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You can always tell when a store is offering a promotion that benefits them, not you. A few years ago, it was Costco. They came up with their “cash back” American Express card. Now, for anyone who wanted another credit card, I’m sure it was a THRILLING DEAL. But for those of us who don’t like plastic and who have enough already, it was not attractive.

The thing is, Costco would not take no for an answer. Their AmEx “specialists” aggressively chased me across the store so many times that I finally left written complaints in BIG LETTERS on feedback cards every time I shopped. Once I went lawyer on one of them and threatened to file a complaint for a PC 422. I hadn’t the slightest intention of course, but I was tired of being chased and harassed. (And it wasn’t a PC 422, it was a PC 245, but 422 sounded more intimidating and came out of my mouth first because I was working on one of those cases.)

Eventually Costco penned up the AmEx Card hustlers (I like to think it was because I complained), and I could just avoid them. For a while.

But then they started a campaign at check out for those of us who were holdouts on the GREAT DEAL. We still had the tell tale white membership cards. Put one of those babies on the checkout conveyor belt, and your fate was sealed. You were going to get a talking to from the cashier with all the fervor of a Southern Baptist street preacher who suspected Jesus Christ was NOT your lord and savior. Finally, I paid Costco an extra $60 bucks a year for a black card that is not a credit card, but that entitles me to a paltry rewards certificate every January. It’s enough to buy a couple of good bottles of wine, and so far it has been a stake in the heart of AmEx vampires.

Having lived through the Costco AmEx campaign, I was not thrilled when some baby B-schooler created JUST 4 U at my local supermarket. I mean, the title was an instant give way. It was definitely NOT 4 ME.

The whole thing began pretty innocuously with tables just inside the entrance doors where pleasant-faced employees gave out little flyers telling us how sign up on our computers at home. Ever obedient, I did just that. But I went no farther. Why, you ask? Because the object of the exercise was to get me to decide what I wanted to buy BEFORE I went to the store, click on a bunch of e-coupons and somehow magically have these on my cell phone to be scanned at check out. Do you see where this is going, Highly Intelligent Reader? Yep. You got it. The store was sneaking up on paper coupons and trying to make them extinct.

Now back in the days when all four of us were home, I did clip coupons like paper dolls from the glossy Sunday inserts. I had one of those cute little coupon organizers with wallpaper patterns on the front that I wagged with me every weekend. In those days, I often did plan my meals for a whole week in advance, created shopping lists, and executed them (in every sense of that word.) Only problem with this activity: it killed the whole weekend, EVERY WEEKEND. (Another form of execution.)

But as my children grew up and left home bit by bit, I had little need for an elaborate food plan every week. And, as a foodie, I love to roam the aisles and Impulse Buy. I may know three things I want before I hit the supermarket, but I don’t know the other ten. It is just not fun to sit at a computer and pretend I’m putting tunes on my iPod when in fact I’m hunting for paperless coupons for the Android for things I don’t even know I want yet.

Being Southern and polite, I just decided to silently drop the whole thing. But not the supermarket. Oh, no. The employees behind the tables now began to shout at us as we entered, DEMANDING we sign up They came armed with laptops to do the deed ON THE SPOT. They pushed free cookies and coffee to waylay unsuspecting victims. (That was an easy one for me to ignore, but no mom can get a kid past a plate of free cookies.) Still even if a shopper managed to run the entrance gauntlet, he or she still had to face to the Sign Up table in back across from the meat counter. (I guess vegetarians escaped this one.) And finally, the fresh-faced cashier would smile and demand the JUST 4 U info at check out like some sort of Free Mason hand shake that if I got right, would allow me to take the food home. Masonry went extinct in my family in my father’s generation. So, faced with leaving the groceries on the counter or finding a new place to shop, I learned to cleverly hand over my store club card and say, “This is all the discount I wanted for today, thank you.” (I mean the whole club card thing is a pain, too. Why can’t they just give you the low price to begin with?)

Lately, like the AmEx herd that got bullpenned, the JUST 4 U pushers are fewer and farther between. (I think the moms complained about the free cookies.) There are still plenty of customers with cute little coupon savers at checkout, handing over wads of rainbow-hued clippings. I actually haven’t seen a single phone scanned. I’m thinking the baby B-school genius who visited this plague upon us is Looking For Another Job right now. B-school genius has learned the hard way no one is going to deprive me of the extemporaneous fun of being an Foodie Impulse Buyer. Absolutely no one.

