The Big Picture

Meredith's angel.jpg

The Big Picture

Every year since Julia passed to heaven, my husband, unprompted, hauls our tree and a set of plastic tubs full of Christmas ornaments down from the attic. He does this because he knows if he does not push me into the holiday, I will avoid December. Christmas is a time when the loss of Julia seeps into the planning of our holiday.  We hang her stocking, I make her favorite cookie, and we continue to live, work, and socialize, assured that the story of Jesus understands. We tend to focus on the big picture.

This season, my oldest and I unwrapped wads of newspaper around 20-year-old tiny Santa Clauses with brittle beards, a dancer from the Nutcracker with a broken shoe, soccer ball ornaments. A 30-year collection of ornaments from classroom art, to baubles, picked out every year after a pancake breakfast and a 3-hour stand to see Santa.  When I put up my tree it is like putting up a three D scrapbook.

Most evenings, my house is quiet. I make a salad and pot of soup for us. We watch the news, and I scroll for remodeling ideas. I often just sit in the presence of my three D memory tree. The tree winks, the white lights casting shadows, and the tree tells me stories of Christmas’ past, like the time Meredith was in pre-school and she colored her Christmas tree very, very black.  A tad shy, my three years old just shrugged when asked about her artwork.

I get summoned to the pre-school director's office along with Meredith’s teachers, her black Christmas tree picture taped to the chalkboard, with the sentence in writing,  “Is everything okay at home?”

We had walked a farm the Saturday before, picked out just the right tree, took pictures with it in the field, tying it to our car, living for the camera. We succeeded in the appearance of the perfect yuppie family, living that ideal 30 something moment, but failed to let the farm do their job; shake the tree with the machine to get all bugs and varmints from it.  On Monday we woke up to my dusty rose circa1990 couch covered with tiny black bugs. My floor: full of bugs. The tree: Every ornament layered in bugs.

Meredith just illustrated our life: Real, and messy and covered in challenges, many self -inflicted.

The next week Meredith drew inside the lines of an angel, and colored her purple, with brown hair.  I saved it.  Now, 27 years later, I feel the same yarn threaded through the hole punch; there’s a little less glitter about her, but the angel continues to smile, her wing's upward towards heaven.   

This paper angel hangs on our tree as a reminder of that time we brought home a tree full of bugs. Meredith’s tree picture is pressed in a book along with some of her other art somewhere in a corner of our attic.  I intend to rummage through those boxes of saved art and frame that big picture of Meredith’s black tree.

 Her tree is a reminder that life is not perfect, but funny, and messy, with angels wearing dresses with purple crayon outside the lines are busy watching over us.




Be Still and Snow

Lake Wedowee in the snow.jpeg

This season the most important gift I received (so far) was December 8th, smack dab right in the first week of Advent.  I was ramping up for a busy holiday season, ready to perform holiday duties: to wrap with perfection, to bake beautiful breads and cookies, to embrace the rush of the season with all the lists and parties and must-dos.  But on December 8th our Divine had something else in mind, to blanket my little part of the world with snow.

In the south, we don't get a lot of snow, so the beauty of watching big fat white snowflakes land, and actually stick to the ground, was simply stunning. And four hours later, ten inches of snow and an invisible layer of ice smothered the ground.  I stayed busy in the kitchen preparing for a party, but the Divine wanted me to stop and pay attention. To listen. Be still and know. Slow down. I am here and I am trying to tell you something.   And I continued to cook and clean.  And then like the song, that's the night lights went out in Georgia, okay, yea, I was in Alabama, but you get my snow drift....all went dark.  But in that darkness, the message outshined my expectations for the weekend.  Be still and snow.

And I got the 411. Be Still and snow.  And the more I sipped tea and watched it snow with not a sound but my own breath, I knew I was in for forced rest. And I needed it. I needed to stop and pay attention to the Message of the season, my physical needs for rest, my goals for embracing growth in the cracks of my broken, disappointed heart.  Brokenness has allowed me to hover in the place where I know there is a bigger picture.  The snow reminded me to slow down, and for a few minutes each day, rest.

Without rest, we cannot give our best. It is a great loss to rush through the meaning of Christmas.  Be Still and Snow. Thank you for the intangible gift of Christmas and the power of being still.


Christmas Biscuits for Dogs


Christmas Doggie Biscuits for Hiker and his buddies....

Well, let's face it, Hiker is one of my best friends. And he has some great dog pals. When the girls were little we would deliver home-baked cookies, so it only seems natural to take a busy Saturday and stop the world for a few hours and bake dog biscuits. Maybe next year I'll have a doggie cookie exchange, LOL.

Here are  a few of my recipes.


Homemade Doggie Treats 

Makes 2 dozen treats

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour 1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup melted bacon fat
1 large egg

1/2 cup cold water

Preheat the oven to 300. I bake them slow for an hour so they do not crumble.

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix by hand until dough forms. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky. Add more bacon fat or water if the dough is too stiff. 

Roll out onto a floured surface, to a thickness of just under 1/2-inch. Use a cookie cutter, or just squares, or I made little hand rolled paws for small dogs out of the little smidgens after using a cookie cutter. Bake low at 300 for about an hour. Treats can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature. 


Peanut Butter Mint Cookies

2 cups of whole wheat flour

1 cup of rolled oats

1 cup of dry milk

1 cup of peanut butter

2 eggs

1 Tablespoon of finely chopped mint (my dog is a particular fan of chocolate mint--if you need a sprig to start in your own garden, call me because it is rampant in my own garden!

Mix all together and place on a piece of parchment. Place another piece of parchment on top and roll to about 1/4-1/2 inch in thickness. Flash freeze for ten minutes in freezer before cutting with a cookie cutter.

Bake slow at 300 degrees for about an hour.

Next weeK? Sweet potato treats!


Dear Parents of Kayla,Brittany, Christina, and Halle

Dear parents,

     You are being inundated with cards, letters, Facebook messages, as well as every chicken casserole known to mankind.  I do not mean to add to your pain or be so presumptuous as to reach out to you as if we know each other.

