Isn't it the way it always happens. You on your way to one place when you find yourself in another. That is me. Today. July 19, 2016. Len and I are heading to Maryville, Tennessee, to report on a Rock City barn being painted. On our way, I see signs. The signs begin to jog my memory. No, it can't be. It is.
Crazy thing is, I never knew where in the world it was until today.
The 10 Commandments scripted on the side of a mountain in mammoth white letters was a yearly visual. Big enough that anyone could see and understand. Of course, we'd have to climb the mountain and read each commandment for the billionth time. I am not one to keep my feelings to myself. I whined and complained just like every other ten year old around me. After all, they hadn't changed since last summer when we visited. I knew what they said and it was hot. The crowds were huge (just like the letters). Finally, we would finish reading and stroll to the gift shop - which is always the last stop for any Southern attraction.
Then, after a day of hopping in and out of the car, we'd find a little motel. By little, I mean one room, two beds. I was the odd man out. I got the sofa, but worse than sleeping on the sofa was sleeping on the sofa while listening to a freight train barreling through the room. That would be my Uncle Ivet. All 250 pounds jiggling to his own beat. It didn't take long to figure out how to fix this. I put my 10-year-old brain to work and solved my problem.
The only place that would separate me from the rattling, the bathroom.After everyone was asleep, I'd grab a pillow, a blanket and hop in the tub. It seemed like the perfect idea except for the half-dozen bathroom visits Ivet made during the night. I kept my eyes closed, but even the pillow couldn't suffocate the sound.
And today, on my journey to somewhere else, I remembered those trips with the four people I loved most in the world. I climbed up the white wash staircase and thought of mama and daddy. "Don't go too far away," she would say. "Stop whining, Judy. Be respectful." I couldn't believe this is where I stood almost 45 years ago. I cried as I do often these days.
"Look at me, mama. I'm here on my own and I'm not whining one bit."
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?
Five years ago, I hugged my daughter and said good-bye in the middle of Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta and truly believed that would be the last time I would see her; that is, until I grabbed her in the darkness in the parking area in Donegal Town, Ireland, on a cold and windy night in February.
Years and distance make a difference; they toughen the heart. Never would I recommend it to anyone, but as the young ones tell you, "the world has changed" and living next door to granny just isn't the norm. I think about all the moments she took away from me; not intentionally I'm sure, but simply to follow her dreams and her life's road. That is what me as a mama should want, but that's so damn hard to accept. Mamas and daddy's should want that butterfly effect; grow up, spread your wings, fly away.
Be careful what you wish for. For when they do exactly what you have preached for them to do during those years of childhood and adolescence, don't whimper about the outcome (my loud whimper). Accept that those wings are carrying them exactly where they should be and trust they will carry them back home.
It's easy to say now; a few months ago, not at all. I credit my change of heart to one thing: proximity. I get it why mama and daddy insisted on family reunions, getting together with aunts and uncles Sunday's after church, making a visit during Christmas, even popping up at Uncle Ivet's for no reason at all. Southern family's understand that if you can see faces, hear jokes, eat food, hug necks, distance just evaporates. I got to squeeze cheeks and hug necks; I am renewed and that has made all the difference. All that complaining I did as a child, well, mama, I'm sorry.
After our visit with Mary, Phelim and our grandchildren, we hope for more visits. We pray for more visits. After all, Caitlin needs a gramps and granny around when mama and daddy just won't give in. Next time, I - or you for that matter - whimper about visiting family, going to that annual family reunion, gathering at the lake in the summer, remember that that family, that reunion, that lake might not always be there. That absence will change you the course of your life. You will miss it.
I must say, those eleven days on the road were some of the best days of my life. And all the planning before we left made most of it possible. But when diversions and options were presented, we took them. We learned to bend our schedule, even our expectations and be open to the unexpected.
As all of us plan our travel for the fall, winter and spring months in the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains, we have many destinations calling our names. We remember this, too: make the journey getting there and back as awe-inspiring as the destination itself. Take time to get to know the innkeepers at the out-of-the way B & B: you might just discover that this is where Cheryl Tiegs filmed one of her famous ads. Engage in conversation with someone sitting beside you at the Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough; you might share a laugh (and a childhood memory) together. Find out where the locals eat and take a seat; you'll never go wrong experiencing homegrown; pull over at Perdeaux's Fruit Farm and ask about his unique invention for fruit; go see just what kind of people and places lay between Point A and Point B.
