A Family Affair

“It’s a family affair, it’s a family affair.  One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn…”  Family Affair (1971), Recorded by:  Sly & The Family Stone.  Composer:  Sly Stone

Somebody told me once that the terrific thing about grandchildren is, after they visit they go home.  That thought leaves some room for the idea our own kids don’t leave to go home because they ARE home.  For me, as a dad, that was a good thing.  I was/am blessed to have three great daughters.

To my grave I will say, I was gifted by God to be in a position to take on “Mr. Mom” for many years.  Tabitha (31), my oldest, and Megan (29) are two very different ladies.  Who said siblings had to be alike?

Girls - Tabitha And Megan

(1998)

When they were born, it was early in my radio career, working overnights.  When they were about two and four, I was on the air in the evenings (7pm-12am) for a few more years before taking daytime on-air hours.  It was during those sleepy evening and overnight shows I was able to be with my girls in the daytime.  Moreover, it was their formative years, all the way through elementary school days.  I didn’t plan it.  It literally was one of those “God Things” in our lives.

Domestically speaking, those were times of horrific turmoil in hour home.  We did a decent job of hiding it from friends, but it all took its toll.  In efforts to avoid dishing out unnecessary dirt on some private family dynamics, I will say nothing more on the subject.

All things work out together for God’s purpose.  So, it was my pleasure to instill in these young hearts my faith, my real-world experience, and loads of wacky, swinging-from-the-chandelier-playtime.  We built memories.  Most of all, when they needed protection, they knew who to run to.

Nine years after Megan came along, D’Anna, my youngest, was born.  Unfortunately, I was working an afternoon drive-time show during those same years in her life.  I regret I didn’t get the same amount of quantity time with her, but we sure had tons of quality times together.

Girls Sept 2003 - Visit back to Carrollton

(2003)

When thinking back to those days of tea parties by the dollhouse, walking on hands and knees pretending to be a riding horse, or playing dress-up (Complete with make-up.) I would never consider changing any of it.  Nope, not one thing.  It was all so worth it.

Girls - T&M kiddie pool

(1992)

During my daddy/daughter years, I dated my girls.  We set calendar days, reserving them for “Dates with dad.”  Sure, we did stuff as a pack, but I wanted one-on-one time with each girl.  Just a movie, playground, or dinner at a favorite spot always suited us nicely.  Again, all so worth it.

D'Anna & Me in Houston-June 2007

(2007)

If parents were blatantly honest, I feel it would be said we learned so much while parenting.  I know I did.  Do you feel that way?  The triumphant trio grew up knowing they never had to “perform” or “measure-up” for my love.  Each one saw unconditional love, no matter what kind of trouble they fell into, or words spoken in haste, or diverting to another ideology different than mine.  To this day, it holds true.  Scripture taught me the way God loves.  It works.  There are rewards of various shapes and hues.  For one, to this day they want to communicate with me.  The girls want to visit with me, showing honor and respect personally toward their old man.  Although I am faulty, blemishes and all, somewhere, sometime, I must have done something right.  It really was so worth it.

Today, I’m about thirty minutes away from Tabitha and D’Anna.  I love it!  Megan is about a four hour flight away.  That’s hard.  Usually, when she comes for a visit, it’s either for a funeral, a wedding, performing with her band on tour, or to be by my side when I am in the hospital.  In recent years I was on my deathbed twice.  She was there to join Tabitha and D’Anna next to me both times.  Feeling their hands in mine gave me an enormous amount of comfort, a boost to fight for life.

Girls - March 2019]

(This week, march 2019.  L-R:  Megan, Tabitha, and D’Anna.)

This week, Megan, who is literally a busy rock star and recording artist in Western New York, came to spend some time with us in Dallas, with a boyfriend in tow.  Things are getting somewhat serious for them.  He seems like a really nice guy.  In fact, we have a few things in common.  As we watched them drive away for the day in their rent-a-car, my wife leaned over to me and said, “Your girl got her a guy just like her dad.”  I replied, “REALLY?”  She went on to explain our interests, talents, and backgrounds are very much the same.  Even the coloring of our eyes and hair are the same.  How come that didn’t pop out at me?

Girls and Me Sept 2016

(2016)

There is one thing very noticeable to me.  It is the connection we share as a family.  When my girls and I are together, it seems like we pick up right where we left off last time.  The years don’t seem to calculate our ages, or bond.  Our first dinner together this week testified to it all.  We could tell what each other was going to say.  We knew when we were going to laugh, what we would eat, and what our favorite movies are.  It’s amazing to me.

In scripture, God calls those who belong to Him “His children”, an intimate title to say the least.  He states the number of hairs on our head are numbered.  Now THAT’S intimate.  It is written He knows our thoughts before we think them, or speak them.  He knows how and why we tick.  Most of all, He said we know His distinct voice in our hearts.  My favorite name for Him comes from the Aramaic, the ancient language Jesus spoke.  It’s the word  “Abba”, meaning “Daddy”.  It’s a very affectionate, closely knit family title for a father.  When crying out in pain, from the grunting of the core of the hurting heart, one calls out for relief to the cozy “Daddy” instead of the more official and distant term, “Father”.  Two of His biblical descriptions are “The Rock”, and “Shelter”Jesus Himself gave us a snapshot of how He loves by describing a hen.  He mentioned how sheltering she is by spreading her wings over her chicks, pulling them to her side, taking on the downpours onto herself.  What a beautiful picture.  It’s exactly the definition I’ve tried to be, and continue to attempt to be, for my girls.  There are times of failure in this area for me, but it’s what I strive for.  In the end, it’s all so worth it.

My hope is that no matter where they are in life, or on the planet, they can feel our DNA strand.

Family ties can be tightened when knotted with fuel for the race.

“See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are…”  1 John 3:1 (NAS)

For Something You Love More – A Short Story

By: Alan Scott Brown

The holiday season of 2009 was a lean one for many.  Doug Benford was eager to see the year fade off into the realms of history.

He didn’t hear the alarm this particular Friday morning.  Sparks, his beloved tan and white Jack Russell Terrier and Dachshund mix, jumped on his chest with an ample supply of tongue lashings to the face, warnings for outdoor bladder relief.

“Okay okay, pal, I’m up!” Doug said with a bite to his groggy voice.  “Hop off the bed.  I’ll meet you at the back door.”

On his way to the closet he asked himself common a question, “My better-half brought him home, saying he was part rooster.  Why can’t he just wait for the alarm?”

Doug laid-out his clothes for the day – jeans, flannel shirt, and leather jacket.  As he was changing, he heard a familiar scratching coming from the back kitchen door.

“Hey, Sausage!”  (His wife’s nickname for Sparks.)  “So help me, if I wind up painting that door I’ll have your hide on the garage wall!” said Doug as he threw on his shirt on his way to the back door.  As Doug opened the door, Sparks let out his high pitched terrier yelp.  Just then, like a flash, the short-haired companion headed for his favorite backyard spot.

The Tennessee morning had a light dusting of snow on the ground which gleamed with intermittent rays of sunshine, coming through the high clouds.  As his routine of late, Doug walked slowly across the frosty lawn, taking in each step, each sight, as if organizing a mental photo album.

A streak of unfortunate circumstances had disabled his income.  He had adjusted surviving on what little savings was left, as well as weekly unemployment checks.  He had one more CD he’d not cashed-in, but the clock was ticking.  After almost fifteen years at the Spring Hill GM plant, the layoffs cast him into a devastating position.  He had to put his SUV up for sale just to make it through a few months.  Now, an antique Ford pick-up took up the driveway space.  The truck was a project he once enjoyed, making efforts to refurbish it.  For now, its bed served to hold branches, twigs and scrap lumber.  Doug had resigned to warming part of the house with wood he had chopped-up from selective trees on the property.  He feared cutting electricity altogether, as he considered resigning to a log cabin with a potbelly stove.

With foreclosure looming in the near future, he turned to gaze slowly over the home he and his wife moved into some years ago.  In those times it was sheer dreams of Americana, complete with a house full of visiting kids from the block and friendly next-door neighbors.  Standing in the cold morning air, while facing the back of the house, he caught a quick glimpse of an apparition.  Through the frozen fog of his exhales, he saw a little girl peering out an upstairs bedroom window, wearing an innocent grin only adoring parents could memorize.  For a moment, just before her image melted away, she held out her hand with a slow wave.  After a pregnant pause, he came to himself, shaking his head after a few seconds in the midst of waving back.

Grieving families know all too well how quickly an automatic smile can be transformed into the frown of loss.  Dreams of the tragic car crash on a wet highway that took his wife, Cheryl, and his four year old, Emily, haunted his days and nights.  The years seemed like weeks, since that deadly sword of fate carved a trench in his heart.  What was intended to be a wonderful July 4th get-a-way to the Smokies, had plunged his world into an abyss, so dark and so deep, that only a day’s work at the plant could distract his focus from the torture.  Now, he could no longer use full-time work as the medication of choice.  Jack Daniels was his new covert friend.

The house was filled with echoing vacancy.  Doug’s depression pained his physical body as he stepped up to a young Loblolly Pine tree, the “King Pine” of the South, planted firmly along the back line of the lawn.  It was now the lone tree, carefully nourished and treasured with love.  It was a tree of so much pride, wrapped in a father’s heart.  He got the idea from a neighbor to plant a seedling in the yard on the day Emily was born, a symbol marking the start of a precious God-given life.  As she and the tree grew, he nailed a pink ribbon to the trunk each year on her birthday, gauging her height.  On the day of high school graduation, Emily was to stand next to the tree, in full cap and gown with cameras flashing, as he was to nail the last pink ribbon to the trunk.  Now, the tree grows as a stark reminder of the missing pink ribbons, which would never be added.

A tear slowly rolled down into his salt-n-pepper stubble thinking of what might have been.  He and the family dog were now struggling in the wake of this unexpected cosmic eraser of hopes and imaginings.  As he blinked to see his wristwatch, Sparks broke the heaviness by taking wild, full-beans laps around Emily’s tree.  With a half chuckle he hollered, “Yep, let’s get it together, boy.  The kids will be waiting.”  As much as he wanted to reminisce, the day’s schedule wouldn’t allow it.

The old rusty Ford sat in the driveway nearly every day as Doug took the economically-forced bus ride to his annual part-time gig.  He gave it a pat on the hood as he walked by on the way to the bus stop, some two miles from his house.  After boarding, the sprinkling of a late November snow was already beginning to say its good-byes to the morning sun.  As he traveled from intersection to intersection, watching the angry holiday traffic, he was reminded of the dreary miles to a job he had learned to despise.  His circumstances had soured his very bones, which caused a dismal filter on everyday life.  It was only short-term; a job to keep the water bill afloat with soup cans on the shelf for another month.  Sitting next to another city traveler he whispered to himself, “Homelessness is for February.”

The local mall was overwhelming the day after Thanksgiving.  The insanity of consumerism was in fast forward mode, with shoppers only taking time out for a dash at any empty table in the food court.  Black Friday stress was evident on every face, full of hustle and bustle, and way beyond the expected annual rat race.  A year of recession had taken its toll, especially for low and middle income households.  Customers needed good deals.  Coming down the escalator were platoons of humanity with shopping bags in both arms, trying to recall where they had parked.

At the bottom of the moving stairs, where the steps vanished into the first floor, families were lined-up.  In a roped maze line, displaying a parade of holiday weariness, children were decked out in their festive best.  There were little girls sporting satin gowns, coupled with silk ribbons in their hair.  The boys were squirming, pulling at their neck ties of Christmas colors.  Mothers were busy working on uncooperative strands of hair, along with fathers staring absently into space, eating steaming hot pretzels, in efforts to tune out the mayhem.  And there in the distance, in the center of the activity, was a throne, laced in gold metallic paint and red velveteen, fit for a…Santa.  Cameras were locked and loaded for personal documentary, at a fat cost.

