I remember my mother pulling her cardigan a little more tightly across her breasts, her gaze fixed on a faraway spot I could never see, and saying with a certain wistfulness, “Autumn is a sad time.” And it is, I guess. Leaves turn scarlet, gold, and orange, then wither and fall to the ground. We watch life changing before our eyes, there’s a sudden chill in the air, and we instinctively hold things closer, not wanting them to slip from our grasp. Some of the people I’ve loved most in the world have passed away in the autumn: my mother, my Papa, my sister.

But Fall is a time of renewal as well. Ferris wheels and cotton candy, the beginning of school with the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, the start of the holiday season, new leather boots and wooly sweaters.

Death and life, life and death. Grief and love, love and grief. Dancers all. And forever intertwined.

Enter Brianna. Eighteen years old, slight of build, black hair to her waist, cute quirky eyeglasses, a sweet manner. We sat down together in the University of Memphis Student Center last week. This is her story:

“When I was little, my mom used to bring boyfriends around and they’d try to get me to call them Daddy, but I never would. Not until Aaron came along. I was three then, and he was the only one I ever called Daddy. He was the one I picked. From then on, he pretty much took care of me, even though I wasn’t his biological child. He loved me just like I was his own kid. My mom could never clean up her act, so when I was twelve years old, he got legal custody of me and I moved to his house full-time. With my mom, I had lived in a really bad part of Memphis where there was a lot of substance abuse and it was dangerous to be outside even in the daytime, but with my dad I was safe.

“He was really proud of me. He always said it too. He was so proud that I graduated high school and so excited about me starting college. I’m the only one in my biological family to get even as far as eleventh grade. Without him, I probably would have ended up like all the other women in my family: out on the street, with five kids, living off the government. He gave me a reason to try. Because of him I got to participate in things at school like choir, color guard, and theater. He always put a roof over my head and food in my stomach. I never went hungry, and I’ve always had clothes. He taught me that a real dad doesn’t have to be your bio dad. A real dad is the person who takes care of you and loves you unconditionally.

“He was always single; he never married, and I was the only child he ever had, biologically or not. Of course I’m a girl, so he very much spoiled me, but he raised me to be strong and independent too. He always gave me good life lessons and instilled good values in me. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t get stuck on sad things. Move on.’ He instilled a really good work ethic in me too. He said, ‘Whatever you do, whether it’s school or a job, do your best.’ Basically, don’t be half-assed about it.

“This summer, my dad had a massive heart attack at work and passed away—he was only 45, which is really young for a person—so I’m kinda by myself now. That’s why I wanted to share this memory of him. He wasn’t just my dad. He was my everything. My best friend, my mentor, my rock. He was life itself. He gave my childhood back to me.

“I miss him a lot. We just had fall break and that made me think about how we used to go to the Smoky Mountains this time of year. Fall was his favorite season, when all the leaves were changing. We’d get away from the city and out into nature and just listen to the sounds of the woods and the water. It was wonderful.”

Brianna finished her story, and there were traces of tears in her eyes. But there was unmistakable joy as well. She had been held. She had been cherished. And nothing and no one could take that away from her.

Death and life. Grief and love. Dancers all. And forever intertwined. Tell me, is there ever one without the other?

brianna_dadBrianna with Dad before Junior Prom (image courtesy of Brianna)

Being Southern

[Inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From]

Being Southern

I’m a Southern girl, raised up in Alabama and Georgia

I come from grits and sorghum syrup

From black-eyed peas, fried okra, and homegrown tomatoes

From banana puddin’ and co-colas

I’m from the South, where every recipe in the cookbook starts with “melt a stick of butter”

Many an evening, I’ve sat on the ice cream freezer while daddy cranked it and then gone tearing around after lightning bugs when it was somebody else’s turn

I know about screen doors and box fans, bare feet, and front porches

I know better than to wear white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day

I’ve fanned myself in the church house while the man up front quit preachin’ and went to meddlin’

And I’ve been threatened with eternal damnation if I so much as set foot in a dance hall

I can tell you ever one of the 12 apostles (Peter, Andrew, James, and John), recite “The Lord is My Shepherd” in no time flat, and sing all six verses of “Just As I Am”

I’ve seen the menfolk hurry out to the churchyard to smoke as soon as we let out

And I’ve helped my mama fix casseroles and pound cake to carry to people on their beds of affliction

I’ve been to many a viewing and smelled enough carnations to last me the rest of my life. When I get a whiff of one now, all I can think is, “Who died?”

