Nancy Melton – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Mon, 19 Nov 2018 13:02:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Nancy Melton – 32 32 Lifetime: It’s television for women Wed, 27 Jan 2016 23:39:43 +0000

Fried egg with broken shell

My mama loved the Lifetime Network. Back then it had the advertising slogan “It’s television for women.”   Mama would eagerly tell me about the latest movie she had watched always leaning in at the end and saying conspiratorially “you know, it’s television for women.” She said it in that same lowered tone that was used to describe “down there.” Down there was her pseudonym for the entire area of the body contained in underpants. Thong underwear would have thrown her for a loop.

Today I am sharing the story of my own personal Lifetime movie (It’s television for women.) My marriage lasted for almost 44 years. That is a long time by any standards. And by almost I mean that I was officially divorced 2 days or about 48 hours shy of my 44th wedding anniversary. To say that it has been difficult is beyond understated.

It all unraveled quickly, not some festering, hateful thing that went on for years. Over a few weeks, I discovered that I was deeper in debt than I could comprehend and that my husband was living a separate life under an assumed name. I have struggled unsuccessfully to find the word or words that would describe having my world turned upside down. About as close as I can come is my dad’s expression “shot at and missed; shit at and hit”

Thanks to my family and friends I am coping with this personal earthquake. Not very well, but well enough to know that I will survive. It has provided a great opportunity to practice living in the moment. The past is too sad and the future is just too terrifying.

I have a million questions. Question one is how could I be so clueless? Question two is how could he do this? Questions three through one million are variations on the first two.

Perhaps the Lifetime network would like to buy my story. I already have a title for them. One Less Egg to Fry: the Nancy Melton story.


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The Oh Shit Day Thu, 16 Jul 2015 22:02:26 +0000

Stepping-in-PooAn awful lot has been written about getting older. There is also a lot of awful writing about getting older. There is information about failing vision and hearing but most of what is written is that “best time of life” crap. As far as I know there is no information out there on the sudden, instant onset of old age. I have found that you don’t have a lot of time to consider getting older, rather one just wakes up one day and realizes “Shit, I’m old!!” It does not always happen as a result of the years that have been accumulated because most of us think of ourselves as fairly young until the “Oh Shit” day. Then it happens. You start to notice that things that were never scary or intimidating or painful now give you pause.

Waiting for a slow elevator at the office, someone suggests the stairs. In years past I would have led the way. Now I give the elevator button a frantic jab and silently pray for the ding of its arrival. On that rare occasion when the elevator does come I have restrain myself from bursting into a chorus of “Blessed Assurance.” When it fails to arrive I change in mid-prayer to please don’t let me embarrass myself. I try to keep up with the others but if my knees had a voice they would be screeching and screaming like the zombies on that television show. And then I feel the sweat coming on. I hope it’s not running down my face but I can feel it popping out on my forehead. Then my purse suddenly is 10 pounds heavier and my lungs are begging me to gasp for air. But I fight on, maintaining normal breathing, which brings the sweat even more profusely. I feel it trickling down my lower back and soaking my neck. At last we arrive on the second floor and I fling myself out the door and away from the others as quickly as possible, mopping my face on a tattered Kleenex.

Equally bad is low slung, squishy furniture. Coffee shops have those chairs and couches that I used to migrate toward and now avoid at all costs. Getting up requires that I activate my super powers and shush those damn complaining knees. And what to do when it’s suggested that we just sit outside? Oh sure, I was hoping to acquire a few more age spots and break into another sweat since my clothes are almost dry from the stairwell/sweat lodge.

Amazingly these things happen seemingly overnight. One day you are hopping up and down as nimble as a jackrabbit and the next your knees are like those of the tin woodman. Once upon a time I could jump up from a low slung chair and walk directly away and then all of a sudden I had to try several times to hurl myself up and then stand still for a minute to get my balance, all the while pretending I was just pausing to look around my chair for forgotten items. I loved to sit outside in the sun and would sit like a lizard soaking up the warmth. Now all that lovely warmth has moved inside my body where an active furnace churns out so much heat that I swear that I could radiate enough to warm an entire house.

My knees have had a hard life. They bear still visible scars from learning to ride my first bike. They, along with my hefty legs, have carried me many miles running and walking. Those knees have absorbed those awful collisions with the dishwasher door, the car door, and a few, really embarrassing falls. And, I have never taken them for granted. I marveled that I could run for miles, never sidelined by those common knee problems. Until the “Oh Shit” day, that is. I guess I got the good from them but the next time someone tells me that aging is all in the mind I will tell them they are damn liars. It is not in my mind. It is in my knees.

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The Anger Gene Wed, 03 Jun 2015 15:47:03 +0000

Shout by Krista Baltroka via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

A pack of snarling wolves, a jaw snapping pit bull, a charging bull, a fiercely pecking hissing goose; I have felt like all of the above at one time or another. My dad was the carrier. Perhaps not patient zero but he is as far back as I have personally witnessed.

If you were born with the anger gene you know it. You have felt the rage take over. It washes over you like an ocean wave that is hot and blinding. It also reaches inside your head, replacing all rational thought with pure blind rage and the need to inflict serious pain. Those in your inner circle quickly learn to recognize when anger takes control. They back away, fervently battling conflicting feelings. First, hoping they are not the target; second, pity for the actual target; third, a guilt inducing joy upon discovering themselves not to be the target this time.

Sometimes there are physical warning signs. The telltale signs my dad demonstrated involved his eye color changing from blue to almost white, as the skin on his face seemed to tighten, drawing his mouth into a fierce grimace. I am not sure about my own physical changes but my daughter, who is certain the gene passed to her, bites her lower lip. She had no idea until her kids pointed it out. Since my family can see it coming on me, I suspect that it is visible. From inside it feels like I become washed in blood like Carrie at the prom.

On one occasion a grocery clerk made a smart remark that activated my anger gene. My young daughter just slowly started to back away as I turned to the clerk. She told me later that her thought was “Man, you don’t know what you just stepped in.” When she told me this I felt kind of proud and outlawish, like a suburban Bonnie Parker or even a domesticated Courtney Love.

