To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.

Trust

Child jumping

Едно, две, триии…(One, two, three…). Vladimir Petkov. CC BY-SA

I am eleven years old, standing at the end of a pier beside my uncle. He’s holding both of my toddler cousin’s hands as she jumps from the pier’s edge toward the murky green depths of the Piankatank River. She squeals with delight. Just as she dips, her father swings her back. She lands safely on the wooden slats, laughing. Over and over she jumps. Her feet never touch the water. 

I know the water is over her head. The biggest jellyfish I’ve ever seen are floating all around. We can’t even go swimming because of these ghostly orbs, larger than my head and so heavy that when I catch one in the crab net, it fills the net and I can barely lift it from the water. Hunks of the jellyfish ooze through the net, too, plopping back into the water.

I shudder.

I’ve composed a song in my head:

The Piankatank River 

Ain’t the place to swim

Because it’s full of jellyfish

And other things within.

I don’t even know what other things are within but I sense that they’re utterly treacherous. My toddler cousin’s reflection zooms out again over the shimmering, placid surface. Back she swings to safety.

“Why isn’t she scared?” I ask my uncle.

He smiles, holding tight to his daughter’s small hands. “She knows I won’t let her fall. She has no fear because she trusts me completely.”

My little cousin jumps once more, with wild abandon. Her face turns toward the sky as she swings backward, dangling from her father’s hands.

Her expression is one of absolute joy.

That image, that moment, has never left me.

He was enjoying her joy. Allowing her freedom to dare, to be a risk-taker, yet keeping her safe at the same time. Had he been less attentive, less vigilant . . . she might have gotten wet, or worse. I knew what dangers awaited, the harm that could come, and also that my uncle wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t confident in his own strength. I marveled at his easy assurance and peace of mind. He wasn’t afraid, either.

Of myriad connections I can make out of this moment, the one that rises to the surface of my mind first is teaching. Creating the conditions for good learning to occur means letting children explore, dare, make choices, take risks, all stemming from a foundation of safety, an environment of trust. Children have to know they can take leaps and that their teachers will not let them fall, that they have nothing to fear.

For that to occur, we as teachers must  recognize our own strength and continuously strive on behalf of those entrusted to us. Teachers must be risk-takers, too. We must believe that we can get students safely from where they are to where they need to be, even beyond. Not just for now, this quarter, this year, this test – but by inspiring students to actively pursue learning for the rest of their lives.

It’s no small feat, when our own piers stand in the murkiest of depths. But we’re standing in the singular position that affects outcomes. What lies within us is greater than external forces. By far. We make the leap when we move from belief to action, from self-esteem to self-efficacy. Trusting others, trusting self, trusting in the safety of shared trust, strengthening one another, propelling each other forward. Professional trust isn’t holding on loosely; it’s everyone holding on tight, not letting go. When done with confidence, responsibility, and mindfulness, we develop a dynamic of grace, a synergy of poetry in motion – swinging out over the depths with our faces turned skyward.

The safe environment of will not let you fall. 

A paradox, really, that it takes a collective grasping of hands to experience the freedom, the joy.

slice-of-life_individual

Between the moon and New York City

Harvest moon

Harvest moon. patrick pearceCC BY-NC-ND

I have to get to work early. Several teachers have asked for help, and I need to prepare. It’s sometimes all or nothing in the life of a literacy coach.

I rue the hour, but I quickly realize a perk.

A gift, even.

Against the pre-dawn October sky, the full moon is enormous. Breathtaking. As I drive the back country roads, it looms just ahead of me, darting in and out of trees as I round curves

Oh, the Harvest Moon! So beautiful, I think.

The moon is oddly big and bright. I knew it was full when I woke up, as the bedroom was bathed in ethereal, silvery light even with the blinds drawn. There’s something deeply magnetic in its intensity this morning, beyond its size. I shiver. The first autumn chill is in the air. It’s the time of year when strange things are afoot, stirring the dying leaves, whispering of time past.

Do you remember.

Something dormant wakes with a jolt, rushes back – the electricity of being young, on the cusp of a major life event, with the unknown stretching before me. I’m like a racehorse at the starting gate, quivering with anticipation, ready to break free, to run for all I’m worth.

I blink, and the overpowering moon transports me right back.

I am nineteen and I believe I can be an actress.

