My mother was an amazing woman. Of course, she was. She was my mother. She was strong willed and stubborn and not someone you’d want to challenge, but she was also someone who loved big and loved hard and someone who was fiercely loyal and one you always wanted in your corner. There was nothing she was afraid to face or do, and not one challenge that she did not face head on. Extremely generous and giving, she was also smart and never stopped wanting to learn. She seemed perpetually young with a spry and free spirit. She took on the plight of the underdog anytime she felt the slight presence of an injustice. I am happy that I inherited those characteristics from her.
Near my mother’s sixtieth birthday, things began to change. Her personality shifted, her demeanor changed, her free and fearless spirit seemed to be having a little trouble getting off the ground. Something was wrong, and so began the long process of her diagnosis. Everything changed.
My Mother, Jonita Darling
Until you experience a loved one with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or similar conditions, it is very hard to understand just what happens to the patient, the family, and the support system surrounding this person. It is so much more than forgetfulness. It was devastating and I was in denial. My mother was smart and strong and I was mad as hell that she became this shell of herself. I just wanted her to snap out of it and bring her old self back to us. I knew she was still in there, I just wanted to bring her back out and back to those who loved her. In retrospect, I understand lots of things about her disease, the symptoms, the handling of the whole situation, and the domino effect this has on those closest to you. Sometimes life must be lived forward but understood backward. This was the case for me with my mother’s illness.
My mom and me on my wedding day, 2010
In the Spring of 2011, just before her sixty-sixth birthday, my mother’s suffering ended. Her life was much shorter than I ever thought it would be, but it was not any less full. I do feel that she was cheated from getting to know her grandchildren, taking a few more trips, and planting more flower gardens, but those are selfish reasons for me. And so, began the guilt of reliving the last few years of the long goodbye. You pray for a peaceful death for so long, it seemed like an eternity watching her suffer, and then when its finally over, it is like time flew by in the blink of an eye.
At the end of the 2012 Summer, I learned that Glen Campbell was performing with his children in the area. At this point Glen had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which, of course, brought an emotional connection. Being the music lover that I am (a trait passed on to me by both parents), I was not going to miss the opportunity to see Glen in what would likely be his last live performance in this part of Arkansas. Being the proud Arkansan that I am, I was certainly not missing the opportunity to support a home boy and someone who had shaped so much of the music of my childhood.
I made my way over to the show accompanied by a friend. The venue was small and intimate. Glen and family took the stage. He was so natural and so in his element. Just as I observed with my mother during her illness, the music never left Glen. It was so easy for him to be playing and singing. He missed a few notes here and there, as well as some words and relied on the help of a teleprompter, but his children kept things smooth on the stage. A few people in the audience snickered at a blunder made, but most were kind and gracious and rolled on like nothing was wrong. Glen made fun of himself when he forgot the words at times.
There were moments in the show that seemed painful for me to watch because I had lived them, the frustration, the repetition, the slight signs of anger. I didn’t know if others in the audience recognized them, but I did. Yet each of these moments were so beautiful at the same time because of the grace and patience shown by the Campbell children, especially Ashley. Something about watching this all take place in front of me, in public, was so very therapeutic for me. I felt a huge release from the guilt and pain that I could never express while watching my mother slowly die.
After the show, I shared a few private moments with Ashley. I thanked her as a child of someone sharing the same sickness as her father. I thanked her for giving her father to the fans who loved him and for having grace and dignity in such difficult circumstances to continue to honor him in what he loved to do. I thanked her for helping me have some closure to all that I felt in this same situation with my mother. We shared a few words of comfort with each other. I told her that she and her brothers had given their dad the greatest gift by doing this tour with him. It was emotional, tearful, and load lifting and I am so thankful for those few moments with Ashley. She is an exceptional young woman.
The Campbell Family continued this journey with the documentary film I’ll Be Me. What an incredible and selfless gift to share with others the struggles of this disease. What a great way to honor Glen Campbell. Ashley, Cal, and Shannon Campbell didn’t just go on tour with their dad, they helped make the long goodbye a little lighter for themselves, for their father, and for many others. For that I thank them.
