I Will Always Love You

My younger sister, Betsy, just left to head back to Washington, DC. She came to visit me in Chattanooga for the weekend to celebrate her 37th birthday. It’s crazy when your younger sibling turns 37. Not only do I keep thinking I’m 37, I feel more like 27. Funny how the mind needs to be convinced that the body is not what it once was. I wake up with cricks in my neck, not from a night out of dancing, but from sitting on the couch in a slightly different manner than my usual lounge posture.

With my husband out of town for the week and a freezer full of pre-made dinners, I had plenty of time on my hands to prepare for her arrival. She’s been living alone since the beginning of the pandemic, and while she is the strong one in the family, I know it’s been really hard on her, if for no other reason than she often feels like she has to be the strong one. Being that I’m the middle child, I often had no problem flailing my emotions about, making it very clear I needed attention. I have since grown out of it, for the most part, but I still have my moments.

I was 28 years old before I realized that being a MIDDLE child meant I had a YOUNGER sister… meaning I wasn’t just a middle child, I was a big sister, with some one to look after other than myself. It was groundbreaking. We’ve been close ever since.

I set my intentions ahead of time, I had recently read the Art of Gathering and I learned that a good gathering isn’t just about the decor or the food, but about the intention you have for the gathering and how well you carry it out. My intention for her time at my house was to create a space for her to feel celebrated, but more so, loved and special; knowing this helped me think through what might make Betsy feel that way.

Since she lives a busy life in DC, she doesn’t often have time to do the things she’d like to do: cook, decorate, take a bath. Living alone means she’d probably even more so like to be on the receiving end of someone cooking for her, someone decorating her space, and… well, the bath she can do on her own.

I spent the week preparing for her arrival, from making the decorations and hanging them, to making the cake and the cake topper…

Though Josh and I have been living in Chattanooga since November, we have to yet to find a kitchen table we like… partly because Josh keeps saying he is going to make one, but we going on month four of that not happening, so I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I went down to Wal-Mart and grabbed a cheap folding table to cover up. We used it once and spent the rest of the time eating at the kitchen counter or on the couch. I guess it’s true that decor is a mere addition, take it or leave it, compared to the over all purpose of the gathering and being together.

The day she flew in she had already spent an extra three hours in the DC airport due to delayed flights. She was getting in much later than planned and I knew she’d be tired, not just from the flight, but the work week she had just come off of. I wouldn’t be able to fix her energy levels, but I could certainly make her feel welcome, and hopefully get her laughing after a long day.

I dressed for the occasion and awkwardly waited for her to come down the escalator in the Chattanooga Airport…

After waiting a while, enduring stares and little girls saying “Mommy, look” while pointing at me, Betsy finally started to come down the escalator. As soon as I saw her I began playing the Sisters song from White Christmas, you know how it goes…

And in no time, though tired from travel, delayed flights and a DC work week, she laughed out loud as I continued to sing and act out the song until she reached me.

“Welcome to your birthday weekend!” I yelled, and proceeded to keep playing and singing the song until we reached the car. I may have overdone it a little, but I’m still a middle child, sometimes I can’t help myself.

When she got in the car I had snacks and an itinerary for the weekend, letting her know she didn’t have to think about or plan a thing, it was all taken care of, all she had to do was enjoy it.

I’m not sharing all this to say “look at all I did!” (Maaaaybe the middle child part is saying that), I’m sharing it to say, it took me 38 years to do something like this for someone who’s been a part of my life all 38 years. It was long overdue and I’m grateful I was allowed the space in time to make it happen for her. I’m sharing it to say, I realized it’s never too late to make someone feel loved and special.

I played Hanson when we walked in the door, our childhood obsession. With the house decorated at each corner, she’d let out a little scream as she’d see something new. I had snacks at the ready while I finished making dinner.

After dinner she took a bath, an often daily ritual for her until pipes in her apartment burst and she hadn’t been able to take a bath for weeks. We joked about how anxious she must be since she’s only been able to take a shower, “yea,” she laughed, “sometimes I take two baths a day!” I suppose that’s what happens when you live and work in Washington, DC… you take two baths a day, not just to relax but to wash all the politics off!

She thanked me for everything and turned in early. I knew she was tired, but there almost seemed to be a sadness about her, not a heavy sadness, just a sense I had that she couldn’t fully express excitement. Times before I may have asked what was wrong, but this time I had a feeling she just needed to be where she was at, and I didn’t need to take any of it personally, wondering if she expected more or if I got the right kind of cheese. It wasn’t about me and so I let her go to bed, telling her I’d have homemade cinnamon rolls ready by 9am.

On the day of Betsy’s birthday I woke up early to prepare breakfast. Hot yoga was scheduled for 10am so I figured she’d be up much earlier to have time to drink coffee and eat. At 9:20am I still didn’t hear any stirring upstairs so I started to text her. Just before I hit send I heard her bedroom door open and her slowly walking toward the stairs, “ow, ow, ow,” she said, “I think I need help.” I ran over to the stairs, “what the heck happened?” She was slowly trying to maneuver her way down and began laughing when she couldn’t make it.

“It might be from sitting all day, but just before I went to bed last night, I felt a pinched nerve and I couldn’t go to sleep, I just laid there in the happy baby position.” We both started laughing. “What do you need?” I asked, “want to get back in bed and I’ll bring you coffee?”

“I think just water,” she said, “I’m going to take a bath and see if that helps.” I was pretty sure her taking a bath meant we were going to miss yoga, but she managed to make it in-and-out in time for us to go, stretching her hamstrings out before getting in the car, “ow, ow, ow.”

“Welcome to your late thirties!” I said.

After yoga we went and got smoothies, returned home and Betsy decided to take another bath. We both laid down for a nap, her having been up late with a pinched nerve and me having been up early making cinnamon rolls. Wow, I thought to myself, baths and nap time, we really are getting older.

I took her to get a pedicure at 1:30, during which she fell asleep and upon returning home again she took nap number two, after which she took bath number three. I guess that’s how she celebrates her birthday, I thought, lots of baths! To each their own.

After all the baths and naps, we got dressed up and went out to dinner downtown. We talked about previous birthdays, what our family looks like now and if she had an ideal man, what would he be like. “I don’t really have a type,” she said, “I’ve dated a South African, an Israeli, and a 50 year old. I’m open to any type of person, I only have two requirements: that he be emotionally intelligent AND available, and that we share the same spiritual beliefs. I’ve loved people who haven’t shared my beliefs, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s just too hard on the relationship to differ on your core beliefs.”

We were home by 9:30 pm and dressed for bed shortly there after. I had her blow out her birthday candles, being too tired and full, she passed on having a piece of cake. She opened the present I made her, a corgi birthday crown in honor of our family corgi (who she is obsessed with), Benny Boy.

After she went up to bed I sat on the couch with my own piece of cake and small glass of champagne. Josh called to say goodnight and we talked for a while. I told him I knew Betsy was glad to be here, I knew she was enjoying it, but it didn’t feel like she was. I wasn’t getting this excited reaction I would assume one would get when they’ve done everything I did.

Josh reminded me that sometimes people just need a safe place to be themselves no matter how they are feeling. “She might not be able to express it right now,” Josh said, “but you know she loves being there.” “I know,” I said, “I guess in some selfish way, I just want to feel it!” I knew doing things for her wasn’t about getting a specific reaction from her, and that if it were, I’d end up transferring my disappointment onto her, creating an uncomfortable environment to be in, all because I wanted more recognition. “Let her be where she is at and keep loving her there,” Josh said, “you’re so good at that.”

The next morning I had a Dollywood mug with her name on it and a Dolly Parton card sitting by the coffee maker. I wanted to set the tone for the day that this was it… the day we go to Dollywood!

Now that I live in Tennessee, Dollywood is my happy place. I’ve been three times since moving here four months ago- that’s about how many times I went to Hollywood living in Southern California for eight years! The week before Betsy’s visit I went to Dollywood for Passholder’s day (Yes, getting a season pass was one of the first things I did as a Tennessean), and unbeknownst to everyone, DOLLY PARTON WAS ACTUALLY THERE! She waved at me when she saw one of my homemade Dolly crowns and I momentarily forgot to keep breathing.

Before coming, Betsy had said the one thing she for sure wanted to do was go to Dollywood. Piece of cake.

