>The Other Side of Civility

>In Frank Turner Hollon’s blurb for Suzanne Hudson’s collection of short stories, Opposable Thumbs, he describes a powerful element that’s present in the work of so many Southern writers, artists and musicians:

“Suzanne Hudson reminds us in blistering detail how strange people truly can be. She takes us on a stroll into that room on the other side of civility and carefully shows us ourselves.”

As Rick Bragg talked about during his reading from The Prince of Frogtown this past Friday night at the 10th annual Southern Writers Reading festival in Fairhope, Alabama, there’s a common thread running through much of Southern literature, and that thread is pain. Pain and suffering continue to fuel the South’s best and brightest writers, poets and artists, whether they embrace it, fight it, or try to heal it through their work. (Rick even asked lots of people who knew his dad to share good things about him, acts of mercy that infused his book with humility. You can watch him read from his book here.)

One of the weekend’s slated authors chose not to read from her book. Carolyn Jourdan chose instead to talk about her interest in doing something to make some positive changes in the world, so that there’s less of this pain and violence and suffering to write about. But most of the writers shared their stories of loss and love, pain and redemption, shining their own special light on the many facets of our broken humanity.

Check out this year’s lineup (in addition to Rick Bragg and Carolyn Jourdan):

Tasha Alexander (right)
Ravi Howard

Tito Perdue
Clay Risen

Oh, and the music! Nashville singer-songwriter and poet Tom Kimmel (left) entertained us Friday and Saturday with his music and poetry. He read from his book of poems, The Sweetest and the Meanest which I couldn’t wait to purchase, and sang songs from several of his cds …. I don’t know how to describe his music—it’s spiritual, and bluesy and folksy and country and… well, you should listen for yourself.

Of course the master of ceremonies, Sonny Brewer, had to be coaxed (by his agent, Caroline Carter) into reading an excerpt from his current work-in-progress. Mostly Sonny served as the magical glue for a festival known for its spontaneity and liveliness. As Shari Smith said, in her article in Thicket Magazine “King Daddy”:

“If Southern literature is rooted in family storytelling, Sonny Brewer is the patriarch, and Southern Writers Reading is the big reunion.”

This past weekend in Fairhope offered many opportunities for glimpses into both sides of civility… dinners at the Lesters’ and Jones’ lovely homes overlooking the Mobile Bay on Friday and Saturday nights were Southern genteel hospitality at its best…. I didn’t get my camera out, for fear of looking even more like the groupie I am. Both evenings were good times to visit with editors, (like Jennifer Horne, whom I met in 2006 in Memphis at the Southern Festival of Books and enjoyed visiting with again) publishers, (like Jim Gilbert at River City Publishing in Montgomery and Joe Taylor from Livingston Press ) agents (like Caroline Carter) , writers, and the wonderful literary patrons of Fairhope who worked so hard to put on the event this year. Thanks so much to Martin and Mona and Skip and Nancy and everyone else who helped!

On Sunday morning, Doug, Herman and I were invited to a wonderful brunch hosted by Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella at the “Waterhole Branch Arts Commune” just outside Fairhope. The property is draped in Spanish moss…

And the steps from Suzanne’s deck to the river is a great place for “Fat Cat” to enjoy the morning sun… or a kiss from me!

Sonny arrived just as this group of young writers was leaving…

And was welcomed by Suzanne and Joe…

And joined us in the kitchen for cheese grits, biscuits and gumbo.

Later we ambled next door to visit Everett Capps, “Mayor of Waterhole Branch” and author of Off Magazine Street, the book which was adapted for the 2004 movie, “A Love Song for Bobby Long” starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson.

We were told we should see Everett’s house and surroundings…. an eclectic mix of art and “toys”…
His front porch is interesting…

and the sign welcoming visitors

And then there’s this swinging horse on his back porch, which I fell off of while trying to get the hang of it. Yeah… I know….
Finally I figured it out, with help from the Mayor, of course.

All in all a magical weekend…

Loved shopping at Page and Palette–Fairhope’s wonderful independent bookstore… and enjoying the music outside the store on Sunday afternoon. [Note: When I was choosing a name for my blog back in August of 2007, I discovered Page and Palette, and settled for Pen and Palette for my blog.]
And love the street scene with the lights, which were lit just as we arrived in Fairhope last weekend.

I’ll close with a few photos of sunset on the Mobile Bay at the Fairhope Pier on Sunday night.

As I watched the gulls flying south and the lone kayaker coming from up the bay, I thought about my childhood summers at the neighboring town of Daphne, Alabama…. and I promised myself not to wait another forty years to visit again. I hope to be back next year!

>Their Own Special Utopia

>100 years ago, in 1908, 500 “free thinking people” seeking “their own special utopia” established the town of Fairhope, Alabama on a bluff overlooking the Mobile Bay. I love this part of the history of Fairhope:

Over the years artists, writers, and craftsmen have found Fairhope to be an inspiring haven for their work and have helped to make the community what it is today.

How fitting that this town now plays host to one of the most eclectic gathering of those writers every November for the annual “Southern Writers Reading”

I’ve been staring at this computer screen for two hours waiting to be hit with something really brilliant to write about the weekend… but I’m posting from a hotel room in Jackson, Mississippi, after spending the afternoon at the hospital with my mother. She’s having a partial hip replacement tomorrow. But she has no idea where she is or why. The contrast is stark—between the creative energy at work during the weekend in Fairhope and the quickly diminishing flicker of light in my mother’s mind. Or maybe not—maybe she is also in her own special utopia.

I am terrified of surgical procedures, and could barely sleep the night before my surgery for cervical cancer in 2001. But Mother sleeps in peace tonight, oblivious to what tomorrow brings. Over and over this afternoon, she opened the musical card I brought her that plays “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell” and is each time amazed anew at the miracle of the music coming from the greeting card. She watches the sun set from her hospital window and asks where she will sleep tonight.

“Right here, in your bed, Mother”

She doesn’t question me, other to ask where I will sleep.

“I’ll be right down the street, at the Cabot Lodge, and I’ll be back in the morning, before your surgery.”


“For your broken hip, remember?”

