I’m talking ’bout the bad girls

My mom, a classic hoarder, kept all my elementary, middle and high school report cards in a big binder. She also kept my shots records, my ballet recital programs, a few pictures of the embarrassing ballet costumes and some of the napkins that Billy Dee Williams used to wipe his mouth during the filming of some movie down in Chester.

“One day,” she said with a deep, prophetic, Moses-bringing-down-the-commandments voice, “you can show these to your children.”

A couple of weekends ago, I hauled out the book and presented it to the kids (mistake 1), certain they’d be honored to be offspring of a musician/ballerina/scout/French-speaking Baptist (mistake 2). They laughed at my first ballet photos (awkward with nasty shoes) and ooohed over my last ones (graceful with feathers and nice slippers). But they ignored the other good stuff and honed in on my report cards. They noted I made A’s in everything but math. Then they focused on the behavior part.

Back then, report cards had a grading system of A, S and U. A – prepare for sorority parties. S – prepare for shop classes, which was an insult back then, and U – Who the hell are you kidding? Go home and start over, girl. There also was a grid with boxes for behavior in general, attitude, cooperation, courtesy, self-control and study habits, which also used the A/S/U scale along with a system of checks. A – teacher’s pet. S – get some bail money ready because the teenage years will be rough. U – hellbent for jail and starring roles in Britney Spears songs about criminals.

When I was kid, I thought I had done a stellar job because a lot of my boxes were checked, but Mom finally set me straight. If nothing was checked, you didn’t have a problem. If the teacher checked a slot, then you needed to work on that area.


I had not been a courteous, respectful, quiet little self-starter. I was a lippy, out-of-control hell-raiser who cheerfully, effectively, promptly and readily fought authority and rules at every turn and at the top of my voice.

Some of the comments: “needs to keep her mind on her seatwork.” “she still talks too much.” “she still needs to work on her behavior.” “sure to make a U in conduct.” Making a U meant you failed; an S meant you were just  doing ok. That teacher, 3rd grade, Ms. Daisy McDuffie, gave me an S—-. She had hope, bless her heart.

After all the time I’d spent in the Catholic School naughty corner staring at the crucifix, after the times I’d been sent to find my own switch, after all the welts from the belt strap – why was anybody surprised about my school behavior?

“What was wrong with you?” my younger kid asked. “That was just sad. Why couldn’t you just pay attention?”

I thought about it. What WAS wrong? Was I bored? Confused? Starved for attention? Just plain BAD? Face it. I was bad. I was the kid that very few parents wanted to see coming. I wasn’t horrible, just defiant. Always asking WHY? Didn’t care who I offended. At church meeting, I interrupted once to ask “WHY?” and got nasty stares and a pinch from my great-grandma for being insubordinate. After I wrecked my car with a friend in it (in high school), I told the friend’s dad, an Army officer, to step up and get his own son from band practice. When another friend’s parents told me my skirt was too short, I asked them why they were looking. I played with firearms. I raced cars. I cut class.

I worried every year up until college that THIS YEAR would be the one Santa threw in the towel.

The kids are still laughing, and it’s actually nice to have this part of my past in the open, even if it’s cold revenge for my Mom. We can discuss it with logic – when they stop laughing. And when they get lippy/resentful/defiant/bad/etc, I’ll add notes to their permanent records and patiently wait for grandchildren.


If my man Slash can rock the big glasses …

My eye doc, a very serious young man who has made me cry before, gave a wary glance as he attempted to ease me into the news.

Young Doc has made me cry by uttering “blindness” and “glaucoma,” so he was nervous about delivering less-than-stellar news. I wanted to see him squirm a bit, not gonna lie. Don’t hate, God ain’t through with me yet.

He cleared his throat and began. “Your distance vision hasn’t changed. You could keep your same glasses, in theory, for driving. And the good news is your pressure hasn’t changed, and there’s no damage to your optic nerve and so far, no true glaucoma. But your close vision has worsened.”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you drive with your glasses on?” he asked.

“Hell no. I see too much that way and get distracted.” I tried this as a joke, but he didn’t crack a smile.