I really do.

After several years of high school plays and local theater productions, plus a year of college theater courses to my credit, I’ve decided I want more than the traditional education route. I’m chasing a dream: I’ve applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

They’ve scheduled my audition.

In a rather surreal haze, I catch a train in my Virginia hometown to meet my older cousin, Dan, in Washington, D.C., where he lives. The next morning, we hop on Amtrak to New York.

I’ve been to the Big Apple once before, with my high school drama club. The proximity and height of the buildings almost suffocated me: “There’s hardly any sky to see,” I told a classmate. I then learned why it’s nicknamed The City That Never Sleeps. All night long I heard traffic, voices, sirens.

This time I know what to expect.  This time I am pulsing with energy, ready for my moment – a racehorse pawing the ground at the gate.

This train isn’t moving fast enough.

Dan is wildly excited about my audition: “You’re the maverick of the family,” he tells me.

I look at his earnest green eyes. For a moment, I fear I’ll disappoint everyone. Our aunt, our mothers’ unmarried sister, has given me a framed picture of a harlequin holding a rose, sitting on a crescent moon amongst stars in the sky. This reminds me of you, she wrote on the back. Somewhere between the moon and New York City.

Lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme,” of course. The song by Christopher Cross, subtitled “Best That You Can Do”:

When you get caught between the Moon and New York City
I know it’s crazy, but it’s true
If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

My spinster aunt means it as an encouragement for me to do my best, believing I’ll succeed on the stage. I understand this just as much as I understand I’m not about to be falling in love.  At nineteen I am decidedly jaded. I don’t want a boyfriend and have secretly sworn off relationships. Guys my around my age, I’ve learned, are not to be trusted. I do not have time to waste on them.

“What do you have to do for the audition?” Dan asks, as the ugly backsides of major East Coast cities zip by the train windows.

“A dramatic piece and a comedy piece,” I tell him. “For the dramatic, Alison’s monologue from Look Back in Anger, after she’s lost a baby. For the comedy piece I’ve spliced together Babe’s lines from Crimes in the Heart. Dark, Southern humor. Really hilarious.”

His eyes glow. “You have to perform these for me!”

Once we are settled in the city, I do. It’s my final rehearsal.

Dan is delighted. “You’re going to make it. I just know it.”

I’m not sure, but I think I detect tears in his vivid eyes.

The hour comes. After a short conversation with Academy officials, I step onto the empty stage. There’s no spotlight. It all feels quite ordinary.

I give the monologues all I’ve got, full rein to the electric charge coursing in my veins – the best that I can do.

The faces of the Academy people are inscrutable. They shake my hand:

“Thank you. We will inform you of our decision by letter within a few weeks.”

I stumble back into the shadows of Madison Avenue where I barely recognize my cousin.

“How did it go?”

“Okay, I think,” I tell him, and only then do I realize how violently I’m shaking.

“I am so proud of you!” His smile is magnificent as he wraps me in a bear hug.

Now we can roam the fabled streets at our leisure. It’s January and utterly freezing, but we don’t let that stop us from going to the top of the Empire State Building where our carefully-styled hair stands on end in the frigid gale. In a tiny restaurant, I have my first cappuccino – a frothy, cinnamon wonder. At a nondescript shop we buy teal scarves that are at least four feet wide and about eight feet long. We loop them around our necks multiple times.

Dan says, “Have you noticed how people are looking at us? They think we are somebody – they’re trying to figure out if we’re famous.”

He is right. I catch our reflection in the shopfront glass – we can pass for ’80s pop stars.

That bright image is a freeze-frame. The rest of my memory curls like fog around the edges of it.

Dan was also right about something else.

A couple of weeks later, I pulled an envelope bearing the Academy’s return address out of a stack from the mailbox. My hands shook so that I could hardly open it.

I cried.

I was on my way to New York City for real. To live, to make my way, to do what I loved best.

I didn’t have a dime to my name or any idea how I’d manage to find a place to live in New York, come August; all I knew was that in the meantime I needed to keep performing. I went to the next community theater audition, for Whose Life Is It Anyway? I walked through the door and instantly spotted, across the room, sitting in a chair, the handsomest man I’d ever seen. Black hair, brooding dark eyes, classic features – if we’d been living in the 1940s, this guy could double for Tyrone Power.

