Fifty Minute Son

Teachers touch many lives throughout the years, although sometimes it is the student who affects the teacher’s life. I recently ran across a poem I had written after such an occasion more than 20 years ago. Andre was a small, African-American sixth-grader where I taught art at a school for army dependents, the children of our military troops. Being in the military is a tough job, and the children have a hard time too. Some kids have both parents enlisted and deployed at the same time.

Andre was blossoming in art class. He definitely had talent and I encouraged him each day for the fifty minute period. Apparently, things were not going as well at home. Divorce was rearing its ugly head again in his family’s life, in addition to the normal Army stresses. I cried when Andre left. I ran after him in the hall as he was leaving to give him the portrait he had drawn in oil pastel that I had hung up in our “art show”. I have never seen him again.

Fifty Minute Son

Asymmetrical pastel eyes

Gaze up at their maker.

A flickering smile

As you add the final mark.

From hesitant hands

Emerges the gentle queen.

A royal portrait

To preside in the show.

In the sunlight of praise

Your slight self beams.

“You know,  Andre’s leaving.”

I hear and can’t believe.

Another divorce,

Another town.

Number four dad

Not there any more.

The rolled-up portrait

Is clutched in one hand.

My last sight of you

My fifty minute son.

-Gwendolyn Rodriguez

Attics are “Forever”

Since I wrote about moving out, I suppose I should speak on moving in. We barely squeaked out of our old house by the deadline, July 28. The new owners took over the next day.

We, on the other hand, would have been homeless, but for the invitation to stay with my mother while we waited to close on the new house. There is something unavoidably awkward about being 46 and living with your mother. I’m sure it wasn’t a picnic for her either when she viewed the devastation in the wake of a family including two teens, a ten-year-old, a husband, two small, gassy dogs, and a cat. You don’t realize how set you are in your ways until you are removed from your natural habitat and collide with the unfamiliar, exposed to someone else’s routine.

Fast forward three weeks: I hoped that unpacking would be easier than packing, but it brought a whole new set of challenges. I didn’t have time to sort though things before I had packed them, especially items in the scariest of all places: the attic. (Insert horror movie background music.)

For 11 years, if I didn’t need it, but couldn’t yet part with it, I chucked it – eyes closed – into the large walk-in attic. I piled it higher and deeper, like a tell of ancient civilizations built one on top of the other.

Emptying the attic was the job I had dreaded most.

A friend and her posse of kids came to the rescue, fire-brigade style, and we emptied it post-haste. I peeked into a few boxes. “You obviously haven’t moved enough or you wouldn’t still have that,” commented the Wise Friend, a veteran of frequent moves. But I just had to “ooh and aah” over the cast of Risa’s leg that she broke jumping off a teeny-weenie step in the family room at age 2. (She’s 16.) The knitted cap Ross wore home from the hospital. (He’s 10.) Risa’s leopard fur-trimmed leather size 4T jacket: Boy, did she ever look cute in that. All boxes went into storage units to be dealt with later……

Now it was “later.” A new garage full of boxes including stacks and stacks of clothes containers saved for Younger Son. One problem: Younger Son is a completely different body type than Older Son. Husky Younger also completely skipped size 12 this year.

I do have an attic in the new house, but I am going to seriously consider what goes in it, because another Wise Friend has given me the “Key to a Successful Attic.” It is this: An attic is FOREVER. You want to keep the item, object, memento? Yes? Fine. But you’d better be ok with NEVER SEEING IT AGAIN. It is a certain mindset you must accept. This also requires that we either never move again, or we are fine with giving any attic possessions to the new owners.

I vote to stay.

A Moving Story


We lived in our house for 11 years and I’d wanted to move for the last 10. It finally happened, but good grief was the whole process ever a pain in the butt.

We showed the house about 20 times before it sold. Rarely did we get more than an hour’s notice. I’d get off the phone, run to the stairs, and scream, “Emergency clean up!” My three kids would come scurrying. Lastly, we’d throw the dirty laundry into the back of the totaled van, load up two gassy dogs, and squeal the tires, barely making it out of the house before the potential buyers came to look.