Each morning on the way to the outside employee entrance, Doug passed an elderly Salvation Army kettle volunteer ringing his little tin bell, greeting potential donors loaded down with holiday cares.

“Hello, young fella!” the old man belted, with a sincere warmth that could melt frost.  Doug never wanted to appear as a Scrooge, so he always responded like an award-winning actor on the red carpet, “Good morning!”  The old guy always seemed to pick up on Doug’s tossed spirit.  Wishing to cheer, the jolly man responded, “Yessir, it’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”

Doug stepped up his pace, thinking to himself, “Do the most good by staying home, that is.”

Every day – weekdays and weeknights throughout the month – the routine was the same.  And, every day he thought of alternative ways to get to the employee entrance without passing the old man at the red kettle stand.  In his sleep he heard, “It’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”  At times he wondered if he said it aloud after Sparks would wake him, jumping up in the high antique bed, landing on his chest, whining and sniffing his face.

The door of the break room flew open as Doug came stumbling in, murmuring under his breath.  Startled with the sudden sound, a cleaning lady, who was pouring a cup of coffee, responded lightheartedly to his clumsy entrance.

“Hey Doug, did Mr. Grinch bring you to work today?”

He closed the door with a bit of frustrated force.  With a large exhale he replied, “Oh, Maggie, that old bell ringer out there has two volume levels, loud and very loud.”

Maggie again responded with a joyful chuckle, “Last year, you complained about that old man just about every day.  Let me ask you, now did it ever get you what you prefer?”

Doug grunted as he took off his jacket.

“Come on,” Maggie said, “I’ve already got you a cup of cheer this morning.  I just made the first pot.  Donuts are in the box.”

Maggie was a poor single mom who worked at the mall, sweeping up debris shoppers left behind, emptying trash cans and mopping floors.  For such a hard working woman, with just above a minimum hourly wage, she never let her state in life rule over her disposition.  It was noticed, and certainly Doug had a front row view of her jovial way of getting through daily life.  Maggie was the type who had Christmas spirit during the storms of the spring, in the heat of July, and while the leaves of every hue let go of their branches in autumn.

Doug had a tendency to hide stored-up layers of envy, wishing he could rise above his strata of fog to shine like Maggie. Through the year he would walk the mall for exercise and visit with Maggie on her breaks where the two would debate about the recession, religion, and geopolitical news.  Yet, the one thing he wouldn’t discuss with his friend was his loneliness, due to his cascading losses in life.  Although they were like a wave he had to surf, he remained embarrassed by his state.  Sadly, he felt the pain was for him to own, not to share.  Maybe it was his pride, or just the way he was raised by somewhat stoic folk, but he kept his troubles to himself.

After taking another sip of the fresh java, Maggie shared more than he expected.  “Ya know, Doug, you’ll have to bring that little mutt of yours up here before Christmas comes and goes.  My little guy, Aiden, has a DVD of “101 Dalmatians” and just cackles at the antics, along with all those cute faces.  He’s in first grade now and has yet to even pet a dog.  Can you believe it?  Honestly, one of these days I’ll have enough saved up for a dog from the pound.”

Doug found himself listening closely to her, dreading all the while the next twelve hours at the job.  With a click, the time clock struck 9:30am.  Downing the last swig of coffee, he pulled the words out of his mouth, “I guess I can’t stop the clock, Maggie.  I’ll see you later.”

“I hear that.  Have a good day!” said Maggie.  She slowly shook her head as she watched him walk away with shoulders slumped, heading to a section of metal lockers.

Chin to his chest, Doug opened the locker door.  He let out a big sigh at the sight of what was hanging on a hook.  The fluorescent lights above him landed on a bright red Santa suit, complete with black boots, a white wooly strap-on beard, and a hat only the best Claus could wear.  With a weak groan, he collected the heavy fur wardrobe and turned to the men’s room to change.

Doug was a man of integrity at heart.  Playing the role of the jolly old elf to the throng of kids and parents was done well; after all, this is what he was hired to do.  Through the weeks he sat in that chair posing for pictures and videos with children from all slices of life.  Overbearing mothers, some with their diamonds and silk purses, bothered him the most as they pushed and prodded their little brats with the will of a perfection-driven, Hollywood director.

He was amazed at the variety of Claus worshippers.  No matter the race, religion or status – whether rich or poor, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists – the farce continued with plastic smiles and a “HO-HO-HO”.  For weeks on end he fought with the beard-pulling kids and petrified youngsters, forced into this scene by their pseudo stage-moms.  Then came the dreaded college students, who insisted on posing with him for the fun of it.  Oh, and then there was the occasional Calvin Klein-clad seven year old, who must have come from a long line of mobsters, threatening him with Christmas Eve cookie and eggnog withholdings.  Frankly, the shock wore off after hearing a set of twin girls demanding that they get whatever the little girl before them inquired about.  It was that caliber of child that pierced his heart the most, as he thought of the sweetness of his little Emily and her selfless personality.

What kind of young woman could she have been, if life had been granted?  He fought the gravity of the emotional vortex which took him to that awful place of deep inexplicable loss.

With each day he felt a growing anger toward children.  So much so, he counted down the remaining shopping days when he could hang up the suit and candy canes for the very last time.

*****

It was the night of December 23rd, when Doug shuffled his way up the driveway after another marathon day in Santa’s court.  In the darkness he spied an envelope taped to his front door.  It was a notice for interruption of electrical service from non-payment.  He looked down, shook his head, letting the document slip out of his hands.  No amount of cinnamon sticks, sugar cookies, nor magical reindeer dust could keep the feelings of resentment and dejection away.

He found himself shouting into the chilled air, “God, what are you trying to do to me?  Don’t you think I’ve been through enough?”  Exhausted, coupled with anger and sorrow, Doug sat on the front steps, pulled his knees up to his chest and released his tears.

After dragging himself inside, he reached for the liquor cabinet in the kitchen for a shot of synthetic comfort.  Being pragmatic, he immediately began to plan just how he could survive another two months without electricity, until the bank took the house.

Later, that same night, he stoked up the fire in the fireplace, warmed up a can of soup on the hearth and sorted through his mail.  Sparks just looked at him with an expression of, what seemed to be, canine telepathy, ‘Whatever it is, it’s okay.’  Doug, appreciated the cute facial expression.  While scratching the dog lovingly behind the ears, he replied with a whisper, “You’re right, boy.  You’re right.”

As he and Sparks snuggled, with the oak logs ablaze, warming his cold feet, thoughts of his childhood rolled through his memory like an old movie.

Doug’s dad always left the nativity set for him to assemble under the tree.  He recalled taking a great deal of satisfaction placing all the characters where he pleased.  In particular, there was one figurine of a lamb, just tall enough to peer over into the manger, as if curious to why there was a baby where his dinner should be.  Doug broke out with unanticipated laughter just revisiting the thought.  Soon, he would be like the baby Jesus: in a crowded town, without a home, hanging out with an animal.  That was the last thought ushering him into a broken night’s sleep.

Christmas Eve morning was uneventful: same walk to the bus stop, same bus route with the same street scenery.  For the last time he would stroll by the old Salvation Army soldier ringing that hideous bell.  With Doug’s head turned the opposite direction, the familiar daily gruff voice addressed him once again.

“Hello young man!  It’s a good morning, ain’t it?”

In a huffy tone Doug nodded, “Yeah, I guess. I’m sure you’re serving where you can do the most good.”

Without a trace of offence, the old man laughed, “That’s right, son.  Loving others before loving ourselves.  God willin’, next Christmas I’ll be waitin’ for ya, right here.”

With a brisk step, he moved away with the gate of a New York jaywalker.

For the third day in a row Doug entered the break room to find his friend Maggie wasn’t in her usual place.  The coffee pot was empty and the counters hadn’t yet been wiped down.  He felt a sagging inside, knowing this was his last morning to pretend to be someone he’s not.  But, without Maggie’s bright morning face, along with her joy-filled attitude, the boost to make Santa what he could be, would be lacking.

After he suited up, he visited the mall manager’s office to ask about her.  She had left a message that her son had the flu and, actually, asked for Doug to call her when he got a break later in the morning.  He found himself feeling sorry for the little guy as the hours dragged on.  At his noon break, only after a final “HO-HO-HO”, he went back to the office to ring Maggie up.  Her voice shook as she told him of her overwhelming fear of Swine Flu.  She had seen the symptoms before, during a recent outbreak.  Struck by the unsettled sound in her voice, Doug’s heart sank.  Surprisingly so, he experienced a deep emotion for a little boy he had never met.

Maggie’s voice cracked a bit, “Doug, he wanted to come see you…I mean, Santa…before you shut down.  As you can see, that’s not gonna happen.  He simply won’t see Christmas this year at all.  I’m wondering if you would think about doing me a favor.  Why not come here, to the apartment as Mr. Claus, after you get off tonight?  If you can’t, I’ll understand.  No pressure.”

Doug paused only for a moment.  Without thinking it through, his response came so naturally, “Sure, sure I will.  We close down early tonight so Kris Kringle can get back to the North Pole for dinner with the Mrs.”

With a great deal of relief, she gave him her address in hopes for a holiday shocker that would be one of Aiden’s greatest childhood memories.

Around 5:30 that afternoon, Doug got off the bus near the apartment complex.  Right away he realized where he was.  Way back when, he and his co-workers would laugh and mock the “trash” that lived in this ghetto.  If there were second class citizens in town, they lived here, according to his way of thinking.  He looked up into the cloudy sky with a quick and silent thought, “God, why me?”  The neighborhood was known for gang violence year-round.  He began cautiously walking toward the rundown complex.  Looking over his shoulder a few times, he asked himself why he wasn’t carrying a weapon for protection.  He shook off the mental images, as he mustered up some holiday cheer for a sick little boy.  Maggie soon heard a “HO-HO-HO” at the door.

Maggie’s chin quivered as she fumbled a bit disengaging the locks.  She opened the door to find Doug standing there, decked out in his Santa suit, exhausted from the gauntlet of last minute shoppers.  On the verge of collapse herself, Maggie responded, “Oh, Doug, thank you for coming.  You have no idea what this will do for his spirit.  Come in, take a load off.”

He sat nervously on the couch, with his knee bouncing up and down.  After pouring him a mug of hot cocoa, she prepared Doug for the visit to come.  She softly spoke of their financial frailty, admitting Aiden was unaware of the struggles they faced.  Doug was touched by her candor.  He understood and opened up to her the facts of his similar circumstances.  Clearly they shared a harboring of unearned, unnecessary guilt and shame.  He knew their kindred spirit hit a benchmark as the conversation led them both.  With hard truths shared, Maggie squeezed his hand as they both looked down at the floor recognizing their somber moment.

Almost as an afterthought, Maggie reached for a sealed plastic bag, pulling out a surgical mask.  She stepped up closer to him, ready to place it over his strap-on white beard.  Doug quickly grabbed her by the wrists, took it in his hands, and placed it back in the bag.

“But, Doug, he has a 103 temp right now.” she explained with deep concern.

With a half smile he replied, “He doesn’t need to remember a St. Nick who took precautions to be with him in a time of need.  I’ll take my chances.”

She nodded in agreement while holding back the sob rising from her belly once again.  With a deliberate hush in tone, she said, “Okay, Follow me.”

Aiden was in bed, half asleep from the meds prescribed.  He was pale.  His eyelids were swollen and his little face was gaunt.  Being roused by the opening of the bedroom door, he heard his mom’s forced cheerful voice, “Honey, look who dropped by to see you.”

When Doug walked through the door, Aiden gasped, “SANTA!!”