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I went to an estate sale on Saturday and acquired some
items that mean the world to me. No one knows why. Here’s why.

A few years ago, the woman who gave birth to me had a stroke that
changed her personality so drastically that I found myself an
orphan in mid-life. She had always been a difficult person, and I
had labored for my whole life to have a place in hers. I had
acquired all the academic bells and whistles, had become a
respected professional, and had done a sometimes heroic job of
raising three children as a single mother. But nothing I ever did
impressed her or was enough for her; and in the end she showed me
the door because I was, in her terms, a poor specimen of a human
being.

She survived the stroke; but our relationship did not. And
that is enough said about that. I found great freedom in accepting
my situation and moving on with my life. She wanted me gone; I gave
her what she wanted. For the first time, there was no voice whining
in my ear that I wasn’t good enough.

A few months later, a story on Good Morning American snagged my attention.
A lovely young woman in her mid-thirties, also cast out by her birth family without
justification, had actually put herself up for adoption. And she
had found a lovely second family. I considered the ad I would have
written. “Lovely little family of four, all outstanding over
achievers, seeks parents and grandparents. Looking only for love
and companionship, holiday celebrations, loving phone calls.”

It was only a fantasy, of course. But fantasy has often gotten me
through some of the harder places in life.

Perhaps the central difference in my birth mother and myself is the ability
to nurture. I’m not quite sure how an Earth Mother like me sprang from an Ice
accept her as she is.

Queen, but I did. I don’t fault her for what she didn’t have. I
But as a born nurturer, I have to have someone or some thing to take care of.
Of course there were my children when they were little. And even now they
are adults, I can still give them some nurturing, although not as much.
But now they are on their own, my days are bracketed by the need
to care for my two Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm. Every morning
and every afternoon, I feed them and walk them to the enchanting
little pond that some of the condos in our development back
up to. And this routine was especially comforting in the days
when I was still hurting from my mother’s ultimatum and
wishing I could advertise us for adoption.

The path to the pond winds through a grove of lacy
eucalyptus trees, past a condo in our development with a greenhouse
window facing the path. Now all these units are rather old. They
were built in 1978 when greenhouse windows were quite the “in”
thing. As Melody and Rhythm and I passed by day after day, month
after month, I noticed that this particular window’s display
changed with each month and often featured ducks, a tribute to the
mallards that inhabit the pond. At Christmas, the window had
caroling ducks in tiny Dickens outfits holding tiny song books. At
Easter, there were ducks and bunnies and pastel eggs. For July,
teddies dressed in red white and blue and lots of those .99 cent
flags. At Thanksgiving the window held a blend of pilgrims, ducks,
and autumn leaves. Then Christmas and the web-footed carolers would
come round again. In between, the window defaulted to a display of
tiny lighthouses, rustic bears, bald eagles with spread wings, and
a pair of tin lanterns. And now and than a new trinket appeared.

The person responsible for this fascinating whimsy was a tall,
thin, grey haired woman, well over eighty. Just about the age of my
former mother. She lived alone, dressed elegantly in expensive
subdued slacks and blouses, and always wore pearls. There were skis
in the garage and a set of golf clubs. In those days, she still
drove. Her regular routine was a trip to the grocery store around
four o’clock each day to decide what to cook herself for dinner.
She first noticed me because she loved my beautiful Goldens, and we
often passed by just as she was beginning or ending this daily food
shop. She’d wave when she saw us and would smile and say something
sweet to Melody and Rhythm.

I learned that her name was Lenore. I caught glimpses of her mahogany Windsor
chairs in her dining room as I passed each day. I saw the tiny beautiful
antique table in the perfect spot in the hall, the tiny spoon
rack above her miniature sideboard, and the glass-fronted
curio cabinets in the living room. I guessed she was a collector,
and that she was not from California. Her condo was an exquisite
blend of Williamsburg-style furniture that few people in
California are drawn to. But I, of course, loved it.
She was just the sort of mother I would have chosen.

Her monthly displays inspired me to decorate my own front
entrance each month. I didn’t have a greenhouse window, so I made a
front door wreath for each month and hung appropriate wooden signs
and ornaments on the tree by the door. Even the grumpy Homeowners
Association wrote me a letter complimenting my charming entrance.
Little did they know it was all because of Lenore and her
greenhouse window.