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind
Photo by Ashley Campbell
The past Monday started off like any other week. The normal patterns of the normal routine. After work, I headed home only to be met by a barrage of sirens, blue lights, police cars, and emergency vehicles. This was more than normal. Something was wrong. I joined friends at a local eating establishment and texted a friend to check on her safety. Her husband phoned me to let me know they were safe and to inform me of what happened.
The unimaginable. One of our own police officers, our best officer, had been shot. I immediately felt my stomach turn but I quickly composed myself because knowing how strong, mentally, physically, and what a good cop my friend was, I knew he had to be alright. I told my dinner group the details of what happened as I understood them. We waited to hear an update on the condition of our police friend. Not long the news came of his fate. I felt like someone not only punched me in the gut but completely knocked the wind out of me and took my breath. This cannot be happening in our town to our friend. Why?
The next few days were hazy and surreal. The looks of sadness and hurt, devastation and disbelief on every face encountered. I knew how I felt about this young man, his wife, and his family. I had the utmost respect for him professionally, saw the humorous side of a jokester, saw his loving side as a father, knew he put thoughtfulness into gift selections for his wife on special occasions, and saw the sweet side of a son visiting his mother regularly in the nursing home. What I quickly realized was the rest of our community had wonderful experiences when this young man crossed their paths as well. Such a loss on so many levels.
The respect shown to our Lt. Patrick Weatherford was so indescribable. From the escort of his body by fellow law enforcement officers to and from Little Rock for his autopsy, to the outpouring of blue and black at his visitation, it was overwhelming and I was just a bystander. The number of officers who came to honor the fallen from all over the country was unreal. Patches on dress blues included NYPD, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Fort Worth, Kansas City, and Memphis to name a few and that does not include the dozens of agencies represented across the state of Arkansas. The funeral service was so moving. The Honor Guard, the attendance of dignitaries, the words offered by those who loved Patrick, and the emotion of his immediate family of the local police and sheriff’s departments. This band of brothers. A statuesque beauty full of grace who is far too young to be a widow. A young lady lonesome for her daddy, and a young son who will be years before understanding all of this and knowing how great his dad was. The mass crowd who came from far and near to pay their respects. A young African-American man who has had a troubled past dressed in his best Sunday suit to bid his farewells to his friend. All of this so filled with emotion, but nothing prepared me for the honesty of emotions, raw, impromptu, unrehearsed and real as the next few minutes I would encounter.
Photo by Alton Walker
I was asked and honored to assist my funeral director friend in the service conduction. As I rode with her in the procession from the service to the cemetery interment, we followed directly behind the funeral coach, which gave us an unparalleled view of emotions on display along the route. Immediately following our departure from the service, motorists were pulled over and out of their cars in tribute. The Fed Ex driver with his hand over his heart, locals I knew, and strangers I did not. Crossing over the interstate overpass to be greeted by the loving faces of friends from the local car dealerships waving American flags. Motorists from out of state at the convenient store standing at attention. Turning the corner at the state police station to see two ladder trucks extended to hold the American flag in place as a canopy of honor and dozens of onlookers seeking the appropriate tribute to bestow. As we traveled along, roads that met the highway were filled with those who wanted to honor our officer. Every intersection we encountered was met by an officer saluting the procession. Some intersections had multiple officers. Children stood in front of their day care in a straight line and holding hands to pay respects to their school mate’s fallen father. A small group gathered at the end of a community waving flags and fighting tears. A young family huddled up with parents holding their small children tightly and a mother openly weeping because the emotion of this moment was more than she could take. A childhood neighbor of mine wept openly standing by a fire truck as the procession passed near her house. She had lost her brother in Viet Nam. These feelings and sights brought back the memories of another fallen hero years ago. A mother having a yard sale with her children in the front yard paused and on a child-size chalkboard in colored chalk was written “A tribute to you.” Old timers from the coffee shop out of their perch and standing attention. Making the turn in the neighboring town en route by two fire engines blocking the highway, one draped in the state flag, one in the American flag, with local volunteer fire fighters standing guard in street clothes paying respect and fighting back tears. The spunky octogenarian from my church parked on a side street to make sure her tribute was paid to our hero. The farmer who parked his cabless John Deere tractor at the edge of the field and stood with his cap in hand held over his heart as the motorcade passed. The sea of blue lights as we rounded a curve gave us some indication of how massive this cortege was. As the pavement changed to gravel with a turn, motor units lined the highway from shoulder to shoulder with their riding officers standing at salute. Nearing the end of our journey, we passed a house that almost looked abandoned but to the side was a young woman in cutoff shorts and a tank top standing stoically with her hand over her heart to pay her respects. We traveled on into the cemetery and gave our friend back to earth with a twenty-one gun salute, flyover, and Taps before we said goodbye.
