The Ones Who Show Up

The Ones Who Show Up

As a society we’re often drawn to bigness. Philanthropy is equated to charitable giving in the millions. Grand gestures get attention. But what would we do without the small gestures? All that magnanimity we hail from people who can easily afford it would be meaningless without the little deeds of daily kindness, sacrifice, and responsibility from just plain folks. I refer to:

* the neighbor who brings groceries to the shut-in

* the gardener who grows a little extra to donate to homeless shelters

* the young woman who weekly organizes her mother-in-law’s medications

* the busy teacher who takes a few sacred moments to send a note of encouragement to a former student

* the friend who brings cookies and laughter to her terminally ill neighbor

* the co-worker who offers a much-needed compliment to a beleaguered colleague

* the harried nurse who still finds time to bring a bookmark to a patient who reads

* the child who writes chatty letters to her lonely grandparents

* the boys who shovel the snow-covered walk of someone recuperating from surgery

*the passerby who comes to the rescue of a drowning chipmunk

* the writer who sends nostalgic essays to aging relatives

* the man who cares for an acquaintance’s pets when she’s injured and hospitalized

* the many who give to a stranger’s health-related social media campaign, even when their own resources are scant

* the shopper who hands a dollar to the one in front whose bill was a bit bigger than his pocketbook

* the one who smiles at a stranger

* the young one, tired from a long day of grueling manual labor, who nevertheless offers his seat to the older one

* the teens who bring homemade goody boxes to residents of the nearby nursing home

* the foreign visitor who chases you down to return a dropped scarf in the parking lot

* the kid who carries an injured classmate’s books

* the retailer who takes precious time off from work to visit a stranger in prison

* the club members who de-litter a section of highway

* the customer who holds the door for a daughter and her wheelchair-bound father

* the stranger who catches a runaway shopping cart

* and the building custodians and sanitation workers, the electric line workers and snowplow drivers, the bedpan emptiers and street sweepers who do the dirty work at all hours of the day and night to make getting through each day easier for the rest of us.

Oh, that we would glorify these, the ones who show up, the ones who make a profound difference by changing not the world but what is three feet around them.

Resilience and Grace

She never asked to be a widow—hoped not to be. Yet, she fully expected it. She was up on gender and life expectancies, so she knew the odds were strong that she’d outlive him by some years.

It wasn’t that she was happy about it, but I wanted to stamp my feet every time Mother made some comment about living longer than Dad. To me, it felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one I didn’t want to think about. But Mother was simply being realistic.

And though she went straight from her parents’ home to sixty years with him, she somehow knew how to survive on her own when at eighty-one she found herself alone for the very first time in her life. They’d been married for sixty years.

A couple of years later when she broke her hip and had to spend more than two days in a hospital bed awaiting surgery, she found the tiniest movement excruciating. Yet, she was loath to press her buzzer regardless of her need—didn’t want to bother anyone. She couldn’t help emitting a groan, though a tiny and apologetic one, when it was time to change the sheets or reposition her. But instead of complaining and bemoaning her constant pain, she made it her purpose to bring laughter to the nurses, aides, and others who looked after her. One nurse aide regularly took refuge in Mother’s room because it was such a pleasant and safe place to be.

My mom has always looked life straight in the face and taken it on wholeheartedly. Tears are so rare I can count the times I’ve seen them on one hand and still have a finger left over. The first was when I was six years old; the last more than fifty years later when Dad’s ashes were delivered to her. Instead of focusing on what’s sad, she looks for things that bring delight—a sunset, a newly discovered flower, a snowfall. I remember her saying she couldn’t imagine anyone being unhappy—sad, occasionally, but not unhappy.

The last thing she ever wanted to do was leave her home for assisted living, but once the decision was made she never complained, never looked back. Again, she began looking around her to see which worker needed a smile or a word of encouragement. (Needless to say, she’s a staff favorite.)

Once, on the phone from her one-room confines, she said to me, “I’ll bet there aren’t many ninety-two year-olds as lucky as I am,” reveling in the birds at her feeder, her books, her crossword puzzles, the cats who frequent her room, and memories of her family and happy marriage. She continues to offer similar sentiments two years later. If she’s ever had a regret, I don’t know about it.

