In the early morning hours, before anyone else is up, while the cat is still stretching languidly in her chair, I begin my day. In this quiet early hour, I can hear the thud of the newspaper being thrown on the sidewalks, the coffeemaker finishing the last few drops and I hear the solid, steady tick of our clock on the mantle. This is my selfish hour. This is my cherished solitude. I must have it!! This is my time to drink coffee and absolutely, unequivocally “sit ugly.”
Sittin’ Ugly is a family tradition passed on by my 88-year-old Auntie Sue. Her mother did it, she does it and now I do it. I’m sure lots of other people on earth are doing it, but to do it correctly is an art. The skill of sittin’ ugly is learned and perfected through years of practice. There are rules of course, and above all, one must respect another’s right to sit ugly. There should be no judgment, the fact is, one just simply does…..sit ugly.
Everyone has their own way to sit ugly. But there are guidelines that I find very comforting and helpful to follow. Anyone that is new to the art will surely want to comply. The rules are as follows:
1. There must be coffee. Preferably freshly brewed with everything extra that you need, (cream, sugar, etc.) and of course the favorite mug. I’ve never known a tea drinker to sit ugly, but I suppose it could be done.
2. No talking!! No one speaks to you-you speak to no one. Sometimes it may be necessary to point or grunt especially if you have small children and they absolutely must encroach on your time. But, the only talking truly allowed is to yourself.
3. You must sit. My favorite spot is an oversized chair by the window. Above all else, you must pick a comfortable, familiar place to sit. It is always good to be able to put up your feet and have a little table nearby. Your sittin’ area should be away from anyone else who might be awake.
4. You may be asking yourself, now what? I have the coffee. I’m sitting quietly. Now what? The “what” to do part is really up to you. Sometimes I just sit and stare while sipping my coffee. Staring is perfectly allowable and even encouraged. I also read my daily devotionals and have long conversations with God. I contemplate my day and my life. I think. I don’t think and then I may stare some more, all the while continuing to drink my coffee. This part may go on for as long as necessary. One hour is perfect for me.
5. Lastly, about this “ugly” part. Sittin ugly simply means that you come as you are, straight from bed. No primping allowed! One must be ones’ self. Tattered nighty? That’s ok! Acne medicine dotted on your face? Beautiful! Scruffy old favorite robe and slippers? The older the better! Sittin’ ugly is actually a super-natural phenomenon that makes you more good-looking. The longer you have time to sit, the better you will look and feel. Try it and see!
Sittin’ ugly is my personal time. It is my favorite time of the day. Sometimes I can hardly wait to get up in the morning just to sit ugly. I am always at my best while sittin’ ugly, mainly because no one is speaking to me or me to them. What a joyous, peaceful time! What a perfect way to start your day, in fact for me, it is a necessity.
Some mornings my little Auntie will call me and ask, “Honey, are you sittin’ ugly or can you talk?” It is always good manners to ask first, in case one is not ready for conversation. Attempting dialogue before ready may result in hurt feelings, premature agreements, or regret, so approach your morning chitchats with caution.
My friend, here’s to “Sittin’ Ugly”, to having this special time each and every day and to the millions of us who find it necessary for the sustainment of sanity. And, here’s to my precious Auntie Sue and all the beautiful ones who “sit ugly”.
My little Auntie Sue passed away after her 90th birthday. She always had a kind word to say about everyone; she always looked for humor in every situation; she was always grateful and she always sat ugly…every morning and claimed it was the reason for her good health and good fortune. I miss her every day. RIP Auntie Sue!
Growing up I stared out my bedroom window at the broken remains of the Claude Drive-In that was built 1952 in memory of my grandfather Jake Claude Keller, Sr. who had died in 1951. Hurricane Audrey destroyed the theater in 1957. In the 1960s my siblings and I explored the drive-in’s rows of silent speaker poles and the concession stand debris (mostly broken glass, crumbling plaster, and splintered wood). I thought part of the screen was still standing, but that was just my imagination.
As an eight-year-old, I’d stare into the blackness and imagine watching a movie from my bedroom. The phantom sixteen by fifty foot screen’s flickering images didn’t need sound because the power of movies could always ignite my imagination. I’d make up the dialogue or I’d pretend I was watching a movie I’d seen so many times I knew the actors’ lines before they said them. The movie Cinema Paradiso reminds me of growing up in a small town where two movie theaters gave us most of our entertainment. I loved the scene of the whole Italian village watching movies outside after their cinema burned down. My mind’s eye saw the ghost of a drive-in just yards from my bedroom window.
In 1924 J.C. Keller, Sr. and his partner opened the first picture show in Eunice, Louisiana. Movie western stars Tom Mix and Lash LaRue* once spent the night in my grandparents’ home. I remember a large oval framed photo of the grandfather I never knew in my Uncle Jake’s office. Grandpa Keller wore a suit and his unsmiling, intimidating glare looked too much like my scary uncle for me to feel comfortable in that office.
Because Keller kids got in free, we saw movies multiple times and worked at the picture show as teenagers. Except for a fear of the usher/bouncer Big Jim that diminished as I got older, the Liberty Theater and Queen Cinema were places of acceptance and escape. Movies helped shape my personality and marked the milestones of my life.
Getting my first pair of glasses in 1965 meant I noticed the pattern on Annette Funicello’s one-piece bathing suit in Beach Blanket Bingo. After getting teased at school for my cerebral palsy, Mary Poppins taught me resilience and optimism. Hair-pulling fights with my two younger sisters balanced out with our shared love for Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas and our fascination with the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. When puberty confused me, Peter Sellers in The Party made me laugh at life’s unpredictability. Night of the LivingDead in 1968 convinced me that even the horror of getting my period was not as bad as a zombie apocalypse. The awkwardness and insecurities of high school seemed tolerable if I watched Barbra Streisand’sFunny Girl every day of its two-week theatrical run in Eunice. My love of Shakespeare and my attraction to stories of doomed love started with Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and gained strength with The Way We Were and Dr. Zhivago. In the 1970s, Sidney Poitier’s The Heat of the Night made me question the racism around me while M*A*S*H and Cabaret let me enjoy satire before I even understood their messages. Movies soothed, entertained, and educated me.