Without question, the travels to the cemetery was the most emotional and real. Unrehearsed. Who has precedent on how to handle such a tragedy? Whether it was proper protocol or not, those emotions displayed were some of the most real I have ever seen and meant with the utmost respect. Had these individuals had an encounter with Patrick as a policeman? Did he give them comfort as a crime victim, or did he impact them to be a better person if they made a mistake? Did he encounter them without the badge in a positive way? I wondered as we traveled how many lives of these individuals did Patrick Weatherford impact. The answer now is all of them.
After this ride I took Friday afternoon, I now have a renewed hope in humanity. No matter what divides us, politcally, spiritually, or otherwise, I know there is still a goodness and decentcy that lives in the human heart. That at our core, we all share of love of fellow man and country and honor of those who give their all for a better life for each of us. So no matter what anyone tells you, just know that there is still love and hope in human hearts and it lives on in each of us every day. That is what Patrick would want us all to know.
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
Now I’m not pointing any fingers, but y’all know who you are. You’ve been tempting fate and angering your Southern food gods and now that reckless behavior is wreaking havoc on all of us. I’m talking about the fact that there’s obviously a significant number of you who have skipped the black eyed peas on New Year’s Day!
As long as I can remember grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others stressed the importance of partaking in the traditional new year’s food specifications to bring about good outcomes for the year ahead. Black eyed peas for luck, greens for money and wealth, and pork for a little fat (excess). Since 2016 started off rather hellish with the loss of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Dale Bumpers I’d say the lack of some to ingest the peas might be the cause of such dire circumstances that have occurred this year. All of this may sound superstitious, and maybe I am, but these days why shouldn’t I be.
I take this New Year’s dining seriously. This is not a game to me. I have prepped this meal in advance of bowl game trips. I have carried this meal to Dallas before the Cotton Bowl and I have hurried home from Dallas after the Cotton Bowl game so as not to literally press my luck by missing this specific meal. I verified this meal would be available in New Orleans for dining on Sugar Bowl trips. I learned a long time ago that this was no laughing matter and I would never take such chances of being without this meal again.
My routine beginning on New Year’s Eve is to soak the dry peas in water overnight (or at least for several hours). After soaking, rinse peas and put them in a large pot (or even a slow cooker) with a mixture of water and chicken broth. Sauteed onions, garlic, green bell peppers are added to the peas along with your preference of Cajun seasoning and two bay leaves. Usually, I will add some type of link sausage (like kielbasa for a little extra fat) sliced into the mixture as well as some freshly chopped cilantro. Let the mixture slowly simmer for a couple of hours. I like my peas to be soupy, like a meal all their own if need be. Sides with the peas include greens that have been slow cooked in a little chicken broth, water, garlic, and salt and pepper. Hog jowl (or bacon if you prefer) is baked on a rack in the oven so that they drippings run off into the pan. This is a nice alternative to frying the jowl. If you want to change the game up a bit, brush maple syrup over the pork before placing it in the oven for a little sweet mixed with the savory. I use a little of the drippings for making the cornbread. New Year’s Day is the end of the holiday season so you can splurge one day on a little extra fat, and we all know we need a little fat to do us good. You can just skip the sugary dessert if you’re feeling guilty, but don’t skip the peas.