With the best delivery he could put out, Doug moved into Santa-mode, “HO-HO-HO!  Merry Christmas, young man!”  The little guy threw his head back with an exuberant belly laugh of his own, followed by an aggressive, lingering chest cough.

Maggie knew what needed to happen.

“I’ll leave you two alone.  Honey, Santa can’t stay long. Okay?”  She then exited, closed the door softly behind her, bracing herself against the hallway wall.

Right away, Doug’s heart was lifted as he saw a very ill little boy whose bloodshot eyes lit-up with wonderment.  Doug had witnessed hundreds of red-cheeked faces, with a look of awe only a child could express, but this face was vastly different.  The smile Aiden displayed at his unexpected visitor could have ignited Doug’s house with every Christmas light string possible.

Surrendering to being authentically moved, in his best Santa-voice he belted, “Well, son, what do you want under your tree in the morning?  It’ll be here in a flash and I don’t have much time.”

In response, Aiden struggled to sit up in bed, “Santa, can I tell you a secret?”

Doug tried hard not to laugh but managed to say, “The fact is, Santa is well-known for keeping secrets.  Let me have it.”

The boy motioned him to bend down closer so he could speak softly, “Um, we don’t have a Christmas tree this year.  Mom said we couldn’t afford a tree.  So, I know there won’t be anything waiting for me, ’cause without a Christmas tree, you can’t put any gifts under it, right? Everybody knows that.”

As Doug felt a lump growing in his throat, he turned his head away, and looked out the bedroom window for a moment for distraction.  He dared not allow the boy to see Santa breakdown.  Aiden continued sharing his thoughts.

“Santa, there’s just one thing I want, if you can do it.”

Doug quickly responded, holding tightly to his Kringle character, if only by the fingernails, “Of course I can do it!  I’m the king of the elves!  No limitations here!  What will it be?”

Aiden whispered slowly, “Give mom a new face in the morning.”

For the boy’s sake, Doug wanted to look like Father Christmas understood the request.  Concerned he was not going to pull it off, he spoke quickly, “Well, what kind of face should she have tomorrow?”

With a sore throat, the boy swallowed hard, “Uh, Santa, ever since I got sick she no longer smiles.  She wears a strange frown, one I’ve never seen before.”

Doug paused and stroked his fake beard.  A sense of bona fide fatherhood rolled through his veins, a sensation he hadn’t possessed since the loss of his little Emily.  He cocked his head slightly to one side.  It seemed to be an automatic gesture, as he brushed a strand of hair from the boy’s forehead with his white-gloved hand, and with the other, presented a candy cane.

Leaning closer to the lad, he said tenderly, “Boy, just love your mother every minute of every day, and you’ll see that smile.  Now, close your eyes and get to that ‘long winter’s nap’ you hear about.  Merry Christmas, Aiden.”

The boy was weak but had enough strength to squeeze Doug’s finger.  As he broke out with a grin he replied, “Merry Christmas to you, too.  And be careful on the roof.”

With that, Doug left the apartment, as if in a rush, without saying more than Merry Christmas to Maggie on the way out.

Standing in the open doorway, watching him quick-step toward the bus stop, she yelled, “But Doug, what happened in there?”  As he climbed onto the nearly vacant bus, he felt crushed with the perplexing crossroads of what to do for the two of them.  All the way home one phrase from an old man bubbled up in his mind.

‘It’s a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.’ 

 Once again, he considered his poverty, his rapidly depleted savings, and his last payroll check from the mall.  It was a stark certainty for him, unemployment launched once again on Christmas Day.  The means were slim to none, and for him, humbling.  Taking off his white gloves, he rung his hands, bowed his head, and for the first time in a long time, prayed for wisdom, strength, and clarity

*****.

Christmas morning came early for Maggie.  She had attempted sleeping in a chair in Aiden’s room, which didn’t deliver.  After taking his temperature, she shuffled her way to the kitchen to make her best Christmas breakfast to celebrate the most special, the most meaningful holiday of the year.  It wasn’t long until a weak little boy awoke to the smell of buttermilk flap-jacks and French toast, crowned with cinnamon.  The boy noticed the candy cane still clinched in his hand.  He thought to himself, ‘This can be Mom’s Christmas present.’

Slowly lifting himself out of bed, he stumbled down the hallway to hang the peppermint cane on his mom’s bedroom doorknob.  Walking passed the sliding glass door to the patio, he could see the sunlight peeking through the slats of the vertical blinds, wishing he had snow and health to play in it.  Rounding the corner, he could see his mom working diligently in the kitchen with her hair a mess, along with swollen, sleepy eyes.  Maggie’s tired face brightened as she saw him standing there in his footed pajamas, with some long-awaited color in his cheeks, looking as if he had a little more energy than the day before.

“Merry Christmas, honey!” she said without hesitation.  Hugging his frame, she could feel his weight loss, “Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”

He made his way to the table where a rare sight was waiting.  By a stack of pancakes, dripping in warm maple syrup, was a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice blended with milk.  He knew then that this was no ordinary morning.  Maggie had saved up enough to splurge on a holiday breakfast that was beyond their norm of a simple cup of oatmeal.  Aiden felt an appetite for the first time in three days, and it was good timing for them both.  After a quick prayer, which included, a “Happy birthday, Jesus”, he began to dig in.

After a bite or two, Aiden got up the courage to ask a hard question. “Mom, after breakfast can I go outside to play?  Lots of my friends will be playing with their new toys.  I feel good enough.  Really I do.”

Barely drawing a breath, Maggie almost cut him off, “Absolutely not, young man.  You won’t be playing for a few days yet.  You are not out of the woods by far.  Besides silly, the sun isn’t up yet.”   With a puzzled look on his face he charged back, “No, Mom.  I saw the sun coming through the sliding glass door.”

Puzzled, Maggie looked at her watch, put down her fork before heading to the patio door.  As she walked away, he sprinkled more cinnamon on his delectable stack.

From the other room he heard her inquisitive tone, “What in the world?  Aiden, come to the patio, quick!!!”

The boy leapt up, with strength he didn’t think he had, and hurried to the sliding glass door to find his mom pulling back the blinds.  As she did, it revealed a brightly lit patio with a string of white lights up and down the posts, lacing around the patio door frame.  His eyes followed the string of lights along every inch in disbelief, until he spotted a magically lit, gloriously decorated large Christmas tree standing in the corner of the patio.  He couldn’t catch his breath out of pure shock.  All the branches donned silver bells and blue balls that ricocheted gleaming lights, carefully arranged up and down the depth of the branches.  At the very top perched a golden star with tinsel streaming down from its tail like a frozen waterfall.

The two found themselves speechless.  Both mom and son realized their mouths were opened in awe as they spied a large Virginia smoked ham under the tree, with all the trimmings for a traditional family feast.  Next to it, a tin of old fashioned frosted sugar cookies was propped up against the large tree trunk.  But, the biggest surprise of all was something they could not have imagined.  Next to the tree, an animal crate sat with a metal plate over its door.  Etched on the plate was the name, “Sparks”.  Gazing through the mesh door was a curious look from a short-haired dog with big brown eyes.

Aiden dropped to his knees, “MOM!!  It’s  a…it’s a…uh..uh…a…”

Maggie forced herself to speak through her astonishment, “…A DOG!!!”

As the boy opened the crate, the Jack Russell Terrier-mix jumped into his arms, licking his face like flaps from a flag, as Aiden giggled uncontrollably.  The boy looked up at his mom to see a face of laughter, a face shining with joyous, youthful wonder, exuberance, and hope.

“He did come, he did!!” yelled Aiden.

Maggie responded quietly, deeply moved, “Yes, well yes.  I guess he did, indeed.”

She noticed a Christmas stocking hanging down from one of the branches.  She carefully retrieved it while asking her son to reach in for whatever it contained.  With eyebrows raised in anticipation, an enormous grin he pulled out several gift cards from food stores, clothing retailers, and a local toy outlet.  Both began laughing in a sense of bliss that had not been heard in the apartment for quite a long time.

Suddenly, the boy noticed a mysterious color along the trunk, previously covered up by the stocking.

Fixated, he asked, “Huh…What’s that?”

Maggie took a closer look.  In the glow of the festive lights, four weathered pink ribbons were nailed to the trunk, almost evenly spaced apart.

“Whaddya think that’s for, mom?” he asked.

Maggie slowly tilted her head as she stared at the hanging pink ribbons running up the tree’s trunk.

Speaking with a sense of bewilderment, “I’m not sure, honey, but I do know this, it makes this Christmas tree even more unique and magical than ever.”

*****

The Christmas dawn found Doug sitting in his lawn chair, with a mug of coffee warming his hands, looking at his treeless back yard.  There, braced against a freshly cut stump, stood a well-worn axe.

He still didn’t know what his future held.  The anxiety remained.  But, what he didn’t expect was a volley of truths flashing in his heart from outside of himself.  For the first time, he accepted the fact that his pain and depression had morphed him into a modern-day Scrooge, with a twisted complex concerning children.  It was the giving of himself that revealed this tumor growing in his heart.

He sat there in the still crisp air, with a thankful heart for the old bell-ringer’s message each morning.  Doug had found a God-given moment to do the most good where he was.

He smiled at the thought of his childhood nativity set.  He remembered placing the ceramic baby Jesus in the manger next to the one curious lamb, taking in the divine event.  For Doug, he rested in the fact of sacrifice being a choice, rendering joy to the most disturbed souls in his own backyard.  The ancient truth, that giving one’s “self” away, is what the baby in the manger would later say is the best of blessings.

With a silent nod, he smiled thinking that millions of cups of spiked egg nog, millions of angry shoppers, and millions of wrecked lives could never diminish his newly discovered mission.

                                        Sacrifice is giving up something you love

                                                for something you love more.

                                                              – Cindy Beall

Perpetual Horn of Plenty – A Short Story

By: Alan Scott Brown

With the exception of the panhandle, Thanksgiving in Texas is rarely a cold, frozen one.  The Thanksgiving week of 1969 was different.  Every once in a blue moon there will be snow, or any frozen precipitation, falling on Texans during the holiday festivities of Thanksgiving.

It was late Wednesday afternoon when nine year old Scotty, and his twenty-five year old single mom, were carefully driving down an east Texas county road on the way to a Thanksgiving family gathering.  It was a tradition for Scotty’s two cousins, two pairs of aunts and uncles, and possibly a great-uncle and aunt, to descend on the old house of his grandparents for a big turkey feast with the usual trimmings.  Sometimes, even his great-grandmother would also join the holiday visit.  His grandmother always had a knack for tossing together decor for whatever holiday hit the calendar.  Scotty could hardly wait.  He knew there would be a two-on-two football scramble in the backyard, a children’s table all to themselves, and a heart-pounding afternoon watching the Dallas Cowboys vie for the Thanksgiving Day kudos.  He loved his family dearly, especially his grandparents, who were more like parents to him, and young enough to be so.  Only forty-five miles kept them apart.  Weather conditions were not going to push this mother and son away.

Pumkin Tray

Scotty, nor his grandparents, ever knew the poverty he and his mom survived in.  His very independent mom had unique and creative ways of dressing-up the darker news of reality.  Generally, his clothes were made by his mom during those times.  She always let him pick out the bulk fabric.  The block of cheese in the fridge — U.S. government issued due to her low wages — was made to look like a huge feast that mice could only dream about.  He learned countless ways cheese could be used in the oven, the skillet, and with pasta.  Little did he know, for several weeks, it would be his main diet.  The old, broken-down rent house they currently called home, had only one gas stove to go with cold creaking wooden floors.  The windows were original single pane, thin, and cracked.  Honeysuckle grew through the cracks in his bedroom wall from outside vines.  Because of her imaginative story-telling, Scotty saw it all as an adventure the kids at his school and church could never imagine.  The honeysuckle vine in his bedroom was his vortex to a life as a cowboy, living out on the range, with nothing but a saddle for a pillow and a horse-blanket to shield himself from the cold prairie.  The little gas stove in the living-room was the campfire built to warn-off the coyotes and mountain lions.  In the spring, bees would hover over the honeysuckle blooms in his room.  Were they actual bees?  Not at all.  They were flying dragons coming to battle his plastic dinosaurs and GI Joe, and what a battle they pursued.  Since his mom worked overnights on an assembly-line at a factory, he had his imagination to keep his mind busy, away from fear and loneliness.

