Not My Father Thursday, Sep 11 2014 

That old man, whoever he is, is not my father.

He spends most of his days and nights perched on a bar stool at a Mexican cantina at the strip mall up the road that used to be a cow pasture.  The old man orders a round of fireball shots that taste like cinnamon and pretends to be a wealthy rancher and land baron.  He is holding court at the bar, bragging about past triumphs that never actually happened, but his courtiers are sleazy sycophants who rub up against him and give him shallow kisses on his dentured mouth to score another free drink from “Earl Hefner.”

Little does his harem know that when the old man leaves the cantina and staggers out to his car, he drives to a dilapidated shack that used to be my home.  He parks away from the house, amidst the overgrown weeds, and limps toward the front door.  Dirt dobber nests line the stucco walls of the carport, and the white Dodge sedan my father used to drive is parked there, blanketed in green pollen from the oak trees. All four tires are flat.  The roof over the carport has caved in, and long wooden ceiling planks are falling down and resting on the trunk of the disabled car.

When the old man walks inside, a damp stench fills his nose.  The entry way is teeming with piles of clothes, broken appliances, and stacks of third-hand junk he bought for pennies at Goodwill.  He doesn’t need any of this stuff and he is drowning in other people’s garbage, but he keeps buying more so he will have an excuse to drive across town nearly every day.  He has to go somewhere, anywhere, to get out of that house or he’ll go mad.

Teetering piles of mail cover the dining room table.  Cards and letters addressed to my father with photographs of my children inside are buried at the bottom of the pile. There, at the head of the table, a half dozen second-hand coats and flannel shirts hang on the back of the chair where my father would sit and lead us in prayer before dinner.  The red brick tile that runs throughout the house is covered with a thick layer of dirt and dead insects, and the old man’s shoes leave an imprint as he moves about the house.

The kitchen where my mother used to make large Sunday suppers after church can barely be seen through the mountains of empty milk cartons, dirty dishes, and discarded food containers stacked on every square inch of counter space.  There’s a calendar magnet from 2004 on the refrigerator door and a gaping hole in the ceiling.  Pink insulation rains down on top of the refrigerator and settles on the floor below.

The old man shuffles past his bathroom on his way to bed.  Twin blue sinks, where my brother and sisters and I used to crowd around to brush our teeth before bed, are orange with rust.  An old paint bucket with a metal handle sits next to the disabled toilet.  The old man uses water from the sink to flush the toilet’s contents a couple times per week.

Down the hall in the last room on the right is the old man’s bedroom.  He bows his head as he passes the threshold to avoid the cobwebs covering the top of the door frame.  He steps out of his unlaundered, second-hand clothes and collapses into a dark slump on the left side of the bed where my father used to sleep beside my mother each night.  Baby photos of my father’s grandchildren hang from nails in the wood paneling beside the bed, their frames crooked and covered in dust and spider webs.  The popcorn ceiling above the bed is black with mold and is sagging from water damage.  The ceiling could open up at any moment and fall on the old man as he lay asleep, but he does not care.

As the old man tries to sleep, he worries about how he will afford his high blood pressure medicine when he has spent most of his Social Security check on booze for his false friends, but that does not stop him from returning to the cantina the next afternoon like clockwork.

Every morning around 8:00 a.m., the old man leaves the oppressive house, coughing and wheezing from a night spent breathing black mold, and sets out on his daily itinerary.  His first stop is the McDonald’s about a mile away.  He lingers there for several hours before heading into town to pick up more useless junk from Goodwill.  The last stop on his itinerary is the cantina where he will remain on his barstool for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  The old man has lived this way ever since my father left; nearly every day is the same, barely distinguishable from the next.

Every so often, I show up unannounced at McDonald’s to buy the old man a cup of coffee.   I cannot go to the house where my father used to live because the old man does not want anyone to know his secret.  No one can ever discover how the old man has allowed our family home to disintegrate into unfathomable squalor.  I cannot visit him at the cantina either because the old man would be embarrassed, and furious, if someone claiming to be his daughter interrupted him in the middle of one of his fantastical stories or disapproved of his pathetic attempts to flirt with the bottom-feeders at the bar.   The old man knows that my father would never condone of such tawdry behavior.

Sometimes, when I talk to the old man, I see a glimmer of my father peeking out from behind his cloudy green eyes and droopy eyelids, or I hear a hint of familiarity in the old man’s voice that reminds me of my lost father.  But just as I begin to sense my father’s presence, he vanishes and I am left again with the old man, the stranger who is not my father.

Swine Before Pearls Tuesday, Mar 25 2014 

Image

Before I became an attorney, I had another vocation from the time I was a teenager until I graduated from college in my early 20s.  I was a hog farmer.  My daddy was primarily a cattle man, but he liked to dabble in hogs so he installed a trap on the back forty to catch the wild hogs that rooted up our pastures.    Once caught, the troublemaking hogs were given life sentences for destruction of property and sent to the pen – the hog pen, that is.

The hog pen was a metal cage with a concrete floor hidden behind a pole barn a few hundred feet behind our house.   Adjacent to the pole barn was a weathered, single-wide trailer that my family lived in for about a year after my brother Willie accidentally burned down the house while playing with daddy’s matches.  After our home was rebuilt, my family of seven moved back into the big house, and daddy converted the empty trailer into a shed where he stored his tools and 50-lb bags of corn feed for the hogs.

Daddy’s principal motivation for raising hogs, of course, was to fatten them up for supper, but they also served as a highly-efficient means of garbage disposal.  In my childhood naiveté, I thought everybody had a few bloated pigs out back and kept a large pot with a dented lid in the kitchen full of fermenting food scraps.