Now I realize that some of you may not have the time or the desire to cook like me, but for the love of Pete, please open up some cans, find a restaurant that honors these traditions, or visit friends or relatives who cook like this on New Year’s Day. Heck, if you’re my neighbor come on over and I’ll feed you and share this tradition. Call me if you need some meal prep coaching, but please do not gamble with fate anymore. I as well as many of you have lost more artists and performers from the soundtrack and screenplay of our lives this year and we just can’t take another year of this magnitude of loss. Harper Lee, Patty Duke, Garry Shandling, Nancy Reagan, Prince, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Scotty Moore, Pat Summit, Ralph Stanley, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer, Florence Henderson, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, John Glenn, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds. This isn’t even the entire list. NO. MORE. JUST. STOP.
Please people, for the love of all things decent, beautiful, harmonious, and truthful, DO NOT SKIP THE PEAS! 2017 is gonna be weird and strange on its own. We are in unchartered waters and we are literally going where no man has gone before. Let’s not add some crazy fuel to the fire. PEAS, PEOPLE! PLEASE!
As long as I can remember, my world included hydrangeas. All of the women before me in my family were avid gardeners. All had hydrangea bushes planted in their yards. Fond memories as a young girl playing with cousins in my grandmother’s yard always conjures up visions of blue snowballs at the end of big green leafy shrubs. Many an arrangement on Sunday mornings placed at church altars contained these lovely flora. Centerpieces for baby and wedding showers adorned tables with these Southern trademark flowers with color indicating which shower theme. When driving throughout the South, it is a given that these flowers will be seen in every neighborhood, if not every yard. The hydrangea is simply a Southern staple for gardeners, for florist, and for decorators. Their budding each year signifies that sweet summer is nigh and all the happy things that summer represents. Lightning bugs, baseball, children playing in sprinklers, family dinners and cookouts, vacation bible school, bike riding for hours, popsicles from the freezer, screen doors slamming shut, fresh veggies from the garden, shelling peas, and lying under the stars as long as you can before the mosquitoes force you back in the house.
Hydrangeas and I have a special connection. Not only do they hold amorous feelings from my days as a youngster, but these feelings have continued throughout my adult life as well. When I bought my own house I knew I wanted to have them surround it. When I married I chose white hydrangeas to be the focus of the floralscape. When my mother passed away I received hydrangea bushes from several friends and all are planted in my yard. Although the color has changed for some, I can still tell you who sent each one to me. Now that I am saying goodbye to that house and moving onto a new one, I am contemplating the options of new clipping and transplants of those meaningful bushes.
I am certain that other Southerners have these same feelings towards this bloom. They just remind us of a time when all was right in our world and the hope that it can be again. The hydrangea is timeless in beauty, simplicity, and nature. I think the world would be a better place if more hydrangeas were planted along the way. It is true that the simple things in life are the best things. So fix yourself a glass of sweet tea or freshly squeezed lemonade, sit out on your porch or patio and enjoy the beautiful view of your hydrangeas.
Hydrangea planted by me in 2011. Love the multi-colored blooms. Sheer luck.
There isn’t a time in my life that I can’t remember Wardell Pennington. This not-so-large man in stature had a larger-than-life presence wherever he went. For nearly the first 30 years of my life his wife Dorothy was usually right along side. The Penningtons, or Money and Poppy as granddaughter Lindsay named them, were fixtures in our community. Everyone in town knew Money and Poppy and they knew everyone. The Penningtons were neighbors to my mother and her family on Stroud Street in the 1950’s. Wardell had a great sense of humor and liked to joke around, but don’t let that fool you, he was always the hardest worker and could always work circles around anyone a fraction of his age. Although he wasn’t the biggest man, he was definitely the stoutest man in the room. Always. He wasn’t one to start trouble, but he wasn’t afraid to end any possibility of trouble showing its face around him.
As a youngster, a trip to the orthodontist meant a trip around the corner for a cheeseburger at Midway Cafe. Always greeted with a smile and a friendly, “Hey Baby!” and a quick hug and a peck on the cheek if circumstances allowed. Always giving a word of encouragement to all, especially young people. My days were lucky if I made it to the sandwich shop early enough to get a piece of Money’s pies. German chocolate, coconut creme, pecan, and sometimes fried chocolate and peach. I can still taste them. In school, if I were feeling especially clever, I could finagle someone into bringing me a hot lunch to school that always came from Wardell’s. All my schoolmates preferred Wardell’s to the golden arches any day. The cheese was always Velveeta. Those real french fries that had been cut that morning or those hand-dredged onion rings were amazing! No one minded the grease that had to be soaked up before you could devour. Those things were like crack! You could never get enough. Always had to wash it down with a Dr. Pepper. The only options were mustard or mayonaise. To put it simply, Wardell’s burgers were magic.
