Len's mother has been gone eleven years. Today is her birthday.
Although I didn't get to spend many birthdays with her, the one that I did brought strawberry cake and purple balloons. Purple, her favorite color, was splattered on everything that was special to her: gloves, blankets, broaches.
She lit up the room as she rolled in. By the time I knew her, her feet has given out and all those classy pumps that I saw her wearing in photos were a distant memory. But oh my, what good taste she had. From her suits to her lingerie, she showed her delight in being a woman.
Not long after her death, I took an online poetry class at Northwestern University. NOTE: I am NOT a poet. I took the class for credits because it was online and I figured the worst that could happen would be the teacher reading my horrible scribble in the quiet of her own home; I would never have to face her or people. Oddly enough, I enjoyed the class and garnered everything I wrote from the events of my life and the lives of those around me. Some made me cringe; others, delighted me.
When Len reminded me that today was Veta's birthday, for some reason, my mind went to the time she inspired my writing.
I loved her name. VETINA. It just speaks to beauty. It sounds beautiful. Soft like a Rembrandt painting. It floats off the tongue. You can't imagine anyone not falling in love with a woman named Vetina. Len often spoke of his father Neil and how the love between his mother and father superseded everything in life. The kind of love that all of us want but rarely find. During her last year, Vetina longed for Neil. It was almost as if he was waiting for the right moment to come get her. And in August of 2009, he did.
So in reality, it was a joyful time. As casual as that might sound, it held us together. Reunited lovers is always a good thing.
So here's my tribute to that one great love that we all want. I'm lucky enough to say I found it in you.
Come to Me
Come to me, Vetina, come to me.
Shed those earthly effects and fly.
Fly home to me on the wings of doves, and with the longing of a thousand yesterdays,
I will meet you.
Come to me, Vetina, your time is done.
Wither not anymore, my love, the pain is complete.
Ascend to the heavens, and know that my arms will be open wide and
I will hold you.
Come to me, Vetina, let our moments carry you.
Climb out of today and abandon the hurt.
Remembrances of homecomings, thoughts of a lifetime only intensify my love and
I finally catch a glimpse of you.
Come to me, Vetina, you are almost here.
Lament not for those who remain.
Short-lived is their pain, forever does your spell linger, and
They will never abandon you.
Come to me, Vetina, I feel you near.
Say goodbye to earthly sorrows and pain.
Forever is truly complete, and with your face to shine upon me,
We are both home.
I've made it to 59.
Some days, I wasn't so sure I'd see this day come. Who knew aches and pains know exactly when to rear their ugly heads? Right on time. I feel you every single day. This old age stuff isn't for the weak!
What a year that was, and all I can say, is how thankful I am to be living and loving.
Nevertheless, I feel God's grace as I remember the year gone by.
* All the brides and grooms and love we got to capture. What joy!
* Ireland, oh my heart beats for you.
* Mari married Phelim, and I got to watch (and cry).
* The Carrick-a-Rede bridge tested me. I can do what I think I can't.
* There is such a thing as racing toilets.
* Assignments nabbed with the big boys!
* Marinating book . . .
* Achilles Heel or Hell, you are my weakness. Thank God for only two feet.
* Costa Rica restored life to me by way of my teeth, proving that when you do your homework and take a risk, chances are it will work out.
* Osa Peninsula - there's something there that I can't quite put my finger on. I'll see you again.
* Canada + Montreal + Quebec = thanks for the memories and the passport stamp!
* Ty's and Logan's lives are on track. And Billy, I'm so glad you're here.
* Sunday School with Jimmy Carter. Inspiring.
* I climbed the Acropolis!
There's so much more in this life I want to accomplish, so much more I want to see. And, I get to do it all with the man I love more than life itself. Of all my blessings, you, my dear, are the greatest. You lift me up, you accept my dreams, you question my emotions (as do I), you believe in me.
So as we begin this last year of this tough - but memorable - decade, let's walk it as triumphantly as the Beatles walked Abbey Road. That's right, I compared Two Coots to the Beatles!
Remember in TV ads long ago in the 70s when product-makers would tout their "unconditional money-back guarantee" for their product that might work three days after receiving it. As a kid, I remember hearing those jumbled words, not really understanding its significance. However, if old age has taught me one thing, it's the price of unconditional and how its longevity factor is much more valued than any monetary replacement.