It wasn’t until I was about 11 years old that I first encountered an electronic garbage disposal in a hotel kitchenette while we were on vacation.  After stuffing Snickers wrappers and paper towels down the sink for a couple days and flipping the switch to hear the garbage disposal whir and grind, my mom discovered my faux pas and enlightened me on the contraption’s proper use.  It was one of the many aha! moments I would have as I began to realize just how bizarre our way of life was compared to everyone else’s.

My brother Will and one of the wild hogs on our property.

My brother Will and one of the wild hogs on our property.

If nothing else, being a hog farmer taught me humility.  Every day I’d pull on a pair of black rubber boots and cut across the backyard until I reached the gate to the dirt lane that led to the back of our property.  Before I even approached the gate, I could smell the nauseating stench of the hog pen, but I had a job to do so I’d remove the rusty chain to open the gate and round the corner behind the pole barn to get to the hogs.

To feed the hogs, I would push in the metal grate that was hung on hinges at the top of the pen with one hand and slop the contents of the scrap pot and feed bucket into the hogs’ trough with the other.  It was not an easy undertaking.  As soon as I would open the grate, the hogs would stand on their hind legs and protrude their giant heads out of the top of the pen, maniacally screaming and chomping.  To keep from losing a limb, I had to smack the bloodthirsty hogs on the long bridge of their snouts to get them down long enough to empty their food in the trough.

While the hogs devoured their slop like it was their last meal on death row, I’d uncoil the green garden hose nearby and use its spray nozzle to fill the water basin and blast the excrement off the floor and the hogs’ bodies and wash it out into the shallow trench that was dug around the pen’s perimeter.  Frazzled from the heat of battle, I’d calm my nerves by smoking one of my daddy’s Salem regulars that I’d lifted from the end table next to his recliner.  While sneaking a smoke, I’d keep a look-out by peeking through a hole in the pole barn’s tin siding, then stash the butt in one of the ant lion traps that dotted the barn’s dirt floor.  When my work was done, I’d head back toward the house, stopping at an outdoor faucet to rinse out the scrap pot and wash the hog crap off my rubber boots before delicately placing the boots back inside the back door.

I’ve always heard that hogs have excellent hearing but ours must have been damn near clairvoyant because they always seemed to know when I was anywhere in the vicinity.  It didn’t matter if I tiptoed outside and carefully opened the door of the trailer with the stealth of a Navy Seal. If I so much as bent a blade of grass underfoot, the hogs would begin grunting and snorting wildly until their high-pitched squeals would crescendo into a deafening chorus.  “Shut up, hogs,” I’d sneer, but the only thing that would shut them up was a mouth full of slop.

I hated those hogs with a passion.  They were loud and stinky and mean, but who could blame them?   I could just imagine the carnage if I was trapped in a cramped space with three other fatties having to fight for my next meal.  Still, it was me against them so I went to war with the hogs every day at feeding time.

The older I got, the stronger the enmity grew between me and the demon pigs, until one day something happened that caused me to have a change of heart.

A severe thunderstorm swept over our house one night bringing with it torrential rain, wind, and lightning.  The following morning, I pulled on my rubber boots and headed out the back door to tend to the hogs.  I stepped into the trailer and began scooping corn into my bucket but something was amiss.  There was an eerie silence.  The only sound was the whisper of a light breeze rustling through the pine trees and mossy oaks.  Not a single oink or grunt could be heard.   With my bucket full, I unfastened the metal chain and let if fall against the steel gate with a loud clank but the hogs still did not make a peep.

When I rounded the corner toward the hog pen, I saw the hogs lying motionless on the concrete floor with their eyes wide open.  At first, I thought the hogs were dead, so I picked up a small branch that had fallen from an oak tree and poked their bodies through an opening in the side of the pen.  Nothing.  Then I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed the hogs with cold water but they did not flinch.  Finally, I opened the grate at the top of the hog pen and dumped the corn into the trough.  Some of the corn was actually laying on top of the pigs’ bodies but still they did not move.

Though catatonic, I knew the hogs were still alive because their dazed, glassy eyes would blink every few seconds and their stout bellies would rise and fall with each breath.   Confused and grief stricken, I began softly speaking to the pigs with the tenderness of a small child and crouched down in the shit trench so I could reach my right hand into the side of the pen to stroke the coarse hair on the hogs’ backs.

“Poor little pigs.  What happened to you?”

I took off running back toward the house, kicked off my boots, and ran to my daddy who was sitting in his recliner watching television.

“Daddy, daddy!  There’s something wrong with the pigs.  They can’t move and they won’t eat.  All they do is lie there with a stunned look on their faces.”

Sensing my urgency, daddy ambled out to the hog pen to investigate.  He studied the vegetative hogs for a few seconds and kicked the pen before delivering his diagnosis.

“Huh.  Well, I’ll be.  Lightning must have struck the pen last night during the storm and gave those pigs quite a jolt.  Hee hee.  They’ll be fine directly.”

“What?  Our hogs have been electrocuted and turned into 200 pound paper weights and you don’t think that’s a big deal?!”

Unfazed, my daddy returned inside, but I stayed by the hogs’ side a while longer, assuring them that I would not abandon them in their time of need.

In the days that followed, I took good care of the hogs.  I’d visit them a couple times a day, singing them songs, washing them with the hose and trying to coax them into eating something by pouring feed right next to their drooling, open mouths.  After a day or two, the hogs slowly began to show signs of life.  At first, there’d be the occasional tic of an ear here or the twitch of a curly tail there, but the hogs remained otherwise still, their long eyelashes shielding vacant stares.  A couple more days passed and the hogs began lifting their heads a few inches off the concrete slab and moving them from side to side as though their bodies were encased in concrete from the neck down.  Another day more and their upper bodies began gesticulating in spasms, and their enormous hams started to shimmy.

As the dumbstruck hogs improved, I’d cheer them on.

“Come on, hogs.  You’re doin’ it!  That’s it.  You’re gonna make it.”