So many wonderful memories of Money and Poppy flood my mind. Once as a college student, I was sitting at the counter visiting with Money while eating lunch. A scruffy dressed and disheveled man came in and sat down and Money asked if he wanted soup and a sandwich. The man nodded. Money fixed him a sackful of food and the man went on his way. Money confided in me that she did not know this man but he had been in the sandwich shop several times that week. She quickly figured out that the man was perhaps homeless and certainly hungry without funds to pay for his meal. Money obliged him without shame and helped keep his dignity in tack. Many would have ignored him or turned him away. She turned to me when he left and said, “You never know when might be feeding an angel or where you might see the face of Jesus.” I have NEVER forgotten those words. I hear her saying those words to me every time I see a begger or a homeless person. Unfortunately, I have heard those words more and more as I see more people in need in recent years. I am also certain that was not nearly the first or the last time Dorothy would feed someone who couldn’t pay for a meal.
In 2001, Wardell’s beloved Dorothy succomed to cancer. Although he tried to retire several times before this, Wardell kept on working. He needed the community and the community needed him. His daughter Betty picked up the slack after Money passed and kept Poppy going in the restaurant. Somewhere around 2004, I traveled with a local group to Italy. The trip was great, but as usual, after being away from home, our habits and comforts were missed. The group arrived back in Memphis very late one Friday night. As expected, bright and early Saturday morning at least ten of us from the trip gathered at Wardell’s for a burger and onion rings. Being halfway around the globe makes you crave the familiar things of home. When Wardell learned we just returned from Italy, he told us that he’d been stationed in Napoli and began speaking to us in Itatlian. He spoke freely of his European missions and shared a great deal of himself with us that morning. While I knew Poppy was a WWII veteran, I never knew to what extent his activity was and that he had spent much of that time in Europe. In my entire lifetime, I had never heard him speak so openly of his service. That day Wardell became even more of a hero to me than he had already been. Not long after this, Poppy lost his beloved Betty to cancer. This took a toll on Poppy and he began to slow down a little in the sandwhich shop. Maybe too many reminders of the both of them working beside him, but this certainly did not stop Poppy.
Poppy became as social as ever. He still attended Newport Greyhound football games always sitting at the top of the bleachers to the left of the press box. He hollered and cheered as loud as possible. Often he and his friend Daveene were spotted out at dinner where he would greet all of his friends with handshakes, hugs, kisses, and a little nudge on the shoulder. All people of all ages loved Poppy. He was mulitgenerational. He was ageless and timeless. He was a fixture and an institution in our community. Just as Dorothy’s sermon she gave me years ago by her quiet example of taking care of people, Wardell continued to live by that too. At the age of 93, he worked tirelessly at the local foodbank each week and had since its beginning. Wardell only knew one speed – full throttle. He went wide open all the time. His failing vision was not an excuse for him to sit down and quit. Ever.
Last week while taking care of his people, in his town, Wardell took a fall at the food bank. The injuries from this fall would not have the outcome we wanted and Wardell is now reunited with his beloved Dorothy in Heaven. But even in the final moments of his consciousness, he was as resillient and determined as ever to continue his work to for his people and demanding to son John, “Someone get me cleaned up! I’ve got work to do! I’ve got finish what I was doing so that I can get folks taken care of!” Never selfish. Always selfless and working for others unitl the end.
I and all of the people of our community are all the better for having Dorothy and Wardell Pennington in our community, in our lives and in our world. Truly another example of what made the Greatest Generation so amazing and made our country so incomparable. Let their sermon, their lives that they lived by example, be a true testimony of how each of us can make that same difference in our community and in our world.
When it’s my time Poppy, I hope to meet you and Money at the pearly gates with your cheeseburger, onion rings, and a slice of German chocolate pie. Until we meet again Arrivederci, Poppy!
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