When the anger gene is present one learns to make sure there is always a graceful exit close by. My rule in the early days of my working career was to never have more belongings in my office than would fit in my purse. You can’t storm out and look fierce while holding a lamp in one hand. I have tried. And failed.

The gene seems to diminish with age. I can feel it taking hold, but the heat is not as fiery and those once uncontrollable urges can be tamed. More like a tropical storm than a hurricane, it subsides meekly.

My Dad died before he reached the age I am now so I don’t know if the progression I am experiencing is unique. Not long before he died the gene surfaced and it was just as scary as it ever was when the color washed from those blue eyes. Today I am uncertain of my feelings about his last days. Would I want to see that capacity for anger fade away as just another thing the cancer replaced? The fact that it remained to the end allows me to remember him as a fierce, fiery man who died too young. It also makes me remember the terrifying times the anger was directed at my siblings or me. The sting of blows has faded but his words remain, permanently and painfully tattooed on my heart.

We often laugh about that final glimpse at the anger gene surfacing. The old man still had it, right up to the end. And yet we all loved him and miss him. It is crazy how that works.

For me, I’m happy to finally be mellowing a little. I read that Willie Nelson said, “The highs are not so high anymore but lows are not so low either.” So is it an inverse relationship? It must also apply to the anger gene. It is not so strong now and yet my ability to love and feel joy is magnified. Perhaps that is the magic of grandchildren? Or, perhaps this is one of the few good parts of aging? I just know that on those occasions when joy washes over me, just like the blood that poured over Carrie, I am thunderstruck that any one woman could have such a life.

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Now You Know Wed, 22 Apr 2015 20:02:59 +0000

Write what you know. Has anyone ever given you that advice? I have spent some time thinking this over and wondering, just what did Madeleine L’Engle know about time travel? And what in the world provoked Ray Bradbury and that creepy carousel? So heck with the old chestnut “write what you know.” Today I am writing about what I don’t know.

I don’t know why people take to the couch or bed. Call me insensitive but no matter how down in the black books I get, a quick walk or a punishing hike seems to straighten my world out. Get off your ass and do something would be my advice. Not that anyone is asking.

I don’t know why there is exclamation over tiny creations. You know those straight pins with the entire Old Testament engraved on the head? Or those tiny sculptures that require a microscope for viewing. And of course that begs the question, what on earth motivates the artists of these teeny creations? And is there any money to be made at this? Is there a market for art that cannot be seen without being magnified a 1000 times? Not that anyone is asking.

I don’t know why people have to be so mean and short tempered. That would include me. And I think lots of people ask.

I don’t know how to swim. I can dog paddle and do a few strokes to get across a pool. But if I fell of a boat I would likely drown. And even worse I really have no desire to learn. I prefer to sit on the pool steps or better still, to sit beside the ocean.

I don’t know any foreign languages. I studied French in school and have attempted to learn Spanish an embarrassing number of times. I can ask you to open the window in French and order a shot of tequila in Spanish. Funny that I have never really needed any other words.

I don’t know why cruel people exist. They are like mosquitoes. The world just does not need them.

I don’t know left from right. I always have to consider and use those childhood clues that I learned in the first place. I can only hope that I never find myself in a life and death situation, like dodging boulders while blindfolded as someone screams directions. You never know, it could happen.

I don’t know why people are suddenly rushing to buy vinyl (as records are now known). We rejoiced in the technology that let us hear our own music in the car and out on a run. Now people are again tethered to a turntable. Not to mention the dripping sanctimony about the high quality sound found in those vinyl grooves. I am waiting for the rediscovery of 8 track. That pure hiss and snap of the tape should drive the hipsters mad with joy.

I really don’t know why we have Twitter. I have tried. I really have.

I don’t know why the deal is with politics. Or maybe the deal is the deal. Do the corrupt flock to office or does the office corrupt? It is a chicken and egg conundrum. I feel like there must be some good people who go into politics. Can anyone point some of them out?

Now you know. I don’t know a lot and I can write about it. Socrates is reputed to have said “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” I guess this means I will never have true knowledge. Most likely I will never be a person who knows enough about anything to be called an expert. But I really do know a little about a lot of stuff and I will save it all for another day.

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The Last Pen Pal Tue, 03 Feb 2015 18:43:35 +0000

pen - letter

Writing letters is almost gone now. It is just so quick and cheap to email or text or just to call as needed. But the cost of all the ease and efficiency of quick interactions is a loss of observations and feelings that were frequently captured in letters.  Letters also provide a real glimpse of history. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses everything from immorality to jealousy to the precious instruction that all gifts are worthless without love.  Pretty deep stuff to put into a letter without backup files and spell check. Heck, I don’t think Paul even had carbon paper. The letters between Napoleon to Josephine remain the standard for letters of love and reassurance conveyed via post. I keep meaning to read the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Reportedly they contain a glimpse, not only of great minds, but of history. Maybe you are like me, and remember the last letter you received.

My mama, Doty, was a letter writer. Her generation wrote letters and taught their children to do the same. I enjoyed writing letters to neighborhood kids who moved away but at some point our correspondence would dwindle and then stop.  I had a pen pal in England for a short time. I think I dropped her when I figured out that not only did she not personally know the Beatles but also she did not like their music. Mama had many correspondents but none lasted longer than Ruth. Mama and Ruth were neighbors in the late 1950’s.  When we moved away they wrote letters. I don’t know what mama wrote but I read enough of Ruth’s to understand the nature of the correspondence.  Their long, long letters consisted of a detailed listing of the shortcomings of the husbands and children, ailments, aches, pains, and the meals they had eaten.  “I know it was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth” was a frequent comment. When I would come to visit the letters were on the dining room table.  I sometimes read them and as the years went on they got progressively more negative and bitter.

