Gratitude. People usually say thankful. Like,
“I’m thankful it didn’t rain today, we’da missed our last game.”
Or, “I’m thankful they started using skim milk in my latte, last thing I need is the extra calories.”
Being thankful is good, of course. I’ve been thankful most of my life … ever since, I guess, the Methodist minister’s wife picked me up at the gas station where she found me. I’d run away from kindergarten after daddy dropped me off, I was so afraid of being late again.
But now, in my dotage, I’m pretty much always grateful.
Grateful I can hobble to the bathroom in the morning.
Grateful I can plant my foot against the shovel, and heave piles of dirt in the garden.
Grateful for clarity of mind, and the continuing passion for learning more, about everything.
Grateful for friends who take me, love me, and support me as I am.
Grateful for sunshine, and rain, and every season under God’s heaven — even this week in February, 2021, when we’re iced-and-snowed in. At this point, they all have a poignancy I’ve never experienced before.
We never know when our last breath will be drawn, our last hugs given to those we care about, our last expression of love, however large or small.
My most recent experience of love expression was the cleaning out of my garage. My son and grands helped, and we filled a dumpster with stuff that, had I not done it then, they’d have had to face it when all my “lasts” were done.
I think about that a lot. My home, which I’m grateful for, is an estate sale in waiting. I know that, and it helps me take things a little lighter.
We’re all in this big parler game called life, waiting for our number to be called. And while we play this game, let’s be grateful for the brilliant, heartbreaking, surprising, messy, beautiful life we’re living.
And may we never forget … there’s a last time for everything.
The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.
My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.
A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.
I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …
I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.
I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.
Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.
What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.
I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!
I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.
I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.
There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.
When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.
“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.
Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.
“You had to do this?”
“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.
“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.
“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.
She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”
“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.
The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.
I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”
“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”
We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.
I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.
A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:
When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,
“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.
“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”
That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.
That’s also true for me.
And for you.
I didn’t know about her for years. Never heard of her. Then, one day, in the period I would soon dub ‘the dark night of my ex-husband’s soul’ she came. A light dawned.
I’d always been a creative girl, a passionate teen, then while wedded I morphed into an unsure and eagerly accommodating woman. When I finally acknowledged the “past due notice” and filed for “the divorce,” I realized I couldn’t speak. No, listen, I could string words together, I could even sound coherent on occasion, but the kernel of “me” at the heart of it all was missing. When did I grow so soft?
There I was, plowing through the molasses searching for my focus when, at a Screen Actors Guild Directors’ meeting, I met Nat Benchley. ‘Benchley, Benchley, let me think,’ I thought as I smiled that smile and shook his hand.
Nat immediately had me smitten, as most brilliantly eloquent men do … I do love a great mind. And his was incredible, I thought, until … well, his nickname for me was a little off putting. “Reverend Gorgeous.” I can barely type it even now. It makes me blush, and warms my heart. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Nat was sharing with me stories about his grandfather Robert, and how this woman, Dorothy Parker, was his sidekick and best friend.
Well, I’d never heard of the woman, and you already know exactly what I did. I looked Dorothy up, bought her books, checked her out … and thought, ‘HEY! I recognize that voice … that irreverent, brilliant, hysterically ironic voice. It . Sounds . Like . Me .’
So that was the first step, learning about Dot. The next meeting Nat and I attended was in New York, and he decided we should go some place called the Algonquin Hotel. Over martinis with three fat olives he educated me on the infamous “Vicious Circle” and — as we sat at that very same round table, regaled me with tales of how his Grandfather and Dot would hold court there everyday at lunch. And so, we and our colleagues sat. We laughed. We drank. Because, you know. Dot and Robert.
Hirschfeld drawings of Benchley, Parker, and company lined the walls. The more I learned, the more I was convinced: Nat and I should do a two-person show, Robert and Dot. I mentioned it to him. He loved it. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and we never happened.
That was years ago, and I only remembered these things when reading a piece this morning by Dorothy Parker. I’m much older now, and am not sure I still have the swagger necessary to deliver a good “Dot” onstage. But I love my warm memories of Nat Benchley. I continue to relish Parker’s writing, her voice, and the very clear knowledge that it was she who, thanks to Nat, helped me find my own.
