Isabelle is about to graduate from elementary school—which is impossible because it was only a few months ago (in real time—not this awful, fake, speedy time which steals our babies from us) that she graduated from kindergarten. I can see her now, colorful reading train trailing over her sweet plaid dress, as she walked proudly to the front of the outside chapel gathering to sing her song. I remember posting on my Facebook page that I cried, not because she was graduating from Kindergarten, but because I knew how quickly the rest of the elementary school years would fly. And I was right (which happens more than you’d think—just ask the husband).
First Day of Fifth Grade
The difficulty with accepting that she’s going to MIDDLE SCHOOL in August is that in my mind Isabelle is exactly the same as she was on that last day of Kindergarten—exactly. She may suddenly be impossibly tall, her feet may be one size smaller than my own, and she may know all kinds of things about math and science (that I either never knew to start with or lost during childbirth), but I still look at her and see a five-year old. This may be an occupational hazard of parenting; maybe she will always be five, even when she’s grown, and married, and long gone. Maybe other parents look at their babies and see the toddler, or the infant, or the ten-year-old, but for me five is the magic age—the age where I hit a mental freeze.
So, before I let my five-year-old go to middle school, I want to say something about the elementary years.
I have loved, truly adored, being the mama of a primary schooler. The early morning cheerio-filled rides to school together, hand-in-hand walks up the hill, goodbye-for-now hugs, and kisses blown during Christmas shows are indelibly printed on my heart. Even those hours I spent sticking cotton balls on a black shirt (she was a sheep), and the time I hosted an at-home birthday party where everyone threw up (before they’d eaten) have taken on a rosy, nostalgic glow. These were GOOD days, people. I suspected it while they were happening. I savored them. Okay, so in the interests of total honesty, I did not savor the glue gun burns or the vomit, but I think I recognized that they were a rite of passage.
When the husband and I tell people where Isabelle goes to school, we tend to sigh a bit over the word, Westminster. It means so much to us. Isabelle’s elementary school —that small brick building surrounded by trees on the edge of a creek—is a place packed full of love, sweetness, and God-breathed goodness. It is one of the reasons elementary school has been so great.
But I think that the main reason is her teachers.
From the moment that I walked my opinionated, pigtailed, and oh-so-beloved three-year-old into pre-school, she has been loved, nurtured, taught, disciplined, and loved some more by the best women I know.
I could probably write a book on all the things I want to thank Isabelle’s teachers for, but in honor of teacher-appreciation week and the end of elementary school for this mama and her girl: here’s the short list:
THANK YOU FOR YOUR DISCRETION: Unless you really get to know your kid’s teachers (and I think you should), you will never fully appreciate the discretion they exercise on a daily basis. If you think for one minute that your little angels know the difference between things “we share at school and things that are private,” you are sadly deluded. I first became enlightened in Kindergarten when the fabulous Mrs. Rasmussen stopped me as I was collecting Isabelle and said with an amused glint in her eye, “Emma, we prayed for your hairy legs today.” Let me give you some background, lest you run away with the image of me as a yeti. The night before, I had asked the husband to pick up some razor blades for me at the grocery store. In a not unprecedented move, he forgot to get the blades and brought home tea bags instead. Sadly, I was hormonal and temporarily incapable of grace. I banged plates and declared that I would “have hairy legs forever and that was fine with me. FINE.” I did not think the five-year old playing serenely with her stuffed animals was listening, but come prayer request time at school, she raised her chubby little fist and said the following: “Can we please pray for my Mommy’s hairy legs. She’s very upset about them.” Discretion, people, is next to Godliness.
THANK YOU FOR BEING CREATIVE GENIUSES: I taught Isabelle to read when she was four because she had been asking me to before she could even say “th” properly —“Show me how to do dat, Mama. I do dat myself, okay?” I can tell you hand-on-heart that those reading program advertisements showing patient mothers holding their small ones in their laps, mother and child wearing matching joyful smiles while sounding out words are a LIE. It was mind numbing, frustrating, and soul destroying work. The fiftieth time that you explain that “home” is not pronounced “hommie,” a little piece of you dies. (Thank you Hope for teaching me that the sneaky e makes the vowel say its name—without that I may have lost what is left of my mind). However, despite the obvious difficulties involved in teaching small, fiery little souls who listen for five minutes and then declare, “I teach you, Mama. You listen to ME now,” Isabelle’s elementary school teachers have managed to instill in her knowledge and understanding of impossible things like fractions, long division, scientific methods and principles, astronomy, grammar, literature, the bible, Latin, Spanish, handwriting, music, P.E., and art. Clearly her elementary school teachers are superior mortals, capable of great patience, nobility, and creativity, so I treat them accordingly.
THANK YOU FOR THE WISDOM: Every now and then, someone we know, a friend, an acquaintance, or even a stranger, will compliment Isabelle. When that happens, I always think of her teachers. The husband and I work hard at home to teach Isabelle to be kind, to be respectful, to work hard, to love others well, but her teachers have INSPIRED her to do those things, which is a different thing altogether. I can’t tell you how many times a day, I hear the words, “When this happened, I remembered what Mrs. Booth told me about…” or “Mrs. Ras always says that we should…” or “Mrs. Moore thinks that…” (The list of the names of all the people who know more than me goes on and on…). And all of these statements seem to end in wisdom. Seriously, I find myself thinking sometimes before I act, “Well, Mrs. _________ would probably say…” Thank you beloved teachers for somehow knowing ALL of the important things and for teaching them to my child (so she can in turn teach her mother 😉 ). “Train up a child in the way that she should go: and when she is old, she will not depart from it.” (I played around with the pronouns here, but it’s mostly Proverbs 22:6). Elementary school teachers, you have trained my child so very well. She will live a better life because of your faithfulness.
Mrs. Rasmussen, Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Booth, Mrs. Howard, Mrs. Cohron, Mrs. Ferris, Mrs. White, Mrs. Schaefer, Mrs. Masters, Mrs. C., Mrs. Lavender, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Kirsche, Mrs. Stowe, Ms. Hauntsman, Mr. Donatelli — from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU. Please know that your names are spoken with awe and love at the Stephens’ household. You are adored, and prayed for, and appreciated, and although I won’t have a child in elementary school anymore (sob), I hope we will be friends always.
I’m not as talented as Tim O’ Brien, and I can’t claim to have visited the places I describe, but my story is true—if borrowed. I got it straight from the protagonist
It happened in Vietnam, during the war.
Lt. Colonel Jim Hunt was sitting on the side of the river known as the Hua River that flows out of the China Sea in Vietnam. It was a hot Sunday morning—a heavy traffic day for the Vietnamese moving around the streets. Lt. Colonel Hunt was visiting with a marine advisor to a South Vietnamese unit.
Along the edge of the river—for about a four-mile stretch—ran a JP4 jet fuel pipeline, and though the men on the edge of the river didn’t know it, that pipeline had sprung a leak, whether because of deliberate intervention or accident, Jim never knew. Someone lit up that leak though, maybe with the spark of cigarette, maybe with a lighted match, and suddenly, unexpectedly, in the middle of the day, the whole edge of the river exploded into flames.
The flames blew two and three hundred feet into the air, a terrifying sight, and just behind where Jim and the marine advisor were sitting— less than a half mile away—was the South Vietnamese headquarters. The South Vietnamese women and children often travelled with their soldiers, staying close to the headquarters, and when the flames erupted like a giant blow torch, they were driven by fear into the mine-ridden field behind the buildings.
The scene was the worst kind of chaos: the acrid scent of fire in the air; the screams of men, women, and children; and worst of all, the sound of the mines—nicknamed Bouncing Betties—shooting up into the air and exploding, renting soil and flesh indiscriminately apart.
Jim Hunt saw the women and children trapped in the mine field. He knew that the only way to find the mines was to crawl through the long grass with a bayonet, probing at the roots of the grass, and detonate them each individually, but he couldn’t do that because of the bodies, and the women and children in harm’s way, and the screaming. He had to think fast. So he found a helicopter pilot and asked the pilot if he would help him. Jim didn’t ask for permission from his commanding officer for what he was planning because he knew he wouldn’t get it. The idea was too risky, the helicopter worth too much. But the pilot, who was a hell of a good man, was willing to do whatever Jim asked, regardless of the risk, because he trusted him—knew that Jim was a leader who never lost his feeling for his people.
