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Searching through Lost and Found

On my morning walk, sometimes I’ll see coins. Pennies are common, a nickel is nice. Quarters are exciting – because they’re large and shiny and I can probably use them in a parking meter someday. If I see a coin, I’ll scoop it up and keep it without giving it another thought. But one day I saw something so unexpected that I was concerned. I was walking along a curb and came across a roll of bills that quickly counted out to sixty dollars.

An extra sixty dollars would be nice to have, I grant you. Who wouldn’t want another sixty dollars, but it was too large an amount to scoop up and keep walking. So I stopped to think. My best guess was that the dollars were associated with a particular house. I went to ring the doorbell. No answer.

I didn’t know who belonged to this money, but I did not lose this money for that person. I didn’t see it as my full responsibility to find the rightful owner, but I did see my responsibility thusly: I couldn’t walk away with someone else’s sixty dollars. After much deliberation, I opened the mailbox at the curb at the house where I thought the money was most likely associated, and I pushed the dollars inside. Then I walked away, having done the two things I knew to do to give the money a chance to be returned to its owner.

That was several weeks ago, and I do not know what happened after that. But what I gained from the experience was this picture of walking away having done the best I knew to do – while also accepting a general belief that in a divine economy of some kind, what is lost is found again.

Change of Perspective

I’ve been thinking about how a few changes to a story give it new meaning. Memories, impressions, fleeting notions – the stories you store and recall – give meaning to your experiences. So, therefore, you can alter the meaning of your experiences by taking another look at the stories you tell about what is taking place.

A change of perspective, in other words.

In May 1942, my father typed a charming letter home from World War II that involved losing coins on a bus trip across town and finding them again on his return. He begins, “The most entertaining, true story that has ever happened to me, this day at 12, during a typical Hawaiian day, extremely and almost unbearably hot, I boarded the Waikiki Bus, for the Waikiki District, on regular assigned work.”

At the time he wrote this letter, he was in a part of the country that had been bombed only a few months earlier. America was losing the war so far, and he was away from home. So, knowing of him from later in life when he experienced a lot of issues, I wondered if I could rewrite that story into something that would change its meaning for me. That’s how I came to:

The Father’s Fare
By Minnie Lamberth

Sometimes this world takes you places you don’t want to go.

When the plane landed, the ensign was in a crowd that lifted to its feet with a mix of unspoken uncertainty and “let’s do this” bravado. Jostled by the people around him, he stepped out into a tropical paradise, felt a wave of heat from the tarmac.

Breathtaking … and yet. You would hardly say “what a beautiful place” without being aware of the devastation that had spewed from earlier planes. Even if you did take notice of the blue-green water, you would still look up from time to time. You’d see the billowing clouds, squint at the piercing sun, and wonder what terrible thing might be just beyond the horizon.

He was so homesick he could barely breathe. And he was afraid.

Some days after he had settled in, he was sent on an errand across town. “With my luck this is the day the bombs come back,” he thought. He didn’t want to go.

As the bus pulled up to the stop, he stepped on, paid his fare, and the conductor handed him his change. He clasped the coins while squeezing into a tight space filled with silent men and women – civilian and military, locals and outsiders. Words were stifled by the unbearable heat and by thoughts of that unknown horizon.

He grabbed a strap with one hand as he tried to place the change in his pocket with the other. But easy things were hard to do, and when he released his grip, the coins missed their aim and fell to the floor. Two dimes, a nickel and a penny bounced and rolled away.

Every silent eye saw that the coins were out of his reach, and no one could help. He imagined everyone felt the same weight of helplessness and difficulty, as if the unknowns beyond the horizon were so present they couldn’t even tend to those coins on the floor.

Sometimes this world takes you places you don’t want to go. And you will find things there that you cannot repair, retrieve or undo.

The fares we pay for our journeys can be quite high. But here’s another thing to consider. If you tell the story that life is unfair and this world is unsafe, you will tell a true story that you will surely believe.

Or you can tell a different story that is also true.

This world is one of loss and restoration. That’s the system. When you give, you receive. When you hold things loosely, you feel more together. If you step away from a puzzle that cannot be solved, you will feel a sense of reconciliation from the simple act of letting go. When you walk away, there is a return. In loss, there is gain.

That’s what happened that day on the errand across town. After the ensign’s assignment was complete, he headed toward the bus stop for the trip back to the base. When the conductor opened the door, he paid his fare and turned to grab a strap. Then he looked down, and there on the floor he saw two dimes, a nickel and a penny.

He almost cried. Not over the money, for there would always be coins that fell to the ground, but from the idea that heaven had reached through that troubled horizon to offer the reassurance he most needed to hear: What once was lost will be found again.

Fifty years away, the ensign’s long journey has neared an end. By now his coins are few and far between, and he stares helplessly at the distance ahead. On his own he can go no farther, and, conceding defeat, he sees the battle is lost. There’s no way he can find his way home from here. And yet… from somewhere beyond that unknown horizon, a Father’s voice draws near: “Do not be afraid, my son. Your passage has been paid.”

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Matthew 10:29-30 (NIV)

Listening for a Distant Lullaby

A couple of years ago, I started experimenting with art projects that incorporated pieces of debris that I picked up on my morning walks, and I added within these pieces inspirational phrases that generally came from scripture.

During that season, I was eating lunch at La Zona Rosa, and I saw a friend, Eileen, at another table. She crossed the restaurant to tell me, “I have a verse for you… ‘He will rejoice over you with singing.’” This verse from Zephaniah 3 had come to her mind that day, and she thought I might find use for it in my art projects.

I did not find a place, per se, in any of my projects, but I thought often of the verse itself – and what that might be like to have God rejoice over me with singing. This concept seemed pleasant but not necessarily available in my day to day. I thought of this verse again when I attended a Service of Remembrance last November.

