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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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Of Carols and Cookies and Christmastime Craziness

Christmas is my favorite. I love spending the hustle and bustle of the holidays with family. Even when it gets hectic and stressful (and with my crew, it’s guaranteed) there’s nothing that fills my soul more than copping a squat on the living room floor because every chair and sofa space is packed to the gills with girls (and the random trapped husband) and listening to the jabberwocky of a room full of relatives.

I come from a big family of women. A bodacious beehive of queen bees. So when we get together, we get loud. And we do goofy things.

Like gather up all the hats and scarves in the house and go caroling… whether the neighbors are amenable or not. And a good many may not have been. They either weren’t home or they hid from the colorfully clad mishmash of merrymakers on their front lawns. I know I would have — at least until I heard the first few notes of a christmas song. Then I would’ve thrown my doors open wide.

“Everybody loves Christmas carols. Santa, especially,” Tate says. And he’s right. Or at least everybody in my family, plus Santa. That’s why we go caroling and harass the neighbors.

And I’m thinking that must not be something normal people do because I can honestly say I’ve never had somebody ring my doorbell just so they can belt out “O Holy Night” in a light drizzle. But we do. And we did.

This past week, I was talking to family and friends about some of their favorite Christmas memories and traditions.

One friend made peanut butter balls with her mom every year, to pass out to all male relatives over 21. She didn’t know why they had to be 21 and male. It was just tradition.

But tradition’s like that. The method to the madness is often lost in the translation, but the joy translates, regardless. Bringing so much joy to the world.

My sister and her family whip up their annual joy with homemade five-star meals for Christmas dinner. Beef Wellington is her son’s favorite — and he himself is a mini master chef, baking up the most glorious, puff-pastried, steak-filled centerpiece of a Christmas feast you ever did see.

From five-star to the star of Bethlehem, my husband’s favorite tradition was attending midnight mass and singing “Silent Night,” the melody lifting the congregation in the most sacred of stillness.

Another friend of mine talked about how her family never had much growing up, but they always had Christmas. She remembers one year where her father sold his truck so they would have gifts under the tree. She wonders to this day how he made it to work the coming year.

My girls and I, we always made Christmas cookies. The boys and I have added gingerbread to the memory mix. This weekend was a cluttered cluster of memories in the making. Chilled dough. Dusted rolling pin. Cookie cutters and powdered sugar. Red, green, blue food coloring. Blue and green and white crystal sprinkles.

Cheeks and fingers were stained and there’s sanding sugar scattered clear to the floor joists, I’m sure. The kitchen is a wreck, but the cookies and houses are a wonder. They aren’t pretty, but they’re pretty delicious. And so are the memories.

And then there are my memories of Christmases past — my cousin at the pump organ, clomping out “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the rest of us singing along. My aunts and mother in the kitchen scraping a year’s worth of hamburger grease off the stovetop and cabinets so they could cook up the roast beast. (Grandma lived on fried patties 364 days out of the year.)

My uncles and father gathered ’round the coffee table sketching out physics problems, each bringing their gifts to the table, in a pedagogical parody of the three wise men.

And finally, there’s my grandmother in her recliner, beaming through her bifocals and bragging on her grandchildren to anybody and everybody she could capture in her thick-rimmed line of sight. The lights from the Christmas tree reflected brightly in her split lenses, turning her chocolate brown eyes into a kaleidoscope of green and amber and red and royal blue.

Somewhere behind me stands her Christmas tree, the beginning of my fascination with Christmas trees, its branches dripping in silver tinsel and Shiny Brite ornaments. I wish I knew where those ornaments were today.

My mother further fueled my passion for Christmas trees. She has eight. Yes. Eight. Most of them, themed. One is a nutcracker tree. Another is chockfull of Wizard of Oz ornaments. A third houses all the homemade ones we four kiddos created from decades of Christmases past. Then there’s the bird tree in the bathroom and the tabletop tree in the bedroom. It’s a habit. And it’s genetic.

But my habit is sort of under control. I only have two — one full of collectible blown glass; the second, full of felted ones, less fragile, more fun.

Yes, Christmas is my favorite.

I love the memories made and the memories in the making. I love the family, the fun, and the frenzy — every last fiber of frenzy. My husband — not so much. He prefers to maintain every last fiber of sanity. But then, he’s all”Silent Night,” Bing Crosby style, and I’m all Mannheim Steamroller “Carol of the Bells.”

