Threads

The stoop in his shoulders stills my breath. For an instant, as my daddy rounds the corner, he is my Pop, the grandfather hunched by years of mill and farm work, the man who eventually could only find relief from the constant pain in as many cortisone shots as the doctor would allow.

I stand in the kitchen in my black-on-not-quite-as-black makeshift pantsuit, momentarily disoriented. I blink and he is my father again, salt-and-pepper beard given over entirely to salt, navy suit baggy on a frame I don’t remember being so thin.

You’ve lost weight? I ask, but am told no, he doesn’t think so.

I grab my keys and follow him out the door. We are going, on a 70-degree Saturday in February, to a funeral.

It’s for my daddy’s aunt, the wife of my Pop’s brother. Her name is Edith. She lived to be 91 and is the next-to-last of that generation, the great aunts and uncles a Sunday afternoon car ride away who lived in houses full of knick-knacks that smelled of lavender. The sisters and brothers indistinguishable to a 6-year-old, the one tall man who played checkers, the other who lived in overalls that smelled like sun-baked earth. Men and women who, through no fault of their own or basis in reality, have seemed old for 40 years.

Gas stations and the Dollar General disappear as we drive farther into the country. The land flattens and leaches color, muddling to the uniform brown of scrabbly pine trees. Mobile homes are interspersed with incongruously large, blindingly white declarations of prosperity, or perhaps just a keen eye for acreage. One house rising on a hill has a fenced-in lot with cows, miniature horses and … a camel. I squawk and stab at the window, leaving the print of my index fingertip. My father confirms my vision.

I’ve looked up directions to the First Baptist church in my phone, a navigational safeguard that proves entirely unnecessary. One left turn off the main road and there it is, brick and stained glass giving way to the utilitarian fellowship hall where lunch is being served before the service.

The wind rearranges my already unruly hair as I tug on the double doors. The smell of things fried in butter hits me seconds before the low waves of conversation. I smile and nod, as does Daddy. We’re fine, thank you, how are you. Who are you? Daddy is equally at sea until my cousin comes up to hug us. Overhead details in our chat identify Daddy, and an initial unease fades in the face of a table laden with potato salad, macaroni pie and fried chicken that I can tell just by looking is going to taste as close to any I’ve eaten since my granny died.

A paper cup of proper teeth-achingly sweet tea washes down lunch, and eventually, people mill over to the sanctuary. Sunlight streams through jeweled windows the preacher tells us are original to the 1891 structure. The pianist plays “In the Garden” as I page through the hymnal. I land on my favorite, “Just As I Am,” and I reassure myself that I remember all six verses, including the last one that doesn’t rhyme.

The mini-sermon isn’t too long-winded. The younger of the two preachers knew Edith and shares sweet stories about visiting her. We are encouraged to turn to God for refuge, asked if we know Jesus. I fiddle with the safety pin discreetly fastened under my jacket.

A sepia-toned picture of Edith as a young woman sits atop one of her handsome husband, gone to glory many years before. I see my Pop in the wave of his dark hair, though Pop’s hair is gray and thinning in my memory. I realize that my father and I, while seated several pews back in the family rows, may be the only ones with the same last name as the people in the photographs.

At the graveside service, I look at that name, carved into the granite headstone. I smile and chat politely with relatives I would not know on the street. I feel guilty and shallow. A cousin who died at 32 is memorialized nearby, and though chunks of my childhood involved his peripheral presence as I caught spring lizards and crawdads in the creek with his little sister, I’d all but forgotten him.

It’s an odd thing, family. This kind, the double helix kind, is nothing we have any say or choice about, for better or worse. It’s a familiar sweater, slightly shapeless from ill-advised hanging, waiting in the back of the closet for the chilly morning it’s remembered. Why don’t I wear this more often, we think, burrowing into its warmth, before we return it to its hanger.

Time wears away threads. My granny sewed. She made my Easter dresses and clothing for the church and, once, flags for the local high school band’s color guard. She taught me as a child, but like the piano I once played, it’s a skill I’ve neglected into rusted obsolescence.

I think of people who share bits of my blood and past, with whom I hiked mountains and haunted used bookstores, and wonder about their lives. So much fades if it’s not part of the front-and-center Facebook universe, a world so vast and so very small.

I wonder how to start stitching.  

The afternoon sun is high and bright as I swing myself into the cab of Daddy’s truck and we back slowly away from the cemetery. The headstone with our name watches us go.

