UPON TURNING FIFTY (or Stupid Things I Have Done: 50th Birthday Edition)

Fifty

via Daily Prompt: Fifty

Fifty. That’s me. Yep. The big 5-0. AARP discounts, bay-bee! Got that card coming in the mail! Fifty: a nice, hefty, round, solid number. (Much like me.)

I crossed the half-century mark by getting locked out of my hotel room in nothing but my nightshirt.

It happened this way.

Last fall, my coworkers and I were at our annual professional conference, held in Memphis, Tennessee, the week of my 50th birthday. On the night before the final day of the conference, a coworker and I joined one of our colleagues and his wife for a trip to a casino in nearby Tunica, Mississippi, for a dinner buffet and a few hours of mindlessly throwing good money after good. We ate, played a few rounds of video poker, then returned to our hotel.

We arrived about five minutes to midnight, and my friends graciously hung out with me until 12:00 a.m. to help me celebrate my 50th trip around the sun. Clocks having chimed, my married friends went to bed, my other colleague decided to visit the pub across the parking lot for a nightcap, and I retreated to my hotel room.

Once inside my room, I changed into my nightshirt, brushed my teeth and washed the day’s makeup and grime from my face. I was in bed opening a carbonated beverage and booting up my laptop when I realized two things: 1) I had no ice, and did not remember where the ice machine was; and 2) Mom had told me, “Be sure to count the number of doors between you and a fire escape, in case you have to feel your way down the hall. You just never know.” (I would say this is akin to “Wear good underwear in case you’re in a wreck” and “Don’t eat raw cookie dough, you’ll get salmonella,” except that I actually consider all of these things to be good advice. A couple of years ago Mom and Dad were forced to evacuate a hotel in the middle of the night due to what thankfully turned out to be a false alarm, but the power was out and they had to feel their way to the stairwell.)

I decided I didn’t have to have ice, as it would entail putting on clothes, but I thought I could just get by with poking my head out my hotel door to count the doors between my room and the fire exit. But my hotel door was recessed from the hall, so I took one step out into the hall, just to see, and…

Whoosh. Click.

The door shut behind me. I was in the hall. My purse, cell phone, and both hotel room keys – oh, and my clothes – were on the other side of said door. I was wearing (I kid you not) a gray Victoria’s Secret sleep shirt that said “Angel” across my not-very-perky 50-year-old chest, and not much else.

I stood in the blessedly empty hall, contemplating my options.

My married friends were probably long asleep by now. My other colleague was probably still nursing his nightcap at the pub across the way. Maybe I could get the attention of the desk clerk. But how?

The elevator to the lobby boasted walls of clear plexiglass. A few hours earlier, I had lounged in the lobby watching hotel guests riding up and down the elevator, and making a mental note not to get on that elevator while wearing a skirt. And now? In nothing but a nightshirt? Nope, nope, nope. All kinds of nope.

Ding! About that time the elevator opened to my floor and discharged a male passenger, who took one horrified look at me and turned and walked the other way.

Once he was out of sight, I tentatively padded toward the balcony area around the elevator, to see if I could find a stairwell to the lobby. I didn’t see one, but I was thankful to note that the balcony wall was solid stone, mortar and drywall instead of clear plexiglass. I went to the other side of the elevator and leaned over the desk area. About that time two young ladies heading out for a night of fun walked from underneath me and past the front desk.

“Excuse me! Excuse me?” I got their attention and they looked up. “Can you get the desk clerk’s attention for me?” The girls gaped for a moment, started laughing, and one of them said to the clerk, “There’s someone up there who wants to talk to you.”

“Yes?” floated up a disembodied voice. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I’ve locked myself out of my room –“

About that time, my colleague walked into the lobby. Relief flooded through me.

“Matt! Matt!” He looked around. “Matt! Up here!” He looked up.

“What are you – ”

“Matt, help me! I’ve locked myself out of my room.”

