Author Archives: gafowler17

King of the May

img_2198-e1525789597900.jpgThe release of Charles Shultz’s animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was poor timing for my classmate Tommy Shortall. Almost from the day he began his tenure at our small Catholic grade school, Tommy was compared to the character Pig-Pen – the one perpetually surrounded by a cloud of dirt.

The nuns started it. They used Tommy’s slovenly appearance to shame him, forcing him to stand in front of the class as an example of how not to come to school.  It didn’t help. Every day he showed up looking as if he had just rolled out of bed wearing his uniform. Wrinkled and untucked, his shirt looked unclean, his hair unwashed and uncombed. The girls complained that he smelled “dirty.” No one wanted to sit next to him in class. Pig-Pen or Poindexter, the loser date in the Barbie Queen of the Prom board game, Tommy was to be avoided.

I felt sorry for him. Where were his parents to make sure he was cleaned, pressed and ready for school like the rest of us? Didn’t they notice? I also felt vulnerable, and scared. From the very first day of school, I was compared to my older siblings, falling somewhere between “smart” and “lazy” in the continuum of labels used to define us. Better to lay low than attract a label. I didn’t join the mean girls by reporting Tommy’s hygiene habits to the nuns, nor did I defend him. Like good little Charlie Browns, the boys didn’t care. They were aligned in their belief that girls, not boys (not even Tommy) had cooties.

By third grade, Pig-Pen was a codename for Tommy. He bore it well. A nickname means you are “cool.” Negative attention from a member of the opposite sex means you are “popular.” Such were the lies perpetuated by parents to help their children survive the cruelties of youth.

One morning, a nun came to our classroom to announce that three lucky girls would be selected to participate in the May Procession – a ritual to honor the Virgin Mary by crowning her statue with a wreath of flowers. The only requirement was that the girls had to wear their First Holy Communion dresses from the previous year. For a uniform-wearing Catholic School girl in the 1960s, this was the equivalent of dressing like a Disney princess for the day. Every girl raised her hand to be considered, even the ones who clearly had outgrown their dresses.

The teacher directed each girl to write her name on a slip of paper. One by one, she summoned three boys to pull names at random. The boys were less than thrilled. The girls vibrated like an audience of game show contestants. The first two girls shrieked like newly named Miss Americas when their names were read. Finally, the teacher called Tommy to pull the third name, pointing out that it was his reward for coming to school neatly attired that morning, most likely a Monday. The girls dropped their heads. No one wanted Pig-Pen to choose them. It would be bad luck in the board game of life, like drawing Poindexter (instead of cute Ken, athletic Bob or intellectual Tom) as your steady date.

I lost interest in the whole affair, and started picking at a scab irritated by my green, woolen knee socks. Then I heard my name.

I wanted to hug Tommy.

The girls would continue to be mean about it, but I was going to be in the May Crowning because of Tommy. With that one lucky draw, one sleight of hand, he instantly became my King of the May. I stood up against the girls who picked on him and offered sympathy when the nuns were less than kind. I began etching my own groove on the continuum: “nonconformist.” By the time I reached 8th grade, I was a doctrine-challenging, guitar-playing, Rolling Stone magazine reader, who idolized Bob Dylan. The nuns were glad to see me go.

I think of Tommy whenever the topic of bullying comes up, which is all too frequent, and the complicity we all share when we don’t speak up.  Looking back, the word I would choose to describe Tommy is “resilient.” He grinned through the pain of humiliation. He was more like Christ than the rest of us.

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Under the Belhaven Sun

 

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It wasn’t how I had envisioned it. In the original script, my husband and I arrive in Alessandria, Italy. Unexpected, we ask directions to Luca’s farm in amazingly practiced Italian. Lenny, Luca’s Labrador retriever, greets us on the dusty road. Signaled by his dog, Luca shields his eyes with his hand and squints into the sunlight. A smile slowly comes to his face as he recognizes us. “Luca!” we yell, waving. The sky bursts into the thousand colors of Belhaven. “We’re here!” We kept our promise.

In the revised version – how it really happened – we are in Milan, Italy’s second largest city. It’s raining. Holding a map in one hand, an umbrella in the other, Alan and I are struggling to find our pre-arranged meeting point. The streets are crowded, and everyone is moving fast to get out of the rain. We are lost, and late. We stop to get our bearings. Someone nudges us from behind. It’s Luca! Our smiles radiate the thousand colors of Belhaven.

We settle into a neighborhood pizzeria, where we meet Luca’s girlfriend, Giulia, and catch up on life. She shares photos of the beautiful stucco farmhouse they are renovating, their creative display at last year’s farmer’s market, and a recent trip to Thailand. Luca talks about the difficulties of converting from traditional to organic farming, the bad weather that has delayed planting season and his latest venture — egg-laying chickens.

