I opened the shoe box gently to show Kelly my treasure.
“Just tree mess,” said Kelly as she moved the leaves, twigs, and moss around.
“Couillon! They’re hiding from us.” And I gently picked up a green and brown insect. Its whirring whine made my three-year-old sister say, “Coooool,” as she petted its folded wings.
“Careful,” I said and replaced the insect as my sister searched and found the box’s true treasure – a poopy-brown thing.“Lookit this.”
“It’s dead,” said Kelly. I set it on the oak tree trunk whose shade we sat in.The brown bug took slow-motion steps up the trunk. Kelly could only stare.
“Looks like a seratops.”
Kelly reached to touch it with her index finger, but my larger hand covered my little sister’s whole hand.“Leave it. Just watch.”
Our heads moved close, close to the bug on the tree. We watched it mummy-move some more.Then it stopped.
“It’s dying,” said Kelly as she put her arm around my neck.
“Watch,” I repeated.
It took one and a half minutes for the younger girl to lose interest. “It’s really dead now,” she whispered into my ear.
“Shhhhhh,” and I squeezed Kelly’s shoulder and pointed.Kelly moved her head closer in. Did the brown bug’s back crack? Why was it killing itself? Then slow, slow a wet thing backed out of the cracked bug. Kelly remembered cartoons where a baby bird pecks its way out of an egg. She leaned in and almost kissed the tree bark.
I held her shoulder and brought my face over my sister’s.As the new bug emerged, it paused to allow its folded wings to unfurl. The green translucent beauty of the wings brought soft gasps from both of us.
“Now he’s gotta dry off,” I said, and we both froze to witness the new and improved insect glowing atop the broken carcass. It seemed to be sunbathing in the broken sunbeams.
Kelly held her breath and I nodded my head. After awhile the cicada made its whirring, clicking whine to flyaway. Both of our heads tilted up to watch the miracle depart.
Then I carefully took the split-open brown thing and placed it in my shoe box.
“Cool,” said Kelly.I nodded and put an arm around my sister’s shoulder.
Boo had skated around the fact that he was eating exactly what he wanted in spite of the doctor’s warning. “Your blood sugar is getting higher. You need to change your eating habits and get more exercise, and it would help if you lost a few pounds.” Still, he had his stash of candy and cookies semi-hidden on the third shelf of the pantry behind the flour, brown sugar, and the grandkids’ Capri Sun. I use the term ‘hidden’ loosely.
It took one more threat from the doctor for the message to click. “If you don’t change your ways, I’ll be putting you on insulin shots. Here’s the name of a dietitian to help get you started.” I heard all of this second hand, mind you, and it took him a few hours to disclose what was actually said because he had stopped off at Starbucks for a Caramel Macchiato and pound cake, just a little reward for after the doctor.
Boo reluctantly relayed the information, grudgingly called the dietitian, and went about his way saying, “I’m going to eat whatever I want until I see this nutrition person.”
“I’m going with you to the dietitian,” I said.
“You just want to make sure I tell the truth,” he countered.
“That’s right, “ I said. “I don’t trust you.”
One week later, we saw the dietitian who was a beautiful, thirty-something, tall, slender nurse. She was sweet on the outside, but it didn’t take her long to see through his antics. Yes, I helped him answer her questions honestly. Yes, I ratted him out on a few things, but I saw him really listening as she explained carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins. Almost overnight Boo began watching his carbs, forgoing desserts, using sugar-free creamer, and walking 10,000 steps. It was a miracle. As the pounds dropped off, he started to envision himself quite the stud. “I think I’m almost ready for skinny jeans, what do you think?”
“Maybe just five more pounds?” I offered.
We went from grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with a generous handful of chips at lunch, to baked fish and Charro beans. We had berries for dessert instead of double stuffed oreo cookies and ice cream. We even bought Fitbits. In fact, Boo became a zealot, watching every bite he put in his mouth.
When we walked together, I would come home angry. I envisioned us walking hand in hand down the road of love and health; sharing goals and encouraging each other on our fitness journey. His focus was to walk briskly and clock his miles, no time for idle chit chat, let alone hand-holding. So, we opted to walk separately, allowing him to go faster and me to stay sweeter.
Six months later he was down thirty pounds and looking svelte. I, on the other hand, was down three pounds and sneaking potato chips. How is it that men can just put their minds to it and make this losing weight look so easy? I think women just have slower metabolisms and don’t forget the whole hormone thing, we’re challenged at every turn.
