Years ago I met the kindest octogenarian in a park near my home. While I was walking my dog Jambo, this man stopped to say howdy and give Jambo plentiful ear rubs and head pats. His voice was soft and his smiles quick. He shared wisdom without judgement. (I later found out he was a retired judge). He and I met often and enjoyed quick chats about the weather and local news, but he seemed to most enjoy time with Jambo. He’d take a knee to get nose to nose with my dog and rub his ears and tell him what a good boy he was.
One morning I complained about Jambo getting out of the back yard AGAIN. Our mixed breed was an escape artist – squeezing between the fence and its gate, digging beneath the gate after a rain, and even twisting the gate’s chain link with his mouth to make a hole and head for open spaces. We were lucky that we always got Jambo home – even once going to the animal shelter to pick him up after the 4th of July fireworks.
Judge told me, “Oh Jambo must have needed a walkabout, that’s all.” And then my dog got a second helping of ear rubs.
Another time I said, “Jambo would be perfect if he didn’t need to sniff every tree, bush, and fallen branch we pass.”
“Oh, he just has a lot of pee-mail some days,” said Judge.
I laughed and said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Now that I’ve downsized to a smaller home and a larger dog, I believe the judge’s explanation was right-on! Our dog Millie smells tree trunks and fallen leaves with serious concentration before squatting to leave her own pee-mail. And she sniffs all angles of a fire hydrant, utility pole, or on-street mailbox. These manmade objects hold as much information as as a clump of dead grass does. Pee-mail comes in various lengths.
After I read Sigrid Nunez’s wonderful novel The Friend, which featured a remarkable Great Dane as a main character, I saw how dogs’ noses are their favorite way to interact with the world. Millie not only recognizes my scent from many yards away, but up close she smells what I had for breakfast AND what I had for supper three days before. A dog’s nose is at least 10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s, and it has about 225 million scent receptors compared to a human’s mere five million.
So Millie’s walks must include frequent stops so she can read all of her pee-mail. While she will stick her nose deep into a pile of leaves or sometimes a drain ditch, she does not always answer every pee-mail. After several seconds of aggressive sniffing, Millie may just walk on. Every third or forth “no response” is followed by a squat and release of her own pee-mail. I wonder if she smells something interesting (or perhaps confrontational) that requires leaving a reply. Is she “marking her territory” or telling a canine friend, “What’s up, dawg?! Long time no smell.” I’ve gotten used to the stop-and-sniff rhythm of dog-walking. I give Millie time to read all her pee-mail and to reply when necessary. I get concerned only when her sniffs become frantic as if she’s searching for a small bit of very old cheese or a broken piece of a chicken bone. Then I must pull her nose up and hurry away from something she considers delectable but I know is dangerous.
I could take lessons from Millie. She reads all her pee-mail but only answers the important correspondences. And none of her responses are too long. She says just enough before she’s on to the next piece of pee-mail. Also, if we approach a dog walking towards us, she ignores the smells on the ground and greets her potential friend with good eye contact and a quick bark. Then the two dogs can give each other the ultimate compliment – some serious butt sniffing.
As interesting as an electronic piece of mail may be, it’s no comparison to face-to-face conversation. I strengthen my human bonds when I share ideas, stories, and even worries with others in person. We may offer one another advice or laugh about life’s crazy twists and silly slip-ups that remind us that comedy connects us, especially when we share our embarrassing moments or weird observations. We don’t need to smell each other’s britches to understand the crazy all around us. I suppose we humans rely on our ears and eyes more than our noses. E-mail is ok, phone calls are better, and face-to-face/in-person is the best kind of connection.
“Did I tell you about Lucky getting to ride the ferry with us?”
I nod and smile before I let my dog Millie pull me toward our apartment. I did not need a second telling of my neighbor’s trip to Galveston with her dog. When I move beyond the “Looks like another scorcher” level of talk with acquaintances, I learn about their pets, their family, and their personal tastes. While casual conversations may connect me with good neighbors, they are not all equal. Some people lead interesting lives and know the importance of clever wording and good timing. They also realize that a chat is better when both parties contribute to the conversation.
Then there are those who share endless ho-hum info. about their pets, family, friends, and hobbies. They have not an iota of curiosity about my pets, family, friends, or interests. They are One-Way Talkers and they’d be at home in a Seinfeld episode. They are clueless to the apathy of their audiences. I do not need to know a short cut to the cheapest La Quinta in El Paso or a pet’s favorite place to take a poo, and I don’t have time for someone’s else’s grandparent’s weekly activity schedule at the nursing home.