Lt. Colonel Jim Hunt was an Agriculture major; he’d grown up on a poor sharecropping farm in Piney Woods, Texas, and deep in war-torn Vietnam, his farming background did not fail him. He was faced with women and children trapped in a field that was littered with mines and dead bodies. He had at his disposal a rope, a helicopter, a marine advisor, and two pilots who believed in their leader. That was enough.
Jim tied his rope to the helicopter and then instructed the pilot to hover over each of the people trapped below. One by one, Jim roped the people, and, once he had the person safely in his rope’s embrace, he instructed the pilot raise the helicopter straight up, until it was above the tree tops, and move them to safety. It took hours, but in all that time, the group only set off one Bouncing Betty. They flew the helicopter lower than they were allowed to fly, got some holes in it, but at the end of that unauthorized mission, Jim and his rope, and his friends, had rescued thirteen people from the mine field—thirteen souls, who would go on to live and breathe and love because of the ingenuity and heart and courage of an Agriculture major who had a rope.
I would never have met any of the members of the Cardiac Group if Jim Hunt hadn’t accused me of being a spy. The Cardiac Group are café regulars, just like me, but all I knew of them was their nickname, that the group was comprised mostly of older gentlemen, and that sometimes, they sat in my writing spot.
Then Jim Hunt spoke up one day, made his accusation. “You dress like a spy,” he insisted one rainy Wednesday afternoon, calling me over to stand in front of his group.
I glanced down at the clothes that I’d taught high school in that morning, and for a moment my plain black pants and pink shirt took on James Bondish proportions—maybe I hadn’t seen myself properly in the mirror. Maybe, instead of neat and teacherish, I actually looked mysterious and dangerous. That’s all it took really, to charm me, just the suggestion of my own mystique.
From then on, when I wrote at Barnes and Noble on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I chatted with the lovely members of the cardiac group—a group of men who mostly met in cardiac rehab after open heart surgery twenty years earlier. They teased me about being an English spy, gave me the 1950’s good wife guide for my refrigerator (much to Kim’s glee), and told me pieces of their stories. John and his lovely wife, Anne, hinted many times that I should get Jim Hunt to tell me some of his stories. “He’s a hero,” John whispered to me one day, “served in the war. He’ll never bring it up—you’ll have to ask him to tell you his stories.”
“Did you ever meet a real spy?” I asked Jim, teasing him.
“Other than you?” he quipped back.
“Other than me,” I agreed.
“Just one,” he said.
I wanted to sit down with him, ask him for his stories, but life keeps us so busy sometimes, so pointlessly frantic, that we put off the most important things. It took a lung cancer diagnosis, and Jim telling me, with his characteristic pragmatism, that since he didn’t want to do chemo, the doctor had given him about six months.
Six months to live. To tell the story of a life I could only imagine. “Wednesday,” I said, mentally cancelling my to-do list for that day. “Can you meet me here on Wednesday?”
“It’s a date,” he said, smiling.
“I’ll come along to chaperone,” said John.
I winked at him.
That first Wednesday came, and we sat down in my spot, Jim and I, with John right next to us, and the other members of the group pulling up chairs as we talked.
“I was born,” Jim began, with the kind of storytelling poise that Dickens himself might have envied, “in a very special time in our country’s history. 1929. We were a poor sharecropping family, living in Piney Woods, Texas. I say poor because they had a special name for people like us—white trash is what they called us. I didn’t know we were poor of course—my dad said I never missed a meal, and that’s all I knew. My earliest memory is on that little country farm where I grew up. It was 1934, I think, the Dustbowl. It was the first year the federal government came through with a program to save the people that were starving. I remember it because I was outside one day and looked up—and there, hanging from a tree, was my favorite cow being slaughtered. I’d just been milking her yesterday. Scared the living hell out of me.” He shook his head. “The government killed all the cows and other livestock, processed them, and made food. They left my parents three mother cows for producing milk and butter for the family.”
I must have gasped a little because he stopped talking. “I’ve never heard of that. They just took your parents’ animals?”
He nodded. “Yes. Not just ours— from the other farms too. The animals were starving too, so it was better in a way. The government did it for the good of the country, I guess. They couldn’t let people starve.”
“Weren’t your parents upset?”
“Oh my dad was always screaming and hollering about politicians and how bad they were, but he still voted democrat because he said the worst democrat was still better than the best republican. Besides, he didn’t want people starving. Things were different then.”
I shook my head, understanding and not understanding too.
“You wanted to hear my spy story, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I agreed, although really I wanted to hear all his stories. “Tell me your spy story.”
“Well, I’ve had three careers in my life without meaning to—the first was trying to survive growing up in a 1200 square foot house made of rough lumber with thirteen brothers and sisters. The second was the army. I joined up because the Korean War had started, and I tell you, I never had it so good. They gave me three outfits and fed me three meals a day. I got to sleep until 5:00 a.m. and they paid me $67.50 a month for the privilege. I was living big. They gave me my first toothbrush that wasn’t made out of a Sweet Gum bush and even took me to my first dental appointment. Hell, they had to show me how to put on my underwear because I’d never had any before.”
The group laughed big at that, and I smiled, falling out of the story for a minute.
“Anyway, the spy story—I was stationed at the Pentagon in 1965, and I was headed out on a trip to inspect units for training, to determine whether they were ready for combat. We were getting ready to send the first organized division to Vietnam—173rd Airborne Brigade. I had played basketball on Sunday at the Pentagon Athletic Center. We played pick-up basketball every Sunday there with the Washington Redskins professional football team. That particular Sunday I broke my arm, although I didn’t know it until Monday, right before I left for the trip. I went to the hospital, and a doctor put my arm in a cast. They left my fingers free so I could carry my briefcase with that hand and my suitcase with the other hand.”
He stopped for a minute, using his arms to show us how he managed his cases. Acting it out to make us smile.
“We were going to start that Monday and end up in San Antonio on Friday. I was meeting my wife and kids there on Saturday. That Friday night, in San Antonio, all training let out for Christmas, and I was sitting in the casual lounge of the officer’s club. I noticed a guy wearing civilian clothes. He had a bunch of girls gathered around him. He kept glancing over at me, as if he didn’t like me. I didn’t care. I might only have one arm, but I could still slug him good if I needed to. Anyway, after a while, one of the young ladies came over and asked if I would join them. I said no, but the next thing I knew, she and a couple more girls came back over and asked me again. I said no again. Finally, the guy himself walked over to me.
“I’ve been trying to be nice,” he said. “Why don’t you come over and have a drink with me?”
“Okay, I finally agreed. “I’ll have a drink.”
Right away, he asked a lot of questions, and I just got a feeling in my gut that he had a reason for asking all those questions. I didn’t tell him anything—kept it vague. He told me that he’d made arrangements at the Old Gunner Hotel for that night. He told those fifteen or twenty girls hanging around that he was taking them down there, and he even paid for their calls home to let their folks know where they’d be. He wanted to take us all to dinner at his expense and pay our cover charges at a nightclub. I agreed to go to dinner with them but not to the nightclub.
“What are you going to do in morning?” he asked me when I was leaving dinner.
“I’m going to the airport,” I told him. I was picking up Sandra and the kids the next morning.
“How are you getting there?”
“I’ve got a car. I don’t need a ride.”
The next morning though, the guy showed up with a car. “I’m not riding with you,” I said. “I already told you.”
“I know. I just wanted you to meet my driver.” She was a good looking blonde, not a day over eighteen. “If you ever want to come down to the valley in Texas, she’ll pick you up at the airport.”
“No thank you,” I told him.
“Whenever you get out of service, call this number,” he said. “I’ll put you to work immediately.”
I never saw him again. I got a couple of calls, but I never volunteered any information. I kept that card until I retired though. Turned out that guy got himself into a real mess.”
Jim paused. We were all quiet at the table, listening, waiting for the story to start again. He has that power—to take you into his story and make you want to stay there.