And if you happen to be in North Georgia in October, Dawsonville specifically, we'd love to meet you. We've got a booth at the Moonshine Festival promoting my new book North Georgia Moonshine (more about that later). Come by and say, "hello," and we'll talk moonshine and mountains!
Places (and People) to discover this fall
Georgia Mountain Fall Festival | Hiawassee | October 9-17
Sorghum Festival | Blairsville | October 10-11, 17-18
Apple Festival | Ellijay | October 10-11, 17-18
Japenese Arts & Cultural Festival | Ballground | October 17-18, 24-25
Gold Rush Days | Dahlonega October 16 - 18
Unicoi Wine Trail | White CountyMoonshine Festival | Dawsonville October 24-25
Santa Express Train Ride | Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad | November 17- December 24
EAT + STAY = Mountain Laurel Farm
Country Music Highway | US 23 | Ashland to Whitesburg
Wherever you chose to travel this fall, remember this: make getting there as exciting as arriving. There's much to do, much to explore in these Blue Ridge Mountains, so get away this weekend. We'd love to hear your tales from the road! Happy travels.
So, in an effort to not lose the past, the next project begins. Syncing photography and words, Seeing Southern will capture the stories and the people who helped shape most of us Baby Boomers. For that, we do not apologize nor do we shrink from the changing times. For people like me, we still have stories rumbling inside that have yet to surface. And for the current generation that right now seems to be moving too fast to listen, there's much to learn. Even if times change, people, for the most part, do not.
I like to think that there are people like me.
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.
Tonight, I am pondering Georgia or North Carolina. Which one is it?
I've spent the last week immersed in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley, the lush green soy-beans/grapevines/tobacco mecca of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rolling hills which obviously furnish these plants with the nutrients required set the stage for a simpler way of life that many have left the Fort Lauderdale's and New York's to find. Walk in any shop in Elkin or Mount Airy or Dobson and you'll understand the excitement which propels these shopkeepers on a daily basis. They laugh. They smile; no, they grin - that lippy grin that can't suppress the joy that lives deep down. They've found it here. Miss Angel and Ed Harris and Tony Bowman understand and hope you will, too, once you eat the freshly prepared heavenly treats, sit upon a hand-carved leather saddle, and praise God in person while thousands listen out there in radio-land.
That was yesterday; tomorrow begs the question, Georgia or North Carolina?
Georgia whiskey or Carolina moonshine? The war of words and spirits has raged since prohibition reared its ugly head in the early 1900s and continues today while the now legals still allege their dominance. Then, there's cars . . . Which one raced cars lightning fast around those snaky mountain strips of road and escaped the suits? Which is the purest? Which is just rot-gut crap? It all depends upon who you talk to, I imagine. Tomorrow, I'll get to meet another legend, Junior Johnson. We'll talk and he'll know quickly that my allegiance lies within the peach state; I'll give North Carolina a chance, but you'll never out-shine my Georgia.
No matter where you leave your heart, we do have this in common: it lives in the South. Our deep abiding, soul-inspiring, can't get enough of my South. It's a place where pumpkin pie ice cream is a reality, and it is so good that you'll forget about all the rest; where sonker makes sweet ice tea seem rather ordinary; where French, American or Italian grapes are the choices and they are all correct; where you perfect your mama's skill of monogramming and change the lives of an entire generation; where you can make history simply by what you choose to do with corn, water and sugar.
And these stories are only the beginning. On warm summer evenings like tonight, I can't believe how lucky I am.
"You're a travel writer?" she said with an elevated voice. "What an amazing job."
Yes, Nessa, it is.
When we get really lucky, we get to lay our heads at B & Bs. We dine at the breakfast table with strangers from who knows where and talk about mostly unknown things and more than likely, we'll never ever see them again. We have one moment to uncover a lifetime.
