Grandma

Last week family and friends celebrated the life of my grandmother, Sara Jobes Atkinson.  After a long battle with Alzheimer’s (she was diagnosed 20 years ago), she died on February 1, 2018. She was 80 years old.

I have many memories with Grandma. As a child, I was lucky enough to spend several summers with her when she lived in Texas. We swam in the neighbors’ pool, played with Barbies, read stories, and ate ice cream every night before bed. We took weekend trips, shopped at H.E.B., and watched Larry Bird play basketball. We did a lot.One year, I even traveled to Oregon with her to attend her sister’s 50th wedding anniversary–the first and only time I’ve ever eaten an oyster. Those were special times, and I will be forever grateful for them, as well as many others.

At the funeral, I was asked to share a eulogy. It took me several days to figure out how to honor the woman whom I loved. I finally settled on an idea and began writing. Once I finished, I sent it to my mother, who sent it on to other family members. They all approved, but I kept working, trying to make it perfect.  I think–I hope–I came close.


As each of us will remember Grandma, we will see different images. Some of us will recall her as a friend who welcomed us into her home. Some might think of her as a collector of beanie babies, baskets, and quilts. Some may call to mind helping her move several times over many years. Though we will all remember her in our own special way, I imagine there is one thing that we will share: the memory of her laugh.

Grandma loved to laugh. Boy, did she have a great laugh–a distinct laugh–and once she got started, it wasn’t long before everyone in the room joined in. It was infectious. It was irresistible.

Some of my fondest memories are of Grandma and Uncle Lee together. They would tell stories of their youth, each of them embellishing details to make the other look more rotten than the other. They would razz the other, pushing just the right button to inspire indignation that would then result in knowing laughter. It was even more riotous if the other siblings were around. When all of them were together, there was no telling how long the laughs would last. Even when the tales veered to their childhoods, in days after the Depression, the Jobes brothers and sisters somehow focused their memories on the joy and the fun they shared, not on the hardships. It was a great lesson for me, watching my grandma with her siblings–a lesson in appreciating and celebrating who and what you have when you have them.

There are other memories of Grandma’s laughter. I can hear it as she played Bridge at the kitchen table. Maybe you recall it from the times you played tennis or golf with her. I hear it in the neighbor’s pool, where we  splashed and dove for rings. Perhaps you remember it from bike rides in the park. I hear it under the trees as we shuck corn and snap beans. You might recollect it during dinner parties. I hear it as she marvels at her great-grandchildren toddle to her for the first time.

And then there are the quiet smiles. Do you remember them? I see flashes. They often came right before the big laugh. These came softly, in awe or with pride, after a concert, performance, or game. She would smile, offer congratulations, and then make a joke that we, of course, got that particular talent from her. Then the laugh escaped and we all joined her, knowing that sometimes she was right, and sometimes she wasn’t.

Other times, let’s be honest, we laughed at Grandma. There were jokes or stories we told that went over her head, and we would giggle at her lack of her “street smarts.” One year, a round of White Elephant ended, and she was stuck the gift she had brought–a dancing Santa Claus. She couldn’t believe her bad luck, and we couldn’t not laugh.

There was her aversion to others’ chewing gum. Her friends, Patty and Barbara, once popped in bubble gum right before picking Grandma up for a bridge game. That lasted about as long as it took them to step inside the door.

She had an ingenious method of in-house communication, aka “Stomp 3 times”–stomping on the upstairs floor to get Mom or Saundra’s attention downstairs. The first round of stomps were to tell Dad or Uncle Grant to go home. If they didn’t move fast enough, another round of stomps told them she meant now, not soon.

We all have these kinds of stories about Grandma. Most of the time, we told them in her presence. At first, there would be a brief expression of incredulity or short exclamation of surprise, but eventually, Grandma–who didn’t take herself too seriously–would eventually join in the laughter, creating more fun-loving memories with her nearest and dearest.

There are many cruel things about Alzheimer’s. Names are forgotten. Memories are ripped away. Independence is relinquished. These losses are devastating to be sure, but I would argue that the worst is the end of the laughter. Once the laughter is gone, so is much of the light that gives us life. I am sad that Grandma’s spark went out so long before her body finally succumbed.

