Compound Pondering

My asthma has been kicking me around a bit this spring, and I’m tired of it. Tired of wheezing and congestion. Tired of limiting my activity. Tired of staying inside when I want to be out. I remember my trip to ASAP, Vanderbilt’s Asthma, Sinus, and Allergy Program, the one where they stuck me with a hundred needles, trying to find my special and personal allergens. They didn’t find much. The one thing that would even suggest that it might elicit a response was cat hair, and my reaction wasn’t strong enough to be called an allergy.

The nurse practitioner sat in a chair facing me. “I would have sworn you’d have ten or twelve of these just off the chart…and there are none.” She told me about the cat hair. Her final summation was, “Diana, you aren’t allergic to anything, but you are highly irritated by oh, so many things.”

I answered her with true sincerity, “You. Have. No. Idea.”

In the Compound, it’s hard to make any room for irritations that might get me down. I don’t want to go down–and if I have to, I want to come back up kicking and screaming. Actually, I want to be up and at ’em all the time. I want to dig in the dirt and shove boxes around in the garage. I want to redecorate rooms and paint furniture. I want to be a good partner for Dave, and to be (cheerfully) available to Mom and Dad. I want to do more Grammy-ing.

We have a new grandbaby, one Evan Gabriel Revell, son of Darrin and Dana, and we have another on the way, Savannah Grace Graham, to Jade, Anjie, and big brother Jaxton. I’m longing to see Jaxton. I’ve babysat Evan once now, and am in the process of sewing a three-tiered ruffled crib skirt for Savannah’s room. The “old” grandkids, Jameson and Carly, haven’t been here for Grammy Night in more than a month. We’re all missing that.  And then, we’ve started planning for a possible summer visit from the Montana grands, Bri and Zack.

Evan was a big surprise early in March when Darrin and Dana were chosen to be his parents. He came into our lives with a wallop to all our senses. Evan is African American. We’re all white…sort of. There are those three little boys we got in Montana, Jimmy, Jerry, and Johnny Wong, three brothers of a Chinese father and a Native American mother. They’re certainly not white. They’ve been men for a long time now, their years adding up at 56, 57, and 58. We tease Jerry that he’s getting old. He’s good-natured about it.

There’s more I want to do. I want to do more writing. I want to be able to put the pen to what I feel and think, clearly and kindly, but without timidity. Facebook posts just don’t get it. I’ve never seen anyone’s mind changed by either an email or a Facebook post. Most of the time, an opinion expressed on Facebook makes somebody mad.

I’m not mad, but the posts about Baltimore are getting to me and my visceral response is less than pleasant. The first two things that confound me:  1. The most viral post seems to be the one where the mother of one of the kids on the street doing what we all wish the kids on the street wouldn’t do grabs him up and lays into him with her hands. 2. The most immediate response to the rioting and looting is a name-call, “Thugs!” I keep wondering if there couldn’t be some story, some meme, some editorial somewhere that could help us all to think, and then to do what needs to be done to make sure there’s not as much reason for a bunch of our people–Americans–to be this desperate.

The Compound bunch has a long cumulative history of working for civil rights. My dad and I both got in trouble more than once in the 60’s. But don’t get me wrong, the residents of The Compound here are not unbiased. We can’t be. We’ve had privilege for so long that there are instances where we couldn’t find its resting place to exhume it for identification. We’ve called rioters thugs. We’ve asked,  “Why would they destroy their own community?” A couple of us even cheered that mother on, one of us saying that’s what mamas should do and then Baltimore wouldn’t be going through this mess; although, the other said this wasn’t discipline, but a mama doing anything in her power to get her black son out of danger.

All of us here remember what it was like to live in Montana when the Wong boys were kids. Dave was not part of our family at the time, of course, but he was born and raised in Montana. Native Americans were low on the social strata, to say the least. And when some parents realized the Native American side of the ancestry, “those Indian kids” did not get invited for playdates. It always hit me as a bit odd, even rude, when some person asked my dad, “What are they?” What are they? They’re kids!  It floored me the day I came home from work to find my mother teaching my youngest brother to deliver a right-hand punch. They’re calling them names and grabbing their things at school. Nobody is doing anything. They’ve got to learn to take care of themselves.

