than my mother? I am humbled beyond recognition.

Like a small child with a broken toy, I bring my heart to Jesus. I bring my family to Jesus. "Fix it", I plead. "Fix it, please."

I'm thankful, so thankful, that he can redeem even my pathetic attempts at motherhood and turn them into something good.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

On Pickles and Pregnant People

A dear pregnant friend mentioned on Facebook today her experience of not eating enough breakfast only to find herself woozy from hunger. As per the usual in crises like these, she did what she had to do. She bought a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store and proceeded to dismantle and devour the bird in the parking lot. Who doesn't love stories of pregnant women and the desperate measures they take to satisfy their cravings and sustain their blossoming babies?

Now everybody knows the jokes about pregnant women and pickles. Whether cravings for pickles are truly more common among the pregnant among us, I don't know (but I can find out), but for the third of my four pregnancies I developed a hankering.

This hankering wasn't just for any old pickles but for a specific flavor of Vlasic pickles. Something along the lines of Super Zesty. I think this line even came with numbers rating the spiciness, with a 4 being the kind to keep your kid dancing the samba in utero for hours on end.

Somewhere along the way I hit upon these particular pickles at our local Wal-Mart. Thrilled to the bone that my taste buds would finally have a party, I bought two huge jars and trotted them home.

At that time we had 3 concrete steps that led up to our back door. I was tired and hugely pregnant (I was ALWAYS hugely pregnant, it seemed). My young daughters (then 4 and 2) were cranky and in need of the elusive nap. But I had pickles, glorious pickles. Two huge jars of pickles in plastic bags... I walked up the steps, the bags broke in unison (or maybe both jars were in one bag, I can't remember... I've blotted that part out), and the jars smashed to smithereens on the steps. I don't remember much else. What I do remember is sitting there. On the steps. Sobbing. Sobbing away as my daughters looked on, wide-eyed, while their mother imploded over pickles. Good pickles. Good, crunchy, ZESTY pickles.

The thought occurred to me to try and salvage the pickles, rinse them off, and enjoy them anyway. But the thought of slicing my insides with shards of pickle jar failed to appeal so I scooped up my ruined treasure and vowed to start over.

Alas, when I went back to Wal-Mart the next day the pickles were gone. No more. Nada. My dear friend Kris, who lived across the state in Greenville, heard my sob story and took pity of me. A few days later the UPS man showed up with a package and inside, bubble wrapped, were 2 jars of my beloved Vlasic Zesty Pickles. Apparently the UPS man in Greenville had a pregnant wife and fully understood the need for pickles to be sent across state as quickly as possible.

I don't think Vlasic makes those pickles any more. But if they do, I'm gonna buy me a case of them, regardless of my reproductive state.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Lots of Hooey

Earlier today I read an article on rules for parents of daughters. (You can read it here.) It consists of 25 rules to go by when raising girls. Most of the rules involve what you are to teach your daughters and most of them are pretty reasonable and have a smack of humor about them.

There is a decent amount of language and a bit of a feminist slant but, for the most part, these rules are pretty good. There are a number that I might have to tweak to my liking and two that I outright would have to disagree with. Rule #19 (Don't let your daughter marry young. Encourage her to get out and see the world, live on her own and figure out who she is and what she wants in a partner before she settles down.), I feel, is unnecessary but I will go into why in another post at another time. But the one that really gets my goat is Rule #25.

Rule #25 is as old as time itself and it is the same old lie that the serpent sold Eve. "Teach your daughter that her choices in life are limitless. She really can do anything - except maybe use the Men's Restroom." Now that is nothing but a bunch of hooey. I've heard this sort of dung my whole life and it is usually packaged up in really sappy sayings like "Whatever you believe, you can achieve" and the like. Get real, people. That's not life and I refuse, I say REFUSE to teach my children otherwise.

