One of my mom’s primary contributions to our Thanksgiving meal for the extended family was sweet potato casserole. You know the kind: yams that when coated with a fine layer of brown sugar, cinnamon and marshmallows, become ‘candied’ and basically taste like candy. She had a gift for making this simple dish something from another culinary world. There were always Thanksgiving leftovers, but the heirloom dish she used to make her casserole was always scraped dry by ravenous spoons--and maybe a finger or two.
I awoke this morning to greet another family-filled holiday without her. I felt the familiar tinge in my heart to which I’ve grown accustomed when remembering her—and still grieving her absence. She’s been gone a few years, but it still hurts. It will always hurt.
Like her signature Thanksgiving dish, my mom was a simple person. She never required much from life aside from a good sewing machine, hot tea, art supplies, and Motown records. But she took simplicity and made a richness out of life that was irreplaceable.
It’s so simple. Life is sweet, isn’t it?
The good stuff, the bad stuff, and everything in between. You take what you’re given and make sweetness from those simple ingredients. Love the people around you. Love the people that piss you off. Love the people that don’t wish to be loved. Once they’re gone, there are no leftovers, just memories.
I'm going to attempt to make that casserole and it will taste nothing like my mom's, but that's okay, I'll still try.
My life sweet today and cherish the fleeting and be grateful for the simple things.
I came into my faith under the wings of a Baptist church in east central Indiana. Entering the sanctuary each Sunday as a child, I was consumed with intimidation as we passed family after family who seemed to have the extra things in life that our family lacked: money, nice house, clothes that fit, a present father.
The worship space was plain and elegant—the décor a hold-over from the 50’s and 60’s. The bright red carpet invaded the space resembling a giant child’s tongue after he’s consumed a cherry popsicle. There were three sections of oak pews, each stained seemingly to match the ashy skin tone of the elder members. The wooden seats were bolted to the floor for safety—and probably to ensure they remained in place should a raucous soul move too roughly in the spirit.
There was no assigned seating, however, most of the congregants sat in the same pew every Sunday. It was an unspoken rule that you don’t move from the previous week’s position—physically and for some, spiritually. We were no different, though on occasion my mom’s uninhibited spirit would have us move up a pew or back a pew from our home base, which was within the first five rows on the left side of the sanctuary.
Directly in front of our seating area sat the huge electronic organ, played nimbly and capably by a kind grandmother by the name of Harriett. Halfway through the service, after we had sung the opening songs, said a prayer and recited scripture, took up a collection, our pastor would make his way to the pulpit to provide a sermon. Harriett would click off the small reading light above her books and loose sheets of music. She would leisurely pivot on the large attached bench and slip on her flats and begin softly walking to an empty pew. I watched her the entire time, but once she was a few feet away I would look towards the pulpit only to happen a glance back at her to catch her eye. She would flash an easy, reassuring smile and a quick wink. Without fail she would sit down in front of us. A few seconds later as she appeared to be listening attentively to the sermon, her arm would reach behind toward us extending a handful of Velamints wrapped in tissue—one for each person in the pew.
I was young so I don’t recall much of the sermons on those Sundays, but I’ll always remember Christ’s unfailing love and recognition shown to me through Harriett’s simple gesture of choosing to sit near us and offer those small tokens of grace.
Harriett Hamilton passed away yesterday, January 25, 2016.
She led a long life of blessing others with an infectious smile, warm heart, and loving presence. She will be missed, though it makes my heart happy knowing she’s now sharing a mint and a smile with the loving God who instilled in her that same giving spirit.
My mom would always tape a 3x5 card to the fridge. On the card was a written list of our bills for the month. While walking through the kitchen or opening the fridge to steal a hunk of bologna, I often found myself pausing to look over the list. I was only in the 5th grade so I was just beginning to understand large numbers and how money worked—but I still had no clue as to the amount of work and time it took for my mom to pay for those 2 to 3 digit numbers on the card. She held down a full-time job, and spent many other hours either employed part-time or fulfilling various sewing or art related requests to support our family. My mom loved her kids; she grew tired of work, but never grew tired of us.