But maybe he’ll keep me anyways. Because he was my absolute best Christmas gift of all time, thirteen years ago this past weekend.

Yep, Christmas is my favorite.

Layer Cakes and Legends: My Apocryphal Appalachian Roots

Today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted in roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it reminded me of my grandmother.

Not because she used to bake blackberry jam cake. (She didn’t.) Nor because she loved to bake at all. (She didn’t.) There was only one cake she ever made, and she made it every fall for Thanksgiving — a German Chocolate Layer Cake, triple-stacked to heaven and beyond. It defied natural laws.

Baking my own triple layer cake this morning somehow conjured up my grandmother’s spirit. Out of nowhere, a warm fragrant memory slipped in — a peppery whiff of Scotch snuff amid baking layers — and I was instantly transported back. Back into the warm half-circle spotlight of her bifocals, where she peered up at me with love and adoration… and then demanded I write down a select few of her stories.

Yup. Demanded. And Grandma always gets her way — even from beyond the grave. (Compromise was never her middle name.)

And she really was quite the storyteller — I like to think that’s where I get my passion for words — and her tales were always tall. As impossibly tall as her German Chocolate Layer Cake.  She told some doozies, but there was always truth in the pudding, er, batter… batter thick and sweet and loaded with flavor.

Her stories infused every room in her small house. They found you in every corner. You couldn’t escape them. Through the darkness of night, she was sitting on your mattress while you slept, telling you a story.  Through the closed bathroom door, you were sitting on the toilet while you shat, she was telling you a story. No exaggeration.

Her stories were a never-ending narrative. I’d heard them a thousand times. I thought I could recite them backwards. They were a constant. Like a beating heart. Always there. Always.

Until they weren’t.

I took them for granted. I tuned them out. I never wrote them down. I really wish I’d recorded them, old cassette ribbon winding like stretched caramel from one receptacle to another to help me transcribe her words from one era into another, today. Alas, I did not.

But this past summer, my family celebrated her oldest son — my Uncle Pal’s — 80th birthday. My two aunts and my father were there, too, rounding out her initial genetic contribution to this world.

The four sat atop a green, overstuffed sofa and held court, flipping through old pictures and regaling the second and third generations with Grandma’s tales of our Appalachian roots.

peters

Most of the stories I recalled immediately… their familiar cadence returning to me like skip rope chants learned in my childhood:

My grandma the buxom beauty — her breasts swelling so large when she contracted mumps at twelve that they never returned to what she considered a respectable size. She and her sister Margaret would mash them tightly in scarves, trying to achieve the ideal body image of her age — flat-chested flapper girl — to no avail.

grandma

My grandma the axe murderer — her one and only victim, a Harley Hog my dad bought knowing she hated them. Her brother had almost died on one; her son would not have the same opportunity. The Hog died instead, a quick, violent death from hatchet-strike to the fuel tank. Dad wept as his full-fendered baby girl bled out in front of him… the original chopped Harley.

My grandma, the exile — sent in her early twenties to country music legend Mama Maybelle Carter’s house, her childhood friend and neighbor. My great grandfather sent her away to keep the clambering boys away from the self-proclaimed prettiest girl in five Virginia counties. (Humility was also not her middle name.) Grandma spent an entire summer dancing the Charleston, little June Carter running between her flashing legs while Mama Maybelle scratched her guitar.

IMG_1149

Keeping Grandma away from the boys worked for a while, but she finally managed to run off and marry the love of her life at the ripe old age of 25 — an old maid by Appalachian standards. Grandpa was years younger than she was, also unheard of in that time period.  (I guess I get that from her, too.)

My aunts and uncle also told us a few tales I’d maybe heard, but had long since forgotten.

Like the seven-foot tall distant relative named Pleasant who was so small when he was born they could fit his head in a tea cup, and who slept in a Singer sewing machine drawer next to his parents’ bed. Pleasant grew up to be large and in charge, and was famous for once throwing a man out a second-story speak easy.

I also heard about an ancestor who, at 98-years young, could stand and do a somersault in the air. Backwards. That’s a back tuck, by the way. Cheerleaders drool for that kind of skill. He could do it at 98. Unfortunately, no one remembered his name.

