Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Making a Life

Over the last few days, I’ve run into some folks who have reminded me that people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, dispositions, disabilities, and talents.

The first example came to me because I had reserved a rental car to use when my friend, Allison, flew in from Atlanta for a short visit. As I was walking into the Enterprise office to pick it up, I noticed two older women talking in an animated fashion to the agent. One of the women was dressed in African attire while the other was in typical middle-aged western-hemisphere woman garb, AKA the pantsuit. I have to say I was a little annoyed because they were standing in the doorway and didn’t notice I was trying to get through. Pantsuit Woman was talking very loudly while African Lady was mostly looking on in relative docility.

Because I am a natural voyeur, I listened in as the ladies took their places in line ahead of me and talked at length with the rental agent. At that point, I noted that the loud talking Pantsuit Woman had a rather strong accent; one which, I was pretty sure, emanated from an African nation and not Waycross, Georgia. Docile African Lady was still letting Pantsuit Woman do all the loud accented talking. Then I noticed that Pantsuit Woman had a hearing aid and was also gesturing to African Lady in a way that helped me realize they both were deaf, or at least hard of hearing. So, with that information, my brain began cataloging those two human beings: female, old, African, and hearing disabled. At that point,I started thinking about how difficult it must be to live in another country, a country with a different language; furthermore, how difficult it must be to be
deaf in another country, a country with a different language; and furthermost, how difficult it must be to be old and deaf in another country, a country with a different language.

It was only after more creepily voyeuristic, albeit flawlessly nonchalant, watching and listening to the ladies that I came to believe that they were a couple. It wasn’t just the clichéd notion of one of them in feminine attire and the other in a pantsuit so much as the way they interacted with each other, like any old married couple. I could be absolutely wrong about the type of relationship they had, but it was definitely close and familiar. So, then I thought: good for them! They had found each other and made a life and lived long enough and well enough to barge in front of me and annoy me at a rental car checkout counter as they hammered out the best deal they could so they could go on with their trip and their life together (whatever that life was).

The second example came a few days later. My daughter, Melissa, and I were walking back from dinner when an older man came tooling down the sidewalk in one of those motorized chair/cart things. Before long, he had engaged us in a conversation which pretty quickly led to the information that he was an Elvis impersonator. After a couple of songs (Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel) and more than a modicum of jokes, he offered us his business card, which we, of course, asked him to autograph. In the midst of writing his Elvis on the back of the card, attempting to use his knee as a portable desk, the man suddenly looked up in feigned horror, imploring, “Where’d my leg go?” At that point, we realized he was missing an appendage incredibly vital to anyone who wants or needs to emulate Elvis, the King of Pelvic Gyrations.

Melissa was acquainted with the man, whose real name was Les Small. Known around the neighborhood as Elv-Les, he'd been a general greeter/helper at the local Safeway Store, but she hadn’t seen him since he’d lost his leg. Using the information on his business card, we later looked him up online and read his bio, finding that he'd been an Elvis impersonator for years, even back in the days when he'd worked at his day job as a tree trimmer. His website showed a couple of photos of Elv-Les with what
appeared to be a full set of extremities, but said nothing about his current lack of leg.

In thinking back about the two great examples of flourishing personhood I'd recently run into, I was reminded that most people do the best they can in this life with the cards they've been dealt, and that we not only
get a life, in many ways, we make a life, which is something I need to remember as I go about making my life.

And so, the next time I don't want to take part in something fun because my feet hurt or my back aches, I'm going to think about Les Small, the one-legged Elvis impersonator, who doesn't let his disability keep him from doing what he loves in the life he's made. And when I want to
complain when people mumble over the phone or bemoan the fact that I can no longer negotiate interstate highways like I used to, I'm going to remind myself of African Lady and Pantsuit Woman, who must navigate their lives in a world where they are most likely often misunderstood.

With that, I'm also going to try to remember that life's best lessons are often presented in unusual gift bags, packaging that, at first glance, might disguise the prize inside. Some, I've found, even come with a pretty good rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel."*

You can find out more about Les Small on http://elvisnostalgia.com/

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Absolute Joy - My Top Twenty List

As I'm getting older and realizing my days here are numbered, I do try to seize the day, to be in the moment. Usually it doesn’t work, but occasionally it does. Being here in Portland with my grandchildren, holding them, and actually being able to feel their chubby feet and their very busy little vibes, make me want to stop time in order to frame the feeling, to be acutely present in the absolute joy I'm experiencing.