 These meals help, and the messages mean well; each person you hear from is full of love, tears and abiding hope—and their faith combined with your own juggles all the feelings of intense sadness, and true awareness that God is in control of us each day.  While you read each card and letter, it makes you feel better on one level, sick to your stomach on another level, and just plain exhausted on another.  In a year or two you will look back and wonder how you got through the first year or two. You will still feel numb, and realize you have been numb for a long time.  Those people who just pop over to go on a walk, or brought over an extra pan of lasagna or those folks who send you cards a year later—they get it. But not every one grasps the levels of grief.

A sudden tragedy with your beautiful daughter at the center takes on a life of its own—everyone grieving and in the world of social media—it is hard to shut your door and cry in private. And if you do so the world today does not understand, and for me, I felt like I was not “grieving well” like the Christian world expected me.

Everyone and I mean everyone grieves different, and at different times feels different things.  Grief is not a competition. Grief does not have to post on Facebook page every other day.  Sometimes it is exhausting to feel what you feel and what the world feels too.  Your body literally shuts down.  Be kind to yourself. You are okay.

Your feelings are okay.

Young Life loved my daughter, and my daughter loved Young life. They dedicated their yearly run in her honor and it was held within 60 days of her accidental death.

I descended upon the bridge in Milledgeville, that beautiful fall day in September and observed the activity below—the stage with the awards for the runners flanked with balloons in Julia's favorite colors. A volunteer greeted me with love and a t-shirt with my daughter’s name on it—I put it on and vomitted in the woods. No one expects to have the words, In Memorial, next to your daughter's name.

One day I was on the UGA campus taking my stepson to dinner for his birthday. Just seeing a pack of girls—vibrant and alive made me so sad I had to collect myself in the bathroom before we were even seated at our table.

And here is what I know without fail:  God loves us and knows our pain. And that is all that matters.  And yes, our daughter’s sorority sisters, and their fellow Young Life friends, their bosses, their teacher’s, their old camp counselors all are sad and in pain and each will express it in various ways-- on blogs, on Facebook, in cards and with cupcakes, but it is not the pain of a mother’s loss. They can imagine your pain, a phrase that will be used often when speaking to you. I know your pain. And I am sorry for your sudden loss of your beautiful daughter.

 We will no longer brush the hair out of our daughter’s eyes or talk about what kind of wedding she will have one day; discuss where affordable grad schools exist in the area of her major or pick up dirty clothes left behind the bathroom door.   And the family dynamics change. Our Julia made the energy different at every family dinner. Kitchen dancing has not been the same. 

Be there for your other children. And that can be hard, because where you are in grief and where they are in the grief journey does not always match up. Try anyway. You are all traveling together--just sometimes on different roads. Pray when nothing else works.

Take care of your relationship with your husband too. He is in pain as well.Be gentle with all expectations, and if possible--try not to have any.

Get ready to try and make sense of the world that does not understand your grief.

Some folks will ignore you at the grocery store—because they do not know what to say to you.

Some will corner you and gush their pain all over for you as if you don’t feel enough yourself.

Some friends will understand.

Some cannot walk through grief with you –it is as if they are afraid of death itself—like it could happen to someone in their own family.

There will be someone who completely surprises you and will be a rock.

Listen to your dreams. Listen to the scripture. Jesus and your daughter are trying to comfort you.

Find a good counselor that you can talk to about all things, preferably one who has lost a child.  Get the Grief Share emails daily—and even try a group.

Know that you will never get over it and anyone tells you it is “time you move on” needs to put themselves in a shoebox on a shelf.

You have Jesus, you have family and you will heal to a certain extent but with scars.

And that is okay.

Call me if you ever need me. I may not have the answers, but I can hold your hand and make a great cup of tea.



Yes, We Did.

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.

                                                                     Helen Keller

 The 2016 Cast of Listen To YOur Mother Show, Atlanta, Georgia!

The 2016 Cast of Listen To YOur Mother Show, Atlanta, Georgia!

Me too. Me too! Wow.  I had no idea. REALLY. Wow. Thank you. Me too-I thought I was the only one.   These words were said over and over again to each other by the members of the Atlanta 2016 Listen To Your Mother Show. We not only told our stories, but WE listened to each other's stories. What I learned and observed encouraged me. We could run the world--really. Each honored and respected each cast member for the unique woman that she is-- meeting each other right on her own doorstep of life...and opening the front door, welcoming them into their home, their heart, like a long lost friend--allowing each woman to be herself--whatever that looked like.

I feel blessed and lucky enough to be one of the members of this talented group—-not to be on stage, or to read my own story, but to just get to know these other ladies. Each lady ROCKS life in her own special way.  One fellow mom whips out her boob as fast as her one-liners nursing her youngest before she went on stage. Another gal made her own outfit that was a stellar piece of fashion. One encouraged me to do a little bra shopping, and one reminded me that I can do more than I think I can in a day—she works, goes to school, raises a son in a thoughtful manner…and still finds time to write.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed sharing my story—kind of.  For some reason, which  I am still evaluating, I auditioned with an essay that was the most painfully honest thing I’ve ever written. And I usually like to tell a funny story.  I feel compelled to entertain and delight an audience—not knock them on their ass with a hard truth.

I missed the first rehearsal. So the first time I met everyone it was in a cool hip part of Atlanta with no parking…a group stood on the sidewalk waiting to get into the restaurant…while I parallel parked in front of them—no pressure!

 I felt like the sober partygoer who shows up and everyone is already connected in deep and meaningful ways…and I still didn’t meet every LTYM 2016 member until the last rehearsal.  So as I reflect on the experience—I guess I am sad. I am sad that it is over. I was just getting warmed up. I wanted to sit and visit with each and every one of them. To know the humans behind the blog posts and Facebook pages, to soak up their enthusiasm for life…to remind myself: I am not done. I am not done.

I used to be funny. I can dance on tables—sober.  My daughters get all their beautiful abundant energy-- honestly. But as my husband says—you are just now getting your fastball back…and he’s right. After losing our Julia, it has been hard to be honestly light hearted.

Reading at the Listen To Your Mother Show was a remarkable, game changing experience. I will keep these ladies and their stories in my heart and mind forever.

Their passion poked my latent passion--to keep moving and grooving the way we mothers know how…and I am forever grateful for their positive energy…each is a force and I am proud to be a LTYM member.  Thank you, ladies and Benjamin.