OWT’s follow their own rules of engagement:
Give listeners a slew of details like what you had for lunch, what your cousin had, and what your great-uncle took home in a “doggy bag.”
Do not respond to fellow talkers’ own experiences about a similar experience. (If you explain your partner’s unfortunate bowel mishaps, ignore what the listener says about their cousin’s bad colonoscopy).
Never give listeners an opening for conversational feedback. Listeners need only nod their heads or throw out “Huh-uh.” They should keep ears open and mouths shut.
If a listener attempts a suggestion on how to deal with a dog’s allergy to polyester for example, interrupt him with a list of experts you have already consulted and describe your pet’s projectile vomiting tendencies.
My apartment complex has at least three OWTs and only one is worth listening to. Let’s call him Scheherazade. He’s in his 80’s and has been in the military, worked at our state’s biggest university, traveled all over our nation, and not always followed the rules. He went to New Orleans once to deliver a race horse and got involved in some Mardi Gras madness. His younger days involved bootlegging and sharecropping. He may repeat his tales, but he’ll add a twist or insert a new detail. And his stories include valuable life lessons. If one goes to New Orleans to carry out an illegal transaction, one should avoid going during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest. This type of OWT is as unique as a laid-back two-year-old who missed her nap.
So don’t think I’m cruel when I look out my window before I go to our mailboxes, and I don’t venture out if a certain OWT is nearby. And if I do get caught with this OWT, it’s ok to fib about having to hurry home because I have a Zoom meeting in two minutes. An OWT has followed me out to the parking lot when I said I had no time to talk and can continue telling me about Lucky’s upcoming grooming appointment even after I’ve gotten a half-block down the sidewalk. I may be mostly retired, but these days I don’t have the patience for OWTs ever since Scheherazade moved away to live nearer his grandkids.
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!
My great-aunt Lena, born Karolina Katharina in 1890, was one of nine children born to hard-working dirt farmers in Kansas. In her youth and early adulthood, she was demurely beautiful, with large brown eyes and long brown hair that went nearly to her waist . She was a humble soul and quiet by nature. She had the sweetest heart of anyone I have ever known.
The story goes that in her twenties she married a good-looking man from Chicago. They lived there, and Lena soon got a job as a seamstress at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. She made draperies, napkins, and tablecloths for the hotel when she began her life as a city girl. She was extremely talented and made all of her own clothes, coats, slips, robes, and nightgowns too. In fact, I only knew her to have two store bought dresses in her lifetime- one for my brother’s wedding and one for mine.
Aunt Lena had only been married a year or two when that handsome husband went out late one night for the proverbial ‘pack of cigarettes’ and never came back. Heartbroken and afraid of living in the city by herself, she packed up and moved to Amarillo, Texas to be near her sister, my grandma Martha Margaretha. It would be years before she would divorce that wayward husband, and somewhere inside, Aunt Lena made a vow to never fall in love again. She never did.
She rode the train from Chicago to Amarillo bringing with her a large, black steamer trunk packed full of her belongings. She also had a small, light brown suitcase with a darker brown stripe woven into the fabric that held her clothes. Everything she owned came with her on the train, except her faithful, black, push-peddle Singer sewing machine, which would arrive at a later date.
I remember well the small efficiency apartment she first lived in after arriving in Amarillo. Lena made do with her tiny apartment complete with a hot plate, and Murphy pull down bed. Complaining was not in her vocabulary, so Lena settled in, got a job, found the bus route, and waited patiently to move closer to her sister.
My daddy, J.C. Claughton, Jr., was a lot of things, but one of his best qualities was being faithful to visit his parents and Aunt Lena once or twice a week. He would drink coffee with them before work or stop by with some groceries on his way home from work. He was loving and faithful for all of their days.
My Grandma and Grandpa lived in a small duplex, apartment A. Side B finally became available, and Aunt Lena was given first choice. When she moved into apartment B, life truly began for Aunt Lena. Most of her eighty-eight years on this earth were spent in that little, stucco duplex on Hayden Street, twenty-five steps away from her bossy, older sister. Grandma and Grandpa had only one child, my dad, and Aunt Lena, never having children of her own, loved my dad something fierce. She adored him, and when my brother and I came along, she adored us as well.
Aunt Lena never said no to us, but she and grandma would go round and round when Lena would get tired of her bossiness and rules. If Grandma prepared a Sunday lunch, she would tell Lena what side dish to bring. If Grandma invited her friends over for Canasta, she would sometimes accuse Aunt Lena of cheating.