All of this thinking and feeling leads me to the notion of documenting, in some way, memories of great happiness I've felt throughout my life. I worked diligently to narrow them down; most are generic, a few specific. The majority are from recent years, but not all. And please know that I realize how self serving this is, how all about me it is, and why on earth would anyone else want to read it? If you decide to pass this one by, I won't blame you. However, I do wonder if my list will encourage you to contemplate
your list.

Here is my Absolute Joy Top 20 List at this particular moment in no particular order:
  1. Certain songs and singers - Fly Like a Bird by Boz Skaggs, Wayfaring Stranger by Johnny Cash, almost anything by Van Morrison or Lucinda Williams or Tracy Chapman ( I just added this one) or Neil Young (I've got to turn off KPIG)
  2. Holding my babies and grandbabies for the first time
  3. Sunrises and sunsets - I know this one is sappy and probably a cliche, but it's true
  4. My birthday dinner at Tierra with Molly, when we talked about her dreams for her future and I drank too much wine and she drove me home
  5. A Gospel Christmas each year at Atlanta Symphony Hall
  6. Sitting at a tiny Italian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, eating lunch, while my dissertation was being printed
  7. Watching my grandkids dance
  8. Barack Obama winning the presidency
  9. Finding my copy of Arizona Highways with the article I'd written in my mailbox
  10. When Allison preached my mother’s funeral at the edge of Oak Creek
  11. Many Christmas mornings, especially one at Tybee some time around 1995
  12. The beach in winter
  13. When someone likes my writing
  14. Being with my kids
  15. When I create something new and I'm happy with it
  16. The first time I saw Michael Jackson moonwalk
  17. The beginning of Lonesome Dove and the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany
  18. Most cats
  19. Christmas lights, especially the colored ones, especially when they are in bars
  20. My solo weekend trip to Paris
I thought hard about this list and it feels right. People who know me well will say, "There's Marcia going on again about such and such," but that's a good thing because, if I blab about it to the point of embarrassing myself, then I probably love it, and what I love defines me.

In addition, with the exception of being with my family, almost everything on my list happened when I was by myself, and I don't know if that means I'm ultimately happiest with just me, or, if it could be that, without the distraction of others, I'm better able to stop and appreciate the wonderfulness of a particular moment.

So, I guess supreme happiness for me would be to meet up with a cat at a beach-side bar at sunset on Christmas with Van Morrison on the jukebox. I could show the cat pictures of my grandkids dancing and, perhaps, something I've written. I just hope he'd like it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Proximity Worry

My kids call this syndrome “proximity bitching” but it’s really more about worrying than anything else. It seems the closer I am to my grown kids physically, the more I worry, which, I guess, factors into increased bitching (at least from their perspective).

Since, in any given year, I spend just eight weeks or so in Portland (two at Christmas, six in the summer), leaving forty-four weeks in Atlanta, poor Molly carries most of the burden of my anxiety. I worry about her school work, her health, her sleeping patterns, her money management, her cats, and her (lack of) cooking skills.

However, for the eight weeks I’m in Portland, Melissa and Billy are the lucky recipients of my hovering. Just recently, Billy had a series of severe headaches a doctor semi-diagnosed as cluster headaches. As you might guess, within twenty-four hours, I was an internet expert on the topic and the poor guy not only had the headaches to suffer through, he also had his mother texting him every few minutes with stupid messages like“how r u?” or "rate pain 1-10". In addition, after just a couple of days following Miles around, I’m already obsessing over him running out into the street, as if Melissa doesn’t handle Miles and the street all months other than Grammy months. Molly, on the other hand, is getting some time off as I have no idea what graduate projects she has due or what she’s burning for dinner.

I think proximity worry partially has to do with time zones. When I’m in a different time zone from my kids, I don’t fret as much. It’s almost like they aren’t living in real time. For example, when I wake up in Atlanta, it’s still the middle of night in Portland and I figure most people don't do anything really stupid just before dawn. Conversely, although Molly stays up too late and sleeps too late (in her mama’s opinion), it doesn’t bother me as much when I'm on west-coast time, since our personal clocks seem better synchronized from three time zones away.