So when the time came for me to join the band at school—and buy an instrument (snare drum)—I knew it would be difficult for my mom to afford the extra cost. But she believed I had the ability to play drums and she wanted to provide the means for me to do so. Luckily, the music store selling the band instruments offered a monthly payment plan to spread out the cost. So on to the fridge it went: $15/month – Snare Drum. To some people this may have been a drop in the bucket, but this was money that could be used for groceries or gas for the car.
We would have band rehearsal on Wednesday afternoons, so that morning my mom would drop me off and I would carry my snare drum (in a big case that weighed almost as much as me) from one end of the school building to my classroom on the other side. It was heavy and my back ached. When the school day was over, I couldn’t transport my drum on the bus so I had to be picked up from school, which meant I would be waiting a good 30-45 minutes until my mom was available to pick me up. I would watch as numerous teachers left the building, occasionally one would speak to me asking if I had a ride and then I would have to explain the situation to them. I was extremely shy so I was often embarrassed and awkward as I talked to them. I grew to loathe Wednesdays.
My mom would eventually arrive in a beat up car and greet me with a Hey Kiddo and I would respond in kind, but underneath I was so angry and disappointed in her.
As we drove home I would steal a glance at my mom. She was tired. She spent many hours each day working because she loved her kids. She worked jobs she disliked to provide opportunities for us to live and grow. She knew music would become a passion for me, and her sacrificing some time and effort on her part was totally worth it.
For the rest of the school year, I happily carried that snare drum through the halls, and Wednesday afternoons still found me sitting outside the school, alone, on my drum case. Teachers would stop and ask if I had a ride and I would simply smile and proudly say, “My mom will be here soon.”
Upon entering puberty, adolescent boys and girls undergo several, life-altering changes. In the 4th grade, however, my body was similar to that of a toddler—but slightly taller—and I possessed slightly improved bathroom habits. I was always sporting sweatpants and a t-shirt with some type of baseball emblem (see the Barry Larkin blog entry) or cartoon character ironed on the front.
Recess at our elementary school included all students in 4th-6th grades, which resulted in a smorgasbord of children, as well as those who were beginning the child-to-adult transition. Four girls in particular—let’s call them the Amazon Quartet—found themselves a good 5 or 6 inches taller as they entered their 6th grade year. They towered over my weenie frame and seemed to enjoy how a light shove from their hairy, man-like arms could easily knock me off my feet. One girl had poufy bangs and eyes that seemed to want to jump out of her face; another looked like a red-headed cave man with press-on nails. The other two just had an overall unpleasant appearance—I imagined they were twins of one or more non-human parents.
One cloudy day as we headed out to recess, Bertha and her step-sisters (FYI: I just changed their group’s name) decided they really wanted to unload some insults and shove someone—me. They made the usual jokes about my sweatpants, small stature, and off-brand K-mart shoes. I stood there and attempted to shrug it off and laugh, but my patience was fading and I was becoming angry. Then the shoving began along with the insults and I had had enough. I was sick of their tormenting and I reached my boiling point, so all of a sudden my best attempt at a counter attack left my lips:
“Shut up, you...buncha fat cows!” I yelled.
This was not a good idea because I then felt what seemed like Godzilla’s hand smack my back, and I found myself lying in a thick mud puddle. The women’s biker gang….err…I mean girls erupted in laughter. The bell rang ending recess and they turned and walked towards the school. I stood up and tried to wipe off the mud that was covering half of my body and hair. I looked down and Barry Larkin’s face was also covered with mud. I think he was ashamed of my inability to defend myself.
This is it; I’ve had it with these girls. I’m going to tell on them. Their teacher and principal will be so upset they’ll get suspended and I’ll win. I’ll have revenge.
I began walking back to the school building ready to turn in the bride of Sasquatch and her daughters. I looked and saw the four of them walking in front of five or six boys in their class. The boys were teasing the girls and pulling their hair and I think I heard a “How’s the weather up there?” joke. The girls looked mortified and displayed frowns of stone on their faces.
