My Angel

Alberta's hand

Ok, Ana…..my precious friend; I rise to your challenge and give you the following.

In the late 1950’s and early 60’s it was considered acceptable for middle class women to have black domestic help in the form of a nanny/housekeeper. Yes, my family had one, but there was a relationship there that went far, far beyond a ‘hired help’ status.

You see, my beloved great-grandfather made himself ‘persona non-grata’ in a neighboring state because of his habit of acquiring black persons either trapped in an indentured servitude contract or not allowed to be released into parole because no one would hire them. He’d release/acquire/buy out their contract, bring them across the State lines and free them to go on their own. A good many of them followed him to settle on his land, become sharecroppers or find employment that allowed them to buy their own piece of the American Dream. Because of this practice, we never went looking too hard to find help if we needed in home nursing care, housekeeping assistance, etc. There was always a community within gossip distance that was nearby.

When my middle brother was born in the middle of a June heat spell that withered cotton on the plant, Alvesta, our cook/housekeeper took one look at the squalling auburn haired baby and announced, “He’s gonna have trouble with his lungs. He was born too hot.” Sure enough, her words rang true and the smell of menthol and the wisps of the steam treatments infiltrated the small frame house I would come to visit twice a month. As he grew past babyhood, Alvesta told my momma, “It’s time you let little miss meet her baby brother. Or she’s gonna grow up a stranger to her own blood.” At nearly 4 ½ years of age, I came to stay with my momma and daddy; no longer in danger of my own lungs or kidneys collapsing, thanks to Alvesta’s cousin, Alberta taking care of me with my Nana and Papaw’s oversight.

Within a few months, momma and daddy bought a home of their own; it was halfway between being in town and being on the road to ‘the sticks’ as my momma would call it. The heat of that summer producing a hurricane that decided to make it into Central Texas to challenge the integrity of trees, roads and families – we lost the smaller house because of the storm damage….and Alvesta to a stroke.

I grieved in the only way a child knows, my little brother becoming a target of any item I had in my hand if I saw him. One morning, my backside sore from a spanking because yet again I waylaid into the boy child, a familiar voice called to me. “Fey child, you comin’ for your breakfast or you gonna sleep the night away?” It was the voice of Alberta, the calm and steady hands that had wiped away tears, the broad lap that held me while I learned to shell peas, the warmth that had rocked me to sleep when the pain from ear infections left me restless and unable to rest.

Baby brother was forgotten, and I even left my houseshoes and robe at the foot of my bed, forgotten in my rush to see if the voice I heard was a figment of dream. There she stood, one hand on her hip the other stirring the oatmeal made thick and spicy with clove and cinnamon; my personal angel with the dark caramel skin. I think I nearly knocked her over in the flying tackle hug I gave her, my nose almost at waist height. “Ok, baby girl. Slow down. Your mama called me and I needed the job to finish my schooling. Speaking of which, they been letting you grow wild. You’re gonna sit with me this morning and we’re gonna start learnin’ you to read. After all, isn’t that why you ran away?”

I blinked at her in near shock. How did she know that I ran away on the local school bus because I wanted to go to school? Did she also know that I refused to give my name to any one at the police station until my Nana came to claim me with a panicked mother?

A wise, sweet smile nearly split her face in two as she looked at me. “I knew you were gonna give these city folks grief untold, Fey baby. Smart little girls like you need love, and guidance and lots of learning to keep you from doing the Devil’s own mischief. Now here, sit down.” I did, and she served me a huge bowl of creamy spicy goodness in a crockery bowl with butter and sugar.

When I went to go put my bowl in the sink, Alberta quickly grabbed one of my hands to get my attention and announced, “You are going to go get yourself dressed. I need you right back in here after you’ve brushed your teeth, brushed your hair and put some shoes on those bare feet. No flip flops. Sneakers. We’re going to be doing schoolwork and you need to dress for the job.”

I remember being so serious about ‘getting it right’ – I brushed my teeth, I put on my favorite clean t-shirt (it had bunnies on it) and my corduroy pants that made whispering noises as I walked. I even remembered to put on socks before grabbing my sneakers. “Miss Alberta?” I called from the bedroom. “Yes, Fey baby?” “I don’t know how to tie my shoes.”

