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Friends are essential–my life lesson

I wish I knew who created this poster for it speaks of a life lesson I learned in 1989. I was 39 years old and during a routine physical, the doctor announced I had two heart murmurs. Those murmurs meant open heart surgery, weeks out of work, and out of the kitchen (the least of my worries as “cook” has always been a four letter word for me).  But I would need help. My then husband Danny and my now and forever son took excellent care of me. They loved me, and I soon discovered so many others did also.

My sister, my best friend, Valerie, flew in from Florida to cook (not a four-letter word for her), grocery shop for Pinwheels for my husband, rescue Gershwin (my rescue cat) from hanging on ferns and being gently run over. Never has a sister shown such love and kindness to an older sister, who according to her, had made her wash dishes and clean house as a six year old.

Ok, I was suppose to be baby sitting her, but my friends were calling, my boyfriend was calling, what was a teenager to do? Find a foot stool so she could reach the sink and wash those dishes before mother came home from work.

(Val is in the red dress at the left. Photo courtesy of Phil Williams)

Now that didn’t happen a lot, and I’m thinking there was some embellishment on her part, but bottom line–my sister was there for me when I needed her, always has been, and is my best friend. Val is a keeper. I didn’t realize how much I loved her until that year when she sacrificed so much to help me. Kisses and hugs dearest sister, dearest friend.

Celia Kay Dean Smith, whose name I can rarely even think of without tears welling in my eyes, another keeper. Celia and I have been friends since 1973 when she substituted for me in my 7th and 8th grade English classes. That was my first year to teach, and I caught every cold, every virus, even German measles, thus Celia stepping in to fill my shoes.

And in 1989, she stepped in again. Since our first meeting, we had learned to really like  Riunete wine(our tastes improved with the years), Planters’ Punch, Cosmopolitans; we had browsed art museums, picked strawberries, cried on each other’s shoulders, laughed until we almost wet our pants, and remained close even though she had moved from Milan, TN to Raleigh, NC to Toronto to Barbados to Danville, CA to Atlanta and back almost home to Jackson, Mississippi.

Celia is the beautiful woman on the left. Last photo I had with her.

She, too, had rescued Gershwin from being Tarzan and swinging from hanging ferns but never from being run over. That heroic act we reserved for Valerie. She also cooked, cleaned, and flew miles across the country from Danville just to help me.

Celia was an artist, a realtor, a World Book saleswoman, a mom, the oldest of five sisters, a Grancee, a brain cancer victim. When she needed help, she didn’t want me to come or that’s what I kept telling myself. At the time, my father was ill, and when she was on her death bed, he was recovering from surgery. No way could I go to her. I will never forget the night I received the text from her husband, “Celia is with Jesus.” 

But she was not with me and never would be again, except in my heart and soul.

In addition to Valerie and Celia, my friends with whom I worked at the North Carolina legislature and the NC Banking Commission overwhelmed me with visits, with meals, with fragrant powders and lotions, and lavished me with kindness, with unadulterated love and compassion. Never had I felt such an outpouring of friendship and companionship. 

A cliche but true–no man is an island. All my friends were like Carole King singing “You’ve got a friend.” I have never forgotten those two months of surgery and recuperation. I finally understood how important friends were and how important it was to be a friend. 

I know that family and true friends are really one and the same.

Me

My family, my sister Valerie, and my friend Celia are rare people. They showed up at just the right time, and stayed by my side through the rough times and through the good times. 

And even though Celia no longer walks this earth, she is in my heart and gently reminds me–“Be a Keeper.” May you find your own Keepers and be one as well.

71 year old self to my teenage self

Breathe! Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up. Remember you are enough. Comparison with others can be a good check in but not a way to live your life. 

I’ve always felt that I have been living my life backwards. Having married and had a child as a teenager, I jumped into adulthood without the experiences that most teenagers had. 

As a 52 year old divorcee, I plunged back into life determined to revisit those teenage years but with some adult wisdom. So I attended rock concerts (had only been to one as a 17 year old), dated multiple types of men, took vacations I wanted to take, lived alone (most of the time), drank when I wanted to, explored depression and resurrection, tried to be fully present and aware of those I loved. Sometimes regression can be a good way to learn.

The question now is: “Will I keep regressing as I age?” Am I doomed to the infancy that dementia and old age might offer? The seven stages of man haunt me. So what advice should my 16 year old self give to my 71 year old self?

