Yesterday, the internet heaved a massive sigh of remembered
grief as we stopped to think about where we were and what we were doing when
those planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Yesterday was also a day of multiple sorrows
for me because I have just lost a dear friend to an unforgiving disease. And now we are supposed to move on, many of us
feeling a little more hopeful because we realize that our world has survived
that awful calamity and will do so again.
But before I’m ready to move forward, I need another day—one
in which to send love and gratitude to a group of people who—I hope—will not
read this message. They will be too busy filling sandbags, boarding up windows,
checking generators, stocking up on emergency supplies, and plotting escape
routes from the deadly storm that is headed their way. Hurricanes scare me
because they are so uncontrollable, but none frighten me more than the ones
that threaten my own memories and the landmarks that chart my writing career.
So while Florence still churns her way through the Atlantic,
here are just some of the people and places I hope she will miss:
The readers and fellow writers who have become
long-distance friends in both North and South Carolina.
The owners and staff of the vacation condo in
Myrtle Beach, where we always felt welcome and where my books dotted the shelves
of the communal living room.
The librarians and archivists at the Charleston
County Public Library and the South Carolina Historical Society who have always
been eager to check a fact or look up a reference for me.
The Charleston tour guides who consented to give
me private tours of antebellum houses in Charleston and the battlefield at
Secessionville where my great uncle died.
The owners of the Blue Bicycle Bookstore who
hosted my very first book signing and opened my eyes to the interplay between
antebellum and contemporary Charleston.
The College of Charleston faculty members who
allowed me to share in their year-long celebration of Jubilee—the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The manager of the museum shop and the on-site
historians at Middleton Place, who were always willing to stock my books that
mentioned the Middleton family.
The staff of the Penn Center on St. Helena
island, who welcomed my work on Laura Towne and the history of Frogmore—as well
as the managers of the souvenir shops in town who cleared spots on their
shelves for my “The Road to Frogmore.”
The residents of Beaufort, South Carolina--the
bookstores that stocked my books and the
librarians at the Beaufort Public Library who helped with thorny research
problems and scheduled local book talks whenever I could be in town.
The owners of the Leverett House, featured in my
“Beyond All Price,” for letting me explore their private residence for traces
of its Civil War history.
The residents of Hilton Head island, who
welcomed us as frequent visitors, invited me to give book talks at the Coastal
Discovery Museum and various women’s groups, and allowed me to poke about in
their gated communities and abandoned cemeteries for traces of that first
Yankee invasion in 1861.
May you all stay safe, warm, and dry in the
We hear so many complaints these days on Facebook and other sites that negative attitudes build up quickly. It seems only fair that at least once in a while we also report the good things that happen. Here's what happened to me today.
We have used Cook's Pest Control in Memphis for years. They come by four times a year and treat for bug infestations--everything from tiny ants to wasp nests to spider webs are quickly and efficiently taken care of. But they have one device to discover what kind of pests are around that I loathe. They uses sticky pads, black, about 6 inches by 3 inches and coated with the world's most tenacious goop. So far, they have not caught anything larger than a good-sized wolf spider, although I'm sure they could also permanently disable a good-sized mouse (but I have cats for that!)
But I have to modify that statement. They haven't caught much that was ALIVE! My garbage can was a different story. One of those pads was placed underneath the can, so that when I attempted to roll it to the curb, a wheel went over the sticky pad, and we stopped dead. It was more effective than those wheel blocks the cops use to disable a car with too many parking tickets. I eventually managed to pry the pad loose, but it took hours of toil and sweat equity to dissolve the connections between wheel and pad. I chalked that up to my own failure to look carefully before I moved the can.
However, yesterday, with the sun out and temperatures in the 70s, I decided to sweep my front porch. Off I went to the garage to find my brand new corn-straw broom. I found it all right. It wasn't going anywhere. It was standing upright, every straw fiber planted firmly in another one of those sticky pads. How many fibers does it take to make up a standard-sized broom? I certainly don't know, but there's no way I'm cleaning goop off of every one of those strands. The broom is a goner.
So today, I decided to inform the company of what I thought about their sticky pads. Actually, I think I was fairly polite about it, and all I suggested was that they ask their technicians to seek permission before placing those pads where an unsuspecting customer (or broom) might fall victim to them.
