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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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My kind of Sexy

…is a summertime morning striptease. (It’s not what you think. Tell my husband not to get too excited.)

Summer mornings are my favorite. Especially ones like today. Do-nothing mornings — where I can sit and watch the fog drift in wisps on the silvery light — moth-wings light, lamb’s wool light, low-slung and easy.

I love to watch the sky unwind those ribbons of lambs-wool light, to slowly unwrap the earth — a long, sensual striptease revealing round, lush tree tops, and soft, dripping foliage.

The katydids swell with approval, the birds erupt in chorus, a woodpecker pulses the beat.

Somewhere amid the clover, a bee, slow from his overindulgence on nectar the night before, treads water in the liquid air. Not quite ready to start his day, not quite ready to get busy.

I get it. It’s so easy to overindulge in the potent nectar of these perfect summer days. The sun is long and tempting, and nature bursts free of her seams. She is hot and completely undone.

Gardens grow blousy with feverish growth and roadsides explode, keeping pace.

And we, as humans, we just want to imbibe. There is just so much fun to be had. Trails. Rivers. Beaches. Pools. Family. Friendship. Fireworks. Fun.

Like the wings of the hummingbirds at my feeder, summer is a blur of glittering seconds, so fast you can only see where it’s been, rarely standing still to see the up-close-and-perfect detail.

We cram action, hummingbird style, into layers and layers of summertime fun. Time is a frenzy most days.

But this morning I’m taking it slow. Because slow is my kind of sexy.

My boys — they get bored. All three of them. They like action. They like fun. And to them, sitting still and soaking it all in is a far cry from fun. So they’ve gathered up their things and taken off to the pool.

But me, I’m saddled up in this morning, eager to sit for a spell. Literally. Waiting for a spell. For creativity to light, to take up my fingers, to tickle my keyboard, and to unchain my mind.

And it takes awhile. The words appear slow, a tantalizing striptease.

Tendrils of misty promise, backlit by vision, fuzzy and opaque, flit about, flirting with my senses. Then, slivers of clarity — a single word, tweaked and pulled to a taut, perfect pearl. More coaxing ensues, until finally, big, rounded handfuls of glittering splendor are revealed. Eager and pliable. Hot and ready to couple and link.

It takes time to tease words into the light –to convince them to unveil their secrets and put themselves on full display.

And time is a frenzy most days.

But today, even the hummingbirds have slowed their windspeed. They defy their nature and perch at the feeder. Drinking deeply. Soaking in the sweet syrup of summertime.

It is — or was — a beautiful, do-nothing morning, succulent and ripe, and ready to open, to yield her secrets beneath my eager persistence.

But now. Now our time together is done. The show is over. Life demands my attention more than my words.

But as always, I’m left yearning for more. And that is my kind of sexy.

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

Seconds (and second chances) at a swimming pool are way too slippery

It’s a scary thing, seeing your child’s head just below the surface of the pool, there in the deep end, his pudgy hands moving frantically, his feet kicking futilely.

Time ripples and blurs as you struggle to get to him, a table full of appetizers between him and you. And scattered lawn chairs. Party guests. A diving board. Three lifeguards.

Lifeguards who don’t see him. Who continue to scan the surface of the pool. While your son bobs just below their line of sight. (In their defense, these lifeguards are young and there are lots and lots of kids splashing and playing.)

Did reflections hide him? Inexperience?

You hear yourself scream at a friend. A friend already in motion. A friend halfway between you and your boy. A friend half a second ahead of you. And every second matters. Every fraction of a second.

Seconds at a swimming pool are slippery. In a blink, time is up.

The experts say young children can drown in as little as twenty seconds. They panic and inhale water. And their heads are heavy and disproportionate to their bodies, so they don’t splash around and yell for help. They can’t get their mouths above the surface — or their arms.

So everything that happens, happens quickly and out of sight and sound.

Luckily, when my son fell in, there were two sets of eyes who noticed him. My friend’s and mine.

I’ll confess, though. I wasn’t watching him very closely. I have twin boys. Five years old. So, I was scanning from one boy to his brother. But only haphazardly…

Because, I was having drinks and socializing. It was a party, after all. And there were lifeguards on duty… hired by the hostess with the express purpose of allowing her guests to relax and have adult beverages while some fully-trained experts kept an eye on the kiddos.

