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Because of Helen

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Helen Gabriel and her family literally changed the course of my life. That’s a pretty dramatic statement and not one I make flippantly. Still, I am sitting here on my couch today, thirty-five and a half years later, overwhelmed with love and gratitude for one of the most generous and loving families I know. They were led by their matriarch, Helen.

The Gabriels lived on a dairy farm just outside of Rockdale, in a large white farmhouse that was always filled with the sounds of conversation, laughter and the smell of home-cooking. There were six children in the family, all were older than I. Our families had become acquainted years earlier and had known each other for longer that I could remember. I suppose it should not have been a surprise that when the five of us had nowhere to go, had no money and were living in a single-cab truck, that we would reach out to the Gabriel family for help.

I was riding in the back of the truck in a fever-induced haze when I heard the crunch of gravel beneath our tires and felt the truck slow to a stop. I had developed a high fever while riding in back of the truck and was lying on soggy boxes while it rained that late August day. The next few days were a blur. Helen and her family welcomed us warmly, fed us and let us gave us a place to rest. A few days later I recovered from my illness after receiving lots of love and care from Helen. This sweet family offered us housing there on the dairy, in a 23-foot travel trailer located behind their home. I was so embarrassed to impose on them, but so thankful to be out of that truck. I loved visiting the dairy barn, watching the dairy process in a spotless barn that smelled of bleach, milk and of cows.

I began school in a nearby community and rode the bus home to the Gabriel’s house. When I got off the bus each day, I pretended that the large farm house was actually my home, too embarrassed to admit to my fellow bus riders that I actually lived in the trailer behind the house. Though I had typical teenage pride, I still loved the dairy and so appreciated our time there.

The first weekend at the Gabriel Dairy Farm, one of Helen’s daughters convinced me to go on a blind date with the cousin of her then boyfriend. It took a lot to convince me. Helen told me from the beginning that Mark was “as good as they come” and she was right. I finally agreed to go on that first date and was courted there at the Gabriel Dairy by the man I eventually married thirty years ago. A few months later, after meeting Mark, our family moved into a home in the area where we lived until I graduated from High School.

Through the years, I continued to visit with Helen and would see her around Rockdale on occasion. When I did happen to run into her, brilliant blue eyes would light up, her face would soften and I knew I could count on her to hug and kiss me and call me “baby”. She was excited about our wedding, the birth of our children, our careers and the purchase of our homes. She was one of the few constants in my life. Though I could go months and sometimes years without seeing or talking to her, when we did get to visit it was like we were never apart. She loved me, I knew and felt that and I loved her in return.

Last year, when Helen fell ill, I visited her a few times at the Dairy. We reminisced and talked about those tough early days. One day, I asked Helen about the day we showed up at her house unannounced.

“How in the world did you do it– a family of five led by adults with questionable decision-making skills, there unexpectedly on your doorstep when you had a full house already. I just don’t know if I would have opened my home like you did, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Helen smiled and shook her head. “Oh baby, you needed help and I had what you needed. That’s just all there is to it.”

How can it be that simple? There she lay, in pain, her face still glowing with that sweet smile, with such certainty.

“Helen, you completely changed my life, you know that right? I feel I can never repay you.”

“Oh baby, I just helped a little. You would have done the same thing.”

“I love you, Helen.”

“I love you too, baby.”

I remember clearly when Helen kissed my cheek and hugged me one last time.

She died on a Monday, April 10, 2017. The world lost such a bright light, but I know Heaven rejoiced. I believe that we are each a part of a master plan. I think God puts people in our lives at just the right time to guide us, encourage us and sometimes even to challenge us. Because of Helen, I knew the true meaning of compassion. Because of Helen, a prayer was answered and after years of attending numerous schools each year, I finally got to end my high school career in one city, one school. Because of Helen, I met and married the love of my life. Because of Helen, I got to know unconditional love for most of my adult years. Because of Helen, my life has been enriched and I look for opportunities to give back. Thank you God, for sweet Helen.

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The Voices

I stood on a pedestal in front of a well-lit mirrored wall, staring at my reflection with disgust. I saw an overweight, middle-aged woman who looked really tired.  Those 12-hour work days in front of the computer and almost a year of wedding planning in my “spare” time had really taken a toll. We were nearing the wedding date and it was time for me to select a mother of the bride dress. My daughter really wanted me to wear something formal, sparkly and “fancy” and as a lover of fashion, I was of course happy to comply.

I struggled to find the right gown; most stores had either frumpy, matronly gowns or the “off to the club” variety, leaving little selection in the “simple-elegance-that-makes-me-look-like-a-super-model” category I hoped to find. I finally found a gown I wanted online and had come to this store to order it. After much discussion with the sales clerk, it seemed necessary to try on gowns of the same brand, to ensure the fit.