He looked up, saw me, and smiled.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

I was going to New York.

I didn’t want a boyfriend.

We both got parts in the play.

This was the end of January.

In May, he gave me his mother’s diamond engagement ring.

We were married in August.

The Academy said I had a year, if I wanted, to enroll.

Within the year, my young husband told me he was called to the ministry.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City . . . .

There are Things Meant to Be and Things Not Meant to Be, I hear myself whisper.

At least, I think that’s myself whispering.

I blink – and here I am, three decades and two grown boys later, still married to the same preacher man, driving to work, pondering how to help teachers and students, while a magical moon dips in and out of the trees. I am in rural North Carolina, a far cry from New York City. Never made it to Broadway, except as a member of the audience.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances . . . .

I wonder what Dan would say now about my being the family maverick. He’s been gone for years. His exit came so early; he died at thirty-four.

I drive on under the Harvest Moon, noting how the darkness is no match for its spellbinding brightness. I am flooded with gratitude for all I’ve been given, realizing that the autumn of my life has not even begun.

Yes, Moon. I remember.

And so I play my part – the best that I can.

slice-of-life_individual

The song

Grandma's organ

I love Granddaddy’s and Grandma’s apartment. The walls are knotty pine and the floors are made of a different wood; they shine under Grandma’s braided rugs.  There’s a booth curving around a table in one corner. It makes me think of the ice cream shop where we sometimes go for milkshakes. This booth is where Granddaddy, Grandma and I eat supper. Sometimes we have jelly doughnuts or apple turnovers for dessert; Grandma is very fond of apple turnovers and so I am I. There’s an odd, glass-less window between the bedroom and the “front room,” as Grandma calls it. I call it the living room. Grandma has curtains on this weird window and I can remember, dimly, my aunt holding me in her arms on one side as Grandma pulled the curtains apart on the other, crying “PEEK-A-BOO!” We all dissolved with laughter. A fancy ashtray with a curved handle that’s either a ram or a goat – some horned, leaping  animal – stands on a tall, thin pedestal beside my grandfather’s worn leather recliner, but no one ever smokes here.

Many wonders exist in this cozy place, but one of the prettiest is Grandma’s organ.

It’s made of polished wood, with curved legs. It stands gracefully against the front room wall, under shelves of family mementos and photographs.

Grandma knows how to play it. She has a piano down home in the country, but it was too big to bring to the apartment. When Granddaddy went to work at the shipyard during the War, my grandmother had to leave her piano behind. So, he bought her this organ one Christmas. 

He knew how much she loved to play.

One afternoon she says, “I will teach you.”

I am nervous and excited at the same time – I have never touched this organ.

Grandma opens the top. She lowers the little stand that holds a book. She has a booklet of hymns and one of Christmas songs; she places the Christmas book on the stand.

“Watch and listen,” she says, her blue eyes soft and bright. “This is my favorite.”

She plays “Silent Night.”

She sings, and I know the song. I sing some of the words with her:

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

“Now it’s your turn,” she says.”See these numbers? That’s what you play with your right hand. These circles with letters are the chords – you play the buttons with your left hand.”

She takes my hands in her own. 

5,6,5,3 – Si – i -lent night

5,6,5,3 – ho – o -ly night

She puts my fingers on the right keys, pressing the white “C” major button until we switch – gracious! – to “G” and “F.”

I am very slow – it seems a lot to do at one time.

But Grandma guides me, and soon I have played a song.

A whole song.

“Now try it on your own,” she says.

I labor. My keys and my chords are not exactly in sync, but I play. I am playing the song by myself!

Grandma sings behind me. Her voice carries me on.

She hugs me when I finish; I smell her Avon Cachet cream, light and clean.

Her eyes glisten with tears, but she’s smiling.

It was the first of many lessons I’d learn from my grandmother. In those days before I started school, I thought the white major buttons sounded like a wedding; all the minor and diminished buttons sounded like something in haunted houses.

Pretty much the theme music of life – celebrations and dark, mysterious moments. Sometimes I would play the buttons by themselves, listening to the happiness and strangeness of the chords.

I made my own stories out of these sounds.

I realized, decades later, the legacy my grandmother left me: There was always a song of hope and faith in the heart to carry me through the darkest times. That being a wife and mother often meant sacrifice. She was the quintessential teacher, without being formally trained – my foray into the music she loved followed the perfect I do, we do, you do pattern.  She guided my fingers on the keys, my feet on the path, my heart on the things that matter most.

