Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Year Ramblings, A Life Well Told

During long walks with Jack this week I have been pondering the resolutions I made last year.  For me each year is probably much like yours, I resolve to spend less, save more, eat less and exercise more. But alas each year ends and more or less my bank account and scale remain unchanged – well truth be told each has shifted in the wrong direction, but I remain forever hopeful that this New Year will be different than the last several have been.

Five months ago I set a goal for myself to write a story each week and much to my surprise it’s a goal I’ve stuck to.  It was a challenge for me since I really hadn’t written a word since my freshman year of college when my English professor informed me that I was a much better talker than writer. But for 22 weeks I have kept my promise to myself and have written a story. Posting the stories on my website was a way for me to be accountable to myself. I knew my mom and dad would read the stories and thought perhaps my siblings might enjoy a chuckle or two and then tell me what really happened. But much to the credit of the world wide web, my readers have surprised me. Mom and dad read my stories – of course – but most of my readers are not those closest to me and many are people whom I've never met, some don’t even live on the same continent. What binds us together are the stories.

Stories are universal. Stories awaken our memories, heal wounds, make us laugh, teach us lessons, remind us of our humanity and open our hearts just enough to hear the next story and share our own. Stories are everywhere. With every click of the mouse you can find a story on someone’s blog, facebook page, inbox, or perhaps (shocker) in a book or newspaper. But long before stories were written, they were told.

Stories told around the campfire, the dinner table and the front porch have, for generations, been the glue that held us together. In some ways, the web is now what holds us together. The web is what connects me to my family and friends miles away. I stay connected to their stories and their lives, and they to mine. It is a wonderful thing, more or less.

I am an introvert at heart and hence the virtual connection, the stories written and shared each week, are a safe, easy and comfortable way to stay connected to my community. And yet I wonder what if I were to spend less time with my virtual community and more time outside my comfort zone connecting to the amazing stories right here where I live. Perhaps more time with actual humans and less time with a key board and mouse would open my heart just a bit more. It’s a risk worth taking I think.

So for this New Year, forget the scale and the bank account, I resolve to spend more time walking with Jack connecting with the stories in my neighborhood and less time clicking the mouse wishing I was somewhere else.

So if you’re in the Florence SC area, come on out to our “Story Swap” at the Clay Pot Coffee Shop the first Wednesday of every month from 7:00 – 8:30. Enjoy a cup, a story and build a community. If you’re not in Florence find a storytelling event near you. It is our stories . . . and the human connection of sharing those stories that binds us.

Happy New Year! And may your stories be bold and your life well told.

And no worries . . . I’ll still post a story each week.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Watch & Surviving Joel . . .

On my mantle sits a beaten, broken and battered watch that has been in my family for three generations. It is a gift that reminds me that life is full of trouble . . . and love and grace. I am ever so thankful for all three.

My son Joel is especially grateful for the love and grace part. He is trouble! He’s been trouble for years. It probably started the day he was born but I remember most the first Christmas he could talk. He was strong willed and singularly focused on what he wanted for Christmas, a truck. The trouble was that he couldn’t say “truck”. His “tr” sound came out “f” – so put that with “uck” and it was a rough Christmas! He shouted what he wanted everywhere we went and at every Santa he saw. Oh my . . . he was trouble.

When he was thirteen, his dad left us the week before Christmas. By this age he could speak his mind clearly and had no trouble pronouncing his words. So in his anger, rage and wounded spirit I heard the “F” word more times than I care to admit. Most often I was the brunt of his anger and times were tough. If it weren’t for the gift of a Christmas watch that sat on my mantle offering love and grace we may not have made it through those difficult times.
The watch was a prized possession of my grandfather and was smashed by my father in 1938 when he was five years old. After my grandfather died, the beaten and broken watch was given to my father. My dad placed the beaten watch on our mantle and when my brothers, sister or I were trouble he would pace in front of the fireplace and stare at the watch. I never knew what he was doing until my Joel was five and destroyed the new wallpaper in my dad’s house. My dad then told me the story of the beaten and broken watch. He then looked at me and said, “I’ve wondered for thirty years who was going to get this watch.  Now I know. You and Joel are going to need that watch.”  He was right and from that day on, when Joel was trouble, I paced in front of the fire place and stared at the watch. I paced, I prayed and I practiced love and grace.  Joel didn’t know the watch had saved his butt many times until he heard me tell the story this year during a performance.  (listen to “The Watch”)

Joel is 19 years old now and until this year, Christmas had been a difficult time for us. Dealing with divorce during the holidays left us feeling most broken. But this year my Joel has moved beyond brokenness and “Trouble”. He has opened his generous, loving heart to make this our best Christmas ever. He decorated our home, purchased our tree and even though he still wants a truck, he gave me a washer and dryer for Christmas. He hugs me every time he walks by and he whispers, “Love ya ma.”

I'm not sure if the change in him has been an invasion of the body snatchers or the gift of the watch, but I do know Miracles do happen at Christmas!

May all your Christmas mishaps and times of trouble be met with love and grace . . .

From my  home to yours, Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dear Santa . . .

With the news of the Sandy Hook School shooting weighing heavy on my heart it is difficult to think of any story worth telling this week. As a mom and a school counselor I struggle to hold back the tears and wonder . . . what if? . . . And so I think of my boys who are not really boys anymore and feel amazingly blessed to have been allowed to watch them grow into the young men they are today.