“I see you looking at my cards, Lena!” Grandma would announce.
“I don’t need to see your cards to win the game.” Lena returned.
“Well then, keep your eyes on your own cards.”
“Same goes for you.”
And this would go on until one of them either quit the game or Grandma would say lunch was ready. I’ve been witness to Aunt Lena throwing her cards on the table and stomping off.
“I’m going home. I don’t have to put up with your nonsense.” And she would walk the twenty-five steps home to duplex B.
Aunt Lena bought a television and Grandma had a phone line with an old black rotary phone, so they shared both the TV and the phone for the entirety of their duplex days. If Aunt Lena needed to use the phone she would have to ask Grandma, and if Grandma wanted to watch one of her ‘programs’, like Lawrence Welk, she would have to ask Aunt Lena. And I do recall Grandma paid for the newspaper, which Lena could read the next day when Grandma was finished. The two sisters negotiated their daily life decisions as sisters are prone to do.
Aunt Lena always let my brother and me have a Coca Cola at her house. (Those small 6 oz. Coke’s that came in a bottle.) Jimmy and I would be in her tiny little kitchen shaking up our coke bottles and spraying them into our mouths. Once, I recall a rather messy incident when one of us, probably my brother, shook his Coke but missed his mouth.
“Watch this,” he said. And he stuck his thumb in the coke bottle and began to shake it.
“I bet you can’t do this,” he taunted me.
And all of a sudden he missed his mouth spewing the sticky, brown liquid all over Aunt Lena’s kitchen-walls, curtains, ceiling, and floor. We stood frozen in time with our shoes stuck to the floor when Lena walked into the room. She never told on us, just helped us clean up and made us promise not to do it again.
Aunt Lena would patiently let me sit at her treadle sewing machine and sew straight lines on fabric until she taught me how to make skirts and aprons. I would have to sit up close so my feet could touch the foot pedal giving me the control. I would watch Aunt Lena take down her hair in the evenings and brush it, then braid it into one long plait down her back. In the mornings, she would unbraid, brush, then put her hair into a bun at the base of her neck. Always. No variations.
When my brother and I came by for a visit, we were supposed to go to Grandma’s house first. Grandma would get terribly jealous if we saw Aunt Lena before her. Aunt Lena would wave at us through her front window curtains as we bounded up the steps to the duplex and wait patiently until Grandma had her fill of us. This was another of Grandma’s rules: she wanted her grandkids all to herself at least for a little while. Aunt Lena never complained, but we knew it seemed unfair.
Aunt Lena was a sweet and pure soul. I never knew her to say an unkind word about anyone, not even when she was mad at Grandma. Her life was small in a lot of ways. She never drove a car, always depending on the bus, my dad or walking. On grocery day, she and Grandma would pull a little cart up the sidewalk, three blocks away to the Furr’s Grocery Store. And after their shopping, they would take turns pulling the loaded cart all the way home.
My Dad, till the day Aunt Lena died, would slip money into her checking account to supplement her small Social Security stipend. He wanted her to feel independent. She and grandma both, as they got older, would hand a blank, signed check to the grocery cashier and let her fill out the check and then they would show Daddy the receipt so he could balance their accounts.
Daddy was insistent that Grandma and Aunt Lena travel with us on our summer vacations-camping in Colorado. Although anxious about heights, Lena was a trooper and participated in everything. Once, we all rode the train from Silverton to Durango Colorado, and Aunt Lena refused to look out over the mountains, praying loudly and repeating, “Oh, the heights, the depths and the altitude! God help us all.”
Though Aunt Lena never spent money on herself, she was always generous to my dad, brother, and me. On our birthdays, she would choose a card from her box of all-occasion cards from Woolworths, and sign it: Love, Aunt Lena, slipping a crisp five-dollar bill inside.
As Aunt Lena got older, her fear and anxiety took over in ways my father could not understand. She refused to wear her dentures after going through the painful process of teeth removal. She refused to get hearing aids although she couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. And eventually, she refused to eat anything besides what she wanted: Coca Colas, peppermint candies and Tapioca pudding. And at eighty-eight, won’t we all have earned the right to eat, live and love exactly as we wish?