His mom’s car was a hand-me-down, 1964 Oldsmobile.  She accepted it as a gift from her parents just a year earlier.  It was in good condition, due to Scotty’s granddad being a top-shelf mechanic, who was well-known for babying his vehicles.  For this little lad, it was a limousine.  Although it was solid, and drove nicely in all weather conditions, using caution was his mom’s mantra.

Oldsmobile-1964

eBay.com

Single motherhood was an overwhelming strain.  Her first marriage, at the young age of fifteen to Scotty’s biological father, was a tumultuous, violent, and abusive relationship.  In fact, it lasted less than three years.  The young father was only a vague memory for the young boy, more like a vague mystery.  About a year later, Scotty’s mom went on a blind date which led to a wedding, her last wedding, when Scotty was five years old.

Me, KDB & Mom Wedding

The man was a gentle, intelligent, strict sort, but was incapable of love, as most know it.  For four years, Scotty grew to understand not to approach his dad.  He knew not to ask him to play ball, or watch him try the training wheels on his bike.  It seemed the National Geographic, the checkbook, and the newspaper were priority.  Scotty knew his dad to be distant, even in the same room.  Yet, the boy loved him, in spite of the wall between the two.  The thought passed Scotty’s nine-year-old mind that this would be the first Thanksgiving, out of the last four years, without his dad.  Beyond the failed relationship, it saddened the boy, nonetheless.  He was too young to understand the word “bittersweet,” but was beginning to learn the taste.  The love he experienced, the love he learned, was plentiful from his mom and her family.

Ever since the summer divorce, from his adopted dad, Scotty’s mom engaged him with games, songs and stories to keep him distracted, occupied, and challenged.  To say she was over-protective might be an understatement, but Scotty never detected it.

While on the road, the boy’s mind began to fidget.  “Mom, let’s sing that Thanksgiving song you taught me,” as he leaned into the rhythm of the windshield wipers struggling with the fresh wintry mix.  She was an outstanding, well-known singer in north Texas church circles.  He loved hearing her pipes.  The look in her face, in response, showed a quick hint of puzzlement, then a sudden burst of joy.

Reaching to turn off the radio, she replied, “You mean, (Singing.) ‘Over The River And Through The Woods To Grandmother’s House we go’?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” he said with a bounce.

They sang a few verses as he wiped the foggy condensation from his window to scout-out rivers and bridges to go with the lyrics.  It was tough.  The rain, mixed with sleet made it difficult to see past the road signs.  Later, they would play the “I Spy” game, along with more songs in prep for a fabulous duo only grandparents could love.

As the late afternoon bled into the long shadows of early evening, the sleet and freezing rain beat against the hood and windshield.  It was clear, the tires began to slip a bit at the curves in the road.  A look of subtle concern crawled across Scotty’s mom’s face, but he was thrilled to see some white dusting by the roadside, as well as flocked barbed-wire posts along the mesquite trees.

Suddenly, and without the smallest of warnings, the car lost power.

“Oh, no,” she said with a start.

Scotty, unaware of the dangerous circumstances, sensed his mom’s concern.  He quickly replied, “What’s wrong, mom?”

“Nothing, son,” speaking very calmly in a lower tone.  “Something went wrong with the car.  Everything shut down at the same time.  We’ll pull over on the side for now.”

As the car began to coast slowly, she steered it carefully toward the icy shoulder until it came to a stop.

As she threw it into park, she said to the surprised lad, “Okay, I guess we’ll just wait for a kind stranger to notice we are stranded.  There’s not a lot of traffic tonight, but people have to go somewhere for the holiday.  We might be able to get a ride into town.  We’re only about five miles out.”  Scotty was fine with the idea of waiting things out.  For him, it was just one more adventure, albeit unexpected..

Seeing his mom was somewhat disheveled, he thought of ways to pass the time.  “Tell me the story about the donkey who talked to the man.  Ya know, in the Bible,” said Scotty with wide-eyed excitement.  He added with laughter, “And use your donkey-voice, too.”

Visibly gathering herself while masking her own insecurities of the moment, she smiled, replying,  “Sure.  Let’s visit with old-man Balaam and his miracle donkey.”

As was his custom, Scotty pitched her ideas of more stories and story-lines for her to retell.  He didn’t see anything around him as threatening.  Although, for a wisp of a nanosecond, he contemplated what his dad might have done in the situation they found themselves in.  But the stories and songs once again swept him away from the creeping “what-might-have-been’s.”

As precious time passed, Scotty noticed the unique formations crystallizing from one end of the windshield to the other.

Icy Windshield pinterest

pinterest

Watching his breath in the frigid air as he spoke, “Look, mom!  How cool is that?”

Realizing the seriousness of the threat her son was pointing to, she chose, once again, to see it as a teachable show-and-tell.  She reached out to touch the glass, saying, “Yes!  Isn’t it beautiful?  As the freezing rain collects on the windshield, it connects with the other icy droplets in this way, like a spiderweb.  As it stretches toward its other family members, it causes this wonderful piece of artwork in nature.  It’s a real show for us, don’t you think?”

His jaw dropped at the idea of a family stretching across the span of the windshield to reconnect after being separated from the sky.  “It looks lots like grandmother’s fancy glass goblets.  I bet she’ll have them ready for us when we get there,” he said with a shiver.

She could feel the chills run up her spine as she responded, “Love, real love is like that.  Always looking for ways to reach out, even though miles apart.”

Looking at her watch, she realized an hour blew by like dry snowflakes.  The young mother had a noticeable streak of naivety about her.  Although tough times battered the last ten years of her life, she held to a rose-colored idea that all people are loving and kind.  It was displayed once again when she exclaimed, “I am amazed at just how many cars have driven by us in the past hour, without one person stopping to ask if we need help.”  She then recalled her dad telling her to raise the hood if she ever were to have car trouble.

She couldn’t get the words out quick enough, saying, “Scotty, you stay right where you are.  I’m going to try to raise the hood.”  He agreed with a nod.  Nervously, she said under her breath, “I’ve watched your granddad do it many times.  It can’t be too hard.”

As she opened her door, a loud cracking sound shattered the cold air as ice was forming on the exterior of the body of the car.  She shut the door quickly in efforts to contain as much warmth inside as possible.  Her feet told her the sheet of ice was beginning to glaze dangerously over the concrete of the road.  She held on to the front fender of the car, to steady herself, as she slipped and slid toward the front of the vehicle.  After she found the hand lever, just above the grill to release the hood, she lifted it twice with her cold, red fingers, but to no avail.  She then noticed, along the edges of the hood, where it met the body of the fender, solid ice had formed over the edge, locking the hood in place.  A sense of failure and despair poured over her like a bucket of paint.  At her young age, she had toughened to the point of not accepting defeat in any way.  Just then, from the belly of her spirit, she spoke out into the air, “Lord, help us!  We need rescue.”

Pick-Up...ford-trucks.com

Ford-trucks.com

Before she finished the word, “rescue,” an old pick-up truck slowly drove by.  She watched as the brake-lights engaged.  The old truck maneuvered a slow, wide, slippery u-turn back toward the stranded car.  Pulling up next to her, the driver rolled down his defrosted passenger-side window.  Two large hound dogs, poked their heads out, barking and howling at her.  The elderly man in overalls sharply yelled at the hounds, pushing the two aside, out of his line of vision.

“Get back, you two!” he yelled.  “Hello, ma’am.  Can I help y’all?  If you’re trying to open the hood, good luck in this weather,” said the kind farmer.

Being so relieved, she inadvertently put her hand over her heart in gratitude.  “Yes, thank God.  My son and I have been stuck here for over an hour.  The car suddenly went dead, completely without power.  We’re trying to get to Mineola.  Could you give us a lift?” stating the obvious as she shook in the chill.

As he looked down, shaking his head, he pushed his cap further back on his head and replied, “I’m so sorry, little missy.”

Seeing the disappointment in his face, she added, “Or, maybe you could let us off at the nearest service station with a phone booth.  I could call my…”

He winced at her suggestion.  “I’m sorry to tell you this, but there ain’t no phone booth between here and Mineola.  To make matters worse, as ya can see, I’ve got a bed full of hay-bales, then there’s Yipper and Yapper here in the cab with me.”  He saw the  distraught in her eyes at his answer.  He scratched the stubble on his chin for an unintended pregnant pause.  “I’ll tell ya what I’ll do, little lady.  You get back in that car where it’s safe, and bundle up with your boy there.  Meanwhile, I’ll be headed just south of town where the Mrs is waitin’ fir me.  More than likely it’ll take me…oh, let’s say, half an hour in this mess, and I can call somebody fir ya.  How does that tickle ya?”  He chuckled as he added, “We done got one of those new push-button telephones.  Been just itchin’ to use it!”

Putting her ice-bitten hands under her armpits, she grinned with a chuckle saying, “Yes, sir!  My parents have been waiting for us.  I just know they’re getting worried.”

After writing down the phone number of her parents, he waited to watch her cautiously get back in the car before his tires gripped traction toward the horizon.  Through the glazed windshield, Scotty and his mom watched the blurry red taillights of the truck fade away in the distance.  She never got his name, or where he lived.

“It won’t be long now, son.  Your granddad will be here in no time,” she stated through the cold, biting air.

Thanksgiving morning always came early at the old house in Mineola.  It was 5:00 am when Scotty’s eyes opened slowly to the sounds of pots and pans rattling in the kitchen on the other side of the wall from the guest bedroom.  This was the bedroom he claimed as his own when he was no more than a toddler.  Floating through the early morning air was the scent of pecan pie, bacon, boiling eggs, and freshly baked biscuits right out of the oven.  He smiled at the recognition of his loving grandmother, hard at work in the pre-dawn hours of the holiday once again.  He could hear his mom’s voice explaining the weary traveler’s ordeal from the night before.  Listening to her explanation from the kitchen served as a fog-lifter as he stretched his arms and sat up in bed, grateful for the toasty electric blanket surrounding his body.  During an unanticipated yawn, he felt a bit of a sting coming from his lips.  He could feel they were chapped from the frosty adventure in the car.

This would be the only time he would be alone for the day.  Within six hours, or so, family would begin to arrive with a buffet of dishes in tow for the feast, filling the house with familiar voices, laughter and aromas.

In the stillness, he remembered his Sunday School teacher expressing the importance of being thankful, not just for one Thursday in November, but each and every day.  He wrestled with the truth of it as he thought once again about his dad.  Last year, he was next to him on the couch, watching the Dallas Cowboys play.  Now, there would be an empty place.  With a sudden bound, he recalled a technique taught by his mom.  Scotty threw-off the covers, hopped out of bed, and put on his clothes as a renewed focus in thought.  After putting on his clothes, he dashed out the bedroom door which led into the den.  He expected to see his granddad sitting in his favorite chair by the fireplace, slurping his morning coffee from a bowl and saucer.  The fire was lit, but he wasn’t there.  Scotty thought to himself, “Surely he’s not out picking up pecans in the backyard before the sun comes up.”  That was always reserved as a team-effort.  It was a special time with his granddad he always looked forward to, especially when he watched him feed the squirrels right out of his hand.  Curious, Scotty raced to the warm kitchen to join his mom and grandmother.

