Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Hard Work

Work. Just thinking about the word can conjure feelings of dread, satisfaction, weariness, or accomplishment and sometimes contradictory emotions swirling together, but one thing is certain. Work is a necessity for all. Even the extremely wealthy need something to put their efforts toward to keep their days from becoming meaningless.

These days, with my third career as a teacher, summer affords me a time to change my work to focus on tasks of choice, like writing, gardening, or designing a mosaic glass table. There were plenty of other times in my life that work meant doing whatever I could to pay the bills. I have cleaned other people’s toilets, hung off ladders painting way too many feet in the air, delivered newspapers in the middle of the night, even cleaned out nasty basements getting covered head to toe in sweaty dirt all in an effort to earn my keep.
I tried to teach my kids to work hard at an early age. I remember many sweaty summer mornings helping my kids pick blueberries for sale, so that they could buy themselves things I couldn’t afford.
I hope when they think of me they will be reminded of my perseverance and my hard work and know that I did it for us all. I’m no hero, though. I just did what many people do each and every day. When I think about my perseverance I have to admit that it was driven out of sheer fear. My drive to work hard stemmed from the thought of what might happen if I didn’t.
As I think about hard work I am reminded of my great-grandmother working in the hot cotton fields to earn a little money for her children. My basement cleaning pales in comparison. Here is a portion of her story from my book Leave Him? available on Amazon.

As Ella tied her bonnet on her head to prepare for another long day of working in the field, she noticed herself in the mirror. A talk with her mom always lightened her worries a bit. She thought, “Every time someone whispers that I can’t make it on my own, I need to remind myself that they are right. I can’t—If I didn’t have the help of mama and daddy I wouldn’t have survived this long.”
She grabbed the cotton sack and slung it over her aching shoulder, sighed a bit and said, “Bye mama, and you be sweet Roselle. See y’all this evening.”
As she walked toward Mr. Wilson’s farm she could see the three little brown heads of hair blowing in the breeze as they chased after the baby pig who had gotten out of the pen. As Henry grabbed the pig by his hind leg it let out a squeal. Floyd noticed her walking towards them and said, “Have a good day Mama! If I didn’t have to go to stupid school, I’d come help you.”
“Floyd, you know school is the most important job you have. Study hard so you can be something when you get big. That goes for you too, Henry and Buford. See ya this evenin.” Ella Mae waved as she walked past them to the fence-line. She crawled over the top of the fence to save a few steps and remembered, “It sure was easier to hop over this fence when I was going over it on the way to meet Harvey.” Many times he would come here to meet up with her.
“Come on Ella Mae. Jump to me and I’ll catch ya,” Harvey said as he pushed his hat back to show his face.
Ella Mae perched on top of the fence and paused to study Harvey Pate. His smile caused the left corner of his mouth to rise slightly more than the right, displaying his dimple all the more. When he smiled he seemed like a playful little boy. Ella Mae thought he seemed a bit mischievous, and he seemed to enjoy planning their sneaking off together.
“Come on girl, jump. Don’t ya trust me?”
Did she trust him? Oh, she trusted him enough to jump from a three foot fence, she just wasn’t sure she trusted him enough to jump into a life together with him. She looked into his eyes, said nothing, and leapt. Harvey caught her and twirled her around making a full circle before allowing her feet to touch the ground. “I told you, you could trust me, Ella Mae. I won’t ever let you down.”
The breeze blew into her face making it impossible to stop her tears from falling from her eyes. Walking as fast as she could toward Mr. Wilson’s farm didn’t seem fast enough. She suddenly had the urge to run. She hiked up her skirt and ran toward the tree line. Maybe she ran to remind her of her girlhood and innocence, maybe she ran to have a moment of feeling like she was escaping. When she got to the trees she stopped. Leaning her back against a dogwood, she looked up at the rustling leaves, took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her face.
“Harvey, you did let me down! You should’ve taken care of me and treated me right! Every time you beat me, you let me down. Every time you spread lies about me, you let me down. Every day you refuse to take care of our kids, you let me down.” She shouted.
She slid to the ground and looked up toward heaven.
“Lord, why can’t you make Harvey change? Why can’t you fix him? How many times have I cried out to you asking you to heal his mind? You made heaven and earth and all that is around me. You can do anything because you are almighty. Why can’t you fix Harvey?”
The sound of the leaves brushing against each other in the breeze was the only sound she heard. Ella Mae knew better than to question God, especially out loud. She never had voiced the questions that plagued her mind night and day before now.
She bowed her head and said, “I’m sorry, Lord. I realize that you gave us all a free will and I know Harvey is using his to choose the bad things that he should not choose. I just get so frustrated and since I can’t tell him all of this, I guess I sometimes blame you. I’m sorry!”
Feeling spent from all of the emotions boiling up inside her and from her run, she had the urge to just lie on the cotton sack under the trees and take a nap. A couple of feet from her a squirrel crept down a tree trunk and dug in last fall’s leaves looking for something to eat. Ella Mae watched his tiny hands bring forth a hickory nut and take a nibble, while looking at her. She kept perfectly still, so she wouldn’t scare the creature. The little fingers on both his hands clung tightly to the nut as his big brown eyes studied Ella Mae. He twitched his tail a bit then scampered off to hide behind a distant tree.
Ella Mae stood, dusted off the back of her dress, picked up her cotton sack and said, “Well, even the squirrels have to work to get their food. The Good Lord doesn’t rain nuts down from heaven when they are hungry, so I guess I better go make some money to help feed my babies.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Smile for the Camera?