I did three things wrong.

  • I trusted the licensed teenage lifeguards more than I should have. They are teenagers after all.
  • I trusted my son to not go in the deep end because he knew he couldn’t swim. (He didn’t go in… voluntarily. He slipped. Quickly and silently.)
  • I had drinks and let my guard down. A mother drinking with young children swimming is never a good combination.

He was probably only under for ten seconds. But those ten seconds felt like an eternity. All I could see was water distorting his small frame, a halo of hair drifting below the surface. All I could feel was his panic.

My friend flung herself into the pool ahead of me, her years of life-guarding kicking in, even as I yelled hoarsely for her to get him.

I followed close behind. I didn’t need to jump in, too. She had him. But I NEEDED to jump in. To be there. To feel him close and safe. And he needed me there. To feel close and safe.

We snuggled at the side of the pool for a while. Until his little heart calmed. Until my need to vomit subsided. Then my friend took him from my arms and pulled him back into the water.

When you fall off a bike, you get back on. When you nearly drown, you get back in. She didn’t want him to fear the water.

And he doesn’t. Before twenty minutes were up, he was back splashing with his brother in the shallow end.

Before the weekend was up, we had signed both boys up for swim lessons. At five-years-old, we can’t wait a minute more. We shouldn’t have waited this long.

But life is busy. And time is slippery. It got away from us. And here they are five years old and not knowing how to swim. We were incredibly lucky. Not everyone is so fortunate.

I will not make those same mistakes again. Seconds (and second chances) at a swimming pool are way too slippery.

Getting Real: it’s not pretty, but it’s pretty perfect

I’m on a life-long journey to become my most authentic self. To become Real. To become a Velveteen Woman. If you haven’t read the Velveteen Rabbit story, do it. Now. You’ll cry. You’ll thank me.

Anyways… it’s a tough job. Some days I just feel way too torn and tattered to keep going. I just plain feel broken. Like I’ve been steamrolled by the planet. My bones are weary and my mind is pressed flat. But I guess that’s just part of the process.

Because becoming real isn’t pretty. Becoming authentic is a far cry from being perfect.

According to the Skin Horse in the classic tale, “It takes a long time to become real… it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

So, surely I’m getting Real close. I’m fifty plus — and have been for a couple of years now — and far from “carefully kept.”

I’m loved on and jumped on and tackled and tortured on a daily basis by rambunctious twin boys with a lotta Big Love. Every. Single. Day. I also feel every knock and nick my two adult daughters receive out in the world on their own authentic journeys to become Real. Even. More-so than my own. When your babies hurt, you hurt, no matter their age.

Then there’s the fact that I’m an English teacher drowning in the 365 days of May, the 184 students on her rosters, and the endless trials and tribulations of teenaged hearts I bear witness to. Plus I’m a football wife in the midst of Spring Ball. 

So no, not carefully kept.

My joints are definitely loose. My appearance is just-this-side of shabby. My eyes haven’t dropped out yet, but they’re most definitely drooping… And I’m pretty certain this month knocked off any sharp edges I still managed to have left. Since I’ve only had one broken bone so far (knock on wood), I’m fairly certain I don’t break too easily.

Back in the day, when I was a mother fresh off the shelves, I used to have glossy hair and firm skin and stuffing in most of the right places. I had muscles and stamina for days.

But motherhood four times around has done some work on my lovely lady lumps. I wouldn’t go so far as the Bob Segar song and claim my “points were way up firm and high,” but they definitely weren’t stretched and deflated to the point of flapping in a brisk wind if they aren’t strapped in properly.  Four years of breastfeeding takes its toll.

nursing

And so do three pregnancies – especially one with twins.  My skin is puckered and striped and dimpled.  I’ve been pulled and torn and redistributed.  And even stitched back together. My belly bears a nice, six-inch seam where the good doctors scooped out two premature babes in my first and only C-section at age forty-seven. At that age, the elastin in the skin isn’t quite what it used to be.

So my stuffing has fallen and nestled into soft, comfy pooches in inconvenient and unattractive places. Add to that, my saggy hindquarters, and I’m just a soft, comfy lap of lady lumps.

34weeks

Along with my belly seam, I also bear a dog-legged scar across my right paw from when I broke my distal radius while putting away, of all things, laundry.

