Monday, June 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Ben!

I guess it's official: all of our children are considered legal adults. In about an hour and fourteen minutes, Ben, our youngest, will turn twenty-one. That's one of those milestones that can strike fear into the heart of parents, but somehow I am not terribly worried. Ben, our tie-breaker, has been easy to raise. He can get excited about things for good or bad (about everything from an assignment he feels unreasonable to Tarheel victory.)

He will be rolling into town sometime later this week, trying to figure out what he wants from us for his birthday. The decision to have a third child (or any child for that matter) is rarely made on pure logic. Once you have three children, the parents are outnumbered. Ben had the fortune, sometimes good, sometimes bad, to benefit from our experience with Laura and John. Sleep and potty training went a little better. He walked a little later because his feet never hit the floor. Big sister and brother wagged him everywhere. He is the only one of our children whose birth is recorded on videotape, something that will have blackmail value into eternity.

Right now, I'm waiting until I know he's had time to wake up. I don't know why. He woke ME up twenty-one years ago. Fortunately, on a hunch, we'd had his aunt Emo spend the night so she could stay with Laura and John. Have fun celebrating, Ben, and be safe. As usual, I'll remind you: Dont' forget who you are or whose you are!
Love, Mom


Friday, June 20, 2008

Book Juggling

I have always been a one-book-at-a time reader, but I find that is changing. Perhaps I have been overcome with the realization that I cannot possibly read everything I want to read, so I need a new strategy. Probably I have just adapted my reading to my different settings.

If you asked what I was reading right now, I'd mention my bedside table book, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish, the book on which the movie was based. The structure of the book is one I enjoy when done right: the author uses different narrators or formats to reveal the story so that readers gradually get a sense of what is real. Since the books is about illusion, the structure works.

Meanwhile in the car, I'm listening to Digging to America, Anne Tyler's story of two families, one American and one Iranian, who build a friendship after meeting each other at the airport when picking up their adopted Korean daughters in the late 1990s. I was especially interested in the story since I'd travelled with Debbie and her family to China in 1997 when they adopted Allie. In the story, one of the families eventually goes to China to adopt a second daughter. So much of their account reminds me of our experiences--from the luggage to helping the baby adapt to being held close.

I also have a book going on my Sony Ebook that I take to the gym to read while riding the bike or walking the treadmill. Right now I'm reading David Sedaris' collection When You Are Engulfed in Flames. It's outrageous, as most of his writing is, but it makes me laugh at loud quite often. I love to see how he pulls together the threads of his stories. Ideally, I'd do all my reading on the ebook, since it's light and convenient, but I can't ignore the books on my shelf, and not everything I want to read is available yet. I do keep a backlog of reading though. I went through the list of 100 classics Sony offers free with the device and downloaded Count of Monte Cristo (which I haven't read since ninth grade) and Brothers Karamazov (which I intend finally to read.)

Last week I finished another good read, The Outlander by Gil Adamson. This is her first novel, one of the Lemuria First Editions that appear monthly at my doorstep. The book has something of a Cold Mountain feel--the setting is important, the protagonist is on a journey and encounters a variety of characters--good and bad--along the way. The main character is usually simply called "the widow," even though her name is revealed and occasionally mentioned. She is a self-made widow, a nineteen-year-old who has killed her husband and escapes through mountains pursued by his twin brothers. There's a little romance along the way, and some mining tales in the camp where she settles. The author seems proud of a couple of words in her vocabulary, using vertiginous often enough to catch my attention, but overall, she tells a good story and uses description well.

Now is the time I need to turn some of my reading attention to texts for fall semester. I've read Glass Castles, but I was reading for pleasure. I look forward to rereading with an eye toward using the novel in the classroom. I think the author is going to be ASU's convocation speaker this fall too. I also want to read up on Holocaust literature, since I've agreed to work with Holly Korta and Matt Williams and their ensemble of presenters for the Holocaust class.

I am also reading Boomer Burden, by "the estate lady" Julie Hall. I think it's a must-read for people our age who face our own parents aging and our own. She seems to present to all parties (the elderly and their aging children) with some good suggestions for sitting down and having those conversations we tend to postpone. Some of the true horror stories of what happened to the belongings of elderly as they were leaving their homes made my skin crawl. (Imagine the neighbors coming in and paying Grandma twenty dollars for her silver.)

Right now, I need a beach trip during which I can shuck off guilt if I choose to read for hours at a stretch. That's what I love about summer.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Post-Father's Day Ramblings

Since I'm on Eastern Standard Time and my parents are on Central, I waited to call and wish Daddy a Happy Father's Day until after lunch. I usually like to be the first to call, but there's a delicate balance to strike between beating my sisters and waking him before his alarm.

When I caught up with him, he and Mama were on their way to Columbia, Tennessee, to look at houses. Since Mama's auction purchase of a house with a pool and acreage in St. Florian, they've been making plans to remodel and update. I think we daughters hate to see them move away from their home on Shoal Creek, but we know their track record for moving and are resigned.