This year at Christmas, Boo finally got his wish of skinny jeans! As he pulled the jeans gleefully from the wrapping paper, he grinned like a little kid and stood up to hold the jeans next to his legs. Even though he needed a little help to pull them on, once he zipped up they fit like a glove. (literally) Truthfully, I never thought of Boo as skinny jeans material, but I wanted him to live the dream, and he is.
“Enjoy your new-found hotness!” I teased.
“Oh, I will,” he smiled, as he turned around and checked out his rear end view. “GQ has nothing on me!”
His eyes locked in on mine and the whole depth of his life was etched on his skin, the skin someone had once loved. Maybe he was still loved, but I saw the story in his eyes and it stopped me. It stopped my breath and I looked away.
He didn’t say anything, but he asked with his eyes. Without thinking, my daughter and I opened the door and hurried in with the other assortment of customers; hurrying into the dollar store for super bargains and cheap deals.
It wasn’t until we were all the way in that I noticed the door was shut and he was still outside, but I kept moving, diverting my eyes.
My daughter was the first to act, walking purposefully back toward the door. She didn’t say a word to me, but as she opened the door she said, “Hello friend, may I help you?”
He quickly looked down and then glanced back up as he said, “Yes, thank you. I need to do some shopping.”
His wheelchair was a later model, worn and frayed at the top of the backrest, and basic black, totally utilitarian. I could tell he had been a tall man, because his one long leg remained, half filling the space of the chair, while his hands gripped the armrest.
The chair was his home, with a cushion to sit on, and a cloth pouch tied onto the back of the seat holding a grocery bag, bandana and well used water bottle. The chair was moved solely by the strength of his arms, which would turn and push the large, dirty, frayed wheels. But, his face…his face frightened me because it was so rough, yet so incredibly tender and open.
There was a beautiful, kind quality to his face that reached out as if to whisper,
“I’m still me. I’m still in here, in this tired, worn shell. Can you see me? The real me?”
Shame crept into my body, as I hurried over to hold the door. My daughter gripped the handles behind the backrest and with a strong push, helped him over the threshold and got the bag from the back of his chair.
“There you go,” she said. “Anything else I can do for you?”
“No, thank you. I didn’t think I would make it in,” he said, looking down.
And he shyly wheeled himself forward, down a crowded aisle with greedy shoppers.
She took no credit for this action, as I told her how proud I was and what a kind thing she did. It is a part of who she is to help the unfortunate or downtrodden. It was a quiet lesson to me to keep my eyes open, my heart soft and my hands ready to help.
Shame, whether his or mine, does not teach us anything except to abandon ourselves. Perhaps he had old shame lurking nearby, I really don’t know. But, I know my shame at not following a faint nudge to help a fellow human, lingers still.
I learned a lesson that day that came from my daughter who was not afraid to open a door; not afraid to extend her hand. A lesson I hope I will always remember.
These days, except for the triple-digit temperatures, it doesn’t feel like July. COVID19 has stolen the summer tradition of family vacations for many people. I have been looking back at my childhood and our yearly trips to the Florida beach.
In 1964 I held Kelly’s left hand in my right and Gayle’s right in my left. In our new two-piece bathing suits we faced the bright white Florida shore with our backs to the Gulf of Mexico. Gayle and I stood in thigh-high water while Kelly jumped up and down so that the water went from her waist to her thighs. Our game was simple. Keep your head straight ahead and do not turn around to see the approaching surf. Listen for the sounds of the breaking waves and be ready to jump when the salt water slapped your backside. Also, do not break the holding-hands chain! I tightened my grip on Kelly’s hand as the four-year-old continued to bounce up and down like a human Tigger. “Stay still,” I said. “You need to concentrate and listen.” Kelly started to jump higher and shake her skinny hips.
“She loves you! Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” sang Kelly.
Gayle echoed, “Yeah,Yeah, Yeah!”
I pulled and squeezed Kelly’s hand as our middle sister said, “We gotta be ready, y’all!” Kelly continued singing, but in a hesitant whisper of a voice. I held my breath to focus on the sounds behind us eleven seconds before the rushing roar of the waves announced water higher than all three of us. The wave pounded over our heads and all we knew was water. We screamed in unison as the frothy water pushed us forward and roared its dominance. We all lost our balance and our feet left the sand. Gayle and I stayed connected, but Kelly got pulled away and sent rolling in the surf. She got a mouthful of salt water and the waves sent her face into the sand. I rushed to Kelly’s rescue, dragging my other sister with me. I reached for my youngest sister’s arm, but my fingers squeezed a long ponytail instead. I yanked the dark chunk of hair over my head and pulled her to her feet. Her bikini top was askew and covered only one nipple. Kelly was too shocked to cry and reached for my waist to steady herself. I released her hair and Gayle reached over to help keep Kelly standing. With both Kelly’s arms around my waist and a wiggling Gayle on the other side, I did my best to walk my sisters to the shore. Soon we all three sat on dry sand.
