2

Thanksgiving 2015

File Nov 25, 3 45 40 PMTomorrow is Thanksgiving. My husband and I will be together this year without any other family. We are both recovering from a cold and plan to have a scaled back meal instead of the annual production that normally accompanies this holiday. So instead of baking pies and making my grandmother’s cranberry salad, I am texting with my daughter who is making it for the first time ever and wants it to be perfect. Perfection on Thanksgiving is not something I ever aspired to. I am sure it will be perfectly delicious!

Someone asked me if I was sad to spend the holiday alone. Well, that’s funny, because I am not alone. I am with the man who has loved me for the past 20 years. No, we won’t have our parents or children or grandchildren or siblings with us, but we are not alone.

I imagine it must be similar to couples who get married and talk about their dreams for a future family over their first Thanksgiving meal together. For us, we will sit and talk about all the wonderful memories we have shared over these 20 years together. For me there is no sadness in knowing the people I love have other people who also love them. And as for my husband and I, well, we still have dreams for our future, too and they will be part of our conversations tomorrow I’m sure.

The memories have been flooding my mind all day. So many Thanksgivings, so many memories and so many blessings. The bottom line is I am SO thankful. Just having a few quiet days to reflect on the life we’ve shared is good for us – especially as we move into the next phase of our life together. Doesn’t mean we do not miss everyone – oh, goodness, how we miss them, but their happiness and their joy is everything to us.

This Thanksgiving the world is in such chaos and it is hard not to get overwhelmed. So many staunch ideas and opinions it is hard to just stay steadfast in your own beliefs sometimes. In a time when our country should be coming together as this crazy-quilt of different ethnicities, we are letting the world tear us apart. The hatred of Americans is all-encompassing – we all fall into that same bucket like it or not. Seems we would be better served to pull together rather than fueling the flames of hatred within our own people. I do not understand it all, but I think I would be insane if I did. How can you understand what is unfolding in front of us?

So, tomorrow, we will start our day with coffee and the traditional Thanksgiving breakfast of sausage balls. It will be a quiet but joyful day. We know we are blessed and we know that even with our own problems, we enjoy so much that so many people only dream of. Remembering that helps keep us balanced in an unbalanced world. And we will give thanks.

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0

Happy Birthday, Mom

Mom’s birthday blog. Take four.

The words are not enough. I do not want to describe my mother to people and tell them how strong she was and how hard she fought for her life. I feel like I should tell the world how wonderful she was and how much I miss her but there are no words to convey the emptiness and the void that have filled my heart for the 42 years she has been gone. It took years for the anger and the loss to subside and for me to be able to forgive myself for the anger I felt at her, at cancer and at God. Our family lost our normal when mom died and losing someone as special as my mother is not something you recover from easily or quickly.

MomMom would be 88 years old today.  88!  Wow, that is so hard to fathom. You see, my mom was in her 40’s when she died so she is always young to me. She will never be an old woman in my eyes and my heart. I close my eyes and see her jet black hair and that spark of mischief she had in her eyes. I see her smile and her laugh as everyone around her fell into her spell. Everyone loved her and growing up, all were welcome in our house. My friends came and went and she loved them all. There was always room at our table and no one was ever turned away.

This is not to say there were not ups and downs – of course there were. But those times are easy to set aside in favor of the love and joy in the every day moments of our lives.

As kids, we played records and danced to Chubby Checker in the living room with our parents. I can see Mom doing the twist and the jitterbug just like it was yesterday. I see her resting her chin across Dad’s shoulder and telling us that was how beatniks danced. We sang songs and played games on all our road trips. She always carried round pink mints in her purse on those long trips between Ohio and Virginia. What I took for granted I now know is something that many people never had. We were loved and we learned to love in return.

After Mom was diagnosed with cancer, money was tight. One year, I was invited to a Valentine Sweetheart dance. I was so excited to go and chatted about it nonstop for weeks. One Saturday, Mom asked me to run an errand with her. We got in the car and drove to a discount store (similar to K-Mart) where Mom told me to pick out a dress for the dance. I found a red and white peasant topped dress. It was simple and made of inexpensive fabric, but it was pretty and it was new and Mom made sure I got it. I think back and believe the dress cost $10 but it might as well have cost $200. It meant the world to me.

When I was in high school, Mom made sure I took drivers training although I did not get my license until years later. I was the kid that was terrified of driving and she had to force me to drive when I finally got my learner’s permit. I think she knew how important independence was and that was something she wanted for all her children.