After the great migration (which occurred when mama was moved to assisted living and her mail was forwarded to me) I got a frantic letter that Ruth had sent to mama. For once it was not filled with bitter complaints but instead with pleading. Please, please let me know that you are ok. They were both now in their 80’s and probably did not have many friends left. I imagined her worry about her old friend and I quickly wrote back to her, explaining that mama was unable to write anymore. It seemed like the next day when I got a reply from her. She wanted all the details and also to tell me how awful her kids had turned out. I waited a few weeks and actually convinced myself that I could control the conversation. I sent a chipper, newsy letter with updates on mama and the family.  The next day (or maybe it was 2 days) here comes a bitter, angry reply. Pages full of old woman scratchy handwriting and closing with the admonition to “burn this letter.”  I imagine those two closed all their letters with that warning. Always fearful that one of those thoughtless, selfish children would run across one of those letters and perhaps drive across 2 states to deliver it to the greedy, worthless subject.

Again I waited a few weeks to reply, sending sympathy for her trials and news of mama. And again, almost instantly came the many paged reply.  We continued in this fashion for over a year, me waiting as long as I could to reply and her seemingly instant reply. I cussed and raged. Why did I write back in the first place?  Now I was stuck in this difficult correspondence, trapped by another bitter old woman. Then one day I get a letter in different handwriting.  The letter opened with an introduction. It was from Ruth’s daughter, a childhood friend. She was writing for her mother and hated to tell me but her mother did not wish to write to me anymore. Ruth found the pressure of replying to be too stressful and she wished to cease our correspondence. And so I was dumped by my last pen pal.

I would like to close by lamenting the loss of letters, pen pals, and old friends but that would be a damn lie.

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These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things Thu, 01 Jan 2015 12:41:58 +0000


sound of musicCan you read that title without humming a tune?  I can’t but I can state definitively that I am not overjoyed by warm woolen mittens or snowflakes on my nose or eyelashes.  In fact I hate the cold. But to answer the burning question at hand, Nancy, what are your favorite things?

Is there anything better than a full tank of gas?  I still love that feeling of endless roads ahead when I pull away from the pumps. Looking at the dial all the way over on Full feels like an invitation to get lost, wander, and get far from the familiar.  Usually I am just headed to work but the magic remains.

What about an unscratched or unchecked lottery card? Where else can you buy so much hope and so many dreams for just a dollar? Planning how I will spend the wealth is an opportunity to feel generous and to imagine all the happiness that money can buy. So many dreams for a single buck. There just cannot be a more magical bargain.

I love those increasingly rare times when my girls are all here. All those chicks, back in the nest. What could be better? When I look back over my adult life the best nights were those when I turned off the lights and locked the door and knew in my heart that we were all safe until tomorrow.

Going to the mailbox.  I guess this one really marks me as relic.  I still go with a little expectation that there will be a letter or a check or some other fantastic news for me.  I cannot remember the last letter or good news that arrived via the USPS but I remain optimistic.

Having the money to pay the bills. Way too many times this has not been the case and I am in love with the peace of mind it brings. I have the same happiness at the grocery store. For many years I had to keep a tally in my head so as not spend more money than I had.  I do not go crazy buying lobster or imported cheeses but I still feel a smile inside when I know that I could if I wanted to.

Rain on the roof. Not the romantic or nostalgic kind of rain, but the gully washer, dogs and cats type of rain. It makes me happy to know that I have a good watertight roof. I have lived in houses where water ran down the inside walls in sheets and dripped from the light fixtures.  The morning after a big rain I check out the ceilings and feel happy.

Big game hunting. Before you call PETA let me explain.  I love hunting down a bargain. The perfect thing, discounted beyond belief is my version of bagging a big one. The adrenalin rush has to be superior to killing some poor creature. And Lord have mercy, the residual little thrill each time you wear that big game. I have been known to leave the tag on just to marvel at my shopping prowess. Unlike the late, great Minnie Pearl, I wear the tag inside or tuck it into a pocket.

It took me a while to get here. By here I mean happy. Happy with what I now have and once upon a time did not. Happy with some things that have always made me happy. That full tank of gas has been giving me pleasure for over 40 years. And I realize that without those dreadful times when money was so scarce I would be missing some happiness today.  I also know that one cannot truly appreciate a sound roof unless your life has included a leaky one.  Maybe I should be embarrassed that my favorite things don’t include more glamorous, luxury items. Perhaps you think I have led a miserable, poor life. But you would be dead wrong. My life is and always has been filled with magic.

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Change is Going to Come Fri, 21 Nov 2014 19:52:52 +0000

hand full of coins

I am plagued with strange compulsions. Some have been with me as far back as I can recall and I have added several through the years. Compulsions rarely make sense to others, but I often find that those folks who scoff at my compulsions usually have their own rituals that seem perfectly reasonable to them. I find it particularly galling when someone who jumps over sidewalk cracks or changes direction to avoid crossing with a black cat makes fun of my rituals.

One compulsion is ordered reading. I do not like to stray from first to last order. I read the newspaper in order, first page first. For most of my life I read books in the order in which they came to be on my shelf. Now I not only have shelves in every room but I have stacks on end tables, night stands, kitchen counters, and some dangerously tall stacks on the floor. Reading books in any kind of order is impossible. I just pick a book near where I finished the last one. So I consider that compulsion conquered. Of course that means another compulsion added. I buy books. Lots of books. I cannot leave a thrift store or garage sale without perusing the used books. Bookstores are the crack cocaine of book addicts. Imagine throwing a crack head into a pharmacy and saying “just take whatever you find interesting.” I try to stay out of them. And those people who read the end of the book first? I don’t think I could knowingly be friends with them. I can only imagine the conversation when my girls come to clean out my remainders.

One of my most disturbing compulsions came on gradually, building to the current state of must do. It is the curse of correct change. I know that a curse is usually thought of as a hex of some kind, like the curse of the mummy or the curse of the Hope Diamond. Extreme bad luck comes to those cursed. My curse is not in that category so I suppose it might be classified as a paltry curse, as curses go. I inherited this from my mother, whose digging in the bottom of her purse humiliated me on so many occasions. Mama felt that she could not be flimflammed if she provided correct change. Because who knows how many people want to short change old ladies by a quarter or two? She held up check-out lines while she dug in her large purse, making sure every nickel, dime and penny was right. And then she grinned like a bushel basket of possum heads. Her purse could have been filled with bricks it was so heavy. She called one day all a flutter. She had gone to get gas and after it was pumped she realized she had left her wallet at home. But no worries, she actually paid for a full tank of gas with the change from the bottom of her purse.