On that Sunday afternoon, I was sitting at the end of a pew on the wall-side of the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, listening to hymns, prayers and readings. I’d been to this service before, but this time I was overjoyed by my experience. The best part was the choral benediction. The choir recessed down those wall-side walkways, then lined up along the wall to stop and sing their final hymn. Choir members, including one of the earlier soloists, were right beside me as they sang this lovely benediction. It was almost like being surrounded by a great chorus of witnesses. I thought, this must be what it’s like to have the Lord rejoice over me with singing.

That concept was not far from mind this month as I toyed with the phrase, “The Father’s Lullaby.” I have been working on a series of parables, and I wondered, what can I do with the word lullaby… I thought about The Daughter’s Lullaby, The Creator’s Lullaby, The Warrior’s Lullaby… Then: No, wait, what about The Father’s Lullaby? Where can I go with that? Here’s how I found my answer.

On June 11, 1862, my great grandfather wrote a letter home from a difficult battlefield. This was his closing paragraph:

Mother and Sisters, I want you all to pray for me that I may live to fight through the battles and come out untouched and return to my family. And Mother, if I should fall in the course, I want you to remember my daughter for she feels dear to me as a lovely daughter. My wife is teaching school at Wessobulga and my daughter is going to school. You all must write to her at Wessobulga.

Manuel Lamberth had had terrible experiences in battle – grave illnesses and injury, near starvation, truly troubled times. So I wondered, what if this lullaby were somehow related to him and his daughter – to their an earthly separation that stretched for many miles that, now, a century and a half later still has a message to remember.

That’s how this parable came to be.

The Father’s Lullaby
By Minnie Lamberth

He lay on a cot in camp, feverish and ill, wondering what his missteps would mean to his little girl. He couldn’t have loved her more if he had pulled out his heart and handed it to her with his last breath. But he was here, and she was there.

That night in camp, sick unto death, he thought of this dear daughter, and in his grief, a mournful dispatch eased slowly from his broken spirit:

In my mind, I see you there
And everywhere
A mirage of memory
That never goes away
Be assured
I did not leave
You are not gone
We are together, still.

Far away from this battlefield, his daughter awakened from unsettled sleep. A celestial light peeked through an open window, and she felt welcomed by the sight. The moon had always been her friend –  steady, quiet and present on any dark night.

The loft was warm this evening. Throwing off her cover, she rose, looked out and looked up as the stars blinked their greeting. The land was still, the night air did not move. In this moment all her own, she opened her heart to distant thoughts as a melody that only she could hear floated down from the heavens:

Sleep, my child, in comforted pose
Dream, my child, released from your woes
For love is greater than fear
Whenever your heart draws near
To hear your father’s lullaby

She had heard these words before, having been stored in long ago memory. But sometimes in quiet moments they found their way into her waking hours. The melody continued:

Stand firm in the face of any dismay
Journey on in the light of the one true way
The battle is not your own
You know you’re never alone
When you hear your father’s lullaby.

She took these words in as a treasure beyond what her eyes, ears or mind could comprehend, and as the melody moved around and settled within her spirit, she said with a sigh to the endless sky, “Thank you for this song.”

Two hundred miles away, the cot that held her father sagged from the weight of his helpless estate. He could not move. Even so, his feverish mind stirred up the strength of a love that would not end, and he found the breath to voice his deepest plea:

I was born into the life I knew
during these terrible days
Everywhere I look, I see
others just like me
Each person here
misses someone there
as we lift the ones we love
into the heart of God above
In need of sleep, I cannot rest
until I make this fervent request
If I do not return from here
do not believe I left you there
My love was real
We are together, still
Always.

In the distance between them, his daughter bid farewell to the moon and stars, as she voiced her prayer into the sky: “Take care of those we love, this night and always.”

And she returned to her bed, where she gathered herself in peaceful slumber.

Change of Perspective

The idea that underlies this parable is: what if I look beyond a sense of abandonment and despair and see instead connection, love and care? How would that shift in perspective change how a story is stored and recalled?

I’ll be telling more about this idea in the coming days.

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17

Why Did the Writer Cross the Room?

My experience within the proximity of Alabama politics began when I was in third grade. My mother and I were visiting relatives in Montgomery. We went for lunch at the Morrison’s Cafeteria on Lee Street, and there we saw a man who was at that moment former Governor George Wallace. This was after his first term, after his late wife’s abbreviated term, and before his second. My mother’s aunt introduced us, and as Governor Wallace greeted us, he pulled out a picture postcard of himself and gave it to me.

How did he know that I would take this postcard to school the next Monday? He must have had a sense even then about word-of-mouth marketing strategies, for I surely did. I took the postcard to school and showed it to my teacher before the bell rang. Her little boy, a first grader, was in the room at the time. She said, “Show it to him. He’ll know who it is.”

Frankly, I thought that was a crazy suggestion. How could a first grader know the identity of the man on the picture postcard if I had only learned it myself two days ago? The little boy studied the card and finally, with hesitation, asked, “Is it Nixon?”

See? I told you he wouldn’t know. But it was sort of impressive that a first grader could pull the president’s name out of the hat like that. I don’t think I’ve seen that little boy since third grade, but I understand that when he grew up he entered the political communications field. So, in hindsight, this exchange makes sense.

The next time I met a man about to become governor, I was a young copywriter working for a Montgomery ad agency. We were responsible for a big event in Atlanta, during which Governor-elect Guy Hunt, George “Goober” Lindsey and the tourism director were to speak about Alabama’s attributes as a tourist destination.

As I sat at a table in a convention hall, anonymous among 3,000 people, I took note that I had written all of the remarks that the people read from the podium that day (except the invocation). I was marveling that everyone was listening to words I had written. But what I remember especially is thinking that it should be more of a pinnacle than it was. It was one of those moments where an amazing experience was matched by a general awareness that whatever was happening was not enough to bring meaning to my life.

