Alphabetical Escape

I should be doing laundry today. Or ironing. Or taking advantage of the beautiful sunshine and happy 50s temperature and working in my garden. But I have been sick for a week and am just not quite ready to be productive, thus, my activity of choice at the moment is reading. A novel. Reveling in its ability to take me away from my living room and into someone else's. Just like that--in just a few well-crafted sentences.

I have loved reading for as long as I can remember--longer, actually; I can't ever remember not reading. My earliest memories are of books--sitting with them at my mother's feet, or pondering what to select as I searched through shelves in the library my childhood church was blessed to have. I read at home, in my car, on vacation, at meals if I have no companions, at night till I can hold my eyes open no longer. It fascinates and, perhaps, annoys, my husband; "Don't you ever just want to sit?" he asked one time, coming back to the car from a quick trip into the post office to find me with my head in a book.

I do other things, of course. I can watch old movies for hours, can spend all day in the kitchen conjuring up creative foodstuffs, can get happily messy planting a garden or attempting some craft. But books are the passion I return to day after day: when I finish one, if there isn't another waiting, I feel bereft, at loose ends. As with my choice of music, my taste in books is broad--although I have an admitted preference for happy endings and a strong aversion to gore. I choose books based on what I've heard or read about them, because I like the author's previous work, because the cover or title catches my eye, because the overview intrigues me, sometimes simply because the book is the "right" size (an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick, which means I can read it within a week) and the pages have lots of white space with appealing, easy to read type (though those selections must also have one of the previous attributes, as well!).

One of my greatest joys as a mother is that all three of my children love reading. I suppose I took that for granted until I realized at some point during my early carpool days that all children don't. What a sad discovery! I can understand how a child who struggles with language skills would find the act of reading a chore, but why on earth would a child who can read choose not to? Who would want to miss out on those glorious excursions of the mind? Just as I find people who think they hate poetry have simply never been exposed to enough of it, or had an unpleasant encounter with it, I suspect people who don't read--especially children--have suffered the same fate. What a tragedy to miss out on one of life's greatest pleasures--one that requires no work, no expense, no equipment, and no payback!

Okay, maybe some payback: as the new year starts, I encourage you to join me in taking every opportunity to celebrate and share the joy of reading. We've all heard stories about people whose lives have been changed because of reading a book; who knows what impact you could have on a child's life by introducing him/her to Charlotte's Web or The Little Engine That Could? And if reading doesn't bring you joy, I urge you to make an all-out effort to find it--in the pages of a novel, a memoir, a biography, a poetry book, or even a magazine. Join a book club, befriend a librarian, meet an author, do a search for "best books ever written," track down your high school English teacher, whatever it takes, because I promise you, it's worth it. Reading can take you places nothing else can and leave you with a feeling of satisfaction that nothing can take away...not even an election year.

Favorite Memories of My Brother

My big brother was 18 and a senior in high school when I was born; I can only imagine what an upheaval in his life that must have been. For the first couple of years, I stayed in a crib in my parents’ bedroom but, eventually, I ended up sharing a room with my sister—9 years my senior. Our room was right next door to Roger’s, and the three of us shared a bathroom.

My earliest actual memory of Roger is of hearing him come in from a date, or whatever evening activity he’d been involved in. Vera and I would have long been in bed, lights out. But when he got settled in his room, locked the door, climbed into bed and spread out his cheeseburger and fries from Knight’s Drive-In, I would tiptoe to the kitchen, get a knife from the silverware drawer, and proceed to pillage the locked door that stood between me and that midnight feast. To his credit, Big Brother always shared. (The price I paid for those unauthorized entries would be exacted years later when, as a teenager, that room became mine, and any hope of ever locking that poor mangled doorknob was long gone!)

At some point in my early childhood, my brother had a Corvette. I don’t remember the color; I only remember standing in the passenger seat, grinning, my left arm wrapped around Roger’s neck. (No seat belts required back then.) In that memory, we are sitting in the driveway of our house, so maybe he never actually suffered through having to drive around town with his chubby baby sister holding on for dear life in his very cool car. In my mind, though, I was a regular passenger. About that same time, I developed huge crushes on my brother’s friends. I was four, they were 22, so the best I could hope for was a friendly smile or indulgent pat on the head. They could have viewed me as a total pain in the neck, but they didn’t seem to, and I appreciated that.

 

When I was five, Roger had a bulldog named Zipper. He decided to enter him in the dog contest of the Hardee County Fair, and he said I could be the one to walk Zipper out in front of the judges and show him off. I don’t remember if he won the contest or not, but I still vividly remember walking across the outdoor stage on that chilly November night, holding Zipper’s leash and smiling at the people out in the bleachers.