One of my little brothers went to a Tennessee prison when he was in his forties. I learned a lot about the justice system during the fourteen months he spent in a county jail, waiting for court action. At the end of that time, he was given a plea deal and began his prison career. He started out at a special-needs facility in Nashville–because he is mentally challenged–and served five of his five-years-and-eight-months there. I was his frequent, Monday-night visitor. I learned a lot about the prison system during both the first five years and the last eight months. I learned that most of the prison population is minority, predominantly black. My brother fit in a class somewhere between black and white, more toward the black end of the structure. One night, while we played Old Maids, he assured me that he was “better than the Mexicans and Mexicans are better than the blacks.”

He learned to cast his lot toward the white end, in spite of his very dark skin placing him squarely as a man of color.

Do I think he would have served prison time had he been white? Maybe, but the statistics say he would have been less likely to be arrested in the first place, less likely to be convicted, might have been offered a better plea bargain, less likely to serve time, and, if he did serve time, likely to serve less time than what he got. His mental challenges just upped the stats.

I hugged, kissed, and cuddled Evan yesterday while his dad went to the dentist. He is warm, sweet, squeezable. We’ve been so blessed that Evan has joined our crazy family. He’s new, but he’s already pretty much like all the rest of the grandbabies when they’re new–loved, welcomed, and doted on–and, in the next couple of months, Savannah Grace will jilt him out of his newest baby place for her ride in the latest-baby sun.

He’s like all the rest…except that he’ll cause me to ask questions that would never come up for the ones with whiter skin and straighter hair. I’ll wonder how his parents will teach him about his ethnical heritage. What a big job! I’ll wonder how he might develop pride in his blackness. I’ll wonder how much privilege, how many points, he’ll gain for growing up with white family. And I’ll always wonder about those times when someone looking at him doesn’t know Evan ‘s heart nor his family and sees only someone “less-than,”  someone to stay away from.

I’m always going to be thinking about how to keep Evan safe.

In the midst of trying to explain how I feel, I came across an essay in Salon by a mixed-race woman that so resonated with me that I must encourage you to read it. I hope you will, if for no other reason than to help me understand myself.



The Old Folks Go on Vacation

Mom and Dad are going to Nevada on Saturday and they’ll be gone for three weeks. I find that I am sad—not exactly worried, or anxious, but just sad to see them go, sad to wonder “What if they don’t come back?”

I remember having the same wigglies in my stomach and gnawing in my chest when my sons left for camp. There was this same question “What if something happens to them?” but I could talk myself out of worrying about the kids easier than I can convince myself to give it up about my folks. After all, Dad is 82 and Mom is almost 80. They’re closer to heaven than they’ve ever been before.

Mom had emergency gallbladder surgery on September 19. We’ll keep a follow-up appointment with the surgeon this Thursday, just two days before she and Dad board Southwest Airlines for a direct flight to Reno. She’s not 100 percent yet, but her zigzag, one-day-good-one-not-so-good recovery has propelled her to at least a healthy A-minus. She tires very easily and still has some discomfort in her abdomen. And she’s going to ride across country in an airplane. Is she really, really, really ready to go…

Dad is cleaning off the bank of the ravine in back of the property. He devised a clever system of laying a tall ladder on the bank with the bottom rungs and feet anchored against a big tree. Then he shinnies down the ladder with his tools. The trees and undergrowth support him as he makes his way across the bank, felling scrub trees and pulling heavy vines. When he gets tired—actually, he says when he is “about to get tired”—he crab-walks back to the ladder and climbs back to the yard.

The second day he went down the bank, I took his picture. He looks like a strong-as-an-ox 70-year-old farmer, maybe even younger, in worn overalls, a faded blue bandanna wrapped around his bald head for a do-rag. I hear him hacking through the brush as I write. He is happiest when he is working outdoors. I can’t help but wonder “Will he come home in as good a condition as he is now?”