When I was a young adult, having achieved the status of working woman, wife, and mother, I believed my parents were done with worrying about me, and they certainly didn’t seem to be overly interested in how I was doing, even though we shared a state and a time zone. They retired and traveled, had a cabin on a river in south Georgia, and finally built a retirement home on that same river. Of course, those were the days before cell phones, texting, Facebook, twitter, and Skyping brought immediate information on the good, the bad, and the ugly of us all into virtual proximity. As my parents were merrily puttering down the inter-coastal waterway, they weren't constantly checking their Blackberries for updates on my bad judgment.

I do remember my father being incredibly mad at me when Gary and I split up. Except for wanting his sympathy (which I didn’t get), I believed it really wasn’t my father's place to have an opinion on my screwed-up life. Boy, do I now see things differently. To continue with my somewhat wet analogy, Daddy thought his little girl was safely moored and battened down, and then, all of a sudden, she was back at sea, and unfettered at that. I now know his new worry probably caused his river putter to sputter a bit, knowing I was knee deep in life change.

Just recently, I was talking to Molly about my obsessive worrying and she pointed out that it probably has something to do with loss of control. When my kids were little, I drove them to school, took them to the doctor, and fed and bathed them. Although I did none of those things particularly well, I still accomplished them in my own way, in my own time. Now, my parental tasks involve mostly sitting and waiting - and worrying - and texting some.

I know mental health experts and well-meaning others would tell me to get out, to get a life, to volunteer, to get a turtle or a bird, to pray or meditate. I do use those stress-relieving and centering strategies (other than the turtle, the bird, or any real volunteering), but I have this weird philosophy, which pretty much says if I worry enough, nothing bad will happen. Take income taxes. If I obsess enough over how much I'm going to owe, the outcome will be good and I might even get some money back. Of course, an accounting course could also have a good outcome in that I would learn how to handle my taxes and what exactly to expect, but that accounting thing just sounds so boring.

Back to my kids. The one time I didn't worry about Molly and her health, she ended up in the hospital with emergency gall bladder surgery over Christmas vacation. Even when she showed up at my house with yellow skin and glowing eyes, I didn't worry, or at least I packed it away to be opened later with my winter coat and gifts for the grandkids. We boarded a plane for a cross continental flight with a Vegas layover and landed just in time for a breakneck trip to Good Samaritan and a family Christmas dinner in the hospital cafeteria.

And so, it seems I'll most likely continue to obsess and fret and do smart things and dumb things, worrying when I shouldn't and not focusing on real problems when I should. I'm pretty sure I won't be making any major changes as to how I navigate the world at this late date, so I'll just keep on putting one step in front of another as I stumble through life, figuring it out as I go along. It's not particularly pretty and it won't win any prizes, but so far, it's worked out pretty well.

Except for that layover in Vegas followed by emergency surgery in Portland part.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Don't Run this One by the ASPCA

Walking back from the Safeway Store a couple of days ago, I saw two squirrels having sex, which was a first for me. I have to report that they were doing it squirrelly style. When I was finished staring and giggling somewhat maniacally, I started thinking about all the crazy animal stories I have from when our kids were growing up and, come to think of it, even before they were born.

Gary (prior to attaining his Big Kat moniker) and I married in 1971 and lived in Athens while he finished his last year of Pharmacy School at UGA and I taught first grade at a rural school a county or so away. I somehow ended up with a cat (as I tend to do) and brought him home to our small college apartment. All I can say about that particular cat is he was given a name so politically incorrect I can’t write it here, and he turned out to be what I can only call a “pungent pooper”. His tenure in our new family in its tiny space was, therefore, short lived and, before long, I’d given him to one of my students who, hopefully, lived on a farm large enough for no one to notice how bad his @##$ smelled.

When Gary finished Pharmacy School, we moved back to his home town of Warner Robins and, of course, I got another cat. With our new apartment being a step up from our college home, we now had a small patio just past our back door, an area that afforded this new improved cat the luxury of relieving himself outdoors. In order to allow him self-scheduled ingress and egress, we left a window open above our washer and dryer in our small kitchen.

Not long after moving in, we invited Frank, one of Gary's college roommates and our local high school football coach, to bring his new girlfriend over to our apartment for a cookout. In preparation, Gary had opened the sale-priced steaks we'd purchased at the Big Apple supermarket and laid them out on top of the dryer to marinate. A few minutes later, I walked by and noticed one was missing. I'm not going to describe what happened next but I can report that Frank never knew the steak he so enjoyed later that evening had been extricated from the space between the dryer and the wall where the cat had apparently dropped it as he tried to climb out of the window with it, or that it had been washed off to remove any errant lint from its pristine raw beefiness and then re-marinated to its current perfection by the grill master himself.

