Saturday, August 13, 2011


When my older son was just twenty, he married a young woman six years older, recently divorced, and with two children - Jenna, age six, and Jeremy, five. Suddenly I had grandchildren, albeit step grands. I took to the role with enthusiasm. Especially fun was having a little girl around, a beautiful little blonde with a shy smile who just took my heart the first time I met her. Her mother only had custody every other weekend, and her father lived in another town, but we saw them whenever we could. I had great fun dressing her up for Easter, and braiding her hair - all the things a mother of only boys misses out on.
Then, four years later, my son and their mother split up. Their mother got only supervised custody, so never could bring them to see us - long story. I was so afraid they would think we didn't care about them, and sent them messages through their mother when I could. Until recently, I had not seen them since they were eleven and ten.
This spring I got an invitation to their high school graduation - only eleven months apart, they both graduated at the same time. I went, hoping to be able to at least hug them and tell them I had missed them.
I was sure that they didn't miss their old Oma - that was what they called me, and my husband was Opa.
To my delight, they greeted me warmly. They had fond memories of us.
And Jenna is my Facebook friend now. We took her out to lunch and we decided that it just didn't matter that we were not actually her grandparents - we were going to keep her!
Love is where you find it, or it finds you. And it can't be wrong to love a child, yours or not.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Your Children Are Not Yours

Things have happened in my sons' lives that I could not control.

Imagine that.

When I looked down at my blanket-wrapped first baby, I felt so responsible and terrified. What if I dropped him, what if I scarred him for life? He was so perfect, I was so afraid I'd mess him up. I couldn't stand the thought that what I did or didn't do could so harm him as to change the path of his future, irrevocably send him down a path to ruin.

I tried, I really did. Each day I tried to smooth his path, guide him with love, help him learn, feed him, hug him, keep him clean, keep him from hurting himself. I almost did it perfectly, too - then life intervened.

I had to go back to work, and leave him with a sitter. I got tired one night and shouted at him. I turned my back and he fell and cut his forehead. I had to send him to school.

Little by little, I realized he was not a blank slate I had to write on perfectly. He came with his own personality. This I realized even more when his brother came along with a whole different personality. Things I thoughtlessly did or said would upset one son; the same thing didn't phase the other.

As they grew, so did my efforts to raise them well and my worries that I was not doing it right. Teacher conferences were agony. How could I make them do what the teacher wanted? They loved to learn, just not the way the schools taught. Oh, God, was I raising daydreamers like me? If they would only do their homework!

And did they have friends? The right sort of friends? Why were they picked on by bullies?

And then came driving, and experiments with drugs, girls, and....somewhere along here I realized that I was not in charge. Never had been. Still I fought to hold the reins, while the horses bucked and threw off the saddle.

And then one day they were gone. Not forever gone, but, now adults, they were gone off out into the world where I could not see them every day, could not nag and scold and protect them. I had done my job. They were, for better or worse, RAISED.

A sadness swept over me. Had I done enough? Had I hugged and kissed them enough, told them I loved them enough, punished them for infractions in just the right way, so as to correct their actions but not stifle their spirit?

I am now watching my adult sons with wonder and awe. I see their struggles with life and love and realize that their struggles are theirs, not mine. I do not own them. Who they become is a product of genetics and upbringing, yes, but it is in the end the product of their decisions. This is the crucial part, the part I cannot do for them. I and my husband have done our best; the rest is theirs to do.

And I think, looking at them, that they will do just fine. I love you guys.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Way We See Ourselves

I have a dear friend who had a very rude awakening the other day. Deciding to shop for some new clothes, she headed to the dressing room of one of the major department stores, an armful of new outfits draped over her arm.

She had removed her own clothes and was preparing to try on the first outfit when she looked at herself in all her glory in the three-way, fluorescent lighted mirrors.

The expression she used was not ladylike. She called me up later, still upset, and told me she had seen herself revealed in ways she did not want to see - every blemish, extra pound, wrinkle and flaw.

"Honey!" I said, trying to calm her. "Don't you know that those dressing rooms are the WORK of the DEVIL?"

She laughed despite herself.

