I don’t like fishing.

And as a vegetarian, it isn’t any great surprise as to why I don’t like fishing.  I normally try, as best I can, to keep my personal views concerning something like fishing to myself.  It’s something that people do – and I don’t.  ‘Nuff said.

However, recently, while visiting the great state of North Carolina, my third son, Patrick, invited me to go fishing with him.  Twice.  And, as odd as it seemed to me, twice, I went.

The first time, he asked me to tag along with him to the ocean around noon.  His plan was to fish while slightly off-shore in a kayak.  With a pole, bait, oar, and a very small back pack full of odds and ends, he waded into the water with me behind.  My job was two-fold:  steady the kayak until he made it past the first barrage of waves and then return to shore and wait for him to return . . . which I did.

I sat on shore watching the yellow kayak swaying back and forth with the tide.  And at first, I could see him clearly.  I could see him casting, I could see him rowing, and I thought I could see him smiling.   But as time passed, he moved farther and farther towards the horizon, and it became more and more difficult for me to see anything more than a flash of yellow between ocean waves.

My mind moved away from my thoughts about fishing and towards my thoughts about my son and the danger of water, in particular ocean water.  Though thankful that he had put on a life jacket moments before jumping into the kayak, as time ticked forward, I still had that feeling in the pit of my stomach that says anything, anything can happen.  So, I began to walk and wade into the Atlantic – as if I could somehow wade and swim to the bobbing kayak.  Which realistically, I could not.

Within ten minutes, he either ran out of bait and decided on his own to end his journey or he saw me and figured that his mother was going to get herself into water-trouble and might need help, because the kayak was heading swiftly towards me.  Once we were within shouting distance, I could tell that he was delighted with the fishing.  Usually a quiet sort of guy, he rattled on about the ocean, the fish, the waves, those he caught and those he lost.  He was happy and wanted nothing more than for me to be happy for him.

The second fishing experience was quite different.  As the sun began to set one evening, he pointed towards the marsh, grabbed a pole, his tackle, and two chairs.  He could see that the weather was perfect and the tide was up.  The plan was to quickly – faster than lightning fast –  head out with him to fish.  Again, he asked me to go, and for some reason, I went.

With me literally running behind him, we stopped when he found the perfect spot. He set up my chair, dropped his, tossed me some stuff, waded out just beyond the water’s edge and began casting.  He fished and I watched him fish. It was a fairly quiet experience with the reel making the most noise of the evening. We stayed for as long as we could see, which wasn’t all that long.  In fact, it wasn’t long enough for him to actually catch anything.  When the sun dipped below the horizon, he gave me the ‘let’s pack up’ signal, and we did.  Walking back to our place, he explained the difference between fishing in the marsh and fishing in the ocean, between fishing in the morning and fishing in the evening, between fishing from shore and fishing in a kayak.

Though I am opposed to fishing – at all levels – and he knows it, I must admit that I did enjoy my fishing experience.  First, he caught nothing that I could see.  What he caught in the ocean, he tossed back.  And he caught nothing in the marsh.  Great for me.  Not so great, I suppose, for him.

Next and more importantly, it was interesting entering someone else’s world – in particular a world that I would never enter.  It was interesting changing my perspective – stepping out of my box and seeing something from a different viewpoint.  I went fishing.  Okay, my role was very limited – at best.  I didn’t use a fishing pole. I was my son’s crowd, his groupie, his audience.  I was there to observe . . . to learn . . . to understand.

And I learned that it is one thing to talk about having an open mind and talk about being accepting of the differing viewpoints and activities, and another thing to actually have that open mind and be accepting. I always thought I was accepting of his choice to fish, but in reality, I was only accepting of it at a distance.  I really knew nothing about it.  I was more critically sarcastic than honestly accepting.

But, walking in the shoes of others truly does heightening understanding. It takes time and effort to do so, and I had to jump out of my comfort zone and hope that I could see whatever it was that he was seeing – use his eyes, his mind as my guide.

I still do not want to fish, but I know a little bit more about why my son fishes, and I think I am a little more embracing of his choice.

And as the sun went down while we were standing in the marsh fishing, I thought about the poetry of yesterday . . .   with e.e. cummings (1894 – 1962) drifting through my mind:

now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened
fishin (1 of 1)

Turn, Turn, Turn

“To everything . . . turn, turn, turn.  There is a season . . . turn, turn, turn.  And a time for every purpose, under Heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap, a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to weep . . .”  The Byrds, 1965.