To tell your child that she is can do anything she wants, that her choices are limitless, is to sell her a lie and to set her up for frustration, failure, and heartache. Reinhold Neibuhr, in The Nature and Destiny of Man says "man is insecure, and ... he seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power.... He pretends he is not limited."

Tim Keller in Counterfeit Gods makes the point: "Human beings have very little real power over their lives. Ninety-five percent of what sets the course of their lives is completely outside their control. This includes the century and place they are born in, who their parents and family are, their childhood environment, physical stature, genetically hardwired talents, and most of the circumstances that they find themselves in. In short, all we are and have is given to us by God. We are not infinite Creators, but finite, dependent creatures."

The truth is we are not limitless. That doesn't mean that we are powerless. It just means that we operate within a framework. I would rather teach my children to pursue what they can control and what God has called them to do... (To do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. — Micah 6:8) than teach the "follow your dreams" sentimentality that sets them up to pursue man-made goals as the be all and end all to life. What a tremendous amount of pressure, to believe that having THAT is what will give you a fulfilling life and getting THAT is all up to you.

A good deal of the brouhaha out there is the concept that a girl can do anything. This just isn't true. A girl can't do ANYTHING. And neither can a boy. I am all for positive thinking (Phil. 4:8) and believing that God will give us the strength to do anything that he has called us to do (Phil 4:13). But I want the encouragement to move ahead, to love, to serve, to achieve, to succeed, to be built on the solid rock of truth and not on the dust devil of trumped up dreams.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


(First published on Facebook February 2, 2009)

OK. With Facebook has come the reconnection with oh, so many people from my past. I get these "what have you been doing the last 25 years?" questions. So here goes. I have written this in several installments so when you are done with this one, go to my notes and on to the next. And please, write up your life in a nutshell for those of us who haven't seen YOU in 25 or so years.

After high school I went to University of Tennesse and majored in nutrition, er actually dietetics. But I nevered liked that word because it sounded like I was learning to be a cook. And I wasn't, though perhaps should have. My kids might thank me now if I had. It was a career decision that made sense at the time and would probably make sense now if I had stayed with with (more on that later). But I capitalized on the knowledge that I had so obsessively obtained and was able to be financially independent the day I graduated from college.

My first job was at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville, NC. My primary responsibility was nutrition education for cardiac rehab patients and I really enjoyed it. I moved to Asheville in June 1986, not knowing a soul in town. Asheville was not exactly the hopping place it is today so when, on November 23, 1986, a young man handed me penny at church as part of a "get to know you" game...well, I got to know him, and pretty fast, too.

Small world that it is, his name was Matt Barker and he had spent his early years on Lookout Mountain while his father was a professor at Covenant College. He knew kids I went to high school with and we later determined we went to the same pediatric practice as kids. We instantly became buddies as he was the only person other I had ever met who watched the Weather Channel for fun.

Matt had a highly marketable degree in Sociology from Covenant College and was making his way in the world by running a computer graphics company with Nat Belz. Not exactly what my mother had in mind—he pulled in a whopping 4 figures a year, wore jeans and cross country t-shirts most every day, and drove a brown 1974 VW bus we affectionately (or not so) dubbed the rolling turd.

We became best buddies and when he moved to Atlanta to seek better employment (and perhaps that fifth figure), I followed suit. (No, we did not live together. I got my own apartment a stone's throw from the Weather Channel offices.) I got a job working for Attila the Hun at Georgia Baptist Hospital and lasted there a whopping 2 months before I couldn't take it anymore.

We dated on and off. On and we kissed, off and we didn't. We still talked every day and spent every evening together. We were kind of attached in a best buddies sort of way. By fall 1987 I got a job at the Presbyterian Church in America national headquarters as a secretary/receptionist and thinking I was ready to get married. Matt, on the other hand, wasn't so sure.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The One Year Mark

(Originally posted on Facebook May 15, 2010)

All day I have struggled for the words. I knew today would come and it would be a milestone and milestones are supposed to mean something. But I'm not sure what.