“That was my first encounter with a suspected spy,” he continued. “My second experience was when my daughter, Angel, told me that a friend of hers had been going to the coffee shop I frequent and had seen me and my friends there. I got to thinking. I had noticed a young lady sitting in the coffee shop with her computer. She dressed kind of like a spy, had a real thoughtful look about her. She would look over at us sometimes and smile. And every now and then, every hour or so, she’d type a line.”
“It’s me,” I said, half choking on my coffee.
He looked bemused as I continued to splutter and cough.
“I was just thinking,” I said, a pushing the words past a hiccup, “that this explains why I can’t finish my book, if I only type one line every hour.”
He smiled, nodding. “That might be it.”
“Tell me about the war,” I said on another Wednesday, when I was braver.
“People always want to hear about that,” he said, “when they hear I was in Vietnam.”
“How long were you there?”
“Sixteen months. A regular tour is twelve months, so a little longer.”
“That must have been hard.”
He shrugs, dismissing my concern. “I didn’t suffer from PTSD or anything like that when I came back, people always want to know why. I think it’s because when I went to Vietnam, I was thirty-nine. The boys I took in were nineteen, twenty, twenty-one—seeing their friends blown apart.”
He shook his head, stopped his story, filtering the things he will tell me from those he will not or maybe cannot.
“I had ten to twelve years’ experience, you see,” he went on. “So I knew to keep a certain detachment. I cared about my men. In war, you can never lose your feeling for your men. You have to make them your priority. If you don’t, if they see that you don’t care, see that in your eyes, then they’ll give up. But you do have to keep enough detachment to do what’s best for your unit and your mission. If a commander doesn’t understand that it’s different for the men below him, then they’ll be in trouble.”
“Did you get to go home on leave, during the sixteen months?” I asked. “To see your family.”
He shook his head. “I didn’t see my kids the entire sixteen months that I served in Vietnam. I saw my wife once in Hawaii when I got a few days R&R. She met me there.”
He laughed. “She was all upset when she got there that I looked so good. I was tanned and had been eating pretty well, and she’d been looking forward to feeding me up and taking care of me.”
The memory made him laugh, but I couldn’t help thinking about the sacrifice, not just Jim’s, but Sandra’s, and the kids’—Chuck, Brad, Angel. No husband and no father for sixteen months. I struggle when my husband goes away for a few days. I made a note, to remember what true service is, to not get caught up in our me, me, me world.
“How did the kids cope with not seeing you for so long?”
“They did okay,” he said. “I remember I got to call home just a few times. And it was almost always in the middle of the night their time. My eldest, Chuck, well, he heard his mama talking low and sweet on the phone, and he got up to eavesdrop. He challenged her on it.” Jim stopped talking for a minute, a proud smile on his face. “He was looking out for his daddy you see. Once he knew it was me on the phone, he was okay with it.” He chuckled at the memory.
“I know you earned a lot of medals while you were in Vietnam,” I said, shooting an apologetic glance at John and Larry. “They told me.”
Jim shook his head. “I didn’t ever read the write-ups. I got the silver star for valor and three distinguished flying crosses. I don’t want to talk about all of them, but I’ll tell you about the silver star. I was awarded the silver star for a mission where I was in command of a 1500 man unit that made contact with a North Vietnamese regular army battalion. It was only my second day in command. By nightfall we had the battalion surrounded, and we ended up destroying it. We managed the whole operation without any U.S. losses and only twenty-six or twenty-seven injured. There were losses on the other side though. They would not surrender. We finally got 107 to come out after 3 or 4 days of fighting, but we had to bury 419 bodies.”
I marveled at his memory—that all of these long years later he can remember how many men were injured, how many of the enemy he had to bury. But maybe these are things that you cannot forget, no matter how many years pass.
“Were you scared?” I asked. “I mean, I’m scared all the time, and I’m not at war. Were you ever frightened?”
He thought about this question for a while, pondered it. “I should have been. I had a lot to lose back then. But I coped by strategizing. By planning everything. I never did anything without really thinking it through first, assessing the risk.”
He pointed to the bathroom, at the far end of the coffee shop, and I followed his gaze. “If I had to make it, say from here where we’re sitting, to that bathroom, I would look at everything that could go wrong between here and there, all the places to hide. Then, once I had that figured out, I would make a plan.”
His eyes were clear blue, his gaze steady, and I knew, listening, that Jim Hunt might joke with me about being a dumb old country boy who got lucky, but it was an act. I was in the presence of a brilliant mind, an incredible strategist, who had used his God-given skills to save lives, to serve his country.
“What was it like when you went home?” I asked. “I know there was a lot of anti-military sentiment at that time. Did you experience any of that?”
He shook his head. “No. I remember the entire neighborhood came out—threw a party when I got back. It took me an hour to make it from the entrance of my neighborhood to my house on the cul-de-sac.” He smiled. “The kids in the neighborhood loved to come over and play, talk to me. I had a rule though. There was an old weeping willow in our front yard. If I set my chair outside the weeping willow, then it was fine for them to come on into the yard. If I set my chair under the tree, under the branches, then I wanted to be left alone.”
That is an image I’ll never forget. I didn’t see it with my own eyes—he painted it for me with his words, and it’s indelible now, a permanent memory. The man, the war hero, sitting under the trailing branches of a tree that, by its own admission, weeps, and the children in the neighborhood staying away, knowing by this simple symbol that Mr. Hunt didn’t want to talk today.
Jim looked me straight in the eye, eighty-seven years old and recently diagnosed with lung cancer. “I want to answer your question. Sometimes I get to talking, and you need to direct me back. The answer to your question is that I wasn’t afraid. Not really. I would go to war tomorrow if there was a worthy war, and they needed people.”
There was a little silence at our table—crowded on that particular Wednesday. “You’re a hero,” I said simply. I had never spoken those words directly to anyone before. They’re important.
He shook his head. “No. I don’t want to be remembered like that. I want people to say that I was a good man. That I loved God, loved my family. That I was passionate about my country. I never met a person that I wasn’t willing to help—even if all the help they needed was a swift kick in the pants. I never worked for money a day in my life, and I’ve given away everything I ever earned. That’s what I want people to say.”
I get it. That is the measure of a life well-lived. I made an unspoken promise on that day, to remember what’s important, to tell it.
Love your family
Be passionate about home
Don’t work for money
Give away what you have
“The most interesting part of my life,” Jim Hunt told me, more than once during our Wednesday meetings, “the most memorable part isn’t the war. It’s my growing up years. Every bit of character I ever had, that any of us who grew up there in Piney Woods ever had, came out of that community. If we did something wrong, we were punished on the spot by whatever adult happened to be around and then again at home. At ten, I was already working full time behind a plough because my daddy had a ruptured appendix, and my mom had some thyroid issues that she’d had a couple of surgeries for. I learned to work hard, and I learned that no job is ever bad unless it’s illegal. If there’s a job to be done, do it. Hell, I was the best outhouse digger in East Texas.”
We laughed, because it was funny to think of Jim, such a gentleman, so nicely dressed, digging outhouses. But he was serious.
“We only lived about a half mile from our school and church—Patrick school district. It was a nine grade school in four classrooms with a cubby for administration. We had one pair of sneakers each for school, and we wore them like Sunday best. Want to hear about the lunch we took?”
I nodded, while Larry and John started speculating about the kind of lunch a poor kid in Texas might have taken to school.
“You took a biscuit, and you made a hole in it with your finger like this,” he gestured. “Then you poured some syrup down in it, closed the hole back up and put it in a sack. That was lunch.”
Those at the table old enough and southern enough to remember that kind of lunch sighed appreciatively, and this English girl decided to give the biscuit and syrup a try one day, just to see.
“I went to college for a couple of reasons,” Jim told us. “One, because I respected my one-armed vocational agriculture teacher—he was my basketball coach too. He was the only guy I ever knew who majored in all three sports with one arm. The second reason was because of a lawyer.”
He nodded at me, acknowledging my husband’s chosen career. I grinned.