Yesterday, our cat died. Bear. I've known Bear as long as I've known my husband. In fact, Bear met me at the door before Len could get there. So, I guess I've know Bear the longest. My heart is broken. Len's heart is broken. Here's the way I look at this. Last week my ex-husband died. I didn't cry. I didn't mourn. He was a horrible man who treated his children and family as if we were trash. Not an unconditional fiber in his being. It was a very sad ending to life.
Today, I can't stop crying. I can't stop mourning. Bear was a companion who never judged or belittled or wandered; he simply loved his family the best way he could. And, he did. Until yesterday at 4:00 p.m. when he just couldn't handle it anymore.
He's simply a cat.
I mean, really. What we had to put up with!
I can have a white bed comforter. Yes, a beautiful, hotel-like, cushy-cottony comforter that will make our bedroom a beautiful place to relax. No worries of black hair being left on the foot of the bed or paw prints messing with its whiteness.
And, I can put away the towels that I used to cover all upholstery where he stretched out every day. The pad at the bottom of our bed or the chair in my office where he spent most of his days don't have to be covered anymore. The upholstery can now breathe.
Real flowers. I can have vases upon vases of real flowers on every table in the house. I don't have to put them 7 feet high in hopes that Bear won't climb and eat every last bloom. What do I buy first?
I can open doors again! I don't have to race in from the car, quickly closing the outside door before I open the kitchen door just so Bear won't escape. He did that one time, and luckily I found him. If not, I would have been the one that was homeless. I can take my time, leaving a door open a millisecond longer than before.
And, I won't have to say goodbye each time I leave the house or tell him when I'll return or to take care of Ty or to take a nap; I'll be right back. I can just walk out the door and be on my way.
No more paw prints on my floors. Less mopping to erase his steps and the floors will thank me.
No more litter box to clean. Can I get an Amen?
During the night, no more cat chases to wake us. We never knew what he was chasing, but when he settled down, we figured he caught it. Oh, and no more sweeps of the house after Len and I laid down. He always laid down with us and then immediately got up to check the house. Again, crazy cat in that nothing was every there. He just made noise.
I don't have to share my sweet peas with Bear anymore. I can keep them all to myself.
And don't get me started about the water. Leaving the water running in Len's sink for him to drink - he was insistent that it be running so he could get water. Never mind that he had a water bowl in the kitchen. It was never good enough.
What a nosey ghost. I couldn't go anywhere in the house with him following me. Now, I can do anything, all by myself.
Life is strange in that we think we know what we want. And when we have it, we want the complete opposite.
I look over my left shoulder to the chair that Bear occupied for close to eight years. It's empty. I can't read my work to him. No more meows for approval or a head tuck for disapproval. And when its time for a break, I'll not have a partner to accompany me to the kitchen for a cup of coffee or a guy to help me harass the outside cats through the glass door. And no one who races me to the bathroom. And no one to tell "good morning" or "let's go to bed."
And this is where the unconditional comes in. He was that. Bear defined that. For no matter what we needed - a head kiss or a cold nose on my arm - he always showed us that he was there. Even when I told him how annoying he was, he didn't care; he simply remained Bear. He had the longevity factor. Until the very end.
Lessons from a cat, I suppose. Constant. Remaining. Loving. Caring. Unconditional.
He leaves all those lessons behind and a family that became whole because he was there.
Who needs a white comforter and flowers? Not me.
Running late, my normal these days, I found myself in Robert's funeral procession traveling from the funeral home some 10 miles to Center Hill Baptist Church near Rosebud.
It was about 10:30 a.m. and blue lights blocked the intersection. Walton County Sheriff Deputies sat quietly, stopping traffic from all sides. I knew it had to be a funeral this time of day. People paused in respect, a Southern practice that always makes me proud to be a Southerner, and, a little teary-eyed no matter who it might be. I didn't expect it to be Robert's procession. I waited, looking at my watch realizing I was getting later by the second, but it didn't matter anymore. They surely wouldn't start without Robert.
I observed each car go by - the hearse, the family, the friends - and then finally, I was allowed to fall in behind. On this very road, about 40 years ago, I traveled to meet Robert, his wife Josephine, his family - Renee, Rodney, Lance and Kelly - for the very first time.
