Tuesday, December 18, 2018

don't tell mom

I'll share a story with you if you promise not to tell my mom.

Monique's office is next door to mine.  She's cool.  Just before Thanksgiving break she asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving.  I told her I'd go to my mom's for lunch.  She asked if we had a big family thing there which led to me telling her a little about how my mom cooks for us twice a month.  Which then led to me telling her a little about how my mom does stuff for us all the time.  Which then led to me telling her that my mom still makes jelly from scratch and that my peanut butter and jelly sandwich I was about to eat in my office was made with said jelly.  Monique gave me that "you're such a spoiled child" look.  And I know, because spoiled children know that look.  And then she said that my mom was amazing.  Dude, you have no idea.  Get yourself a drink and make yourself comfortable.  Let me tell you about my mom.

As I sit here at the computer on a Saturday night, my mom is preparing food for Sunday lunch.  Twice each month mom cooks a big lunch for my brothers and me.  Our families get to come along too.  It's worth noting that one of my brothers has nine children.  The other two of us have 4 children between us.  There are also friends/visitors and significant others and spouses that tag along.  Most of us regular people cant imagine cooking in quantities that would feed that many humans at one meal but my mom does it every other Sunday.  She does it alone and she doesn't allow anyone else to bring anything.  Let's just let that be your introduction to her.

My brother Daniel calls mom "The Terminator" after the indestructible robot in the first Terminator movie.  The knickname came from the day the family gathered to clear a large wooded lot for Daniel to build a house.  A group of grown men headed into the underbrush with chainsaws and one guy who was from my sister-in-law's family had never encountered my mom before.  I remember seeing him sitting down, covered in sweat while he took a water break.  He was watching my mom still going strong with her own chainsaw, working circles around the rest of us.  He had never seen anything like this but to the rest of us, this was just mom doing her thing.  Never stopping for a break...nonstop just like the Terminator.
that's mom with a tiny me at Disney 1972ish

My mom worked full time and mommed full time.  When she got home from work around 5:30 she began her work at home with cooking supper (We are southern, I promise this was not dinner.  In the south we eat supper).  This was not a microwaved meal and it was most certainly not fast food picked up on the way home.  This was a home cooked meal.  After supper she would clean up every dish, do laundry, clean up the house, prepare things for the next day and somehow she even found time to sleep.  Thursday was grocery day so for a good hour after work she filled a shopping cart to overflowing with food, often with 5 gallons of milk and then she'd arrive home to cook and do the rest.  Fridays were house cleaning days, so after a full week of work she opted to come home, cook and then spend her entire night cleaning the house.  At this very moment you could walk into mom's house and find the floors cleaner than any dish in my house.  When she cleaned the house, she really cleaned the house.  Saturdays were for bigger projects like canning things, putting up vegetables, shelling pecans and sewing, because she knows her way around a sewing machine and she was always making things and hemming things.  Sundays were church for both morning and evening services and a big cooked lunch in between.  Oh and with three sons she also managed to pick us all up from after-school activities and drive us around the world on weekends.  

So that's how her weeks went on a regular basis as she took care of her kids and husband.  But mom doesn't really say no to people when they need help so she also had a lot of other things to do.  As far back as I can remember she has helped care for her extended family.  She drives people to the doctor, takes them to surgery and waits on them to get out.  She cleans for people.  She cooks for people.  And with 13 grandchildren, some she's had for 20 something years, she does more than her share of babysitting.  If you can imagine a woman putting up Christmas decorations while cooking a full meal while cleaning her house while canning green beans while babysitting four kids while cutting her multi-acre lawn, you'll start to get a bit of a picture of my mom.

As you can tell from the chainsaw story, mom has never been a stranger to working outside.  She's pruned apple trees in her yard for years.  Just a few years ago she fell off a ladder while pruning the top of an apple tree.  She got up, limped back to the house and probably cooked a giant meal and mopped the house afterwards.  

True story:  A few years ago she was preparing to get a Thanksgiving gathering going.  The weekend before Thanksgiving she had intense pain bad enough to force her to go to the Emergency Room.  A surgeon quickly removed her gall bladder and told her to take it easy for the next few weeks.  You know what she was doing as soon as she got home don't you?  That Wednesday I helped her deep fry two turkeys and she cooked Thanksgiving dinner as planned.  I do think she took a nap afterwards, but dang that woman is unstoppable.