And then there was Henry. Henry was a beagle we got from who knows where about the same time we purchased our first house. He later moved with us from Warner Robins to Greenville, SC and back again, all the while putting up with about a thousand cats, a bird, a rabbit, several hamsters, and countless fish. As with all free dogs, Henry, during his lifetime, cost us a small fortune in pound bailouts, vet bills, a fence we paid on for years after we’d moved from the house it graced, and the friendship of a couple of neighbors. If I’m remembering correctly, he lived to be around twelve or thirteen and, by the time he hit his twilight years, he was pretty worn out with milky eyes and the need to sleep 23 out of any given 24 hours.

The only exception to Henry's old-age slow-down was when "love came a calling". During the 70’s and 80’s, boy dogs didn’t get neutered like they do now, at least not by us. I guess we thought it was the girl dog owner's responsibility to cover canine birth control.

Henry's final fling wasn’t too long before he died. I remember I was very pregnant with Molly and, somehow, I got the word he was on the prowl yet again. I found him inside a neighbor's fenced-in yard, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to charm a dog in heat. Since the neighbor wasn't home and the gate was locked, I somehow managed to climb the fence in my advanced pregnant state, pick up the horny fool and throw him over the fence, and then climb back over myself.

Cats, during those years, were too numerous to count and I can’t remember most of their names. Skeeter was one of the early ones and, after him, Gary began calling all our cats Keeter, which must have been some kid-generated derivative of the original name. At one point, Billy had a parakeet named Jaws, who lived in the dirtiest cage known to birdkind. One day, Gary went up to Billy’s room and told him to clean the filthy cage. Just a few minutes later, Billy was found nonchalantly reading a Mad Magazine on his bed. The cage was, indeed, somewhat clean, but all the smelly bird excrement from the cage had simply been transferred to Billy’s trash can, which was just inches from his nose at the end of his supine body.

A dirty cage, however, wasn't Jaws' biggest problem. A few months later , our circuit panel went out in our house and it took several days for a new one to be installed. During that time, one of the Keeters must have become somewhat unglued, without electricity for opening his cat food cans, because he attacked Jaws in his cage and tore out all his tail feathers. Billy was much more distraught over his bird's posterior nakedness than he had ever been about his substandard living conditions. Poor Jaws was pretty pitiful himself as he couldn’t sit on his perch with his balance being all off. The most interesting part of this story is that Jaws grew new tail feathers within just a couple of days, leaving the the remorseless Keeter a bit confused and more than a little frustrated.

Next came Spunker, the rabbit. We won Spunker at the county fair and I was stupid enough to actually bring him home. Even though Spunker was supposed to live in a cage on the back porch, the mean little pervert spent a good bit of time in the house, holding us hostage, stealing dog food from the pantry, growling if we got too close, and hippity-hopping into the hall bathroom to watch Gary pee. When he eventually died, mostly of neglect, Gary told us he'd buried him in the woods behind the house, but the kids reported seeing him fling Spunker's stiff body by one of his rabbit ears, sort of like a boomerang, into the wild blue yonder. I guess the good news is that he didn't come back.

The final pet I'll tell about in this too long story was Herschel, the hamster who was named after the great running back for the University of Georgia. Herschel lived for quite a while, long enough for a cleaning lady to quit because he kept looking at her when she cleaned the bathroom. She said it was either the hamster or her and that one of them had to go. She went.

Herschel became lost in the house one time and we couldn’t figure out where he was. One night soon thereafter, I was awakened around 11:30 by God, who told me to go downstairs and watch the Johnny Carson Show. I swear this is how I remember the story. As I was sitting in the den, appreciating Johnny's monologue, I heard a scratching sound from behind the wood paneling. After just the slightest hesitation (remember God was in on this), I got a hammer and pried the paneling from the wall, and out came Herschel, who looked pretty happy for a hamster. He did, however, appear to be a paraplegic, which made sense having fallen through the wall from his upstairs habitat. Herschel lived a while longer after that in his bathroom kingdom, without his cleaning lady, but was never again able to emulate his namesake.

And then the marriage ended, and life changed as the kids, the menagerie, and I moved a couple of blocks away. Before I knew it, however, a whole new group of animals had dropped by to spend time with us.

But that story will be best saved for later.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Place Called Grammyville

Grammyville is where I live, not just when I’m within physical proximity to my grandchildren, but all the time.