I was laying in bed drinking my coffee when I heard a knock on my door. Betsy popped her head in, “I LOVE MY MUG!” she said and she scurried over to sit on the end of my bed. We sat there talking for hours, there she is, I thought to myself, not because she expressed something I wanted to hear, but because she was finally expressing herself, talking, asking questions, laughing, the Betsy I know when she’s not weighted down by work, family drama, or living alone.

Had I made a comment like “oh you finally decided to show up,” or “nice to see you finally being expressive,” I think it would have killed the moment. A comment like that would have shamed her for simply being tired or worn out from life, making her feel unsafe to feel however she feels. Unnecessary commentary is what I am learning to discern, and I knew making a comment about her suddenly seeming lively would have made her feel bad about the days prior; something she didn’t need to feel bad about because there was nothing wrong with the days prior.

We drove two hours to Dollywood and spent the rest of the day there feeling like kids all over again. We both wore our crowns that donned our favorite things, hers, a corgi and mine, Dolly.

We drove the two hours back to Chattanooga listening to Dolly Parton’s America Podcast the whole way. Betsy had not only officially caught the Dolly bug, but she had finally felt rested and able to enjoy herself. “Next time I’m gonna take a vacation before my vacation so I don’t feel so tired on the vacation,” she said. We laughed and I was relieved I never made an issue of what I perceived to be her lack of enthusiasm. We had another day and a half together, relaxed and fully enjoying each other’s company.

By the time I took her to the airport she started crying, “I had such a good time,” she said, “I don’t really want to leave.” I made some stupid comment I read off of Pinterest in response, “Oh, don’t cry cause it’s over, smile cause it happened.” It kinda makes me gag now, especially when she responded while still crying, “well, I can do both.”

I laughed, “yes, you can.” She was right. And that’s what makes her the strong one, not an avoidance of emotion, but realizing she can be sad and grateful at the same time. She can be tired and lonely and worn out AND still enjoy herself and every opportunity she is given. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that life is a mix; a mix of emotions, not always compartmentalized by seasons, but often times experienced simultaneously.

Perhaps Betsy wanted her birthday to happen at a different time, when she felt more rested and had more time to enjoy it, but life just happens, without asking if we are ready, rested, or prepared. She turned 37 when she did, and I could either meet her there and love her, or I could complain that she wasn’t acting as happy as I’d like her to be.

When I returned home she left a note on her bed, thanking me for the whole weekend, for every thought and detail that didn’t go unnoticed. “I will never forget this weekend,” she said, “you made ME feel loved and special

I will always love you!”

Elderly Love Part 2

 (Continued from previous post)

Aunt Jackie did a double take in the middle of her generic hello when she clearly realized it was my mom, “WELL HEY! Oh my goodness, it’s so good to see you!” My mom pointed to herself, “it’s Lydia,” she said. “I know it’s you,” Aunt Jackie quipped like how dare you think I don’t know.

“And this is JJ!” My mom pointed to me and I pulled my face mask down for her to see. “JJ!” She yelled, “JJ! WHOOO look at you, JJ! Great Scott!” I remember Aunt Jackie saying “Great Scott!” long before I ever heard Doc Brown say it on Back To The Future. She repeated back to us what we said to her, so we still weren’t entirely sure if she fully knew who she was talking to, after all, it had been three years since we’d last seen her, and things were getting more “fuzzy” back then.

The three of us sat silently for a moment all looking at each other, the Golden Girls still playing in the background. Aunt Jackie put her hand on my mom’s knee, “Pawleys Island,” she said with her slow Southern draw. My mom and I looked at each other as if to say she knows! We both got emotional. Our hometown of Pawleys Island was Aunt Jackie’s favorite place to visit. She loved the ocean and made annual trips with her own group of golden girls to soak up the sun and salt water. “That’s right,” Mom said, trying not to cry. “You lucky birds,” Aunt Jackie said.

I told her we had just come from Pawleys Island, “don’t say it too loud,” she said, “people might get jealous.” Already she was off to making us laugh. “Did you get in the water?” she asked. “Yes, JJ did, she went surfing,” Mom said. “She went to what?”

“Surfing, she went surfing,” Mom said, and I added, “in the ocean.” Aunt Jackie sat back in her wheelchair, raised her eyebrows as if she finally processed what we had just said, “that’s an ugggly thing for you to saaaay in front of me!” We both laughed and she asked if the water was cold, “it was freezing,” I said. “Oh!” Aunt Jackie took a sip of her coffee, “then I won’t feel so bad, ah ha haha!”

Aunt Jackie’s laugh is just as classic as her Southern accent, a much more sophisticated Phyllis Diller type laugh (and more enjoyable to listen to, in my biased opinion, but it has tones of the Diller cackle in it). As an old school Southern woman of devout faith, Aunt Jackie would die if she knew I compared anything about her to Phyllis Diller.

“So what have you been up to?” Mom asked. “What have I been up to?” Aunt Jackie repeated back as if it was obvious, “this!” she said, “this is what I’ve been up to… sometimes I move over there, or over there” and she pointed to different spots in the sitting area, “but mostly I just sit here and they roll me around wherever I need to go.” We laughed at her sense of humor about it, but also knew it must be hard to live confined within the walls of a place you can’t leave.

“It’s okay though,” she said, “most people just sit around here until the end, but not me, I’m busting out of here soon.” She nodded her head as if to say you know what I mean? and took a sip of her coffee. We laughed at the thought of Aunt Jackie busting out of assisted living. “Well if anyone can do it, you can,” I said.

“Yea,” she agreed as she nodded, “there’s a two-way highway right out front of this building. The only problem is, once I get there, I can’t figure out which way to go!” Mom and I were rolling in laughter. “Well tell me about the children,” Aunt Jackie said, “there’s one of the children right there,” and she pointed to me. Mom told her all about the kids being grown up, some married, some dating, one with a dog. The dog is what most excited Aunt Jackie, “Ohhhh, tell me about the dog! Now, what kind of poochy!?” We told her all about my brother’s corgi and she responded with “ooooh how cute” to each detail. She told us she had a dog but could’t remember her name. “Claudette,” mom said. “Who?” Aunt Jackie asked. “Claudette, that was the name of your dog.” It didn’t seem to ring a bell, Aunt Jackie shrugged, “well if you say so!”

I later found out the dog’s name was Tallulah, so both Mom and Aunt Jackie had a little memory slip there, but at least Aunt Jackie remembered what her dog’s name wasn’t. She told us about her horse, Solomon, who died 20 years ago but she seemed to think it just happened. “I think they did something to him,” she said, convinced that someone had prematurely put her horse down. This was where her memory was “fuzzy,” she clearly remembered things, but the order of events was disoriented. “I remember Solomon,” I said, “we used to ride him with you.” She looked surprised so I pulled up an old picture I had saved on my phone of my sister and I riding Solomon, Aunt Jackie standing beside us. Aunt Jackie gasped, “Oh! there he is,” and she began to mimic kissing the picture, “mwah mwah mwah, oh I love him so much.”

“I think they did something to him, you know?” and she sat silently for a moment as she thought about it. We weren’t sure who she meant by “they,” but it was clear that though the memory was fuzzy, it left an impression. After talking about Solomon for a while she asked about the children again. Mom went through and told her about each of us again, a little less detail than the time before, but included the part about the dog. “Ohhh, tell me about the poochy, what kind of dog!?”

The longer we stayed the more obvious her lack of memory became. She was sharp in that she could remember stories from her childhood, stories from our childhood, and pretty much anything we would remind her of, but where her memory failed was by the time we finished talking about a topic, she’d have forgotten we talked about it.

Aunt Jackie pretty much helped raise my dad, who’s own parents were always traveling as music evangelists with Billy Graham, America’s Preacher back in the day. Generations now don’t really know him, but any generation my mom’s age or older tend to have an idea of who he is. He prayed with every America president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, my grandad always at his side.

Aunt Jackie started as my Granddad’s secretary, but quickly became a caregiver to the five children who grew up with a dad the whole world knew, who’s own children barely knew him. That’s another topic in and of itself, and there’s been peace and resolve made about that. I only bring it up to say, Aunt Jackie was just as a vital role to the family as a parent or grandparent to all of us. With all my grandparents now passed, she’s the closest thing I have left to a grandmother. She’d never accept the title grandmother though, “it sounds too old,” she’d say, so much like my dad called her when he was growing up, we’ve always called her Aunt Jackie (despite her being the same age as my grandmother).