Me-OMA-Mom filtered

“Well, I’ll be switched!  If it isn’t Frosty The Snowman.  After last night, I just knew you’d have a hankerin’ to sleep late,” said his grandmother with a chuckle.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Scotty,” his mom said.  She took a step toward him as she stared closely at his face.  “Ooh, your lips are chapped.  In fact, your entire face needs some lotion.  Let’s get you fixed-up right now,” saying as she walked toward the kitchen door.

His grandmother, stirring the contents of a sauce pan asked, “Honey, are you hungry for a spot of breakfast?”

Hastily, as if she hadn’t spoken, he inquired, “Where’s Granddad?”

She replied through laughter, “Well, wouldn’t ya know, he got up before I did to go see about your mom’s car.  He said something about an alternator, a battery, and a belt,” she said with frustration, “Goodnight in the morning, that man!  I swear, he’ll be asleep in his recliner before halftime this afternoon.  He’ll be back directly.”

Covertly looking out toward the bathroom where his mom was scanning the medicine cabinet, he turned to his grandmother.  With a softened delivery, he asked, “Grandmother, where do you think dad is right now?  I mean, do you think he’s driving out in the ice?”

The question caused her to pause from stirring.  She wiped her hands on her apron, thoughtfully lifted his chin, and softly said,  “Knowing your dad, I feel he drove out to his folk’s house out west, away from the bad weather.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me a smidgen if he left a couple of days ago.  You know how he likes to hike up in those west Texas hills.”  The boy looked down toward the floor in sadness.  She didn’t hesitate to misdirect the subject matter, “While your mom hunts down the lip-balm, why don’t you go to the coffee table in the living-room and see about the horn of plenty.  You remember what to do, right?”

With bottle-rocket exuberance, he acknowledged her suggestion, “Yes, ma’am!”

Horn of Plenty - Amazon.com

Scotty ran to the living-room where the annual horn of plenty graced the coffee table in front of the couch.  His eyes got as big as half dollars when he spied the extreme variety spilling out of the wicker funnel-shaped basket.  His grandmother had it overflowing with a mix of vegetables, several kinds of fruits, and a plethora of mixed nuts in the shell.

Kneeling beside the table, he shouted, “WOW!”  His grandmother was right behind him with a mischievous grin on her face.  “Now, do I need to remind you of the rules?  Without touching any item in the horn of plenty, you have to decide what’s real and what’s fake,” she explained.  “No cheating now.”

Through the years she filled the horn with plastic items of the garden, which appeared to be the real-deal, with only a few authentic items.  One year, the horn was completely filled with real veggies, fruits and nuts.  It always kept the family guessing what she had up her sleeve.

With a lack of decisiveness in his voice, “Ummm, I give up, Grandmother.  Can I start to separate them?”

Not surprised, she said, “Sure, go for it!”

He dove right in with gusto, separating the true food items from the model versions.  As he dug his way ever so much closer to the back of the horn, he saw gold-foil-covered chocolate coins.  “Oh, cool,” he blurted out.  He started to unwrap one immediately.

His grandmother quickly tapped him on the shoulder.  “Well, if that don’t beat all.  You know that’s not before breakfast, youngin’.  I think you haven’t dug deeply enough just yet,” she hinted.

He took her cue.  Reaching the far back of the horn, he found a crisp, twenty-dollar bill, folded up to resemble an acorn.

Holding it tightly in his hand, he showed his gratitude, “Thank you so much, Grandmother.”

His grandmother was an expert at holding her emotions close to her heart.  But this particular Thanksgiving, she almost couldn’t hold back her tears.

About that time, Scotty’s mom walked in the room behind them.  Seeing the touching moment being shared, she leaned against the french-door and quietly listened.

His grandmother knelt beside her young grandson.  With thoughtfulness, “Ya know, Scotty.  You will spend a lifetime scouring right and left for what is real, and what is not.  Those gold coins are good to eat for a treat, but they last only for a few seconds.  A ripened apple looks larapin, but if it’s hollow plastic, it does you no good.  When you find what is the original article, then you know and taste the goodness of what God has made for you.  Most of all, as you decide what is fake, or what is not, remember God will bring you a variety of days to come.  Not one day will be like another.  Some will be sour days, while another will be a day of blessings.  That’s how life’s horn of plenty will be, full of variety.  Your job is to dig for what’s real and right.  God’s way is to change the horn of plenty into more like a tube, an open-ended tube of plenty.  He just keeps on givin’ from His end, even in days when everything seems like hollow plastic.  The scripture is true, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” – James 1:17 – (NAS)  When those days of emptiness come too often, keep in mind, each day is not forever.”

That’s how Thanksgiving day of 1969 began for Scotty.  He locked it away in his heart.

Later in life, forty-eight years later, after Scotty had children of his own, plus a granddaughter, he cherished the days when he could sit by the side of his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother.  Now in her mid 90’s, she had suffered from the disease for about thirteen years.  After he had been told she no longer recognized her loved ones, he refused to stay away from her bedside.  On his final visit with her, in the same old house with a quiver full of memories, there she was.  Only 78 pounds, waiting for the heavenly call to reunite with her husband, he pulled up a chair next to her bed.  Reaching out, he held her thin, weak hand and spoke to her as if she were full of health.

With a lump in his throat, he addressed her, “Hello, Grandmother.  It’s Scotty.  You may not remember me.  I’m your oldest grandson.  I can’t stay long, but I just had to tell you something before I leave.”  He paused to gain strength.  “My horn has been so full.  My life has been blessed with a variety of cultures, love, and laughter.  My adventures have been plentiful, and my plenty has been an adventure.  I have been wrapped in many fruits of the Spirit to this very day.  Not all things in my days have been something to be thankful for, but I’ve learned to be thankful while enduring all things.  I just want you to know, you were a big part of that.  I’ve learned to pack them inside for when the wintry mix becomes seemingly unbearable, when it’s hard to see the road.  Although I regret biting into some plastic fruit at times, I always kept in mind that a day is not forever.”

As he finished what he needed to say, her weakened hand squeezed his.

 

 

 

 

For Sale! Must Go!

Photo: Durun.ugrasgrup.com

“When you walk through the door hang on to your senses.  At best you must assume it’s a house of many rooms.” – A House of many Rooms (1995).  Recorded by:  Mike & The Mechanics.  Composers  K/A B A Robertson, Brian Alexander, P. Robertson & Michael Rutherford.

Here in north Texas, it’s a terrific time of year for a garage sale.  We plan on making it happen.  However, our friends, who live next door, are selling their entire house.

MansionPhoto:  Unsplash

No, not that one!

They are a kind, young couple with two toddlers in tow and twins on the way.  They MUST move out.

Our neighborhood is in a historical district.  In fact, the Dallas, Texas suburb, where we live, was founded in our neck of the woods.  So, most of the homes on our street are older, frame-pier & beam style houses with large windows.  Their house is particularly small.  For only being there for about 3 years, they have put loads of work into the place, refurbishing and repairing.  They are very creative, as well.  They have built back-porch stairs, a store house and a nice garden of veggies.  Just in the short time they have resided there, the upgrades have lifted the value of the home to a nice rate any realtor would be proud of.  As of last night, they have had a parade of prospective buyers tour the place, drawing a few offers.  Relatively quick for a brand new realtor sign by the curb.

One of the first people who took advantage of the open house tour, said out-loud, “This is MY home!  I’ll give them an offer today!”  He obviously liked what he saw.  Ironically, he mentioned he and his wife live in a newer part of town where they raised a family in a multi-bedroom & bath home that would dwarf the house of interest.  He went on to say they are wanting to retire and scale-down now that they are empty-nesters.  I hear that!  There have been many who have chosen to go the same route.

As I’ve mentioned, our neighbor’s house is old, but solid and well worth the price.  We will miss the family.

Yet, sometimes, window-dressing can be deceptive.  In 2003, I bought a great house in Williamsville, NY (Buffalo area).  It was beautiful, stoutly built by hand from a team of Mennonite contractors in 1968.  I was astonished it only had one owner.

House Countryside Lane

As the buying process moved slowly on, a home inspector looked the place over with a fine tooth comb.  I walked alongside him, as he almost wore out the batteries of his flashlight, inspecting every nook and cranny.  Thirty minutes later, with his stamp of approval, he took my money and off he went.  Fast forward to our first week in the house, the furnace died.  It was the beginning of November in Buffalo, NY!!!!  Need I say more?  Yes, it was a big problem.  In the end, we found out the inside of the furnace had rusted out.  It was the original furnace from 1968.  The rust could clearly be seen with a flashlight through the vent on the casing of the old furnace.  As it turns out, the home inspector worked closely, almost exclusively, with my realtor.  They shared a wallet.  ARG!  BING! “That’ll be $3,500.00 please.”  AND, by law, they had to cut off our gas line until the new one could be installed, no matter how much snow covered our roof.  It took another two weeks with nothing but a fireplace, along with loaned-out space heaters.  Be careful, deception is often in the list of ingredients to wheeling and dealing.

“The eyes are the window to your soul…” – William Shakespeare –

Handshake

I guess I can’t judge the realtor and inspector too harshly.  In life, I have had to sell myself over and over again with certain temptations.  You probably have too.  Right?  Sure, you give someone the truth in an interview for that job of a lifetime, but maybe there’s a bit of fudge in that cake of a resume’.  Or, you are introduced to prospective in-laws for a dinner and you found you smiled way too much for no good reason.  Maybe, you oversold while writing a blog.  If you’re a politician running a campaign for an upcoming election, well…yeah.  Possibly, in efforts to encourage your non-athletic child, who is about to try-out for the soccer team, you just couldn’t help but say, “You’ll be the best!  You’re gonna slay ’em big-time today!  Go get ’em!”  Sure, it’s an oversell, in efforts to let him/her know you believe in them.  Yet, you knew in your heart it wasn’t going to happen.  In retrospect, you realized there was another, more truthful way, to cheer him/her onward as they display their best.  The opposite is also suspect.  In love, my mom tried to use reverse psychology on me just before a musical audition, recital, or a karate tournament.  It went something like, “Okay, Alan.  If you mess-up, don’t come cryin’ when you get home.  Just suck it up.”  Later in life, she admitted that wasn’t the greatest way to encourage me.  Of course, I agreed with her, but I didn’t admit that I also held a grudge for decades.  Not good.  Oh, the things we learn.

Window dressing is fine, unless the outfit on the mannequin isn’t on the rack inside the store.  When on a date, you might find you change yourself, in some way, to make the most impact.  You were selling.  After the future wedding is over, the newlywed spouse sees you for who you really are.  OUCH!  Deception, no matter how small, can have a large price.  It’s better to calculate, analyze and reveal than to barter a shady soul.  Otherwise, the future relationship may come to a dead end when concealed rust is found in the core of what turns you to the right or left.

Last weekend I attended my high school reunion.  It was a wonderful time of reuniting old relationships, memories and tons of hugs and kisses.  One of my closer friends went to a small after-party that went into the wee hours.  I was not too shocked of how she described the afterglow gathering.  She said, “Alan, I just had to leave after awhile.  There were too many trying to be cool.”  My understanding was, there had to be a smattering of overselling in play.

I’ve learned it is better to be who God knows you to be in front of others.  No doubt, a vehicle to loving others more than yourself.

Our neighbors will enjoy a bigger place as their young family grows.  Possibly an older buyer will purchase the cottage-style house in efforts to downsize.  Now THAT is a sale looking through a humble lens.  Maybe, in the doorway, will be found, a FREE nozzle for fuel for the race.