Within a week of the storm, the hogs were standing and oinking and slowly began eating again.  Although the hogs may have looked normal to the untrained eye, I could tell they had suffered massive brain damage, leaving them with the sense of a fence post.

From then on, I felt only sympathy toward the hogs and their progeny.  Following my graduation from college, I came in from sloppin’ the hogs one day and placed my rubber boots at my daddy’s feet as he sat in his recliner.  I said, “I’m done,” and never went out to the hog pen again.

When I left home to attend law school, I traded in my feed bucket for a briefcase and my black rubber boots for a pair of black pumps.  Instead of using a slop pot, I had a bona fide, dee-luxe GE garbage disposal just like the one at the hotel I’d visited as a child.  Today, I live hundreds of miles, and light years away, from where I was raised and spend my days practicing law in a 23rd floor office in a bustling urban center.

Visiting a hog at a Gainesville farm while in law school.

Visiting a hog at a Gainesville farm while in law school.

Although my life has changed dramatically since my days as a hog farmer, I love to regale my uppity friends and colleagues over cocktails and business luncheons with tales of my first profession.  I guess you could say I’ve come a long way from where I started, but I’m proud of where I came from, and I’ll never, ever forget those hogs.

These days, I prefer pearls to swine.

These days, I prefer pearls to swine.

My daughter Madison on her 1st Halloween.

 

The Bass Tracker Sunday, Mar 9 2014 

basstracker

In the late 1970s when I was about 8 years old, my father brought home a brand-new shiny Bass Tracker. He received the boat as a gift from his boss in recognition of his hard work managing a sod farm. Hauling the Bass Tracker behind his pick-up truck, my father drove up to our house and paraded around the boat with a self-congratulatory strut as he showed it off to my mother and me and my brother Will, who was about 10 at the time.

Will’s eyes grew wide with excitement when he saw the boat, a veritable redneck dream for any Florida boy who loved to fish.

A short while after unveiling his glorious Bass Tracker, my father covered her up with a beige tarp and carefully backed her into a spot under the pole barn off the front yard of our house.

“When can we take her out on the lake, Daddy?”

“When I get my work caught up, son.”

Days and weeks went by and Will pleaded with my father to take him fishing in the Bass Tracker, but the answer was always the same. “I will. When I get my work caught up.”

As my brother grew into a young man, he became an avid fisherman, spending countless hours out on the lakes of Florida’s West Coast and participating in bass and snook tournaments. Incredibly, twelve years passed and the Bass Tracker remained parked under our pole barn, still covered with a tarp that was turning green with mildew. The boat’s motor had never been cranked; its hull had never touched water.

At 22, my brother finally asked my father if he could buy the Bass Tracker from him. My father agreed and transferred the title to Will. The title showed a sale price of $1,000.00, but my father never took Will’s money.

In the years that followed, Will got loads of enjoyment out of the long-neglected Bass Tracker, taking his young wife and friends and brothers-in-law out fishing whenever he could. Sometimes, Will would call up my father and invite him to go out on the lake. “I will. When I get my work caught up,” was my father’s standard reply.

Today, my father is an old man. He has been retired for over a decade and lives alone in the same house where I was raised. The pole barn is still there, peeking through the tall weeds that were once our front yard.

I wonder if my father ever looks out his front window at that pole barn and thinks about the Bass Tracker that was parked under its tin roof during the formative years of my brother’s youth. I wonder why my father never took my brother fishing and wouldn’t even allow him to use the Bass Tracker for twelve long years. I wonder, too, if my father felt ashamed when his only son, as a full-grown man, offered to buy the Bass Tracker from him and then, showing immense grace, offered to take him fishing.

Most of all, I wonder if my father will ever realize, before it’s too late, that life is precious and finite. Will he ever set aside any time to spend with his son and his grandchildren before he departs this earth?

I have a good idea what my father would say.

Through A Child’s Eyes: My Son’s Essay About His Dad Wednesday, Jul 17 2013 

composition

As the kids’ summer vacation inches along at a snail’s pace, my husband Michael and I have asked our nanny Alicia to work with both of our children to get them ready for school and engage them in something other than marathon television viewing. I have been particularly concerned that our 11 year-old son Matthew’s writing may not be quite up to snuff as he prepares to enter sixth grade, so I’ve provided Alicia with different essay topics for Matt to write about to hone his writing skills.

Alicia, who is an elementary education major, first asks Matt to brainstorm ideas for his essay.  Then she has him write a rough draft.  Lastly, she circles all the misspelled words and jots down suggestions where the essay requires more detail, transitional words, or a smooth ending before sending Matt off to write his final draft.

Earlier this week, Matt and I had a rough start to our day and had a pretty explosive argument over his failure to clean out the litter box for the umpteenth time.  As punishment, I took away all of Matt’s electronics for the day and instructed him to work on his writing.  When I arrived back home that evening, Matt and I talked about our riff and exchanged kisses and hugs.  The next morning, as I was making coffee in the wee hours while the rest of my family remained sleeping, I noticed Matt’s composition notebook on the kitchen counter.  I flipped through the notebook full of sketches and stories and was delighted to find an essay Matt had written the day before on one of the topics I had proposed: write an essay about a member of your family, describing how you picture him or her and how you feel about him or her.

Call me sappy, but I had to wipe away tears when I read Matt’s essay entitled “My Wonderful Dad” and promptly went upstairs and woke up my husband so I could read the essay to him.

Matt’s writing has shown marked improvement this summer, and I am proud of his effort.  More importantly, I am thankful that he recognizes how richly blessed he is to have a dad who is so engaged, admirable, and loving.

Here is Matt’s essay, exactly as it was written:

My Wonderful Dad

July 15, 2013

My dad is amazing and these are things you need to know about him.

