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.

Fun new toys and family time at the lake house

Poppi hard at work on another project

Paddleboating on the lakeThe lake house is one of my favorite places on earth. My parents bought it many, many years ago. I remember the day when we went to check it out back in the early 80’s. We were all loaded up in mom’s wood-paneled conversion fan with the awesome couch that folded down into a bed and a refrigerator! Man, if vans didn’t have such a child-molestery, gas guzzley vibe these days I could really go for one of those. But I digress (as usual).

We pulled up to the lake house on our recon mission and there was a big fence with a sign that said “Beware of Dog”. The gate was locked so my dad hopped the fence to go check out the property while we watched from the van. I waited in abject fear for my dad to be viciously mauled by a large, rabid dog. Much to my great relief, there was no actual dog, just a warning sign. I probably shouldn’t have watched Cujo at such an impressionable age. Continue reading

Round 2 ear piercing attempt a roaring success!

Freshly pierced ears!

I took Callie for our 2nd try at getting her ears pierced last weekend. I wrote about the first try here. That attempt ended with her tearfully accusing me of lying to her about how much it might hurt and refusing to go through with it, while I went home with a brand new cartilage piercing that I got to show her how easy and pain free it would be. Backfire.

I wasn’t about to bring up the ear piercing subject again any time soon. But last week, with some encouragement from her grandmother, she decided she was ready to try it again. She psyched herself up all week and put her game face on and I prepared myself to somehow be blamed for whatever happened. Not complaining, I’m just discovering that is often the mom role. I can handle it.

One last look at Callie's unpierced ear.

One last look at Callie’s unpierced ear.

Callie and her Granny picked out her starter earrings, Sapphires, her birthstone. She was giddy with nervous excitement. I was cautiously optimistic that some piercing was actually going to go down this time. The piercer (piercist?) gave her a teddy bear to squeeze and Callie kept a brave smile on her face and only squinted her eyes at the pain as both ears were quickly pierced.

It's a well-known fact that holding a teddy bear boosts bravery.

It’s a well-known fact that holding a teddy bear boosts bravery by at least 75%.

When she realized it was already over, tears started streaming out of her eyes and she said, with just the slightest tinge of hysteria, “These are tears of joy!”

Freshly pierced ears!

Freshly pierced ears!

I have to admit, a few “tears of joy” slipped out of my eyes, too. I was so proud of her. Not for getting her ears pierced, I didn’t really care whether she did that or not. But because I was caught off guard by the glimpse of her strength of character. She faced her fear and did it with a smile. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

A fun day full of friends and coincidences

Have you ever had a day so full of unexpected coincidences that it seems almost surreal? I had one of those the other day.

I went to a paddleboard (SUP) race on Saturday with my good friend Courtney in Treasure Island. Courtney is the friend that I did paddleboard yoga with about a month ago. We’re big enthusiasts of all things involving paddleboarding. I’m not such a big fan that I actually made it there in time for the race or anything crazy like that, but I did manage to hang out on the beach afterwards.

My other friend, Jose, joined us at the beach. I had figured that Jose and Courtney would have some stuff to talk about because he was born in Guatemala and she taught English over there for a year. And they did. At least 3 full sentences worth. 😉

Courtney and I went to junior high and high school together, she’s one of my oldest friends and such a gem! I’ve known Jose for a few years but never realized until we were talking at the beach that he had gone to our high school, too. He went there the year after we graduated so our paths never crossed back then. We all had a nice time hunkering down under the beach umbrella and occasionally venturing into the water to create some warm spots.

Continue reading

A miracle of communication for an Autistic girl–Carly Fleischmann’s story

Can you imagine having an eleven-year-old child that you thought was unable to communicate at all and then all of the sudden you learn that they can not only communicate through typing but that their words are quite eloquent? Amazing.

My good friend Heath shared a video on Facebook called Autistic Girl Expresses Unimaginable Intelligence about an eleven-year-old girl who was severely Austistic and completely unable to communicate with her family who one day suddenly ran to a computer and typed words on a keyboard. They were words that no one had specifically taught her.

Continue reading

The last of our generation of West spawn has been born!

Max and a proud Aunt Fifi (that's my aunt name, it was easier to say than Stephanie)

My new nephew’s name is Maxwell Matthew Bray. Right now he kind of looks like a puffy, red, smooshed-up burrito and I haven’t seen his eyes open yet but I can still tell that he’s going to be a cute one! If his brother and sister are any indication, he’s going to be doing just fine in the looks department.

Maxwell Matthew Bray Born April 30, 2013

Maxwell Matthew Bray
Born April 30, 2013

The last week-and-a-half have been fun family time as we’ve all been chipping in a little to help out with the other two kids in anticipation of his birth. My sister had one false-alarm trip to the hospital last week in which we excitedly gathered and babysat and then Susie and Matt got sent home after a couple of hours. I can’t imagine how disappointing that was!

By the end of my pregnancy I was so ready to have Callie that I was downright ornery. The night I went into labor I yelled at my brother for some offense that I can’t even remember now and cursed my sister-in-law’s name because she had dared to offer her opinion that I wouldn’t have the baby for two more weeks. So I would have pitied the unlucky nurse who tried to turn me away at the hospital.

Continue reading

Think about others and my life will take care of itself?

What a concept!

You know how you can hear the same thing over and over and over again and then one time you hear it and suddenly you really hear it? You understand it? That happened to me today.

Someone made the point that if they stop focusing on themselves and instead focus on doing the best they can to help other people around them then they will be taken care of without even having to worry about it. Thunderstrike!

In these weeks following “The Break-Up of 2013” I’ve been fairly extremely self-focused. Somewhat necessarily so, since I’m suddenly searching for a new job. Every day I’m extolling my own virtues in cover letters to prospective employers. Enthusiastic! and Fast learnerMad skills! I’m awesome…I swear! 

But–less necessary–I do catch myself trapped in thoughts like:

“What is the plan for me?”

“WillI I be able to get a good job so I can support Callie?”

“Am I going to be alone forever?”

“Haven’t I had enough of the life lessons for crissake?” (For real though, Universe/God/Higher Power. I get it. I’m humbled. Please move on to someone else.)

Thankfully I have good friends and my own personal spiritual path that I can lean on to keep me on the positive side of things and looking forward. That’s all good.

But today I really started thinking about how sweet life would be if I just put my energy into being the best I can be for everyone I come into contact with.

If I do everything I can to make Callie feel loved and taken care of and even disciplined–which I do a pretty good job of, I think–then I’ve done my job and I don’t need to guilt-out about her being an “Only Child of Divorced Parents” or wonder if I’m doing it all right. It’ll be fine.

If I work as hard as I can for my employer–whoever that turns out to be–and focus on making their business as successful as possible, then my career will naturally advance the way I want it to.

If I think of what my sister or brother might need, or how I can help my parents, or see how my friends are doing, I forget to think about myself. And I’m much happier as a sweet little side-effect.

I heard business advice from someone once. (Okay, I probably heard it way more than once, but one time it stuck.) It was: “Try not to talk about yourself at all for a whole day and see how that goes.” I’m going to try that today. As long as I don’t have a job interview. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t go over too well. But it would be memorable!

P.S. Is it ironic that I just wrote an entire blog post about me not thinking about myself?
HA! I might still have some more work to do…