But a whole lot of other names were remembered in my uncle’s living room this past July — names summoned from my grandmother’s looping cursive, scrawled in her black-papered memory book. Names like Viney and Velma, Tom and Tate, Willie and Chapman, and Emmy and Spencer, and Pleasant, of course. (I kind of wish I could have another kid, simply so I could name him or her Pleasant. No, scratch that. I’ll leave that up to my girls…)

Those names, written in Grandma’s looping penmanship, lassoed us all and pulled us back — back to our childhoods and beyond. Back to the crags and coal of the Virginia mountains. Back to the looping, sprawling deep-settled roots of our family tree.

The tree itself juts high and strong these days, with limbs spread far and wide. From London to Phoenix, her descendants are scattered like leaves in haphazard drifts of color and contrast in a beautiful, autumnal haze. We, indeed, have a glorious family tree. And her stories — our stories — deserve to be told.

* * *

Yes, today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted with roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it conjured my grandma, who channelled my fingers and hijacked my blog  — to write about an Appalachian beauty with a penchant for layer cake and a story or two thousand to tell.

My guess is, she isn’t quite done with me yet.

Game-Winning Tooth Down: The Signs and Sacrifices of Football

Now, I’m not superstitious. As Michael Scott says, “I’m just a little stitious.” Signs are my big thing. I see them everywhere.

Some people roll their eyes at me, but me, I’m a believer. And Friday, all the signs pointed toward a big win for our Canes. All because Parker lost his first tooth. On the football field. That’s a significant milestone met on a significant influence in our family’s lives. No way I was missing that sign.

It all went down during a Cartersville Primary School pep rally. The Senior football players, cheerleaders, and band spent their first and second periods playing with the littlest Canes, fostering that Hurricane heritage of family and pride we love so much. Our community is something special, for sure.

Parker no doubt got so caught up in spending time with his favorite football players that he didn’t even notice his tooth — the wiggly worm on a line one he’d been so proud of — slipped from that line during some random scuffle. Never to be seen again.

At some point, Partker noticed he’d “scratched his lip” and went to tell the teacher his mouth was bleeding. That’s when the discovery was made. Try as they might, nobody could find that tooth. Nobody. It was a little tribute offered up to the football gods, I guess. And I was all about it.

He left it all on the field, just like the big boys were going to do that night. But more on that in a minute…

After a little trip to the nurse for a tooth fairy necklace — where an explanatory note instead of an incisor was gently tucked inside — Parker was sent on his way. When I picked him up that afternoon, he proudly displayed the necklace and the gap along his gums.

Cue game night and the toughest game of our Canes’ season to date: Cartersville vs Sandy Creek. Both teams were undefeated and several “experts” picked against us for an upset.

Not so the football gods. And not so, our fellas.

Our coaches put one particularly cocky pair of internet know-it-alls on permanent loop in the locker room and our boys fed off it. “Sandy Creek by 30,” said the naysayers. “Bank on it,” they barked.

Our boys are Hurricanes. Hurricanes are fueled by atmospheric conditions. We grew stronger and harder with each successive loop. The players sucked those words into their storm force and rolled with it. Their vision was clear. Their eye on the prize.

Out above the gridiron, the sky was brandishing a hurricane warning in purple and pink, with a hint of gold. Purple and gold are our school colors and Friday was our annual Pink-Out night. I could clearly read my second sign of the day.

The football gods were smiling in our favor. They appreciated the physical sacrifice of our players and coaches up to this point (along with my son’s physical offering that morning).

photo cred: Melissa Moore

Now it wasn’t an easy battle, especially in the beginning. Talk about a back-and-forth shootout! But our storm surge is nothing, if not driven and complex. Halfway through the second quarter, the Canes took what would become a strong and decisive lead.

Never underestimate the power and focus of a Hurricane.

So this past Friday was one for the memory and record books. Parker lost his first tooth at five years old out on the football field, and the Purple Hurricanes won their 56th consecutive regular season game.

A Juxtaposed American Tragedy: Hope and Salvation, Denial and Death

They lay there together among the weeds and reeds. One barefoot, the other shod. One grown-up, the other child. A father and daughter. Floating loosely face down upon the shore of hope and salvation. Denied.

The flotsam and jetsam of political power play.

In a land that espouses Christianity, no Christian charity was to be found.

***

This past week, my family travelled north in a Ford f150 with brand new tires and wifi adaptor to keep two easily-bored boys from being easily bored. We fled the heat and humidity of the South for a week, on a quest for tall bluegrass and frozen custard.

This past year, another family travelled north. On bare feet and a diehard determination to keep a two-year-old daughter alive. They fled the abject poverty and gang violence of a civil war, on a quest for hope and salvation.