The first thing you need to know is what he looks like. My dad has brown eyes and glasses with short brown hair. He is tall, he is 6 feet and 11 inches tall.

Next you should know what he likes. He likes many things such as: T.V., sports, outside, Pawn and Wiskers our cats, sports cars, and concrete.

My dad and I like to do many things together. But we love to play outside together. When we play outside we play football or racketball. My dad’s job is a constructural engineer. So he builds buildings. Most of those buildings are hospitals.

I have learned many things from my dad. One of the things is how to write. I am so happy he has shown me how to write and many more things such as facts about car parts that I will need to know in my life.

I also admire my dad. I admire my dad because he only wants to do the best he can do in life. I want to be just like him and show honesty and respect to myself and others. That is my dad and why he is the best dad and why he is loved so much.

Michael and my step-son Matt who was the Best Man at our wedding last year.

Michael and my step-son Matt who was the Best Man at our wedding last year.

To Have and Have Seconds: My First Year of Marriage Friday, Jul 5 2013 

cheesecake

My husband Michael and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We spent the weekend in Amelia Island, Florida at a heavenly bed and breakfast nestled on the Atlantic Ocean. We relaxed, we laughed, we canoodled, we swam, we drank, and we ate. We ate a lot. As a matter of fact, it seems that Michael and I have not stopped eating since we strapped on the feedbag of love.

Perhaps our hunger was fueled by the deprivation we both endured before finding each other on Match.com. Prior to subjecting ourselves to the cyber scrutiny of potential romantic suitors, we both had lost a considerable amount of weight over a short period. I had lost about 30 pounds on the Medi Weight Loss Diet. The diet, which cost a hefty $350 per month, helped me trim down thanks to a daily dose of speed (also known as “fat crack” also known as a physician-prescribed appetite suppressant), weekly injections in my derriere, and starvation. Of course, I could have lost the same amount of weight, or more, during the several months I was on the diet if I had just eaten less and exercised more (or at all), but that is neither here nor there. For his part, Michael had lost an astounding 60 pounds by simply cutting out wine and desserts and occasionally glancing in the general direction of a piece of lettuce.  With our newly svelte-ish bodies, we boldly went where so many have gone before and found each other online.

December 2011

December 2011

Prophetically, Michael and I had our first date at a restaurant named “The Ravenous Pig” and quickly bonded over our shared interests in red wine, red meat, and red velvet cake. Within weeks, we were head over heels, and gut over belt, in love. As our feelings for each other grew, so did our respective diameters.

RAVENOUS_PIG_ORLANDO

As our wedding day grew closer, I had already gone up a full size, making shopping for a wedding dress even more challenging, and horrifying, than I imagined. Michael insisted that he was going to wear the dated, dusty old tuxedo in the back of his closet, but when he finally got around to trying it on, he discovered that it no longer fit. We both had gained over 15 pounds since we met, but we just giggled (and jiggled) over our Freshman 15 and congratulated ourselves on how great it was to be in love and not have to worry about such trifling vanity.

Bridal gown fitting, May 2012.

Bridal gown fitting, May 2012.

Michael tux shopping with his mom, May 2012.

Michael tux shopping with his mom, May 2012.

Our wedding was beautiful and our honeymoon pure magic. We ate and drank ourselves through Paris and Amsterdam with such excess we put Bacchus to shame. When our plane touched down back in our hometown, the Foodapalooza continued unabashedly.

Wedding stroll, May 2012.

Wedding stroll, May 2012.

honeymoonfoodhoneymoonfood2honeymoonfood3

As the numbers on our scale steadily increased, we deluded ourselves into believing we deserved to take a seat at the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of life after spending years at the salad bar of the brokenhearted. Sadly, we can no longer deny the truth that is staring back at us from our full-length mirror.  I’ve gained back all the weight I lost before we met and then some, and Michael isn’t far behind. And those new, larger-sized clothes we broke down and bought for our honeymoon? They are now splitting at the seams.

Dinner is served, February 2013.

Dinner is served, February 2013.

The other night, I told Michael we really need to reign ourselves in, lest we reach the point of no return. Either we commit to getting fit or we commit to gaining so much weight that we have to get his-and-her motorized scooters and go to Sea World for our annual physicals.  Michael assured me he would love me at any weight and suggested we think about it over a piece of cheesecake.

April 2013

April 2013

Yes, Ma’am. Monday, May 20 2013 

maam
I live in the Deep South.  Okay, I live in Florida, but contrary to what many snowbirds, reformed-Yankees, and other newly-minted Floridians seem to think, much of Florida is inhabited by proud Southerners whose ancestors settled this state and put it on the map through ranching and farming.  Now that our pioneering ancestors have transformed this swamp land into the glorious Sunshine State, droves of transplants from the frozen North and parts beyond have flooded into Florida to live, to enjoy our beaches, and to visit one of our ubiquitous theme parks.  Once they arrive, they unpack their bags, take in the fresh air, and promptly go about the business of rejecting our Southern heritage.

An integral part of being a Southerner, of course, is having Southern manners.  When I was growing up in the sticks, surrounded by mossy oak trees and cattle, my mother and father taught me the importance of saying “ma’am” and “sir” as a sign of respect.  This was not a quaint but optional turn of phrase; it was mandatory.  To refer to a teacher or parent or adult as anything other than ma’am or sir was tantamount to blasphemy.  You might as well address your pastor as “dude” and call your school principal by his childhood nickname Sparky.  So when my mother would call out for me, I did not respond with a snarky “WHAT?!” as many kids do today.  When my teacher asked me whether I had completed my homework assignment, I didn’t respond with a “yeah” or a “nope” like I was speaking to my kid sister.  A crisp yes or no, followed by ma’am was in order.

