What was your dad like when you were young?

I recently sent my mom and dad Storyworth subscriptions. If you haven’t heard of Storyworth yet, it is a service where you are prompted with a question about your life each week. Then at the end of the year all of your answers/stories get bound in a hardcover book. (This isn’t a paid post or anything like that. I just liked the idea.) Not only am I excited to learn more about the lives my mom and dad lived before my siblings and I came into existence, but, more importantly, I’m glad we’ll be able to pass these stories on to our next generations so they can have a sense of the personality that goes along with the name on their family tree.
And since I’ve assigned my mom and dad weekly homework, I figure it is only fair that I participate, too.
This week’s question is: “What was your dad like when you were young?”
The first thing that comes to mind is an image of my dad standing at the butcher block counter in our kitchen on Davis Islands reading the newspaper and eating cold steak for breakfast with one foot propped on the green stool that his grandfather built. Dad was always a big proponent of protein and he railed against carbs. Let’s just say it was never spaghetti night at the West house. He was Paleo decades before Paleo was a thing. He lifted weights nightly, too…while drinking red wine from a plastic travel mug.
He was prone to random bouts of silliness, pretending to karate chop us as we walked by, telling us to “keep it down over there” if we were having a coughing fit, or acting like he was going to step on our stomachs as we laid on the floor watching TV. Once he even short-sheeted my bed, a trick he learned in the Army, I think. It’s very confusing to try to get into bed and have your feet get stuck halfway down the bed. But he was right there to explain what he’d done. I thought it was hilarious. I assure you, all of these practical jokes were done in the spirit of fun, and they were taken that way. We always cracked up. I think a sense of humor is one of the best gifts you can give a person.
But Dad also had a serious job, with serious pressures, a family of five to support and all the attendant stresses that come with that. So sometimes, like any parent, he let a little bit of that heat out. He was strict. We were expected to do well in school and he wanted us to be productive people. He told us to never say we were bored, because only stupid people are bored. He taught us to make sure we turned lights off in rooms that we weren’t in and to not leave the air conditioner running needlessly upstairs when we weren’t up there. I learned that lesson so well that to this day the sound of a continuously running AC makes me a tiny bit anxious.
He was also generous and unfailingly kind to waiters, store clerks, yard men, his patients, and people in general. But he had no time for small talk. Cocktail parties were his nightmare scenario. He was an only child and could be an island unto himself. A family gathering would be in full swing and instead of participating he would be off doing a project, like building a deck or something.
He taught us how to do things for ourselves, to play outdoors, and to care for animals. He captured a million home videos in the 80’s when cameras were the size of concrete blocks, and then he spliced in clips of famous horror scenes from movies like Jaws and Poltergeist. Why? I don’t know. See the rest of this story. He’s a little weird.
He was brilliant, the smartest person I know. He almost always had an answer to our questions, and, if he didn’t, he never made up some BS drivel. He was man enough to say that he didn’t know. This quality is one that I particularly respect in a world filled with blithering idiots who seem to talk just for the sake of hearing themselves speak.
I’m extraordinarily proud that my dad is my dad and I’m grateful that I still have him around.
One last thing, he hates having attention drawn to him, especially for things like birthdays. So, with that, I’d like to request of anyone who read this far to please leave a comment wishing my dad a very happy birthday. 🙂

A nice walk with Grandmommy

I took a walk with Grandmommy today down the very long driveway at the lake house.

On our walk she decided to tell me that though she had always thought that she wanted to be cremated and put in a little wooden box next to my grandfather in the cemetery in Andalusia, Alabama, where they lived most of their lives together, she had changed her mind.

At 95, though she is healthy, these kinds of things are often on her mind.

Anyway, one of her best friends found out when she buried her own husband that when you are cremated and then buried your ashes are put in a concrete box that looks similar to a child-size coffin. Grandmommy turned to me, grabbed my arm and said, “I’m claustrophobic, I don’t want to be put in a concrete box.”

I said okay, because I wouldn’t want to be put in a concrete box either, even when I’m ashes. It sounds like the fate of a mobster turned snitch.