I had a choice while falling willy-nilly over a twin who found his way underfoot: twist to the side and sacrifice my wrist or stay on course and sacrifice my youngest. Since Tate is a relatively important component of our family unit and my right hand is my dominant and most-used portion of my body, it was quite the quandary.  In the split second decision, Tate won and my wrist lost. Badly. Between fracture and surgery, it was a five-month loss. If I’d chosen Tate, I bet he would’ve bounced back in two, tops.

dogearedscar

So my body has been sacrificed — and often — upon the altar of motherhood. 

But the sacrifice isn’t limited to my body. My mind has paid a tremendous price, too.  I’m not nearly as quick-witted as I once was. It’s a spongey mass of mire, sucking and slurping and slowing me down. I think the majority of decay occurred during the sixteen months of sleeplessness Mike and I endured after the boys’ birth. Regardless, my electrodes just don’t fire as fast as they once did.

And then there’s my nerves… what’s left of them. The boys careen off them like the ropes at WrestleMania, brawling over virtually anything — markers, play doh, DVDs, cayenne pepper (wtf?) — and my nerves are left mangled in the hot, red dust.

And then there’s my marriage.

No, I’m not about to rage against the institution, to lament on the lameness of my mate. Far from it. My marriage is what saves me. My husband… he’s my Wonder Wall. He’s my calm. My eye in the hurricane.  

I don’t know what I would do without him. He picks up my stuffing. He tucks it back in. He shoulders my shortcomings and he shelters my babes — all four of them.

It’s fitting that he’s a Purple Hurricane coach. He knows the ins and outs of my storms and he weathers them with grace. And he keeps me from falling apart at my already weakened seams.

These days, I shed hair and tears and sleep and health and sanity until I’m as limp and floppy as the Velveteen Rabbit. But it’s all good. 

Because I’m becoming Real. And it’s not pretty. My boobs aren’t pert. My ass hangs low and it wobbles to and fro.

But I am truly loved. By five of the most amazing humans in this amazing world. 

And I’m loved by the Creator of our Universe. I am snuggled and sheltered, and sometimes weathered and wizened — all in the name wisdom and growth.

And while that may knock me about a bit, by golly, I’m becoming authentic. And that’s a beautiful thing.

So all of you struggling women out there… getting your edges knocked off and your stuffing pulled out. Keep on keeping on. You’re exhausted. I know. I get it.

But I see you. I feel you. You are velveteen. And as Barbara Kingsolver says, “We can do this hard thing.”

We can do this hard and beautiful, and oh-so-very Real thing.

Moving Mountains and Stringing Pearls

I was listening to a country song yesterday (Yes, country. I’m that far gone.) — and I heard a lyric that resonated with me. “If I need a mountain moved, I move it myself.”

That’s me to a Grand Teton.

And it’s not because I’m afraid people will think I’m weak. Nor is it that I think I can do everything all by myself… far from it. I am definitely not the sharpest shovel in the shed, or the most diverse and multi-purposed, either.

It’s just I don’t want to be a bother. It’s how I was raised.

Chalk it up to Puritan work ethic… or cult indoctrination… but I feel like if I can’t get it all done, then I’m inadequate and unworthy of help. So most days, I just feel it all crumbling around me. Nevertheless, I carry on.

But I am in absolute awe of — and even a little bit alarmed for — people who actually do ask for help. They’re far braver than me. And have a much stronger sense of self-worth.

Because they expect people to help carry the load. They expect people to care.

And it’s not like I’m surrounded by people who DON’T care. I’m not. Far from it. As a matter of fact, I have the most amazing friends and family. I am unbelievably blessed. They would be more-than-willing to help me move my Himalayan hurdles, if they only knew about my Himalayan hurdles.

But I tend not to tell them. Because I was also raised to be invisible.

And asking for help puts you right out there in the spotlight.

So I don’t.

But I watch the ones who are out there in the spotlight, bathed in self-confidence, and I long to be more like them.

They’re all so warm and golden, so on-fire with self-love. Like they really believe the world is their oyster and that people will stumble all over themselves to help them string up its pearl and lay it ’round their neck.

And the world is. And the people do.

Meanwhile I carry on, flattened by Everest crumbling over the top me.