I lamented the fact that I never got around to losing all the weight I planned to lose for the wedding, the 20lbs I had managed to lose was not enough. Still, there I was staring at myself in the sequined, sleeveless gown listening to the words of the numerous influential figures in my life, a running dialogue in my head:

“You really need sleeves, I know you don’t want to show your arms”

 “Honey you know you can’t wear a straight skirt, we need to accept what looks best on us”

 “You have thunder thighs like your mama”

“You have such a pretty face, but…”

I was also hearing my own thoughts, which were not exactly encouraging either:

“You should have tried harder earlier and you would have lost the weight”

“Look at you, you are going to waddle down the aisle”

“Maybe you should just wear a plain black dress, at least you won’t be as noticeable”

“You will forever look pudgy in those wedding photos”.

“Your kids will be so embarrassed at how you look.”

It was a battle I felt I always lost. Even when I lost weight, it was never enough for me or for the owners of the voices. Worst yet would be when I was told that I “may just have to accept that I will just be big like the other women in my family” leaving me feeling angry and a little hopeless. The truth is, like all the rest of the overweight people in the world, I know better than anyone that I need to lose weight and nobody has to tell me or hint that I need to do so. Like most people, I also actually have a lot of knowledge about how to lose the weight. When it comes down to it, I know those with successful weight loss experiences have made a decision for themselves. I was struggling to make time for myself and that decision.

I was thinking about those voices, as I stood there staring at my reflection. I was sure that though the gown was a gorgeous teal color, I probably looked like a busted can of biscuits encased in sequins. The sales clerk had convinced me to try on the dress, though I was embarrassed to show my arms in a sleeveless dress and my hips in a straight skirt in front of everyone in the shop. I was so focused on those voices in my head, I was a bit startled when I realized that the clerk and customers in the store were staring at me and not because of how hideous I thought I looked.

They were actually admiring me in the dress.

One customer said:  “That is gorgeous on you, you have to get that one!” she was also really good at gasping and going on about how beautiful I was, making me want to take her home with me.

I immediately said “oh no, I have to have sleeves. My arms are terrible” and “no, I can’t wear a straight skirt”.

Both the clerk and the customer looked surprised. The clerk said “oh girl, that is NOT true. Seriously, your arms are just fine and you look great in that straight fit. It’s actually really slenderizing on you. I can’t imagine why you would think that about yourself!”

I was a 49 year-old woman, clinging to the positive words of strangers. I tried on several more gowns, the customers and clerk were my cheerleaders and fashion advisors. Within an hour or so, with the encouragement of my new-found friends, I had tried on many beautiful gowns-gowns I would previously would have never considered. I finally settled on the dress that I fell in love with and had originally come to the shop to order. It had sleeves and a full skirt. The voices had won, but I did and still do love the dress.

What I discovered that day went beyond my dress shopping. Like most women, I had been listening to and believing lies for most of my life. The people who profess to love us the most can often be our worst critics. They become that negative voice in our heads that deafens the positive voices. By the way, it takes a whole lot of positive words to overcome just one negative word from someone whose opinions we value. I also recognized that while there was truth in some of the dialogue in my head (I mean, it is true that I do not have the perfect figure) there were words of advice that were unnecessary and damaging. As a result, my own thoughts had become just as damaging.

This is less about the struggle with weight loss and a whole lot about how we make people feel about themselves. About learning to love yourself. The truth is, it is okay to be less than perfect. My mind knows this, but my heart struggles. I struggle with accepting who I am with imperfections and it is a daily battle for me.  I have since begun to examine my own criticisms of others. I pray my voice is not echoing out there in someone’s head, spewing negative words. I think we are all guilty of blurting out unsolicited opinions on occasion, unintentionally releasing poisonous thoughts in that person or about that person. I guess I hope we can all remember that we are all on a journey and for many of us self-love is often just out of reach. May we all speak words of affirmation and be a mirror that reflects the best in those around us.

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An Atari Kind of Christmas

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Just in time for the season, a reblog–why you should never ask children what they got for Christmas

Faith Walk

People Like Us

Cool mountain air rushed past our faces as we followed the narrow, rocky trail framed with green fern and smooth Aspen. We could hear the sound of rushing waters in the distance, and we knew our destination was near. Suddenly, the trail seemed to end at a small stream lined in dark rocks. The small cascade of water flowing smoothly over rocks almost didn’t even count as a waterfall. The scene was beautiful, but not the majestic flow we had all expected. We had driven well over an hour in rough, mountainous terrain before we had even begun to hike. The disappointment was palpable.

