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Memory Keeper

I sit beside her on the couch,
Flipping through photo albums
That are her handiwork,
Our family’s memory keeper.
The albums tell stories
That make us smile and laugh
And maybe cry a little.

Black and white pictures –
At the lake with a big catch
Digging through a record snow
A long-forgotten party game –
Stories told to me through the years
About people I will never know.
She smiles through every retelling.

Poloroids of my life
Where my childhood intersects
With cousins, uncles, aunts.
Vacations together
Amusements parks and fireworks
Lazy summer days
Cozy winter nights.
Each image revives an entire day for me.
I can smell the roast in the oven,
The Christmas cookies,
The Easter ham,
The Labor Day burgers
The men burned on the grill.
I can hear the laughter and the bickering.
I can feel the love
All the love
Because she recorded it for us
In these albums.

Now
I remind her.
I tell her stories she already knows
Deep down
But that her mind will no longer let her grasp
And hold.
I hold them for her.
I open them up before her
So she can smile and laugh
And maybe cry a little.

Random Act

Mark and I were just finishing our quick shopping trip and making our way to one of the express lanes at the grocery store, when I noticed her. A young African-American woman in the next line with half a cartload of groceries, waiting her turn. Clearly more than twenty items! Usually, I would think to myself (or even whisper to Mark) on the rudeness of sliding through the express lane with such a huge load of cargo. But that day, I didn’t see a rude woman; I saw a tired woman. Someone in a hurry to just get home for the day.

As we began to place our items on the counter, I glanced back at the woman. She had two young children beside her, and a baby on her hip. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes spoke of the raw fatigue that she must slog through every day. I have known those times myself, and my heart broke for her.

I felt a nudge inside me, a command. One that I couldn’t push aside. “Mark, I want to pay for her groceries.” Mark turned toward her slowly, then turned back to look me in the eyes. “I’m serious,” I said. He asked if she had started her transaction, and when I said she hadn’t, he handed me our debit card.

I was so excited. For about two seconds. Then I was nervous. My heart felt like it would pound out of my chest! I began to second-guess myself. I began to ask why on earth I was doing this!

Then I worried about the mother. What if I embarrassed her? What if I offended her? What if she thought I was trying to make some statement? I mean, some random white lady is going to buy her groceries for her? Oh. I began to imagine the scene – her protesting her offense, me trying my best to apologize. I nearly panicked. And just as I was about to call this whole plan off, another child – a young girl of about twelve — approached the mother, lifted the baby from her hip, and placed the baby on her own hip. Mama’s little helper. She looked weary, too.

Well, that did it. I was all in.

When the mother was busy placing her items on the counter, I sidled up to the cashier and said, “Miss, I don’t know this next customer of yours, and I’m not sure why I’m doing this, but I want to pay for her groceries. May I do that?” The young gal said, “Um, yeah. Sure.” She let a tiny grin spread through the confused look on her face and proceeded to scan the grocery items.

I stepped back and waited, wondering how this would all play out. I decided that the smoothest way to do this would be to quietly keep the mother from being able to pay. I stepped up to the credit card machine in front of the cashier, asked if I could swipe my card right now. “Sure,” she said. The mother never t even noticed me!

The last item to be scanned was a single pack of M&M’s that I guessed would be shared among the three children. When the cashier had placed the last item in the bag, the mother reached into her wallet to pay. That’s when I stepped back up to the counter to sign for my credit card payment. With a quick glance at her, I said, “Actually, I’ve got this.” Beside me, I heard her ask quietly, “Wait … what? Um … what?” The cashier handed me my receipt, and I turned to the mother and said, “I was told to pay for your groceries today.” Her mind was still catching up to what was happening, and her look of confusion changed to the most lovely smile. “That’s so sweet! You’re so sweet!” Then, as if she didn’t know what else to do, she carefully approached me for a hug. I readily accepted, and we just clung to each other for a moment.

When I stepped back, I told her to be blessed today. “You, too,” she said. I turned to walk away, and realized I had the receipt. “Do you need this? You know, in case you have to return something.”

“Oh, no … I don’t need a thing!” She beamed at me. She looked like a different person.

I turned and left, and nearly danced out of the store.

Mark was waiting for me and had enjoyed watching the whole thing. He saw things that I didn’t – the faces of the children and the cashier. The mother embracing me. The look on my face. And he reminded me that my simple gesture could bless more than just that mother. The cashier would surely tell that story. The mother, too, would share what happened.

We were both reminded that day of what can happen if we take the time to look at people not with our eyes but with our hearts. Instead of a rude customer in the express lane, we can see a tired mother. Instead of our own tight budget, we can see the needs of others and simple ways to meet those needs. Instead of differences between us, we can see how we’re all alike in some way. And if we act on what we see, we can touch the world from our own neighborhood.

Inspiration

Sometimes the words swirl above me
All dark, muddled confusion
Until suddenly
A sentence
A thought
The right word rings out clear
Pulling itself from the cloud
And making its way to my page.