"Really!" I said, warming to the subject. "They are especially designed by the Devil in cahoots with department stores, so that we will hate ourselves for the way we look and buy a lot of clothes to cover it all up."

"Well," she said grimly, "The first part was accomplished. I hate myself."

After we talked a while, she came to the conclusion that while it was a horrible way to have her flaws revealed, she was going to work on improving them instead of just being upset.

We get rude awakenings, all of us. Some of us do not own a full length mirror and delude ourselves that we look pretty good, until we go shopping. One can go for years believing that we are as slim as we were years ago, until either we get the dressing room awakening or someone posts our picture on Facebook.

Yikes! Who is that woman?

With society's obsession with the slim and the young, those of us with lived-in faces and bodies can be easily distressed when it is finally revealed to us that no, we aren't as cute as we once were. We rush out and buy the clothes, makeup, hair dye and other things to try and make our outsides match our illusions of ourselves. It seldom works. I saw a woman the other day whom I judged to be in her sixties trying desperately to look younger - thin to the point of skinny, Botoxed features, carrot-red streaked hair. I remarked on her attempt to the clerk at the nutrition store, and was shocked to be told that no, the clerk knew the woman and she was only in her early fifties. Trying to look younger actually made her look older.

I recently stopped dying my hair. I was a little fearful at first, but I went ahead. figuring if I really hated it, I could dye it back. Turns out, I love it!
No more expense, messy chemicals or checking for grey roots.

We let go of a lot of stress if we can accept the woman in the mirror. Don't look at her wrinkles - look at the kind light in her eyes. Don't look at her fat - look at her welcoming soft arms and lap. Don't look at her grey hair without seeing the beautiful way light bounces off it, almost creating a halo.

We should take care of our health, of course. But obsessing over our lost youth? Futile at best, tragic at worst. Don't let the Devil and his trick mirrors get you down!

You are beautiful!

Friday, May 6, 2011


The sky fell on Alabama last week.
Over thirty tornadoes swept through North Alabama, tumbling trees, cars, entire houses into unrecognizable piles of rubble. Bricks and sticks, balls and dolls, and paper, so much paper.
A lot of the paper is photographs, torn and soaked in the rain. Irreplaceable portraits of loved ones, the frames splintered and the pictures blurred beyond recognition.
Volunteers are now sifting through the mess, trying to save the most precious possessions of people they do not know. Painstakingly they lift the broken pieces, looking for treasures. These are carefully placed in plastic bins for the resident of the destroyed house to go through.
Our lives were changed the day of the tornadoes. Some of us, like me, only lost electricity for five days. Others lost everything. Many lost their lives, over 230 people, including five members of one family. In that family, only one child survived. His twin did not.
We found candles and flashlights, propane stoves and – neighbors. People pooled the food that was going to go bad in their refrigerators and impromptu barbecues happened. I had a propane grill, my friend had instant coffee. That worked out well; several kaffeeklatches ensued.
We found stars. In suburban neighborhoods the streetlights blur the night sky. Suddenly there were hundreds more stars. Without the sound of air conditioners, we could hear crickets again. Little tree frogs sang us to sleep through our open windows.
We found our own music. Without the professionally delivered and packaged entertainment, we found our old instruments and dusted them off, found our voices and sang old tunes. I hope we keep singing and don’t forget the songs again.
We found our own resilience. Cold showers and spit baths will do that for you. We remembered how to stomp our dirty clothes in cold water in the bath tub and hang them out to dry on makeshift clotheslines.
We remembered how to pray, earnestly and sincerely and for people we had never met. We had no time to question why this devastation had happened to us. We just prayed and rolled up our sleeves.
In a disaster, people frequently forget to take care of themselves, forget to eat and sleep often enough. They are overwhelmed mentally as well and stress can cause them to become ill. The wise among the volunteers take time for themselves so that the next day they can work again. We need to look out for burnout among our fellow workers and tell them it’s okay to rest a bit.
Alabama the Beautiful will be so again. Eventually the debris will be gone, and the trees will be replanted.
Alabama’s people, helping each other, are beautiful now.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Justice versus Mercy