“This lawyer was refereeing a basketball game that I was playing in when I was a tenth grader. He threw me out of the game. Afterwards, I told him it was a bad call, which it was. I guess he liked me speaking up. He told me that he and his wife couldn’t have any kids, and they wanted to help me go to college. Pay for me. Well, that went against everything I’d ever been taught, so I told him, that I would take his help, but I’d pay him back. I went to Sam Houston State Teacher’s College in Huntsville, Texas and graduated with a degree in Agriculture. The lawyer loaned me the money to pay for my tuition and all, and my ag teacher got me a job—at a slaughterhouse. I worked fifty hours a week while I was in college, and I paid the lawyer back every penny he put up for my education. I didn’t like being obligated, but I was grateful.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. “And, see—there are good lawyers.”
He smiled. “I know that.”
“Next week,” I told him, the mention of my own love reminding me, “Next week, I want to hear your love story.”
He smiled. “I’ve got a good one.”
I want to tell you a true love story.
It started in 1956, in the springtime, and it hasn’t ended yet, more than sixty years later.
You see, some loves do last for a lifetime—they are the forever and ever stories that the world has almost forgotten.
On May 18, 1956 Travis Crim set his friend, Officer Jim Hunt, up on a blind date. Jim was older than Travis, and he had dated quite a bit. He was handsome, with cropped blonde hair, laughing blue eyes, and a permanent tan. Girls liked him, and Jim liked girls—blondes in particular did a number on him. But he was tired of dating. He was in his late twenties, and he was ready to settle down, to find that special girl who would make him forget that all the other girls existed. He wasn’t expecting to find her on a blind date, but Travis’s girlfriend Barbara had a pal, Sandra, and Barbara wanted them to go waterskiing together, and Jim agreed.
Sandra had sworn off blind dates, but she loved to waterski, so she took a chance and agreed to go to the lake, to meet Jim. She wore an aqua blue swimsuit and pulled her hair, which she had lightened in beauty school, back into a soft ponytail. It was a beautiful sunshiny day, the sky hazy and blue over Austin, and Sandra liked Jim Hunt right away. He called her ma’am, which no boy had ever done before. She would find out later that Jim had been through Officer Candidate School, where they taught him etiquette, but that first day she just knew that he was sophisticated—the best mannered boy she had ever met.
At the end of their first date, Jim told Sandra, “Stick with me Kid, and I’ll show you the world.” (Sixty years later a girl in a coffee shop, writing this story, would accuse Jim of stealing that line from a movie, and he would just laugh).
Jim and Sandra dated every night after their first date, except for the week that Sandra had finals—when Jim sent roses and a poem to make sure that she didn’t forget him.
They were separated again when Jim had to return to flight school, but they wrote to each other every day, learning about each other through their letters, falling more in love through shared words and stories. They planned to marry in October, but in the late summer, something happened that changed those plans.
At the beginning of August, Jim Hunt crashed his plane. He wasn’t badly hurt, just beat up and bruised, but when he told Sandra what had happened, she was distraught. She went to her parents, who had just finished throwing her older sister’s wedding, and she told them that she had to marry Jim right away. He had crashed his plane, she said, because his mind was on her instead of what he was doing. She was planning to visit him that weekend anyway, and she was going to marry him while she was there. Her parents, still recuperating from one wedding and recognizing the signs of a headstrong girl in love, simply withdrew the exact amount of money they had spent on her sister’s wedding and gave the money to Sandra.
Jim Hunt wasn’t really sure that he had crashed that plane because his mind was on his sweetheart. In fact, he strongly suspected that he had just screwed up. But when the most beautiful girl in the world, the only girl he would ever love, insisted that they needed to get married right away to keep him safe, he didn’t argue.
Surrounded by Jim’s army friends, Jim and Sandra married on August 10, 1956, barely three months after their first date. Their love brought into the world three children—Chuck, Brad, and Angel—who delighted their parents and filled their hearts with even more love.
Together, Jim and Sandra weathered wars, long separation and illness, and their love did not diminish or grow old. In the real world, where sorrow, illness, and pain are every day realities, it is hard to live “happily ever after,” but Jim and Sandra managed something even more improbable—they loved ever after, honoring their sacred vows and the One to whom they made them.
“What was the happiest day of your life?” I asked Jim on one of our last Wednesday meetings.
“That’s easy,” he said, smiling. “The day I married Sandra, and the days that Chuck, Brad, and Angel were born. Those were my happiest days—the best days.
I smiled. Sometimes it’s nice to ask a question and know the answer before the person speaks.
“I’ll make you sound like Cary Grant,” I had told Jim Hunt, when we were planning our first meeting, so many Wednesdays ago. That was before I heard his stories, before I really knew.
He laughed. “I’m not one for movies. I think I’d prefer Merle Haggard.”
“Okay, Merle it is.”
But I’ve heard the stories now, and I’m sorry, Merle. Even if you were still around, I couldn’t make Jim Hunt sound like you. I couldn’t make him sound like Cary Grant either. Neither one of you could improve on the original. Jim Hunt couldn’t ever be anyone other than Jim Hunt.
He’s one of a kind—a true American hero. He wouldn’t like me saying that. He’d rather I told you that he’s just a guy who flirts with me at Barnes and Noble.
But I have to tell the truth, and this is it:
Jim Hunt is my friend.
He’s a true American hero.
He’s also a guy who flirts with me at Barnes and Noble.
In his long and beautiful life, he met two spies. I’m the second one.
I think I managed to get a few of his secrets.
I hope so.
Because I want to live life like Jim Hunt does—unafraid, loving deeply, giving freely, serving bravely.
Colonel Jim Hunt died at home on July 6, 2016.
It was a Wednesday.
I visited with him and his lovely Sandra the day before he died. On that day, Jim’s grip was as firm as ever when he greeted me. He was on oxygen and in his final full day of life, but he sat fully dressed in a chair, and he told me stories still, shared his incredible life with me. His voice was strong, his memory much better than my own, his heart full of love for those around him.
Lung cancer did not defeat him. His earthly body may have been invaded by disease, but Jim’s soul remained untouched, undefeatable. He has travelled on now, beyond the sun and moon to the place where all the stories find their happy ending. I would like to think that he’ll be waiting there to greet us at the end of our own journeys one sweet day. Until then, we will tell your tales old friend, and you will walk again on earth inside those spoken memories, and we will try to live better lives because of the example you left us.
We have recently had an outbreak of Man Flu at my house.
Tis the season.
Chances are, sometime soon, it will infect your household too. Because it is such a virulent disease, I thought I should pass on the wisdom I have gained over the years. How, I hear you ask, can one so young (ha!) be so wise? Well darling ones, I was blessed with five brothers, a father, a step-father, and, slightly more recently, a husband and a step-son. I was raised on Man Flu. I know all of its insidious forms.
So, here it is, my public service announcement:
Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Man Flu:
Medical Definition: technically Man Flu is a cold, the common garden variety, but in the male it manifests as something much more sinister—an illness during which the male demands twenty-four hour surveillance, homemade soup, sole control of the television, non-stop doting from his loved ones, and a completely stress-free environment.
Origins: the phenomena known as Man Flu results from a combination of unfortunate circumstances. You see, when boys are little, their mamas, and sometimes their sisters too, see them through love-sick eyes; they appear to be little angel beings with their shiny eyes, boyish enthusiasm, and big toothy smiles. And because of this illusion of innocent sweetness, when they’re sick, it is incredibly difficult not to give them everything they want. (Okay, I confess, I was ONCE part of the problem, but now people, now, I want to be part of the solution. Sisters-in-law, forgive me and remember, I also taught them to share their sweets. You’re welcome!). Newly-in-loves too are often guilty of wanting to play Florence Nightingale as their love succumbs to, well, the sniffles. Add to doting mothers, sisters, and newly-in-loves, the fact that, in general, doctors are MUCH more likely to take sickness in males seriously and what you have is the majority of a gender who see phlegm and hoarseness as the cue for bed rest and television dominance.
Risk: Ladies, technically you cannot catch Man Flu nor can you give Man Flu to your male. You may find this confusing as, like me, you may have had a cold which your male then developed, albeit with more dramatic symptoms. However, although we women can catch colds, infections, and even the flu, these conditions will never manifest as Man Flu. You have a cold, he has flu. You have an upset tummy, he has the stomach flu/gastroenteritis, and so on…This is just something you must accept. Your superior immune system is cause for wonder and praise.