Back to that jelly.  I remember mom making jelly from way back in my kid years.  I helped strain the smashed up fruit a few times when I'm sure she was trying to keep me occupied and otherwise out of trouble.  Mom has two rows of muscadine grapes or scuppernongs, or maybe it's both.  She prunes them and tends to them each year and at harvest time, she takes the fruit and makes a fresh crop of jelly in glass jars.  I still remember hearing the lids seal with a pop as they cooled on the counter top.  Throughout the year she will ask if we're out of jelly or we'll bring back a couple of empty jars and she'll send us back home with full jars.  It's a simple way of showing love and this is the heart of what mom does.  Very often through food, but also in a myriad of other ways, she demonstrates her love for others through her actions.  She will cook a meal for you, she will make you the birthday cake of your choice.  She will clean your house, help you move, pick up your kids from school and then offer you a meal when you pick them up.  Not only does she say yes when you ask her anything, she is thoughtful enough to anticipate your needs and volunteer to help you.  It's amazing really.  

Christmas is my favorite time of year and one of the reasons for that is that mom's true gift in cooking is in the realm of desserts.  Each year around Thanksgiving, in addition to all the other truckloads of things she's doing, she will ask you what kinds of Christmas goodies you want her to make you this year.  She's super organized and she always has a list of what she made you last year for reference.  She'll show you the list and ask if you want to change anything.  G and I have our all-time-favorite mom desserts on our list and this week we brought home the last goodies on our list for this year.  Peanut butter balls, pretzel buckeyes, magic cookie bars, chocolate pie, white chocolate covered peanut butter crackers, sausage balls and a cheeseball have all passed through our kitchen in the last few weeks.  People wonder why I run every day.  Y'all, I have to run every day because of all the stuff my mom sends me to eat.  She's doing this for me, but she's also doing the same for my brothers and who knows how many other people in the community.

And then there's butternut cake.  The butternut pound cake was apparently something my mom's dad would bake.  There was a special butternut flavoring he would use that was the secret to the taste.  My entire life, my mom has made this cake for our family.  She always uses a bunt cake pan and when you walked into the house you could smell the cake before you saw the flawless ridges on the browned cake edges sitting on a cooling rack.  My dad had no patience when it came to a hot butternut cake and I remember watching him dig right in as soon as the pan came off.  The hot crusty part on the bottom was always my first bite but nothing compared to the moist, yellow, fluffy cake inside.  As I mentioned, each year mom will ask what kind of birthday cake or pie you want.  G always goes for a chocolate pie and I promise you've never had a chocolate pie as good as my mom's.  And mom makes some stunning Pinterest worthy birthday cakes.  If it's decadent and beautiful, she has made it.  But each year I opt for a butternut cake for my birthday.  The look of it and the taste of it sends me right back to childhood every single time.  

Now, those are just the things I'm most familiar with that my mom does that I consider to be above and beyond regular mom awesomeness.  However, I can assure you that she does even more and it would all blow your mind.  Just when you think there's not enough time in the day for her to do all that, you hear someone say she organized a trip for the old folks at church.  Or maybe she planned a school reunion.  Or she hosted her brothers and sisters for a meal.  We used to hear about things she did and we'd say "Really?".  Now we hear things and we say "Of course she did".

So why tell you all this?  Well, for one thing, my mom's awesomeness is off the scale and people just need to know that there are humans on Earth that are really that great.  But I do not tell you this to make you jealous or to make you feel bad about your mom.  (I'm sure she's great too!)  And I especially don't tell you this to make you feel less-than in your own momming and dadding.  I share the greatness of my mom with you because we all need to be reminded of our own potential for greatness.  You know how you watch an uplifting movie and you want to be a better person for a few days?  I figure the same thing can happen when we see the actions of someone like my mom.  Every single thing she does is based in love.  And it's that real, hard to live out love sometimes.  The kind where you purposefully forget all the bad things that person did to you in the past and you help them.  Or you overlook all the dumb things your three sons did when they were young and you do nice things for them.  Or when you totally realize that there's a chance someone could be taking advantage of your generosity and you continue to offer that generosity over and over again.  That's my mom.  That's the example she's providing for all of us.  That's my motivation for trying to be a good parent, husband and teacher.  Maybe one day I'll be at least a fraction of the awesome she is.  But right now I've to got go eat more of these Christmas sweets my mom made me.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

i feel weird

I had to go to an art thing the other night and I was making my way through the gallery making sure to see and be seen by the right people before making a graceful exit.  On my way to the door I passed a colleague from school.  He's from another department on campus, a really nice guy, and we spoke.  He laughed and said that it always looked like I was having such a great time.  He said he saw me running on campus with some students and saw a class of us at a restaurant earlier in the semester.  