At the time, it didn’t seem that small.  It just didn’t.  But, I suppose it was. Throughout the normal year, there were eight of us – six children (four boys, two girls) and our parents.  In the summer, however, the number increased.  Our grandmother arrived in May for a two month visit, and our cousin joined us in June for the summer.  And at least once each day – and sometimes two – the entire group would gather around the  wooden kitchen table  – oblong in shape with two benches and two end-chairs  – to eat.  With five to a side and my grandmother and father at the ends, it must have been elbow to elbow.  It just didn’t seem so at the time.

When it started, the home was 888 square feet – not including an unfinished full basement and a backyard. It had three bedrooms, one bathroom, and what would now be called an “eat-in” kitchen.  As I entered my teenage life, my folks expanded the house, tearing down the small bedroom wall to create a living-room/dining room combo, and adding a family room and a larger bedroom. Finally, well after I had moved out, they added a deck which spanned the entire length of the rear of the house.  Again, at the time, none of it seemed small.

There was a need for creativity, however, with only one bathroom and a minimum of eight residents.  On school mornings, showers started early and lasted a few minutes or less if possible.  The house had two sinks and it wasn’t beyond anyone to use the one in the kitchen to brush teeth or wash hair.  As the family aged, my father kindly set up a make-shift shower in the basement – weaving a hose through the ceiling joists, centering it over the floor drain, and encircling it with a shower curtain for as much privacy as a shower in the middle of an open basement could have.   It seemed luxurious and we felt lucky to have two showers.

Throughout the ensuring years, my parents added a large round, above-ground pool in the backyard – right next to the two story tree house, built by my brothers, and eventually secured for safety by my dad.  We had a one car garage which was fine during the time that we only owned one car.  As we learned to drive and bought more cars, we simply parked them in the street as best we could. Everything seemed to fit – nothing seemed too small.

In fact, our small house worked so well that on Christmas in 1976, my parents invited my aunt, uncle, and their four children to stay with us for the holidays. Total home population was fourteen residents, fifteen when my grandma arrived, with my parents welcoming many others on a daily basis to visit with our visitors.  For two weeks, we ate in shifts, showered on a schedule, slept wherever floorspace permitted, and, in general, made concessions on almost everything and anything related to space.  With a Christmas tree and presents filling up an already full family room, the space should have felt tight and cramped.  But again, it did not.

It never did.

Not too long ago, my husband, my son, and I went to that family home to stay overnight.  There were only three of us in the house at the time – as my father was staying at my brother’s house for the evening, and my mother had passed away a dozen years prior.   As we sat at the kitchen table, I thought back to the times when there would be a minimum of an additional five to seven individuals eating dinner in the same space.  Toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder, we would eat, talk, laugh, fight and cry with each other, meal after meal after meal after meal.

Something in the world has changed, however, because looking at that kitchen today with a yardstick and a ruler, it definitely would be considered small. It just would be. In fact, thinking back, there were times when rather than navigating through those sitting at the table,  the best way to walk through the kitchen was to exit out the back door, walk around and enter the front door.

The kitchen may have been small.  The bathroom may have been small.  In fact, the whole house may have been small;  but, what wasn’t small was the life of the folks living in that home.  From that small house, we learned a lot.

We learned to share – everything – closets, clothes, towels, bedrooms, shower space, radios, cars, food – nothing was sacred. In small spaces, individual ownership of things is tough – making sharing a natural, seamless, normal function. I look back on it and recognize that it was a blessing to learn the concept of sharing so prominently and passionately.

We also learned to be flexible.  People – cousins, grandparents, friends – moved in and out of the house all the time. In fact, the house seemed empty without someone staying with the eight of us.  We just shifted, moved, and/or switched places to meet the current needs without fanfare or concern.  A sleeping bag here – a blanket there – add a couple of pillows – and voila – we found the space.  With such flexibility, my parents reaffirmed the idea that it was our family that was blessed – to have so many folks who wanted to live with us.  We were the fortunate ones.  We were the lucky ones.

We learned that there was a time for everything. Everything was scheduled to make sure that life in the house ran like clockwork. Dinner time – 5:00pm.  Shower time – scheduled each morning.  Bedtime – on the half hour after 7:00pm depending on age.  Everything had its own moment, and it was best to capitalize on those moments.

Finally, as I march deeper and deeper into the 21st century, I only hope that I have learned to share well, to be flexible enough, and to know that “to everything there is a time and a purpose, under Heaven.”

At the edge of the world - a big and beautiful place.

At the edge of the world – a big and beautiful place.