“It’s so weird seeing you in Milan,” Luca said. “When I think of you, we are in North Carolina.” Intuitively, I understood. Before Milan, our relationship existed in fixed space: a single Google Maps pin for the five weeks Luca spent as a Workaway volunteer at our bed and breakfast.  Fast-forward two-and-a-half years. Here we are, gathered around a new pin 4,341 miles away, eating pizza and gelato.

We recalled how difficult it was to say goodbye in North Carolina. At the time, we didn’t have a plan to re-connect, only a promise. Parting in Milan, we had neither plan nor promise. We had possibilities. And all things are possible under the Belhaven sun.

 

March Madness

Several years ago, on Panama’s Pacific coast, a small hotel owner told me he no longer lived in one of the exquisite bungalows he had built on top of the cliffs. He moved to town because he had forgotten what quiet was.

For him, the sound of crashing waves, loud and persistent, was like suffering with tinnitus. I remember thinking how odd it was to seek quiet in town, with its own set of predictable disturbances.

For me, the ocean is a sedative; it puts my monkey brain to rest. And there’s science behind it. The sounds of the ocean activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling us to slow down and be present.

After being stranded on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, for nearly a week during winter storm Riley, then returning in time for Quinn, followed by Skylar, and now Toby, in rapid succession, I am beginning to understand what that hotel owner was feeling.

The weather madness that will be remembered as March 2018 left an earworm burrowed in my head, and it is not the calming CD of crashing waves. It’s a Halloween soundtrack of the wind. Howling. Groaning. Whining. Wailing. Caterwauling. Whirring. Revving. Whistling. Booming. Buzzing. Moaning. I had never considered so many descriptors for the wind before this month. Constant. Insistent. Shrill. Punishing. House-shaking. And there’s that un unearthly drone that sets the dog to inconsolable barking. I have to investigate, despite the voice inside my head that warns me, “Do not go down the stairs!”

Somewhere deep inside, blanket pulled over my head, I long to hear a car alarm, a dog (other than my own) barking in the distance, an idling truck, human laughter. The quiet of town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just Another Day in Paradise

Wrench. The tool. The one she needs to turn on the shower because the handle is missing. It’s late, and she has to wait for the maintenance manager to make his way back to the property – not an easy trek when the Pacific licks your doorstep; streets are streams. It’s rainy season in Costa Rica, which translates to mud. Tourist season is still a few weeks away.

Her fluent Spanish does not include the word for “wrench.” She doesn’t need the faucet fixed; she already knows that isn’t possible. She just needs to borrow a wrench; she will manage the rest.

Pantomime works. The experience has now inscribed “llave ingelsa” into her mental dictionary. English key. Wrench.

This is Sarah, nearly three years after she helped us open our cozy Belhaven, NC, bed and breakfast. This is Sarah at her best – the person you want in your boat if you are shipwrecked on a deserted island.

She tells me of the day a mischievous troop of capuchin monkeys made a mess of her kitchen and the night a bat slid into her 100-square foot casita and bounced around for hours before it found its way out. And the time her only pair of flip-flops got caught in a rogue wave, and she had to chase them down or suffer the consequences of walking barefoot to town on gravel roads – after work – to replace them. As challenging as some days have been, the only unkind thing Sarah says about living in Costa Rica is, “It can be frustrating.”

I name the marketable skills Sarah has stuffed into her backpack: Flexible to withstand constant change; comfortable with approximations; undaunted by visitors who don’t respect closed doors. Her physical strength is obvious. The terrain is challenging, and many places worth going are not accessible by car. Less obvious is her inventiveness. Things break splendidly where heat, humidity and salt air form a trifecta for atmospheric corrosion. Technology works intermittently. She lists the workarounds she has improvised to coax more life out of dying appliances. There is no Amazon delivery service, and the nearest Walmart is a day away.

Welcome to paradise, where luxury is a dry towel untouched by mildew.

The Happiest Place on Earth is Not Disney World

The Happy Planet Index has ranked Costa Rica  — a Third World economy – in its top spot, based on a harmonious equation: wellbeing, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and ecological footprint. The upshot? Using natural resources efficiently, people live long and happy lives.

In Costa Rica, nature is Commander-in -Chief. Without human interference and management, the jungle will tear down concrete and conceal evidence of human existence. Just this year, archeologists uncovered one of the largest-ever ancient Mayan cities – a huge network of plazas and pyramids – hidden under the lush canopy of Guatemala.