So while I mourn, I can’t help to be thankful that Grandma is free from the grip of of this disease. And as I celebrate her freedom from dementia, I celebrate the life that she lived.

I celebrate and I remember. I remember the love. I remember the hugs and kisses. Most of all, I remember the laughter. 


Oh, how I loved my grandma. Oh, how I will miss her.

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It’s Not “All or Nothing”

So much for writing once a week, huh? When I started this blog a year and a half ago, I told you that my goal was to write once a week. That did not happen, and I have been berating myself for not meeting my expectations. In fact, I have put off writing a post for months. I’ve started several in my head, but I haven’t actually put words on the screen. It’s been so long since my last one, I can’t help wonder why even publish a new one? What’s the point? Is it really worth the time and effort? I’ve already “failed” once, why set myself up for failure again?

I guess it’s obvious that I have a tendency to fall into “all or nothing” thinking when I set a goal. If I can’t do something the way I intended, then why do it all? The irony is that I would never put these same expectations on others. If one of my students comes to me with this attitude, I scold her for such black and white thinking. I remind her that the world is full of gray. I encourage her to find comfort in that fact, and then I push her to take a small step forward because any movement ahead is progress.

I guess it’s time to take my own advice. It’s time to take a step forward.

On this first post back, my words of love and gratitude are for Abby Howard. Thank you, Abby, for reminding me how detrimental the “all or nothing” mindset can be. Thank you for helping me to realize how much it holds me back. Thank you for encouraging me to get out of its rut by taking small steps toward success, by pushing away the negative forces, by listening to my inner voice of wisdom. Thank you for showing me ways to love and take care of myself. 

If I have never said it to you before, I want you to know how much I appreciate you, Abby. You have made a lasting impression on my life. You have helped me to become a stronger version of myself. I know, without a doubt, that I am better for having known you.

Words That Won’t Wait

It’s been awhile. Too long. But these words will not wait any longer.

I have been quiet this week on things that matter. I have been reading, watching, and listening. Part of me thinks that I should stay silent and let other voices speak out. But another part recognizes that I have privilege, and change requires those with privilege to speak up with those who are marginalized. So while I fear my words are inadequate and inarticulate, here goes.

I am a White woman. I can speak to my frustrations of gender injustice. I am affected. I have experienced sexism—intentional or not. I know how it feels. My husband, brother and father don’t know it, but they appreciate that it exist. And I am glad, because without the voices of men, women might have waited much longer to receive the right to vote, the right to work, the right to be seen separate from a man (father or husband). I am not Black, but I feel as though I must speak and act on behalf of my brothers and sisters who are. Because if I don’t, then it will take that much longer to heal the hurts and overcome the systemic racism that invades our society.

We are a racist country. Some of us want to deny it, but it is true, whether we like it or not. Based on 2010 and 2015 Census data, we can estimate that Whites were about 75% of the nation’s population while Blacks were approximately 13% (US Census Bureau). Yet, according to the US Department of Justice, “almost 3% of black male U.S. residents of all ages were imprisoned on December 31, 2013, compared to 0.5% of white males.” Explain that logic. On a smaller scale, in nearly every school I have worked, all of them predominately White, Black students were assigned ISS and/or received disciplinary action more often than their White peers. And whether always true or not, students of color constantly felt silenced and often felt harassed because of their skin color. These situations are evidence of racism, even if the people assigning punishment and discipline don’t recognize it.

Racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam Webster). If we say that Black men are more violent because they are Black, that is racist. If we prosecute and incarcerate Black men more then White men, even though they make up a much smaller percentage of the population, we are racist. If we think Black communities are more dangerous just because Black people live there, we are racist. And when we refuse to acknowledge or recognize that there are differences in the way we are treated, we are racist.

Instead of denying it, we need to accept it. Instead of hiding from it, we need to own it. It isn’t a weakness to admit that we have these thoughts and feelings. In admitting it, we take away its power. In admitting, we find strength to overcome it.

I often remind my students that we are closer to the Civil Rights Movement that it was to the Civil War. People who lived through segregation, Emmett Till, “I Have a Dream,” and fire hoses are still alive and they still remember. It’s hard to not remember such fear. Of course the Black community was afraid, but I think the White community must have been, too. Afraid that they might lose power, afraid of retaliation, afraid of I-don’t-know-what.