My mother was 85 when she was hospitalized on March 9, 2009 with atrial fibrillation. She was not terribly happy about the situation and really in no mood to die. The prospect held very little appeal. An attempt to correct the atrial fibrillation resulted in a perforated esophagus and near death. From there her condition played out like a long, sickening carnival ride. I will spare the details. I can say them but I don't know if I can spell them, those details.

I left home on Friday, May 15, for yet another trip to Chattanooga. Two days earlier her condition had worsened. She was retaining large, large quantities of fluid. She hadn't been able to swallow for 8.5 weeks. She was looking ahead to a long and seemingly impossible road in rehab. She had lost all strength. Her oxygen levels began to drop. And she decided that she had had enough. On Thursday she spoke with her doctor who encouraged her to be strong and not give up. Very confidently and by the grace of God she proclaimed, "I have been through hell. I am ready to go to heaven." Her doctor encouraged her not to make a decision about anything until he returned on Tuesday. She signed a Do Not Resuscitate order anyway.

So Friday I left to go down and spend the next few days with her, discussing the possibility of discontinuing treatment altogether and likely making a decision come the beginning of the week. From the moment I left home the day took on a surreal quality. As I drove through the Pigeon River Gorge I was taken aback by the beauty. The sky, barely visible between the mountains, was a deep, storm cloud blue. The vegetation was a brilliant, almost Kermit the Frog green. But it was the water. Every few yards was water cascading down the rocks. I have been driving the Pigeon River Gorge for 24 years and I had never before and have never since seen anything like it. It was as if God was giving me a small glimpse of the beauty that was in store for my mother.

About 30 minutes outside Chattanooga, near Cleveland, Tennessee, Bonnie (my sister) called and said, "You'd better hurry. She's dying." I told her she had to tell my mom that she could not die until I got there. As I walked into the hospital room my mother looked up at me and said, "OK. Now who else am I waiting for?" She had made her mind up, knew she was going and was ready to make the trip. Once everyone was there (minus my family, which was still in Asheville) she wanted her oxygen mask removed so that she could go. We fumbled around in a Three Stooges-esque sort of way until I finally took her orders and removed the mask, forever branding me, in a bizarrely humorous way, as the child who killed her mother.

Probably my favorite quality of my mother's, and certainly the one that I connected with the most, was her sense of humor. With the oxygen mask removed she began to labor in her breathing. But at one point she stopped laboring, opened her eyes, and asked, "Am I dead yet?" Bonnie's humorous and yet honest reply was, "I think we'd all look a whole lot better if you were."

It wasn't long, only a few hours. I had never seen anyone die before. None of us had. But it was quiet and peaceful and heartbreakingly beautiful to watch someone step from this life into the presence of God.

It has now been a year today. Her house is sold, the new owners moving in this weekend. Her estate is settled, for the most part. But in so many ways I find myself living that day over and over again, much the way I relived the births of my four children. I guess in some ways they are similar, birth and death.

They say it gets easier as time goes on, and I'm sure it does. But some days are just hard. Today was one of them.

I Never Thought We Were Hoarders.....

Our garage, to put it in real estate language is "no longer performing the function for which intended". If, indeed, the intention of a garage is to house an automobile. It currently functions as a woodworking shop, auto repair shop, home improvement store, office products warehouse, used furniture store, home gym, storage facility, and county landfill.

A quick inventory of the contents revealed:

