On a Maiden’s Mother’s Day

“Good morning,” Pastor Don beamed. “God bless us as we gather this beautiful May day.”

Sarah Jennings sat in her usual row at Second Calvary Church in Stop, Colorado. She wore a blue dress with roses sewn around the collar. Close inspection of the roses would have revealed she had worn the dress many Sundays over the years, but, at a distance, Sarah was prim, pressed, and presentable. Her matching purse and red leather Bible sat comfortably at her side.

The congregation at Second Calvary Church always seemed a little brighter, a little cheerier on Mother’s Day, eager to witness the traditional bestowing of lilies on the oldest mother, the youngest mother, the mother of the most children, and the mother that had traveled the farthest to church that day. In Stop, Colorado, population 10,000, there was rarely a surprise winner, and this year would be no different.

Sarah smiled as Ms. Fanny Lucille claimed her now annual lilies for oldest mother. At 91, Ms. Lucille had claimed the title of oldest mother for ten years in a row, and absent another pneumonia scare, she had little competition. Ms. Lucille grabbed her lilies so eagerly it would have surprised many in the congregation, including Sarah, that Ms. Lucille had not seen her children for over a decade.

Sarah watched with obvious interest as her friend Betsy Pluff stood up as the youngest mother in the congregation. At just five weeks old, Betsy’s daughter was the newest addition to Second Calvary Church. Sarah noted the obvious fatigue in her friend’s face, and she accurately surmised that Betsy’s daughter was not allowing her to get much sleep. Sarah could not have imagined, though, that Betsy’s restlessness was, in part, guilt over the knowledge that she despised everything about motherhood, as well as her husband.

Trudy Caruthers smoothed her wool skirt purposefully, before she stood to accept her lilies as the mother of the most children. Sarah Jennings could only sit in amazement, wondering how the pint-sized dynamo of Trudy Caruthers had given birth to 14 children before age 35. To Sarah, it was an embarrassment of riches; riches that needed no lilies to announce to the world the cascade of blessings that had been bestowed on Trudy Caruthers’ home. A future look back at the weekly bulletins from Second Calvary Church would never record, however, that Trudy Caruthers cared far more for the attention for birthing children than for the task of actually raising or loving them.

It was the story of Kim Su that touched Sarah the most, though. Sitting in her pew, listening to how Kim had flown from South Korea that week to visit her daughter, that was when Sarah felt the emptiness. The longing that, most of her days, consumed her thoughts and animated her fervent prayers. Why had she never been allowed to experience the love that was so obviously all around her? Where was her child? Sarah Jennings ached to feel a connection so strong that it would take someone halfway around the globe just to be in the presence of a loved one. She did not, however, contemplate the strength of the need to apologize for years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a spouse that went unstopped by a helpless mother, as Kim Su did.

As the last of the lilies was passed down the aisle, passing from hand to hand, past Sarah Jennings, the congregation bowed in prayer. Pastor Don prattled on, the organ accompanied him, and the congregation smiled. Fanny Lucille, Betsy Pluff, Trudy Caruthers, and Kim Su’s hands clutched their flowers.

Sarah Jennings’ flowerless hands clung to her red leather Bible, praying for forgiveness of the sins that made her unworthy to be a mother.

On Feasting on the Years

Sitting at the corner table in the bistro,
everything around you in hazy relief,
auburn hair pooled around your delicate shoulders
in lazy waves lapping across your naked neck,
I cannot recall the taste of the bread or meat
or the sensation of the red wine sliding down,
but I remember devouring the moment —
engorged on my young lust and younger love for you.

Nothing else mattered in those gravid, timeless days,
the world populated by us and your red lips
plump as the breasts behind your tawny curls,
nourishing me more than the food between us.

Now your argent hair lays in tired recess,
winding down your weathered nape,
worldly fingers taming it behind your ear,
breasts falling behind your untouched plate,
we have more than feasted on the years.

On That Last Voicemail

The voicemail is dated September 24, 2016. It’s exactly thirty-three seconds long, and it’s from my grandmother. She died in January. I still haven’t listened to it.

And I’m not sure why.