That fear continues, whether we recognize it or not. It is why White police officers kill Black men, even when there is no reason. It is why a Black man targeted White police officers in an ambush. See, I think we have been repeatedly taught that we cannot trust one another, and so we expect the worse in each other—even though we don’t even realize that is what we are doing. We are still so close to the Civil Rights Movement. Think about how long it took to end slavery. And even after the institution ended, there was Reconstruction, followed by Jim Crow, poll taxes, literacy tests, and segregation. If it took hundreds of years to end slavery, a hundred or more years to earn civil rights, then doesn’t it make sense that it will take just as long to overcome the fear, mistrust, and racism that lingers? But just because it will take time doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done in the meantime.

As I consider what to do about all this, I am often overwhelmed. You see, I believe I carry a larger burden here as a White person. People who look like me are the ones who perpetrate the majority of the violence and harassment of racism. So it is up to people who look like me to humbly open our hearts and ears to listen. And so, this is one thing I do:

I am intentional to not silence the voices of students of color. I encourage difficult conversations about race, poverty, gender, and justice. Even though it is risky to do this in a classroom setting, it is important for them to hear what others think and experience. Yet no matter how diligent I am to model listening, I often find myself speaking for my students, even when my intention is to speak on behalf of them. I am learning that I must constantly stay aware of how my privilege asserts itself and how it might affect my understanding of the actions and attitudes of my students.

I know that might sound simple, but it is hard work. It might sound little, but it causes ripples. I am opening up a small place in my world where change might come, one conversation at a time. I don’t know if I am doing it the right way, but it is the best way I know how to bring Love to a world that needs it so desperately.

I encourage you to do the same. Start a conversation. But then listen. Listen long. It is only through listening that Love will take hold and change will come.

 

Humans of New York

If you aren’t one of 16 million people who follow Humans of New York on Facebook or Twitter, you should be. It has been one of the best things I have ever done for my heart, mind and spirit.

For over five years, photographer Brandon Stanton, has told the stories of everyday people he meets on the streets of New York. What started out as a small project in the Big Apple has taken him all over the world. Brandon has photographed and interviewed thousands of people: parents and children, students and teachers, refugees and activists, prisoners and presidents. Whether sad or funny, whether heartbreaking or inspiring, these individual stories simply and powerfully tell the story of all of us.

In a world and time when we are torn apart by our differences, Humans of New York reminds us that we are more alike than we are different. The love an inmate has for his children is just as strong as the love I have for my daughters. The grief a gay man feels after the death of his partner is the same kind of heartache I would experience if anything ever happened to my husband. The hope a Syrian refugee has of finding a safe home mirrors the prayers I offer for the safety for my own family.

If you were to place me beside the inmate, gay man or refugee, you may not see many similarities. It would be likely that our families, education, careers, religious beliefs and politics differ–not to mention our physical appearances. In fact, if we were to sing that old song from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other…” it would be hard to choose because none of us seem to be alike in any tangible way.

Yet we are all very much alike.

The revelation of these similarities is the beauty of Brandon’s work with Humans of New York. With a simple photo and caption, he makes the world a smaller place. He reminds us that there really isn’t a you and me, there is only us. Regardless of where we are in Life, someone else–or thousands of someone elses–are going through, or have been through, a similar situation.  We aren’t alone. We aren’t isolated. We aren’t an island.

We are humans, and we are in this Life together.

And so I offer these words of gratitude to Brandon Stanton, a man I have never met. I am grateful to him for following his passion. I am grateful to him for telling stories that aren’t always pretty. I am grateful to him for inspiring people to open their hearts as well as their minds. I grateful to him for reminding us that though our differences make us distinct individuals, our similarities bind us together as humans.

Thank you Brandon. And thank you, Humans of New York (and the world), for sharing your stories.

 

My First Best Friends

Tonight my older daughter, Teagan, is celebrating her eighth birthday by hosting her first slumber party. The house is full of giggles as they paint nails, play games, watch movies and eat cake. At the time of writing this, there is yet to be “drama,” and I am pretty certain the big D won’t show up here tonight. (In fact, I just heard the birthday girl say, “Best sleepover ever!”) This is a group of sweet girls who are excited to be together and enjoying the bonds of friendship.

