Nice and Ugly

Original story published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas.

I was 15-years-old, opinionated and fashion-minded. Daddy decided I was his weapon of clothes-buying instruction.

Dad knows mom only wants one thing for Christmas: clothes. My poor father, try as he might, would get the right pair of jeans but the wrong size; the right dress but the wrong color; or sometimes, it’d be a blouse fit for a teen, but not so much a middle-aged mother. The year prior to dad’s idea to bring me along for his shopping trip had been a particularly rough Christmas present-opening. Mom had returned nearly every present.

Dad wanted the next year to be different. Our shopping trip was going smooth. We dropped credit card bombs at department stores across the city. I taught him name brands and mapped out mom’s favorites. We made a whole day of buying clothes mom would love.

Then dad saw the display of Christmas sweaters, some red and green glittered and others depicting cute, fuzzy forest creatures in the snow. He insisted his one success every year with one of mom’s presents was the ugliest, gaudiest Christmas sweater he could find. Against my pleas to leave the hideous sweater on the rack from which it came, dad purchased one with a Christmas Tree that lit up and played music.

“Clothes are for wearing not singing,” I murmured. He ignored me.

On Christmas morning, dad and I exchanged eye contact as mom began to open the ugly sweater. She gasped and I thought, Ah ha! I knew it! I smirked at my father, giving him that teenage I-was-right glare.

“How cute!” mom said, and lifted the sweater from the box, holding it up to her chest for sizing. She swooned when dad showed her the button that lit the tree up and played the “O Christmas Tree” tune.

My mom with one of the last Christmas sweaters dad purchased for her. Sadly, the dancing snowmen were not captured on film.
My mom with one of the last Christmas sweaters dad purchased for her. Sadly, the dancing snowmen were not captured on film.

Dad grinned at me and winked.

Mom loved all her presents that year. The pants fit. The dresses were the right color. The blouses were age appropriate. So every year thereafter, my father and I would hit the malls together and spend the whole day shopping for mom’s Christmas presents. As I got older, married and had a child of my own, our tradition still continued. This was an annual father-daughter date.

Years after that first Christmas shopping trip for mom, dad and I stood, yet again, in the department store arguing over Christmas sweaters. I had spent every one of the last eleven years attempting to persuade my dad from buying the things and my mom from wearing them.

“Your mom doesn’t think they are ugly,” he would always say, and purchase one anyway.

“That sweater looks like a kindergarten teacher’s dream, dad. Please, no,” I pleaded.

This time, I had found a black button up cardigan, away from the display of sweaters depicting dancing polar bears. The silky cotton was embroidered with small red and green beads forming a beautiful pattern of poinsettias on the right shoulder. It was elegant. It was expensive. It would look beautiful on my mom. Try as I might, my father insisted on the sweater featuring a patchwork of snowman he held before him. It looked like six different multicolored fabrics sewn together with a different dancing snowman on each color block. The only thing Christmas about it was that one of snowmen was wearing a Santa hat and another was wearing a sparkly green and red vest. I’m sure my mom would ask him if she could borrow that vest were it made in her size.

“That sweater looks like a kindergarten teacher’s dream, dad. Please, no,” I pleaded.

“Tell you what. You buy your fancy-smancy sweater, and I’ll buy this one. She will open both and we will see whose sweater she likes best,” he proposed.

“Deal,” I said, confident I wasn’t losing this bet. Surely those tyrannical snowman, barely Christmas, would not win mom over the stylish button-down I had picked out, I thought.

On Christmas morning, my family arrived at my parents’ house to celebrate and eat. The time to open presents came, and we gathered around the Christmas tree. Mom opened my present first.

“It’s nice,” she said and smiled. “I love the material.”

I threw a smirk at my father, who pretended not to catch it.

She opened dad’s. And gasped.

“It’s adorable! Where did you find it?” she exclaimed. She stood up and pulled the dancing snowmen on over her shirt. She looked down at the red, orange, purple, yellow, black and blue color blocks, the snowmen appearing to dance to celebrate their victory.

Dad smiled and winked. Words were not needed. I knew I lost. I didn’t know this woman better than this man. They were married 35 years.