My brother Denny and his wife Bev will host this trip. They don’t know—can’t know—all the “little things.” They are borrowing an SUV for Mom and Dad’s ride, and I hope they realize the need for a step-stool of some sort to get on the running board. They’ll have some bourbon for Dad and some wine for Mom, and I hope they aren’t surprised that Dad only has one drink per day—at 5 o’clock—and that Mom rarely drinks anything alcoholic these days. They’ll try to feed Mom and Dad well, and I hope they know that neither one eats much at any given meal but Dad has two or three bowls of ice cream every day (cookies and cream, or chocolate chip cookie dough) and Mom has to have her daily grapefruit.

We only have four more days to get ready for this trip. There’s a battle to be won with the Medicare Part D carrier that decided that Dad only needs one Protonix pill per day instead of the two that his doctor prescribed. Mom and I have waxed and colored and coiffed. We’ve discussed luggage and purses and outfits. Dad has made the wire cages that I need to winterize the roses and we’ve decided that I need to go buy the pansies pretty soon but wait until he comes home to plant them in the barn wood planter boxes. They’ve both given permission for use of the apartment for a guest house while they’re gone and they made me promise to find someone who needs the entire turnip green patch; after all, Dad sowed another one that will come in just about the time they get home.

This morning, Dave and I went to Waffle House for breakfast. A fire engine turned through the intersection and we followed it like two old people (or maybe like two teenagers). It pulled in the parking lot of the bank on the corner and the paramedics ran up a small hill to a dumpster. As we proceeded through the Wal-Mart parking lot to the restaurant, we saw the old man slumped over in a wheelchair wedged against the dumpster. A uniformed man, I think from the auto parts store next door, stood waiting for the EMT’s.

“Is he dead?” Dave and I asked each other. And then, “Why is he out here alone?”

“He’s obviously homeless. And it was cold last night.”

“And nobody cares for him. I don’t mean ‘cares about him.’ Nobody cares for him.”

It was cold last night, uncharacteristically so for this time of year. The ambulance followed shortly behind the fire truck.

Dave said, “I think that ruins breakfast.”

When we left Waffle House not too long after, the fire truck and the ambulance were gone. The empty wheelchair was propped against the dumpster.

“Oh, no,” I said. “That wheelchair won’t be there when he comes back.”

“He’s probably not coming back.”

“I wish somebody would take care of him.”

I wondered what happened to his children, or his nieces, or the grandchildren of his neighbors and friends in the old days, the ones who might worry now about his ice cream and his prescriptions and his ride. I wondered why none of the gazillion faith communities in South Nashville couldn’t adopt him as, I don’t know, Honorary Grandpa or something like that.

Mom and Dad will do fine, and Dave and I will, too. There are lots of us to care for Mom and Dad. Out there in the West, they’ve got Denny and Bev; grandkids Jim and Wendy, Angie and Joe, Jena and Mike; and seven great-grands who can’t wait to see Grandmama and Grandpapa. Please put the accent on the last syllable—Grand MaMA and Grand PaPA. The great-grands decided on those names for Mom and Dad several years ago.


Pajama Day

Last Friday, Carly showed up for Grammy Day wearing penguin-printed fleece jammy pants and a matching long-sleeved soft knit aqua shirt.

“Well, Carly, you look comfortable already,” I told her. She and her brother Jameson always change into jammies as soon as they can drop their overnight bags. They each have a couple of pairs waiting for them in the chest between the two twin beds in the guest room.

“Today was Pajama Day at pre-school,” Vicky, my daughter-in-law, explained.

“Well, I do love those little penguins,” I said, wondering silently if I bought those pajamas and didn’t remember.

“I’m going to change,” Carly said, heading for the bedroom.

She came back wearing a pink princess set—the tee said “Princess” in glittery cursive. Jameson followed in his favorite pair, a very tight basketball-print knit. They’re two sizes too small but he makes me promise not to send them to the thrift store just yet.