I’ve been told to take off those clodhoppers in the house

Sometimes I was as slow as molasses, and sometimes I was told to wait a cotton-picking minute

I’ve washed up for supper, set the table, and hollered at my brother to get on in this house

I’ve hankered after blackberry cobbler and had it too, till I was about to pop

I know when to say yes ma’am and no sir, bless her heart, and y’all come on

I’ve been mad as all get out, but I knew better than to throw a hissy fit or sass my mama. If I did, I knew I was fixing to get a whipping; I might as well go on and break a switch off the peach tree

I’ve been told to stop being ugly or Mama would jerk a knot in my tail

That my face was gonna freeze like that

And that I was getting too big for my britches

I knew who had home training and who didn’t

I’ve given the kinfolks sugar, been tickled pink, had my neck hugged, and gotten my leg pulled more times than I can count.

I’ve been told to go get that doohickey over yonder and carry it to my grandmama

And been asked what in tarnation did I think I was doing

I’ve played possum so I could stay up later than the other young’uns and listen to the grown folks talk. I’ve heard tell about how Miss Myrtle Atkins wadn’t right anymore since her old man run off with that little hussy from the five-and-dime. Everybody knowed he was downright sorry anyway, always had been, useless as tits on a boar hog.

I’ve been puny, choked down daddy’s homemade cough syrup made with whisky and lemon and honey, had my chest rubbed with Vick’s Salve, and had my neck wrapped up with a hot wet rag

My grandmama has given me silver dollars and told me I might could buy myself a play purty if I’d put the money in my pocketbook and hold on to it till somebody could carry me to town

I’m the spitting image of my mama. When she took a notion to do something, she’d do it come hell or high water, and I will too

Honey, I’m a Southern girl from way back

And I reckon that’s all I need to say.



This morning on our way back from Alabama, we stopped in at the little church I went to as a child. There were only about 50 people in attendance, although I remember it being a congregation of 200 or so when we lived in the community. I didn’t recognize anyone, but people who had known our family when I was 5 to 10 years old greeted us so kindly. Truth is, they were just as kind before we introduced ourselves and made the connection. After the service and before we left, an older man went to his truck and brought a small item back in his hand. “I always like to give something to visitors,” he said, holding it out to me. “I make things out of cans and golf balls, but all I have with me today is this little dog. You may not want it…” Oh, my. How could I not receive it with joy? His gesture was one of the sweetest, most beautiful things I’ve experienced in a while. He offered this simple gift from his hands and his heart, making two strangers he may never see again feel very welcomed indeed.

Sam I Am


I’ve been pretty busy with Connecting Memphis and with little Sam🙂


What an honor that LeBonheur Children’s Hospital reposted (on their FB page) the interview with Brendan from Connecting Memphis!


Lift Every Voice


Monday was the MLK Jr. holiday, and I went downtown to the Civil Rights Museum. It was a beautiful day, warmish, sunny, and lots of people were out. I ran across two students I had in class last year and was able to do a number of interviews with people of all ages. All in all, a good day. I haven’t been inside the Museum since the recent renovations, but I plan to before long. Next month, February, the theme for our Words3 Reading at Holy Communion will be “Lift Every Voice.” I’m not sure how I’ll approach that one, but I may do some interviews of people who have been around for a while, recall the days before the Civil Rights Movement, and can speak about the changes that brought about. The older people in Memphis, like older people everywhere, are living libraries.

Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve in Memphis. Cold, wet, and bleak.

But there is hope. The following piece was written by my friend Terry Sanford Smith and posted on his FB page today:

The littlest child
Hidden in a manger still
I sing “Silent Night”

The light of the world
Coming down to bring real joy
Unending love given all
Who will believe it
Historically certain
It is verifiable

Please consider this story
Don’t take others’ word for it
Religious or atheist
You can decide this

Consider all things
Get all the information
Respect your judgment
Listen to your broken heart
Listen to the heart of God

I’m given a mind
A heart, soul and a body
Time to consider
What is true – what is not true
I have chosen to believe

The littlest child
Hidden in a manger
Was the Son of God
I am alive to live it
I am free to share the joy

Death has no power
I have chosen where to stand
A resurrection
Has taken place in my soul
Both now and forever more