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me much. But I’ll see you in the morning.”

I kiss Mom, then I hug Sondra, our very special sitter, goodbye and leave for my hotel room as mother picks at the chicken and turnip greens and cornbread on her tray. She smiles.

“See you in the morning, Mom.” And I drive down the street to my hotel.

By the time I check in and unpack, my magical weekend in Fairhope feels much more than twenty four hours and two hundred miles away. I look over my notes…. names of writers and agents and publishers I met and networked with all weekend… nuggets of brilliance and kindling for the fire that burns in my creative soul.

My camera full of images of a weekend spent with friends from my writing group and the eclectic group of artists, musicians and writers who answered the siren call of Sonny Brewer and gathered to share their gifts. And my heart full of gratitude for the amazing hospitality of the good people of Fairhope who opened their homes to us vagabonds for dinners and breakfasts all weekend long.

But tonight I have no strength for writing about the gifts of the weekend or downloading the photos. Maybe tomorrow night. Tonight I will use my dwindling energy to say a prayer for my mother’s healing at the hand of the surgeon tomorrow. And for her continued peace in the midst of the growing fog. May she meet God in the cloud as Moses did. Her own special utopia.

>Long Distance Caregiving and Southern Writers Reading

>When I moved my mother from one nursing home to another a week ago (down in Jackson, Mississippi) more than one person asked me why I didn’t move her to Memphis, where I live.

“Wouldn’t it be easier for you to take care of her?”

“Well, yeah, but I promised her I would let her stay in Jackson. When we bought a house with a mother-in-law suite just for her, she refused to move in with us—that was three years ago. And she’s been really happy in assisted living in Jackson.”

“But, if she’s in a nursing home and her Alzheimer’s is worse now, does she really know what city she’s in?”

“Maybe not. But her city still knows she’s there.”

See, Mom has lived in Jackson, Mississippi for 60 years. She and my dad were among the founding members of Covenant Presbyterian Church back in around 1959, and people from Covenant still visit her—whether she’s in assisted living or a nursing home. And even people she no longer recognizes (a quickly growing number) elicit a smile when they remind her of their connection in the past. My peers who live in Jackson and visit their parents at the nursing home speak to her and say they are friends of Susan’s and that means a lot. And I really like the people at the nursing home—all of them.

I’m not saying I won’t consider moving her to Memphis in the future, but for now, I’m leaving her in Jackson with “her people.”
But today was one of those days that challenged my decision. I took Mom back to the orthopedic surgeon who put pins in her fractured hip on October 7, and now the bones have shifted and he’s going to do a partial hip replacement… next Tuesday. Two days before Thanksgiving. The good news is she’ll be up and walking soon afterwards (and yes yes yes I wish they had done the partial hip to begin with, but I’m trying to let go of things in the past I can’t fix!) Evidently, 85% of non-displaced fractures like Mom’s heal with the pins, but I’m not sure the surgeon understood he was operating on a woman with Alzheimer’s who could not remember not to put any weight on her foot for a month. She probably displaced the fracture accidentally since then, although I hired 24/7 sitters for a month to try and prevent that. She just can’t remember her hip is broken, even for five minutes. So, I went through the mental gymnastics: if Mom had been living in Memphis when she broke her hip, could I have gone to the hospital with her and told the doctor to do the partial and not the pins? No—I was in Seagrove Beach, Florida when she broke her hip, and couldn’t get to Jackson in time for the surgery, and couldn’t have made it back to Memphis for sure. I just can’t be totally available every minute of every day.

So, next week I’ll be driving to Jackson for the surgery, not from Memphis, but from Fairhope, Alabama, where I’ll be at “Southern Writers Reading,” from Friday through Monday. Five friends from our Oxford writing group have rented a B&B on the Mobile Bay for the weekend. It should be an awesome weekend… if I can quit worrying about my mother while I’m there!
And then the day after the surgery I’ll leave her in the hands of the wonderful “Comfort Keepers” (24/7 sitters) while I return to Memphis to prepare Thanksgiving for my husband and our daughter, who’s coming home from UT Knoxville (grad school) for the holiday. Mom will return to the nursing home, probably the day after Thanksgiving, and I’ll head back down to see her the following week.

My comfort level made some huge leaps today when I met Mom’s physical therapist, Marzelle. Like my favorite sitter from Comfort Keepers (Sondra, pictured here with Mom), Marzelle is from South Africa. (I think these are the only two people I’ve ever met from South Africa, and both end up as my mother’s caregivers.) She went with Mom and me to Mom’s appointment with the surgeon today, to talk with him first hand about her therapy when she returns to the nursing home. It made such a difference to have her with us. She is kind and compassionate and personable and everything you’d want someone to be if they are helping your mother learn to walk again. She’ll be waiting for Mom’s return to the nursing home after the surgery…. Ready to hold her hand and gently coach her through recovery.

So… on to Fairhope … and one of the authors who will be reading is Carolyn Jourdan, who won a fellowship at Writer in Residence at the Fairhope Residence for the Writing Arts. I picked up her book, Heart in the Right Place at a wonderful little bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, when I went to visit my daughter this fall. I just started reading the book tonight and I can’t put it down! I’m looking forward to meeting Carolyn in Fairhope this weekend.

If you’re not familiar with it, Southern Writers Reading is the brainchild of writer Sonny Brewer. This year’s event will host quite a few authors, both on stage and in the audience. The “after event” parties are a big part of the draw…offering the opportunity to network with successful writers and just enjoy one another’s company.

And yes, I’m always hoping for a beautiful sunset, like this one, on the Mobile Bay at Fairhope.

Maybe I’ll post from there over the weekend… I don’t know if our B&B, the Bayside Guest House, has internet or not…. we’ll see.

But it has this beautiful front porch …
and this amazing view of the bay…. ahhhh… I can feel the breeze now….

>Assisted Living … and Writing

The Eagles “Long Road Out of Eden Tour” stopped in Memphis last night, and my husband (Eagles fan from the beginning, 1971, the year after we were married) got us tickets a couple of weeks ago. They opened with “How Long” and closed with my favorite, “Desperado.” (Don Henley’s voice seems to have only gotten richer with age.) They were wonderful!