“I ’bout drowneded,” sputtered Kelly as Gayle said, “You ok now.” I sat in the middle and placed an arm around each sister. Together we looked at the watery wildness we had escaped. After thirty seconds of concentration on the power of nature and the suddenness of disaster,Kelly stood to straighten her bathing suit. “Let’s build a sand castle,” she said as she walked to the beach chair Mom was sitting in. (Momma had been too preoccupied with rubbing baby oil on her legs to witness her daughters’ water misadventure). Gayle followed Kelly, but I stayed there staring at the waves. Just a couple of minutes before I had feared for my little sister’s life! I closed my eyes and breathed in and out, in and out.A helicopter moved overhead and pulled a banner that proclaimed the freshness of “Dougie’s Shrimp Baskets.”
I stared at the pounding water on the shore four feet in front of me.The steady rush of water as it spread over the hot sand and the wave’s retreat into the gulf hypnotized me. How could the water have such power?It was loose and liquid and allowed kids to float atop it. It called out to folks to join in its cool beauty, its wild excitement, its thrilling danger. I closed my eyes and listened to rhythmic sounds that soothed me until I decided to help my sisters with sand castle creations.
In grief as in life, we often say, see or do things that make us feel better or more connected to our loved ones.
“Oh, there’s Dad again,” someone may say while looking out the kitchen window at a cardinal sitting on a fence post. While another might notice yellow butterflies on their morning walks, declaring, “I know that’s Mom. She loved the color yellow.”
It’s not so much that I believe my loved ones are reincarnated into insects or birds, but it does feel like a gentle embrace from the other side, meant to comfort and bring peace.
My friend, Mary, passed away last year, rather suddenly. She always loved dragonflies and was drawn to their vivid colors and flighty paths. She had dragonfly notepads, nightgowns, and tote bags. She adored all things ‘dragonfly.’
Try as I might, I am not convinced that every dragonfly I photograph is Mary. “Hold still, little beauty,” I whisper to them. “Let me take your picture.” I know Mary would have loved my photos and might even have asked for a framed one for her walls. While I do not feel that these dragonflies are Mary, I do believe that it is her spirit that beckons me to seek the beauty in nature, urging me to take time to enjoy God’s creations.
We recently put up a new hummingbird feeder in our backyard. I made the nectar and as we hung it I fully expected hummingbirds by dusk. Two weeks later my little friend arrived. Flighty, thirsty, and perfect, although not flashy in color like the butterfly or dragonfly. Every day she drinks the nectar and then flits to an adjacent branch to hang out for a bit, then over to a flowering plant, then back to the feeder. Then, without warning, she flies away until another time.
Hummingbirds are the smallest birds, yet they can travel up to 49 mph. Their heartbeats nearly 1200 beats per minute and they get their name because of the humming sound of their beating wings.
I feel like a hummingbird sometimes. My attention goes from details to musings. I flit from rigid routines to spontaneous creations, photography, or writing. My concentration varies. My observations bounce. When I’m dead and gone, will my daughters see a hummingbird and say, “ Oh, there goes Mom. She never could sit still.”?
There are six large blue jays that visit our bird feeder every day. Occasionally they are raucous and loud, trying to dominate the backyard. I’d swear one of them is my Dad, just trying to get in the last word. Trying to control, even from beyond!
It behooves me to wonder who would want to be remembered as a squirrel or pesky fly, but every family has one of each. Maybe our loved ones visit as birds or maybe a Higher Power nudges us to notice the beauty in nature, helping us to slow down and feel a connection. Whatever is true and whatever is your truth, enjoy the noticings and remember your loved ones from beyond. And if you receive a hummingbird feeder from me for Christmas, keep it. Someday, I may come for a visit.
When I turned fifteen, I could hardly wait to take Driver’s Education so I could get my permit. I remember that it was during summer school and we had classroom instruction with two weeks behind-the-wheel driving time. I had already been sneaking my family car when my parents were out, so I was eager to be a legit driver.
My instructor was an old baseball coach who also taught high school algebra. He called us all by our last names and was pretty easy going except that we were scared to death of his gruff exterior. He barked information and orders in a drill sergeant, commanding way.
There were four of us assigned to his car for our two-week behind-the-wheel session. I didn’t know the other kids, but there were three girls and one guy. The first day he asked, “Who thinks they know how to drive?” I was the only one to raise my hand.