I don’t mourn my grandmother with weepy emotion. Her death has not caused me great anxiety or to lose sleep. Yet she flits around the margins of my thoughts frequently. I wonder how my mom is doing. I guess as to what will become of her home. I ponder what my grandmother really thought of her life, and I hope she thought I was a good grandson.

Listening to her voicemail won’t answer any of those questions, though. I am entirely certain the message is a “thank you” for some flowers or card I sent. A routine call from my grandmother. So routine that, for all my care and concern, I felt safe not listening to it. I’d be embarrassed if she knew that. That I could take it for granted so easily.

Perhaps a part of me fears that the message will be a request to call her back. Maybe she wanted to hear the voice of one of her grandchildren, scattered away from her hometown as they were. And maybe, just maybe, that sweet request will cut right through me. Maybe I had to charge my iPod. Or watch a funny youtube video. Or organize my socks. I was just too busy to answer the phone that day. It’s typical and innocent and awful and ugly and sad, all rolled into one.

Then again, maybe my grandmother had the wisdom to not read too much into any one thing. Maybe that’s the great gift of the accumulation of years, to understand that our love is not measured in the moment but over time. Maybe she knew that. And maybe her call was just the slow, steady paddling of her love, always rowing in my direction. Doing her best, the best she knew how.

I know I’m making something out of nothing. A moment can be just that: a moment. Not imbued with high import or meaning. It’s just a voicemail. Of my grandmother’s voice.  Sitting on my iPhone. Waiting. And whatever she says, only my heart will be affected. She’s not there to call back.

I’m not waiting for some special moment to listen to it. I don’t feel like I’m keeping her spirit alive by not listening to it. It’s not some B-movie plot, a MacGuffin to spur blog entries. But, whatever it is and for whatever reason I’m keeping it, I can’t manage to hit play. It doesn’t feel like denial. It just…is.

If we knew with scientific accuracy how love and death work, life would be the poorer for it. I think both scramble up our hearts, and we spend years trying to make sense of it all. And maybe I’m just not ready to make sense of my grandmother just yet. Maybe I’m not ready to solve the puzzle, to finalize my theory on how and why she lived. Maybe keeping the final piece just out of reach, as benign as it may be, relieves me from having to do that. Not denial per se, but a prolonged break from the task of figuring out what the hell it all means in the end.

It will be a random Thursday afternoon. I’ll probably have just enjoyed a snack, maybe I’ll be watching rain clouds out my office window. I’ll look at my phone, see the voicemail, and hit play. Thirty-three seconds will pass. Tucked away far in the back of my heart, in a private chamber, a tiny tumbler will drop one last time. I won’t have solved the riddle of love or life and death in that moment, but it’ll be enough to just cherish the memories of her.

On a Note Before You Depart

I should write very soon,
nothing long or boring,
hi or howdy will do,
thinking, that’s all, of you.

It’ll be a quick read,
kind words to you from me,
loving you on pages
inky in some places.

I hope you’ll hear me out,
before you must depart,
forgetting in stages
my young ruined heart.

A Eulogy For My Grandmother

[Author’s Note: Following are the remarks I made at my grandmother’s funeral.]

When I think of my grandmother, “B,” I think of many things:

  • Her home’s green shag carpet that’s been around so long it’s actually back in style,
  • Family dinners that always came with sides of deviled eggs and rolled bananas, and
  • Christmas ornaments that may or may not have been around at the founding of our country.

Over the last few days, though, my mind keeps pulling back to a random day in high school when I wandered into Lic’s Ice Cream. B worked there for a few years. That day, when I walked in, she saw me, gave me a great big smile, and, without asking, went about getting me a bowl of chili and a pimento cheese sandwich. She got me seated at the counter, made sure my lunch was just right, kept checking on me while she worked, and paid for my meal. Now, if you knew my grandmother, you know she did not spend money at restaurants easily, so it was no small thing for her to buy my meal. I’m sure I got a big hug and kiss before I left.

A grandmother showing love, caring, and kindness to a grandson is not big news. Maybe it’s even pretty ordinary. But I keep coming back to the simplicity of that moment, and its lessons, and I wonder if something essential about B is locked inside.

