Posted in Uncategorized

Neal’s Post from the Past: “The Viewing & The Circle of Life”

Here’s a post from a decade ago dealing with the death of my father-in-law and my young grandson Daniel’s struggle to understand.

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My father-in-law passed away earlier this week. Death, of course, is difficult for anyone to cope with, but perhaps especially so for young children. Because they are still so close to birth, little beings of the morning, and because their life experience has been with newness and fresh discovery, with joy and giggles, death must seem unfathomable, foreign, outside of understanding.

But like most kids, my four-year-old grandson Daniel likes to understand: “Abu, why can’t I sit on top of your car? I could see a whole lot better.” “Abu, my teacher won’t let me bring my sword to school and fight like the blue Power Ranger. Why not?” “Why can’t I say potty words?” “Why do we have to wear clothes when it’s hot?” “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”

When his parents arrived at the funeral home north of Atlanta the other evening, they told me that Daniel had, as usual, been plying them with questions about the current subject which went beyond his grasp–his great-grandfather’s death. “But if Papa is in heaven, why will everyone be sad?” “Where IS Papa?”

I played with Daniel and his little brother Gabriel in the large kitchen area of the funeral home, where friends had brought mounds of food. Their mom and dad, Amy and Orte, walked through large white windowed doors and down a narrow hall that eventually led to a sitting room where the family received guests who came to pay their respect and offer condolences. Papa looked pre-cancerous in a striking gray suit, snow-white shirt, and brown and gray tie patterned with tiny crosses. He had been a Methodist minister in the North Georgia Conference. A large United States flag, achingly resplendent in red, white and blue liveliness, lay across the unopened lower half of the coffin. Papa was retired Air Force.

Every few minutes, Daniel ran over to tiptoe and peer through the windows of the white doors, gazing down that long hallway which twisted and turned but allowed no view of Papa. “Where are Mama and Daddy? I want to go too.” A few minutes later: “Why can’t I go in?” “Is Papa in there? Where?” “Let’s go in there, Abu.”

A while later, when we were eating lasagna in the kitchen, Daniel was still asking, asking. I made a decision, a decision you may not have made. I asked Daniel’s mom and dad if I could take him in to see Papa. They agreed, mainly (I think) because they trust me, and they know how much I love D.

I picked Daniel up and asked him if he knew what had happened to Papa. “He died,” came the quick answer. I told him that yes Papa had died. “And he’s in heaven,” Daniel added. His confusion centered on who or what was down that hall that everyone kept traversing. He wanted understanding, answers. He wanted to walk down that hall.

So we did.

The kitchen had been noisy with visitors loudly talking, eating, reminiscing, and occasionally laughing at the past. Its tiled floor amplified the clicks of my boot heels as we walked, Daniel in my arms, toward those doors, dividing doors which in my grandson’s mind led to answers. As we passed through them, my heels, like everything and everyone on that other side, grew quieter on the deep carpet.

We entered the viewing room, and walked past adults talking in hushed tones. Daniel kissed his Nana (Donna is the oldest of the four daughters of Papa), then his Great-Grandma, who sat regally next to the coffin. But his eyes were looking, searching.

Not expecting Papa to be lying down (why didn’t I think to tell him that detail?), Daniel finally found his great-grandfather.

He looked for a while, and finally asked quietly (Daniel doesn’t usually do “quiet” very well), “Is Papa sleeping?”

“No, not really sleeping. He died, remember?”

We stood there for about a minute, Daniel growing heavy in my arms.

“Are you ready to go, baby?”

“No.”

Other folks waited patiently for their turn behind us. Daniel started to lean over toward the coffin, paused and looked at me for permission (and like “quiet,” D doesn’t always do “permission” well). I nodded, and Daniel touched the white satin edges of the liner and then Papa’s right arm.

Giggling just a bit, Daniel said, “It tickles.” I smiled.

“You ready now?”

“Yes.”

We walked back through the hall, toward the kitchen. When we got to the doors, I saw through the windows my daughter Amy and Orte, waiting. I put Daniel down, and he pushed open the door. His dad asked him, “Are you okay, Daniel?”

But he was already off, running on the noisy tile, chasing his little brother. Doing “loud” once again.

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With Daniel back in 2012
And now. (Seriously?)
Posted in Holiday Joy, Savannah Joy

Neal’s Post from the Past: ”A Savannah Saint Patrick’s Day Celebration”

A post from about a decade ago. What was I thinking with my outfit for the day?!

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Anyone who has been to Savannah on or around March 17 knows that Saint Patrick’s Day is a pretty …

Big Deal

… in this city! From the Greening of the Fountain and Tara Feis onward, Savannah embraces its Irishness, shamrocks growing and showing up everywhere, an already diverse and fesitval-driven city photosynthetically converting excited energy into green Gaelic joy. And since 2013 St. Paddy Day was Sunday, Savannah opted to hold its primary celebration on Saturday with the parade (the nation’s second largest), River Street revelry and other merrymaking events.