Above all, she believed in me.

There’s no greater gift to a child.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was invited to attend a summer program for gifted students in writing, drama, and photography.

My father couldn’t afford the fee.

Grandma paid it. “Children need to have a chance to do things that matter to them,” she said, with a startling ferocity.

Much later I learned that she wanted to take piano lessons when she was in her early teens and that her family couldn’t afford them during the Depression. A young minister’s wife, however, taught my grandmother how to play.

In everything I do, she’s still there behind me, singing, urging me on, never far away. She is gone, yet she isn’t; her song sings in my soul, in time with the beating of my heart. I am who I am because of her.

Today my youngest son – a college student and music minister – plays her piano and sings the old songs. Her organ stands in my foyer – the first thing that people see when they come to my home.

Her legacy lives, from generation to generation.

I often think how thrilled she’d be to hear my boy’s beautiful playing and singing. “Oh, how my Grandma would love to hear this,” I tell him.

Even as I say the words, I know she knows.

The little hand

Hands

Untitled mural. Rob SwystunCC-BY

She’s the tiniest student in our first grade class, beautifully dressed, hair neatly swept up in beaded ponytail holders. She speaks little; she is shy. Her big brown eyes, framed with long, thick lashes, take in everything. 

I often catch her eyes resting on me. I wonder what she’s thinking. I smile at her. She looks away, but I can see the corners of her mouth twisting up, that she’s deliberately suppressing her natural response.

I am not the teacher; I am a teacher in training, working as an assistant. The teacher soon pairs me with this tiny girl. We are to read together for a few minutes every day. My shy friend is a struggling learner.

She has many struggles.

I learn that this child is the oldest of several siblings and that they all live with their grandmother. This child suffers with asthma – common ground with me.

“I have asthma, just like you,” I tell her one day.

“You do?” Little eyebrows elevate over the big brown eyes. She studies my face, and for the first time, a smile breaks over her solemn countenance, like a flicker of light.

The teacher and I notice how our little girl scratches herself, her arms and her neck in particular. Patches of thick, scaly skin appear to be eczema – they flare when she’s stressed. She scratches and scratches.

I take over the class while the teacher ushers our friend to the sink and shows her how to use a nail brush to clean away the necrotic tissue collecting under her fingernails.

After conversations with Grandma, a tub of cream is brought to school. When we open it, the cream is peppered with flakes of our little friend’s skin, from multiple dabbings and applications.

On the worst days, we take turns holding her in our laps, rocking her while she cries, holding her hands in ours to keep her from scratching and drawing blood, while the other kids run and play at recess or spread across the room to do their work.

The teacher fears that the thick patches of skin are permanently altered.

We cry, too.

One morning, after an unpleasant encounter with an adult in the building, I enter the classroom and find a quiet place to sit away from the children. Passing by, en route to morning meeting, the teacher whispers to me: “Are you all right?”

“I will be,” I reply. “I just need a minute to breathe.”

As the students gather on the floor around the teacher, my tiny friend creeps over to me. She crawls up in my lap, featherweight that she is. I put my arms around her. 

She reaches out her little hand and pats my neck.

Your skin is all red,” she says.

And she sits there with me, not to be comforted this time, but to comfort. The only child who perceived that something wasn’t right.

She rocks, humming a tune. I don’t know it. Turns out that my friend is a singer – there’s an astonishingly big, expressive voice inside that tiny ravaged body.

She begins singing more and more. She makes us laugh – her classmates love to hear her. 

One afternoon, after several weeks of reading together – beginning with picture walks and my reading pages to the girl and her reading them back to me, repeating until she can read with few to no errors, with increasingly complex books – she sits regally in the chair beside me and takes the new book out of my hand before I can introduce it.

“I can do it myself,” she announces.

I hold my breath the entire time, restraining myself from intervening as she works through this new, harder text on her own. She labors in some places, but she keeps moving, until the final word.

“YOU DID IT!” I shout. People walking at the end of the hallway stop and turn around.

My little friend, face aglow, radiant, throws her braided head back and laughs for all she’s worth.

I carry those moments – I carry her – in a corner of my heart forever.