Her job as a mother is never-ending. Though in many ways over the last few years our roles have reversed, she’s still teaching me, especially in the art of aging well and with joy. May I learn her lessons well.

 

Dear Lula

My grandmother, Lula Smith Coats,  11/25/1894-4/14/1942

(I was recently challenged to issue a dinner invitation to one of my ancestors. I chose my paternal grandmother, who died four years before my birth.)

Dear Lula, (you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?)

Will you please join me for dinner on Saturday evening? There’s so much I want to ask you. You’re the grandmother I never got to meet, having died just after my parents met. As a child, I didn’t know enough to ask about you, and once I had the good sense to get interested, some of the details had begun to fade from the memories of your children.

I want to know what it was like raising seven boys. They talked about some of their mischief, but I’ll bet they left out a few juicy details. I’d love to hear their mom’s perspective. You probably have stories of precious moments with each of them, too. I’d like to hear them. What made you proudest of them? (And did you secretly long for a daughter? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have some female companionship in that household! Did you dote on nieces? Seek feminine refuge with your sisters?)

Would you describe your typical day—if there was such a thing? I know you washed clothes in a pot over an outdoor fire and that between preparing breakfast, dinner, and supper you worked in the fields along with the rest of the family. And that you cleaned, ironed, made everyone’s clothes. What other chores filled your days? Did you ever have a moment to yourself?

What were your favorite activities? Daddy told me you gardened, played the piano, sang, and told stories. Were there more? What did you love to do above all else?

What would you have said and done with the twenty-two grandchildren you never got to know? Could you ever have imagined that after having seven sons, the first five grands would be girls—and that of the first eight grandchildren, seven would be girls? Would you have sewed up some frilly dresses for us? Would you have oohed and cooed over us? What advice would you have given us as we grew up?

And what about your experiences as matron at the Poor House? I never heard much about that. It must have been quite the experience raising those boys while overseeing all the domestic chores of the County Home when its seams were bursting during the Great Depression. Did you ever worry about the boys being exposed to the TB patients? To their being around convicts assigned to work on the farm? To their being around so much sickness and dying? Or did you even have time to think about it while you were overseeing the cooking, housekeeping, laundry, medications, clothing and personal needs, and more? Maybe you were just glad your boys had a roof over their heads during those tough years.

You were twenty-five, mother of four children, and pregnant with your fifth when our country finally recognized that women have an inherent right to vote. Did you take advantage of it? Your husband and father were on opposite political sides, almost rabidly so. Where did you fall? Did you ever share your political leanings with either or both of them or did you keep quiet about the whole thing? What was it like, in general, to be a woman in rural North Carolina in the early twentieth century? Would you have supported my feminist activism in the second half of the century?

I want to know about your strokes and your migraines, too. I used to suffer from migraines, too, so I have an inkling how you must have felt. But by my time, they’d at least discovered some medications that helped a little. It must have been devastating being in such pain and cooped up in a dark room so much of the time while life was swirling outside your door. Is it true that the doctor bled you when your blood pressure spiked? Did he use leeches? They say that after your first stroke, you were bedridden for a year or two and had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Is that right? What got you through those days and nights? Were your sons attentive to your needs? When you were up to it, did they fill you in on their days? Did they confide their fears and dreams?

And the little things—what was your favorite color? Your favorite song? Your favorite radio program? Did you have a favorite food? Book? Movie? Holiday? What were your pet peeves? Most dreaded chore?

Then there’s Granddaddy. The story goes that you were his seventh-grade teacher and that’s when you met. You married as soon as the school year was over. (He was old for a seventh-grader.) Is that the way it all happened? How did your romance evolve? What kind of student was he? Where was the school? I understand you only taught that one year. Did you give up a longed-for career to marry and start a family or was teaching simply the most logical job available to a young, single woman in those days?

You see, I have so many questions! Please come early. I’ll invite all the cousins and we’ll have a good old-fashioned pajama party catching up on each other’s lives all night long. You’d better believe I’ll be recording the whole thing, too. I can’t wait!