Like my mother before me, I have diligently tried to instill in my children the importance of saying ma’am and sir.  I admit that it has been an uphill battle.  Many of my female friends (transplants all) think it’s antiquated.  Some of them go so far as insisting that they not be called ma’am because they consider it derogatory.  Well, I’m here to set the record straight.  Ma’am is not some pejorative slang of the inbred masses.  Ma’am is a contraction of the word madam.  In Britain, ma’am is pronounced “mahm” or “muhm,” and it is used as a title of respect, especially when addressing female royalty.  When addressing the Queen of England, one must first address her as “Your Majesty,” and then only as “ma’am.”  Similar to ma’am, but not as reverential, are the titles dame, gentlewoman, and lady.  In the United States, Britain, and Canada, ma’am is used to address female officers of esteemed military rank.  Ma’am or Madam is the highest title of respect one can bestow on a woman — Madam Justice, Madam Speaker, Madam Secretary, Madam President.   In the case of a very young woman, girl, or unmarried woman who prefers to be addressed as such, “miss” is an appropriate ma’am equivalent, but in the South, ma’am denotes any female, no matter her age or position.  Still feel insulted, ladies?

Tellingly, I have never heard of a man feeling sullen and combative for being called “sir.”  That would be inane.  Clearly, the disdain for ma’am is a women’s issue, not a cultural one, which says more about the person who is offended than the person who is just being polite.  I would venture to guess that women who hate being referred to as ma’am are the same women who refuse to disclose their age and become depressed on their birthdays.   To those women, I say with all due respect and sisterly affection, buck up!  It’s not about you or how old you are or how you consider yourself exempt from trite Southern labels.  It’s about respect, so deal with it.  We will not sacrifice our manners or relegate hundreds of years of tradition to the dustbin of history to appease your vanity.

Many years ago, I had a substitute teacher who scolded me for calling her ma’am.  Visibly, displeased, she demanded, “Would you please stop calling me ‘ma’am’?  I don’t like it and consider it rude and offensive.”  Sheepishly, I looked down to the ground and whispered, “Yes, ma’am.”

The 3rd Grade Field Trip That Changed My Life Wednesday, May 15 2013 

Manatee County Courthouse

Manatee County Courthouse

In 1978, when I was in third grade, I went on a school field trip that forever changed the trajectory of my life.  I boarded a long yellow school bus with my teacher and classmates and headed to a mystical place, the likes of which I had only seen on TV or in the movies – the county courthouse.  As the bus dropped us off in front of the massive brick building (which was three stories tall, or practically a skyscraper in my hometown), we scurried into formation on the manicured green lawn.  Rows of gray stone steps, and four gleaming white Greek columns, led to the courthouse’s double doors.

Once inside, I immediately felt the cool comfort of central air conditioning, a luxury I did not enjoy living on a farm.  Deputy Sheriffs with crisply starched, forest green uniforms stood like sentinels against the wall, with shiny five-point stars affixed to their chests.  Like John Wayne, they wore leather holsters on their sides.  I marveled at the rows of gold bullets lining their belts and the .38 caliber pistols peeking out of their holsters.

To the sound of manual typewriters clicking furiously in the surrounding offices, the tour guide led us along the corridors of the courthouse trying, in vain, to explain the administration of justice to a gaggle of giggling 8-year olds.  She led us down a staircase to a dank, dimly lit basement that smelled of urine and cigarette smoke.  A row of small jail cells lined the back wall.   Through the rusting iron bars, I could see scruffy, unkempt men in black and white striped jumpsuits sitting in their cramped cells, with flimsy cots and grimy stainless steel toilets situated only inches away from where they slept. Filled with curiosity, I asked the guide why the men were locked up like lions at the zoo.  She explained they had been arrested the night before for breaking the law and were waiting to see the judge, whatever that meant.

We left the smelly basement, and I took my first ride on an elevator to the top floor.  I felt like I was Captain Kirk, being teleported to a strange new world where I’d never been before.  Quietly, we stepped inside a large courtroom, beaming with sunlight, and filled the wooden pews in the back of the room.  The courtroom reminded me of a cathedral.  It was a beautiful, imposing sight, with its dark paneled walls, high ceiling, and grand chandeliers.  A railing separated our seating area from two finely dressed gentlemen in three-piece suits who were standing behind podiums on opposite sides of the room, passionately addressing the judge — an older man with the peculiar name “Your Honor” — with indecipherable eloquence.

The judge wore a flowing black robe, perched high atop his bench. What appeared to be a small wooden mallet lay before him.  On the wall above his head hung a large seal of the state of Florida. The flags of Florida and the United States flanked the judge. My young heart stirred at the sight of those regal flags, edged with gold fringe and hung on tall poles topped with brass American eagles.

As I sat on the pew in that courtroom and took in the sights and sounds around me, my love of the law took root.

Mattie Pearl: the Story of My Amazing Mother Monday, May 13 2013 

Mom, second grade, 1948.

Mom, second grade, 1948.

My mother is as unique as they come. At once feisty and weepy, sharp as a tack but with simple tastes, gregarious but introspective, loving but tough as nails, fiercely devout but with a wild streak. I inherited these traits and many others from my mom, including her once raven hair and blue eyes, her faith in Christ, her weakness for chocolate, her voracious appetite for books, her flair for the dramatic, her propensity to worry, her appreciation for Elvis, her proud spirit, her dislike of Yankee season, her love of music and movies, and her affinity for writing.

Mattie Pearl (a great name, I’m sure you’d agree) was born at home in 1941 in Palmetto, Florida. She and her family lived in a working class area of town called Samoset. The story of my mother’s upbringing is part Little House on the Prairie and part American Bandstand.

Mom, 18 months old.

Mom, 18 months old.