Dad passed away from cancer before the next Christmas. Mom still wears all her ugly Christmas sweaters dad bought her, and somehow they don’t appear as ugly to me as they once did. I smile when I see her donning the sparkly green argyle, the kitten popping out of the present, or the multi-colored snowmen, and simply say, “You look nice, mom.”

Pass the Light

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”

– Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in Universe

Tonight I sat in a circle with a group of women ranging in age, pain, and hope for the future.

The air was heavy as the weight of all minorities sat upon our hearts and our minds.

Every generation was represented, from the Millennial and on. After eating a delicious array of food, sharing wine, darkening the room, and lighting a candle, we took turns passing the flickering light from one hand to the next.

The candle holder shared her gratitudes and then her hopes for the future following the election of the most anti-anyone-who-isn’t-white-rich-and-conservative administration on the ballot. Their forms awash with the warm glow from the small, flickering candle, each shared a thought on social justice.

light reflected in wine glass

Many spoke through tears. Some spoke of fear. Most seemed hopeless.

From my position perched near the pot-bellied stove to warm my back, I studied their faces. So many of these women had burned the road before me. While I laid under a tree in my parent’s front yard reading Judy Blume, they marched through city streets with protest signs. While I worried over addition problems, they knocked on doors. When I was molding Play-Doh, they were molding minds. Each had fought her own battles to earn the same respect that I have no doubt taken for granted.

It seemed to me the hardest battles were already fought. As far as civil rights were concerned, these ladies already threw the revolutionary party and I was just now arriving to sweep up and wash the dishes.

I’m good at cleaning up, I thought.

The more who shared, the more it became apparent to me that so many felt hopeless. As if each were thinking, “How are we here again? How have we taken so many steps backward after all the progress?”

While listening to these women speak their truth, an image of my 7-year-old daughter flashed through my mind. A day after the election, she attended her usual evening art class and brought home a picture she drew of the American flag. She was so disappointed after the election and wanting so bad to see the first female be elected as president. My daughter handed me the picture, which carefully depicted the correct number of red and white stripes and stars smudged with white color pencil barely visible on ivory card stock.

I am not afraid. I know that although these ladies have already blazed the path ahead, and it now lay carved out and ready for tread, it would not be without times when we feel a shadow has eclipsed the sun.

“It’s our America, mom,” she said.

drawing of American flag

She was right. It is still her America. It is still my America. To these women, I wanted to say, “America let you down, but this is still your America,” but instead I spoke of hope.

My voice broke, but I told them I will write loud and speak in metaphor. I will be an example of a loving human being even to those who don’t deserve it or return it. I told them they had already done the work. I will finish it. We will finish together, if they like. I told them my generation was roused, we were ready, and we needed to be given the chance to turn the boat against the tide.

I am not afraid. I know that although these ladies have already blazed the path ahead, and it now lay carved out and ready for tread, it would not be without times when we feel a shadow has eclipsed the sun.

Pass me the light.

Because just as author and activist Andrew Boyd reminds us, the truth will set you free, but first it will hurt like hell.

Why I’m Never Camping Again

“Mom, camping is not a date; it’s an endurance test. If you can survive camping with someone, you should marry them on the way home.”

― Yvonne Prinz, The Vinyl Princess

I just needed to feel warm again.

We had arrived at the Green River campsite 18 hours earlier. My clothes were soaked with a salty combination of late September rain and sweat.

I trudged in muddy boots up the hill to the restroom that doubled as a shower house. I slipped behind a moldy curtain, an inch of light on each side where the curtain fell short of hiding my shivering body away from the world. I only brought shampoo with me and a roll of paper towels to dry my hair as we forgot to bring towels. I needed the steam and hot from the shower to quicken my blood and release the numb from my limbs. I’d scrub the dirt away later. I didn’t have anything to use anyway, unless I wanted to snap a pinecone from a tree out back.

I tilted my chin up to let the blessed water slip down my back, and opened my eyes. Three of the four corners in my tiny shower stall harbored well-fed spiders. They crouched in their webs watching my naked form.

“Stay there, guys, and no one loses a leg,” I warned them. I watched each of the spindly arachnids to ensure their obedience.

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The spiders were not a big deal, and they were not why I hated camping.

