For chosen family

On the 25th day, I am grateful for chosen family.

Renee and I have some friends in Raleigh named Karen and Toney who are retired jewelers, and they have had a life full of adventures. As a result, they have a wide range of friends from all over the world. And when we lived in their city, so far from our own families, they sort of adopted us. A mutual friend said once that Karen and Toney collect people. And we were part of their collection.

They lived in a large old house, filled with knick-knacks from their travels – there is the Persian rug brought back from Iran, over there the Buddha from India, the animal skin from the Southwest, the antique couch from Goodwill. It was an eclectic house, but in a good way.

And when we lived there, we went to their house for Thanksgiving. Everyone brought something, and just as their friends were eclectic, so was the meal – there was American style turkey and dressing, for sure, but there was also babaganoush, and eggrolls, and empanadas, and baklava. They would put out the invitation – if you don’t have a place to eat Thursday, well, now you do. Come as you are and bring what you can.

When you got there, the table was already full, but Karen would always say, ‘Don’t worry – we will make room”, and another chair magically appeared and people would scooch their chairs and now there was room for one more person at this most unlikely of feasts. By the end of the day there would be several tables added to the end of the dining room table that now extended into the living room.

And I am here to tell you, that would be the best meal you had all year, and the most diverse. The last year we were there we ate with, among others, an undocumented house painter, a professional dulcimer player, a nurse who worked on death row, a Syrian mathematician, a folk singer, and the woman who had worked the front desk at a nearby retirement community.

It was crowded, and there was lots of shuffling and “pardon me” and “let me scooch by”. There were kids playing and new people arriving and hugs and introductions and passing the potatoes and the deserts – my God, the desserts.

And after the meal the musical instruments would come out, and impromptu jam sessions would happen and people who had other obligations would come by to visit. Their daughter’s ex-husband was a vegetarian, and since he often had to work on Thanksgiving he would come by during this point, and Karen had always made sure there was food he could eat, and a plate would be made and his children would surround him as he ate, and tell him of their adventures that day.

And it would last until late in the evening, with people snacking the rest of the day, and guitar picking in the living room and camera flashes and…

It was always a very good day.

But we also got invited to birthday parties. Dance recitals. Block parties. Christmas. Easter. It was lovely – we were part of their family. You instantly had plans for every holiday, you had people who loved you, you had people who would miss you when you moved away. And people you miss since having moved away.

It seems to me that there are two types of family: those you are born to, and those you choose. And while the former is a biological fact, the second is a decision. On this thanksgiving day, I’m grateful for our friends who decided we are part of their family, and who have modeled for us, again and again over the years, the sort of lives we want to have.

For childhood memories of Thanksgiving

On the 24th day, I’m grateful for childhood memories of Thanksgiving.

Until the age of 12 or so, we spent every Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house in Memphis.

He was my Dad’s half-brother, from my grandmother’s first marriage, and he was 23 years older than older than Dad. After her first husband’s death, she had refused to remarry until her son was out of the house, as she thought it would be unfair to him, and from concerns that any new father would treat his step-son differently from his natural children. She had had a wicked step-mother herself, and knew the risks.

My uncle was a good man, tall and handsome, with shocking red hair and long deft fingers. He was a butcher, and had worked as a union meat cutter until he opened a barbeque restaurant, and was solidly middle-class. His wife was a short woman with a lot of improbable blonde hair that was always tortured into shape and held against its will by a generous application of some sort of shellac. Their grown daughter had married a musician, and while they all said the word “musician”, you got the sense from the way it was said they really meant to say degenerate.

Their house was a large brick colonial on a cul-de-sac, with a yard meant for looking at and not playing in. There was a room designated as the parlor, which children were not allowed to be in, and in which it seemed no one ever laughed. My aunt was a woman to whom propriety mattered, and who firmly believed children should be seen and not heard. Appearances were important to her.

I can only imagine how we wrecked her world when the folks from the country showed up, with their loud children and the huge station wagon, loaded down with the family from Mississippi. Every time I see the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when the family arrives, I imagine it must have been a lot like that at my uncle’s house on Thanksgiving.

They had a dining room that one got the sense that nobody ate at the rest of the year, and it had a huge table, with place settings and food set out in bowls and trays, served family style. People who hadn’t prayed out loud in 364 days pronounced a blessing over the food, and we ate food that had attachments and memories: Aunt Louise’s cranberry sauce, Mom’s fudge pies, Jamie’s turkey.

After the meal, my uncle and the musician would watch football and Dad would sit in there with them, but he had no interest in the game. I would play with the other children that were there, upstairs, out of the way, while the women all talked in the kitchen and tried to put order to things, before we would all pack up and head back to the country, to our small rectangular home on 33 acres, where the plates did not match and we had no rooms one did not use and that had whole fields where one could run and romp.

When my Dad’s aunt died when I was 12, we quit going to my uncle’s for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure why, other than she was the one who sort of held the family together, and the bridge between the very urbane middle-class life my dad’s half-brother had, and the hand to mouth existence we had in rural Mississippi. My uncle died in 1993, 11 years or so after the last of those meals, and I haven’t seen any of his family since the funeral. I don’t know how any of them are doing, how they made out, anything.

Despite my having had at least 37 Thanksgivings since the last time I was at their house for Thanksgiving, those meals still represent the Platonic ideal of Thanksgiving for me, and what I picture in my head when I hear that you are having Thanksgiving at your house. They also sum up for me the best part of this holiday, whatever its trash colonial origins: Unlikely, complicated people coming together to celebrate each other and our common memories, all the while building better ones.

