Committed

November 2, 2013

Recently my good friend K invited me on a little road trip to Mobile, Alabama to hear a celebrated author speak at a local college.

“Yes!  I would love to go! I exclaimed happily, all the while mulling over in my head what might already be lurking on my calendar for that date.

“We can spend an extra night in Fairhope while we are there, OK?” she added.  “They have the best book shop in the world and we can have dinner with my friend P and her husband M.  You will love them.  They will probably bring their daughter, who is adorable.  It is going to be fun.”  And it was.  I drove over on a Monday afternoon, just in time for dinner with K and her friends.  It was all delightful as was the walk we took along the water’s edge the following morning.  After our walk we headed to the book shop which lived up to its reputation, then on to a few other shops, lunch and a drive into Mobile for a change of hotel and clothes before the big event, which started with a reception.  The evening was gentle and inspirational.  We were both glad that we made the effort.

That night as we lay in our two side by side queens, waiting for my ice cream to be delivered, K asked me, “Do you over commit yourself?”

I briefly thought about it then replied.  “Well, I just rotated off one of the boards I was on so that just leaves the other one.  I have to drive to New Orleans for that a couple of times a month but I really like it.  Then there is the church volunteer stuff and that is about it.  It isn’t as much as in years past.”

“Yeah, but what about the other stuff?” she asked, “Like family stuff and just helping out friends and you know, stuff. Over scheduling yourself.”

I pondered a bit before admitting that “Yeah, I drive the grad student in my neighborhood to the grocery store all the time, but she doesn’t have a car, so how could she get groceries if I don’t do it?  And I cook for a few people.  And I am doing this literary group thing, and a ladies group at church, and then there are all the readings and workshops for the play I am writing.  And meetings with people about the play.   Oh, and I cooked food for the guy who is helping me with that.  And I am giving a bridesmaid lunch my sweet friend M.  Yeah.  I am having a luncheon later this week for twelve of Tom’s cousins.  Gumbo and pecan pie.   And the book club for the little girls in my neighborhood meets at my house a few times a month. .  And there is my other book club, but that one only meets once a month.  Of course I have to read the book.   And I am helping with this thing at the university.  And I am driving my friend M to  her granddaughter’s wedding in New Orleans next week.  And there is the…….I guess I do try to do a lot.”

“Me too,” she confessed.  “But I like it all.  I love working with my weavers!  They are sooo much fun.  And I want to start a class for people who have never done that sort of thing.  And I walk with my friend B every day.  Then there is work, but I can do some of that from home.  Oh, and …………”

The conversation went on and we sort of laughed about it all.  We both admitted that we should make an effort to not spread our selves so thin, but that is difficult when you enjoy people, places and things.

I admitted that sometimes my husband looks at me hopefully as he asks what I have lined up for me or us for the weekend.  On the rare occasion that the answer is nothing, we both breathe a sigh of relief.  I admitted that I have recently started listening to audio books in my car because I don’t have enough time to read all the ones I want to read.   As I admitted all these things, I was concurrently considering how much time the drive home would require.  As I felt my lips moving I was calculating what time I would have to leave the next morning in order to make it to a yoga class.  I declared to K what time I would be leaving in the morning.  She would leave then too, because, of course, she had things to do.  Her business was celebrating Oktoberfest so she had a full plate of a day coming up.  The next morning we said our farewells and thank yous, etc.  I shut my car door and rolled down my window as I started the engine.

“What time does the German music start tonight? Maybe I will come.  I want to bring grandchildren.”

“Oh, around 6:00ish.”

“Good.  I will be there. I just have a few things to do first, but yeah, I will be there. “

 

Newsies

October 2, 2013

Yesterday I had a long overdue phone visit with my former roommate, Cecily.  We have maintained a long distance friendship, for which I am grateful, even though we live at opposite ends of the country.  We caught up on books first; for we are both avid readers and I rely on her to forge the way for me in the “books I need to read” category.  Next we moved on to family.  She and her husband are now empty nesters, sort of, having four grown children, the youngest, a girl, off to college at Villanova. They are enjoying this new chapter, as most people in healthy marriages do….eventually anyway.  Then we traversed on to movies seen and TV shows watched.  Homeland and Breaking Bad were a tossup for first place.  Finally we landed on current events.  Yes, the world is coming to an end.  Shootings everywhere, government shutdowns, all the wrong state and federal leaders making all the wrong decisions.  Blah blah blah.  Then Cecily fessed up.

“We record all our shows now and just watch them when we feel like it. No commercials.  No news.  It is all just too depressing.  I hate it.  There is so much good news out there!  Why don’t news channels report on that?  Huh?  Why?”

I answered without even pondering, “Money.  Plain and simple.  Money.  Drama sells.”  As much as I disagree with the philosophy of this conundrum, I understand it.  News programs survive on sponsorship.  Sponsors target certain audiences.  It is likely easier to sell a product to a person who sits in front of the TV all day than to one who goes about his/her life in a productive manner helping others, working in a respectable job and being happy that they had the honor of living that way. My theory is not scientific in any respect, just instinctive, but my guess is that there is truth in it.

I began to really think about her statements some more and realized she was right.  Yes, tragedies happen every day, but they are not the only thing that happens.  There is so much good news to report but we never hear about it unless a Facebook friend shares it or it happens in our own fair town.  If I were a news channel I would report good news stories at least equally to the bad news stories.  It would be easy and I could start with people I know.  These three stories would be headers for my first segment.