“Claughton,” (my maiden name) “take us for a ride!” And he lit up a cigar butt that had been in his shirt pocket. Since I had been stealing, I mean “borrowing” my dad’s car since 9th grade, I felt comfortable behind the wheel.
I drove us the whole two hours that first day, while he grunted directions of where to turn and kept a steady stream of descriptive terms about the other drivers on the road. The other three kids sat straight as arrows, lined up in the backseat, waiting for their turns.
The next day, Coach chose another one of the girls, but she broke down in tears saying she was too scared to drive. “Nonsense,” he said. “Smith, get up here and let’s see what you can do. There’s no crying in baseball or driving.”
She cried so hard he finally had her pull over and started yelling, “Smith, you’re out! Jefferson, you’re up.” But, Jefferson was constantly taking his eyes off the road to look at Coach while he was talking.
“For God’s sake, Jefferson! Do you have eyes in the back of your head? Keep your eyes on the (bleepin’) road before you kill us.”
And just when Coach was really revving up, he had to slam the dual-control brake on the passenger side, just to keep us from sliding into another car. Did we even have seat belts back then?
“Jefferson, you’re out! Claughton, take us home, and be careful, for God’s sake.”
The next day, Coach told the last girl, “It’s your lucky day, Krowowski. You can’t be any worse than Jefferson. Get up here.”
Krowowski was a meek, quiet girl who I personally thought was stoned the whole time, but, she didn’t cry, so we were all hopeful that things would lookup. Krowowski took the wheel and we pulled out of the parking lot with a jolt and a lurch, as she turned too quick and ran us up on the sidewalk.
In the backseat, I was in the middle. On my left, Smith began to whimper and cry and Jefferson was already distracted with biting his fingernails.
I think Coach lost it completely because I heard some pretty graphic cuss words as we leaped off the curb into traffic.
“For God’s sake, stop the (blankity-blank, bleepin’) car!”
And she did….right in a turn lane of cars.
“Not here…..there!” and he pointed to the parking lot, so she jumped us back over the curb from whence we came. And Coach slammed his brake so hard we all flew forward.
It was obvious we were finished for the day when he told us to get out of the car. We had to wait outside until our parents came to get us.
The next morning Krowowski did not come back, Smith brought rosary beads and Jefferson looked stoned. For the next six days, Coach only let me drive. I can’t say Coach imparted tons of useful driving instructions but I sure clocked a lot of driving time. I drove us to Palo Duro Canyon, we made stops at A&W Root Beer, we drove through a cemetery, grocery store parking lot and got on the interstate every chance we could. We ran his personal errands to the bank and Skaggs Drug Store. Once, he got us all hotdogs at Der Weinerschnitzel. (four for a dollar.) Coach puffed his cigar butts and sometimes slumped in the front seat barking, “Wake me up in 15 minutes.”
Right or wrong, I will never forget Driver’s Education and the summer I “learned” to drive. It’s been over fifty years since I got my driver’s license and I still think of Coach. In fact, I still think of my Drivers Ed. group and wonder if they “passed” the class even though they rarely drove. It amazes me that no one complained or had their parents call.
Kids today who are learning to drive online are really missing out on an unbelievable experience. I’m quite sure Coach would have something to say about it. “For God’s sake, be careful out there!”
There was a massive oak tree with a long, low limb. A 6’4” dad would put his oldest daughter on his shoulders and let her scramble into the crook of the tree’s limb where she could hold on to small branches and settle into the oak’s saddle. The tall dad would then grab the limb’s end and pull it down, down to the ground. Anticipation made the girl’s grip tighten. The dad would bend his knees down and up, down and up to the tune of an old nursery rhyme:
“Here we go down to Bangberry Cross
To see a fine lady ride on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She will have music where ever she goes.”
Then the dad added an “Ole!” as he released the limb to make the girl fly up high as long as the tree was free to boing, boing back into place.
Head and hair surrounded by branches and leaves, she felt equal to the free-flying blue jays that hung out in their backyard. That eight-second thrill was a perfect balance of joy and fear.She looked down on her siblings from her queenly perch as they did the “Me next!” dance and she gave the mere mortals a slight smile before she accepted the huge hand that helped her dismount her tree throne.
Besides the wooden roller coaster at the beach, the Bangberry Ride was her favorite ride. With a rhyming song, a heavenly seat, a father’s love, her sisters’ envy, and a stomach’s tickle the ride was perfection.