Fifty years ago, my grandmother lost the love of her life much too soon. The loss was profound and obviously permanent; an event that even those that would come along years later, like myself, would understand echoed through the decades.

Life carried on, though. Her three children grew and thrived, four grandchildren followed, and now five great-grandchildren. She worked outside of the home, was active in church and social groups, and had wonderful friends, many of whom are here today. Still, I always knew that the script my grandmother had written for her life had been changed, and dealing with that loss was the great test of my grandmother’s life.

In our society, we talk a lot about love: great romances, dream weddings, the love of a child, but we don’t spend much time acknowledging that, to love someone, to truly love someone, you open yourself up to great loss and hurt. For the lucky, those great losses and hurts are few and far between and come after many decades of happiness. My grandmother’s life stands as evidence that those great losses and hurts can come much sooner than expected.  More importantly, though, her life stands for carrying on, in the best way that we can, finding and sharing happiness when and where we can.

In her own way, to the best of her ability, my grandmother did that. And that is what I will remember about her life. The love she planned on did not last as many days as she wanted, but she still found ways to touch the lives of so many people, in so many different ways. Even in the simple act of making sure her grandson had a good meal.

The last time I shared a meal with my grandmother was this past summer. I left our breakfast together that June morning to attend a wedding. It was not lost on me as I drove away that I was going to celebrate a love that B didn’t get to enjoy for as many years as she surely wanted. I’m not sure if my grandfather is waiting for her on some ethereal plane, but, for her strength to carry on as she did, for the small but wonderful acts of love she shared, I certainly hope he is.

On Photosynthesis

Mr. Smith’s seventh grade biology classroom was pregnant with the smell of rats, snakes, and fish, but surely the worst odor emanated from the dozens of adolescents in plastic, multicolor chairs. The floor was institutional grey tile, and the pale green walls did little to jazz up the look or add pizzazz to Mr. Smith’s lectures. Still, I remember finding the salamanders enchanting and the thrilling prickliness of the tarantula’s legs as it would slowly walk up and over your nervous hands.

As a school building of some age, my junior high enjoyed old, plate glass windows, and, while Mr. Smith droned on about the beauty of photosynthesis, I often found myself gazing out the window to the local cemetery that abutted the school’s property. In almost every way, the cemetery was unremarkable: a tidy small town cemetery with gently rolling hills, grey headstones for Smith, Thomas, and Johnson, and a smattering of flowers and other tokens of affection. As a 13 year old, I didn’t understand death or really have any conception of it, but, in hindsight, I enjoy the irony that my distraction from learning about life in biology class was to tombstone watch the local graveyard.

A little more than a quarter century later, I found myself in that graveyard, looking up at my seventh grade biology classroom window, listening to a minister drone on about life and death and God and other bromides that were reaching me with the impact of Mr. Smith’s photosynthesis lectures. Now, the prickly tarantula’s legs were replaced with the softly stinging realization that I was studying death. And it wasn’t a gaggle of pimply teens staring at a spotted salamander in a stinky aquarium, but a gathering of friends and family around my grandmother’s casket.

I’d like to imagine that the 13-year-old me could look out that classroom window and see the 40-year-old me, in some weird and wonderful disturbance in the fabric of space and time. If I could see him, and if I could talk to him, I’d tell him that Mr. Smith has more to offer than he realizes, but, every time he says the word “sun,” replace it with the word “love.” And, when my 13-year-old self laughed or made a sarcastic remark, I would tell him that, one day, as you stand in the back of the funeral home and see friends and family and strangers and neighbors from thirty years ago walk in, you will understand that love is the light that makes everything grow.

On a Kick to the Confidence

At six years old, I wasn’t fascinated with Little League, and I wiled away the hours during soccers games, stuck in the goal as the goalie. I like to think it was because I was tall with a decent wingspan for a kindergartner, but I probably wasn’t athletic enough at that point to hold my own in the scrum at midfield.

When I wasn’t playing half-heartedly on the soccer team, my childhood years were largely spent trying to find time to hang out with my uncle. At only thirteen years older than me, he wasn’t quite the adult Mom and Dad were. He could drive, enjoyed eating pizza, and played boardgames; he was the complete package in my book. Hence my proclamation that, like him, I would one day become a bagger at a grocery store. Given that level of idolization, it’s no surprise that I followed him into martial arts.

