A blog category looking at a topic we white folks usually don’t like to talk about.
I SO wish all my childhood memories were fond and happy. They should be, right? Some of mine, many of mine, maybe most of mine are joyful. Going into the woods to pick out and chop down our Christmas tree. Such fun. Summer vacations at a tiny, inexpensive motel at Jacksonville Beach. Neighborhood fish fries after softball games. I could go on.
But, if truth be told, not all of my early childhood memories are so happy.
I remember cowering under my bed, after watching The Wizard of Oz, thinking that those flying monkeys were absolutely horrendous. And might be up in the skies outside my window.
I remember purposefully and loudly falling off my bed as a little kid when I would hear my parents fighting in their nearby bedroom. I sometimes pretended to sleepwalk for the same reason.
But one of my most harrowing early memories is an uglier, impossible-to-understand one, a darker one, even though it involves such unforgettable hot and fiery light.
I am a skinny, freckled, awkwardly sensitive little kid in hand-me-down shorts. My parents, four brothers and I live in a crowded small house in the Peach Orchard section of Cochran Field on the outskirts of Macon, Georgia.
It is summer, a sweltering night in the South. It is probably 1957 or 58.
I’m in the backseat of our ancient station wagon, dad driving, mom directly in front of me, at least one brother also in the back.
No air conditioning, of course. No seat belts. Windows down. Warm night air blowing my hair and keeping my outstretched hand standing up as we make our way down the road. Incredibly, I can occasionally hear the tires make sticky, sucky sounds as they roll over tar-patched cracks, still oozing from the day’s unmerciful Macon sun.
It’s a sultry night in Georgia.
“Something’s on fire,” one of my folks say.
We get closer. The fire appears on my side of the car. I can feel the heat before I can see what’s burning. I quickly pull my hand inside the window.
I am mesmerized. A cross, unbelievably tall, is on fire! I have to crane my neck up to see the top of the flames. I hear dogs barking. I see people in white Halloween costumes mulling around the cross. I smell gas. And see smoke around the flames. People are yelling. A weird party.
The cross is just SO big. Way too big for Jesus to carry up a hill. And the cross was’t on fire in the Bible, I’m sure of that. It is summer, and I go to Vacation Bible School.
“Neal, roll your window up!”
I’m scared. But I don’t know why I’m scared.
“NEAL, ROLL YOUR WINDOW UP NOW!”
I obey. But it’s like the heater is on full blast.
My father starts to speed past. But why? I’ve never seen anything like this. Why can’t we watch? I have to turn around quickly to see the cross get smaller and smaller. It finally morphs into a tiny lighted dot behind me.
It’s hotter than it’s ever been in the car. The heater MUST be on. It’s sizzling. Suffocating.
And it’s quieter than it’s ever been. Our car is usually loud with rambunctious boys yelling to be heard over one another.
Finally, I feel slightly cooler air begin to blow in from my mother’s window.
“Neal, roll your window down.”
We ride in silence till my father turns on the radio. I hear quiet music.
“What WAS that?” I ask.
“That was bad people doing something bad.”
I don’t understand.
Over six decades later, I look upon that night as one of those loss-of-innocence junctures. I can’t remember exactly how my parents explained what was really happening at that “weird party.” But I did find out, at some point, that the cross was being burned in a white couple’s front yard to warn them about being sympathetic to the struggles of black people. Vigilante hatred. Burning on the cross.
I wish I could say that the temperature has gotten so very much cooler in the South—or elsewhere in our nation. That the tar doesn’t still melt and stick to our tires. That air conditioning has decreased the scorch. That there are no more “weird parties.” But I cannot.
Just look at yesterday’s “Real Feel”:
Another “weird party” just down the road that stretches from my Savannah to Brunswick. You probably know the horrific story of that hot day in Georgia when vigilante hatred burned anew …
Since we’re nearing Mother’s Day 2022, here’s an old post from back in 2012 about the power of motherhood. Both my parents have since passed away.
“Mama.” Perhaps no other word in our language evokes such tender and loving feelings.
My mom turned 85 on May 2. Here she is with my dad (88). They have been married for 65 years!
If I had to answer the question, “Neal, what’s the greatest lesson your mother has taught you in life?” I would have NO problem at all answering. I learned the lesson so, so early: the power and authority of humor and laughter. Some of my greatest memories growing up consist of roaring with giggles and laughter at some of the silliest things. My mother is a master at seeing the lightness in situations.