Anybody else struggle with that? And is it primarily a female thing? Or a Heather Candela thing?

Or are there men out there who have trouble asking for help, too?

Because my husband doesn’t have trouble. He knows his limits and he knows his worth. And he compromises neither when he asks for help. (I mean, who wouldn’t go above and beyond for such a tall mug of salted caramel macchiato? He’s delicious.)

I admire him so much, and I want to be like him so much — but I’m distinctly lacking in both salt and caramel. (Although I am tall. So I do have that.)

I have tried my best to raise my daughters to be more like those warm and golden souls of this world and NOT like their mother.

I’ve tried to raise them to have a strong sense of self. To be empowered and intelligent. To be willing and willful. To have servants’ hearts — ready to give assistance when needed — but also to have a queen’s spirit and know their value. I want them to never settle for less than they deserve and to know they are always worthy of somebody else’s effort and attention. Always.

I’m trying to do the same with my sons. And maybe it’ll be easier with them. Maybe girls struggle more with the mountains they haul. I don’t know. This is unchartered terrain for me.

What I do know is that I want all my children to be able to move mountains AND string pearls.

It must be the most amazing feeling.

Thoughts and Prayers: Same Song, Millionth Verse

Help me, Lord, to find what I am supposed to write today… A day after yet another school tragedy. More headlines. More pics of moms in panic. In mourning.  Of dads in agony. More stories of teachers and students feeling abject horror. More stories of students who made it talking about students who didn’t. More stories.

But not stories. All true. I wish they weren’t. I wish they were made up. I wish I were merely watching a Shakespearean tragedy. But alas, I’m not.

And how do I find the words to make sense of these real-world tragedies? To find words? To unearth them? To polish them and use them? To help myself through these dark times, these hellish realities?  To help me make some sort of sense of it all? To make sense of a world that steals sons? And daughters? And hearts? And grinds them into mincemeat to serve up on little slices of computer screens and news headlines…

And now snaps. On Snapchat. Snap-shots of horror and fear. Screaming and gunshots. Panic and pain. All of these things are too horrible to fathom. To absorb. To digest. I am… overwhelmed. And inept. Is there anything that can be done? Anything?

Quesions. More questions. And no answers. Only words. And words are not answers. Words don’t do much. Words are those old standbys. They are hashtags. #ThoughtsandPrayers. Affections, not action. I can polish them up all I want, they ultimately do nothing.

It is Action we need, not Words. Not Thoughts. We have active shooters in our schools killing kids. Many, many kids. And educators. And the wrong sorts of people are the only ones acting.

No, I take that back. The rest of us are acting, too.

We are all playing a role. We have taken on the role of Hamlet — the great procrastinator. The tragic hero who unpacks his heart with words. Who delays and delays and delays until it is way too late. Until there is so much death and destruction that the entire kingdom has tumbled into the hands of the enemy.

Apparently, that is the role we are all willing to play –the politicians and public alike.

And there are so many ghosts telling us to do something. So many. In hallways and classrooms and media centers and cafeterias and restrooms. Begging us to avenge their murders most foul with action.

But still, we wait… while noble hearts crack. And cease. While tragedy becomes commonplace.

So, no. I don’t need to find the words to make sense of this anymore. None of us do. Instead, we need to DO SOMETHING. We need to stop the bleeding.  And stop the madness. And stop the death…

To do or not to do.  That is the question.

And I don’t want to hear that now is not the time…  that the wounds are too fresh.

But in this, at least, Shakespeare’s words are right… It needs to happen now “while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance on plots and errors should happen.

Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this becomes the [battle]field, but here shows much amiss.”

Let’s find a way to be the change.

#DoSomethingAboutAllTheTragedyAlready

Spring Ball: Football and its Families Prepare for The Grind

It is May in Georgia. The days lean toward summer, growing warm and husky with the promise of rain. Clouds stack on the horizon and flit fast across fields, green and fresh and striped with the first mow of the season – along with the first paint. Spring Ball has arrived.

It’s a time of anticipation and adjustment – for a team and its coaches and their families, as well. The melanin and muscle and mercury are rising — the summer’s preparing to grind. And so are the coaches’ wives.

Spring ball is a time to stretch out those long-dormant football legs. To remember the rigor, to shift and rebalance the weight, to recondition the brain and the body for the upcoming football season.