Lenore seemed to draw people to her. Most afternoons when the weather
was nice she would put off the store trip, and she would sit at the table
on her patio with several of the ladies who lived in the condos. They
would sip white wine from thin-stemmed crystal glasses and chat.
Their ritual included feeding the ducks who would come up to
her patio, flapping their wings if Lenore was late throwing
out their food. Often, Melody and Rhythm and I would be
walking by about this time, and Leonore and her friends
would wave as they threw food to the ducks.

Then, a couple of years ago, Lenore had a stroke. A widow from Connecticut,
she had moved to San Diego when her husband died to be close to her
children living here. So she had plenty of support from children
and grandchildren. She recovered enough to go on living in her
lovely condo with a live-in care giver; and even though she no
longer drove, she steadfastly maintained her old routine. Store in
the afternoon. Friends and duck feeding on the patio. Waving at me
and the retrievers. Church on Sunday. Always beautifully dressed
with pearls, but now she used her ski poles for support instead of
a cane. And the window changed each month just as before.

I came to count on that window. Her creative additions were mini surprises in
my day. Sometimes a new duck. Sometimes a single flower in a vase.
She was obviously a woman of great charm and creativity. Then, this
October, a month after she turned ninety, she died. I didn’t know
for a long time because nothing changed at the condo. There was
even a Christmas tree at Christmas. And the window displays went on
as before.But in early January, I began to see lots of picture
frames in the trash and a woman in the garage going through albums.
Eventually, I learned that these were her children deciding what to
keep and what to let go of.

I was profoundly sad, but her daughter staying at the condo kept
up the old ways. Window decorated. Afternoons with the ladies and
white wine on the patio. Ducks fed. I half hoped Leonore wasn’t really
gone but was on a long visit and coming back. Silly fantasy.
But the day I saw the blue glass vases were no longer in the window
in her bedroom, the truth became very real to me. She and I had loved blue glass vases.

This Saturday, I was one of the first to arrive at the estate sale. I knew exactly
what I wanted. And there they were, still in the greenhouse window,
with tiny price stickers on each one. I don’t know where the
caroling ducks went, or the bunnies or the patriotic teddies, but I
bought the default bears and lighthouses and lanterns. And a tiny
little Limoges heart box to remember her by.

Lenore didn’t really adopt me. But it was a fantasy that got me
through a sad time in my life. I don’t have a greenhouse window,
but I rushed happily home from the sale and arranged my treasures on
shelves in the guest room. And I go in often to stand
in front of them and smile. They mean the world to me.

And something else came from the estate sale, too.
I met Lenore’s son and his wife, and I got to tell them how
much Leonore inspired me. Yesterday I was out walking the
retrievers at the usual time, and they were leaving after closing
up her house for the last time. They made a point of waving to me
just as she would have done.

So prayers are answered. A part of my own family reconnected with me
after my wish went out to the Universe to belong. And now I will always
be able to look at Leonore’s little treasures and remember how
much she inspired and cheered me during a sad time in my life.
The ducks, too, are being looked after. One of her friends comes
by each afternoon about four to feed them as Melody and Rhythm and I go by on our walk.

Lenore's patio just as she left it

Lenore’s patio just as she left it

The ducks and the pond

The ducks and the
pond

The window empty for the first time.

The window empty for
the first time.

Lenore's eagles and lanterns


Lenore’s eagles and lanterns

The light houses

The light houses

Her bears

Her bears

Her January cardinals

Her January
cardinals

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I have been crying since mid-day on Friday. I came home after brunch with my oldest child, my lovely now grown-up daughter, to hear the horrible news from Newtown, Connecticut. For the rest of the day, I sat at my computer writing an opening brief in another heartbreaking case – a father’s trial for the abuse of his six-week-old baby – and I cried as I worked. It was all I could do.

I kept thinking of Jeremiah 31:15: “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” So I thought of Passover and, then, later of Herod’s massacre as he searched for the Christ child. Matthew 2:18, writing of Herod, parallels Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
There is no grief deeper, I think, than the loss of a child. Jeremiah and Matthew capture that. A born Southerner turns to the King James Bible in times of great grief, even if he or she hasn’t been in a church for some time. It is our heritage and our culture. So the words haunted me.

As I worked and cried, I looked over at the Christmas tree in my living room. News like this never comes at an acceptable time. But it’s particularly hard at Christmas when children of six and seven still believe in Christmas Magic. When my own children were small, I taught Sunday School; and every Christmas, I taught them about the coming of the Christ Child and about the shepherds and the Magi, who traveled to witness the miracle of so much love entering our world. Children of six and seven can believe in the magic of Santa and the joy of Christ’s birth whole-heartedly in a way that we, as adults, can only marvel at. And bask in its glow.

