A Toast and A Song, Neither of Which Contain The Word ASS . . .

champagne[clinks the stemware with his fork . . . slowly rises . . . ]

I’d like to propose a toast.

[glances around the room, at the tables filled with friends from around the world, then settles his gaze on the bride . . . ]


[he can’t hold it . . . looks down into his champagne, searching for a place to stash the lump in his throat that is about to choke him to death . . . finds the words, slowly . . . ]

You are the best of friends.  A shoulder when life is just too pushy.  A smile, shared at just the exact moment it is needed.  A laughter that invades kindly.

A word.  The perfect word.  Always.

Amanda raised her glass earlier and said much that I can second.  Like how you were there in the beginning, lending a hand to those of us newborn, unsure.  But you never were the lording counselor, critical and so high above us.  Instead you encouraged and uplifted us.  Me, for sure.  As a peer and a friend.  One who is limping this road, slow and steady, looking for light.

Thank you.  For things only you’d understand.  For giving me a voice once, and for allowing me – granting me the honor – to return the favor.

You are gorgeous.  You are strong.  You.  Kick.  ASS!!

(I tried . . . )

So.  To the happy couple, I raise a toast.  May every day be unique, bearing equal parts levity, laughter, and love.  When there are pits, those inevitable gouges in the road that would slow your progress, may you find strength to grip the wheel tightly.  To never give up just because it’s hard.  Stop if you must.  Make adjustments.  Then muster the courage to move.

Never settle.  Always empower.

And at the end of it all, simply love.  Like breathing . . .

[Flickr photo is by  dps and is protected]


Infatuation is when you think he’s as sexy as Robert Redford, as smart as Henry Kissinger, as noble as Ralph Nader, as funny as Woody Allen, and as athletic as Jimmy Connors. Love is when you realize that he’s as sexy as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Ralph Nader, as athletic as Henry Kissinger and nothing like Robert Redford – but you’ll take him anyway.

~ Judith Viorst, Redbook, 1975

It’s always a bit unsettling to learn the facts.

When it comes to most events, especially those of which we were never an integral part, we tend to carry around a romanticized set of mental images and ideas of how things went down.

To wit:

Consider this happy bunch of folks. Decked out in jet black suits and red, ruffled gowns. They’re smiling. All the ducks are in a row. Everyone just said “Cheese!”

Except this one:

That’s my Uncle Jerry. My dad’s brother. And he’s clearly not paying attention. Perhaps he’s daydreaming. Wondering when he’ll get to walk the aisle at his own wedding. Or, knowing my Uncle Jerry, odds are good that there’s a bacon sandwich somewhere close by and he’s contemplating a way to get to it. Rapidly.

Or maybe it was the terror he abided just getting to the church. For, as my mom told me just the other day, several days shy of forty years since the wedding of my parents, the weather did not cooperate.

According to the almanac information I Googled just this morning, the temperatures hovered in the low-to-mid 20s, and there was “Rain and/or melted snow reported during the day.”

Apparently, that doesn’t begin to cover it.

The rain? The melting snow? It froze. It took my grandparents over two hours to drive the seventeen miles from their door to the ceremony. Others arrived so unfashionably late that they ended up delaying the service almost thirty minutes.

I’d never heard this part of the story before.

And it might help explain that bewildered look my uncle is sporting in these very expensive wedding photos. Two hours in the car with my grandmother? Yeah, that’d do it.

With other parts of the story that led to this day, February 14, 1970, I am intimately familiar. That this was the second marriage for my father. His first ended just four months earlier when my mom passed away. My dad has shared with me bits and pieces of moments he just barely lived through during those four months, and they are dark and hellish.

Of these five people, let’s just say a majority of them didn’t really care to see this day happen. Things were going too fast. The silly kids weren’t ready. Only they weren’t kids. And they have made it.

Not that they haven’t had their share of challenges. Well, one handful in particular. See that dwarf in the front there, with the form-fitting brown suit?

With the finger in his eye? Yours truly. Apparently I was having none of that picture taking nonsense. Just show me the way to the Lincoln logs and no one will get hurt. Or have their big day ruined any further.

And, Oh! What a day! There was face-sucking . . .

. . . cake-noshing . . .

. . . and bouquet-tossing goodness.