This Ain't My First Rodeo

 Thoughts from the Mother Of the Bride--  

          Weddings summarize the couple's initial love story, with future chapters in the cue.   One of the things I hate about weddings is that there are two stories, but we only see the obvious story-- the beautiful bride, the handsome groom, the gracious parents, the adorable flower girl who trips on her dress up the aisle, the dance between father and daughter, the cutting of the cake, the toasts with familiar humor. This story appears to be the same story as all other stories, and feels like a memorized custom, rather than an original romantic tale.

    I’m interested in the backstory, the juicy stuff—the messy parts of real living. Tell me about the bridesmaid who hates her dress, or the persistent mother- in- law to be who wants the groom's sister to be a bridesmaid, or the mother who’s divorced and has a biker boyfriend, and the transgender uncle who one never recognizes from one event to the next-- all the nuances that tell the whole enchilada.

   I guess I want to know those stories because the saying is true: Misery loves company. I am in the throes and woes of planning our family’s second wedding.

    No, this ain’t my first rodeo.  I see right through the wedding scammers. Those who prey upon good people’s emotion charging way too much for the ONCE IN A LIFETIME, YOUR SPECIAL DAY, Of COURSE, YOU WANT THE BEST…those professional sales people to have it down just like a good funeral director. Selling to vulnerable people who just want the perfect setting for the perfect day…cause let’s face it, no day after will be perfect. Am I a bit jaded? You betcha.

 And if my daughter says to me one more time she got a DEAL on this or that, I will scream, it is not a deal if it is still out of our budget. 

   We have survived both of our tantrums over who’s invited and who’s not, the price of photographers—I’ve got a camera for that price, if you get married here, you must use this list of caterers, this cleaning crew, and, oh, you have a band? Well, the music can only be .25 decimals and over by 11 p.m.  I remind her, and the various wedding vendors:  This ain’t my first rodeo. 

     Wedding conundrums exist, and can’t be shuffled under the rose petals, or Uncle Al’s toupee. Planning a wedding and still talking to your family by the end of it is the ultimate parenting challenge. You think potty training was bad? Middle school?

     A wedding is the last and final challenge of parenting, and I can promise you, I am trying to do it well. I wake up channeling Princess Grace but end up going to bed feeling like the Tasmanian devil in the endless cartoon of life.

    My challenge is to keep it affordable, and authentic.  It seems like all the vendors vie for the inevitable photo that will make it to social media. Photographers now stage getting ready, stage the moment you give your child a gift of jewelry to wear, stage getting hair done…I mean when does it end and real living return? And all this talk of her special day… We hope and pray! But let’s face it-- two out of five brides will have more than one wedding. I remind myself: This ain’t my first rodeo.

     No question my cackles are up. Wedding planning is strategic warfare. Yet, with each decision, memories of my daughter’s childhood emerge, floating through the air like a contrail of a plane.  I am holding my child wrapped in her pink blankie; her head tucked in the nook of my neck-- I can smell the baby lotion on her little body. I see her tap dancing as Annie for six nights at the local high school with the live dog wandering the stage as she belts…Tomorrow, Tomorrow!  I remember sitting on her suitcase trying to zip it up for her summer as a camp counselor.    

    Memories continue to drift in and out of my head as I shop on line for cheap plates for our BBQ. Nothing worse than a chicken leg falling through a paper plate on someone's dress.

   My memories of my sweet adorable, I love you and I want to live right next to you when I grow up, daughter, ease the resentment I have about spending hard earned money on a big party--I know I know, every girl wants a beautiful wedding--I’m just worried about spending too much.

    Deep in my resentments, and I mean way deep, my stone heart taps my brain with immense pride. I feel nothing but pride for my daughter and nothing but pure love--I only  want the best for her--not on the wedding day--I can't afford the best--I want the best for her LIFE.

       She is a strong woman. Organized, intentional, and will be a huge asset to her husband. As I click website-to-website ordering tablecloths, wine glasses, and other material items, I do the only thing I know to do: pray. 

      I pray that first and foremost she feels loved—always; that she feels protected, not smothered by a bully with weak ego, or someone who needs to be taken care of because someone has always coddled him.

    I hope she is supported to grow and to be creative, to live her best self.  I hope her husband challenges her to live with adventure, but never threatens, and they both direct their lives. I want them to own a mutual agenda-- to keep open minds and open hearts to always listen to each other.  I hope they live each day as the gift that it is, and to seek opportunities to laugh, and to share with others their gifts and talents-- to serve always. If they serve the world with humility, and a big sense of humor, then all should work out, whether I serve BBQ on plastic, or paper, or vintage china.

For there is another famous saying: Love conquers all. Even wedding planning.

My Friend Jack

 The following story is featured in Lake Wedowee Life

The following story is featured in Lake Wedowee Life

     “You know Jack had lots of girlfriends.” My heart dropped. Somehow I thought I was the only one. I thought of our summer together, working side by side, as we finished various projects at my new lake house. The hot days, the way he looked at me when he was ready for a swim.

     Jack was tall, dark and handsome with big feet; he strolled around with a down- home humble air--not arrogant with his good looks. He had a quiet way about him; he was calm but energetic—always ready for fun.   When he looked at you, it was if he looked right inside your heart, and he understood all your thoughts and concerns.  He was a great listener. He never interrupted when we chatted in my garage as I painted old kitchen chairs, or even complained when I accidentally dripped robin egg blue paint all over him. Jack was a patient soul.

     Very little phased Jack, he was more than happy to let me lead the way in the projects even if he knew I would have to start over. He was generous too.  He always allowed me to eat the last part the sandwiches we shared.  I felt a kinship with Jack, but in my heart, I knew I was not his only friend.  Jack had that way about him; I could tell he was one of those guys that was first at the party and last to leave.

      Life was his best friend. He truly never met a stranger. When he was on his boat-other boaters would wave and say, “Hey Jack!” or “There’s Jack! How ‘ya doing over there!”  Jet ski’s often circled his boat slowly creating a wake of hellos.   He loved to fish late in the day watching the sun set on another beautiful Lake Wedowee day. Jack was definitely the big man on and off the lake.

     Athletic by nature, he would run six or seven miles with one friend, and then bike along with another friend for ten miles or so, and then think nothing of swimming by a girlfriend’s house, and then still have the energy to swim home. And even though he was the strong and silent type, he was always ready to share his viewpoint on various issues if one stopped long enough to pick up his subtle cues.