Worse, far worse than this was the actual packing. Don’t get me wrong: I was grateful and happy that the house sold, but I never dreamed I had so much STUFF that had to be removed. Where did it all come from? Was it the extra kid we had since living there? I came to regret every collection, every saved item over the years. Eventually, any attachment I ever had to anything ceased. I became hardened. A wedding gift? Whatever. Dolls I had played with when I was a kid? Sure, I was going to play with them again at age 46. Yeah, right. Where’s that trash bag?

Then you start moving large pieces out. You know you were a clean person, but HOW DID THAT FILTH GET THERE? Was I living in a crack house? Gee, and I have five oreganos. I also had a major food coloring spill some time ago. OR IS IT FOOD COLORING?

It was somehow liberating to purge, like a giant household enema: Uncomfortable while it’s happening, but leaving you with an empty, pleasant sensation when done. We took a final look around after 3 weeks of endless packing and transporting to the storage unit that became two storage units, packed like a Tetris game. We had almost left the trash can. I would have abandoned it, but it was full of three-week-old extra ripe garbage that had been completely forgotten. Not good for the buyer’s walk-through the next day.

Anyhoo, we did find a new house as we were packing up the old and I am super excited about it. I have to be, because we’ve all decided that we will die in the new house before we EVER move again.

The Kindness of a Stranger


“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”               ~ Mother Theresa

The reality of my mother in law’s condition smacks me in the face every time we visit Florida. Separated by over 700 miles in Tennessee, I can put the starkness of our family’s loss out of my mind most of the year. She is truly my “other mother”. I am the daughter she never had.

Visiting makes me cry. The big ugly cry. Until you can’t breath out of your nose cry.

It would be easier if her house wasn’t a time capsule of her last minutes in it before the move to the nursing home. A pair of shorts hanging on a hook behind the bathroom door. The make-up on the counter ready-to-use. Clothes with tags still on them behind the bedroom door. It’s been three years……..

I spend as much time with her as I can when we come down for our summer “vacation.” I fill her in on family news, talk about old times, and find out her immediate needs even thought she can’t really answer me. I do what I hope someone will do for me in the future. Just be there. Just love her.

On special occasions, my father in law arranges for a cab, one equipped for wheelchairs, to transport her from the nursing home to the house about thirty minutes away.

There’s precious few hours. I think maybe being home will help her, jog her mind, but she seems anxious and ready to leave too soon. “Is there anything you would like to see in the house?” I ask. No……… nothing. I see a few pictures across the room and bring them over. One is an 80’s photo of her husband. What? You want to take that with you? Yes, she does.

Three hours later the cab arrives driven by a big bear of a black man. He rolls her out and my father in law gets in the front to ride back with them. I look inside to see her. She’s clutching the plastic bag from the nursing home that now contains the treasured photo.

Bye! I love you! I call to her and wave.

As the driver walks around to close the back hatch, my face crumples. He sees me and comes closer. My face falls into his chest and I stand with this kind stranger and cry with his strong arm on my shoulders. He says, I know. You have no idea how well I know. And he holds me and I try to stop the sobs that rise up and break through the surface of my soul.

Look, you can’t let the kids see you cry, he says. I step away and wipe my eyes. Look, I’m a funny monkey! And he starts jumping around, making noises, acting silly.

Thank you, I manage weakly and smile.

They drive off. I am touched by the kindness of a stranger. A stranger with a broken heart that doesn’t let his kids see him cry. I know without a doubt he spoke to me what he tells himself.

So, it’s important to love your family and your friends, but it might even surpass it all to love a stranger with kindness.

Praying for Cookies


A group of little children sits on the floor at the foot of their teacher. It is the 1960’s, in Castro’s Cuba. Winning hearts and minds is most effective when the heart belongs to a child, as these young ones are going to discover.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have milk and cookies?” the teacher says to the thin faces peering up. They look excitedly at one another, nodding, smiling.

“Well, let us all bow our heads, close our eyes, and pray to God that He brings us some.” All heads bow and the teacher leads in prayer.

“Children! Look!”

They look around. Nothing. Their faces fall.

“You must not have prayed hard enough. We will pray again.”

“Children! Look now!”

Disappointment again. They are told to try a third time: God must not have heard them.

Then………well, God did not hear them or He didn’t care, she says. They are told to pray one last time. Deflated, they do. Slumped shoulders, tightly clasped hands. As expected, nothing happens.

“This time we are going to pray to our leader, Fidel Castro,” says the teacher to the group with a determined voice. They wearily bow their heads.