During my work at the ad agency, changes in the office of Governor had affected who was selected for state contracts, which affected workload. I had hoped to avoid the political ramifications of having (and losing) state contracts following elections. So I took an opportunity to move into a job in state government. In which I stepped even deeper into political ramifications. “It’s one of the most political agencies there is,” I was told of my new agency. “Every year there’s a bill to abolish it.”

Still, the role itself was easy to manage, and I had a supervisor who treated me well.

We had lots of governors during my time there. Guy Hunt was removed from office, so we shifted direction during the brief Jim Folsom Jr. term, then we shifted again when Fob James came back as he defeated Folsom.

Eventually I segued and began to work for Huntingdon College part-time while I prepared to write full-time. During my tenure there, a gubernatorial campaign was afoot, and one of my very favorite colleagues on campus was expressing dismay about the accusations that challenger Don Siegelman was making about Governor James. She was quite put out. Very put out. And I remember distinctly that she said: “Uncle Fob just wouldn’t do that.”

I had heard that she was the governor’s niece, but when you hear someone say “Uncle Fob” it really comes home. And this was, once again, a reminder of being careful about expressing political opinions – and social media hadn’t even been invented yet.

The Governor Next Door

After Huntingdon, as I began to work on my own, I rented an office space within a friend’s place of business on North Hull Street. He and his wife, early in their marriage, had lived in a really cute house on Perry Street next door to the Governor’s Mansion. They said there was great security, given that a state trooper was always sitting outside their house.

One day in a workplace conversation, I had suggested to my friend Adams, a writer, that if he had been keeping a journal when he lived there, he could have written a book called “The Governor Next Door.” That would have been cool. He did offer up one story of how the tall and lanky Guy Hunt used to ride his bicycle on the grounds. Sometimes they would look out their window and all they would see was the governor’s head floating above the fence. Fascinating tidbit. It would have been a great book.

So let me get to this part of the story.

When I began working in state government, I was renting an attic apartment in a single-family dwelling, and Kay Ivey was the family’s next-door neighbor. She and I became driveway acquaintances. Then she hired me on the staff at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

A couple of weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, I was sitting in church just a few minutes before the 8:30 service when I saw Kay sitting alone in a pew. I thought to myself, “I better get up and go speak to her.” She had a lot going on.

So I walked over and gave a big, “Hey, Kay,” and she responded with a friendly, “Well, Minnie Lamberth.” She has always greeted me that way.

I reached down and hugged her and said, “I will be praying for you.”

She said, “Thank you, and pray for the state too.”

We didn’t have a long conversation, but there was just something about taking a moment to acknowledge that something big was about to happen. At the same time, we come at these things from different perspectives. Kay has pursued political activity over her whole career, just as I have wished to avoid it to the extent possible in Montgomery. Yet the fact that this was church, where hearts are a little more open and often more vulnerable, made those few moments, for me, the sweetest exchange we’d ever had.

I was glad I walked over to her pew that Sunday morning. By the end of the next day, she was our governor.

Four takeaways from this story:   

Don’t commit crimes or abuses of power. Especially if you’re a governor. But, really, it’s not a good idea for anyone.

On the way up or down, be nice to everyone. Before I met the late George Lindsey I was told, “He’s not very nice.” This was surprising information as Goober had always seemed affable on camera. In any case, I had given him his script; he read it through. I asked if he wanted to read it again. He held up a finger and shook it at me as he said, “At these rates, you don’t rehearse.”

I remember thinking, “That wasn’t very nice.” His remark didn’t cause me any harm. It was one tiny exchange, but I have never forgotten that during that one encounter, he matched his reputation.

Cross the room to speak to people when you get that nudge to do so. I remember well in my mother’s last days that she and I had delivered a baby gift to one of her friends to give to that friend’s son – a well-positioned and successful man. And when that son saw my mother in a restaurant, he left his table and crossed the room to thank her effusively for the gift. In that experience, there were simple and lasting lessons about honoring someone above yourself, as Romans and often our mothers remind us to do.

Pursue your purpose over your tasks. Every job has lots of things to be done. But within each opportunity, there is an underlying purpose to be achieved. Stay focused on the purpose, because the tasks and sometimes the jobs will change and evolve. I was always a writer; I’m still a writer. But a lot has changed, even if I’m still doing what I always did.

What I Learned from 50 People

Over the last several months, I’ve been working on a project that has taken a good bit of attention and scheduling. Last August, or thereabouts, I had an email from someone asking if I’d be interested in a project. Yes, of course, I’m always interested in a project.

In this case, Auburn University at Montgomery was preparing to celebrate the passage of Act 403, which established the university in 1967, by recognizing the “Top 50 at 50” in a publication.  So, they needed someone to interview and write profiles of these 50 alumni.

I began the project in November. The first person I interviewed was an educator in Hawaii, the second an artist in Montgomery. The third managed a renowned stroke center, the fourth was a southern food expert. Next I spoke with someone who heads an office on the West Coast for the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.

Over the months of assignment, I talked to several high-ranking military officers who’d had responsibilities around the globe. There were also attorneys, investment advisors, accountants, office holders, medical professionals and construction professionals. One of the interviewees helped build the Atlanta airport terminal in the late 1970s, one lady was involved in real estate developments in downtown Chicago, and another gentleman was responsible for prestigious building projects in Philadelphia.

I went to campus to place a call to Argentina (though this was his cell phone number, and he was actually in Brazil when we spoke). On another occasion, I was at my desk when I took a call from the United Arab Emirates. I also talked to a man originally from The Netherlands. Incidental to other profile details, I found out that he was 6’11”. He had come to campus on a basketball scholarship.