Have you ever heard it said that the way a wife is treated by her husband shows up in her countenance? For years, I have studied the lone photograph of my great grandmother, Ella Mae Pate and her husband Harvey and wondered about their lives.

Striking a traditional pose, donning their Sunday best there seems to be no signs of their tumultuous relationship. There are no indications that his right hand, seen firmly gripping the wicker chair, would have ever been raised in fitful anger to strike his wife. His strong cleft chin and bright eyes make him a handsome figure with no signs of the troubles that haunted him from youth.

In the early days of photography subjects didn’t slap on a selfie-smile. Mark Twain once said, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed together.” This philosophy, not rotten teeth or the idea that a photograph captures the soul, made photography subjects present a somber appearance.

As I studied the young face of Ella Mae Pate I see a woman taking not smiling in photographs to the extreme. Standing beside her husband with her arm perched on the back of his chair, Ella Mae’s lips are drawn tight in a determination to persevere. Her alert eyes look ready to adjust her course if need be. Still there are no bruises, no gunshot wounds, no evident signs of abuse.

Overall, the photograph of the pair looks typical for the times. The couple came together to preserve their union for posterity and I for one, am glad they did. Their posing for the camera, without their smiles, is no different than our carefully chosen, cropped snapshots we post to social media presenting our best selves possible to the world.

The truth is that although a picture is worth a thousand words, it is still a carefully crafted image to hide behind. Our inner struggles, doubts, fears can easily be hidden behind a smiling face with the world never realizing what is going on inside. My one desire with writing a memoir is for others to realize they are not alone in their interior troubles and that through the sharing of the struggles the burden may be made lighter for all.

Leave Him? is available on Amazon.

What's In A Name?

It is nothing new for a writer to choose to publish a book under another name or a pseudonym. I guess the first one most children learn about is Mark Twain, with his given name being Samuel Clemens. As a kid, I remember being told that Mark Twain was not his ‘real name’ and was told that it served as his ‘pen name.’ I never learned the actual meaning of his chosen name was Mark (measure) Twain (two) meant two fathoms deep. I just thought he didn’t want people to know that he wrote Tom Sawyer.

In my own case, when thinking about writing my personal story in Leave Him? I, at first, thought it would be nice to hide behind some other name of my choosing. That way no one would connect me with the story I would tell. I could call myself something like Daisy Diary, implying my most personal thoughts would be conveyed with a floral flair, but I knew that I could not go that far. I had to claim my story. Anything less would be cowardice.

During the time of writing my book, I was planning to own it completely with my current name printed on the cover. It was only at the time of publishing that I decided on a compromise. By using my name from before, Denise Reid, I could own my story and maintain a little bit of distance at the same time —a compromise of sorts.