This photo gets me every time. I can hear the laughter reverberating through the hall. The cackle that my cousin Retha must have let loose as she charged in. The sudden exhalations of joy as my mom tilted her head back and clapped her hands at the craziness of it all. She has always loved a good laugh.

I see what my dad saw in her. I mean, my GOD, just look at that smile!

Yet, I’ve seen her frown. And I’ve seen her cry. The kind of crying that starts deep inside and then just erupts in hot tears and words rendered unspeakable by pains not physical but universal. I caused no small amount of heartache over the years. But she is still here. She’s always been here. In my heart, where things are muddy at times but sunny on the days when I choose to remember that she loves me. To think about how she took me and my dad into her arms and gave us a home. Where that smile means we are cherished, honored, respected, and loved.

I shudder to think of where I’d be today if it weren’t for her.

For them, really.

They made it. The story is theirs to share. And I’m honored to have been a part of it.

For forty years.

And all the years yet to come . . .


He wakes up early. Way before the sun slips over the southern Illinois corn fields. Nestled deep in the covers on the hideaway bed near the grandfather clock, I hear him whistling in the bathroom as he shaves and slides his silver steel comb through his jet black hair. He leans over me and nuzzles my cheeks with the remnants of his whiskers and calls me a “yon yock,” a term of endearment I have yet to decipher. Perhaps strange nicknames are the norm for a man who spent most of his life being called Snooky.

Breakfast is a smorgasbord; Post Toasties with milk, Jimmy Dean sausage patties, farm fresh eggs sunny-side-up and dripping with grease, toast with oleo and apple butter. If anyone left Memaw’s table hungry, they had only themselves to blame.

And then we kneel around Papaw’s chair to pray. Though he’d already prayed for the meal, in his familiar lilting yet muffled manner, “Lord, we’re thankful for this food, dear God . . . ,” this is the real deal. This is the prayer that will set the tone for the rest of the day. Memaw and Papaw always prayed together, each giving voice to their own praises and petitions in words that overlap in a strange sort of harmony, an old fashioned Pentecostal concert of prayer.

Papaw in his overalls, I in whatever Memaw determines will keep me relatively clean and dry. We head out the door with Melinda the Chihuahua in Papaw’s arms, make our way across the narrow wooden porch and down the cobblestone walkway, and then climb into Papaw’s bright red Farm Bureau truck with its truck bed tool box full of the implements of his trade. He’s a gauger, the guy who visits the storage tanks at the various oil leases and pumps out the ones getting full. It’s a dirty, physical job and he rises to the task with a song on his lips:


In the shade of the old apple tree

Where the love in your eyes I could see

When the voice that I heard

Like the song of the bird

Seemed to whisper sweet music to me.

I could hear the dull buzz of the bee

In the blossoms, as you said to me

With a heart that is true,

“I’ll be waiting for you,

In the shade of the old apple tree.”


We stop at some small town diner and he sees someone he knows. I listen as he chats about this or that and smiles his gentle smile at the stories they share. A storm remembered with details of lightning strikes and flash floods that wash out roads and makes his job difficult but seldom impossible. More often, there are easier memories of peculiar acquaintances with equally peculiar personalities. They share tales of the past with an air of wonder and gratitude. He is never coarse or vulgar but one who is “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” At the end of the day we stop for a fill up and he places a call to dispatch ticking off the day’s tally and signing off with “that’s the crop.”

This is how I choose to remember him.

He retired after thirty-five years and got a nice watch. In the early 90s he started falling down a lot. He drug his feet. He hunched over. He almost drove off the road near Griffith and pulled over so Memaw could drive. These things were not normal for my Papaw. In 1996 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Memaw did her best. She helped him eat. Struggled to bathe him and helped him go to the bathroom. For six years, amid her own medical difficulties, she stood by his side and served him with a dignity and compassion beyond her means. Eventually the family realized enough was enough and admitted him to a nursing facility. Into a room he has occupied to this day.

June 1, 2008. His 84th birthday.

My wife and I were married on Papaw’s birthday. He stood in the back of the sanctuary during our rehearsal seventeen years ago yesterday and got choked up when asked what our special day meant to him. Later he nuzzled me with his whiskers and told me to “treat her well.” He is the embodiment of his counsel.

I spoke with Memaw on the phone a few moments ago. She said he didn’t wake up at all today. This is now normal for my Papaw. There’s a part of me that hopes he rests so well because he knows he is loved. Respected. Cherished so much that it hurts . . .