The Christmas when I was about six, I asked for a real juke box, and FOUND IT it my parents’ bedroom closet on Christmas Eve. Mama thought it was hilarious when I started yelling in confusion, “WHY is my juke box in your closet??!!” She said, through fits of unrestrained laughs, “Santa wanted your dad and me to try it out first.” (That Christmas began my distrust of Santa.)
Or the time when I asked for (and finally got) a rocking chair for my sixteenth birthday (don’t judge me), and she (like you probably) laughed and said, “WHO wants a rocking chair on their birthday?!” I still get teased about that very practical and emotionally calming gift.
Or her ongoing confusion with the words “veterinarian” and “vegetarian.”
Or the Christmas when I was about eight and had this obsession with making sure the ornaments were placed perfectly (in my opinion) on the live tree branches. I had gone to bed, but thought that maybe I should check the tree one more time for spatial accuracy of the bulbs and tinsel. A big round glass ornament on a limb just out of my reach needed attention. Reaching up, I grabbed the branch, too hard, and pulled the ENTIRE tree on top of me, electric lights and all. Screaming in holiday terror, I flailed at the evergreen monster till my mom and dad ran into the living room. I distinctly remember my dear mother hooting with laughter and saying to my dad (far too loudly), “Just look at what Neal’s done now!”
Or her ongoing advice throughout the decades: “It’s really not that important, Neal. You’ll laugh about it soon.” And I usually did. (Except for early Christmas memories.)
What an incredible privilege and joy to have a mother who taught me when I was younger and who continues to teach me to this day that happiness is a choice. That laughter is an answer, a solution, a medicine. That humor is a gift to get and to give.
My advice on this glorious Mother’s Day: Don’t wait till your mom and dad walk out of your lives forever to tell them, show them, how very much they mean to you and how much you love them.
HAPPY, HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY 2012!
I dedicate this beautiful version of the song “Mama” by Il Divo to my mom and to yours. And remember to tell her now!
Here’s a post from back in 2014 about my life-long relationship with chicken pot pies.
One of my earliest joyful memories as a kid finds me meandering off, on warm summer mornings, to the community playground near my house in Cochran Field, near Macon, Georgia. My best friend Billy and I would play until our mothers brought us chicken pot pies and sweet tea. Sitting at the weathered, wooden picnic tables, we would gobble down our pot pies in their little aluminum containers (which we repurposed as treasure collectors).
I have always loved the creamy texture, the flaky crusts, the green peas and carrots, and the homey, Mama-ish warmth of chicken pot pies (or turkey pot pies but NOT cheesy or veggie pot pies). Of course, they were FROZEN SOLID forty-five minutes before I had all those lovey feelings as a child. And back then, I didn’t realize that our mothers were watching The Price Is Right or Queen for a Day instead of preparing fresh, homemade lunches for us boys.
So after buying organic vegetables from the local farm-to-table community market (doesn’t that make me sound health-oriented and grounded yet hip and on-target?), I decided to make a homemade chicken pot pie. HOMEMADE
First of all, do you have ANY clue how long it takes to chop carrots, celery, peppers and potatoes? Boil the corn and then scrape it off the cob? Finely cut the rosemary? Roll out the dough? (Okay, okay, all I did was roll it out of the carton, but still.)
But, oh my goodness, what fun! I may become a famous TV chef or something!
Here’s a post from back when I was still teaching at Georgia Southern University. It’s about the appreciation of … a life.
It never fails. And I’m glad it doesn’t. Whenever I see yellow gladioli, I think of Peter. I saw some today.
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.
After his passing, I reminisced about Peter’s impact on my life. Here’s that remembrance:
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.
“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!”]
Here we are after I defended my dissertation:
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.
Rest peacefully, Peter. We remember you with appreciation and love.
A post about aging parents from way back in 2013. Both my mother and father have passed away since then. Please excuse my camera “photography” from a decade ago.
Early yesterday morning I drove up to my north-of-Atlanta hometown of Ball Ground for a short visit with my mom and dad.
My dad–Harold or Tub–is 89 (90 in November–come to the party!), and my mom–Geneva–turned 86 in May. I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun we have when I visit. They taught me (are still teaching me) to laugh, to enjoy life.
Here are Ten Reasons I loved my little visit.
1. The early dinner that awaited me upon my 11 am arrival. Okay, for some of you this will be a bit confusing, but in Ball Ground lunch is called dinner, and dinner is called supper. (Breakfast is called Hardees.)