She said that every year she has magnolia branches put on my grandfather’s grave on October 23rd, the day he died. Her updated burial request is to sprinkle her ashes underneath the magnolia branches on October 23rd, so that when it rains she can just seep into the ground and join with my grandfather—a simple and beautiful request that made me cry because it made me happy and sad at the same time, which is actually one of my favorite things to feel.

I apologized for crying and she said, “That’s okay, Stephie, I understand. But you know I’m not afraid at all to die. I’ve had a really good life. I had parents who loved me, and my brothers and sister. You know, people used to ask my parents who their favorite was and they always said, ‘all of them’. They loved us the same. But we had a favorite. Alice. She was our favorite because she always had health problems.”

Alice was her sister, they were only a year apart. When I knew Alice she was stooped and gnarled with horrible arthritis. She seemed very old, even though she must have been only in her 60’s at the time. She had rows and rows of pills that she had to take several times a day. And she was very sweet. A kind and gentle person with an easy smile. Unfortunately that’s about all I remember. She died a long time ago.

I asked when Alice’s health problems started and she told me a story that made my heart explode with love for her empathetic and generous spirit.

She said, “Oh, it was the worst time possible.”

Alice would have been about age 13, and one day her teacher, who would be today’s equivalent of a P.E. teacher, had the girls walking around with books on their heads—for posture, I assume. That day the teacher sent a note home to their parents saying that she had noticed a curvature in Alice’s spine. Scoliosis. So, 13-year old Alice had to start wearing a plaster cast around her body and she also had to wear special shoes where one heel was larger than the other to even up the length of her legs. A terrible thing for a middle-schooler to have to endure.

Grandmommy said that Alice would cry herself to sleep every night. Grandmommy hated it for her and because she knew her sister so well, she thought that if Alice just didn’t have to wear the ugly, uneven shoes that she would probably be okay with just the plaster cast and maybe she wouldn’t cry anymore.

So the next day Grandmommy took one of Alice’s ugly shoes and buried it in the sage field that was behind their house.

She said that her parents and brothers tore the house up looking all over for the shoe but she never let on that she knew anything about it. She was sure that she was going to get in trouble eventually  but, even though she knew her parents must have found the spade she used to dig a hole in the sage field and figured it out, they never mentioned the shoe again. Neither did she. And Alice didn’t cry every night anymore.

I wonder if anyone ever found that shoe or if it is still buried somewhere in Alabama. Probably by now it has long since decomposed and turned back into dust. But I like the idea of that ugly shoe still being out there, a physical testament to Grandmommy’s rebellious act of love for her sister.
I’m so lucky that I’ve had all this time to know her. I’m going to make time for more nice walks with Grandmommy.

You love those murder stories

It’s been two years since my last blog post. Whoops!

It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop writing.

I think part of it was spending a lot of time getting to know my boyfriend (who is now my husband, so I guess that worked out okay). But I wasn’t comfortable writing about our relationship too much at the time since it was so new. Also—way to bury the lead here—he had a crazy ex-girlfriend who kept trying to contact him and me (with bad intentions). She would leave messages on my Facebook page at 3am saying that we “needed to talk”.  We blocked her, but the stalkerish vibe of that situation left me feeling exposed and made me want to close in on myself and not share information about my life.

A little bit of it—and this is pretty silly, but true—my  mom and aunt got mad at me because of a blog post that I JOKINGLY wrote about a recipe that we traditionally have at Thanksgiving . You can read that post here. I unintentionally hurt their feelings and that didn’t feel good. It was merely an attempt to make my brother and sister laugh that went awry.

And the other thing was that I had been laid off for the 947th time (with more glowing recommendation letters to add to the pile) and I was worried about sharing too much that a potential employer would see. Incidentally though, when I went in for an interview with my current employer, where I have now worked for a year, my future boss told me that he had read all of my blog posts and that he enjoyed them. I think it gave him some insight into my character, which made them feel comfortable hiring me. And since writing is part of the job, it didn’t hurt to have all of those examples. So sharing about my life actually helped me get the job. (It certainly wasn’t my web design skills that clinched the deal).