     For a while this summer, Jack came by my house every day, and waited until my dog Hiker and I went for our daily walk.  We picked up our conversation where we left off the day before, without missing a moment’s time.  Then we would start working on my various projects from painting to gardening and if it got hot, he just sat down and rested awhile.

     Our builders, Chris Jones and Jimmy Stephens first introduced me to Jack.  He was a new addition to our job site and at first I wasn’t too sure about him. We had a conversation that went something like this:

     “Is he gonna cost us more money?” I asked Jimmy.

     “Nah, he’s a good ole boy. I’ve known him awhile now.”

     They were right. He was a good ole boy.  Even my husband liked Jack. My dog liked Jack, everyone on the site liked Jack, so I just had to get to know this fella named Jack.


     According to his mother, Jack brought home girlfriends almost everyday.  She’d get home from work, and there he would be swimming in the cove with either Abby or Sue—but never both, Abby did not want anything to do with Sue.  But those girls loved Jack. Each girl would swim over two coves just to be with Jack.  He was so forgiving, too. Once he let Abby have babies at his house, and he was not even the father.

     He never saw the point in calling fault with anyone; but let’s face it, he loved the ladies. Once he jumped in bed with a woman who left her door open. It was a quiet summer morning and she left a door open accidentally after letting her dog outside.

And even though Jack didn’t know her real well, the bed looked comfortable and he probably had already ran and biked his way through the county and needed a nap.

Needless to say, she was not pleased.   His mother had to go pick him up and explain the ways of the world to him. 

      I was surprised that Jack still lived at home-- he seemed like quite the man about town. Oh, he was, she explained. Jack was known for being a wandering fool.  You couldn’t get him to stop.  She would leave for work, and as soon as he knew she was out of the driveway, he would be off to his own job. Jack did what most of us would love to do—you know, not thinking too much about your day, just doing what feels right and following the day where it leads you. Jack had a general schedule, but nothing set in stone. A wanderer. He was a peace pilgrim of sorts.

     You see, his parents adopted him, after his first set of parents said they just couldn’t manage his wandering ways. For a long time, he liked to hang out in and around Jack’s hamburgers on highway 431. Then one day in 2005, probably after a double cheeseburger, he sauntered in to The Veranda, a new antique shop opened by Ramonda Crouch. He got plenty of attention from Ramonda and her fellow employees.  He loved chatting with the girls on the big wide front porch, and found the perfect spot for an afternoon nap. Jack was truly smitten with Ramonda.

     After a long discussion, Ramonda and Gene Crouch brought him home.  They named him Jack, since he obviously had a special place in his heart for a good cheeseburger. They were aware that Jack had his drawbacks and knew it was going to be a challenge to parent this independent soul.   While they did their best to corral him into staying at home, Jack had business in this world that needed to be tended to.

      Most of the time it led Jack to a construction site. He loved to hang around construction sites.  Jimmy Stephens, of Jimmy Stephens Construction explained to me that someone, somewhere, fed him a biscuit and then from then on he didn’t mind swimming far and wide towards the echoes of the hammers to meet some new friends in hopes of snacking on a biscuit or two.  Let’s face it, what dog doesn’t love free biscuits? 

     Ramonda and Gene put a dog tracker collar on Jack and each day Jack seemed to surpass the last day’s travels. The two were simply amazed by the amount of territory he covered in a day.  They did their best to keep him home, but it was near impossible. Jack was his own man—in a dog’s body.

     Jack unexpectedly passed on November 29, 2013 after a brief illness.  He had been to the vet for his yearly vaccinations and heartworm. His parents think it could have been a reaction to the heartworm medicine, but no one knows for sure.

     I do know that many of us lake folks will miss Jack.  I for one, felt like he was part of a posse of angels who walked me through a season of extreme grief.  After we starting building our home, our youngest daughter, Julia Tarter, 20 died in a weird auto accident. 

     I attempted to dodge grief by traveling anywhere and everywhere that I could walk and walk and walk without knowing anyone. When I was at the lake, my dog Hiker, Jack and I would walk and talk.  When I would pull up to our home he was often sitting on the driveway waiting for me, more than likely waiting for a biscuit, but it felt like he was there as a silent angel.   But I didn’t care if it was just for the biscuits, or to swim with Hiker, I like his carefree ways. He reminded me that life is what you make it.

     What I had found after suddenly losing Julia, who was an extraordinary young woman who loved and cared for all was that I was in extreme pain.  I had no answers, and didn’t want to hear any yet either.  What I did know was that sometimes people filled conversations with that silent dead space, or the awkward advice, and fear-projected glances that sum up feelings like, I can’t imagine, thank goodness it didn’t happen to my child. It became too much of a burden to manage well meaning conversations, to make each person feel okay about my pain and my heart being completely broken–the kind of pain that only someone who has lost a child can understand. But Jack was just Jack. He listened and watched over me, and though he was a canine, I felt like he was there on a divine mission.

   Painting furniture, gardening and crying through each project- Jack listened and understood my pain.  When an 80 pound black dog, walks over a licks the tears off your face, you know you are not alone.

   Perhaps Jack was sent to wander so he could run with those who needed a push, to listen to those who needed to talk, to help a fellow canine deliver her babies in the comfort of his home.   And by just being Jack, he reminds us to value the simple gift of kindness, to make time for listening, and to love all without judgment, and to enjoy a good swim after a long day and always wave—life is short. 

Give Yourself a Break

    As seen in Fayette Woman December 2014 issue


     About 15 years ago, I got over the excess of Christmas.  At first my children did not like my new ideas on updating our traditions. My best friend and I often compared parenting strategies over a long distance phone call and we both decided that we would take the story of The Wisemen into our own gift-giving practices. Our children were close, like cousins of sorts, and we felt by embarking on this new tradition together, we could make our ideas stick.  They would know that somewhere three states away another family was also suffering in simplicity.  

    We decided that our preteens would understand) that “Santa” only gave three  gifts, just like The Wisemen who followed the bright star shining over the manger.  We agreed that one gift could be larger or more expensive than the others, symbolizing the gold Wiseman number one bestowed to the newborn.  Then a gift of less price to symbolize the Wiseman who offered silver as his gift to Jesus of Nazareth and a last small token to round out three gifts.  Thus, gifts were called Wiseman gifts.  We informed our children they could make a list of suggestions for gift ideas, but each item on the list was not a sure thing. No more sense of entitlement, where I felt expected to produce gifts just because it was on a Santa list.  No, they could expect three gifts. Even if they listed ten on a list, they would get only three.  Wise men were wise for a reason.