There were several reasons for this need for a bit of space. One reason, and perhaps the most important, was the need to keep the educator, Denise Johnson, and the writer, Denise Reid separate. Another reason was that I could decide if I wanted the association with my writing, it wouldn’t be automatic.

I knew that my choosing my old married name of Denise Reid might seem weird to my husband, so we talked about the advantages and disadvantages. If Dave had voiced a concern, I would not have chosen a pseudonym. He understood and supported my decision completely.

Using that name does not mean I am wanting to go back in any form. The past needs to be explored to be made sense of and what better way to do that than through memoir. BUT the past is not meant to be wallowed in. We have all heard of people who get so stuck looking back that they cannot go forward. What a waste of the precious moments we have left.

Denise Reid may not have some hidden meaning like two fathoms, but I think it sounds a little more credible than Daisy Diary, don’t you?

If you haven’t done so, check out my book Leave Him? available on Amazon. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Finished Project- Leave Him?

I remember exactly where I was, driving around the roundabout in Whitesburg, when I got the idea for this book. I had been sorting through the plot details of my great-grandma Ella Mae Pate’s story that I was planning on turning into a historical fiction novel based on her life, when in the middle of my circling the road God pointed me in a different direction. I clearly felt him speak to my spirit to tell my own life story alongside hers.

Most people would feel excited with this new direction and immediately embark on telling the tale. I instantly counted the costs and decided to lay the project down, not writing for two years. Why you might ask? I was excited to tell my grandmother’s story; telling her struggles and triumphs would be enjoyable. My own journey, on the other hand, was something I was not so eager to share, in fact, I had to get to know a person for quite a while, observing their character and their possession of forgiveness and grace, before disclosing my past. The thought of opening myself up, telling my version of my deeds, and letting readers inside my thought processes along the way was, and still is, terrifying.

During those two years of waiting, I had no doubt that this was the story I should tell, I just had to find the courage to tell it. Once I gave in to the task at hand, it took two more years to complete the work. Now, finally I have finished Leave Him? by Denise Reid and it is available on Amazon electronically or in print. (I will detail why I chose to publish it under the name of Denise Reid in my next blog).

When I received the proof copy of the book last night, I had a mixture of feelings that are still yet to be sorted out. Overriding those laced with fear, a feeling of accomplishment and a drive to finish the task prevailed.

You may read this book and think to yourself, ‘Is that all, why did she make such a big deal of sharing that,’ or you may read this book and think, ‘I cannot believe she could do ________.’ Regardless of the response, my goal now is that people read the book. I pray that it is used in some way. And yes God, I do listen; it just takes me a while sometimes to come around.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A Mom's Encouraging Words

When you are a kid you don’t realize what a daunting task parenting is. Even as an expectant parent you have no clue what to anticipate. You may have baby sat for hours, read child development and parenting books, and baby-proofed the home, but no one tells you that these little people come into your life with personalities all their own and usually in direct opposition to your own.

I guess what got me thinking about this was a picture that popped up on my Facebook memories from a few years ago. In honor of Mother’s Day I had posted a picture of three-year-old me with a broken leg sitting on my mom’s lap as she adorned a classic late sixties beehive hairdo. Much older, I now stared into the eyes of the sometimes mischievous, demanding, know-it-all child and thought about how hard it would have been to be my mother. In this day and time, most people look back to their childhoods, and they are quick to point out what was done wrong on the parenting side of the relationship without considering the other side.

You see my perfect-looking mommy was only eighteen years my senior, making her about twenty-one at the time. I’m sure she had never anticipated taking her child to the hospital to get her leg set after my grandmother fell on me breaking it. I remember her being there as they set my leg. I remember her trying to make me comfortable in an itchy, hot, cast in the southern summertime before everyone had air conditioning.

I remember picking mulberries from the tree beside our house, playing in the sandbox, and walking to the corner store to buy Bugles— all things done when it was just the two of us.

I remember her making me banana sandwiches, her combing the tangles out of my curly hair, and her making me wear itchy, frilly dresses. I remember her reading books to me over and over again. I guess more importantly, I remember her saying, “You are smart like your daddy. You will do well in school.” I didn’t realize how much of a difference her words would make until I saw the movie, “The Help.”