Symptoms: These can vary. When the husband contracts Man Flu, my first warning usually comes when he, known for his deep and easy-to-hear voice, becomes barely audible. After asking him to speak up, I inevitably receive this ominous reply: “Sorry. My voice is weak. I think I’m getting sick.” This people, almost always signifies the beginning of the descent. (Into Man Flu not hell, although there are similarities—lots of teeth gnashing in both). Symptoms do, of course, vary from male to male. The husband is infamous for going out into the woods to vomit rather than using the toilet like a normal human; after confiding this to my besties, I learned that this is a trait peculiar to the husband (and dogs, wolves, and other canines) and not an all-males kind of thing. However, in general, symptoms of Man Flu include: a) an inability to complete normal tasks b) a sudden increased attachment to the couch or bed and the television c) voice weakness/croaking d) pathetically uttered requests for soup/gatorade/medicine/hair stroking.
When to worry: In general, Man Flu should not be a cause for concern; however, I understand (especially if you’re new to this) the alarm that can stem from your previously active male spending a few days imitating a dying duck. A few years ago my dad came to visit me from England. Sadly, he contracted Man Flu on the plane—he is a particularly vulnerable specimen and often has Man Flu 2-3 times per year. Although I’m familiar with Man Flu, absence had dulled my recollection of my Dad’s propensity toward drama (hey, you know I had to have inherited it from somewhere) and illness. Upon arrival at my house, he collapsed on the couch bemoaning his sickly state. I gathered my cold fighting medicines and anxiously read to him from the back of each, listing the symptoms they treated. To each symptom listed, I received a resounding “Yes, I’ve definitely got that.” For days, Dad languished, sleeping, sniffling, moaning, barely moving from the couch other than for the odd bout of shopping (he LOVES to shop—that I did not inherit). Finally, I consulted my step-mum back in England, telling her that Dad was really ill and that I was really worried. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she responded. “You’re giving him too much sympathy. There’s nothing wrong with him other than a cold.” When I informed my dad of this transatlantic diagnosis, he sat up indignantly, suddenly clear-voiced, and said: “She never has any sympathy when I’m ill.” This little exchange reminded me that if your male is capable of high drama, complaints, demands, favorite pastimes, etc, then he’s probably okay. It’s when they get quiet, listless, and compliant that you need to worry.
Fighting back: So, what can you do to ward off Man Flu? 1) As soon as symptoms appear, insist that your man goes to the doctor. He will resist, but I encourage you to adopt the rule a girlfriend of mine came up with. If they don’t go to the doctor within three days, they forfeit their right to any sympathy/care. During our current case of Man Flu, the husband, through fits of violent coughing, darkly hinted at pneumonia. I sent him straight to urgent care. He came back defiant, sulky, and subdued, having been told that it was just a chest cold. (NOTE: the word “cold” is greatly insulting to those suffering from Man Flu). 2) It is imperative that your male NEVER hears you (or anyone else) say that he’s “really sick” or that it’s “really bad.” These kinds of phrases will both scare and excite the male and may prolong the illness for several weeks. Once an urgent care doctor misguidedly told the husband that his throat looked “really bad” and it was a full month before normality was restored in my household. The husband’s response to everything—even mundane comments like “the postman is late,”— was, “My throat is really bad.” 3) Remember that it’s okay to indulge the male a little (especially if, like the husband, they willingly engage in reciprocal pampering—see my marriage article for full details) but have a clear cut off date. My rule is three days max (for Man Flu); then I’m done. The husband continues to complain, but I feign deafness, which usually speeds up the healing process.
You are vulnerable: All of my single friend who are looking at this post, thinking they’re safe, sadly, you are deluded. You don’t need to be married, dating, a dutiful daughter or sister, or even a mother to find yourself dealing with man flu. One minute your co-worker asks you, in the tell-tale croaky rasping voice, to grab him some medicine while you’re out to lunch, and the next minute, you’re dealing with a full blown case. Good luck darlings!
I’ve bought my last bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo.
Well, that sounds a bit melodramatic. I suppose there could be an occasion, in the future, which will require me to buy more—think pink eye or visiting littles—but for now, I’m done.
Isabelle won’t be using baby shampoo anymore—you know the kind, yellow, with the tear shaped promise of “No More Tears.”
This milestone is probably overdue. She’s almost ten and has a head full of thick chameleon-colored hair. I’ve actually suggested several times over the past few years that she use regular shampoo, and she has, in her Isabelle way, staunchly refused. She’s afraid of the pain of soap in her eyes and also, as she used to remind me frequently, she’s still a baby. Nine now, but still a baby.
My baby got her hair cut last week, and the stylist asked what kind of shampoo she used, commenting that there was a lot of build up on her hair. “No more tears,” Isabelle informed her proudly. The stylist laughed and told her she needed to use big girl shampoo now—whatever her mama uses—because she has too much hair for baby shampoo.
Isabelle wasn’t convinced at first, but when she saw how shiny and pretty her hair looked salon-washed, she decided it was time for big-girl shampoo. “I’m going to risk it, Mama,” she told me. “I’ll just close my eyes really tight.”
“Okay, Baby,” I said, and even though I’d been encouraging this, all of a sudden my throat tightened, my heart squeezed hard inside me.
Because I remember those bath times only a few heartbeats ago where my baby—with her wide golden eyes and sweet two-tooth smiles—screamed bloody murder as I tried to get her in the bath and then squealed with delight, splashing Mommy, once she was in. I remember washing her little tufts of hair and the sweet smell of baby shampoo in my nose. I remember after bath-time lotion, powder, and snuggles and the towel with a hood shaped like a chick.
I remember me too—a little younger, always tired, singing the hokey pokey, wearing a diaper on my head to make her giggle, blissfully unaware that time was slipping by fast, too fast, that in no time at all there would be no baby shampoo on the side of my bathtub.
Because, oh people, my baby is not a baby anymore. She’s probably not even a “little girl”—she’s almost ten, more than half-way to leaving home to go to college. And I know that I am so very lucky that she’s growing up, that I am watching her grow up, that it is a privilege denied to some mamas—a horror I can’t contemplate.
But still, there’s sadness in the thankfulness, some tears mixed in with the blessing.
Because I am not ready to be done with the little children stage— not yet. I want many more years of trick-or-treating, wide-eyed visits to Santa, Christmas pageants, and Easter baskets. I want to watch Dora the Explorer and Veggie Tales on repeat. I want hundreds more sleepless nights spent with a warm sweet smelling child and a not so sweet smelling flamingo invading my bed, insisting that she isn’t safe from monsters unless she’s right next to Mama and Daddy.
Because I know now, now that she’s not using baby shampoo anymore, how sweet it is.
Isabelle’s school cancelled their Christmas pageant this year. They had to hire a new music teacher at the last minute, and it was going to be too much for her to pull off a Christmas show with a limited time left to rehearse. It’s a wonderful school, and I’m not a complainer (well, unless it’s about the weather—and then, I HAVE to complain because I’m English, and it’s hardwired into my biology), but I wanted to howl with grief and rage when I heard the news. Because, here’s what they don’t realize— I only have one baby, and she’s a fourth grader. FOURTH. Which means I only have two years of Christmas shows left, and they just cancelled one of those two precious years!
Okay, so I may be losing my mind just a little over this milestone—the milestone that isn’t really about the loss of baby shampoo but about that number ten that is so close—only two months away.
Ten. Double-digits. Pre-teen.
I’m not ready.
And, I think that maybe Isabelle isn’t ready yet either. The other day a sweet friend asked if Isabelle would be her son’s partner for perfectly polished next year. When I broached the subject with Isabelle, she was appalled. “No way Mama,” she told me. “I’m not dancing with a boy unless it’s Daddy or someone else who’s related to me. And I’m never wearing white gloves unless they’re doctor gloves.” When I protested that I’d already said yes to my friend, Isabelle looked horrified. “You can’t betroth me Mama. I won’t let you.”
Sweet girl. As if I’d “betroth” her.
