The Scoop: Family


            I told you about my church youth group from when I was a teenager and how much fun we had. We went on choir trips, mission trips, held services at the hospital, helped old people clean up their yards, packed one ton of candy into stockings for poor children at Christmas, played practical jokes on each other, went to camp, sang concerts, produced puppet shows, and some things I can’t divulge because the statute of limitations has probably not run out yet. We were comrades in arms. Soldiers in the foxhole. Partners in crime. Not to mention all the times So-and-So got a crush on You-Know-Who, and we kidded and ribbed and let the cat out of the bag. When two of us actually hooked up, we stuck our fingers down our throats and made vomiting noises and said how gross it was. We were sick with jealousy. We went to Jungle Survival School together, but that’s another story.

             A few weeks ago, many of the group got together for a reunion in Dothan, Alabama, since the Panama Canal Zone doesn’t exist anymore and most of us live up here. I looked forward to it eagerly but also with curiosity. After all, it had been almost 40 years since we had seen each other. You know how that goes. Life encroaches, and the years and the miles and the weather and the job and the marriages and the two-point-five children and the extra piece of pecan pie add up. As Rick drove me up to the reunion, I wondered, Will they know me? Will I know them? Will we have anything to talk about?

            The minute we saw each other in the hotel lobby, it was as if time and space and distance didn’t exist. It was as though we had seen each other just the day or week before. It was surreal, getting together with so many kids who had meant so much to me in my childhood, almost an out-of-body experience. The connection was profound. When we hugged each other, it was not words that rushed out—it was tears. We were bubbling with laughter, to be sure, but I was knocked out by how emotional it was. We spent the evening singing old choir and camp songs, sharing memories, and honoring our choir director and his wife, both now 90 years old. It was magic. Get this: the reunion was actually planned and carried out by a girl who had been much younger than us. It had always been her dream to be a part of the group when she watched us as a kid. Now as an adult in her forties, her dream was to see all of us together again. What she did was give us a gift. For one night, I stepped into a time machine and got to recapture the spirit, the unity, the camaraderie, and the ambiance that had once been ours.

            We really existed. We really were. We really lived.


My grandfather was a one-of-a-kind type of guy, a mixture of sailor, rascal, gentleman, rapscallion, yarn-spinner, fisherman, dreamer, and patriarch. He was bigger than life. He ran away from home, joined the Merchant Marines, sailed the seven seas, and had the tattoos to prove it. During his colorful life, one of his jobs was to paint circus wagons for Ringling Brothers Circus. He had a steady hand and use these special sable brushes, imported from Russia, to paint stripes and curlycues. My uncle gave each of us one, and I touch it every now and then, just to rest my hand where I know Grandaddy's had been. In my mind I can hear his laugh, smell his outdoorsy smell, feel the press of his big arm holding me close.



           What can I say about this holiday season? Everyone I know has less money this year. Some have none. I fall somewhere between those two. Less money means less spending. For our family, there is no spending frenzy this year. And guess what I’ve discovered: that’s a good thing. Without even planning to do so, we’ve spent more time with each other, just loving and supporting, babysitting the kids, laughing together, cooking homemade dinners.

            In our family, Rick and I are the hub of the wheel, and holiday time usually means making sure we’ve covered every wish list, every stocking stuffer, every cute thing that reminds us of one of the children or grandchildren or friends or family members. It embarrasses me how much we buy for each other here in America, like we owe it to each other or need to prove our love by the quantity and quality of gifts. Intellectually, I know this. Emotionally, I fall for it every time, hook, line, and sinker. We already have so much stuff we regularly host garage sales to get rid of it, and then we start the process over: buying, using, selling, buying . . . buying . . . buying . . . . When will we learn?

            Our grandson was nestled on my lap watching a movie with our family. I was so content just to hold him. He’s almost seven, so my holding days are numbered. While we watched, he would occasionally touch my face with his hand, absentmindedly, as if to make sure it was really me. After a long time he got up and said, “Mimi, I need my grandpa,” and trotted over to sit on Rick’s lap. It makes my heart sing to know that down where it counts, what we really need is each other.

            If we could have one wish to make anything come true, including one more day with those who have already passed on, I doubt whether we would use it on material things. What wouldn’t I give to have one more day with my daddy? So, this year, I am not going to focus on what I don’t have, what I can’t afford to buy. I’m going to revel in those special moments with family and friends, and maybe make some more friends. I’m going to thank God every moment I can for his blessings.

            Just thinking about it makes my heart sing.



Give Me Wings

            Have you ever longed to fly, to have wings that would allow you to glide over the treetops? To soar across the sky with giddy abandon? To chase the horizon against the setting sun? I grew up where there were mountains, and I thought having wings would be the greatest thing ever.

            When I was a girl growing up in the jungles of the country of Panama, I would climb high into the mimosa or mango trees and sit as still as a statue so I could watch the birds. The rain forest was full of them: flocks of toucans, harpy eagles, macaws, and parrots. The canopy was filled with a patchwork of colors: scarlet, emerald, cobalt blue. When the birds fed, they screeched back and forth, bragging on their berries and cashew apples. If suddenly a branch cracked or some animal scurried by, the entire jungle of birds rose up as one colorful ceiling and took flight. Breathtaking. I wanted to fly off with them.