I was moved to tears in the theatre as I made the connection. The maid, Aibileen, tells the little girl time and again, “You is kind. You is smart, You is important.” As everyone else wiped a tear over the encouragement of the young girl, I sat thanking my mother for her shaping words.

Her words made a difference. I may be above some in intelligence, but I do know there are plenty that can outdo me in that area— that wasn’t the point. I can attest that there have been those times in my academic career and in life where I felt stretched beyond my ability, and I would hear her telling a very young me that I was smart and could do it. I used her words to push me beyond where I might have been tempted to stop.

This Mother’s Day I want to say thank you to my mother for her encouragement, and I also want to remind all those mothers out there how much power is conveyed in your words. I know in my own mothering I said many words I wish I could take back, plenty I would change, and some I held onto and never released. Instead of dwelling on a past we might have lived better, we can focus on today. We still have breath. I’m going to use mine this week to breathe life into my grown children with words of encouragement and give thanks to my encourager, my mom.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mother's Day Gold

There was a day, in the nineties, when wearing big gold chains didn’t mean that you were a rap star or an old single dude thinking he is hip. It was the thing everyone did.

Times and styles change, so I don’t often wear yellow-gold anymore, but I am old enough to say that it once was all I wore. Today, I was in a yellow-gold sort of mood. That usually entails me wearing one of my grandmother’s old rings, finding my gold earrings, and adorning my gold bracelet (a gift from our dog Teddy). Yes, my dog gave me a present. I’ll explain later.

As I clasped the bracelet onto my wrist, I thought back to years ago and a lesson taught to my youngest son.

When he was about six years old, I had taken him with me on a shopping trip. I was bargain hunting, not something that a six-year-old boy wants to do. To occupy himself, he pushed his way into the center of the round racks of clothing where I flipped through looking for the deal of the century. This activity seemed harmless enough. As we moved to our third rack and he dived to the center, he quickly emerged saying, “Look mommy, look what I found!”

His small hand produced a nice looking gold chain. I took a look at his treasure. At first, I thought it might be a fake, but with closer inspection I was able to see the 14K stamp on the clasp. The necklace was heavy, and I knew that the price of gold was at an all-time high. His find was valuable.

His big blue eyes looked up at me and said, “Can we keep it?”

I thought for a minute. There was the old saying, ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers,’ and really there would be nothing wrong with our taking the item home. I reasoned that if I found a twenty-dollar bill in a parking lot, I wouldn’t try and find its owner. I looked at his innocent face and decided this was one of those teachable moments. I had to show him how to do the better thing.
I explained, “Someone lost this, and they might come back for it. Come with me and we will find the manager.”

When the manager met us at the service desk, I told her about his finding the necklace. I asked her to keep our name and number, and if no one claimed it in a week we would come back for it.

The smiles on the face of the manager and her co-worker instantly told me that we would never see that gold chain again. I wanted a do over. I should have given them our phone number and said we had found a jewelry item, and they could have the owner call and describe it, but it was too late. As my son and I went back the next week, my suspicions were confirmed. The manager told us that ‘someone’ had claimed the chain.

I talked to my son and said, “We did the right thing turning it in.” He got in the car and said, “I wanted to give it to you, mommy.”

As we pulled into our driveway our fuzzy little dog, Teddy, came to greet us. He always had something in his mouth, sometimes a pinecone, sometimes a stick, but always something. I reached down to pet him and noticed something shiny in grass. I picked up a thick, gold bracelet and showed it to my son. “Look Bubby, I think Teddy brought me a bracelet to replace the necklace. He must have found it in his neighborhood ramblings and brought it home.”

I put the bracelet on while both Teddy and my son smiled.

I’m not sure what my son learned from the way we handled his finding the necklace; he probably learned that people are dishonest and not to trust. I learned that sometimes God sees dishonesty and uses a little fuzzy dog to overcome it. Years after Teddy’s passing, I still enjoy his Mother’s Day present to me.

Need to Unplug?

Have you ever thought about unplugging for a bit? I felt the need to do a modified period of unplugging. Since the school year ended at th...