I’m thankful for the ability to stream so many movies now. I’ve learned to love documentaries and foreign films and independent gems. The size of my television does not diminish the light and shadow of Kosakovskiy’s Gunda or the creative directing/ editing of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. As I take in fast edits, slow tracking shots, and purposeful dialogue pauses, movies tell stories that give my life joy, even while I’m wiping away tears. I truly believe I am a better human being because of the movies I have known.
The Oscar nominations were announced February 8th, and March 27 will be one of my favorite nights of 2022! The Oscars have been “too white” and too xenophobic, BUT Parasite did sweep the awards in 2019, and Moonlight was the true best picture in 2016. I love all the hoopla and live jokes (both clever & stupid). I want to hear all acceptance speeches and enjoy all the classy, sassy, and ridiculous outfits the nominees wear. Like they sing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!”
Movies are as much a part of who I am as the Cajun food I crave and the LaTour and Keller cousins I love. So in 1963, I saw only the ghost of a drive-in movie screen down my winding gravel road, yet movie fantasies sustain me like the montage of Paul Newman smiles at the end of Cool Hand Luke.
My cousin Sammy remembers watching LaRue’s live performance at the Liberty when the star tore a hole in the movie screen with his whip!
She sat slumped over on the red-flowered couch in my office. Her hair, a dingy blonde with dark roots, was greasy and her face was stained with old make-up and fresh tears.
The police officer stood between us, his rough hands resting on his thick belt which held handcuffs, a radio, and the ever-present tazer.
“I found her behind the school, near the apartments. She had an illegal knife on her,” he said and laid it on my desk. “We can press charges.”
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I missed the bus,” she said.
As an Assistant Principal in a large high school, I could tell by looking that the knife was over the five- and one-half inch legal limit. The knife was an older-looking switchblade with dirt and a little rust on the handle. It had obviously been used before and needed a good sharpening.
“What’s your name?” I asked and turned my chair to face her.
“Pepper, is that your real name?”
“No. My friends call me Pepper; everyone else calls me Charlene Davis,” she said and sucked in a jagged breath before tears started to fall. “Please. Please. I had it in my purse. I wasn’t going to hurt anyone unless they tried to hurt me.”
“Thanks, Officer,” I said. “Let Charlene and I talk for a few minutes.”
“I’ll be right outside your door if you need me,” he said.
I brought up her student information on my computer and turned toward her, “So, Charlene, tell me your story. I see you don’t live at home.”
Charlene took another deep breath and straightened her tank top, which didn’t quite cover her voluptuous body. I asked her if she had a coat since it was cold outside. She shook her head no. Handing her the sweater draped behind my chair I said, “Start from the beginning.”
Forty minutes later I knew a lot about Charlene and a little about the knife. I have spent thirty-six years of my life in education, and I’ve heard stories from students that made me cry. Stories that haunted me and shook me to my core. But Charlene’s story broke my heart.
Charlene did not know her daddy, but her mother had known a lot of men who wanted to be called that. It seems her mom had run off three years ago and left her and her three siblings alone. CPS stepped in and separated the four sending the younger ones to one foster home, the brother to another, and Charlene to another. Charlene had run away from four foster homes since then and was now living in a state-owned, group home for teenage girls in Austin, several hours away from her brother and sisters. Not ideal by any means.
“It’s ok,” she said. “I’m leaving as soon as I graduate, and I’ll get my brother and sisters back. I’ll take care of them myself.”
“No more running away though, or the next stop will be juvie.”
“I know. This is my last chance,” she said.
“Graduation will be your ticket for a better life, Charlene. I’m proud of you for staying on track with your grades in spite of everything that has happened,” I said.
“I’ll be the first one in my family to graduate, Miss. I’m really smart, and I have a job at Mcdonald’s on the weekends. That’s where I met my boyfriend.”
“Do you mind if I call you Pepper?” I asked. And she smiled for the first time.
“Tell me about this boyfriend, Pepper.”
“His name is Ryder and I love him. He lives in those apartments by the McDonalds, and after work, I go over to see him. He gave me the knife.”
“No flowers or candy? But he gave you a knife? And what do you do when you go over to see him so late at night?”
“We do stuff. You know, we love each other.”
Before I could stop myself, I said, “Charlene, you know what causes babies, don’t you? I hope you’re using some form of protection.”
“Yea, mostly. We try, Miss. Anyway, usually, the bus is not running when I see him after work, so I have to walk home. He gave me the knife so I would be safe walking home from his apartment. He’s sweet that way. That’s why I need the knife back. He gave it to me.”
“Pepper, let me get this straight. You work the night shift at McDonalds, then you walk over to his apartment. You stay there for a few hours and then you walk yourself back to the home? Why doesn’t he take you home or walk with you?”
“He doesn’t have a car, Miss. That’s why he gave me the knife, so I can be safe walking home. He’ll be mad if I don’t have it.”
“Oh Pepper, you are worthy of being safe and being walked home by your boyfriend. This knife may cause you more trouble than you’re ready for. Like today. You know I have to take the knife.”
“I know, Miss. But I need it and I promise to hide it better when I come to school. It’s only four more months till graduation. Please? It’s scary walking home late at night.”
We talked a few more minutes and then I sent her to class, while I kept the knife.
Charlene flew way under the radar for the remainder of the semester. I would see her walking through the halls occasionally, and she would give me a half-smile or a shy wave, not wanting anyone to know we knew each other. But I wanted to hug her. Feed her a healthy meal. Keep her safe. Ask about that damn boyfriend.
Instead, one week before graduation, I called her into my office. I knew she only had one more final exam to take, and I would never see her again.
“Hi Miss,” she said as she knocked softly on my door.