Listening to their laughter and watching them play, I am reminded of my earliest friendships. From kindergarten through fourth grade, Amanda, Brooke, Erin and I were pretty much inseparable. Once we hit middle school and high school, we drifted to new groups, but I am convinced that the relationships I shared with these three friends taught me what friendship looks like.

The four of us grew up in rural Ohio, where none of us lived closer than three miles to anyone else in our quartet. The year was 1984, so none of us had gone to preschool together, none of us went to the same church and none of us knew anyone else in our kindergarten class. At least I didn’t. So when the four of us were assigned to the same table, those three faces became my fast friends.

Over those first five years of school, we did everything together. If we weren’t all in the same place, we were with at least someone in the group. I remember visiting Amanda’s house and feeding her guppies. I remember swimming in Brooke’s pond. I remember watching Back to the Future with Erin (that might have been in junior high, though). I remember riding home on the bus for weekend sleepovers. I remember slumber parties camped out on someone’s floor. I remember playing kickball at recess. I remember working together on school assignments.

Mostly I remember feeling encouraged, supported and loved by my three best friends. We all excelled in school, as I recall, and we pushed one another to do well. We stood united if someone else said something unkind to one of our group. We laughed together over the silliest of details. We counted on the others to lift our spirits when our eight-year-old lives overwhelmed us to tears. We were the very best of friends. I learned how to be a good friend because they were good friends to me.

Over thirty years have passed since that first day in kindergarten. We have all grown up and moved away from our childhood homes. I am in touch with Amanda and Brooke virtually—we are friends on Facebook—though I haven’t seen either of them in several years. Amanda is a professor of psychology at a major university. Brooke is a dietitian in a large mid-western city (at least I think that is what she does—I am sure she will let me know if/when she reads this!). I last talked to Erin over thirteen years ago, when she was working in South America as a petroleum engineer. While our lives have gone in different directions, I am so grateful for those years our paths ran parallel.  I am so glad to have memories of our time together to share with my daughters (even if those memories are getting fuzzier with age) so they know what friendship should look like.

As the slumber party winds down and the giggles become yawns, I am thankful for the young friendships I see growing tonight. I am hopeful Teagan will remember this birthday and recall the fun and joy she shared with the other girls that are here. And even if they someday part ways, I hope they will remember to be grateful for these early relationships, just as I am grateful for the laughter, the loyalty and the love I experienced with Amanda, Brooke and Erin.

Thank you, First Best Friends, for teaching me how to do Friendship.

 

To Christy and Debbie:

Today I was sad. I don’t why, exactly. It may be that I am coming down with something—my emotional health has often been affected by my physical health. It may be that this gray, wintry day affected my mood—a little Seasonal Affective Disorder? Or maybe I just had the blues—a day at a dip in Life’s roller coaster. Whatever the reason, I know this feeling of sadness will pass. Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, things will be better as the sun shines again (either literally or figuratively).

Days like this one have not been uncommon over the course of my 37 years. I have battled with depression, mood swings, and the like since adolescence, and maybe longer. I am sure that some of it is genetic, some of it is hormonal and some of it is just Life. For a long time, I just went on the ride (let’s stick with the rollercoaster metaphor) without a lot of thought. Most of the time, the track was straight. But there were times it dipped, when struggle and stress led to sadness. Then there were times it rose high, when celebration and success led to joy. It all seemed pretty normal. But then, the stress, struggle and sadness started to hang around a bit more. I seemed to be staying in the dips longer than I used to. After watching Inside Out several times with the girls this summer, I have grown to appreciate Sadness a bit more than I did before. But if I am honest, I was already recognizing the role that Sadness (and other emotions) plays in my life even before watching the film. I had started on the path of this understanding with the help of Christy and Debbie.

Christy and Debbie are my therapists.

Over the last three years the two of them have helped me in ways I cannot fully comprehend. I have spent evenings on their couches—first in Alabama and now in Arkansas—where they have talked and walked me through the mess that is Calandra. They have reminded me that my mess is not abnormal, but neither is it permanent. They have reminded me that Sadness is not a bad place to be, but it is not a healthy place to stay. They have reminded me that my emotions are part of me, but they do not define me. They have reminded me that I am smart, capable and worthy and that my mess can be beautiful and interesting—things I tend to forget when Sadness comes for an extended visit.

