The Man in the Moon

The August moon is full and bright on the night of my father’s birthday. I miss him even more than usual, and the gossamer glow both increases and soothes my melancholy.

Gazing at the mysterious moon in the still of the night, I imagine Claude Debussy’s piano classic Claire de Lune quietly playing in the background as a perfect accompaniment to my bittersweet emotions.

Claire de Lune, meaning moonlight, is one of the most well-known and beloved piano pieces of all time. It is the third and most famous movement of Debussy’s 1890 Suite Bergamasque. In a spirit of creative cooperation, Debussy was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem Claire de Lune which was inspired by the moon itself.

Whether or not you speak French, doesn’t this poem sound lovely? Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune. Au calme clair de lune triste et beau. These lines from Verlaine’s poem are translated to mean, And their song blends with the moonlight. With the sad and beautiful moonlight. 

Triste et beau. Sad and beautiful. Yes, those two words do strike a chord. I’m in awe and appreciation of nature’s ability to inspire masterpieces that express our seemingly inexpressible emotions. Both nature and art make us feel less alone and connect us through a timeless shared humanity.

My mind travels back to a moonlit evening many years ago. My handsome young father is at the piano plucking out chords and humming a tune. He had an ear for music and could find the notes to any song he heard. My sisters and I gather around him in our nightgowns, squeaky clean from evening baths, and sing together for at least an hour before dreamily floating off to bed.

Looking up at the full moon this evening, I wish my dad a happy birthday. Silhouetted against a heavenly circle of light is the man in the moon. He is sitting at a piano elegantly playing Claire de Lune. §

Empty Nest – in honor of Mothers’ Day

A plump, orange-breasted bird and her mate began building a nest atop a porch light of a house that sits on a gravel road aptly named Robin Drive. The middle-aged couple moving into the home didn’t notice the birds gathering the grass, twigs, and mud necessary for the perfect nest. They were busy feathering their own.

The robin was peacefully resting in her finished nest when the lady walked around the corner of the house carrying an armload of empty boxes. She came nearly eye-to-eye with the bird, startling them both into brief hysterical flapping. The robin gave a sharp alarm call, “Peek! Peek!” and flew to a nearby tree.

The anxious bird was relieved to see the woman and her husband study the nest with a sense of reverence and mystique. She felt sure the nest on Robin Drive was a safe place to lay her eggs, one each day for four consecutive days.

The next three weeks or so, the robin felt like a welcomed guest. The people avoided disturbing her as they worked around their new home. The lady made a habit of tip-toeing a few feet away from the nesting bird and whispering, “Hi, Little Mama, I’m sorry to bother you.”

When the robin flew off in search of food, the man carefully photographed the four sky-blue eggs inside the nest. Once the beautiful eggs hatched, they watched the blind, featherless brood instinctively open their mouths, trusting their parents would feed them almost continuously.

The robin knew time with her sweet babies would be brief. As she whistled them a lullaby in the protection of their nest, she reminded herself of the two lasting gifts she would give them ~ roots and wings.

The lady sympathized with the mother robin when the babies were big enough to hop out of the nest, but not yet strong enough to fly well. It’s a dangerous time for the fledglings. The day the little birds were capable of flying completely on their own was bittersweet.

It was May when the lady saw the robin hopping around the yard near the birdbath. “Hi, Little Mama,” she said. Looking at the empty nest on the porch light, she confided, “I know just how you feel.”

She sat down on a tree stump and was quiet for a minute. “You were a good mother,” she said. “They’re going to be just fine.” Perched on the edge of the birdbath, the robin sang a rich and comforting tune. §

 

Steel Magnolias

I grew up in a small Midwest town on Magnolia Avenue, named for the tree that graced the entrance to our modest neighborhood. Every year, we waited for our magnolia to announce spring’s arrival by bursting into a profusion of pink and white blossoms and spritzing the whole neighborhood with its delicious perfume. I loved that tree, that neighborhood, and the memories that come flooding back when I catch a whiff of its familiar fragrance.

As an adult, I lived in Tallahassee, Florida where southern magnolias decorated the landscape with bold silky white flowers. The magnolia of my childhood was a saucer magnolia, commonly known as a tulip tree, and it was just as lovely. In fact, there are more than 200 species of magnolias. Not only are they the essence of delicate beauty, they are also tenacious survivors, hence the term steel magnolias.

Fossilized specimens date back to 95 million years ago. Magnolias have adapted to changing geographical regions and climates, and some magnolias are thought to live up to 300 years. To avoid damage from pollination, the magnolia’s carpels are extremely strong and durable. A carpel, by the way, is the female part of the flower.