“Well, come on with yourself. We might as well start this right.”

We did start it right, because I still remember the stories of Jeremiah and the prophets, Joseph and his brothers (she picked that one out after a particularly bad fight with my little brother), and then Ruth. I learned to read sitting in her lap, out of her worn black Bible. I never knew that she was taking night classes for her Master’s degree in education. I never knew that she realized I had dysgraphia and taught me numerous tricks to overcome the problem. What I did know and have long realized is that Alberta was my own personal angel who taught me that education was a precious gift, shared best between kindred souls who understood each other beyond all the bounds that human ignorance can create.

I was in third grade when she matriculated with her Master’s degree. I was crushed when she told me she’d be leaving to go ‘up North’ to marry and to teach. After all these years, somewhere in my heart I know that she’s aware that but for her Grace and Goodness, I’d have been more than just a troubled child who needed her gift. Wherever you are Alberta, Thank you – and I love you.

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Autumn’s Light

mabon2

It’s late September – I’ve just noticed the calendar – I mean really looked at it in a way that says the year is almost gone. The crepe myrtle outside my office window are still confused and blooming when late July and all of August is their time for glory. The Chinese tallow trees are still green, but here and there some of their leaves are dipped in crimson contrast. There’s a bit of a subtle golden sheen to the grasses, and every now and then a chilly wind comes from nowhere. Just a few inches off the soil, this cold shallow breath of winter nags at me.

I am beginning to understand why they call this the “autumn” of Life; after the children are grown and gone, but all the noise and effects of their presence lie in shards of silence everywhere you look. Like unraked leaves soon to be shed by seasonally confused trees, it’s a time to pause. I’ve never cared for a “Hold” button, but now I’m beginning to see why they are so integral to a marriage, a career and a lifetime. We all need time to see in depth what really was, beyond all the pretense of being family, beyond the hurry of other people’s schedules, beyond our own insane expectations.

Time to “clear the closets” in all manner of speaking. I’ve also realized in many ways that I’m taking an inventory of my own personal feelings within human relationships as I prepare to make other changes in our later years. Words, phrases, the little things that we do for one another take on a deeper, richer meaning. He’s always been more than “husband” – he is my lifemate, he is my beloved, he is my companion through the roughest storms any couple can handle and still stay together. Promises that we made to one another on a foggy April morning almost a quarter century ago have become more, as have we. I realize that I am more than “wife” to him, and have been for a very long time. We had learned to complete one another’s sentences, I can buy him graphic t-shirts that he adores because I know and adore all his quirks. He reads what I write, often before I’ve completed the creation.

In all of this he holds me. He gathers me up into the shelter of his taller, wider self to remind me, “You know I love you, never forget this. You are not alone.” When I despair of the words that I need to complete the landscape of intent, he quiets my sobs by saying, “You are my beloved. What you need is right there, and right here, too. Go and do this. You know you can.”

Sometimes I think that we do ourselves a huge disservice by painting romance as all hearts and flowers and long contented sighs. It is so much more than the deep kisses and gentle caress of one lover’s hand on the other’s skin. We need to remind ourselves that there are shared spirits and emotions; that somewhere in the building of a relationship there is a compromise that occurs. We need to be reminded that even the best of us can go from asset to asshat in 2.3 seconds given the right coercion.

I miss the long friendships that I had with other women. Thanks to the economic upheaval of 2008, my last ‘bestie’ lost her home, her business and nearly her mind. This was the sort of relationship that women need – someone who knows where ‘all the bodies are buried’ because she helped you dig the hole. You know each other’s tastes, you have a history together, and when the worst comes you allow each other the grace, place and space to grieve. When the best comes around, you protect her back in case some jealous ass wants to steal her time in the spotlight.

Finally, the children begin to have lives and histories all their own that they weave in incredible color and texture and joy right in front of you. You see where they are going to make a colossal, intractable knot and despite warnings and the itch to take the threads from their hands, you let them. You also observe as they take threads and influences from their beloveds and friends and incorporate this into their lives as well. What was just a tapestry becomes a work of art all on its own with an inner light and a symphonic soundtrack that dances in the eyes of all around.