Dear, sweet, great Aunt Lena passed from this earth forty-four years ago. I have her black, steamer trunk still packed with her sewing shears and threads, lots of old photo albums from my dad and assorted miscellaneous items from my youth. When I pass by that old trunk, I think about a shy, young woman riding the train from Chicago to Amarillo. I think about her bravery to live life when many things seemed so scary. And I think about the way she loved us with unconditional love and devotion.
Even if our worlds are small, and the ones we love turn out not to love us back; even if we have bossy siblings and no children to care for us in our old age, we can still have kindness and choose to love those close to us. We can dare to be brave even when it hurts. We can be generous of spirit and share our worldly belongings, knowing there is always enough for everyone. Aunt Lena seemed to know all of this intuitively and perhaps that is why she was loved so dearly.
Before we downsized to life in a condo, we lived a half block from a Catholic university. The campus was the perfect size for my early morning dog walks with Millie. We got up and out before classes began and made a big loop around the school, enjoying sun rise and the shady green areas. We didn’t see many people, mostly the groundkeepers and a few eager freshmen, with a rare professor spotting.
I noticed that other neighborhood walkers would often return my head nod, smile, or wave after they had seen me a few times. Some were natural greeters and said hi the first time our paths crossed, but most needed to get used to Millie and me first.
As for the students, the return greetings for my outreach attempts were about fifty percent. Often the young people wore ear buds and looked sleep deprived as they passed us. I’d catch whiffs of soap, body spray, or pot as they ignored my half wave or “Morning.”
One September morning a gangly girl with jet black hair and rumpled shirt and jeans gave us an earnest, “Hey there.” I gave her a large smile and Millie wagged her tail.
“What a great dog! Can I pet her?”
“Sure! Her name’s Millie.”
The girl got down on one knee and gave my energetic dog two-handed pets and ear rubs with praise like “You a sweetie! Good girl, Millie!”
We chatted and she told me she was a freshman and terribly missed her dog back home. She did not mind that an excited Millie pushed her dark-rimmed glasses off her nose. The girl left us with a huge smile as she repositioned her backpack and headed to a campus coffee shop.
I never ran into this sweet souled girl again even though Millie and I both wished we had.
We got regular waves from almost every person driving a cart loaded with gardening tools, but never ever from a blonde woman who seemed to be a groundskeeper supervisor. She drove her cart with a no-nonsense demeanor and wore a crisp, clean khaki uniform. Her short, curly hair hid under a university cap, and her snug shirt stayed tucked in her pants with her plain black no-name sneakers completing her all work/no play look. Once she caught me letting Millie off leash to run through a small overgrown field on the edge of campus.
“Dogs on leash!” she snapped.
“Sorry,” I said as I used a dog treat to get Millie to head back to me. After that I let Millie off leash only on holidays and weekends when I wouldn’t run into Ms. Mary Sunshine.
In the early evenings we took Millie for another university stroll and came to know other dog owners. We shared stories about the campus, and none of us had ever seen the blonde groundskeeper smile. She was known for her frowns and dog fussing. So it wasn’t just me and Millie.
For awhile I tried to get more than a scowl from Mary Sunshine, but I soon gave up and avoided her as much as I could. Who wants to encounter someone who glares at your smiles, looks right through your waves, and acts deaf to your, “Good Mornings”? I told myself she was the campus curmudgeon who hated her job and other living individuals as well.
On a random weekday morning Millie and I were finishing our university loop when I noticed Mary Sunshine near a small gas pump encircled by a chainlink fence that the university cart-drivers used. She knelt and shook dry cat food into a small bowl. I could make out a sweet voice calling the cats to breakfast. I couldn’t hear her exact words, but the tone was high-pitched and welcoming. I slowed Millie’s walk and gave Mary Sunshine alone time with her three cats who curled in and around her feet as she kept up the tender sounds.
I had noticed cats there before when Millie pulled on her leash as we walked past the gas pump, but I would never have guessed who was filling those water and food bowls.
I did not try greeting the blonde woman even after I learned she had a tender side. But I did think of her differently. She reminded me to be less quick-to-judge others, even people with permanent frowns and angry eyes. To stop jumping to conclusions about those who dress, speak, walk, or look at the world a certain way. A Mary Sunshine will not necessarily deserve my sarcastic name-calling. Maybe we all have a hidden softness that’s reserved for secret times with a selected few.
In much the same way Aretha Franklin sings R E S P E C T, find out what it means to me, I often belt out my favorite tune, C O N T R O L.(what to do… I know quite well) I want everyone to do what I think is best for them, and I want things to go according to my plan.