“In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” – Jesus – John 14:2-3 (NASV)

 

 

Leaving behind Part of Yourself

“Every time I see your face it reminds me of the places we used to go.  But all I’ve got is a photograph and I realize you’re not coming back anymore.”  Photograph (1973)  Recorded by:  Ringo Starr.   Composers:  George Harrison & Richard Starkey (Ringo).

It’s not just a few in my family tree that has suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s.  However, although each and every one, that I knew, may have forgotten who I am, I’ve yet to forget who they are/were.  That’s vital.  Investing in the lives of our kids and grandkids is a memory deposited into their minds and hearts one drip after another, like a savings account.

555886_4255872002215_1629801309_n

Recently, I wrote about my beloved grandparents, complete with scores of pictures.  The gentleman above is my great-great grandfather Martin from my mom’s side.  I wrote of him last summer.  If memory serves me right, the man was born in the 1840s.  Here it is, 178 years later, and family still speaks highly of him.  What a reminder of how to live out a legacy for future generations.

That’s my granddaughter, Skylar in the cover photo above the title.  September brings Gradnparent’s Day at her school.  I was invited to visit her 2nd grade classroom, sit in an uncomfortable, tiny plastic chair and watch her while in her zone.  Make no mistake, these opportunities are blessed times.  My hope and prayer continues to be that she will remember my love for her.  Someday, as she sees the photographs of us together it will spark memories I have deposited into her mind so she will be able to bring them up to her kids and grandkids.  After all, when I do leave this life, I will be taking my memories of her with me.  It’s a biblical concept.

Skylar with Papa Brown at pre-k stone soup 2014

Grandparent’s Day from Kindergarten class.

The years run by us like a river rushing to the brink of a waterfall.

Skylar 1 year old birthday.

Her first birthday.  (That was a dress her mom wore when she was that age.)

As much as we might want to hold back the floods of time, it’s just not the way God designed it.

Skylar2

One day old and sound asleep.  (When her mom was born, I was afraid to hold her.  It was new to me then.)

What will she remember about me?  Will the memory file in her mind recall good scenes of happiness or spots of darkness?  All of that is up to me, the decision-maker of the forks in the road.  One memory she may not recall is when at two years old, when I had a longer beard laced in grey and white, she secretly told her mom, with some excitement, “Pa-Pa is Santa!”

As a person of faith, a Jesus-follower, she knows that when at my house she will hear prayers and stories about biblical characters.  Whatever happens to my health in the future that is one thing, an item of everlasting, I will leave with her.

If we still talk about my great-great grandfather Martin in 2018, it’s possible the ones to follow after me might well be reflecting on my pictures, recordings and writings in 178 years.  What will I leave behind for them?

Here’s to lots more Grandparent’s Days to come!  It’s up to me to fill-up with fuel for the race.

“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your sons (and daughters) and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” – Deuteronomy 6: 6-7. (NAS)

Texas Summer Spiral

“…The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz and the sky with no clouds.  The heat was hot and the ground was dry, but the air was full of sound.  I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name.  It felt good to be out of the rain…” – A Horse With No Name – Recorded and released by:  America (1972)  Composer:  Dewey Bunnell

Not so fast about feeling good to be out of the rain.  Although far from the desert, here in the Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex, we only got a total of a quarter of an inch of rain for the entire month of July.  It has been a brutal month.  In fact, we had 21 days of 100+ temperatures, 10 of those days consecutively.  Most of July hovered around 101-106 degrees.  We reached 109 degrees at our house at one point last week.  My dad, in West Texas (where the photo above was taken), reported 111 degrees at his place.  When it’s that dry and hot, everything suffers and the spiral begins.

Our neighbors left for a long trip to Florida early in the month.  They had friends periodically come over to care for their dogs and a chicken coop they set up in their backyard.  However, much of their plants and grass lost the heat battle.

Dead Long Plant  Dead Garden When they returned home yesterday, they mentioned one chicken was found dead.  They also discovered a crack in their driveway measuring 10″ deep.  Even though we water our landscape vigorously, it really just wasn’t enough.  The cracks in the ground are big enough to get your foot caught.

Dead Pot

Down our street, about five houses to the east of us, stands an old grandfather-type tree.  I walk by it often.  The age of it is unknown to me, but it certainly is older than the actual neighborhood.  A few days ago, one of its giant limbs, that reaches over and across the street, which is massive enough to be a tree itself, partially broke off from the trunk.  The colossal limb totally blocked the street.  Deep into the night city crews with chain saws had their tussle slicing it up dragging its branches to the curbs for about half a block or so on both sides of the street.

Broken Branches  The tree itself remains standing, but I’m a bit nervous about it’s lack of hydration.

Broken Tree

This week we enjoyed a break in the excessive heat, only in the upper 90s now.  However, we are way behind on summer rainfall.  It’s amazing what a month of dry, scorching sun can do to us all.

Meanwhile, my 7 year old granddaughter, Skylar, came over to spend part of the sweltering weekend with us.  Even though the soil has separated from the tree trunk by about 3″, I am so grateful our stout pecan tree remains somewhat healthy.  She loves the backyard tree swing.  We had a terrific time.

Tree Swing

Droughts come and go.  We’ve certainly had our share through the years.  I’m sure August will be a tad more kind to our neck of the woods.  Yet, there is also another drought that can bring down the very soul and spirit of a person.

Skylar on guiar

Skylar is highly intelligent, sometimes to a vice, as well as loving and kind.  I love being with her.  Because she misses lots of spiritual teaching, I always do what I can to nurture her in that area on the rare occasion she gets to spend the weekend.  Not a time of babysitting has gone by when I don’t bring up my faith and why I rest in it.  Usually, if time permits, I take her to church, read Bible stories and introduce her to the biblical characters I learned about when I was her age.  Sometimes she even pays attention.  When I gave her a nativity set for Christmas a couple of years ago, she asked why there was a dinosaur in the manger scene.  Shrugging, I told her that Jesus must’ve loved dinosaurs.  When I asked her to show it to me, she pointed to one of the wise men’s camels.  (Well, sure.  Why not.  It has a long neck and odd face.)

Skylar Shirt of Truth

The truth is, my branch of the family needs watering.  In some cases, grafting.  If raised without a solid teaching of the faith from the parents and grandparents, it can be like an oak growing without water, striving in the Texas July sun. There are nutrients in the scriptures that can bring a life that flourishes, bringing guidance and strength in the times of dryness.  Without these truths, we attempt to stand on our own when the seasons of drought overtake us.  At other times, we’re just off and away to Florida.  Our roots can grow in shallow sands.

I try not to worry about my granddaughter’s spiritual health.  For now, I will lean on one of my favorite phrases written many times through the passages…”BUT GOD…”  I love it when a sentence is launched with those words.

Sometimes you can’t outrun a heatwave, but you can endure it with fuel for the race.

“For he (The person who trusts in God.) will be like a tree planted by the waters, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes;  But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit.” – Jeremiah 17:8 (NASB)

 

 

How Grand They Were!

Photo:  Martin & Opal Atherton and their firstborn, Bob.

“I didn’t know it would be so strong, waiting and wondering about you.  I didn’t know it would last so long.  Nights are forever without you.”  Nights Are Forever Without You – Recorded by:  England Dan & John Ford Coley.  Released: July 1976.  Composer:  Parker McGee.

He walked into Wolf City, Texas junior high classroom for the first time, straight from his Oklahoma stomping grounds.  Being the new kid in town, he had yet to make friends.  She looked up, locking her kind and smiling blue eyes on this ruddy, wavy, auburn-haired boy.  He had a swagger, which was alien to the other boys, and a subtle, lopsided grin from one corner of his mouth, as if he were holding secrets nobody else knew.  His dark brown eyes shifted toward the brunette beauty sitting at her desk, trying to look busy.  They were studious in that they studied one another from minute one.  Later, “Lucky” –my granddaughter’s middle name — was the nickname placed on him because of his special catch.  The name stayed with him for the next seven decades.  But that was somewhere around 1933-1934.

Fast forward to 1938.  It was a different world, another place and time.  I will say, I can’t imagine getting into a tux, or suit and tie, or wedding dress to brave the Texas July heat.  Air conditioning wasn’t around at the time.  Yet, that’s what my maternal grandparents did, 80 years ago this month, July 13th, to be exact.  They were just country kids from family stock that the salt of the earth is made.

How about a few photos?

OMA-B MRA Wedding

When I say Martin and Opal Atherton were true diamonds in the rough, I am understating the truth of this incredibly fine couple.  Anyone who knew them could write novels of their character — a character of one, not two.

11 OMA MRA Lovers

Frankly, my novel, painting their portrait, would be as thick as War and Peace, or The Tale of Two Cities.  What I will give you today is a smidgen of a peek into my favorite human beings of the past century.

19 OMA MRA Booth

One of my favorite stories concerns a common practice when they were teens dating out in the east Texas woods.  My granddad had a horse he would ride to my grandmother’s house down the dirt road in Hunt County, Texas.  When he arrived at her house, he would tell the horse to go home, I imagine with a little slap on the behind (the horse’s behind, not my grandmother’s), and the horse would go all the way home without any distractions.  The old playwright comes out in me as I envision the empty-saddled horse passing by an old gas station/general country store.  My mind’s eye sees three old men in overalls leaning back in rickety wooden chairs out front saying, “Yep, there goes Martin’s horse.  He must be at that Opal girl’s house.”

30 OMA Trigger Horse

6 OMA MRA Bonnie&Clyde

A little boy’s memories of his grandparents surround small things. Small, but powerful.  Little memories that brought wisps of joy don’t have to be much.  Something like: a cold bottle of Coke, a peanut butter cracker sandwich or a well-stocked pantry filled with Oreos and variety packs of chips.  Also, things like the toys stashed behind a french door in the corner of the living room reserved just for me.  In the far back of the living room, away from the audio of the Philco television, my grandmother would sit next to me, reading softly from the dialogue bubbles of old comic books she had saved.  I can still feel the bristles of his late-night beard stubble while he hugged and kissed me good-night.  One of my favorite times was watching, and learning, as my granddad would cook out on his grill on a Saturday afternoon.  Before that, he would have detailed my mom’s car, changing the oil and spark plugs, usually before the crack of dawn.  It all goes to small efforts of great love.

Granddad at the grill. early 1980s.

Back In 1962, when my 18 year old mom needed to divorce my biological father (I was two years old), it was for reasons of security and safety for both of us.  The abusive situation was horrid, without any hope of changing for the better.  So much so, my granddad, with his well-known John Wayne attitude and a tad of Robert Mitchum looks, forged a deal.  He made a deal where he would pay all court costs if my bio-father agreed to cut ties, never to attempt to contact us again.  Part of the deal was my bio-father would be released from child-support (yes, it was that bad). An agreement was made rather quickly.  He told the judge he would help to raise me, to take me as his own.  Indeed, he and my grandmother were young enough to be my parents.  When I was born, he was only 41, she had just turned 39.  If I could remember, that would’ve been a major benchmark of one of my first memories of them.

32 OMA Me Easter

In retrospect, I cannot recall a time when they did not support me and my endeavors.  They dropped everything to attend most all of my events, concerts, graduation, musicals, and plays.  I could always count on seeing them in the audience, cheering me on.

My young mom was a highly independent woman, doing all she could to “make it” as a single mom in the ’60s & ’70s.  She was my Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler-Moore Show.  She can still turn the world on with a smile and turn a nothing day into one that seems worthwhile.  She would not take funds from my grandparents, even when we lived in poverty.  So, it was a norm for my granddad, without saying a word, to covertly slip me a few bills whenever he shook my hand, while she was looking the other way.  Later, especially at his funeral 10 years ago, I found out he made that under-the-table-hand-off to multiple people, from the needy next door, co-workers, to their pastor’s kids.  He truly gave of himself.