I showed her all the pictures from when she worked with my granddad and Billy Graham, she remembered all of them and gasped with delight at each picture. I got to a picture of Billy Graham kissing me on the cheek, “this was at Nana’s funeral,” I said. “Who’s funeral?” she asked. “My Nana, Bille Barrows.” She sat back with a look of shock, clearly remembering who but not quite remembering that she passed. “Where was I?” she asked. “You were there,” mom said. “I was?” She asked with a sigh of relief, “okay good.”

It didn’t dawn on me that with the order of events being fuzzy, it might overwhelm her to know who of her friend group wasn’t around anymore. Aunt Jackie is one of the last ones left from the generation of friends who poured into our family over the years, having long outlived her husband, but she didn’t seem to notice. Probably a blessing and a curse, to not remember, there’s a sadness in the sweet memories not being there, yet a gratitude to not relive the pain all over again.

“Well what else can you tell me?” Aunt Jackie would ask, trying to think if there was any news she hadn’t heard yet. “Well what do you want to tell us?” Mom asked. “What do I want to tell you?” Aunt Jackie asked, “about what?” “About life,” Mom said, “if there’s something you’ve learned about life that you’d want us to know, what would it be?”

Aunt Jackie paused, “now I’m thinking, which is dangerous, but I gotta think.” She looked around the room and then looked at my mom and I, “don’t take life too seriously. Everything doesn’t have to be serious all the time. Just enjoy it,” she said. We agreed that life should be enjoyed more, which was humbling coming from a woman in a wheelchair at an assisted living facility.

“Do you want to tell her about your comedy?” Mom asked me. I proceeded to tell her I was a Stand Up Comedian, “Oh I love it!” She said. I explained to her that my sets included stories about her, “I always tell people about Aunt Jackie!” She laughed, “Ohh, don’t tell them everything!” I proceeded to show her my clip from Dry Bar Comedy where I tell everyone about my great Aunt Jackie. She needed me to repeat the punchline, “what’d she say?” when she heard the audience laugh. I retold her what she had said to me so long ago about how to be an artist when I grew up, “just get married and then you can doodle all day long!” She laughed hard at her own advice, “you can,” she said.

I recorded most of our time with her, and my mom recorded me showing her my Stand Up clip. It’s footage I’ll treasure for a long time.

Before we left she made one last declaration, “As for me and my house,” I was certain she was getting ready to quote scripture, “I’mma blow this pad first thing, you know!” We all laughed and she looked at my mom, “ain’t that right?”

I don’t have resolve for this post. We left on a happy, high note. I was so glad we had decided to make the trip. But it’s never as simple as leaving the facility and moving on with your life, well, it is and it isn’t. I still think about her being in there, alone in the sense of not with family or friends anymore. She had a whole life that looked so different than where she is now, all of it changed merely by the aging process.

I think about my own parents and what the aging process will look like for all of us one day. I even think about my own 98 year old self, wondering where I’ll be and if I’ll even make it that long. I hope to remember my husband, and yet I can’t imagine living without him should I surpass him. He knows, however, that if I die before him, he’s getting in the casket. “You coming with me,” I joke.

I over processed the whole visit on our drive home. I’ve thought about it for days after. Yesterday I re-watched the footage while laying on the couch and I heard Aunt Jackie say again, “don’t take life so seriously, just enjoy it.”

I sat my phone down, got up and put on my shoes to leave. “Where are you going?” My husband asked as I headed for the door. “I’ve been sitting around long enough, I’mma blow this pad!”

I went for a walk in the cold air, warmed by the sun, and I simply enjoyed it.

Elderly Love Part 1

A few years back I got to film my first comedy special in Provo, Utah with Dry Bar Comedy. It was a unique situation for me given Dry Bar’s religious affiliation. They don’t promote anything religious, in fact, you wouldn’t even know they were (except for maybe the name “Dry Bar,” meaning no alcohol- even at the bar), but I suppose that is the beauty of a company who can hold their own values without forcing them on someone else. I appreciate Dry Bar’s approach… they don’t ask other people to be religious, they just ask that everyone be respectful of what they value if you are going to perform on their stage. Fair enough.

It was unique because given certain religious values, you had to not only work clean, but their version of clean, which is a little cleaner than church clean. I work clean, so I wasn’t technically worried, but their version of clean knocked out at least three of my favorite bits, none of which are dirty, but perhaps a little suggestive and leave room for you to imagine what I may be talking about. There was no room for imagination with Dry Bar, there was only pure, unadulterated fun… along with no alcohol.

I had to do some rearranging, which really wasn’t too difficult, in part because of who would end up taking center stage of my material given the omission of at least three big bits. The new focus of my material would be less about awkward dating situations in my 30s, and more about my slightly senile 98 year-old Aunt Jackie. I hear a lot of comedians do jokes about their kids, and while I’m sure children produce golden material for parents, I don’t have any kids, so I can’t count on a kid saying the darnedest thing to put in my act. In recent years, after spending time with my Aunt Jackie, I realized I didn’t need kids to make good comedy, because it’s not just kids who say the darnedest things… so do the elderly.

I’ve always loved the elderly, had more of a heart for them than kids, which is funny to me because part of what I love is how childlike they can be at such an old age. For some reason childlike at an old age is more endearing. Childlike at a child’s age is just normal, sometimes annoying.

For as sweet as it can be, I know there can also be really difficult things about the elderly reverting to a childlike state, losing their memory, forgetting who people are, or even who they are… it’s hard.

In processing aging parents and memory loss with an older cousin of mine, she shared that her mom (a different aunt) had put a tide pod into her Keurig machine. Thankfully, she was caught before she drank it. While my cousin tried to keep her mother in her own home for as long as possible, it was getting too dangerous for her mom to be alone at all. Fretting over whether or not she was doing the right by putting her mother in a memory care unit of assisted living, her mom kept showing sign after sign that she couldn’t be alone, like walking the dog with an electrical cord.

They had pictures up all over the house, her mom constantly asking who these people were, “these people” being her kids and grandkids. Physically, her mom was in great shape, which perhaps made it even more dangerous as she’d wander off outside and walk down the street until she got lost, not knowing where to return home to.

“She stopped living after my dad died,” my cousin said, “she stopped engaging, stopped going to activities or meeting up with friends, it’s the isolation that I think took her memory.” The day they took her to assisted living she protested, “you can’t leave me here with all these old people!”

We laughed and we also felt sad. “You laugh or cry,” my cousin said, “so sometimes you just gotta laugh for it to all feel okay.” I realized I didn’t want to make fun of the elderly, but I wanted to make light of a hard situation, especially for the families going through the aging process with their elderly loved ones. Sometimes you just need to laugh, not to avoid what’s hard, but to be able to endure it.

When I shared my material about Aunt Jackie in my Dry Bar set people loved it. “We want more Aunt Jackie,” people would comment, along with things like “women are not funny.” But amongst the trolls and their insecure criticisms of other people were compliments and love for essence of Aunt Jackie.

My special came out in fall of 2019, which meant a few short months later the world would shut down due to COVID. The last time I saw Aunt Jackie was the time I shared about in my comedy special, just a few months prior to the performance. She was also living in a memory care unit of assisted living, diagnosed with dementia. Aunt Jackie had no idea she was a hit, and two years later, she may have had no idea who I was at all.

This last Monday my mom and I made a trip to finally go see her. Between COVID, COVID restrictions, and long distance there always seemed to be some reason for why we couldn’t quite make it. Knowing her time was limited if for no other reason than age alone, we made the trip.

We were warned before going to see her that she may not remember us at all. We prepared ourselves mentally but held out hope that she would be the same sharp and witty Aunt Jackie we’d always known, loved, and quoted over the years.

Once we were in the facility, we walked down a long hall passing door after door, most of which were wide open, revealing elderly men and women, some of whom were asleep with their mouths open, some of them reading or watching T.V. As we passed a door where a woman was reading a magazine I heard her yell out, “Dolly Parton is 75 years old!” She wasn’t talking to anyone so much as just remarking out loud. I love Dolly Parton, so naturally I lingered to see what the old woman was going to say, she did not disappoint… “What the hell am I doing in here?”