I saw awareness wash across his features and knew immediately that Matt was not going to make this easy for me. Hands in his pockets, he rocked back on his heels.

“And what do you expect me to do about it?”

“Get a key from the desk clerk and bring it to me!” My voice went up half an octave.

“Ok…how many mimosas did you say you’d had?”

“One, Matt, just the one. Now get me a key and bring it to me!”

Matt strolled to the front desk.

“Um, it seems that my, uh, colleague has managed to lock herself out of her room. Do you have a key I can take to her?”

Two minutes later Matt was averting his eyes as he handed me the key card. He turned to go as I slid it into the slot and opened the door, and I barely caught him.

“Hey, wait a minute! You’re on the first floor, right? Take this key back to the front desk for me!” I said. Barely pausing, Matt reached behind him without looking, and I gave him the key and retreated to my room.

So that was the first half-hour of my 50th birthday. I still owe Matt, of course – he’ll never let me live it down – and I spent a little time trying to decide whether to be mortified or amused before deciding there was no way not to be both.

Ah, turning fifty. Every year should start with such a great chance to laugh at yourself.

HOW TO HAVE A GREAT FAMILY REUNION

On the last Saturday of June each year, my first cousins, my siblings and I – and our parents, spouses, kids, in-laws, grandkids, and other cousins and friends – gather for a long weekend in Mississippi to reconnect and strengthen our relationship as extended family.

We started this tradition in 2000. Over the years, as new spouses and other friends and extended family drop in, we have learned that they consider our reunion unusual in that we all like each other, get along well, and choose to be together. In fact, we go to a lot of trouble to be together.

Here’s how it all started.

My dad had one brother, Uncle Yewell Wayne (which Dad, as a child, shortened to “Nayne”) and one sister, Aunt Ella Mary. My brother, sister and I grew up in Mississippi some 30 miles from Aunt Mary and her husband, our Uncle Lyman, and our first cousins Mac, Sarah Lynn and Lisa. Our ages were complimentary: Mac and Anita were the same age, and Bob and Sarah Lynn were two years younger, so Anita and Sarah played together and Mac and Bob ran around together. As babies of our family, Lisa and I brought up the rear and were playmates from the word go.

Uncle Nayne and Aunt Lois lived in Louisville, Kentucky, so we rarely saw our more distant first cousins, twins Perry and Kerry and their younger sisters Patsy and Nancy. But they came to Mississippi for one glorious week every summer, and we had a grand time. Perry and Kerry hung out with Mac and Bob, and Patsy and Nancy and Lisa and I played together.

We were prototypical children of the 1970s. I remember we all went on a hiking trip one year, all riding together in a big Chevy van, and on the way home we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” – still receiving heavy rotation airplay – to the tops of our lungs.

I had a device called a Lemon Twist, a black tube with a loop on one end and a plastic lemon on the other. It was like a one-legged jump rope; you kicked your leg to get the lemon rotating around, and you’d jump with the other leg. Lisa and Nancy and Patsy and I did the lemon twist for hours one summer, accompanied by our two favorite songs of the moment: The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’.”

(If you can’t remember what a Lemon Twist looked like, here’s a link to the commercial. It’s pretty trippy.)

And then we all grew up. We started getting into high school and summer jobs and romances and dating, and college and marrying and starting our own families; the annual visits from Louisville became fewer and fewer and the Mississippi cousins went our separate ways. We all talked by phone on major holidays, but in terms of staying close, we gradually lost touch. I think the last major visit from Louisville was in 1981.

It went on this way for years. In 1992, Mama Ferrell, our mutual grandmother and family matriarch, died. The Louisville folks came for her funeral, and we spent time with each other for the first time in many years. We stood around Mama Ferrell’s grave and said we would not go so long, next time, without seeing each other.