41 OMA MRA Curly Porch

Giving wasn’t always monetary for the Athertons.  Texas thunderstorms are notorious for rolling in like a bulldozer, with 60 mph straight winds up front, followed by torrential rains.  Flash flooding is not uncommon.  If you live along a lake, creek or river, stay on guard.  Sometime in the early 1950s, laying in bed late one night, out in their country ranch home, a forceful squall came busting through the clouds.  Unforeseen night-time storms are the best times to snuggle up, close the shutters and hope for the best.  While doing just that, they heard cries of panic and whimpering in the distance outside.  The sound was painful to hear.  My grandparents couldn’t help themselves.  They jumped out of bed, with a flashlight in hand, and followed the bellowing into the pitch black night, with the driving wind and rain pushing them back.  They ran to a gully, a dry creek bed.  The flashlight spotlighted the reality of what the stormy dark night was hiding.  A flash flood was raging, carrying whatever was not tied down into its swift current.  Along the bank was a frightened litter of puppies and their mom.  The mom was doing all she could to get each pup in her mouth in efforts to move to higher ground.  There was no time to hesitate.  She would surely lose the majority of her children if someone didn’t intervene.  That’s exactly what my grandparents did.  Still in their night clothes, they fought through the raging, rising flood, reached the mom and her pups, rescuing them all from certain death.  Not one was lost.  THAT was the heart of Martin and Opal Atherton.

47 OMA Tulo dog

18 OMA Wolfgang 1999

During WWII, my granddad struggled with the fact that his wounded older brother was in the thick of fighting the Nazis in France in a tank division, while he remained here raising his three kids and making a living.  At some point, regardless of his responsibilities at home, and with a newborn baby daughter (my mom), grit and patriotism kicked in.  He joined the navy and off he went to the newly liberated Philippines to keep the Japanese from returning.  It was the toughest separation for Martin and Opal.  They were so much in love.  Anyone who knew them could tell they were of one heart.  After the war was won, he came home on a Greyhound bus with his duffel bag on his shoulder.  As the bus arrived in the old square of downtown Greenville, Texas, my grandmother was anxiously waiting for him to step out of the folding doors.  I would give anything to have been a fly on the wall, just for a minute or two, to witness their loving reunion.  It has been said, right then and there, they promised one another they would never go anywhere apart from each other ever again.  They held to that promise, unless it was for a short men’s or women’s Bible class at their church, or a day of mechanical upgrade classes from General Motors.  God’s music score has its own arrangements.  He passed away about five weeks shy of their 70th anniversary.  She joined him eight years later after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.  I would’ve loved to have been a fly on Heaven’s gate to witness their second loving reunion.

Grands at NF mid 90s

My mom still lives in their house.  It was a house always remembered as a refuge from the harsh world.  My memories of that house are caressed with warm feelings of safety, security and love.  The home inside that house was without harsh judgments, cursing and violence.  A few months after his death in 2008, a Google search of the address was quite the surprise to us all.  To this day, I think of this as a sweet gift from above.  Even after he had left us, the Google photo of the house showed my granddad looking away while standing on the front porch.  Although rare he would be on the front porch, it was oh, so natural.

Granddad on porch in Google map pic. He had been dead for a long time.

Whether it was stranded puppies, a toddler doomed for harm and hopelessness, countless missionaries around the globe doing righteous work, to an elderly poor African-American man down the street, they were there for whomever needed a friendly helping hand and a kind smile.  I dare say, without any reservations whatsoever, this writer would have been dead long ago, or in prison somewhere, if not for my grandparents who unconditionally loved me as if I were their son.

This was the last photo together and last kiss.  He passed away about a week later.

Grands last pic. May 25, 2008. He died the following week.

There’s so much more to share of the life of Martin and Opal Atherton.  Let it be known, they preached their funerals every day of their lives, always filling themselves with fuel for the race.

“Blessings are on the head of the righteous…” – Solomon – Proverbs 10:6a (KJV)

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  Hebrews 12:1 (NASB)

 

 

Things My Dad(s) Taught Me

“…Dressed in gray, did he say, ‘Hold my hand’?  I said, ‘Love’s easier when it’s far away’.  We sat and watched a distant light.” – Ships (Ships That Pass In The Night) (1979), recorded by Barry Manilow.  Composer:  Ian Hunter

Father’s Day was never, ever warm and fuzzy.  For me, growing up, it was to be emotionally avoided.  Without making a punching bag out of two men in my life, I will attempt to bring you into where I am on this.

My mom and bio-dad parted ways when I was two years old.  It was a sour time, a sour marriage before it began.  She met a man a couple of years later.  While dating, I began to call him “Daddy”, without prompting from my mom.  They married when I was five.  It was a hard life with him for many reasons.  In the end, they divorced four years later.  She never remarried again.  Both men refused to pay child support.  Both men were never part of my upbringing.  Both men were strangers to me.  Both men didn’t communicate with me.  No playing catch.  No camping trips.  No ice cream runs.  No lessons on how to tie a tie.  No tips on females.  No birthday cards.  No Christmas gifts.  No dad in the stands at my karate tournaments, graduations or concerts.  Absent in the true sense of the word.  My mom’s dad took the father role as best he could.  The ex-dads wanted me in their lives only after I became an adult.  (The same happened to Manilow, thus “Ships” lyrics.)  Distant is the description of my relationship with them.  To this day, I find it very difficult to find a Father’s Day card that fits.  I HATED Father’s Day.

You’re going to think I’m nuts.  Growing up, I mentally adopted family friends as my unofficial replacement dads.  I had three or four men who were dads of my running buddies, my high school choir director, dads of a couple of girlfriends, etc.  (They never knew it.) When I was using great imagination, I fantasized TV show characters as fathers.  Jerry Haynes from the Mr. Peppermint Show, Bill Bixby of Courtship of Eddies’ Father, Robert Young of Marcus Welby and Father Knows Best, James Arness from Gunsmoke, John Wayne, Jerry Lewis, Brian Keith from Family Affair, and….Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise….of course.  When thinking about it, they were all representatives of manly-men of great honor, strength and stout hero-types.  HOW SAD!  At the time, it was a desire to fill the gaping hole in my life.  For me, it wasn’t sad at all.

Tab & Me Nov 1987

Then, November 1987 came.  I became a dad for the very first time.  My focus about Father’s Day began to shift off its personal paradigm.  I have three daughters whom I dearly and fiercely love.  Authentic fatherhood has its ups and downs for sure, but there’s nothing like it.  When society learns fatherhood is more than getting someone pregnant, maybe this culture would make a 180.

Let me offer you a list of what my dads taught me.  Who knows, maybe this will help a young father-to-be somewhere.  I am not a perfect dad, by any stretch, but I know how to aim for it.  Here’s what I have learned over the last 30 years.

T&M kiddie pool

  • Jump in the kiddie pool, even if someone is watching.
  • Serve as Mr. Mom as much as you can…change those diapers.
  • Time is champ.  Give all of it you can.  One day, time will be up.
  • Read the Father’s Day cards in the store.  See where you’re lacking.
  • Go ahead, ask for directions.  They’ll remember and size you up as salt of the earth.
  • Don’t disappear when that toddler wants to pull your beard.  Enjoy while you can.
  • Attend every single event if it’s at all possible. (Recitals, musicals, open house, T-Ball, spelling bee, award ceremonies…)
  • Play dress-up and make-up sessions with YOU as the model!  Doll house time, play-dough and Barbie moments have a gigantic chunk of value.
  • If reading assembly instructions all night on Christmas keeps you up, revel in it.
  • Eat the imaginary cake served on that little plastic plate, along with the imaginary cup of tea.  Make-believe is a wonderment, even though you have forgotten.
  • Teach integrity and tolerance by example.  Let them see and hear you in tight, uncomfortable times.  Keep the lid on your temper in traffic.  They have big eyes and ears.
  • Introduce them to a cop early.  Let them see they are dads and moms too.
  • Be over-the-top with congrats, even if the achievement seems insignificant.
  • Encourage efforts, even if they give up quicker than you want them to.
  • Read to them.  After that, read to them some more.  Do it with zeal & gusto.
  • Watch with great focus when they want to “perform” for you in the living-room.
  • Remember this: Whatever game is on the screen, those players and coaches won’t be holding your hand on your deathbed a few years from now.
  • Take your kids out on dates.  Together AND separately, at a movie, dinner, museum.
  • If you have daughters, show them early-on how a gentleman treats his date.  If you have sons…speak out about how to treat their mom and sisters.  They’ll remember.

Megan & Me KCBI

  • Nurture their talents and interests, even if they’re not yours.
  • Watch those kiddie shows.  Participate.  See those obnoxious, juvenile movies with them.  You’re not the target audience for a reason.  Oh, and share the popcorn.
  • Be generous with chatter.   Your kiddo may have a long saga to share, but stay focused and ask questions.  Let them know they have your sole attention.
  • It is not a chore to drive them to & fro.  Wherever that party is, be their “Have Car, Will Travel” guy.  On the way, insist on all devises to be turned off and have conversation.  After you pick them up, have them tell you everything they experienced, even if it will bore you to tears.  Remember, it’s a privilege.
  • Show them you respect them as individuals.  Avoid the “I am king” syndrome.  Soon, you will learn the “king” is a fool.
  • Be one who indulges in teachable moments, but leave lots of room for failure.
  • When failure comes, always project the truth!  WE ALL FAIL.  Get up, you ain’t hurt.
  • Expose them to a variety of cultures and art, if it’s in line with values you consider appropriate.
  • Pass your faith onto them.  Teach them in the way they “should” go.  Thanks, Solomon.
  • Know their friends.  BE NOSY ABOUT IT.  It usually saves loads of heartache later.
  • When corrections need to be applied, be sure to explain why you disagree, or deem a subject as one that goes against your principles or values.  Never leave them wondering where you stand on things.  Recall, you are raising a society of one.
  • If not a single dad, love your wife loyally in front of them.  Show love in your home.
  • Never play good cop/bad cop concerning your wife.  In the end, they need to see mom and dad are one force, one mind, one decision.  Yes, it’s hard, but parenting isn’t for the weak.
  • Honor your parents in front of your kids.  Let them grow up knowing the elders are to be revered, unless their grandparents are criminals.  Sure, it’s a case-by-case basis.  Grandparents are not throw-away items from a storage unit.  Just know that my girls grew up respecting my two fathers, even with the soiled history.  Remember, they will have kids someday and you will be the elder.
  • Ask yourself what you want them to say at your memorial service and act accordingly.  If you don’t care, I recommend scheduling a vasectomy.
  •  Always remember, time is short.  Blink and your baby wears a cap and gown.

D...Me June 2017

Don’t let your kids apply-and-cry each time they hear Harry Chapin’s, “Cat’s In The Cradle”.  Be there.  Be available.  Be attentive.  Be willing.  Be loving.  Be a servant.  Be playful.  Be wise.  Be protective.  Be a disciplinarian.  They will remember.

Yes, my dads taught me a lot.  They taught me how not to be.

When leaving this earth it will be comforting knowing your child has plenty of fuel for the race.

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” – St Paul – Ephesians 6:4 (NIV)

Me and T-M-D Sept 2016

 

 

 

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

*****Just a note:  I was recently interviewed for a podcast show on Isle of Misfits podcast/blog.  You are certainly welcome to click on and listen to a bit of my history, including my near-death experience from my own voice. 

Here is the link:  Isle of Misfits

“Blessings on the hand of women!…For the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” – From the American poet, William Ross Wallace (1865).

To say, the decisive influence of a mother can and will shake a person throughout their decades, is an understatement, in my opinion.  William Ross Wallace believed the future of society itself rested its base in the hand of a young mother.