My favorite meal in the whole wide world consists of 1.) my dad’s creamed yellow corn. 2.) My mom’s fried sweet potatoes. 3.) A tomato and an onion.
The corn is scraped, raw, from the cob and meticulously cooked stove top, stirring constantly to keep it from scorching. It has the taste of heaven.
These sweet potatoes look a little burnt, and they should. That gives them the carmelized flavor. Cooked in a large cast iron pan, there’s nothing better. One stick butter, one cup sugar, sliced sweet potatoes. Orange joy.
Oh. My. Goodness. Thank you, Jesus.
2. The bird clock in my parents’ bathroom.
I like it best when the batteries get old, and the hourly bird calls become eerily elongated.
3. Walking around my folks’ small house (which my dad built BY HAND 34 years ago), looking at the bushes and trees.
4. Eating supper at Cracker Barrel. During the meal a very overweight but jolly lady came over to our table and said to my mom, “Honey, can I give you a hug? You remind me so much of my little grandma.” “Why, of course!” Mama replied.
“”Our hugs come in twos,” my dad said with a laugh. And then was amply rewarded.
I thought about saying, “What about me? Three’s company.” But my mouth was full of turnip greens and chow chow.
5. My mother repeatedly getting her supper choice, “eggs in the basket,” confused with a meal she had about forty years ago at IHOP called “pigs in a blanket.”
“Now what do you call this again, Neal?”
From the Cracker Barrel menu: Eggs in the Basket–Two slices of Sourdough Bread grilled with an egg in the middle of each, cooked to order and served with smoked sausage patties, turkey sausage patties or thick-sliced bacon and your choice of Fried Apples or Hashbrown Casserole.
6. Still at Cracker Barrel, as my dad stood in line at the counter paying (he INSISTED), another lady just finishing with paying her bill, saying to my dad, “Here, sir, let me pay for part of your meal with the rest of my gift card. Happy early Father’s Day?” And my dad, a bit confused at first, trying to PAY her for the gift card, before she finally hugged him and said, “No, no, I want to do this for you for an early Father’s Day present!” (While I stood over to the side between the pulled taffy and the Brad Paisley cd, unsuccessfully holding back laughter.)
As we finally left Cracker Barrel, my mom said to my dad, “You sure are hugging a lot of women today. I gotta get you out of this place.”
7. After loading mom’s walker in the trunk, and getting us all in the car, my mom, saying, “Tub, you should have asked that lady what days she usually eats at Cracker Barrel,” sending the three of us into giggles for two red lights, when I said to them, “I wonder if she would like to adopt us as her other family,” (which really wasn’t all that funny, but still got us roaring all over again, in the way you sometimes do when laughter is in the air.) Pulling off the Ball Ground exit from I-575, my dad said, “Those hugs were a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.” Because, of course, it was only 5:00 and we had already finished supper.
8. The feeling, even at my age, of being HOME.
9. The difficult but important discussion we had on this trip about what my mother would do if my dad died first.
“I just hope to goodness I go before Tub.”
“Now Neever (his version of Geneva), we can’t control those things.”
“What I really wish is that we could just go at the same time,” my mom said with total sincerity.
“Well, that might be possible,” my dad said with a twinkle in his eye, “the way I’ve been driving lately.” And we all laughed, at something so unfunny.
10. Experiencing irony as I was leaving Ball Ground the next day, stopping by a convenience store for a Yoo Hoo and a lottery ticket. The long-time teller printing out my ticket, as she mouthed, “straight to hell,” the lyrics of a country song blaring from the radio, and then handing me my Power Ball and saying, “You have a blessed day, sir!”
Here’s a post from back in 2014 about the power of a simple smile.
The students in my English 123 (Freshman Composition) classes at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) are doing what I call Visual Essays in this, their next-to-the-last week of Fall Quarter 2014. We read two books this term, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier, both relating to our course theme of “Happiness and the Exploration of Joy.” The Visual Essay project invites the students to MAKE, rather than write, their papers. Traditional essay requirements are still required: a focus and thesis, structure, detail and support, etc. But this essay morphs into a drawing or painting, a sculpture, a collage, a video, a food, etc. Basically this project is a visual representation of one topic narrowed into a clear thesis/perspective/idea. The challenge: how to “show” their thesis.
Debora Jacob (from Brazil) went to Forsyth Park here in Savannah last Saturday. Here’s her Visual Essay titled “Happiness Shared” on the topic of the smile and its significance.