Category Archives: stories

Third Person

I became third person. It happened at Walmart. It was the strangest thing to be spoken of as if I were not present. I almost could not believe it, and might have missed it completely, had I not taken a moment to be curious about what was happening around me.

Standing in the checkout line at 10:00pm, putting groceries on the conveyor belt was the icing on the cake of an incredibly long Thursday. My husband was still out working. The least I could do was make sure there was food for breakfast in the morning.

A woman and man stood in front of me, finishing their transaction. I was preparing to unload my full cart onto the empty conveyor belt when I overheard a female voice loudly say, She can wait. She’s got all those groceries to put up on the counter. I’m gonna look for my gum.

I felt a presence walk around me searching the candy rack, still talking. It took a minute to realize that I was the person she was talking about. I was the one who could wait because I had all of those groceries. Her volume and tone felt harsh and dismissive. I was confused by her need to comment at all, since it was obvious that I was not in a hurry and did have a lot of groceries. I would not challenge her need to take extra time making a gum selection.

I proceeded to unload my cart, ignoring the commotion around me. Focusing on minding my own business, I felt something inside of me running for cover. The loud voice began again. I wouldn’t want to be out shopping at this hour and have to unload all those groceries when I got home. The words were directed towards her partner and the cashier, not at me, again at a volume that spoke otherwise. I was being talked about is if I were not there. Words about me were not spoken to me.

Had they been, I would have assured her that I don’t exactly enjoy late night shopping trips myself. This grocery run is happening out of necessity due to unexpected circumstances in my day. I did not plan to be at Walmart at this hour. In fact, every fiber in my body fought the entire trip to stay focused and not flee the task, leaving an empty cart somewhere back among the dairy (something that I have actually done before!)

I wanted to go to my local Food Lion, but it closed early for a remodel. Aldi also closed at 9, leaving Walmart as next on the list. I had actually prayed before I left the house that God would give me strength and help me make wise shopping choices. When Walmart was the option available, I figured that must be the answer.

It helped that when I entered, the jovial young man walking beside me rushed ahead and grabbed two carts. Here, Mrs. McClay! Let me get a cart for you. You probably don’t remember me, but you used to be my teacher! We laughed and chatted and remembered together, and I told him that the joy of seeing his face was one of the things that would keep me going on this late shopping trip. He had the same laughing eyes and smile as when he was small, though a beard now covered his chin.

I was grateful for my teaching practice of always (mostly) treating my students like the adult people they would one day be, with kindness and respect. This was not the first time a lumbering young man has looked down at me as we reminisced about early childhood school days.

Returning to present, my chest felt heavy, like I wanted to cry the giant sobs that had been accumulating throughout the day. The only thing that kept me grounded while checking out was the smiling face of the cashier ringing up and bagging my groceries.

We had nothing in common age, gender, or ethnicity-wise, but he was kind to me, and I was kind back. I was too tired to engage in conversation beyond returning his smile. An understanding smile can cover a multitude of hurt.

Gathering the final bags from the rotating bagging station, I noticed the line behind me had grown longer. I fought against a feeling of shame that it was because I had so many groceries. At this point his line was the only one open. A lady further back begin to complain loudly about it being the only line open before actually asking.

Is this the only line open?

Yes, he said. There is also self-checkout.

I was reminded that as hard as it is to be grateful, as hard as it is to be kind at 10:08 under the fluorescent lights at Walmart, it is worth it to try. We are all people. We are people doing our jobs as best we can. I am trying to get food for my family, this young man is trying to earn a paycheck, and if we could spread a little kindness, a smile, a look into someone’s eyes instead of a loud talking around and about each other, we just might find ourselves in a little bit brighter of a place.

Let’s grab a cart for one another!

Bringing Order

As a child I had a fierce longing for order in my world. I wanted a place for everything and everything in its place. The oldest of six children by the time I was 10, my early years were spent trying to manage a lot of toys.

This was difficult, because though I loved playing with little people, wooden blocks, and Duplos, when I outgrew these things there were still younger siblings enjoying them. They would leave pieces strewn about the house. When it was time to clean up, everything came back to me.