When we got to Aunt Jackie’s room, her door was slightly open. She had a roommate who’s bed sat next to the door and Aunt Jackie was nowhere in sight. “Hi,” my mom said, “we’re here to see Jackie Wallace.” Her roommate pointed towards the bathroom, “she’s in the tub.” By herself? we both thought, is that allowed? “She knew she had company coming,” her roommate said, “so she wanted to wash up.” Well that seemed like a good sign, at least she knew someone was coming.

My mom and I waited in a sitting area just down the hall from their room. After about five minutes we heard all the nurses making a fuss, some even arguing about a lost patient, probably a frequent argument in a memory care center. My mom and I gave each other that look you give someone when something awkward happens but you can’t say anything- it’s all in the raised eyebrows.

After another five minutes or so my mom whispered, “I hope she’s okay.” I said I’d go check again. I walked back to her room and peeked in when a nurse noticed me and asked if she could help me. “Yea, we have an appointment to see Jackie Wallace and her roommate said she was in bathtub so I wasn’t sure how to go about checking to see when she’d finish.” The nurse had an A-HA look on her face, “Oh my God, that’s where she is.” She rolled her eyes as if to say “duh,” and said they had been looking for her. “Why no one checked the bathroom is beyond me,” the nurse said, “I’m sorry, we’re usually a little more put together than this.” Apparently Aunt Jackie was the missing patient the nurses were trying to locate, she remembered she had guests coming, but didn’t remember she’s not supposed to bathe alone.

The nurse had someone go in and help her finish while we waited in the sitting area. The Golden Girls were on the big screen T.V. and it felt like too perfect of a setting. Rose was making omelets for the girls without the yolks, “so we don’t get too much cholesterol,” she told Sophia, but she hated to throw all the yolks out, so she decided to bag them up to give to the homeless. “Your heart’s in the right place,” Sophia said, “but I don’t know where the hell your brain is.”

There couldn’t have been a better quote to sum up a memory care center.

“And here she is!” A nurse said as he rolled Aunt Jackie into the room. She started to say a generic hello, one that every southern woman knows; you act pleased to see someone even if you aren’t sure how you know them.

Would she actually remember us, or possibly pretend like she did? “HEY!” my mom and I yelled, and we pulled down our face masks just to see if our faces would ring a bell.

To be continued…

Hometown Thoughts

Here we are, another new year and a lot of the same ole stuff… well, at least some of the same ole stuff.

Today I found myself walking in my hometown of Pawleys Island, SC, grateful to be home, but also restless as to how to spend my time here. Tonight we are celebrating my mom’s 72nd birthday and I can’t quite wrap my head around watching my parents age. As a kid you imagine your parents to remain forever in the state you know them. Of course they’re old because they’re your parents, but they’re not old old. I remember thinking our 32 year old babysitter was ancient, and now at 38 I realize that 32 year old woman was still just a child wrestling with how to be an adult.

I’m not sure how my parents did anything with four young kids constantly at their feet. I hang out with my nieces and nephews for longer than two hours and I feel like I’m about to have a nervous break down, my only solace being their return to their own home. Bless their hearts. I love them, and I’m okay with kids in general, but I love quiet time and a clean kitchen and not constantly having to figure out answers to “why?”

I’m restless because at this age I figured if I didn’t have kids by now it would certainly be because of a career. But when Covid took care of that, I found myself waiting for the next two years for the country to open back up so I could get back out there. As I look back I realize, I spent so much time waiting, I’m no further than I was two years ago, having put my life on hold, now not knowing where to start.

I’ve decided to write again. Since I can’t control live performances and venue spaces and communities of people not wanting to crowd into a building to see a comedian they’ve never heard of, I’m letting go, not so much of the idea of performing, but of the waiting for it to happen. I’m going to get busy with what I can control, which in this case is writing, and honestly my first love well before performing came into the picture.

I started in on my second book a while back and am nearing what I consider to be the end. I’ll soon begin the process of organization and editing, followed by the grueling process of figuring out publication. I self published my first book, it’s called a spade, and while I enjoy maintaining the rights to my stories, I admit it’s hard to get the stories out there relying solely on my often neglected social media platforms; to live life or to “share” life, that is the question!

So, I hope to be back here more often, sharing this process with you, if anyone is still out there. In the meantime I still post videos from time to time over on YouTube. I’ll share my 2021 in review here to give a glimpse into what the last year looked like. I admit, I can’t complain. Perhaps that’s where the frustration comes in; much like Loki of Asguard (God of Mischief in the Marvel Series), I have a very good life, all while feeling burdened with glorious purpose.

Here’s to a beautiful 2022, whatever that word may mean to those who use it. I know it’s not the most quotable thing to say, and you certainly won’t see it on a Pinterest board, but I honestly hope to work more this year. That, to me, would be a beautiful thing. I hope to work so much that I eventually start saying things like “work less, play more!” But for now, it’s hard to enjoy the play when there’s no work to take a break from.

Forgive my whining, I think I’m done… for now.

Until next time,

JJ

Love Your Other

After watching yet another comedian get reamed for not simply just “sticking to the funny” in regards to the climate we’re in, I must say I’m increasingly bothered by the continuation of this response (in different forms depending on your craft): “shut up and tell jokes,” “shut up and sing,” “shut up and dribble.” First of all, the first two require one to not shut up, which I can only then assume the comment to actually mean, “stop saying things I don’t want to hear and say things I agree with. 

I know my place as an entertainer, meaning I know I’m not famous by Hollywood standards, and I know I haven’t performed long enough to even comfortably call myself a comedian. Nonetheless, I am on a journey that has led me in the direction of comedy, not so much because I have intentionally pursued it, but because I accidentally stumbled upon it later in life, and for some reason I kept showing back up. I have an audience though I admit not a wide one. This might sound nice to say, but I quite sincerely mean it when I say I care more about the depth of my audience than the width. Perhaps that is why Hollywood has not come a-knockin’.

When I say “the depth of my audience” I mean the capacity to which they are able to care about humanity. People as individuals are troublesome, even I have a hard time giving people a chance and trying to understand them. But when I look at humanity as a whole and what it is meant to be to each other, I hold out hope for the good in individual people. I don’t want to simply make people laugh, to be a talking voice that says things people agree with so they can feel good for the moment only to return to hating their neighbor. I don’t want to be a comedian who distracts, I want to be a comedian who adds… value, meaning, purpose. 

I don’t simply want to “find the formula” for good comedy that is guaranteed to have a positive audience response while I’m emotionally unattached to what I am saying. When I say “I care about the depth of my audience more than the width,” I mean I don’t care how large or small the crowd is, I want to show up as my true authentic self and trust that the adults in the room can handle what I have to say. They can agree or disagree with me, but we can hold space for each other, and acknowledge tough things going on in the world (and our lives), and we can still have time and space to laugh. There can be humor and pain at the same time. Not all comedy is like this, which I appreciate, I enjoy many different forms of comedy, I’m just honing in on the type of comedy that works for me. 

While I’m not here to speak for or defend all comedians, trust me, they don’t need me to, I’ve seen some of them handle hecklers and they’re good, I will say, I don’t think most people get what it’s like to be a comedian. To be someone who’s talent (somehow) is to make people laugh, but to still be a person who is functioning not only in a hurting world but also in the midst of their own hurts. 

Someone messaged me recently, someone I don’t know very well but who has followed my work, and with no formalities or introduction, they simply said “tell us some jokes, we really need to laugh right now.” I’m trying not to assume intention, but being on the receiving end I admit I was a little irritated. Mostly because comedy is part of what I do, but it is not all of what I am. I was an artist before a comedian and a writer before that and I don’t simply “just tell jokes,” especially as a means to distract you from the reality of what is going on right now. Even the greatest entertainer in the world isn’t only an entertainer. It is actually not our sole job description to not care about what is going on in the world and simply entertain. While we might most frequently have entertainment to give, life, as we all know, has ups and downs and ebbs and flows and the person inside of that entertainer is just as affected the by chaos of life. 