I remember when Russell was small and wanted to write his first letter to Santa. He got the idea on Christmas Eve and was smart enough to know that a letter wouldn’t arrive on time. So being the smart omnipotent mother that I am I quickly informed him that it would be ok because I had Santa’s phone number and we could call Santa. Russell thought this was a great idea since he was only two and didn’t know how to write anyway.
We placed the call to Santa (my dad’s good friend BobMorehouse) and I listened in while Russell talked to Santa. He told Santa that he’d been a good boy and that he only wanted one thing for Christmas, a sister. Wow! I was stunned. I was pregnant, but Russell did not know that. There was no sister on Christmas morning but six months later a baby brother arrived.

The next Christmas we placed our call to Santa again. I listened while Russell told Santa that he’d been a good boy. He told Santa that all he wanted for Christmas was a sister. He thanked Santa for the brother but insisted that this year he wanted a sister. Oh my.
No sister, or brother arrived that year but Russell remained steadfast in his belief in Santa. We again made our Christmas Eve call to Santa. I listened in again as Russell told Santa that he’d been mostly a good boy. He told Santa that he only wanted a sister and then said that it would be ok for him to take his brother back and leave a sister.

Again no sister arrived and Joel remained but Russell stayed true to Santa. On Christmas Eve we made our call to Santa. This time Russell did not mention a sister. But as he said his prayers that night I heard Russell, “Dear Lord, I have asked Santa every year for a sister but he’s never gotten me one. He gave me Joel but won’t take him back. I know you probably don’t want Joel either, but can you give me a sister for Christmas? I’ll be good. Amen.”
Needless to say Joel stayed and thanks to the prayers of Russell’s parents, no sister arrived either. But Russell remained a steadfast and vocal believer in Santa long after it was developmentally appropriate. In fact, I remember the year Russell was in sixth grade, Joel came home from school and told me that if I didn’t tell Russell there was no Santa he was going to. He told me that he was afraid Russell was going to get beat up on the playground if he didn’t stop telling everyone that Santa was real and that he knew his phone number!

Through the years I am quite certain that each of my boys would have liked to send the other back to Santa or anywhere for that matter. And truth be told there have been moments in which I’ve wanted to send them both back. But this Christmas as I watch them decorate the Christmas tree and hear them laugh about calling Santa I know we are blessed and I am incredibly thankful.
Today my heart breaks and my prayers go out to the families who have lost so much. This season I will hold the memories of my boys near and be ever so grateful to watch the young men, the loves of my life, decorate the tree. Their presence is my greatest gift.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Santa's NOT crazy!

Santa’s NOT Crazy! But my family is. And that is why I never had the chance to believe in Santa Claus. It’s my brothers fault. They were sneaky and often snuck through the house searching for their gifts. My dad was always trying to outsmart their sneakiness.

I remember the Christmas I was four. All I wanted for Christmas was a pink ballerina Tutu.  Mom helped me write my letter to Santa. And then I began to wait with the anticipation every child has during the count down to Christmas.
On Christmas Eve my Grandpa Flick and Grandma Dot arrived for the holiday festivities. Grandpa Flick was a big, handsome well dressed man. He was a manly man who loved to hunt and fish. Grandma Dot was tall, happy and had the most wonderful laugh that echoed through the house. I liked when Grandpa Flick and Grandma Dot came to visit.
After Christmas Eve dinner and candle light service, stories were told and we were all tucked in to bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. Well not really.  I fell asleep with visions of pink Tutus dancing in my head. My parents fell asleep on the sofa bed under the lights of the Christmas tree. Grandpa Flick and Grandma Dot fell asleep in mom and dad’s room.
My brothers retreated to their “pent-house” in the attic and began to plot a perfect plan to foil Santa. My father planned an offensive strategy to ward off their antics. He had somehow gotten wind of the boys plan to sneak down to the Christmas tree in the middle of the night. So he took some fishing line and tied it to our very large dinner bell. He set the bell on the hard wood stairs, stretched the fishing line across the step and tied the other end of the string to the railing spindel. He knew that when the boys snuck down stairs they would trip over the line, set the bell off and he would wake up and catch them.
It was a perfect plan until I woke up sick and wanted my mommy. I teetered out of my room and quietly tip toed into their room only to discover Grandpa Flick’s big head where mommy’s should have been. I remembered mommy was sleeping by the Christmas Tree downstairs so I headed for the stairs. I turned at the landing and continued down the stairs to wake mommy. I was almost to the bottom of the stairs when I tripped over the line, set the bell off and tumbled down the rest of the stairs.
Dad woke up and raced to the bottom of the stairwell shouting and laughing, “I caught you!” I immediately threw up all over his feet. Mom and dad cleaned me up, tucked me back in bed and went back downstairs to the couch. My dad, not one to lose a game, reset the bell across the stairs. It wasn’t long before I was up again. In a repeat performance I threw up all over dad’s feet again.
This happened several times through the night until my mom said, “enough!” and wouldn’t let my dad reset the bell. My grandparents upstairs, not ones to meddle, were quietly wondering what was going on downstairs.

Finally the house quieted and everyone fell asleep except for my brothers. They waited, and waited. And then they quietly slipped downstairs to the Christmas tree. My parents slept soundly while they methodically switched the labels of every present under the tree, except their own of course.

Christmas morning I opened my present with full expectation that I would find a pink ballerina Tutu inside the box. I did not. What I got was a pair of hip high fishing waders that would fit a 6 foot tall man. Grandpa Flick got a tiny pink ballerina Tutu. My brothers got their Army outfits and toy guns.  I may have only been four but I knew Santa wasn’t that crazy. Grandpa Flick slipped the Tutu on his arm. My sister and I slid into the hip waders and the sound of my grandmother’s laughter filled the house. My family was crazy. Santa was NOT!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Fowl Play

The best lessons I ever learned happened right in my own back yard. Dad was a teacher. He wasn’t just a teacher in his classrooms; he was a teacher all the time. Dad never answered our questions. He’d ask another question to get us to find our own answers. Never  one to let a teachable moment slip by, he provided my brothers, sister and me lots of hands-on learning opportunities.