How To Make Memories With 47,399 People

When I reflect on that moment, I have to admit it was one of the best of my short life.  It was so exhilarating, it is almost indescribable.  And unbelievable as it may sound, though it has almost been a year ago, rarely does a week pass without someone mentioning something about it to me or my daughter.

Heather, my daughter, is my youngest child and only girl.  At 28, she is slight of build, tall in stature and is as even-tempered as her father.  I am lucky as she and I pal around quite a bit together.  And oddly enough, the reason for being together on October 28th, 2011 was due to a very chance circumstance.  But it happened and we were.

The men in our lives were all left behind.  My son hadn’t been feeling well, and my spouse graciously agreed to stay home as caretaker.  He offered his spot to my daughter, and she smartly took it.  So we were off – together – on another adventure of a lifetime.

As happens in most families, she and I have actually shared many mother / daughter lifetime adventures – in all kinds of shapes and sizes from international travel to half marathons, from home building projects to weekends away.   But this event was different.

As we headed out – with all the amenities two people might need including food, clothes, cash, and cameras – my mind could hear a phrase often spoken by a dear aunt of mine who has just enough of a southern drawl to bring out the wisdom of such simple words:  “Nothing more important than making memories.”

Two hours later, we arrived at our destination.  We found a makeshift parking space, abandoned our car, and entered the thick of things.  Downtown traffic was at a standstill.   Banners were strung from every skyscraper and pump-me-up music was blaring on every corner.  Two gentlemen – sans shirts – with their chests painted bright red – strolled by us, singing a rather poor rendition of the national anthem.

Yet, because of the atmosphere, they were nothing shy of adorable – and for this occasion – very typical.  For at that moment, a total of 47,399 individuals were headed towards the gates of a previously empty stadium – each person intent on making their own memories.

Our seats were high-in-the-sky, in what folks might fondly call the nose-bleed section.   And looking out on the crowd, all we could see was a sea of red – as literally everyone had dressed in the team color for the occasion – (or as witnessed earlier, had painted their bodies accordingly).

The two women in front of us were wearing red wigs made of flashing LED lights.  A couple of rows in front of them sat a family who had brought along an assortment of hand-made posters and were waving them madly.

Before the first pitch was thrown, we had both been asked to take family photos for folks around us and had asked the folks around us to take our photo.  Fans were texting, tweeting, facebooking, and calling everyone who didn’t make it into the stadium.   It could only be described as orderly pandemonium.

Of course, not to be missed was the calm and subdued gentleman at the end of our row.

He happened to be visiting a friend who had an extra ticket.  He came along not knowing what to expect, and found all the frantic madness a little quizzical.  He was seemingly disengaged from the surrounding activity, and spent most of his time checking and re-checking his trusty blackberry . . .so we called him Blackberry Man . . .  really the only odd-duck on the pond.

But, as the game began and time began ticking forward, the excitement within the crowd escalated  – and it escalated exponentially. We stood – shoulder to shoulder – from the first crack of the bat to the last, sitting only during the momentary wee breaks between innings.  We shouted  – loud and long – creating an unrecoilable energy that was all-pervasive.  And we bonded – with the 47,399 people who came to the stadium with the same hopes and desires as the hometown athletes.

My daughter and I were  – in athletic speak – in the zone.  We were on our tiptoes, cheering, shouting, clapping, hugging, laughing. And everyone around us, except for Blackberry Man, was doing the same.  For all of us, it was a time of sheer fun and exhilaration. I was quite sure that the game’s outcome wouldn’t solve any great human mystery.  And I knew that days later, I would still be putting on my shoes one at a time. But, for that one moment, the world around us was in sync.

And I learned that anytime the world around us is in sync, it is truly unbelievable.

For today, I can still hear the collective screaming and I can still feel the collective dancing when the hometown team won. Fireworks blasted.  Confetti fell.  Lights flashed, and the music of champions played.  Strangers hugged each other, with even Blackberry Man faintly smiling.

And I can still  see my daughter’s eyes looking at me with such pure joy.

As we walked out the stadium, still shoulder to shoulder with those 47,399 people who were all still more than just a little exuberant, I knew that my daughter and I had made a great memory, a permanent one.

What I didn’t know is  how that particular memory would change my thinking.

I was once again – and in a big way –  reminded that it is possible for the entire world to be in sync.  Somehow, it is possible for all of us to be happy, for all of us to experience joy.  It might be difficult, but what is worthwhile isn’t usually easy.  All we have to do is wake up our collective sleeping giant and make a memory.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Confetti With Friends . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Comeback Moment

I caught his eyes, and I knew it was the moment. My young, eighteen year old cousin was looking straight at me with that smile.  It was the moment we all waited for . . . the moment of excitement . . . the most anticipated moment . . . the defining moment.  He said absolutely nothing to me and I nothing to him.  But, we both grinned and we knew it.  And we weren’t the only ones who recognized it.