We always had music in our house when I was a child: Lawrence Welk on the TV, Guy Lombardo on the stereo, Mother whistling or playing her violin, Vera on the piano or organ, friends and family gathered around singing. Things really got fun when Roger sat down at the keyboard for some rousing rock and roll, or his duet with sister Vera of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”—the latter an annual and always anticipated holiday event (In later years, Roger’s soulful rendition of “Ol’ Man River”, accompanied by Vera, became an equally anticipated event.)



When I was about 13, Roger put me to work one day answering the phone at his furniture store. When I protested that surely there was something else I could do because what customer was going to want to talk to ME, he gave me a stern lecture in self-confidence: “The person on the other end of that phone has no idea how old you are. Be polite, get your facts straight, and you’ll do just fine.” That advice served me well during my adolescent years.

About that same time, or maybe a year or two later, I begged Big Brother to teach me how to drive. He agreed, and drove us in his turquoise El Camino out to "Wauchula International Airport" (pretty much just a big cow pasture), where he put me behind the wheel and proceeded to show me the ropes of shifting gears, pushing the gas pedal, using the turn signals and, most importantly, how to brake!

The summer I was sixteen, I wangled an opportunity to be a stringer for The Tampa Tribune, doing interviews with country singers. I spent the summer living in Nashville with Roger and going with him every day to the booking agency where he worked. I remember us having lunch at Morrison’s downtown on one of my first days there; famous faces were scattered around and as I wondered how I would ever be brave enough to take up these people’s time, Roger gave me another self-confidence lecture: “These people put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you do.” It was a glorious summer; Roger took me backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry, introduced me to so many talented people, and the Tribune published every interview I sent them. I went home feeling like a celebrity myself!


Our father having passed away many years earlier, it fell to my brother to give me away on my wedding day. As we stood in the vestibule of First Baptist Church in Wauchula, Roger looking handsome in his suit, me in my wedding gown thinking, “Oh, my gosh, am I really doing this?!”, he smiled, squeezed my hand, and gave me the soothing words I needed to hear before walking down the aisle.

You delivered a lot of soothing words over the years, Big Brother. Thank you for all of them; thank you for everything. I'm going to miss you. A lot.


Words, Take Me Away!

 Forget bath salts. When I want to be whisked away from reality (as I do this afternoon!), nothing offers a speedier getaway than books--specifically, novels. I enjoy reading nonfiction, too, but when things like broken A/C, weeds/endless weeds, piles of paperwork, an overloaded to-do list (isn't it always?!), and sundry undone-and-impending tasks are pecking at my brain like angry bluejays, it's to fiction that I fly.


At the moment I'm reading Pamela Duncan's Plant Life, and while Laurel Granger's life makes my mine look positively serene (even in my current agitation!), the Carolina surroundings soothe me and and the family banter makes me smile. But I'm no Southern snob: Lorna Landvik's Minnesota settings lift my spirits, too. In fact, I hate to see Landvik's novels end; even though her plots are typically contemporary and realistic, they transport me far away from my own reality and into a "happy place" in my brain that is truly divine.

Words have done that for me since I first discovered the joy of the alphabet at age four. There is simply no level of fatigue, despair, or frustration that can't be held at bay by a good tale. Most recently, I've fallen under the spell of old "Gunsmoke" shows. Good/evil, black/white, love your horse/punish the gunslinger...what a blissfully simple code of ethics! Makes me wonder in these turbulent times (and would we feel quite so turbulent if we stopped listening to the news?) if we wouldn't all benefit from a daily dose of Fannie Flagg or Carl Hiaasen (now THERE's diversity for you!). I'm thinking we'd sleep better at night if a novelist had the last word instead of a talking head.

Just a thought.

All I know is I can't WAIT to get home and see what happens next at Pamela's plant in Russell...

Who knew a squirrel could be cuddly?


During Vacation Bible School at my church recently, to inspire everyone to dig deep into their piggy banks and support our designated mission project, I invited a local animal rescue organization to bring some of their critters and talk about their work.

To say that the ladies who came made an impression would be an understatement. The children were mesmerized by the chance to see and touch a sugar glider, raccoon, and squirrel up close, and we adults turned into big puddles of mush--begging to hold and cuddle these wild things that fate has domesticated. (Okay, calling Buddha the Raccoon "domesticated" would be a stretch, but he was amiable and accommodating, if not docile!) Hazel the Squirrel, brain damaged at an early age due to a fall from her nest, was an angel, happily nibbling nuts from our palms and snoozing contentedly on our shoulders. Splenda the Sugar Glider was cordial and curious but, being nocturnal, fell asleep and pretty much missed the party.