For me there’s no question of who really taught whom, who was the greater blessing to the other.

Many years have passed, but when I think of diverse student needs, of overcoming, I see her solemn face, her beautiful eyes. I hear her cries, her laughter, and marvel at the resilience of children. I feel the pat of her little hand, the innate empathy in it, born of suffering, recognizing suffering, seeking to alleviate it; our exterior, our skin, is not the whole of us. Her songs, resonant with untaught vibrato, bubbling up from some pure wellspring deep within, represent the indomitable human spirit – full to overflowing, even in the face of hardship, even in the smallest of us.

 

Roadside treasure

Spock & Kirk

Star Trek Monthly Magazine Poster Book (cropped). Joe HauptCC BY-SA

The following is a narrative/memoir written several times with students in grades 3-5. I wrote a bare-bones version in front of students, then revised to model the vast difference of “showing, not telling” by adding detail and dialogue. “I can see it all happening!” the kids always exclaim, as the narrative comes to life. Yesterday’s eclipse brought this piece back to mind – the fascination with space, the many hours I spent watching and playing Star Trek when I was the age of these students. During the writing process, the kids ask countless questions. My favorite moment is when they realize what the story is really about.

I shake the device in my hand before I flip the lid and press the button to speak. “Do you read me, Spock?”

Nothing, not even static.

I pull the antenna out as far as it will go. I bang on the device a couple of times with my fist. I shout into it: “COME IN, SPOCK!”

My sister pokes her face from around the corner of our house. “This really ain’t logical!” she calls. She’s not even holding the device up to her mouth.

I sigh.

My sister is eight, I am ten, and we are tired of playing Star Trek. The batteries in the communicators we got for Christmas have quit working, and it’s no fun for Captain Kirk (me) and Mr. Spock (my sister) to keep yelling messages to each other across the yard, which has just one decent tree. There’s only so many pretend worlds we can explore when it all looks the same, with nowhere to hide from alien life forms.

My sister meets me at the street in front of the house. We leave our useless communicators behind in the grass and sit down on the curb as ourselves, not Kirk and Spock anymore.

“Let’s walk to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee,” says my sister. She likes the straws with the spoon on the end. She plays with them more than she drinks her Slurpee.

“I’m broke. I spent my last fifty cents on cinnamon Now-and-Laters and green apple bubble gum day before yesterday and it’s all gone already.” Our dad can’t stand green apple bubble gum. He says it stinks but I think it’s delicious, even though it turns my teeth and tongue green. “Do you have any money?”

“Nah, I thought you did,” says my sister, kicking at the grit beside the curb.

“Not anymore.”  I wish I had some green apple gum right now. I stretch my legs, which are getting long, out into the road. If a car comes, which isn’t all that often in our neighborhood, my sister and I will pull our legs up to our chests until it goes by.

I look down at the edge of the curb where it meets the street, at the little loose rocks lying there. I see a stubby twig and pick it up to write my name in the dust when I notice tiny chunks of pale blue-green glass. I wonder where these came from. Someone must have thrown a Coke bottle out of a car and shattered it.  I push the pieces around with the twig, inspecting them – they don’t look sharp. Time and weather, maybe, have smoothed away the roughest edges.

“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” asks my sister.

“I don’t know.” I pick up a bumpy chunk of the glass and roll it around in my hand; it sparkles in the sunlight. “Maybe I would have a horse and a big house. Maybe I would travel all over the world and be famous. What would you do?”

“I’d give some to poor people for their kids to have toys and bikes and then I would get me a bunch of dogs. What is that?”

I show her the bit of glass in my hand. I smile: “It’s an aquamarine. March’s birthstone. If you were born in March I would give it to you but since you weren’t, I will sell it for thousands of dollars.”

“Hey!” My sister is half amused and half irritated. “Look here—I got my own aquamarine!” She plucks up another bit from the curbside dust.

Suddenly we’re both on a wild treasure hunt, crawling along the curb so fast that we’re scraping our knees. We find bits of brown glass; we say it’s topaz. Green bits are emeralds, my birthstone. The clear ones are diamonds, of course. We can’t find any sapphires, my sister’s birthstone. We forget that this is trash, just pieces of bottles tossed out because someone else didn’t have the manners to put them in a trashcan. In no time we have amassed enough jewels for a princess, maybe two.