Due to all of the above reasons (excuses) I found myself writing what felt like surface-level stuff and then eventually I just couldn’t think of anything to write anymore. Total writer’s block.

Fast forward to this Thanksgiving on the way home from a family reunion in Tennessee.

I was reading a new Michael Connelly book that I had paid $35 for at the airport$35! because I like his books so much that I just had to have it, price be damned. My daughter asked what I was reading, I briefly explained the plot, and she said, “You love those murder stories.”

I don’t know why that simple observation triggered it, but a lightbulb exploded over my head. Yes! I DO love murder stories. This is what I could write! I spent the entire plane ride home (and then a month after that) coming up with an idea for a story and characters to put in it. I was so excited to finally have a writing  idea again.

I’ve been working on my crime/suspense novel ever since. I’m writing for at least an hour a day and absorbing all of the writing advice books and courses that I can listen to on my commute. It feels like a part of me that had been sleeping has woken up. And though there are, of course, bits and pieces of my real life experiences informing the circumstances and characters of my book, writing fiction has relieved the pressure I felt about my ability to be honest in my real-life stories. 

Anyway, it’s all down to Callie being the insightful little ball of light that she is. I’m eternally grateful to her for the innocent comment that kicked me into gear again. Out of the mouths of babes….


My mom is an angel. Harp included.

mom harp angel

She doesn’t go floating around in a white robe proclaiming that virgins are going to have babies or anything, but she does play the harp.

My mom spends her time making prayer quilts for people who are sick, and baby blankets for practically all of our childhood friends who have had a kid. She volunteers at the library. She’s a nurse. And she’s probably an organ donor. So, she’s pretty close to angel status.

And she had enough love and forgiveness in her heart to write a letter to my friend who is in prison, which somehow gave me permission to finally write my own letter — at least two years after I saw on the news that my old friend had been arrested. Longer than I should have taken to reach out, even if I will never be able to wrap my head around what happened. I’m grateful for my mom’s example of compassion.

I went to see her play harp at her church Sunday for their Christmas service. It is the only kind of church service I can stomach because there is no preaching, only music.

And I was moved by the experience. Hearing all of the voices harmonizing and the orchestra with the Timpani and  the horns and violins all coming together brought a tear to my eye (not actually too difficult a task). I don’t particularly believe in the story they were singing about but it was clear that they did, they were feeling it.

I had a moment where I was able to get outside of myself and acknowledge that it was real for them, and that their belief resulted in them making something beautiful — no matter my opinion of the subject matter. How nice to be able to just accept and appreciate something for a minute, without having to judge it.

How much lighter would I feel if I allowed myself more of those moments of non-judgement? How much looser would my shoulders feel if I could just relax and take stuff in without having to classify it as “right” or “that sh*t ain’t right”, according to me?

You see what happened here, right? I accidentally had a spiritual experience…in CHURCH! Ohhh, the irony. 😉

Thank you, Mom, for being a bad-ass harp-playing angel.

Random Act of Kindness #2

Random acts of kindness

This week’s RAOK was sponsored by my boyfriend, sweet Dave McKinlay. When I told him about my holiday RAOK intentions for Callie he got really excited and immediately gave me money for the cause.

It turns out that he and his mom already have a long-standing RAOK tradition of their own. He told me that the only gift his mom asks for at Christmas is for him to do something nice for someone else.

So, his doing something nice got multiplied this year since he shared his gift to his mom with me, Callie, and the two migrant families that Callie’s class is buying presents for this year. Each family had 3 kids and we were able to buy a gift for each of them.

And the added, legitimately random, part of the shopping trip occurred when I attempted to use a $10-off coupon. The cashier had a difficult time with it for some reason, took several minutes trying to get it to work, and finally had to switch on the blinking lane light of shame to call the manager over for an override and a small helping of public chastisement.