It crept up on me slowly, that compulsion to provide correct change. I usually apologize and explain that it is my curse to count change. I dig deep into my purse and pull out a fist full of change that is littered with bits of Kleenex and the occasional Advil tablet. As I add the coins up to the total I get a measure of satisfaction in knowing that mama would be relieved to know that I was finally protecting myself from swindlers and cheats.

Recently I was surprised to see my first born digging deep into her bag seeking exact change, rooting like Jack Russell after a chipmunk. She looked pleased when I pointed out the curse was creeping up on her. Pleased by the curse of the correct change! Imagine that. I think I just found out who will inherit my books.


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The Very Last Word Mon, 13 Oct 2014 22:11:02 +0000


I read the obituaries. But I no longer read a printed newspaper every day and the obits just are not the same in on line versions of newspapers. So I am forced to catch up on weekends when my satisfyingly fat Sunday papers arrive. I do not turn to the obituaries first due to a compulsive need to read the paper in proper order. When I finally get there I read them all, savoring the details, cringing at those my own age, and grieving the brief, one sentence send offs.

My first born believes that we need a law requiring all published obituaries to include the cause of death. Since the Melton women are all driven to complete any story, we speculate on the likely causes and soon enough it becomes the truth (at least to us.) A family exchange might be “Did you see the obituary for that 27 year old man from Conyers? It directed donations to the suicide hotline so I guess he killed himself.” Story thus derived, it becomes a true history. In the next telling it is likely to be “Did you see the obituary for the 27 year old man from Conyers who killed himself?”

Mama was the best at it. She added great details like love triangles, stabbings, and incest to her stories. She could tell it so convincingly that only her children (and later her grandchildren) knew to ask “Did you know them or did you just guess?” And she would confess to making it up, all the while citing the many clues that gave credence to her story.

For many years now I have clipped obituaries that I find interesting. They can be interesting because they are touching. One that I saved reads “I cannot hurt you again” and one laments “There is a hole in our hearts.” Some are interesting in the funeral details. Like “Men are to wear comfortable clothing, no ties. Women are just going to wear whatever they want anyway” or “No funeral will be held. Join us at the Rusty Nail Bar for drinks and memories.” Some are just interesting because they insert some humor, like the recent notice that mentioned a ménage a trois with the deceased, chili, and Gas-X. I also save those with interesting use of language like “survived by a plethora of cousins” or “she resided up Garner Holler” or “she outran us to the Kingdom.”

I also carefully read and clip the memorial notices. These are mostly puzzling since it seems they are for the benefit of the deceased. “Dear Karen, It has been a year since you left us.” Exactly where is the paper delivered? I guess it is likely that the deceased only read the online versions. Almost all memorial notices are bittersweet. You can feel the sadness behind the message to the departed. “Are there cell phones in Heaven” was the title of a fine memorial. I have been at this long enough to see the anniversaries roll by. Every year I see “Too cool to be forgotten” and “Still shopping in Heaven’s grocery store.”

I don’t consider myself picky but rather I see myself as gifted with a discerning eye for the tacky detail, learned at the knee of the master of criticism. Mama (the master) was disgusted by folks who used a picture that was not recent. “Humph” she would sniff, “Guess she didn’t want to show off how she looks now.” “I guess not Mama, she’s dead now,” was my customary response. She also loved the gory details when available. She struggled to recall the cause of death of an acquaintance telling me “She was decapitated, but that wasn’t the worst of it.” All I can figure is that the poor woman must have died hungry.

I still cringe at the folks who pass along at older than 30 years and their relatives find it necessary to list the high school glee club or their term as Sunday school class treasurer. As for me, I plan to write my own obituary. I want to be as irreverent as allowed and as vague as possible. I want to give them a reason to laugh and to speculate. Oh and I’m not above making up what is lacking. Graduated from Harvard, with honors; Mother of the Year, 25 years running; Sports Illustrated swim suit model, every single year; winner of the New York Marathon, 10 year record likely to never fall; friend to all, excepting the tacky few. I also plan to leave a memorial notice to be posted at the time of death. It will read; Dear Mama, I know you are reading my tacky obituary and wondering aloud how you raised such a daughter. Please know that I am sorry for this and all the other times I disappointed you. But it is comforting for me to know that some things never change. You will always wonder where you went wrong in raising me and I will always wonder why.

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The Nut Magnet Wed, 17 Sep 2014 03:15:15 +0000


I have a built in magnet. It works to attract people that I otherwise might not meet. My magnet can be depended upon to pull near to me the craziest, neediest, saddest, and loneliest people in proximity. Tales of woe, distress, illness, sabotage, conspiracy, and government plots all have been the subject of unprovoked sharing. Likewise I hear about triumph over adversity, evil corporations, and politicians. They approach in grocery aisles, department stores, ladies rooms, parking lots, and today in a crosswalk. What is it about me that says “Spill your guts, I can take it?”

Having been told on numerous occasions that I look angry or unapproachable has caused me to believe that my natural face is something of a scowl. But that scowl does little to lessen the pull of my nut magnet. My husband has assured me on many occasions that it is not because I am so nice. So what is it that drives people to tell me how lonely they are, or how sick they are, or how to best prepare those carrots in my buggy?

Their stories can be entertaining, especially in the retelling. A beautiful, but unkempt woman in Times Square once presented me with scraps of paper covered with her teeny tiny scribbling and detailed illustrations on how space aliens were taking over her brain from her television. She was so articulate and sincere that I still sometimes wonder if she could have be right. A man at the gas pump recently told me a detailed story of misfortune that began at his birth and continued until the present day before he asked for money. In both instances they made a bee line for me, bypassing all others, the magnet pulling, pulling them.