“Pepper, you look gorgeous today!” I said as I noticed her fresh hair and new outfit. She was wearing a short, blue, flouncy skirt made out of layers of thin material. Her top was buttoned up the front and covered the waistband of the skirt, with room to spare. Then I saw what I thought was a slight bump beneath her blouse.
“The house mother gave me some money to buy a few new things before I graduate and have to move. I’m having a baby, Miss. See?” And she cupped her small round belly to show me.
“Ryder wants a boy.”
“Wow,” I said.
“I have something for you.” And I handed her a pink gift bag with ribbons and a small ‘Congratulations’ balloon. She smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen and asked, “Can I open it?”
“You sure can!!” I said.
She sat on my red-flowered couch and put the bag on her knees. She took the fluffed tissue paper out of the bag one by one and pressed them flat.
“I’m going to save this paper. It’s just like new.” She said.
I had individually wrapped each gift: a set of lip glosses, JLO body wash and spray, a new hairbrush, and a precious stuffed teddy bear with I Love You embroidered on the stomach. And at the very bottom of the bag was one last gift. “Don’t open that one until you get home, ok? I think you’ll remember it.” I said.
“Thank you, Miss. This is my only graduation gift. I love all of it and the baby will love the teddy bear!” She hugged me and I hugged her right back, neither one of us wanting to let go.
“I’m so proud of you, Charlene Davis. I knew you could do it.” I said, as she blushed and smiled a soft, beautiful smile. Wide-eyed, and a little teary she responded quietly, “That means a lot, Miss.”
We had a quick hug the night of graduation and I have not heard anything from her since.
As with Charlene and the knife, it’s not always the way it looks. Everyone has a story to tell if we will only take time to listen. It is an honor to hear someone’s truth and hold space for their thoughts and feelings, whether we agree or not. Our stories matter, we matter. And for Charlene, I wanted her to know she matters in this world.
When I walk at daybreak along empty streets, I feel comfortable while I nod greetings to yard dogs and window cats. One golden retriever rests behind a low fence and blinks his eyes at me without barking. My mind jumps around as I take in my surroundings and forget my worries.
I see a huge Siamese huddling beside a porch and say “Look at that gordito.” I notice the lime-green Hyundai that perfectly matches the paint on its house and say, “Cool coordination.” Other times I shake my head and voice concern about one of my grown children: “Should have planned better.” Or I admit a personal failure: “Sticking my nose in the beehive.” I believe that thoughts gain power when I vocalize them. A statement like “I am a writer” could become reality.
So I talk to myself as I take heel/toe steps on cracked sidewalks and look up to locate a lone sparrow chirping in a skeletal tree or sideways to spot dogs yapping behind wooden fence slats. I review a recent argument with Gary and mutter, “Why can’t you notice…?” Or I say, “Hey, You” when the opossum cat sees me as she heads to her gutter hideout. I may get profound when I consider an unusual cloud: “Looks like hope… or loneliness…or a penis.” Then a serious jogger to my right passes and I wonder if he heard me. Does he think I’m a drunk or an escapee from the retirement home? I can’t believe I’ve turned into someone talking out loud to herself!
I think back to Daddy walking down Second Street to his office two blocks from Grandma’s house. As I rocked on the front porch, I watched him talking to the air. He nodded and moved his right hand in short slicing motions to stress his main points. Maybe he was rehearsing something he’d say to a client or reminding himself to fix an unreliable toilet at home. Could he have been rehashing a conversation he’d like to rewind and redo? He often wore a grey or brown suit, but sometimes on a week-end he’d have on tennis shorts, a white undershirt, dark socks, and slide slippers. In either outfit I thought he looked ridiculous. Why did he need to say things out loud? He reminded me of Crazy Marie, an old woman who walked the downtown streets in her Sunday clothes and talked to herself. Marie walked fast and had a purse hanging from her wrist. She bobbed her head as she talked, sometimes making her wig crooked beneath her church hat.
I’ve told my three sons that “embarrassing your kids” is a parent’s duty, and I’ve done my best to carry out that parental obligation, learned from my mom and dad pros. Dad’s conversations with himself were one source of embarrassment. He didn’t care what passers-by thought when his one way conversations kept him engrossed in his own world. He had a lot on his mind, and walking and talking seem to go together like sighing and smiling.
I remember hearing Evan chatting away in his room when he was three, and I wondered who he was talking to. I peeked and saw he was alone and playing with his Beanie Babies. So it’s natural for kids to talk to toys and imaginary friends. Later they learn to converse mostly with other living beings. When is it acceptable to utter our thoughts to ourselves? Do we give our thoughts get stronger when said out loud? Are consultations with ourselves common enough for people to ignore?
Is becoming like my father – someone who often frustrated and embarrassed me- the natural order of things? I suppose I better have that discussion tomorrow morning around 7:27 with someone I know very well.
Fourth grade was not a flattering year for me. I had just survived 3rd grade and having my teeth be bigger than my body when this happened. I swear, no one bothered to tell me that those tight, plastic headbands were not complimentary to my face shape. Sometimes my grandma and I would ride the bus downtown to Woolworth’s Five and Dime, and she would let me pick out something for twenty-five cents. Perhaps that is why I had such a classic selection of headbands.
Grandma and I would walk up and down every aisle in Woolworths and after we made our purchases we would sit at the counter and eat lunch. Grandma always got a tuna fish sandwich with the ‘best cup of coffee in the world.’ I would get a grilled cheese sandwich and a root beer. Simple fare for simple folks. After we ate, I would spin myself around and around seated on that bar stool at the lunch counter, while Grandma enjoyed her last sip of coffee.
The red, button-up sweater from Sears that I loved was all kinds of wrong, yet I have the pictures as proof that I was determined to look my best. Glancing back, I clearly see my stylistic mistakes, but at the time I felt well put together.
Still, I had a delightful smile, don’t you think?
My 4th grade teacher was Mrs. Batson. Mrs. Batson was no-nonsense all day every day. She was a small but sturdy force, short in statue and long on obedience, and wore dark-colored, perfectly fitted suits with structured shoes. She was tough and I was afraid of her, except that I kind of knew she liked me. I was always the only one in my class who didn’t have a mother and because bad news travels fast, I must have been pegged as someone who needed a little more encouragement.