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Thou Shalt Obey Your Father

There was a lot of tension in the tiny, makeshift school house.
“Lisa, why didn’t you do all of your homework?” I asked. Lisa didn’t answer.
I leaned in closer.
“Lisa, you will never learn unless you do what I say. So, do what I say! I will call your parents this afternoon.”
Still no answer. I scooped up the paper from Lisa’s desk and put it on my desk to send home later. She was in deep trouble.

I turned back to the chalkboard in the front of the room and began to instruct my students while writing on the rough surface. I wrote my name in my best handwriting on the board then wrote the titles of two stories from my 3rd grade literature book.
“I want you to read these two stories and then do your spelling,” I instructed. I paused dramatically. “Then do 100 math problems.”
I could see my breath as I spoke, puffs of steam in the frigid air.
I turned to my students who, as usual, had nothing to say. Lisa’s blue, glass eyes stared back at me blankly from her porcelain face. Thumper’s black bunny eyes were fixed on the shovel in the corner of the room and Baby Alive was still slumped over in her chair, with one eye partially closed and her legs in the air.
I gathered all of their papers from the cardboard box desks in front of them and began to mark them with my red crayon. I had just begun to make a large “X” on Lisa’s paper when I heard my mother calling me:
“Karen Denise! Do you hear me? Come eat!”
I sighed and surveyed my “classroom”, where light filtered in through ancient, broken pine boards onto the dirt floor which I had swept clean. I decided my “students” could stay outside in the shed for the night.
I slammed the framed, chicken-wire door shut and walked back to the pink house that sat low beneath the cluster of tall pine trees, which lined up shoulder to shoulder like soldiers guarding our home. I could see the marshy area that lined our yard though the trees, and the pungent, damp smell greeted me in spite of the cold. There was a narrow, winding, black-top road that disappeared into the trees to the left and eventually led to the Hoke’s house; to the right the road led to a dead-end just past the Robinson’s house.
My siblings and I had become close to the Hoke family, a devout, charismatic Christian family who lived about a mile down the road. The Hokes had two children, Shannon and Gerald, who were about my age and frequently came to play. My sister Norma traveled to church with the Hokes often, and sometimes my brother and I went with her. Norma loved going to church more than anyone I knew, something that really irritated my father. She not only rode to church on Sunday mornings and evenings and to youth meetings on Wednesdays, but she also journeyed across the county to camp meetings and “brush arbor” meetings with the Hokes. I sometimes went to the camp meetings with them. Camp meetings were held in the summer under a tent on the side of the road or in a pasture, and featured lively music and hell-fire and brimstone preaching. I looked forward to attending these meetings, the positive and exciting atmosphere was such a stark contrast to the darkness I felt at home.
On rare occasions Mama would come with us to camp meetings and she absolutely loved the music. She was astonishingly tone-deaf and would sing very loudly and with such joy in a high, falsetto voice in church, especially when they played her favorite hymns, “Jesus Hold My Hand” or “I’ll Fly Away”. She clapped her hands with delight in time with the music, her plump arms jiggling and her tiny feet tapping. During the service, I would help her mark her large white bible with notes from the sermon and loved to read the family milestones she documented in the family section. Sometimes those meetings lasted for hours, so I would sleep in Mama’s lap until alter time came and someone “got the Holy Ghost”; their shouting always jolted me from my sleep.
Norma’s love for Jesus and for going to church was always a point of contention in our house.
However, that cold, grey, January day when I walked into the house to eat supper I could hear a serious argument brewing between my father and Norma. This one was much more heated than usual.
I had not even closed the front door when I heard my father’s raised voice.
“Brain-washed! Those people are just brain-washing you. You ain’t comin’ in here with all that religious crap and preachin’ to me! AND you will not be going back to church with those people. I told you there ain’t no such thing as no Holy Ghost! You will never learn!” My father was sitting in his recliner, shaking my sister’s bible at her. He was livid. It reminded me of a previous argument they had a few months before when we lived in Livingston. In that argument, Norma read scripture to my father about the Holy Ghost and as a result he chased her around the yard with the wrench he had been using to work on his car. The entire time he yelled at her about how “God ain’t real” and Norma rebutted with the appropriate scripture.
This time, Norma was angry–angrier than I had seen her. She pointed to her bible in my father’s hands and said: “In the book of Acts it speaks of how ‘all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues’ and how the Holy Ghost gives us power to—“
“I said there ain’t no Holy Ghost! This bible is just a book written by somebody, it’s nothin’ special. And you are DONE sitting around here reading that mess all the time, I will just be keeping this book or maybe I will throw it away. You ain’t going to church either and you won’t be talking to those holy-rollers. AND you can start wearing pants again, we ain’t religious nuts around here.” My father pointed to Mama. “Go get me a pair of her pants.”
Norma continued to argue. “Daddy, I don’t care what you say—the bible and God are real. He takes care of us and He answers our prayers. The Holy Ghost is real. You need to read that bible and you will see—“
Mama returned with the pants, and my father held them out to my sister. “Get out of that skirt and put these on right now, right here. I want to see you do it.”
Norma shook her head and was crying. She changed out of the long denim skirt, one of many she had begun to wear in the past few months. She believed at the time (like many at the Hokes’ church) that women should only wear skirts, out of modesty. I had even tried to wear only skirts for a few weeks, out of adoration for my sister. That endeavor ended the day I tried to put my jeans back on again and they were too tight. I thought being that devout made you eat too much. Someone once told me that there are lots of overweight Pentecostals because gluttony is the only sin they will tolerate. They also told me that there is nothing else to do but eat when you don’t watch television.
Norma put on the pair of jeans my father held out to her, stripping down in front of the entire family. I was so embarrassed for her.
“Now you git to your room and stay there. You will NOT be able to come out unless you are cleaning the house or going to school. You will NOT go to church or read this Bible again,” my father commanded.
Norma began to make her way to her bedroom, but then turned to my father and said: “You can stop me from going to church, make me stay in my room and wear pants but you can’t stop me from praying!”
I heard the door slam to Norma’s bedroom. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Silence filled the room like the cigarette smoke that curled from my father’s nose as he sat in his recliner. He threw Norma’s Bible on the floor and turned up the television. Mama went back to the kitchen to serve up the Hamburger Helper, which had begun to cool in the iron skillet.
I crept down the dark, cold crooked hallway to my sister’s room and could hear the soft sounds of “The Hinson’s Greatest Gospel Hits” playing on Norma’s record player. She was still crying when I opened the door, and I crawled up on the bed next to her. I stared at the ceiling for a while and watched my breath blow out above me in the frigid bedroom. There was one gas heater in the very drafty house and it was in the living room. We all piled blankets on at night to stay warm. Some nights when I slept in Norma’s room, she told me to lay on her side first to warm her spot until she got into bed. I would do so, then scoot to my side while Norma warmed me with her body and taught me to pray.
“Norma, do you want me to warm your spot for you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. After a few moments, I realized she was praying. It seemed she didn’t stop praying for the next few weeks while she was banished to her room. I thought it would never end, my father was so stubborn. Someone once said that sometimes, the most stubborn people learn the most painful lessons in the harshest of ways. As it turned out, it was only death that would distract my father from punishing my sister any further.
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Accidental Target, Part 2