The conundrum of human love is that it inevitably leads to loss. In what form, we cannot predict. But from the beginning of any loving relationship, we know there will be an inevitable end. Some people – and I have known my share of them – refuse to love so they cannot experience loss. To me that choice is the equivalent of refusing to live. For only by loving others can we be truly who we were born to be and be truly alive.

When my grandfather was 104 and still as sharp mentally as anyone could be, he said one day that he was not afraid of death. He said that to him, death was simply another part of life. I have lived from my beginning knowing that we are immortal spirits. I will not tell you how I know. That is too personal. But I know. And so I know that the twenty-six amazing souls from Newtown have been separated from us, but they have only been transformed, not lost. Still, the separation is a great grief. Yet as I watch and experience this profound sadness, I see how this unthinkable loss unites us, and I marvel at the strength and the good that comes from human beings in the face of great tragedy. The word that Emilie Parker’s father used in his moving speech about his lovely child is the touchstone for all of us: Compassion.

I cannot travel to Newtown and place flowers or candles or stuffed animals at the memorial. I cannot tell every parent how I how hold them in my heart, and the tears I have shed with them. But on Saturday, I did finally think of my own private way to create a memorial in to these amazing souls. And it goes like this:

I was buying food at Trader Joe’s. Our TJ’s is also next to a Chuckie Cheese, so on Saturdays the little food store is full of families who have completed the Chuckie Cheese adventure and are buying groceries before heading home. Tiny people are whizzing tiny shopping carts through a highly crowded environment and, at the same time, looking for the Trader Joe’s Monkey, hidden somewhere in the store. Finding the Monkey nets a child a sticker or sometimes a gold coin made of chocolate.

As I began trundling my own adult-sized shopping cart through the store, I dodged several pint-sized shoppers who were bent on finding the Monkey and definitely were not looking where they were going. And suddenly I realized that I was not all inconvenienced by having to look out for them. No, I was inspired by their joy and happiness, and by their confidence they would reap the prize at the end of the adventure. And I thought that if the new little angels from Newtown were powering those shopping carts, they would be excitedly on the same adventure. And I was happy at the thought.

If you let it, the joy and magic of being a child can still rub off on your adult self. My own personal memorial will be always to enjoy and give thanks when I am in the presence of the magic of children. I have to say, I have always believed in this. Kids and dogs come to me spontaneously – I guess because I never grew up. But I don’t say think you enough for being in the presence of so much joy. And from now on, I will. And I will remember Newtown and its children, whenever I do. Thank you for the magic of being a child and for letting those of us who have grown up be touched by your magic. We love you.

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Thanksgiving is almost here. The turkey is defrosting in the refrigerator. The sweet potatoes are looking at the bags of marshmallows across the kitchen. Tomorrow I will bake pumpkin pie and chop veggies to put into the stuffing on Thursday. I will bake cornbread and tear up white bread, also for the stuffing. I will chill sparkling cider and champagne. I will count the sliver place settings, dust off the Waterford, and decide which dishes to use this year. (I’m a dish lover. Only cabinet space limits my yen to bring more home like lost puppies and kittens.)

On Thursday morning, I will be up with the sun to get my hands messy mixing stuffing, putting it in into the bird, and getting into the oven. I will baste the bird and check its internal temperature at intervals, mindful that the difference between a perfectly roasted turkey and an overcooked one can be just minutes. When I was a child, I watched the women in the family do these things. Now it is my responsibility.

This cooking ritual, year afer year, is as satisfying to me as the liturgy of the Anglican mass (back in the days when I shepherded the kids to church, Sunday after Sunday). On the rare holidays when we have chosen a restaurant for our feast, I have missed my personal culinary rites of thankfulness.

The basics of the meal haven’t changed much from the first Thanksgiving I cooked in November of 1985. In that year, I had been in California for all of two weeks. I went to the now defunct K-Mart to buy a hand mixer to cream the sweet potatoes. I had no children then, but I wished for them. That November afternoon, I saw a car with a Fulton County Georgia plate in the K-Mart parking lot. I cried because I was homesick. I started to leave a note on the windshield asking the driver if he or she felt as marooned in a foreign land as I did. But I lost my nerve, and so I will never know the answer to my question. Now all these years later, the foreign land has become home. The K-Mart is shuttered and empty.