As a child, my mother drew water from a well using a pitcher pump, battled spiders in the outhouse, and read her Bible by the light of a kerosene lamp. Though she lived in town, chickens roamed in my mom’s backyard. At the tender age of 10, she took on many of the responsibilities of running her household. She’d help her mother with dinner by chasing a chicken, wringing its neck, relieving it of its feathers, and throwing it in a pot. By age 12, however, my mom enjoyed the finer luxuries of life, like indoor plumbing and electricity. Always the teacher’s pet, mom won the county spelling bee in seventh grade, successfully spelling “disappointment,” much to the dismay of the red-headed, freckle-faced boy who came in second.

My mother’s early years, though happy, were marred by sickness and economic hardship. At numerous points during her childhood, her father became injured or sick. At one point, he was hospitalized for months and almost died. Mom, always a caretaker at heart, took the bus to the Dixie Grande Hotel in downtown Bradenton and claimed she was 16, instead of 14, to get a job working as a waitress to help support her family.

As a teenager in the 1950s, my mother grew into a lovely young woman. Not having much money, mom would sew her own full skirts and crinolines — sans poodle — so she could participate in the fashion of the day. Always full of energy, mom loved to dance. She and her younger brother Ron used to jitterbug – a wildly fun and acrobatic swing dance that gets its name from early 20th-century slang for alcoholics who suffered from the “jitters.” Mom knew how to cut a rug. She and her brother danced their way around Samoset, entering, and sometimes winning, jitterbug contests.

My mother and her dance partner, Uncle Doc (Ron)

My mother and her dance partner, Uncle Doc (Ron)

Mom was (and is) an exceedingly smart, responsible, caring, eternally maternal, paragon of virtue. Her saintly side, however, was tempered by a scrappy, take-no-crap attitude. Once, when she was 17, not one but two girls decided to gang up on mom after she got off the school bus. According to mom, the girls were jealous because she had deigned to say hello to one of their would-be romantic suitors at the local drive-in. Mom assured the girls that she had no designs on the fellow and encouraged them to keep on walking, but they were itching for a fight. A crowd of high schoolers had gathered in the empty lot near the bus stop to watch snarky Barbara and Faye lay waste to the goodie two-shoes Mattie Pearl. Mom did not run away or cry or plead with them to leave her alone. Instead, she dropped her books, tightened her fists, and proceeded to open up a big fat can of Samoset whoop-ass on those girls.

Unbeknownst to the girls, who relied on sissy maneuvers such as clawing and hair pulling, sweet little Mattie Pearl came from a long line of fighters. Why just a few weeks earlier, my mom’s older brother Bud had come home for a visit from the military and schooled her on how to properly throw a punch, goading her into punching his tightened abdomen with her fists for practice. Those ill-advised girls, one with a black eye and the other a fat lip, hobbled home to nurse their wounds while mom went home to celebrate her victorious battle with her family, in need of little more than a comb.

Mom, in her prom dress, standing next to her brother Bud.

Mom, in her prom dress, standing next to her brother Bud.

Soon after turning 18, when she was a senior in high school, my mom met my father. Apparently, as the story goes, mom’s friend Little Mae (so named because she was less than five feet tall), was also friends with my father Earl (who carried the stain of the unfortunate road kill nickname “Possum” due to his side business of selling possums to poor folk in Rubonia). Well, Little Mae told Mattie Pearl that she should go out with Possum and, unbelievably, she did! They went out on several dates, but my dad — who lived in the Palmetto back woods and still did not have indoor plumbing in 1959 — was painfully shy and backward.

While my father tried, unsuccessfully, to woo my mother during her senior year, she agreed to go out on a date with another young man — her friend’s cousin who was visiting from up North. He picked mom up in his fancy convertible the size of a tank and took her to the drive-in movie. But, as soon as the movie began playing, the lecherous college boy began pawing at my chaste mother like a housecat in heat. Mom jumped out of his high-falutin’ batmobile and ran to the concession stand. Lo and behold, my daddy just happened to be at the drive-in too. He offered to drive mom home and, after that night, she never dated anyone else. A few months went by and my dad invited mom out to Emerson Point for the day. He asked her to bring a very specific picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, and a chocolate cake. Later, after he proposed, my dad explained that he had asked mom to make his favorite meal to ensure that she would make a decent wife.

Mom got married at 18, giving up the scholarship she won for taking shorthand to become a farmer’s wife. Not long after, dad moved mom to Loxahatchee, Florida where he got a job managing a sod farm on Flying Cow Ranch. The farm was surrounded by acres and acres of cattle ranch and fields of fruits and vegetables that were harvested by the day laborers who lived at Ma and Pa Rich’s seedy labor camp just down the road. For ten years, my mom lived in that swampy place out in the middle of nowhere. Dad’s work kept him away from home day and night, leaving mom alone with nothing to do but have children, and more children, and more children. While living in Loxahatchee, my mom had five children over a nine-year period.

Mattie Pearl, the most glamorous lady in Loxahatchee in the 60s.

Mattie Pearl, the most glamorous lady in Loxahatchee in the 60s.

As you can imagine, mom didn’t like being left to fend for herself all day in a tiny house full of kids with nothing but snakes, alligators, and creepy crawlies to keep her company. Nor did she like living in close proximity to a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells. She worried that one of those men would get drunk at the local juke joint and try to force his way into the house one night when my father was out tending to the grass. Taking matters into her own hands, mom decided she better learn how to use a gun, so she took my father’s .22 single shot rifle and began shooting tin cans off of fence posts for target practice, in full view of the workers toiling in the fields.

One night, when my mother was about eight-months pregnant with her fourth child and my father was away, a car full of men stopped on the dirt road right in front of her house. Her heart stopped when she saw the car’s headlights slow to a halt and heard the men mumble something about “that house” as they climbed out of the car and began walking up the lane toward mom and her three sleeping angels. Never one to cower in fear, mom grabbed dad’s rifle and waddled outside to the front yard in her house coat. She fired a couple shots in the air and hollered at those men to turn around and get the hell off her property or they’d never live to see daylight. Scared senseless, the men took off running back to their car. One of them dove into the driver’s seat as the others stood behind the car and hurriedly pushed it down the dark country road back toward camp.