My sister was some twenty feet behind me laughing as she reached out for our tiny ten-year old niece who had just swallowed a bit of salt water, but was none-the-less smiling and laughing, too. My spouse, also laughing,  had tumbled back further towards shore and was intent on returning, pausing just long enough to squeeze water out of his faded yellow swim shirt and to meet up with a brother-in-law who likewise was making his way back to the group.

The teenage girls – six of them who were all nearly the same age, (old enough to be on their own, but young enough to need some watchful eyes) – were already waiting for the next round, as were the college kids – the bold, the crazy, the unabashed, the fearless – who had moved the center of the group several feet farther out into the ocean than the original position.

In all, there were nearly thirty of us, marching out from the inch deep shoreline to chin high waters in the Atlantic.  And with ocean waves crashing, we – aunts, uncles, parents, brothers, sisters, children, cousins, grandparents, and friends – stayed together.  The day was bright and the water was warm. The waves were all too often over our heads, yet for some reason their force was unusually weak, with just enough danger to make it seem dangerous mixed in with just enough safety for those of us old enough to be concerned to not be concerned.

Wave after wave, we would watch and wait for the perfect ride, the perfect catch. The waves would roll by and each of us would do our body surfing best, some with more success than others, to manage them with fun. It wasn’t the skill of the sport or the challenge of the water that interested us.  The lure was, and always has been, something else.

Vacation in my world has always meant traveling to the beach to meet up with a large assortment of family members.  For the past 45+ years, during the third week in July, we haul beach chairs, tents, umbrellas, buckets, shovels, nets, towels, cameras, toys, coolers, books, food, and now phones to the ocean shore.   Arriving mid-morning and leaving mid-evening, we pack, unpack, and eventually repack, learning to take a little less stuff and a little more food to the beach with each passing day.  As I watch my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews carry my belongings to the beach, I fondly recall the times I helped my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles carry theirs.

Throughout these 45+ years, we have developed our fair share of family vacation traditions: take pictures Friday night, share homemade salsa, play miniature golf Thursday, late lunches and dominoes, ring the bell, get an ice cream, church on Sunday,  beach bocce winner-take-all, and evenings poolside.  Are they special, extraordinary, unique, exceptional traditions?  Hardly.  They are simple, average, common, uncomplicated, ordinary ones – with everyone included in everything and no official planning for anything.

These traditions have created a sense of ease to a vacation that could be considered a little arduous as relatives are required to pack up significant belongings and travel hundreds of miles in over-stuffed vehicles just to be together for seven straight days.  And vacations, regardless of type, time, or location, can be costly.  Gas tanks, plane rides, car rentals, maps, fun food, sunscreen, laundromats, movie tickets, and finally, the purchasing of all necessities sadly forgotten at home means vacations have a price.  But, we return every year – same time, same place – to once again carry our stuff to the sandy ocean shore.

In all honesty, over those past 45+ years, we have changed locations . . . albeit once.  And why we moved from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic is a mystery to most of us, but somewhere in the 80s, we shifted east. It is clear, however, that those before me sought a quiet, remote, uncluttered, and unpopulated spot with little more to do than link lives with those in attendance.  No fast food, go-carts, shopping malls, piers, boardwalks, high rises, tourist attractions, beach bars, jet skis, surf shops, or restaurant chains.  Just a roof over our heads with sand, water, family and friends. 

As I caught my cousin’s eyes, I knew it was the moment.  I could see it.  To my right, a cousin of my cousin had locked arms with my niece.  From the shore, my brother and my aunt were snapping photo after photo. My spouse ended up circled by the six teenage girls who were holding onto the lone surf board owned and operated by another young cousin. To my left, I saw a cousin’s friend raising a lost, then found baseball cap that had left the drenched head of another relative.   Two others were holding the hands of that tiny, young ten-year old for safekeeping. Everyone was smiling.  Everyone was laughing.   

In that moment, I saw a family – 30+ strong  – dancing in the waves . . . together . . . in sync . . .with no thoughts and no cares in the world.  And I knew that this moment was the comeback moment, the one that will bring us back . . . together . . . again . . . next year.