As a sophomore at Truettt-McConnell College, I was selected by the Southern Baptist Convention as a summer missionary to Massachusetts. My stranger-side-kick and myself infiltrated the Catholic world of New England, working during the summer in backyard Bible schools, leading church services, ministering to young people who were basically the same age we were. It was life-changing. Service and ministry seeped into my skin, and I decided to do it again - just not so far away. So during my second summer at the University of Georgia, I interviewed with Center Hill Baptist Church for a youth ministry position. They liked me. They invited me. They kept me. For two years.
The first year, I commuted from Athens with the occasional spend-the-night with a church member. The second year, I had to have a home. They made sure of it. So Robert and Josephine - with four children of their own - turned their living room into Judy's bedroom and that was that.
Today, as I sat in the packed sanctuary, I heard Rodney, his eldest son, speak of his father's character. I glanced at Josephine. She was nodding her head in agreement. So were Renee, Lance and Kelly. Unconsciously, I'm doing the same thing. A quiet man, his convictions - his love - his service to mankind was palpable.
I struggled to remember the small details of life with the McCarts, but I do remember how I didn't feel like a stranger. When the car pulled under the car port to unload groceries (and, man, were there a lot of groceries), we all helped. It was an event. Evenings around the dinner table included everyone with tales of the day and usually, lots of laughter. I hated squash, but Josephine cooked it just right - paper thin and fried, and I caved. The sweet tea was addictive, but not as addictive as that strawberry cake. I can still taste it.
Being a Ford man, I understood why Robert loved my little red and white Mustang so much, but not as much as he loved Renee's. Anything I asked him to do for the youth group, he did it with joy. Anything. He loved the outdoors, and he loved to laugh. I remembered that hearty laugh. His children had it, too. I suspect, they still do.
Even after they converted my bedroom back into a living room, it was still home. And when I would return to the church for visits over the years, Robert and Josephine were the first faces I searched for. They were the first people I grabbed.
It's incredible how, even though years have passed, the depth of love I have for this family has never wavered. Time has been the greatest divider but not the conqueror. Just like that, I'm back and it's summertime at Center Hill. The youth group is preparing for some big event, gathering in the parking lot underneath the big oak tree. I'm eating squash and strawberry cake. I'm sitting in the house on the hill where a family took me in and gave me exactly what I needed - love.
Part of that scenario goes home today, but the legacy of Robert remains. He leaves a very important lesson with me - when you think you are full, and there's just not room for anyone or anything else, there's always an opportunity to change a living room into a bedroom.
Having a place to lay your head is life-changing. Just ask me.
I have loved you since the mid-1980s when I saw you drive across the big screen with Paul Reiser and some actress in some movie. He drove while "she" (whoever she was) rode in the passenger seat of that cobalt blue rag top, hair blowing wildly, and delight radiating from both faces. For the life of me, I can't remember the movie, but I remember that car.
"I want that car," I uttered.I promised myself that very second, that at some point in my life, I would own a convertible Saab and my hair would do that, too. And, I would be happy.
In December of 2007, my mama, Ty and I sat in the showroom at Loganville Ford, contemplating my financial suicide which included a used fire red convertible Saab 9/3 that by all accounts, I could not afford even on my best day. I had no home, no vehicle, no money, and I had only landed a job two weeks earlier; my divorce from crazy had been finalized two months before, and now, the crazy in me was asking my 95-year-old mama to co-sign with me on a car.
I had penned this very point on my six-month goal list back in October when Cheri and I sat outside a Lawrenceville Starbucks. Maybe not a Saab, but a vehicle of my very own. Then, I saw you.
"You just don't understand. I have to have this car." I finally convinced my mama, my son, and the salesman of this life-altering event. The salesman chuckled as he told me how absurd the situation was. "I don't care how good her credit is, she's 95." And then he laughed more. He disappeared, as all auto salesmen do, to the back and remained behind closed doors for what seemed like an eternity.
Then, he appeared and walked toward us, head bowed, papers in hand. "I can't explain it," he said, looking bewildered. "We'll put her name first. Give me a couple hundred down. We might just make it work." I'm not sure who was shocked the most, the salesman or me.