I remember when my brother Chris started asking questions about where our food came from. We were city kids. We didn’t have a vegetable garden, live stock or chickens.  So dad decided that he would take Chris to a farm. They came home with vegetables and a live chicken.

The vegetables were easy. We washed them and chopped them up. No fuss or mess. But oh that chicken was a different story. My brother carried the chicken by its wings out to the back yard. My dad got a hatchet and while Chris held it down over a wood block dad chopped its head off. YIKES! The dang thing didn’t die! It started running around the back yard, blood spurting out its neck. The screams of my brothers, sister and me were loud enough to bring nosey Mrs. Kilman off her front porch to find out what was going on out back.

Mrs. Kilman had seen a lot from the Johnson clan over the years but that scene sent her running back to her porch in a hurry. My dad and brothers chased the chicken all over the yard until the thing finally died. Then the plucking began. I watched from behind a tree, wide eyed, terrorized and yet fascinated as feathers flew all around the yard.

After murdering and plucking the chicken no one wanted to eat it so dad decided that it would be a great opportunity for Chris to learn all about bones and skeletons. The chicken was boiled, the meat removed and the bones cleaned and dried. The chicken puzzle was laid out on a table for a week as Chris reconstructed the skeleton.

It probably was a great lesson except that Chris decided to take a few bones to his science class for show and tell. That probably would have been ok too except Chris decided to tell the class that the bones were the fingers of his brother Eric. His teacher was mortified and never really looked at Chris the same again. I’m sure the parent teacher conference that followed was quite interesting as well. But all in all that chicken provided us with many lessons.

I learned that I  love vegetables and like my chicken shrink wrapped and frozen.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Priority Time

I have just returned from a thousand mile journey over the river, through North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and through the woods to grandmothers house with my two sons ages 22 and 19. We traveled the distance in a small Toyota to celebrate Thanksgiving and grandma’s 80th birthday.  While trapped in the back seat I had time to reflect on my mother’s 80 years and on research articles I’ve been reading about the amount of time families spend together.  Family time spent together has been declining steadily since the 70’s. We are consumed by our electronic distractions. TV’s in every room and car, smart phones in every pocket, video games and the internet keep us entertained and connected to the world yet often disconnect us from the family members we live with.

My parents believed that family needed priority time. In fact, it was my mother’s life work in ministry to get that message out to families across the country.
My mother believed so strongly that family needed priority time that she and my dad planned summer vacations that would ensure that for six to eight weeks our family would be trapped together in small spaces free from the distractions of work, friends, TV and all modern conveniences.

Some of you may have read previous stories about our cabin in the woods of Nova Scotia (August stories). But the year before we headed to Canada my parents locked us in a station wagon for 8 weeks and drove us from Massachusetts to California and back visiting National Parks along the way.
My father packed his camera and my mother packed her tiny bladder. The combination ensured that we would stop every 30 miles along the way. My dad would stop by the side of the road for beautiful photo opportunities and my mother would stop at yucky gas stations on the side of the road to pee.  Or at least this is what I thought. But now after many road trips with my two sons I now know that my parents really just wanted to get out of the car and away from their children, even if only for a few minutes!
I have a new appreciation for the sacrifices my mother made to ensure our family spent priority time together. Eight weeks in a station wagon listening to your children argue for 6000 miles without the distraction and entertainment of a DVD player, satellite radio, video game, or smart phone is a feat worth honoring with some type of medal of valor.

It is truly amazing that after all the mishaps, mayhem and madness of our family summers (which you can read about in future posts) my siblings and I are still very close. We have escaped from the station wagon and are spread out over a thousand miles but we are tightly bound by the experiences provided by parents who believed that family takes priority time.
So my friends, although I recommend long road trips with your children only to the very brave, I do recommend we all back away from our screens and spend some time with family. Enjoy the mayhem and create the stories that will last for generations.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

You Don't Leave Family Behind

I am getting ready to begin a thousand mile journey with my two sons. We are heading north to celebrate Thanksgiving and grandma’s 80th birthday. I’m dreading it. It is not the celebration and time with family I dread. It is the hours trapped in a small car with my sons that I dread. Recently at the dinner table my youngest, 19 year old Joel, proclaimed, “I’m your child. It’s my job to annoy you.”  We had a big chuckle about that and I informed him that he was doing his job very well. But in the back of my mind I was thinking . . . “one thousandmiles with no escape . . .”

And then I remembered my parents. They were brave, very brave. Or perhaps they were just crazy. I’m not sure. My parents put five children in their station wagon for a seven thousand mile, seven week journey from Massachusetts to California and back visiting National Parks and exploring Canada on the way home. The year was 1973. There were no DVD players, iPods, or hand held game systems to entertain us. There was only Beth, age 6. She sang. She hummed. She talked. She played loudly with her dolls. She believed it was her job to entertain us and shetook her job seriously.

So it was not surprising that after five weeks and thousands of miles on the road, we left her behind. It wasn’t intentional. Really, it wasn't. We pulled into a gas station in the middle of Utah and we all poured out of the car to use the restroom, stretch our legs and enjoy a momentary escape from each other. We all piled back into the car and continued on our journey.