I hate camping because I’ve never had a good camping experience absent of something that makes me declare every single time that I am never going camping again. I’ve now camped four times, and all four times, something horrible happened ranging from a bad sting needing a steroid injection to a campsite take-over by a Mexican Baptist Convention in which the attendees were so excited for Jesus, they sang about it all night long.

You can imagine I wasn’t thrilled by our friends’ suggestions to gather up our children and go camping.

“It’ll be different,” they said. “You’ll be with us, and we always have fun.”

They were right of course. These people, Joe and Robin and their two girls, were our favorite family. We were all best friends – the kids too.

So I relented. My wife wanted to go, and the kids would love it. We set the schedule, divided the expenses, and packed the cars for Green River. Here is a rundown of events that followed:

Friday

  • We arrived at dinner time on Friday. The kids were hungry. We were losing light, and it began to rain a steady pour despite the weather claims for a calm evening. We managed to get our tents up.
  • 45 minutes out of the car, and one of two change of clothes I brought for the weekend were already soaked. I only had one hoodie. I lay shivering in the dark on a weird foam beach bed my mom gave us to use for the trip. My hip ached from laying on the hard surface.I wondered how the kids would do on a diet of chips for supper. We would not be able to light the wet wood in the fire pit to cook for our group of four adults and five children.
  • Our tent leaked. I felt around in the dark, and could feel large areas of wet and cold on our sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. The glow of cell phone lights revealed the tent was indeed leaking in several spots despite the rain protection tarp thing strapped to the top. The old, but expensive tent belonged to my father, who passed away six years ago. I never got the chance to use his camping stuff.
  • We realized at some point we forgot most of what we needed to make dinner. Even the heavy duty aluminum foil rested in the cabinet of our dark house. Not that it mattered. A fire won’t start in the rain.

thank-god-no-one-forgot-the-booze

  • When I informed our friends of our fumble, they realized they also left behind many of the groceries purchased specifically for the trip, including breakfast and cooking utensils.
  • No one forgot the booze.
  • Our first night “camping,” we ended up eating chicken strips and ice cream at a nearby Dairy Queen in our wet clothes. We voted on whether to buy another tent and stay the night or go home. I lost the vote.
  • At Super Walmart, a slippery, half-eaten kiwi slice took down and injured one of us in the produce aisle (identity omitted), but the rest of us got out unscathed. We purchased a new tent, re-purchased all the items both families left at home, then headed back to the soggy campsite.
  • The first night camping closed with my family sleeping on damp bedding in a dry tent wearing wet clothes. The cold ate at my face and hands, but the alcohol lulled me to sleep off and on throughout the evening.

Saturday

  • Saturday opened with pockets of rain that forced us to rush food back and forth from the table to the coolers and chairs back into vehicles throughout the morning.
  • Our 7-year-old girls found most of a large fish skeleton and decided to share their find with the whole family back at our campsite. They brought a trash can lid also assumed a treasure to place over it for protection.
me-with-7-year-olds
Me and the 7-year-olds (dead fish to the left unpictured)
  • The family dog lost her mind every time she saw another dog, which was often. She tried to eat the fish bones too.
  • The rain almost prevented us from cooking hot dogs for lunch, but we managed to get them cooked enough. We dubbed them “acid rain dogs” and ate them plain since we forgot condiments.
  • I took a hot shower with shampoo to thaw my body. I dried my hair with cheap paper towels we purchased from Super Walmart and the hand dryer next to the sink since no one thought to bring a hair dryer.
  • I suggested a walk to the beach to stretch and get away from the camp. The family competed in a rock skipping contest, collected geodes along the shore, and explored. The fun forced my bad attitude back into the corner of my mind for a while. The rain, for once, rested during this brief time, but it began again when we started the walk back.
  • My nerves snapped. I picked a fight with my wife, and we sat up until late talking before she crawled into a tent to try to sleep. Sleep was beyond me.
  • I sat by the embers in the fire pit and stirred them for heat. Midnight had long passed, and the camp was quiet, until I heard what sounded like someone dumping water onto the ground behind me. I turned in my chair to look, only to see my dear friend Joe peeing on a tree. I was grateful for the lack of lighting. I decided it might be best to also retire to the tent lest I witness other men emerging for middle-of-the-night peeing sessions.