With only .03 percent of the world’s land mass, Costa Rica has managed to preserve 25 percent of its country. It is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, and within Costa Rica, the remote Osa Peninsula has the largest portion of preserved land – 60 percent. This is where Sarah lives and works at the Hotel Jinetes De Osa, a rustic beachside retreat on Drake Bay.

Her commute is a 185-step climb up and down a steep incline, surrounded by flora and fauna. Her schedule is dictated by the tides and the sun. Her diet is dictated by what is locally produced, raised or caught in the sea. “This is what it’s like to live in balance with nature,” Sarah tells me.

Family is everything here. Even those unrelated by blood or patriotism work together like family, celebrate like family. There is no sense of “not my job.” Everyone leans on everyone else. This is a place where getting even small things accomplished takes relay-race trust – a value far greater than precision.

It’s hard to live here, but it’s harder to leave. Imagine Adam and Eve willingly vacating the Garden of Eden, where everything is perfect, almost perfect, at the top of the Happy Planet Index.

You can’t possibly know the wealth of knowledge you will gain the instant you step off the water taxi into the warm surf, baggage over your head. Timing your debarkation with the waves, the captain yells, “Now!” Hesitate, and you risk being hit by the boat.

This is the price of paradise. This is Sarah three years later.

 

 

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Blue Willow Special

Blue Willow. They are common, everyday dishes. The pattern has been around since the 18th Century, massed produced in various countries, and widely used in diners and restaurants in the 1920s to serve up a hardy, inexpensive meal, commonly called “Blue Plate Special.” The plates are so familiar that unless you’re a collector, you probably wouldn’t give them a second glance at a second-hand shop.

Common in ubiquity. Common in color – blue image on white background. Common with an unvarying arrangement of objects. Common in terms of everyday functionality. Now, close your eyes. Can you recall the detail?

The Blue Willow pattern is actually complicated. It depicts a traditional Chinese waterside garden with images that tell a traditional folk tale of wealth, arranged marriage, forbidden love, honor killing and transformation. The lovers turn into the pair of doves prominently featured at the top center. The pattern is a feast for an imaginative mind.

IMG_1870The single place setting now in my possession could have been purchased almost anywhere in the early 20th Century. Maybe even today. But it wasn’t purchased. It was a gift from the Pungo River, nudged along with dozens of similar pieces, amazingly intact, to the water’s edge. It solidly served as the everyday tableware for the good folks who owned our house and inn about 100 years ago. Their descendants recently gave me this five-piece set. Yes, it’s complicated.

Not just any common Blue Willow plates, these particular Blue Willow plates, are among the things Linda Shavender Sluck remembers about her grandmother Ruth Wilkinson:

“She never used anything else. I remember standing at the sink and helping to wash them after a meal. Especially remember all of the delicious food that was prepared and served on them like her famous fried chicken.”

Linda was a little girl then, and her memories are more feeling than detail. “One thing I remember about staying on the street you live on was the predawn sounds of people coming to work at the crab house across the street,” she wrote to me. “Sometimes they would be singing.”

There are condos where the crab house once stood. The workers are long gone, but the river – the same one that delivered the special Blue Willow plates –  still carries their tune. When it’s quiet. Before dawn.

These oh-so-common plates are neatly stacked in our living room — not a typical place for a set of dishes. They are there to remind me that the most familiar things deserve a second look and that an uncommon story can turn an everyday dish into a family  heirloom.

Two birds flying high

A Chinese vessel, sailing by

A bridge with three men, sometimes four

A willow tree, hanging o’er

A Chinese temple, there it stands,

Built upon the river sands

An apple tree, with apples on

A crooked fence to end my song.

–A variation of a short Willow Pattern poem

My Long Journey to Andra Watkins

 

Written in gratitude to Anne Becker and in memory of Ruth Wilkinson, whose invisible hand has nudged together another generation of kindred spirits under the roof of her home-sweet-home in the tiny town of Belhaven, NC.

The river takes, the river gives. Which is exactly how the Wilkinsons, who lived at 367 East Water Street in Belhaven when the road was known as Front Street, long before their house became an inn, ended up with a collection of Blue Willow plates. Ruth Wilkinson, the family matriarch, arrived at the collection one plate at a time as they washed up on the shore of the Pungo, a bounty claimed by some Victorian-era hurricane, decades before hurricanes had names. Floatsam or jetsam, who knew? Who cared? The river practically delivered them to the Wilkinson’s doorstep.

The plates, I’m told, have graced the Wilkinson’s Thanksgiving dinner table, accommodating family recipes inspired by Ruth, for four generations. I know this from Anne Becker — Ruth’s great-granddaughter, author of the “Wilkinson Plates.

Although she now lives in Washington State, which might as well be a different country if not for social media, Anne’s connection to the river is strong. Eastern Carolina calls her home just about every year.