“Children! Look! Castro has heard your prayers!” Trays of cookies and glasses of milk are brought in to squeals of delight and smiles all around.

Maybe a group of communists was born that day. At least one child wasn’t, however, and that was my future Spanish professor in college, who related the story to my class. I recently thought of it again. I have been thinking about hope: what I hope for, who I put my hope in, how fragile it can be, how another person can crush your spirit. As an adult I can use my experiences to refix my eyes on my goals. When my hope gets derailed, I can eventually find my way back. My heart grieves for those children back in Cuba whose hope was purposefully taken. We should all be so careful of the words that we speak to ourselves and especially to our children.

Fooled Again


It is no fun to find out you’ve been duped. I recently deleted a post I had done a few years ago on the dangers of cooking with microwave ovens. I had read a scientific-sounding article and was completely convinced by it, even throwing out my microwave. Then I wrote a blog summarizing the article. Fast-forward to last week when I heard another allegation about the health hazards of microwaves. That led to finding out that at least two of the facts from the first article that I thought were true, were not. Now, here’s the problem: Does that mean the entire article was false? How can you know? We all find out 99.9% of our information from someone else. So whom do you trust?

How do you know what to believe? Someone said, well, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. (They wrote that on the internet.) Do I have to find a source that is written on a scroll or stone tablet now? Another person won’t look at information on a certain site because it has an “agenda”. Sorry, everyone has an agenda: I’ve got one right now. But they are selling something, they say. So you can’t believe someone’s information because they are selling something?

I think we are tired of being lied to, but I also think we go from one extreme to the other. We don’t want to believe anything that sounds outlandish, because we’ve been duped before and our pride got hurt too. But here again, the truth can be bizarre. There are many, many instances in history where information was dismissed as outlandish and later proven true.

I don’t know the answer. I sincerely wish that I lived in a perfect world and could trust everybody. Time seems to be the best way to prove the validity of something. But, in the meantime, I don’t think being overly cynical is much better than being too trusting. I’m not going to immediately fall for every conspiracy theory, but I’m not going to dismiss every crazy sounding thing as being utterly impossible either.

….. and I’m still not getting a microwave.

First Jobs


First jobs tend to imprint your memory with good or bad experiences. I can relate to migrant farm workers, because my very first paid job as a young teen was picking tomatoes. My mother, sister, brother, and I woke up early, before the sun grew unbearable and walked to the neighbor’s field. We got 50 cents CASH per bushel basket. Yes, you read that correctly.

My next most memorable job was in the Singer store at the new Hickory Hollow Mall. I was bursting with experience after a single home economics class and various small sewing projects at home. At 17, they didn’t have to pay me minimum wage, so I got $2.79 an hour. I felt rich. Even cooler, I drove myself to work.

My senior year and the following summer, I lucked out with a job at the Vanderbilt main library. Prestigious sounding, but all I did was put bar code stickers in books. See, there used to be something called a CARD CATALOGUE where you had to open a drawer and find a book alphabetically. I know, outrageous, right? But times were a-changin’, and our little group of workers put thousands of those little bar codes in books as they converted their system. The basement of the library was my very favorite place. I found some books that hadn’t been checked out in nearly 100 years. The smell of the books is what I remember most and the crinkling sound of the bindings as I opened the cover.

The summer after my first year of art school, I got a job as an artist at Opryland Theme Park where the current Opry Mills Outlet Mall is located. I had an easel set up on the sidewalk, a uniform, chalk, and an immense fear of people. I was supposed to solicit theme park visitors to get their profile portraits drawn, an introvert’s worst nightmare. Two of us did this type and two or three other artists did caricatures. I got $2 for every one that I drew, though they cost $12. I also had to pay for my own supplies. I could draw one in 20 minutes if the person cooperated. I preferred dental surgery over portraits of children, since it meant drawing a moving target. The most memorable drawing was one of a young adult woman. It was obvious that she and her sweetheart didn’t get to “the big city” too often. She wouldn’t stay still. She kept moving to see my progress and asking questions. “How long you been artin’?” she asked in a thick Southern accent.  How do you answer that?

My son is now looking for his first job. I don’t think it is quite fair that minimum wage is over $7 compared to my 50 cent bushel basket of tomatoes. It’s a different world now, but I wish him all the best.