I was always in the “way back” of the station wagon with Beth so I immediately noticed that she was not with us. I leaned over the middle seat where my teenage brothers were sitting to tell mom and dad that Beth wasn’t with us. My brothers grabbed me, pinched me and whispered in my ear, “don’t you say a word.” So I didn’t and we continued on down the road.

It took my dad about 20 minutes to realize that the car was silent. He pulled over on the side of the road, stopped the engine and got out. He ordered us all to line up on the side of the road and he began counting. He stared at us and said, “Where’s your sister?” I broke down in tears and stuttered through my sobs, “We left her at the gas station and they wouldn’t let me tell you!”

My dad instructed my mom to get back in the car. He looked at my brothers and me and said, “You don’t leave family behind.” He then turned, walked away and got in the car with mom. They drove away. They left us behind. They returned with Beth and we never left her behind again.

I’m guessing that in my journey north with my sons there may be moments when I’d like to leave them behind and perhaps moments when they'll want to leave me behind. But we’ll remember my dad’s words, “You don’t leave family behind.”  We’ll enjoy the ride, the holiday, the birthday. We’ll endure the ride and we’ll all get back home. We won’t leave anyone behind.

Hear more about my awesome sister in my story:
"Blonde, Beautiful and Bubbly"  click for download

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thank you Veterans

I had planned to share a totally different story today before I realized it is Veterans Day. I woke up thinking about the men and women who serve our country and make sacrifices everyday that the rest of us can’t even imagine. I woke up thinking how often we take our freedom for granted and don’t think for a minute about the soldiers and families affected by their years of service. Often their years of service affect their lives long after they have served.

I was married to a veteran for 18 years. Sam served in the Marine Corps in the early 70’s and was a Vietnam vet. I met Sam 15 years after his service in Vietnam and although he rarely spoke about his combat experience I knew those years were never far from his mind.

I knew one night as we drove home to West Virginia from Massachusetts after a visit to grandparents. Russell was just a baby and was seated in the car seat behind the driver’s seat of our little Toyota Tercell. It was the wee hours of the morning. I was sleeping. Sam was driving. We were on Interstate 81 somewhere in Pennsylvania. Russell had a propensity for projectile vomit at odd and random moments. I woke up as the car was swerving all over the road and Sam was screaming, “I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!” He was holding on to the back of his head and vomit was streaming down his neck. Russell had awoken, thrown up and fallen right back to sleep. When Sam came to his senses and was able to pull over to the side of the road we had a big laugh about that one. Actually, that story has been repeated for over twenty years and still makes us laugh.
But just beneath the surface of the laughter there is the memory of the wounds suffered that can’t be seen. I knew those service years haunted Sam long after he left the Marine Corps.  I knew by his nightmares that woke me from deep sleep. I knew by look on his face when a patriotic song was played. I knew by the sheer bravery it took for him to bring his sons to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. and attempt to share with them his experience. I watched him crumble before that wall and be swept up in the arms of other veterans, complete strangers to him who helped him heal a little bit that day. I knew and I said a little prayer each time I kissed the scars on his face.

It is my hope today that we all stop and give thanks to all the men and women who serve our country. It is my hope that we say a little prayer for them and for their families. It is my hope that we as a nation do whatever it takes to help our veterans heal the wounds of battle, those visible and those unseen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Confessions of a Sugar Junkie

We’ve begun the season loved and hated by sugar junkies all over the country. We move with ease from Halloween candy to Thanksgiving pies to Christmas Cookies to Valentine’s chocolate to Easter jelly beans and chocolate bunnies . . . and on and on it goes.

All the sugar flowing through by veins recently reminded me of my former addiction to Dairy Queen.

I was an exhausted mother of two young boys struggling to find my pre-pregnancy body somewhere beneath the extra padding of motherhood. My husband, Sam, was a long haul truck driver more often on the road than home. So one afternoon when he was home I jumped at the chance to leave him with the boys for an hour to go walk on the community track.

It really was my plan to walk, really it was. But as I drove into town my car just drove right past the track and pulled into the local Dairy Queen. I went inside and ordered a Brownie Sunday and sat down in a booth by myself. HEAVEN! No boys to referee or clean up after. For a few quiet moments it was just me and the SUGAR.  It was a beautiful thing.
I got back in my car thoroughly jacked up on sugar and drove right past the track without even thinking about a walk. I drove home and went into the house. When I arrived Sam asked me if I enjoyed my walk. In the brain fog of all that sugar I had to think for a minute about what he was talking about but quickly regained some sense and said my walk was great. He smiled at me and said, “That’s good. While you were walking at the track someone left your wallet at the Dairy Queen.”  BUSTED!!

I returned to the Dairy Queen, collected my wallet and immediately drove to the drive up window and got a cone to go. I drove past the track, again, and went on home not even thinking about a walk.

I think that perhaps this is the season to forgo my sugar addiction and be rid of the extra pregnancy pounds. I’ve moved far from the Dairy Queen. My boys are 19 and 22 now. It’s probably time.  But on the other hand there are those Dunkin' Donut pumpkin munchkins . . . I can pick them up at the drive through and my wallet will never leave the car!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dr. Canoe and Love that Heals

Motherhood is never a predictable journey. My journey began on October 19th, 1990 after 33 hours of labor. Russell was not in a hurry to get here. When he arrived he had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was blue and the doctors quickly determined that he had congenital heart disease. I was told we would have to go to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. I was scared. So I called my mommy. I cried softly into the phone and said to mom, “something’s wrong with my baby.” I then fell asleep exhausted from labor.