Nessa Pettyjohn and Nihshanka Debroy from Gwinnett County celebrated their one year anniversary, and at breakfast, we celebrated, complete with candle-topped banana bread. After an amazing casserole, intense coffee and our own slice of banana bread later, we discovered they were IT people. I could tell. It was like looking in a three way reflective mirror - Nessa, Nihshanka and Len. Triplets. I, on the other hand, was the elephant in the room, but that's alright. We learned about Nihshanka's love for rare books and Nessa's skill at preparing Indian food; we wanted to go home with them.
Hosts, or innkeepers, are rare breeds we are told. There are ones that are nice and do their job well. Then, there are those who could be your Aunt Sally or Uncle Frankie. Family, in other words. You hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes, in the little touches - like complimentary this-and-that, fresh baked cakes always available tempting and calling your name, exquisite "I never want to get out of bed" sheets, binoculars for bird watching, or smiles no matter the time of day. And if they accidentally lock you out of the Lodge at bedtime, you know deep down they really didn't mean to. And when they say, "Come back," they expect you to.
Janet and Ric came to Blue Ridge by way of Key Largo and Colorado. "This [Aska] makes us happy," Janet says with a visible sense of contentment radiating from her face. Calling them adventurists would be an understatement - climbing Mount Rainier and Mt. Hood, caving, scuba diving - and this little piece of heaven, satisfies their longing to be close to nature. They have even changed roles; Janet who once handled all the cooking now serves as sous chef for Ric and his morning masterpieces.
All this thinking and processing and editing, and well, deciding on concepts that we can live with for a lifetime is exhausting! It has had feet a little over 18 months, but it's the last few months that we've stuck our toes deeper in the sand to make this adventure (not sure if that's the correct word) a reality. Our first finalized piece of two coots: our Seeing Southern logo. We're tweaking on this a bit for other uses, but this is us. Whenever you see this, it will represent us - Len and Judy - and our commitment to excellence, to the South and to the story. Not too shabby.
We hope you agree.
Get all your ducks in a row before you get started. I've heard that advice from most writers in my life, and now, that's exactly what I'm trying to do. Get organized. Figure out a road map. Get fueled up. Then, write.
Getting fueled up means getting the facts. Digging and researching and letting your mind explode with all the tiny clues that lead up to the big reality. It's a process that if not followed, will lead to many blank stares and hollow pages. As an editor, I hate that; as a writer, I hate that more. I'm trying to avoid that and learn from those who excel at this process much more than I.
With that in mind, our first event - an evening with the Lovells at The Old Pal in Athens. Carlos (Master Distiller) and his brother Fred swept through the crowd like long-lost friends and converted many to whiskey drinkers. Lovell Bros. whiskey, that is. And never far from her father is Carlene, the woman he entrusted to make his life-long love a legal reality. There's lots more about their story in the book, so consider this a tease.
My discovery and point is this: that each new journey contributes to who I am as a writer. Each time my eyes burrow into newspapers and my ears attend interviews, the big picture is sharper. The people that I have met thus far on this journey are incredible and already, this is already proving to be one of my greatest undertakings. At the end, the content will not have changed me, but it will have definitely made me more cognizant. Knowledge is imminent, but so are the relationships. It's the people you meet along the way - the historians, the sources - that make the path to publishing so rewarding. As far as relationships go, I consider Carlene to be one of my latest and greatest - a sidekick and friend in the nick of time.
I explored the Clarkesville Library yesterday and met the amazing historian, Bill Raper. Six hours passed at the blink of an eye and that was only the tip of the iceberg. Not only is he sharing his personal stories and documented facts about this Habersham County, he's also providing me a look into my past. How wild?
So here we go. Today, UGA. Tomorrow, UNC. The next day, who knows. I look forward to meeting the liaisons from everywhere and adding them to my list of comrades who seek to preserve the past for the future.
last february, i had this bright idea. it involved writing and its evolution of stored dreams (and word docs).
like most writers, i have writing archives, where dozens of beginnings to manuscripts and a few completed ones spend retirement. for those that skipped that stage of its life and were sent out to demanding editors, these chapters are stapled with their rejection letters. most writers possess them, a necessary part of process that i have fully come to accept.