Whose toys are these?

They’re Julie’s.

While technically true, it was immensely frustrating. I was the first, and as such they were mine originally. I scurried to try to pick up and bring peace and order to the situation. If only I could get it right.

There was great tension between reality and fantasy. The ideal in my mind could not match what was actually able to happen. This played out while cleaning my room, a space that I shared with several littles.

We had a light blue wooden toy box with a hinged lid. One had to be careful when opening it, because the lid could easily slam shut. Cleaning the room often involved tossing everything into this toy box. When closed, the top doubled a seat. The trick was to get everything flat inside so that the lid would shut all the way. Not easy.

I tried organizing the toys. I sorted them by category, gathered all the pieces of different sets together, and carefully placed them inside the toy box, hoping the propped lid would not come slamming down on me in the process.

My efforts were thwarted by eager younger siblings as they scrambled and dug through and dumped out their newfound favorite things as quickly as I could tidy and sort out and put back. As much as I longed to bring order to the chaos, chaos always prevailed.

There was just so much to manage. So many people with so many things sharing so little space. I remember my mom’s frustration with this, also. She tried making containers out of recycled plastic milk jugs to use for sorting the toys. It was a valiant, hopeful effort.

As a mom myself, I recognize the feeling that if I only had the right bins and boxes to collect items, everything would fall into place, but there is also the piece of teaching children how to pick up after themselves. There were so many children. There still are so many children. There have always been many children.

Instead of calm, orderly space with things tidied and put away, there were toys everywhere, and tension and stress. My dad would say am I the only one that sees XYZ on the floor and I would see it too.

After all, the mess came back to me. I felt like the common denominator of the endless clutter. I would pick things up and hurry to try to put them away, but the cycle was never ending.

I remember having these when I grow up thoughts such as when I grow up there’s gonna be a place for everything and everything in its place or when I grow up I’m not going to have kids to make messes everywhere or when I grow up I’m going to have matching furniture.

Somehow I lost myself between that space and the space of growing up and then ended up just replaying the same story over again and again.

After watching several episodes of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I have still not made it through one with dry eyes. Something always stirs inside causing a tear to escape or a torrent to let loose. These tears prompted me to explore the story with tidiness, or lack thereof, in my life.

I understand the desire for order. I get the feeling of futility that it will never happen. I feel the weight of being a child who does not know what to do with all of the things and the mom who is just trying to do her best with what she has.

I grieve not having had a space and season that was my own to settle into and navigate on my own while learning to adult. I fight the fear that something will happen to the one I love before we have a chance to figure out our life together.

All of these themes present in different episodes and prompt conversations between my love and I in our living room. The bottom line, I have discovered, is that there is no right way other than to learn from the past, to sit with the present, and to move into the future with new knowledge and hope for repair.

I still long to bring order to the chaos. With some new grown-up skills in place and the kind understanding of those in my world, these days, order is catching up.

Christmas Morning

I woke Christmas morning to quiet. Thoughts filled my head. Words filled my heart. Leaning over the bedside, I pulled the laptop from it’s place on my nightstand shelf.

Propping up on pillows, I opened it and began composing. The bedroom door cracked, my husband doing his signature peek to see if I was awake from my sleep.

Do you think you will be long? Everyone is waiting for you in the living room.

Of course they were! In a classic move of having words come to me at the worst time, I closed the laptop, replaced it on the nightstand shelf, and eased my way out of bed.

Wrapping in a cozy robe, I exited to the living room, where a combination of excited and sleepy faces awaited my arrival.

The month of December has been full of celebration. From the first weekend when our eldest and her husband came to celebrate with us, to the weekend before Christmas when my son and his wife visited, we have eaten no fewer than three Christmas breakfasts and as many dinners.

Programs, concerts, gift exchanges, parties, and the wedding of a friend’s son filled the days leading up to the big one. Shopping, wrapping, tending to individuals occupied my time. Christmas cards still being worked on were intentionally set aside until the days after Christmas.