I do know what the right thing to do is in most situations. I can predict positive outcomes and steer clear of pitfalls, and as a former Girl Scout, I always hold true to the motto, “Be Prepared.”
Those that love me say, “You have too many rules!” which is the polite way to say, lighten up! But I can help you be all you can be, achieve your potential and excel at anything your heart desires. I know my way will be the right way to make your life smooth and successful. I know what’s best, why won’t you listen to me?
My grown daughters have been the recipients of much of my unsolicited advice, even when I try to sneak it in the backdoor. In the past, I have offered to make out budgets, suggested career paths and long-term goals that could ‘help’ them be successful, and although my intention was to help, I know it felt intrusive. As of late, I am doing much better until recently while riding with my daughter in her car: “Oops, it looks like you’re almost out of gas.”
“You’re right. I’ll get some in the morning. I still have 56 miles.”
“I’d hate for you to run out while you’re on MoPac.”
“I always like to be safe and have a full tank.”
“If you find a filling station, I’d be glad to pay for your gas.”
“Thanks, Mom, I’ll take care of it.”
I knew I should have stopped myself, but still I kept on. I know that a grown woman with a college degree, full-time job, and living on her own can handle filling up the gas tank of a car she owns! But still….what if?
Whenever I start to say, “Have you thought about…?” or suggest a plan of action, I am met with “Yes, Mom. I know.” Which is code for: mind your own business. It has occurred to me lately that I might not know what everyone else should do. Maybe they do know what is best for themselves. Maybe I’m not Assistant Manager of the Universe.
When I am so fixed on what everyone else is doing, I often neglect my own life. When I’m stressing out over someone else’s choices, I wake up at 3:00 a.m. and lay there worrying. What good does it really do? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Everyone else happily goes about their way and I am tired and worn out from useless fretting. There’s a certain amount of insanity in doing the same thing over and over again, hoping to get a different result. I can worry all I want to, but it will not change anything.
Is my worrying and trying to control things giving the wrong message? Am I telling those I love that I don’t think they are capable of taking care of themselves or worse, am I telling God that I know best?
In my old age, I am finally learning to just let life happen. There have been times when I have been fearful and uncomfortable about letting those I love make choices I don’t think are wise. This anxiety and finagling the situation to follow my plan has sometimes worked out for the worse, and often when I spend too much time catastrophizing about a possible problem in the future, it never happens. I’m Not Assistant Manager of the Universe, nor am I psychic.
Once, one of our girls told Boo and me about a trip she was planning to Mexico. Before she even finished, Boo said, “Are you going to use your sick days for this? You really should save your sick days. You might need them.” Of course, to follow up I asked, “Do you have a passport? You know you have to have a passport to go to Mexico.” Friends, this was a forty- something-year-old daughter who works a full-time job with benefits, pays her bills on time, owns her own car and has children. I’m pretty sure she knows how to navigate her sick days and understands that you have to have a passport to leave the country. But still…what if?
I’m Not Assistant Manager of the Universe.
Trying to be in control of my life and everybody else’s is a huge job, and while I might try to do it, this attitude damages relationships and ruins my health. When I let go of the illusion that I have power over what other people think, do, feel, and say, I live in a more peaceful place. When I step back and allow others to be in charge of their own lives, I am showing them love and respect, the kind Aretha sang about.
As hard as it is to let go, I must. I must do it for myself and for the ones I love the most. I don’t want my tombstone to read, “She’s Finally Minding Her Own Business.” I want it to have a sentiment that portrays the love I gave and received. I want my family to genuinely be sad to see me go, not glad.
And so, I get up every day, striving to follow the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I start fresh to let go and allow others to take care of themselves, giving them the R E S P E C T, they deserve.
I don’t think God has a “Help Needed” sign hanging on the pearly gates, and if I am truthful, I will admit it is hard enough to control my own life, much less someone else’s. After all, the birds sing and flowers grow without any help from me. The world turns and the sun shines without my suggestions and my grown daughters are capable, caring, and wise. Just for today, I will let go and trust that God is totally in control, and gratefully, I Am Not Assistant Manager of the Universe.
Photographs are my own. Flower pictures are from Wildseed Farm near Fredericksburg, Texas.
The first time it happened, I was not prepared. The sun was shining, and I had a spring in my step as I headed outside for my walk. Two blocks down I heard, “Oh, howdy neighbor,” as I ran smack dab into John.
On our first meeting I learned John was a retired college professor, married to a woman whose mother was ill, the mother lived in Poland, and he knew three languages.