“Really.” He scribbled something on my chart. I felt the scales tip – in his favor. “You should be driving with your glasses,” he said with a heavy sigh. “In fact, you should be wearing your glasses all the time. You have two prescriptions now for your eyes. One for distance vision, and one for close. But because you do so much work on the computer, I’m going to recommend trifocals.”

My mouth dropped open.

Bifocals, he explained, are simply two prescriptions in one set of glasses, and trifocals are three. I thought back to my great-grandmom’s bifocals, heavy glass in lavender frames, with the two little magnifying ovals in the bottom center. She had this over-the-glasses (are you for real?) look, and the through-the-bifocals (don’t make me cut you) look. She constantly pushed her glasses up because the weight pulled them down, and depending on where she focused, her eyes were either huge or owlish. The thick frames hid her face so that when she removed them, she didn’t look like herself. She cleaned them five, six times an hour, huffing moist breath on the lenses and wiping them with the pocket of her day dress. She kept them beside her bed in a wooden box, beside books stuffed with braids of hair that she’d snipped from deceased relatives.

The kids tell me I already have the over-the-glasses gaze. They call it, simply, “the look.” I hate to tell them, but sometimes I’m only trying to focus on them, especially if they’re across the room. My vision is so blurry that everybody looks shorter and wider, less precise around the edges. Type is fuzzy, like it is bleeding onto the page. Even the moon looks rounder, squat and less harsh. I can’t see the dust in the house or the shoes on the floor or the dead cucumbers in the fridge or the deepening laugh lines and sun damage on the face.

It’s like being in an old movie, one that hasn’t been digitally remastered, or like living behind a sheer curtain. Trifocals will make me look like I’m trying to get to the tootsie roll center of the tootsie pop, right?

I picked out Harley-Davidson frames (my third pair of HD) with tiny skulls on the frames, but I called back to change my order. Keep the HD, ditch the skulls, put the logo on the sides, and I want the Transitions lenses.

The trifocals don’t have lines in them, so my owl look is a tad more sophisticated than my great-grandmother’s. The lenses are plastic, not glass, so the glasses aren’t that heavy. Plus, being able to see is sexier than squinting. And I like the way I feel as I’m aging: like the gray hair, don’t mind being called “ma’am,” appreciate getting grown-up service in stores. Trifocals will only add to that.

Besides, if my man Slash can rock the big glasses – I don’t think they’re trifocals, but they’re still big – so can I.

PS – If you have a family history of glaucoma, HBP or diabetes, get yourself an eye exam. The three go hand in hand, and glaucoma, a painless and sneaky condition, is a leading cause of blindness.

Sweet potato pie is the one for me

Granddaddy knew.

Granddaddy Simpson wasn’t my natural grandfather. Grandma was good at marrying, and even though Granddaddy had loved Grandma as a young person, they’d each married other people, raised families, and met up again later in life, years after Grandma had stopped chasing Liz Taylor’s title of most married.

Of all the grandfathers, he was the only person I ever called Grandaddy.

Granddaddy loved cooking. A cook in the Navy during WWII, he knew how to prepare food on deadline, for large groups, for fancy soirees and down-home dinners. But he loved, LOVED cooking for us, and he loved making sweet potato pie for us. He had wanted grandchildren for years, somebody to bake for and cook with, somebody to keep him company in the kitchen, on rides to the old family farm, on trips to the country church for all-day Sunday revival, and he picked up where my great-grandmom left off when she could no longer bake her famous sweet potato pies. During summer revival, when we spent the lunch hour outside at picnic tables, he’d top off lunches of cold fried chicken, potato salad, tea and biscuits with a huge sweet potato pie. I didn’t get birthday cake from him; I got birthday sweet potato pie. When my kids were born, Granddaddy baked celebratory pies. High school, college graduations – we ate at my favorite Chinese restaurant, but back home, we had sweet potato pie. Occasionally, he would drive the 45 minutes to our house, bearing a pie, and turn right back around and go home.

Granddaddy eyeballed everything and measured nothing for his pies. He knew when a recipe was right, remembered each list of ingredients, and never, ever wrote down anything. When I first made spaghetti, he tasted it and told me to add a tiny dollop of beef fat to the sauce. I did. It tasted better. I haven’t ever forgotten that direction.