While we ogled and petted and cuddled these animals that were fortunate enough to be rescued from their sundry disasters, the rescue reps shared staggering statistics and sobering stories: the fifteen volunteers of their organization took in 11,500 injured, abandoned, abused, or endangered animals from nine different counties last year. (Do the math: that's almost 770 animals A PIECE--2 a day, every day for a year!) So where do these animals come from? Sometimes they're exotic pets that people get bored with or tired of. Sometimes they wander into dangerous or inappropriate places and someone calls for help. Sometimes a neighbor reports another neighbor who's tried to turn a wild thing into a pet. Sometimes someone sees an animal being abused and asks the rescue team to intervene. Sometimes a park ranger calls to say "the mama's dead and we have no way to take care of the babies." So off goes the rescue team, superhero saviors of the furry and the four-footed. Of course, these volunteers don't just show up, save the day, and drive away; many times they take these animals into their homes and nurse them back to health, give them a home until one can be found, or care for the animal until it can be released back into the wild.

Did I mention that these are volunteers? As in, they offer up their time, gas, resources, and homes for FREE, with no compensation whatsoever, purely because they have hearts made of solid gold? We were happy to bestow a week's worth of Bible school donations on them, but what we gave doesn't even begin to make a dent in what they need. So if you'd like your hard-earned money to go to something besides the gas pump for a change, toward something that is human kindness of the purest kind, consider sending a few dollars to support your local animal rescue effort. (And, yes, even a few dollars really helps!) If you can't spare cash, consider giving some time or supplies; these organizations are always in need of runners, clerical help, vet services, food, etc.

It's getting harder and harder to make a difference in today's world; here's an opportunity that's guaranteed. Buddha and Hazel thank you!

Remembering June in May

 


Who’s your favorite mother? Well, besides your own, of course. Or maybe you always wished you had the mom down the street instead of the one God gave you—the one that let her kids come and go as they pleased, never issued all those pesky rules and ultimatums, and was SO much cooler.

While I greatly admire the wise and wonderful Marmee from Little Women , I must confess that my favorite mom is June Cleaver. A fellow mother of sons, June offered the perfect blend of intelligence, humor, assertiveness, skepticism, modesty, graciousness and spunk. During all those years when I watched faithfully every week as Mrs. Cleaver capably dealt with crisis after crisis, I had no idea I’d have a Beaver and Theodore of my own someday. Thankfully, my days as a mom never brought forth an Eddie Haskell or a baby alligator to deal with; even so, I feel certain my sons benefited from lessons my subconscious surely retained as I watched June carry out her role as Arbiter of Domestic Harmony without ever breaking a sweat.


In contrast, my own mother sweated a lot to keep me on the appropriate path to adulthood. Working in the yard was always her favorite way to reduce stress; let’s just say our yard looked TERRIFIC during my teenage years! While our living room looked just like the Cleavers', our confrontations weren’t nearly as polite--and occasionally involved a ruler, flyswatter, or switch to help focus my attention. Because I loathe confrontations and learned early the power of words, my favorite battle tactic was to leave a note on Mother’s pillow detailing her horribly unfair assessment of my sin du jour, her ridiculous overreaction, and the depth to which her wrath had grievously wounded me. It’s too bad she didn’t save any of those notes; they would have made great reading all these years later.

I worry about the moms we’re watching on TV and in movies today. Are they instilling/demonstrating essential traits such as honesty, compassion, and integrity? Self-respect and self-control? Do the Real Housewives of Wherever even know those terms? And if new generations aren’t being taught basic values, where exactly is civilization headed?

Be proactive this month: tell a good mom she’s worth a lot more than she realizes. And next time you vacuum, put on your pearls; maybe June knew something we don't.

 

10 Ways to Make a Bad Day Better

 My days have been pretty good here lately, but we all know those crummy ones roll around sooner or later. Don’t give in to them! The older I get, the more I realize we are very much the determiners of our own destiny—on a day-by-day basis, at least. We can choose how to react to less-than-perfect days, whether their badness comes in the form of weather, events, encounters (or the lack thereof), and by choosing NOT to let our happiness be derailed by some external force, we can salvage that day for good.

 If your happy mood is about to be hit broadside, try one of these tips:

  1.         Take a 10-minute walk outdoors by yourself. Okay, so this might not be an option if it’s raining like crazy or there’s a blizzard in town but, otherwise, this is a terrific way to “push your reset button,” as my friend Pat used to say. Pay attention to detail: a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, an old guy walking his dog, a shopkeeper fixing a window display. The point is to realize what’s happening in your life is a tiny little speck in the great scheme of things. Whatever’s out of sync will pass.