Grammyville is difficult to describe. It's a fine place, but its skyline is changeable and directions there are tricky. I can tell you it not only offers some sweet spaces and a few social graces, but also busy intersections and noisy neighborhoods.

I have to admit I didn't feel like a grandmother right away. It wasn't the same as when my own serial litter began arriving thirty-five years ago. Because it doesn’t involve hormonal changes or an alien body invasion, I think becoming a grandmother is more like being a father, or, perhaps, an adoptive mother. All of a sudden there is this new person in the world, a person you didn’t have nine months to get to know.

A blogger friend recently posted something about how, as soon as someone becomes a grandmother, that’s the way she’s defined. While that may be true for marketing directed at me and people like me, I don’t think I’m particularly bound by my grandparenthood. Besides being a Grammy, I am also a teacher and a reader and a writer and a friend and a Democrat and a lapsed Methodist and a Diet Coke drinker and all the other good and bad and so-so things I am. In addition, I don’t own any t-shirts with pictures of my grandkids on them and my internet username doesn’t include precious references to them. That said, I did iron their photos on my little hand-made wallet, but that’s obviously more about creativity than progeny.

I do know, as soon as the grandchildren started arriving(and kept arriving) in Portland, Oregon, my living in Atlanta, Georgia became more problematic. Having my two oldest children live on the west coast for almost a decade hadn’t affected me all that much until they started having children of their own. Until then, the twice yearly quick-trips seemed to suffice quite nicely as we all went on living our lives.

I was in the room when Miles was born and what a memory that is. But I have to say my joy was more for Melissa and Trevor and for our family as a whole than it was for me personally. I was certainly excited, but I hadn’t quite landed in Grammyville yet. I held the little critter and thought he was mighty cute, but, at that point, I was more focused on how Melissa, my own baby, was doing. The bonding began to happen the more I was around Miles, especially when I had him to myself. I remember when Melissa and Trevor came to Georgia to attend the Master’s Golf Tournament and I kept Miles overnight, letting him sleep with me for a little while when he woke up in the middle of the night. I still recall the feel of his baby skin and the rhythm of his heart as he slept next to me.

When Cami came along, I made it to Portland when she was just a couple of days old. Again, I was happy for Billy and Mary and for all of us, and she was an adorable little nugget too. But it was months later, when I took her for her first walk in her stroller with her little red sunhat and we stopped and looked at the flowers and listened to the birds, that I began to see the two of us as an item.

Georgia, my newest grandchild, while a cutie pie herself, still isn’t too sure about me. In fact, she tends to cry as soon as I walk into a room. However, I’m confident we will become friends as soon as we can get rid of her mama for a couple of hours. She already thinks I’m pretty funny when I make my stupid noises and that’s an important first step in learning to love me.

I believe good communities are based on mutual affection and shared experiences, and that's certainly true for Grammyville. When Miles grins and says "Hi Grammy" in his gravelly boy voice and then does his special burlesque act for me, my heart expands with real joy. When Cami lets me hold her hand as we take a walk and when she sits in my lap for a story, it feels like the old ticker is going to burst. And I'm thinking the first time Georgia picks me over everyone else in the room (and she will), I just might explode with happiness.

And so, if I had to pinpoint Grammyville's whereabouts, I'd have to say it's located somewhere near the center of my heart. I just hope that having it take up residence there doesn't cause me to go into cardiac arrest, or, worse yet, to change my email address to something like grammyspreciousangels@yahoo.com., or, worst-case scenario, to become so delusional as to believe there's a place called Grammyville.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

All Fired Up

Who doesn’t love a good fire, either in a fireplace or in a pit in the backyard, or, in the case of my family, melting your brand new nylon carpet?

The Talbert/Mayo clan has always had a problem with making a flame, either employing too little fire power or too much. When the Big Kat and I were married, we coined the phrase the “Talbert Log”, which was what we called those fire starter logs you can buy at the grocery store. Our genius, if you want to call it that, was that we never got past the fake log, depending on it to sustain our fire in its entirety. Some cold evenings we would go through two or three of those suckers, with some shine but very little warmth.

As my three children grew into adolescence, I now believe our problems with fires had more to do with my weak parenting skills than with large emotional issues. I’m proud to say there’s not a pyromaniac anywhere in the group, just a passel of dumb-asses.