Years ago I worked in retail sales in a large mall. I soon had a devoted roster of mall walkers who stopped by daily to tell me their news and often to share a chapter of their histories. For the most part I enjoyed the interactions. The only thing troubling about these folks was the slow realization that all that they wanted was for someone to listen. I heard lots of organ recitals (body aches and functions) looked at lots of grandkid pics (none as cute as my own kids) and too many tales of the good old days to count. The most haunting was an elderly woman wearing a pin shaped like the Eiffel tower on her old winter coat. When I complimented her pin the story started to come out. It was related in bits and pieces over many months. She was so proud of her two grown children. Her husband was a casualty of WWII, leaving her a young widow with 2 babies, a boy and a girl to raise alone. She never remarried. She focused solely on the struggle of raising those kids. And now they were grown, successful, college graduates. Her son had sent the pin from his travels. But for reasons never disclosed they no longer communicated with her. It had been years since she had seen them. Her sadness was palpable and I can still feel it 20 years later.

What draws them to me when there are so many likely listeners around? People without a scowling face and perhaps even with a welcoming smile are all over the place. Is it really magnetic or do they see that girl behind the scowling woman? The girl who was always a disappointment, even to herself. The girl who felt she never measured up to the expectations of others. The girl described in report cards as “does not work to her full potential.” The girl who messed up over and over again. The girl who took forever to find out she was just fine as she was. Maybe it is not a magnet. Maybe it just takes one to know one.

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The Mule Trader’s Woman Sat, 16 Aug 2014 13:48:16 +0000

My husband is from Western North Carolina. That part of the state is kind of like one of those remote places along the Amazon where the natives live in isolation from the modern world and have their own customs and language. I am positive that it is the only place in the world where the word “They” is an exclamation of surprise or disbelief. Rather like the all too common “Fuck” is used today, “They” can be tailored to a custom response. Said very slowly, while shaking the head, “TTHHEEEEEYY”, means agreement. Tacking Lord on the end signifies extreme amazement, “They Lord!” Western Carolinians also eat a strange tribal diet. Liver mush is a culinary stand out. Liver mush is similar to many other regional delicacies like scrapple or liver pudding. But it stands proudly alone in having the most disgusting name among disgusting meat products. The local drive-in once offered a breakfast special consisting of a liver mush biscuit and a cappuccino. So exotic, one might imagine themselves in a European capital, rather than the foothills of the Blue Ridge. It also should be noted that babies are referred to as “it” for at least the first year of life. Questions are posed like, “Does it sleep good?” or “Does it eat good?” or statements like “It looks like daddy.”

The picture is the home of the mule trader's woman. The children are her grandchildren.
The picture is the home of the mule trader’s woman. The children are her grandchildren.

The families in the region between Charlotte and Asheville are descendants of the Scotch Irish who settled the area. Fair skinned, hardworking, God fearing, and stoic. They stay close to home and doubt the sanity of those who travel for pleasure. Those who settle elsewhere are thought to have a wild streak. Meals out are for special occasions and divorces are a rarity. They take pride in their work and stay on the job as long as they can. My mother-in-law reluctantly retired at 84. Her father was on the roof of the house cleaning gutters at 97. Those who retire in their 60’s or 70’s are either slackers or sickly.

Imagine our surprise when we learned in passing conversation that great grandmother had run off with a mule trader. The family never heard from her again. And that was all that her survivors knew. She left her children, her husband, her home, and church behind. What a charmer this mule trader must have been. Or was it the glamorous lifestyle of a mule trader that lured her away? Perhaps it was an act of desperation. As best we can determine she would have left in the late 1890’s when her children were babies. With no internet or telephone and probably unable to write, the lack of communication is somewhat understandable. The farm kids did not usually attend school with any regularity once they were big enough to work. So even if great grandmother and her children had writing materials they most likely did not know how to write enough to fill a letter.

In researching mule traders I found a surprising amount of information. Great Grandmother would have run off in the heyday of mule trading. Southern farmers were far away from adopting the tractor. The tractor did not come into wide use until the 1920’s, right in the midst of the Great Depression. Most of what I read implied that the farmers during that time were mistrustful of the tractor as substitute for a dependable mule. I suspect it was a combination of factors. Cost would have been one reason. While a mule was very expensive at around $200, a tractor was advertised at a scandalous $875. The mule was known to be dependable and fairly easy to maintain and both would have rightfully been suspect in a tractor. But great grandmother made her choice before tractors or depression.

So the mule trader likely had a pocket full of cash. Cash was rare in those days. People traded what they had for what they needed. Farm produce, eggs, chickens, a pig, or a cow was used to get new shoes or seeds for planting. Great Grandmother’s life was one in which she had a couple of dresses made from feed sacks and precious few fancy goods. She worked in that hot kitchen putting together meager meals for her brood and no doubt, felt herself growing old before her time. She washed their clothes over an open fire in the yard. The harsh lye soap would have reddened and scorched her hands and arms and made the worn, thin clothes even thinner. She would lie down at night in that hotter than hell house and wait for a breeze, just a tiny breeze to cool her enough to sleep. She laid in that heat and mourned that her days would continue to be so hard. She surely was afraid to acknowledge her heavy fear that her children faced a hard, bleak future.

I imagine that it happened in the hot, humid North Carolina summer. The windows are open and unscreened. Flies are buzzing in the house. The unpainted farm house is not visible from the nearest dirt road but there is a rutted path through the fields that leads him to her door.

The mule trader must have driven his wagon up that rutted path to their house. There were probably some bells or clanging pans hanging from his wagon that warned of his approach. Then the yard dogs barked and the children started to run in all directions. Some ran for the wagon and a few ran to hide. Strangers were scarce in those days. The mule trader pulled up to house and asked after the man and then asked for water for himself and his animals. He might have been the finest thing she had ever seen. He surely smelled of mules and sweat and maybe coffee or liquor. And even if she smelled him, and hated him at first sight here was her way out. I imagine it dawned on her slowly, that she could get in that wagon and leave the endless work behind. If she left those children behind she would be free to imagine that they all grew up to have wonderful lives rather than witnessing the stark reality. Maybe the children would forget all about her. And if the man married again the bride would come from their church community. Certainly a good woman would love her babies sufficiently.