He was going home after his walk but decided to walk with me for a while, just to chat.
“Won’t you be going the wrong way?” I smiled.
“Oh, I don’t mind, I’ll walk with you at least to the next street. What did you say your name was?”
“Nancy,” I said. “I live on the corner, there.”
“I know,” he said, and we walked together to the next street.
John, bless his heart, is in his late seventies. He uses a cane to support his stooped frame but is surprisingly agile as he sprints across the street to see me. Most days he has on a faded baseball cap, PBS t-shirt, and plaid pajama pants with tennis shoes. He sports a dashing mustache and has twinkling blue eyes that light up when he smiles, and he’s always smiling.
Because John often needs to stop and catch his breath, I slow down and just wait while he rests and entertains me with his steady stream of stories from the past.
Lest you think I am sweet for listening, I have been known to look out my front door and scan the streets before starting to walk. I selfishly want to be alone with my thoughts or Spotify favorites, and walk at a faster pace. But, on many occasions when I thought the coast was clear, he will come out of nowhere and POOF, I’ll hear him calling my name.
Once I left the house, calling to Boo, “I’m going to get the mail. Be right back.”
It takes me fifteen minutes to walk up the street and back to our community mailboxes. Forty-five minutes later when I returned; Boo was standing in the kitchen,
“He’s a walker stalker!” Boo laughed.
John will start talking fifty feet before he gets to me, and ever the gentleman he says, “I see you’re going for your walk. Do you mind if I join you?”
Another time I lied, “Sorry, John, I’m trying to get a short walk in before I have to go to a doctor’s appointment.”
But he said, “Me too, which doctor are you going to? I’ll just walk with you to the next street.”
John asks me questions about myself, too. He now knows my husband’s name, how long I worked in education, how many children we have and how long we’ve lived in our house.
Boo was mowing the front yard one day, when I suddenly heard the mower stop. I figured he was emptying the clippings, but when the mower never started back up, I opened the door to check. One foot out the door and I saw John, leaning on his cane, chatting up a storm with Boo. I quickly and quietly shut the door and hid. Some time later the mower sputtered back up and soon Boo came in calling, “John says hello. Did you know he was a college professor?”
Last year with the Pandemic and all, John would always stay a respectable distance while we walked, asking if I was comfortable about the six-foot rule. But now I know John is vaccinated, his wife is visiting her mother, he married late in life at fifty-three, he has sciatica and he had lunch with two friends yesterday. Things are getting back to normal.
When I’m walking with John, he smiles and greets everyone on our path. He knows most of them by name and can tell me something interesting about each one. He’s amazing. His seventy-plus-year-old mind is as sharp as ever. When I stop to think about it, John has been the highlight of my shelter in place, stay at home days. He’s upbeat, never feels sorry for himself, and although he has to stop now and again to rest, he’s out there doing his thing.
As much as I selfishly want to walk faster some days, I know there will come a time when I miss seeing John and hearing about his life. Perhaps divine providence brought me John to slow me down and refine my patience. He certainly has brought me company along my walks and a smile on those lonely COVID days. It’s hard to believe that someday I may be out walking the neighborhood, looking for friendship and a listening ear. I hope you’ll slow down and walk with me, at least to the next street.
I returned home Sunday, from a three-day girl’s weekend. The four of us have been friends for many years and really treasure our time together to talk, laugh, eat good food and maybe drink a little wine. As is my custom I usually call or text Boo when I am on my way home. “Time to kick out the dancing girls and stack up the beer cans!” I joke.
But, when I walked into the house on Sunday, I was immediately hit with the smell of Fabuloso (think Pine Sol with a big dose of lavender) and charred red meat.
“Wow Babe, did you clean while I was gone?” I asked.
“Oh, you know…I like to have everything looking good for my baby when she gets home.”
Lest you think I am an ingrate; I know his little secrets. Fifteen minutes before I walk in the door, he will Swiffer the entry hall, swish Fabuloso in the hall bathroom commode, open the blinds, fold the accent blanket on the couch and for a bonus effect he will start the dishwasher or a load of towels. This is his “cleaning” routine for his ‘baby’. It smells Fabuloso, but don’t look too closo.
“Did you girls have a good time?”
“Always! We talked and laughed the whole time and made a charcuterie board with fresh shrimp on the side.
“What kind of board?”
“Cheese, crackers, olives..just snacky stuff,” I said.
“Enough about me, what did you eat while I was gone? Something meaty?”