Jeannie spearheads shoe drive for children‘s home and school in Uganda.  I know this woman and she does this sort of thing on a regular basis, and with a smile.  If others join in to assist or donate dollars, fine.  If not, then she does it anyway and just keeps on smiling.

Sid pressure washes entire church property without being asked.  Not only did he do this but he did it fairly covertly.  Sid noticed that the sidewalks and drives were beginning to get mucky as does everything in south Louisiana towards the end of summer.   Without a word to anyone, he simply showed up with his own equipment and spit shined the property.  He asked for nothing in return, not even recognition.  Sorry Sid.  I couldn’t’ help myself.

Heinz visits family on his vacation and spends most of it helping out at his brother and sister-in-law’s restaurant.  He even donned lederhosen and entertained customers celebrating Oktoberfest.  He is threatening to do it again.

Colleen shows up at a friend’s house early on a Saturday morning (her only day off work) to help prep for a bridal luncheon at which she was not to be a guest. She then quietly slipped out the back door with deviled egg under her fingernails and a smile on her face.

A retired lady in Brooklyn challenged the neighborhood children to donate egg crates for recycling, then gave them a party once they collected one thousand crates.  What drinks did she serve them?  Egg creams.

Sueanne considered her friend’s pitiful fishpond, clogged with algae festered by the Louisiana sun.  One afternoon she quietly dropped in several swamp cabbage plants, sure to clear up the pond and offer the fish some shade.  She left no note or message of any kind, just the plants.

I could go on and on and so could you.  I wonder what our lives would be like if we addressed the evil in the world but shined the big lights on the good that stands beside it.  How would our attitudes change and how would our behavior follow suit?  Hmmmm?  Food for thought.  In the meantime, look around you and consider a news channel that featured happy news.   If it belonged to you, what your headlines be?

 

The Summer of K

August 30, 2013

 

Labor Day is almost here and that fact generally brings me a sigh of relief that the long, hot, humid days of summer are over for a while.   This summer was different for me though.  True, the heat and humidity took their usual toll on my skin, hair and attitude.  But this year, the summer felt lighter than usual.  This summer one of my little preteen neighbors spent several hours a week in my company.  With her parents unavailable to her during the day, she developed the habit of texting or calling me late each morning with the same question, which generally garnered the usual response.

“Are you home?”

“Yes.”

“Can I come over?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

The reply to the last question depended on what I had on the docket for the day, but usually it was the same as the day before.

“Anytime after 10:00 but you will have to help me with a few things, ok?”

“OK!”

Then, around 10:00, our day together would begin.  Some days we cooked.  Some days we visited friends or delivered food to people.  Some days we washed a dog or a car.  But toward the end of the summer, every day, we would read together.  This routine came about when she announced to me that she had two books to read for school and there were only two weeks of summer vacation left.

“Well,” I announced, “I guess we will have to have reading parties every afternoon.”

“What’s a reading party?” she queried suspiciously.

“Oh!  They are such fun!  I can’t believe you have never been to a reading party. At a reading party, the hostess lies down on the sofa and reads whatever book she is reading at that time and the guest reader lies on the other sofa.  They set a kitchen timer for thirty minutes.  During that time, they each read their books, then when the timer goes off they stop reading, eat popcorn-popped the old fashioned way except with coconut oil-and tell each other what is going on in their books.  They do this for about ten or fifteen minutes and then they lie back down and set the timer again.  They do this at least three times.  Then they end the party with a plan for how many chapters they will read that night.  They shake hands with books on their heads, and then the party is over for that day. And that is a reading party.”

 

“Oh.  OK.  Sounds like fun.”  And it was.  For the next week, we quietly read until one day K asked if we could take turns reading her chapters out loud, so she could practice.  That was fine with me, for her books were really good.  One was called Bud, Not Buddy.  The other was called Wonder.  Both were thoughtful coming of age books that brought tears to my eyes.   I couldn’t wait to see how her books ended.  That last week, I would receive text messages from her alerting me to the page number she was on.

74

109

123

167!

201!  This book is really good! Are you home?  I am going to do GOOD on the test!

And so on, and so on, and so on.  The end of summer crept up. On the day she went back to school, I watched the clock.  At 3:00 on the dot I sent her a text.

“How was the book test?”

“She didn’t give it yet.  Are you home?”

K is now two weeks into the school year and still no test. She seems completely unfazed by it but I am just a touch disappointed.  You see, K works hard for her grades and reading has not always been easy for her, let alone enjoyable.  I knew that if she had the chance be tested on the books, she would do well.  Not only had she finish the books, but we talked endlessly about them.  Still, no test.  As I write this post, the clock reads 2:31.  I know that soon I will hear that familiar BOINK,-boink of my phone alerting me that I have a message.  Maybe today there was a test.  Maybe not and, if the truth be told, it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that K and I now have a new memory to file away and recall at will.  We read two books together.  We ate popcorn.  We cried over a little boy’s struggle with looking different.  That is what really matters, not the test.  Still, I am curious, so I will wait for the text.  It will come eventually, and I will be home waiting for the details.

 

The Walk

August 3, 2013

 

Yesterday I took a long walk as I usually do a couple of times a week.  This walk was different however, because it was the first time in almost three years that I did not have my little walking partner, Elly, with me.  Elly was a sweet little dog who came to live with me and my husband by happenstance.  Our neighbors rescued her from the side of the interstate highway after she had been hit by a car that just kept going.  The car had knocked out her top front teeth and she was bloody, but didn’t seem to care much, for she wagged her tail as they carted her off to the vet.  My dear neighbors claimed her as Mother Theresa would an ailing child and nursed her to health just in time for me to start “babysitting” her at my house while they were at work.  Before we all knew it, we were sharing Elly, passing her back and forth whenever the need arose for any of us.  She soon became my sidekick, with the energy and personality of a jumping bean, and the disposition of the Angel Gabriel.  Elly and I were a good pairing.  As a bonus, she fell in love with my husband and I don’t blame her a bit.