I finished the project last week. And here’s just some of what I learned from the experience.

Everyone was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear. I like to listen to people’s stories, and they all – every one of them – had good stories to tell. They appreciated being recognized, though they often downplayed the idea that they should have been the one selected.

For many of them, they began their college studies in humble circumstances. They lived at home, worked fulltime and attended classes at night. Several had to deal with “do-overs” when earlier attempts in school didn’t go so well. For most, their attendance was influenced by happenstance – a family’s move to Montgomery, a relocation during their career, a chance encounter with other Auburn Montgomery students. Or they were finishing degrees after completing military service, and they happened to be in this area.

Most remembered certain faculty members and could easily pick out something they learned in school that they continue to apply. And others would try to give me an answer to that question, even if they struggled with 40-year-old memories of a brief time in Montgomery during a military career.

Still, I cannot emphasize enough: everyone – regardless of circumstance, career field or global location – was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear.

Figuring out how to manage the project – in light of my other duties – was also relevant to the experience, and here were several insights I picked up in that area.

Phone Call Punctuality

I liked to set appointments for the interviews so that people would be ready to talk – so that their minds would be in focus, and they could think about the purpose of my call. Also, I wanted my mind to be in focus as well. It’s hard to keep 50 people straight. I needed to review my notes prior to the call to remember who I was calling.

The point is: if I set a call at 2 p.m., I would call at 2 p.m.

Sometimes the alumni would say, “You are calling right on time.” The fact that people commented on my calling “right on time” was interesting, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. I would wonder to myself, “Why wouldn’t I call right on time? When would other people call, if not right on time? Isn’t that why people set times?”

Time zone math is tricky. As I set appointments, I would have to figure out what time zone they were in and convert it to my own. I didn’t get the math wrong, as far as I know, but the gentleman calling from Abu Dhabi called an hour early.

Actually, I had an instinct that he might. I work at home, as some of you know, and I had worked on a project earlier that morning before taking my shower. The call was to be at 11 a.m., so I knew (or so I thought) that I had plenty of time. However, at 9:39 a.m., I was nearly dressed but still had to dry my hair when I had this sudden panicked moment: “What if he calls an hour early?” At 9:40 a.m., I thought, “I better get ready in case he calls an hour early.” So I dried my hair quickly, got to my laptop, reviewed my notes, and at 10 a.m., his call came in. When he realized the time mistake, he apologized, explaining that he was thinking Eastern Time. I said, “That’s not a problem at all. I am ready.”

Balancing Disruption and Scheduling

I have two models for taking care of business. One is the disruption model. People I work with routinely send me an email with a request, and I take care of it as soon as I can. The other is a scheduling model, where I plan preparation time, writing time and deadlines.

Part of the responsibility of taking on a new sizeable project that lasts for a season is keeping my commitment to existing clients who, I certainly hope, will stay with me during the seasons to come. So if I planned out my whole day, but then got a request in the middle of that day from an existing client who operates on the disruption model … well, that’s not someone I would want to tell, “I’ll get to you in two weeks.” That’s more of a, “Give me a minute, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Balancing these two models required a few extra hours at times, though it’s always a good idea to be loyal to loyal clients. That’s really the point.

Focused on the Project’s Purpose

The other thing that’s important about working on a project like this is always remembering: it’s not my project. It’s the client’s project. The purpose of the project was never going to be my interview techniques or my writing skills. Those are a means to an end. The purpose of the project is the client’s relationship with the one being profiled. Therefore, in assigning me this project, the client was allowing me access to part of their treasury. That’s why it was essential to be prepared, polite, punctual and professional. Those are really important qualities to have on hand when you are interviewing 50 people.

My currency is also relational. Good project management brings more projects through connections that are built during the previous projects. That’s how my work works.

As a matter of fact, in January, I had another inquiry about a big project. About six years ago, I worked with a client on writing chapters for a coffee table book focused on economic development in the State of Alabama. Now he’s publishing a version for Montgomery, and he needed someone to write profiles for the businesses that will be featured in the book. He asked if I would be interested in the project. “Yes, of course,” I said. I am always interested in a project.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Until next time,

Minnie

Good Teachers and an Old Letter

CWletterI was thinking of who we are, how we learn things about ourselves, and how we learn what we can do. This brought to mind an old babysitting story.

When my niece Natalie was young, she was in my care for a short time. I don’t remember where we were, what we were doing or what age Natalie was. But here’s the part I do remember. While she was in my care, she ran into something (perhaps a wall) and hit her head. When I saw it (and heard it) happen, I felt fear – for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want Natalie to be hurt, and the impact sounded like this was going to hurt. Second, while I don’t know everything about babysitting, I do know there’s a standard protocol: don’t let the kids hit their heads. This was going to be my fault.

As Natalie wailed, I rushed to her side, held her tight and repeated, “You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.” Then I pulled back to see how she really was. “Are you OK?” I asked.

She touched her head and nodded. “I’m OK,” she said. Then she repeated. “I’m OK. I’m OK.”

I had seen how this worked. I spoke words into her state of distress. She believed what I told her and acted on that belief. But also, because I had been saying those things to her as much to reassure myself, something else happened. When she spoke that belief back to my frightened heart, I believed it too.

I wonder if that is what teaching is like, when it works. You have these opportunities to help someone believe something about themselves. When you see that they listen, internalize and begin to believe, you believe it even more.

Everybody remembers their good teachers, the ones who helped them believe.