Since that evening when I drove you home from the dealership, I have loved you, cared for you, washed you and protected you. You were the first miracle that I needed to rebound from a long, dark past. Years later, I still tell the Miracle Saab story. 'If I could get that car, I could get anything.' My beautiful red turbo jet ushered me quickly into a future that I couldn't see coming. You squeezed the excitement out of me when I needed it the most, and when days were just drab, I'd push a button, and the sky would open up. Your canvas roof folded back, and the wind would sweep away all the negative thoughts. I felt fearless. You gave me that.
You warmed my buns on cold mornings. And that endless display of buttons - I could mute, change, fold, open, skip - the accessories alone freaked me out! Your cracked leather seats cradled and cushioned me on the long drives home from my Decatur job. You gave Silas shotgun seating as we'd swing through the drive-thru at Brewsters, begging for his ice cream topped with a doggy treat. You were always the topic of conversation with your Swedish backwards design. I convinced people that different is stylish. Not to say you were perfect, for you left me on the side of many roads; Wilson's Towing was on speed-dial. You cradled my sobs when I needed space to let the frustration escape. You raced down city streets, expressways and finally down a country road and landed me on Len's doorstep. What a life you lived. What a life you allowed me to live.
Today, you are leaving. You will be another's jet and hope. I would never leave you behind at a dealership, so I'm sending you off with love to the local Make a Wish foundation. Seems like the perfect landing strip for a jet with super powers who gave life to a lady who had crashed and needed refueling.
As I watched you go down the driveway for the last time, I crumbled to the gravel and cried. Then, the sunburst broke through the trees. You came into my life when I needed a jolt of "get going, life won't wait." You gave responsibility and purpose and happiness. Yes, you're just a car, but then, Jesus was just a man.
The case took wings as though it was as light as a feather. Flying through the air, daddy swerved the car to dodge the light blue bullet. It landed with a thump, rolling a couple of times before landing in the grass. "Stop," I screamed at daddy. "Let's get it." Knowing that you never pass by anything of worth, daddy pulled over onto the shoulder as we watched the car that once carried the case snug on its roof disappear into the horizon. It never slowed down; never paused. In my little girl mind, it was fate; the case was meant to be mine.
I bolted from the car as mama and daddy followed. I picked it up as if it were glass, taking care not to disturb what was inside. I held it tightly to my chest. I couldn't wait to open the latches to see what treasure was inside. For a split second, I felt sympathy for the lady who, around sunset, would discover she no longer had a traveling case and what was inside would be forever gone. That second passed, for now, whatever it was, was mine.
Mama grabbed it from me. "Get back in the car," she said.
I was devastated. I not only wanted, but I needed to see what was inside.
I sulked all the way to our cabin in Hiawassee. I pouted the entire night. Not once did mama open the case, or even offer to let me open it. It was a weekend of ignoring the case. I was mortified.
Sunday night, we loaded the car and traveled back home. The little blue case was shoved into the trunk, right beside my suitcase. "Open me. Open me." I couldn't stand it.
Before we went to bed that night, mama called me into her room and there it sat. On her bed. Top open. "Come look."
Inside was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Pastel pink. Chiffon. Ruffles. A long-flowing nightgown which I immediately held to my chest; it even had a little jacket. It whispered of a lady. In a pouch, lipsticks and powder, and even a mirror. I touched everything. I felt the softness between my fingers. All I had ever know was cotton; chiffon only lived in the movies.
That was the last time I saw its contents. The case was emptied and placed in the garage among things that were no longer needed. There it sat - on top of the pile - for the rest of my days.
Today, the case rests on top of other oddly shaped, nostalgic suitcases in my hallway. Every time I pass by, I remember the day it came into my life. The excitement that was born. The beauty and mystery it brought. I keep it as a reminder to keep that same childlike wonder inside me every single day. Granted, that's a stretch some days; but others, just seeing those silver latches makes me smile. I call it my "ten year old Grace Kelly moment." It was then I realized that suitcases + travel = chiffon. Who can deny that rationalization?
It was morning, and from my kitchen radio, the announcer stoically told the news of the deaths of two classmates from my high school. I was 16, and although I do not remember their names, I remember the jar to my heart. They lived on my end of the county and the night before, drove crazy along a mountain road, lost control and died. I didn't know teenagers could die. Old people, sure, but not someone my age. I didn't sleep for days, and when I did, I had nightmares; mama would shake to wake me from the movie in my mind. The next year, I would be in a wedding of a close friend, only to bury her groom three days later.
