Sunday, April 17, 2011

...sweet tea and precious memories

We came together in childhood, each of us one part confidante, one part bearer of secrets that we dared not whisper. Saturday movies were followed by sandwiches, cherry Cokes, and Archie comic books. Friday night pajama parties were filled with ghost stories and the dreams of young girls. Later we painted our nails, rolled our hair, talked about boys. We danced and asked the eternal question: "Paul? Or John?" We practiced kissing...our pillows. We giggled. We cried. We had spats and forgot why. On weekdays, carpools and afternoon play dates brought us together. New frontiers opened one Christmas morning when the pink princess telephone was unwrapped. We lay on rugs by our beds, our feet propped against the mattresses. Or we curled up in overstuffed chairs, the receiver tucked between shoulder and ear. Endless more hours were filled with talk...and the admonitions of parents to "hang up that thing NOW!" On Sundays we went to church where a succession of women met with us in small rooms. They spoke to us of Jesus and the Golden Rule. Told their stories. Taught us to pray and reminded us to keep our knees together when seated.

We've met occasionally in the intervening years. In groups of two or three, we've sat at tables, on porches, in cars or restaurants. And we've looked into each other's eyes, touched hands, hugged as if time stood still. Some secrets spilled. Others wait, perhaps to surface at some yet-to-be-discovered intersection. Life has molded, stripped, chastened, brutalized us at times. But each of us wears our battle scars with the soft grace of one who knows she has survived. Redemption. Teachers of our youth, please know that we heard you. We can still diagram a sentence and know why this is important. We practice critical thinking, a skill that took root in your classrooms. You who pointed us to the immutable Rock of Ages, hear this: We know that we are loved. We have tried to love others. And we pray to all that is good. Without ceasing. In carpools. At the kitchen sink. On our knees. Sometimes face down on our prayer rugs: the oriental carpet in the living room, the kilim in the den, or the bathmat. We have knelt in countless sanctuaries to discover the sanctuary that rests within.

All these decades later we remain Southern sisters, bound not by blood but by spirit. Sown in us are are survivors' genes. We are the heirs of immigrants. Unequal in ledgers but not in our love for each other. During the dark days of the Civil War, some of our antecedents buried family silver while others hid the milk cow and chickens. Too many wars have followed, each succeeding generation keeping vigil, waiting for agonizingly slow letter from loved ones hunkered down in foreign feilds. Then, watching battles broadcast live during dinner. We now go to war with men. We have buried children, parents, husbands, and dreams. We have danced at weddings. And fed funeral crowds.

These days we regale each other with stories of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. We remember those who are no longer with us in life. And recall the Southern men who shaped us, the Southern boys with whom we flirted. Roles have reversed. We have diapered our mothers and learned from our children. We are women who have born our griefs privately. But tears have surfaced in reunion, a baptism of renewal and awareness. Because we know that time is precious. Much more rests behind than stretches before us. Our laughter is sweeter for this. Our tears do not flow from wells of self-pity but from fountains of blessings. Our edges have been softened by sadness and grief. But inside - where it counts - our cores are strong. Whether prompted by wisdom or fatigue, we have let go of much. Except our Clinique makeup and good books. We may not like our aging necks but we wrap them in pearls. And we are daring. We wear white before Easter if the mood strikes...or if everything else needs ironing.

Our playgrounds have changed but our lives are forever woven together. Immediacy is now measured in megabytes. Our words are chosen carefully, spoken more gently, but our declarations are more honest. We are works in progress. So, my sisters of the southland, here's to lunches in tea rooms or around kitchen tables. To afternoons on porches, conversation punctuated by "More sweet tea?" To evenings in a swing by the rose gardens or gathered around candlelit tables. Most of all, here's to us. Storms of life may have ripped open our hearts and ravaged our spirit. The valleys may have been deep. But these moments have made us stronger...hopefully not harder. Tears, like summer showers, have softened our our firmament and filled us to overflowing. May rivers of living waters flow through us, sweet channels of blessings. 

Like the roses, azaleas, and dogwoods that populate 
the gentle rolling landscape of our childhood, we have bloomed. 
And we will again for we are the daughters of spring. 

Bless our hearts...please. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

...thoughts from the intersection of "Dang Tired" and "Oh, Sweet Jesus" (and you thought you were alone)

Hello, my ether-friends.  I have been away for a bit. Resting. Listening. Waiting. Under re-construction. No internet at the present. Unless I trek to a near-by grocery store that offers free wi-fi with time-outs that would frustrate Mother Teresa. [Actually Mother Teresa was frequently frustrated. That she persisted when faith was a struggle encourages me. So hush, you voices, you who whisper of her demons. These may have tortured her but her hope was not vanquished.] I digress. I have been the captive of Enforced Solitude. Challenging. Healing. Now, how lovely to return for a visit. Still in renovation, though.
During this time, some personal truths came home to roost. Like old photos that mellow with age, I am fading. My skin is thinner, more transparent. The small blue veins at the corner of my eyes peek through. My hair is shedding pigment. The brown that now mingles with gray strands is a softer shade. Only my age spots and the circles beneath my eyes are getting darker. The royal blues, bright reds, and emerald greens that I once loved to wear seem harsh against my complexion. For decades I bought the same lipstick, the same blush. Then, one morning, nothing looked right. Tube after tube of lipstick, blush in various shades...tried them all. I, who fancied myself substantive, fell prey to the claims of one moisturizer after another.