When I was a freshman at Huntingdon College, I joined the staff of the campus newspaper, the Gargoyle. My first assignment was to interview and write an article about the new English professor, Dr. Ken Deal. Over the next 24 years, he would become one of those professors that people never forget. He passed away in May, and during a memorial service, former students provided testimony of his enduring impact. Their expressions were personal, on the order of “This is what I learned from him.” “This is what he did for me.” “This is what changed in my life because of what he taught me.” It was not general or broad, as in: “This is the impact he made on literature or higher education administration” or other areas where he participated. It was how “he” made an impact on “me” — one student after another in his 24 years at the college.

For me, Dr. Deal’s affirming comments in the margins of my papers were an English major’s version of trophies. I still have some of these trophies I earned in his classroom. On one occasion in particular, he wrote on one of my writing assignments, “Your command of juxtaposition is becoming formidable.”

With that comment, he gave me a belief I have held onto since that day: my command of juxtaposition is becoming formidable. You’d be surprised how comforting those words have been over the course of my adult life. Juxtaposition is where you put two ideas side by side for the purpose of comparison or contrast. I use this literary technique all the time — not because I’m ever looking for a way to juxtapose ideas, but because that’s what I do: I juxtapose ideas.

I’ve been doing that lately — juxtaposing ideas. I am in the middle of a project where a fictional person tells the story of a real person. In 1862, my great-grandfather took a nickel of wartime pay to buy a sheet of paper to write a letter home. The words in that letter are the launching point for a story in which a teacher tells of lessons she has learned in the classroom and in her life.

I wanted to know what a teacher might be able to tell me — someone like my Aunt Minnie, my Aunt Annie or my mother — of things she has observed. What would she say to children wandering their own battlefields about how to find a sense of home wherever they are? What would this teacher say so that children would say, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay?”

So I wrote those lessons myself — juxtaposed with that letter home and stories about my great-grandfather’s experiences. I’ll tell you more as I progress on my project.

Until next time,

Minnie

P.S. There were a number of teachers in my family. My mother, my aunts, a niece, soon another niece, and apparently my grandfather, E.J. I found out about E.J.’s occupation on a visit last month to the house where he was born. I went there in search of inspiration for my story, and I was able to see where the author of that Civil War letter lived when he returned home. If you’d like to read about my visit to the house, it’s right here: http://minnielamberth.com/a-visit-to-an-old-home/

A Visit to an Old Home

20160605_154002_resizedI come from a long line of old people. My father was older when I was born, my grandfather was older when my father was born, my great-grandfather was older when my grandfather was born.

All of that is to say, my great-grandparents were living in this house in Tallapoosa County when my grandfather was born … this was during President Grant’s administration… and it came about that one Sunday afternoon in June I entered this old house, guided there by my cousin Grady.

He had showed me several spots of interest before we got here. Cemeteries, mostly, but some places where things used to be. One road was a dirt road. I was driving my Sonata, a reasonable car for most in-town treks. But like an old lake road, I did have a concern that someone might be coming the other way. It wasn’t a one way. But it did seem like a “one at the time” way. When we got to an old bridge, I asked, “Is this OK to cross?”

My cousin reassured me, “You’ll be fine. If there was a problem, there’d be a sign that said ‘bridge out.’”

Comforting for sure, but I was thinking, “What if a few minutes from now, I become the reason they decide to put a sign that says ‘bridge out?’”

I had another concern that I’d have to go back the way I came – recognizing the longer you go down a deadend road, the longer you have to come back. But that wasn’t needed; this was a road that went to somewhere. He said, “I’ll take you back on blacktop.” Which we reached soon.

The house we visited was in the back of someone else’s house. We pulled into the driveway so my cousin could go in and ask the owner if we could walk through. This he’s done before, and this was not a problem. You just want to tell people you’re walking through their yard.

First we came upon a structure that was my great-grandfather’s old store. Then we got to the house. We walked through an area with high weeds, and I watched every step I took. Then we got to the steps. As my cousin beat back some of the brush, he said, “There are a couple of things we want to be aware of before we enter.” I could anticipate what these things might be. “First, we might fall through the boards, but it’ll only be about a two-foot drop.” Check. “The other things are wasps and bees… and snakes.” I could have seen that coming a mile away.

20160605_153347_resizedBut we entered, walked carefully, and there was no problem. He showed me the room where my grandfather was born. I didn’t know him; he died about 30 years before I was born. I haven’t spent much time thinking about him, wondering about him. But in that room where he was born, I felt something profound. It wasn’t exactly a sense of the holy, or even something in the area of awe. But I was very moved. Perhaps it was a sense of the eternal, of people behind me and in front of me, in this long line of old people.

My cousin had told me my grandfather’s bedroom was just up those stairs, if I wanted to go see. After a few minutes, I said, “I’m not going to be able to go up the stairs.”

“You’re not?” he said.

stairs“No,” I said, “I’m not going to be able to do that.” Some things you just know. But I did use the flash to take a photo, and that seemed good enough.

We went to my great-grandfather’s gravesite after that, and to my great-great grandfather’s grave site after that. Grady said Aunt Minnie had told him a story of visiting the latter site around 1914. She remembered she was with her papa, she was about 7 years old, and they stopped to see a grave in the corner of a cow pasture. She asked whose grave it was. He said, “My grandfather’s.”

It’s still in the corner of a cow pasture; that is to say, a cow pasture is still beside the grave. And around 100 years ago, Aunt Minnie and her papa made the same stop my cousin and I did one Sunday afternoon in June. Perhaps that was a good day for them. I hope so. It was a good day for us.

A Different Way to Look at the Problem

closeyoureyes2“Open your eyes! Don’t you see what’s happening?”

That is just the sort of thing someone might advise when addressing situations. The eye-opener recommendation. It’s a good one. Lots can happen when you open your eyes. But it doesn’t always solve problems.

Take me, for instance. I’ve been walking around with open eyes for some time, and I can tell you – those problems are still right where I see them.

Open eyes. Check.