The sun shines warm on our backs and a couple of cars go by, slowing down, almost stopping, as they pass. Maybe the drivers are nervous about two girls crawling so close to the street or maybe they’re just trying to figure out what we are doing there in the dirt, but the quartz in the pavement winks at us, glinting like gold, and I know my sister and I are rich beyond compare. We are not afraid to pick our jewels out of the dirt, because dirt is just part of the world, and right now, we own the world.

Broken glass

Broken glass, curbside grass. Orin ZebestCC BY

slice-of-life_individual

Today is going to be long ago


Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom, today is going to be long, long ago.

-Thomas Hornsby Ferril

Daddy paid the bill and we left the doctor’s office. My arms burned and ached from the allergy injections. We’d waited a long time for the nurse to call my name, despite having an appointment every week on my father’s day off. We’d also waited a long time after the shots, one in each arm, in case of a severe reaction. The day itself was shot now. As we crossed the parking lot to get in the car, I thought: Nothing ever changes. We come, I get the shots, my arms hurt for another two days. I still can’t sleep a whole night through because of asthma attacks. Balling up with my knees under my chest, my head on two pillows, helps me breathe sometimes. I can take in air but I have to push it out. My chest rattles. The wheezing occurs most often at night. It’s worse in spring and fall—every Easter and Thanksgiving, my parents say. Each night Daddy pours more water in the vaporizer in my room, refills the little metal tray in the lid with Vick’s menthol. The contraption steams and sputters for the duration of the night, but the only effect I can see is the loosening of the tape holding my posters on the walls of my bedroom—posters I bought at the book fair, one of a tabby kitten dangling from a limb, captioned “Hang on, Baby, Friday’s coming!” and a red poster of a sunset, with “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”—until my posters fall down.  Every day I try to stick them back on the moist walls. I am tired. I can’t rest at night, I can’t rest after school because the kids Mom babysits at home want me to play and there’s nowhere to go, no getting away from them. 

I walk in silence by my father across the ugly gray concrete parking lot, my arms burning, knowing those kids will be at the house when I get home. It’s the same, day after day, night after night, forever. Nothing ever changes. 

I don’t know how I can keep going on. 

I was only ten years old.

I didn’t know to attach words to my feelings—boredom, depression, in a rut, despair.  I never communicated the heaviness of my thoughts to anyone at the time. I have always been quiet by nature. When my physical activity had to be limited—I couldn’t run in P.E. because it triggered my asthma in the days before inhalers—I spent more and more time reading and writing.

This was my salvation. My escape. The way out of the daily sameness, the beginning of overcoming, of strength. I described the color and the hot, cinnamon taste of liquid Benadryl in my fifth-grade memoir—the teacher responded, “What clear, great detail!” That was the first time a teacher praised my writing. Here, unexpectedly, was something I could be good at, something to work toward.

It happened slowly.  I don’t remember the exact turn of events, or the length of time it took, only that the moment of long-ago despair was just that—a moment. Things did change. Eventually I got injections in one arm when doctors decided to combine the serums; then the shots stopped altogether. Unless I am around cigarette smoke or cats, I am not troubled by asthma anymore (though doctors warn me one is never “cured”). My mom didn’t babysit the pesky kids forever; I could find my own space again. Most remarkably, I have never had serious bouts of depression, despite the fact that it runs in my family.

Looking back now, I can see where that long-ago darkness might have been the beginning of a very different story. I was fortunate. I endured. As decisions for my health were made with more and more wisdom, I found my way through with words and pages.

I remain today, whole, strong, and grateful, because of it.

Every word, every decision, every moment—wisdom matters.

If tomorrow is to be.

I loved you at your darkest

At your darkest

August. Days of sweltering, snaky heat. Yet he donned a black tuxedo with a black-and-silver striped ascot and got to the church on time. 

In a back room, her bouquet of pink roses dripped on the front of her white gown, creating panic amongst the bridesmaids, but it didn’t stain. 

The morning’s thunderstorm cleared and the sun was shining for all it was worth when the ceremony began at 1:00. 

At 1:10 the preacher pronounced them husband and wife.

When they left the church hand-in-hand, the summer day was blinding – they shielded their eyes and made a run for it.

We’ve been running ever since, really.

For over three decades now. (I was a child bride. Well, sorta.)