“Just the usual. Meat Lovers Pizza Friday night then Saturday, I cooked Baby back ribs on the grill, sausage links, and a New York Strip. I made salad and a fresh blueberry pie.”
“Oh, and I opened a can of green beans.” (opened is the operative word.)
Boo’s idea of salad is either iceberg lettuce with croutons and lots of dressing or it is Suddenly Salad, which is not really salad. Suddenly Salad is a macaroni, mayonnaise and secret packet concoction that has preservatives listed as the number one ingredient.
“Wow!” I said.
“I know,” he said with pride.
While I’m gone, I know he eats pretzels and M&M’s in bed and sleeps all night with the T.V. on, which is the opposite of the dark, quiet room I like.
I know he lets the cat sleep with him, in fact she acts indignant when I get home. She tries to get in on my side of the bed before I can and puts her little head on my pillow.
I know that days before I go out of town, he is making a secret grocery list with all the essentials: meat, meat, and more meat.
I know he made a pie, but I also know there’s a new package of Twizzlers, Caramel de Lites Girl Scout cookies, and Tootsie Rolls open in the pantry.
He watches the news and sports and an action movie on Netflix all at the same time, clicking back and forth. Denzel Washington is probably killing someone or blowing something up in between Wolf Blitzer or Sean Hannity and all the while corn is popping in the microwave, with real melted butter.
Boo goes all out for his staycations. I don’t begrudge him any of his fun and relaxation because he always lets me go and do whatever I want. He encourages me to see my friends and he genuinely wants me to be happy, and if he happens to have a weekend to himself then it’s a win-win. I applaud his self-sufficiency and creativity.
Boo is a self-actualized man who knows how to take care of himself. I would never have to leave him casseroles in the freezer for fear he would starve, and while we don’t always see eye-to-eye on nutrition or cleanliness, he’s capable and likes to think out of the box. He’s the yin to my yang, the Snoop Dogg to my Martha Stewart.
I know Boo really likes his time alone at home, just to chill and do his thing and I’m glad it’s not with the dancing girls and cold beer! So, if a few ribs, a little candy and 24/7 TV makes him happy who am I to spoil his fun?
My husband Gary wakes up with a head full of Gary. Like a toddler or teenager, he has perfected the art of self-absorption.
In the 1990s when our three sons were young and Gary and I both taught full-time, I woke up early to make little lunches and plot the day’s obligations: get the boys to two different schools before getting to my own school and teaching five sections of seventh grade language arts; remind Shane he had jazz band practice after school, Casey he had computer class at Boys and Girls Club, and Evan to do homework at his elementary’s Extend-a-Care program; stop by HEB for supper ingredients and swing by Terra Toys for a birthday party gift on Saturday before I picked up my sons.
All day the kid details fought for control of my brain with lesson plans about teaching the difference between “your and you’re” or nuances of dramatic irony in Roald Dahl”s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Gary’s brain lived a different existence. It woke up an hour and a half later than mine, and after his mandatory two cups of coffee, it was awake enough to carefully fry three neat strips of bacon for his own breakfast. He did help with the dropping off and picking up of children if I wrote him detailed notes and reminded him during his lunch break and ten minutes after his school’s final bell.
As our boys grew up and needed more rides to more places, Gary became a trusted driver as long as my directions were specific and did not impose on his weekend jogs and his Thursday “pint night” at the Dog and Duck Pub.
Now our boys are men and living their own lives. Gary and I have been navigating the pandemic and aging as best we can. We walk our dog each morning as a team – he’s on lookout duty for other dogs on leashes and for free-range cats. He also scans the sidewalks and grassy areas for discarded scraps of food or other potential dog distractions. Millie pulls on her leash as I follow, and Gary calls out helpful warnings like “Big brown dog at twelve o’clock” or “Broken beer bottle on my right.” Sometimes, however, his head fills up with his own thoughts, and he misses telling me about a stray fried chicken bone or a big turd dropped in the middle of the sidewalk. We have brief spats and he may say, “Don’t you have two good eyes as well?”
Gary has admitted to not being a noticer. And he’s not talkative when he gets in his “me zone.” Also, now that he’s lost hearing in his right ear, I take no offense when he sometimes does not respond to my insightful comments during our dog walks. Did I remember to direct my voice to his left side? Or is his mind too preoccupied with more important things like his latest film script or the current Amazon rental sales of the horror/comedy movie he wrote and self-produced in 2013: Virgin Cheerleaders in Chains?