And my roller coaster called life began at that moment.
I cry for Allison Parker and Adam Ward, the two journalists killed on Wednesday. My heart feels the same jar. Maybe because I am a journalist; maybe because it's just senseless. I watched my morning news this morning as Jaye Watson reminded me that the killer was "not was one of us." On Wednesday, I watched the video of the shooting; once. Then, I watched the video made from the other perspective; once. I felt my body go numb and wondered how I would breathe; then, as any good journalist (for that matter, a human being) would do, I questioned. I saw how close he came to the two innocents and wondered why they didn't react. Then, I knew.
I remembered my moments being the extension of a recorder, a camera: interviewing Cleveland Indian Clint Frazier in his home, Bob Chandler along the road in Maine selling his maple syrup to strangers, the chamber of commerce president in a neighboring county, a woman who was going through endless chemo treatments for breast cancer, an old moonshiner who was slowly losing his reality.
First, you are a reporter, a journalist, a storyteller; secondly, a multi-tasker. In the same moment, you must think, think back and then, think ahead. To concentrate so intensely on what has been said, what is being said, and what might be said - all the while remembering those questions you jotted down on a McDonald's napkin at the very weird moment when inspiration hit. Your audience is depending on your focus. That's what professional journalists do. That's what Allison and Adam did. They kept their focus.
As the roller coaster continues, we must all keep our focus. There will always be those who attempt to distract, disengage, condemn, belittle, undermine, stifle, and sometimes, extinguish our focus. I still battle back tears for the unexplained as I keep moving in the direction of my passion. Even as I pause, and say, "Why bother at this point in my life," I slap my hand (or my knee as mama would do) and remember the smiles of those who are (were) in focus.
"There's no other option for my roller coaster life."
How do you fix a GRAY Japanese Kubota tractor that has been abused, destroyed, ignored, hammered, wrecked, knocked around, bruised, shattered to the point that IF the right parts were found, would it actually work? Would that key turn and that starter roll IF all the pieces were in place? Would papa's tractor - now a sad pile of metal - be reborn to dig and haul and move?
Would the memories of riding in the driver's seat, feet dangling, while papa made sure the brake was mashed and the gears were changed, do the trick? Sitting on the laps of Titans have been known to change lives before. Will those memories propel us to finish what we've started?
And even though this rescued tractor has sat on that trailer for the more than a year, three of its four tires are flat, and for the life of us, that key still won't turn and that motor won't sing, can we do it? Will we do it? It won't be for lack of trying.
So this tractor fixin' project has been in the works for well into two years now. As time allows, Len and Ty piddle and poke and search for the right parts, the right key, affordable replacement tires. I watch Ty and I know that bringing this tractor back to life is a way of keeping his papa close at hand. Len knows that getting this tractor in working order has nothing to do with it's ability to work, but everything to do with keeping his step-son's memory of his grandfather alive. That's enough reason for him.
I watch Ty wipe the years of time-stamped dirt from the tractor's once vibrant shell, knowing that it will never be as beautiful as it once was. For one reason, time has added layers that scrubbing just won't erase, and for the most important reason, his papa isn't around to make it shine.
So, if they get it running, great. If not, then great, too. It's home, and it's loved. Just like papa.
Who flipped on the wind machine?
I'm on the second floor of an early 1900s farm house. It's almost midnight and I swear, the house is going to fold around me. I tip-toe out of bed (like that will make a difference), peep out the window -- the barn is still standing even though winds are whipping at at least 50 mph (my conservative raging hormone-driven estimate). That's a good sign. Even though I'm in Northeast Georgia, I have visions of Kansas and flying houses and little people swirling through my head. The last peep I took was around 2 a.m. If I hear one more sharp swirling sound piercing through the rafters, I swear I'll put on my wool socks, grab a blanket and snuggle up on the downstairs sofa - B & B or not! I pull the covers up to my chin and pray. The next thing I know, it's sunrise; the barn is still there, and I can't wait to inhale coffee.
Now, I can't guarantee that much energy flowing through the mountains when you stay at Mountain Laurel Farm in Cleveland, but for sure, I can guarantee this: a majestic view, a tasty breakfast and a delightful innkeeper who has many stories to tell.