Our walk was exactly the same each time we embarked.  Down the street, over the railroad tracks, down the rest of the street, turn right, go one block turn right again, cut through the church parking lot, cross the tracks, continue home until we reached the house.  If we were lucky, Elly would spy a stray chip or sticky margarita glass as we strolled past the Mexican restaurant.  On a really lucky day, a generous diner would slip her an entire chip with or without salsa.  Two miles exactly, twice a week.  She knew every inch of it by heart and led me all the way.  At one house, she regularly anticipated the two little dogs that live behind the fence.  She would slow down and crouch like a cougar as she stealthily approached the picket fence.  The dogs behind the fence would have smelled her arrival so they were waiting stone still until she nosed the fence.  At that point all hell would break loose with barking, sneering, a blur of snouts stabbing through the pickets, paws straddling mud. Regularly, twice a week it was quite a show, until I congratulated her and eased her away from the field of play.  She would leave her adversaries behind with trepidation, but with a proud stance, until the next battlefield came into sight.  We would continue our journey home, passing a bar that always had so many broken bottles around its perimeter that I would have to either cross Elly to the opposite side of the street or pick her up in my arms and wade her through the block so that her paws didn’t suffer cuts and slashes from the waiting glass.  She became so accustomed to this dance that she would sometimes just stop and look at me as if to say,”Ok!  Up I go!”

My walk yesterday was faster than any of the ones I enjoyed with Elly.  No stopping to sniff or squat or bark or snack or lick.  From a cardiovascular perspective, this kind of walk was better for my heart, but from every other perspective this kind of walk was indeed not better for my heart.  The walk was brisk and without interruption, and as I approached the glassy bar I realized that I didn’t have to cross the street anymore so I just kept going, and guess what?  For the first time in three years the sidewalk was clean as a whistle.  Not a beer bottle, whiskey top or angry shard of brown glass to be found.  For three years I have been cursing the management of that establishment for not keeping the sidewalk clean and safe for dogs and toddlers in strollers.  Yesterday, ironically, the sidewalk was pristine.  And yesterday, ironically, that long overdue situation made me furious.  I was mad as hell as I finished the distance to my doorstep.  I was mad because all those times I walked with Elly, I feared that glass would take root in her paw or tongue.  I was mad that Elly ate a piece of a poisonous plant that ultimately took her life.  I was mad that the two dogs behind the fence simply stared at me with disinterest as I passed them by.  I was mad.  Still am.  The good news is that I am also grateful that a little dog with no front teeth came into my life when I least expected it and happily shared my company.  I am not used to her absence yet, but know from experience that time will gently usher me into a sense of comfort without her.  Still, I miss our walks.  I do.

 

Pool

June 21, 2013

My husband Tom and I recently hit the road for Houston to attend a grandchild’s first birthday party and to celebrate Father’s Day with the fam.  We invited one of the other grandpups, L_________, to accompany us on the great adventure.  Although she had spent the night with us on many occasions, this would be the first time she would be alone with us for two days while so far away from her parents.   For any four year old, this was a lot to consider. I left the choice completely up to her but did my best to make it all sound so appealing that she couldn’t possibly refuse.

“Do you want to go with Gay Gay and T Daddy to A_________’s birthday party?  There will be cake and ice cream and a jumpy thing!  We can stay in a hotel and have breakfast brought to us in the room.  Doesn’t that sound like fun?  Want to come?”

She paused and pondered quietly until she gently cut her eyes in my direction.  “Will the hotel have a pool?” she asked, clearly prepared to negotiate.

Knowing that at that point, there was no hotel reservation at all I enthusiastically assured her, “Oh yes!  A big pool! And the room is waaaaay up high.  We will be able to see all the cars and trees from up high!”  She mused for a minute or two before she responded coyly and simply, “OK.”

I delivered the victory news to Tom who happily took over the responsibility of choosing an appropriate hotel…..with a pool. And rooms way up high.  So a few days later, as the sun was rising, off we went with L____________, DVDs to fill five hours, assorted snacks, tiny bottles of water, bathing suits, floaties, party clothes, a blankie and a soft little bear.  An adventure!

We drove straight to the party, which was classic and perfect, then headed to the Hotel Za Za to check in and hit the pool. Houston friends, along with their daughter, who also attended the party were to join us shortly, at the pool.  Sure enough, Tom had arranged for a room way up high.  Check!  Lots of cars and trees below.  Check! We changed into our suits, loaded up our gear and practically danced our way to the pool on the second floor.  When the elevator doors opened, L___________could hardly contain herself for the excitement.  We could already hear loud music and laughter along with splashes.  When we opened the door to the pool, I was a little taken back, for there were no other children around except the two who were with us.  There were, however, hoards of glamorous tanned hard bodied young men and women in designer swim wear and Bulgari bangles  that gleamed as much as the oiled bodies that displayed them.  High heels with bikinis.  You know the look.  I felt as though I had entered a singles hotel in South Beach.   Next to these jet setters, we were the Clampets and I was Granny.  But there we were as promised, at THE POOL.  And it wasn’t as though we were doing anything illegal or even ethically questionable.  We were simply out of place, but sometimes that place can be just fine regardless of the awkwardness, so into the water we went floaties and all.  Like bees to honey it wasn’t long before the two children were the main attraction.  Glamourpuss women were all over them.  “Oh!  She is adorable! Oh!  Arent’ they cute??!!  Oh, I want one some day!  Oh!  How old are they??!  Oh!  Look at her little tummy?  Don’t you just love it?!! Oh!  Oh! Oh!”  Blah, blah, blah through a rum and pineapple haze.  And so on and so one and so on.  Rhythmic hip hop blaring, we swam.  L_________ and her little buddy F_____________ were the stars but soon L____________ had a concern.