But then we did. And then, one day, it was the year 2000. By now one of the Louisville cousins had relocated to Knoxville, and my sister and her family were in Dallas, I was in Nashville, Mac was in Nashville, and our cousin Sarah and her husband Les were in Phoenix. On one of my visits to Mississippi, Lisa and I talked about it. It had been eight years since we had all promised to stay in touch, and we had not. So we decided we would put out feelers to see how everyone would feel about a reunion. We took a survey to see what time of year would work for the most people, whether they would want to have it in a central location like Nashville or come to Mississippi, what kind of food, what type of facility, etc.

We settled on the last Saturday in June as being after school ended but before vacation time. The Louisville cousins said they wanted to come back to Mississippi, to the place where they had come every summer during their childhood, and the rest of us agreed.

The first few years we rented a pavilion in Tishomingo State Park, a lovely rustic park built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps from locally quarried sandstone and limestone. We reserved a pavilion on a lake with paddle boats. But it was June in Mississippi, and after a few years we found a little building in the Belmont city park that offered air conditioning, a meeting room with tables and a refrigerator for perishables and a sink for washing up, and a large front lawn for what would become the annual bocce ball tournament.

We try to keep the food relatively simple. On Friday nights we gather at my parents’ house and have baked ham sandwiches, chips and dip and desserts. Saturday, the main day of the reunion, happens at Belmont City Park. For the first few years, we would grill burgers and hot dogs and bratwurst, with everyone contributing side dishes and desserts. Later we branched out into smoked pork loin or chicken quarters or barbecue, and fried chicken. We visit all day, talking, playing Apples to Apples or Pictionary or Scattergories or charades inside, and bocce ball and frisbee outside. The little ones run through sprinklers and blow bubbles and draw chalk drawings on the sidewalks. We stay until dusk, when the bats dive for mosquitoes and the swallows are roosting in their nests above the door to the building, then we clean up and load the cars to go rest. On Sunday morning, Lisa hosts a brunch at her house. By noon we begin our hugs and goodbyes (usually with a few tears), then those of us who are traveling hit the road to return home.

Everyone who can come, does. My sister and brother, now in Colorado, manage to make it about every other year. My generation’s children became instantly hooked on it, and now their children are the ones running through the sprinklers. This year we had three newborn babies, the oldest one not quite four months old. Every year there are those who cannot come, and there are some who have never been able to make it. But everyone is always welcome.

So we have a set weekend, decided upon by majority vote, that is inviolate; we have a food routine, always subject to change as circumstances change; and we have a location that works well for us. But it takes more than that to make a family reunion a success. Here are some (heretofore) unspoken rules that our family follows from year to year that take our reunion from obligation to a highlight of the calendar year.

  1. No one postures. No one brags about money or material gain or success in this or that field. As Lisa’s husband Arthur once said, marveling, “Y’all don’t try to outdo or out-talk or out-anything. Nobody puts on airs. Y’all all just like being together.
  2. No one gets into politics. Our family members’ views rank from pretty far right to pretty far left, but we leave that at the door. We may not have a lot in common in some ways, but we have a shared history, shared grandparents, shared blood, shared memories, shared values, a shared love of music, and a shared need for the enrichment that extended family brings. We love each other. We are committed to staying in touch with each other. We don’t care about our differences. We knew each other as toddlers, long before we developed those differing views. As a result, we know, love and accept each other for who and what we are. All are welcome. Anything that might cause unnecessary dissent or hurt feelings is just not on for us.
  3. Likewise, any hard feelings between individuals are either non-existent (usually, in fact, which is amazing) or, like politics, are left at the door. Everyone wants to be considerate of everyone else. No one wants to embarrass everyone present with an unseemly public display of emotion or conflict. Except love. Everyone pretty much wants to demonstrate love.
  4. No one forces anything on everyone else. No one is forced to endure long stretches of anything they don’t enjoy. No one is forced to play contact sports, no one makes everyone else a captive audience to their karaoke skills. Everything is optional. We do have a prayer over the food (of which there is a staggering quantity and variety). We do sometimes have a “hymn sing” at the old piano, which once graced my grandmother’s living room, for a few songs, anyway. But no one takes over.
  5. Profanity is left at the door and blue humor is shared discreetly one-on-one or not at all. Children are present, and while we’re not angels, there is an unspoken rule that we keep the main gathering family-friendly.
  6. By the same token, alcohol does not play a role at the three main gatherings on Friday night, Saturday during the day or Sunday morning. What people do when they return to their homes or hotel rooms is up to them.
  7. We don’t have a program. We don’t have an agenda. We don’t have a dress code (other than, hey, it’s Mississippi in June, so be cool). We don’t have a schedule. We have no pride, no ego. Our relationship with each other means more than self-promotion. Our sole purpose for the entire weekend is to just be together.
  8. Underlying all the above rules is this: we respect one another.