(Response to Word Press’ Bloganuary Prompt)

My father’s wallet

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Dear Daddy,

I found your wallet today, the one you were always misplacing whether you were at home on Brentwood Drive, Milan, or at Morning Pointe, your last residence, there in Chattanooga with my sister Valerie not too far away. Guess I’d misplaced it this time, forgetting that I had tucked it away in my L.L. Bean Boat Bag, the repository of all my treasured “Must Keeps.”

My father’s wall

Holding your wallet feels like holding your hands, wrinkled and worn but amazingly soft and tender, despite the decades of hard work. Those hands skillfully filed saws for our livelihood, built beautiful cherry wood tables for our delight, sewed sequins on Val’s majorette uniforms, pushed lawn mowers, pushed us high in our swings, pushed us off on our first bike rides, pushed us off into the arms of our husbands-to-be, pulled us close when we needed a h

“Hold our hands, Daddy.” That’s what we whispered two years ago as you lay in your hospice bed. Hold on tight! But you couldn’t. Your fingers, interlaced with ours, slowly loosened their grip. Your fingernails scraped across the crisp white sheets before you jerked your hands high into the air, seemingly surprised that it was time to go.

But I found you again. Your driver’s license photo looked up at me from your brown trifold. Tucked inside were six $1.00 bills, ready for you to spend on strawberry pie and coffee at Perkins. For an instant, you were with me. The touch of the wallet quickened my soul with your essence, making my heart smile.

You knew I was sad, didn’t you Daddy? Once again your hands were there to comfort me and pull me close when I needed love.

Thank you,

Phyl

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Confessions of an ILA member

Confessions of an ILA Member 

You’ve tried to hide it. I know it! I’ve seen you hanging around the center table, eyeing the treasure, trying to determine how you can discreetly swipe the left-behinds without looking like you’ve hailed from the backwoods with no manners whatsoever. You have the tools you need, plastic fork and paper plate. But can you pull it off, nonchalantly taking what no one else wanted or the server was too lazy to scoop up? The last guest has been served, but will that server never turn away so you can strike swiftly and discreetly?

Photograph courtesy of Jen Kiwus and Virginia Tech Women’s Club

You’ve tried to hide it. I know it! Your mind is in overdrive, desperately trying to figure out how you can politely ask for the pièce de rèsistance–a corner, what every ILA member covets. But wait, the guest in front of you has been prattling on about how delicious it all looks, her head turning ever so slightly toward that left corner lavished on two sides with a luscious blanket of creamy addiction. The other guests have been submissive, just taking what was doled out to them. But this character in front of you might not settle for the middle.  

But of course, she does not settle and asks for the corner! What now? Do you go for one of the  other two existing corners? Do you outright ask for it or do you point with your whole hand, not a finger (that would be way too impolite)? I’d suggest an ever so casual wave to the corner that has your name and no-one else’s on it! Two can play at this game!

And of course, you’d love to ask if the server could lift just one of the adornments, so carefully piped onto the surface, but that just might be too much, too devastating to the whole decor that has been so thoughtfully designed yet eventually will be decimated. Oh, well, the corner is enough, for now, but should the adornment survive…

Before negotiations

You’ve tried to hide it. I know it! It sits in front of you at the round tables so exquisitely decorated for the celebration. Temptation beckons you. I’ve seen you looking at the guests beside you, across from you, even at other tables. Do they look like folks who will understand if you indulge in your craving?  Might they be willing to help you out? Can you negotiate a  deal with complete strangers that will satisy all parties? A strategic swap would work well–your cake for their icing. Diplomatic skills must be called into action. 

After negotiations

Oh, Icing Lovers Anonymous (ILA) I share your pain. I know how you feel. I too have hung around the table with the cake that proudly boasts “Happy Retirement —— Or Happy Birthday—–Congratulations Mr. and Mrs.—-.“ I have coveted the remainder icing that languishes on the edge of the cardboard  with errant cake crumbs contaminating the abandoned border of buttercream, just asking to be devoured. Why toss such a scrumptious delicacy into the oversized black garbage bag that always seems to loom not too far away from  the reception table?

Yes, I am Phyllis Grace, and I am an Icing Lover addict, adorer, craver. 

Raspberry frosting with cupcake created by
Izzie de Sturler

How many of you have secretly opened a can of Betty Crocker vanilla frosting and eaten every ounce of it, even using your finger to extract every last bit? How many of you bake a cake just so you can make icing and then lick the bowl? You vow that you must clean up around the edges of the cake plate, just as they do on Cake Boss or Cake Wars to be sure the edges are devoid of icing and sparkling clean. This tried and true technique yields you at least one more tablespoon of that German chocolate icing or Seven Minute frosting.

