What's in a Name?

Mama – her 99th birthday would have been this month – and I’ve been thinking about her. At the risk of disagreeing with Shakespeare, I think it mattered what she was called. She wasn’t “Mother” – too sophisticated and modern. Nor was she “Ma” – too apron-in-the-kitchen with hair-in-a-bun. Certainly not “Mom” – too companionable and egalitarian. She was “Mama” – as in “Mama’s home. All is well.”


  • Mama – who felt blessed that all her children were girls.
  • Mama – who read poems beyond our understanding so beautifully that I memorized “Crossing the Bar” in first grade from the repetition. Meaning could wait for high school and college.
  • Mama – whose tools in her garden worked better than those in her kitchen.

We noticed that Mama had a fascinating eccentricity. She avoided face-to-face admiration for any of her four daughters. The best we could figure, she wanted us not to “think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.” Instead, she sang the praises of any daughter who was not present. Until we figured out what she was doing, we could feel fairly mediocre compared to the absent sister. But sisters talk, and we caught on. We circumvented our inferiority problem by reporting her words to the missing sister and took our chances on an epidemic of pride breaking out.

Mama was consistent, and we knew what to expect from her until that one day – but I’ll save that for Thursday’s blog. 


Fun for Four Roadie Writer Geeks

Terri Dunham, Cheryl Mathis, Pat Hefler, Virginia ButlerYou may be consumed with curiosity about what roadie writer geeks do on holiday. Maybe not. I’ll tell you anyway.

First, they start early – even before they pack. Ahead of time, each of the geeks send ten pages, a picture book, or a book chapter to the others for critiquing in a planned discussion on the four-hour trip to Birmingham for a writer's conference.

Three geeks from Baton Rouge, Mandeville, and New Orleans joined this geek in Hattiesburg to head out. After finishing the amenities, we spent the four hours suggesting words to drop or add, sentences to drop or add, or paragraphs to drop or add. What fun!

The meeting was filled with advice and inspiration from agents, editors, other writers, and the cofounder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Between times, there was a lot of smoozing with other writers and wannabe writers.
Much like Ann Jonas’s book Round Trip, we retraced our trip coming back – still arranging words, sentences, and paragraphs. A good time was had by all.

Before you pass judgment on our idea of a exuberant holiday, please compare it to some of my friends who think it’s fun to cut fabric into small pieces and sew them together in a different arrangement or others who hit a small white ball into a hole eighteen times at a stretch.


Bees 8 - Virginia 0

The bees, if they could talk, would’ve called it a home invasion. They’d dug their dwelling place in the ground, and for all I know, had hung a sign that said “Home Sweet Home.” They would’ve said they were going about their morning routines, just keeping body and soul together. They would’ve said, “Mine, mine, mine.”
The land belonged to us. We had bought and paid for it ten years earlier when we decided to make Hattiesburg our permanent home. Countless hours in the yard and copious quantities of sweat added to my feeling of possession and left me a bit overanxious about weeds making an appearance. I was trying to get them out of my flowerbed. I would have said, “Mine, mine, mine.”
As I yanked out that clump of weeds, the bees attacked. In the battle for ownership, I lost overwhelmingly. Nursing my wounds with outdated creams, meat tenderizer, and my husband’s cure for all things – hydrogen peroxide – I held a pity party for myself. I had been besieged at my own house in my own yard. And then – as it often does – my mother’s voice kicked in.
This time it was from the vantage point of my memory of two double beds where Mama read a favorite Psalm at the end of her bedtime reading to her four daughters. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1
Perhaps, the bees and I need to think of a way to share joint tenancy to what is really ours on a very temporary basis.



Claiming My Slippers

 “The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more.”  From Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I love finding a sentence or paragraph in a book that requires me to stop and relish the words. It’s even better if the phrase sends my mind down a rabbit path chasing an idea. This quote brought up one of my favorite subjects – shoes. There are some slippers I don’t own. There are no dancing shoes – not because of Mama’s Baptist ban on dancing but because I’ve discovered both my feet are lefts. There are no shoes for an art studio, nor any for singing arias at the opera. I find I hardly miss these shoes when I open the closet and see my own.

• My walkers take me for a couple of turns at the mall nearly every morning and up and down my steep hill twice daily. These aren’t my favorite shoes unless I concentrate on their benefit to my health and longevity.
• My Grasshoppers with holes where there used to be laces are just right for pruning shrubs that have grown too big for their spaces, digging holes for new plants, and raking pine straw to keep down weeds and border flower beds. They’re too worn for me to care about their filth or remember their original color.

• My white sandals reveal coral toenails that peek out beneath my swirling skirt. They match my mood as I serve as docent of the day for the Golden Kite Golden Dreams Exhibit featuring thirty-five years of award-winning children’s book illustrations at the local art gallery. What fun to answer the second and third graders’ eager questions about the art they’re seeing!

• The silver slippers go with my hot pink silver-threaded dress to celebrate a Golden Anniversary. In attendance were my extended family including all my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. They joined friends new and old, from near and far, including Internationals who snapped pictures to send back to China.

• My Sunday red patent leathers take me to choir where we sing “Hear, me. Hear, me. Hear me, Redeemer. Send down your love to cleanse my soul.”

• The professional pumps go to meetings where I speak about teaching children, about writing, about life, about …

• And my new white Keds accompany my denim suit on a plane to visit grandchildren, to see the fifty states, to travel for business or just for fun.

Who knew I would wind up with a closet so full of shoes or that I would love wearing them? This life exceeds expectations for a shy pig-tailed girl who grew up in North Mississippi – waiting for warm weather so she could run barefoot – shoeless and free across newly mown grass, through shaded woods, and down slippery red clay banks. I think I shan’t die searching and bitter, feeling I was promised more.



Missing Normal? - Not Me

The theme of “not normal” extended through my recent birthday. It began with a card from my oldest son’s family. The outside said, “Ever noticed how in every family there’s one person who’s shockingly normal?” The inside said, “We should get ourselves one of those.” One abnormality may be that our family always eschews sentiment in favor of a good laugh for birthday cards.

In the late afternoon, my daughter’s birthday gift was delivered – Shel Silverstein’s new Everything On It. Now I’m pretty sure that normal people with college-aged grandchildren don’t expect the latest Shel Silverstein for a present. But Anna knew the spot on the bookcase where I kept my second grade teaching favorites Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. The spot was missing the end of the trilogy, and she likes completion.

The end of the theme came in a card from my sister Beth (the one who used to be a pest). The front said, “Return with us to that fateful day when the doctor who delivered you said to your mother…” The inside said, “Look, lady, I just deliver ‘em. I don’t explain ‘em.” Beth added her own comment, “And we are still looking for an explanation.” (I told you she was a pest.)

My conclusion is that I don’t miss normal one whit. Normal people with AARP cards aren’t chuckling over APPLE WITH ONE BITE MISSING and THE LOVETOBUTCANTS. Now if I can just locate a second grader to share the fun…