One year at Thanksgiving, I asked Granddaddy to bake a pumpkin pie instead of a sweet potato pie. They looked the same, and a lot of my friends talked about pumpkin pie.

He laughed at me. “Why do you want a pumpkin pie? It won’t taste the same.” But I insisted, and he baked one.

For me, raised on sweet potato – custard, pie, casserole and just plain baked – pumpkin was the worst thing ever. It was simply wrong. That first taste caused me to frown, and the second bite nearly had me in tears. It was so disappointing. I sat at the table, afraid somebody would force me to eat the whole piece of pie, but Granddaddy reached over, slid the plate to his spot and picked up his fork. He winked at me. Nothing else was said. I’m certain the pie was as good as anything you’d get at a fancy dessert place, but he’d cemented my love of the sweet potato.

His recipe for sweet potato pie was simple. Get about 7, 8 fresh sweet potatoes from good Carolina blackjack dirt. Cook ’em down – either bake them or boil them. Granddaddy baked his; my great-grandmom boiled hers. I prefer baked. Peel them and mash them up in a bowl. Get out the mixer and blend with a stick of softened butter, some sugar, a little nutmeg, a few eggs (three, four, depends on the size of the potatoes) and cinnamon, a sprinkle of salt, and the condensed milk. Using a mixer gets the strings out. Add more milk for a custardy pie, less for a firmer pie. Add a tiny bit of baking powder for fluffiness. Or not.

Lay out the pie crust in a greased, floured pan, and prick it with a fork (roll it, prick it). Pour the sweet potato mixture into the crust, and bake at 400 until it looks right. Serve with coffee and eat in the warm, quiet kitchen, beside the old iron stove and away from the fancy crowd in the living room.

Granddaddy passed away in 2001. I don’t often attempt to bake his pies, even though my younger kid loves baking. She doesn’t know it yet, but tomorrow, we are going to visit cousins in McConnells, and I’m bringing home some sweet potatoes.

Can a sistah get some giblet gravy?

We had to run to the mall to get the poorly shod Younger Child some new tennis shoes. We pulled into Northlake and even my astigmatic and tri-focaled eyes could see the enormous blue Christmas tree glowing in the distance.

Blue’s not bad for a Christmas tree.

But it’s November.

“They forgot all about the Pilgrims,” my kid sadly noted.

Rodney Dangerfield and Dick Cheney get more respect than Thanksgiving. Halloween closes shop and as soon as the door shuts, The Eagles start whining for you to come home. (ASIDE – Don Henley could ask me anything he wanted.)

But stop rushing me into Christmas. Just. Stop.

We were in the CVS on November 1 – NOVEMBER – heading for a bag of  marked-down Three Musketeers minis, but then we looked around.

We saw red, blue, gold, multicolored tinsel, boxes of balls, gift-box tags, angel tree toppers, glittery wrapping paper for Hanukkah and Christmas, Santa snow globes, twinkling lights, ornament hooks and stockings: stockings with fur, stockings without fur, stockings with tinsel, stockings with initials, stockings with tinsel and fur and initials, for folks like me who lean toward the trashy side.

Shouldn’t they have had something that says “Thanksgiving?” Turkey napkins? Cornucopias? Pilgrim plates? Gobblegobblegobble decorations?

“You can’t switch from Feliz Navidad!”

The Wild Child yelled this at me in the car last week. Oh no? Watch me.

I don’t want to hear “White Christmas” in our typically blustery November. The thought makes me itch. And can somebody tell those boozed-up miscreants singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to put the rum down already? It ain’t that cold, and honey, if you’re falling for this lame line, you have issues besides the weather. Besides, he spiked your drink. You should leave now.

Yes, this is the South. There’s not even any snow at our ski resorts. We could be at the lifts in Speedos, slicked down with Hawaiian Tropic and drinking margaritas, which would be fine by me. It was 75 yesterday. This could happen. Maybe it would be different if we lived in, say, Saskatoon.