We rarely traveled at Thanksgiving, but our few trips were memorable. In 1999, we flew to Tennessee to be with my family for the holiday. It was the only year my children ever experienced more than the four of us for the feast. They raked leaves for the first time in their lives and jumped into the piles with their cousin. They discovered southerners put giblets in their turkey gravy. Ugh! They learned that pecan pie with chocolate chips in the bottom is so rich, a tiny bite will do, even for the most avid sweet-lover.

On another holiday away from home, my daughter and I walked through a cold Chicago rain to a delightful restaurant, formal enough to have a coat check room and bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water on the table. The chef accompanied his perfect roasted turkey with butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce. We missed the boys, who were with their father that year. But it was a special time for the two of us, alone is a wold class city.

Now the years of being divided at holidays are over. The ritual food preparation has expanded to included a ritual housecleaning before my adult children come to stay for the holiday. Although I miss the days when we all lived under one roof, it is exceptionally exciting to have my grown ones coming back to share their adventures in far places. Like many things in life, when one thing goes away, another even more wonderful something comes along to take its place.

Although the holidays for those of us who create them for our families are a lot of work, I personally love the run-up to Christmas. From now until January 2, I will be planning food and gifts and decorations to create a festive world for me and the ones I love. I thank the Universe every year for giving me so much love and joy and for giving me wonderful souls to share it with. We are entering the Magic Season! Let the Magic Begin. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Four of Us

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In the end, I drifted up the road from Richmond to another, smaller firm in Washington, D.C. where my creative bent found a home. Not long after I arrived at New Firm, the Most Important Partner came into my office one day to congratulate me on a memo I had written for him that the Florida Legislature had then adopted at a statute for the benefit of one of the firm’s clients. He was a very happy Most Important Partner. The client was a Very Happy Important Big Bucks Client. And the firm sure could bill for that one! Redeemed at last.

But finding a home as a lawyer wasn’t as fulfilling as I had thought it would be. It was all still paper and stale conference rooms and working trips on air planes. And business suits, starched shirts, and floppy bows. So I struck out for California (on an airplane, not in a covered wagon) and motherhood.

By 1991, I had three children, ages five, three, and newborn. I had hired a college girl as afternoon help three days a week because I just could not keep up with the demands of the mother job, which was a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week affair. I had no family to give me a break. Babysitters didn’t want three kids or a newborn. And the kids’ dad had parked us in a ritzy part of town where moms had Hispanic nannies. (And went back to Work. To avoid the tough job of Mother, I was convinced.) So no one needed a Mothers’ Day Out Program. (Except me, apparently.)

Mothering, I soon discovered, was an endlessly creative job. My artistic self smocked tiny dresses for my daughter, rompers for the boys. I marched clowns and balloons, cupcakes, and teddy bears across their tummies. I looped ribbon into “frou frous” and sewed them onto my daughter’s dresses and hats. I made tiny linen and velvet suits and vests for the boys. I made doll wardrobes and Halloween costumes. (Think my daughter as Pooh and my first son as Piglet when I was pregnant with Number Three.) I made matching velveteen mother-daughter-son outfits for Christmas. And I used a gallon milk jug and fake fur to create a dead wringer for a Coldstream Guards hat. (For my daughter, not the two boys.)

Of course, this activity was not a California Mother Thing at all. California Mothers (the ones without nannies) wore yoga pants and stuffed their children into knit rompers from Mervyns and Gymboree. My activities were so unusual that I had to smuggle a “pleater,” the device consisting of rows of tiny needles that prepares fabric for smocking, back from Tennessee in my suitcase. I ordered smocking patterns and laces and tiny French hand sewing needles from Georgia and Florida and Virginia and Texas.

And naturally I didn’t send my California children to school in these artworks that only a Southern Mother could love. No, as soon as my daughter could pull the OshKoshs off the hangers and put them on, one leg at a time, the dresses hung in the closet quietly waiting for Sunday, like the Good Girls they were.

But, of course, Sunday came. And again, I behaved as a Southern Mother would. CHURCH. Being Episcopalian, we had no duty (Thank, God) to proselytize the California Mothers and their offspring. I could quietly dress my little ones in their smocked and French handsewn best and shuffle us all off to Sunday School (which, true to Southern Mother Form I taught) and CHURCH. (Where I provided stickers and crayons and paper and tiny coloring books to keep the small troops quiet through the boring (to them and sometimes to me, true confessions) service. One interesting Sunday, my small daughter pointed out we were almost the only people there under fifty. Everyone else was at BRUNCH in their yoga pants and knit rompers, California Style.