She might be almost ten and smart as a whip, but she still uses big words incorrectly sometimes. She’s still tenacious and stubborn and oh so opinionated, just like when she was a baby. She still watches Sophia the First and Doc McStuffins on Disney Junior. She still can’t sleep without a stuffed pink flamingo, and she still wants to live with Mama and Daddy forever.
She’s not big yet.
But, it’s coming.
And I’m going to try not to cry.
I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to remember how fast this too will go and how sweet it will seem looking back.
I am not qualified to give marriage tips, not even a little bit. Eleven years does not an expert make. But a sweet friend of mine, upon hearing it was our anniversary, asked me to write a blog with marriage advice, and, because I love to write, I did. At our anniversary dinner the other night, the husband told me that the last few years have been his favorite of our marriage because, in his words, “we know stuff now.” Bless him. I’m not sure what he thinks we know, but my disclaimer to the tips below is this: we know NOTHING. We are babies. Especially me—you know, the writer of the tips. With that in mind, enjoy!
Learn to fight well. I know I should be saying something profound like—don’t fight, resolve conflict in a blah-blah manner, but let’s be real. When you coop two people up together and force them to endure stressful and hard things like children, Mondays, and dishwasher duty, there’s bound to be the occasional explosion. For the first year of our marriage, the husband and I battled. Okay, so really I battled (because I come from a family of temper-losers, plate throwers, and shouters) and the husband put up with my dramatics with the occasional but crushing sarcastic comment and a lot of sullen silence (he comes from a family of passive resisters, bottle it uppers, and pouters). BUT, we learned. He learned that even though my anger is passionate and intense when roused, my heart is tender and easily wounded. I learned that he won’t shout when he’s angry or stomp his feet or bang plates on the counter (what is up with that?); instead he’ll get quiet and sulky. Most of all though, we both learned to adjust our responses. I’m not saying that after that first war-like year we never fought—just last week we had a drawn out battle over the garage (or the pit of doom as I have renamed it)—but we know each other better now. When we do get upset, I try to speak softer and stay away from the plates, and he tries to speak up and nix the sarcasm. Except in the middle of the night, when he’s snoring like a freight train, and my foot just slips, we try to treat each other with the same kindness we would show to our friends.
Play zone defense. Okay, okay, I know you all know that I know nothing about football. In fact, I have not the first clue what zone defense actually is, but I stole the line from Friends. What I mean is find your areas—what do you bring to the table? What does he/she? Warning: It’s not always pretty people. In our second year of marriage, my darling step-daughter contracted a stomach virus. I was out shopping when the husband, croaky voiced, called and told me to come home QUICKLY. I got home just in time to hear the husband yelling from the bedroom, where he was lying ashen-faced in bed, to the hallway bathroom: “Get your head all the way in the toilet, Katlin. We don’t want anything to splash.” When I asked him why he wasn’t in the bathroom helping her (she was little), he informed me that he is a sympathetic vomiter—if he sees, he does. He also can’t find anything—keys, milk, the kids. ANYTHING. A trait he unfortunately passed on to all three of his children. So in our household, I am the great finder of all the lost things, and if someone is vomiting, bleeding, or having any other unpleasant bodily functions, I’m in charge. These are certainly not the romantic roles I envisioned for myself, but there you go. And the husband has his uses too. He is unequivocally in charge of all uninvited guests. While our garage door was recently being fixed, a large snake found its way into the house. Despite the fact that the husband is mortally afraid of snakes (he has to skip that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with the snake pit because he just can’t handle it) he singlehandedly, armed with only a broom, got rid of the snake, earning himself the title of Snake Sweeper. He has likewise rescued the critter-shy inhabitants of our home from cockroaches, spiders, and wasps, and the yard from stray cats, dogs, and most recently a coyote. He is also the puppies designated pooper-scooper. Not sure why human poop is a problem for him and dog poop not so much, but it’s best not to delve too deeply—even in marriage.
Be each other’s bestie—the one you can say anything to without fear of judgment. Direct transcript of a conversation between the husband and me: H: (getting into bed) I don’t like any of the kids. Me: (sigh of relief) I don’t either. Just in case this conversation has made you uncomfortable, you should know that we LOVE our kids—like madly, passionately—and ALL the time, but sometimes we don’t like them, and we aren’t afraid to tell each other. We sit in bed and grumpily catalogue their annoying habits, tendencies, and traits, assuring each other that none of it is our fault, and offering compassionate looks and head shakes. Whether it’s disliking the kids or debating which Modern Family member we’re most like (I’m Claire even though I want to be Gloria, and Kim is Jay even though I want him to be a Phil-Mitchell combo) we are in this together!
Talk nice! I should have made this first or last because I think it’s probably one of the few that I’m actually sure about. Say nice things about your person; see the best in them and tell others. This does not mean that you should bore your besties with sappy lists of your beloved’s hotness, awesomeness, and cooking skills—NEVER, EVER. Nor, do I mean you should never vent to a close friend. I’ve had many a conversation with my best girlie where I have bemoaned the husband’s inexplicable habit of taking his socks off the minute he enters the house, balling them up, and putting them on my clean kitchen counter, not to mention his woeful tendency toward procrastination. But, I don’t trash him—not ever. When you constantly say negative things about your spouse, those complaints/insults become bigger and all-consuming; they’re all you can see. Also, I’m big on loyalty—godfatherish loyalty. So, when we talk to our friends, the husband tells people how smart I am, even though I can’t do long division (seriously, CAN.NOT. DO. IT), and I tell people how kind he is (the man would give you the shirt off his back) even though he once spent three full years praying for my dog to die. The husband insists that I add an editorial note here explaining that the dog was demon-possessed, sixteen years old, senile, loud, and destructive. Whatever helps him sleep at night, people.
Take care of each other! This works in all kinds of good ways. For example, while the husband is very fond of good food, an avid watcher of the food network, and an enthusiastic, if too experimental, chef, his culinary endeavors are not always well received. Meanwhile, I usually produce food that will not keep you chained to the toilet for the next several weeks. I do not like (read: loathe) loading and unloading the dishwasher however, while the husband is perfectly willing to engage in all kinds of dishwashing activities. He also brings me coffee on the weekends, indulges my hypochondria and even googles my symptoms for me when I’m just too scared to look, and in return, when he gets man-flu once a year, I make him soup and pretend he’s being really brave and that it’s really serious even though I know it’s just the cold I had the week before.
Forgive! I forgive the husband constantly, every day. He claims not to know half the time what he’s being forgiven for, but I bestow my forgiveness anyway. I’m naturally more of sweetheart, so he only does about a tenth of the forgiving that I do. No, seriously, because we are flawed (very flawed actually) humans, we make mistakes—like all the time. For example, when we bought our first house and were so poor because of all the buying, the husband came home one day with a truck full of camping equipment. Expensive camping equipment. “We’re going to be a family who camps,” he announced proudly. (I can hear those of you that know me laughing hysterically). I was SO mad. 1. Because this was a clear sign that he didn’t know me. 2. Because how in the wide world would we pay the mortgage that month when he’d just spent more than the payment on camping supplies. We camped once. ONCE. It was an unmitigated disaster that none of us ever wanted to repeat—even the kiddos. Similarly, I once backed the husband’s new car into another car that appeared, parked, out of nowhere. He was mad too. He was also mad when I backed said car into a parking meter, the garage door, and various other stationary objects. But somehow, we’ve stayed together. Want to know how? We forgave each other and then (as the frozen princess tells us) we let it go!
Only one of you is allowed to be on the ledge at once! If your person is freaking out, you cannot join them. It’s your job to stay calm, even if you’re sweating it on the inside too. Now in our relationship, I spend more time on the ledge, and the husband spends more time talking me off it, which works for us—well, mostly for me. But, I have participated in some ledge negotiations myself. For example, a couple of years ago, the husband had to have several sections of his lower spine fused—a result of playing football and spinal stenosis. He was in horrible pain, could barely walk, and desperately needed the surgery. However, he was scared because it’s a long recovery and he works for himself—meaning, that if he doesn’t work, we don’t make any money. I told him calmly (while secretly terrified too) that he HAD to have the surgery and that we would make it work—even if making it work meant living in an igloo and catching fish (did I mention earlier that I have a tendency toward the dramatic?). He had the surgery which, by the grace of God, went really well, and he recovered so quickly that the doctor pronounced him a medical marvel. And, so far, we are not living in an igloo. The examples of me on the ledge would take a novel, so we’ll leave it at this: the husband should one day be canonized—the patron saint of crazies.