“Gay Gay, no one else is wearing floaties.  Do they think I am a baby?  I wanna take them off.”she declared as she began to tug at the puffy donuts encasing her upper arms.

“No way, L______.  Sorry sweetie, but they keep you safe.  And hey, they match your suit.  Very fashionable, you know what I am saying?  You are soooooo fashionable.”  She wasn’t buying it.

“But nobody else has them.  NOBODY.”  Tears were waiting in the wings.  I could sense it so I tried to distract her.

“Well, let’s look very carefully at everyone (this would take a while and she would forget her shame).  I’ll just bet someone else at this pool is wearing floaties.  With all these people (this would take a while)?  Let’s look carefully and find one other person with floaties.”  So we began to look.  This went on for about two minutes before L______________ exclaimed,” Look Gay Gay!  That lady has floaties!  Big ones!”  Seriously?  I was astounded as I searched for the adult with the water wings.

“Where, Lil?  Which lady?”  I still did not see the big floaties.

“There!  Her!  In the pink bathing suit with the black fingernails!  HER!”  She frantically pointed.  They are inside her bathing suit!  The top part! See!  SEE??!!”  And then I saw her.  A woman whose bathing suit top could look, to a child ,as if it contained floaties.  Jumbo floaties.  Fortunately, all the fascination over the children had faded into old news so no one noticed the priceless moment that was poking fun at all the glamour surrounding us.

“See?? SEE!???” She begged.

“You are right L____________.  That lady has floaties hidden in her bathing suit.  You are right.  See?  Someone else IS wearing them.  Not just you.”  L____________quietly stared at the woman in the pink bathing suit for a few seconds.  She was satisfied and thoughtful about it all. She was peaceful again, so I was too.  Then she sweetly offered a tip.

“You should get some floaties like that Gay Gay. To keep you safe.   T Daddy would buy them for you.   I know he would.”

“Yes, L_____________.  You are probably right.  I’ll just bet he would.”  Yup.  I’ll just bet he would.

Citrus

May 14, 2013

 

Mothers Day came and went and, once again, I felt grateful that I am not a mother.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Don’t get me wrong, for there was a time that the reality of not having children felt like a tragedy.  You see, I was a “mature bride” marrying a man who already had three healthy children so for us, reproduction did not seem reasonable from any perspective.  For a while I mourned for lack of breeding, but as the years went by my mourning turned into joy.  The joy of a child free life is not because I do not love children.  On the contrary, I often prefer them to adults.  What changed me was the string of little girls who paraded through my life leaving soft footprints.   Those children made me feel like a little tiny bit of a mother.  Had I been raising children of my own, I never would have had the time or inclination to get to know and love these little girls who unwittingly brought such delight and dignity to my world.  Some of them have perfectly good mothers of their own, but the world being what it is, those mothers are not always available to them.  Some have had loving mothers who passed away when their babes were very young.  One has an exemplary mother who is available and attentive but the mother wants me to spend one-on-one time with her daughter whenever I can just because she wants her daughter to know and love me. That one especially touches my heart.  Now that I do not work outside of my home, the young girls in my neighborhood parade through my house as though it is their own.  I can predict, almost to the minute, when the doorbell will ring on any given school day. Those minutes generally find one of these fillies standing on my porch dangling a school backpack in one hand and waving through the glass on the door with the other.

“Hay-aye Miss Donna Gay!  Do you need me to chop anything today?  What’cha cooking today?”

Earlier this year, I taught this youngest one how to properly hold a chef’s knife for chopping celery, onion and peppers for gumbo or etouffee.  So now she chops, on my counter, regularly.  I know that after we have chopped, sautéed, and simmered, she will then want to go upstairs to try on my scarves in the mirror.  Her parents are grateful to me and I to them.  Sometimes I sneak a peek at her preening in the mirror and I chuckle.  I also wonder, is this what a mother feels?

The eldest in this club of surrogates has sat next to me in our church choir since she was but a wee teen.  Now a graceful young woman, she often whispers a gentle joke into my ear  or squeezes my hand just before we sing.  Recently she used my house for her formal bridal portrait and expressed to me that the setting was special, not because of its beauty, but because of all the memories she has gathered within its walls.  True, since she was barely in school, we have baked Christmas cookies, turned pumpkins into Jack-o-Lanterns and dared each other to kiss the dog on the lips.  The day of the shoot, I watched her float through my house in a wedding gown but I still saw her as the little child who rolled ginger snap balls and placed them on the cookie sheet, then licked her fingers in between each effort. A conundrum of sorts.  Is that what a mother feels?  Maybe that is a little drop of what a mother feels and I got to taste that.

The little neighborhood girls, ages ten to thirteen, who hold their weekly book club meetings at my dining room table were just yesterday, sipping tea with milk and sugar as we chatted about summer vacations.  For almost two years they have met at my house each Monday for a tea party and book discussion.  They are becoming a little more independent these days and our summer schedules are not lining up to complement our regular Monday schedule.