Two journeys northward. One for reunion. One for asylum.

Two families. One American. One Salvadoran.

Two realities: Hope and Salvation. Denial and death.

***

I live an amazing life. My husband and I discussed it just this past week as we were driving the long road home from up north. We had endured some hardships and misery along the way, thanks to short tempers and weak wifi, and we were trying to remind ourselves how truly blessed we are:

We have a safe, secure home, beautiful children, wonderful jobs, good health, plenty of food, a decently stable political climate — as stable as a country being led by an angry, ego-fueled, unintelligent, power-hungry, despot-leaning POTUS can possibly be — but still, stable enough that I’m not swimming for my life, my children clinging to my back as terror consumes us.

I try to imagine what that would be like, strapping my child to my back, wrapped in the fragile cocoon of a wet t-shirt, certain-death lying below us in the water and below us to the South.

I try to imagine risking everything for a chance to give my children safety and food and a decently-stable political climate. I try to imagine having none of these things. Having nothing but my children.

I would face all obstacles to give my children hope and salvation. And this, at least, I can relate to.

I try again to imagine myself barefoot at the border after months and months of walking. If I were to go through the proper checkpoints my child will be put in a cage. Kept cold. Kept hungry. Kept from me. Perhaps forever. I have heard these stories.

I am hungry, tired, dirty, and homeless; my child is hungry, tired, dirty, and homeless. But we are together. It is all we have. That, plus hope for salvation.

So instead of entering at the checkpoints, I wade into the water. By entering, I long to wash away the hunger, the exhaustion, the dirt. I long for new life. A literal baptism. Salvation waits on the other side.

Only salvation does not come.

After all this father and child endured, the miles they travelled, the extreme hardships they endured, the monumental challenges they overcame… they were ultimately ill-equipped to survive the darkness they met at the border. The border they believed held salvation.

Instead of hope, they found horror; instead of mercy, they found death.

Theirs was no family vacation to the north. There’s was a sojourn into the dark and grainy soul of modern-day America.

***

Juxtaposition. Two opposite things, laying side by side, made more powerful by their contrast. The juxtaposition of this desperate father and child is a powerful one. It stirs anger in many of us. And action.

But will it stir enough of us? Will it spur enough of us? To take action. To write our legislators. To send supplies. To lend aid. To protest.

To fight for the souls of these desperate families.

To fight for the souls of ourselves.

Because we are currently hiding behind righteousness and rules, but we are wallowing in horror and hate.It is a powerful and profound contrast. And it demands action.

Do something about it.

***

One way to help is to help fund hygiene kits for those inside ICE custody. If you live in Georgia… The Georgia Alliance for Social Justice and El Refugio are sponsoring a month-long event called Ayudamos, translated: We help. For the next month all over Georgia, they are collecting clothing and basic toiletries, and creating hygiene kits for the people most affected by these cruel immigration policies. El Refugio provides support to men in ICE custody at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA and their families.

Here is a link to the Amazon Hygiene Kit Party Wish List…
https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/QMOME4W1GDTQ?ref_=wl_share

My Aunts in Shining Armor

As I’ve been combing my recipes searching for something extra special to fix this weekend — just because — I’ve run across certain dishes that remind me of three extraordinary women in my life… women whose love and sacrifice have made me who I am today.

These women creatively acquired me through the bonds of blood and grit and good, old-fashioned love. These women took me in and made me their own. They taught me to know my potential and to believe in it. They taught me that women are strong. That women are powerful. That women are capable. They taught me that women have a voice and that we should use it. These women are my aunts — my three graces, my three fates, my three wise women. And the recipes that remind me of them are as deeply rich and provocative and inspirational as my aunts themselves…

First, there’s my Aunt Jan and her “Mrs. Norris’ Strawberry Pie.” It’s the perfect blend of glistening, syrup-soaked berries steeped in puddles of juice under clouds of whipped cream.

I have no idea who Mrs. Norris is, but I’m here to tell you that this pie is my Aunt Jan in a pastry shell.  It perfectly parallels her zany, vibrant nature. She’s sweet and tart and sparkling with pizzazz. She’s never met a stranger and she’s never been ignored.

She taught me to make this pie during what I call “The Summer of Grandma” – a two-month stint during which my cousins and Jan and I built pie after pie in a humid, east Tennessee kitchen trying anything and everything to get my grandmother to eat. She was slipping away from us, but she still had a hankering for sweetness.