As much as I fought against it, I felt pity on them, and though I would spend the remainder of the afternoon in mud-caked clothes, I refrained from telling my teacher. It seemed they received their comeuppance and continued to receive it, as these same boys would go on to ridicule them for the rest of the school year—and well into junior high and high school.
They couldn’t change who they were, but I could always wash off the mud, forgive and move on. I could be a better person than those girls—as well as the boys who were teasing them. Later that afternoon, while doing an activity in class, I made a girl who was often the victim of bullying and teasing, smile and laugh—which made me feel about 10 feet tall.
That was a pretty good start.
Ah, the third grade—where a boy finds himself at the first important crossroads of his life: do I spend my adolescence and remaining elementary years as the obedient quiet child so favored by stressed out teachers, or, as the class clown constantly seeking new methods to raise the collective blood pressure of teachers all over the world.
Well I can say, for the most part, I was the former. I was shy, terrible at sports, and cute according to my mom, but not to the girls in my class. I also insisted on wearing sweatpants everyday to school, that is until I realized a daily sweatpants wedgie in the seventh grade was about the lowest social level on which to land, so that stopped immediately—but I digress—that’s another post.
Now allow me to provide a perfect example of the latter.
A fellow third grade student of mine, let’s call him, ‘Petey’, was a large kid with thick framed glasses—the kind a shop teacher might wear because his nice pair always break. Petey took on what seemed to be a daily challenge: to somehow disrupt the class, resulting in banishment to the hall or the principal’s office. Our teacher, Mrs. Morgan, was an older lady who didn’t smile much, especially when Petey entered the room. There were days I thought I heard her swear under her breath.
We all thought Petey was pretty funny, most of the time. Those of us who might begin to display any doubt toward the hilariousness of Petey’s antics, quickly found the capacity to laugh when he would threaten us with bodily harm— during bathroom break for example .Please God, don’t let him open the stall door, my sweats aren’t even pulled up!
When traveling the hallways to and from various activities, it was customary practice for elementary teachers to have students walk in a straight line and remain quiet until returning to the classroom. Mrs. Morgan was very strict with this rule one day as we left the art room and proceeded back to our classroom.
Well, Petey wasn’t having it. He saw no reason to quietly traverse the hallway with his peers in peace. He couldn’t pass up a golden opportunity for introducing some chaos into the order. So he chose to begin beat boxing (this was the late 80’s after all).
Boom-boom-Pssh….Boom-boom-Pssh…Boom-boom-Pssh…snort! (he laughed between musical measures).
As we all filed one-by-one into the classroom, Mrs. Morgan’s voice could be heard cutting through the air, “Petey, I would like you to walk to the front of the classroom and demonstrate your sound effects for the class.” She was holding a 2 foot long wood paddle, slowing lifting it then smacking it down on her other hand. “If you don’t do it well enough, I’ll have to use this paddle to assist you.”
Petey’s face turned as white as a ghost—a chubby ghost wearing Reebok Pumps with the laces untied.
He walked to the front of the room and began a soft, shaky rhythm while staring down at the ground: boom…boom..pssh…
“Louder!” Mrs. Morgan bellowed. Petey began to cry—snot and everything.
Boom-boom-pssh (sniff sniff)…Boom!-Boom!-Pssh! (sniff sniff)
The rest of us just stared in amazement at the scene unfolding in front of us. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry ourselves. I found it hilarious watching him attempt to beat box while sobbing uncontrollably.
A part of me felt sorry for my attention seeking classmate. His inability to heed the rules and guidelines of elementary school placed him in these types of situations on a daily basis, and I should probably mention that I was beat boxing as well, but I somehow avoided the same fate as Petey.
“Have a seat,” the teacher said sharply to Petey, “and from now on, stay quiet in the halls!”
Petey slowly walked back to his seat, resembling Eeyore wearing a torn Bugle Boy hooded sweatshirt. He looked up and caught my stare and his eyes seemed to catch fire and I knew my next bathroom experience would be a terrible one.