While in the Air Force, I came home to fly to Virginia with Mom. She paid to upgrade my flight to first class (my first first-class trip ever – back then it didn’t cost that much). It made her feel so good that we could have a special moment together and relax and talk. I don’t remember much of anything about the flight but I remember being with Mom and how happy she was and that was all that mattered.

MomUniformMy biggest regret is that I did not have time with my mother as an adult woman. I missed the chance to talk to her about adult problems and just have every day conversations between a mother and her daughter. We did have a lot of conversations when I was in high school about some very deep and meaningful things, but she was busy fighting for her life and I was trying to just get by knowing my mother would not be there much longer. So many times I wanted to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hi, Mom.’ To have her with me when my children were born or to hear her read them the same poems she read to us would have been so amazing. And then to imagine her holding her great-grandchildren is more than I ever dreamed of.

Mom would be proud of the way her children stayed close. Even with distance and marriages and life problems we each experienced, we were always family. We came from a woman who taught us how to love and the importance of always being there.

Mom, a lot has changed since you were here with us but one thing has not. You are loved and you are missed more than you may have ever realized possible. Sometimes it’s a song or a memory or an ornament placed on the Christmas tree that brings me to my knees. But I get up. I remember how you fought and I remember how much you loved us all. For that, I am forever grateful.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I love and I miss you SO very much.

0

NaNoWriMo and a Cast of Characters

IMG951291November 1st is fast approaching. That crazy time every year when I try to architect 50,000 words toward writing a novel. I can honestly say that I am 100% successful in starting the process. I can also say the completion of my goal is a bit more on the dismal side. I could moan and groan about that, but the truth is, I’m okay with the results. As I look over the challenges our family has faced over the last 10 years, I am amazed any of us are still able to speak in complete sentences.

My focus today is a little preparation before the writing starts. I don’t do character development, nor do I create plot lines. I fly by the seat of my pants. That works for me. The characters live fully within my head and I take them everywhere I go. They have coffee with me, sometimes they take my side in arguments and sometimes they laugh at me in my most clumsy moments. That’s how I know they are real and relatable.

I will say I need to get into the mindset of writing. I don’t use a lot of flourish, but I call on memories to remind me of the feeling of a moment. It’s hard to explain so I decided today I would write a little about some of those memories and get the creative juices flowing.

I have a memory that has been in my mind for weeks now of my grandmother. She was a strong woman and when I close my eyes, I see her vividly. I remember long ago I was on a plane and I stared constantly at the woman sitting on the aisle one row in front of me. She looked just like Granny, just a little younger. I found myself wanting to talk to her, to tap her on the shoulder, to have a moment with her. She was quiet and reserved, but her face, her stature, her smile. It was crippling.

My memory:

She sat in a rocking chair crafted by my grandfather, but it wasn’t rocking. It was pulled forward, rockers mid-air, balanced by her bare feet in front of the old heating register by the window. Wisps of gray hair escaped the bun and framed her face. Her glasses magnified the intensity in her eyes. I watched her grimace and blink as she read which made me realize some sort of conflict must be at hand. I had seen the same trait in my own mother so many times as she immersed herself in stories that kept the world at bay. These were the women who worked hard to make a small space in this world for me and for my life to come. I felt a great sense of admiration balanced with a healthy dose of caution because in some ways I slightly feared the woman I loved so much. I guess it was strength she exhibited for I had never seen her cry. She came close once when she told she had been accused of killing her own mother by controlling the dosage of morphine required to ease her pain. We never spoke of it again, but as I looked at her now I knew I saw her differently than most people. And for that, I was glad.

My writing calls upon those strong tactile memories. The small details that invoke a mood or a smell or a memory. Close your eyes. See someone. Now bring them into focus. All of your experiences with that person create what you see – often years of experiences that craft a very simple, fleeting moment.

In 4 days I will sit at a keyboard and attempt to write. I do not know what story will have formed in my mind by then, but I will sit and write and create something magical. Even if the only person who ever reads it is me.

For all my fellow writers – good luck. Drink lots of coffee and live fully with your characters. They will talk to you and may even try to distract your muse. Play along and remember, they aren’t in control – you are.

See you on the flip side.

3

I Will Not Always Be Here

 photo of roses and candyToday I sit between Mother’s Day and my birthday.  I suppose it could be the resting place between two pinnacles on the roller coaster of life. One day filled with love and acknowledgement from your children and the other coming face to face with how fast life is passing. 

Age is a funny thing. You go along and your mind’s eye still sees you as the same core being. Mentally you are the same. Spiritually, you may have grown within your core values, but essentially the same. Still young at heart – you are, after all, the same person you have always been. Then you catch your reflection in the mirror and wonder about the face that returns your stare.