My husband has their new CD (first one in 28 years!) on his iPod and loves to run to “How Long.” The three and a half hours between these two songs were filled with hit after hit, solos, duets, and songs by the four lead members of the group, but also music featuring their incredible band, with several keyboard players, drummers, and guitar and bass players and a horn group that could stand on its own. We were awed by their talent and encouraged by their longevity. (They introduced the concert as their “Assisted Living Tour,” which brought down the house of thousands of Baby Boomers like us.) Although our seats were in the nosebleed section and to the side of the stage, after intermission we moved behind the huge screen to get a closer look at their expressions. Once we got used to the fact that they weren’t left-handed, the view was great.

You can read a review from their concert in Dallas on Saturday night, here.

And now for a cheesy transition to the “assisted writing” part of today’s post—I just read a great craft article on Brevity. It’s called “On Bridging the Distance Between Therapist and Theorist”. I’m always looking for ways to hone my craft (creative nonfiction) and improve my essays, and of course to sharpen my skills as I continue my memoir-in-progress. Barrie Jean Borich, in this article, examines the task of the personal essay and memoir writer to bridge the gap between experience itself (this is non-fiction—you can’t make stuff up) and the work of art we are trying to create. See, the difference between creative nonfiction and journalistic reporting is the creative part—it strives to be literary:

“Most literary nonfiction, if it is more than well-written exposé, and even when it reads like narrative fiction, has a charge closer to that of lyric poetry. The aim of much literary nonfiction is to get at, through words, those qualities of actual living that language is not fully equipped to convey….When we say, for instance, that literary memoir both shows and tells, we mean that the lyric discovery of the telling is as much the arc of the composition as the drama of the story itself. The bridge between our worlds and our sentences is what causes these oppositions to become one made literary entity.”

This continues to be my challenge—to create a literary entity and not just “report” the incidents in my memoir. Why is it so much harder to create a literary work from real life than from a fictional story? Or at least I’m finding it hard. But I’m also well aware that not all fiction writers are literary, and I can enjoy a good piece of commercial fiction if the plot grabs me.

I just finished reading an excellent work of literary fiction (Waiting for April by Scott Morris—which I’ll review in another post)… a novel full of lyric grace and rich language and colorful metaphors throughout. The story line was interesting, but the plot wasn’t what carried me so much as the writing itself—it was beautiful.

By contrast, I’m reading another novel (The Doctor’s Daughter by Hilma Wolitzer) that has hooked me with its plot and keeps me turning pages with its pacing, but the writing doesn’t strike me as literary. In fact, it reads much more like journalistic writing, and I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction.

The reason I mention both of these books here when I’m writing about the craft of writing, is that I could get really depressed if I compare my writing skills with those of Scott Morris, or I can take encouragement from the fact that The Doctor’s Daughter received these blurbs (among others) by writers I admire for their literary skills:

The Doctor’s Daughter is her masterpiece.”—Gail Godwin

“This is a lovely novel—wonderfully well written, intelligent, perceptive, and rich.”—Elizabeth Berg

So, if Godwin and Berg (and others) think the writing is so good in The Doctor’s Daughter and it doesn’t strike me that way, maybe there’s hope for my own work. And maybe the beauty of literature, like all art, is truly in the eye of the beholder. Or, in the case of the Eagles, the listeners. The thousands of fans who packed Fed Ex Forum to hear them last night probably just sat back and enjoyed the show, and didn’t try to figure out what made it art. Or maybe, like me, they couldn’t help but unpack the lyrics and take in the emotional journey behind these musicians’ “Long Road Out of Eden.” All I know is that we stood there at the end, wishing for one more encore. Now that’s good art.

>Culture Clashes and Clothing Store Crashes

>Today is the first day of the Nativity Fast for Orthodox Christians. It’s kind of like Great Lent, the forty days of fasting that precedes Pascha (Easter), only not quite as strict. The purpose of the fast is to help us prepare for the feast—in this case the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord—Christmas.

During the Nativity Fast we make an effort, each of us to his own ability, to fast from meat and dairy products, and on some days even from alcohol and fish. Sometimes I struggle with the “rules” and have to be reminded of how healthy this balance is for my soul, and for my body.

Problem is, I live in the non-Orthodox South, where most of my neighbors are gearing up for Thanksgiving and Christmas about now… making their own time-honored preparations, decorating their homes and work places, cooking special foods, writing cards and traveling to be with friends and family. But not fasting.

So, when I’m trying really hard (okay, I only try really hard some of the time) to keep the fast, and I’m out running errands and everyone is grabbing a hamburger on the run and stopping at their favorite bar for a drink and shopping and celebrating—40 days before the Feast—it’s a real culture clash for Orthodox Christians. It’s not that we don’t celebrate, but our celebration begins with Christmas, and continues for many days following December 25, culminating in the Feast of Theophany (January 6.)

Social events with lots of food and drink are going on during the time of the fast, the time of preparation for Orthodox Christians. We have extra church services during the fast, and try to make efforts to give alms and pray and worship more. And to hold off on the partying until Christmas.

So on this wintry mid-November day, I decided to try to get into the spirit of the fast by cooking a big pot of fast-friendly soup for us to enjoy for a few days. I found a recipe in the December issue of Real Simple Magazine, and it’s called “Squash and White Bean Soup” and I have to say, it smells yummy! (It’s cooking while I’m writing this.) The recipe is here. I’ll be skipping the Parmesan biscuits tonight, since we’re fasting from cheese. If you’re a vegetarian or an Orthodox looking for recipes and encouragement for the fast, here are two blogs to check out (both dear friends of mine): When We Fast… or Not and The Caitlyn-Cosm . (I’m posting this later on Saturday night, and just want to add that we ate the soup for supper and it was yummy!)

And speaking of culture clashes, Nashville author and radio personality, River Jordan, just read my essay, “Are These My People?”on her radio show, “Backstory,” on Radio Free Nashville this afternoon (4-6 p.m.) The essay is about my first visit to the Neshoba County Fair (in July) and the clash of black and white cultures in Mississippi, where I grew up. River also read some post-election essays, and played some great soul music. (And she’s got a new book out, Saints in Limbo, that looks intriguing.)