I’ve now spent the better part of an afternoon discarding the accumulated “long-past-their-prime-as-well” cosmetics. Less is indeed more.
Time is stripping me of what I struggle to relinquish, my vanity. I am in the early stages of making peace with my aging skin. Love the wind in my hair these days. And walks in the rain. With an unsolicited but ‘bought-and-paid-for-on-time’ humility rooted in the certain knowledge that I will forget my lessons. That I will need to learn them all over again. That God will love me without fail...steadfast, even when I miss the mark. The cyclical nature of grace.
When I was a little girl, I loved playing “dress-up”. Never more than when I stayed with my aunt. I loved Jo. Adored her with all my heart. I admit, too, that I liked her hats. Her shoes. Her clothes. Her make-up, perfume, jewelry. A woman who logged forty-five years of dedicated service to the same company, she was not given to excess. But she did have style.  Function, meet Form. 
I’d sit on the cross-legged on the floor by her dressing table, fascinated by her morning ritual. Over the years, she had honed the process so that she could be up and out the door to work in a flash. One last look in the mirror to check for lint and no more peeks during the day. She always had time, though, to look down at me with her beautiful smile and say, “Love you, punkin.” My devotion must have been duly noted, since she saved empty perfume bottles for my make-believe store under the spirea bush. And passed on hats and high heels and flowing dresses for games of “pretend”.  
What made Jo beautiful was her spirit. Her beauty started in her core and worked its way out. She saw the small things that loom large with little girls. She would stop for an order of fries (“Once a week can’t hurt us!”). With ketchup.  And a Coke. She didn’t even hint that I might spill. If I did, she helped me clean up and then we got on with the fun. A few spots didn’t diminish joy when I was with her. She took me to her office every so often. On Sundays, I sat on a pew just behind the piano that she played for worship. Always, I watched and listened. Quiet and gentle, she was not given to complaints. Only once did I hear her express a personal wish, a wistful moment after a long illness. My heart shattered. No whining, no “why”... just a simple, honest declarative statement. A quiet, deep longing. Quickly followed by an equally firm “But the Good Lord knows best.” She embodied integrity. 
The door of her heart was a portal to unconditional love. No ownership, no legalities, no desire to shape, or re-shape, the other. We simply delighted in each other’s being. I felt God smiling down on us.  And in our joy, we smiled back. 
She didn’t spoil. Reprimands were gentle but firm. She taught me that caring people, like God, can be aggravated with me - with justification that I might not see - AND love me without fail. [How on earth could staying up all night on Christmas Eve be a problem? Granted, I was sharing her room. Her bed, in fact. But, really! Come Christmas morning, though, she had big hugs ready.]
Thus with her, as with my dad, I was safe. Transgressions were acknowledged. And forgiven. A contrite heart was possible. Daddy said that mistakes are “the seasoning that keeps us from being even more insufferable.” Adding, “If you don’t believe this, then spend the day with someone who is never wrong.” Later in life, the struggles of these two gentle, very human souls helped me to see that pleasing in order to pacify isn’t love. Just manipulative and futile. Over the years, I watched each bring pleasure to others - for no reason other than the joy of doing so - and marveled. I also saw how some took advantage of their generous natures. This observation notwithstanding, I wanted what they had. They lived lives of attraction, rather than promotion. 

Jo and I claimed each other early and deeply. She, a beacon for me. I, the shadow child she would never have. In the end, living far apart, our love remained undiminished. But the separation was equally terrible. Splintered. Part of my heart resided with her. And departed with her death. As much as we resided in a mutual admiration society, we were claimed by others who couldn’t grasp the bond.  
Time and death have not diluted the memories. I can see her pretty hands playing the piano. Her scent lingers...sweet, soft, intoxicating. Her gentle voice and laughter reverberate. All her unspoken but well-lived messages are woven into my being. Words dilute these observations of her daily journey. But I claim them - with varying degrees of success -’s okay to paint the exterior, but the interior work comes first...soft answers are best ; none is perhaps the better trumps all has its share of bumps, so deal with them. 
The last and greatest lesson learned, however, cleaved my heart. Know that you are loved by God even when others leave you or treat you badly. Because, in the end, she was so terribly alone.  Stripped - perhaps mercifully - of painful memories by the Alzheimer’s that would claim her and her two siblings, she faded into death. Still adored by a niece separated by miles and responsibilities and choices.  One who hoped that, in the deep recesses of this dear woman’s soul, she knew that we had loved so fiercely...with such joy in each other...that nothing - not the powers and principalities of darkness, not even death - could separate us. 
I have a photo of utter contentment. Jo is in a rocking chair, her arms wrapped around me. My long, three-year-old legs fall limply from her small lap. My mouth hangs open to catch passing dreams. Her face is nestled against my head. And her blonde - Southern blonde, if you get my drift - hair rests on my long, brunette curls. The incomparable reverie of falling asleep in the arms of love.
Oh, my sweet, ever-beautiful Jo, from eternity please know how I treasure the seeds you planted in my little girl life. They took root.  I am nourished now by the fruits borne of our love. Memories of you have not faded but softened. Filtered through the lens of time, they glow softly, lighting the way. You - who taught me how to dream, who longed to be cherished, who never complained - gave what you never seemed to receive in full-measure. At least on this earth. Life is not fair. My devotion was a poor substitute for what you deserved. But when we were together, I felt that I stood at heaven’s door...or, at least, sat by its dressing table. Yesterday, while walking, I discovered a spot where dreams nap. 
And you whispered the loveliest words from beyond the trees in the deep southern woods we knew so well...”I love you, punkin’.”  
I love you, too, Jo.  

In a world filled with maybe’s,
peppered now with nevers
you whispered to me 
the eternal Always.

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