Melissa, my oldest, was the one who set the carpet on fire in the middle of our new house celebratory dinner as she decided that passing her paper napkin through a candle flame was actually a good idea. I guess she just wasn’t all that used to candlelit dinners. As soon as the napkin caught on fire, she then decided to try to make her way to the kitchen to drop it in the sink. It doesn’t take a great storyteller (or even me) to paint the picture of what happened next, with parts of the flaming paper landing in the little plastic carpet fibers. I guess I should have been happy the rug was made of cheap man-made products that melted instead of burning.

Billy, my most cautious child, had another problem with fire. He thought it was stupid. I remember being at my parents’ house down by the coast where my father was overseeing a weenie roast. At some point, Billy came into the house complaining because the fire had heated the coat hanger to the point that it had burned his fingers. However, his major complaint had to do with how ridiculous it was to have to stand outside and hold a coat hanger with a hot dog stuck on the end when you could just throw it in the microwave and be done with it.

Molly and her fourteen-year-old friends caused our most exciting scorch story, and the only one involving an actual fire truck. One Saturday night, she had some girls over to spend the night and, when I was ready to go to bed, I made them come in from the front yard where they were hanging out in that particularly irritating manner only fourteen-year-old girls can carry off. They, of course, skulked upstairs so my nose wouldn’t be in their business, but just as soon as I turned out my light in my downstairs bedroom, there was a loud banging on my front door. When I opened it, two young men were standing there yelling “fire!” and pointing at the bush next to my porch, which was, indeed, ablaze. After the young men, who, it turned out, rented a house across the street, extinguished the fire with my garden hose, they offered, “Well, the good news is we put it out. The bad news is we called the fire department before we ran over.”

As soon as the firemen, in a veritable aurora borealis of flashing lights on what had to be the county's biggest reddest truck, had given the newly truly sorry girls a stern sermon on the dangers of smoking, they drove away, leaving me with two extra kids to worry about, since the young men, whom I ended up calling The Puppies, somehow sort of adopted Molly and me. I think it was because they felt responsible for us after saving our lives.

I'm pretty confident my kids are going to demand that I come clean as to my own issues with spontaneous combustion, so here's my first story. One cold and rainy February night in 1996, I entered the dining/break room in the College of Education building at the University of Georgia, excited about the Chick-fil-A sandwich I’d picked up hours before as I’d driven into Athens for my Thursday night graduate class. Now, like all good Southerners, I not only know the Supreme Yumminess of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, I also know the bag, with its aluminum innards designed to keep the sandwich warm, should never be put in the microwave. But the class was long and the night was bitter, and my sandwich, in spite of itself, was cold.

The dining hall was crowded with graduate students and professors as I entered, so I had to wait in line to heat up my dinner. As soon as I queued up, dropped my bagged sandwich in the microwave, and started pushing buttons, I was horrified to see sparks and then flames. The only thing I could think to do was to put the fire out with my shoe but, alas, it was the mid nineties and zippered boots were in vogue.

I did manage to save the day that night and keep my enlightenment-seeking, and therefore hungry, colleagues from being evacuated into the February sleet by putting the fire out in the shoulder-high-situated government-issued-and-maintained microwave with my boot, which was, by the way, still zipped to my foot. In retrospect, the university should have gone ahead and given me my terminal degree that very evening just for the common good.

My second story has to do with The Puppies. Because they had adopted Molly and me and they were away from home serving our country in the Air Force and I was grateful they had saved our lives, I decided to invite them over for Christmas dinner. Because I'm a terrible cook, I have no idea why I thought this would be a good way to thank them but apparently I did. Being in a festive mood and probably trying to cover up something I'd most likely burned in the oven, I also made the decision to light some candles (especially since Melissa was twenty-five hundred miles away from my dining room carpet).

Lighting candles for Christmas dinner isn't that unusual, but, for some reason, I also decided to fire up some tapers in my bathroom, which was not a guest bathroom but my personal bathroom that no one other than me would be entering. In a continued quest to commit the unthinkably stupid, I placed the bare candles on a planked wooden table that not only held grooming tools but also offered a slatted roof for the wicker basket where I threw my dirty underwear.

Midway through our festive Christmas meal, one of The Puppies said he smelled something burning.

I just want to make sure to set the record straight. I was not wearing the underwear that caught on fire during the company dinner I hosted on Christmas Day 1999.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Road to Americus

I’ve often thought I’d like a roadmap of my life, an old-fashioned paper map with creases and wrinkles and pencil markings of all the places I’ve been. It would include the happy spaces and the sad places, the places I never should have been to begin with, the wrong turns, the dead ends, the uh ohs and the oh wows, the just-glad-to-be-there safe havens, and the home sweet homes. Some of the roads would have only a couple of lines, the getting there and the getting back marks, others would’ve been penciled in so many times there would just be a torn space where the graphite had once been.

