Norman Rockwell…sort of

Well, here we are friends. Another Thanksgiving. Tradition…. but different


Am I alone in realizing that my memories are seen through rose colored glasses? I’ll begin today with these precious rose colored Suzanne memories…and I’ll bet you have plenty of your own.

Thanksgiving when I was a little girl and a teenager was simply perfect. We always had company who joined in the celebration, a beautiful table and tons of food. My mother saw to that. Not until I was an adult did I realize the importance of the guests. I was born in 1958. (ancient, I know) and in the fall of 1960 my mother lost her father to a stroke and broken hip and her brother to a farming accident when the tractor overturned while filling a silo. Just weeks apart.

She was understandably depressed. There were decisions to be made about the farm. Grandma couldn’t take care of it alone…….Rosie Smith was the quintessential farm wife of that time whose task was to care for everything at home but nothing on the farm. She didn’t even drive. Deciding to sell was heartbreaking, life changing.

My mother’s answer to filling the her table that Thanksgiving and thereby distracting everyone from the sadness (I was too young to remember or understand) was to invite those without family to join ours. The Woolvertons, the Caldwells, the Baileys, the Lanes. I grew up thinking they were all relatives. Because they kinda were….

When JoKay and Becky were married in 1969 they brought husbands and even more festivity. The men were always hunting in the early morning hours of the holiday and would drift back in around lunch time. Menus were traditional with the addition of fried venison….. ridiculous amounts of food, laughter and fun.

Often my Aunt Lucille and Uncle Pat would drive in from Tulsa and that made it even better. JoKay and Becky would laugh because the city Aunt would arrive with an exotic recipe and ingredients for a small dish while mother was cooking mass quantities of turkey, dressing, pies, potatoes and veggies.

When lunch was over and all the men were napping or watching football, the women gathered around the piano with coffee and dessert and the Christmas music began. JoKay played piano beautifully and Becky’s voice was so, so good… Ruth Caldwell had a fabulous voice and her favorite was ”Home for the holidays”… gosh to hear her gorgeous alto again would be marvelous. We loved our piano duet books and the joy from the music was palpable

Good times.

To come home from college for Thanksgiving was fabulous. A break from school before finals and piano/voice juries… ugh. I swear to you I can remember sleeping in and what a joy it was for this music major who had music theory at 8:00 five days a week….ha It was always cold upstairs at mother and daddy’s so I would be snuggled up but awake, just listening to mother rattling pots and pans and the smell of the coffee and whatever deliciousness was in the oven….. simply perfection.

But not always perfect....

My senior year at William Woods I was student teaching in Mexico Missouri, about an hour from Fulton. In those days school was not dismissed Thanksgiving week so I worked until 3:30 pm on Wednesday, drove back to Fulton, packed and headed south around 5:00 pm

And then the snow started.

In Houston Mo. I realized I was in a little trouble. The radio was telling me to get off the road, but where to go? I stopped at a payphone and called Daddy. He and Uncle Pat were enjoying dinner and he told me that I was fine, It wasn’t snowing there and I was headed south…..just keep driving. But my awesome driving skills and my little mustang were obviously not up to the task. Somewhere close to the”El Rancho” truck stop I managed to do several circles in the middle of the road and ended up near the ditch, barely missing the semi-truck headed toward me. At this juncture I grabbed my purse and got out of the car and just stood on the side of the road. What most certainly could have been mass murderers picked me up and delivered me to the truck stop. Now what? Didn’t think Buster was the way to go so I called JoKay crying. She calmly told me to stay there (duh) and Jerry and Jack Haney would come in the 4 wheel drive truck to get me.

The next 4 hours or so were let’s say, interesting. A few veiled propositions and offers of rides home from truckers…and one particular comment I”ll always remember, explaining to me that my white mustang was most likely the victim of a snow plow by now.


The cavalry finally arrived and Jack Haney, the hero and driver’s ed guru, drove my mustang while I rode in the truck with Jerry and enjoyed the contents of JoKay’s coffee thermos. We made it all the way to Mammoth Spring when the mustang literally buried up in the snow in front of the First Methodist church. When we got to Becky’s (around 2:00) she had my bed all prepared and I collapsed and thoroughly enjoying the attention and the sympathy.

In retrospect this is a very funny story, and explains why I DO NOT DRIVE in snow.

But as with all things, time, maturity and life don’t always provide the Normal Rockwell picture that you wish for do they?