One of them finally blurted out, “Maybe we should just take the summer off.”

As reasonable as that sounded, it stung just a bit because I knew that it was the beginning of things to come.  At their ages, school activities, summer camps, dances and life in general will, without a doubt, trump the fascination of a weekly tea party at my house.  I am not sure I like that part.  Under the same circumstance, was this what a mother would feel?

“Uh, Ok.  Sure,” I said.  “That makes sense.  So, for the summer, no Monday Neighborhood Book Club.  We will just pick it up in the fall, right? “

They all chimed in, “Right!”

Then the youngest one clarified the plan.

“No Monday Book Club.  Instead, on Mondays, we can do a lemonade stand in your yard.”

“Sure!” I exclaimed.  “But you all have to help me make the lemonade.  From real lemons.  No powdered stuff, ok? And maybe we can put some mint leaves in it to make it pretty, OK?”

All together, “OK.”

OK.  So it is settled. Perfect.  I will make lemonade.

The Art of the Dance

April 15, 2013

 

Last week I had the privilege of attending a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company.   A world class ensemble, this company uses a handful of human bodies to transform a stage into a rotation of rhythmic patterns and gentle silhouettes.  Truly stunning, these dancers are the finest in the world and their choreography is sophisticated yet accessible to even the most pedestrian of tastes. The performance that night was picture perfect.  What was clearly lacking in the audience, however, was young adults hungry for artistic stimulation.  What was sadly absent in the seats was child dancers eager to witness excellence in movement to music.  What was missing in the lobby was the hoard of adults that should have been there introducing children to a world of waves, pirouettes, sashays and graceful communication through the lilt of a finger or the point or a toe.  Where were they?  Why were they not there?  Was it because they did not have the dollars for tickets?  I do not think so, for dance parents spend thousands of dollars annually on competitions so their daughters can win a trophy.  Is it because they are not interested in their own children?  Surely  not, for they often shower too much attention on them and their own mile markers of success.  Is it because they and their children are more obsessed with finding themselves on stage and in the spotlight than anonymously soaking in the perfection of seasoned professionals?  Maybe.  Is it because they are more passionate about their own dance competitions and trophies than quietly sitting in awe of dedicated artists who have given their lives to their craft?  Hmmmmm.   Sadly, this one is probably true.  In fact, there were far too few people in the audience overall and there are a plethora or reasons for that, but still, considering the number of dance schools in my fair city, the missing children were a disturbing factor.

The one exception to this obvious missing piece was a small group of high school students seated together with their teacher, Desiree.  They had traveled together from Kentwood High School where this ballerina turned English teacher had coordinated such a worthy outing.   The girls who were with her unquestionably admired her for all the reasons she deserves.  She is beautiful to begin with, and not just in the physical sense, but in the essence of who she is.  She carries her head high.  She dresses fashionably, yet modestly.  She is polite, yet firm with her students and she is gracious and spirited with those of us who cross her path once in a while.  Desiree filled me in on her latest life path which, as always, touches the lives of children.  When I inquired as to how things were going she gushed.  “Love, love, LOVE my job!  Love going to work!  Love the students….master’s degree…..teaching them to love language and reading….to love books…like me!  What are you reading right now?  Have you read…..????”  And so on and so on and so on.  I understood her bubbling over, for as a former English teacher myself, I am well acquainted with the high that comes from seeing a student discover the joy of reading for pleasure.  Still, my enthusiasm could have never matched the delight that was oozing from her as she stood erect with a soft smile on her face, spilling gratitude and pride for the position she now holds at Kentwood High School. We chatted during intermission until two of her students, dressed in what my grandmother would have called their Sunday best, tugged on her begging for her attention and approval.

“Ooooo!  Oooooooooo! Is it possible to be a pediatrician and a professional dancer at the same time?  That’s what I want to do!  That’s what I want to do!”

I responded before she could answer (my typical bossy self-yuck), “Probably not, but you could be a doctor and dance for your own fun,” I interjected.  The young lady looked a touch disappointed, but not completely dissuaded.  The student standing next to her politely offered me her hand as Desiree introduced us.

“I am a poet.  I love poetry,” she declared.  “I write it too but not a lot of people have read my poems…yet.”  Desiree smiled and let each of them hold one of her hands.

Just then, the lobby lights flickered indicating that the next piece would be danced momentarily.  I told the girls that it was a pleasure to meet them and they happily agreed as they escorted their rock star teacher back into the performance hall.  As the trio walked away, I regretted telling student #1 that she could not be a doctor and a dancer at the same time.  Who did I think I was  to tell her that? I was once a teacher for goodness sake!  I know better.  If she wanted to do both, then it was her business to figure out how to do it or decide to choose one over the other.  I watched the group of young ladies settle down and sit up straight as the lights dimmed for the next dance.   They each craned their head around once more before the music began.  They were checking to make sure that their teacher was there, watching, keeping a gentle eye on them as she directed her gaze at the stage.  Because she was so mesmerized with the dancers, her students followed her lead locking their eyes to the feet on the floor just above them.  Because she was loving every minute of the evening, so were they.  Because she seemed comfortable with her own dignity, they wanted to be dignified too.

That evening brought me much more than just a stellar dance performance.  It brought me a sparkle of hope and enthusiasm for students enrolled in public schools in Louisiana.  Don’t ever, ever let anyone steal your delight about the future of our parish, our state or our country.  With teachers such as Desiree at the helm, there is much to inspire hope and admiration for our schools.  So keep it up Desiree.  Keep holding your head high, especially on the days you want to stay in bed.  Keep inspiring young women to become doctors, dancers and poets.  Keep holding their hands until they have enough balance to dance into life on their own.  Keep it up and teach.  Teach.  Teach, Desiree.  Teach.