But I was a Southern Mother. I didn’t know any better.

Being creative as a mother wasn’t just about their clothes. No, it was far deeper and more fun and more substantive than that. Southerners love stories and are born storytellers. I told stories about the South and about their grandfather the FBI agent and their great-great-grandfather the Civil War solider (for the Union!). I read and read and read and read. We loved Thomas the Tank Engine (we called him “Thomas Tanken”), Madeline, Good Night Moon, the Runaway Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, any alphabet book ever written, and all forms of Nursery Rhymes. We watched Sesame Street, talked about “Bee Bo,” “Oscar the Grouch,” “Cookie Monster” and “Count One Count.” (My daughter’s name for him which I thought much better than the original.)

We went to Disney moves, although my daughter wisely decided she did not want to be a Disney princess like her California counterparts, who would ditch their knit rompers for princess gowns, tiaras, and scepters to wear to the park. My daughter, on the other hand, put on her Coldstream Guards costume for outings and marched beside her little brothers’ stroller.

We ate fish sticks and tater tots for supper with plenty of ketchup. We had pillow fights and said prayers at bedtime. (Always the Lord’s Prayer because Now I Lay Me had terrified me as a child because it talked about dying.) We waded in the Pacific on days that never seemed to end because of the stifling heat. (The kids’ dad, who worked in air conditioned comfort, said we didn’t need to be cool.) And we promised every time that we wouldn’t go in the water in our clothes. But we always did. In short, the four of us laughed and created and played and had fun, Southern Mother style, in the foreign country of California. We made few friends, although we tried. But we had each other.

Somewhat skimpy ribbon frou frou on dress

Bee Bo!

Thomas Tanken!

A Smocked dress

Her costume looked like this!

 

A pleater.

 

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So in the fall of 1986, alone in a tiny rented cottage on an island in San Diego Bay, I set off on the journey of motherhood. My lawyer suits, one gray, one beige, one black, one navy, one brown, hung listlessly in the closet of the bedroom I shared with the husband I never saw. My black, tan, and navy four-inched heeled pumps remained in their shoe boxes. For the first three months of the journey, I rarely got out of my bathrobe. After that, it was elastic waist pants and frantic dieting until, finally at my daughter’s first birthday, I could sigh with relief and zip my jeans.

The task of dealing with a constantly crying infant wiped my memory clean of what it had been like to be a lawyer, pulling twelve and fourteen-hour days in major law firms back east. I truly wanted children when I finally decided to have them, but I also think I was on the run from a profession I hated and that I had never intended to join.

When I was eleven years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I read constantly even before I went to school, and I began to write stories in third grade. I had no doubt in my child mind that I was born to be a creative artist until the night I announced my intended destiny at the family dinner table. My rational, linear father went crazy, outlining the impossibility and stupidity of trying to reach that goal. I slunk back to my bedroom, full of shame for aspiring to be something so outrageous and totally WRONG.

The trouble was, the dream of writing stories would not go away. I realized it was safer to hide my identity underground, as I went on writing. By age thirteen, I had finished a three-hundred page novel.

I thought by going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D. in English, I would move forward with my dream of being a writer. But by the time I had my Masters in English, I could see the reality of every graduate student’s situation: THERE WERE NO JOBS IN UNIVERSITIES TEACHING ENGLISH. And graduate school, like all the other forms of school I had encountered, did not foster creativity.

In the 1970’s, disappointed liberal arts majors of all kinds were going to law school, including, for the first time a significant number of women. I went to talk to the Assistant Dean at the University of Tennessee College of Law about enrolling. She said, “The law is only words. You’re good at words, right?”

Good at words, yes. Good at nit picking trivialities, no. I graduated second in my class; I was admitted to the Order of the Coif, the Phi Beta Kappa for lawyers. I was wooed by major law firms in New York, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and Richmond, Virginia. I studied for and passed the Virginia bar in 1981.

But as soon as I sat down at my new associate desk in Richmond, the overwhelming lack of creativity that is THE LAW began to choke me. I had never been so bored in my life.