People Like Us

“A young girl next door was walking along that road right there,” the officer said …“She was shot in the neck … It looks like you were the only one shooting.”

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Accidental Target

People Like Us

20131112_112938The day my father shot the neighbor’s child was just like any other warm, September day in the South.


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An Atari Kind of Christmas

It’s that time again-teachers, don’t ask your students what they got for Christmas

People Like Us

        I just knew everyone could see straight through me… After a brief jackhammer like pounding, my pulse began to slow, and I could feel the fire leaving my face. My body was like rubber, and I felt like I had just walked a tightrope over a sea of piranhas.

 

 1479289_10202812808820528_576699923_neditThe holiday break was over. I could still hear the sound of the bell ringing in my ears when Ms. Hurto made the announcement that would cause my stomach to plummet to my feet.

“Everyone, put your chairs in a circle,” she began. “We are all going to take turns telling what we got for Christmas.”

The sounds of almost twenty, seventh-grade girls sliding metal chair legs across the pale green, industrial tile almost drowned out the sound of the roaring in my ears. With sweaty palms I gripped the back of the bright-green, hard, plastic chair…

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The Battle

“The Battle”

Karen Muston, 2001

 

In misty pre-dawn

light

I peer into a

silvery depth–

They are here again

this time their number

has multiplied.

My heart pounds,

and I run

to escape the

Dark Purpose of

their visit

I shudder to think

of surrender,

Of the repercussions.

My pace too slow,

they attack my

lower extremities,

in a scarring,

hailstorm force

that becomes

hideously disfiguring

I battle valiantly,

with a hunger

to be victorious.

I run faster

until they suffer

violently

in their retreat.

Cautiously,

I slow my pace

and return once

again

The Victor

in the

Cellulite Battlefield.

 

Watch Me, Mama

“Watch me Mama,” she calls

and I watch

as she performs great, acrobatic feats

her sunlit brown hair dances

around sparkling hazel eyes

in a face whose beauty

has only begun to bloom

I am watching

only I see the cherub she once was

with an angelic, toothless smile

chubby legs attempt those first steps

as she reaches for me–

“Are you watching, Mama?”

She leaps again and

with a bittersweet smile

I see the young woman

she will be–

Sweet-spirited, with a tender heart

and a fine mind to aid her

so much love to give

those blessed ones

she will share her life with

I am watching

every performance

Engraving these images

so that I will not

miss a thing.

Karen Muston, 2001

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