  • 2 dressers
  • 1 chair
  • 1 Ikea tv/microwave cart
  • 1 car hood
  • 1 bunk bed frame
  • lots of wooden slats
  • empty bins
  • 60 1-gallon buckets of paint
  • 4 2-gallon buckets of paint
  • basket of rags
  • table saw
  • step ladder
  • weight bench
  • some sort of weight lifting gym thingy
  • prehistoric treadmill
  • dehumidifier
  • puppy food
  • kitty litter
  • 2 huge stereo speakers
  • 2 small stereo speakers
  • file cabinet with all but top drawer inaccessible due to aforementioned bed frame
  • American Girl horse
  • bin of American Girl dolls, some without limbs
  • wooden doll cradle painted a variety of colors
  • bin of wooden toys for grandchildren we may never have
  • 5 fans
  • 3 window flower boxes
  • window blinds that don't fit any of our windows
  • about 347 paint can openers
  • nasty paint rollers
  • roller pans
  • stack of nifty old license plates that never manage to get hung up
  • basket of old bike helmets
  • basket of baseball gloves/frisbees/deflated balls
  • stack of burned cd's
  • bird houses that have never been hung up
  • contraption for ACA Homecoming fair
  • bin of horse feed
  • bin of ceramic supplies, including bucket of special water (soda ash solution)
  • sheetrock mud, lots
  • various vacuum cleaner hose nozzles
  • 12 gallon Rigid wet/dry vac
  • 7+ suitcases of various dimensions (some nested in others...thus uncountable)
  • 3 bicycles, one missing front wheel
  • 2 coolers
  • piles of screws/nails
  • hairbrushes
  • bin of school supplies/loose leaf notebooks that nobody ever bothers so use because they always want new
  • granola bars of unknown age
  • container of ping pong balls
  • funky cabinet
  • stacks of plastic drawer storage things
  • notebook binding machine
  • bins of memorabilia for each family member
  • Matt's old portfolio
  • box upon box and bin upon bin of old business paperwork
  • bin of Christmas decorations
  • Christmas tree stand
  • stack of old floor tiles from former house
  • empty electronics boxes
  • 3 televisions of unknown function
  • 4 canvas folding chairs
  • 1 beach chair
  • badmitton net
  • large, partially deflated exercise ball
  • woodworking magazines
  • folded dog crate
  • old 60 count CD jukebox (non-functioning)
  • car jack
  • oil change bin
  • auto dolly
  • leaves
  • bike racks for car
  • mystery key
  • bin of camping supplies
  • router
  • sander
  • circular saw
  • 2 drills
  • tubes of caulk
  • uncountable small cans of paint/stain/putty
  • uncountable cans of spray paint
  • bottles of motor oil
  • bag of pink sheets with my grandmother's initials
  • lumbar support cushion

That's not all. I just got tired and cold and unable to identify much of the rest. That's a lot of STUFF. We sound like hoarders. But, aside from a bin or two and the contents of the file cabinet (real estate) NONE of it is my MY stuff. What's a girl to do? And don't even ask me about the shed...

Tribute to My Father

(This was originally posted on Facebook September 22, 2010.)

My dad would be 87 today. That seems so old. So much older than the 80 years that he lived before Pulmonary Fibrosis sucked the life out of him. I can't imagine what he would look like today. Had he lived.

The last time I saw my father was in 2000. He had had bypass surgery and almost died. My siblings and I flew down to see him, not knowing if he would make it. He did. For three more years. Alive but compromised, with his faithful oxygen tank following him around like a lost puppy. He said that Pulmonary Fibrosis is like breathing through a straw.

But that last time I saw him I was struck by something. As he was lying there, barely covered by a pathetic excuse of a sheet (there is little effort to maintain dignity in the ICU), I saw my legs on him. MY legs. MY feet. The shape. The way they flop to the sides when I am lying on my back. It was the first time in my then 37 years that I had ever really seen or felt a connection with my father. It was true. I was my father's daughter after all.

You see, I never really knew my father all that well. Sure, he lived with us for a good portion of my childhood but by the time I arrived he was 40 and worn down by work and life and had checked out emotionally from the father/child relationship. I hear that he wasn't always that way. My oldest sister says so.

My father was born Oscar Munroe Wilson, Jr. on September 22, 1923 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the only child of (you guessed it) Oscar Munroe Wilson and Virginia Cameron Lashley. He grew up in the ancestral town of Ashburnham, just up the road, becoming an Eagle Scout and the salutatorian of the Cushing Academy Class of 1941. He may have been a pioneer of sorts in the world of latchkey children as his father was a house painter but his mother worked as an RN at Massachusetts General Hospital during the week and drove the 50 miles home on the weekends. His boyhood diary, which I received after his death, hints of a rather lonely existence.