The road from Warner Robins to Americus, Georgia would be one of those torn lines, a dogleg tattered groove starting in the middle of the state and then heading south and finally west.

I’d never thought much about Americus until I landed in Warner Robins as a young wife, mother, and teacher. That’s when my work friends told me about little Georgia Southwestern College, a good and relatively close place to get a Master’s Degree. After eschewing the tiny school as being beneath me, even with my less-than-stellar transcript from the University of Georgia, I decided to matriculate. The first pencil line on my map to Americus would have been dated early June of 1977 when I drove down the rural highway to register for classes. During the next ten summers or so, I traveled that road twice a week, earning two graduate degrees and coming to appreciate all a small college could offer.

It’s one of those quirky tricks of fate that Americus’ claim to fame not only included Georgia Southwestern College but also Magnolia Manor, with its retirement center and nursing home, the place where both of my parents would eventually live and die. Good Methodists that they were, my mother and father believed you just couldn’t get to heaven without at least stopping by Magnolia Manor on your way out the door. I hadn't paid much attention to conversations about Magnolia Manor when I was growing up, never believing in my adolescent mind that anyone I really cared about would
ever end up in a place like that.

Of course, as with many youthful beliefs, life proved mine wrong. A few years after I’d finished my last class at GSW, my daddy became too ill for my mother to care for him in their home on the Georgia Coast, so he was moved into the nursing home in the same small town at the other end of that southwest Georgia road I’d driven for ten years.

Daddy wasn’t too happy about being in a nursing home, partly because he couldn’t get a decent haircut, so he called and told me I needed to get a razor and drive down to shave his head. I was horrified at the thought of taking a blade to my daddy’s scalp so I stopped at Walmart on my way into town and bought an electric hair trimmer. When I’d finished with the buzz cut I’d attempted, Daddy looked like he’d just finished a fight with a bobcat, with the bobcat being the paws-down winner. I, on the other hand, was proud he at least still had his ears. During the three years Daddy lived at the nursing home at Magnolia Manor, he never did ask me for a haircut again.

Daddy died in 1994 when I was in the midst of getting my doctorate at the University of Georgia by way of another well-traveled road. When I completed that degree, I was offered a teaching position at none other than Georgia Southwestern State University, the new name signifying my old school's advancement within the university system. I accepted in spite of the pay cut, believing that the lifestyle and the Dr. Mayo status would make up for the lack of money.

Never thinking I would stay as long as I did, I decided to continue living in Warner Robins where Molly was still in school and to commute to Amercius. During the seven years I worked full time for GSW, I made the 120 mile round trip an average of four days a week year round, 600 miles per week. Most of those trips were work related, but some were to visit my mother and take her to lunch, as she, too, had made her way to Magnolia Manor at that point, first in assisted living, finally in the nursing home.

Although the trip itself quickly became perfunctory and mundane, lots happened on that road to and from Americus throughout those seven years. I watched the crops come and go each season and enjoyed some beautiful sunsets. I laughed at the crazy whirling dog who greeted me most mornings as he dirvished himself way too close to the highway for my driving comfort. I mourned the dead deer who apparently weren't as smart as the dog, and tried my best to dodge the turnips that would truly fall off the backs of old farm trucks. I worried about my kids, worried about money, and worried about my future. Then on one trip on a September day in 2001, I learned of the horrific events that would change everything and then I worried about us all.

During that time, I also wrote my three crazy books in my head as I drove, thinking up fictional roles for Macon State Prison, the old Manhattan Shirt Factory, and Debra, my first real friend who happened to be black, as I daydreamed my way to and from work. And there was that Friday evening, driving home after seeing Mama look so bad, and then turning around and going back the next day, marginally functioning in a state of disbelief after getting the call letting me know she was gone.

Now that I live in Atlanta, I don't go to Americus very often, but just this week, I added a couple more pencil marks to my mind map when my friend, YeVette, asked me to teach a class while she was out of town. Because the trip was no longer commonplace, I spent the time appreciating the countryside and awash in memories. The drive was still gorgeous, with its pristine Mennonite farms, verdant pecan orchards, and corn and cotton crops, but it was the pictures in my head that kept me most occupied: Daddy and his hair cut, Mama and her favorite lunch spots, my teachers, students, and friends from my GSW days, and that crazy dog.