Sleep! So, I thought after we survived the war-like first year of marriage that our toughest days were behind us. Enter Isabelle. Because our two older kids were already out of the sleepless stage when I got them, I knew nothing in the early years of our marriage about the horrors of sleep deprivation. Sure, my step-son had the occasional bout of sleep walking, but it was very infrequent and made for hilarious dinner conversation; my step-daughter had the occasional bad dream, but again, this happened maybe twice a year, tops. We slept a lot people. We were good at sleeping. Then, my little golden-eyed darling made her entrance into the world, and sleep became an evasive and precious daydream that the husband and I would wax poetical about. “Remember the old days, when we closed our eyes and didn’t open them until the light came in?” The child NEVER slept. The husband and I communicated in grunts and snaps; I walked into walls and ate a steady nighttime diet of salt and vinegar Pringles, the only 2 a.m. consolation I could find; and the husband said lots of unhelpful things like, “what have we bred?” At one point I sat up in bed, zombie like, and suggested that we (me and the husband) live apart. I explained to a very bemused husband that he would keep her a couple of nights a week, during which I would sleep, and then I would keep her, and he could sleep. At which point, he sent me upstairs with strict instructions not to come down until I had had at least eight straight hours of sleep. (This was one of those ledge incidents). My point is this— sleep cures everything angst related. If you’re mad, sleep on it. If you have one of those babies that believes nighttime is for exploring, beg and bribe your friends and family to help, so you can get some sleep. If your person is on the ledge, give them a sleepcation. SLEEP is the answer to everything. Seriously. (Remember the disclaimer at the beginning of this piece).
If the sleeping doesn’t work, pray. I’m kidding. Pray as much as you can—for each other , for yourself. This marriage thing is HARD work people. We need a lot of grace. Buckets of it.
Last, but not least, cuddle, kiss, hold hands, do stuff (ahem, for my parents, if you’re reading, by stuff I mean, of course, walks in nature, candle-lit dinners, and games of scrabble).
That’s it folks—the secret to a happy marriage in ten handy tips. Kidding. You’ve got this people, and if you don’t, here’s the best tip from a far wiser soul than me: love one another—like, all the time, even when it’s hard. That’s it.
P.S. I’m sorry that all of my pop culture references are either from the nineties or Disney. Again, I refer you to the disclaimer.
“I love you,” I tell my daughter, as I leave her at the doors of her elementary school in the morning. “Be kind today.”
Once, when she was very small, pre-school age, I said these words, and she looked up at me, golden eyes wide, and asked: “Who to Mama?”
“Everyone,” I said. I didn’t have to think. This was one of those times that the right answer, the only one, came automatically to my tongue.
Because I don’t want you to run away with an inflated view of my parenting skills, I should tell you that the “be kind” is an add-on. When she first started pre-school, I left her with “I love you,” and nothing else. Then, one day, I was teaching a junior English class, and my little darling’s pre-school teacher knocked on my door and informed me that my daughter (you know—the princess in training) had been involved in a fist fight.
She was three.
Panic. “What happened?” The husband and I asked her, sitting at the kitchen table (where all serious conversations are held at my house—I like to think of it as the interrogation room where you are also fed).
“I punch-ed her,” she chirped in her little sing-song voice, heavy emphasis on the “ed.”
I almost smiled. Because my little angel didn’t know the word punch. She’d never heard it. Not when it wasn’t likely to come out of mine or the husband’s mouth, and I had her on a carefully monitored television diet of Disney Junior and The Berenstein Bears.
“Baby, do you know what punched means?” I said, giving the husband a quick glance of shared amusement.
“Yes Mama,” she said, proudly.
“Show me,” I said.
She balled up her little fist and thrust it forward in what was unmistakably a punch. “She punch-ed me in the arm Mama, and so I punch-ed her in the stomach.”
“Isabelle,” I gasped, horrified. But before I could say another word, the husband intervened in an equally horrified voice:
“Darling, you can’t punch like that. You’ll break your thumb. Let Daddy show you…”
A scuffle ensued which I won’t transcribe for fear of you losing all respect for our family. Suffice to say, punishments were given, apologies made, and I gained complete control of the television for the next several nights while the husband sulked and maintained his position that it was important for Isabelle to know how to defend herself without injury.
After that debacle, I added “be kind,” to my morning send off.
Fast forward six years.
A few weeks ago, I dropped Isabelle off at her fourth grade classroom. “Be kind,” I told her, kissing the top of her head and getting a quick whiff of the baby smell she still has – despite her dislike of cleanliness in general and showering in particular.
“I will,” she said. “You too, Mama.”
She has a strong sense of justice, my girl. I think she gets it from my nana who was famous for saying that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Still, I shook my head as I walked away, amused and slightly irritated. I mean I’m the mommy, the wise one. I issue the reminders that I no longer need.
And I am kind people. I really am. In fact, the husband frequently reprimands me for being too much of a bleeding heart.
I went home after teaching that morning, secure in my own virtue.
I had a meeting at the house because the garage door was broken and the garage door fixer person was coming to look at it.
The man, we’ll call him Tim, fiddled with the garage door for about twenty minutes and then called me outside to inform me that it was an unusual situation. A part that couldn’t be missing (because of its location inside the motor) was missing.
“So ma’am I’ll have to order the part,” Tim tells me. “It’s going to be a while.”
“How long is a while?” I asked.
“Mebee a week or two? Because of the shipping and all.”
“That long! Could we express it?”
“Express it?” He said, scratching his head and pulling his face into such a complicated series of expressions that I had to stop myself from staring.
“You know,” I said, raising my voice just a little. “Fed Ex it or ship it overnight or something. A week is too long.”
“Well, ma’am. I don’t know about that. I don’t know much about shipping.”
“Could you find out?”
“I don’t know. I’m not too familiar with shipping and all…”
“Fine,” I snapped. “Just call me when the part comes in.” And I closed the door before his face could complete its latest series of contortions.
Be kind, a little voice whispered in my mind.
But he was annoying!
See, I am kind in lots of big ways. But sometimes I am not kind in little ways. Too frequently, I am impatient and short tempered—to my family, to men who come to fix the garage door and don’t know about shipping, to those who test my patience.
Why? Well, I would argue that people are sometimes annoying. And they are. We are.
But the definition of kindness includes the word forbearing. Forbearing means patient and restrained. So when the definition people came up with the one for kindness, they must have realized that kindness isn’t always easy—it takes forbearance.
I am a passionate follower of “love one another.” I believe it. I try to live it. But I unintentionally sacrifice kindness every day.
Because I lack forbearance.
What’s the worst that might happen if my garage door doesn’t get fixed? I’ll get wet if it rains? Seriously? Right now, there are refugees pouring into different parts of Europe; they are putting little children into boats not knowing what waits for them on another shore because that risk is smaller than the risk of staying in their war torn homeland. I can’t even imagine. In the face of that, my problems are so small. Forbearance should be so easy.
You too, Mama.
I needed that reminder.
I want to be kind. I really do. Even when it’s hard.
The next day when I dropped Isabelle off at school, I looked her in the eye and said: “I’m going to try to be kind today, to everyone.”
She smiled—her golden shiny smile. “Me too, Mama.”
This isn’t new. Not sleeping is something I like to think of as my very own curse—that along with a temperamental tummy. Narcissistic of me, I know, to think that it is my curse alone, but it’s hard to be altruistic at 3:00 a.m.
Tonight, is different though.
Tonight, I’m tired of lying awake, compiling to-do lists. Tonight, I’ve decided to leave the warm comfortable hell of a bed in which I cannot sleep and go somewhere.
Tonight, I’m going ghost walking.
It is almost Halloween after all.
I visit my Nan first. The door is open. She must be expecting me. The little alarm that my uncle installed to let her know that someone is on the stairs pings as I walk past its sensor. “It’s only me,” I call.