It was then my mother realized that the car must have broken down in front of her house, and the men probably just wanted to use the telephone. In any event, my mom left quite the impression. After the men returned to the labor camp, they warned their fellow laborers about the mad Annie Oakley who lived up the road, who shoots first and asks questions later. From then on, my mother became known as “Crazy Miss Earl,” and let’s just say she never had any more uninvited house guests.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that my mom is one tough broad. She’s like one of those pioneer women you can never keep down. No matter how bleak things are, she will always find a way to dig herself out … and up. That was certainly the case when our family’s home burned down to the ground in November of 1971. Mom and dad had returned from Loxahatchee to Eastern Manatee County to live on property they had purchased several years earlier. Mom’s dad, a master carpenter, and her brother Ron largely built the house themselves from the ground up. It was a fine home, especially compared to the little house on Flying Cow Ranch, but it lacked one essential feature – homeowner’s insurance. The day before Thanksgiving, and only five months after my family had moved into the home, it burned down to the ground. The official story was that an electrical fire was to blame, but I learned many years later that my brother, who was only three at the time, had been playing with my dad’s matches and accidentally started the fire before running and hiding under my crib where I lay asleep.

It’s not like my mom had a lot to begin with, but the few material possessions she did cherish were destroyed in the fire — like the garnet ring her parents had given her on her sweet 16 birthday, countless baby photos, and closets full of hand-sewn dresses and children’s clothes. I was just a baby then, at one-year old. Mom was outside bottle feeding some calves and tending to our German Shepard Delilah in run-down work clothes and rubber boots. When she finished her chores, she returned to find the front corner of the house engulfed in flames. Terrified, mom ran into the burning home, snatched me out of my crib and grabbed my frightened brother, saving her babies just in the nick of time. My three older sisters, who were 9, 7, and 5 at the time, were at school. On that particular day, mom sent them to school wearing one-piece jumpers she had fashioned out of feed sacks made of broad cloth. Those hog feed jumpers were the only clothes my sisters had that survived the fire.

Some neighbors saw the smoke and rushed down the dirt lane to help mom push our family’s car out of the carport, but everything else was lost, reduced to ashes. A family of seven, with five children under the age of 10, homeless, with no insurance. Such a tragedy would be enough to devastate a normal person, but not my mom. Yes, those were hard times, she says, as she recalls the years of dressing herself and her children in embarrassing hand-me-downs and living in a single-wide trailer on the property until they were finally able to rebuild. But Mom was so grateful to God that her two babies did not perish in the fire that everything else seemed small to her in comparison.

The photo of my family that ran in the Bradenton Herald newspaper along with the article about our house burning down.

The photo of my family that ran in the Bradenton Herald newspaper along with the article about our house burning down.

At 36, when my mother thought she was done having babies, she gave birth to my younger sister. In all, she raised six children, while working much of the time as a secretary or bookkeeper.

Family photo, 1982.

Family photo, 1982.

On any given Sunday, from the time she was a child to today, you will always find my mom on a wooden pew praising God for his goodness. She is a creative soul with a penchant for writing and acting. She has written dozens of poems and reads them in church. She’s also written and starred in many church skits, donning an array of props and costumes and accents to spread the Gospel. She’s a teacher at heart. She used to work as a teacher’s aide at Manatee Elementary School and taught Sunday School most of her life from the age of 18. In 1981, mom taught herself how to use a computer, long before most people had a computer in their homes. Of course, the life lessons she has taught me and my five siblings are too numerous to list.

Mom and her daughters, visiting my maternal grandparents' church, 1982.

Mom and her daughters, visiting my maternal grandparents’ church, 1982.

For the last 15 years, my mother has worked as the office manager for the Manatee Southern Baptist Association. Today, she is a vibrant woman of 72. Still working, still doing drama at church, still going to the movies, still sneaking chocolate, still feisty as ever, and still teaching me important lessons about life.

Mom, 2011.

Mom, 2011.

I have never seen my mom dance the jitterbug, but she has always kept the pep in her step, whether it is shaking her hips to a country tune or tapping her foot to Southern Gospel hymns in church. I never saw my mom fight, but she definitely kept her six children in line and held her own with my father. I never saw her brandish a gun, but she displayed immense strength and taught me the importance of self-reliance. I don’t remember the fire, or wearing donated clothes, or living in that trailer, but mom taught me that God and family, not material possessions, are the sacred things in this short life.

Mom and Genevieve, one of her two great-grandchildren (she also has 12 grandchildren).

Mom and Genevieve, one of her two great-grandchildren (she also has 12 grandchildren).

My singular wish is that, when my mom looks back on her life, she will be proud of her legacy, knowing how much she is loved and what a difference she has made to so many. She certainly has had a profound impact on my life — more than any other person — and I am eternally grateful to call her mother. No matter how old I get, I will never outgrow the need for my mom. Thank you, Mom, for everything. You’re amazing. Happy Mother’s Day.

Mom, walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, 2012.

Mom, walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, 2012.

Easter Memories Sunday, Mar 31 2013 

Easter sunrise 2013.

Easter sunrise – 2013

Easter is my favorite holiday.  The onset of Spring, with blooming flowers and new growth abounding everywhere you look, bears witness to the glory of Easter and the One who makes all things new.

I love coloring Easter eggs, waking before dawn to attend the lakefront sunrise service by my home, and transforming my little girl into a pink fluff of cotton candy.  Then there is the time spent with my loud, boisterous extended family.  We feast on a wide array of Southern fare and lounge on the porch to watch the spectacle of the annual Easter egg hunt.