As we mark another anniversary this week, I consider one of my favorite gifts from him, a bracelet he bought a couple of summers ago. We were at the beach for a few days, trying to get away from the daily demands, the stresses and strains – a lot was going on in life at the time. We went into a shop, and I saw it –  a band with a metal plate reading I loved you at your darkest.

It pierced my heart, those words. The incredible forgiving, trusting, reliable power of them. The surety.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded, for I didn’t trust my voice at the moment.

And so he bought it. I wore it out into the brilliant August afternoon, holding tight to his hand.

We’ve come through many darknesses – losses of people we loved, various setbacks, our own inner dark sides. Seeing each other at our worst.

But we’ve also seen the best in each other.

Growing older means acknowledging that there are darknesses yet to come – watching his mother’s decline with dementia is a daily reminder. We will not always be as we were, as we are now. Our summer is brief.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, wrote Robert Browning.

It’s the togetherness, the commitment, the laughter at silly stuff, the embrace in the hardest moments, that drive the darkness away. The sacrifices. The faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, and with it, hope. Abiding gratitude for every day.

It’s never the darkness that we carry with us anyway. It’s the knowledge that we walked through it together, to come out on the other side. Our minds, our hearts hold to what is good, what is bright. It propels us onward. Makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Especially when the journey almost wasn’t.

On the evening of our first date, I called to tell him I couldn’t go. I had a raging fever; I was being admitted to the hospital for tests.

“I am sorry,” I said into the phone, tears stinging my eyes. “Please don’t give up on me.”

“I won’t ever give up on you,” said his voice, strong and sure.

He never has.

I loved you at your darkest.

I did, I do, I always will.

Thank you.

 

Cactus malpractice

Cactus

Kelly’s cactus. GinnyCC BY-SA

I want a puppy, but his answer is always “NO.”

Tweety, my yellow parakeet, has died after six years of squawking, escaping his cage, and flinging seed hulls everywhere.

“No more birds, either,” says my father, in a tone that I dare not challenge.

I am bereft. I want something to take care of. Some small living thing that belongs to me.

I’m getting too old to catch caterpillars (the forest tent caterpillars, to be exact, which have amazing, detailed patterns with brilliant blue stripes and are not very hairy) and keep them in used margarine containers until they turn into little brown moths. Far too old to catch toads after school and bring them home in my metal Charlie Brown lunch box, which I was quickly forbidden to do.

I sigh. 

On a trip to Woolco, something catches my eye. It’s enchantingly tiny and it won’t make a mess or escape in the house.

So I ask: “Daddy, can I have a cactus?”

He looks at me oddly, as if he’s trying to decide whether or not I am being a smart aleck.

“Sure,” he says. 

The cactus costs 89 cents, the same as a 45 rpm record. It’s spherical, about the circumference of a quarter, about the height of a quarter standing on its edge. 

“Isn’t it the cutest thing?” I ask my Dad.

He raises his eyebrows. “Well, it’s certainly easy to take care of.”

For a couple of week, the cactus sits on my dresser, until I start worrying that it’s not growing. I know cacti don’t need a lot of water – maybe it needs more light, more heat. Cacti grow in the desert, after all.

Hmmm. How can I help it?

I know! The mirror in the bathroom is in a large frame. I can climb on the sink and put the cactus on the top of it, right up there under the light. 

Sure enough, it fits perfectly, just inches away from the bulb.

After a few days, I climb up and check on my cactus. It’s grown taller! I give it a few drops of water and return it to its makeshift sun.

And then I forget about it for weeks.

When I finally remembered the cactus and scrambled back on top of the sink to retrieve it, I found only a little brown crisp in the tiny pot.

Burnt slam up, as my grandfather might say.

I stood there gazing at the destruction in my hands, feeling a pang of horror mixed with shame – Am I the only person, ever, to kill a cactus? 

I meant well. I wanted the cactus to grow, to thrive, to have what it needed.

I just failed to check on it more than once to see if my plan worked, or to determine if it was even a good plan in the first place.

And the cactus couldn’t say Hey, this is too much light and heat, not enough water – I do still need that, you know. 

It just quietly withered away.

The word that comes to mind is mindfulness.

A mighty and crucial thing, indeed.

***

Note: There were hermit crabs and, yes, puppies in my near future. 

They fared far better.