I knew this because even in her strictness, she would look at me and almost smile. Her eyes would tilt ever so slightly, and the corners of her frown would swing upward for only a second. I always wondered if anyone else saw it, but I think it was just for me. I mean, come on…. looking at this picture, Mrs. Batson was probably thinking, “Bless her heart!”
I learned during 4th grade that I had something called ‘buck teeth.’ And when I told my dad that Stanley Steinkruger called me that, he said, “Nancy Lynn, you just have an overbite. And someday you will have braces that will help you have the most beautiful teeth in the world. Don’t listen to the likes of Stanley Steinkruger.”
Bless my heart.
This 4th grade photo was not to be my last ‘less than stellar’ school picture. I had an overbite with a large space between the front two teeth, and a few more years of the plastic headbands. I even had another year of a red sweater in which I discovered turtlenecks are really not for me either.
When I arrived at Wolflin Elementary School in Amarillo, Texas, for my first day of 5th grade, I found out I had Mrs. Batson for my teacher again. How could this be true? But it was. Mrs. Batson moved up to teach 5th grade and I was in her class. 5th grade turned out to be a doozy of a grade for me. Somewhere between the first day of school and Thanksgiving, I woke up one day needing a B-cup bra and I was 5’5” tall. I tried all year to practice the art of slumping down, so as not to look so much taller than the boys.
One more sad little piece of information was that as a baby I had had ankles that turned in toward themselves and because of that, I wore orthopedic shoes, even into the 5th grade, like these black velveteen saddle oxfords.
Those shoes were heavy on my feet and so sturdy/clunky that as much as I tried to scuff or wear them out, they wouldn’t. Nothing could penetrate those toes of steal.
Just when I thought it could never get worse, the 5th grade girls had to see “the film” and as my luck would have it, this was also my year to become a ‘woman.’
Culminating my 5th grade school year, I was a full 5’6” tall. I also found out I needed glasses. My dad let me pick out my glasses which were brown sparkly glitter, cat-eye frames. I adored them and took special care to keep them in their case when they weren’t on my face.
Next, came the years with braces and tight-lipped smiles to hide them. It is what it is, y’all, and I have the pictures to prove it! The day we got out for Christmas break my 6th grade year, Stanley Steinkruger was deep in his throws of flirting with me. But bless his heart, he teased me by grabbing my glasses and using them to play catch with another boy. You can guess the end of the story. Broken glasses and hurt feelings. My father admonished my carelessness, and I was never friends with Stanley Steinkruger again. The good news was I finally got a pair of slip-on flats and was allowed to give up my orthopedic saddle oxfords.
My later elementary grade years left me with a few scars, as much of growing up usually does. Often, the ‘awkward’ years last longer than one would wish, and in the throes of adolescence, we do not see our own light. We let other people tell us who we are and hush the swan’s song inside of our ugly duckling.
But Hans Christian Andersen knew what was true for all of us when he wrote:
It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, for the most
The day after Christmas, Gary and Evan drove from Austin, Texas to Mariposa, California to visit Evan’s fiancee Tashea and to spend time in Gary’s mecca – Yosemite Valley – where he had rented heated tent cabins in Curry Village. Ever since he spent time there when he was eighteen, the park has beckoned Gary back, and he dreams of buying property near the park. To quote John Muir: “Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
Three days later, a woman from Yosemite National Park called me.
“Gary?” she said.
“No, I’m his wife. Is everything ok?”
“I’ve been trying with no luck to reach Gary. A big snow storm is hitting the park tonight, so we have to cancel his tent cabin rentals.”
“Oh no! For all three nights? Gary will be devastated.”
“We’re canceling on a day-by-day basis. Might just be one night.”
I sighed. “I so hope so. Are y’all ok now?”
And this compassionate stranger and I chatted about how wonderful Yosemite is and I shared my husband’s love affair with the park. “Gary’s 76 years old,” I said. “Yosemite is his favorite place on earth. He worked there when he was eighteen, and we’ve visited several times, taking our three sons when they were little and just this June with their significant others. Last night he got to the Yosemite Bug with our youngest son and his fiancee.”
“He should stay at the Bug,” she said. And she gave me the number for Gary to call when I reached him.
I used Messenger to give Evan the number, but because of spotty cell phone reception, he didn’t receive the news until they were on a bus with their luggage headed to the park. Two hours later Gary called.
“They cancelled our tents?! Where are they gonna put us up?”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “The woman said you should stay at the Bug.”
I heard him huffing and puffing. “I’m walking to the office now. Gotta go.”
That evening Evan called. “What did you tell the lady in Yosemite? All the workers acted like they knew Dad when we walked in. They’re letting us stay at a cottage in Curry Village tonight and giving us an employee’s discount!” Talking with a stranger about my family had brought us unforeseen kindness. We had connected over our love of Yosemite and she showed empathy for an old guy and his son.
I enjoy talking with strangers because I’m curious about their lives. Like the cashier who works weekends at the 7-Day Food Store down my street who stays upbeat even after an attempted holdup. Or the young teacher who first exchanged waves with me and now gives me vegetables from her garden.
We rightly tell young children, “Don’t talk to strangers,” to protect them from sickos. But as adults, shouldn’t we feel free to talk with strangers? To make a connection, to commiserate, to say, “I see you. You’re not invisible or insignificant.”
Stranger talk starts with weather comments. I don’t try dangerous topics like politics, religion, or pandemic advice. But I smiled behind my mask when a very short woman who walks her very fat dachshund wanted to show me pictures of her grandkids on her phone. We always wave now, and I feel less alone on chilly morning walks because most strangers and I have more similarities than differences. Our encounters feed the fresh-faced optimist inside me and send my pimply pessimist with chronic indigestion and facial tics to her room for an indefinite time-out until she’s rediscovered her sense of humor.