To tell comedians to “just be funny” right now (or in the midst of any of their own grief and pain) is to take the heart right out of what they do. Same with athletes or musicians. It’s the human heart, the emotional connection that gravitates us toward watching someone perform in their craft. The humor in comedy often comes from pain, the talent in sports from the pain of hard work and practice, and the rawness in good music from the heartbreak we experience in our human condition. To tell these performers right now to not acknowledge the pain they feel, whether or not you agree with their reasons why (life hack: you can’t tell someone they don’t feel pain), to tell them to “shut up and just (fill in the blank)” is to dehumanize their craft as if their sole purpose in life is to simply entertain you. It reveals your self-centeredness, not a weakness in their ability to entertain. 

I haven’t said a lot on social media recently simply because I have learned the value of listening. Something I don’t see very many people doing right now. Without taking the time to listen first, I see noise piled upon noise and no one is hearing anyone’s message because they are too busy defending their own. People don’t care about your self-defense, they care about whether or not they are being heard, and if you are someone who wants to be heard right now, then start by listening. 

I’m aware that saying “start by listening” may not be applicable to everyone in this moment. Some people have been listening for a long time and have only now begun to speak up. Some people have been actively listening for a long time and have spoken up before only to continuously get drowned out. I get the frustration. So without being aware of how far this message will reach, my intention to say “start by listening” is mainly to the audience I have seen on my own personal social media accounts. 

As of recent, I have discovered some of my own blindspots that don’t require me getting into Facebook fights over in order to address. I have learned to become educated about the things I do not understand. Simple enough, educate yourself, so simple in fact that I missed it for a very long time in many different ways. Instead of turning away from what is hard, I am looking right at it, listening to people I thought I disagreed with because I was taught to, and realizing even if some disagreement is still present, they are just people too who are trying to figure out how to express their core beliefs. It doesn’t mean I excuse “bad behavior,” but it means I understand the motive behind it, the heart condition of the person engaged in it, and even the fact that I myself am not the judge on that which is good and bad— maybe so for my own personal life, but not the entirety of the human race. 

I am heartbroken and sad over the state of the world right now, especially America since I am an American watching what appears to be her country falling apart. I say “appears” because I know there is still so much good out there, so much is being left out of the narrative. That said, I am still heartbroken and sad. I don’t say that in a “poor me, I’m sad, comfort me” kind of way. I do not want an “I’m sorry” response. I’m a grown woman with a lot of feelings who is fully capable of not only navigating her feelings, but having boundaries with them so as not to dump them on the rest of society in an attempt to get people to look at her instead of what is going on. I am heartbroken and sad over something worth being heartbroken and sad over, I don’t want a pity party, I want people to look at the thing that is heartbreaking and sad. I want people to figure out what it looks like to help instead of hate. 

I see a lot of hate right now, some is visible obvious hate, some is less obvious disguised as “concern.” To be honest, it’s the less obvious hate that is more dangerous; it can cover more ground and breed more followers. It has a sneaky way of invoking emotion to get one to justify their own beliefs and separate themselves from anyone different; it says “I care about my own” while dismissing the other, the least of these, the marginalized. To use the word “care” only in regards to those that are just like you and your thoughts and your beliefs is not to actually care but to self serve. 

Facebook now has a “care” button. Why did we need this? Just another way to say “I don’t love what you’re saying, I don’t even like it, but I really care about it.” Thanks Facebook, for helping us continue to excel as moderates, “caring” from far away, doing nothing to be helpful, while getting in argument after argument with people we don’t even know, people we’ve already made decisions about because of their religion or political views or list of arrests. Thanks for helping us turn people into divisive strategies to get our point across. Too much? Maybe, but maybe not, maybe some of us need to stop thinking the rest of the world should think like we do and maybe we should just let people be who they are; that includes allowing a family to grieve over a lost family member, no matter what their past includes. 

(For the record, I feel like I need to actually clarify for certain people that I’m not blaming Facebook for anything, I’m just making a point, maybe even a joke. Can’t wait to see how many people will “care”!)

I watched an African American pastor recently explain to a congregation that for the most part, white people experience things as individuals. It is easy for us to not experience something that happened on a greater scale if we were not individually or personally involved in it. That made sense to me. I often pride myself on being an individual, I always thought that was a good thing, and it is, but I never thought about there being a downside. For example, if I’m not aware, my individuality could hinder me from feeling compassion towards someone who is hurting or from standing up against something that is wrong simply because I did not directly play a part in it. I want to be an individual, but I do not want to be an individual who looks at injustice and says “yea that sucks, but it’s not my problem.”

The pastor continued to say that African Americans tend to experience things as a community. When they see a black man being killed in the street, it is very real for them to see it being themselves or their immediate family, hence why they have such a strong emotional reaction to it. It’s not as simple as “what a sad story,” it’s “that is my family.” It’s a different experience, neither being right or wrong, just different. Anytime you go through a trauma with someone you are bonded to them, even if you didn’t know them before. Whether it’s holocaust survivors or plane crash survivors, when you survive something with other people that no one else went through, it bonds you to those people. 

The African American community has a history of trauma in the United States, that’s not an argument I’m trying to make, that’s just a simple fact, a history lesson. As uncomfortable as it is to say, in my attempt to experience something communally, we enslaved them, then we “set them free,” then we poured acid in the swimming pool when they tried to swim with us, amongst other things. Not only did we say “you can’t sit with us,” we had them them hosed, beaten, sometimes even shot if they tried. And I know, not all of us, I’ve made the same argument (I wasn’t even born yet!), but it’s that very same argument of individualism, “I did not do it so I am not a part of it” that has kept me from seeing where real hurts still exist.

Some of the trauma done to the African American community was recognized enough to change the law, but not enough to fully heal from the pain of the damage done. In many ways, I have failed to see oppression because I have refused to be grouped in with the oppressors. (The modern day) we have to at least be curious about this. For me personally, it has been asking myself  “what part, no matter how small, have I continued the pain through the act of dismissal?” By saying there’s no more problem, I’m saying there’s no more pain. There’s very clearly still pain. I can’t unsee it.

This communal experience helps explain why the African American community responds the way they do, they didn’t pick George Floyd as their hero, they easily saw themselves in his place and he now represents what many have been talking about for a long time, a less obvious continuation of racial injustice.

It’s not to say that those are the only two experiences or reactions, individual or communal, it’s just to help give a better explanation of how things happen the way they do. When the same pastor was asked about the riots he was quick to clarify the difference between riots and protests which the media has clumped together, making all of it seem wrong, but even with riots he said something to the effect of it being the voice of an oppressed people who don’t have the tools or the resources to make the change they’ve been asking for, and so they essentially “throw a tantrum,” an outburst of anger which seems to be out of nowhere, but the reason it’s bursting out is because it’s been pent up for so long. Again, not all, but some. It doesn’t justify it, but it explains the why.

I think we all need to start listening more to people’s why because that’s where the heartbreak is. The heartbreak is what needs to be helped, but it can’t be helped if we keep condemning the how while ignoring the why.

I’m listening more. I haven’t checked out, I’m tuning in. I’m taking time to actually pay attention. And sure, I’m not telling a lot of jokes right now, because even though I do believe laughter to be medicine, I also believe there is a season for everything; a season to grieve, a season to heal, a season to find the humor in the pain, but in my experience, I only became a good comedian because I dealt with my own pain.

While I’ve dealt with my own individual pain in my past, I realize there’s a communal pain I’ve ignored for a long time, and since I’m part of the community that is the human race, I’m taking time to address that. I’m listening to what a lot of different people have to say. It doesn’t mean you have to do the same. I don’t think there is a formula, everyone’s role will be a little different in this season of life, perhaps even circumstance by circumstance. Some people need to speak up and some people need to listen, but I do think it’s worth discovering what your role is in a way that shows love to the other, no matter how different the other is from you. 

We’re all each other’s other. What does it look like to love yourself and love your other?

love to laugh

Original Artwork by JJ Barrows

All You Need Is BOTOX! (I mean LOVE!)

Oh, the oddity that is humanity.

Here’s hoping Love wins out among all the things we think we need!

Stay in Saturday. Ep. 6: All About That Mom!

 

In honor of Mother’s Day, this Saturday we’re celebrating all the moms and mom figures in our lives!

I’m sitting back on this one and sharing the space with a few other women to be able to talk about the meaningful women in their lives. We know relationships with parents can be complicated, but they can also be so, so good. While there’s room for everyone’s story and what this day means to them (if anything), this little space in time is for celebrating the women who came through and did the best they could with what they had!