                         Vacationing Together in the Summer on the Atlantic

In the Days of the Giants

I can close my eyes, right now, and see her – a petite woman, no more than five feet  – (and that is giving her a couple inches) –  wearing a long handmade mini-print belted dress followed by those crazy-heavy black front tie granny shoes, her round rimmed glasses tipped on her nose, a Kleenex stuffed slightly up her sleeve, and a wrinkled white apron tied promptly around her waist at all times. In her side pocket, she carried hard candy, the key to her house, and at all times a worn silver rosary.  She spoke English, most of the time, but would fall to German when necessary.   She wasn’t quick to smile, but definitely was hard to anger.  Her grey hair was always cropped neatly, and the only piece of jewelry she sported was a simple gold wedding band.  She was a woman of great faith, hard work, humble means, and sensible actions.

Like all grandmothers, she had habits and quirks that fascinated me.  She owned a parakeet named Perky; and, if she travelled, Perky travelled with her.   She hid money – cash – throughout her modest home . . . ten-dollar bills in the hems of the curtains, a handful of coins in her button jar, enough money for a house payment behind the round picture of the Blessed Mary,  frozen money in the not-so-hidden ice-cube trays in the back of the freezer, a jar of dollars in the tree stump.  Plus, she only and always wore dresses.  Pants were just a no-no.  And every night she drank a short glass of whiskey, followed by praying the rosary, in Latin.

She loved me and I knew it, but not because she told me.

I stayed summers with her and she made me a pie a day . . . any kind, all I had to do was ask – chocolate, peanut butter, rhubarb, marshmallow, peach, raisin, ice cream, potato – everyday a new pie. She taught me how to make bread.  I always failed, but she always ate it.  We played euchre together each and every evening, keeping a running tab on who was winning and who was losing – for years.  She cried with me when I was sad, and laughed with me when I was happy.  Coddling wasn’t exactly in her vocabulary, but raking a yard, hanging laundry, or burning the trash pile with her didn’t seem like work.  It was purposeful fun . . . time well spent.

Her name was Pauline, but her family called her Polly.  She, herself, had countless sisters and several brothers, all living in a little town in Illinois.  Her own three children, two girls and one boy, were spread across the United States with my family being the closest in proximity to her at all times.  To me, she was the grandmother of all grandmothers – the perfect multi-generational companion for me and my brothers and sister.

She has been gone from this earth for many years now, and I used to wonder why I thought about her as often as I do.  It took me awhile, but it finally came to me.  In fact, I realize now that it really isn’t that hard to understand.  It really isn’t.    Simply put, Polly was a giant, living in the days of the giants.  And even though I wasn’t a quick learner, she was great at modeling.  Eventually she knew that I knew what she wanted me to know.  It just took awhile.

From her, I know that it isn’t money that makes people happy.  She didn’t have much if any, and was happy just to be fishing on a Friday night with me and half of her family at the local riverside – sometimes catching nothing, but always having fun.

From her, I know that faith can bring comfort.  I wouldn’t describe her as a god-fearing woman, but I would say that she was deeply religious.  She pondered through all of her challenges with prayer, (usually in another language), and somehow she seemed to navigate of all her troubles.

From her, I know that quiet is just as good as noisy.  One thousand words was a life time of conversation for her. I can still hear her say, “Too much talk, too little work.”  She, herself, didn’t have to communicate via speech, a talent that still impresses me. I knew what she wanted to tell me without her ever having to speak a word.

From her, I know the definition of giving.  I watched a woman whose belongings could literally fit into two suitcases, give anything she owned to anyone who asked.  That’s why her belongings fit into two suitcases.

From her, I know how to manage money.  It is simply a matter of saving it – in cans, jars, boxes, purses, curtains, trays, trees, sleeves, and banks.  She never bought something she didn’t need, and never really seemed to need anything.  But if she did, she dug up the can and paid for it in cash.  Her joy came not from buying whatever she needed, but from the journey that it took her to get to the point of purchase.

From her, I know how to be thrifty.  Can it if you can.  Freeze the rest.  Holes can be darned.  Dresses and shoes can be remade and salvaged with a little thread, leather and ingenuity.  Water comes out of a tap, walking is cheaper than driving, and one hundred found pennies can buy a dollar’s worth of anything.  There was never a glass jar that saw the bottom of the trash can in her house.  Who needs Tupperware when a used Vlasic pickle jar was available?

And from her, I know about joy.  She characterized her life, as hard as it might have been – as a young teen from a dirt-poor immigrant farm family, living through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II –   as joyful.  All stories that I heard ended with some type of quote that was meant to direct me to always see the best in the world because she did.

Well, Polly, all I can say is lessons learned.

Pauline Washford

Grandma Polly 1957