My fingers pick up the needle, hesitate on the keys. I think of the stoop in those shoulders that seems sudden but of course isn’t.

On the drive back, the camel is gone. I return to a hungry cat and pressing deadlines. But I see sunlight shining through stained glass. I hear the piano play.

I close my eyes and listen to the music.

Super Bowl memory shuffle

The first Super Bowl I was alive for took place on Jan. 13. 1974. Miami’s Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and Co. dismantled Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in a game venerated Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope described thusly: “It was murder. It made the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre look like a draw."

I don’t remember the game myself, as I was four months and a day old. Indeed, I don’t recall that any of the Super Bowls of the 70s made lasting impressions. I know now about the Steel Curtain and Mean Joe Greene (I do remember the classic Coca-Cola ad) and the shrapnel embedded in Rocky Bleier’s knee.

I remember scraps of Roger Staubach’s swan song, Too Tall Jones and Tony Dorsett. I remember Jim Plunkett’s bushy black hair.

Snippets knit together into more substantial stuff around 1981, taking snaps and making plays with Joe Montana. Dwight Clark went to Clemson – I was always clear on that – and The Catch, on Jan. 10, 1982, which lifted the 49ers into the Super Bowl, is one of my first actual sports memories. Hacksaw Reynolds and Ronnie Lott gave me my first clear picture of what defense looks like – an image that has blurred a bit over time.

Washington’s 1983 Super Bowl win against Miami represented the first coronation for the Hogs (Joe Jacoby – robbed again), Art Monk, the Diesel, Dexter and Joe Gibbs. The Redskins’ 1984 beatdown as snow fell in South Carolina at the hands – and feet – of Marcus Allen is the first time I can recall a sporting event putting me in a lasting bad mood.

Ah, youth.

But what truly solidified my love of football, what drove the anchoring nails deep into my pigskin heart, was the wonderful, wacky carpet ride of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Sweetness and McMahon. Mike Singletary’s eyes. The Fridge (Clemson) and Richard Dent. I had no conception of Buddy Ryan’s genius and only a vague notion of Walter Payton’s place in history, but what I did have was a vinyl recording of “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” Speedy Willie and Mama’s Boy Otis. Backup QB Steve Fuller (Clemson), claiming with a semi-straight face to “run like lightning, pass like thunder.” And my favorite: “My name is Sweetness and I like to dance/Running the ball is like making romance.”

The charmed madness culminated in the Bears’ 46-10 victory against New England in Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986, and I was hooked. This football stuff was fun.

Gibbs and the Redskins would go on to win two more championships before the long national nightmare that was the mid-’90s and the Dallas dynasty. More iconic names etched themselves in sterling silver. Young. Favre. Elway. Warner. Lewis. Manning. Brady.

The game has not always been as fun as it seemed 30 years ago. We didn’t know about CTE then – well, some of us didn’t. Off-field troubles tended to stay there – for better or worse. Rules changes have gassed up and gunned the product for a fan base whose intelligence is insulted on a regular basis – but never fear; have a team-colored can of crappy beer.

This Super Bowl Sunday, I don’t even have plans. I’m sure I’ll wind up somewhere. I won’t make Super Bowl chili and tape pictures of favorite players to my wall and pack an auxiliary cooler with ice on the porch. But I’ll do something.

I don’t have much of a rooting interest. I remember Steve Bartkowski and Billy White Shoes Johnson, but the Falcons hold no special place in my heart. My disdain for Tom Brady and the Patriots is the same as most of America’s. I’m hoping for a good game, a memorable halftime show from Lady Gaga and that friends who do care will wind up happy.

That seems fitting as of late. I don’t have a huge rooting interest in much these days. Everything seems a little subdued - sounds muted, colors faded. But that’s OK, too. I’ve been around this particular game long enough to know these things, like transcendent quarterbacks and next-level defenses, go in cycles. I’m playing out the final few minutes of the second quarter – or third, depending on your point of view and level of bitchiness. I’ll make some locker-room adjustments, get some fluids, rest a bit and come back out – eventually – rejuvenated and ready to run through a wall. (That part I’ve practiced).

In the meantime, maybe there’s a good Super Bowl retrospective on somewhere, perhaps something with grainy footage and John Facenda’s voice.

And there’s this: Pitchers and catchers report in eight days.

 

For my girls

My friend Patrick got me thinking the other day.

Pat, an immensely talented graphic artist and an even better human being, is also a part-time DJ and radio show host. In support of this avocation, he often solicits Facebook feedback from friends about artists, genres, songs, etc.