I love December. Love the generous, warm spirit that should be around for the previous 11 months and dissipates in January. Love the glitzy houses, and the tackier the better: Santa and baby Jesus and Rudolph on the roof, Frosty in the yard, the menorah on the porch, the Kwanzaa candles on the mailbox, Mary and Joseph and the animals chillin’ smack in the middle of the driveway. We adore the homes with the blinking, twinkling multicolored lights and no theme besides “tacky – you wanna fight about it?” I relish the way we can hear, almost feel, the Christmas quiet descend. Wrap up in a blanket on Christmas Eve, sit on your porch swing and listen to the citycalm down.

But I love all of this after Thanksgiving.

Can a sistah get some giblet gravy?

The Pilgrims made it with a bunch of folks who had every right to 1)knock ‘em upside the head for trespassing and 2)let them starve. Unlike many people who came to the New World, the Pilgrims made that trip for a greater good. The Pilgrims didn’t have turkey, but they had food, and they had shelter. These days, like then, having food and a safe home are cause for celebration. Recession, anybody?

The pioneering folks who sought their own religious freedoms so you can worship, not worship, whatever, deserve a lot more respect across the board.

Let us have November, please. Let’s not rush Christmas. Life goes too quickly, anyway. Slow down and celebrate the present.

Let a sistah get some turkey in her belly.

By the way: We spotted Santa at the mall. He looked hot, cranky and itchy. Must be heat rash.

Dear college student: A letter from Mama

Sweet Penn State students, listen up: This is Mama talking.

I hope you realize that this is going to be the biggest lesson you take from school. It is partly about getting the whole story – and we don’t have the whole story yet – and partly about being decent human beings. It is about protecting the ones who need it, and it is about doing what’s right – no matter how hard or unpopular “right” might be. It is about emotions and life, choices and expectations.

It has taken me days to write this because I’ve been going from web site to TV station to iPad app to newspaper, just so I could be sure your sisters, who are news junkies and will not stay away from current events, had their questions answered about what’s going on up there and what they should expect from adults who are supposed to protect them (including their parents). And the news keeps coming.

Let’s pause for a moment and say this: nobody has been proven guilty. These are charges, which means people are accused. Incorrect accusations ruin lives. So can silence.

Have you read the accusations in the newspapers? Use that ABC news app on your iPad and call up some stories. Find out that a seemingly caring, committed coach allegedly stalked, primed, seduced – SEDUCED – children. Find out that he allegedly used his non-profit to find kids. Find out that the reports say he took them for rides and caressed their thighs while in the car. If this is true, he will go to jail.

I was worried about you Wednesday night. You were so upset, and I wanted to know what EXACTLY prodded you to push over a TV news van (worth about $300,000).

Was it the fact that children were reportedly stalked, lured, and raped?

Was it the fact that a grandfatherly man had the power to do more, but for some reason didn’t, according to reports? Was it the general “somebody else will take care of it” attitude that seemed to be pervasive before the meltdown?

Was it the fact that institutional avoidance and high-dollar entertainment, along with a state law that doesn’t require direct reporting of child abuse, seemed to take disgusting precedence over common sense, integrity and humanity?

Was it the fact that everybody who did any kind of reporting, telling, accusing thought they had done what they were “supposed” to do?

I guess you didn’t stop to think until Friday night, when you and your friends showed up at a candlelight vigil for abuse victims, right? And then you all decided to wear blue to the game to show solidarity with abuse victims?

When did it hit you that it’s not about anything that takes place in the Saturday sunshine? And have you figured out that it will take more than wearing blue for one day to move this mountain? Yes, it’s a start, and I’m so proud of you, but you can’t stop here. I’m not saying you have to change majors from environmental science to social work or give up your dream of hiking in Peru. But you do have to consider how, when you are a young person outside of a college setting, you will handle dirty situations. You will face them. What will you do?

By the way, have you read any part of the official paperwork? Do so. Call me when you finish throwing up.

And, dear offspring of mine, you don’t have to be parents to be angry at abusers. No, you don’t need to have children to be furious. You need only to have been a child at some point in your life. And because you still are children, the pure evil of these alleged acts doesn’t anger or frighten all of you the way it does people my age. But know this: plenty of non-parents  are in line with a baseball bat and a blanket, waiting for revenge on abusers.

So, this is why the board made the decision to fire the Penn State president and JoePa. When you are the boss, and you might be one day, YOU take the fall for the bad.