It was on Magnolia Avenue that I first learned lessons from my mother and her coterie of friends that have stayed with me until this day. They were, and still are, my steel magnolias. I still think of them as youthful middle-aged women, even though I am nearing sixty. They collectively taught me lessons I can only hope I passed on to my daughter and the thousands of young women who sat in my classroom.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my hometown. On a drive through the old neighborhood, I was thrilled to see our magnolia tree was still there and just beginning to bud. Rooted at the base of that tree are lessons of my youth. It’s not too late to revisit them and renew my resolve to cultivate the traits of a steel magnolia.

Grace. Grace is defined as simple elegance, refinement of movement, and courteous goodwill. My mother and her friends are never tacky. They speak, dress, move, and act with a natural and simple elegance. More importantly, they treat others politely and with kindness.

Loyalty. Just as we could depend on our magnolia tree to bloom each spring, my mother and her friends could always count on each other. They’ve seen one another through good times and bad, sickness and health, sadness and celebration.

Dignity. Growing up, the kids in our neighborhood loved to climb trees, but we never climbed the magnolia tree. In hindsight, I suppose we respected it the way we respected the moms and older ladies who lived in our neighborhood. They garnered our deference by consistently behaving in an honorable, dignified manner.

Wisdom. The magnolia innately knows when and how to grow, bloom, and rest without advice from anyone. My mother and her friends not only ran households, but also managed companies, classrooms, committees, and campaigns. Perhaps it’s woman’s intuition or sage wisdom, but they’re smart chicks who never play dumb.

Beauty. Magnolia blossoms come in a myriad of colors and shapes, and each one is a beauty. Since I was a young girl, I’ve admired my mom and her friends’ attractiveness. They took pride in how they presented themselves, their homes, and their work. They had a special way of adding a dash of flair to everything they did.

Strength. A steel magnolia possesses an admirable combination of femininity and fortitude. Call her brave, plucky, resilient, intrepid, or one tough cookie, she has the strength of mind and spirit to endure pain and adversity with courage. As Annelle Dupuy Desoto resolutely said in the play, Steel Magnolias, “Miss Truvy, I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.” §

The Great Amaryllis Race

One Christmas when my children were quite young, they were unexpectedly fascinated by the big red flowers that bloomed in pots at their grandparents’ home in Wisconsin. Grandpa Bob, a crusty farmer and Marine, patiently explained how he forced amaryllis bulbs to bloom for the holidays.

The next year, and for many years after, my children and their grandfather participated in a holiday tradition known as the great amaryllis race. Shortly after Thanksgiving, they each opened a box containing a pre-planted amaryllis bulb, and the race was on!

I watched my children stare at their pots of dirt whispering magic words, wishes, and prayers urging the bulbs to sprout. Within a week or so, green pointy stems nudged out of the dirt, thrilling them to no end.

They carefully watered their plant, moved it to the perfect light, turned the pot to encourage the stalk to grow straight, and expertly used the thin stake to keep it from falling over. Day by day, centimeter by centimeter, they watched their plants grow.

Throughout December, my children regularly called their grandparents from Florida with the amaryllis report. “Grandpa,” my son would excitedly say into the telephone, “mine is the tallest!” Getting out a ruler, his older sister would object, “No, they are both exactly four inches tall.”

Eventually the slender green stems reached more than a foot. By Christmas day, the buds at the top magically unfurled revealing two, three, or even more separate flowers that burst opened into five-inch wide, scarlet blooms.

Whose amaryllis grew the fastest, biggest, or with the most flowers became secondary to the miracle of watching a pot of dirt transform into something so beautiful. Though they did feel sorry for Grandpa Bob whose amaryllis, year after year, never seemed to do as well as theirs.

There’s no greater joy than seeing your children excited about something so pure and wonderful. I don’t know if I ever thanked their grandparents for starting that special holiday tradition, but I am forever grateful. At a time of year when kids can become materialistic and self-centered, the great amaryllis race taught my children important values including patience, care, faith and hope.

The metaphors are too plentiful to do them justice, but aren’t we all a little like that amaryllis bulb, so full of amazing potential? We must root ourselves in good soil, provide optimum conditions to grow, and patiently wait until we fully bloom into all we were meant to be.

 

 

Friendsgiving

There are so many things in life to be grateful for, but old friends have to be at the top of the list. A couple times a year, my husband, Mike, goes hiking with three childhood friends. In the great outdoors, they reconnect over old stories and create new ones destined to be told time and again. 

