Sweet Little Nothings

Today is your day chocolate

She’d graduated without laude
but with writing awards,
with friendships, experiences,
& a confidence she’d lacked before.
She learned that it was okay to be an introvert,
even as she tried to perform exemplary work
to make up for it;
she learned that it was okay to be a team player
rather than a leader—
to follow what worked & fix what didn’t.
And, in her new, post-graduate life,
she stayed on where she had learned so much,
but when her last article
for the college newspaper
came into print,
she experienced
a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment.
She learned that no one could hold the presses,
no matter how much they had or
chose to give away,
& she was reminded
of a wise little girl named Pollyanna
who had said that “Nobody could own a church,”
for there was no place for censorship
at a school where critical thinking
was a prerequisite
to finishing.

Sweet Little Nothings

It's your call chocolate

She had grown up with Pat & Vanna—
witnessing the progression
of the turning of the letters
to the touching of the letters,
of Pat’s lousy jokes & receding hairline,
& the ushering in of the
lame-ass “crossword” category.
Through “The Wheel,”
she’d learned her alphabet,
then her spelling,
then the combinations of words
& the categorization of those combinations.
She’d learned to count in fifties & hundreds
before twos & fives
& that mispronouncing a word
could cost you dearly.
She’d seen snippets of every part of the world
& where they were located on the map,
so that she was curious enough to look them up
in Encyclopedia Brittanica.
She’d learned when to take chances
& when to play it safe.
When she became a contestant—
meeting these personalities
who’d lit up her living room
with their Fifties blandness—
it was like living her childhood dream
& connecting with a friend
that had grown up with her
without them even knowing it.
The money she won changed her life
but only because she used it
to change someone else’s.

 

A Memoir of Mother Goose

All I ever really needed to know, I learned long before kindergarten, from the adults who loved me.

Mother Goose was my first exposure to literature. I grew up with my dad reading it to me, and now I read it to my child. I’ve found that having a child is not like reliving my childhood, but enjoying, in a different way, the things I once did.

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My dad, when I was a little girl.

For more than twenty years, I didn’t swing on a swing (just in porch swings, like my grandparents) or jumped on a trampoline. While my daughter colors with crayons or plays with Play-Doh—smells that bring back memories of burnt sienna and purple meatballs—I am not brought back, but rather, the past is brought to me.

That rhyme about the old woman in the shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do? I remember the mother kissing them all sweetly and sending them to bed, not “whipping them all soundly,” as I have since discovered was the original rhyme. The children were also going to bed hungry, with nothing but broth and no bread to soak it up.

I grew up on Disney and its sanitization of fairy tales.

In that way, I had a magical childhood, and that is what I strive to give to my daughter. There is time enough for her to learn the not-so-good things that exist in our fallen world.

Childhood is precious and fleeting, for when else do we get to be kids, to believe in Santa Claus and friendly animals and always-happy endings?

Whenever my dad read me “Little Boy Blue,” before he would get to the part about the boy crying (if awakened), I would beg him not to finish it. When you’re a kid, you never cry because you’re happy—that’s what laughter is for.

Now I can understand why “Little Boy Blue” would cry if someone woke him up, as I feel like crying when my alarm goes off in the morning.

Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker,
They all jumped out of a rotten potato.
Turn ‘em out, knaves all three.

When I was a “sack of potatoes,” as my dad called me, my uncle Bill would run me through the rhyme above, just to hear me say, after the first line, “Three foul balls in a tub.”

I’m sure he taught me that.

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My uncle, as I knew him when I was a child.

This was the same guy, after all, who said there was a certain hair in your nose that was connected to your brain, which would kill you if you pulled it.

I think we do things for our parents because we want to please them, but in the case of my uncle, I think I liked the laughs.

Perhaps, even then, a funny seed was planted, and a funny bone was developed.

I just wouldn’t know it was there until many years later.

Hearts, like doors, will open with ease
To very, very little keys.
And don’t forget that two of these
Are “I thank you” and “if you please.”

Every summer, from ages nine to thirteen, I spent my summer vacations in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with my grandma and grandpa.

My Grandma Booker, a mother of two boys, always told me roughhousing was for outside and to chew with your mouth closed. She showed me the only palatable way to eat peanut butter, which was drizzled (or, in my case, drenched) with Karo syrup. She taught me that a word was only a curse if God was in front of it, which I didn’t really understand, because my parents never used the Lord’s name in vain.

Grandma and Jacques

My grandma, as I knew her when I was a child, with their dog, Jacques.

Even though she also said drinking coffee would turn your feet black, and if you swallowed a watermelon seed, melons would grow out of your ears, she still possessed plenty of wisdom. Even though I wouldn’t understand everything I heard until adulthood, I did understand when she said the three most important phrases were “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.”

It is from your elders that you learn your manners, which are the earliest form of soft skills.