Christmastide.

This brought me to Christmas morning and all of the words in my head and people around the tree. Two adult children and the four still at home greeted me with various levels of excitement and exhaustion written on their faces.

I knew they had been up together late into the night playing games in one younger sibling’s room, sleeping over together in another. The one sharing his room slept downstairs by the light of the Christmas tree, keeping his own tradition.

All of this worked itself out without my planning or control over bedding and beds and sleeping arrangements.

I’ll take care of it, Mama. Don’t worry, adult daughter said. And she did. I went to bed, slept soundly, and woke thinking I could write while everyone was still sleeping when they were all quietly waiting for me in the living room.

This is how I know change has come.

We weren’t awake late into the night trying to settle small children into their beds and startled awake early in the morning to excited knocking on our door. The excitement, while present, was more contained and less explosive.

Present.

Contained.

Less explosive.

These word choices reveal work that has been taking place in my heart and the hearts of those in my home. Learning to be more present. Helping to contain and handle strong feelings. Revisiting and repairing places of rupture with adult children. Revisiting and repairing places of rupture in my own heart.

I woke to words from my story, the story of a younger self, the last Christmas spent with my family before marriage. It was the self of 20, the age of my youngest adult. The words in my head were spoken by a sibling, 13, the age of one of my own.

I have a clear visual of these ages and more context than ever, which is why I think the words came so loudly and clearly. It is why they came with kindness for those present in the scene.

I am still coming close to late-teenage me. From ages 16 to 20 is a painful blur in my story, beginning with a move following the Christmas of ’87 and punctuated with the words,

We’re not having Christmas this year. We’re having a wedding, Younger Sibling, 13, Christmas ’91.

I was married on January 4, 1992.

Christmas and the season surrounding it holds much for me. There is loss and grief and struggle and joy. There are heavy places in my story with Christmas, places even nostalgia can’t reach.

I didn’t write on Christmas Day. I spent time with the family, soaked in the tub, and took a nap. I spent moments on an unexpected phone call with a friend. I hugged adults goodbye and found presents that had not been wrapped in the excitement and passed them out and played a board game.

I watched Elf and went for a walk after dark to look at the neighborhood lights. I fed my parents’s cats. I brewed a cup of Sleepytime tea with my husband, choosing to end the night with tea and reading instead of wine and more eating.

It was a kind choice. As is this early morning writing time two days later. Little by little, step by step, things are changing, have changed. (Yes, do click on that link.)

It is a good gift.

Merry Christmastide, Friends!

Watched Cats

Watched cats don’t eat.

I am not a Black Friday shopper. As much as I like the theory, its practice evades me. The idea of rising in predawn hours to score a $4.99 appliance that I may or may not need does not offer a thrill.

I am a Black Friday friend, though. When asked if I could do the early morning feeding for her cats Thanksgiving weekend, I obliged. That is what found me driving past the mall with Black Friday shoppers lining up in the dark. I now sit, pre-dawn, in a silent house, listening to the lapping of water and crunching of food in various locations.

My ears are especially trained on the upstairs hallway while I wait and hope for sound. I want the ghost cat to emerge for his food today. He is what prevents me from dumping the food, collecting the bowls, and getting the job done quickly.

I wait.

Come out, come out wherever you are.

The thumping of paws alerts me to locations and activities of the other two. The elusive ghost cat remains hidden. I trust my perch halfway up the stairs to keep me from view while allowing me to glimpse the identity of the cat when it arrives at his bowl. I want to confirm existence.

Nothing. Not even a lump under the covers or a glow of eyes under the beds, as before. He is a stealthy one, that cat.

The others patter around, testing me by stopping at the full food bowl in the upstairs hall. I see them and chide them to move along. They have had their turn to eat.

I allow a reasonable amount of time, per friend’s instructions, of course. Past performance says that if the ghost has not emerged by now, he is not coming out this time. I text her the state of affairs. She replies with All sounds good.