Melody is my new best friend. No, really. That's a perk of this job; you get to fall in love with everyone you meet (those you like anyway), tell their story through photographs and words, and always be able to call them friend. All of this you get instead of the big check at the end of the month. I like my form of payment, thank you very much.
It was merely by happenstance that I stumbled upon this farm. Looking for a place to rest and research, one that wouldn't break the bank (for I knew it would be the beginning of a multitude of stays until April), I found Mountain Laurel. Never mind I loved the name which conjured up a lifetime of memories at the Mountain Laurel festival in Clarkesville, but after seeing pictures, it looked surreal -- complete with the proverbial cherry to top - a red tin roof! A tin roof PLUS stories of Cheryl Tiegs, castles, contra dancing, jasmine, egg bowls, Vietnam, husbands and children. All that in the course of three days. My heart - and my idea notebook - are full.
There's more to come but on the Saturday morning after a week of squishing ideas into my head, I had to let a few out and share with you some jewels. I'm surrounded by my world this morning - Bear, my lovely husband, and my new Mark of the Potter mug - and life is good. When you least expect it, you are reminded just how rich you are.
September 27, 2014, was a long time coming. It was my dream in December, 1982, and today, it's just a house. Houses grow old, just like me, and if not given love and attention, will die. Such is the tale of Colquitt. After many attempts to spruce up the old joint, it wasn't going to happen without the help of a winning scratch-off. So sell, we shall. After Ty's (gracious and out-of-his-league) attempt to gut and become Mr. Fix-it fell through, the choice of buyers during year one became slim and non-existent. Then, a dreamer like me saw the potential, is taking a chance and will make this little bungalow into a dream once again. I wish him luck and prosperity. I wish the same for us.
So on this overcast fall Saturday in Georgia (while the Dawgs undo Tennessee a few miles up the road), we're loading up and moving out; however, that doesn't come without a few tears and 'remember whens?'
What's a move without a lame attempt at a yard sale?
And then those items that you find that mean absolutely nothing to everyone else, but mean the world to you . . . .
. . . the china cabinet (that began its life as a TV) that mama and daddy transformed (that's what you did in those days). It's been painted a million times. Inside the drawers, you can still see a scant reminder of where "Judy Hill" scribbled her name in crayon.
. . . the oil lamps that sat in my living room in Clarkesville for as long as I can remember. Mama always said, "We must be prepared if the lights go out."
. . . and the table. The table that mama built. She got adventurous, took a class at North Georgia Tech (the Trade School as we called it), and built a table. It took residence in our dining room. We never ate at the table, but always adored it and treated it like royalty. It's gone through three moves now and is a little rough for wear. One day, it's going back home to the mountains - to our little cabin in the woods.
. . . and the ten-ton blue fan that mama kept in the back bedroom window to blow cool air from one end of the house to the other. In hot summers, I would go back to the bedroom, lay at the foot of the bed so that my face would be inches from those steel blades. I would enjoy the coolest place in the house and then start singing into the moving blades. "ahemahemmmmmm"
No matter what this little first house of mine became, it ends as a reminder of my wealth. I remember Mari's first birthday party around the backyard rose garden - stenciling the living room ceiling in purple love birds - mama rocking her first grandchild in the t-tiny living room - the day Challenger exploded and I froze in disbelief - sitting on the front stoop at night wondering, questioning - planting the dogwoods for Logan and Mari and the weeping cherry for Ty - a home for the three of us and mama when there was no where else to turn - where mama took her last breath - where I learned to stand alone.
I haven't left many houses in my life - Clarkesville, Jersey, Monroe - and I have to remember that the most important things I take with me. The boards, sheet-rock and windows are just that and nothing more.
I plan on having only two more in my life time - my current and most important one- Mayne Mill - and another, in Hiawassee. When Len and I get our fill of traveling and photography (doubt that will ever happen), we'll start on our little hideaway in the mountains. After all, mama's table needs a proper resting place.
Whether it is exploring this amazing world or being content on my own piece of real estate near Athens, Georgia, I'm spinning stories and fashioning tales from a Southern perspective. As an editor and writer, I get to meet incredible people and share their stories. As a photographer, I get to cement these moments in time. As a wife and mother, I'm always excited to see what's around the next corner, For it's anything but ordinary.