A few of my life examples not on the Norman Rockwell greatest hits list.

  1. The year mother was in the hospital with terminal breast cancer
  2. The year after, when I was determined to cook the turkey at Daddy’s and forgot to take out the giblet package.
  3. The year I was in treatment and Jack and I ate a hotdog in the Little Rock airport as we flew to Houston for chemo
  4. The same year I went a little crazy and made both the Callahans and my family celebrate together so the boys could have a “normal” holiday. And they did it.
  5. The worst year ever when JoKay suffered a heart attack and died Thanksgiving week with the turkey thawing in the fridge.
  6. My insistence that week that the boys and Jack accompany me to deliver Thanksgiving meals from St. Bernard’s Auditorium in lieu of Thanksgiving, then struggling to find a restaurant open for ourselves.
  7. The Monday morning after JoKay’s funeral when I had bus duty. It was my first year at MacArthur and nobody really knew me or that I had lost my northstar.
  8. Beautiful Thanksgiving celebrations in the years after JoKay died, hosted at Becky’s but with JoKay’s loss always hanging over our heads
  9. Becky’s last celebrations before she died from Ovarian Cancer and her determination that we pray in our family circle but not until each of us shared what we were thankful for.
  10. The realization that our family has grown outward and gathering all together just isn’t feasible anymore…
  11. And now the dreaded COVID virus that keeps us separated our separate families and fearful for our lives.
  12. Not singing “We gather together” at FBC with the organ volume on max..

Has Norman left the building?

Here we are. Each of us searching for things to be thankful for. I’m in the middle of a cancer battle, a dear friend is in the hospital fighting for his life from COVID and there will be no celebration at my house. No papaw or chocolate chess pecan pie just for him.

I recently watched a Michael J. Fox interview where he made the statement, “I’m tired of making lemonade from lemons”…. and I totally related. But still…. there is so much to be thankful for this morning and I”m nothing if not determined to claim it.

  1. The arrival of a 3rd grandbaby. Cooper Jack will be here any day.
  2. Healthy, happy, loved grandchildren
  3. Jack, always the hero of my story
  4. My sons and their beautiful wives
  5. My amazing friends and our relationships
  6. My distant family and our communication…. (something good from Facebook, ha)
  7. My church
  8. My faith
  9. My African violet and my Christmas cactus
  10. My comfy new shoes
  11. The election is over

And lastly… beautiful memories of Thanksgivings past and my anticipation of those to come. God bless all of you this season and let’s try to be thankful EVERY day and not just on Thanksgiving.

Easy to say but difficult to achieve.

Good luck…

Blame it on Buster

Charles Woodrow Wilkerson was born on July 3, 1916, the youngest of five children born to Oliver Cicero and Lula Catherine Wilkerson.

He was my Daddy.

Oliver Cicero (my grandpa) decided to name the baby Charles Woodrow in “honor” of the two presidential candidates, Charles Evans Hughes and Woodrow Wilson. There was just one problem. Grandpa wanted him to be known by the winner’s name and the election was obviously not until November.

So baby Charles Woodrow was lovingly called Buster and by the time the November election rolled around it was too late, Buster it was. Then, and until the day he died.

In my favorite picture of baby Buster he’s a toddler, standing on a literal tree stump. My Aunt Lucille said he was either preaching or giving a political speech. Could have been both.

Perfectly Buster.

Hopefully this helps you better understand the Wilkerson political fervor in 1916 and what remains of that fervor today.

I wanted to write my little blog for the election, but truth be told I chickened out. Political posts and rhetoric became so ugly and hurtful that I thought I’d just save my thoughts until the election was over and all had settled down.

Silly girl.

It’s no secret that I’m a Democrat. Some you will probably stop reading at this juncture and that’s ok. Go forth and be happy. But for those so inclined, let me (as Ricky Ricardo would say to Lucy) ‘splain.

My parents raised me to be aware of current events, support my community and be proud of my opinions. In our house two newspapers (the Springfield Daily News and the West Plains Daily Quill) arrived daily, in addition to the weekly Thayer News and the South-Missourian Democrat (the latter loving called the SMD). I had a boyfriend who sang (we keep gettin richer but we can’t get our picture on the cover of the SMD)… but that’s a story for another day, ha. Buster and Irene also subscribed to Time and Newsweek and Life magazines.

Yes…aware. We were aware.