So, I was trying to figure out how to capture her reading of my essay, and being the technically-challenged woman I am, I just pointed my digital camera at the screen and set it on the little icon that looks like a strip of film and pushed the button. As she began to read my essay, I wished I had planned a slideshow to go with it, so, I began searching through My Pictures for pictures of that visit to the Neshoba County Fair, during Rivers’ reading of the essay, but by the time I found them, the reading was almost over. The result was a bumpy, amateurish video, which I then tried to download here on my blog, but ran into technical difficulties. sigh. Oh, and I’m not from Oxford, but I see how River could have thought that, since my writers group meets there once a month. If I ever figure out how to download the video, I’ll put it in a future blog. For now, you can read the blog post that inspired the essay here, if you missed it back in July.

Next week River is going to look at “the ways writers must preserve the best of the past while looking ahead to the future” on her show Saturday afternoon. I’ll be in Fairhope, Alabama, with my writing buddies at “Southern Writers Reading,” but I hope we can all gather around someone’s laptop and catch River’s show. It’s really a great listen. Is that okay? To use the word, “listen” as a noun, the way people use the word, “read,” as a noun, when they say, about a book, “it’s really a great read”? Maybe I’ll pose that question to William Safire, the guy who does the column for the New York Times Magazine, “On Language.”

Okay, I know I’m rambling now, but I just have to say that more than one friend called me today to say how grieved they are that Harold’s is closing. It’s a Dallas-based high-end, family-owned clothing store that I’ve enjoyed shopping at for the past couple of years here in Memphis, and I have friends who have been doing business with Harolds for many years, in several cities. It’s a sign of the times…and I shutter at what else is coming. Now I know some of you are thinking, “She’s upset about a clothing store closing?” But the point is, why is it closing? It actually declared bankruptcy on Friday, after sixty years. You can watch a news report about it here. So of course I headed out there today to check out their clearance sale, and got a beautiful cashmere sweater. My small effort to help the economy, right? Well, someone has to, so why not me? Or you? Visit a Harold’s near you and treat yourself to a bargain while helping ease this family’s loss.

>The Purse

>It’s been a difficult month for my eighty-year-old mother. If you’ve been following my blog, you know she fell and broke her hip, spent a week in the hospital, spent a month in rehab, and yesterday I moved her to Lakeland Nursing and Rehabilitation (right). I haven’t made the final decision that this will be long-term, but I think the chances that her mental status will improve enough for her to return to assisted living are slim.

Not that it’s a given, when you break your hip… I visited with a lady who lives in Mom’s assisted living facility yesterday who also fell and broke her hip. After three weeks of rehab, she returned to assisted living, with the only change being she uses a walker for support. I asked her where she did her rehab, and she said Lakeland… the nursing and rehab center that I finally got Mom into yesterday. They didn’t have any beds available a month ago when Mom was leaving the hospital. I cringed to think that she might be walking by now if she had been in this facility sooner, but what can you do?

The move itself was traumatic, with Mom arguing that I didn’t ask her if she wanted to go there, that I only came to town every few months to make decisions for her and then whoosh I was gone again. (Not true, of course, but she’s lost all sense of time.)

“Mom, I offered for you to live in Memphis, with us, so I could see you more often, but you refused. You said you wanted to stay in Jackson, remember?”

“You would say that!” she was almost in tears now, and Sondra, from Comfort Sitters tried to distract her with finishing up dressing her for the move while I packed everything from her drawers and closet, and took all the posters and cards and pictures off the walls. The TV had to be unhooked (and a third appointment made for Comcast to hook her up again) and everything loaded in my car.

We were almost ready when Mom asked, “Where is my purse?” (that’s not Mom in the picture, but I thought the photo was great)

“It’s at my house, Mom, I took it home when you went to the hospital, to keep it safe.”

“Well I need it back now. I can’t go anywhere without my purse! What if I need a Kleenex?”

“Here, put some in the pockets of your sweater, sweetie,” Sondra offered.

Mom swatted her away. “What about my wallet?”

“It’s safe in your purse at my house for a while, Mom.”

This brought tears. The purse represented independence, and Mom saw for the first time that she had lost her connection with the plastic cards in that wallet. I just couldn’t risk her losing them (or having them stolen)…. So I made copies of her Social Security and insurance cards for each facility and kept the originals with me, along with her debit card for the bank account I keep a small amount of spending money in for her. I check it online, and she hadn’t used that card for three months. She rarely goes to the drug store or other errands on the shuttle any more, and I’m not sure she knows how to use the debit card any more.

“Mom, you’re going to have to trust me about this, I love you, and you need to go to a place where they can help you get your hip healed so you can walk again.” I tried to hug her and smoothe her hair, but she slapped my hand away.

“Quit touching my hair!” This was a level of anger I hadn’t seen in many years. I can’t imagine how it must feel to have no control over decisions like these. The responsibility I feel is overwhelming.

As we pushed her down the hall to the elevator, she held a small pillow in her lap, a poor substitute for her purse, but something to hold onto, nonetheless. I’m thinking I need to put a few non-valuable items in her purse and bring it back to her on my next visit… its presence could be comforting. Or, it could make her anxious about why the wallet is missing. Some of these decisions are just crap shoots.

There’s good news and bad news about her arrival at Lakeland Nursing and Rehabilitation Thursday morning. The good news is that it’s a lovely facility. It’s the one where my grandmother lived in 1986, remember? Mamaw was 87 and Mom was 58. So I couldn’t resist showing this photo to some of the folks who work there now…

and then posing for a similar one,(left) this time Mother with me, ages 80 and 57.

The cathedral windows in the lobby give a view to the tall pines outside on the front, and there’s a lovely enclosed courtyard in the middle.

Once we got Mom settled in her room, hanging pictures on the walls and along the windows, it began to feel homier. But she kept asking when we were going home. It wasn’t sinking in that this was where she was staying.