My Tae-Kwon-Do classes were held in a cinderblock building where big mice/small rats ran across the ducts in the ceiling. After my first class, I smarted off to the instructor, and he made me drop and give him ten push-ups right then and there. He was, obviously, not familiar with my very sarcastic whit, but the discipline and respect were probably just what I needed. I’m sure I started the classes to be just like my uncle; I stuck around because I enjoyed it. In three short years, I was a nine-year-old black belt.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I attended practice regularly, and, by the time I was in high school and college, I was attending when I could, relishing the sparring (fighting) aspects of the sport. I was big, strong, and not afraid to take a punch or kick. What I lacked in technical skill (or grace) I made up for in brute strength and determination. At my dojo, I fought anyone and everyone, confident I could hold my own, even against my long-time instructor. The fighting, even within the rules and discipline of the sport, reaches something primal, and I wasn’t the first to love that feeling. I won’t be the last. The sport had given me discipline that touched all aspects of my life, enhanced my athleticism to something only slightly below average, and built in me a confidence that served me well. Almost always.

My high school and college days took me away from the dojo for long stretches, but my old instructor was always indulgent of my random, occasional drop-ins to work out and spar. After my sophomore year in college, I heard of a kickboxing tournament in southern Indiana that summer. I entered on a lark with no preparation but a head full of confidence. I loved sparring, was in decent shape, and was as strong as I ever had been. What could possibly go wrong?

I entered the ring to blaring music as about a thousand spectators cheered me on. My opponent bounced in the opposite corner. A 6’5″ Indiana state trooper. A little taller than me, but I wasn’t intimidated. I had in my corner my uncle and my old instructor. The bell rung, and the rest is a little hazy. I’d like to describe the fight as the duel of two kick boxers at the pinnacle of their powers. In reality, we were two lugs whaling away at each other with little poetry or even science in our attacks. As the bell signaled the end of the first round, I shuffled back to my corner. My instructor gave me some advice, my uncle gave me some encouragement, and I kept wanting more oxygen to come into my lungs.

The second round is even more of a blur. Kicks landed, punches careened, people yelled, and I did what I had to do to survive. After the bell to end the second round, I returned to my corner gasping for air. For all the confidence I had gained fighting in the controlled environment of the dojo, I had not gained the experience of taking blow after blow from a bigger opponent wearing weighted gloves. I had not gained the experience of giving maximum effort. I had not, truly, kick boxed. I had done something very close, but not quite the same. Just like the end of my first ever martial arts class, someone needed to tell me to drop and give them ten push-ups when I arrogantly decided to enter a kickboxing tournament without ever, you know, kickboxing.

I leaned against the ropes gasping for air, listened to my instructor give me tips for the next round, and then proclaimed, “Darryl, I’m done.” It was the first and only time in 15 years I had ever called him by his first name. That and surely the look of exhaustion in my face conveyed the message. He said no more and informed the referee I was retiring. I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, I was too exhausted to process those feelings. I shook my opponents hand and limped to the locker room. The spry young thing that had entered the ring to rock music and the shouts of a thousand just minutes earlier was a distant memory.

Thirty minutes later, I sprawled along the locker room floor, dizzy with what was probably a concussion. I had only the energy to make my way to the toilet to throw up. My uncle, ever the wonderful uncle, was there with me. Admittedly, I felt better when he told me that he was sure I was winning on points after two rounds and could’ve won if I had held on. Whether it was his positivity or my vomit, or a combination of the two, I held my head a little higher and managed to change and leave under my own power. The Booneville Bash was my first and last kickboxing match. Five years later, when I shattered my knee training in a dojo in Jacksonville, Florida, my martial arts career came to an ignominious end.

Nearly 20 years after that kickboxing tournament, I still have the medal I “won” for participating in the tournament. The ribbon is stained with blood, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what part of me was bleeding. What I lost in blood was surely only exceeded by what I lost in confidence. Or cockiness. Or arrogance. And gained in wisdom and humility and appreciation for non-contact sports.