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
Something happened this week that put the words mercy and justice into stark relief for me. Justice was administered in a case before a parole board – strict justice. The logic of it was impeccable. The person involved had been convicted of possession of marijuana for the second time, which in Alabama is a felony, no matter how small the amount of it. Then the person had, in a moment of weakness, smoked marijuana at the work release camp. It was pretty cut and dried. He’d blown it. Parole denied, justice served.
Mercy, however, was not present. No amount of pleading or any other facts swayed the board. Not the fact that he had a job waiting for him and good friends and family who would support him to stay away from the weed, and a minister’s support as well. Nor the fact that his son wanted him at his birthday party. The man in charge of the parole board said that if this man were paroled, it would be mercy, not justice. In those words.
It got me to thinking about justice, fairness, mercy. It is all too easy to say that people in prison or in poverty deserve to be where they are. They made the wrong choices, really stupid ones. If they worked harder they could get money. We sit in our nice homes and shake our heads and thank the good Lord we aren’t like them.
But who we are, it seems to me, depends on three factors: First, our genetics, how we are born; secondly, what happens to us, especially in our early years, and third; what we decide to do about the first two.
We have no control over these first two factors. We might be born with a lower IQ into an abusive family, or be fortunate enough to be born with high intelligence into a loving family. We have all seen or heard of people overcoming horrible backgrounds and people going bad even after having every advantage. Somehow they have overcome those first two factors.
So what are we to do as church members to help those in bad situations? Are we to sit in judgment, not allowing them to come near us? Are we to be self-righteous and smug?
Or are we to follow our Lord’s example? Jesus, who hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and beggars. He told them to go and sin no more – but he loved them first.
I’ve heard of some churches that say they minister to the homeless, the addicted, the people in the direst of straits – but they won’t have them actually sit in a pew next to them. Is this love? Latham’s mission is to reach the unreached. That means treating them with dignity, loving them as children of God, our brothers and sisters.
There is a woman in Nashville, an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens, who felt called to minister to the women on the streets there, who through circumstances and bad choices, wound up as drug addicts and prostitutes. She says that when we see such people, we should not think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but instead say to ourselves. “There goes God.” She herself was abused as a child, by a church member, but decided to use this awfulness to give compassion to other women. She says, “These women did not end up on the streets by themselves, and they will not get back off by themselves.” She has set up several houses in regular neighborhoods in Nashville, called Magdalene Houses, where the women live rent-free for two years as they progress into their new lives, working at Thistle Farms, which the Reverend Stevens also set up. They make bath and beauty products from the lowly thistle, a plant which aptly grows beautifully in the harshest of environments. The Reverend Stevens brings the women in and prays with them, and simply loves them back into a safe place, never looking down on them.
Yes, there are laws to be obeyed. Our system of justice cannot be abandoned and all the cell doors unlocked. There is often learning that must be done by people who commit crimes. But justice tempered with mercy is what Jesus taught.
The passage in Matthew is taken from the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” He did not say, “Blessed are those who make sure everyone gets what they deserve when they mess up.” We are to leave that judgment to God, in His infinite mercy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Daddy