Sondra (our favorite sitter—we both cried when we said goodbye on her last day) could always find a way to distract Mom when she was upset. She’s from South Africa and speaks with a lovely accent and calls mother “lovie.” This is Sondra with Mom in Mom’s new room. (left)

Near the end of an exhausting day, a surprise visit cheered us up. Derwood Boyles, my father’s roommate at Mississippi State (in the 1940s) came by to see Mom and brought flowers.

Derwood has been a community leader in Jackson, and a very kind and spiritual man. At one point when Mom said she didn’t feel like she was worth much at her age, he said, “Well Moses was about 80 when God used him to do mighty things. But he had to have some help, holding up that staff. We all need help from time to time.” Here’s Derwood and Mom visiting in her room.

Oh, the picture above Mom’s bed (here’s a closeup) is of my brother, Mike and me, when we were 17 and 18. It was a surprise gift to our parents on their 20th wedding anniversary, December 27, 1968. They would be celebrating their 60th next month. I reminded Derwood that Mom and Dad had the habit of saying, “This is the Day the Lord has made,” and the other person answering, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” every morning, and that my husband I started doing that when Daddy died. Derwood teared up and said, “Regina (his wife) and I did the same thing–we also learned that from Bill and Effie.”

Around sunset Mom and I were sitting in the lobby, enjoying the view, when she looked at her watch and said, “It’s getting late. We need to get going if we’re going to get home before dark. What are we doing about supper?”

“You’ll have supper in the dining room here tonight, Mom.” I pointed behind us, around the corner towards the dining room.

“Do I need money? Where’s my purse?”

“It’s already paid for, Mom. All of your meals are paid for here. Just relax and enjoy them.”

She’s lost ten pounds in the month since she broke her hip. And she’s picking at her food more and more…. no longer enjoying some foods that have been favorites most of her life—like grits—and “forgetting” that she’s hungry. Dementia does that. The staff will be alert to try to keep her nourished and hydrated, but they can’t force her to eat.
She is allowed to have a glass of wine with dinner, once the doctor “prescribes” it and I provide the ongoing supply for her. I think I want to put that in my will—that whoever is taking care of me when I can no longer make choices for myself will be sure I get a glass of wine every night! During the month she was at the other facility, I “hid” a stash of single-serving, screw top bottles of wine in her closet and instructed the private sitters to pour her a cup each evening. We won’t be using private sitters at Lakeland, but it’s nice to know Mom’s evening cocktail will be served with dinner.

Purses optional.

I’ll be heading back to Jackson next Wednesday to take Mom for another checkup with the surgeon. Evidently her hip is healing more slowly than he had hoped, for some reason. The physical therapist at Lakeland spoke with him on the phone today, to clarify Mom’s rehab orders. In fact, within an hour of my returning home to Memphis this afternoon, I had received phone calls from four different people at Lakeland, asking for more information about Mom’s “social history” and updating me on her progress. The head of social services even gave me her email and says she checks it frequently. The two hundred miles between Jackson and Memphis just shrank considerably. I am so thankful for the good people at Lakeland, whether or not it’s Mom’s last stop this side of heaven.

Before I close… a little over a month ago I posted about River Jordan reading from my essay, “Are These My People?” on her weekly radio show, “Backstory” on October 4. Something came up and she wasn’t able to read it, so she’s going to read it tomorrow afternoon: Saturday, November 15, between 4 and 6 p.m. Tune in to 98.9 WRFN-LPFM, “Radio Free Nashville,” or click here to see three ways to listen online, instructions for listening through your phone or on TV Cable Channel 10 throughout the Davidson County (Tennessee) area. It’s a great show, featuring various writers and musicians each week. River is generous with her time, and likes to encourage fledgling writers (like me) with a shout out from time to time. Thanks, River!

>We’re Making Progress, Papaw!

>When my 31-year-old son, Jonathan, (the one who flies helicopters for the Army now) was about four, my parents lived on the Ross Barnett Reservoir in Brandon, Mississippi. They had a pontoon boat, and we loved to ride it across the lake at sunset to eat catfish at Cock ‘o the Walk Restaurant, and then ride back across the water in the moonlight. And Jon loved to swim off the pier behind Papaw and Granny Effiie’s house. And he could swim by the time he was three, but he also loved to play with plastic floats, so one day Granny Effie bought him one, and of course it fell to Papaw to blow it up. (I’m posting from a hotel room in Jackson, or I’d scan a photo of the event from an old album….)

My dad was only about fifty at the time… In his prime, running marathons and getting ready to open his store, Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports, which he and Mom owned until cancer (and discount shoe stores) closed them down in April of 1997. So yeah, Dad had incredible lung capacity, but was short on patience, so blowing up that float was a greater challenge for him than the twenty mile marathon training runs he led on Saturdays.

The way Mom used to tell the story, Dad would blow for a while, and then stop and pout, or get another cup of coffee. To encourage him, Jonathan would give him a hug and say, “You’re making progress, Papaw!”

Dad died in July of 1998, and ever since then, when I’m with Mom and working on something that tries my patience, like doing her income taxes or cleaning out some of the clutter she’s cultivating in her apartment, she will get this misty look in her eyes, smile and say, “you’re making progress, Papaw!” It always gets to me.

So today, when I got the phone call at 9 a.m. from Lakeland Nursing Home, saying they had a bed for Mom in their transitional unit (for people like Mom, in rehab for her broken hip) I was thrilled, but then they said I had to be in Jackson by 3 pm to do the paperwork, or pay $165 (private pay rate) to hold the bed until tomorrow. I was on the road by 11:45 am and at Lakeland by 2:45 pm. By 3:30 the paperwork was done and I was pulling away from the nursing home when I saw it.

I had forgotten that the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum was right next door, so I drove up to the building to “visit” the plaque on the patio—the one dedicated to my dad, to “Papaw.”

If you click on this picture of the plaque, a large version should pop up if you want to read the inscription.

The security guard stared at me while I took pictures of the museum, and the plaque, and I’m sure tried not to stare as I burst into tears and kissed my fingers and touched them to the picture of my father on the plaque. It felt strangely like kissing an icon at my church… and like a prayer, when I said, “We’re making progress, Papaw, but I could sure use your help. If you could just put in a word for Mom tomorrow when I go to move her to Lakeland. It’s the best place for her, but you know how she is about change.”