The pandemic has separated us in a list of necessary ways, but aren’t we all still struggling to get on with life the best we can? If I ask a stranger, “What’s your dog’s name?” or tell a waiter, “Cool tattoo,” am I not making a connection? Not in the generic, robotic, “Have a nice day,” way. Specificity counts. This past fall, a school crossing guard and I bonded over both being from Louisiana, so right before Christmas, I gave her some boudin from Lafayette. We exchanged holiday greetings and our names that day.
Some friends give me a hard time about talking to strangers. They roll their eyes and take a few steps back as they maybe mutter, “There she goes again.” But I want to be like the protagonist on my favorite TV series Better Things. Writer, actor, and director Pamela Adlon ’s protagonist Sam Fox shares time with a quiet man on a film set or she gets to know the mother of her daughter’s Mormon friend. Her honesty creates powerful moments in her show. I’d say that a key rule when talking with strangers is “understanding, not judging.”
Talking with strangers has given me memories I treasure:
*taking a selfie with a scruffy guy at 7 a.m. outside Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.
*getting a list of good places to eat in Montreal from a couple, nicknamed the Professor and Maryanne, who owned a tiny coffee shop and who got jazzed when I told them,”I’m Ginger!” So the three of us posed for a Gilligan’s Island tribute pic.
*meeting a groovy neighbor six years ago as we both walked our large dogs. She has become a close friend and the mother of my three amazing “practice grandchildren”!
Strangers have enriched my life, and even though every encounter is not hitting the jackpot, connecting with someone else may add serendipity to my life. I never know when a casual chat can lead to knowing three of the most wonderful children in the world!
The first Monday meeting with Mitchell, my young, handsome physical therapist, started off with a bang. “Have you been to the restroom yet? You know, pooped?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said quietly.
“It’s really important, so let’s keep taking what you’re taking and drink lots of water. The more you walk the better it will be.”
Ya’ll, I have a friend who swears her mother used to ask her, “Have you do-do’d today?” Every time she feigned she was too sick to go to school, her mother would point her finger right at her face and ask the dreaded question, “When is the last time you do-do’d?”
Mitchell and I walked a loop through my house, with me on my walker and Mitchell right behind me, holding a white, thick belt tied to my waist so he could keep me from falling. He evaluated my uneven gait and chanted, “Heel-toe, heel-toe.” We then went through a ‘lofty’ set of exercises, to be done three times a day. Next, he checked my incision and reminded me, “When the pain ball runs out, probably Friday, you’ll feel a slight surge in pain levels. Just want you to keep that in mind.”
I was starting to get really scared. Scared about the pain ball (how much will it hurt to take it out?) and what will happen to me if I don’t, you know? Pain and poo, two very big topics that dominated my thoughts day and night. But, because I am a doctor on Google, I read everything I could about both topics and I must say I found out it could go either way…good or bad. Good, like an easy-peasy potty time and absolutely no pain in removing the wire inside my leg. Or bad, like missing the toilet and landing on my butt and twisting my new knee, causing me to have corrective surgery.
Friday morning Mitchell arrived with a smile. “Let’s check your pain ball.”
“No need,” I said. “It’s empty.”
“Ok then. Let’s take it out.”
“Should I take a shot of whiskey? Or bite a bullet?” I joked.
He laughed and said, “I know, right?”
I laid on the edge of my bed, closed my eyes, and he peeled the surgical tape off my thigh to reveal the wire, which had been threaded down the front nerve of my leg. I was trying to mentally prepare for the pain, when he said, “It’s over.” And just like that I was freed from the pain ball and looking forward to a new surge of discomfort.
“Remember,” Mitchell said, “Stay ahead of the pain and go to the restroom. See you Monday.”
After Mitchell left, I drank one more glass of Metamucil on top of all the other laxatives, just for good measure. Sadly, I realized too late, that it had not been necessary. At five o’clock, my stomach started to rumble, tumble, roll, and grumble. For some reason, I felt the need to tell Boo, “Something’s happening.”
“Let the games begin!!” he laughed.
Five o’clock also marked the onset of the dreaded ‘surge of pain.’ I will spare you the gory details, but when I felt I’d better head toward the restroom, I immediately knew my speed on the walker, was not as it should be. Never in my life could I have planned that the pain and the poo would happen on the same day and same time and stay all weekend long. Boo, hollered from the den, “Do you need some help?”
Banging my walker into the door frame, I screamed back, “Leave Me Alone!”
Truthfully, I have only screamed once during this whole ordeal, and this was it.
“No problem,” he answered.
The infamous ‘surge in pain’ was like my knee was waking up a week later from the surgery. Shooting pain, dull aching pain, and stabbing pain settled in on my incision and the very back behind my knee. I took every pain pill allowed me and still prayed to fall asleep. The pain came in waves, like a rolling storm off the coast, battering and ramming my body until I thought I would break. The only rest from the pain was from the sudden urge to run to the restroom because I needed a level head to maneuver my way through the bathroom door with the awkward walker. I was a very hot mess!
Things could only get better after this extremely low point because, after all, this was just the first week of my recovery.
Monday morning, Mitchell said I looked a little pale, but applauded my efforts and we set up a new pain med plan.
“Let’s get rid of the walker and go to a cane,” he said.
“How about tomorrow? I need a few more hours,” I said.
That night I went to my closet and found the cane my grandpa actually carved for himself. It was the same cane my grandma used as well, and now I was the proud recipient. Who would have guessed it? The cane was a perfect simple shape and sanded smooth as silk. Grandpa had painted it a dark brown and shellacked it to a beautiful sheen. The grip was worn in places and as I stood to try it out, tears rolled down my face, imagining my grandparents’ touching this very same cane. I felt their spirit with me. This cane fit me just right and I felt safe and secure knowing my grandparents had in some way, been sent to take care of me.
I practiced that night and the next day it was trial by fire as I learned to walk with the cane. Does anyone remember Festus from Gunsmoke?