My father, had he lived, would be one hundred years old today. The picture shows his parents and siblings around 1920. Daddy is the little boy behind his beloved Mama. There would be two more children born into the family.
I was born when Daddy was forty-one. My brother Charlie was twenty-one and my sister Pat was fifteen then. Eighteen months later, my little brother Kip was born.
For all of my childhood, Daddy was a salesman. It was a difficult profession; we never knew how much money there'd be. My mother sold Tupperware to make ends meet.
At one time there had been more money, so in the small houses we lived in were the remnants of a more affluent time. Barely fitting into the tiny dining room was a fine mahogany veneer dining room set; the china cabinet held Haviland china and very good silver plate. There were hundreds of books on the shelves my father mounted on the living room wall. We clung to the bottom rung of the middle class with fierce tenacity. We always had food, and though my dresses were often made by my mother, whose sewing talent was questionable, we had nice enough clothes.
Daddy could fix anything. I suspect he could do so because we could not afford professionals, but I think also because he enjoyed working with his hands and his brain at the same time. He once made a screened in porch into an extra room and built an enclosure around my twin bed that had a closet on each end. He repaired our cars and I remember glowing from a compliment he gave me when I hung over the engine of one and figured out how something worked.
He was to be found on Sunday evenings with a kid on each side of him as he read us the funnies. He'd tuck us into bed and "tickle" our backs as he sang us to sleep in his pleasantly deep voice. He sang "Billy Boy" and a wonderfully funny song called "A Clubfooted Rat":
"A clubfooted rat
Fell offa da house,
He didn't fall very high.
He fell right smack
On the backa he neck,
An' jam he tail in he eye."
He took us out into the back yard and spread a blanket on the grass and watched for shooting stars with us. The magic of this stays with me still. Searching the night sky sprinkled with stars, we oohed when one seemed to break free and streak across the heavens. Now whenever I am fortunate enough to see a shooting star, I always say, "Thanks, Daddy."
One thing he let us do would have gotten him in trouble were the child-safety police watching then. We had an old red Rambler station wagon, the kind with a luggage rack on the roof and a tailgate that let down flat. Daddy'd let it down and Kip and I would hop on, grab the luggage rack, and play fireman, going "Rrrrrr, rrrrr!" as Daddy drove five miles an hour through the neighborhood.
He'd let us play with his thick, curly hair - you can see it in the picture - and we'd pretend to cut it and style it.
He bought us skates and took us to skate the sidewalks of the Roebuck Shopping Center on Sunday afternoons when all the stores were closed.
He took us to Sunday school, and if my mother stayed home, we'd skip church and go to the Rexall Drug Store soda fountain and get the same thing each time - a vanilla Coke for me and a cherry Coke for Kip.
He let us ride on his legs in the local swimming pool as he hopped backwards - we pretended to ski.
He took us to East Lake Park and pushed us on the swings, running under the swing to get us up really high.
He told really corny jokes. We called him "King Corn".
My father lived long enough to see us become adults. He died at sixty-six, way too soon, of heart disease. I wish my children could have known him. I found out I was pregnant with my first son on Daddy's birthday in 1978 - but Daddy had passed away on Valentine's Day the month before. My first son looks startlingly like his grandfather around the mouth, especially, and both my boys have Daddy's thick, curly hair.
Rest well, Daddy. You did the best you could.
And could you send me a shooting star soon, please?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Losing Maggie and Scout - our dog kids

Dogs just do not live long enough. A small dog might live 14 years; a large one a few years less. They are our companions and in the majority of cases, about 85%, we refer to ourselves to the dog as "Mommy" or "Daddy". They understand words on a toddler level and though they can't speak our language, are quite eloquent in their own language of barks, whines, licks and snuggles. They are our children with fur.

Two of our dog kids passed away recently, within three months of each other. Maggie was an almost all white Jack Russell with a Fran Dresher bark and the ability to leap two feet off the ground. With her white, almost lightbulb shaped head and black eyes, she looked like the tabloid alien. She was 13 years and some months old, and in addition to pancreatitis, she had developed a heart condition.She had come to us through our vet, who told us her owner had had a stroke and could no longer care for her.

Scout, our Rat Terrier, had been advertised for sale in the paper. A worried looking dog - I said he looked like Peter O'Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips- he had a nervous habit of chewing holes in blankets. Probably why the last family got rid of him. After he destroyed a favorite quilt, I was tempted - but he looked at me with those eyes and I just couldn't care about cloth more than him. Thereafter we covered the bed with thin, cheap blankets he could eat. He did eat them - we never found the pieces he removed.

Both dogs began to fade in a similar manner. They didn't eat or drink and had a faraway look in their eyes. Mary Beth noticed it and called us each time. A good friend of ours,she had been keeping them for us in a kind of doggie hospice, since riding in the truck with us would have been too much for them. She was a wonderful caregiver for them, and we will always be grateful.

We took them to the vet and he agreed they were dying, and put them to sleep gently so there would be no further suffering. We had each cremated, and their ashes are in little wooden boxes with their collars around them. The vet's office has a sweet custom of sending condolence notes to those whose pets have died.

Our Fluffernut is twelve. A Jack Russell mix, she is Daddy's baby. She sleeps in his arms at night. I hope it's not too much to ask God to let her live as long as possible.