Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.
I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.
The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.
The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.
I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.
The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.
What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.
And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!
Birthdays come hard now. I wasn’t expecting this at all. But today (the day before) and tomorrow (the birthday) have expanded meanings and bring an extreme of feelings. So I give in and cry.
One year ago, September 3, at this hour of the morning, I was calling the vet. I knew this was different. I knew it was bad. I took her in. Dr. Dave said, “We can do it now. Or we can do it at close of business. But you can’t let her go through the night.” I’d known this was coming, but no, no, I wasn’t ready. Are we ever? I held my Chaeli, wrapped in a blanket, looked in her eyes, stroked her face. “I’ll bring her back at five.” I took her home and spent the day readying myself, readying her, and fussing at my deceased husband for not coming back to take her naturally. He could have helped me out on this. He held me and we cried together over Molly, our golden retriever, when we had to do it to her. I did not want to go through that again. Alone, this time. I did not want to put this dog down.
But that’s what I did. I went back to the clinic at five and was ushered into the Death Room. I held her and talked to her and told her to go find her daddy (the alpha), as the injection was given. It was quick, so quick, as the dog who would never look at me in the eyes during her entire almost seventeen years, looked at me the whole time. I held her for a long time after life was gone. Then at my request the doctor wrapped her securely in blankets, and I took her home. She spent the night on her favorite vent in my living room.
The next morning, September 4, my birthday, I drove her to the crematory and handed her over.
Now she’s in a box on a shelf over my bed. It feels like everything in my life is in a box. Dead, gone.
Twenty-two days later little Heidi Deering was born. Chaeli and I had planned this together. I was on a waiting list. I picked out my little buff girl with the round head and had eight weeks to heal after the loss of the old girl before I brought a new baby home. Then life got so full, and now I wonder if I fully healed. Because September 3 rolls around again, and I hurt.
I hurt badly. And not simply over her loss, but she was the bottom layer of layers of loss. I won’t go there and name them all, but she was the last thing to go that Charlie and I shared together. And that’s a hard thing.
And Birthday, I don’t know what to do about you. I really don’t. I just really don’t. Birthdays should remind us of good things. There should be cake, there should be laughter, there should be balloons, and maybe sapphires . . . and telephone calls.
Thank you, Neil.
It was a white night last night.
For some reason, I thought of ice cold milk and couldn’t get the picture of it out of my mind. It was really a day for water, and lots of it, with a heat index of 103 and humidity so high I could barely breathe. It was too hot to go to the Blackberry Jam music festival and sit outside by the Harpeth all day. It was too hot to stand outside and talk to a neighbor; it was too hot to walk the dog very far. And I thought of ice cold milk. I had to have some.
When I was a little girl and spent a week each summer on my grandparents’ farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, I drank their milk straight from a cow. My grandfather was the first one up every morning to go milk the cows, and he always brought a pail back to the house. It was not homogenized, it was not pasteurized, it was not like city milk from a carton. My grandmother put ice in a glass and poured the milk over it. We never did that at home.
I remember the look of it. The milk seemed a little thin and yellow against the white ice, blocky parts of which floated above the surface, coated with cream.
So last night I stuck my glass under the ice dispenser, filled it, then poured milk over it. I shook it and let the ice hit the glass and make noise. I grabbed a few M&Ms and went outside on the front porch to sit under a cobalt sky headed to darkness. Clouds darker than cobalt were furiously building and boiling upward from the day’s heat, and lightning was flashing behind their tops and among them.
I chewed my chocolate and drank my ice cold rattly milk and watched the storm move closer, the sky flashing white all around me and sending bolts downward. It was coming at me from all directions, white everywhere. It was all show for an hour—no rain, no wind—just white lightning, a natural fireworks display. When it was on me, the heavens and the air all around me flashed white. And I sat there and rattled the cubes in my glass and drank my ice cold milk and remembered storm traditions of my little girl days.