When I awoke my mother was seated next to me holding my son. To this day I do not know how she spanned the 500 miles between us in the blink of an eye, but I was grateful. When we arrived at Children’s hospital we were all anxious to hear what the experts had to say. What I remember was hearing a lot of big words I did not understand, with the exception of surgery. When I looked at the surgeon as he described what he needed to do to repair Russell’s heart, I did not hear his words. I only saw the size of his hands. They looked like canoe paddles. Russell in his entirety fit in the palm of his hand.
What I do remember is hearing the doctors say that Russell was too small for the surgery and that we were to take him home, watch to make sure he didn’t turn blue and to bring him back into the hospital each week to be examined. And so it began. I watched over him as he slept and kept him close when awake.
At five weeks old “Dr.Canoe”, as I had begun to call him, determined that he could no longer wait to perform the corrective surgery and would have to do a temporary procedure that would keep Russell from further spells of cyanosis until he was big enough for corrective surgery.  We spent Russell’s first holidays at Children’s Hospital and would spend a great deal of time there over the course of the next three years.
Motherhood is never quite what you expect. My second son, Joel was born on June 20th, 1993 after 90 minutes of labor. Within a week of Joel’s birth Russell was back in the hospital in need of immediate corrective surgery. Again, I called my mommy. It seems in my memory that again mom and dad traveled those five hundred miles south in the time it took me to hang up the phone.

Russell’s surgery was complicated and recovery was slow. Mom, dad and I fell into a rhythm as caretakers to a newborn and a two and a half year old in ICU. Mom and dad kept Joel in the hospital cafeteria and would call me down from the ICU when it was time to nurse Joel. I’d nurse Joel, and mom or dad would go up to the ICU with Russell. It was a crazy and difficult time.

Russell’s recovery was slowed by his absolute refusal to get out of his bed. Dr. Canoe kept insisting that Russell get up and walk around the unit and visit the children’s play room. At some point in Dr.Canoe’s frustration, he became aware that we had a newborn son downstairs in the hospital cafeteria. Against all hospital rules, he immediately asked me to bring Joel upstairs into Russell’s room. He then told Russell that the only way to see his brother was to get out of bed and push Joel’s stroller to the play room.

And so began our daily parade. Russell pushed Joel’s stroller, and we walked behind pushing Russell’s IV pole and monitors. We were quite a sight. During that time I learned that Dr. Canoe’s heart was as big as his hands and brotherly love is a force to be reckoned with. Surgery may have fixed Russell’s heart, but it was love that healed him. It is always love that heals.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Love. Protection. And Sleep Deprivation.

I have condensed in my mind the journey of motherhood. It consists of love, protection and sleep deprivation. My two sons, Russell, 22 and Joel, 19 are as different as night and day, yet similar in many ways. Regardless of their similarities and differences, they have changed my world. That’s love.
Russell arrived after 33 hours of labor; he took his time and was in no hurry to get here. I remember calling my grandmother when Russell was born. She was so excited for me. She knew Russell was born with congenital heart disease (more about that in next week’s story Dr. Canoe Paddle) and she said to me, “Love that boy and watch over him.” And so I did. I watched him when he was awake and I watched him when he slept. That’s love and protection!

Joel arrived after 90 minutes of labor. He’s been fast and fearless since the moment he arrived. Joel never slept. He was climbing and running before he was one. We had to lock him in his crib at night with a loosely woven blanket and vice grips just to contain him so we could sleep. That’s love, protection and sleep deprivation.
When I called my grandmother after Joel was born she simply said, “Oh . . . bless you child.” She was the mother of two sons. She knew what was in store for me. As the boys grew older I learned that all I really needed was a black and white striped jersey and a whistle to succeed in motherhood. Each day started with the battle cry, “Let the games begin.” I was the referee. Russell and Joel could fight about anything. I believe it was their language. On long car rides (1000 miles to grandparents) they would fight about who was looking out whose window. It was unbelievable. I had intentionally bought that big uncool minivan just so they wouldn’t be able to reach each other while I was driving. But I could do nothing about who was looking out whose window.
I remember one trip north to visit grandparents I stopped at Promised Land State Park in Pennsylvania. I planned a camp out and an early morning hike in hopes of wearing the boys out in order to have a quiet second half of the journey. It seemed like a brilliant plan to me. We enjoyed an evening walk under the stars and crawled into the tent to sleep. I was between them and had just fallen asleep when I awoke to the sound of them arguing. I sat up thinking, “now what!” But as I looked at them I realized they were sound asleep. Unbelievable! That’s just sleep deprivation!
During their teen years when they had to move away from childhood friends and then watch their father leave they formed a bond that touches my heart to this day. It’s as if when their world was falling apart they decided they’d stick together. They still argue and fight of course but they referee themselves quite well. At times I’ve watched their bond and have felt on the outside looking in wondering if I still fit in their world. Do they need my love and protection I wonder?  I still lose sleep.
A couple years ago we were in Massachusetts with grandparents and family for Christmas. We woke up the day after to news of an incoming blizzard. My boys were determined to get home to South Carolina and not be snowed in for New Years Eve away from friends. Being the responsible adult that I am, I stated that there was no way I was going to drive in a snow storm. They answered, “Fine. We’ll drive.”
Joel, in his fast and fearless way, started off in the driver seat for our journey. He pushed it far longer than I would have dreamed possible before he finally turned the wheel over to my more cautious Russell. I was thankful when after less than an hour Russell declared the roads unsafe. In ten hours we made it as far as Pennsylvania. We pulled into a motel off the highway and miracle of miracles, they had two rooms left. I took both, said good night to the boys and was glad to be rid of them for a few hours.

I had just fallen asleep when I heard a loud crash as my door was being kicked in. I screamed and the intruder ran off. My boys heard my screams from their room and came out running, chasing after the intruder. The intruder was not found.The police were called, reports were filed.