I tease my daughter that I have ‘chicken neck’. It is true, though, and thus the slow adjustment to the new you begins. How do I ease into the new me?

So many things have changed inside me since I started my genealogy work. I have become more aware of how precious life is and more aware of how much easier our life is than it was for our ancestors. Still, we find so much to complain about. 

I started this blog by saying I will not always be here. It is the truth we do not face when we are young, but it is the truth that motivates us to lead a simpler life as we age. Things become less important and people become the most important. We are able to feel the effects of anxiety much faster and self-correct our path.

  As I write this I am sitting in the auto mechanic’s waiting room. The news has been on the TV for two and a half hours. I notice the rhythm of my breathing change as I am being incited to into an environment of fear. It is ok to turn off technology. There is no requirement to watch the negative news stream constantly. Anxiety comes when we are overwhelmed with situations out of our control. I will not always be here, so how do I want to spend my life?

I want the people I love to know it!  I want to laugh and talk and reminisce and experience joy. I want to breathe easily, hold babies and experience endless sunsets. I want to support causes that make a difference. 

Age is such a state of mind. The lady sitting beside me the waiting room is having her oil changed before she leaves on a trip. She easily talks about being 87 and evaluating whether it was time to buy a new car. Perspective.

“I may not always be here.” So what? It is the truth that keeps us on an equal life-playing field with everyone else. We are promised nothing, yet have EVERYTHING available to us. 

I will not always be here, but while I am here, I get to choose. And I choose happiness. I hope you do, too.

 happiness photo 

9

Hanging Out With Dead Relatives

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, so buckle up – it’s going to be a long one! Grab yourself a cup of tea – go ahead, I’ll wait.

Ready?

For the last six weeks or so, I have been doing some research on our family history. This effort requires a little background. I come from a family of story tellers. Our stories have been told and re-told and passed down through generations. Even with such a rich oral history, some stories are never told and some are meaningful to some and less meaningful to others. My sister, Rosie, was an avid family researcher. There was no stone left unturned when trying to uncover the history of some of our lost family members. She ALWAYS wanted to talk about this, and at the time, stupidly – I just was not interested. When Rosie passed away, it left a big hole in my heart and all the work she had TRIED to share with me, I had casually dismissed.

MomandDad

Mom and Dad on Their Wedding Day

Let’s get this straight. I could care less if I am related to anyone important. It’s cool because they made an amazing contribution – often to the very foundation of our country. What I have come to appreciate more are the generations upon generations of people who came before them. People who were hardworking, tired but dedicated individuals who made this ‘important’ life possible. Those are the people who really interest me.

My great-grandfather on my paternal grandmother’s side disappeared. We know our great-grandmother raised her children alone after her husband was ‘run out of town on a rail’….a horrible thing, if true. Google it and you will see the references. Finding him was the bane of Rosie’s existence. She died without finding him so I have taken on her quest. I do not have her reference material so I started from the ground up. Now let me say this is the way to do it. You learn about your family and where you come from and how much they sacrificed. It is not always easy – there are ‘brickwalls’ as they are known in genealogy circles. Frustrating places where your history just seems to STOP. That’s when the footwork begins.

My Step-daughter and I have been working together to try to find something out about her paternal great-grandmother, Hattie. We know from the oral history in the family that she died during or around childbirth. Records were not kept on births, deaths or marriages in South Carolina until 1915 which was after she passed away. Hattie just disappeared and her son (my husband’s father) was given up for adoption and the records to this day are sealed. Luckily, the oral history has been rich enough that we know the names of the birth parents and siblings as well as the adoptive parents. But there are several ‘brickwalls’ here, as well.

You will discover how difficult it is to trace women in your background as names changed and when you discover older records did not include the names of spouses or children. I am a mother-in-law and a step-mother and a step-grandmother – all labels I dislike but I understand the need for them. I am never about usurping someone else’s name, title or position. I am only about loving who I love and they are all dear to me. The truth about our history is that when you fill this position, you will often drop off of family records because you are really not part of the family per se. I understand this logically, because I’ve done it myself. It’s about having a manageable family tree. I can only hope that the people I love in this life will remember that I loved them and the titles will be meaningless.

My journey has taken me to places I never imagined and I have learned so much about the difficult lives our ancestors lived. Hattie, for example, worked in the cotton mills as a child. I have read through wills and seen the horror of men, women and children who were slaves in this country passed down as property. This makes me so overwhelmingly sad. There are registries of forced sterilization in this country. People were sterilized because of eugenics, therapeutics, or criminality. It is but a small piece of the horrible history in our country. Mental patients, unmarried women who became pregnant, certain ethnic groups, and people who were incarcerated were sterilized to control the norm.