Last week, after millions of women raised their voices and moved their feet from D.C. to Antarctica, Pat asked his loyal audience to suggest songs about female empowerment.

Female empowerment. Well, those are some words right now, aren’t they.

I still want to wake up. I still look for ways to channel all this … everything … into action. I still can’t see or hear that person in his current position. I can't read about the latest freedom he's threatened or the next group of people he's dehumanized.

What I can do, as I pop a Diet Coke at midnight and take a break from the transcribing I’m using to keep me awake until Venus and Serena play, is this: I can tell you about some women who’ve empowered me this past week.

Firstly, Venus and Serena. I’ve interviewed both and found both to be gracious, if graciously removed, in circumstances never designed for the likes of them. I’ve written at length about their talent, their resolve, their refusal to give in to societal expectation or political pressure (google Venus and Wimbledon prize money) or that bitch, Time, who comes for us all in the end.

The fact the Venus, 36, is playing Serena, 35, in this (very early) morning’s Australian Open final is nothing short of fucking amazing. Venus hasn’t been to a Grand Slam final in eight years. Can you still do things you did eight years ago as well, if not better - while fighting an incurable autoimmune disease that tries to rob you of your strength every day? I ask as someone who can’t climb stairs without pausing on days her balky right knee doesn’t cooperate.

Serena - who almost died herself several years back from a pulmonary embolism - will become the most decorated player in the modern era if she wins her 23rd Slam, 14 years after she last faced her big sister in one. These sisters, these black girls from Compton, have dominated this country club sport for two decades, and the fact that we get one more (last?) show from them is humbling and as beautiful as Venus’s victorious double turn after her semifinal win against an 11-years-younger opponent.

On a more personal level, my mother came to visit last weekend. She poked around, unpacking and rearranging things as she does, imposing her well-intentioned will and, as ever, providing unconditional – and sometimes maddening – support. There were careful conversations and sidestepped subjects, and there was beef stew in the crockpot when I got home from marching in the rain.  

On Monday, my friend and I went to a basketball game. My friend who understands levels of me I don’t bother trying to explain to the general public: my rabid love for my sports teams, my fierce support for women that is undiminished by my frustration at our unparalleled ability to backbite and belittle; my undying belief that a beer and a ballgame can make just about anything better. We laughed and cheered and yelled my school’s somewhat inappropriate nickname at the top of our lungs.

It was the best Monday I’d had in a while.

In my work week, I talked to and wrote about brilliant women, professors whose research is actively saving lives – from investigating food security to preventing mosquito-borne illnesses. I posted about this and dozens of other subjects on various forms of social media, trading comments and wisecracks with women from Virginia to Seattle - women I've known since I was 15, women I've never met in person, women who are a lot like me and women who could scarcely be more different.

Tonight, I had settled into a night of work and self-pitying solitude when the phone rang. One of my favorite people of all time was on the other end, asking if she could interest me in martinis.

Hold on. Let me think.

This particular person has an almost preternatural knack for knowing when I need that phone call. I am glad the distance between such communication is now six minutes instead of three states.

Now, I listen to one of my responses to Pat’s question. Lucinda rocks me in her gently brutal bluesy embrace.

If we live in world without tears

How would bruises find a face to lie upon

How would scars find skin

To etch themselves into

How would broken find the bone

It’s hard not to feel broken in a world that creeps a little farther off the rails every day. But when I’m most in danger of a bloody, cacophonous crash of screeching metal, I know which women can hold me steady on the tracks.

Empowering, indeed.

Baggage claim

It’s a new year, and one of the highlights of its nascent days will be, like last year, watching Clemson play for a national championship.

Last New Year’s Eve, I flew my Clemson graduate daddy down to South Florida, where I lived at the time, and we watched the Tigers book what would be the first of two straight title dates against Alabama by steamrolling Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

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We had the best time. We tailgated with a hairy man with a tiger tattooed on his belly. We listened to the Clemson marching band shake the Southland with Tiger Rag. We stood and cheered and spelled C-L-E-M-S-O-N so many times (with accompanying arm pumps) that my chest hurt for days afterward.

A few days, beers and poker games later, I dropped him off at the airport.

The Fort Lauderdale airport, to be specific – the same airport where I’d picked up my parents the previous June for a combined Mama’s birthday/Father’s Day trip that included Dodger games at Marlins Park. The same airport where I'd watched my stepdaughter shed her cool teenage skin and run into my husband's arms. The same airport where I’d picked up a dear friend who needed a change of scenery, another one on a business trip, another one who took her first flight to see me. 