People say this to me a lot.  The highlight reel is always posted on Instagram and I get a lot of comments from friends and family about how it looks like I never "work".  When I had coffee with Donovan a few weeks ago (a religion professor at another university) he made a similar comment and said something along the lines of "you really found your thing".

He's certainly correct.  I've been super blessed.  And man, I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am to be where I am with the people I'm with.  School people, family people, art people...even peripheral people...they're all so important to me.  But social media isn't called "honest media".  Instagram isn't really concerned with how hard something was to complete or what your true feelings are about someone.  They just want to see the good stuff, the happy stuff.  That guy in the gallery, he didn't see the social anxiety that had me headed toward the door in a very calculated manner.  He didn't see that I wouldn't make it home before Violet fell asleep that night.  He didn't see the dishes and laundry piled up because I hadn't been home long enough to do them all that week.  

I was talking to a student last week about balance.  This one is always doing their best and there was talk about feeling like they wasted time over Thanksgiving break because they watched Netflix and ate a lot.  I tried to preach the gospel of rest and balance for a hardworking soul.  I'm not sure if it made a dent.  But I do believe in balance.  If you work hard, you should rest hard.  I even used the not so great illustration of me running and exercising every day and eating ridiculous waffles and sweets.  Balance, right?  

Our art faculty pour themselves into our students and our department.  We go above and beyond teaching to make our department great.  Every semester we go hard and near the end of each semester you can start to see the cracks.  We are all in need of a good break and some time with our families.  This too is balance.  It's just not always on Instagram.  I guess a photo of my feet rested on Zeke while watching something dumb on Netflix just doesn't make a great post.  And while a photo of Violet holding my hand walking out of church might be adorable, it's also not for everyone to see.  That moment is mine and I'm not willing to share it.  Same with sitting down with G for a couple of minutes of quiet.  Or talking to Blue about school and Youtube videos.  If you're not us or our dogs, those times are invisible and the balance is also impossible to see.  

Students love to make statements about how busy they are and how all I have to do is "teach" and go home.  I can hear the quotation marks they put around the word teach.  It's funny to me because they have no idea how much goes into "teaching" the way I do and they also have no idea all the other parts of life that must be juggled along with that teaching.  They only see the one side and think they have the whole story.  

The good ones, the ones that understand what it means to be grateful, may even be thoughtful enough to say thank you at some point.  Some do this often and it is a testament to their character.  Some offer a thoughtful remark at graduation but I feel selfish even accepting their thanks.  The truth is, I get to do what I do because of the other people in my life.  People have helped to put me where I am today.  They made sacrifices of time and energy to teach me and call a friend to put in a good word.  They demonstrated effective teaching at various levels to provide me examples.  They put me in exhibits.  They bought me groceries to take to school.  They picked up the kids, fed the dogs and cleaned the house so I could go to a reception.  They went to bed without a hug, kiss or "goodnight" so I could support my students.  They were a friend to me when I needed it.  These are the people who deserve the thank yous.  

So maybe that's my job.  And maybe that's why I'm feeling weird these days.  It's the holidays, it's dark all the time, it's rained a lot lately and at the end of the semester I'm just plain tired.  A friend's dad passed away recently and I've been thinking about my dad.  Boy do I owe him some thank yous.  I guess I'm feeling grateful.  Grateful to be in a position where people think I'm always having fun.  Grateful for all the people who have lifted me here.  Grateful for the ones who hold me here.  Grateful for my family, my friends, my students....for my life.  And seriously, grateful for you, person on the internet who cares enough to read this.  Thank you for your investment in me.  

I hope we all find the balance that works for us.