Gary is a natural at self-promotion. He raised thousands of dollars on Indiegogo to realize his dream of being a film producer! He will tell our condo neighbors or grocery cashiers or anyone who comments on his Virgin Cheerleaders inChains t-shirt, “I wrote and produced this movie! Available on Amazon! Very meta; not a porno!” I envy his confidence and bravery.
Am I any less self-obsessed with writing blog essays and linking them to my FB and Twitter accounts? What is the line between “Look at me!” and “Give me your money”?
Most mornings my head fills up with thoughts of my family and friends. I worry about their health, their happiness, and what I can do to help them with either one.
I blame my momma. She took care of my dad, my brother, my sisters, and me like the strong Cajun force she was. She cooked and cleaned nonstop and insisted we spend all our time with her because she did not want to miss a bouree card game, a trip to the drive-through Daiquiri Shack, or hanging out on the front porch. At the end of our holiday visits, she hated telling us good-bye.
“Oh, oh, I don’t want y’all to go,” she’d say and give me the biggest hugs her 5’2” ninety-nine pound frame could produce. She’d lock her arms around my waist and give me three short but intense hugs. “Humph! Humph! Humph!” My body would tense waiting for those squeezes of love. She cared and worried about those she loved. However, she also realized that not everyone needed looking after.
Every Christmas holiday, Gary spent a night in Baton Rouge with his best friend Richard. One time I was concerned about saving enough turkey gumbo for my husband when he returned to Eunice. Momma focused her bright blue eyes at me and said, “Don’t you worry about Gary. Gary will always take care of Gary.”
My momma knew some big truths!
My husband may think about himself a lot. He may need a little guidance with remembering others’ needs sometimes. But self-reliance is a very positive attribute. Emerson said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” As I follow Gary on our dog walks, and he clasps his hands loosely behind his back and strolls a half block ahead and he tilts his head to look at tree branches dancing in the wind, I will recognize a man comfortable with himself and at peace with his own thoughts.
Most Sundays after Church, before the Pandemic, we would go to Luby’s, a Texas traditional cafeteria. And almost every Sunday I would marvel at the colors and textures on Boo’s plate.
Strangely, chicken fried steak, cream gravy, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and a roll are all in the same color family…beige. Of course, okra is green, but the outside is fried and therefore a brownish beige color, too. There is no pop of color, nothing with a stalk and no variety unless macaroni and cheese or corn is swapped for the usuals. But, the colors are the same: beige, brown and blah.
I used to lament about his choices, calling him out for choosing nothing green. I’ve lectured on the health benefits of vegetables and I have prepared every root, tuber, flower, bulb, seed, leaf and stem known to man. “You need your greens!” I preach.
“Granny used to cut up my vegetables so fine she could hide them in my mashed potatoes and gravy,” he said.
Laughing, Boo said, “No, not really! Granny never made me eat vegetables. She loved me.”
Some culinary experiments go over better than others. Cauliflower rice, broccoli slaw, and butternut squash was a big thumbs down. Creamed spinach, creamed corn or green bean casserole was a thumbs up. If I ask which vegetable he wants with dinner, it’s always the same answer, “Just open a can of green beans.” At dinner, he will proudly count out 4-6 green beans and smile, “See? I like green vegetables.”
“Remember last time we went to Costco, and I insisted we get the twelve can box of green beans? I’m practically veterinarian,” he said.
“Boo, it’s vegetarian, and no you’re not,” I countered.
“Don’t be snippy,” he said and added, “I like broccoli rice casserole. It’s chocked full of broccoli and healthy stuff.”
Of course he does. BRC is chocked full of cream of mushroom soup and cheese, and not even real cheese at that… Cheese Whiz! Boo’s list of vegetables all includes words like creamed, au gratin or cheese sauce. He tries to say fried zucchini and french fries are true vegetables. He insists guacamole is a superfood and when he gets black olives on his meat-lovers pizza he is boastful for days.
“A man your age should eat vegetables without having to hide them in his mashed potatoes,” I say.
I felt him roll his eyes.
“You’re trying to kill me,” he said. “Remember the time you brought home grapefruit and tried to make me eat it at breakfast? You know it doesn’t mix with my meds.”
“That was an accident. I didn’t mean to. I just want you to eat more fruits and vegetables so you can live a long and healthy life. I love you, Boo.”
“Promise me you’ll try to eat more greens?” I asked. “You know, greens without a fried outer covering or smothered in cheese sauce?”
“OK, but you’re asking a lot,” and as he walked away I heard,