For whatever reason, his dream of attending West Point fell through. He, instead, enlisted in the Navy, studied aeronautical engineering at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (you know it as Auburn) and became a Navy pilot. He flew Wildcats and Hellcats in WWII, while stationed on Saipan, and heaven only knows what he experienced. True to form, he spoke very little of that life, not even to my mother or his second wife. Janie. My parents married in 1946 and he stayed in active duty with the Navy until 1954, certified to fly Lighter Than Air (blimps) as well as Heavier Than Air (airplanes). I think he did some really nifty, fun, secret things but, of course, I'll never know. He took that to the grave.

In 1954 he and my mother moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, her hometown. He went to work for my grandfather at his construction company and they proceeded to raise a family. Four kids in all. Somewhere along the line things went downhill. My grandfather died, the company sold, and my father got into a new career, teaching Dale Carnegie “How To Win Friends and Influence People” classes. He was home less and less and so it was no surprise when my mother pulled me and my sister Bonnie aside (Anne and John were in college) and told us that they were getting a divorce. It all seemed so matter of fact. I never saw him much any more. I was 14, after all, and didn't need a father anyway.

Over the next couple of weeks furniture started making its way from the house to the garage, preparing for his move. Then, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (the handy online calendar says it was November 22, 1977), as Bonnie and I drove in the driveway from school, I saw it. The garage was empty. He was gone. That image has haunted me for almost 33 years. Gone.

Now, he really wasn't gone. He was just gone from my life. I still saw him at Christmas time. He would take us out to eat. He would even call every few months. But it just wasn't the same. Even though I was scared of him my entire childhood. Even though I never knew how to have a conversation with him. Even though he preferred to discipline his rather lively lastborn with a harder hand than I preferred, there was still something comforting about him coming home at night. Even when it was only a few nights a month, like in the last year of the marriage.

It wasn't until I was in college that I started trying to initiate a relationship with him. And as I became an adult we seemed to be able to connect, even if just for a 5 minute conversation, as we found common interests. He was fascinated with family history and weather and he and Janie would even ride out hurricanes in the steel and concrete condo building on Pensacola Bay. And videotape them!

But his willingness to go deeper just wasn't there. I don't know what sort of inner demons he battled. I vascilated between frustration, anger and a realization that he just didn't have the emotional tools to truly connect with people, no matter how much he tried to teach others the tricks. In my more generous moments I would cut him some slack, thankful for the small snippets of time he would afford me. By the late 1990s he and Janie would pass through town once a year and sometimes even stay for four hours. That was the most time I had spent in his presence since the early 1970s. I longed for more but knew to accept what was handed me.

After his surgery and near death in 2000, my father never traveled very far again. He continued to teach his classes, oftentimes on oxygen. By the spring of 2003 he began to say something odd and totally out of character. He began asking, “When are you going to come see me?” Never, ever had he asked me such a thing. It struck me that maybe he thought he was dying. Part of me longed to see him. But part of me was angry. That someone who had shown so little interest in me for years, all of the sudden, wanted me to make the effort to come down and see him, when he had shown so little effort before.

For months I wrestled with the question of how and when. Matt had started his own business and was working 18 hours a day. I was trying to help support the family with real estate. The kids were young. And any interaction with my father generally was enough of an emotional belly flop that I didn't want to go alone.

In late October, 2003, my father mentioned that he had quit teaching. I knew that meant he was going to die. He would never quit teaching unless he was that bad off and not teaching would basically kill him. We made plans to go down to Pensacola. Matt had a press check scheduled for November 20 outside Tallahassee. We would take the kids out of school, go to the press check, and then drive over to Pensacola. I called my dad and shared the news. I was coming to see him. He was thrilled. Really.