Happy Mother’s Day, Mommas!! 💜💙💚💛🧡

carbonated holiness

I just got off the phone with Richard, my old neighbor— old as in I used to live by him, and well, yes, he is of an older generation.

I mailed Richard a copy of my book a few weeks ago. I wrote about him in the last chapter and I wanted him to read it, to know he’d been the kind of friend worth writing about. I had written about my Grandmother in the chapter before and I planned to give her a copy for Christmas but then she passed away on Thanksgiving. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I love the song but sometimes I hate that it’s true.

More and more I’m sad I didn’t send a copy to her sooner, to let her know she’d been the kind of woman worth writing about, something I don’t think she thought of herself as. It was after my Grandma passed that I knew for sure I needed to send Richard a copy, I needed him to know he was loved and missed, especially because I knew he lived alone and I didn’t know how often he got to hear those words anymore.

So a few weeks into the New Year, I mailed Richard a copy. Last week he texted me, “Thank you so much, it is so good, give me a call sometime.”

I called him tonight and he was elated, “I’ve read it twice!” he said, “the whole book!” I was shocked, was that even possible? I guess it’s not that long. He kept going as I pondered the amount of time he’s had it to be able to read through it twice, “I couldn’t stop reading it, oh I just love it. It’s answered a lot of questions, you know!”
“I bet,” I said and we laughed.

“You know, I loved very much that you called me your favorite neighbor, but you know, you made a big mistake in there.”

“I did?” I asked. (Oh no, what?)

“Yea, a big one. You called me your 70 year old neighbor, and I’m not 70…” he paused.

“Oh, you’re not!?” I said a little embarrassed, “how old are you?” Hoping I didn’t offend him.

He was quiet a second more…

“I’m 88!” And he let out a huge laugh. I was so relieved. “Boy, you really made my day with that one,” he said.

“Well see, Richard, there you go, you look great for your age, even better than I thought!” I laughed, still slightly shocked.

Richard just kept laughing, “oh that made me feel so good, I thought to myself ‘why, I outta go out tonight!’” And I could hear what sounded like him slapping the couch as he laughed. “Laughter really is carbonated holiness,” I thought to myself, something I read by Anne Lamott earlier in the week.

Richard has been getting cancer treatments the last 7 years and he told me he had his last one this past Wednesday. “I’m good now!” He said, and I tried not to cry as I told him how happy I was. He asked me repetitively if I was good and if I was happy, the same Richard I wrote about years before when I used to live by him.

“You know, I loved your book so much, I took it with me to my doctor and I showed him the part where you called me 70! He laughed and said ‘See, Richard, I knew we’ve been doing something right!’ Haha, can you believe it!?” And we both laughed at my “big mistake.”

He thanked me for calling him 70, he asked me to please stay in touch and he told me one more old war story. “I love you,” he said as we got off the phone. “I love you too, Richard,” I said as I tried not to cry again.

I don’t know the totality of what life is about, but I do know there’s these little portions of each day in which I get a glimpse of it, overwhelmed by the beauty of it and moved by the connection found in it. I know no other option, and so even on the hard days I move forward, thankful for these glimpses, these portions of day in which to laugh with an old neighbor and celebrate that “he’s good now!” That is all we really have— right now, and right now is what I am most grateful for. That, and carbonated holiness.

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More stories and adventures at: jjbarrows.com, and itscalledaspade.com

 

My Mommom

My grandmother passed away yesterday… on Thanksgiving. This isn’t exactly the hook line you’re supposed to start with to grab someone’s attention, but I realize this is less about how many people read what I write and more about taking the time to honor a woman I love who didn’t receive much honor during her lifetime.

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I recently published a book and I only say that to say I wrote a chapter about her, about getting to know her later in life and how much I had grown to love her (you appreciate so little when you’re young). My plan was to give her a copy for Christmas. She lived a quiet life, often afraid she hadn’t done enough or loved well. She was my mom’s mom, which is why we called her Mommom. My Dad’s dad (we just called him Papa cause DadDad sounds weird) passed away just before Thanksgiving about three years ago. His death was national news, and while only certain groups may have known his name, his name was in the headlines, highways in Charlotte, NC were closed during his processional, and hundreds upon hundreds of people attended his funeral.

Sometimes I think Mommom felt inferior to my dad’s limelight side of the family, but she never said so. A lot of people say I get my stage presence from my dad’s side of the family, especially my grandfather- he had it (as well as my dad). But I know for a fact I get my witty sense of humor from my mom’s side- not only my mom, but as I spent more time with my grandmother later in life, I realized my mom got it from her. She was so funny, so witty, even at 97 years old. Just before she passed on Thanksgiving she reminded my dad to wait until the turkey was cooled before he carved it. When asked how she was feeling she said, “at my age everything hurts, and if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t working!” We laughed A LOT with Mommom.

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I mailed her pictures from when I got married this year and she beamed with pride. Josh and I went to visit her while back in South Carolina and she had our pictures proudly posted in her room. She called him my “lover boy” and said she was too short to reach his cheek so he’d have to bend down for a kiss.

With every visit we played cards and parcheesi and she was impossible to beat– at first it was like “go easy on her, she’s old,” but my siblings and I quickly learned she was ruthless and even in our best efforts to take her down in cards, she’d have none of that. I’ve only beaten her one time and I recorded it because I knew it would never happen again.

I wasn’t always as close with Mommom growing up. In fact it wasn’t until fall of 2015 that I really got to know my grandmother, as a friend, not just a relative. I’ve been going through old pictures and journal entries and I found this unfinished entry during that time…

Today I rubbed lotion on my grandmother’s legs. Prior to this I don’t think I have ever touched my grandmother’s legs, be it because that’s normal to not go around touching an older person’s legs or because I never thought I had a need to, it struck me as odd that at 32 years old I didn’t even know what my grandmother’s legs looked like before today.

When I think about it, I guess I do notice much of the older population tends to stick to pants when it comes to getting dressed for the day. I remember my little sister crying in her bed one night. Mom and dad came rushing in, “honey, what’s wrong? what’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to get old,” she cried while my parents tried not to laugh, “why?” they asked. “Because then I won’t be able to wear shorts,” she cried, terrified of having old legs that needed to be hidden under pants. We still laugh about this incident.

I thought about that night as I rubbed lotion on my grandmother’s legs today. I noticed her getting fidgety in her chair. She was trying to take a nap in her lazy boy but she kept rubbing her legs as if they were aggravating her. She’s in her nineties and uses a walker to get around but the only places she gets to are the kitchen and the living room. She can’t hear very well anymore and doesn’t always feel great, but she credits much of that to a default of being alive for ninety plus years. She spends most of her days alone in the house as everyone is off at work, or in my case, finding something else to do since I’m visiting and don’t want to be cooped up in a house all day.

As the holidays have approached I’ve begun thinking about what I could do to help people, what could I do to step outside of myself? I’m better at helping people during the holidays, I’m not proud of it, in fact I don’t think I even realized it until I started writing this, but if I look at my track record, I’m much better at helping people during the holidays when everything feels all warm and fuzzy and the need seems to be more clear. It’s as easy as filling a shoebox with gifts or pulling a name off a tree, maybe showing up at a shelter to serve a meal.

Geez. I hate re-reading about my selfish nature sometimes, but at the very least at least looking at it helps me realize what needs to change. Things did change that Christmas. It was my first Christmas in two different homes as my parents divorce finalized. It’s still weird to process divorce as an adult, you think you’re supposed to be stronger than a child, not be as sad, but acting stronger doesn’t make you stronger, it wears out your energy until you’re weaker than you thought possible. Just let yourself be sad about stuff, it’s okay.

And that’s what I had to tell myself as I processed the death of a 97 year old woman that I knew was coming if for no other reason than age alone. But it doesn’t make it any less sad to lose a life, especially a life you didn’t feel got it’s due credit and that you waited much too long to know it’s value. I’m at peace with my Mommom and I’s relationship, I grew to love her probably more than she knew, but with death comes the thought, “if I had only sent one more letter or called one more time… I hope she knew how much she was loved.” More and more I want that for people, to know their worth and value, to know they are loved. I can’t be that person for everyone, I’m only one person and I’m still trying to figure out how to get good at it in my own family, but I still want everyone to know it to be true for themselves- you are loved. You are worthy.