At the end of week two, I saw the physician’s assistant and she took off my bandage. I was predicting a Frankenstein scar, but it wasn’t quite that bad. Turns out my surgeon was a brilliant seamstress. One surprising thing about my knee now is that it feels hot at times from the swelling and has a slight pinkish color. They promised it will go away. But, part of my knee is numb, and that will not go away. As I was leaving, the P. A. said I could begin practicing driving. It was music to my ears, and I felt the breeze of freedom floating in my near future. Although it was another two weeks away, I had hope that I could recover and finally go somewhere by myself. No offense, Boo.
Soon Mitchell and I began to go for walks outside. On my 2nd walk, we ran straight into my neighborhood friend, which you may remember as my Walker Stalker. John wanted to know what had happened to me, where had I been, and “Who’s this?”
“This is Mitchell,” I said. “My physical therapist.”
But John never really registered what I said, until finally, he asked, “Now, who is this? Is this your grandson?”
We just smiled and said, “Well, I’ve gotta keep walking, John. See you soon.”
As time went on, I begged Boo to ride with me a half-mile down the road to our community mailboxes. “I don’t need to practice anymore,” I said, as I slightly hobbled to the car. But once to the car, I had to pick up my leg to actually get in. Bending my knee was torturous, in the beginning. I really didn’t realize how strenuous getting in and out of a car and driving one mile could be.
“I don’t think you’re quite ready,” Boo said as I came to a stop.
I knew he was right, but I also knew I was very close to my independence. “I’m on my way back, baby! Just wait and see!”
I finally graduated from Mitchell to outpatient physical therapy. My weeks of exercising, icing, resting, and walking have now turned into two months. My out-patient physical therapist is a seemingly sweet-looking, young woman named, Thea. Don’t let her smiling, girl-next-door exterior fool you, she’s no-nonsense and hell-on-wheels. But, thanks to her and Mitchell, I’m making great progress. At my 8-week check-up, my doctor was very pleased. “You’re one-third of the way healed. Keep up the good work.” He also told me it will take one full year to feel normal and strong, and I’m starting to believe him.
Everyday, there is a little less pain and stiffness, and everyday there is hope for better sleep. I’m walking, driving, sitting, standing. I’m off my addiction to Cheetos. I’ve gone on a trip, grocery shopped, and been to Costco twice. I’m still telling Boo, I may not be able to cook for another month or so, but he’s fine with that because it means fewer vegetables.
I’m grateful to have insurance and Medicare. I’m grateful to all my friends who loaned me the walker, icing machines, and tall potty chair. The friends who brought me food and visited when I was still in my wrinkled pajama pants and greasy hair, and I’m grateful to Boo who never left my side, even when he wanted to! Who has put up with my groaning and moaning and talking about myself until we are both sick of it.
Sometimes Boo is a saint.
Originally, I planned to have my other knee done in March, but as time goes on, I think it best to wait until July. We have a trip planned for the end of March and one in June. Feeling stronger and having a little fun will put me in the right frame of mind to do this all again. (I hope). And Boo will have a chance to rest up before his next nursing duty.
People continue to ask me, “Aren’t you so glad you had the surgery?”
“Not yet,” I answer, “But, I know I will be.” And that really is the truth. I know I will be, especially after the next surgery. As my grandma used to say, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.” I will be so, so glad I’ve had the opportunity to get my new pair of knees!”
My childhood Christmases were down a winding gravel road in a ranch style brick home with my two little sisters and one older brother. The tree was displayed in the big living room between the fireplace and a large picture window that revealed some farmer’s soy bean fields and the broken remnants of a drive-in movie theater. On Christmas mornings Dad took soundless home movies of us dancing in our p.j.s while we held up that year’s Santa loot – 1960’s classics like Creepy Crawlers, a Midge doll (Barbie’s cousin), and a Mouse Trap game. Momma sat on the sofa and sipped Community Coffee.
Christmas breakfast was served in the best kitchen I’ve ever known. One swinging door opened to the cooking half and the other door swung into the eating area. That kitchen meant strong coffee and boudin with biscuits in the mornings, substantial noon time dinners that had to include rice and gravy, and mid-afternoon coffee with cake or pie. Supper was often leftovers or po-boys from Momma’s Fried Chicken. In between meals the kitchen housed bouree card games and Daddy (Papa) entertaining others with tall tales and bawdy Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes.
Decades later after my grandma died, my parents moved into her two-story wooden home (built in late 1800’s). My husband, three sons, and I (plus my siblings and their families) celebrated all of our Christmases in their huge living room with a ten-foot tree crammed with ornaments and Momma’s gold colored paper-mache angel that stood in for the customary star. Momma arranged holiday decor in all the home’s rooms including fresh garland wound around the upstairs bannister.
My sons grew up with Christmas for sixteen people in that home, but in the 1960s and ‘70s, Grandma had Christmas Eve parties for sixty to eighty people: cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends who felt like family. Kids ran up and down the long, long hall between the crowded kitchen where grown-ups smoked cigarettes and spiked the egg-nog and the big living room where knee-deep stacks of presents took up most of the floor space. Kids waited for Big Jim (the picture show’s usher/bouncer) to climb the front porch steps and act as Santa for kids reluctant to get too close to the man who often told them, “Don’t make me take off my belt” when they got rowdy during a Saturday matinee.
For my kids, MaMa’s exuberance made Christmas mornings special. She would blast “Cajun Jingle Bells” to wake up the house, and she and Papa danced in the hall as their grandkids rushed to see what Santa had delivered. Even when the kids became cranky teens who worked hard to look unimpressed, Mama’s smile and her Christmas joy made all of us believe in holiday magic. The living room exploded with wrapping paper and boxes and pieces of plastic toys and opened candy containers.
However, by 2021 Mama and Papa have died and COVID has made travel difficult or unwise. So Christmas is smaller and less exciting. I’m relieved not to drive seven hours on I-Tense to Louisiana with its eighteen-wheelers and reckless drivers, who weave in and out of five lanes of traffic as if the cars did not hold babies and grandparents and pets.