The quirky folks in Western NC accepted this legacy and found it hardly worth talking about. I hope the mule trader’s woman had a long luxurious life, but she probably did not. I hope her children did not feel the deep pain of the abandoned, but they probably did. I hope the mule trader treated her like a princess, buying her pretty things and making her laugh, but he probably did not. I hope her arms never ached to hold her babies one more time, but it probably happened often.

The one thing I am sure of is that sometimes she would lay awake at night and remember the feeling of a tiny cheek against her own, or a sweet smile, or a tiny perfect hand reaching for her.

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That Lying Doris Day Thu, 03 Jul 2014 01:45:13 +0000

Image: from “Pillow Talk” With Doris Day & Rock Hudson - Universal Pictures

Standing before the array of shaving products made and marketed especially for women is astonishing. Who would believe that there were so many types of razors, not to mention the creams and lotions to be used pre, post and (I guess) during the shaving process. The products all claim to result to silky smooth legs and underarms, as well as keeping one safe from nicks and cuts. I stand before the expansive display and finally walk away without making a selection.

My dad largely left the child raising to my mother. He was the breadwinner and mama was the keeper of house and kids. Most especially where we girls were concerned, he did not have much to suggest. He did have one rule that he was firm on and that was the first year that we girls decided that we were old enough to wear hose was the year that Easter baskets stopped. That threat kept me in anklets until I was in danger of being shunned at the weekly BTU meetings. For those Methodists, etc. among you, BTU stands for Baptist Training Union, where we were preached to about the evils of dancing, alcohol and Jews. We sat in chairs in a semi-circle and waited for the end when we were generously plied with cheap cookies, chips and Kool-Aid. In other words, it was punishment, with one redeeming quality. The boys and girls attended together. In Baptist Sunday school the genders never mixed, even into adulthood. But in BTU it was boys and girls together. I cannot speak for the boys but for the girls that was reason enough to endure.

There were always those precocious girls who went from anklets to hose while in the later years of grammar school but I held out. I wanted that waxy, cheap, chocolate bunny. Then came junior high and the pressure was just too much. I had to ditch those anklets and fast. My mom took me to Belk’s and the saleslady fitted me out in a garter belt and some silky hose that she took from a box behind the counter. They were pressed flat and smooth and had perfectly beautiful feet shaped at the bottom, complete with heel and toe reinforcements. They were a marvelous suntanned shade that did not match any natural skin on a living human. She wrapped them in tissue paper and handed them over. I have since enjoyed many extravagant purchases but none has been more exciting than the promise of glamorous womanhood in a blue Belk’s bag. Here was the key to a kingdom where champagne, caviar, and Ricky Nelson waited for me. Surely when I slipped these sheer confections of nylon over my calves I would be transformed. I expected, at the least, to become as willowy as Laurie Partridge or as adorable as Hailey Mills.

Finally Sunday arrived. I put on my garter belt and stretched those precious hose over my calves and looked in the mirror. It was me looking back. Still taller than everyone else and still just as ungainly. And when I looked down at my legs the real horror set in. Those lovely hose had caused the hair on my unshaven legs to curl and bunch up into whorls and to look more profuse than ever. The longer hairs poked through the delicate nylon like a feather escaping a pillow. It looked like someone had stuffed a muskrat into a tight, nylon tube. And that garter belt? If you have never experienced wearing one, let me explain. Those dangling strips of elastic with hooks on the end for the hose to be attached dig into the thighs like a monkey clinging to a tree. The hose eventually begin to twist and to pull the monkey claw straps with them. Stretching only causes them to dig deeper into that tender, and in my case, ample thigh skin. It is as if the wind is blowing the tree and making the little monkey dig his claws in to hold on tighter. And those rubber coated hooks? The rubber adheres to those sweaty, suffering thighs and leaves marks will that take days to go away.

Shamefaced, I went back to anklets. Womanhood could wait until I learned to shave those hirsute appendages. My mom tried to give me directions but I had seen those Doris Day, Rock Hudson movies where she sat in a tub of bubbles, raised her leg in the air and daintily swept her legs clean. Oh, the lies in those movies. But since I was so nervous and careful there was no injury that a few Band-Aids couldn’t patch. A few months later, feeling like Doris Day herself, I confidently swept the razor up and stripped the skin off along my shin bone, ankle to knee. You know how the scene unfolds. The first drops of blood start welling up, slowly at first and then the blood bath starts. Literally. Not to be unshaven on one side, I quickly shaved the other leg. Yes, I stripped it. Ankle to knee. I went to school with ace bandages on my legs to hide the gauze. Back to anklets.

For me, leg shaving long ago faded in importance and the glamour likewise waned. A prelude to a big event is more likely to be composed of getting an afternoon nap in anticipation of being up past 10, searching for the tickets or making sure we know where we are going before we leave home. The last time I shaved my legs with purpose was probably before a doctor appointment. My own eyesight as well as my husband’s is so bad I can let the hair on my legs grow long enough to braid and neither of us is likely to notice. I actually thought that diminished leg hair growth was an unsung benefit of aging until I happened to glance down at my legs in the sun. Country singer Deanna Carter wrote the funny and sad song “Did I Shave My Legs For This?” The song laments her preparations for a promised night out that never happens. A night at home is just fine with me. Although the threat of BTU and Kool-Aid no longer exists there are plenty of gatherings that are equally unappealing. In fact, I think I will just sit here with my hairy legs and watch a Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie and see if I can count all the lies.


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A Heifer’s Lament Tue, 29 Apr 2014 21:49:25 +0000 They were carefully clipped. All the edges neatly cut and then crisply folded along the columns. In the top margin, in that compact, neat handwriting that everyone must have been taught in the 1930s, was written in ballpoint pen “for Nancy” or “Nancy read.” I still remember how my blood would boil whenever I saw those clippings and that script. In my younger days it was stories of caution, teenagers killed in wrecks, maimed beyond recognition or perhaps that teen sex quiz from the always infuriating, holier-than-thou, Ann Landers.


They were carefully clipped. All the edges neatly cut and then crisply folded along the columns. In the top margin, in that compact, neat handwriting that everyone must have been taught in the 1930s, was written in ballpoint pen “for Nancy” or “Nancy read.”