As the coaches tweak their playbooks, the wives tweak their mindsets. As the depth charts take shape on their husband’s clipboards, the duty rosters get shifted at home. Laundry loads double with work clothes, plus practice gear. The cooking and dishes all rest upon her. Then there’s bath time and story time and bedtime and more.

The job of a coach’s wife is demanding. She one platoons their home life: scrambling and blocking and taking heat in the pocket; rushing and tackling and offering up pass protection where needed. Running offense AND defense is a fine balance. Maintaining that balance requires strength and focus, and passion and love – not just for her husband and family, but also for the game. Without passion and love of the game, resentment can take hold. Not everyone’s cut out for the job.

And the job of a coach is demanding. It brings long hours, low pay, and high turnover. The weight of responsibility brings bags to his eyes and weights to his shoulders. He juggles politics from parents, school systems and fans. He demands excellence from his players, and in return the fans demand excellence from him. Stress levels rise. Maintaining the balance requires strength and focus, and also passion and love – not just for the game, but for his wife and family. Without passion and love for his family, resentment can take hold. Not everyone’s cut out for the job.

Strength and Focus; Passion and Love. Without them, football will defeat you. When things get heavy (which they always do) the weight can get one-sided. It can topple you. You have to find balance. Strength and focus on one side, passion and love on the other. And then you have to maintain it.

Football families redistribute their balance in the spring. We put our bodies and our minds through the paces. We tweak our playbooks and our attitudes. As the mercury rises, our muscle memory takes over and we find ourselves ready.  Ready for the grind.

It is May in Georgia. The days lean toward summer, growing warm and husky with the promise of a football reign. Spring Ball is here.

My students are young and ignorant. And alive. Notes after our lockdown…

I experienced my first school lockdown today. A real one. Not a drill. The adrenaline surge has left me in a puddle of exhaustion.

The announcement came in the middle of sixth period, just after final lunch had been released. We were in journalism class in the computer lab when we heard, “Code Red.”

Students looked up, eyes wide. “Is this real?” they asked.

We had always been warned if there was a drill about to take place. “Turn off your monitors and get in the corner,” I said.

And they did. Twenty-one kids, sitting knees to chest, huddling under a giant window, blinds closed above them, cinder block walls at their back, silent. And there we sat in the dark. Feeling unbelievably vulnerable.

It was the only place out of view from the door — a door with a window and no blinds, no posters, no covering whatsoever.

From our corner, I looked around… noticed backpacks. Took a risk and stepped into the open to slide them out of view. If somebody saw them through that door window, they would know we were there. I contemplated how best to upend tables and block that door… and its bare, vertical window. A window a full-sized person could walk straight through.

Did I mention we felt vulnerable?

But we also felt prepared. We knew what to do. We’d had dry runs before. So we did it.

They stayed calm. I stayed calm.

But of course, my mind flew to the anniversaries of recent history. Visions surged in time with my pulse.

Bloody students tumbling out windows at Columbine.

Twisted concrete and metal and a day care in rubble in Oklahoma City.

A religious zealout, a dusty compound, the dense smoke of Waco.

An April birthday as a target date. Hitler. And unhappily my grandmother’s.

So I never forget.

Yes, I was more than a little terrified. We heard helicopters. Administrators with radios. Each other’s heartbeats.

Until our principal came on and said we would remain in a soft lockdown, and that we should resume teaching.

My kids went silently back to their desks. No one was allowed to leave. There would be no class change. No check outs. No work-release.

For approximately an hour, we sheltered in place. Until we received an all-clear.

I’m mush. I’m exhausted. I’m completely spent.

My students, though — they went right back to their daily lives. They went right back to laughing and completing study guides and making weekend plans. To being kids.

And I’m glad. I’m glad they don’t truly understand the weight of the hostile world that is riding roughshod on my adult heart right now. I’m glad they are still young and ignorant enough to be young and ignorant.

Reality can come later for them. Like it couldn’t for Columbine’s kids. Like it couldn’t for Newtown’s kids. Like it couldn’t for Parkland’s. Like it couldn’t for so many, many, many other kids. Twenty years’ worth of senseless tragedies. Twenty years’ worth of lives and innocence. Lost.

Our students are so, so fortunate to remain young and ignorant. And alive.

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.

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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.

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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.

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