LPB

March 28, 2013

Last week, I was invited to assist with the pledge drive for the statewide Louisiana Public Broadcasting telethon.  I have volunteered for LPB for years, so this was not totally foreign territory to me.  I have worked the phone lines and even stood off to the side and mugged for the camera as I described all the benefits of membership to LPB.  It is a cause that I feel strongly about so I was happy to, once again, help with the phones or hock the “5 DVD set of” whatever program was to be featured that night.  LPB does good work and I am always happy to be associated with them.  Not to mention, the producer and director are just the sweetest people in the world.  No matter how nervous I was about the bonus coffee mugs or the tote bags with the photo of the program star on them, the production staff always made me feel more competent than I really am.  Ahhhhhh.

So I accepted, picked out an outfit that wouldn’t make the camera vibrate, played in my makeup and practiced in the mirror.

“Back to YOU Beth!”

“Thanks, Beth!  Now back to YOU!”

“Over to YOU Beth!”

I even tried out a few new approaches just to shake things up.

“Ha ha ha.  Yes indeed, Beth.  Now take it away!”

Beth is a legend.  She is the President and CEO of LPB who has been steering this organization in a progressive and admirable direction for years and years.  She is as polished, bubbly and composed off the air as she is on the air.  This woman can spit out facts and statistics about education, television, production costs and classroom benefits as though she was reciting her ABCs.  She has guided the board to raise millions of dollars over the years and when times got tough, she never waned.  She got tougher.  This is a woman who needs no cue cards, notes, fact sheets or make-up staff to fluff her up before the shows go on air.  She just sails on auto like a clipper under a velvet wind.  Ah yes.  Beth.  What a role model for those of us who feel strongly about education, integrity and good taste to boot.  I knew I would be a touch nervous playing off of her, but she would help me through it.  Fun, fun, fun!  I couldn’t wait.  “Back to you BETH!  BETH, take it away!”

The big night arrived and I drove to the station in Baton Rouge with an overnight bag filled with lipstick, mascara, eyeliner, lip liner, powder, curling/flat irons, hair spray, breath spray and several pair of glasses. I careened into the parking lot at 6:30 on the dot.  Plenty of time, for I didn’t go “on” until 7:00.  So excited!

I was greeted by the producer, Allegra, who was as genuine and kind as she always is.  I pointed to the usual spot next to the phone bank and tried to confirm my responsibilities.  “I will be here, right?  Like last time?”

Allegra gently responded.  “Oh no.  You’ll be in Beth’s chair.  She had to go out of town so you will be in her chair.  Bettsie will be seated next to you.”

Whaaaa????  “Where is Beth?  Why, why isn’t she here?”  I stammered.

“Oh, she had a thing she had to attend tonight so you will be in her chair.  It seems like everyone is out of town. You’ll be fine.”

Whaaaa?  But, but, but what about  my rehearsals?  What about back to you Beth?  What about take it away?  How would I know what to say?

Allegra spied my consternation.  “Don’t worry, you will be fine.  You are very good, you will be fine.  It is all on the prompter.    And Bettsie has done this stuff plenty.  You will like her.  You’ll be fine. She will feed you if we need to stretch”

What?  Stretch what?  Who is Bettsie?  “Do I toss it back to her?” I felt like a child without a binky for the first time ever.

“No, you won’t toss.  Bettsie will be sitting right next to you so you don’t have to toss.”

Great.  Still, I wondered…..  Is she nice?  Is she here?  And would she have a binky with her?

As I quietly panicked, the second most polished woman in the world breezed past me with a dazzling smile.  “Oh hi!  I am Bettsie!  We are on together tonight, I hear.  So nice to meet you.  Love your hair cut.”

We both laughed because my haircut looked exactly like hers.  We were like bookends.  She was like me, only better.

The two hour program, which featured a wonderful whodunit called Midsomer Murders, containing breaks featuring me and Bets (my new best friend) went just fine.  I could read the teleprompter without glasses and just when I started to ramble on about a recent bout of the flu, Bets scooped me up and pulled me back into the purpose of raising dollars.  In between our fundraising moments I would breathe deeply and meditate to myself in my head, “Back to you Beth.  Take it away Beth. Beth, now back to you.”  My blood pressure began to take deep breaths too and I felt…well….calm.

Bets and I raised a respectable amount of money for LPB that night and I hurdled an unexpected obstacle.  I learned to fly when I found myself being tossed over a cliff.  A lovely cliff manned by gentle smiling guides, but still a cliff to me.  All was well and I knew that, tomorrow, Beth would be back.

Lunch

March 4, 2013

 

Friday was a special day for me, my husband and Miss A, the lady who has kept our house clean for almost 17 years.  Yes, she came to work for Tom just before we married and it was totally by accident.  You see, caller ID was a new tool and she had called Tom’s house to say that someone from that number had called her home but left no message.  No, Tom said he had not called her, but who was she?  Maybe one of his children had made the call.  She told him that she was a retired telephone operator who liked to iron and clean houses, so she thought maybe he had called about that.  That got his attention and the next thing we knew, Miss A was coming to his (soon to be our) house weekly to keep things tidy.  When we moved into our larger home, she timidly asked me what exactly I wanted her to do as far as cleaning went.  That was a good question and one I had never thought about much, for throughout my adult life I had cleaned my own home, and I had never lived in a place the size of the one I was now expected to manage.  So I just looked back at her and replied in a voice as timid as hers, “Uh…I don’t know.  What do you think?”  I left the entire decision in her hands hoping to glean guidance from her years of experience.  She gently reviewed the obvious cleaning needs of the home and asked if there was anything else I wanted her to do.  I just stood there, mouth breathing, for several uncomfortable seconds before she smiled and said, “Well, things will come up.  You just let me know.”