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So today I honor my Mommom by sharing this chapter I wrote about her, because she’s worth reading about, whether by many or by a few loved ones, she’s worth taking the time to talk about, and perhaps that’s how I will let myself process my grief. Her death will not make national news, but that doesn’t make her any less important to those who knew and loved her. And I never got to tell her, “Mommom, I wrote a book, and you’re in it!” I’m sad about that too. I wanted her to feel a little bit of the limelight just once in her life, I wanted her to know her granddaughter loved and admired her.

 

“it’s called a spade” by JJ Barrows

My Mommom

We don’t have a Christmas tree this year. I suppose at 32 years old and with all that is going on in the world, it isn’t the biggest deal that we don’t have a Christmas tree this year. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a big deal at all. Plenty of people either don’t have Christmas trees or have never had one, so who am I to complain?

And yet I’ve been thinking (shocker), if I can so easily dismiss my own feelings about not having a Christmas tree this year, I can just as easily dismiss someone else’s feelings about not having a Christmas tree this year, which is to say I can easily dismiss their story without a care in the world as to the reason why they don’t have a Christmas tree this year, or maybe why they’ve never had one at all (if they do in fact celebrate Christmas).

Perhaps it’s not so much about the Christmas tree as it is about the why behind it. As with many things in life that may seem like “no big deal,” perhaps the small things are a big deal because there is a “why” attached to those small things, a story unheard due to assumption.

I’ve always been obsessed with Christmas. I was the kid who was preparing for the arrival of December 25th the day after Halloween, and honestly sometimes even before then. My goal was to turn our house into a winter wonderland no matter how tacky everyone else thought it to be. I hung lights anywhere my mother would allow it and spent any extra money I had on decorations.

As a preacher’s kid I understood “the reason for the season,” but as just your average kid, the manger scene was more of an epic center piece for Christmas dinner. I was grateful Jesus came to earth in the form of a tiny little baby, mostly because it gave us a reason to have Christmas- the ultimate birthday party.

When I was real young my gifts consisted of coupon books, ones that included free hugs, a three-minute back rub, being nice to my sister Betsy… stuff like that. When I got older the coupons got more serious; extended free hugs, ten-minute back rubs and kisses for the whole family even when I didn’t feel like kissing them. My mom still has the coupons.

In college my gift to my parents was my presence at home because like your average college kid, I was broke. But with my presence came my Christmas spirit and ability to decorate. I’d stay up late on Christmas eve (after the roles reversed and the parents were the first to go to bed) to clean the entire house, set and decorate the kitchen table for the Christmas meals, and prepare an overnight breakfast casserole to be served alongside Jesus’ birthday cake in the morning.

When I started working the presents came rolling in and without the excuse of being a kid, I lost complete sense of what Christmas was all about. I tried to make the day last as long as possible by getting as many presents as possible. The longer we all sat around the tree and opened presents, the better Christmas seemed. Maybe somewhere deep down it wasn’t so much about the presents, maybe it was just wanting my family to sit around together for an extended period of time in which they all seemed happy, and maybe without the presents, I didn’t know how else to make that happen.

The Christmas of 2006 was the worst Christmas I can remember, largely due to my eating disorder and inability to fix it with the Christmas spirit. I racked up a great deal of debt that season because shopping kept me from binging and purging on the Christmas cookies I made in abundance (because one batch of cookies is never enough for a bulimic). My old friend anorexia would sometimes come to visit and on those days I felt powerful and in control, but my newer friend bulimia liked the holidays more than anorexia, and so bulimia is who I spent more of my time with that holiday season. I tried so hard to make Christmas perfect that year, and all I can remember is how miserable I was.

After going off to treatment in 2007, it would be a couple of years before I returned home again for Christmas. In 2009 when I finally did go home I was unaware it was going to be the last Christmas in which my whole family would be together, my parents still living under the same roof. I was sick and slept through Christmas dinner. My boyfriend at the time had flown in from Chicago to surprise me but seeing as how I was passed out on the couch, he ended up spending most of his time talking to my grandmother, an often forgotten family member.

After moving to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2010, I spent the following Christmases out on the west coast with friends. Friends are often easier than family and much cheaper than a round trip ticket across the United States, so my excuses to stay away from home were valid.

Last year I returned home for Christmas and it was the first time members of my family would be celebrating in two different houses due to my parents’ divorce. I didn’t know how to feel about it. I tried to “make the best of it” as I was advised to do, but what about the reality of it being sad that we weren’t one family anymore? I mean sure, we were, but we weren’t.

I didn’t think I would be back home for Christmas this year. It was not a part of my plan, funny how that works. I’ve been living in San Diego, California over the past year and San Diego is perfect for escaping life’s problems, except for the fact that you never escape life’s problems no matter where you go. After going on a trip overseas with my mom and brother, I returned to South Carolina with them. That was in October and I’m still here… at Christmas.

I’ve spent the last few months helping my mother move out of our family home of 35 years. The house is on the market and if ever there were an empty nest, it is that house. Day in and day out my mother, brother and I have stripped the walls and packed everything away, taking car load after car load over to my mother’s new condo. It’s been a slow process and I’m exhausted. “Make the best of it,” I hear a voice play in the back of my mind, and so I’ve been trying to do that- make the best of it, offer help, cook food, be present, be strong, be 32 and not in need of a Christmas tree.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the empty house by myself. I turned on Christmas music and I let it echo through the empty halls. I danced and I was happy. Then I sat on the floor of the larger than life empty living room and watched memories flash across the walls as if they were movie clips, and I cried. For the first time since my family split up, I uttered the words “I miss my family.” I laid on the floor and I cried as I let myself miss my family. “I wish we had a Christmas tree,” I cried, but I knew it was about more than just the tree.

It’s no secret I’m an advocate for feeling your pain, in part because I’ve spent a good portion of my life avoiding it. But as of recent I’m sick of feeling my pain to the point of not being able to see other people. I’m still trying to find the balance of feeling your feelings without getting stuck in them. And so while I’m bummed we don’t have a Christmas tree because my mom’s condo is too small, our old house is too empty and I’m still not quite sure who to spend Christmas with or how, this doesn’t have to be the Christmas that gets remembered as the one without the tree.

In the middle of all the moving and family drama and stress of holiday expectations, there is someone I overlooked along the way, someone I’ve overlooked along the entire way, as in the span of my entire life.

My mother’s mother. Mommom, we call her. My grandmother.

My grandmother still remembers that boy who talked to her at Christmas dinner in 2009. She asked about him the other day and when I told her we had been broken up for five years and he had been dating someone else for the last three, she responded with “aww shame, I always liked him.” I found her response to be funny seeing as how she met him only once, but at the same time I knew why she felt this way. She felt this way because even if it was just for a short while on a night five years ago, she felt seen and noticed and paid attention to. No one forgets that feeling.

I have spent the last couple of months getting to know this forgotten member of my family, my grandmother. She was always present at holidays, providing shrimp on Christmas eve, gifting us with at least two dollars for each kid so we could “treat ourselves,” and snoring on the couch in the late afternoons. I have memories of her in the background, but for the most part that is all.

One morning I was trying to figure out how I could do more to help other people, to step outside of my own selfish head and meet the needs of others. I knew I was limited as to what I could do financially, but relationally I had something to offer, which is sometimes the harder thing to give. Handing someone money or a piece of pie is often easier than sitting down next to them and trying to figure out what to talk about, especially in this day and age where everyone has to be so politically correct that people are afraid to talk anymore, not to mention the distraction of cell phones which has left this generation of teenagers crippled from being able to make eye contact.

And let’s be honest, it’s not just the teenagers. I see kids playing at the park while their parents scroll through their Instagram or check their email on a park bench. I myself will sit next to my grandmother with my head buried in my phone, clicking like on pictures of people helping people while I’m ignoring the lonely woman beside me.

And such was the case that morning when I was admiring others on social media for do- ing so much for others while I sat on a couch next to my grandmother who was staring at the wall. I immediately started to look up ways I could volunteer, especially over the holidays. It did not cross my mind that sitting beside me was a woman in need of love and attention and eye contact just as much as people in the nursing home or on the street. The ugly truth is, it didn’t feel as good to help or even love my grandmother as it did to help or love other people I had no history with who would praise me for my efforts.