And so we built pies. Pecan pie. And Chocolate pie. And Lemon Meringue — so high and coiffed that women in Texas could likely haul pictures to their hairdressers as inspiration. And finally, Mrs. Norris’ Strawberry Pie – the Mother Superior of pies – just like Jan, our family matriarch after my grandmother passed away.

The baton was passed, and Jan became our pulse and our promise. She’s a talker and she’s a doer. If you want it coordinated and you want it done, call Jan. And she’s a lover. When she hugs you, you find yourself wrapped in clouds of pillow-y bosoms, which she inherited from my grandma (and which, I might add, skipped me in the gene pool). And you find yourself believing in rainbows and unicorns and holy grails.

Because Jan makes the impossible possible. She is quick-witted and confident, and she’s always been my biggest cheerleader. She pushed me and pulled me and pep-talked me into going back to school. Through her, I learned to trust in myself and the God-given gifts that she assured me I had and that I needed to hone.

Without Jan, I never would have trusted my mind or my voice. She taught me that what I think and feel matters. She pushed me to tell it like I see it and to hold strong to my principles. She made the impossible possible in me.

jan

Now, Jan’s twin sister Ann isn’t much of a baker. Instead, she sticks to main dishes, and she’s most famous for her tenderloins stuffed with apples and pecans and fragrant herbs – a savory, nourishing dish indicative of her steady, nurturing soul.

Ann and I have some sort of kindred connection. I felt it from the first time we ever sat down and REALLY talked – on my grandmother’s front steps after I was deposited there by a distant father in a diesel Isuzu and a feverish faith. Ann and I played with kittens and plotted the trajectory of my life on those semicircle steps beneath the crab-apple stone siding and cedar shingles of my grandmother’s house.

Ann embodies most closely who I truly am: intuitive and observant, reserved and resilient, capable and calm. Her eyes are still water on stone, are snow clouds at dusk – and when they meet mine, they see things. Things hidden in shame or for protection.

But with Ann, every trembling, buried burden or bruise is safe. It is better than safe – it is healed. Because she has a ministering nature that soothes and mends. It was her job. Literally. She is a retired ER doc, and I promise you, she did more than heal bodies in her years of service. She calmed hearts and settled souls – mine included. I wouldn’t be where I am today, without her.

annandpat2

And finally, there’s Pat, Ann’s wife, and my aunt by marriage. Pat is our family’s Tupelo honey. Her voice is southern nectar and so is her love. She never has a negative word to say to or about anyone. She sweetens the lives of all of us by spreading her joy and her sweet, sanguine good sense. Any recipe with honey, honey bun to  hotty toddy, reminds me of my beloved Pat. Lover of animals and humanitarian causes alike, she is generosity and goodness with a smile carved from moonstone and a heart made of gold.

My fondest memory of Pat is when several of us piled into a car to take a little trek over the mountains and through the woods– in a snow storm– to visit the Biltmore House. The roads grew slushy and slippery, and Pat’s mother, who was ailing at the time, grew car sick.

When we pulled to the side (more like slid to the side) of the interstate, her sweet, ailing mama proceeded to lose her dinner, right along with her upper teeth.  Pat sweetly swiveled her back into the backseat and then paddled through drifts of snowy vomit in search of the delinquent dentures.

That is Pat: unflappable, ever capable, and always willing to go the extra mile for family. She is as warm and soothing as  Tupelo honey. Her love glows deep and rich, and she moths us all to hearth and home with her warmth. She has always encouraged me to dream big and to reach high, but to never lose touch with my roots – because family feeds the soul.

And thanks to my family — and particularly my three incomparable and beautiful aunts — my heart is full to bursting and my cup runneth over.

My Aunt Nancy

I remember playing lawn darts with her in my grandparent’s side yard, the sharp steel tips twisting through the steamy summer air, then plunging into Tennessee soil. Afterward, we sat in webbed and woven green lawn chairs, cooling our bare feet in the dew-slicked clover as fireflies flickered beneath the oaks. And I remember Nancy and my mother laughing their throaty laughs deep into the nighttime, retelling family histories.

But that’s not my first memory of Nancy. My first memories involve a sky-high, jet-black beehive, bright crimson pantsuits, and white platform heels. Nancy was a beauty, like she’d stepped straight out of the pages of a Sears catalog — my backwoods version of glamour and fashion. The catalog, not Nancy. She was a beauty, whether backwoods or big city.

