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.

 

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Some occupations will get you daily thanks for doing a good job. Many more rarely result in expressions of appreciation. Sanitation workers, for instance. Custodians. Government professionals who collect taxes, process unemployment benefits, and so on.

Teachers rarely get a “Thank you” from their students, either. And if they do, it may be years later. It’s hard to stay positive, to believe you’re accomplishing something important when it’s not acknowledged by the very people on whom you focus your professional passion.

But I’m here to tell you that your influence spreads like ripples in a pond when skipping stones. Whether it’s positive or negative. Whether it’s part of your job or a kindness to a stranger. It may be something truly magnanimous or seemingly insignificant. And it may make a difference in ways you’d never imagine. Let me give you some random (and in no way equal) real-life examples.

The first is a story about Fred. Fred came into our family by marriage to a cousin more than forty years ago. In all that time, I’d never met him. But I heard a lot about him over the years from my mom. She’d heard about him from her sister, his mother-in-law. Sometimes, she was in his presence and picked up a bit of his philosophy in person. A long time ago, she shared a tidbit with me. Fred held a strong position on the use of brand names as generic, she said. You know, the way people used to refer to all refrigerators as Frigidaires. Unless you’re of a certain age, you may not remember that example, but what about Kleenex for tissue?

It’s a real marketing coup when a brand becomes so iconic that it becomes part of the lexicon—you want a cola type soda and without thinking you ask  for a Coke, you’ll get a Coke instead of a Pepsi or an RC.

It’s not so great, though, if you’re a small business owner like Fred was. It’s hard enough to break into the public’s attention without having a built-in bias all because some multi-national corporation managed to hire a particularly clever PR person. Small businesses need a fair shot. So Fred thought people should say “tissue” or “cola” or “refrigerator.” Period.

Like I said, I’d never met the guy, but I took that lesson to heart. It made sense to me. Overnight, I changed my vocabulary. Never again did I use the word Kleenex unless I was talking specifically about that brand of tissue. I began asking  for “diet soda” in restaurants, which caused me no end of grief. Almost inevitably, my request got this response from the waitstaff: “Is diet Coke (or whatever brand they happened to sell) okay?” They just didn’t get it. But I persisted. When I had business lunches with colleagues, they learned to anticipate the scene and started chuckling at me before the word cola was out of my mouth. They thought I should just give up and go with the flow.

I finally met Fred. Thought I’d tell him how much he’d influenced me even though we’d never before laid eyes on each other. His response was a surprised, “I said that?”. It took his wife, her mother, and my mother simultaneously exclaiming things like, “You sure did,” or “Yes, there was a time . . . ”.

I thought it was hilarious. Decades ago, Fred expressed an opinion. Over the years, his memory of that principle dimmed to the point of nothingness. But someone—me—heard the message loud and clear (even though second-hand). And I not only put it into practice but passed on the sentiment with a kind of missionary zeal.

* * *

Kirk is a friend from way back in college days. After graduation, our families lived in the same town and socialized regularly. Then his family moved to another state. Fate brought us together sporadically and rarely after that. About five years ago, our paths crossed again. It had been more than thirty years since we’d last spent time together. Kirk told the Gnome and me that our names had come up in a sermon he’d recently preached. It had something to do with what he remembered as all our furniture-building back when we were newlyweds—the creativity, necessity mothering invention, that sort of thing.

The Gnome and I looked at each other in bewilderment. We’d sold weaving and macramé items at craft fairs and street festivals for a time in those days, but furniture-building? We were stumped. As we drove home, we puzzled over the discrepancy between Kirk’s memory and ours. Finally, we remembered that when we’d lived in a small World War II-era apartment with one lilliputian closet, we’d built a wardrobe of plywood with pine molding. We painted it a memorable aqua and yellow—it was psychedelic 1969, after all.

That must have been what Kirk remembered. But in his imagination, our one-time building experience had mushroomed. So much so that our “ingenuity” became the substance of a lesson used in a sermon more than four decades later.

* * *

Many years before either of these events, a different kind of moment occurred. I must have been in my early teens the day Mrs. Truluck, a volunteer youth leader in our church, stopped me in the aisle after one Sunday service to compliment me on something she had observed. I don’t remember what exactly, maybe for sitting next to another girl who might otherwise have been ignored. Whatever it was, I didn’t think it was a big deal. However, Mrs. Truluck taking about sixty seconds to tell me she’d noticed was a very big deal. A big deal that’s stayed with me for close to sixty years now.

Mrs. Truluck no doubt knew the importance of offering a pat of congratulations or a word of encouragement to young people. But I’ll bet she fairly quickly forgot that particular exchange. I never did. I learned two important lessons that day. One, that people notice what you do, even things that seem insignificant. I also learned how far a thoughtful comment can go. For the decades since that Sunday afternoon, I’ve tried to make it a point to let people know when I notice the nice things they do.

So, to all the Mrs. Trulucks out there, thank you—you make a difference.

And so do you.  

By Ashashyou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

On Their Own—Sort of

The other morning, the Gnome and I were breakfasting at our favorite 24-hour restaurant chain. It’s the perfect place to pick up stories. It’s also a popular spot with the college crowd, partly because of its proximity to off-campus housing and its quick and reasonably priced fare.

On this particular morning we found ourselves in a booth just behind a group of college-age young men, five of them crammed around a table. We couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their spirited conversation. Nearly every sentence began with something like, “One time my dad . . . ,” or “When my dad and I . . . ,” or “My dad told me . . . ,” and so on. I didn’t hear these comments as some sort of my-dad’s-stronger-than-your-dad schoolyard oneupmanship, but more of a this-is-my-experience kind of sharing among peers.

After breakfast, we ran an errand at the nearby big box store, another popular hangout with the college crowd. Walking to the store from the parking lot, we overheard another pair of student types. This time it was, “My mom . . .”.

I was utterly fascinated. Not so much by the stories themselves as by their underlying significance. Here are all these kids, off on their own for probably the first time. Semi-independent. Feeling their oats. Maybe sowing a few wild ones, too. But what’s the nexus of their conversations? Their parents. They are still tethered. Their denials may be vociferous, especially to said parents, but the bond remains strong. I’m betting the young folks we overheard didn’t realize how parent-centered their conversations were.

Meanwhile, I imagine, the parents may have been mourning the loss of their fledglings. Or maybe they were feeling their own oats for the first time after a couple of decades of child-rearing. I’m almost certain, though, that they had no idea their children were putting them front and center in their relationships with their peers. In the parents’ wildest dreams, they probably never pictured their kids spending their early days of freedom sharing a piece of maternal advice or reminiscing with their friends about a fishing trip with Dad. Talking about watching maple syrup production with their folks.Retelling Mom’s stories of her own college years. Whatever.To moms and dads everywhere, know that your influence is strong. If you’re the parent of a newly-minted adult, don’t imagine for a minute that you’re not still an almost constant traveler in your son’s or daughter’s mind. Your kids may forget to call, but they are thinking of you. They are talking about you (hopefully in a good way). They are remembering your lessons. You’re still important to them, central to their lives.

And if you’re a grown child of parents who are still living, maybe you’d like to give them a call about now and tell them so. Give them a verbal hug. It’ll mean a lot. More than you can imagine—at least until you become the parent of a grown child yourself.