Preparing to leave, I refresh water bowls, giving one last look around for the mystery cat. He does not want to show himself this morning. I close the door and lock it behind me.

Day breaks as I return to my car and begin the drive home.

Though tempted to disappear into the radio’s noise, I ride home in silence. Driving past the mall, I notice that shoppers have entered the stores. Instead of turning into the parking lot to join them, I slide back into my warm bed for a few more hours of sleep.

Move Out Day

When the front entryway looks like this, it can only mean one thing. It’s move out day. Well, either that or there is/was a gig. In this case it is move out day (week?).

After a year together, the drummer is moving out and on. This is bittersweet for my mama heart.

I am grateful for this year we had together. I am thankful he was able to finally live in a finished room ~ the one he began tearing out his freshman year of high school and was completed during his season of post-high school overseas travel.

I am thankful for his grace over the painting fiasco. (And I just re-read that as parenting fiasco in my head and had to laugh, because it fits, as well.) We still have to fix the paint in the room. And some of our parenting techniques.

This past year I jokingly referred to as my gap year. Having Child 4 around gave me a chance to catch up on life with him we had missed together. He fell through a gap in our family as the older siblings were leaving and the youngers were arriving.

We had many conversations over breakfasts and coffees. We went hiking together and shared stories and laughter and tears. We grew. This year brought much growth for us both.

Having a nineteen-year-old in the house helped me to reconnect with my nineteen-year-old self. It helped me with the Certificate 2 work that I completed in May. It helped me to name the moments when the story of my nineteen year old self was struggling with my current parenting role.

This year brought much healing. I never dreamed at the beginning that we would be here at the end. We are here.

It is time. It is time for number four to launch. I look forward to impromptu drop-ins (his, not mine) for last-minute breakfasts, coffees, laundry, conversations. I look forward to showing up for local shows to watch my favorite drummer play.

Most of all, I look forward to what the future holds for this amazing man I am proud to call Son.

 

 

 

 

Tin Roof Sundae

I arrived at my friend’s house exhausted from a seven hour drive. What feels different from the last trip is the intensity of emotional work in addition to the changes and transitions going on at home.

Mid-winter is also not an active time of year. That first trip was an adventure and foray into the unknown. Now I know a little more about what I am showing up for. It is also spring, a beautiful, yet busy, time of year.

I remember when I was a young girl my Aunt Marilyn came to visit us on Nicholson St. in Maryland. She drove down from Michigan. I’m sure I spent the day eagerly anticipating her arrival and all the fun we would have together.

When she finally reached us, her first words were, What a drive. I need a nap. She lay down on the couch for a rest as we waited nearby for any indication that nap time was over and she was rested. (Meaning, any sort of movement whatever)

That is how I felt when I arrived. I set a timer and went to my room for a rest. After 30 minutes of quiet I was ready for a walk. We walked to get ice cream.

It felt good to move after a day in the car, and the company was wonderful. We walked and talked and chose our ice cream.

When I saw Tin Roof Sundae was an option, I knew I had found my choice. There are several stories there about me and ice cream sundaes and where Tin Roof Sundae ice cream enters my story. I also understand better why Peanut Buster Parfaits are my Dairy Queen weakness.

Now it’s time to rest and write and read and talk and transition into what is coming. I am so grateful for a kind space and for kind people who care for my heart and soul so well.

To all of you who care for, have cared for, are caring for me on this journey, know that I am so grateful and hold you close at heart.

Nineteen

I’m sitting in the car in the rain as husband runs into Food Lion for the last of the groceries after our Saturday Costco trip. On my heart is recovery of teenage self. Literally. My chest keeps tightening and breath catching. That young woman is so lost inside of me.

This week I take one of her stories to certificate 2 training. It’s from the last year she was a teenager, 1990, where she believed her fate was sealed and all hope for choice was gone. It’s where she finally departed herself, shedding any remnants of who she was or might have been for who she was required to be.

I have punished her for that. For years she has borne the brunt of blame for trying to survive. For doing the best she could. For existing.

And now?