I still remember how my blood would boil whenever I saw those clippings and that script. In my younger days it was stories of caution, teenagers killed in wrecks, maimed beyond recognition or perhaps that teen sex quiz from the always infuriating, holier-than-thou, Ann Landers. Sometimes they were tales of heartbreaking cruelty, always child upon mother, never mother upon child. Oh no, the cruelest blows were dealt by children. Those ungrateful, hurtful creatures. There also were the reports of success, those that made mothers so proud. Which always led to her wondering aloud why other mothers were given these talented, beautiful, petite ladies. Why, oh why was she visited with these thankless, wicked heifers?

pier (1)

In later years, as I had my own daughters, the stories changed. Now it was time for me to read about those mothers who tortured and beat their children. Those who neglected, tormented, abandoned, forsook, and all the other things she was sure I might be already guilty of or tempted to commit. And of course, the saintly Ann Landers had lots to say on the subject.  How headstrong, know-it-all daughters wounded their mothers by not taking advantage of their experience and superior mothering skills.

As we both grew older the frequent clippings continued. They were always there when I arrived to visit.  Waiting on the top shelf of the bookcase. The subject matter changed again with elder abuse eventually topping the list. The many ways the aging were left out, left behind, taken advantage of, dumped in rest homes, mistreated, deprived, and always handled with disrespect. Abandoned by family, enduring lonely holidays, starving to death, dying and the pitiful remains having time to become mummified before the selfish, thoughtless offspring came to check.  Flimflammed by their own spawn, ignored by their progeny, snubbed by their offspring. The list was a long one. And she saw herself as victim to each and every one.

I no longer have anyone clipping the newspaper for me. I barely know anyone who takes a newspaper anymore. But it recently occurred to me that, as I click SHARE, I’m repeating that behavior.  I recently looked back at my shares. I found a recipe, Brian Williams rapping “Gin and Juice,” a cartoon, and notice of a son-in-law’s upcoming gallery show. Not a single murder or mayhem story. No sad tales of child or elder abuse. Ann Landers is nowhere to be found. Now I can’t help but wonder if she was right. I am a thoughtless, reckless mother. Without my constant warnings how will by family avoid decapitation by an unsecured cargo, or the deadly flipped liver? Can they survive without learning how to avoid molesters hidden under their cars or lurking in stairways, gazing up, hoping to see London and France?  And for goodness sakes, they sure won’t be inclined to care for me in my dotage if I don’t tell them about all the ways others fail.

Sometimes I run across one of those clippings. “For Nancy” or “Nancy read,” written at top. I look at that familiar neat handwriting. I might even read the headline of the article. And I wonder why I was never good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, caring enough, ladylike enough, proper enough, and generally, a disappointment in almost every respect.  How would my life have been different if I had grown up with a mother who told me even one time that I was smart, or pretty, or even just that she was proud.  It still stings deeply. For a brief moment I am profoundly sad.  But I sure as shit don’t read the article.

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I Hope This Makes You Angry Tue, 02 Jul 2013 19:24:49 +0000

Today is the 49th anniversary of the televised signing of the Civil Rights Act at the White House.

Leading up to the signing was the case of Brown v. Board of Education which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court found that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional in 1954. In the ten years that followed the case came the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stunning “I have a dream” speech, symbolically delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963.

Lyndon Johnson signing Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964The Civil Rights Act was a key component in the successful 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy’s assassination President Lyndon Johnson continued to push for civil rights reform. After facing strong opposition in the House and a lengthy contentious, debate in the Senate, the act was approved in July 1964.

The Act prohibits racial discrimination in the work place and in education and it also directed that swimming pools, buses, parks, and other public places could not segregate or deny entry based on one’s race.

I give you this history with a heavy, sad heart.

My daughter has a boyfriend that most mom’s dream of for their girls. He is kind, intelligent, supportive, caring, articulate, industrious, creative, loving and southern! And did I mention that he can cook? In spite of their living together (or living in sin, as I call it) for many years he remains devoted to my daughter, caring for her, cooking for her, and loving her. He tolerates her moods, her long work shifts, and her unending honey-do list. He is a teacher and an artist, with gallery shows and stellar reviews. He is also a black man.

Yesterday he was stopped by an officer of the law. This was not the first time this has happened and outrageously, I am certain it will not be the last time. Driving a Volvo wagon, filled with fishing gear, he hardly fit the profile of drug dealer, gang banger, or thug. Presenting up to date registration, valid insurance and a current driver’s license was not sufficient for the officer. This fine man was handcuffed, frisked, and questioned for no reason other than his skin color. When the officer failed to find any chargeable offences he cited him for littering. You see, he dropped his cigarette when he was handcuffed.

Last night I was mad as hell. Today I am filled with profound sadness. Will the time ever arrive when we tell children about the days of racial profiling and civil rights abuses the same way we tell them today about riding bikes without helmets and summer before air conditioning? I also have a dream. It is of a world in which my heart does not hurt. It would be a world in which no one is judged by their appearance, but only by their actions. It would be a world in which black children are not cautioned about the inevitable police attention and the extra scrutiny they will get when shopping. In my dream world outrage against injustice would be judged the same whether for an aging, butter dependent cook or for an unarmed teen. Injustice, intolerance, and bullying would miraculously change to kindness, caring and generosity. I guess I have a dream too.




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I know you are but what am I? Sat, 15 Jun 2013 14:49:01 +0000

A friend sent me a video compilation of the 100 best movie insults. I enjoyed watching all of them but they all fell flat when compared to a few I have had the pleasure to hear personally. There are several types of insults, both intended and unintended. An insult can be delivered in anger, disguised in humor, masked as love and caring, or just thrown out like a fast ball. The preferred delivery is as personal as your fingerprints, formed from observing insulting in action or from being a target of masterful insults. All of these delivery methods have advantages and must be considered when seeking the maximum impact.

My mom, Doty, preferred what I call the left handed compliment. This is an insult delivered as a compliment. In the vein of the classic “You don’t sweat much for a fat girl,” she once told my daughter “you look so good I did not recognize you.” She told me it was hard to believe that I had been such an ugly baby. Always claiming to be well intentioned her insults were deftly delivered via the stealthy left hand.