I shut my eyes and see my mother at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the Quill every day after school. Oh for one more day…

My political interest piqued when Daddy ran for office (and lost). I was acutely aware of the cost of the campaign to our family and my 4th grade ears and eyes didn’t miss a word. Daddy eventually ended up with a great insurance job and things were ok…. but this was my political beginning.

My parents supported Kennedy, Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Becky came home from college supporting Eugene McCarthy in 1968 but that was short lived, ha. I clearly remember the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and the church service my mother planned for the community. I remember the devastation of losing Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the longing I felt for a leader who would guide us out of the muck.

I distinctly remember watching the 1972 Democratic convention upstairs in my bedroom on my black and white tv. The George McGovern nomination didn’t come until the early morning hours, but I was hanging on every word. I hated the war, I was a young teenager who wore a POW bracelet and had nightmares of Vietnamese attacking our house. I wanted so badly to believe in someone.

Nixon won and I didn’t believe. At all.

I turned 18 in October of 1976 and proudly voted the first time for Jimmy Carter in November. I’ll always be proud of that vote. What a good man. He still is.

In college from 1977-1981 It was made very clear to me that I had exited the Democratic bubble in which I had been raised. My first college boyfriend, a Delta Tau Delta from St. Louis whose name I have forgotten, sent me my first dozen red roses. All was fine and dandy until he commented, and I quote, “I’ve never met a white democrat before”…..haha… let’s just say that was the end of that.

There were approximately 10 students in the young democrats at William Woods and that included the governor’s daughter. I swear that it felt as if the rest of the student body was in the young republicans. Reagan was easy to love but I was steadfast in my democratic persuasion.

My friend and sorority sister Kenda supported Joe Holt when he ran for governor and getting to fly on the campaign plane to West Plains for a rally was probably the proudest Buster had ever been of his little democrat. Maybe it made up for all the boring piano recitals he had to sit though, ha. I remember inviting the Lieutenant Governor, Roger Wilson, to speak at our student educators banquet and basking in the Missouri political sunlight… It was fun to be so close to Jefferson City and state government.

Jack and I married in 1983. Kenda warned me that Jack was a republican and I assured her he wasn’t registered. (truth) We loved our local State Senator Mike Lybyer and our State Representatives Travis Morrison and Gene Oakley and they all attended our wedding. Daddy was chair of the county democrats and he loved every minute.

We were still in living in Missouri when the Democratic Caucus occured in 1983. Missouri wasn’t a primary state back then. We caucused in the Thayer gym. Anyway, I clearly remember caucusing for John Kerry and my parents caucusing for Walter Mondale. (not my best choice…Monkey Business anyone?…ok, look it up.

Time passed and Bill Clinton won our hearts and our votes. Thank to my BIL being the mayor, Bill spent time in Mammoth Spring and even had lunch at JoKay’s. Hillary was delightful and we talked about education in Arkansas and what could be done to improve the education of our state students. Bill loved my piano playing (Hail to the Chief) and loved Jack’s tie. We were sold.

I was teaching in Arkansas when I was berated by a colleague over my support of the Clinton and the ridiculous teacher test everyone was so angry about. I remember standing up and declaring that it was a free country and I could vote however I wanted. To his credit the colleague later came to my room and apologized.

And yes it’s true, Bill let us down with his personal failing. I was disappointed and angry with him. I never made excuses for his behavior. I still don’t.

I never understood the hatred so many folks had and still have for Hillary. Her intelligence always impressed me, but others still hate her with a passion that should be reserved for serial killers. Last night there were protesters at her house yelling “lock her up”…. in 2020 so there’s that.

Which leads me to the end of the Suzanne democrat saga.

I love Barack Obama. There, I said it. He’s smart, he’s classy, he was always presidential. He was always measured in his demeanor. I miss him.

I like Joe Biden. He’s the xanax for our anxiety attack. He won’t embarrass me. He’ll appoint intelligent, qualified people to positions. Yes, he’s old. I’ll bet he wishes he were 10 or 15 years younger too, but he’s not.

But here’s the deal. I LOVE MY REPUBLICAN FRIENDS AND THEY LOVE ME. We know where we stand and we don’t yell at each other. We are sensitive to each other’s opinions and we know when we can or can’t discuss politics. Our country was BUILT on the two party system and I pray we can keep it this way. We need strong leaders on both sides of the aisle. We need differences of opinion from our leaders. We need compromise. We need to not be so closed minded that we can never CHANGE our thoughts on a subject by intelligent discourse. Intelligent discourse. Remember that? We need to quit calling people names and hurling insults. Violence is simply unacceptable. That’s not who we are as Americans.