Problem solved? Umm, about that…

So I was thinking about looking at things differently. Two areas of my life suggest doing just that: faith and creativity. That’s what influenced the poem I wrote and affixed to canvas.

You know how when people are discussing their issues, and they put this phrase out there: “The problem is…?”

With each statement that follows that introduction, you can almost watch as layer by layer the bricks of obstacles are put into place. “The problem is.” Once that’s clear, then you know why something won’t work, won’t change, won’t help, won’t matter.

So I was wondering, what if I began that list differently?

The problem isn’t…

For example, the problem isn’t that God is not right here, present, available, above me, before me, beside me and behind me, every step I take. I can see that as clear as day, every time I close my eyes. 

Be not afraid, y’all.

Until next time,

Minnie  

Hometown Scenes

I’ve shared these stories before in different formats, but with the nearness of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d bring them out one more time …

A Grief Remembered

When my mother became ill in 1996, I was often driving from my home in Montgomery to my hometown, Alex City, about an hour away. I saw things during those days that kept reminding me where I was.

For example, one day I pulled into the drive-thru window of a branch of my bank to cash a check. I put the check in the teller drawer but not my ID. I was thinking that I probably couldn’t get away with cashing a check out of town without showing my ID, but I didn’t feel like pulling it out of my wallet.

The teller’s voice came through the speaker. “Minnie…,” she said.

“Yes?” I was certain she was going to ask for my ID, but that was not the question that followed.

“Don’t you have a sister named Anne and a brother-in-law named Richard?” she asked.

I do, in fact, have a sister named Anne and a brother-in-law named Richard. This teller had gone to high school with them. Not only that, this was not the first time she had asked me this question. Seventeen years earlier, when I opened my first checking account before I left for college, she was working at the Alex City Bank. She was the one who opened my account that day. She had asked me then about my sister and brother-in-law. And, no, she didn’t need to see my ID.

As the months passed, and after my mother passed away, we began emptying the house of the family furniture. The dining room table would be mine, but this was no ordinary table. Two hundred and fifty years ago, it had been a square grand piano, a piece that my mother had inherited in 1957. No one in the family played the piano, but it had a nice presence in the corner of the living room. Still, in 1990, my mother decided to make the piano into a dining room table. This was much more practical because, while no one played the piano, we all ate.

To get this large, heavy table from Alex City to Montgomery, I called the one moving company I found in Alex City and arranged a time for the move. A few days later, when the moving company’s owner walked into my mother’s house, I didn’t explain who I was or why I needed these things moved. I simply said that I needed to move the table and chairs and another piece to Montgomery. The man nodded, and he looked around. Then he asked, “Didn’t your momma used to have a piano?” He pointed to the corner of the living room. “Used to be over there?”

Surprised, I answered, “Yes, she did. She made it into a table.” I pointed down. “This is the piano.”

The man then told me that one time he’d moved that piano to the library. I remembered the event. In 1969, during Alabama’s sesquicentennial year when the state was recognizing its 150th birthday, the music minister at the Baptist church had borrowed the piano for a celebration at the city library. The man standing in front of me was the one who had moved the piano that day.

“So she made it into a table,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “she made it into a table.”

That was the thing about being in Alex City. If you needed something moved every 28 years or so, not only would it be the same moving company, it could even be the same man.

***

Over 14 months in 1996 and 1997, my mother was being treated for an aggressive form of cancer. There was much about her illness and her approach to this illness that, as a daughter, I found perplexing. But because Mother was optimistic and pragmatic — and because so many people came by to visit — there was also something about her illness that, oddly, was kind of fun.

After she received her cancer diagnosis in June 1996, one of the first things she did was to host a party. This was not a celebration of illness, but more of an anticipation of what was to come.

“Now, why are we having a party?” I asked as we began to make food and drink preparations for two dozen people.

“Because I might not feel like doing this for a while,” she explained.

A couple of the men who attended the party talked about having been in her first class as a school teacher when she moved to my hometown in the mid-1940s. Several others were friends she’d known since that time. A few were like new friends, having only been in the same circle a decade or so. It was a nice evening.

That night was the last party, but the visits from friends continued. None of her children — three daughters, one son — lived in Alex City, but we came often for appointments, and others came calling on our mother while we were there. In fact, when word of this illness first spread through her circles of friends, she received a steady stream of visitors bearing casseroles, soup, roast beef, pies, cookies, and flowers from their gardens.

One day when I was home visiting, I happened to be looking out of a window when a large car pulled up in front of our house. The driver was trying to figure out how to pull into the driveway but changed her mind and, as people might do in small towns and in big cars, parked instead in the middle of the street.

When the driver’s door opened, a metal walker appeared, and I could see a feeble older lady trying to negotiate an exit. I rushed out the front door and down the front steps, heading to the driveway’s edge. There I found in this big car a 96-year-old lady being driven by her younger 90-year-old sister. They were bringing my mother a hot chocolate mix that one of them had made. The 96-year-old apologized for not being able to get out of the car and said she had asked her sister to bring it in for her. The 90-year-old said, “I’m glad you came out. I don’t think I could have made it up those steps.”

When Mother had chemotherapy treatments at three-week intervals, one of her children would drive to Alex City to go to the appointment and stay with her. But the next course of treatment called for radiation therapy which would be given in Montgomery every weekday for six weeks. We weren’t sure initially how to manage this, but there were many more hands than ours to divide the labor. During that time, 21 of her friends took turns shuttling Mother the hour’s drive from her home to Montgomery and back again.

Toward the end of the six weeks, Mother had more offers than she could accommodate. “I’m running out of slots for people,” she told me with dismay.

***

My mother was a teacher. She spent 32 years working in the Alex City public school system and 36 years working with me on grammar, manners, civics, history, and geography. There had been lots of lessons to cover, and during her illness I learned a lot more.

