Friday, April 30, 2010

Love Thy Neighbor, Real or Imagined

It occurred to me recently that my family and I have been in North Carolina for just under four years and I think I am finally adjusting to life in my small town. Sitting in traffic the other day, I marveled at all of the other cars on the road, until I remembered that this amount of traffic in Ft. Lauderdale would have made me wonder where the Hell all the people were!

The adjustment process has not always been easy for me. For example, in Florida, all of the ground is sand. It's a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water so it stands to reason. And I could grow ANYTHING in sand; tropical plants and palms, African Bush daisies and Cuban buttercups. When we sold our townhouse and moved to NC, our real estate remarked that our house looked like all of the others but no one else had our curb appeal. And she was right. I assumed that it was because I was a SOUTHERNER, thus a natural born gardener, but it turns out I was wrong. I'm not good at gardening OR being Southern.

We moved here and settled on life in a small town in what is known as 'The Heart of the Triad.' We had no sooner moved in than our neighbors showed up in droves with food and baked goods, invitations to their homes and solicitations to their various churches. We were a bit surprised but absolutely charmed, and very grateful for their kindness. We still are. Of course these thoughtful gestures made me realize to my horro that I am not really a true Southerner. Not even relocating from the southernmost part of the United States allowed me to join their midst, because we had to move north to live in 'The South.' For example, we heard that one of the houses in our neighborhood had recentlsold, so we would be getting some new neighbors. Naturally, I wanted to get all neighborly and take them some yummy baked goods. I mentioned my intentions to hubby Jerry and he was in agreement, which is a blessing since he is a wonderful cook and I, well, it's just not a talent I possess. Imagine my horror when Jerry showed up from the store, ready to meet the new neighbors with a store-bought lemon bundt cake from the day-old bin at Food Lion!!

Please tell me that you have something better to offer our new neighbors. This here is the SOUTH, Jerry. Day old bundt cake ain't gonna cut it!

"No. It's still soft. It'll cut fine. It'll be fine. Really."

It'll be fine IF the new neighbors relocated here from New Jersey, but if they are from anywhere near the Mason-Dixon line, we're going to be the laughingstock of North Carolina. Assuming we're not already, which I think we are.

That notwithstanding, we marched over to the new place, like some perverse General Sherman (redundant!) burning a swath to the coast. Of course the new neighbors were from Georgia or Tennessee so they took one look at our stale-ass bundt cake and immediately pegged us for freaks. Yankee Freaks!!! Okay. I guess they were smarter than I thought.

So I spent all of our money on every Paula Deen cookbook in existence and used all of our food for casseroles. I made casseroles for births, deaths, and everything in between. I made dishes with hot peppers and peppy dishes for hot flashes. I almost felt sorry for Jerry when he came home one night and said "Ummmm....something smells wonderful! What's for dinner?"

Ramen noodles.

"What?! Something smells heavenly!"

Yes, and if you touch it, I'll send you to Heaven. I am prepared for anything; pregnancy, childbirth, death, graduation, divorces, and menopause. And whatever our neighbors come up with, I have a casserole for it. So don't touch anything in the freezer. I don't have anything prepared for killing your own spouse!

Anyway, I felt that I had gotten a handle on the whole greet-your-neighbors-with-a-dish thing, until I met someone who I just couldn't get a handle on. Strangely, all of my neighbors knew him. In fact, everyone in town knew him except me, and I vowed to find my way into his inner sanctum.

His name was Mamanem.

He was a very popular sort. I assumed he was the mayor or something because his name to everyone in town, in fact, in the entire state. I first became familiar with him by talking to the people I met....

"We're busy tonight. Gonna go see Mamanem."

Okay. Cool.

And then, " We all gone go to church this Sunday with Mamanem. We'll see you later."

It hit me that Mamanem was a non-denominationalChristianBaptistMethodistMoravianLutheranHolyroller. In fact, he attended every church in town except for the little Episcopal church around the corner that Jerry and I attend. I know he didn't go to our church because I excitedly asked one of our fellow parishioners, Is Mamanem here today?

"No, Mamanem's at the the Baptist church, but thanks for askin'!"

Uh, sure. Give Mamanem my best regards.

Enlightenment came in the form of a rather glaring miscommunication, well, no, just a giant gaffe. I was talking to one of my neighbors one day and after she mentioned Mamanem, I indicated that I would surely love to meet the amazing and wildly popular Mamanem. She looked puzzled.