Grammy Day—mostly night—was as much or more fun than usual and we were all worn out by their bedtime. When I stepped back into the room for prayers just fifteen minutes after we raised the covers, they were both snoring. Jameson slept until 7 a.m. and Carly emerged from the bedroom about fifteen minutes later. We cuddled on the couch until they both decided they were hungry.

Four blueberry waffles and four slices of bacon later, Jameson said to Carly, “Come on, Sissy, let’s go get our clothes on and then we’ll go downstairs and play Nerf basketball.”

“Okay,” Carly said, making a run down the hall, “But I have to go to the bathroom first.”

Jameson turned around as he was leaving the den.

“Grammy, I brought my How to Train Your Dragon pajamas. I think I’ll wear those today. I really don’t feel like wearing jeans.” I knew I bought those pajamas. That was the pair I had hoped would replace the too-small ones.

“Fine with me,” I said. “We’re not going anywhere. Mom and Dad are picking you up at ten.”

“Want to play basketball with us?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “You get dressed and I’ll finish up these dishes.”

“Dwammy,” I heard from the bedroom, “Jameson is…”

I couldn’t hear the rest. I walked down the hall drying my hands.

“What’s the matter, Carly?” I asked.

She pointed at Jameson pulling on his fleece pants. “Well, Dwammy, Jameson is trying to wear his pajamas today.”

“It’s okay, Carly. I already told him he can wear them.”

“But, Dwammy, he’s just trying to have Pajama Day.”

“Well, he didn’t get to have Pajama Day like you did yesterday. If you want to wear your pajamas again today, you can,” I said.

“I don’t want to wear my pajamas,” she said.

“Okay, then just put your jeans on. Jameson can just have his own Pajama Day.”

I was almost back to the kitchen when she called me again.

“Dwammy, could you come in here?”

At the door of the bedroom, I asked, “What is it?”

She leaned her back against the bed, twisted her hands behind her back, and stared straight up into my face.

“Dwammy, yesterday was Pajama Day and today is not. Jameson is just trying to have Pajama Day today.”

“Yeah, well, I think we covered that, Sweetie. But it really won’t bother you for him to wear his pajamas, will it?”

“Dwammy,” she whispered, “I don’t want anybody to have Pajama Day today.”

“Well, Carly Rose, I just don’t think you get to decide that,” I said. “How about Grammy helps you get those jeans on?”

She laughed while we dressed her in a pink tee and jeans with ruffles on the legs.

Yesterday, the Supremes (those of the Court) decided, by a count of 8 to 1, that it’s okay for Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to have their Pajama Day, ugly as their pajamas may be. They get to exercise their freedom of speech, even when that speech is so unpopular that most of us believe it to be vile and ungodly and wrong.

These Very Ugly Pajamas belonging to Westboro do matter to us. They cause pain. We parents have no trouble imagining a trip to a cemetery behind a hearse, our peripheral vision catching signs held high proclaiming that God is glad our child died.

This big freedom that we cherish calls us to care for those hurt by such a vile expression. In Tucson lately, a troubled young man took innocent lives and seriously wounded others. When the funerals began, Phelps and Westboro Baptist assembled their signs.

A twenty-year-old college student launched a counter-balance to Westboro’s protest. Chelsea Cohen started an action called The Angel Action. Mourners and friends of the deceased wore 8 by 10-foot angel wings to shield the families from the painful demonstrations. Donations from local businesses and residents paid for the materials to construct the wings. Cohen made it clear that this was no counter protest, that it was a show of love and support for the families of victims.

I’m okay with the Supreme Court Decision. After all, I have a reputation to uphold as a big old Liberal supporter of free speech.

I’m okay with it because some day someone might say to Carly and Jameson, about something much more important than pajamas or penguins or dinosaurs, “Well, it’s not just that I don’t want it for myself—I don’t want anyone else to have it, either.”

On another day, when someone hurts Jameson or Carly by using this protected freedom of expression, I will trust the world to show up, much as Chelsea Cohen and her friends did, to shield them from the pain.

I always learn something from those grandkids.


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