    On the same day, both my girlfriend and I sat our families down after a Sunday lunch and explained the new rules of Christmas.  We could hear each of our childrens’ replies three states away, conversations along these lines:

    “What???? Only THREE gifts?” chimed my three daughters.

     “Yep. One really good one, and one smaller, and one even smaller.”

     “If I ask for a purse, will you put anything in it? Like a wallet with shopping money? Or lip-gloss? Or would that be the three gifts? Queried one--she was already strategizing.

     “Are you going broke?” one asked with terror in her eyes.

      “This is awful.”

       “We only get lip-gloss for Christmas?”

   Then I outlined why our culture adopted gift giving as part of the Christmas story.   Originally, way back somewhere, the idea of a small token, a gift, was used to honor each other, a loved one, a friend, even a stranger, to illustrate the way that Jesus lived—always serving and giving to others.  Gift giving was intended to be a symbolic ritual designed to enhance the meaning of the Christmas story—not to cash in and raise the national gross product levels.    Looks around our supper table went from shock to understanding.  It began to settle in that one, I was serious, and two, don’t mess with Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas.

   Now, our Christmas is less about packages upon packages under a tree, and more about the gifts of Christmas-yummy meals together, sleeping in, lingering cups of coffee catching up on things. Through the years, it seems our three gifts get monetarily smaller and smaller.  I even make one of the gifts, which sometimes is harder than buying something.

    This year I am painting a small wooden box that will hold a small necklace that I am making myself, which will be one of the girls’ three gifts.  While painting this box a soft grey, with a silver shimmer lilting through the smallest of corners, it occurred to me that what I really want to give could not not be contained in that box.

    With each stroke of paint, it became more and more evident.  What I really want to give to my girls, and to all women—young moms I observe at the grocery store making tough decisions reading food labels, older women standing in line at the post office some with taut faces from too much Botox, diligent walkers on the cart paths—people I don’t know well, yet as a fellow female I feel like I do know on a certain level.  I want to give each of them this small grey box with a slip of paper inside, with the simple statement: Give yourself a break. You are enough.  And by that statement I want to say—you don’t have to be perfect.  Your tree does not have to look like it belongs on Pinterest, your cookies can be irregular, and you don’t have to live in a stressed out state trying to prove you are worthy. You are enough.

    With all the new phone applications where we can mark our successes of calorie counting, money expenditures, “likes on our updates, it is as if we are charting our daily duties, just like our second grade teacher in school, with little stars by our names when we sat still in class, or left a clean work station, or recited the multiplication of 4’s without error.   Those little victories, those little check offs that we do each day, should be private reminders that we are on the path we have chosen.  Yet, within all the apps, or goal setting, it appears we all continue to strive and never rest.  We need those stars by our names.   I often think that we should remind ourselves of other victories; victories that we may take for granted.  Things like, making dinner without looking at the phone. Being present in a conversation.       

    I want to hand every woman I know a grey little box and inside a folded small, but never fading: Give yourself a break. You are enough.

    So, that through the holidays when each soul is tired with activities like chasing approval in the office gift swap, staying up late cooking casseroles to take to multiple holiday events, balancing family dynamics in lieu of their own feelings-- each woman can glance at their box and know.  I am enough.

  We will be giving one of the greatest gifts to ourselves, and as an unintended consequence tons of gifts big and small will be given to our loved ones.  By sharing our contentment with ourselves, we relax and enjoy the moment, and we truly are living the love we feel, versus trying to show it, control it, buy it, or earn it.

  And by giving ourselves a break, we make space for grace. We slow down and breathe. And the greatest present we can give is a new presence.  Merry Christmas. 

Cowgirls are God's Wildest Angels

I grew up quick as a child. The fourth daughter in line of daughters ahead of me, I was out to prove that I could be the son my father always wanted.  It was the 70’s and Nixon ran for President; Go-Go boots set the fashion scene and I lipped synced in my bedroom to Nancy Sinatra’s song, These Boots Were Made for Walking, but my boots were red cowboy boots.  I wore my red cowboy boots everywhere; to the cardiologist with my eldest sister, who at 17 was a heart attack away from death. I slipped them on with pale blue Bermuda shorts, the back of my legs sticking to the vinyl seat covers of the family Impala as we commuted to the epilepsy research center with my second sister who lived her teenage years with wires to her head.  Sundays required a dress; I defiantly anchored the boots to a lime green checked sundress with tiny yellow daisies, caring little that my boots failed to match—my sister who resided at the Richmond State School for the mentally ill couldn’t even recognize me, bad fashion, or my boots. I was out to prove that I could survive just about anything, and my boots became my uniform and hope.

My boots were the first to be packed when my parents decided that at twelve I was at vulnerable stage and should spend time with one of two of the Catholic priests in the family, Uncle Bob.

Now Uncle Bob wasn’t like most priests—reading, writing, and praying in a cool dark office that smelled like last week’s incense. No, my Uncle Bob wore the obligatory black shirt and collar, but his shirt topped black jeans and a black leather belt, with a large silver longhorn cow as the buckle.  The tips of the buckle, the actual longhorns of this four-inch silver cow, held up Uncle Bob’s small-but-growing beer gut.  And he liked his beer.  His boots, black Ostrich, held dust in the fine creases of the leather with the outside heals leaning an inch lower than the inner heal.  He walked bow legged with a slight limp.

When I stayed with Uncle Bob, there was no telling what the average day would look like.  It started out simple enough, morning mass at 7 a.m., held with reverence in an un-air-conditioned bingo hall that served as the church since the parish was too poor to have an actual church yet.  Two six-foot by four-foot wide fans flanked the altar, which was just constructed of a folding table on cement blocks. The fans circulated the Hill country heat through the hall in a meditative hum.  Blue, my uncle’s mutt, the derivative of a love affair between a black lab and hound dog, howled outside.  The dog’s vibrato echoed through the fans an eerie way when my uncle said the “Our Father.”  He often, stopped mid-sentence, and yelled, “Blue. Shut UP. Shut the hell up, ya damn dog!” He continued with the sacred prayer not missing a word.