But what I thought about most was the life I've lived during the thirty-three years since my first trip on the road to Americus, and all the other roads I've traveled. And, even though my life map is pretty full, I feel relatively confident I'm not finished yet. I'm looking forward to seeing what I'll pencil in next. I just hope it's not one of those places I never should have been to begin with. I do hope those trips are over.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Left Coast

Okay, I've been meaning to come clean about this but have been putting it off. I think I'm ready now. Here goes.

I'm bi-coastal.

I know it's hard to believe and, trust me, it's a difficult life. The looks I get, people not understanding, the indecision, the not being able to remember where I am when I wake up on any given morning.

I have to blame my children. Two of them just up and moved to Oregon, which is on the West Coast or, as The Big Kat calls it, the Left Coast, while the third one refuses to leave Georgia, which, if I remember correctly, is on the East Coast, or, as the Big Kat would probably call it, the Right Coast. Then, the two who moved started procreating at an alarming rate, three kids in three years, and those kids turned out to be pretty darned cute despite their parentage and grand-parentage. And, to further complicate things, I have to believe my baby will have babies of her own at some point, little southern babies, not western babies.

So what was a Grammy to do? I tried staying in a hotel when I was in Portland but that was too expensive a way to seek refuge for very long. Stay with the kids? You’ve got to be kidding me. We don’t like each other that much, plus it takes me weeks to get used to west coast time.

I ended up buying a tiny condo in St. Johns, a quirky little village in the middle of Portland, where I’m within walking distance to my first and third grandchild and a pretty quick drive to my second. I like to describe my Portland condo as being like a not particularly well-appointed suite in a mid-priced hotel. I live there each Christmas vacation and during the summer. While I’m gone, my friend Susan waters my poor pitiful Atlanta houseplants each week and checks on my car to make sure it's still there. One thing I had to do was to give my cat Chloe time to die of old age before I could make my move to dual citizenship, as I was pretty sure neither of us would've survived her taking on this lifestyle.

I lucked out with my Portland home, parlaying someone else's misery into something good for me when I purchased it in a short sale. And I like to think, because I enjoy small spaces, my two homes are smaller together than the one home of many of my friends. For example, I have two bathrooms. They just happen to be twenty-five hundred miles apart. Rather inconvenient when I have guests, but otherwise just fine.

Although The Big Kat cleverly calls the West Coast the Left Coast, I’ve found Portland and Atlanta to be about equal on the liberal-o-meter, although that conclusion just might be based on the people I hang out with. Portland is, however, much greener than Atlanta. There are bike lanes everywhere and Portlanders take their recycling quite seriously, so seriously, in fact, that I’m a nervous wreck as pick-up day arrives each week. Am I putting everything in the correct container? Are the garbage people going to ridicule me because there is evidence of meat eating? Is possession of styrofoam in Oregon a misdemeanor or a felony?

Another difference between my Atlanta home and my Portland home is air conditioning, in that, in Portland, I don’t have any. When I tell Southerners that little tidbit of Oregon news, they automatically start fanning themselves with invisible cardboard funeral parlor fans. But, the truth is, except for a few days in late July, I don’t miss it at all. In fact, June almost always finds Portlanders in some kind of funky hoodie as they bike to the green market or recycling center.

In front of my Portland home. Note the bicycling family and the blue recycling bin.

I also like to think about how Georgia and Oregon are alike in a weirdly wacky diametrically-opposed kind of way. Georgia, on the East Coast, is the second most southern state in the contiguous US. Oregon, on that other coast, is the second most northern state within the put-together part of our country. They both have a gorgeous coastline, although Oregon has much more of it. They both have mountains and rivers and back-wood small towns and people with few teeth and/or meth addictions. They also both have professional sports teams and state universities with rabid football fans. I must say, however, that UGA's uniforms are much manlier than those green and yellow get-ups the poor University of Oregon players are forced to wear.

Despite all the ways Georgia and Oregon are alike and different, and my good luck in finding a second home in Portland, the sad bottom line of this otherwise happy story is that my first two children couldn’t have moved any farther away from their mama and still stay in the united part of the United States unless I lived in Miami and they moved to Seattle. But I’ve outsmarted them and I know where they live and I’ll be in Portland in a few days, as soon as I drive down to middle Georgia to kiss my third one goodbye for the summer.

I just wish I could have a cat.

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