In a few more months, we’ll be welcoming Sam’s little sister 🙂
I am writing you from a few decades in the future. At the moment, you’re suffering through middle school, that wretched armpit of life that marks the lowest point in your existence thus far. Girl, I feel for you. Right now you think you’re a freak of nature. I know. For one thing, you’re beginning to notice that, unlike a number of your female classmates, your hair is never NEVER going to be straight and shiny and silky. No matter how you wrangle that curling iron and no matter how carefully you follow the instructions in Tiger Beat magazine, you are NOT going to look like Marsha Brady. Also—bad news—Your nose is WAY too big. Such an obvious defect gives you no end of grief, thanks to that little two-faced heifer next door who makes it her business to point out such things. Your dad says you have bird legs too, but really, that’s not altogether as bad as it sounds. One day when you’re fifty and the possessor of thunder thighs, you’ll look back on them with fondness. Trust me on that.
Personality-wise: You, girl, are a nerd extraordinaire. You can lose yourself for hours in a good book. You like drawing, poetry, horses, inventions, and mysteries. You enjoy real friends, but you also still like imaginary companions: whole troops of people and family configurations you cut out of the Sears catalog. I get that. Later on, when you start to write stories, you’ll pull bucketfuls from that wellspring of imagination.
By the way, in case you haven’t figured it out yet: you’re never going to be a cheerleader either. I know. That’s a girl’s fondest dream; it’s the golden ticket to success and popularity, that most coveted prize of the teenage kingdom. The cherry atop the ice cream sundae of life. But no. You couldn’t do a handspring or turn a cartwheel if God himself ordered you to; you have zero coordination. It’s exhausting to try to look that perky and bubbly all the time too, especially when you’re in kind of a low-grade funk most of the time. And you’re not really fond of yelling, so no matter how much you envy those cute little skirts and saddle oxfords, it is not happening.
So that’s middle school. Is high school any better, you wonder? Actually, not that much. You contribute to the school’s literary magazine, cute boys do NOT notice you except to confide in you about their girlfriends, which is of course thrilling on no level whatsoever. The only classes you really like are Art and English, you write for the school newspaper, and you proofread your homework before you turn it in—who does that? And you’re in the band, for goodness sake. Geek with a capital G.
You never attend the parties your classmates throw when their parents are out of town because your father does not bear the sword in vain. So, even though you have a social life, it pretty well revolves around the skating rink and church socials. How’s that for a wild old time?
So. Contrary to what adults with bad memories may be telling you, these are—thank-you-Jesus—NOT generally the best years of a person’s life. Now, they’re the best years of SOME people’s lives. You know that boy you’re dying to go out with, the one with the smoldering dark eyes and the swagger, who plays drums in a rock group and so very coolly smokes joints out behind the school every morning before first period? The one whose letter jacket practically swallows his chesty little majorette girlfriend? Um, hmm. Well, high school IS actually the pinnacle of HIS life. Give him a few years. He’ll be wearing an open-collared shirt with a gold chain around his neck and sidling up to women in bars with HIS greasy self. You can thank me later.
If you ever get out of high school—and you can and you will—you’ll find your tribe. You’re going to meet other people who love the Beatles and James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Vivaldi, and Bob Dylan. Who love Andrew Wyeth and Van Gogh. Who can read a line from Mary Oliver or Edna St. Vincent Millay and come away with tears in their eyes. In whose bookshelves you find the familiar works of C.S. Lewis and Anne Lamott. Who have read The Little Prince and Tuck Everlasting a dozen times, just as you have. Who watch The Trip to Bountiful and Fly Away Home and cry every time that 13-year-old girl guides her flock of geese to the wetlands of South Carolina and lands her little plane. You’ll find them. You’ll find your people. No matter how alien the world feels to you now, they are there, and you will find each other. That spark of recognition? It tells you you are home.
So for now, I have to say this one last thing: It’s no good trying to be someone you’re not. Go ahead and make a stab at it if you want. I don’t suppose it will hurt anything. You might even pick up a few useful skills here and there. But don’t forget to look in the mirror and appreciate the wonder I’m telling you that you are right now. Love that nose, girl. It’s from your father’s Native American heritage a few generations back. Embrace your wavy, curly hair—again, inherited from your dad—or at least tolerate it—because one day when everybody else is getting perms, you’re gonna save a ton of money. And admire your bird legs. Step back, examine them in a full-length mirror, and twirl around on them. I can’t tell you where THEY came from though; there’s not a skinny relative on any branch of your family tree, so just be grateful.
Middle school? High school? Meh! So you don’t have a boyfriend or a prom date and you’re not on the Homecoming Court? Don’t worry. You’ll wear your own brand of tiara someday, I promise you. You’ll wear it.
With all my love,
Your Future Self
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 with Dad before Junior Prom (image courtesy of Brianna)
[Inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From]
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.
I’ve been pretty busy with Connecting Memphis and with little Sam 🙂