That night my boys tucked me in and kissed me goodnight. When I woke up, they were sitting on the floor with their backs to the door watching over me. Life is a circle of love, protection and sleep deprivation. My world is forever changed. I'm glad.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Duct Tape Love

Life is a circle
I’m caught in the middle
Between sons and parents
1000 miles divide us
It is duct tape that binds us.

 This summer I had the honor and pleasure of staying with my 80 year old parents in MA for six weeks. After two months in a rehab hospital dealing with congestive heart failure and late stage Parkinson's Disease, dad decided it was time to be back at home so he could sleep with mom. I left SC and traveled North to help with the transition from hospital to home.  I learned the true meaning of what it is to be of “middle age”.

 One week into my time away from home I received word from Russell, 21, that he needed duct tape. I found this odd as my dad has always supplied his children and grandchildren with an endless supply of the stuff. When I reminded him where our many rolls were kept he simply stated, “We need more.” When I inquired as to what he could possibly need more for, he simply responded, “You don’t want to know. And don’t worry. We’ve got it covered.” Oh my!  I was 1000 miles away. There was nothing I could do, but I had terrible visions of the state of my home.

During the second week of my stay mom woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that she needed to go to the hospital. Mom’s healthy. She doesn’t go to the hospital. That’s dad’s thing.  She stated that her blood pressure was sky high and she wasn’t feeling right.  She told me that I needed to stay home with dad and that Eric, my brother, would be with her in the ER. She said dad was sleeping and not to wake him. But as soon as she was gone dad knew something was wrong. When I told him he began to tremble and shake as he does when he’s stressed. He grabbed my hand and asked me to lie down with him until morning. As I laid there next to him on their small double bed with him shaking next to me I thought, “How does  mom sleep like this?”

As soon as the sun rose dad was desperate for news of mom and asked that I call Eric. With the news that mom was being admitted to monitor blood pressure and stabilize medication I assured dad that mom would be fine and would likely be home the next day.
Dad insisted that we go visit mom and spend the day with her in the hospital. This was a switch! We’ve spent many days and nights by my father’s hospital bedside over the years, but never my mom’s.  With dad’s Parkinson’s disease, arthritic spine and congestive heart failure, getting him dressed and out the door to travel to the hospital would be no easy undertaking. But there was no discussion of not going.
Dad insisted that he wanted to look nice for mom.  He wanted his hair and beard trimmed. He wanted a shower and he did not want to wear sweat pants and a tee shirt. He wanted real slacks and a button shirt. Oh my . . . this was going to take awhile. And so we began.

It’s not easy to trim the hair and beard on the bobbling head of a Parkinson’s patient! But we managed. Dad showered and I waited outside the bathroom door. When he opened the door he had shaving cream all over his face and he held out a razor for me to shave him. As I watched his head bobble up and down I thought, “No Way!”  My dad was gracious and understood my fear. He then slowly turned back into the bathroom and stood in front of the sink, shaking from head to toes. I watched in terror as my father’s trembling hand approached his bobbling head. I thought to myself, “This is going to be ugly and bloody”. But in an amazing demonstration of focus, determination and muscle memory, my father’s hand and head stopped shaking. He shaved his face and throat around his beard with perfection and not a drop of blood.
We then began the slow process of dressing, one button at a time. It seemed to take forever.  I could see the pain in his whole body as we finally loaded him into the car for the drive to the hospital. He looked so frail and weak. A mere shadow of the strong man I remember. And yet, he did look handsome.

When we arrived at the hospital I could tell that my dad was in a hurry to get in to see my mom. I reminded him to wait until I could get around to help him out of the car. But by the time I came around to his door, he had literally somersaulted out of the car. He looked up at me, smiled and stated, “I get out that way sometimes.”  This time it hadn’t worked so well. My dad had split his head open and blood was pouring down his newly shaved face and neatly trimmed hair. I told my father that we would have to go into the ER for some stitches. He immediately responded in the strong voice I remember, “NO HOSPITAL’s for me, EVER again!” He then reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief and held it over the wound. He then instructed me to get the duct tape out of the glove box.
Playing by my dad’s rules we patched and cleaned him up, put a hat on his head and went to visit mom. Upon entering the hospital room, my mother sat up, smiled and said, “oh Ted you look so handsome!”It was worth every terrifying moment of the journey to get there.

Life is a circle, and stuck in the middle is not a bad place to be.
Happy 58th Anniversary mom and dad!!!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Brat

I was a brat. I didn’t mean to be; I just was. Or at least that was what my brother Chris thought. Chris was 7 years older than me and everywhere he was, was where I wanted to be. But in the spring of 1972 when I was 8 and he was 15, everywhere he was, was not where he wanted me to be.

Chris was the brother who taught me to swim, ride my bike, climb trees and pop the heads off my sisters Barbies. Of course I would want to be with him. So when mom and dad sat me down and told me that on Saturday afternoons Chris would have to babysit me while they did something with Beth, Brian and Eric, I was ecstatic!!

I couldn’t wait for that first Saturday to arrive. Finally it did and I was alone with Chris. He would have to play with me. I had it all planned out in my mind: we would ride bikes to Forest Park, climb trees and go swimming. But then there was a knock at the door. It was Elsie, Chris’ first girlfriend.

