A souvenir apron from New York City in 1964 becomes an enduring love note from my grandmother.
November 19, 1964. My grandmother—on her first and only trip to New York City from Alabama where she lived her entire life— bought this apron on the day I was born.
After waiting a week for my birth, never venturing far so that she and my grandfather would be ready to take care of my sister while my parents went to the hospital, my grandmother nor my mother saw any signs that my arrival was imminent. With a return train to Alabama booked for the next day, my grandmother and grandfather went out to sightsee.
I would like to think that they made it to all the sights and attractions shown on the apron. I wish I knew exactly where she bought it, but the sheer fabric, the muted yellow color, and the pink accents make it clear to me why she chose it. It looks like so many of the delicate, feminine things she cherished during her lifetime.
Near the end of the day, while my grandparents were still out, my mother went into labor. Not more than a few hours after I was born, my grandmother and grandfather arrived at the hospital to meet me.
The fold lines on the apron are indelibly creased into the fabric, and there are no signs of use to indicate that my grandmother ever wore it. I take that to mean it was a treasure to her that she wanted to keep in pristine condition for me so that I would have an artifact of the day I was born. More importantly, I believe she kept it this way so I would always have evidence that she was there.
Given that I like to focus on positive, hopeful, nurturing messages and stories, I never thought I would write a post with the title I have given this one. But the truth is, everything is not always rosy. And not everything turns out the way you wish it would.
Part travelogue, part insider tips on the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and part confessional, this is a chronicle of my experience trying to get somewhere without success yesterday. Thunderstorms and flooding in the Atlanta area led to over 3,000 flight cancellations that began the day of the storm and rippled into the next several days, impacting flights across the country. I never made it farther than a few hundred yards from my gate and the airplane never traveled faster than I can walk on a slow day, yet luckily there were still some silver linings.
Since I created this piece on Adobe’s Spark platform, which is becoming one of my favorite tools for quickly journaling an idea or telling a story, you have to click one the image above (or HERE) to read the 12 things I learned.
“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” ― William Shakespeare
For the last decade, if not longer, I have lit a candle every morning while I sit and sip my coffee to start my day. My family, very familiar with this habit of mine, thoughtfully chooses nice candles as gifts for me because they know I won’t splurge on the fancy ones for myself. Diligently conserving them so that they last as long as possible, I’ve always been careful not to let them burn too long each morning.
But all that changed on Christmas of last year, all because of my sister. Her gift to me was light, an abundance of it. Two big boxes were filled with individually wrapped presents, all for me. Each present was labeled, one for every month of the year. The accompanying note was titled “The Light in Lucy’s House.” Read More
I’ve always loved letters, saving them like rare currency. When the volumes of them in my basement grew too big after decades of stashing them in boxes, I sifted through and parted with some that no longer had meaning, often written by people I could no longer remember. However, I found that even with these letters, I couldn’t simply throw them away. After all, at one point in my life, they felt important enough to keep. So, I made a bonfire and lay them in the flames one by one.
What remained after my de-cluttering was a collection that was still quite large, but now held only letters from close family and friends whose notes to me through the years serve collectively as an ad hoc archive of my life. Perhaps that’s why I love letters so much: they are a private vehicle for exchanging our most precious stories. Read More
“We carry each of us an urn of native soil…sweet enough to find the smell of home.” — Malcolm Cowley, “The Urn”
Believe it or not, the song that provides the storyline for this video was inspired by a 1969 Harmony ukulele, my own uke as a kid. I wrote about it in a post three years ago called “Welcome Home, Cowboy Bob.” In some ways, this post should actually be titled “Cowboy Bob: The Sequel,” because like the original story, this one, too, explores the theme of leaving and returning, of what we choose to hold on to and what we choose to leave behind, and how our perception of which should be which can change over time.
Quotes in the video, in order of appearance, by: Malcolm Cowley, Joan Didion, e.e. cummings, Herte Müller
In the winter of 1863, my great, great, great, great grandfather, David Mathews, left home to serve in the Civil War. He was 36 years old, not a wealthy man, and regretted having to leave his wife, children, and extended family as he felt his greatest responsibility was providing for them in the lean times the war had brought.
When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.
About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.
Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.
I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?
Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.
One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.
Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.
Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”
I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.
I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.
For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.
My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.
When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.
The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day. And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.
But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?
Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?
So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself? Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?
When you think of the word “home,” what comes to mind? A favorite room? A refuge from the hectic pace of daily life? A space for family meals and traditions? A gathering place for celebrations?
If we polled an audience with this question, we would likely have as many different memories, dreams and stories as people in the audience. I would venture to guess that no one would chime in with words like, “Lumber! Drywall! Nails! Plywood!,” because home goes so much deeper than the walls and shelter a house provides.
Whether home is an apartment you rent or a house you own, having a decent, safe, affordable place to live gives us a foundation to hold all the other layers of our existence– family, work, school, play, hopes, future.
The faces in this video tell the story better than any words can capture. The photos come from two very different places, but reflect the same joy. In Winona, Minnesota, we watch as a single mom receives a home for her family through the “Women Build” program of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In Zacapa, Guatemala, an extended family of two parents, children and a grandmother gain a home of their own through Habitat International.
I had the chance to visit this terrain of affordable housing, which was my field of work many years ago, because friends of mine, Jean Leicester and Barbara McAfee, asked me to create a video for their song, “More Than A House.”
Barbara– a singer-songwriter and a wise teacher on how to find and use your own voice– sings the lead and is backed up by the Twin Cities’ reggae band New Primitives. Topping it off, the chorus is sung by members of the Morning Star Singers, a local hospice choir, who volunteered to help. Choir member Julie Bonde, who is a Habitat volunteer, generously offered photos and video from her building trip to Guatemala. Jean, also a long-time Habitat volunteer, gathered images from a project in her community that she helped build.
As the saying goes, “many hands make quick work.” I would add that many hands joined in the spirit of love and directed toward a common cause make very joyful work, as well. This is certainly true of the writing and recording of this song, with so many talented voices lending their time to bring Jean and Barbara’s creation to life. And it certainly can also be true of efforts to make a difference in addressing the need for affordable housing.