At my grandparents’ house, when a storm would roll in, my grandfather would go get the car and drive it right up on the grass by the front porch. He’d make the five grandchildren sit in the car with him. The rubber tires would ground us and protect us from getting struck by the lightning. I don’t remember my grandmother ever being in the car with us. I think she took her chances and got a little peace and quiet inside the house. When I was playing at my friend Mary Sue’s and a storm came up, her mother brought us each a foam rubber pillow to sit on as we played paper dolls or drew and colored pictures because it would ground us and keep us safe. We didn’t do any of this at home. The storms came, the lightning came, the thunder came, and we kept right on doing what we were doing.
And so I sat on the front porch and drank my ice cold milk and watched the lightning.
My goal every year is to have the grass manicured, the flowers in the yard beds and pots on the deck blooming, the little garden in and growing, and the weeds OUT by Memorial Day so I can sit outside and admire it all. It hasn’t happened in the last ten or twelve years, but this year it will be a reality. And it’s going to happen even though I hurt myself and am on full-time Ibuprofen. (I tripped over a puppy gate. I lifted my foot, but the Chaco didn’t lift or clear, and caught the top bar and I went splattering down the hall, slung my glass of water, which broke and cut me, and possibly broke something inside the very top of my leg.)
Yesterday, to finish off my garden, I planted five heirloom tomato plants a neighbor gave me. She was raised on a farm in McNairy County of West Tennessee, lived in Ohio for her professional career, and moved back to Tennessee to be near her grandchildren. She knows how to harvest seeds and plant them the next year. I want to learn. I told her this will be very helpful when the coming financial crisis happens or when our country declares financial martial law, as Ron Paul speaks of with surety. I thought of buying the book he promotes on this subject, but it costs $75, and I’m not paying that much for any book unless it’s about the Mississippi Delta. (I bought David Cohn’s book for $120.)
I’m writing about the Mississippi Delta — a little fictional town near Cleveland, on the river, with five women who are main characters. It will explore race, religion, family, and land — all good Southern topics for novels. I am taking my time on this book. Trying to say what I want to say and get it right.
And now, of all things, Cleveland, my hometown, and Cleveland High School, my alma mater, are in the news. The Cleveland school district has been given a federal court order to desegregate. People all over the country are making disparaging remarks because they are picturing an all-white school. No. CHS began integration in 1965. My class of ’67 might have been the last all-white graduating class. The one student who joined my class during our junior year in 1965-66 did not come back the following year to graduate. But others came, and the ratio grew over the years to almost equal in that one particular school. Here are the cheerleaders for the mighty CHS Wildcats this year! Yay, Black and Gold — conquer and prevail! Cleveland High, all hail!
I’m not sure what the world is coming to, or if in future months we will falter into financial martial law or if we will make a return to the 1960s, or just how much the federal government is going to stick its neck into our lives, but all I want to do is sit in my own back yard and look at all the handiwork and grow muscadines, blackberries, and heirloom tomatoes.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” ~ Emily Dickinson
Tell it slant. Find a way to tell the story in an effective, interesting way. Reach into the mass of it and pull out the nugget and go with it.
A few weeks ago when I came across the legend of the pelican, it pierced my heart, soul, and mind, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I held off, days went by, and I kept feeling that the story was far more beautiful than waiting to find a slant or waiting to glean all the truths from it. Or any truth at all.
Here’s the story: Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
Truth is, I cannot write a story or essay without seeing some particle in it that becomes my focus or truth, something different, something that really speaks to me, something I can manipulate and mold into something meaningful. It gives me my approach. I don’t need to tell the same old story that everybody else does or see the truth that is evident to all or brush along the edges, wading in the shallow end, and not go deep. I need to see it in my own way.
Here’s the truth I came to as I wrote to discovery: “It’s an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us. Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.”
Afterward, I was talking to my friend, fellow writer, and English professor, Neil, about it. I told him I couldn’t write the story at first. I didn’t know how to approach it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could learn from it and what deeper meaning it had. And then it came as I voiced the situation out loud.
I started my February 7 blog post with: “I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles. I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.”
And so could it be that we are so busy with the itinerary of our lives—going to work, going to church, going to committee meetings, going to speaking engagements, taking care of family, begging God to show us how we’re needed—that we miss the one little thing that’s there in plain view? The one grain of sand on the beach where we could have made a difference. The one little need. The one.