For years I only caught glimpses of her, for often I was already at my office before she arrived and she was already gone by the time I got home.  However, twice a week, like a fairy godmother, she evidenced herself with fresh bed sheets and clean bathrooms.  During my busiest seasons at work, she took pity on me and left a pot of beans or a roasted chicken on the stove.  Every Christmas she presented to us a treasure chest of homemade pralines and assorted fudge.  She made the peanut butter ones special for me because she knew that those are my favorites.  After I finally retired from my professional position, I had the honor of actually spending time with this woman.  Initially, we were both a little concerned that we would get under each other’s feet with me being around the house so much, but it never happened.  Instead, our friendship grew into a gentle partnership of maintaining and improving what we had begun years ago, then detached from each other.  Before I knew it we were trading books and chatting as she did her work and I did mine, often in the same room.  We traded books, recipes and concerns about family and friends.  She never uttered an unkind word about anyone or anything and she never invited gossip of any kind.  Occasionally, one of us would quietly shake our head as the other joined in this dance, but neither of us cracked the door that is so easily slid open to a place of mindless toxic chatter.  As the months crept by she began to have health problems that come with age.  The stairs were becoming more difficult.  The physical demands of the job were becoming more of a challenge.  I kept assuring her that we would accommodate her in any way she needed.  If she wanted to limit her chores or the hours she worked we could do that.  If she only wanted to come and do one simple task, she could do that.  The point was that as long as she wanted to work for us, she could.  The truth was that I was not ready to see her call it quits, for I had grown to love her as family.  The details of her duties could be addressed, but the warm conversation she offered me could not be replaced.  Ever.  Sadly, the day came recently when we had to face reality.  She walked in the kitchen looking full of trepidation, as she told me that she had decided to “give up” our house.  She made it sound like a sacrifice.  I told her that I understood and we both expressed gratitude to the other.

One month later on her last day at my house, she gazed into the dining room as she swept the hall.  “Oh!  It looks beautiful!  You must be having a party tonight!  The table looks beautiful.  Girl, you know how to do it!   Those flowers are just gorgeous!  How do you do it?”  I just nodded and kept on with my own business.  A few hours later around noon, Miss G, the lady who would be taking over her duties, stopped in to ask her a few practical questions about the house.  Miss G had the big stuff under control but declared that she needed clarification on where certain things were kept in the dining room so together, they entered it.   Before Miss A had a chance to comprehend the scene in front of her, a small group of guests seated at the table, including her daughter, erupted in a jolly, “Surprise!”  Miss A stared ahead for a minute before her eyes filled with tears as she laughed through them.    She couldn’t say anything.  She just smiled as she sought me out for a hug.  “You.  You!  I love you!  I do.”

The luncheon was one of the most perfect I have ever hosted.  Camellias, homemade shrimp salad, cold asparagus, pound cake with strawberries and cream all taking curtain calls on my finest table cloth.  I seated Miss A at the head of the table and we all enjoyed a festive meal complete with stories, some that were new even to me.  As the party grew to a close, Miss A gathered her things and bid the other guests farewell.  She then offered to help me clean up.

“No, no.  Today is your day.  You are my guest.  I will get it,” I assured her.  She looked me straight in the eye and corrected me.  “ I have never left this house a mess and I am not going to start today.”

So together, we washed and dried my wedding china and my mother’s silver.  We giggled and then she hugged me and my dogs before we all walked to her car.  We were each sad, but we both knew it was the right time for this transition.  She waved goodbye to me through an open window as I shouted to her,   “ Call me!  I will bring you some books!  I will!”  And that is the truth.  I will.

Buttons

February 7, 2013

 

The house across the street from my church has recently been utilized by a foundation that assists with reconstruction of houses destroyed by Hurricane Issac.  For a few weeks now, rotating groups of volunteers from Illinois have been living there while they rebuild south Louisiana.  The concept of volunteers rebuilding our state following a hurricane has become the norm in these parts.  Still, these volunteers were different from most.  These volunteers were not college students filling up service hours.  They were not teams of mainstream Christians rushing to the scene of the disaster to sooth and heal the devastation.  They were not professionals donating their expertise.  These volunteers were different, for you see these volunteers were Amish.  Yes, Amish.  Garden growing, home sewing, gently going…Amish.  From the moment I heard about them, they had my complete attention.

I asked the minister at my church to accompany me to the house bearing the gift of a fruit basket.  So off we went, and that was the beginning of my fascination and admiration of these gentle souls.  Each week the teams would come and go.  The women stayed put inside the house during the day to cook (all from scratch), sew (with a machine don’tcha know), wash the laundry (by hand) and clean the house (by hand as well). They were all dressed in traditional Amish garb; plain solid dresses held together by straight pins (no buttons allowed), delicate white pleated caps with ties that hang on each side of their chin, and plain black shoes

The men would leave early in the morning to go to a worksite where they would rebuild with a level of pristine skill foreign to most.  They wore plain dark trousers, plain white shirts, suspenders and simple brimmed hats.  They looked like the team that they are.