Since Yours Truly lives DIRECTLY on the parade route along Abercorn Street, and since some green Irish blood flows through my veins (Saye =”one who lives by the sea”), I decided to host a little parade-viewing party.

Party Prep Notes For some reason I will never fully grasp, I decided to make Cabbage and Ham in the Crock Pot (or as I call it, Beverly Hillbilly-ishly, “the Slow-Cooking Pot”).   

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Now cabbage sounds fine, and even a bit Irish, until you understand that my place is a little under 800 square feet, positioned at the front of a beautiful old building completed in the 1800’s.  Well, the slow-cooking cabbage produced a Rather Strong Aroma (try not to imagine it), first in my apartment, then wafting across the hall to my next door neighbor and fellow party hostess Audrey’s place, then throughout the entire old building, and probably up and down the parade route and on to the South Carolina border across the river.  People were so nice and pretended that the smell made the party more “Irish authentic.”  But a bunch of folks had drinks in their hands, so I’m not at all certain their sensory perception was on target.  AND I noticed they would get a bowlful of steaming, fragrant cabbage and then quickly run out the door to see the next band or float they “had been waiting on.”

Here’s me helping to set up the area for guests to sit and watch the parade outside my building (my windows have the St. Patty tacky shamrock cutouts and green garlands).

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Before the parade started, I made a quick tour of the squares close to me.  A few sights:

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I met some cool green-clad new friends:

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I found this pretty lady pirouetting in front of my apt, so of course I had to get my pic with her:

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Here’s across-the-hall stylish neighbor Audrey:

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And here’s party guest/good buddy Ellie and her brother encouraging the crowd:

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I wish I was brave enough to dance in the street!

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Hip green-haired son/father duo Ethan and Kevin:

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Former Everyday Creative Writing Student Jaymes stopped by for a while.  (He knows what’s rocking in Savannah.)

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Buddies Rich and Edward (who brought party-hit basil lemonade):

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Cool St. Patty Baby:

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Made great new friends with some folks visiting from Maryland and staying in the vacation rentals in my building (so of course they were party guests too)–Kathy and Karen with their husbands.  And don’t they look SO Saint Patricky?

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Preparing to kiss the parade marching men:

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(Public Service Announcement:  I think I will rent out my place next year for St. Paddy Day.  Is $2000 for the holiday too much?  I plan to include a HUGE bowl of frozen-but-on-the-table-in-a-jiffy Authentic Irish Cabbage and Ham.)

New kayaking friend Tom with Edward, Rich and me:

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Church buddy Diane with Rich, Edward, Robert, Jaymes and me:

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Good friend Zach and brother Josh marching in the parade (marching, that is, before I ran out into the street and made them stop).  Their Irish family has been in the parade for something like 1000 years.

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What a wonderfully fun Savannah Saint Patrick’s Day Celebration!

But sitting here after the parade, I started to worry:  “What if my Crock Pot Cabbage Smell keeps those hundreds of thousands of visitors from coming back to Savannah next year?  Can they trace it all back to me?”

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Balloons
St Pat pic
Posted in Throwback Thursday, Neal’s Post from the Past

Neal’s Post from the Past: “Remembering Peter on this Teacher Appreciation Week”

Here’s a post from back when I was still teaching at Georgia Southern University. It’s about the appreciation of … a life.

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It never fails. And I’m glad it doesn’t. Whenever I see yellow gladioli, I think of Peter. I saw some today.

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Peter Christopher taught creative writing in the Department of Writing and Linguistics up at Georgia Southern University (where I taught for twenty-four years).  He was a colleague and a friend and the fiction person on my dissertation committee when I got my doctorate.

And Peter died far too early in 2008 of liver cancer.

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After his passing, I reminisced about Peter’s impact on my life.  Here’s that remembrance:

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Peter, “Something Blooming, Something Found” and the Glorious Gladioli

Somehow, yin-yangishly I suppose, Peter’s smile carries both playful humor and serious authority as he says to me, “Here’s what I want you to do, Neal.”

“Take all that,”  Peter points at the pages and pages of text I have been rather proudly producing for weeks before asking/begging him to be the fiction person on my dissertation committee, “and put it aside–or throw it away.”

My dissertation is going to be an examination of how fiction can be used as a type of educational research, as a way of knowing.  And as part of my work, I want to write a novella which illustrates, through the characters and plot, various educational stances I have studied and enjoyed.  But I’m not a fiction writer, and I don’t really know how to get there.  I want Peter to sort of help quickly guide me through the process, tell me I can do it, be a cheerleader of sorts.

“Uh, well, you mean I’m not going to be able to use this?”

