My neighbor Frances is 89 years young. I would estimate she is just as much, if not more of a southern spitfire as she was back in 1924 on the day she was born in farmhouse down east (as we say here in NC) in Elm City. Frances has seen me through many a life trial always without fail, inviting me into her grandma like home when I ring her buzzer. As she opens the door and says, “Please come in!” I step into to a place where my stress melts into the paneled walls and dissolves into the slip covered chairs. On a cellular level, my angst evaporates into the warmth of her home. For almost 17 years now, the simple act of my crossing my street and climbing the hill to her home has done more for me than any amount of wine or ice cream ever could. When I leave, I am better. As I turn to wave goodbye as I cross the street and she hollers “Love you” out her screen door, I realize, I am a lucky girl.
In the early years of single parenthood, Frances saved me many times over from the peril of Children’s Protective Services knocking on my door, and still does so even now as snarky teenagers rule the roost. Too many times to count, with two tiny crying kids in tow I rang her buzzer and said, “Can you please take them so I can just take a ten minute walk?” And no matter what she was doing she said, “Of course!” She would gather them inside and yell to me as I walked off, “Take an hour!” Later, I would return to find two happy kids feeling and looking every bit like the King and Queen of Siam, TV trays in front of them with a glass of milk (with a paper towel wrapped around it) and pack of Nabs on the tray, and just like that, all of us were refreshed and ready to go another day.
Frances has taught me a million life lessons, (though probably not enough yet about how to keep my mouth shut like good southern women do.) Through watching her, I have come to know the true meaning and measure of warm hospitality, love and comfort. She has taught me that a simple note written in perfect penmanship on loose-leaf paper, taped to your door with masking tape that reads, “You are a good person” can do more for a person than any amount of therapy. That spring jonquils in a styrofoam cup (reused from the Char-Grill) smell sweeter than bouquets from a florist. She has taught me that a greeting card loses nothing the second time around its used. It diminishes not in the least when it is cut in half, in fact it actually doubles in value when you get just the front of the card with a sweetly scrawled note saying “Love you good” on the back. She has taught me that coming home from a hard day to find butter beans in a 52-year-old Revere Ware pot left on your stove heals more than Ben and Jerry could ever hope to do. And a bag of fresh strawberries tied to your doorknob in a Piggly Wiggly bag is what love smells like.
While I may mentally scoff at some of her “old timey” ways, such as with her belief that you can’t drive alone to Ohio as a single woman, or that people of other cultures are still in 2013, “foreigners,” (pronounced fur-enners) many of her ways hold fast and true in modern times. Likely, those beliefs are as much, if not more salve to the soul as they were almost 90 years ago. Comfortable ways of being that take the edges off life…church, being a good neighbor, the value of school and doing your lessons, and always welcoming a visitor into your home no matter what you were doing at the time. The importance of saying thank you, calling on sick friends to check on them and not using bad language or talking poorly about another person.
With Frances I am reminded that the things we see as little or common things really are big things if you look at them the right way. In a world where we can go to one of a million stores and buy all that we need, she remembers when there was one department store in town and how special it was to get something from there. And she is able to make me see the specialness of anything, whether it be a sewing kit, a jar filler or a Hickory Farms summer sausage. There was this kid Jason who came from a not so great home, and Frances and I both mentored him over the years when he came to do our yards. We encouraged him to graduate high school and then helped him apply to college. When Jason was finally starting college, Frances bought him (from the old southern department store Belks) a new pair of jeans and a new crisp shirt to wear on his first day of classes. As she handed him the package wrapped neatly by the store’s gift wrap department, she told him that people just feel better about themselves when they have a new outfit to start the school year.
One of the beauties of her friendship is the transfer not just of these life lessons, but the schooling in southernisms. Southernisms really are a language all their own; a genteel honeyed way of describing this oh so complicated world in an uncomplicated way of old. Terms like, “over yonder” and “way out yonder.” (For those of you who don’t know, the former is where my house is, and the latter is where friends two blocks over live.) I have learned how you totem pole the importance of “your people” in a polite roundabout way, referring to somewhat more extraneous members of extended family as, “and them” as in, “ I am going down yonder to visit Douglas and them.” Frances can, with her comfortable speak, reduce an “all tore up” situation to simple old timey golden rule, advising “bend but don’t break.” And she makes me feel especially loved every time I hear her refer to my tribe as, “Lauren and them.”
Sometimes, something politically incorrect pops out of her mouth and while I cringe a little, I know no malice is meant, just old-time, well insulated southern mindset at work. And sometimes, she’ll say something I never heard before, some magical southernism that just hits a nerve; simplifying in a single swoop how complicated me and my internet and grad school wanderings want to make my life.
Last week, as I sat boo-hooing in front of my TV tray in her living room with a Co-Cola wrapped in a paper towel, I told her about all that was bothering me in my life, how I was tortured by loss and things gone suddenly bad and she told me I needed to give up the ghost.
“What?” I said.
“Give up the ghost,” she said, “Leave him alone, just leave him standing over yonder, Lauren…give him up.”