When I was five or six I was drawn to the microphone at the Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners. My Uncle John would step up on that stage and use it when he introduced Monsignor Fletcher to say the blessing. And when he announced the three piece band, made up of parishioners. Ladies with blue hair played the stand up bass, the accordion, and the saxophone. Their pearls and ear bobs swayed or bounced to the rhythms while the grownups danced.
But it was when they took their break, and the microphone stood up there all alone that I felt the pull. I wandered up. I sat on that stage, just a low riser from the floor. I pivoted and suddenly, I was there. I wandered over. I looked out at the people seated at long tables, talking and laughing. The microphone was about a head and a half taller than I was. No way could I reach it. So I stood.
Years later I would actually use microphones, in the studio and on stage. For years I worked in an industry where people think if you haven’t “sold” a song or gotten famous, you’re just a wannabe who didn’t quite have the stuff.
But the truth is, the fame part was never an issue. Never a goal. It was always about the music. And music is its own thing. Fame is about politics, and strategy, and not just a little bit about the dark side of our nature. There are those who squeak through to the main keylight unscathed, but it’s not a huge percentage.
Looking back on my years in the “microphone” business, I know that every prayer I ever prayed about it was answered. But the picture looked quite different than I had imagined. The clarity I have, and the perspective given by years of experience, make me grateful for being blessed to do what I’ve done, and am doing, without ever having sold or being driven by anything but the music.
There’s a saying, “a man’s home is his castle.” And nothing – in a quite literal sense – could be more true for Luddy, or “King Ludwig of Bulgaria” to his subjects.
He was a young man when he assumed the throne – 18 years of age. But rather than focus solely on war and conquest, he chose instead to turn his attention to architecture, and built the Bavarian Neuschwanstein.
Such a beauty is this castle. Gatehouse, turrets, corridors, ballrooms, and a sixth floor singers hall, grand and spacious, with soaring ceilings. Yes, Luddy was into music. Wagner was his favorite. From high in that castle hall, the strains of those musical performances surely floated on the wind, and were enjoyed by people for miles.
Any one of the turrets – there are six major – may have held a young girl whose long, flaxen hair spiraled down, allowing her suitor to climb up.
The connecting bridges, did they ever feel the Beast’s weight as he went searching for Belle? I would not be surprised.
And what of Ludwig? Did he ever stand, high up on the sixth floor of his castle, looking down on the valleys surrounding, and ache for his princess to show, the one he had built all this for, the one he was prepared to rescue on his white horse? I like to imagine.
If you look at the chateau, above, and think it looks familiar, it should; Disney has used it as the architecture reference for its fictional castles … including the one it uses in its logo.
This dwelling has been known throughout history, and still stands today, as the Castle of the fairy tale king.
When the season turns crisp and cool; when there’s the tiniest bit of frost on the lamp post; when I grab a wool scarf on my way out the door “just in case,” and end up glad I did … those are the days I relish.
They take my mind a hundred different directions: shore up the house, bring in the wood, stock up on dry beans in the pantry for soup. Visualize where the garland will go, begin gathering little goodies to fill the “Christmas shoe boxes” that are shipped to children far away.
It’s the time of year when my eyes shine brighter, my step is quicker, and my to do list is longer. I have so many things to accomplish, and so little time to do it in!!
The Christmas movies start early for me — sometime just after Halloween. I keep them playing in the background as I move through the day. And, soon after, comes Christmas music. I know most people don’t want to hear those songs played outside the “four week Christmas window,” but I play them off and on year round. It’s like stepping back inside my favorite season anytime of year.
So yeah, it’s November 9th, and the carols are playing in my house. Flannel pajamas are being sewn for all the Littles, and calls are out to handy-workers to get things done on the house before winter sets in.
Once the cold snap hits hard, “first fire” night arrives. Wood blazing in the fireplace, chili in the slow cooker, and friends gathered ’round for music, stories, and laughter. These are the things and the people that warm my heart.
Christmas tree – at least one, there have been as many as five – is installed, decorated, and the halls festooned with holiday swag. To me, too much is never enough. Let’s do more!!