And I don’t miss hauling presents in a van that barely had room for its occupants and luggage and special pillows and Beanie Babies. The year we gave Mama and Papa a Pottery Barn coat & hat rack, my youngest son wore no seatbelt and had to curl himself next to that five-foot tall present
We have lost some of that Christmas excitement we used to share back home in Cajun Country. We don’t see our huggin’ and kissin’ cousins or have Mama’s tight, tight hugs. And no Big Santa on the lawn to welcome us to Eunice. No boudin and coffee or Champagne’s stuffed pork roast (and Mama’s dynamite pork gravy to go with Christmas dinner) or LeJeune’s sausage or Maudry’s sweet dough pies.
However, a smaller, no travel holiday does have its benefits. More time with my three grown sons and their special ladies. We play board games and we watch some TV – football or streaming movies. And we sit and talk and laugh a lot.
I lack Mama’s extreme Christmas joy, and we don’t rush off to early mass, but I feel extra blessed. This year we toasted to Mama and Papa (and Kelly). We told Papa jokes and Mama stories and remembered what Eunice felt like – walking to the Queen Cinema or Nick’s Restaurant or the circle tennis courts (now renamed the R.A. Keller Courts).
Yet our tiny condo crams us all together in new, calmer ways. We still follow our favorite recipes: Grandma’s cornbread dressing, Mama’s green beans with potatoes and her sweet potato souffle, and turkey and sausage gumbo the day after Christmas. We remember to “Laissez les bons temps rouler” like Mama and Papa taught us to do.
Gary and I get to know our sons as adults. We share opinions about movies, music, sports, and even politics without wanting to slap someone. We enjoy spicy foods we grew up with and learn new ones. We laugh a lot and become closer to our sons and their lovely partners. Now Christmas with eight of us in a 900-square foot dwelling feels as right as biscuits and boudin in Grandma’s kitchen.
I come from sturdy stock. I’ve survived a lot from my childhood and growing up years. My threshold for pain is high, like natural childbirth high, but the last thirty-eight days have brought me to my knees.
My arthritic knees, a gift from my grandma, have been a source of pain and embarrassment since my thirties. I have repeatedly rubbed Aspercream, Voltaren cream, and Icy Hot on these bony knees I’ve had cortisone shots, rooster cone shots, and rotated ice with heat. I would slowly rise from chairs and avoid all stairs in favor of an elevator. Worrying about my knees has consumed a lot of my life for thirty-plus years.
On a vacation to Washington D.C. a few years ago, I clung to Boo’s arm as we made our way up the eighty-seven steps from the Reflection Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Rubbing my knees and reverently limping around while snapping photos, I told Boo, “There’s got to be an elevator somewhere. I don’t think I can make it back down.”
I looked all around and found a small sign that said Elevator. It was in the back, back corner of the monument. One lone person in a wheelchair was parked right in front of the elevator doors. “I’ve been waiting for the elevator to come back up for quite a while,” she said.
“I’m going to get my husband and grandson; will you hold the door?” I asked. And she gave me the thumbs up.
Rushing to find Boo and Sam, I called, “Come on guys, I located the elevator!”
Turning the corner, I saw the back of the lady in the wheelchair rolling into the elevator. With her was an assortment of people on crutches, walkers, and canes. I grabbed Boo and my grandson Sam, urging them to get in. All of a sudden Boo says, “Uhh, we’ll meet you at the bottom,” and they walked away. “Chicken!!!” I called after them.
I squeezed myself into the tiny steel trap, making the other riders move closer together. It took a good 5 minutes for the trembling, creaky doors to finally close and I pushed the dirty-looking number ‘one’ on the wall of the elevator. Casually, I glanced to see if there was a number to call if we were to get stuck, but it was too faded to read.
Another long minute later, the elevator jolted and then shuddered as it began to move. S l o w l y, the airless box moved downward, while the wafting July body heat and odor settled heavy on my skin. The smell of old, tarnished metal and flattened carpet that may never have been vacuumed, made me feel claustrophobic. My fellow riders exuded smells from Bengay cream, onions from lunch, and cigarette smoke. I felt a little throw-up in my mouth but managed to hold my breath for the remainder of the ride.
It felt like an eternity as we bumped and gyrated to a stop, waiting another eternity for the doors to open. Luckily I was the first one-off, cursing under my breath at Boo for leaving me and my knees for causing me this stress.
“What took you so long, Nannie?” my grandson asked when I jumped out.
“I’ll tell you later,” I said and took a gasp of fresh air.
So, when my doctor told me this October, “You can take shots and rub creams until you are one hundred years old, but nothing will ever heal your knees. You need knee replacement surgery if you want your life back.”
I cheerfully said, “Let’s do it!” I felt certain this would be my answer as I halfway listened to his explanation about the surgery. I must have blocked out the warnings about throbbing discomfort afterward and tortuous rehab exercises. I zeroed in on the statements, “You’ll be so glad you had the surgery. You’ll be better than brand new.”
On November 8th I arrived at the hospital at 4:45 a.m. and went directly into Pre-Op, where things started to move way too fast. When the anesthesiologist came in to do a nerve block, I started asking, “When do I get the happy juice?”
The nerve block is started at thigh level and a wire is threaded down a major nerve on the front of the leg. Then pain medicine is released through a ball of meds that completely blocks pain in the leg for one week. The nurses and doctors were so kind and thorough and when they told me to sit up in the operating room to get my spinal block, I remember asking, “I hope my doctor had a good breakfast.” That was the last I remember.
He smiled and patted my foot, “Keep the good attitude! You’ll need it.”
When I got to my room, I noticed something was attached to me. “What’s this?” I asked the nurse.
‘It’s your nerve block pain medicine. It’s stopping all of the pain right now. You’ll have it for one week and then it comes out. You’ll be so glad you have it. By the way, you have to take a stool softener and a laxative starting today. Pain medicine stops you up.” Still on my ‘happy juice’ high, I didn’t really soak in the reality of what she had just said.
Approximately ninety minutes later, the physical therapist came in and suggested we go for a walk. “Sure,” I said.