Next: Driving the wrong way down a one-way street (my perilous adventures as a baby lawyer) and how I was nearly gobbled alive by a female partner with a penchant for hats

Image

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Autumn has come to Southern California. Trouble is, the change is so subtle you have to know what to look for to realize the seasons are turning. Suddenly the air seems very focused and sharp, even though the temperature is still 81º. Crows caw, sounding ominous and lonely in the late afternoon heat. Fewer mallards, and now no ducklings, swim circles among the dry reeds in the  pond close to our house. Trees grow brown, and their leaves shrivel, but hang on. Here and there, a few liquid amber trees – a relative of the Eastern maple – change color, some turn dry gold, others dusty red. But autumn here looks more like summer drying up than a season of breathtaking color and bountiful harvest.

I know because I am an ex-pat Southern girl. People hear my accent and ask how I got from Tennessee to Southern California. The answer is simple: in 1985, I agreed to a too hasty marriage to the wrong person, who had taken a job here. Without even one prior visit, I arrived in San Diego in November 1985 and realized at once I was living in a foreign country. I hadn’t bargained for that. But I hadn’t bargained for much of what was to come.

Autumn in the South, is a deep, lush season. It begins in September with crisp, cool mornings warming to sharp, golden noons, and cooling to vermillion sunsets. The trees go from green to brilliant gold and flaming orange and red almost overnight. Then the leaves fall, covering the grass in deep pools of vibrant color. When I was a child, my parents paid me a minuscule wage to rake them into piles to be carted away to compost. I couldn’t resist the temptation to build leaf forts first and jump into them, scattering red and gold in all directions.

Autumn in the South means FOOTBALL. (Not football.) When I couldn’t be bribed into raking, my father would take over the chore, wearing a soft plaid flannel shirt, transistor radio in his breast pocket. The long golden afternoons marched to the steady cadence of the announcer’s voice, punctuated by my father’s sharp cries of joy or dismay at Tennessee’s progress.

Autumn was bittersweet for me because it meant back to school. On one hand, school was my forte: I was an excellent student. On the other, school was the place I began to perfect the art of covering my true identity from the world. Good little Debbie Hawkins with her pigtails who sat up straight in her desk, did her homework, and never gave the teacher any trouble was not the real me. The real me was hiding underground.

Autumn always brought new clothes. In those days, mothers sewed. Late August meant sitting on high stools in department stores, looking at pattern books, and picking out new school dresses. I wasn’t a fan of figuring out which patterns to buy. You could never tell until they were sewn up if the dress was going to flatter or make you want to hide forever. But I loved walking between the tables that held the bolts of fabric, fingering the soft wools, the supple jerseys, and the crisp cottons. I wanted one of each. School was rarely a creative exercise. It involved regurgitating long lists of facts the teachers thought our lives depended upon. But holding and draping fabric in autumn grays and tans and browns – ah, that was pure magic!

My first child was born during the beginning of the second autumn that I lived here in exile. She was a September baby, coming at just the moment when the lazy summer air focused sharply on turning the corner into fall. The man whom I had married had vanished back to his twelve-hour days at the office. I had thought we would at least share parenthood. But I was wrong. Alone in a tiny rented cottage, I struggled to learn the ways of new motherhood with a child who cried twenty hours of every day. One morning, I saw a group of children from the local preschool pause in front of the liquid amber tree in the cottage’s front yard. They were picking up the dusty gold leaves that had fallen. That poor lonely liquid amber was the only tree of its kind in our tiny community. The rest were palm trees and evergreens. No wonder the children had journeyed from their school to see a phenomenon that in the South was as common as breathing autumn air. Alone and exhausted, I began to cry for all the autumns my California children would never have.

Since that day, I have traveled a long journey, coming to love this strange, raw land that is home to my three amazing children. I have decide this blog is going to become the story of that journey; and how I, perpetually an ex-pat, came to terms with largely foreign ways. Once upon a long time ago, I was a graduate English student, studying Irish literature. Somewhere during those days, I read that if you are born Irish, you are always Irish, no matter where life takes you. And now, after more than twenty years in exile, I can say, if you are born Southern, you are always Southern, even if you marry the wrong person and raise children in a foreign land. But I can also say, that leaving and looking back teaches you so very, very much about who you are and how to appreciate the place that created you. If I had never left, I would never have learned who was hiding inside of me.

Stay tuned for more of the journey. And happy autumn wherever you are.

Fall in San Diego

Southern California autumn

In Tennessee

Tennessee autumn

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