Christmas cookies rolled, cut, and decorated by small hands. The gingerbread man’s leg broke off, tears start, but hey! Here’s an idea, buddy! Let’s give him a cast, and a crutch! A laughing little boy, proud of his cookie. Problem solved.
Fudge making in the microwave, homemade pecan pies, peanut brittle, and my special “Nanny-Boo cookies.”
Holiday tins filled, ribbons tied, but no one enter the dining room! The sign on the swinging door, in big red letters, reads: “Nanny Clause’s workshop; boys and girls keep out!” The Littles are excited, but they grudgingly obey.
Advent wreath, three purple candles and one pink, marks the waiting for the Baby’s birth. Nightly prayers, with candles lit, keep us mindful of the meaning, and take us through each day.
A Birthday cake is made, white with white icing. Writing on the cake, “Happy Birthday Jesus.” The candle is a star.
On Christmas day, family gathers, and – just as it should be – children are the center of attention. Of course. It’s the Baby’s birthday, after all. Let us all be as little children this day; allow our hearts to fall open like old gates with loose latches. On this day … and every day henceforth … let’s hold on to what we’ve found in these moments. A feeling of connection, of love, of knowing that, while we’re part of something bigger, there is nothing bigger than Love. And that is what we’re made of.
But for today, I run out the door and grab my wool scarf. I smile, because there’s a nip in the air. I sense the beginning of something familiar and wonderful; I know it’s pulling me, and I go willingly. I love every step of this journey.
It sat in the back corner of the house. There were two doors, one off the kitchen, and one into the boys’ bedroom. The windows were on two sides, big and drafty. In the winter, Jack Frost made icy paintings on them. I loved it. Sometimes I would lick the ice, and watch it melt.
The wallpaper in my room was from Swinney’s hardware, my uncle John’s hardware store.
I loved that store. It had hardwood floors, front to back. There were wooden stairs to a catwalk that ran all the way around the at the second floor level. The walls up there were a checkerboard of colorful wallpaper samples. Lift the flap of paper, and the rolls of paper were stored in the cubbies behind.
My grandmother chose the wallpaper in my room. It was white, with loose bouquets of wildflowers tied with trailing blue ribbons. During the paper selection process, I was asked if didn’t I like this, or didn’t I think that was pretty. I loved looking at the samples, and leafing through the big wallpaper books. But I didn’t know what I liked. I was eight. I just wanted to make the adults in charge happy; I wanted whatever it was they wanted, because that makes everyone happy, right? Then I don’t get it wrong. That’s what you think when you’re eight.
Later, I would decide that my room looked old ladyish, I was silently disgruntled that my grandmother had picked it out … though even at ten or twelve, I didn’t know what I’d have chosen. Thinking back, I can see it was a sweet, cheery space in that stark little house. I wish I could see that paper now. I’d probably love it.
One of the things in my room was a wicker desk that had belonged to the mother of my other grandmother. My great grandmother. White wicker, with a wicker chair. That little desk has followed me all over the country, throughout my adult life. And it currently sits int eh bedroom at my house that is used by my granddaughters.
I wonder if it will some day be taken, and treasured, by my granddaughter, Gabby. There’s no way to know … but I hope so.
Meanwhile, thinking back, I love picturing that little white desk in my childhood bedroom; the wallpaper of flowers and the white dotted Swiss Priscillas. It’s where I laughed, cried, prayed, slept, and dreamed.
It was my room.
This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”
Birthdays are interesting benchmarks. They roll around on the same date, year after year. As a kid, I generally looked forward to them. It meant “something” would happen; in the earliest years there were celebrations with cake.
Birthday number one was The Event. As the first-and-at-that-point-only child, family gathered round. Photographer Wilmot Dahlem was summoned.
I was put in the highchair, a cake was placed in front of me. I reached for the single candle and literally remember being told, “Nono, don’t touch that.” So, I did what any thinking one-year-old would do: I picked it up with my mouth.
Wilmot documented the moment
The next Birthday I remember is number three. I had a baby brother by then. That’s also the year I found Mama’s scissors when I was supposed to be taking a nap; I cut half my long hair off. Mama documented that one. The expression on that lady’s face tells the story.