When I was a nanny in Sidney, Montana, I was chastised for calling my boss “sir,” and he said something like, “I know in the South, you do all that sir and ma’am business, but we don’t do that around here.” That was the first time I had ever been criticized for my manners.

Since I was not comfortable calling him by his first name (even Alice called Mike and Carol Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and she was practically part of the family), I just didn’t call him anything.

Now, when someone calls me ma’am, like the math tutor who is technically young enough to be my son, it makes me feel old, but I don’t ask him not to call me that, because it is a sign of respect—just like holding the door open for people, regardless of gender, is having manners.

The two signs my daughter knows more than any other is “Thank you” and “Please.” (“You’re welcome” in American Sign Language is the same as “thank you.”) I still remind her to mind her manners.

A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

In high school, I was the Bashful Dwarf, but one of my fondest memories was during my sophomore year. I had a such huge crush on an Environmental Science teacher—a man who looked like a Ken doll (except heterosexual)—that I chose a zero over getting up in front of class. Public speaking always made me break out in hives.

That said, it was all worth it not to look like a fool in front of Mr. Bauer, for whom I would’ve learned to become a botanist.

High school graduation night at Mr. Manatee's

Me, May 1999, at my high school graduation celebratory dinner at Mr. Manatee’s restaurant, which is gone now.

Years later, I would learn it’s the smart people that listened more than they spoke. Maybe that was why the other kids always assumed I was the brilliant one.

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had another, and didn’t love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

When I graduated from high school nineteen years ago, I didn’t know it, but I was looking for a place to belong; I thought I’d found it in the Mormon Church.

The Mormons say that the glory of God is intelligence. I always thought it was love, but when you think about it, intelligence increases compassion. I think that was why Jesus was so compassionate; He could see into people’s souls.

He knew why they were broken.

It’s strange, but when I was a Mormon, and a college education was encouraged (whereas a career outside the home, for a woman, was not), I was more interested in finding a husband, for a woman’s worth was so tied into being a wife, and especially a mother. It wasn’t till years after I left the Church and had a husband and one-year-old daughter that I was ready for that college education and learned that a woman was no more selfish for having a career and a family than a man was.

Perfectionism is stressed to Latter-day Saints, and whereas men take it in stride, women take it to heart. The irony is that when I stopped trying to be perfect I was happier, made more progress, and even felt closer to the God they’d recreated in their image.

Hannah Bantry, in the pantry,
Gnawing at a mutton bone;
How she gnawed it,
How she clawed it,
When she found herself alone.

I was almost thirty-two when I had my first child. It took me three days to get used to the idea (I was three months along before I knew), for I’d grown up seeing women with young children looking harried and unkempt; I didn’t want to become that, but the first time I saw my Hannah Banana in the ultrasound, I was transfixed.

For me, teaching and nursing were callings, but motherhood was a sacred calling.
I couldn’t find my cell phone half the time, and every plant I had ever owned died (so much for a botany career), so I wasn’t sure about having to keep up with this little being all the time, but a mother’s instinct kicked in when I held her for the first time.

With Hannah, I got a little more than I was expecting, though I didn’t know she wasn’t perfect, for she was perfect to me.

She still is.

Pink bundle

Me, with baby Hannah, fresh from the hospital.

My daughter is a Tuesday child, “full of grace,” and Hannah literally means grace. Hannah Beth Richards is a quirky kid, or “on the spectrum,” as some would say; I say she is every color in it.

She was so curious and into everything—opening the dishwasher and standing on the door, crawling into closets to play, and getting into the pantry, chewing through the onions and potatoes. A refrain that could often be heard was, “Hannah, out of the pantry,” though she probably thought, “Dammit, Hannah!” was her name for a while.
Though we no longer have a pantry, we have cupboards, and now our refrain is “Hannah, out of the kitchen.”

Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad;
The rule of three perplexes me,
And practice drives me mad.

When Hannah was a year old, I decided to enroll at Pensacola State College as a Health Information Technology student. Though I was married (and still am), I knew I’d need to make more money—I had an extra responsibility now.

I’d let math scare me away from college—just because I wasn’t naturally good at it.
When I went back to school, I took all my other classes first, pushing the math till the end. It helped to have “the wind at my back,” as my dad would say, because it was that wind that pushed me forward.

In the spring of 2018, I took College Algebra and Elementary Statistics (which was anything but elementary), so I could still qualify as a work-study student. If there’s anything I hate more than math, it’s looking for a job.

So, I stressed out for sixteen weeks, spending eighty hours in the Math Lab, ending up with two B’s; I’d never been so proud of B’s in my life.

My uncle said his brother was the only one he ever knew who went to college to “get an education.” Apart from a little substitute teaching on the side and doing taxes during tax season, Dad never used his degree for money.

Had I gone to college for the same reason as my dad, I might not have sallied forth.

For Dad, education was its own reward.

For me, it was as much about the education as it was about the experience, and the most important lesson I learned was that I was smart enough for college after all.