I’m going to stay a democrat (thanks Buster) and many of you will always be republican and that’s ok. Don’t shoot me. Don’t tell me I’m going to hell.

My hope is that we stay engaged and knowledgeable.

That we read more, watch less.

That we listen to each other.

That we continue to love each other.

And if you don’t like my words, or disagree, or think I’m an idiot,

Blame it on Buster.

Train case

” these small pieces of luggage were first used around 1948 and are called “train cases” because they were used for train travel, basically for carrying toiletries”.

I turned 62 this week. Shocking, I know. Shouldn’t I be 45 and holding? Apparently not. Anyway, as is customary for me, I spent time looking back and reminiscing about birthdays past.

I was privileged to be raised in a really small town which wasn’t actually a town but a community, with no population listed on the sign. A place so small you could mail me a letter with only my name on it, no street address, only the name of the town and zip code. My college friends thought it was hysterical.

I thought it was perfect.

Some of my first memories of birthday celebrations centered around my friends at school and our birthday “parties”. My family, as well as the families of my friends, were not rich. Heck…. we were far from it. There were no limousines or fancy dress up parties or trips. No paid entertainment, no party favors and as my memory serves, no gifts from friends. What we did have was lots of innocent fun and overnight bunking parties!

When one of my friends (you know who you are) had a birthday, all the girls in my class (it was really, really small) were invited to spend the night! Oh my gosh how exciting! We could barely contain ourselves during the school day (yes, the school day…) and when the bell rang we all grabbed our train cases and headed to the birthday girl’s bus. There were no notes to the teacher, no permission slips, no worries…. teachers, can you believe that? We would go running, all 10-15 of us to the bus and to our adventure. Once on the bus we would stack our train cases in the front by the driver (totally against today’s rules) ready for our overnight bunking fun. The busdriver, who I’m sure we knew by name, would tease us about our stack of luggage and how much trouble we were going to get in to and how brave the birthday girl’s parents were!

I shut my eyes and I can see Becky’s mom having cheeseburgers ready for us as we unloaded. She was funny and welcoming and we loved her. At Jan’s we had marvelous “dress up” parties because for some reason her mom had boxes of fancy clothes and hats upstairs. At Janet’s I flipped the mini bike trying to ride/drive for the first time. Mother almost didn’t let me go to Gail’s because she thought sweet Aunt Emma had too many children, nieces and nephews to care for. I begged to go and she gave in…and Aunt Emma danced with us, fed us and it was perfectly wonderful. Pam’s was always so much fun, Shana was there and we walked the woods behind the house and stayed up late talking about school and boys…ha. I remember Frances’ where we had fresh milk and homemade bread and Pam C’s where her single mom laughed with us and fed us like queens. Never were there enough beds but sleeping on the floor was no issue for us! The more little girls all over the floor the better! My birthday was in October and there were huge oak trees in our yard so we raked leaves, jumped in leaves, built fires and cooked hot dogs…. everybody was on their best behavior because after all, Irene was a teacher…

After each bunking party we woke up, we were fed a homemade breakfast, and we climbed back on the bus and went back to school for another day.

What an innocent time. What a precious time.

What wonderful people. Good as gold people.

Lots of things have changed since then… but parents still love their children and their children’s friends. Hearts continue to break for those less fortunate….those without friends or families who love them.

I’m fortunate enough to stay in touch with most of these high school friends by facebook, with my college sorority sisters through both a group chat and a weekly call (where we tell the same stories over and over) and my Jonesboro friends who go above and beyond taking care of me. I have been so blessed to have girlfriends from my childhood and career, my church and my community…… friends that I would do anything for and who I’m confident will be there for me until the end. What do the kids say? “Ride or Die”…..those are my people.

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-14

So…. my hope is that you appreciate and treasure your friends. All of them. If you are struggling to find that special friend group maybe you need to reach out, join the church, join the community group, volunteer, be the one who hosts the party and plans the potluck….. Money doesn’t matter, things don’t matter, people matter, relationships matter.

Grab your traincase and get on the bus. You’ll never regret the trip, I promise.