I play bubbles with my four-month-old puppy. I blow and fill the back yard with soap bubbles, and she chases them. Inevitably, one bubble strays off, and she goes after it, leaving ninety-nine other floating bubbles moving in the sky above. “Look at all these!” I say, trying to call her back to see the possibilities in the group as a whole. She keeps up after the one.
In that majestic marvel of a cathedral, Notre Dame, there’s one pelican that looks down on the city and its population and its tourists. Yet how many don’t see it? How many miss the story? How many are so focused on the cathedral as a whole, and how many are focused on the architectural details and notes of historical truth pointed out by tour guides? How many miss the truth, evident, yet way above their heads?
In your quest to go and do and tell to the thousands, did you miss the one who had a real need that day? Are you more about fulfilling obligation than touching a heart? I think sometimes we are so much about chasing the ninety-nine that we miss entirely the one.
Here’s an oldie but a goodie, a Rhodes family favorite. And here’s to you, Louise Rhodes — you are missed. And here’s to all the grands who were at the table, scattered now from North Carolina to Tennessee to Texas! Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t remember Louise’s sweet potatoes and Louise slinking under the table because of her Jack Daniels whiskey.
Granny’s Sweet Potato Casserole (published in Pink Butterbeans and also on the Jack Daniels website)
The day was festive—a fresh-cut bouquet of mums and daisies, white tapers, white tablecloth, crisp linen napkins, fine china, and sparkling silver. The air was thick with scents of freshly baked bread, sage, cinnamon, hazelnut coffee, and onion and apple stuffing. People with busy hands scurried about, interacting boisterously, against a backdrop of an oven door creaking, ice cubes clinking against crystal, spoons clanking, and an electric knife purring.
At noon, we all circled the long dining room table, the whole family, gathered to do what all families do on Thanksgiving Day—stuff themselves with turkey and all the trimmin’s. We piled our plates high with slices of roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, green beans with canned French-fried onions on top, and sweet potato casserole. After grace, we dug in.
My younger son must have been building with Legos the day I tried to teach Tact & Manners, for he certainly didn’t exercise either that day. “Mama,” he blurted out, words shot from a cannon, booming through the air, bouncing off the high ceiling, echoing off the white walls, and hovering over the heads of aunts and uncles and siblings and cousins. “Did you put whiskey in the sweet potatoes?”
I knew full well that Granny brought the sweet potatoes. As I glanced across my glass of sweet tea, I glimpsed Granny shrinking, folding up, like a turtle drawing in its head. Her eyes fell, her head sank, her shoulders slumped, and she inched down until her chin was even with the tabletop, silver hair shining under the chandelier. Her face, barely visible, mirrored her holiday burgundy blouse. Very meekly, Granny defended herself, squeaking out a weak, “Well, the recipe called for it.” There you go. It was written up in a book, so it was okay.
With her admission of guilt, young bodies bolted forward, all the grandchildren at once, those over twenty-one and those under twenty-one, surged for a second helping of Granny’s whiskey sweet potatoes.
Seems that Granny had gone on a trip with the Methodist Church XYZ Club—or Xtra Years of Zest Club—to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the nation’s oldest registered distillery and Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. Even though there were a few Baptist and Church of Christ folks along, the XYZ-ers toured the distillery. And Granny bought a cookbook, whiskey being the common ingredient in all the fine Southern recipes from cakes to casseroles. Granny couldn’t buy whiskey at the distillery to put in her recipes, for Lynchburg is in a dry county. They only make it, bottle it, and ship it from there. But Granny slipped away from the other XYZ-ers in another county and bought herself a bottle of the Old Time, Old No. 7 Brand Sour Mash, made and mellowed, distilled and bottled in Lynchburg, population 361. “Whiskey made as our fathers made it for 7 generations.”
Granny sat low in her chair the rest of the meal, for she knew she put a generous helpin’ of whiskey in her sweet potato casserole. And although all good cooks know that the alcohol cooks off and only the flavorin’ is left, the grandchildren were not allowed to drive the rest of the day.
In the spirit of tradition, every Thanksgiving, the grandchildren still ask far in advance, “Are we having Granny’s sweet potato casserole?”