A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar!
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.

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Me, December 2018, at my college graduation.

An abridged version of this piece was published in The Kilgore Review (2019), having placed first in the nonfiction category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.

 

Truth is its own magic: A Mother’s Day message

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When you’re a mom, some of the things that come out of your mouth may sound strange:  “Don’t chew on Jesus,” “Will you just hurry up and poop?”, and “Stop putting chicken on your head!”, are some of my greatest hits.

As I was getting my daughter ready for bed the other night, thinking about what I wanted to read to her (praying she wouldn’t mention Minnie, as in The Mouse), the Beatitudes of Jesus came to mind.  I realized then that I’ve spent so much time reading and singing to her and teaching her the things she will need to know to get on here–like letters and numbers, saying “thank you” and not littering–that I hadn’t focused much on the religious part of her education.

Thinking back, that’s exactly how my parents raised me.  For them, church was something you needed if you were an ass.

When I was in high school in the nineties, a lot of kids were self-proclaimed “Jesus freaks,” wearing “True Love Waits” rings and WWJD bracelets.  There was a lot of talk about the rapture and born-again virginity.  Church was their social life, Praise and Worship music their vibe.  Some of them even carried their Bibles around at school.  

Just as Felicity (remember that WB show?) followed a boy to college, I, a freshman, followed a senior boy to his church.  One evening, after service had ended, we sat in a pew as he led me through the salvation prayer, and I was like, “That’s it?  Are you sure? It’s that easy?”

I had been expecting a feeling–a total transformation like Saul’s to Paul–and now I wonder when Jesus told Doubting Thomas that (and I paraphrase) blessed are they who don’t see but believe, that “see” could also apply to “feel.”

Four years later, I joined the Mormon Church.  All the good feelings I had expected to feel when I had gotten saved, I felt then, but who isn’t going to feel good when they’re around so many friendly people who open their hearts and homes?  Even though it’s been years since I sent my name to Salt Lake to be expunged (er, removed) from the records, I will admit that the Church made me a more spiritual person.

In the Church, I was taught that the glory of God is intelligence and yet, according to these same people, for those who had mental challenges, the devil could not touch them. 

To my understanding, a lack of mental capacity (e.g. intelligence) saved a soul.  It seems contradictory, and yet, it somehow makes sense to me.

As I gaze upon my child, I see that light and intelligence.  She knows so much more than she communicates, which can be frustrating, but I have learned to overcome the need to explain why she is the way she is to people who don’t know her–to explain why she doesn’t respond when people ask her her name–but then, I have had several people who’ve taken one look at her and ask if she’s autistic.

I may never know how much she understands, but I do know that I will teach her everything I know and believe, whether it’s that adverbs are the enemy of good writing or that respect doesn’t have to be earned but it can be lost.  (You don’t disrespect people until they “earn” your respect.)

I’ve striven so much to give her a magical childhood through imagination and storytelling.  (Children’s author, Nancy Tillman, is a master at this.)  Nearly every night, since my mom passed from this earth, I ask my daughter to tell Grandma “good-night” and “I love you” and to blow her a kiss.  And then I seemingly catch that kiss in midair, letting her open my hand and take it; sometimes I place my palm on the crown of her head–a blessing from Heaven.

Of course, I don’t really know how things work up there, but part of parenting, for me, has always been teaching truths with just a pinch of magic.

C.S. Lewis did that very thing with his Narnia series, just as I will someday do with mine.

Christmas thoughts: What I learned from “Miracle on 34th Street”

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When I was a little girl, Miracle on 34th Street was one of my favorite Christmas movies.

My parents could never get me to believe in Santa Claus.  (I was very much like little Susan Walker that way.)

My mom told me (more than once), when I lamented about not having blond hair and blue eyes like all the other little girls wanted, that Natalie Wood (who played Susan in the movie) grew up to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, with her dark hair and brown eyes, like mine.

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Not long before I became a mom, I was touched by the scene in which Kris Kringle asks Susan if her mother ever sang to her.  Susan says no–in that matter-of-fact way of hers–and I saw, in Kris’s merry eyes, how unfortunate that was.

Twas then I realized that I would always sing to my children.

*

When Susan blows off a game in which the other children in her apartment complex are pretending to be animals in a zoo, calling it silly, with Kris telling her it sounds like fun, I realized that fun is an essential part of childhood.

I was never much for pretending when I was a kid (I just drew my stories until I was old enough to write them), but I chose to nurture that in my child.

I chose, and am choosing still, to give my daughter that magical childhood, for there is time enough to be an adult with all the baggage that comes with it.

Maybe through writing my stories, I am pretending still.

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Even though I never believed in Santa Claus (too many jerky kids got on the nice list), I fell in love with the idea of him, for I believe that we can all play Santa Claus–not to all the children of the world necessarily, but to our own, if no one else.