But her beauty was nothing compared to her brains. She worked her way up the twisted ladder of government contracting inside the top-secret national labs of East Tennessee.

She was a strong, brilliant woman, my Aunt Nancy, born in a time when women who were strong and brilliant didn’t necessarily advertise the fact. Nancy, though, never hid her light under a bushel.

Everyone who knew her, easily recognized her smarts and savvy. She was a spitfire, unafraid to take on Principal Engineers or multibillion-dollar contracts, all with little more than a high school diploma and heaping supply of gumption at her disposal.

That intelligence and tenacity makes her battle with Lewy Body Dementia that much crueler.

Lewy Body Dementia. Prior to Nancy’s diagnosis, I had never heard of it. Odds are you know little to nothing of it either.

Know this, though: it is brutal. It is the cruelest of the cruel diseases that ravage the brain. It takes the stolen language and lifetimes of Alzheimer’s and adds the bitter twist of Parkinson tremors and muscle cramps.

My Aunt Nancy passed away a week ago this past Sunday. She was my mother’s closest sister and my cousin Melanie’s last remaining parent.

Now I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there to witness the ravages of the disease at its end stage. But her daughter was. And her sister — my mother — was, too.

As the Lewy Body’s laid siege on her body, mom described Nancy’s week-long war against imminent death through a series of calls and texts. My aunt struggled valiantly, wanting just a few more days, a few more precious moments with those she loved best in the world. She fought longer and harder than most could have. And if her fight was brutal for me to read and hear about, I cannot imagine the agony of being there to witness it.

Cramps tore through her soft tissue, leaving arms, legs, neck rigid and wracked with pain. Melanie massaged her throat, coaxing her to swallow the morphine she syringed into Nancy’s cheek every fifteen minutes. It did little to nothing. Neither the massage nor the morphine. But Melanie persisted. And she held her in her arms and sang to her.

Daughter cradled mother — a poignant, painful role reversal.

I remember meeting my cousin Melanie as a baby the very first time. I was a lanky preteen and she was a pudgy one-year-old — looking all the world like the the Mattel Tender Love baby doll from my preschool days. Nancy had dressed her like a little doll, too. A strawberry blond baby doll in bloomers and bib.

Now, my aunt was the one in diaper and bib, as her sister and daughter and grandchildren sang her favorite songs — little lullabies from all eras of her life — hoping to bring peace, hoping to bring comfort.

They also recounted beloved histories together — perhaps some of the ones I remember vaguely from that summer long ago in East Tennessee.

They cried, they laughed, they sang, they bonded.

The transition was hard, and the transition was beautiful. It was a painful, beautiful, powerful transition from this realm into the next.

And mom tells me Nancy looked young and beautiful again — back to the time before the Lewy Body Dementia wreaked its havoc. Back to those days of platform shoes and bright patterns. Back to those days of fierce tenacity and bold brilliance.

Back to the Nancy we all knew and loved. Ready for her close up.

Her up close and personal with God.

***

I saw a cardinal at my window this afternoon, sneaking a peek at my family through the glass. For me, it’s a sure sign — Nancy is back in her red pantsuit once again. Only this time, she’s got wings.

My Aunt Nancy

I remember playing lawn darts with her in my grandparent’s side yard, the sharp steel tips twisting through the steamy summer air then plunging into Tennessee soil. Afterward, we sat in webbed and woven green lawn chairs, cooling our bare feet in the dew-slicked clover as fireflies flickered beneath the oaks. And I remember Nancy and my mother laughing their throaty laughs deep into the nighttime, retelling family histories.

But that’s not my first memory of Nancy. My first memories involve a sky-high, jet-black beehive, bright crimson pantsuits, and white platform heels. Nancy was a beauty, like she’d stepped straight out of the pages of a Sears catalog — my backwoods version of glamour and fashion. The catalog, not Nancy. She was a beauty, whether backwoods or big city.

But her beauty was nothing compared to her brains. She worked her way up the twisted ladder of government contracting inside the top-secret national labs of East Tennessee.

She was a strong, brilliant woman, my Aunt Nancy, born in a time when women who were strong and brilliant didn’t necessarily advertise the fact. Nancy, though, never hid her light under a bushel.

Everyone who knew her, easily recognized her smarts and savvy. She was a spitfire, unafraid to take on Principal Engineers or multibillion-dollar contracts, all with little more than a high school diploma and heaping supply of gumption at her disposal.