Coming Home (I)

Here
Above the clouds
I am surrounded by a sky
As blue as the lakes I have missed.
Checkerboards of green
So fresh
From a winter’s worth of melted snow.
I can already feel
The breeze from the prairie
Stirring a field of young corn
Row after row
In rich, dark soil.
The ground rushes up to meet me
And I am home.

Home, Sweet Home

About a week before Mark and I got married, we spent (yet another) evening working toward settling in. He was already living in the house on Westmoreland Drive that we would share for the next 18 years, and we had spent the previous 6 months painting the kitchen, scrubbing walls in the other rooms, and replacing carpet. I had dozed off on the couch during a break, and woke up shocked to see the time was 2 am! I hustled out the door so my folks wouldn’t worry about me, though I feared it may have been too late.

I was determined to get home as quickly as I could, but just as determined not to be pulled over for speeding. So my speedometer hovered at 55 most of the way. At that strange hour, I was alone with overnight truckers traveling down Highway 158. That is, until a car came rushing up behind me. After some weird maneuvers, the driver turned on … his blue light. Great.

I found a safe place to pull over and waited for the deputy to approach. He was unable to give me a good reason for stopping me, but did ask all the usual questions. In my exhausted and startled state, I was not very clear in my answers.

“Ma’am, where are you coming from?”
“My house.”
“And where are you heading?”
“Home.”
“Excuse me?” I think he was getting ready to have me walk a straight line or something. I proceeded to explain that I was getting married in a week, that I had spent time working on the new house, and was heading home to sleep. The deputy, mildly suspicious, weighed my words carefully and finally decided that this answer was plausible. He let me go.

The next week, Mark and I began our new life together. We called that house our home, but it took me quite a while to settle in to a new routine, a new route to work, a new role as lady of the house, in charge of meals and all. After a while, without my really noticing, that house became our happy home.

Years later, I found myself in the same situation. Mark moved to Knoxville ahead of us, while I remained in Winston-Salem to tie up loose ends. I recall musing aloud to Mom #2 (Mark’s mom) that it would be interesting to see how quickly our two dachshunds settled in to their new home. She wisely said “To dogs, home is where their people are.”

Even after the rest of us – Damon, the Girls, and I – completed our move, the word “home” still meant both cities. I was still in charge of meals, but I had a new kitchen to work in. Plus a new job, new roads, new … everything. For a while, I wondered how long I would have one foot in each city. And honestly, I wondered how my process looked to those around me, so I closed up a bit, afraid my new friends and my old friends would judge me for struggling. I felt like everyone saw me as that deputy once did, confused and apparently a little lost.

But I wasn’t lost. I never was. I was with my family, which is always home. And our family circle has grown to include coworkers, fellow dancers, and church friends whose love has nourished us and helped our roots grow deep here.

Sure, I still have one foot in each city, and I probably always will. Because Mom #2 is right. Home is where my people are.

Home, sweet home.

As I sat at lunch with a friend
One rainy afternoon,
Eating tuna,
Talking Turgenev,
I thought it all so literary.
Long we sat,
Discussing the flaming pens of the past
That moved across pages
And moved the minds of men,
We lingered over our cake and coffee.
I felt comfortable in that cozy restaurant,
Listening to the patter of rain,
Hearing the clatter of dishes,
Enjoying the chatter of knowledge.
But, after a while, we had discussed all
That the world’s literature held.
We were finished.
So we left, and strode our varied paths,
Leaving behind Wharton, Hardy, Hawthorne,
And other creators.

Thinking now, I know I had enjoyed the time
And had gained some knowledge
Of fictional characters and their masters; yet
I did not feel any more full.
The experience was only for then,
Not for the future.
Like Chinese food –
I would be hungry in an hour.
I think that perhaps another conversation
May have warmed me more than coffee,
May have satisfied me more than Keats;
Had we discussed the Creator
And all His wonders,
We might be there now,
With no thought of leaving,
Discovering new ways of reading His Book.
We could have explored the lives of real people,
Past and present,
And praised their Master,
The Author.
Yes, we would still be at our table,
Even now,
Nursing our eleventh cup of coffee
And filling ourselves with lunch
And the fullness of God.

Two Words

Only two words
So small
That I should say.
I know how much you need to hear them.
I can see it in your eyes
So full of pain
The hurt that I caused.
Oh, I am well aware.
You just don’t know it.
These small words
Are bigger than you realize
(To me)
And they are stuck.
Trapped by my stubbornness
My pride
My own self-doubt –
All large enough to trap
Two little words
And keep them from escaping my lips.
So you are left to read my mind.

Two words are all you want.
Not flowers or flirtation,
Playful charm
That ought to show love
But really
Only attempt to distract you
From the issue at hand.
It never works,
Yet I try it every time.
Until finally
I come to realize what I knew all along:
While my pride matters to me
Your feelings matter more.
So I move it all aside
And say it.
I’m sorry.
Then all is well.