My inner landscape is beginning to echo the outer one now, standing on the verge of a seasonal change. The first storms that herald the turning of the Great Wheel have passed, and as I take the mental broom to the sidewalks and patios of my inner house, the outer home settles into Autumn’s Light. Let there be joy in the contentment of finding a place in lengthening shadows and deepening twilight.

So be it.

Weaving In The Ends

yellow ribbon

For the past three years, it’s been the Labor Day holiday that marks a bittersweet end of summer. This weekend means that the daughter will be making the 1100 mile journey to college. The first year, we took her – and all the belongings that she was convinced she simply had to have. It was an epic journey for a young lady that had never left her home state. She was so unnerved at our eventual arrival that she couldn’t even look at the beautiful Bell Tower and Chapel spire that marks the location of Cornell College in Iowa. It was hard for all of us, but we the parents put on a brave face and smiled in relief as the athletic students lined up to offload the arriving freshman. Her dorm room was on the third floor and there weren’t elevators….schlepping all this stuff up six flights of stairs would have invited a coronary in our unfit bodies!

At first, we simply couldn’t afford airfare for the winter break round trip, but we bought bus tickets and she managed the 18 hour long ride with patience overcoming hesitancy. The stories she would tell at the end of each journey were worth the nail-biting wait to see that she’d make it home and then back again safely. Her first summer, she brought home a classmate who couldn’t go home after a phone call home pleading for us to add to our brood. His sexual preferences and the politics of the emerging ruling party were at serious odds with his longevity as a human being. That the Buddhist priests in his native country were complicit in this travesty dropped my respect for their basic humanity and compassion considerably.

This was the summer of an education for all concerned, but it was also the summer of watching the joy of a newcomer to this country as he experienced the Fourth of July as it should be; with barbequed brisket, cold sliced watermelon, swimming in a spring-fed paradise and watching fireworks from the sweet scent of a newly mowed hayfield. It was also a wake-up call for the Dane and I – when we saw how desperately unhappy he was, we challenged him to follow his dream. Life is too short not to give it a go. He changed majors, colleges, and with his dream firmly in hand went to welcome his sister to America and her college. Whether he fails or succeeds, he will never have the regret that his dream went unpursued.

All too soon, it was time for Kat’s sophomore year to commence and this time, we could put her on a plane for the journey with a ticket to come home over the Yule holidays. What we didn’t even think of was the probability of the fickle Iowa winters when winter break came upon us and the encroaching blizzard that her plane barely escaped. There was a quick prayer of gratitude that her plane didn’t go through Chicago and as soon as it had come upon us, her winter break was over and she was back to deal with snow, classes and the season of cold that couldn’t seem to let go.

Now the second summer break is over and yesterday, after a meal with family at a Vietnamese noodle restaurant we put her on a plane to return for her junior year. Kat is no longer the uncertain student that she was when she first peeked through her fingers at the beautiful hilltop campus. Her friends, now lovingly known as her “posse’” have come to love her and us as we them. Not unlike something growing into being from yarn and a crochet hook, all the loops and twists are coming together into a solid body of education for our child, now nearly full-grown.

We are at the half-way point, and we see such a change. It’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking and a miracle almost equivalent to her birth. Within my heart, I sincerely pray that everyone with a child in college steps back to watch the unfolding, the rebirthing, and the forging of an individual that this process creates. Oh, it’s not over but when you could only see the misty edges of a dream, seeing it at the halfway point begins to awaken a belief in the impossible again.

I must admit to a bit of tongue biting when she announced that she would be the “house manager” for the year at the 8-person housing unit this year. My beloved child is about to learn all about ‘tough love’ and setting boundaries. My prayers go up that she won’t come home bitter and bald; however a certain knowledge of human nature predicts several phone calls home for a “What in the Hell do I do about this?” session. Her Dad will field those phone calls, because he married a Valkyrie who would rather pull a sword to dispatch a problem than negotiate an agreement on the bridge.

When it all comes down to it, it truly a matter of weaving in the ends rather than leaving something that could be snagged and pulled apart. We are all one, we are all woven together, and it helps to remember the feel of the threads in our hands when what we weave grows beyond the skein.