Granny and Granddaddy Swift

Granny and Granddaddy Swift

There are also wonderful benefits of research – you will discover a wealth of information and history. You have the opportunity to read old original documents, even transcribing them so they will be available to others digitally. You will learn things about your family and yourself that you did not know. You will refresh your knowledge on history as you travel down little rabbit holes that really have nothing to do with your research. That is the joy of genealogy. You may discover where a family name comes from or may understand why you seem to have an inherent interest in something. Most of all, you will learn how inter-connected we all are – and that’s a valuable lesson.

The overwhelming thing for me is coming to an understanding of just how many people have traveled before us and how relatively new our country and our history is. It can awaken your own sense of mortality when you read death certificates and see how many people have come and gone. This is why a sense of family and belonging is so important. You live through the stories that will hopefully live long after you do. I was startled one day when my cousin Garry, who is planning our family reunion, posted a quote that made me stop dead in my tracks:

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
― Banksy

Mam-Maw and Grand-Paw Short

Mam-Maw and Grand-Paw Short

I can honestly say I am now speaking names of people in our respective families that I never knew before I started down this path. In some small way, their name is still being spoken so they are still very much alive. I found a photograph of my great-grandfather that I had never seen. I found the Grindstaffs – Granny always told me the moles and freckles I had were from the Grindstaff in me. Never understood it fully until now.

I have a fuzzy memory of my grandfather eluding to some horse thieves in our family and I would love to see that documented. All the things and all the places and all the people who came before me created this life I enjoy today. Our family – from my grandparents to my grandchildren – is who we are because they were.

I hope you will be inspired to document something about your life. Record your names and your faces and your voices. Sometime, somewhere someone may be looking for you and discovering exactly who you were will give them insight to their life that they could never have achieved otherwise. I want my family to know their history and speak the family names. In this way, those who worked so hard to make this life possible will not be forgotten.

I’ve hung out with my dead relatives so much I sometimes dream about them. Maybe they are trying to tell me something.

 

4

The Lies Women Tell

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but felt it was important to have my niece and nephew read it before I put it online. I love them both for they are extensions of my sister. I dedicate this blog to them and the love I hold in my heart for them. Thank you for letting me express these thoughts of your Mom. You mean the world to me.

dandelionIt has been such a long time since I have written here. I guess it’s because I write for a living now and it makes writing for pleasure a little more difficult. Finding the right time and the right temperament and a smidge of creativity is a concoction I have not been able to muster for a while. I am inspired to write to tonight because of a movie we watched last night. I had it earmarked knowing it would remind me of my sister, Rosie, but I had no idea just how much it would impact me.

A little history is in order – my sister passed away several years ago.  I want the world to know I am not telling tales out of school. Rosie was the most honest and upfront person about her life as anyone I have ever known. The subject that follows is one we discussed many times and one that she discussed with her children.

When I was in high school, my parents told me my sister was pregnant. She was not married and in 1970 you would think having a child out-of-wedlock would not have the gravity that it did in the 1940’s and 1950’s and even into the 1960’s. Perhaps in my family it did.

I was not privy to the conversations between my sister and my parents; all I know is that my sister ‘went away’ to have her baby. She was fortunate I guess in that she lived with our sister, but I know the emotions took a toll on both of them. This blog is not about the details of that time, but more the outcome. Rosie gave her baby up for adoption. I would not know until years later just how that decision impacted her life.

Fast forward many years. We had all married, had children and even grandchildren. We were a long way from those years as very young women.

I went to a summer photography conference at Duke University. One evening they had a reading by a woman who had written a book: Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler. Ann was an adoptee who did not meet her biological mother until she was 56 years old. The room was packed with people who came to listen. On the small stage sat Ann and three women whose stories were in Ann’s book. They would read their own stories from the book that night. There was not a dry eye in the house. After the readings, the session was opened to questions from the audience.

It was not until that moment that I realized the audience was filled with young people in search of their birth parents. In search of their history and looking for answers. Were they not good enough? Were they unlovable? Why did my mother give me away? Most had loving adoptive parents who supported their desire to look for their birth mother. There were also women in the audience who were forced to give their children away and were searching for their child. Were they hated? Would they understand? Did they know they had no choice? There were tears and anger and hurt. Barbs were thrown and hugs were given. It was a difficult night for everyone.

I left that session with an understanding I never had before. These young women had their civil rights violated. They were forced to sign legal documents without representation or without any knowledge of what they were signing. It is a sad statement of our society. They felt shame and all were told to just ‘put it behind you and move on’. They would be forever changed. The young fathers were rarely, if ever, involved or held accountable. For boys, sex was a right of passage. For many women, that first sexual encounter would change their very being.