“You gonna make it old man?” Chris asked Rick, to the laughter of Mike and Lee who waited a hundred feet or so further up the trail. The four men, friends for more than forty years, were hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, camping three nights along the way.

Red-faced and huffing uncomfortably, Rick peeled off his loaded backpack and it set on the trail. Hoisting it off the ground, Lee said, “Man, no wonder you’re tired. What do you have in this thing?” They distributed some of Rick’s gear between them to lighten his load. “Ricky made someone the REI employee of the month,” Mike joked.

“Before we go on,” Chris said, “I think we all need some trail mix.” By trail mix he meant the Tennessee whiskey they bought at a Gatlinburg distillery. The boys each took a grimaced swig from a flask.

A park ranger appeared from a side trail, “How y’all doing today?” he asked cheerfully. “Have you seen any bears?” They knew there had been plenty of recent bear sightings, prompting them to reserve a fenced shelter each night.

“No,” Rick said, “we haven’t seen any yet.” The ranger asked for their backcountry permit. Returning it, he said, “Y’all don’t have any firearms do ya?” As the group’s unofficial leader, Chris answered firmly, “No sir.”

“Well, y’all be careful and have a good time,” the ranger said as he headed off on foot the other direction. “And keep your eyes open for bears!” Later that afternoon they spotted a mama bear and two cubs on the mountainside, a comfortable distance from the trail. 

After dinner and tomfoolery around the campfire, the four friends settled into their bear-proof cage for the night. “Look who’s laughing now, boys,” Rick said as he snuggled into his thermo-insulated sleeping bag for subzero climes.

Well past midnight, in the darkness of the Great Smoky National Park, Mike heard Chris whisper, “Mike…Mike, man, I gotta go.” Mike understood. With the possibility of bears, his friend needed a spotter. As long as he was up, Lee decided to go, too.

Mike was sleepily standing guard with a flashlight when they heard something in the woods. “What’s that?” they whispered in unison. Tree limbs and sticks snapped and cracked as heavy breathing neared closer. Hearts pounding, the three were motionless.

In the moonlight, they saw a figure emerge through the trees. Rick came into view turning slow circles and holding a gun in front of him with both hands like he was the leading man in a police drama.

“What the…” Mike sputtered releasing his breath. “Ricky!” Chris shouted. “What are you doing with that thing?” Lee asked. Still in his protective stance, Rick said, “If you knuckleheads think I’m comin’ out here in the woods with bears and no gun you’re crazy!”

Just like all the stories they’ve been telling since they were kids, this one has only gotten better over the years. And it always ends with Mike saying, “I was never that worried. I knew I didn’t have to outrun a bear, just one of you guys.”

Deer Dad

 

Fluttering my eyes, it took a moment to remember I was waking up in our home in the woods. I stepped into the bathroom and raised the blinds. In the morning light, something seemed strange. I shut my eyes tightly and opened them again.

A big deer with three-pointed antlers stared at me from the other side of the window. After my initial gasp, I laughed quietly and whispered, “Well, good morning.”

I knew the magical moment would be fleeting. Looking hard into the deer’s eyes with appreciation for its strength and majesty, I felt a mysterious connection with another sentient being. The deer swiftly turned away and leapt across our yard into the trees.

A couple of months later, I had the task of staining a deck Mike had built. I started early, before the summer sun got too hot. As I fell into the focused flow of moving my brush back and forth, board after board, I became lost in my thoughts.

Dad would have loved this place. He’d be so proud of the improvements we’ve been making. We sure could use his help. I bet if he visited, he’d buy a cabin here. Imagine if he and mom lived on the lake, too. He’d discover all the best fishing holes. I wonder if he can see us from heaven…

I stopped to chug some water and wipe my sweaty face with my shirt. I was back to work when I heard a startling rustle and heavy footsteps charging through the woods towards me. My heart pounded, not sure what had come to an abrupt stop between the tree line and the deck.

It was the big deer with three-pointed antlers.

It stood motionless less than five feet away and gazed at me with a gentle intensity. Without thinking, I whispered, “Dad?” In the quiet of the woods, I could hear the deer’s breath begin to match my own. “I know it’s you,” I said with certainty. “I’ve missed you so much.”

I was aware of the significance of such an enchanted scene, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it. A sense of serenity washed over me like a cool breeze. Sitting comfortably, I talked to my dad for several minutes. He bent down to eat a little while I chatted, looking up at me while he chewed. When I had said all I needed to say, he slowly turned and disappeared into the woods.

I sat spellbound on our deck for a long time. My processing turned into prayer that lasted until I felt the sun burning my skin. I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and settled in the shade.

“Hi Mom. It’s me. I have to tell you what just happened.”