As I sat up the nurse helped me with my IV and the nerve block pain ball that I had to wear around my neck because it was attached to my leg. The pain ball was in its own little black bag, like a purse. I tried to move myself to the edge of the bed and discovered I had to use my hands to lift up my own leg to place it in position. The therapist put that stylish white cotton belt around my waist so I wouldn’t fall, and off we went down the hall for a 10-foot walk.
The whole twenty-four hours I spent in the hospital was full of walks and threats. “Be sure to drink your Miralax and take your stool softener.” “If you don’t pee, you’ll get a catheter.” “You have to eat.” There were pages of information given to me and more “Be sure to..” reminders and then poof, I was discharged and going home. Still a little loopy from pain medicine, I asked Boo, “Please stop and buy a bag of Cheetos. I need them.”
Boo gave me a sideways glance, knowing I forbid Cheetos in the house due to my addiction to those orange, crunchy sticks of deliciousness.
“Right now?” he asked.
The next day, the at-home physical therapist came by to begin my three times a week sessions. I wanted to make a good impression, but sadly my greasy hair, old sweatshirt, and baggy pajama bottoms were all I could muster. Oh, and did I say I was wearing a thigh-high pair of white compression hose? When I answered the door using the walker a friend had loaned me, I saw a handsome, thirty-something, young man with a beautiful smile.
“ Hi, I’m your physical therapist, Mitchell. Ready to get started?
Routines fool me into believing all is right with my world. When I follow my morning ritual, the day has the promised sweetness of a crisp, polished apple or a nectarine begging me to enjoy its juiciness. I get up with fresh brewed coffee and read, pray, think, and write while I “sit ugly.” Next, I go on a two-mile walk by myself and catch the sun winking at me through trees both bald and full. This by-myself walk lets ideas bounce around my brain while my feet do heel/toe steps, and I observe the natural world coexisting with the city. Birds perch in branches and on electrical power lines. Squirrels race through crunchy fallen leaves and greasy discarded food wrappers. The grass grows confidently in lush wooded areas and between uneven sidewalk cracks. Dogs’ barks mix with cars’ revving engines. And sweet flower fragrances swirl around the aroma of onions and potatoes frying on a stove.
I get tricked into believing life is balanced.
I carry pepper spray in my front pants pocket, and the thumb of my right hand rubs the gadget’s activation button at the same time I give familiar fellow walkers a head nod.
Wake. Pray. Sip. Think. Write. Walk alone. Observe. Think. Connect. Walk. Think some more.
I need my five to seven a.m. time to myself. And when Millie pants too loud or J.T. meows incessantly, I curse the interruptions. I want morning rituals to calm the fears that hide just below the surface of my even breaths and soulful stares outside my office window. My nasty thoughts, like zombies, push through the dirt of their graves. Their thin, bloodless hands come out first followed by rotting faces with hanging eyeballs and slack-jawed mouths. Uneven groans and weak cries accompany their struggle to enter the world of the living. Some horror flicks claim they want to eat our brains. Sounds right. They’re after my wise thoughts, my positive vibes, and my fragile faith. So to avoid the zombies, I head out the door and let nature clear my head.
I enjoy the predictable moments of my walk, and I give strangers complimentary nicknames. On the spooky street, I see “The Other Aunt Toni,” a tall slim woman in her eighties who lives alone and sweeps her front porch or takes in the garbage bin with her walker nearby. Her solid independence and short, stylish white hair remind me of my dad’s younger sister who just turned 93. Further down the street, I wave to “John Goodman’s Brother,” a large retired guy with a spunky dog. His smooth voice, long, full face, and cool demeanor (he was once a part of a local rock band) evoke the essence of the actor who graced both The Big Lebowskiand the Treme series. Sometimes I spot “Minari Grandma” – an energetic Asian woman in a large front yard with a wild-looking garden that she tends with a determined, don’t-mess-with-me-attitude. The flowers, vegetables, and ferns all vie for her attention as she tends to the wildness wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat and bringing to mind the untraditional grandma in the movie Minari. Seeing the same houses, yards, cats and people each morning gives me comfort. Predictability clears my head of predatory thoughts.
Until something makes me raise both eyebrows. A for-real dead opossum next to an overwhelmed garbage bin. A slumped over person sleeping in his parked car. A loose dog giving me the eye.
Then I’m sure the zombies are hiding around the corner of the next house. And my mind remembers that life’s surprises are not always good. And the whatifs get more convincing. What if that person in the car was not just asleep? Could he have overdosed? Should I go back and knock on the car window? Do I need to call 9-1-1?
But I keep walking and a large beige and orange window cat looks at me, and I realize the zombies are not in that yard. And I turn down a wider street with fewer cracked segments of sidewalk. I see Walking Lady coming my way, and I know we will smile, wave, and comment on the weather when we get closer to each other. Soon I’ll get back to my condo where Millie will be pacing and Gary is sipping his first cup of coffee and working a Sudoko. I’ll eat a banana and in twenty minutes Gary and I will take Millie for a long walk. We may take a route similar to my by-myself walk
We will share our day’s agendas and comment on the a hot news topic or mention the emotional and physical states of our three grown sons. And we’ll stay aware of Millie’s poops. More routines to follow.
And the balance I first felt with my first cup of coffee may not be as steady, but I do know I am very fortunate. I keep on believing the world is more like eating a just-right banana than stepping in dog shit. The zombies in my brain will stay below the earth for now because I have three wonderful sons living nearby. Each has someone he loves above all others. I have a stereo system from the 1970s with a turntable that only sometimes goes backwards. I’m making my grandma’s “Madame Queen Cornbread Dressing” today (and a shrimp and mushroom dressing for my youngest son) in preparation for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. And my momma’s version of turkey and sausage gumbo will be made on Friday.
So Turkey Day’s routines will happen, and I feel mostly sure “all shall be well” and if things veer off course (like someone brings extra-powerful magic cookies) and the hosts become incapacitated for awhile, that will be a family story to tell one day. All will still be mostly ok. Wabi-Sabi, y’all!