Rosie’s situation was different in some ways. I know she had an attorney, but I am not sure she understood fully what it would mean to give this child up for adoption. Regardless of the circumstances or her age or the year or the surroundings, my sister could have been on that stage. So much of her story was similar and it hurt to realize how hard it must have been for her.

For the children, many never found their biological mother because so many records were closed. Such was the case for my sister. Rosie had a baby boy. He was born in Charleston, SC. From all the stories we were told, he was adopted by a minister and his wife – or someone to do with the church.

After the reading, I called Rosie and we talked. I am ashamed to say it was the first time she and I had ever sat and talked about what happened to her. This is part of the fallout from secrets. Everyone is expected to keep them. You don’t talk about it. You just move on. Did any of us realize what we were asking of her? I don’t think any of us had any idea. Rosie read the book and told me it was the first time she had realized just how many young women went through similar circumstances.

Rosie reached out several times to try to find her son to no avail. The doctor was long retired, the judge could not be found. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she wanted to put her information on a registry should her son ever need to find out anything about his medical history. Through the years I think she did come to terms with the fact that she would never know her son and yes, she died without ever meeting him. I can only imagine the questions and heartache she felt over the years wondering if she had indeed given him a better life. She would never get those answers and he would never get to know his biological mother.

Last night we watched Philomena. If you do not know anything about the movie, it is about an elderly woman in Ireland who kept the secret of her pregnancy and the forced adoption of her son for over 50 years. I will not discuss the movie or the outcome, because it is a movie everyone should see. For me, it just made me think of Rosie and it made me sad all over again.

I think it is time for women to stop keeping secrets. Sexual or physical abuse, violation of civil rights, rape, pregnancy, abortion, divorce, multiple marriages – no matter the issue, secrets are unhealthy. I once read that secrets are just little lies. We need to stop lying to ourselves, to our families, to society. As a woman, I hope that I can always be there for anyone who has a secret that is a burden on their heart.

Rosie, I miss you so much. Each day you cross my mind and each day I wish you were here. I miss our talks and your laughter and your edge. I miss our trips to the cabin and all that we learned about each other.

Today I am wondering if I should reach out and try to find my nephew. I wonder what you would say? Would you ask me to try or would you ask me to let him be? I wish I knew.

2

Little Girl, Where Are You?

IMAG2858I am a creature of habit. I generally maintain the same routine and take the same route to places I frequently visit. On my route to the grocery store, I fell in love with the adventures of a little girl whom I would never know. I fell in love with her because even passing by her in a moving car I could feel her energy and her spirit.

This charming little spirit lived in a small house in one of the older neighborhoods in my town. Her house was in need of a new coat of paint and the chain-link fence was wavy in appearance where I’m sure at one time it stood rigid and straight. At the front corner of the fence, there was a small tree – leggy from lack of pruning. At the height of its bloom, the leaf spread was still sparse. Between the small tree and the corner of the fence, there were two old chairs, worn from too much sun and not enough attention. As I describe it here, it sounds a little dismal, but this little girl made it anything but that!

If I had occasion to go to the grocery store in the late afternoon, I always saw her. Most days she had a friend and it was obvious the two chairs between the spindly tree and the wavering fence were transformed into a very special place. I could see their shoulders rise as they covered their giggling faces with their tiny hands. They whispered what I can only imagine were amazing secrets into each other’s ears. I caught them toasting each other with imaginary cups and bowing like the princesses they most obviously were.

Today I drove by and noticed the house was changed. The tree was gone and so was the delight of a special secret hideaway.  No old chairs tucked away behind barren branches. Contractor’s trucks were parked there while they painted the exterior. The fence was still standing but I am sure it won’t be there long. I realized at that moment it had been some time since I had seen ‘my little girl’.

I’m sure many people will say how ‘wonderful’ the house looks. It will be transformed from something special to something more ordinary – more cookie cutter. I worry that the house with the special secret place has become the latest victim of gentrification. I hope not, but I suspect so. I want to believe that the little girl with the imagination capable of drawing passing strangers into its force field has found a new and better magical place. I miss her. I was her a long, long time ago….

As I drove home, I was affronted once again by the huge mega-house being built on the lot beside our house. The trees are gone – the places where the hawks stood watch. The house so large that it consumed a double-lot with little green space remaining. The house with the four car garage and cinderblock walls. I wonder what the runoff will be like when hurricane season arrives?

Where are you, little girl? Where did you go?

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
By Emily Dickinson

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us -don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!