This morning ritual was followed by a breakfast of Cheerios, Dr. Pepper, and a brownie for dessert.  He usually sat and smoked a Lark, placing a new pack in his black shirt pocket along with his lighter, a little Bic with a naked woman on it.   He flicked his ashes in between his lectures on life and love to me as I washed down my breakfast with a second Dr. Pepper.  When a phone call interrupted him and he talked in his office awhile, I started a new game of gin rummy with my grandmother, who lived with him. Also with a Lark in her hand, she smoked fast and with passion, but she moved slowly with a replaced hip.

I heard the office door open and I got the nod it was time for his rounds.  Most days I got to ride with him wherever he went. It may be to the convent down the street, where Sister John and Sister Helen were the last of the parish nuns. Sister John and Sister Helen had been ordered to return back to Italy, when their Order decided that the smallest of Brazos county parishes could live without their services; however, they decided to defect, preferring Uncle Bob’s brand of priesthood and the offerings of Texas A&M down the road.  With room for 12 nuns, and one chapel in the center of the convent, Sister John used the space to set up a kindergarten and day care in the summer.  Sister Helen worked at the hospital over in Brennan.  Both were in school at Texas A&M, seeking official degrees in teaching and nursing, and they served as organizational liaisons for Uncle Bob’s annual fundraiser, The Somerville Stampede.  Although Somerville was a one-stop-light town, one weekend a year, it was a hopping place, since my Uncle’s rodeo was on the official Texas Rodeo circuit.

Hundreds of horse and cattle trailers would line up side by side, with most entrants camping at the rodeo site, in lieu of driving over to Brennan, the next town 30 miles away.  Even the Blue Bell ice cream, a landmark in Brennan, couldn’t beat the local parishioner ladies’ BBQ and authentic Mexican food. The hand-rolled tortillas and BBQ sandwiches created enough profit for the ladies not to not have to work for the rest of the year. For one weekend a year, Joe Esparza’s small ranch became a rodeo Woodstock, and all the proceeds blessed St. Anne’s parish.

My uncle’s claim to fame, earning his nickname, Bullet Bob, was the fact that he was the only bull-riding priest in Texas. Before he embarked on his yearly ride (which usually landed him in the ER), he would ride through the ring with a ten-gallon Stetson, circling for cash all in the name of Jesus and St. Anne’s parish. This took at least an extra 30 minutes, with the aid of the rodeo clowns, picking up the cash, making up a skit to increase the donations, Bullet Bob trotting his horse slowly around the ring as he laughed and cajoled people out of their Benjamin’s, Hamilton’s, and Jackson’s.

Most of the weeks preceding the stampede were filled with organizational duties—little did I know but most of our errands pertained to critical issues like beer sponsors, prize money, food, parking, you name it.  I often sat reading The Secret Garden anywhere from an office to a barn to a bar.

One day went out to a ranch lined with short mesquite trees following a dusty gravel road. Although I was only twelve, I was already 5’10” and Uncle Bob needed help backing up a trailer. I stood tall and waved him back so that he would not hit the back of his denim-blue ‘69 Ford truck to the front hitch of a long black trailer, the kind that is so big it could fit six longhorns steers.  After directing the truck to line up to the trailer, my second lesson was to include how to load a bull.  The bull, who I renamed Pepper, needed to be delivered to the rodeo site where he was going to get REAL and not just  I-dare-you-to-ride lessons on bull riding.  Every twelve-year-old girl from Houston needs to know how to properly load a bull in a trailer, right? Right.

A large greyish bull circled the trailer bucking and spewing, and I was smart enough to jump on the hood of the truck and watch while Bullet Bob and a bevy of Mr. Hernandez’s ranch hands talk Pepper on the trailer. The only thing I really learned is that the best place to be is on the hood of a truck when loading a bull, and that men are not as brave, or as smart, as you think.  Eventually, the bull got corralled in the trailer, and we were off to Frog’s for a greasy hamburger and another mid-day Dr. Pepper.

Frog’s is the kind of place where all the locals go. The air was cool; the place was light with large windows revealing a field of yellow wild flowers across the highway. The tables and benches were dark, made from an old barn from the back of the property.  The tablecloths were the typical red-checkered plastic; complete with an occasional fly stuck to leftover BBQ sauce and like many of the patrons, too comfortable to move.  The jukebox honored Willie, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones.  Willie blended the hippies and the cowboys together, and so did Frog’s.  Everyone was welcome, young and old alike.

Once when I was in a crucial scene in Secret Garden, I ignored my manners and the waitress as she served me another Dr. Pepper.   She was missing a tooth and her Extra Long Benson and Hedges fit right where her tooth should have been.  She wore a man’s navy blue sleeveless shirt that at one time really did have sleeves, and it seemed snug on her large breasts, and I could smell her deodorant vanishing as her cigarette bounced up and down with each syllable on her large bottom lip caked with a bright pink lipstick.

I felt a large hand on the back of my braided pony tail yank me outside. The same large hand yanked me up by the back of my jeans and I landed squarely on the hood of a black Chevy truck– my bottom just missing a rather large longhorn hood ornament. The heat from the sun on the black truck made me feel like hell was awfully close.

“Listen hear, Murph. And listen good.”  Bullet Bob, less than a foot from my face, his eyes glaring at me, gave me very little choice.

“Let there be no mistake how serious I am when I say this:  Never forget. Never forget. YOU. Yes, YOU. Are no better than any one else.  People may be different, they may not have what you have, they may not be as pretty, may not be as smart, but NEVER EVER Forget– YOU are no different than they are. Everyone and I mean EVERYone should be treated like the Lord would treat us all…with love and respect. You got that cowgirl? YOU got that? I am serious here. YOU go in there and treat Miss Bea like she was last year’s Miss Texas and be nice. Ya, hear?”

I quickly got used to a different way of life.  Folks eating egg tacos and drinking a Lone Star seemed natural at ten in the morning.   Frog’s served as the local diner and the local bar, and kids were welcome if you were with family; I was with the Father of the town. And he played that priest card often and well.  He held a lot of official meetings at Frog’s, and a lot of unofficial meetings too.  He could play a round of poker and do marriage counseling all in the same 15 minutes. He knew he was sure to find what any local he needed, counsel a wavering parishioner, and everyone knew where to find the priest.  Remember, this was circa 1972, before cell phones and emails.