For over two months fear has been part of my daily life. As COVID19 continues to kill about 1,000 people a day in the USA, I’m adapting to living during a pandemic. Then sixteen days ago an eight-minute and 46-second video shocked the world and stirred up other worries. Now protesters march in cities all over the world and demand justice for George Floyd. Everyday holds uncertainty and fear for so many people. Important change is rarely easy or peaceful.
I watch and read updates about the unrest and the impassioned calls for justice. Cardboard signs on the fence around an elementary school two blocks from my apartment show support for the ones demanding change.
The protesters are a mix of people from different age groups, different races and different countries. Most marches are peaceful; some involve violence. But all show bravery and determination. Change has to happen! I love the verbs used by rapper Killer Mike. We must : “Plot. Plan. Strategize. Organize. Mobilize.”
Even as I wear a face mask and practice social distancing when I leave my home (and I know the virus is not going away for a long while), I feel hopeful for our future because people are coming together for change, for justice, and for a better future. A friend in New Orleans sent me a beautiful picture of protesters in Jackson Square. He said he felt a sense of love and energy and hope! Amen to that!
It was Saturday night and we were going to a party at a friend’s house. I had been preoccupied figuring out what I was going to wear, making the appetizer and wrapping the hostess gift, that I didn’t give Boo too much thought.
He came into the bedroom fresh from his shower and started to get dressed. When I walked out of the bathroom I saw him standing there dressed and ready to go. “Are you going to wear that?” I asked.
Boo stood perfectly still and with a deer in the headlights look said, “I don’t know, am I?”
“Here,” I said. “Try this shirt and change belts. OK?”
This scenario has gone on for years. I thought he was dressing in mix-matched clothes and frayed pants just to mess with me until finally one day after I announced,
“Boo! You can’t wear that.”
He shot back with, “Yes, I can and I will. Why do you wait until I’m already dressed and then tell me I’m all wrong?”
He had had enough of my foolishness.
“If you want me to dress a certain way, just set it out for me,” he said. I really thought he was just being obstinate or trying to make a point with his clothing choices, but nothing was farther from the truth. He really doesn’t care what he wears and he can’t tell if it matches.
I felt terrible. I had been scolding him like a petulant child and I really didn’t want to do that.
He told me in earnest that if I wanted him to look a certain way all I had to do was just set it out and he’d put it on.
“After all,” he said. “You buy my clothes, so it’s kind of your fault if I look bad.” While I appreciate his willingness to dress for success, I’m not responsible for some of his older, funkier shirts and shorts. Nonetheless, we embarked on a new plan of action.
If I care, I take responsibility. If I want him to look a certain way, I pick out his clothes. On vacations where I care, like on a cruise, for example, I iron his shorts and pack for him, like a kid going to camp. Shorts, shirts, underwear, socks all in neat stacks. If he’s going to visit his brother or go with guy friends somewhere, I let go and let Boo choose his outfit. Sometimes he surprises me and looks adorable, but mostly it’s clean but wrinkled shorts, a shirt with stains and tennis shoes.
I have to let it go because he has agreed to let me have my way. One by one certain shirts have mysteriously disappeared and been replaced with new ones. Occasionally he will dress and demand his right to wear what he considers “OK.” I do feel like he is becoming a snappier dresser and now that he has a few go-to outfits, I give more compliments and fewer critiques.
I’m trying to keep my mouth closed and not ask the question that has no right answer, “Are you going to wear that?” Now, what about that underwear…..
I’m revisiting Barbra Streisand’s discography during these stay-at-home covid times. Getting back to what I loved when I was a teen. I first listened to her albums over & over on a small record player in my room while wearing cheap plastic head phones so I could crank up the volume on “The Nearness of You” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” In 1970 I was obsessed with records like Simply Streisand and My Name Is Barbra, full of old standards and Broadway show tunes. Barbra sang songs like they were three-minute plays with her one-of-a-kind enunciated phrasing and sustained belting. Her vocal bravado soothed my nervous, awkward, lonely thirteen-year-old soul. I hadn’t listened to these records in a long time and I’m now rediscovering the joy they still give me.
So if you have time to yourself (or not), find your joy in what you love. Read, watch t.v. or YouTube, cook, sing, meditate, talk with friends, write, juggle, draw or paint, play dominoes or cards, jog, shop online, do spring cleaning, look at old pictures, hone your video game skills, pamper your pets, take long walks, tickle your kids or grandkids, plant a garden, or learn to whistle. Do whatever makes you smile or fills you up with joy!
As the pandemic makes a lot of us slow down and stay put, we should be kind to ourselves and spend time every day doing something that makes us feel joyful.