About then the guard asked me if I needed anything, and I said yes would he please take a picture of me and my Dad? He looked around, but no one else was on the patio, so I said “that’s him—the one on the plaque,” and I told him Dad’s story because he was new to Jackson. (Which I thought was kind of weird, that people actually move to Jackson, but that’s a story for another time.)

So he said sure and here’s the picture. It’s been raining and my hair looks awful and for once I actually don’t care. Some of you know how huge that is. The rest of you can think what you like.

Dad seems to be everywhere in this city. On the calendar of events at Lakeland Nursing Home, I noticed that every Friday at 10:30 am there’s a devotional and hymn singing, led by folks from Covenant Presbyterian Church. Dad used to do that, in the 1980s when my grandmother was at Lakeland. He had a gorgeous voice… my favorite Christmas memory is of him and my Uncle Dan singing “O Holy Night” while Aunt Joy played the piano. Dad was a baritone and Dan had an amazing tenor voice.

So, back to the progress. Tomorrow morning I’ll pack Mom’s things at the nursing and rehab center where she’s been since October 15 and move her to her temporary room at Lakeland. Then I’ll have 2-4 weeks to decide if Lakeland will be her final home on this earth. I’m just not sure her mind is going to recover enough for her to function well in assisted living again. If she stays at Lakeland, they’ll move her to the long-term when her rehab is finished. Oh! I forgot to mention that it’s been 5 days since I took Mom to the surgeon and returned her to rehab with DOCTOR’S ORDERS for her to have a walker and portable toilet in her room, and to begin “gait training,” which means using the walker, but only putting weight on the good leg. I’ve called her current rehab place every day since then, but still no walker and no toilet.

So, today, when the social worker at Lakeland took me around the corner to see Mom’s new room, I almost cried. At the foot of the bed was a walker, and in the corner, a portable toilet. Just waiting for her. Who knew that the day would come that the site of those two pieces of equipment would bring such joy. And yes, I couldn’t help but think, “we’re making progress, Papaw.”

Now, like they say at the end of every issue of skirt! Magazine, this “issue” was put together to the music of… The 2008 Country Music Association Awards! It’s just after 9, so it’s not over, but I’ve been dancing around my hotel room to the awesome music of some of my favorite stars, like Jennifer Netttles of Sugarland, (left) whose song, “Stay” won Song of the Year and Sugarland also won Duo of the Year! (I’ve got all their CDs and have been cheering for them for years.) And my faith in mankind was restored when George Strait’s politically incorrect song “I Saw God Today” won Single of the Year.

And just watching Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks and Dunn) makes my night… he is so hot. (my kids are probably freaking out if they’re reading this, thinking ugh, those old people are so weird!) That’s him, in the jeans, no hat, (great hair) with his partner, Kix Brooks. They sang “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” from their CD, Cowboy Town, which I listened to while driving to Jackson today.
And talking about old people… I’m still waiting to hear The Eagles perform, but they’re really my husband’s favorite group. In fact, he bought tickets for us to hear them in person this coming Sunday night at the Fed Ex Forum in Memphis. I’m wondering what this classic rock group is doing at the CMA awards show…. yeah, my husband loves rock. CMA host Brad Paisley just said the Eagles “dug the well” … of rock and roll and country? I’m going to have to think about that one…. and now I’m listening to them singing “you were just too busy being fabulous... to think about us.” Sounds like the lament of the entire Baby Boomer generation, but it doesn’t sound like country music. These are the guys who sang “Hotel California,” remember? If this is the Eagles, clean and sober, I’m a little worried about Sunday night’s concert…. but of course, it will be worth the price of the ticket just to hear them sing “Desperado,” with my Eagle-groupie husband… when he gets back to Memphis from this week’s trips, to New Orleans, where he gave two talks at the American Heart Asssociation’s annual meeting, and from there to New York City for another meeting today and tomorrow. Yeah, he’s pretty busy being fabulous.
And it’s rainy down here in Mississippi, but we’ll be together in Memphis on Friday, so until then, from the Eagles:
It may be raining, but theres a rainbow above you,
You better let somebody love you…. (that would be me).

>Suzi Says Da! to Solar Nails, the Secret Life of Bees and Articles in Redbook and New York Times Magazine


1. This is going to be four posts in one—starting with the light stuff. I mentioned Le Nails, a salon in Jackson, Mississippi, in my last post and also in a post a few months ago. I had been taking my mother there for manicures and pedicures this summer, and on one visit I noticed that some of the women were getting French manicures that looked unusually “substantial,” so I asked what the process was and learned about “Solar Nails.”

You only have to get them done about every 4-6 weeks, with “fills” after about 3 weeks. It’s amazing to watch… they dip a brush into a liquid, then into a powder and apply it on you natural nail, then it hardens like acrylics, only looks and feels natural. No polish is needed on top, and they don’t chip or break. I’m loving mine, which I just had done on Thursday.

While I was there, I got a pedicure, and asked if they had the brown color I’ve been using, Essie’s “Lady Godiva” (Isn’t their ad campaign delicious? I’m such a visual shopper!) But the problem with Essie is it doesn’t stay on as long, and it thickens and get “gumpy.”

So instead I discovered OPI’s color, Suzi Says Da! from the Fall/Winter 2007 “Russian” collection. I love it! (I’ll miss having it on my fingernails, but the Solar nails are maintenance-free, so I’ll settle for brown toenails for now.)

2. Second post topic for today is a big two thumbs up for the movie, “The Secret Life of Bees.” Let me say first off that I’ve read every book Sue Monk Kidd has ever written, and I really hope she’s proud of this movie—I thought it was amazing. I wept (almost loudly) as I felt Lily’s pain and even louder as she opened her heart to accept her father’s pain.

It was as if Kidd, through her character, Lily, was reminding us that none of us is completely evil or completely good… not even her father. Solsenitzen told us in The Gulag Archipelago that “the dividing line between good and evil is in every human heart.” This book, and movie, did a superb job of showing us that.