Predictably, I bump into the plant stand where the stairs curve and catch it just in time. I peek into her bedroom at the top of the stairs. The cord to the electric blanket is spilling out from under the covers of her bed, proof that the nights are getting colder, and there’s a fresh stack of library books, six in all, on her nightstand. I smile. I pass the phone in the hallway and Nan’s book of numbers and go into the living room.
“Hello Twit,” she says cheerfully from her favorite chair.
“Hello Gross.” It’s been years since I studied German and found to my delight that the German word for grandmother is Grossenmutter—which I quickly and affectionately shortened to “Gross.” Years since my quick witted Nan did her research and found that Damentwitter is the German handle for Granddaughter and equally affectionately shortened it to “Twit.” Still though, today we use our old familiar nicknames for each other.
Nan looks lovely, almost the same as last time I saw her, but lit up somehow. Her skin is smooth and pink; her nut brown eyes twinkling. She’s wearing her “troos” of course—grey slacks. And when she stands up to hug me, I see a light coating of ginger hairs down the back of her pants, the work of Socks the cat, who must be skulking around here somewhere but hasn’t yet made her presence known.
The window is open, which is daring for October in England, and I can hear music playing. “Who’s having a party?” I ask, gesturing.
“The Wheatsheaf is having live music in this weather! Can you believe it? Anyway, I thought I’d listen for a bit. I haven’t heard anything I like. They need someone with my dulcet tones to come and sing.” She raises her voice and warbles in a high falsetto that makes the windows shake “Earleee one morning just as the sun was rising…”
I cover my ears.
“Proper music,” she says with a wicked smile. “You can close the window now, Twit. Countdown’s on in a few minutes.” She glances at the clock, and following her gaze I see that she’s right—it’s ten till four. I thought it was later. “Just time to make a brew before it starts.”
She brings me a cup of tea and two bourbon creams on my special tray. “I’ve got crispbread in the cupboard as well,” she says.
It’s been a decade since I had a bourbon cream, and it’s even better than I remember—the chocolaty filling melts in my mouth, and I have to go back to the kitchen for more. I munch happily while Nan beats Carol Vordeman to every answer on Countdown and criticizes the slowness of the contestants, as well as their outfits.
“Look at her all dolled up,” she says, incredulously, “and hasn’t got a single answer right.”
I nod, mouth too full of crumbs to answer.
“So what are you up to today?” She turns from the television as the credits roll and fixes her gaze on me.
“Ghost walking,” I mumble, wondering if it’s okay to say it aloud, but she laughs. Then, she lights a cigarette I hadn’t noticed until now. The end glows a soft orange.
Taking a long puff, she sets it in the grey ashtray that’s shaped like a spooky manor house. After a few minutes, the smoke curls out of the chimney. “The haunted house by Hu-go First,” she intones, and I laugh at my favorite trick of hers.
“How’s daughter?” she asks.
“She’s alright,” I say. “She’s been a bit poorly. She’s had a lot of stress this year.”
Nan shakes her head. “She does it to herself. Susan always does too much. Is she still ironing everybody’s underwear and sheets?”
I hesitate, thinking. “I think she probably still does the sheets but perhaps not the underwear.”
“Well,” Nan says with an approving smile. “That’s a turn up for the books.” She points at a sickly looking house plant next to the television, a fig, I think. “I need her to nurse that plant back to health. Look at the state of it. I’ve been singing to it and everything.”
“That’s probably what’s been doing it,” I say with a grin.
She laughs and swipes at me. “You’re a cheeky swine.”
We sit like this for a while, talking, laughing, and then, when I know it’s time to go, I stand up. I want to tell her that I miss her—that I haven’t seen her for years and years, that we still need her—but I can’t because that would break the spell, ruin the visit.
“Go and see Mrs. Bowers,” she tells me, calling my other grandmother, as she always has, by her formal name.
I kiss her cheek, breathing in her smell for a second, and then I tell her goodbye, and because she suggested it, and because this is a ghost walk after all, I decide to follow her advice and try to visit Gran—she only lives a few streets away.
So far, so good, I make it to the gate, and everything is as it should be. Then, as I lean over to unfasten the latch, someone calls my name. I look up. A small, slender man in a long grey coat is coming up Boyds Walk. What’s left of his hair is standing up in white tufts, and he is smiling. “Granddad,” I say, and it has been so very many years since I saw him that for a minute I just stare.
“I’ve been putting on a bet at the bookies,” he tells me, pushing the gate open. I step off the path, heading for the short cut to the front door, but his shout freezes me. “Don’t walk on the lawn,” he says. “You’ll ruin it.”
“Sorry Granddad,” I say contritely, and I don’t tell him that after he’s gone, Grandma will let people walk all over his lawn whenever they like, that his great grandchildren will dig up parts of it.
In the living room, the television is on, and Granddad announces my arrival: “Emma’s here.”
“Eeeeee,” I hear Grandma’s delighted voice. “Is it our Emma?”
“It’s me Gran,” I say, walking through the door after Granddad.
“Oh, you look lovely,” she tells me, even though I think I’m wearing my sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt that I sleep in sometimes. “Doesn’t she look lovely, Len,” she says, giving my granddad a sharp look. “Like a film star.”
“Thanks Gran,” I tell her. “I’m a bit scruffy, but I didn’t know I was coming until just a while ago.”
“You’re not scruffy. You’re never scruffy,” she says indignantly, as though criticizing myself is an affront to her.
“You look beautiful,” I tell her, and I mean it. Her blue eyes are sparkly, and she’s wearing a black skirt and tights, with a long sleeved top.
“Me?” she says, in amazement. “I’ve got me rollers in.”
She has too— her fine blonde hair is wrapped carefully around the little salmon pink sausage curlers.
“You still look beautiful,” I insist.
“Do you want a cup of tea, love?”
I shake my head. My belly is still full of Nan’s tea, and Grandma uses the wrong milk. It tastes funny.
Granddad looks over at me. “There might be some mint imperials in my other coat pocket,” he tells me gruffly.
I smile and almost run to the cupboard under the stairs. It smells old and dusty in a way that I remember, and I rummage in Granddad’s inside pocket. My fingers have just closed over the paper bag when he shouts. “Don’t touch the telephone.”
“Oh give over, Len,” I hear Grandma say furiously. “She’s not bothering the telephone.”
“I won’t use the phone, Granddad,” I say, giving the old cream rotary dial an affectionate glance before going back into the living room. The mint imperials are sweet and tangy, just like I remember, and I suck them happily.
“I’m making pea and ham soup,” Grandma tells me. “Our Jimmy’s favorite.”
“He’ll be jealous.” I hesitate, wanting to tell her something recent about my dad. “He plays badminton now,” I say, because it’s the first thing I think of.
“Does he?” Grandma says, looking impressed.
“He was always good at sports,” Granddad says, and he’s smiling.
“He’s good at everything,” Grandma says.
I grin. “Still the golden boy.” Then, because Grandma looks confused, I add: “What are you doing tonight?”
“Us? We’re going to the Connie Club for bingo.”
“Come with us,” Grandad says unexpectedly. “I’ll buy you a bag of cheese nips and a coke.”
I smile, feeling my chest constrict. “Thanks Granddad,” I say.
When it’s time to say goodbye, I hug them both, even though Granddad’s not really comfortable with that kind of thing. Grandma stands at the front door and waves to me. I wave back for a few minutes, and then I come home.
My bed is warm. I can hear my husband’s breathing just a few feet away. He’s got a cold, and the air whistles through his nose. Usually, I would nudge him, remind him to breathe through his mouth, but tonight, I just smile.
An hour ago, I thought I was cursed. I had been worrying about redecorating the living room, about the cost of hardwood floors. So silly. So pointless. An hour ago I thought that those who have left this earth were lost to me, impossible to reach.
It only took one hour of wide-awake to find them again, to find myself; just an hour to realize that I am not cursed— that the God who created the heavens and the earth did not blight me. No. He would never do that. Instead, He blessed me with a mind that can transcend time and space— a mind that can travel between realms and find my beloved ones.
So for those of you who, like my husband, are sleeping soundly tonight, I wish you sweet repose. But for those like me, who lie awake— Godspeed to you my fellow travelers. I hope you journey as sweetly as I have.