I’m in a weird space of feeling all of the feelings connected to that part of me as I sort them into their categories. Everything feels way too intense and current. Things that should not be a big deal seem huge. And things that really do loom large, well those feel unbearable.

Today’s 7 stares back from the calendar app on my phone, reminding me that in one month I will be another number away from nineteen. Twenty-eight numbers away, to be exact.

What is this crazy feeling of being so close, yet so far from myself? I hope to find out more this week as I regroup with others as we walk through our stories together.

I am grateful to my family for, once again, holding down the fort and to my friends for cheering me on, as I bravely go where I haven’t before, into another scene from my past.

The countdown is on!

Duckling Drama

The ducklings hatched while I was away with a friend last weekend. My husband sent a picture. It was more than I got last year which was a live view of an empty nest with a few broken eggshells. I felt grateful and said as much to him.

Last Sunday evening, I walked Dewey downtown to the water to see what I could see. There were a mama and Mallard wrangling a passel of puffballs. I knew they were mine and kept the dog up on the bridge, away from the activity, watching from a distance.

Late yesterday afternoon, my youngest asked if she and her visiting cousin could walk the dogs. (My firstborn and her husband were in town with the granddog.) I agreed with the caveat that I go with them.

They eagerly leashed the animals and headed outside. I followed close behind.

Can we walk down to check on the ducks?

I allowed them to lead the way downtown. The break in the rainy weather was nice.

From the bridge over the water, we saw a mama and Mallard with three little puffballs. Not far away was a large family of twelve ducklings, tended by their mama and Mallard. Suddenly chaos ensued as one of them wandered too close to the puffballs.

New mama pinned the wanderer to the ground, quacking furiously. With a flurry and flutter of wings, junior’s mama hurried over, giving the protective mama what for for interfering with her offspring. Order restored, new mama returned to her puffballs and the other huffed away with her ducklings in tow.

Following their Mallard, the large family waddled up the hill, leaving behind a straggler, wandering down by the water. When the lone duckling realized he was left behind, a continuous peeping quack escaped his bill as he frantically ran to and fro in the empty space by the water, looking for his family.

It was no use asking new mama for help, though he tried wandering in her direction. She came at him in a fashion that said, I dare you to come closer! Resignedly, he turned back toward the water, still calling for help.

Meanwhile, the large brood had flocked up the hill away from the water towards the parking lot where I was standing,leashes in hand. By this time I had been relegated to dog keeper while the girls sat on a bench watching the duck drama unfold.

Oh no! That duckling is lost! We have to help him!

They proposed the idea of chasing him up the hill, but then the duckling stepped into the water and swam to the rocks on the other side, still peeping and quacking.

I decided to use the dogs to herd the wandering flock back to the water. Leading Dewey and Wren toward the large brood, we watched as they ran back down the hill and stepped into the water. They began to glide toward the duckling, his peeping quacks still out of reach.

Excitedly the girls cheered the family and duckling closer, hoping to witness a reunion. Rain began falling in a light drizzle. I, too, was hoping for  reunion and resolution of this duckling drama rather than a lesson in survival of the fittest.

Suddenly there was a burst of speed as the duckling made connection with his family and came flying across the water. Literally. I have never seen a duck swim as fast as this little one who was making a mad dash to reunite with his raft.*

On the shore we cheered, then turned to head home.

* a dense flock of swimming birds or mammals

Idle Words

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
Matthew 12:36 (KJV)

As a child I grew up in a Baptist church where three times a week, Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night I was in the pews. Dad was up front leading music. Mom was coordinating the nursery.  Sister was shining her Strawberry Shortcake mirror into the aged pastor’s eyes. Church was familiar, comfortable, unsettling, scary. All of the above.

Familiar and comfortable were the people and routines. The red of the sanctuary cushions and carpet, the curve of the armrest at the end of each row, the red Great Hymns of the Faith hymnbook to look through finding Fanny Crosby’s name (because Fanny), the tiny pencils and offering envelopes on the back of each pew, these all brought comfort and delight.