"I mentioned you in my sermon," Daddy said. Oh really? He said, "I told them that you're mailing back my preaching Bible I left in Hickory. I said that's probably what you're calling my Father's Day present."

I heard Mama pipe up in the background, "You know she already gave you your Father's Day present a long time ago."

He just laughed. "I know, but I get to tailor a story to suit my purposes." Growing up we had called those "preacher stories," not lies exactly, but adapted to fit. (I'm still not sure if the story about the uncle who chomped celery was true or just aimed at me.)

I had given him his Father's Day gift back when they visited us here. I couldn't wait. A couple of years ago I'd visited Linda Jobe, a friend in the North Carolina English Teachers Association who lives in the eastern part of the state. She had a big framed soil map of her county from early in the twentieth century. The colors, reflecting the different soil types, made for a pretty map, suitable for framing, but what was most interesting were the little details--dots for existing houses. Stores, schools, and churches pinpointed. Linda said that often when they had company, the men would take the map down off the wall, lay it on the pool table, and look closely with a magnifying glass.

Since then I've been on an internet search for a similar map of Lauderdale County, Alabama. I finally found one for my dad through the University of Alabama dated in the thirties. Since he's preached all over the county and has bought and sold real estate too, I knew he'd enjoy a closer look at all the little landmarks.

I've heard Daddy say "I talked about you in my sermon today" before--many times. Once he gave a brief description of each of his five daughters. I wasn't there, but I heard that he said, "Nancy's the one who calls me up just to read me a poem." Yep. I'm that girl, but I came by it honest.

An honest Father's Day tribute to Ellis Coats would defy Hallmark's trite sentiment. He'd be the first to admit he hasn't been perfect, but from him we've learned that one doesn't have to be perfect to be good. He and Mama recently celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary: On May 1, 1988, they remarried after an eight-year separation, and while they're a little uncomfortable with our marking the date (we also pulled out the stops for the fiftieth anniversary of the original wedding a few years ago), they know that we still believe in fairy tale endings (and the power of love and forgiveness) because of their example.

Our relationship to our father is marked by so much more that that anomaly. Despite all the ribbing he got over the years for having five daughters, no sons, Daddy really was the ideal father to daughters. He didn't try to make us into some kind of girls' basketball team. In fact, he never even succeeded in turning the yard mowing over to us either. The closest he came was drafting current boyfriends to do the job. He did, however, make us believe we could accomplish anything.

When I decided to start college more than two hours from home at sixteen years old, just out of the eleventh grade, the idea had been planted as far back as fourth grade when Daddy had mentioned to me that he'd heard Lipscomb had an early admissions program that allowed students to attend the summer after the junior year. He never pushed. He never even directly suggested I do that. He just planted the seed.

He also let me tag along on summer evenings when he traveled throughout Tennessee and Alabama holding gospel meetings at lots of little country churches. I ate in lots of church members' homes and at dinners on the grounds (fried chicken, okra, potato salad--real health food). There are some of his sermons I could have preached myself ("The Road to Revival" and the sermon on the Prodigal Son I remember most clearly.) Looking back, I realize that the car trips together, just the two of us, gave us that time to talk. I realize how much of my lvoe for storytelling I get from Daddy.

Even now, he'll call me sometimes just to tell a story that he has remembered. Not long ago, he called to tell me about an ill-fated trip to the store with his father and grandfather and a chicken to be used for barter. His own father, Pawpaw, had his own repertoire of stories, some my daddy heard over and over, while others came as a surprise. Among my prized keepsakes are two cassette tapes of an interview I conducted with my dad's parents for a folklore class. I took Daddy along as catalyst. He's prompt, "Dad, tell her about. . . " and they'd be off. What came out of that interview were stories that might have died with my grandparents but for just asking the right question at the right time--his own grandparents' Civil War experiences for example.

Both my parents are readers, so we've always shared our love of books. On more occasions that I can count, I've chosen books for his gifts. (When his Bible arrives in the mail this week, it will be accompanied by a collection of poems about fathers.) He's one person I can usually count on who will actually read the book I give. In fact, frequently, he'll sit on the couch and start reading right then. "Listen to this," he'll say. Then, just like his eldest daughter, he'll start reading out loud to us.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Reunions--Class and Family

It doesn't get any better than this: I had the whole family--my children and grandchildren--together in the house at the same time. Laura was here for her tenth class reunion (South Caldwell High School Class of 1998).
Ben came from Chapel Hill, where he's stayed to work this summer, and John was here too. After a too-long spell without seeing them right after Stuart was born, I've been fortunate this summer. I visited right after school was out, then we joined them in Atlanta. Avery spent a week here, then John and I returned her to her parents. Then we had them here with us. The visit was a quick one, but we had fun. Laura and the kids went to her class picnic while Chad and Dick played golf. We kept the kids while they attended the evening reunion. We managed to get two kids in bed asleep before they returned. Just like riding a bike. . . .