On Saturday, November 16, Bonnie called me to say that she had not been able to get in touch with him for a few days. I started calling around and found that he was in one of the local hospitals. That evening Janie called my brother John to let him know that my father was in bad condition. I coached myself over the next few days with the idea that at least he knew I was coming to see him, even if he died, he would die knowing that.

On Tuesday evening, November 18, just hours before we were to leave for Florida, he died. He had told Janie that living was just too hard. She gave him permission to go. So he did.

Images of the empty garage flooded my heart and mind. Waves of regret washed over me. They say everybody grieves differently. I guess they do. But time does often heal and it has been good to get beyond his death and have perspective. I can now lay aside the emotional upheaval and seek to honor him as my father.

Fathers are tremendously important people. We, in our culture, believe the lie that fathers are expendable. Celebrities conceive babies or adopt babies with the explanation that “I don't need a man to complete me”. No, you may not need a man. But that baby needs a father. The statistics are overwhelming. And I can declare this truth from the bottom of my heart. You walk out on your child and it WILL affect them for the rest of their life.

I want to honor my father, but not in a dishonest way. He related to people the only way he knew how. And I think, by the end of his life, he had a lot of regrets. But he was a friendly man. A smart man. A competent man. He was willing to die for the freedom that we take for granted in this country. He did genuinely seem to care about people. He loved clam chowder with crumbled up crackers and martinis and iced tea. He drove only Cadillacs and loved sailing. He could whistle in that funny way you hear in old time, Perry Como-like songs. He chewed Doublemint and Wrigley's Spearmint and Dentyne. He nicknamed me “Gick.” And I miss him.

So Y'all Want Me To Write, Huh?

For years now some of you have been telling me to write. Write a blog. Write a book. All I can seem to cough up are status updates. When I sit down and stare at a featureless plane of white my mind goes blank. All those thoughts and words go AWOL, leaving with a blank stare and a slack jaw. Sigh.

I want to write. I really do. But I don't know WHAT to write. And I get caught up in the technicalities and afraid my punctuation will suck and my brighter friends will shun me as trailer trash and then I get interrupted and those of you my age know that once a thought is interrupted, all is lost. Adios! Arrivederci, baby!

But I DO want to write. I find words bubbling up out of me. Words I've been afraid to share before. Before. But not any more. This year has chewed me up and spit me out. Perhaps a bit like a tall pine (or more like a gnarly mutt tree) that has been chewed up and spit out and mixed in and passed through the roller. A piece of paper. Hungering for words.

So here is where I ask you, my friends. What do I write about? You, who have been saying 'Write! Write! You must write!” What do you want to hear?

Do you want to hear about this year? The year my ovaries sputtered, collapsed and died. The year my hopes of being a great or even good enough mother shattered into a million pieces. The year I lost any sense of ever, EVER “doing it right.” The year that God came to me in a of a heap of tears jigsaw puzzle pieces and poured his grace over my weary and war torn soul.

Do you want to hear about parenthood. The things I did right (a rather short list, to be sure)? And wrong? And the wonderful adventures that ensue when a clueless woman with no managerial skills whatsoever rapid fire pops out four babies and spends the next 20 years or so looking around for their mother only to discover that she is it?

Do you want stories of our bad cars? Old houses? Real estate adventures (as long as I wouldn't get sued)? Family pets and their cohorts (who knew hamsters procreated like THAT?)

Are you prepared for me to be earthy or perhaps brutally honest?

Do you want me to write a blog or just a note on Facebook.

Give me your input. Ask me questions. If I write it will you read it?

The Least of These

I guess most every neighborhood has at least one crazy person. In ours, it was Mrs. Barnes. She was our next door neighbor. From as long as I can remember she was this shriveled up wisp of a woman, shuffling through the neighborhood in her slip and housecoat.