“Give me the first six years of a child’s life, and I care not who has the rest.” – American educator and author Kate Douglas Wiggin from her book, “Children’s Rights and Others: A Book of Nursery Logic” (1892)

You don’t have to search far to find someone who has damaging memories of their mom.  I know of some in my own family.  With that said, I will state some things here that are familiar to most who treasure their mothers.

Mom salon

My mom, Carolyn Atherton-Brown

Leaving out lots of details, she had every pathway to abort me.  She was only 15 when she was carrying me.  She was newly married to my bio-father, a man full of abuses on every level.  Even his parents feared for my life, warning my maternal grandparents in a secretive meeting.  His lies were uncovered rather quickly, as quickly as the divorce decree, when I was two years old.  She did remarry again when I was five, but it was short-lived.  She has stayed single for the balance of her life.

When bravery and gritty courage is given as a title, I think of POWs, cops, or firefighters, but not today.  I instead picture this incredible, enduring woman of granite-like stability.  This girl, in her mid teens, chose to raise a son all on her own through the 1960s and 1970s.  That alone is like a spelunker forging his/her way into the darkest, undiscovered cavern of the greatest of depths.  To be a young single woman, with a young son in the mix, slugging her way through the male-driven world of those times, was only for the most adventurous, gallant female.  She had to be like the grill on a car, being hit with everything.  Women of that time had to be willing to be objectified, to be broke from low wages, to be able to take harsh words, along with an ocean of dirty looks and rumor.  Yet, she did so because of me.

A woman who represents only the best of motherhood, is a woman who understands and acknowledges selflessness to the broadest degree.  She must make a tripwire decision to place herself last, further than the unwanted back-burner.  Motherhood decrees an oath of pouring out one’s “self” for the one hiding behind her skirt.  It meant, for my mom, two or three jobs at a time, multiple lay-offs, skipping high school and college, dodging unwanted advances, taking judgmental heat from those who allow their love to grow cold toward the divorced female and single mother.  That is what she signed up for.  THIS is my mom’s tip of the iceberg in a snapshot.

In order to post a simple blog article, in lieu of a novel, I will decline here to spell out a few dozen stories concerning the sheer resilience and integrity of my mom.

23 OMA Me and Mom 1967

My mom, grandmother and me – 1967.

“Having children gives you a perspective you didn’t have before.  You are no longer the center of the universe.  It opened my heart, made me a different person.  Every move you make is with someone else in mind…” – Actress, Jessica Lange.   Kenneth Miller’s article, AARP Magazine. Aug-Sept 2017

I would be remiss if I didn’t add the fact the hand that rocked the cradle in 1944, during WWII, greatly shaped the woman my mom grew to be.  My God-worshiping grandmother, as well as her mother before her,  had the right salt-of-the-earth stuff, passing it on to her only daughter.  Today, I can even see their influences in my oldest daughter, raising her young daughter.  The hand that rocks the cradle truly does move and shake the generations behind her skirt.

Mom and Skylar Dec 2017

My granddaughter with my mom. December 2017.

If a mom truly wants joy for Mother’s Day, she should not hesitate in filling her child with fuel for the race.

“In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly.  And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life…’ ” – 1 Samuel 1: 10-11 (NIV)

Letting Go

“I’ve got it all it seems, for all it means to me.  But I sing of things I miss and things that used to be…” – This One’s For You” (1976)  – Composers:  Barry Manilow & Marty Panzer

I am convinced that many of us writing posts in our blog pages do so for therapy sake.  It’s okay, you can disagree.  I can really only speak for myself.  So, I will.

If you look over my entries since I began writing the Fuel For The Race blog, you might find I often write of loss, personal loss.  I’m not sure about what that says about me, or if it states anything vital at all.  What I will say is, each university ought to have a course on loss.  I’m terrific at loss, just a loser when it comes to letting go.  How about you?

On my semi-daily walk, I have come up on lots of yard and garage sales in my neighborhood.  The weather is warmer and the buds are out, tis the season.  Slowing down, but not truly shopping, I love to see what people are laying out on their lawns for a quick buck.  I saw an oxygen tank yesterday (really), an old travelling chest that had to be 100 years old and a car seat for a newborn.  With a sigh, I shook my head and walked on thinking to myself how there are some things I just couldn’t part with.  Yet, I am well versed in parting with precious things…unfortunately.  My grief is old and long.

At the top of the page is one of my treasures.  Not the painting, but the girl.   Meet my middle daughter, Megan.

Let me be blunt at the risk of sounding rude and bitter.  My first marriage was a lesson in damage control.  Without dragging you through a good mound of dirty laundry, I will fast forward to 2006.  After 26 years of marriage, I desperately needed to divorce my wife.  In fact, I had wanted to since 1988, or so.  Again, this will not turn into a thrashing of my ex-wife, but I will tell you the results.

House Countryside Lane

Living in Buffalo, NY at the time, we had a beautiful house in Williamsville, a picture-perfect suburb with lamppost-lined streets and zero crime.  Two nice SUVs sat in our two-car garage, and three lovely daughters, each with their own separate bedrooms, 18 trees towering over the property with a huge backyard where our Yorkie and Great Dane could pow-wow.  Down the street was a large nature preserve.  Often, wild turkey and deer walked through our lawns.  It was a peaceful place, a place I shopped for over three months.  It was my first home purchase.

I had moved to the area in 2003 to take an offer to host and produce an afternoon drive-time music radio show.  I was an on-air talent and a vet in the industry, so it was an opportunity I felt I couldn’t ignore.  We had dreams of living there, at least until we retired.  Along with the dream were images of watching my girls prepare for prom, graduate one-by-one, attend college at nearby University of Buffalo or Buffalo State, and maybe even see the family expand with weddings in the future.  However, dreams can also be nightmares.

In October of 2006, all came crashing down.  I made a decision to end the marriage. Losing the dream would be in the mix, splitting of possessions, valuables and beloved pets.  Then came the decisions of our individual lives.  D’Anna, my youngest (almost 8 years old at the time) would go live with her mom as they were moving back to the Dallas, Texas area.  Right or wrong, at the time I thought D’Anna needed her mom more than her dad during this time of her life.  My oldest, Tabitha (just turning 18) was a graduate and already on her haunches to make a new life in the workforce and would roommate with a friend from high school.  Then there would be Megan.  She was about to turn 16 while in the middle of her junior year in high school.  All I could think of was my responsibility to get her through her junior and senior years as a single dad unscathed, hopefully, from the trauma of the marriage.  Megan and I (and Jojo, the Yorkie) streamlined, downsizing to the max, leaving a 12-room house and squeezing into a nearby apartment.  We made a home for the two of us, as we picked ourselves up off the floor from a devastating pile of wreckage.  We had our challenges, but we did it.  We got through the next couple of years as she blossomed and excelled in the music arts.  I loved it!  She was being…me!  I am an actor/singer and always have been.  Now, here she is, a chip off the old block, with 30 years in between us.  She and Tabitha both were tremendous child-actresses.  Megan wowed audiences from the time she was 4 years old onward, but I didn’t expect a knock-out singing sensation.  She left acting behind and picked up the mic, with the exception of playing the female lead in “Guys and Dolls” her senior year.

Some things you never expect, even on the edge of possibility.  Among the volley of pitiful pitfalls, bankruptcy was an unavoidable exit ramp I was forced to take in the immediate wake of the marriage.  (Longer story there.)  There was a repo of one of the SUVs. (My ex had possession of it in Houston, Texas for a time.)  She chose to take one of our vehicles, electing to drive away with the one we were still paying on.  She agreed to make the payments, but neglected to do so.  Emotionally, and psychologically, I was far worse than I realized.  My mental state was at an all-time low.  The following Spring, I lost my dream job, due to a format change at the radio station.  I would not have done it, but I do understand how some make the decision to end their life on this earth, which is always the wrong exit.  Meanwhile, I had to protect Megan and see to it that she finished school with adulthood looming.  I took another radio show at a network some 3 hours away, southeast of Buffalo.  The drive was beautiful, but non-negotiable in the winter months.  I would stay near the station Mon-Wednesday, then ending the week driving back and forth on Thursday and Friday, staying at the apartment with Megan over the weekend.  When there were events at school, IE: musicals, choir concerts, talent shows, or Megan singing with their jazz band, I always drove back for those nights.  It just about killed me, as well as the $4.25/gallon gasoline prices.  That was my schedule for a couple of months.  Soon after, I was speaking to a friend about a new job back in Buffalo, where I would be a dad, present and accounted for.

Megan also had joined a garage/basement rock band from her school.  Little did I know it would be the start of what she would fall in love with.

Over the summer of 2008, right after Megan graduated, I began talks with another radio station back in Dallas, Texas where we originally came from.  In late August, I made the decision to move back and take the job even during the negotiation process.  One afternoon, I sat her down to let her know what my plans were.  I offered to take her with me and start a new life back in her hometown where she still had old school and church friends, not to mention family on all sides.  She surprised me by choosing to stay in Buffalo with her many friends and familiar stomping grounds.  To be honest, it was painful to hear her answer.  Of my three girls, Megan was, and is, most like me on many levels.  I was Mr. Mom for her and Tabitha when they were little, which built a tight bond that I will always be grateful for.  With that said, I wrestled with it all for a long time.  Many sleepless nights I wrangled with the thought of parting ways, leaving my pal to take over the apartment, to live life on her own without my protection.  It was soooo hard for me.  If memory serves me right, I believe I went back to her to see if she would change her mind.  No dice.  She assured me she would do well, stay safe and make wise choices.  Interestingly enough, later her older sister, Tabitha, made her way down to Texas with her roommate as well.  Soon, the entire family would be within an hour of each other, except for Megan.

Megan and me

If you’re wondering, if I made the right choice, as well as Megan, here’s the scoop.  Today, she is considered one of the most highly regarded vocalist in western New York and with two high quality stellar bands.  She’s been on the cover of magazines, newspapers, recordings galore, radio and TV shows.  She’s been voted as best female vocalist of the year via Buffalo, NY voters at least twice.  Her original band, Dirty Smile, is an internationally award-winning, highly sought after group and has played in several cities on the northeastern seaboard.  She and Grace Stumberg have put an all-girl band together, Rust Belt Birds.  Grace is super talented.  She’s Joan Baez’s duo partner and guitar girl.  I AM ASTONISHED at Megan’s accomplishments.  She has done well all by herself, without me holding her hand.  She always says I taught her how to sing and perform, but it’s HER work ethic that developed this success rate.

Megan Mag

Meganfest

“To succeed you must suffer.” – Bruce Lee

Megan on cover of Artvoice 2016

I had to let go of my life during this personal storm.  We all had to forge through it in our own ways.  Sure, loads of possessions were left out by the curb as well as good standing, credit crash, prime property, vehicles and pets, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  It was almost spirit-sucking to say good-bye to D’Anna, my 8 year old.  We remain pals to this day. (See last week’s blog posting.)  It was heartbreaking to see my Tabitha leave while sprouting wings that were not fully in use just yet.  Letting go of a marriage, as difficult as it was, it was a marriage I held together for 26 years, in spite of the damage we all experienced.

Letting go that August day of 2008 was one of the hardest things I have ever done by far.  Certainly, part of it was because Megan is like my twin in so many ways.  The other part of this painting, she was the final string I was holding on to from a life I once had.  We remain close to this day.  I love my daughters and I hate geography.

Megan hug April 1st 2017

At the end of the day, it’s okay to lay out that old antique travelling chest, the empty oxygen tank and the baby car-seat.  After all, it’s just…stuff.  Right?  Family is forever.

Girls & Me-March 2015

Letting go might be hard, but much easier when filled with fuel for the race.

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” – Hebrews 13:5 (NIV)