The same airport where, yesterday, a man took a gun from his checked baggage, loaded it in the bathroom, and opened fire, killing five people and wounding six more.

To pick from among horrible things, I can’t even say I’m shocked. No one in this country can, not after we decided that the bullet-riddled bodies of 20 schoolchildren weren’t abominations that outweighed hefty political contributions. There’s nothing new to say, really, about the latest in a never-ending line of mass shootings in America – except, having stood where people most recently fell, I now feel this truth in my bones: It’s only a matter of time until it happens to you, or someone you love.

I can avoid this reality, snuggled underneath layers of blanket and cat and sampling seasonal beer while watching hours of football and college basketball as the last of the Saturday morning snow melts from stunned Southern trees.  I can avoid this reality cloistered in a house that has become a sanctuary of convenience and necessity, where my only conversations with other humans take place online, where messiness and blood are safely on the other side of the warped front door that requires a good hip check to lock.

I can avoid this reality until I am waiting eagerly to see faces I love, or in line at a restaurant, or walking around a university campus that, 21 years after I first left it, is haltingly reintroducing itself, at the same time as some fucker with a gun and a righteous grudge.

I know we think it can’t happen to us. But thoughts and prayers have just as much chance of keeping us safe as elected officials who have irrevocably abdicated that responsibility.

So I’ll have another sip and watch Jadeveon Clowney’s middle finger to those who thought he was a bust and try not see people taking cover in the Hibiscus Garage or cowering behind ticket counters or bleeding beside a baggage carousel where I’ve hugged my daddy.

It’s not that hard. Complacency is a faithful friend. But it’s also a liar.

 

Auld lang syne already

I suppose people die every year. Lots of people, in fact.

Truth be told, as much as Prince’s music (or George Michael’s, or David Bowie’s) provided a soundtrack to pivotal moments of my youth, as much as I loved Carrie Fisher as a princess when I was a little girl and came to admire her as a woman as I became one, as much as I read almost every word Pat Conroy wrote or watched Alan Rickman bring memorable characters to life, I haven’t really lost anyone this year – not in the way many people have. I haven’t buried children or suffered with sick parents or mourned the laughter of a friend.

My own health is good (though I could stand to get my ass to the gym).  My career, which floundered for a few years, seems to be back on track (though I have come to accept that Disposable Income is a myth, like unicorns and tasty low-calorie chocolate). My personal life, though perhaps unrecognizable from a year ago, is in many ways a more peaceable place.

I don’t say all this to tempt the universe into taking umbrage at my good fortune and striking down bits of it. I’m just trying to shake this fog, thicker than the billows that obscured the ocean on the last day of a holiday trip to Folly Beach, that has settled into my brain and body and heart as this year keeps bashing us about its hard-walled sides.

The election and its wake continue to weigh on me. Each day, I fasten my safety pin and get the coffee creamer from a fridge with a thank-you note from Planned Parenthood for my measly contribution pinned to the door. I try to stay motivated in the fight. Some days feel like progress; others pointless.

As much as I long for 2017, I know its predecessor has wrought irrevocable changes. Pitchers and catchers report in 45 days, but Opening Day won’t be the very pleasant good evening it’s been my entire life. College football will soon crown a new national champion, and my daddy’s team is once again in the mix to claim the title, but the sport’s deep-seated vein of entitlement and misogyny is getting harder and harder to compartmentalize. (It is not alone in this, to be sure.) The NFL’s on-field product declines while its off-field issues fester. The specter of long-awaited NCAA sanctions hangs over the heads of top-tier college basketball programs even as conference play heats up.

Still, I hope. I hope to eventually be able to stomach news reports and magazine covers detailing our political reality, even as I find meaningful ways to combat it. I hope to find new music and movies to appreciate, though old loves will never lose their place. I hope happiness I once envisioned is still possible, in a modified but familiar form.  

I hope my Gamecocks give South Florida a game in the Birmingham Bowl, which kicks off in a little more than two hours. I hope my Dodgers make it to the World Series. I hope Vin enjoys retirement for a long, long time.

I know 2017 will not be immune to the problems that have permeated 2016. But I am done with this year and its constant sorrow. It’s time to walk on through. Walk till you run, and don’t look back.

As this New Year’s Day approaches, I have seldom been as ready to begin again.