            I dreamed of wings. I prayed for wings. I schemed about wings. I used canvas and umbrellas, sticks and netting. I jumped from trees, high rocks, and the roof of the shed, all with spectacularly disastrous results. My longest flight came from holding on to a huge nylon parachute. The wind caught it and lifted me up over traffic on the main highway. It was 30 seconds of glory followed by public shame and minor injury.

            When I realized I could not fly, I wanted a bird. I was in luck. My sister asked for a parrot for her graduation present. The Kuna Indians hunted birds by night and shined powerful lights into the nests of parrots to temporarily disorient them. They scooped up the baby birds in nets and sold them in the market for $20. This is how a young parrot we called Popeye came to live with us in the summer of 1967. We found him at the market, chose him from a cage full of frightened young parrots, and cupped him in our hands. We soothed him and imitated his baby-bird talk, trying to communicate that the life we planned for him would be far superior to living in the jungle.        

We gave Popeye good things to eat and bought him a large parrot cage. We tamed him to come like a puppy and let him out of his cage so he could explore the house. Our feathered plaything learned to say many words with crystal clarity and sing, “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! Toot toot.” He was a constant source of amusement. My sister went off to college, and Popeye sort of naturally came to me. I took him riding in the car and on picnics with friends. Parrots have roughly the same lifespan as humans, 70–80 years. We were going to be together for decades.

            We clipped his wings so that he could fly short distances but could not fly away. Once, when his flight feathers had grown out more quickly than we had anticipated, he flew away from the backyard, over the short meadow, and into a large tree at the elementary school. My father and uncle spent a frantic hour trying to rescue him, finally climbing down from the enormous tree with Popeye cradled in a beach towel.  It never occurred to me at the time that Popeye could have longed to join the other parrots that flew free, to fly high, as high as the sun.

            Years went by. High school. College. Moving to the U.S. I took Popeye with me wherever I went. He was the hit of the dorm, the talk of my friends, and the resident comedian everywhere. But life, children, and responsibilities encroached. I was no longer free to be a bird’s companion. Popeye was passed to different family members who each took care of him for several years at a time. He lived in his cage, loved and protected, for 25 years, until the end of his life. He died of pneumonia.

            I have made some mistakes in life, but this one causes particular regret. Yes, Popeye was a beloved pet and was well taken care of and adored. But we humans are so misguided. We cage up the only creatures God gave wings to and deny them the right to live free with their mates out in the beauty of nature. I still wish for wings, but not for me. Now I wish them for all the creatures that should be soaring across the sky.



             Listen to the conversations this week.

            “Did you have a good Thanksgiving?”

            “We had a great Thanksgiving.”

            What is a “great Thanksgiving,” and how did we have one? What happened that made it great? How do we plan in advance for that to happen? Thanksgiving is largely an American holiday, so what do we do in this country to create Thanksgiving?

            Well, there’s food, of course. Everybody knows that. Heaps and heaps of food. Rick made a delicious turkey that we are still enjoying. This bird was so big it would have blotted out the sun had it been flying overhead. We shared take-home food with all of our guests, and there’s still enough meat left for sandwiches and several nights of leftovers. He also made his world-famous mashed potatoes. I made gravy, creamed corn, broccoli salad, and strawberry pretzel salad. Our guests brought a French Canadian meat stuffing, sweet-potato casserole, Mexican cornbread, and a scrumptious Trinidadian macaroni casserole. There were pies aplenty. Our house was full of people, aromas, food, music, laughter, cats and dogs, children, older people, and last-minute preparations.

            We gathered. We hung out in the kitchen. At my house, the kitchen is where everyone hangs out while we are putting the last-minute spin on things, filling the glasses with ice, and buttering the rolls as they come out of the oven. Holiday music played on the stereo. Rick put a fireplace DVD on the flatscreen. I turned the air conditioning down to 72.

            But all of that was just the preparation for Thanksgiving. At the table, just before we ate, we reflected on what we are thankful for. We talked about our country, our faith, our families. We talked about what it is like to live where we feel safe. We talked about the men and women serving in the military. We talked about having each other.

            All of those thoughts have continued in my head this past week, especially when I watched an update on 60 Minutes about children who live in poverty. CBS chose central Florida to showcase children who live in a truck and other children who live in shelters or on the streets. I can’t escape from this thought: real Thanksgiving would be to reach out and share comfort and food with those who don’t have houses to gather in. Real Thanksgiving would be to help someone who doesn’t have a turkey as big as a boulder. True Thanksgiving would be to help my fellow man.

            And that’s what I’m going to do. Somehow, someway, somewhere. I’m going to look for opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the countless people around us who are suffering in shock and humiliation and desperation in this miserable economy. I’m going to find some. I’m going to look. I’m going to do something. Then, and only then, will I be truly thankful.