Word on the street was that she didn't wear underwear. Her skin resembled beef jerky and the air around her smelled like garbage mixed with cigarette smoke. She hated kids. She hated everybody. But she loved dogs. She didn't have any dogs of her own but that wouldn't stop her. If your dog went missing you could find him in her back yard but it took negotiations on a level more common in labor relations or perhaps international intrigue to get poor Rocky or Toodles back.

For whatever reason, she was particularly attached to this one mutt named Tag. In order to call Tag to his (in her mind) rightful home she would open a mailbox, any mailbox, peer inside and proceed to yell his name INTO the mailbox in a sing songy voice. Whether she actually believed the poor pup was huddled behind today's bills or she was on to something with the effects of echo, we'll never know. But I can still hear her. “Ta-a-a-a-a-a-g” “Ta-a-a-a-a-a-g”.

Her other passion, besides dogs, was stuff. Lots of stuff. Particularly newspapers. Seeing how she was our next door neighbor, we shared a fence line with her. On the opposite side of our shrub disguised (thank goodness!) chain length fence would be piles and piles of STUFF. Yard waste. Garbage, Furniture. Just stuff piled in a fortress. Keeping out curious looks and holding at bay rainwater and averting said rainwater into our basement. Try explaining that to a homeowners claim.

In my younger years there were whispers that she was a “witch” but maturity brought everyone to the realization that she was, at best, eccentric, and quite possibly just plain crazy. She was a classic hoarder and known shoplifter. She gave the appearance of being a, at one point in her life, well-to-do woman having fallen upon hard times. The reality was that she was a millionaire.

Over time word trickled out that her name was Marie and she was born in France and had worked as a prostitute. Mr. Barnes (I never knew his first name and he died when I was young) was a soldier in France in WWI and had met her, fallen in love, and brought her back to the United States with him. His family owned a gravel company in Memphis, which he inherited.

The rundown brick rancher next door to us, where she spent the vast majority of her time, was actually her 4th home. Somehow she managed to keep up (or not) a house in Memphis, one in Florida, and a mansion on Lookout Mountain. For you Chattanoogans, it was at the top of the Georgia side where you turn left to go to Rock City. It was known to those on the mountain as the 'haunted house'.

I don't know exactly when things went wrong with her. But she was never really sane in my lifetime. One day a teller at the local bank realized that she hadn't been in in a few days. The authorities broke in to her house and found her. In bed. With a dead dog. Both had mange. She also had tuberculosis. Amid the stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines were checks for thousands of dollars.

She was taken to the hospital and cleaned up but didn't live much longer. Sure she had been mean and crazy. She yelled at us. Chased us away. Even threw dog poop at some on occasion. But what must her life have been like when she was young and, from all accounts, beautiful? What was her story? And what if I had reacted with compassion and not fear? Even she was the least of these.

Not a Resolution but a Prayer

Yesterday a friend asked me if I had made any New Year's resolutions. No, I haven't. Sure, as per the usual, I have a few books I plan to read but I consider those goals and not resolutions. I don't like the sound of "resolution". It's much too much of an "I resolve to do X" or "I resolve NOT to do Y" and I guess I have seen over the years how pathetic my own efforts have been in much of any endeavor. Maybe that's wrong. Maybe it means I'm a weenie. But it doesn't mean I don't want to change and to grow. The last thing I want is to find myself in January 2013 (given the Mayans weren't on to something....teehee) in the very place I am right now.

I am thankful that God promises not to leave us where we are. Over the course of this past year, this soul-stretching sashay through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I have been confronted again and again with a command I just can't seem to DO. I mean, I can do half of it. Romans 12:15 tells me to "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." I really don't have any problem with mourning with those who mourn. In fact, it comes quite naturally to me. God has blessed me through the years with enough pain and sadness to be able to empathize with pretty much anything that ails you. Nothing surprises me. No amount of heartache or sin will throw me off. I have been laid low. Flat. Steamroller flat. And I will be there with you when you are as one with the pavement.