By the way, the words “slap, slap” have been mentioned as sounds that people heard during the alleged incidents. If you are in a sexual situation against your will and the words “slap, slap” can be applied, you, my sweets, are not having fun. If you can apply that last sentence to any part of your life, you have been raped and you need to tell somebody. Imagine being 10, 12, 16 and this happening to you. Imagine. If you see it happening, you need to tell. No, don’t put it out of your minds. THINK about it.

Lemme tell you something: You don’t get to be my age without dropping the ball. I’ve failed in many areas. Disappointed in many. I will fail again and disappoint again. But I TRY not to fail. Now it appears that many people dropped a ball that should have been simple to carry. Somebody should have kept talking and telling until somebody listened. And I’m betting that for years, tucked in the back of his brain, each one of those somebodies was thinking “I should’ve done more.”

You wonder why I don’t like scary movies? Because life has real monsters, and my worst fear is that one of them will get one of you.

Remember that. And remember these lessons. They are the most important ones you will have.

A kiss on my forehead

Younger Kid was cool from minute one.  When she was born, she opened her eyes for two seconds, SCREAMED, then shut her eyes for the better part of a week. When she opened them, finally, she looked at us and smiled, and I lost my heart.

Younger Kid is snarky, funny and kind. She has a soft spot for babies and older people; if you can take care of yourself, you’re on your own and she will tell you as much. She likes sitting with her adopted grandma in church because they share candy and watch the clock together. She calls both grandmas, her aunties and her great-grandma every Saturday morning. Her idea of fun is an afternoon trip to the Michael’s and a stop at the cooking supply store.

She asks me about my day and really listens. She steals my shoes. She speaks Spanish, Mac and PC. She despises snobs and people who mistreat the less fortunate, the not-as-talented, the ones who need more. She can discuss, quite well, music theory.

At 12, she still wants me to tuck her in and give her a kiss. Sometimes, I’m already in bed when she makes this request. I’ve been fighting what could be the onset of depression, so I’m tired early and can’t always get up immediately. But I do, eventually, and kiss her if she’s already asleep. I mumble “Mommy loves you.” On weekends, she stays up much later, and I will feel her kiss my forehead and tuck me in.

But …

The year before last, she spiraled downward. Grades fell. Her sensory processing disorder seemed to increase, reducing her to a shivering,wailing lump of misery almost daily. She couldn’t understand anything, couldn’t get any information from inside her brain to outside on her test paper, her theses. She snarled at us about everything: chores, homework, medicine, friends. She became obsessed with eating. She sniped at her pals, lost patience with everything, couldn’t follow lists of directions, couldn’t focus. She faked taking her medicine, which made her seizures increase from once every three months to once every six weeks and no doubt made the sensory processing disorder worse simply because of the toll on her brain. She talked about death and suicide. We looked for a counselor.

And she cut herself. One day, she took a tack and carved her initials into her arm. When she told me about it and showed me her arm, I couldn’t do anything but gather her into a hug and pray. A friend says the kid punked me. I say, ploy or not, she did something that screamed out for help.

We found somebody for her to talk to. We switched her seizure meds and her diet, steering us all toward an organic menu. The hubby began disappearing with her more often, taking her to visit his mom, his friends, giving her jobs to do with him. She came home with camera cards full of gorgeous photos. Slowly, her good days began to outnumber the bad; not one was perfect, but she saw a pleasing difference and leaned into the joy of feeling better. She talked to us more and more about her feelings, her thoughts, her attitude. She turned from needing negative reinforcement from us to wanting positive reinforcement from herself. She remained snarky, but she’s working on that. It’s hereditary.

Younger Kid smiled and meant it, a change because for a while, she was simply making muscle movements. Joy didn’t reach her eyes. And she cooked: Chicken cacciatore, red velvet cupcakes, fruit salad, strawberry trifle, rich chocolate brownies, banana pudding, salads, salsas. She tasted a bit of each and gave the rest to neighbors, who began asking for more, which meant that she cooked more – a great thing because it helped her with her sensory issues. She coached and played soccer like her life depended on it. I think it did. We stopped tip-toeing around her and breathed easier.