Laura's class was the first group of seniors I taught at SCHS. That spring I had my graduates to write letters to themselves for ten years later. I wish I'd had the fall semester seniors to write too. I had also saved some of their "graduation papers," the first goal-setting paper of the year, in which they were to describe some of their hopes, dreams, and fears for graduation and beyond. Laura handed them out, and she said there were a few tears--happy ones, fortunately. Now I have at least ten more years of letters in boxes in my garage. I will have to keep up with reunion plans via the website that has been passed along from class to class. My last year at South, a few of the seniors put five-dollar bills in their letters--in case they are broke in ten years. That puts an added burden on me to follow through!

I picked up a couple of gift books for graduates that I plan to read first before passing on: What Next? by Ann Patchett and Letter to Their Younger Selves by a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings. I still find Anna Quindlen's Short Guide to a Happy Life a good choice too.

Stay tuned for reports on my Chicago trip (and reading matters) and the Father's Day report.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Book Report

It's June already, so it's time for my book report. So far, even with a few distractions, I've managed time to read--or to listen. I've made a few road trips so far, so I've read when not driving and listed when I was. We didn't pare down our book club choices to just one this month. I'd already finished (listening to) Erik Larsen's Thunderstruck, so I still had three more.

Garden Spells by Asheville author Sarah Addison Allen was an easy read set in western North Carolina with interesting characters and a bit of magical realism. The main characters are two sisters, one who has settled into their family home--garden and all; the other returns with her young daughter, escaping from an abusive relationship, after disappearing for several years. The elements of fantasy are not exactly subtle, but they don't get in the way of the themes of the story. Most of the characters are facing some kind of distortions of memory, often resulting from incomplete information. My favorite line: "Memories, even hard memories, grew soft like peaches as they got older."

After having Jodi Picoult's books recommended several time (and having my copy leave my classroom shelf, never to return), I read My Sister's Keeper. Even though the book is fiction, the details seemed so real that I often forgot I was reading a novel. Told from the perspectives of all the main characters, this story examines a family who conceives a genetic match for their daughter with leukemia. Early in the book, the younger sister engages an attorney to allow her to make her own medical decisions in order not to be forced to donate a kidney to her sister.

I finished my last book club read today, Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway. As I read, I realized that this is at least the fourth book I've read recently about Peace Corps experiences, three of them nonfiction. The author describes her relationship with a young woman serving as midwife in a village in Mali. I cannot imagine how anyone could read the book without trying to think of some concrete way to effect change. The book deals with hunger, drought (beyond brown lawns and partially filled swimming pools), disease, child and maternal death, AIDS, ritual genital mutilation, arranged marriages, and gender inequality, but as a reader, I did not feel distanced from their situation. The narrator is not simply an observer; the genuine two-sided friendship that develops between Kris and Monique sets the book apart from others like it.

Meanwhile, I finished reading World Without End, Ken Follett's sequel to Pillars of the Earth. The books are similar in many ways--strong female characters, a cross-section of society, despicable villains. This book, too, is full of details about building--first rebuilding a collapsed bridge, then replacing the cathedral's tower. The story is setting during the time of the Great Plague in Europe, during which time the emerging medical field is at odds with the accepted practices of the church. I bought a copy of the novel for Dick as soon as it was out because he still counts Pillars of the Earth in his top ten list of books. He was reading at his own pace, especially when travelling, so I downloaded a copy for myself on the Sony eReader. (It seemed longer when I realized that on my screen it was about 2600 pages.) He finished reading before me, giving him the opportunity to ask, "Where are you now?" Then he'd say, "Well, I hate to tell you, but the plague's not over yet." I still relished having a chance to discuss the book as I read.

I felt like an idiot recently when I went to the library to check out a book on tape for the road and realized that they had several shelves of books on CD, which I hadn't noticed yet. And imagine this: they are newer releases! I had already enjoyed Clyde Edgerton's Killer Diller, the sequel to Walking Across Egypt. Wesley, Mattie Rigsby's protogee, is the main character this time, and I found it laugh-out-loud funny.

It's been awhile since I've read anything by John Grisham, but I listened to Playing for Pizza, the story of a third-string pro quarterback who wakes in the hospital after throwing four interceptions in eleven minutes in a playoff game, resulting in death threats. His agents arranges for him to sign with a professional American football team in Italy. Listening made me hungry for Italian food (described in tantalizing detail) and travel.

I also checked out Silent to the Bone by E.L. Konigsburg, a young adult novel about a thirteen-year-old boy who loses his ability to speak, rendering him unable to speak as he makes a 911 call when his baby sister is found unresponsive. I had started listening before I left this weekend for Nashville, so I wasn't sure if John would want to listen. Although he sometimes pronounced the book "cheesy," when I offered to turn it off, he said, "No way, now it's sucked me in!"

Now I have to face that dilemma I love and hate: which book next?