With love and anticipation,

Your (4th) granddaughter Carole

Mortality

January 27, 2011:

My cousin died today.

And so it begins. I’d already found myself wondering who among the twenty-two of us would be first. Figured it would be one us older ones. Hoped it wouldn’t be me.

Instead, it was one of the younger set—ten years my junior. Cancer’s what got him: unpredictable, ugly, indiscriminate disease. You never know about life’s twists and turns, how it will all end.  

Cousins 

 

March 20, 2016:

It’s happened again. This time on my mother’s side of the family. This time it was one of us older ones. Not oldest me but the next in line.

Life feels more precarious than it did yesterday. We’re all, we cousins, entering the danger zone, that time in life when a generation ago death was the norm at the age we are today. Now, we think we’re still too young. Clearly we’re not.

They say it’s when your last parent dies that you feel most vulnerable, when mortality becomes vividly real. But I’m not so sure. Cousins—we’re the same generation. We were toddlers together. We grew up together. We see ourselves in each other’s faces.

When it’s one of us, a different kind of light goes out.

Gender Bender (for Danielle)

What if humans . . .
were synchronous hermaphrodites
like earthworms
who, when two mate,
both become impregnated?

Now, that’s equality!

Or the banana slug,
able to mate with itself alone?
Uniparental reproduction
is what it’s called.

As much fun as with a partner?
More?
Simpler, for sure—
certain of being in the mood.

What if humans . . .
were parthenogenic
like the rock lizard?
Some turkeys do it, too—
going it alone
reproducing without fertilization,
making maleness irrelevant
for species survival,
making maleness obsolete?

If men were extraneous,
would we still
keep them around
just for the fun of it?

What if humans . . .
were like the blanket octopus,
she a hundred times his size
and he, wanting to mate,
breaks off his penis
and gives it to her
for keeps?

The ultimate romantic gesture?

What if humans . . .
were like seahorses
where the male
is the one
who gives birth?

Would we have any reproductive laws?

What if humans . . .
were like anemonefish
practicing dominance hierarchy?
Where the largest female rules
and upon her death
the favored male
gendermorphs to take her place,

where all develop
first as male; then mature
to female.

How would social conventions change?

What if humans . . .
were bidirectional
like hawkfish
able to change gender
at will
and back again
and again?

What would we learn
when we’ve lived both sides?
Where would we hang
our biases?

What if?

(First published in Branches Literary Journal in a slightly different form, 2017)

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

For Valentine’s Day

John Keats wrote it as the opening line in his poem, Endymion. If you’re like me, you read Keats, along with his fellow second-generation British poets, Shelley and Byron, in your senior high school English class. How I loved them.

At sixteen, I was primed for their romanticism—the imagery, the sensuousness, the idealism, the pensiveness. I remember spending rainy days under one of our massive pecan trees (in the midst of thunderstorms, no less) mulling over their poetry. Their young deaths (Byron at thirty-six, Shelley at twenty-nine, and Keats at the tragically youthful age of twenty-five) added an extra touch of melancholy to my teen moods.

Endymion’s opening lines go like this:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

This verse conjures up something uniquely mine, but I’ll bet it invokes something uniquely yours, too. What follows came to me one day when, as usual, I was first to wake. As I lay in the quiet of early morning, I took a long look at the Gnome‘s face, oblivious and peaceful in sleep.

* * *

At twenty, the only “wrinkles” on his face were the crinkly corners of his always smiling eyes. At twenty, he had a full head of dark blond hair. At twenty, his body was taut and tanned.

The skin is looser now, and the golden hair that covered the top of his head is gone, replaced by a full beard of gray on his face. The wrinkles have spread both upward and downward.

I try to see him dispassionately, as a stranger might. But I cannot. When I contemplate his sleeping form, I only see the whole of him across all the years of knowing him. What I see is the kindness, the love, the mischievous curve of his lips.

The crinkles are still there, too, framing the ever-present dancing smile that lives in his eyes.

And suddenly he is twenty again, but with the added dimensions of experience, of a  shared life together, of wisdom. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.