“Maybe.  We’ll see.  But for now I want you to forget everything you’ve written and have planned so far.  Here’s your homework.”  Again the smile–the smile that is beginning to get on my nerves just a little.  “For two weeks and for about an hour or so a day, I want you to freewrite.”

“You mean, just write about this novella idea I have?”

“No, Neal, freewrite about you.  About your life, what’s going on, what’s been, what’s to come.  About your inside life.  Your outside life.  Your family.  Work.  Friends.  Faith.  Anything that comes to mind.  Don’t stop for an hour–just write.”

My thoughts at this moment:  “Peter, are you CRAZY?  I am teaching full time.  I am on a deadline.  I do not have the time or interest to play your little freewriting game.  I just want to get this thing finished.  So no, I CAN’T and I WON’T do that.  And by the way, you’re supposed to just ENCOURAGE me, be my CHEERLEADER.”

My words at this moment:  “Oh, okay.”

After the frustratingly productive freewriting, which ends up changing in wonderful ways the entire story I will tell, Peter and I begin three months of tortuous joy.  I learn from a master.  Our weekly schedule goes something like this:

1.  Neal spends hours and hours and hours writing for a week.  Usually trying to get one scene done.
2.  Neal puts his folder of work (pretty good work in Neal’s mind) into Peter’s mailbox at the end of the day.
3.  The next afternoon Neal gets up from his desk and walks halfway across the hall towards Peter’s office, changes his mind and walks back to his own office and sits down.
4.  Neal feels silly at this childish behavior, gets up again and walks three-forths the way to Peter’s office, then returns to his own office once again.
5.  Neal calls himself all sorts of shaming names and finally walks all the way into Peter’s office, often simply because Peter has seen him walking back and forth, and tells him to COME IN.
6.  Peter smiles.
7.  Peter speaks:  “I can tell you put a lot of work into this, Neal.  But….”
8.  Neal revises.  And revises.  And revises.
9.  Neal realizes Peter is gifted beyond measure.

When we approach the end of the novella work, and I am fretting over a title for it, Peter tells me with a laugh, “Don’t worry about that.  I’m good with titles.  I’ll come up with one.  My gift.”

One of the young characters in my story, Kellie, LOVES flowers, grows them everywhere she can.  Her favorite is the yellow gladiolus.  (“It stands up in a garden.  It’s not afraid to be seen.”)  And since my tale shows a small group of high school students who come to realize that they have viable voices which are important and should/must be heard, Peter names my novella, “Something Blooming, Something Found.”

I am nervous as the dissertation defense begins.  I have foolishly invited folks from across campus to attend and quite a few are here.  Days before, when I asked Peter his advice about defending, he said that I should forget the negative concept of defense and just let my novella’s characters speak.  So that’s what I do.

I look at all those gathered in the Dean’s Conference Room in the College of Ed, take a deep breath, and begin my defenseless defense.  As I start, I see and sense Peter (“rock” in Greek) confer upon me three things: his trademark encouraging smile; a subtle and hidden to all but me “you-can-do-it!” thumbs up; and the realization, as my characters begin to breathe and speak, that something is blooming in me, and I am finding something, something I have not really grasped or undertsood until this moment in this room: I am a writer, not just a teacher of writing.

The next day, I walk into Peter’s office (without the ridiculous false starts) and present him with a bouquet of proud yellow gladioli.  He hoots in delight.  Hours later I hear a tap on my door, look up, and there he stands.

“Neal, I have been sitting at my desk looking at your flowers.  Really looking at them.  Seeing them.  They’re lovely.  They are so intricate, the way they turn and twist,” he says as he makes a circular gesture with one hand.

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“And there’s really only one word to describe them: GLORIOUS. They are glorious. Thank You.”

We chat and laugh a while.  Then Peter leaves.

But that’s okay.  He’s just across the hall.

[I write this in present tense for two reasons:  One, Peter has me write my novella in present tense.  And two, in ways that are important, perhaps most important, transcendent, eternal, Peter is with us.  Ever will be.  His smile that you and I came to appreciate so so much.  His always gentle spirit.  His instruction he gave to so many.  His embodiment of encouragement.  His model of living.  And His beautiful closing for each email and note he penned–“All thrive!”]

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Here we are after I defended my dissertation:

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On a whim, right before I published this post a few moments ago, I typed “GSU + Peter Christopher” in a search engine.  A Rate My Professor link from 2008 popped up.  One student wrote:

PC was my mentor.  I took every writing class he taught.  Writing was only a minor when I went to GSU… I would have majored if I could have.  He was a dear friend.  He taught me more than just how to be a good writer, he taught me how to love life — to have a passion for life.  He is gone from this earth, but never from my heart.

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Rest peacefully, Peter.  We remember you with appreciation and love.

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Related Post:  The Viewing & the Circle of Life