That intelligence and tenacity makes her battle with Lewy Body Dementia that much crueler.

Lewy Body Dementia. Prior to Nancy’s diagnosis, I had never heard of it. Odds are you know little to nothing of it either.

Know this, though: it is brutal. It is the cruelest of the cruel diseases that ravage the brain. It takes the stolen language and lifetimes of Alzheimer’s and adds the bitter twist of Parkinson tremors and muscle cramps.

My Aunt Nancy passed away a week ago this past Sunday. She was my mother’s closest sister and my cousin Melanie’s last remaining parent.

Now I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there to witness the ravages of the disease at its end stage. But her daughter was. And her sister — my mother — was, too.

As the Lewy Body’s laid siege on her body, mom described Nancy’s week-long war against imminent death through a series of calls and texts. My aunt struggled valiantly, wanting just a few more days, a few more precious moments with those she loved best in the world. She fought longer and harder than most could have. And if her fight was brutal for me to read and hear about, I cannot imagine the agony of being there to witness it.

Cramps tore through her soft tissue, leaving arms, legs, neck rigid and wracked with pain. Melanie massaged her throat, coaxing her to swallow the morphine she syringed into Nancy’s cheek every fifteen minutes. It did little to nothing. Neither the massage nor the morphine. But Melanie persisted. And she held her in her arms and sang to her.

Daughter cradled mother — a poignant, painful role reversal.

I remember meeting my cousin Melanie as a baby the very first time. I was a lanky preteen and she was a pudgy one-year-old — looking all the world like the the Mattel Tender Love baby doll from my preschool days. Nancy had her dressed her like a little doll, too. A strawberry blond baby doll in bloomers and bib.

Now, my aunt was the one in diaper and bib, as her sister and daughter and grandchildren sang her favorite songs — little lullabies from all eras of her life — hoping to bring peace, hoping to bring comfort.

They also recounted beloved histories together — perhaps some of the ones I remember vaguely from that summer long ago in East Tennessee.

They cried, they laughed, they sang, they bonded.

The transition was hard, and the transition was beautiful. It was a painful, beautiful, powerful transition from this realm into the next.

And mom tells me Nancy looked young and beautiful again — back to the time before the Lewy’s Body Dementia wreaked its havoc. Back to those days of platform shoes and bright patterns. Back to those days of fierce tenacity and bold brilliance.

Back to the Nancy we all knew and loved. Ready for her close up.

Her up close and personal with God.

***

I saw a cardinal at my window this afternoon, sneaking a peek at my family through the glass. For me, it’s a sure sign — Nancy is back in her red pantsuit once again. Only this time, she’s got wings.

Cuddles and Comfort; Sandpaper and Salt

Two friends. Two distinctly different personalities. Both now gone. Gone way, way, way too soon.

The first was full of cuddles and comfort — the human equivalent of gingerbread and coffee. She warmed and invigorated. She sweetened a room. Her cheeks were sprinkled in cinnamon. Her voice was warm molasses. And when she laughed, your moods floated like cream in her wake.

The second was sandpaper and salt — all quick, gritty wit and billy goat gruff. She flashed lightning one minute and sunshine the next. She could be a tough nut to crack, but once you broke through, she loved you for life. And you were a better person for that love.

Both women — larger-than-life itself — now gone from this lifetime.

It’s always such a jarring, jagged feeling, knowing someone has been pulled from the world, leaving snagged roots and empty spaces — in this case, big, buxom empty expanses where bright patterned tunics and laughter once rang.

How can the world simply keep spinning? How do we just adjust to their absence?

And it seems like sacrilege to ask such questions as a mere friend. A friend. When we know others have been so much more enormously — monumentally –impacted by their loss. Children and parents. Spouses and siblings.

My bruises, though they feel deep, are nothing compared to the trauma in those lives. To the violent rifts and vast voids and crushing avalanches of raw emotion they know and feel.

I’ve started to write about my first friend half a dozen times since her death, but I kept stopping. It didn’t feel right.

And how could it?

Because it was all so wrong. So very, very wrong. My friends had families. Children. Grandchildren. Parents. They were loved. They were needed.

And somehow or other, some force or other chose not to take that into account.

And it infuriates me. And devastates me.

But that’s the nature of time, isn’t it? She’s a bitch. Or is Time a HE? Father Time, isn’t it? Of the infuriating, devastating, abusive variety.