I hope you have a good time tomorrow, however and with whomever you are celebrating. And if you are the one hosting, go easy on yourself. Something will go wrong. And in 10 years, nobody will care at all, and all they will remember is that on that day, they were loved.

Pass-along plants

As a gardener, I love plants. All sorts, really, but especially pass along plants – plants given you by a friend or a neighbor, plants that have traveled a ways and that have stories behind them.

I now live in Central Mississippi, but for 13 years lived in Raleigh, NC.

I didn’t know anyone when I moved there. I mean, no one. My parents and brothers and all my friends were 12 hours away by car. This was in the very early days of social media, and to say I was feeling isolated is true, and yet a serious understatement. Eventually, though, I would get married, build friendships, and meet some of the nicest people I have ever known. Some of those people were Karen and Toney.

They took us in: Metaphorically, anyway. They were about 10 years older than my parents, and served a sort of dual role as both parents and grandparents for us while we were there. The holidays we couldn’t afford to go home we spent at Karen and Toney’s. We were invited to all their family celebrations – when their grandkids had birthday parties, or when Toney (who was a musician) would have a local gig, for example, and they threw their lot in with us as well by bringing us food when we were sick or fundraising for the nonprofit I had founded. We were and are, in every sense of the word except biology, family.

Their daughter, Allison is my age, and she too is a gardener. And every spring, she would hold a plant swap at her house. You were encouraged to bring anything you had to share (either plants or food), and she would share anything she had extras of, and everyone went home with plants and with their bellies full.

And one of the things I went home with were these Purple Bearded Iris.

These are the old heirloom Iris germanica, but my grandmother, like all old southern women, would have called them Flags. These Iris were given to Allison by her grandmother (Toney’s mother), and they were given to the grandmother when Toney was a boy by their neighbor who had had them “forever”. As Toney is now in his 80’s, these flowers can be tracked back at least 100 years.

So I got them from Allison, and planted them in my crazy cottage garden in Raleigh. When we sold that house, I dug some (but not all) of the Iris up and put them in a paper bag, where they sat for 7 months in a storage unit until we moved into our new house in Mississippi, and then I stuck then in a corner of our front yard, where they would get lots of sun and I would walk by them every day.

And now they look like the picture at the top of the page when they bloom, which is from the middle of February to the end of March.

This summer I divided mine up and gave some to two neighbors and a friend in the suburbs. They have, under my watch, went from my house in Raleigh (where some still are) to my house in Mississippi, to three other houses here, and the story lives on, as do the plants.

I think one of the things I love most about pass-along plants is that they go against the very concept of our modern economic story: There is no scarcity, no money changes hands, their only currency is joy, and rather than becoming scarcer when they are given away, they become not just more plentiful, but safer as well. Because if I hoarded them and kept them all for myself, one bad freeze or a wetter than average year could kill them and then they are gone. But this way they are spread out in at least two different states and in many different yards, all increasing the odds of their survival.

I think there is a lesson in there for us all.

As an aside, if you like the idea of pass along plants and want to know more, I highly recommend this book by Felder Rushing and Steve Bender. You get a list of plants that “share well”, as well as the story behind them. It’s good for your garden, but also good for your soul,

Do you have any pass-along plants that are meaningful to you? I would love to hear that story in the comments.

A Good Walk Shared

I went for a walk this morning. That isn’t unusual – I walk about two and a third miles most mornings, rain or shine, and have done for more than a year.

What made it notable this morning was that I walked with a friend. Normally, my walking is a solitary pursuit, but my friend Jill is wanting to get back in the habit of exercising, and asked if she could walk with me this morning.

It’s a great walk, with gentle hills, through a midcentury neighborhood with ranch houses and mature trees and a creek, with surprises around many corners, like the airstream trailer or the bridge over the creek or the hedge of azaleas that is a wall of pink in the springtime. It is the high point of my day, this walk is, and I was glad to share it with someone else.

As we were walking along, I couldn’t help myself – I kept pointing out things that I was excited about. That live oak, the ways this house had renovated their garage, the unusual plants these people had in their side yard, the vintage car in the driveway. All things I knew to expect, because I have seen them every day for months.

I also took delight in showing her the house that really went all out for Christmas, and the house where you will see a giant inflatable bunny rabbit come Easter, and the house that put up the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag after the insurrection back in January. Sigh.

Really, it almost felt like hosting a tourist in your town – like I was the guide, giving the history of the houses, letting her know where the famous author had lived, I pointed out when we passed the home of the former governor, showed her where the city limits had been in the 50’s.

It was a lot of fun, this playing host. I had not realized how much of this walk I have internalized, how much I had soaked in, how well I knew this stretch, and how fascinated with it I was.

Some things are better when you share them.


Don’t do it by yourself.

One of my favorite stories:

A salesman was driving through the country on his way to his next appointment. He took a curve too fast and ended up in the ditch.

He had no cell service to call AAA, and was cursing his luck when he looked over the field next to the road and saw an old man and a mule, plowing the field.

He walked over to the man and asked for help. The farmer unhitched his mule and together they walked to the car.

The man hitched the mule to the car, told the salesman to stand back and gave a mighty holler.

“Sam – Pull! Mikey – Pull! Davey – Pull!”

And then the mule leaned in, and pulled, and with a creak and a groan the car rolled onto the road again.

As the farmer unhitched the mule, the salesman stood there in disbelief.

“I don’t understand”, he said. “You called three names out, but you only have one mule. What was that about?”

The man smiled. “Oh, that was to trick Davey here into thinking he wasn’t trying to do it alone. If he thought he had to do it by himself, he wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

When we know we have a team of people with us, we can accomplish things we never would have dreamed of taking on by ourselves.

Don’t do it by yourself.