After spending the day looking up good causes, journaling, praying and trying to “get right with God,” I decided I would go for a run at sunset. It seemed to be just what I needed. As I passed through the kitchen to grab some water before heading out, I noticed my grandmother trying to cut an onion. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was trying to make dinner. My mom wouldn’t be getting off of work until around dinner time and Mommom sometimes tries to cook on designated nights to help out.

Assuming Mommom wanted to feel like she was contributing, I let her carry on. I so often function out of assumption, I think we all do but I’ll speak for myself. I’m embarrassed to say it, but multiple times I have walked past my grandmother trying to chop an onion in the kitchen while thinking to myself “good job, Mommom,” instead of, “hey, can I help?” And I get it, not everybody wants help, some people want to chop their own onions and show the world or at least their grandchildren that they are capable of chopping their own onions, which is great, chop away! But I think asking if help is needed, which is just initiating a conversation if nothing else, is worth the risk of your offer being rejected.

I grabbed my headphones and running shoes and walked back through the kitchen. I sat at the table and looked at Mommom, barely five feet tall, her white bushy hair giving her an ex- tra inch, hunched over the kitchen counter trying to chop an onion. I watched her as I put my shoes on. She moved slower than I remembered. I lingered for a second, which is sometimes all the time that is needed to grab your attention.

I wanted to offer her help because I knew it was the right thing to do, but truth be told, in getting back to the basics of calling a spade a spade- I didn’t want to offer help because it got in the way of my plans.

I didn’t want to offer help to my own grandmother. And even if we weren’t related, an elderly human being. And even if she weren’t elderly, a human being! In that moment of hesitating to offer her help, the content of my character was revealed and I realized I didn’t actually want to step outside of myself and help people. I wanted to feel good about helping people so long as they didn’t interfere with my plans. I still wanted life to be all about me. No matter how many times I learn the lesson, my wayward heart sets itself on myself and I forget that people matter.

Sometimes I forget that I matter and I wear myself out in an attempt to do everything for other people. And once I’ve burned myself out I jump to the other extreme, forgetting that other people matter, writing them off in an attempt to only take care of myself. I struggle to find the balance between the two. The simple balance of all people mattering- other people and myself.

I watched my grandmother struggle to chop an onion. I stood up, picked up my iPod, took a deep breath and set it back down. “Do you need any help, Mommom?” I asked, honestly kind of hoping she would say no so I could still go for a run and feel good about offering help. She didn’t respond. Between my hesitant attempt to gently offer help and Mommom’s hearing aides not always working, I realized she didn’t hear me. “MOMMOM,” I yelled, “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP!?”

Mommom turned around to look at me, “did you say something?” she asked. I laughed a little to myself, “YES,” I yelled, “I ASKED IF YOU NEEDED ANY HELP!”

Mommom’s face lit up, “ohhhhhhhh!” she said excitedly, “wow-wee, that would be wonderful. I can’t move as fast as I used to. We might never eat at the rate I’m moving.” I laughed but I also felt a few degrees more horrible for not asking before then if she needed help. I knew I wasn’t going to get my run in that day, but I also knew something else mattered more, even if (for as much as I hate to admit it) helping with dinner didn’t feel like it mattered more in the moment. I am selfish through and through, to the point of it blinding me to help the old lady struggling right before my eyes.

For some reason it’s easy to dismiss helping the old lady when she is my grandmother, assuming she will always be there and she can hold her own. But there will come a time when she won’t always be there and she can’t hold her own anymore, in which case I have to ask myself, am I going to run away because it feels better, or am I going to step into someone else’s struggle… just because.

I began to cut the onions, mash the potatoes and set the table, all the while making jokes with Mommom and repeating them louder so she could hear me. As I helped with dinner that night I knew a friendship was being formed, as well as the realization that even when I think I have nothing to give, I always have a helping hand to offer and a really loud joke to tell that could bring a smile to a weary soul.

At 32 years old my friendship with my grandmother began. We’ve always been related, clearly, but we’ve never actually been friends, in part because I had the shocking revelation that I’ve never actually sat down with my grandmother and said “tell me about you.” I began to ask my grandmother questions, first over time spent making dinner, then over time spent having tea in the late afternoons. Mommom would talk about her own mother with a smile on her face and it was clear she loved her mother very much. It was the first time I saw my grandmother as someone’s daughter and not just a distant relative.

As I began to see my grandmother as someone’s daughter, I realized I could relate to her because I was someone’s daughter. The more I listened to Mommom’s stories, the more affection I felt for her. I began looking for ways to help her, going out of my way to ensure her comfort, not just because she was an old lady but because she was my friend.

I didn’t hear Mommom say “I love you” very much while I was growing up, which isn’t to say she didn’t love us, some people just never learn how to express love, or they learn and then somewhere along the way of life throwing a few heavy hits, they forget. The few times I remember saying “I love you” to Mommom were only slightly less awkward than her reaction, “okay, you too.” Some people don’t know how to receive love either, and after you hear their story, it makes sense as to why.

As my affection has grown for my grandmother over the last three months so has my ability to communicate my love for her. “I LOVE YOU, MOMMOM,” I yell (so she can hear me) before leaving the house. In the beginning she’d respond with her awkward quiet whisper “okay, you too.” Over time she progressed to awkwardly whisper “love you too,” as if she were unsure she could say it or not. Whether or not I got the response I wanted, I continued to tell her I loved her because I did, and it mattered less and less what the response was. I’d rub lotion on her legs, drive her to the doctor, carry her meal tray to the table, put a sweet treat on her plate and looked for little ways to not just say “I love you” but to show her.

Over time those little things have added up, and Mommom growing more and more into knowing she is loved and cared for has begun to liven up in a way I didn’t see while I was grow- ing up; in part because I didn’t really see her, and in other part because some of her difficult experiences in life added up to her being unsure of how to give and receive love. Now before I leave the house Mommom yells with confidence, “I SURE DO LOVE YOU, JJ.” I kiss her on the cheek, look her in the eyes and say “I love you, Mommom.”

Love is hard, and I don’t mean that in a cliche way, although maybe it’s cliche for a reason- because it’s true. When you really stop (really, stop) and think about living out the task of loving someone no matter what the cost is to you or whether or not you get it back, and you do it day in and day out all the days of your life… love is hard. We all know by now that love isn’t a feeling, and I know people need things to be defined so they call love a choice (since it’s not a feeling), and yes it is a choice, choosing to act out love even when you don’t feel it, but I think love is even more than a choice. I think love is so much grander than we could ever imagine or hope to express or receive that quite simply there isn’t a category to put it in or another word to define it… it just is. Love is what it is- it’s love. Love surpasses all understanding, all realm of thinking, all reason, all logic, and honestly, makes no sense.

But for as hard as love is, I honestly believe it’s worth it. I believe that love is hard and life is good, and that love is good and life is hard. I believe that it’s both for everyone and that it’s okay for both to be good and both to be hard.

A few months ago I set out to travel and be adventurous and meet new people because to me that was the definition of life being good. Instead, I somehow managed to spend most of that time at home, my very definition of life being hard. But I found out that whether you are traveling or stationary, life is both good and hard, and wherever you go, there you are. While I haven’t traveled as much as I’d hoped these last few months, I did make a new friend I didn’t see coming- my grandmother, my Mommom. It has been since being at home that I’ve realized if you try to avoid the hard parts of life, you’ll end up missing out on the really, really good parts.

It’s not like everything is fixed at home, nor is it a Cinderella story of happily ever after, we still celebrate Christmas in two different houses, but it’s a hopeful story of no matter my circumstance or how hard life and love may get, it is well with my soul…

and well worth the journey.

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I actually say this when I’m performing and I mean it sincerely, I don’t normally “should” on people, but if you have elderly family members or friends, you should call them or go see them. They are way cooler than we think they are. It’s gets harder for them to remember things as they get older, so it never hurts to remind them that they are loved.

I’m so grateful for your life, Mommom, and I’m so glad I’ll always have your sense of humor and your stylish green sweater to always take with me. I love you. JJ

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Iceland Part One

 

You learn a lot about taking a trip with photographers around the world and being on the road with the one you love for 10 days.

Here’s the first part of our trip to Iceland… with part two and a big life change just around the corner!