My face was burning at this point because I felt bad for the people who had the misfortune to get stuck in line behind the lady with the coupon issue. I’m so not a coupon person and this is why, it’s a pain in the ass. But it turned out great because when the cashier finally handed me a ten-dollar bill I just passed it on to the woman behind me in line and said, “Merry Christmas, sorry for your extra wait.”  It was never my ten dollars anyway. 🙂

Thank you to Dave and Dave’s mom for the help with this one!

random act of kindness #2

Random Act of Kindness #1

Random acts of kindness

Random acts of kindnessThis year, for the first time, I’ve decided that my daughter and I are going to do a “Random Act of Kindness” once a week (at least) from Thanksgiving weekend through Christmas. I want her to absorb the idea that Christmas should be more than just getting presents, plus I’ve just always wanted to do something like this.

I discussed it with her this morning and gave the example of putting money in strangers’ parking meters. (Except those seem to all be credit card kiosks now, which kind of takes the magic out of it.) She was immediately on board with the idea.

By the way, I know it would be better if I didn’t broadcast this and just did it anonymously with her, but writing about my life is kind of my thing, and this looks to be a fun endeavor already, so please forgive me. I’m not bragging/showing off/shaming/looking for approval—just sharing my excitement about getting to do this with Callie.

Today we did our first random act of kindness (RAOK). After visiting the Children’s Museum, we walked to lunch downtown at the Taco Bus. On our way there we passed a group of homeless men. She whispered to me, “I just want to give them stuff.”

So, while we ate we decided that we would buy lunch for them and deliver it on the way back to our car. And we did. And the men were polite and thankful and it felt good.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the immediate change in Callie’s perspective. When we left the Kid’s Museum she had been pouting because I wouldn’t let her have gelato before lunch. (I know, I’m a monster. Go ahead and call child services on me.)

But after we bought lunch for those guys she said in the car on the way home, several times, “I had so much fun today. That was fun giving them lunch!”

I felt the same way, it totally made my day.

For our next RAOK, we’re going to make holiday ornaments for our neighbors and anonymously (except for me writing about it here) hang them on their doorknobs.

I’d like to do more of these for people who have less. I don’t have a ton of money to spend though, so we’re brainstorming more ideas that don’t cost a lot. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

It’s Thanksgiving. I’ll bring the pea casserole (that no one likes)

pea casserole

Happy Thanksgiving!

I never get asked to do the turkey for Thanksgiving. I don’t know why…maybe it’s because the one year that I did cook the turkey, I baked it with an unintentional “stuffing” of the plastic bag full of organ meats that comes inserted in the bird. That was a fun surprise at the dinner table!

So, now I usually stick to the simpler items that have less cavities where plastic items could be hiding. The  dish that I’ve been relegated to is the infamous pea casserole.

I think it’s safe to say that this dish, with it’s canned cream of mushroom soup, canned peas, and golden-baked top crust of…Cheez-Its—nope, not a single fresh ingredient—has never graced the front cover of Southern Living.

Here’s the text conversation I had about it with my sister this week.

pea casserole
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Come. Laugh at my half-baked, botched hair experiment

Steph, medusa

My hair feels like it is made of hay and I currently have no working shower to wash/condition it with. Bad decision after bad decision got me to this place.

Not fully thinking things through before I act. I do that now-and-again.

You know how when you are going to dye your hair at home and the box cautions you to do a strand test on a tiny, hidden piece of hair so that if it comes out some ungodly color you can start over without anyone being the wiser.?

Well…I’ve never been a “strand test” kind of girl.

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You can tandem kayak without any drama!

Same Life paddling kayaks

Alicia and I proved it last weekend when we took our nine-year-old girls on an hour-and-45-minute kayak trip in New Port Richey. No problems at all.

By the way, who knew New Port Richey was on the water?

I mean, I should have known since I have lived in Florida for my entire life and have had access to maps the whole time…and I guess the word “Port” in the name could have clued me in if I was paying attention…

But I never spent any time up there until Alicia moved from Ohio. And any time I’ve visited her there I’ve had nary a glimpse of the shore. I assumed we were inland, halfway to Georgia. I’ve seen lots of cows up there, not boats.

However, much to my geographically challenged delight, there is plenty of water fun to be had in New Port Richey. It’s actually right on the Gulf of Mexico, which makes it pretty convenient for kayaking.