With five daughters, my mother had the daunting task of ensuring all her girls were dressed to the nines come Easter Sunday.  Weeks before, we would go into town to Wool-Co or K-Mart and pick out our Easter dresses.  I loved trying on the wide brimmed hats adorned with ribbons, lace gloves, white patent leather Mary-Janes, and poufy pastel dresses.  Being too poor to buy them outright, my mom would usually place our dresses on lay-away.  Sometimes we would go visit our dresses and dream of the day we could spring them out of lock-up.  Once I got my dress home, I would try it on nearly every day and twirl around my bedroom in gleeful anticipation of the oohs and ahhs my dress would most surely receive as I entered the church’s vestibule on Easter morning.

Easter Sunday 1978.  That's me in the back, with my Dad and siblings Melanie, Melinda, Will, Michelle, and Melissa.

Easter Sunday 1978. That’s me in the back, with my Dad and siblings Melanie, Melinda, Will, Michelle, and Melissa.

After church and a big lunch, my family would have the mother of all Easter egg hunts.  Living out in the country, we had a huge one-acre yard.   That kind of real estate turned an otherwise run-of-the-mill Easter egg hunt into an Olympic sport.  Oh, how I wish my parents had a video camera back in the 1970s so I could recall the sight of six rag tag kids armed with baskets full of fake grass, diving into snaky weeds and ant piles in the hopes of finding the Holy Grail of Easter eggs — the prize egg.  Back then, the prize egg was a large, bright silver, plastic egg that once housed my mom’s suntan pantyhose.  In leaner times, the prize egg contained a buck worth of quarters, but in times of prosperity, mom would slip a crisp five-dollar bill into the egg, upping the ante and prompting her litter of young’uns to go wild.

IMG_2227

The L’Eggs egg that served as our prize egg.

Today, my siblings and I have the profound pleasure of watching our own gaggle of children run around with their frilly Easter baskets, fumbling through flower pots and searching around oak trees for the prize egg, whose bounty has not been adjusted for inflation since 1979.

easter2

My nephew Jonathan, niece Janae’, and sister Melissa, going for the Easter egg glory.

Easter is usually celebrated right around the same time as my birthday.  Many times my sister Melanie will make a white coconut Easter bunny cake to mark the occasion.  Even as a grown woman, I love that Easter bunny cake, with its licorice whiskers and jelly bean bow tie.

Easter 2010, with my bunny birthday cake.

Easter 2010, with my bunny birthday cake.

My twelfth birthday actually fell on Easter Sunday, and I chose that special day to be baptized in the river behind my church.  It was the 80s, so underneath my robe of white I wore an Ocean Pacific t-shirt and a pair of navy corduroys.  A gold lightning bolt, not a cross, dangled from around my neck.

That was one of the coldest Easters on record.  I vividly remember wading into the freezing water, my feet sinking into the muck.  I was terrified that an alligator may be lurking nearby and would snatch me away.  This was Florida, after all, and gator mating season to boot.  Fortunately, I convinced myself that Jesus would not allow such a tragedy to befall me while I was being baptized … on Easter … and on my birthday no less.  When it came time to be baptized, the preacher stood beside me and plunged me down into the dark, murky depths and lifted me out again before guiding me out of the river and onto dry ground.

As I prepare to celebrate Easter again this year, I fondly recall all of the precious memories of Easters past and my birthday baptism especially.   What a beautiful day it was and what an amazing image of God’s grace.  For in those dark times of life, when the weight of the world seeks to drown me in despair, God is still faithful to lift me out of the miry pit and set my feet on solid ground.

My family at this year's Easter sunrise service in my neighborhood.

My family at this year’s Easter sunrise service in my neighborhood.

An Anxious Mind Saturday, Mar 16 2013 

 smiley-face

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,

whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—

think about such things.  

Phillipians 4:8

I’ve always been kind of a Debbie Downer.  If there are multiple ways of thinking about an issue, my mind usually gravitates toward the negative.  I’m what you might call a “worst case scenario” thinker which leads me to be risk-averse, sometimes to a crippling degree.  Worrying myself sick about hypothetical-but-unlikely negative outcomes could be my full-time job, if I let it.  It’s amazing, really, that I’ve been able to navigate my way through life with this handicap.

Every day, when I wake up, I go to battle with my anxiety about the unknown.  Actually, truth be told, the battle often begins before daybreak, when I toss and turn in the middle of the night or roam about the house in the wee hours because my laser-like focus on the uncertainties of life robs me of peaceful slumber.  Many days, I triumph over my doom-and-gloom nature.  Some days, unfortunately, I succumb.

I come from a long line of worriers.  My granny used to wring her hands anxiously; my mother seemed certain that tragedy would befall me or one of my five siblings if we strayed too far from the nest; my father would sit in his recliner and shake his legs obsessively, as if to a fast-paced hillbilly tune that only he could hear.  With such a strong genetic predisposition to worry, it was a foregone conclusion that I too would be a neurotic mess.

Yet, deep in the hidden parts of my mind, I cling fast to a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of doubt, which drives me forward.  I guess you could say I’m a tragic optimist trapped in a pessimist’s body, for no matter how much I fear leaving my comfort zone, I am constantly drawn outside its boundaries.  In facing some of my greatest fears, I have cobbled together a wonderful, full life.  Still, I worry … a lot.

Turns out that the more I have, the more I have to lose.  The more I love, the more I worry about those I love.  The more I succeed, the more I fear failure.  So I stand on the precipice of each new day with a heightened awareness of the potential danger and loss swirling around me, always cognizant that my time here on Earth is finite and all of my dreams and aspirations may not be realized.  But, with God’s help, I gird myself with the armor of faith and hope and face this amazing gift of life one moment, one hour, one day, one worry at a time.

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