Chris and Elsie went into the den and sat down on the couch to watch TV. I went into the den and sat down right between them and proceeded to beg Chris to play with me stating firmly that mom said he had to. Chris just poked me, pinched me, called me a brat and told me to get lost. I just sat. Elsie was much smarter than Chris. She didn’t call me names or poke me. She just reached into her pocket and paid me to leave. That worked. And it worked for weeks.
 Life was good, until my parents informed us that we had to move. We couldn’t take Elsie with us. Chris was mad and my cash flow dried up. It was devastating. When we arrived at the new house Chris went upstairs to his new room, closed the door and didn’t come out for years. I know he was in there because I would knock on his door and ask him to come out and play with me. He would just throw things at the door and yell, “GO AWAY BRAT”.
Chris did come out of his room in the middle of the night while the rest of us slept. He would go downstairs to the kitchen and bake apple pies. He learned to bake the best apple pies in the world. He would always bake two pies. He would eat one by himself and he’d leave the second pie for the rest of us. I loved those mornings when I woke up and the whole house smelled like apple pie. My dad would heat up the pie and we’d have warm apple pie and ice cream for breakfast. Awesome.
But the years went by and Chris moved to New York City to go to college. More years went by and I moved to Maryland to go to college. Chris stayed in New York City, got married and in the fall of 1990 he had his first son. I stayed in Maryland, got married and in the fall of 1990 I had my first son, Russell.
Russell was born with congenital heart disease and we had to spend a great deal of time in the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. One night when I was there alone with Russell watching his tiny little body hooked up to machines that blinked and buzzed constantly I got restless and decided to take a walk around the hospital. As I walked down a long corridor, I smelled apple pie. I couldn’t help myself, I just followed my nose. At the end of the hall, my brother Chris stepped out of the nurse’s lounge carrying two apple pies and a pint of vanilla ice cream. He looked at me with a big goofy grin and asked me if I wanted some pie.
We gave one of the pies to the nurses working that night and the other pie and the ice cream we took into Russell’s room. We ate. We talked. We laughed. We shared our stories until the wee hours of the morning until Chris had to leave to drive back to New York City. After he left, I stared at the empty pie plate in the trash and thought to myself, “Wow, my brother Chris came all the way from New York City to hang out with me and not one time did he call me a brat or tell me to get lost!”  Life is good.                                       . . .  Happy 55th Birthday Chris!!

Everyone has a story to tell . . .
Audio version of "The Brat"  -  click here 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crazy is Contagious!

My mom believed our dog, Tim, had a story to tell.  I’m sure dogs have stories to tell. However, the trouble started when mom became convinced that Tim was going to tell her his story. That’s just crazy.

As you may remember from a previous blog post (Porcupines and dogs don’t mix) Tim was our German Sheppard. He came to us as a rescue dog after his training on the canine narcotics task force went terribly wrong. Tim suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had to be retired from the force.  The chief of police decided that Tim was in need of pastoral care and that is how Tim came to live with us.
When Tim arrived at our home he refused to enter the house. He would make it as far as the back door and then collapse spread eagle, nose down and shaking. My dad set him up in the back yard with a zip line and long leash giving him plenty of room to run. My mother would take her chair outside and sit with Tim. She would pat his head, talk to him and listen to his story. She would tell us, “Tim has got a story to tell!”
It took about two weeks of pastoral care in the back yard until Tim was finally ready to come inside. My father hung a sign on the back door that said, “Tim PLEASE KNOCK HERE” and he did. He would come to the back door, pause at the sign and then knock. My mom was ecstatic! She said, “See, Tim can read! He’s going to tell us his story! He’s such a smart dog.”
In the evening when my mom would sit down to watch the ABC news, Tim would sit with her. At that time in New England there was a well known physician, Dr. Timothy Johnson, who would come on the news to give his health advice. When his voice came on, “Hello this is Dr. Timothy Johnson”, Tim’s ears would perk up. My mom would laugh and say, “See how smart Tim is, he recognizes his own name”. Then she would begin talking to him, “Tim, you need to go out and get your medical degree. You could have your own ‘Canine Health Spot’. I’d tune in and listen to you”. I would just roll my eyes and think, “My mom is crazy.”
Tim truly was a smart dog except for this one thing. Tim was neutered, but he didn’t know it. If you weren’t fast enough at the back door clipping his leash to his collar he would take off running for the woods. He would be gone for hours. My mom would get mad, and then she’d get nervous and worried. She’d say, “What if he gets lost and can’t find his way back home?” My brother Eric would respond, “Don’t worry Mom, he’s so smart he’ll call for a ride.” Mom would answer, “You’re right! He’s a smart dog!”  And I would think, “They’re both crazy!”

One afternoon, mom wasn’t quick enough with the leash and Tim took off running for the woods. He was gone for hours and had not returned home by the time my sister, dad, mom and I sat down to eat dinner. Eric wasn’t home. Half way through dinner, the phone rang and my mother got up to answer it:
MOM: “Hello, Johnson residence. May I help you.”
VOICE: “Hello this is Tim Johnson. May I please speak to Ted.”
MOM:  hahahahah “Well Tim, you finally did it. (turning to us with a wink, “It’s Tim calling.”) Did you get so tired chasing tail you need a ride. Eric said you’d call. Did you find yourself a nice little bitch in heat today?”
VOICE:   “Excuse me. This is Dr. Timothy Johnson. May I please speak to Ted?”
MOM:   “Oh well now, ‘it’s Dr. Timothy Johnson’ is it? And here I thought you were just out chasing tail today. But you did it. You went out and got yourself that medical degree. You go dog! Well I look forward to hearing your ‘Canine Health Spot’ tonight! But let me tell you something Tim, if you come home dirty, wet and stinkin’ I am going to have to hose you down in the back yard, ‘Doctor’ or not!”
VOICE:  “Excuse me! Is this Reverend Faith Johnson? This really is Dr. Timothy Johnson from the ABC news. I really need to speak with Ted Johnson.”
MOM:  hahaha  “Oh Tim, there’s no need to be so formal . . . “
About that time, my father remembered leaving a message for Dr. Timothy Johnson requesting that he be the keynote speaker at an upcoming event. He stopped laughing and began to wave at my mother, “STOP, STOP . . . it is Dr. Johnson.”