Whether it is a wedding cake, birthday cake, cupcake, or frosted Krispy Kreme doughnut, a napkin must always be close at hand so you can discreetly dab at the corners of your mouth, obliterating any sign of your obsession.  

But beware, if you indulge in blue or black icing, you cannot open your mouth until at least three hours later and three gallons of punch have washed away the traces of the indelible frosting. Trust me, I know this!

Wedding cake designed by Lisa Nappi Albrecht
No, even I wouldn’t desecrate this beauty!

It’s a curse, this addiction to confection, one I can finally discuss. At one point in my life, it filled an empty place in my soul. Crisco and confectioner’s sugar assuaged black hole moments of loneliness and depression. Nothing like a sugar high (supposedly) to get you through a weekend of fighting and hateful accusations or holidays when everyone has coupled up for excursions to the beach or mountains, leaving you home alone. That’s when  you sit on the screened-in porch with a loving cat and a bowl of butter cream frosting. You stare into the green of trees and embrace a sliver of piercing sunlight as a symbol of hope.

And hope comes because you decide you deserve it. That black hole of depression has now been filled with self-confidence, a healthy love, true friends, and now and then just one sinful, rewarding, mouthful of luscious, creamy, wickedly delicious sucrose and shortening.

No more need for me to make my own icing. I can now wait until a birthday, retirement, wedding, or special night out to indulge in my secret passion. If given the choice of Bread Pudding or Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake with dark chocolate frosting, I choose cake. If given the option of Pecan Pie a la mode or Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing, I choose cake. Well, ok, I actually choose the icing.

Chocolate raspberry cake created by Izzie de Sturler

And so it goes, the need to feed on icing remains but does not overwhelm. Now and then I enjoy the sugar commingled with the Crisco that invades my taste buds with opulent pleasure. I savor every morsel, every molecule of the concoction before it slowly, luxuriously dissolves, leaving a trail of delight and satisfaction along its path.

Oh, yeah, I still hang out at the cake table, angling for a frosting heavy corner, a huge, yellow royal icing rose, or exceptionally large green leaf—not made of fondant. I do exert some discretion. However, it is no longer a need but a want. I am satisfied, sated, confident. I am an Icing Lover Admirer now, no longer anonymous and proud of it!

Valentine’s Day Card on Glade Road


Lost in thought, acting as though my SUV is autonomous, I ease out of the driveway, triple checking that the garage door is down.  My grocery list pops into my head like the Heads Up display in the windshield. Are all the ingredients for the Chili-Mac Cheeseburger recipe on it? Do I have coupons for the V-8 juice, digital or paper? Are my K-roger cloth bags next to me on the front seat? I always forget them, but if I do, I know that Micah’s backpack can use the plastic ones. Can’t have them wrapped around dolphins’ necks. Stop that. Be mindful. Pay attention, I admonish myself.

Passing Glade Road Growing on my right and Heritage Road Park on my left, I’m careful not to go over 29.  With a speed limit of 25, Blacksburg Police vigilantly patrol Glade to keep travelers on this country road safe from speed demons. I must be mindful, forget the grocery list, focus on the speedometer, look back into the rear view mirror to be sure no one is behind me,  cursing me, silently or not, for observing the speed limit.

The leafless trees lined along either side of Glade have assumed their winter postures–naked, gnarled, dull sculptures against the only blue sky to grace our corner of the world in days. Gusts of Arctic air that seem to like southwest Virginia better than the North Pole, remind me that Blacksburg can transform into Bleaksburg violently and without warning.

Winding my way along, besieged on every side by lifeless, dreary hues, except for the sky that I do not trust, I suddenly see a flash of red. Just a brief glimpse, a glint, a minuscule tidbit of color winks at me.

And there, as I come out of another curve into a straight-away—-an altar to Valentines’ Day appears. A red, tinsel wreath shaped into the outline of a heart hangs on a wooden plank nailed to an evergreen tree, a white arrow shot through its empty center.  

Glade Road’s Valentine’s Card

A white wrought iron table stands against the plank. Covered in a pink table cloth bordered in red -lettered XOXOXs, the table hosts a red vase with artificial red roses. All it needs now are two lovers, albeit dressed for Antartica, seated at the table, ready for. . . .who knows??

Many thanks to my Glade Road neighbour for the biggest Valentine’s Day card I’ve ever seen. You’ve reminded me that just around any corner life can ambush you with unabashed glee and fill your heart with smiles.