My husband and I were recently targets of a left handed compliment by a drunken stranger. We were sitting in our seats after a concert in the park, each checking email, just waiting for the crowd to thin out. Some cute 20 something’s passed us and one of them stopped, clearly startled and looked at us as if we were an adorable video of a pet or baby performing a task one would assume to be well beyond the intellectual or tactile skill of said pet/baby. “Aren’t y’all just precious!” she cried. Turning to her embarrassed companions she insisted that they “just look at them!” Yes, we were insulted but having once been young and on occasion, known to drink a wee bit too much, we were also amused. And we also assumed that we possibly could have been as precious as any baby/pet video.

I have to mention the left hander delivered by a neighbor at my daughter’s wedding. She came by at the reception to tell me that it was nice to see that events could still be carried out on a shoe string budget.

A classic left handed insult leaves the recipient slightly bemused and pondering the thought process that went into the development. It also leaves the recipient with some slight shred of hope that was innocently hurtful.

My son in law, Jerry, is a frequent user of the fastball. The fast ball insult should be both concise and covert. My favorite is one he delivered while we were running together. Jerry and I ran several marathons together and we entertained each other as a means of distraction from the looming miles ahead. Anyone who has ever run a race of any distance knows that there are only a few comments from the crowd, those being “way to go” “not much further” and “looking good!” To this last one, uttered by an innocent bystander, Jerry responded “You must be easy to date.” A great insult delivered via the fast ball method. Jerry is an expert level insulter by any measure and by most conventional methods.

Delivering a fast ball was also aced by my Dad, Bill. His most famous was aimed at a Seventh Day Adventist who disturbed his Saturday. Answering the door, sizing them up, he winds up and pitches “We don’t go for any off beat religion here.” Door closes, runner is out, without ever even seeing that fast ball coming.

When I first started dating my husband one of his female friends came looking for me to tell me how wonderful she thought our relationship was. After a few minutes of syrupy sweet comments she added that she was just surprised since he had never dated a woman as big as me before.

The fast ball leaves the target stunned, usually speechless, thus avoiding an immediate comeback or angry reaction. I think this is best used when mobility is not an issue or you have a door between you and the target.

A classic anger insult by my sister should be in the hall of fame. Like me, she was on the receiving end of Doty’s left handers. This left us less likely to insult randomly. Her classic anger delivery came one night when she was bartending. A customer had pushed her to her limit and she responded by calling them a “thousand island eating, chardonnay drinking, trailer dwelling, sack of shit” Surely a virtuoso performance.

The anger insult is messy. It leaves the floor open for angry responses, bitch slaps, or tears.

My husband, Arnold, was recipient of an angry insult that still makes us laugh. He answered the phone at his office and the caller identified themselves by name and company. The name was loud and clear but he had to ask the caller to repeat the company name. Again, he just could not get it and asked again for a repeat. Same outcome. On the third request the caller slowed his speaking and assumed an accent that was a cross between Gomer Pyle and Paula Dean and said slowly FUUURST NAAAATIONAL BAAANK. What we continue to laugh about is that it was then crystal clear to Arnold.

I am uncertain of the category for the following insult that was delivered by Arnold’s college roommate. He awoke after one of those blurry nights that are common in college and as his memory became clearer he realized that he had asked a girl for a date. He eventually was horrified when he remembered who it was. He then proceeded to call and tell her he had been really drunk and did not really mean to ask her out.

I am guilty of insulting when angry, which usually leads to just plain old ugly name calling. There was one, just one that lives on in family lore. My daughter’s elementary school principal was a long winded, arrogant little despot. In closing a meeting in which he refused to hear any comments, I rose and called him a fat butted, sanctimonious, little piss pot. I am not sure where this came from. I had not spent any time planning or rehearsing so I like to think that it was sent by a higher power.

For surely there is a God of Snappy Put Downs. She appears a few perfect times in life to plant those perfect responses to rude movie patrons, drunken louts, Publix aisle hogs, bullies, intimidators, and that condescending family member. She puts those soon to be infamous words on our tongues and then puts the force of a fast ball behind them to propel them out. Never to be reclaimed, sometimes regretted, but most often, justly delivered. She is elusive, which makes her all the more appreciated. Perhaps she is busy much of time eating thousand island dressing and drinking chardonnay.

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Members Only Sun, 20 Jan 2013 12:52:08 +0000

alhiemers-holding handsLast week I attended an initiation to a secret club. The admission criteria are tough. One does not choose admission but still must pass a rigorous selection process. No one asks to get in this club and no invitations are issued. If you meet the qualifications you are in. Forever.

The club membership consists of those of us who have watched, waited, cried, cursed, promised, loved, and hated a parent who suffers from Alzheimer’s. If your parents have passed away from other causes you probably did not have years in which they no longer knew you. You also probably did not visit for years and years and just stare into their eyes. Always hoping, hoping, hoping for a glimmer of recognition that is no longer and never more to be found. You might have wondered (as all club members have) how long, how long can this possibly go on?

Those of us in the club have also wondered about ourselves. How did we become someone who can accept a horrible new reality in which our parent slowly fades away?  It is like a giant eraser is slowing moving back and forth over your loved one as they become fainter and fainter.  And we increasingly wonder about our own future. Is Alzheimer’s perking away in our own brains just waiting to bring our children into the club?

In this club the membership is prone to drink, curse and pray, sometimes all at once.

In this club we examine the past over and over, looking for clues we missed or ignored or pretended to ignore. We look endlessly into their face for a sign of the person we knew and loved.  Always asking, are you still in there?

In this club we all suffer from guilt over conversations not had, time not shared, consolation not given, patience worn thin as a razor, and anger over the entire damn mess.

In this club we love and hate old photographs. You know the ones where they are young, happy and hopeful? These photos will stab your heart.

The recent initiation was another large, loving family. Our membership grows by leaps and bounds. They sent their once glamorous, talented, intelligent mother off with loving words and praise. She would have been proud of them all that day.

Welcome to the club dear friends.

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