My mother didn’t see my dad, but then my brother Eric walked in the back door followed by Tim. Eric sat down to eat. Tim laid down on the kitchen floor. Tim was dirty. Tim was wet. Tim was smelly. But Tim was not on the phone. And neither was Eric.
We watched as the color drained from my mother’s face. We could hear the voice on the other end of the phone, “Reverend Johnson, Reverend Johnson?” My mother didn’t say a word. She just slowly handed my dad the phone.

My dad took the phone and said, “Oh Dr. Johnson, I am so sorry about all that. That was my wife on the phone. You see our dog, Tim, ran away today and she thought it was him calling.”
I don’t know what Dr. Timothy Johnson thought of my parents, but I learned that crazy is contagious!

Everyone's got a story to tell . . .

Sunday, September 23, 2012

No Blessing For Those Who Hurry

“Pole’, pole’ child . . . haraka, haraka, akuna baraka.” Slow down child. There is no blessing for those who hurry.

The voices of the elders in Matondoni, Kenya ring out to me 25 years later. Slow down child. How often I have forgotten that lesson over the years. But today their voices are loud and clear in my head. Slow down.

I was 22 years old and I had just completed my final semester of college with a three month program through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I’d climbed Mt. Kenya, hiked through the Masai Mara Game Reserve and sailed on a dhow. I had learned to speak enough Swahili to barter successfully in the markets and travel on my own. I thought I had acclimated to the slow, relaxed pace of Kenyan life but then I arrived at the village that 25 years later continues to change and teach me.

I spent my final weeks in Kenya living among the people of Matdondoni. While our NOLS group had been sailing the coast on the dhows a fire had ripped through the village of Matdondoni.  After the course was over I stayed to help with the rebuilding projects.

It was an amazing experience to become immersed in a culture and a community far different than I had ever known. The people worked in community to rebuild their village. They began by rebuilding their place of worship, then the school, then the homes of the elders and next the homes of the families with the most children. I learned what they valued and witnessed the value of working together as a community.

Each day had a slow, peaceful yet focused rhythm. We rose early and worked hard through the morning and early afternoon. But as the sun beat down and the temperature rose, we rested. Or we played soccer. In the evening we gathered to share a meal and listen to the stories of the elders. I did not understand the language of the stories, but I immediately felt the power of story. I watched in awe as one elder after the other held the attention of an entire village from the oldest to the smallest. I sat spellbound soaking in those stories and marveling at the power words had to connect generations of people.  But the true miracle of those stories would happen during the day as I watched small gatherings of children during the afternoon siesta retell the stories of their elders. I learned to slow down and listen.

As my weeks there passed I heard less often the call of the elders to slow down. But now 25 years later I hear their voices loud and clear in my head. “Pole’ pole’ child, haraka, haraka akuna baraka.” Slow down child there is no blessing for those who hurry.

So for today, I will slow down. I will listen to the stories all around me. I will take the time to share my family stories with my sons. They are my village. They will know where and who they come from. I will know them.

Matdondoni may be thousands of miles away, but there is community everywhere. We just need to slow down and listen for it.     . . . Pole’ pole’ child.
Everyone has a story to tell . . .
Resources for the curious mind:  Find out about taking a course in the wilderness

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Family Matters . . .

Aside from the porcupine encounters (see last week’s post), Timmy had a wonderful life in Nova Scotia. He was everyone’s dog and made each of us feel like he was our own special companion, protector and friend. As I think about it now, he must have been a very busy dog. When I disappeared into the woods to explore my imagination, Timmy was always with me. As Beth hung out near the cabin or on the dock listening to music until her batteries wore out, Timmy was beside her.  As my mother sat in her chair reading, planning or cooking our next meal, Timmy was always by her side. When my brothers and dad went off into the woods to find the next perfect tree to cut down or to drill the well, Timmy was right by their side. How could Timmy be everywhere at the same time? I guess he was a busy dog who made it all look easy and relaxed. He would run between all the members of his family checking to make sure we were safe and accounted for. He’d lie down at our feet and watch our world. I wonder what he thought of us. But I wonder what he thought of his new world with so much to explore, so many new smells and creatures to chase. He explored the woods, the lake shore and us. He probably got to know us better than we knew ourselves.

I guess we all got to know ourselves during those summers spent with family, separated from the world. We learned the importance of family, dreaming big dreams, working together, overcoming obstacles, and sticking with a task, even when it gets hard.


So as I finish my series of Nova Scotia stories and pictures, this is what I remember: arterial bleeding is bad, cast iron stoves don’t float, kiln dried lumber does float, leaches suck, rocks are heavy, my brother Eric is indestructible, friends matter, porcupines and dogs don’t mix, the imagination is a wonderful thing, the sound of the loons at dusk is unforgettable. My father is amazing.

This is what I learned:  The smell of the woods enters your soul and never leaves. Life in the woods will change you forever. Family takes priority time. Teenagers can survive without electricity, running water and TV. My mother is amazing. Some things stick with you forever and shape the person you become in ways you never really understand. We don’t need to be entertained 24/7. Silence is good, unscheduled time is vital. Very little in the way of material things are needed to live a full and happy life. And mostly, family matters.
Everyone has a story to tell . . .