Unsettling was an open cross panel behind the pulpit, revealing the baptismal tank, or the atmosphere of the sanctuary was tinged with tension over a business meeting, or someone choose O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus for favorites night. These moments stirred anxiety.

Scary was the talk of judgment and hell and the end times. The rapture. The trumpet of the Lord. It seemed as if these days were imminently looming, and the only way out was 100% assurance by saying the Sinner’s Prayer, thus knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt with every head bowed and every eye closed, no one looking around.

Of course, I looked around, and if I was looking around how could I trust that no one else was?

I tried, but was never quite sure if I got it right. I never felt safe in God’s hands. I could never escape the shadow of a doubt. When that trumpet sounded and time was no more, I wasn’t certain that I would be there when the roll was called up yonder.

Those were terrifying thoughts for a child growing up outside of Washington, DC. Every midnight ambulance siren, train whistle, or police chase resulted in a frantic leap from bed to make sure my parents were sill in their room, and I had not been Left Behind.

How would I face the terror of the tribulation and the second chance that would only come if I did not receive the Mark of the Beast, enduring unspeakable torture inescapable even by death? The end of the world was always upon me, and I lived with a level of anxiety over my idle words to be given account of and shouted from the rooftops. I was a child full of words.

Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.
Luke 12:13 (KJV)

This was especially poignant, because the closet in my bedroom was the perfect hideout, clubhouse, safe place for secrets. It came complete with a sliding board (following the construction line above the stairs) and was where I told the most important things to my teddy bear or my sister.

I often pondered how all of those idle words were tracked. What would the judgement day be like, when I stood before God to give account? I pictured God turning to a card catalog, like the one at my local library only bigger, and pulling out a drawer with my name on it. There were all of my idle words, categorized.

How times change.

I never imagined the technology of today, where idle words abound and multiply. They are everywhere, our own and others. We share them in texts, comments, and emails. We carry them in our pockets on our phones. They can be retrieved with a click of a mouse or swipe of a screen or insert of a flash drive.

In having a motherly   my children recently, we discussed the importance of being thoughtful and careful with the words they use and send in cyberspace. Some are newly navigating those waters. I am well-aware I cannot monitor every word texted, sent, or spoken. I can remind them that once the words go out, they stay out there somewhere, even if we do not understand where or how.

I tried to explain my card catalog story, but I might as well have been speaking a foreign language. Times. They change. Words. They remain.

Choose wisely, choose well.

Spring’s Arrival

Spring arrived in a flurry of flakes and in ice crusted to the windshield when I went to pick up the girls from school.

It came to me in a broken off tree branch found and gathered while walking Dewey.

Unexpectedly, catching me off guard, the words Happy First Day of Spring! called to me from my child’s school communication notebook.

The words Due to bad weather schools will be closed tomorrow. flashed on the screen of my phone.

It’s Spring!

Spring finds me nostalgic and with more space for story. The broken tree branch with its tiny buds brought to mind a memory long forgotten, yet recently stirred. It prompted me to collect, bring home, and place into water not only that branch but two other similar small ones.

I set them in strategic locations around the house to the tune of “BaaaAab!” when Riley noticed.

On the kitchen counter

In my room

Long ago, a little girl received a letter in the mail from her grandpa M. In it she was reminded that spring was on the way, and that it was the perfect time to be watching the tree outside of the living room window for buds. She was encouraged to choose a branch to observe and sketch daily or every few days. This process would help her to slow down and notice Spring’s arrival. The little girl felt special and seen.

The memory remained tucked away in my mind until I was walking and noticed the broken-off  branch. I remained curious as to why I would be so interested in the buds opening and why I would want to bring it home to put into water and continue to watch when the memory came flooding back.

It helped me understand why I love the tree in my neighbor’s yard that can be seen from both my bedroom and TV room window where I often sit to think. Lately I have been focusing on the branches and sketching them as I ponder. I understand more why I love it in the fall. The changing branches remind me of the gift of seasons and the passing of time.

Thank you for the gift of a memory, Grandpa. Your words made a big impression on a little girl.