Aside from owning the same house in different lifetimes, my connection to the Wilkinsons starts with Anne’s Aunt Becky. Becky and her husband showed up at the inn one sunny afternoon. They were taking a drive down Memory Lane and wanted a look around the old homestead. They didn’t have much time; they wanted to get back to their home in southern Virginia before dark. Becky promised to return, and she did — always unexpected — gifting me with her memories, a copy of the “Wilkinson Plates,” and finally, before she died, connecting me with Anne. The river takes, the river gives.

While researching another book inspired by her Belhaven family, Anne spent a few days with us last summer, sleeping in the bedroom once occupied by her Aunt Iris. We became fast friends, bonding over our early political careers, writing, reading, gardening, baking, old houses and the spirits among us.

A few months ago, Anne surprised me with a package that contained a beautiful cowl she knitted while channeling the cold Pungo River breezes, and two novels written by author Andra Watkins. Without giving away any secrets, Anne knew I would love Andra’s novels, based on our shared fascination with Theodosia Burr Alston, Vice President Aaron Burr’s less-infamous daughter, whose death remains a North Carolina legend, as unsettled as the fate of the Lost Colony.

I had just started reading Andra’s second book when out of the blue, I received an email from Andra Watkins herself.  Anne Becker had suggested she contact me about hosting an author’s night at our bed and breakfast.

At first, I was like – What? We can’t afford to host a New York Times best-selling author! I almost responded, politely of course, without opening her proposal. But I loved Andra’s books, so I couldn’t resist.  I opened the document, and my concerns amplified — What? We can’t accommodate 100 people! But then I thought about the flotsam-or-jetsam Wilkinson plates and how that one book connected me to Anne, and how one book connected Anne to Andra, and Andra to me. The river takes, the river gives. It’s my turn to keep it flowing.

Sponsored by Between Water & Main Bed & Breakfast, Andra Watkins will be coming to Belhaven’s Wilkinson Center, 144 W. Main St., Sun., Feb. 11, 2018, 3-4 p.m., to present “I Walked 444 Miles to Make a Memory,” a hilarious, motivational program about her New York Times best-selling memoir “Not Without My Father.” Book sales and signing to follow. Tickets are $10 and can be reserved by calling 252-943-0367.

 

Love, Mom

 

Today he turns 30. The child who made me a mother.

4:50 a.m. was the defining moment. Just like that, I went from Gail to Kyle’s mom. Later I would be Alex’s mom and Drew’s mom. But this date, hour and minute was my crowning. No matter the titles I earned during my professional career, this is the only one that makes my heart sing.

262,800 hours of on-the-job training, yet I am no expert. It’s impossible. Just when I thought I had it down, the game changed. And it hasn’t stopped changing.

Happy Birthday to the child who proved that McDonald’s food really can bring on labor. Gave new meaning to Labor Day weekend and made Sept. 3 my official Mother’s Day.

A thirtieth birthday warrants a trip to the attic to sort through the baby books and memory box. Among the letters to Santa, report cards, early art projects, achievement ribbons and class photos, there are pages of stories. A journal of things I didn’t want to forget. Minutiae, mostly.

I wanted to remember how you always began sentences with, “I have a good idea.” And “probably” was your favorite response to questions. You were the ultimate polite kid, always saying “thank you” when your friends followed your commands in Simon Says.  One night I had told you that I was going out for the evening and that I would give you a goodnight kiss when I came back. “Okay,” said your three-year-old self to his very pregnant mother. “When I fall sleep, I’ll be turned the right way so you won’t have to bend.” And you were.

Happy Birthday to the child who was born to serve. Who looked after your brothers beyond all rationale expectation, earning the not-always-complimentary moniker of “third parent.” There was the time you went to the New Jersey Shore with a friend’s family and selflessly spent your allowance on souvenirs for your brothers, who weren’t lucky enough to spend the day at the beach. And the time we took the train from New Jersey to Chicago, and you patiently spent hours teaching your youngest brother how to tie his shoe laces.  And the time …

Neighborhood baby-sitter, life guard, volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician. Your roles and responsibilities changed as you grew beyond the world of family and friends and into the community, but your sense of purpose never wavered.

“Would you be upset if I didn’t go to my college graduation ceremony?” asked your teenaged self, who had already passed up senior year of high school for a bridging year at college. You went to Europe instead. Then in your 20s, after a few years of corporate life, you announced you were enrolling in police academy. You didn’t skip that graduation.

Happy Birthday to the man, soon to be a husband, who kick-started my motherhood clock, knocking me head-over-heels into the boundary-less infinity that is love.

May all your dreams come true.