today, i am a writer. that's my job (enter snoopy doing his happy dance). this part of my writing journey - the years that didn't involve endless pages of interpretive thoughts on great works of american literature - began at least 20 years ago in the romance genre. i was going to be a romance novelist; after all, it was romantic. and i had seen romancing the stone a million times, and i had known how the plot would end. i was searching for my own jack. i faithfully joined georgia romance writers, attended the meetings, even joined critique groups, but something just didn't mesh. i loved every second of it, but i could never write the end. i finally got the message: this isn't your genre, judy. find another way.
and so i did. i sat down and tried to figure out what i loved most in this world. and then i heard my mama's voice. the stories, the history, the truths she imparted on a daily basis, much that fell upon deaf ears. i loved travel, people, the past, old people, quirky stories - those stores you just can't make up. stories that will die if these deaf ears continue to be oblivious. and that is where you find me today - traveling and discovering unique tales of a people who make destinations so darn interesting. and in my travels, i met carlos.
long story short, i fell in love with carlos, his story, his family, his life - and as a writer, you should never let anything like that ever go to waste. so i'm not.
so i took the idea and submitted it to a publisher. in may, a publisher said, "i like this. maybe it will work."
part 2 of snoopy's happy dance!
now, it's july, and i'm not only in the heat of summer, and in the heat of the process. my path to publishing is real; the contract has been signed and returned, and i've had time to do some mind-processing (one of my workflows, i've come to discover) and it's time to buckle down. it's odd that you spend a lifetime dreaming of this moment, and now that it's here, you're scared senseless. time flies. sources evade. sure ideas wither.
so with an anticipated publishing date of august 2015, i'm hot on the trail of the following: moonshine in the mountains, north georgia mountains, old folks, young folks, copper stills in the moonlight, revenuers, spirits, carlos lovell, distilleries, recipes, new folks who can't get enough of those old folks, - and none of that rot-gut stuff allowed (carlos says so), etc. you get the picture.
first stop, the libraries: university of georgia, university of north carolina, clarkesville library,etc. next stop, well, i haven't figured that out just yet.
i invite you to come along on this pathway. for on the days when i just need to vent and explode - with words that have nothing to do with moonshine and history - i hope to find you here, exploding with me.
a good friend reminded me yesterday of my promise to learn to spit. actually, it was poet jenny joseph who got the ball rolling, and once those immeasurable words of genuineness became part of my daily vision, i knew it was a matter of time before i, too, would grow old and become everything i said i would never become.
i will not be my mother. who am i? i am my mother.
there are things we must do. bills we must pay. jobs we must finish. celebrations we must attend. noses we must wipe. but soon (and my soon is coming quicker than anticipated), all the routines will change, and i will fall in love with the serendipity of it all. i'll turn the corner, and be sucked in by the inescapable fortune before my eyes.
nevertheless, i'll walk the expected road for now, but soon, when you least expect it, i'll be spitting and wearing purple. don't get in my way - for your own sake.
when i am an old woman i shall wear purple
with a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
and i shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
i shall sit down on the pavement when i'm tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
i shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick flowers in other people's gardens
and learn to spit.
you can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickle for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
but now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
we must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
but maybe i ought to practice a little now?
so people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
when suddenly i am old, and start to wear purple.
thank you, dear friend . . .
yesterday is a funny thing. it holds that time-space-star trek-weird kind of leverage. something i'm almost positive sheldon and leonard could explain. however, in my mind, yesterday, when provoked, flashes in-and-out on a daily basis. like when i drive by schools and see the suv express dropping off kids, or pick up a bottle of v-8 in the grocery store, or drive down the road and see bubbles of black topping the ground.
those school drop-offs put me behind my suv wheel, tapping patiently, waiting for three happy-go-lucky kids to doddle from the house to the car, offering no attempt to be a little early - just once. i was frazzled by my first period roll call. len's mom had v-8 every day, mango and peach only. i buy it now when i need more veta love in my life. and those black bubbles. as i drive into town, i see calves lying everywhere in green pastures, my first indicator that spring has rescued us from a terrible winter. even though i'm an outsider, I get to watch those shaky legs take their first steps. if i was lucky once upon a time, daddy would get me close enough to touch the newborn's tender skin.
those happy-go-lucky kids were just babies yesterday. heck, i was only twenty-something yesterday. where did the in-between go?