Thus the end of my third grade beat boxing days.
The buzzing bees enter the room with trendy wings,
hormones are the honey.
Teenagers, victims of the stereotype:
Boys: what do I do with this thing?
Girls: what does he do with that thing?
They stand in small groups of unpleasant warmth
penguins rotating for inner safety.
Children, seeking the who, what, when, where.
Taking a chance,
or holding up the wall.
Boys: take a leap!
Girls: not so fast.
My brother and I shared a room in the first house known to me as ‘home’. It was a medium sized room with pale white paint covering the walls. Our bunk beds sat in the middle of the room; my brother manned the top bed and usually slept with a tattered sleeping bag while my bed was the bottom bunk covered with Sesame Street sheets and probably, boogers. (Hey, a kid’s gotta fall asleep somehow.) Unbeknownst to my brother, sharing a space like this gave his little six year old sibling great comfort knowing his big ninja brother was in the top bunk and would protect him should any dark and dangerous force come through the bedroom door.
There were two drafty windows on either side of the west wall, facing the city side street in front of our house. I would often sit at one of them and either look into the friendly maple tree that towered over our house, or watch the cars and people that made their way down our street. I would occasionally yell out the window to a lawn mowing neighbor or old lady walking to the grocery, and then immediately duck down behind the windowsill as they looked up, searching for the source of the idiotic sound. My adrenaline rushed as I sat there thinking about the confused look on their faces and how my clever prank had completely changed the outcome of their current activity. I was testing unknown waters. A part of me knew I was being a brat—that it was wrong—but another part of me needed to push the boundaries to see what might be beyond my safe little realm.
One day while sitting at my window perch waiting for my next victim, I noticed a group of teenagers walking up the street. Okay, here we go! They won’t know what hit ‘em! I began with a few bird sounds, which didn’t seem to have much effect, so I moved to a few basic Hey you!yells.
They stopped. I ducked down, suppressing a mischievous giggle, heart beating out of my chest.
After a minute or two thinking they had surely continued down the street, I peaked up over the windowsill and noticed them still standing there…STARING RIGHT BACK AT ME.
Their eyes lowered and I watched as they proceeded up the steps to our front porch out of my sight. I heard a knock on our door.
I gasped and my stomach sank. I thought I even saw Bert and Ernie hide behind Big Bird on my Sesame Street sheets.
I heard the door creak open, followed by an exchange of angry muffled voices. The door closed and moments later my mom called me downstairs. I guess I shouldn’t say called, it was more of a demand. I stood and walked out of the bedroom and met my mom’s eyes as she stood at the bottom of the steps. Her face held a look that confused me. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or hurt; disappointed or sad.
“Have you been yelling out your bedroom window at people?” she asked.
Shoot. Where was this going? Who were those guys? Why did they talk to my mom? I’m only six… please don’t come back and murder me and my family!
“Uh…yeah,” I meekly replied.
“Those boys out there said you called them…”
Her voice fell into a soft beleaguered tone as she sighed and finished the sentence,
I immediately recognized that something strange was happening. I had yet to hear that word in my short life, but as my mom uttered it, a sense of confusion and fear fell over me. A new fear, one that made me realize that maybe life was not as simple as I expected it to be. The word was new and foreign, and it made me feel uneasy.
“Wh..what? I don’t know what that word is, mommy.” I stammered as tears began to fill my wide eyes.
“Those boys said you were yelling at them from the window and calling them that name. I know you may not understand, but that’s a terrible and hurtful name to call a black person.”
I could tell my mom hated having to reprimand me for something she knew I didn’t do, furthermore to have to teach her six year old son such a difficult lesson about life, so soon. But she was no stranger to hard lessons, and she knew it was necessary in order to help me successfully navigate this situation.
I nodded and she told me to return to my room and close the window, perhaps sheltering me from certain inconvenient truths my mind had yet to fully comprehend. Maybe all a six year old needs to grasp is that his family loves him, and that the outside world can—at times—be a confusing and complex space. For the time being, security could be found in my bunk beneath my ever vigilant brother.
Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed and gathering my stuffed animals, my mom hugged me a little longer than usual.
I never yelled from that window again.
When I was a boy, I lived and breathed baseball. I watched it, collected and traded cards and chewed the rock hard gum included in the card packages and cherished it because it was ‘baseball gum’, played pick up games in friends’ backyards, and participated in pee wee league all through my elementary years.
And here my friends, is where our story is set, so grab some grape flavored Big League Chew and find a splintered bleacher seat.
I was ten years old that warm July evening and it was late in the game as I took my position in left field. I wasn’t the best ball player in town and it was obvious that my place on the team was merely a result of a random grouping of area boys into teams. As our team was handed the third out of the fourth inning, my coach, out of guilt and what little heart he possessed, would say under his breath, “Alright Crawford…grab your mitt.”—Which could be translated as,We’re losing anyway, what harm can you do in the last two innings? (In little league, the games are only six innings.)
I stood up and put my enormous hat on my head, grabbed my glove from under the seat, and proceeded to the green grass and huge advertising signs of left field. I felt a knot in my stomach which I attributed to nerves because if a ball was hit my way there was little to no chance of me catching it.
My red and blue uniform was perfectly stiff and clean, save for the light dusting of tan dirt on the my front of my pants from my fellow two-inning players taking turns tossing baseball gloves and Gatorade bottles at one another’s crotches. We were ten year olds after all; a coach can’t expect his players to behave like adults when required to wear a jockstrap and awkwardly sized cup in their itchy polyester uniform pants. We spent our downtime in the dugout testing the strange new equipment’s effectiveness. It just made sense.
First batter: infield fly. “Alright guys!” I yelled, “One down!” I knew they probably didn’t hear me but my hope was they saw my puny finger signaling a one and thus would gain confidence in my abilities as a team player and fielder.
So here’s when my stomach began to gurgle.
Not a hungry kind of gurgle, but a you need to get to a bathroom FAST kind of gurgle. I didn’t know if it was the half pound of bologna I had eaten for lunch or the ‘suicide’ (all of the concession stand’s soda flavors combined in one cup) I had consumed in the third inning, but whatever it was needed to leave my body as soon as possible.
Not one to shirk my responsibilities as a trustworthy left fielder, I crouched down to my ready position as our pitcher doled out fast balls to the kid at the plate, who in turn was hitting one foul ball after another.
The sweat began to drip down my forehead—for the first time in the entire game—and season.
This can’t be happening I thought to myself, just hold on until we get three outs.
In this type of situation, control of bodily functions is somewhat manageable, as long there is minimal movement, especially of the fast running variety. But in the midst of my prayer, “Dear God let my clenching hold,” a foul ball was hit my way. I broke loose from my stance—in more ways than one—and held out my trembling glove in the general area where the ball was falling.
It fell right in.
I opened my eyes, took the ball out of my glove and threw it to the third baseman. I was beaming proudly as I shouted, “Two down!” As I walked back to my spot however, I realized that by running for the foul ball, I had relinquished all control of other important muscles, thus releasing the disaster I was holding back.
I *** my pants.
In the middle of a baseball game.
The third out came quickly and I headed back to the dugout with my fellow teammates to each await our turn to bat. I slowly sat down, so as not to further disturb the monster that was quickly saturating my uniform pants.
I thought to myself, The game’s almost done, if I can just make it through without anyone noticing, it will be okay and I’ll still get to bat.
That thought was interrupted by a teammate (a six inning player) sniffing the air and saying, “Man! It smells like cat **** in here!”
I got up, motioned for my brother and grandpa, and asked if they could take me home. I told the coach I wasn’t feeling well and needed to leave. He looked down at me with disappointment or relief, I’m not sure which, and muttered, “Okay, see ya.”
I walked out of the dugout and past the bleachers holding my glove behind me without making eye contact with anyone, vowing to return for my next 5th inning.