2.      Indulge in a treat that’s good and good for you. Chocolate milkshake, probably not so much, but a straight-from-paradise Honey Crisp apple or a banana and peanut butter sandwich? Maybe all that’s wrong is low blood sugar or the need for a caffeine fix. You’d be surprised how grumpy that can make you!

3.     Look for a gift. Not one topped with a bow, but one you’ve overlooked. Parking place at the front of the lane? Happy little bird singing outside your window? Your favorite song on the radio? I call those little presents from God. He knows when you’re in a rotten mood and he may not be able to orchestrate a lottery win or heal your plantar fasciitis, but pay attention and you’ll be amazed at how many times He tries to say, “Here, will this help?”

4.      Focus on the least worst thing you’re dealing with. Yes, I’m fully aware I have an inner Pollyanna that annoys people to no end but, really, does it do any good to wallow in your misery? (Okay, sometimes a short pity party does help.) Skip past the emaciated savings account, the fight you had with your teenager, the fact that your mom is getting more and more forgetful, and dwell on the fingernail you just broke. Will you die from that? No. Will you lose your job over that? No. Will said nail grow back? Yes. See? That's one thing that's not nearly as awful as it could be.

5.     Put things in perspective. I know, from where you sit at the moment, life looks pretty sorry. But switch views. Pretend you’re your 13-year-old neighbor, or your 80-year-old uncle, or the homeless guy on the corner, or Meghan Markle. You might decide you like your life a lot more than you thought.

6.     Don’t be a Don’t-Bee; you be a Doo-Bee! Anybody remember the TV show, “Romper Room?” We’re never too old to take good advice: don’t be a Negative Nelly when you can be a Positive Pammy! Sometimes changing your mood is as easy as making up your mind to adjust your attitude.

7.      Turn on your radio. Or your MP3, cell phone, CD player, or whatever is the handiest source of music. (Maybe  one of your coworkers will do an Elvis impression for you.) Music has an uncanny ability to immediately transport us to a different place and time, especially if it’s a song with fond memories attached. Music is the quickest path I know from crabby to happy (along with #9!).

8.     Find something to make you laugh. Go to YouTube and search for laughing babies or goofy animals. Revisit your email joke folder. (You have one of those, right?) Take a break to go read funny greeting cards. Pull up a comedy on Netflix. Not only will you feel better, you’ll add a few years to your life.

9.     Find something four-legged and furry. Okay, maybe if you’re a fan of reptiles, a snake can make you smile, but my money’s on mammals. I dare you to stay downtrodden while there’s a kitten in your lap, a dog grinning in your face, a meerkat peering up at you, or a horse nuzzling your neck. Animals = smiles.

10. Do something for someone who’s not expecting it. Sometimes, reminding yourself that it’s not all about you can get you past those rough spots. Focusing on someone else will get your mind off your worries and doing something for someone else, well, that makes you feel good all over. How about putting quarters in a bunch of parking meters downtown, or buying a burger for the lady behind you in the drive-thru? I guarantee that if you surprise the tellers at your bank with a bag of donuts they will treat you like a hero, and if you take a couple of board games or a basketball to your local women’s shelter, you may turn your bad day into the best one ever.

 

 


In a recent conversation with one of my Millennial sons, I made a reference to Herman’s Hermits. He was clueless. “You know, “I-I-I-m ‘enery the eighth, I aaaam…” I intoned. He shook his head. “There’s a kiiind of hushhhhhhhhh…?” Blank stare. Having thoroughly enjoyed Peter Noone and the current Hermit line-up in concert a couple of years ago, I felt a pang in my heart that my child knew NOTHING about those great songs. A few days later, listening to the ‘50s channel on Sirius XM in my car with another son, the Spaniels’ “Goodnight, Sweetheart” came on. “This is such a great song!” I sighed in pleasure. “Never heard it,” came the response.

Now, as a mother, exposing my children to different types of music was very important to me. I thought I’d done a good job—my youngest does a rousing rendition of “Up from the Grave He Arose,” my middle is pondering season tickets to the Charlotte symphony, and my oldest bought me a Mills Brothers CD for my birthday—but, that day, it occurred to me that we Boomers are blessed with a much broader musical horizon than any other generation. We grew up with that fabulous music of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Those of us with older parents had the privilege of knowing music from the ‘40s, as well. What a gift to have four decades worth of incredible mood-lifting, finger-snapping, soul-touching, memory-marking tunes readily accessible in the jukebox of our brains!

So, for all the grief we Boomers are dealing with as we move from middle age into old age, comfort yourself with this thought: there’s not an arthritic hip, a bum knee, a cataract, or a foggy brain that can’t be perked up with the amazing music of our generation. Turn up your hearing aid and rock on!