It was also beautifully acted and the cinematography was outstanding. I could feel the fog on my skin as Lily walked through the swamp, and the vibration of the bees in the honeycombs. Kudos to Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifa and the entire cast.

3. In yesterdays’s New York Times Magazine’s “Lives” Column, I discovered an article that beat out my piece, “The Other Woman,” which I submitted there, before expanding it to full article length and submitting it to Mom Writers Literary Magazine. The essay in the New York Times Magazine is called “Meet the Parents.” It’s also about a Korean adoptee’s search for his birth mother, but with a different ending. And it turns out the author, William Georgiades has had several articles published by the NYT in the past so I guess once you’re in your’re in. He’s also had a number of articles published in the LA Times. It’s starting to sound like a men’s club, but I’m not giving up!

4. Finally, the November issue of Redbook Magazine (another publication that rejected my article, “The Other Woman,” has a wonderful piece by a woman advocating for her mother-in-law’s rights at a nursing home. It’s called “Fighting for Lisa,” and you can read it (it’s very short) here. It was just what I needed to read right now, for two reasons: I’m learning to be my own mother’s advocate as I fight for the best care for her, and it encouraged me to continue to write about her story, whether or not I try to publish it apart from this blog. Writing it also gives me strength, just as caring for her mother-in-law gave Marina Budhos “exhilarating strength.” Kudos to you, Marina, for caring, and for writing.

Ooops…gotta’ run… the sitter at the nursing home just called and I’ve got to remind the social worker about getting Mom a walker and bedside toilet today and then talk with admissions at the other nursing home and pay Mom’s bills and send her a card and…. write the next chapter of my memoir.

>If Mama Aint Happy

>Just before I left Jackson to return to Memphis today, I drove through the parking lot at Maywood Mart Shopping Center, to get a latte at Starbucks for the drive. Creeping slowly past Le Nails (more on that in another post!) and the liquor store and grocery store where Mom used to shop, I stop and watch two older ladies slowly unloading their groceries into their cars. They look to be about Mom’s age (80) and well-kept, their grey hair obviously maintained weekly at the beauty parlor. One of them looks familiar… could easily be someone from Mom’s church, luncheon club, or an old neighbor. What struck me was this—what’s the difference in them and Mom? How is it they are still living independent lives, out in their cars on this beautiful, colorful November day, free to select the food they will go home and prepare in their kitchens, for themselves, and perhaps even their husbands?

The contrast is stark. Leaving the nursing home where Mom is in rehab for a broken hip, I could barely walk through the halls without running into dozens of elderly folks blocking the crowded space around the nurses’ station. Many of them are “trapped” in their wheelchairs with trays that prevent them from falling out. Some of them smile or return my greeting as I pass by, but others stare into space or don’t even lift their heads from their trays. 99% of them are black, which isn’t an issue for me, just a demographic that plays into the scenario for Mom. Mom doesn’t like to leave her room.

Later I visit another nursing home, looking for a long-term care facility for Mom if she’s not able to return to assisted living. This second facility is the one where my grandmother lived out the last of her years. Remember this photo of my mother with her mother in 1986? Another sharp contrast at this nursing home: very few residents in wheelchairs in the halls… instead most of them (white, by the way) were gathered in the social room listening to a woman giving an inspirational talk. I paused and watched and listened, and remembered how my father led the singing and gave a devotional every Friday for years in this same room, when my grandmother lived at this nursing home. As I tour the home, it’s obvious that the residents are from a different social bracket… most of them are probably parents of my peers, and the residents, their rooms, and the entire facility has a feeling of attentive care… and, yes, money. (But they do accept Medicaid, I was surprised to learn.)

There’s a waiting list for this facility, and I won’t know for a few more weeks whether or not Mom will improve enough, mentally, to return to Ridgeland Pointe. She can stay where she is indefinitely, but I keep asking myself if I would want to be there, and how much the place itself is responsible for her unhappiness.

Yes, she’s very unhappy now. But her Alzheimer’s has been exacerbated by everything she’s been through this past month—especially the anesthesia for surgery, a week in the hospital, and now three weeks in another unfamiliar facility. And she really hates having sitters with her all the time, telling them “I don’t need you, you can leave now” quite often. But without them, the nursing home would probably have to put Mom in restraints, because she can’t remember not to get up and try to walk on her broken hip.

So, Friday I went with her for her follow up visit at the orthopedic clinic. I thought we were going to see the physician who did her surgery, but it turned out our appointment was with his nurse practitioner. We sat in the waiting room for over an hour, of course, and Mom asked me over and over why we were there, and I changed my answers up a bit from time to time, just to keep myself entertained. Sometimes I would say, “The doctor who operated on your hip is going to examine you and see how well it’s healing,” and other times, “They’re going to x-ray your hip and see if you can walk soon.”

Throughout this time she complained that her hip hurt and asked why her chair was different from mine, which she was sure was more comfortable.

“You’re in a wheelchair, Mom, and besides, this waiting room chair really isn’t very comfortable either.”

“Why am I in a wheelchair?”

“Because you broke your hip, and you can’t put weight on it yet.”

Imagine this conversation times ten, at least.

And later Mom asked, “I’ve forgotten what’s wrong with you? Are you sick? Why did I bring you hear today?”

Finally we’re back in the exam room, waiting for another 15-20 minutes and Mom begins to say she has to use the bathroom. So I go out in the hall and tell the nurse that Mom is in a diaper, but we’re hoping she’ll be getting weight-bearing status today so she can use the toilet, and she’s been constipated and she really really needs to go, so can someone help her to the toilet?
The nurse says she’ll call someone, a “cast technician” so we wait.

The only cast technician around is a male, and he’s not allowed to help her to the toilet, so the nurse says to tell Mom to use her diaper and they’ll give her a dry one.

Mom says she’ll just wait.

Finally they take her across the hall to x-ray and I hear her cry out with pain getting on and off the table. When she returns, we wait again.
Finally the nurse practitioner comes in the room and says, “Why are there still staples in your mother’s hip?”

“My name is Susan Cushman, and this is my mother, Effie Johnson. And you are …..?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m Betty Bones.” (name changed of course) “We sent your Mom home from the hospital with instructions for the nurse at the nursing home to remove the staples from her hip after two weeks. Why weren’t they removed?”