Sunday

  • I awoke to a woman yelling at a boy about his clothes. I heard footsteps running away after his final defiant, “No!” The campsites were so compact, it sounded as if they were arguing right outside our tent.
  • I needed coffee and couldn’t find any more cups. So I dug through the trash until I found a used one. A hair clung to the coffee-stained side. A rock and possible bug hung out in the bottom. I used the water pump to rinse away the undesirables, then filled it with hot, brown caffeine. I took a seat by the pile of arranged sticks in the fire pit. Joe attempted to build a fire, but the lighter refused to strike. Joe informs me there were more coffee cups in the car.
file-oct-03-9-07-52-pm
Geode we found on the beach.
  • Not long after, we packed the cars and drove away from what many consider paradise. It definitely was not paradise for me.
  • Finally headed home, I shot my wife a pitiful look. She turned on the heat, took my hand and squeezed it.

I recognize there are no other people in the world whom I’d rather have shared this experience. Our family’s ability to come together, to overcome, and still laugh in the pouring rain spoke of a decade of deep friendship and connection. Between all these moments of feeling like my face would freeze off, we played card games. We light-heartedly poked fun at each other. We watched the kids make friends with other kids. The children got to run around like sprites in the forest and gather wood (since we didn’t bring nearly enough). We sang weird songs around the campfire, likely disturbed our neighbors, and didn’t give any cares. Robin and I snuggled – a lot. We huddled in our tent and shopped for Halloween-themed leggings during a heavy rain. We held deep discussions uninterrupted by the outside world.

take-a-sad-song-and-make-it-better

Then there were those beautiful moments on the beach. We were all dirty. Wet. Hungry. Tired. But we were together. We were one large family playing on a sandy shore brought together by love, not blood, and we were making the best out of a horrible series of unfortunate events. We had a sack-full of incredible memories to add to our trove.

That was the take-away, and it was a gem I’ll treasure far more than our 7-year-olds treasured that dead fish. But I still hate camping, and I still declare I am never going camping again.

 

 

The Happy Ending

“What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life-to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?”
― George Eliot, Adam Bede

I cried at the wedding rehearsal.

I was sweating in the late Spring heat lining up the wedding party behind a curtain to the brides’ instructions.

I made notes on a crinkled paper flapping in the breeze on a clipboard: two female ring bearers, one flower girl, a little boy holding a wooden sign I would soon inscribe with “Here Comes The Brides” in chalk, followed by a bride with her parents on each arm, and a second bride also donning a parent on linked elbows.

I cued the music, “Rejoice” by Il Divo.

“This song is very dear to me,” said one of the brides.

I whispered instructions to the kiddos. “Take your time walking down the aisle. Sit here when you reach the end.”

The young ones were into it. They would do well. Now it was the first bride’s turn to walk the short strip to the altar.

Photo by Sharley Hughes
Photo by Sharley Hughes

I looked at their faces – these two brides who were my dear friends. The two beautiful ladies had been together for years, but only now had the opportunity to marry in our state thanks to the 2015 Supreme Court decision granting marriage rights for all. They chose to speak their vows on their farm in front of a charming barn surrounded by tall green trees. Goats bayed in the background.

I held the curtain back. One woman turned and made eye contact with the other in line behind her. Her gaze read we’re doing this and I love you and all the burrows and ridges they’ve traversed together over the years passed between them translated in a single glance.

They looked back at me to cue their turn to walk down the aisle, and I lost the slim grip on my emotions.

quote with key to a happy marriage

For other weddings I rehearsed (even my own), the couple had been together for a few years, usually followed by a year long engagement, and then the wedding.

This one was different.

Here I stood running through the processional of a wedding for two women who were forced to wait years for this moment. They were practiced in their relationship. They had already rehearsed weathering the thunder and sometimes flash of lightning we experience when we love another.

It was only now they were practicing ceremony. The rest – the truths of a marriage – they figured out long ago.

“Don’t you dare!” one bride said to me watching my tears give me away. Her tears followed suit.

Photo by Mackenzie Coulter
Photo by Mackenzie Coulter

I thought about how our own country and its fellow citizens robbed them of a special kind of commitment – spiritual, legal, financial, physical, and emotional – too long denying a fully functional life in society without shame or harassment. As if to say they could come this far together, but no further. We were now practicing closing that gap.