I have spent a lot of time this last year dealing with really not so great change, and grieving a life that was. While there were some things I could see coming, like my son leaving for college, some things I did not. Some of these things, I would have bet all that I owned that they would have never come to pass, yet seemingly out of no where, they did.
A lot ghosts have materialized this year.
See, I’m a girl who tends to spend a lot of time wishing that things were as they were, or even just wanting them to stay the same as they are now. A reminiscer, I spend a lot of time with my intangible tchotchke ghosts, trying to evoke memories and the good feelings that came with them. Buddhists say if we can just accept that change is inevitable, life would be easier. I suppose so, but while I might can accept that change is inevitable, I don’t have to accept that it is any less painful or that I miss things any less, especially when that change involves the sudden loss of something good and sweet. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes, thinking I know better, I poo-poo change as a cosmic mistake and in my stubbornness, think I can will things back to how they were.
In my old age, I have also come to realize that the way my brain works is that when I see a change coming, even from way out yonder, I do tend to pre-grieve it. The end result is that a ghost never materializes. Pre-grieving, (while annoying the hell out of my friends and therapist) seems to be little ghost prevention on my part. But, when I am blindsided by something…when faced with a sudden unexpected change like cancer or the loss of a relationship, the ghost becomes a constant traveling companion. I become handcuffed to the ghost and to the notion that I can breathe life into it or recreate it, never even considering that the ghost wasn’t as good as I remember.
My memory skews, remembering only the good times rather than parts of it which haunt me. Experts tell us that when we grieve, be it people, relationships, or times in our lives, we tend to be a tad unrealistic about the memory; we tend to romanticize and put the person or experience on a pedestal. It follows that we get kinda sweet on the ghost, in a codependent kind of way. The ghost becomes an amiable companion, like one of those less than sinister vapory fellows that appears in your Doom Buggy at the end of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney. These are the kinds of ghosts who evoke again and again a narcotic hit of the endorphins and oxytocin of days gone by; hard-wired to good, happy feelings. So warm and fuzzy, that we overlook that we are riding in a Doom Buggy.
As I kvetched yet again to a friend about the loss of a relationship, she, as all great girlfriends will do, offered wine to go with my whine. She then encouraged me to list the ten worst things about the guy. I started out slow and then gained momentum; one after another, BAM BAM BAM until I was up to like #29 and she and I were reduced to fits of giggles. “Kick his ass to the curb, Lauren,” she said.
I have found myself repeating these lists like a mantra as I am awakened by all my ghosts in the night, counting on my fingers and toes those bad things about each one, chasing away the vapory notion that it was all good.
See, when we look back on a relationship, a marriage, a time when our kids were little or our life before cancer, we see only the good and find ourselves longing for those days. We have romantic little candlelit dinners with our ghosts and sweet forays with them in the night. We remain loyal to their vision, and may even try to recreate them, hoping to conjure them into reality. We forget that the ghost chewed with its mouth open, or had tantrums, or took endlessly from us without giving back, or vaporized when you most needed a friend. We forget that we had bills and fights, because the ghost is perfect. The ghost is comfortable and familiar alright but, as a very real therapist once warned me, even shit is warm and familiar.
Ghosts encourage us to try to re-mine the gold and harvest a replay of the feelings where we once found a vein. But the vein is exhausted. And ghosts are exhausting; they keep us handcuffed from the future. And here is the thing; when we are looking back at what was, we can’t look forward. Sometimes, you must mine deeper.
And that is where I am now.
I had great plans for 2013; I cheekily called it The Year of Lauren back in January. It was to be the year I was gonna get me back, get life on the right track again and get things done! I envisioned greater levels of fitness and balance and restoring joy with all things in my life. But last week, now just shy of the turn in the year it occurred to me that I’m not off to such a good start, in fact not a start at all. None of the things I so hopefully imagined ahead as I sat on my couch watching the Rose Parade have come to fruition. In fact, it seems even more was stripped from me than restored.
I have had recurrent dreams lately about trying to go to places I want to see, yet when I get up to go, my pants are covered with cockleburs. In the dream, I can’t move forward until I pull them off one by one. Woe, I tell you, WOE. In one of the dreams, I wanted to enter Muir Woods to see the redwoods, and the park ranger told me the burrs would contaminate the forest if I brought them in.
It occurred to me that maybe the Year of Lauren (in God’s plan at least) had more to do with what I needed to get rid of than what I needed to gain and make happen. What I needed to shed, before I can grow. What needs not to contaminate my strong future. And that perhaps maybe, just maybe, I needed to listen to God and quit being so darn stubborn and bossy and a whineybutt about how I thought it was gonna be.
We must leave our old cockleburry laden pants behind, and put on a new crisp shirt and new pair of jeans to start our new life. We must walk unencumbered, forward to find new veins to mine, way out yonder into the dark. And leave the ghost and them, behind.
“Give up the ghost,” Frances says.
“Kick his ass to the curb,” a girlfriend cheers.
“Uncuff him,” I command, “And eat more butter beans.”
”Sometimes God’s blessings are not in what He gives, but in what He takes away. Stop trying to pick up what God told you to put down.”
~random feelgood facebook post~