Never asking permission. Doing with us as he will. Sketching lines, loosening skins, brittling bones and dry-rotting joints. And stealing friends. And former students. Time is a crook and a thief.

And he steals more and more from us as the years whiz past.

They say death happens in threes. But it seems in the past few months there have been many, many more than that. Friends have lost fathers. Mothers have lost sons. Families have lost matriarchs.

But I guess that’s the nature of the game. And as we get older, death increases exponentially. And none of us escapes the endgame. And eventually, if you’re the last one standing, then… you’re the last one standing.

And that’s hardly a good thing. I definitely don’t want to be the last one standing.

But I do want to stand a whole lot longer. My two friends who recently left this world — they weren’t a whole lot older than me.

I would appreciate it if Father Time would simply sling me more etched lines and loose skin and spare me a lot more life. Because my boys and my girls and my grandkids and my husband… we’ve got more we want to accomplish. We aren’t finished yet. Not by a long shot.

But then, neither were my friends and their families.

Every morning and night, I drive by one of their houses. There’s a light shining on the front porch, as if waiting for her return.

The primroses that pepper the front lawn of her house in the spring are nowhere to be found in this cold winter chill. The trellis, just visible in the backyard sits sparse and bleak in its grief.

But soon, nature will replenish herself. That’s simply her nature. Always resurrecting.

But the inhumanity of humanity is: we don’t. At least not in our original form. But if you’re a believer, there are options out there…

Some people believe in transmigration of souls — from one body to the next. Or others believe in a spirit realm where our loved ones may watch over us as angels. Still others believe in an afterlife where we will all meet up again in mansions and on streets made of gold.

All of these beliefs are the spiritual equivalent of cuddles and comfort amid the sandpaper and salt, the pain and the tears, of this life.

Cuddles and comfort. Sandpaper and Salt. That’s what life — and the afterlife — is made of.



My D-line Coaching Husband and his Boys

My husband is a big, burly, former D-line player and a big, burly, current D-line coach.

We have twin boys. Twin boys my husband waited thirty-six years to have. Twin boys whose genetics could prove the perfect combo to make him daddy to a couple of D-line players’ one day, too.

And I know my D-line coaching husband would love for his boys to follow in his shoulder pads and put their hand on the ground — along with a quarterback or two-hundred.

And it might happen. But then again, it might not. And we’re both okay with that. We encourage our boys to explore what they love and to follow their bliss.

And one of our son’s bliss involves football and trucks. He says he wants to drive a truck like daddy’s when he grows up and be “a coach” like daddy because he “loves to tackle.”  (He might be a wee bit confused.)

And the other one of our son’s bliss involves feathers and unicorns and everything Disney. He says he wants to be “Elsa” when he grows up because he “loves princesses.” (And some would say he is a wee bit confused.)

But I would never say that. And neither would his daddy.

So when Daddy takes our boys to Target after a particularly hectic week of football to spend their allowance and some time with them, one usually comes back with trucks and one usually comes back with princesses.

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And I love my big, burly D-line husband so incredibly much for this — for his ability to foster the joy and individuality of our two totally opposite twin boys.

And when Daddy takes the boys with him to Home Depot to pick up supplies for little projects around the house,  one is usually wearing his favorite blue boa and both are always wearing great, big smiles.

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And I love my big, burly, D-line coaching husband so incredibly much for this — for his ability to walk proudly and without hesitation through the world’s most testosterone-laden chain store with our two totally opposite twin boys.

And when the boys pick out their Halloween costumes and one wants to be a police officer like his grandpa was in the military, and the other wants to be a unicorn like his imagination was in his wildest dreams, their daddy encourages them both with compliments and high fives.

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And I love my big, burly D-line coaching husband so incredibly much for this — for his unconditional love and affection for our two totally opposite twin boys.

Our boys are undeniably loved and undeniably fortunate. Both their parents encourage and support them and their choices, encourage and support them and their passions, encourage and support them and their personalities. Both of their parents encourage and support THEM — whether they fit our expectations — or society’s — or not.

Our hopes and dreams and prayers for our boys are that they be happy, secure, productive members of society, doing whatever it is they want to do and being whomever it is they want to be.

And my hopes and dreams and prayers for every child in every house in every neighborhood in every land is that they have a family — with or without a big, burly D-line coach  — who wishes the same for them.

That’s all.

Amen.

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