Days of Guilt and Grace

When I was in 7th grade I wanted desperately to be a anti war radical. I wore my brother’s old army jacket, a POW bracelet and earth shoes and subscribed to Rolling Stone (until my mother read it). I also found it hysterical that a friend would bring cigarettes to school enabling several of my friends and I to smoke in the bathroom during lunch. Well, that little walk on the wild side ended one day when the Principal opened the bathroom door to a cloud of smoke.

The next day my daddy suffered his first heart attack.

Off to the hospital went mother and daddy and I had to stay with my grandmother. I knew without a doubt this whole thing was my fault because of those cigarettes. I prayed so hard for him to live and my little baptist heart begged forgiveness for causing this horrible thing to happen. My guilt was my secret.

As a young mother I was overwhelmed with working mom guilt. I was a teacher. A choral director. The obsessed kind. The kind that wanted to have the biggest and best program around. The kind that counted how many all region and all state members and compared the total to every other district in the region. The kind that stressed over ratings and kept every one of them in notebooks comparing year to year. Always worried if I was doing the best job I could while knowing that I was being beaten in the “preparedness” category by other moms.

I distinctly remember the day Chase was to bring cookies to his Montessori preschool. I was tired from school and cooking dinner, but determined to make my world famous cookies after I put the boys to bed. I’m sure Jack was in tax season (that’s a story for another day). It was after midnight but those marvelous oatmeal pecan chocolate chip cookies were baked, packaged and perfect.

As I dropped Chase off the next morning he cried because I had made cookies with “puke-ons” in them. When asked, he shared that he wanted Oreos. Guilt.

Fast forward to 1997…..well, actually 1996. I felt a lump in my left breast. I knew it couldn’t be cancer because my mammogram was clear. So, I did nothing. As months passed the lump didn’t go away, I had a knot under my arm and my breast bled. I went to two different doctors who assured me it was ok. I did nothing. Finally, in the summer of 1997 a third doctor, and the hero of the story, demanded I get a biopsy and the rest (stage 3b breast cancer, mastectomy, 8 chemo treatments, a stem cell transplant and 30 radiation treatments) is history. I was all my fault. Guilt. I believed the wrong people, I didn’t listen to my body and I was too busy to slow down and take care of the problem before it progressed. My guilt was at times overwhelming. Guilt that my husband had to endure having a “sick” wife that required CVC cleaning, disfigurement, financial hardship and the stress of taking care of me and our boys while doing his own stressful job. God love him.

After 20+ years cancer free the guilt was finally buried under years of normality. Precious years of raising our boys, progressing in our careers and living life. The wonderful gift of being present for both boys’ graduations, weddings and the births of two perfect grandchildren was joyous and I was, and am. grateful.

And then…

Stage 4 lung cancer with brain mets. How did this happen to a non-smoking breast cancer survivor? Did I miss or ignore symptoms again? Guilt. What in the world have I done this time to deserve this? Was it my diet coke, coffee, sugar, no exercise, work too hard lifestyle? Guilt. My grandchildren probably won’t remember me. My friends will grow weary of loving the “sick” one who can’t entertain or be as fun as she used to be. Jack will never remember to buy new shoes. Medical bills are so astronomical that I don’t dare look. Is it my fault? Guilt.

So grace.

2 Corinthians chapter 12 says “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

John 1:3 says “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s son, will be with us in truth and love.”

Grace, freely bestowed to all who believe. I sing these words but now’s the time to listen and take them to heart. My guilt, real or imagined, is covered by his grace. What a beautiful thing. What a glorious thing. He understands, he forgives, his grace is indeed sufficient. Because of him my family and my friends will extend grace to me as I walk through these days. They’ll do it because they love me and God’s grace covers them as well. We are forgiven people.

So, today……I will live. I will enjoy every minute given me and do my best to not think ahead. My illness is not my fault. God didn’t send it to me as punishment for some mortal failure. Being honest with God about my struggles and challenges with this darn illness means I’m trusting in his grace. Amazing grace. Infinite grace.

It’s a beautiful Arkansas morning as summer and autumn collide. I look out the sunroom window and marvel at his creation. Robbie, the dog next door, makes an unexpected visit to the patio as does the cat from across the street. They just dropped by to say hello. Somebody is mowing one last time. I drink my coffee and anxiously wait today’s visit from dear friends and the birthday celebration I’ll have with my sweet family this weekend.

After all, Anne Lamott says “Grace bats last”……..and my game’s not over.