The place we rented them from was like a food truck for kayaks on US 19. It is located on a canal that leads out to the Gulf. The canal is in a cute residential neighborhood, with calm water and plenty to look at as you paddle.

I have always loved getting to see houses from the water. It’s a different, slightly voyeuristic perspective. And, usually, the water side of the house has more personality than the front. The age-old adage, “Business in front, party in back” is alive and well in New Port Richey’s waterfront homes.

There were tiki huts and colorful adirondack chairs, decorative fishing nets, even three barrels of Captain Morgan rum tied together on one dock. Almost every house had a boat named something like “Copacetic” or “Therapy”, or at least a nameless Jet Ski.

What I really liked was that the houses, for the most part, were modest, one-story homes that looked like a regular person actually stood a chance of being able to afford one and enjoy living on the water. That’s not something you see anymore where I live. The houses did get progessively bigger as we paddled closer to the Gulf though, one of the finger canals we paddled down even had a seaplane docked out back.

Paddling girls

I have heard tandem kayaks referred to as “divorce-makers”, and have actually been on a canoe trip where a husband and wife had to be separated into 2 different boats. So I had anticipated less helpful participation and more complaining from the girls, but they both paddled like champs. Apparently the tandem-kayaking strife only affects couples, not mothers and daughters…at least when the daughters haven’t reached their teenage years yet.

So thank god for that! And for the balmy kind of day that makes you say “This is why we live in Florida.” One of those where the air is cool enough that you don’t sweat but you can still wear a tank top and flip-flops—Florida perfection.

callie steph kayak

Blue October’s music still makes me happy and sad at the same time.


Justin Furstenfeld, lead singer of Blue October. Jannus Landing, 09-07-13

There’s a word for it. Bittersweet. Their music has that quality in and of itself, and personally that’s how I relate to it. My good friend Leslie played one of their songs for me in 2007 and I was hooked right way. I was in the midst of my awful, guilt-inducing, mistake-ridden, alcohol-soaked divorce and their somewhat tortured, heavy, yet beautiful and somehow hopeful lyrics spoke to me in just the right way that helped me wallow in my misery and lifted me up at the same time.

I listened to their album, Foiled, over and over again by myself on my lonely back porch out at the lake. I drank way, way too much and tried to forgive myself for breaking up my marriage, thereby cutting in half my time with my daughter. Their song Hate Me was kind of a personal anthem at the time. It pretty much encapsulated the self-induced pain I was in during what seemed like an interminable amount of time, but was actually just a blip.

But there were good times listening to Blue October, too. I got to see them play at Lollapalooza and at Jannus Landing with good friends and we had a blast. I have great memories of partying with friends with their music as the soundtrack.

Happy and sad.


Justin Furstenfeld, lead singer of Blue October. Jannus Landing 09-07-2013

Looking back now, 6 years later, 5-and-a-half-years sober, it’s hard to see any of it as bad. It’s just what I had to do to get here. I learned a lot about who I did and did not want to be, how I wanted to live my life.

And time heals. I have a good, friendly working relationship with Callie’s dad, a wonderful, happy relationship with Callie, and a promising, healthy new love in my life.

I got to take that new love to see Blue October last Friday at Jannus Landing. Dave was game for getting up as close to the stage as we could and staying there the whole time. I really like that about him. He’s up for fun and doesn’t complain about anything. What a keeper.

It was my first time seeing them since 2008 and they are in excellent form. Justin is an intense and totally captivating performer. He is definitely doing what he was put on this earth to do and that is a beautiful thing to watch. The rest of the band is amazing, too. There are so many layers to what is going on onstage that it’s hard to take it all in at once. (Especially when you are trying to avoid getting burned with cigarettes and trampled by other enthusiastic audience members–but that’s just the bad that you have to take with the good to have the up-close experience. I’d only do it for them.)


Justin Furstenfeld, lead singer of Blue October, Jannus Landing, 09-07-13

Their new album, Sway, has some fantastic songs on it. It’s a little more redemption and renewal focused than past albums and fits my current frame of mind perfectly. But it still has that edge that I love, that undercurrent of darkness running through it that reminds me of where I was, and makes me appreciate how far I’ve come.