Yesterday, I made a regular visit to my new friends only to find a new group of ladies in the house.  I introduced myself and told them I was going to the produce market.  Would they like me to pick anything up for them?  The response was at first silence then exchanged looks of confusion before the oldest lady (and I do mean lady), clearly the First in Command, spoke up.  “What is that?”

“Well,” I said, “it is an open air…you know…outside, market that sells fruits and vegetables. They sell other stuff too.  You know.  Olive oil and vinegar and fancy bread, and fudge. Other stuff too.”

The blank looks settled in as they responded in unison, “What other stuff?”

“Well,” I began, “King Cakes!  You know. For Mardi Gras.”

“Oh? What is a King Cake?” First in Command gently asked.  As we piled into my Subaru and headed to Berry Town Produce, I did my best to dissect it all.

“Uh, it is a special cake that people in Louisiana make during Mardi Gras.  They are good!  And they have little babies inside.”

“Oh! Goodness!  What is Mardi Gras?”

Here we go.  Try to explain Mardi Gras to someone who has never watched television, seen a parade, enjoyed a cocktail or dressed up silly.  But I gave it the old college try.  I paused before I responded, taking time to choose my words carefully.

“Mardi Gras….is the season…period of time….days on the calendar between Twelfth Night and the beginning of Lent.  It is a time where…here in south Louisiana…we have lots of parties and parades…and we eat King Cakes and the person who finds the little baby has to get the next King Cake…and at the parades the people on the floats- the motorized trailer things that ride one behind the other in the parade-throw multi colored beads at…to…the people on the streets.  And the people on the decorated flo….motorized trailers wear fancy costumes.  The people on the street scream throw me something mister, so they throw beads.  Unless it is Zulu, in which case they hand out decorated coconuts.”  Whew!

The ladies looked at each other and quietly snickered as they each covered their smiles with three middle fingers held upright, like a family of trees.  They gracefully decline my offer to pick up groceries for them, but indicated that they would ALL like to ride with me and buy their own food.  Fine with me.  You only live once.  So we all piled into my little Subaru and I continued my pontification on Mardi Gras…

“Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and it really is a Tuesday.  That is the last day of the big parades.  The day before Ash Wednesday, so you have to squeeze in all your partying…you know…food, drink, debauchery (did I really say that?) into that last day because the next day is Ash Wednesday which kicks off (really?) Lent.  Then you have to be prayerful and sacrificial and ….prayerful.  South Louisiana has a heavy Roman Catholic population and…I am not Catholic, I am Presbyterian….but you know that…..but I still like Mard…Fat Tuesday.” Oh look!  We are here (thank God)!  The produce market where we can buy the fruits and vegetables.  And I can show you King Cakes!”

The four ladies careened their necks as we pulled into the parking lot.   As we poured out of the car, I couldn’t help but notice the attentive stares we received from the locals.  We might as well have just landed from another galaxy for the looks we were getting, but somehow, these precious four ladies (and I do mean ladies) were oblivious.  They were too, too fascinated by Mirlitons, Blood Oranges and King Cakes to take notice of all the Louisiana mouths hanging open.  As they respectfully examined the crops, it occurred to me that they may have never tasted our local seafood.  “They have shrimp too! And they will let you taste one!” I shouted as though I was speaking to a two year old from Budapast.

“What’s that?” Here we go again.  So I led them to the seafood counter and introduced them to the lady who worked there, explaining that they had never had the pleasure of eating shrimp.  She graciously handed them each a gorgeous, perfectly seasoned boiled shrimp and a paper towel. The ladies snickered and glanced at each other as I clumsily explained about ripping off the head before you peel off the shell.  The ladies each took a bite and smiles spread across their faces as they nodded, yes, yes.  The seafood clerk was so delighted she shouted (see I am not the only one) “Ya’ll want a crawfish???”

Oh Lord.  The shrimp was easy compared to this one, but I tried.  “It is sort of like a small lobster.” They stared at me. I got nothing.  “It has a harder shell than the shrimp but it tastes very good.  Try it!”  So they did.  Teaching them how to peel it was like teaching brain surgery, not because I am so skilled at teaching, but because they were so conscientious of doing it gently, correctly and well.  After they tasted the mudbugs, they looked at each other as they wiped their pristine fingers on a wet wipe (another new source of fascination.) The lady Second in Command declared with confidence, “I like the first one the best.”  The others nodded in agreement.  We finalized their purchases; four cucumbers, three heads of iceburg lettuce and one clamshell of local strawberries, and headed back to our spaceship so I could drive them back to the house.

On the drive I became brave, brazen almost, as I spoke up.  “I want to ask you something.  I want to learn from you.  I noticed that your dresses have no buttons, just straight pins holding them together.  I am surprised that they don’t poke you.”

“Oh, they do!” Second in Command howled as the other three broke into peals of laughter. “They do indeed!”

“Why don’t you use buttons? I asked.

They all became silent then First in Command responded, “I don’t know.  I don’t know.  We sew the men’s trousers with buttons.  Hmmm.  I just don’t know.”  Hip hip hooray!  They couldn’t explain things either!  It wasn’t just me!  Yay!

I hesitantly spoke.  “Well, I think you should be able to have buttons too.”  The minute the words were out of my mouth I regretted it.  Their straight pins and buttons and traditions were none of my business.  I wished I had kept my mouth shut, but they seemed amused.  I dropped them off at their house and waved them goodbye as I threatened,   “Tomorrow I will bring you a King Cake that I made.”

“Oh.  Will it have a baby in it?”

I snickered as I put the car in reverse.  “Yes ma’am it will.  It certainly will.”