Now, here's the good news. Within a hour after I posted my little diatribe to the company website, my phone rang. It was a Cook's representative, calling to apologize for the inconvenience and telling me that they would be taking $15.00 off my bill so that I could purchase a new broom. I am impressed! The gesture cost them $15.00, but the good will it engendered was priceless. Wouldn't it be nice if every company had such customer service? That's too much to ask for, I suppose, but it's a good object lesson for all of us in our dealings with others.
A little over 72 hours ago, I found myself standing in front of a microphone to thank the Military Writers Society of America for choosing me as their "Author of the Year." I love this picture of that moment for several reasons. First, I want to call it "The Sound of One Hand Clapping." That's why the two gentlemen have blurry hands in the photo. Now I know what that sounds like. But what I like even more is the expression on my own face -- the one that says, "You've got to be kidding me!"
I don't win things -- not contests, not titles, not even sales records. Inside, I'm still the little kid whose mother was told to take me out of dance class because I was hopelessly awkward. "She'll be happier going to the library," the teacher said, "And the rest of us will be happier that she went." A few years later, it was a piano teacher who said, "I can't accept any more money for lessons. She'll never be able to move her hands in two separate directions." And a driving instructor who said, "She's never going to make it down the driveway until she's in a car that has an automatic transmission."
In organizations, now that I'm all grown up, I'm not bad at getting elected as the chair of an unpopular committee. I was a pretty good teacher, with a small cadre of ex-students who still come around, but I was never "Teacher of the Year." My office wall has a few plaques on it -- certificates of appreciation for hard work, recognition for donations, and the diplomas that show my academic achievements (although none of them have a seal higher than "Cum Laud" -- no "Summa' for me.) And not a single one of my books will ever bear a sticker that says "New York Times Bestseller."
Now, at 76? This award? I'm almost speechless. I am endlessly grateful for all of the congratulatory notes that have been arriving on Facebook, even if I can't thank all of you personally. But now, it's time to get back to work. Recognition means nothing if I cannot use it as a vehicle to help others reach the same goal. As I think I remember saying on Saturday night, "Use me. If I can help other writers by sharing what I have learned, I am at your disposal. Ask away."
I started yesterday with fear -- how would I ever make it through the
rituals of burial without collapsing, without weeping and screaming at
the loneliness that filled me? And then I learned -- as a dear friend
told me I would -- that I was not alone after all. I've been overwhelmed
with the love that surrounded me, and with the love and respect that so
many people showed for my husband.
We had an
overflow crowd at the visitation, and an amazing mix of people whose
lives had been touched in some way by Floyd as he simply went about his
daily life. There were Past International Directors who talked about
what all he had done for Lionism, and there was a warehouse man whose
only contact had been loading pecan boxes into the trunk of our car
during a fund-raiser. There were former students of mine, as well as
former faculty colleagues. There were current students at the Southern
College of Optometry, looking wide-eyed at a death that touched them too
closely. And there were at least two gentlemen well over ninety years
old, who still walked with joy, not fear. Floyd's fellow governors who ran the Tennessee Lions organization
in 2003-2004 rubbed elbows with young Lions who knew no one except their
local club members. Offices closed: Mid-South Lions Sight and Hearing
Service shut its doors at noon so that the staff could attend. The
Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau attended en masse, as
did the Germantown Chamber of Commerce staff. Strangers talked to one
another and discovered mutual friends. Old friends who hadn't seen each
other for years held mini-reunions. My neighbors were there, some of
them discovering for the first time how much good that quiet man in
Building 6 had done for his city and state. There were miracles
occurring all over those funeral parlor rooms, and one of them was that I
learned to smile again and hug the people who offered me their love. And if
there were a few tears, they were elicited by happy memories.
can't begin to say thank you to all the people who have buoyed me up
during the past week -- thank you for your cards and private messages,
for the memories you have shared, for the pot of soup and the box of
cookies, for your phone calls, the pep talks, the helpful hints, the
offers to come over and help with anything I need, and for the many
donations that have come in to honor Floyd's memory. Thanks to the
funeral home staff who made everything happen effortlessly, and to the
seven impossibly young airmen who carried out the full military honors
ceremony at the cemetery with dignity and solemnity.
I may become something of
a hermit for a few weeks, while I absorb all the lessons you have
taught me and while I figure out how to manage what this new life will
mean, but please be sure that I will never forget what you all have done
for me -- and for Floyd.