Six hours later, and at least six beers later, maybe more, my Uncle Bob thought it would be a good idea if I learned how to drive the Ford and Pepper back to the rectory. It sounded like a good idea to me. One of the benefits of being tall at an early age was that I looked older than I really was. I looked at least 14.  Anxious to grow up, and feeling sassy in my red boots, I sat tall, my foot easily reaching the pedal and my hands at ten and two.  I sauntered down County Road 420 with the bull shifting his weight to and fro behind me in Darth Vader’s cattle trailer.  When I pulled right to get on the big highway, Highway 36, I felt his weight shift a bit. Uncle Bob decided we needed to stop for cigarettes—one can never run out of Larks.  I pulled into the one gas station in town, and he decided we would get gas too.  Fortunately, the gas tank was on the driver’s side. I slowly pulled the Ford to a stop and let out a sigh of relief.   Uncle Bob staggered in the store, and I pumped the gas, having learned this on previous Uncle Bob adventures.

I waited and waited in the truck. Bullet Bob appeared to be listening to a last minute confession with the store employee.  He was still laughing when he jumped into the truck and handed me a Dr. Pepper and a handful of penny candy.   While lighting his Lark, he said, “Murph, you look like a pro there driving. Now let’s take this bad-ass bull home. I’ll take her to the Joe’s tomorrow.”

I pulled out of the gas station as if I drove a truck with a trailer every day of the week. Unfortunately, I cut left to get on the two-lane highway a bit too soon, and the trailer took the last gas pump with it.  At first I didn’t know what happened; was the bull moving, or did I hit something? Then I saw this geyser of fluid, and the bull shifted too and fro and all in a matter of seconds, I screamed, and the priest shouted, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Oh, my GAWWWD, Oh SHIT!”  I stopped dead on the highway. The bull fell forward with another large MOOOOO.  Bullet Bob was yelling and laughing all at the same time, “Well, don’t stop now, Murph, keep on going! Pull ahead to the Dairy Queen!”

About two hundred yards later, I sat and watched kids eating their dipped cones inside the Dairy Queen with their mom and dad.  In the rear view mirror I watched the dark shadow of my uncle as he weaved a jog back to the gas station as the pump spewed and filled the pot holes of the parking lot with clear danger.  I could see the fire truck and sheriff cars approaching, their lights bright and fast. I just knew I was going to jail, and I would be there until I was too old to drive again. I wondered if they would ever give me a Dr. Pepper in jail, or would every meal consist of gruel like in the movie Oliver?  I wanted to be with the family in the Dairy Queen.

Time passed slowly.  The family gobbled chocolate dipped cones as they laughed and talked with each other.

My knees jiggled, and sweat was pouring down into my red boots my eyes fixed in the rear view mirror watching the chaos and the police talk to Bullet Bob. I wondered what they would let me wear in jail.  About 30 minutes later, Uncle Bob jumped back in the truck, nodding his head forward. “Okay, Murph, keep on driving straight and turn left at the bingo sign, and head for home. God is with us. Always remember that.”

A New List

By Tricia Stearns

I have a friend who lives outside of London in a lovely, restored, smallish castle with her handsome husband, a childhood friend of my husband. Born and raised in the United Kingdom, she speaks the Queen’s English and uses the word, lovely, like an American teenager uses the word awesome or amazing. Not only does she over-use the word lovely to describe her son’s new job or the waiter’s quick attention to her empty water glass, but also the word truly describes everything about her to a T. She is lovely, from her flawless skin and clear blue eyes, to her clothes– expensive and well fitted, put together by hip European designers complete with matching handbags for each occasion. In addition, her manners arelovely. She never puts her foot in her mouth, interrupts, or has too strong of an opinion. She appears to be the walking,  talking definition of the word, lovelyAnd I wanted to be just like her.

A few autumns ago, my husband and I traveled to Chicago to spend the weekend with several couples. Looking forward to layering in scrumptious sweaters, sipping pumpkin lattes, and viewing gorgeous trees full of red and yellow hues, I tried to plan my wardrobe. I must travel light, a requirement of all airline employees and their families. I have learned to pack a soft black travel dress that can be worn five different ways. Only two shoes go into the travel bag, and my purse is my camera bag. The lovely Brit traveled with two oversized bags, which included three pairs of boots and a different coat for each outfit. She was baffled and very concerned that I had to get by on such little fashion choices over the weekend. And I wanted her closet.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Many times over the weekend, I struggled with comparing myself and felt insecure. It seemed like the more I internally compared,  the more awkward I became. I lectured myself as if I was one of my daughters, but by the last day, I felt like a sixth grader sneaking into the high school prom and sitting at the cool kids table.

We were walking down the street— I in my two day old dress topped with a new sweater, my standard black puffy trench coat that can see rain, snow, Paris in the spring, and Boston in the winter, and the one pair of boots I wear any way and every day. Her husband, as smartly dressed as his wife, stops me and says, “Wait. I think there is something in the back of your hair.” He reaches behind my head, and pulls out my peach colored curler I left in the nape of my neck. Nice. I can’t even get the curlers out of my head before walking into the Chicago Museum of Art.

Fast-forward, a year later, we had a different kind of fall. I attempted to dodge grief by traveling anywhere and everywhere where I could walk and walk and walk without knowing anyone. What I had found after my youngest daughter, Julia, unexpectedly passed in a single car accident, at only 20 years old, was that sometimes people filled the conversations with that dead space, or the awkward advice, and fear-projected glances that sum up feelings like,I can’t imagine, thank goodness it didn’t happen to my child. It became too much of a burden to manage well meaning conversations, to make each person feel okay about my pain and my heart being completely broken–the kind of pain that only someone who has lost a child can understand.

Many times I felt like a visitor not only in a new city, but a new planet. One day in late September, a cool crisp breeze understood my sadness, and we walked, the wind and I, through a small but busy New England town. I discovered this ginormous tree with yellow leaves. The tree, round and full, sat proud with its color shouting from the inside out. A few leaves reluctantly left the large circle of yellow twisting and turning through the air as each drifted to the ground. The tree quietly commanded an odd corner in the center of town where five stop signs intersected to include a railroad crossing as one of the stop signs for a busy commuter rail. I sat in awe of this tree so full of golden goodness in the middle of a man created mess of an intersection, clearly ignoring the significance of this tree, only concerned with who should go where and how fast or slow they should go to keep the wheels of mankind moving.