A few weeks ago, while the hubs was at a weekend gig and the older kid at a sleepover, she decided she wanted to bake something. She went through her stash of ideas, found a simple cookie recipe, and we set out for Target.

When we got back home, we cleared the kitchen counter and I let her take the lead on the cookies while I turned on my my iTunes. As she worked under the kitchen light, we began to talk about how much the evening reminded me of the Saturday nights I spent with my great-grandmom. Mother and my great-grandmom argued constantly when I was a kid – nasty fights that led to slammed doors, threats, police calls and forced me to keep a suitcase packed, just in case I needed to run. On Saturday nights, when Mother went out to party, my great-grandmom would let me turn the radio to the heavy metal and she’d cringe at the Ozzy, but she’d lead me through recipes: egg custards, sweet potato pies, tea cakes, pound cakes. She would talk about growing up in rural S.C. in the early 1900s. She told me about cousins long dead, farm that stretched into two counties, ghosts that lurked.

And I have told those stories to the kids, over and again. This night, Younger Kid listened once more as she measured, mixed and kneaded, dropped flour on the floor, then remeasured without having a meltdown.

“I’m sorry they argued,” she said. “Is that why you don’t like yelling now?”

“Yep,” I replied.

She turned the cookie dough onto waxed paper.

“You know,” she said, “I like having our family together, but this is a good night, Mommy. I’ve got you all to myself.”

She leaned over to kiss my forehead, and 12 years after meeting this smiling wonder, I lost my heart once again.

Mama’s on the run

A few winters ago, the younger kid asked us for an odd gift. She wanted to participate in Girls on the Run, a self-esteem program for elementary girls. The kid’s school participates, and they had opened registration.

We hemmed and hawed. She had soccer. She had golf (sort of). She had her seizures under control only sporadically. She needed rest. GOTR came at a not-small (for us) pricetag. We had one car on the fritz and a mountain of bills.

We told her GOTR would be her big Christmas present. She thanked us.

Her confidence, flattened somewhat by the nagging epilepsy and a then-undiagnosed sensory learning disability, shot through the ceiling after that first season. She came home after each session bubbling with ideas and advice. No gossiping. Stand up for yourself and your friends. Respect your teachers. Respect yourself. Do your homework. She asked for it again in the spring, and we agreed.

I decided at the last minute to run the spring race with her, as her running buddy. This wasn’t her plan, however. We got to the race and she and her buddy ditched me.

Incensed, I started to simply get a bottle of water and settle in at the finish line to fume and sweat in the humidity and wait for her. I didn’t feel like running or walking, hadn’t truly trained for it, was irritated that she had left me. Who would know, besides me, if I didn’t do it?

Who would care? And who would I disappoint, if I didn’t do it?

The night before, I’d listened to Molly Barker, the power woman extraordinaire who founded GOTR. She’d talked about being afraid to share the GOTR ideals with anybody, but when she did, the movement grew exponentially. She’s still – STILL – amazed that she started this wonderful program.

I realized we all have moments that grab us by the throats, when we realize that our words and wants and passions have somehow made a difference in somebody’s life, when we realize that our power within is magnified only when we decide to share it with the world. It ripples likes rocks tossed into water. The women in that room all had been touched by the ripples on the water, and their confidence and passions touched me. They all encouraged me to think about starting a Girls on Track chapter at Mack’s school.

The GOTR ideas for life are the same as for a 5K. Do your personal best. It’s not a competition. Be honest. Show respect. Expect good. Keep your word. Run as fast and as far as you can. When you get tired, slow down, but don’t stop. Set your own pace. Keep going.

So I wiggled through the crowd and took a place in the mob. Started off at a steady walk, upped it to a slow jog. I started the 2-minute run, 1-minute rhythm walk method, which had worked for half-marathon training, after which I tried the 45-second, 3-minute rhythm, which made me feel less likely to pass out from poor lung capacity. I downed too much tepid water, got queasy, and walked for longer than I’d planned. But I kept going, running, walking, running, walking.

When we neared the finish line, I heard the thump of “Brick House.” The perpetual party song and on my top 10 for best songs ever. Damn, I felt good. I still cannot believe how fabulous it felt. One of the GOTR staffers hugged me and said she was proud.

So was I.