The first bride finished walking to the altar, kissed her parents, and turned to watch her love join her.

I held the curtain back for the second bride and watched with tear-soaked eyes as she rehearsed meeting her soul mate at the end of the aisle.

I did not see the beginning of a new chapter in their story. This was their happy ending.

 

 

 

 

Chasing Ghosts

 

IMG_2886“You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.” – Eva Ibbotson, The Dragonfly Pool

Yesterday was my last day employed by the bourbon distillery where my father worked 17 years.

I made it 31 months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t inherit his stamina and work ethic. My co-workers were interesting, good people, with laid back, comedic and gossipy personalities one grows up around in a small town. Time tick tocks a little slower down in the valley where the distillery rises up above the tree lines.

Dad began working there when he was 19 until he was 36 years old. I was 12 when he got a better job making more money at a federal prison. He passed away at age 50 of lung cancer about 10 months after diagnosis. I was 25 years old, five days before turning 26.

Despite being an adult with a mortgage, paralegal career and a one-year-old daughter, the devastation of his loss brought my knee caps to the kitchen floor.

It happened after I called my brother to deliver the news. It had to be me to tell him. I knew it had to be me.

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Sometimes we are able to close the door on our emotions long enough to accomplish a difficult obligation. That’s what I did. I did it for months before dad let go of life. I knew I’d have the rest of mine to leave the door wide open, but not in front of him, or my brother or my mother. Not while hope and strength were needed as a priority to push us all through the treatments, hospital stays and filing for Social Security based on terminal diagnosis.

All until that moment when I hung up the phone with my brother; strength evaporated and took hope with it.

I knew part of me was going to be different from this point forward. I was not wrong.

My brother and I would join thousands of people who had lost parents, some young, and many who were much older than us. There’s an understanding expression in the eyes when we see each other, because it’s not possible for another human being to understand what it feels like to lose a parent until it happens. Not even if I were to craft a hundred metaphors to describe the feeling.

I wager the experience differs as well for those of us who were close to our parent, like I was with my father. (No, I’m certainly not saying it is harder or worse for me, but different.) We were so much alike, and we were best friends.

About two years after grieving dad’s death, I received a Facebook message from a friend working at the distillery letting me know her position would be open soon. She asked if I would be interested.

Here was a chance to meet many of dad’s former co-workers who I’m sure could tell me stories I hadn’t heard. I was tired of my commute to my current job and was feeling guilty about spending so much time away from my family, so I took the job.

I was right. Within a month, I had gathered many hilarious stories about my dad’s antics and humbling tales about his kindness. A few folks wandered to my desk just to meet “Otis Ball’s daughter” and tell me what a great person he was. I soaked it all up like a little shriveled plant thirsty for water. These were his memories brought to life through people who knew him well, and I had gained unfettered access.

My connection with my deceased father is so strong, I feel it even in death. Perhaps the pain comes from my inability to create new memories using our connection. Surely others left behind in the light of the living feel as I do. I was lucky. I had found a way to discover old memories which were new to me.

The job was easy, simple office work. I knew I was overqualified. Hearing about dad’s life from co-workers fed my soul, but the work didn’t. I was a writer. My passion lives inside words scrawled on a page. I liked challenge. I liked to help people.

Somewhere on my journey chasing my father’s ghost, I had forgotten my passion. So after several months soaking in the atmosphere where my father had spent half his adult life, I slowly began to write again, and realized I wasn’t supposed to be there anymore. Dad wouldn’t want me stuck in place on his behalf, a place I didn’t belong. A place where my talents were not utilized.

So I left.

I am pursuing a fulltime career as a freelance writer. When I switched majors my sophomore year in college from Physical Therapy to a double major in English and Communication, my father said, “How are you ever going to make any money doing that?”

me and dad collegeHe was laying on the concrete floor of the carport at home, fiddling under my car. The forest green Honda Accord was making a crazy scratching noise. He had the tire pulled off minutes after my arrival.

“I will,” I said, though I really wasn’t sure myself how I was going to turn words into cash. I was seated on my tire watching his greasy elbow move this way and that.

He turned his head and faced up at me to make eye contact. “Show me,” he said, then turned his attention back to the mechanics of the car he helped me buy.

Well, dad. I’m showing you now.