I sat for what seemed for hours watching leaves dance with and around the wind, floating towards the ground making a carpet of yellow. And through the intersection, life whirled by. A mom in a grey minivan, complete with a soccer ball magnet placed over the fuel tank, chatted on her cell phone intent on her conversation and her destination as she slammed on her brakes at the stop sign the stress of her schedule visible on her taut face. Her eyes darted from stop sign to stop sign complete with flashes of anger and fear: the fear of being late, the fear of not doing it all. I felt her pain, having lived many days just like her. A jogger, with glow green athletic shoes and blue neon earphones blocked out the verbal world, running a steady pace forward. A bus turned the corner, shadows of faces looking down into newspapers, or phones and no one even glanced at my yellow tree. Another round of cars, each ignoring the commuter rail as it rattled closer, the arms of the railroad crossing gliding downward. A car or two attempted a pause through the stop signs racing to beat the safety arms. Two bike riders made a daredevil half-stop through the intersection, taking on another angry mini-van. No one looked twice at my yellow tree. How can they miss this fabulous tree full of love of a fall day? The tree, the wind, and the sun starting to fade late in the day whispered in harmony a golden secret: slow down and breathe.

And the word came to my mind. You know the word. It was a lovely day. And no one seemed to notice. But I did even in my grief. It was truly a lovely day. Not the worldly kind of lovely, full of smart fashion and trendy topics. No, a sincere, timeless beauty. And I remembered other lovely fall days from years gone by. An October trip to Boston with all three of my daughters and how we strolled the Freedom Trail snapping pictures by a statue of Paul Revere and searching the North End for just the right place to stop for pizza. I remembered hayrides through Burt’s farm in North Georgia and the two hours it took for us as a family to pick out the right pumpkin that would be our Jack- o -lantern. My husband and I getting lost on purpose as we hiked a loop in Pine Mountain our dog shaking water on us after jumping in the creek. And I began to walk, the wind joining me, the sun three steps behind me, and I popped into a small general store and picked up a spiral notebook for just over a dollar. I went back to my beautiful yellow tree, and I watched the folks of this little town whirl by while I a made a list. Not a list of to do’s. Or shoulds, or coulds, or woulds, or wishes. No, I made the lovely list. I wrote whatever popped into my head that was lovely.

  • A nap on my mother-on-laws screen porch.
  • Holding hands with my husband.
  • My daughter’s laughter in my kitchen.
  • Bonnie’s macaroni and cheese.
  • The trees on my own street.

My list continued. And I add to it to this day. Everywhere there is a yellow tree. This fall I hope you stop, and breathe, and listen to your heart and make your own lovely list. Jot down what fills you with joy, what makes you pause, what makes you think, wow, that is just lovely.

A Jelly Hug

How ‘bout a hug with jelly?

When I was 9 years old, I used to love to eat lunch at my neighbor’s house. Her mom made peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread.  I remember the thick grape jelly running out the crust less sides since the bread held nothing together but my handprints on this new invention of pre-sliced white bread.  As an adult and getting back to basics of healthy eating, I fell in love with homemade whole wheat bread, soft on the inside, and crusty and rustic on the outside and Ezekiel bread, packed with protein from beans and the dense flour.

When my daughter Julia was 16, she did a mission trip in downtown Atlanta with her youth group. She wanted me to go back with her to Safe House and visit her new friends that she met and ministered.  Twice she asked me to help her make sandwiches, on Wonder Bread.  I was offended that she wanted to serve them processed bread, and felt we should give them good bread.   She laughed and said,  “Mom, it is what they are used to.  I know, I know, you hate processed food, but let’s just meet them where they are and hand them a blessing.”  Twice we drove to downtown Atlanta, Julia as my co-pilot, with a stack of sandwiches on her lap. While I double-parked, with my cell phone in hand and one foot out my own car door, she would jump out and hand down and out citizens sandwiches.  She wanted to find Sandra, whom she made a bracelet for.  I kept telling her these people had bigger problems than we could solve.  She looked at me and smiled knowingly and said, “I know your right. We’re just here to give a hug with jelly.”

Now I think of peanut butter and jelly differently.

When the girls were growing up we made our own lunches throughout the school year. Each child required something unique to her own taste.  Mallory, to this day, hates mayonnaise with a passion.  Julia liked peanut butter- smooth, no nuts and strawberry jelly on whole wheat; or turkey with mayonnaise—like her older sister Meredith, but the lettuce had to be packed separate so they could add it when they sat down in their lunchrooms—otherwise it was wilted and made the bread soggy.  I made their lunches honoring their tastes—not too spoil each child, but to let them know they were special and I listened to their likes and dislikes.

Most families are stretched and stressed like a tight rope over the circus of life. While most of us struggle to simplify, and continue to do way too much, there are ways of letting you and your family members know you listen and that you care.  I was guilty of being on the phone way too much. Yet, I listened in many other ways.

By listening and remembering the details of a loved one’s heart can keep you connected to your family, your friends and your community. Here are my suggestions for creating some listening opportunities.

Be Present.  Make a conscious effort to not double and triple task when having conversations.  Do not text emotions. Live conversations are for conveying love, concerns, and issues while texting is for quick updates as to arrival, and departures.

Make moments count. Set up safe times for just day-to-day conversation. Mealtime should be for sharing; create topics that are fun, like the last football game and ask silly questions, such as, “If you were an ice cream flavor what would you be?” Make appointments for family meetings to discuss items that need attention, like traffic tickets, careless driving, bad grades, etc. Build each day with time and your effort to be present. Bad habits are hard to break; good habits are easy to keep.

Accept and Love yourself.  Smile. You do not need anyone’s acceptance but your own. This alone can be a huge example to all.

Detach from results and get more results. Most of us are success driven, and it extends to our protégée as well.  Perhaps if we invest in the journey of life and not just the successes in life, we will see more results. Results that show passion for living and for all people; doing something for the pure joy of it; learning for learning’s sake; giving with grace rather than expecting something in return.

It is a new school year, and a new day each day.  Try giving a hug with jelly.