"Y'all met Mamanem at little Lucy Rae's birthday party. 'Member?"

Jerry flashed me a warning look. You know, the one that means 'shut up' and the one that I rarely heed? Anyway, this time, I obeyed. Oh yes, I 'member now. Ha ha....

Jerry leaned over and whispered, "He isn't a HE. It's MAMA AND THEM, spoken in deep Southern.

Oh Lord. Actually, no, OOOH LAWD! I could hardly call myself a true Southerner and not be acquainted with Mamanem. How could I have missed that?! Most of my ancestors come from the Deep South, but somehow I missed the boat. Lawd, bless my heart!

So here I am, desperate to get in touch with my Southern roots, and unfortunately, the ones in my hair don't count. My summer reading list now consists of everything ever written by Paula Deen, Ernest Matthew Mickler's 'White Trash Cookin' and the John Deere catalog. I have given up Chardonnay for Mint Juleps, and I am trying my hand at canning and cooking.

If I'm successful, y'all come on over for supper. Bring y'all's Mamanem!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

For Duck, a Simple Offering

Writing has been a creative outlet for me. I try to find humor in the crazy situations that life puts in my path, and I want my works to make people laugh, but that isn't always possible. Truth be told, I am not laughing very much this week. Losing a beloved colleague and dear friend just isn't that funny to me. I got the sad news that my friend Donald McNeill passed away last Friday. I guess it's just part of that strange duality of life and death; Donald could always make me laugh. His passing has brought me to tears.

I had the privilege of working with Donald for about three years, but such was his personality that I feel like I've known him my whole life. Donald was a very warm person and such a vital presence. He always had a kind word, and even if he was picking on you in his rather snide way, it was always in good fun, and he could take shit as good as he could give it. His nickname was Duck, and initially, I thought it was because his name was Donald, but I came to learn that it was because the teasing of his colleagues rolled off his back, and he was always ready with a snappy comeback. I worked with him in a call center and any time he would refer an irate caller to me, I would huff and say, "Donald, I know you did what you could to tell the customer what can be done, but they don't believe you because you're TOO DAMN NICE!" And he would agree and then say, "That's why I am referring them to you because you're SO DAMN MEAN!" Sadly, that is not a point I could ever argue. It's just one of my character flaws. Get over it.

At any rate, his acerbic with not withstanding, he always had something nice to say to me, and in fact, when I was in his presence, I felt like I was the wittiest, most beautiful woman alive. Of course as I got to know him better, I realized that neither point was necessarily true since he made EVERY woman feel that way. In short, he was an outrageous flirt. Looking back, I am not sure that outrageous is a strong enough word. But I digress.

Inasmuch as he was a terrible tease, he also recognized character traits that deserved acknowledgement in his friends. While I personally collect character flaws the way some people collect fine china, one of my habits is humming to myself. What can I say, some people bite their fingernails. I did for years until my father told me that all of my chewed up fingernails were being stored in my appendix, which would rupture any day. Of course this is the same man that told me that mayonnaise comes from those giant cockroaches when you step on them, so I should have just ignored him. And some people smoke cigarettes, or drink wine....oh, wait. Nevermind.

So Donald heard me humming a happy tune and at the outset of our friendship, he began calling me 'Hummingbird.' Chances are he probably forgot my real name, but Hummingbird became my moniker and I can honestly say that while I have been called many thing in my life, most of which do not bear repeating here, 'Hummingbird' was one of the nicest and kindest meant. Happily, I have a decent sense of pitch and Donald and I had the same taste in music, so for that I loved him all the more.

It was some time into our friendship before I knew that he was ill, and it is a testament to his wonderful spirit that he kept his smile in place, and kept batting his eyes at all of us crazy females. But he had a serious side. He loved his job, and he cared for his coworkers and leaders. He actually grasped the fact that life is precious and fleeting, and he really lived each day to the fullest. Whatever his flaws and foibles, his wry sense of humor and ability to have fun made you forgive him, and made you feel better about yourself.

I am blessed to have many friends, and I hope that the remainder of my life brings me many more dear friends. But the beauty and tragedy of this is that there will never be another Donald. I suppose that goes without saying. I miss my friend, moreover, I miss the way his humor and kindness made me feel. My grief is selfish, but my gratitude is boundless. The fact is, many people have called me a Dodo bird, and sometimes, I have to eat crow. And it will probably never happen again, but no one else ever called me a hummingbird.

Thanks, Duck.