My grandmother (Nanny) crocheted me a dress, with hat and purse for my Birthday that year. Wilmot took pictures of me in my dress.The short curls peaking out from under the crocheted hat … made my Mama cry.
As I got older and the number of siblings grew, it became more of a day when — eventually — all eyes glanced at me at some point during the day with, “Hey. It’s your Birthday.” Yes, I knew. I was “waiting for sixteen.” Then, “waiting for eighteen.”
When you’re a kid, waiting and pining to be older seems to be part of the M.O. But there’s a point; a moment. There’s a place in the sequential order of annual things when a body feels the urge to say, “I’ve had quite enough. Let’s stop this now; can we?” Well, no, comes the answer. Not really. Time, and tides, are gonna roll on. The only known way of stopping is leaving. And that’s generally not what one is thinking when it crosses the mind, on some advanced Birthday, to say, “Check please.”
I had such a Birthday yesterday. I felt full ready to call for the check … until a guy at the grocery store started chatting with me. I was standing in the aisle with the motor oil, and reached for the 5 W30 ‘high mileage’. The young man (and I say young because, at this point in my life, isn’t everyon else?) asked me a question about my car. I did a little fake laugh and told him my car needs the OCV replaced. That stopped him for a second; a woman who knows what an oil control valve is … rare bird. Then he complimented me on my sweater. Oy. I could see where this was going; I felt my face flush. I couldn’t look him in the eye. But I knew he had to have been born some year after my children. Holy crap. Nope. Moving on.
I grabbed the jug of oil, mumbled “Have a good night,” and went to self check out. I spied him heading toward the produce section, and was able to get a good look at him. Damnation; he was tall, a bit swarthy, he must work out. He was eye candy-ish … in a much-too-young-for-me-but-god-help-us-all-look-at-you sort of way.
I paid for my oil, walked out to my car, got in, and sat there for a minute. Just breathing. I considered how old I ‘am’ compared to how old I ‘feel’ … and pulled out of the parking lot thinking maybe, just maybe, I don’t need the check after all.
I see a giraffe. Big quiet eyes. Ears just so. Soft little horns. I can’t see his long neck. I know it’s there, beyond the card.
His neck that stretches high into the trees, so he can nibble on the tippy toppest leaves.
He’s a likeable giraffe. Loveable, even. But it’s hard to know that. His head is so very high up, one can barely look into his eyes to see his personality.
And it’s quite difficult to kiss a giraffe. The process goes thus:
You stand by the tree trunk, look up into the leaves, and you shout, very loudly,
“Mr. giraffe, I would so love to kiss you.” You hope he hears you. His head is buried up there in the tree, and you hear munching. You shout again, louder:
“Mr. Giraffe, I would really very much love to kiss you.” Still, no response. Munch munch. Try again. In fact, this time, try a slight English accent:
“Hiya, Mr. giraffe. Seems I’ve a kiss here wif your name on it. What say you, good sir?” You wait. He eats. You sigh. You walk away from the tree, to the sidewalk. You don’t see one sly eyeball peak at you through tree leaves.
You stand on the sidewalk, looking at the giraffe … you study his spindly legs, his switching tail, his long, long neck. You suck in as much air as you can hold, and you shout out. the loudest of your louds one last time. Oh, and the English accent has become quite thick:
“Mr. giraffe, is a bloke allowed to plant a kiss on your jaw at any point in time?” After waiting for what seems like forever but was really about a minute and a half, you shout, “Crikey!” as you turn and walk across the street. This, you decide, will never work.
“Uh. Excuse me.” You turn, and look. The giraffe is looking right at you. “Were you talking to me?”
“I … I would very much love to kiss you.” You’re on the opposite side of the street by now, but you start walking back toward the giraffe when he bellows,
“STOP!” You stop. “Back up!” You step backwards and onto the opposing sidewalk. “Wait.” You stand and stare. You wait.
The giraffe himself backs up, away from the tree. He swivels his head around on top of his neck. Then, ever so slowly, his neck bends down. Down. Down. He brings his neck down till it stretches across that street and he is face to face with you. You can feel his soft giraffe breath.
He leans toward your ear and whispers,
“You may kiss me now.”