now, my baby is going to be a mama which makes me a grandma. in about 10 days or so. as much as i hate not being there to welcome my granddaughter, i cry at the thought that i won't be there for mari. to tell her everything is going to be okay. to assure her that the hurt won't last forever. and don't forget to just breathe, as drew barrymore said in your favorite movie. just to be her mama, to hold her and be proud of her and remember when she was nothing more than a promise.
i struggle with that, and also, not being involved in a mother's ultimate wish. i won't be there to welcome her or snuggle with her. and she won't get to learn my touch or feel my care. so until we breathe the same air, introductions must be made and words must be exchanged. and i will have faith that my images and words will allow caitlin to know that somewhere, there's a lady just itching to rip off those socks and play with her toes.
my life has always been centered around words and images. now, i put all that i have learned to the test. my mission - to not miss a thing. it's much more complicated than that, but that's it in a nutshell.
so when my baby becomes a mama and this mama becomes a grandma and len puts on his grandpa hat, it will all be as it should be. and until the plane ride becomes nothing more than a drive around the corner, get ready for lots of words and photos and love from mayne. grandma and grandpa's got lots to share.
i've been immersed in baseball lately due to an article, and now, i find myself with a curve ball propelling in my direction. full force. will i duck? how do you dodge something with such force? and if you can't, how do you reassemble the pieces once contact has chipped away at your very being?
such a metaphor for forgetting that curve balls are inevitable and how you react, consequential. i didn't duck yesterday, and as a result, i did something really stupid. we've all been there. and then one day later, you smack yourself. good and hard. where did all my common sense go? what happened to all that motherly advice you impart to your children, and then when push-comes-to-shove, you fall apart and do exactly the opposite of what you tell them to do in order to rise above? ah, the humanity of it all.
i hate it when human nature takes over. i'm really better than all that 'meanness' that pours from my mouth. my mama made sure i had all the rules and instructions i needed to get through just about anything. and inevitably , i fail to listen - to remember - i get bogged down in garbage and forget what is really important. who is really important.
no matter what we choose to be at any particular moment, we have to remember, it's a choice. i made it. i pay for it. i'm not the only one in the game. others are depending on me to rise above petty rubbish and do the right thing.
it's monday. i plan on getting back in the game today; however, today's game will follow the play book, the play book that ends with a shot at the title.
when len bought his trans am back in the stone ages of 2004, the salesman told him an added bonus of the car - in addition to its speed - was that it was a chick magnet. finally, after 10 years, the car cashed-in on its promise.
i preface my chick story with this: i've always told len that when he his beard gets scruffy on vacation (i encourage this behavior and he gives in only when we're away), that's he's a doll. women love it. add that salt and pepper hair, and well, that's one of those george clooney traits that send women over the edge.
departing key west, we made a last minute run to glazed donuts (amazing, but that's another story) for a necessary sugar blast for the 13 hour drive. i had run into the store, a mere two doors down from where len waited in the parked car. i exited in less than 5 minutes with a box stocked with glazed delights. i rounded the corner and i saw a couple eagerly snapping pictures of len. was something wrong? or had that scruffiness finally caught someone's eye, and the paparazzi was going wild. wild, i tell you. knowing that attention is not len's friend, i feared the weird. i creeped closer and the couple continued snapping, and then, i saw her. mounted on the top of the hood, majestically controlling the trans am as if it were her rooster, a hen with as vibrant an attitude as her red feathers. i learned that in escaping a querulous rooster, she flew towards the trans am for a safe haven. taking no notice of len, she strolled on the hood, then coasted downward, finally landing on the ground, ambling away in-between shrubs and bushes.
you see, chickens/roosters/hens/pests - whatever you might call them - are protected by law in key west. they are in the trees, restaurants, in the alleys, scooting down duval, challenging red lights and traffic. if you don't see them, you hear them. when cock-fighting became illegal in the 70s, the chickens lost their job but not their home. consider them a symbol of this southernmost city - irreverent, untamed, spirited, wild, and free.
len's key west chick left her mark on his hood. now, he will always have proof that, if only for a mere moment, he (and his car) was cock of this roost.