I was, in a sense, shocked that she ever got cancer in the first place because illness seemed so out of character. I remember that, during her first chemotherapy treatment, as the drugs started to take effect, she said, “I knew I should have mopped the kitchen last night.” The only thing she complained about was the Ativan, a drug that was included in her chemotherapy drugs to relax her. It made her sleepy, and she told me that next time she was going to tell them not to give her so much of it.

“Why don’t you let the doctor decide how much you should have?” I suggested.

On one of my days to drive Mother to chemotherapy treatment, when we returned home, she went to her bedroom to take a nap. When she woke up a couple of hours later, she apologized profusely. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I did not mean to sleep that long.”

Apparently she thought it was rude to sleep while she had a guest (me), but I was not sorry that she was getting rest. “That’s OK,” I told her. “Don’t worry about it.”

That evening, as a light rain fell, I started to lock up for the night. Glancing through the window panes in the backdoor, I realized that Mother was outside in the rain throwing fertilizer on her plants. I was glad that I saw her before I locked the door. I might have felt guilty about locking my fragile, terminally ill mother outside in the rain at night after a day when she had undergone chemotherapy treatment. I stepped onto the patio.

“Don’t you want to come inside and do that later?” I asked.

“I want to do this while it’s raining,” she replied as she tossed a handful of fertilizer.

“Why don’t you let me do it for you?” I asked.

Mother shook her head no. “You can’t,” she explained. “I’m wearing the gloves.”

Yes, of course. She was wearing the gloves. If I had suggested that she take them off and let me put them on, she would have looked at me as if that were a cute but impractical idea. I was not wearing the gloves. The only thing I could offer to do was to walk beside her in the rain while she continued to throw fertilizer on her plants.

Sometime during those months, when I arrived from Montgomery, I heard a lot of noise. There were men banging on the roof. There were tarps and a ladder in Mother’s bedroom. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Why are these men here?”

Turns out, in the final months before she died, while in the middle of an illness with a 3 percent survival rate, my mother was having her bedroom re-wallpapered and repairing the roof above that section of the house. She was going to work until her work was done.

***

In a small town, on a trip to the store, you can run into the person who 30 years earlier was your kindergarten teacher, and the kindergarten teacher for your whole family and most of your friends. As my mother’s illness progressed, I ran into Mrs. Towery, my former kindergarten teacher, at the drugstore downtown. A couple of her brothers had run this store, and another of her brothers was my next-door neighbor. When she asked how my mother was doing, she said she had heard that Mother had said, “I’m tired.” Then Mrs. Towery added, “You never hear Jane say things like that.”

No, my mother didn’t go around saying things like “I’m tired.” That would never do.

As Mother started to feel worse, her appetite waned. When another friend was asking her about this, Mother seemed to search for the right words. “I ate a tomato sandwich,” she thoughtfully replied. “I liked it.” Later that afternoon, when we came home from a doctor’s appointment, three red tomatoes were waiting at her door. This friend had gone to the curb market and left for our return the one thing that she hoped my mother could eat. I never saw a sweeter offering than three red tomatoes waiting at the door.

Around that time, the son of one of my mother’s other friends had become a father. This was a successful son with an important position at a major corporation. In my view, he was a man of substantial means. In my view of my mother, she was a retiree on a limited income in the middle of a major illness. These differences came to mind only because Mother had asked me to take her to town to get a baby gift. I did so, but when we pulled into a parking place, Mother was too tired to walk into the store herself. She stayed in the car while I went in to make the purchase.

“Now, why are we doing this?” I wondered but did not ask. “Why are we getting a gift for a man who needs no gifts when Mother is too weak to get out of the car?” Still, I did as I was told, and we were soon on our way to the friend’s house. While Mother stayed in the car again, I went to the door and offered the gift for her son’s baby.

“Well, that certainly wasn’t necessary,” her friend said as she received the gift on behalf of this new grandchild. “But I thank you.”

That’s what I’d been thinking myself — that this certainly wasn’t necessary — but perhaps I was wrong. A week or so later, my sister Anne told me that she and Mother had been dining in a restaurant when this friend’s son had seen them and walked over to the table. Anne said, “He thanked and thanked and thanked Mother for that baby gift.” Then I realized: his mother made him do that. She may not have said so specifically. She may not have even used words, but you can sure bet she was somewhere in his head telling him what to do when he crossed that room.

The Bible says, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” At some point, however, we won’t be able to do to others anymore. Our physical strength will give out, and the only thing left will be our influence. The question is whether our influence will be lasting enough that someone will one day cross a room to do to others based on something we once did ourselves.

***

My 14 months of lessons were up, and I had one last night to spend with my mother. The next morning I waited for help to arrive, then I came to Montgomery to go back to work. Anne spent Thursday night with her; my sister Jane and brother Kirk would stay over the weekend. I was headed for a trip to Callaway Gardens to be with 20 women from high school for a reunion which had been planned for many months.

That Saturday night, as I sat in a circle of friends on a lawn outside one of our rooms, I felt a pressure on my spirit, and a thought entered my head: “In the morning, I will get up and go home.” I knew at that moment that in the morning, when I woke, I would get dressed and go to Alex City to see my mother.

That’s what I did. I woke up. I got dressed. I put my bag in my car. I would have left then, but I needed to say goodbye to the friend who had planned the reunion. She was in the restaurant, someone said, so I walked that way and found her.

“Don’t you want to eat breakfast?” she asked.

I could have said yes, but I said, “No, I’m going to leave now. I’m going to Alex City.” And I left.

On the way home, I took one wrong turn and had to turn around — just a few moments delay, that’s all — then I was on the right track again on Highway 280.