“This is the first I’ve heard, since I’m only the daughter and not an employee of the nursing home.”

“Oh, well, we’ll get someone to remove them now.”

And then she turned to Mom and began to explain how the hip was healing fairly well, but not completely yet, and she needed two more weeks until she could walk on it, but for the next two weeks the physical therapists could start her on gait training or something like that. She used lots of technical medical terms and Mom looked at her like she was speaking Greek. Finally I whispered, “she has Alzheimer’s…. can you speak slowly and use more simple terms?”

This slowed her down a bit, and I explained how frustrated Mom was (and constipated) being in a diaper for a month now, and could she now use a walker and a toilet? The nurse practitioner said she could if someone helped her, or if she understand she can’t put any weight on her right foot yet. I said we’ve got sitters 24/7 for that purpose, and she said great, tell them Mom can do that. And I said please write this down for me to take to the nursing home, because the nurses and aids aren’t allowed to do anything without the physical therapists’ orders and she said she would.

After they removed the staples, we waited (again) for the nurse to return with instructions, and again Mom asked to use the bathroom.

I went back into the hall and asked the nurse practitioner if someone could help me get Mom to a toilet. She looked at me sadly and said, “I know this sounds mean, but there just aren’t enough people here to help her do that right now. We’re short-staffed. She’ll have to use the diaper.”

I looked up and down the hall and counted 5-7 people in uniforms, some standing around, others going in and out of rooms. Then I returned to the exam room and told Mom we were leaving soon, could she wait? And she said she could.

We waited another 10 minutes, so finally I took Mom (in her wheelchair) out to the front door where the shuttle from the nursing home was picking her up, telling the nurse that I would return for the paperwork.

After putting Mom on the shuttle, I found the nurse who handed me the instructions to take back to the nursing home. I read over them to be sure they were explicit, and yes, they included the request for a bed-side toilet and a walker, and for the PTs to begin gait training activities, etc. But at the bottom of the sheet there were three questions, and when I read them and the boxes they had checked (yes or no) I just shook my head and took the sheet back inside to the nurse.

“Why did you say ‘no’ to the question that says, ‘Is patient in need of social/vocational adjustment services’?” Mom is receiving physical, occupational and speech therapy at the rehab center because of her dementia and her broken hip. This will tell them to discontinue the OT and cognitive therapy.”

The nurse nodded and offered to change it.

“Oh, and also the second question, which says ‘Is patient aware of diagnosis/prognosis?’… you checked ‘yes,” but she’s obviously not aware of anything—she doesn’t even remember that she broke her hip. Can you change this one, too?”

The nurse nodded again and took the form back to the computer and returned with a corrected sheet in a few minutes. I left and drove to the nursing home, where Mom was already upstairs in her room picking at her late dinner while her sitter, who accompanied her in the van, was finishing her own hamburger.
Mom asked the sitter to leave, and then told me (again) how unhappy she is having someone in the room with her all the time. She thinks they are “going through her stuff” when they’re just helping her. (Yes, I’ve checked, and nothing is missing.) “I’m just really unhappy,” Mom finally says. This is the most clarity she’s shown about her emotions.

“I know, Mom, and I wish I could make everything perfect, but I can’t. I’m doing the best I can.” I try to fight back the tears, but I’m so exhausted I let a few fall. “Just like you did for Mamaw, when you had to move her into the nursing home.”

“Who is Mamaw?”

“You know what, Mom? I’m going to your apartment to get a few more of your things. I’ll be back in about an hour, okay?”

“My apartment? Isn’t this my apartment?”

“No, Mom, this is your room in the nursing home where you’re staying until your hip gets well and you can walk again.” I get back out the pictures of her apartment and ask the sitter to look at them with Mom again while I’m gone.

As I leave the room I hear Mom tell the sitter, “You can leave, too. I don’t need anything right now.”

I went downstairs and met with the director of social services, and told them about the staples that weren’t removed and the orders for a walker and a bedside toilet, and she said it would be Monday before they could get the walker and toilet, which means she has to wait three more days. I consider going to a medical supply house and just buying them myself, but I realize that they probably can’t get the “orders” to the nurses and aids to allow this change before Monday anyway, so I’ll wait and let Medicare pay for them.

So I’m a bit of a basket case, trying to learn not to let my mother’s physical, emotional or mental state control mine. (If Mama ain’t happy….) And trying to remember to be thankful for the good times, like Thursday afternoon, when Mother’s old neighbors, Donna, Sis and Ed, visited her at the nursing home. Donna Burt and Sis and Ed Kemp lived across the street from my parents for about fifteen years. When my father was dying with cancer, Ed used to drive him to the men’s prayer breakfasts at the church, and later just came to sit with him so Mom could run errands. He’s about 85 now.

This is Sis, Donna and Ed visiting with Mom. At first I’m sure she didn’t know them, but after a while she seemed to. Or at least she seemed happy.

>If America Falls

>I’m about to drive to Jackson for a couple of days again, and I don’t have time to write a post, so I’m going to link to two wonderful posts by my friend and fellow writer, Terry Bernadini. She started her blog about a year ago and named it “Wildly Disparate.” It’s one of a few blogs that I actually subscribe to. Terry is in the women’s writing critique group that I’m in here in Memphis, and has also participated in workshops at Ole Miss with me. This is her, at the first Creative Nonfiction workshop we attended over a year ago. (You can read about that here.)

First “guest post” is this one, “Perspectives from ESL Students.” (Click on the words to link to the post. Someone told me I should put those instructions in my blog from time to time for the uninitiated, so there it is.)

Second “guest post” is another favorite, “O Worship the King.” (You know what to do now.)

Of course I love this one for its spiritual richness… and I’m a huge fan of Les Miserables, and love the priest’s words, “I have bought your soul for God.” Chills.

If you like these posts, check out her earlier ones, which offer a poignant mix of humor and spirituality.

Okay… I’m on the road again… maybe I’ll post from Jackson, but probably not until I get home Saturday night. Thanks for reading!

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