I have this daily ritual. not because I particularly like doing it (especially in 5 or 95 degree weather), but because Lolly is pacing. Our Appaloosa has this internal time clock (or growling stomach), and every afternoon about 4:30 p.m., she begins her pounding of earth at the the fence. Back and forth. back and forth. She's nailed the dirt down for years, and the others thank her for issuing my call every day. It's feeding time on Mayne Mill.
she is first at the fence. first to be tied. first with the bucket. it's the royal pecking order and i never deviate. all the others understand. and as speedy as she is, woody [pictured above right] is that slow. he towers above the others and takes twice as long to eat [well, ok, he does get twice the feed]. but i must wait, so the witchy [b] one [cheyenne] doesn't steal his food - which woody would give up in an instant because he's a hulking chicken. so i wait. and wait.
waiting allows me my time, the first of the day without pressures and deadlines. my alone time. and this waiting time begins my evening conversation with mama.
i'll usually tell her things she already knows, explain events she already understands, and finally, i'll inquire as to "what are you doing up there." i'll hear her move through the trees, see her in the animal's eyes, or just hear nothing, which mama would agree, is the best melody at the end of a long day. it must be amazing, i ponder, to live in the night sky surrounded by twinkle lights and the heavenly father, knowing all the why's and why not's. there are times i'm jealous of that. not that i want to leave earth, but i'm envious of the "no-pain, streets of gold, great companionship and all the answers" kind of existence. i think if we're all honest, we all would like that life - down here. but, as i've always heard, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.
my rambling continues, and i explain it's a new year, and we're knee deep in obamacare. "too much to explain now," i offer. "just know it's a bunch of hooey." i can't help but think if i'd only taken care of myself a little better, this wouldn't be as important an issue. having hundreds of dollars in prescription drugs wouldn't be a reality. or how I wouldn't have my own neurologist or cardiologist or gastroenterologist - more gist than i knew existed. who would have thought 54 would be this old?
"what's that, mom?" i ask.
"remember what i said?" she repeats.
i just look at lolly - all content with her bucket of sweet feed and heaping pile of hay - and realize mama, as usual, is pointing out the true horse's ass.
if i heard it once, i heard it a million times . . .
1. sitting that close to the tv will make you blind. or at the very least, a requirement of reader glasses in every room of the house, including all bathrooms.
2. eating too much creamed corn will make you fat - why do you think they feed hogs corn? yes, mama, i enjoyed every creamy bite, and you were right. it did make me fat.
3. go play outside and don't come home until it's dark. she should have thrown me out of the house more often, not just to go fetch a hickory.
4. you can eat at home. my incessant pleas to stop at the mcdonalds in commerce on the way to my uncle's house were annoying, and always, fell on deaf ears. you go, mom.
5. if you cross your eyes, they will stick. i think i win this one.
and these little gems went far past the health of it all, straight into living life . . .
6. if you swallow a watermelon seed, you'll grow a watermelon in your stomach. by mama's account, i should never go hungry again.
7. if a you hear a hoot owl cry three times, someone will die. i hear owls and i still wonder who will die during the night. my northern husband laughs at me.
8. if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. i should have listened to this one a little more closely.
9. you're going to grow up and have a daughter just like you. curse you, mama.
10. never wear dirty underwear. and i never will.
11. there's only one right way. and it was mama's way. who could have imagined the word right and mama could be interchangeable?
12. you'll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar. every single time.
13. i'm not going to tell you again. . . and she didn't. i knew the second time meant a visit to the front yard for that hickory switch.
14. life isn't fair. how did you know?
and probably my favorite of all . . .
15. you'll see. she was right. she was always right. god has a delightful sense of humor.
it's funny as you get older you remember all those things your mama told you when you pretended not to hear. and now, you'd give your right arm just to be able to listen to the cadence of her voice once more. even if she had to end the conversation with "you'll see", that would be fine and dandy.
and when you find yourself alone with just yourself, the horses and the sky, those long-ago words will return and keep you company. you'll see.
there comes a point when we all have to run away. for me, it's this thanksgiving. this is the year when the two of us pack up our sicilian lasagna and meatballs - along with homemade resee cups and peanut butter cake (the closest thing to southern tradition in our home) - and head to the north georgia mountains for cold air and renewal.