My experiences with both Christy and Debbie have been extremely positive. They have been therapists, for sure, but they have also been confidantes, cheerleaders and friends. They have told me what I needed to hear, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. They have helped me to see things more objectively when I could see them from only my subjective viewpoint. They have assured me that wherever I may be now, it is not the place that I must always be. Likewise, they have cautioned me that wherever I may be now, it is not the place that I will always get to be. Throughout my time with them, they have supported me, challenged me, encouraged me, loved me. The only regret I have is not seeking help like theirs sooner.

I am so thankful for these women. I am grateful for their insights. I am grateful for their time. I am grateful for their presence. I am grateful for them. They have made my life richer, deeper and fuller.

Thank you, Christy. Thank you, Debbie. Much love to you both.

 

 

 

Dear Ms. Deem:

I was in the seventh grade when I first fancied myself a writer. That was the year we were introduced to the idea of composition. Our teacher, Ms. Deem, would give us a starter prompt, and we would have a few days to complete the story. Once we submitted a draft and made necessary corrections, we could move on to the next prompt. At the end of the year, we compiled our best selections to include at the end of our cumulative project, an autobiography. It was my first book, and I still remember the title: A Lark Sings. (“Calandra” is  Greek for lark. I thought it was very clever.)

Looking back, I think Composition may have been the first time I really broke the rules in school. Our writings were supposed to be only a page or so in length, but I had trouble sticking to a page for many of my pieces. In fact, at one point I was three or four assignments behind because I was on page eight of a story that was nowhere near completed. If I remember correctly, Andrea and Gabrielle were best friends and one of them was battling cancer. I couldn’t figure out if she would recover or succumb to the disease, so I had to keep writing until she told me.

I imagine some teachers might have told me to let go of Andrea and Gabrielle and catch up with my other assignments. They would have reminded me of the importance of time management and the need to follow instructions. But not Ms. Deem. She encouraged me to keep going. She told me she would count the story for more than one assignment so I wouldn’t lose credit for the missing work. She gave me permission to find the ending of that story, knowing that I was actually trying to find my voice as a writer. She knew how important the process was for a budding author, and she supported me on my journey.

Andrea and Gabrielle’s story ended up being nearly twenty pages long. I was so proud of myself, and Ms. Deem was proud of me, too. I could see it in her smile when I turned in the final draft to her. Soon after, the dreams of becoming a writer began. I envisioned my novels lined on library and store shelves. I conjured images of signing autographs for adoring fans. I imagined walking the red carpet at the movie premieres of my most popular works. I was going to be famous someday, and it was my writing that would bring me fame.

Needless to say, my name is not on any major work—except my Master’s paper (which is almost a thesis, but more action-based than theory-based). The next closest I have come to having anything published is editing Andrew’s dissertation, but that is his book, not mine. Of course I have written things over the last 25 years—research papers, articles, letters, poems, journal entries, etc.—though nothing “big,” nothing that is going to put my name in lights.

But you know what? It could still happen. I still believe that one day I might see my name on the front of a book. I still think it’s possible that would-be-novel might become a blockbuster success starring Jennifer Lawrence. And I still imagine winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay of my own work. Do you know why I still believe in the possibility of all of those things?

Ms. Deem.

She didn’t give up on me. She encouraged me. She gave me permission to keep writing, even when the assignment was past due. She pushed me to find a voice that would grow and mature over the years. If she hadn’t been so gracious and so generous, who knows where I would be now?  Probably not in the classroom (but that is another post), and definitely not writing this blog.

And so, my first words of love and gratitude go to Ms. Sarah Deem. 

Ms. Deem died a few years ago. I saw her a few times after I had “grown up.” I think I thanked her during one of those meetings. I hope I told her how much her words of affirmation had meant to me. I pray that she knew what a positive influence she had been in my life, and how long-lasting that effect has been.

If I didn’t do any of those things, I hope these words reach her and she knows how much I loved being her student and how much I continue to appreciate her encouragement.