The bonds between cousins get stronger every year, helped along by social networking and texting. The value of extended family as friends, apparently a rarity in the world at large, is the norm for our family. We consider it a great gift, and we cultivate it and do not take it for granted. We are committed to it. Like the song says, love isn’t just something that we have, it’s something that we do.

The Return of Bemusings: It’s About Time, Don’t You Think?

 

Here I am again, folks.

In October 2006 I became editor of a small weekly newspaper in a rural county in Middle Tennessee, some 50 miles northeast of Nashville. I spent nearly five intensely happy years in that little community before I uprooted myself and went to law school for a late-in-life career change.

During my tenure as editor, I wrote a weekly column about pretty much whatever I wanted to write about – mostly life observations. Because much of life bemuses me, and because my columns tended to muse about those things that bemuse me, I called my column Bemusings. People seemed to like it.

I became entrenched in that little community. When you live in a community, go to its county fairs and football games and cakewalk and church services, see it nurture economic hopes and dreams, when you report on its joys and its heartbreaks, its achievements and disappointments, its victories and disasters, you look up one day and realize you’re as much a member of that community as if, like most of its residents, you had been born and lived most of your life there. You’re invested.

But I knew I needed to make some new opportunities for myself, so in 2010 I studied for and took the LSAT and began to apply to law schools. In July 2011 I left Tennessee for Oxford, Mississippi, to earn a law degree at the University of Mississippi. I took and passed the Tennessee bar, and in fall 2014, I came back to Middle Tennessee.

Now I live and practice law in a town between Nashville and the community where I served as editor. I have renewed friendships that never really went away. I am thrilled beyond measure that after living in the alien landscape of a college campus  – as a student in my late 40s, of all things – I seem to have picked up my previous life right where I left off, except this time with a more focused career trajectory.

Several people have told me they miss my column. They’ve asked why I don’t start a Bemusings blog. I hemmed and hawed around. At first I was still hunting for a place to live and getting moved and settled. The first year of my first legal job had a pretty steep learning curve. I was recovering from all the upheaval, renewing old ties and forming new ones, and getting to know my new community. Yada yada yada.

But now the time is right, and I am hungry to write again. I called the publisher of the parent newspaper that once employed me and asked, and received, permission to revive the Bemusings title for this space. And here I am.

I’ve spent some time trying to decide what focus, if any, my writing will have. I have many interests, so as this blog evolves, I anticipate that I will write about my ponderings on family life, spiritual matters to do with individual and corporate worship, musical experiences, food, travel, and community.

I write from an emotional place, and in the past I have found that emotional place in me connects with an emotional place in my readers. But I need to write. I need to record my observations about life. I need to write to help me sort through what I think and how I feel about things. I write to process the things I experience and try to learn from them. And with that writing, I need to reach out to see if anyone else can relate. Maybe whatever I learn will make a difference to some reader somewhere.

Back before I had even heard of that little community where I served as newspaper editor, I prayed I would find a position that needed me and what I had to offer as much as I needed it and what it had to offer. I have never, before or since, had a prayer answered any more literally than God answered that one. At that point in my life, the editor’s job fit the bill perfectly. Maybe in some small way this Bemusings blog will help answer a need, too.