the drive reminds of many i once made. as a college student and newlywed, i'd always travel to clarkesville to see mama and daddy and be renewed by mama's orange slice cake and dried apple pies. years later, there's the one i always made the tuesday before the traditional thursday to pick up my aunt sophia and her decadent chocolate cake. we'd always stop by KFC on the way home for hot wings; that was our secret.
for this drive, it was only one cooler filled with pasta and sweets.
now it's thanksgiving morning and the parade is over, the fire is blazing, and memories are invading. len is talking to his northern family - in animated italian - and becoming the talker he swears he is not. i claim the fire and think of my children. we're spread on different continents, but even distant cities might as well be a world away. thanksgiving will live primarily in my mind for the majority of years to come, a realization that i'm not sure i'm ready for. my children and len's children lead faraway lives, our parents are gone and the immediate family are not close. so we will hold memories close and even though it's just the two of us, i'm beyond thankful. i'm grateful for the life i'm so privileged to lead.
so wool socks, keep me warm! memories, keep me warm! it's almost time for lasagna.
i found a letter today as i was cleaning through some old boxes getting them ready for trash pick-up. it wasn't in a ripped open envelope. it was simply a folded sheet of white paper with the date at the top, with - "judy & children" - scribbled beneath.
i don't remember ever seeing it, although since that time in my life, there have been more battles and combat than i care to remember. there's a good chance it might have passed by my sight rather quickly and i forgot. but, i doubt that. this i would have remembered and kept in the box where you keep things you must remember for a lifetime rather than finding it layered in between the bills and the opened birthday cards.
i can see how it evolved. mama had returned home from lunch at the senior center - the joy of each day, and now, this was her quiet time. she took her spot in her tan recliner with the arm pads draped over each side. they conveniently held everything she might need at a moment's notice - the remote, her glasses (and dark visor in case the mail ran and she had to walk to the mailbox), pencils and pens, a larger-than-life crossword book turned to the exact page where she left off, tissues and maybe a piece of candy for when her sugar got too low. and, each was in its proper place. she always scolded the kids when they would use something and not return it to its place.
i can see her with a writing pad and pen and her thoughts racing. in the later years, it grew harder for her to script much more than a few letters or numbers, and connecting them into conversation or a letter meant more time and effort. it was exhausting, and i knew if i received something, it meant something. pay attention.
i still have the birthday cards she gave later in life where she had scribbled "mama" in her arched, weary style. one still makes its home in my wallet just in case i need a reminder.
this note makes plain her wishes upon death, but it's the between-the-lines that tell my mama's story. her long life - 96 years - how lucky she was to one that juxtaposed struggles and triumphs; the love of a good and hard working man that never left her side; a child in later years that completed the home; many brothers and sisters who were the delight of her existence; grandchildren that made the lonely later years
never lonely; she was rich beyond the numbers in her bank account or the visible earthly possessions, and she knew it. she wanted us to know that stuff didn't mattter; it was what was inside that was most valuable.
her faith was as stalwart as the magnolia she and daddy planted when i was a child. television was not good for anyone, she contended, but every now and then, something other than the nightly news would be alright. we would always watch the billy graham crusades, and i always wondered why mama wasn't standing beside brother billy and brother george on that podium. she was as steadfast as either of those men. she wanted for us the eternal life that she knew was coming to her sooner than later. a chance for all of us to be together again. she was counting on that.
her abrupt end puts her life in perspective. she was tired, and it was time to go. nine month later, she did. in that same tan recliner that she spent most days in.
yes, i cry each time i read this. i miss her every time i read this, and i love my children more and more each time i read this for i'm afraid that we may have let her down. she provided such an amazing example of how to tackle life and win, and when it's time to go, how to exit with grace and contentment.
although i'm tired, mom, i'll try to finish this life, this existence in a manner that i hope will make you proud. just for you. just like you.
it's what a son does. his gets his mama a bike for her birthday so that she'll be around for grandchildren. plus, she gets to be cool riding down the road with a mesh basket and silver bell. i use the bell much more than i should except i forgot to use it on the second day as i was being chased by two flesh eating dogs (they appeared to be rich dogs with nice collars and manners but i wasn't going to stop and ask). i did prove to myself that the rest stops made the prior day were just whimpy on my part. i could make it the entire distance without a breather if motivated by fear. so thanks, ty, for thinking of my future. i'll do my best to hang around.
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.