Thirty minutes outside of town, I plugged in my cell phone — this was an old bag phone that I had to plug in to use — and I called my mother’s house. Anne answered. Only moments earlier, she’d come in from Montgomery to meet Jane and Kirk at the house. “I knew you would call,” Anne said. “They just took Mother to the hospital. Everything is OK, but come straight there.”

Russell Hospital is on Highway 280. All I had to do was keep driving. I sped up, but my control of the car wavered for a split second, and I felt uneasy. I didn’t know how fast to drive, and I didn’t know how to make that decision.

In that moment, I looked ahead, and I saw two cars that were obviously traveling together. They were going above the speed limit, but not too much to be scary. I fell in line behind them. When they passed cars, I passed cars. I let them make all my driving decisions for me, and I followed them until I turned into the parking lot at Russell Hospital. I met up with my sisters and my brother right in those moments that our mother left us.

The lady working behind the ER admission counter that day was a neighbor. Mother had asked her to help with her last party, and she had come that night and spent it in the kitchen washing dishes. On this Sunday morning, she called First Methodist and First Baptist, and people we knew left the churches and came quickly there. The lady who came for the Baptists said she was in the choir room when she heard and already had her robe on. She took it off and headed for her car. The lady who came for the Methodists had also been at that last party, and her husband was one of the ones who had been in my mother’s first class as a teacher.

***

There’s something about the loss of parents you might not expect. When the house gets cleaned out, you get your baby pictures and take them with you. I thought of that in a very early draft of my novel, Life with Strings Attached, as I tried to make this point:

Daddy was sad to lose his mother; I remember that. The weekend after the funeral, I found him in our living room, with his head in his hands quietly weeping. He and Aunt Frieda had spent the day in Grandmother’s apartment dividing furniture and belongings, and Daddy had gotten a box of his own baby pictures. He wiped his eyes with his handkerchief and returned it to his pocket. 

“When you become the caretaker of your own baby pictures,” he explained, “that’s a very sad day.”

If you’re made who you are by those who surround you, you’ll always be losing parts of yourself. There’s no way around it. Which is why I have wondered how many parts I can lose and still be myself. In the images of my own baby pictures, I can see the person I was, in whose mind I saw the person I might become. Though some of those ideas remain, not all do. They have come and gone.

 The loss of my mother and end of my childhood filled the pages of that manuscript. But it was impressions from her last 14 months in a small town that were in several ways interwoven into the next. Within the characters of a work-in-progress that I continue to this day, there is an interconnectedness of circumstance and happenstance. And in a town peopled only by friends, a teacher keeps teaching long after she’s gone.

 

Stopping by the Library on a Monday Afternoon

20150720_150503_resizedI enjoyed a treat at the Auburn Public Library on Monday when I went with my friend Ellen to hear Wayne Flynt talk about the recently published novel by Harper Lee. It was a packed house, as library talks go — 230 people were reported to be in attendance at 3 p.m. on a weekday afternoon. Standing room only.

Flynt is a primary source, I guess they call it. Since the author doesn’t talk to the press, and her lawyer doesn’t talk to the press, and her family doesn’t talk to the press, he was given the responsibility of receiving an advanced copy from the publisher in April. He spoke of his friend Nelle, gave a little about her personal history, and also spoke of her much-revered sister Alice.

He began his talk by saying that people prefer a conspiracy over other possibilities. “Since there was no conspiracy, we can just put that aside and move on to more substantial things,” he said.

Some of what I learned:

Lee left the University of Alabama law school in 1949 to move to New York, having been influenced by Truman Capote. When she got there, Capote left with his partner to live overseas for the next decade. She wrote Go Set a Watchman between 1949-1955, then began dealings with the editor who suggested that she rethink the novel and set it in childhood. That version became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Flynt said that Lee spent a lot of time during this six years on her novel, and he envisioned that it went through many drafts. He suggested that it was not accurate to say that it was unrevised since she likely revised it many times and worked carefully to get it as best as she could prior to the editorial process that led to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Incidentally, Flynt said she was Capote’s researcher for In Cold Blood, and though Capote dedicated it to her, in Flynt’s opinion, she should have been listed as a co-author.

He said the novel is a backward glance into a world of enormous conflict where we are not our father’s children.

Flynt spoke of a number of racially-related incidents that were happening in the 1950s and that Harper Lee was processing all of this in New York. At parties, people would ask, “Where are you from?” When she says, “Monroeville, Alabama,” he says from his own experience, “I have watched conversations stop over that sentence.”

Flynt also talked about how her revered older sister Alice stayed in Monroeville, worked to integrate the United Methodist conference and did other valuable work as an insider. He said you come to a point where you realize you are living in an imperfect place and how do you live there with integrity. “The difference is one of strategy — do you change a place by leaving or by staying?”

If you stay, that will demand something of you. You will have to say that this is your place, that you are from here too, and you can have your opinion as much as another. In other words, you can work for change where you are because it is your place as much as someone else’s.

The lawyer who is seen as the devil in the story – I didn’t get all her details, but there was something about having sons in Catholic seminary. I gathered that she was easy to view as the villain because she is an outsider. She’s not from around here. She had worked with Miss Alice and had been encouraged by her to attend law school. She married the son of someone who was close friends with Capote and Lee. When Lee became her client, she sued Lee’s former literary agent for copyright infringement. Also, from what I understand, if she hadn’t sued the museum for copyright infringement, some very large entity could have piled up millions of infringed dollars and used the museum as an example of why that was OK.

Flynt said that when he spoke to Lee after the announcement about the publication of Go Set a Watchman, he asked something to the effect, “Are you excited about your new novel?”

She said, “What new novel? I haven’t written a new novel.”

He said he had a moment where he wondered if the conspiracy theories were true, but he prompted her, “Your novel… Go Set a Watchman.”

She said, “Oh, that’s not my new novel. That’s my old novel.”

It was an interesting talk.