But to rejoice with those who rejoice? Now that's a horse of a different color. I do find it possible in certain situations to do just this. I will always rejoice, as the angels do in heaven, when a sinner repents, turning from his ways to God, his Creator. I will always rejoice with babies. Y'all know THAT. What I find so darn impossible is the rejoicing with others where I haven't been able to rejoice in my own life. To rejoice in another's success when I have failed. To rejoice in another's plenty when I am in need. To rejoice in another's fulfilling relationships when I am plagued with loneliness. THAT is what is so hard for me. THAT is where I need to change. THAT is where I need God to change me.

I think this gets into 10th commandment territory. Perhaps it is that I can't rejoice with another while at the same time coveting the gift in the first place. Repentance. Sigh.

I know quite well that no amount of resolving on my part will change me. That is the job of my Creator. "It is He that has made us and not we ourselves". (Psalm 100:3) Only the Holy Spirit can enable me to do that which comes SO unnaturally to me.

I am realizing that my difficulty with this rejoicing bit really all comes from not trusting God. Not really believing that He has His own special purposes for my life. Purposes that may very well include withholding from my life the very gifts he is bestowing on someone else. Rejoicing with those who rejoice must be anchored in a complete and comprehensive trust in the sovereignty of God in my own life. Only if I trust, beyond anything else, that God loves me beyond comprehension and has every hair on my head numbered and is working all things for my good and his glory in light of all eternity, can I with a fullness of heart, rejoice with those who rejoice.

This is my prayer for 2012.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

He Wasn't Beautiful

I've always been the self-conscious type who worried about my looks and how others perceived me. I'm embarrassed to admit it but I guess, in effect, I'm (sigh) vain. Disconnecting myself from the lure of beauty has never been easy. I have a daughter who doesn't care about that kind of stuff. It's amazing and wonderful and considerably inexpensive.

I'm not the type to pursue beauty at all costs. That's not me. Plastic surgery and jewels and all that glitters is just not my thing. But that doesn't mean that I don't worry about how I look. It doesn't mean that I don't long to be beautiful. I just dream of long, flowing hair next to rosy cheeks and a darling, turned up nose and sparkling eyes capping off a trim and fit body all slid effortlessly into a flannel shirt, jeans and a pair of cowboy boots.

Aging hasn't helped this vanity. If anything, it has made things worse. Time marches on and crows leave their feet at my eyes. Hair morphs from a golden, honey brown to dead mouse gray. Teeth, once a pearly white, take on the appearance of corn kernels as they succumb to decades of coffee guzzling. The nose continues to grow and takes front stage. (Why...why...WHY is that?) Body parts sag and flap in the wind. Formerly stick-like arms do the bobble and weave and create their own weather currents when you brush your hair. Waists thicken. Thighs wobble.

We live in a culture that says that you should never lose that beauty. At one time I had a Facebook ad that offered to tell me the secret of how Katie Holmes looked so young. Dagnabbit! She LOOKS young because she IS young!

It would be nice to think that all of us age. All of us lose our physical beauty, if we ever had it, and move on to a life where compassion and humor and mercy and generosity are the things that count. It would be nice to think that we all move on to losing our youthfulness and being ok with it.

But we don't. And I'm not. I admit that when I see on Facebook photos of people I knew from high school and they don't look any older, part of me just dies inside. It happened again last night. There they were. The Beautiful People. Looking at me with big smiles and white teeth and not a wrinkle to be had. I staggered off to brush my teeth. My hair was stringy. My face was long and thin, the bulk of which had fallen to my waist. I looked tired. Haggard. Worn out from life. I went to bed crestfallen.

This morning my battered ego stumbled upon Isaiah 53: 2. "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." Vanity: busted! I had heard this verse over and over again and it had never occurred to me that he was not good looking. I mean, all those Jesus movies have him as a pretty decent looking guy. But he wasn't.

The Son of God. The very Image of His Being was not beautiful. If the Son of God was not beautiful then why should my own physical beauty be of concern to me?