Caretakers

My early years were chaotic.  My mom and grandmother were in a serious car wreck when I was four, my mom was in and out of the hospital over several months with injuries from the accident and subsequent surgeries.

At five, my oldest brother Tom was killed in a car wreck. 

It wasn’t easy, but I am sure for the rest of my family, who could actually comprehend what was going on in our family, the pain was much worse.

My family did the best we could to overcome these tragedies, but still decades later, the grief in losing my brother still remains.

Not long after my brother died, my mom entered a hospital in Augusta, GA for an extended stay.  This left my dad to take care of two boys, keep a household running, work and grieve the death of his oldest son.

I don’t remember much about that time, but I am confident, like he did with everything, my dad handled this with grace and determination. 

As a five-year-old, I was put in the care of many wonderful people who stepped up to help our family out.

I am sure my brother Sam got stuck with me when he would have preferred to be out enjoying life as a young teen. 

My grandparents did what they could, and my Aunt and Uncle in Florida helped out when possible.  Our friends, the Hudson’s had me visit for extended stays on their farm in South Georgia and I spent lots of afternoons with family friends.

During this time, I had many loving caretakers, often dealing with their own grief and pain, who took me in and cared for me when my family could not.

I know I have forgotten so many, but a few come to mind when I think back on these angels.  Not only the ones mentioned above, but many of my brother’s classmates and friends.

Just a few weeks after Tom died, I celebrated my sixth birthday.  Obviously, the last thing my family wanted to do was celebrate, but my family made sure my sixth birthday was celebrated in a big way.

On that day, dressed in a new blue shorts outfit mama got me at Belk’s in Toccoa, children from throughout the town gathered at the old RCHS gymnasium to celebrate me.  My grandmother made the cake, and my family did everything they could to make it special.

On that day, like other days, some of Tom’s female friends from school stepped in to make sure my day was perfect.  Tom’s girlfriend Claudia Henson (who would be taken by leukemia just a few months later), along with her friends Glendis Bearden, Margaret Keller, Deborah Ramey and others ran games and activities for all the kids in attendance. 

These same young women, along with others, often found time after school and on weekends to care for a little boy that had lost too much, but they made me feel special in every way.

That following summer, Tim Marchman, my brother’s best friend, picked me up every day and took me to his job as a lifeguard at Kingwood Country Club.  We spent that summer together, he taught me to swim, we ate lunch and we talked.  That summer, he stepped in for my big brother that had died and took me under his wing.

Certainly I had a chaotic young life, but what I also had was many wonderful caregivers who made sure my life was as normal as possible.

Those people have been and will always be angels in my eyes.  They didn’t have to do what they did, they just saw a need and did it.

I am a better man for these angels on earth and I will always be grateful for their care. 

Thank you really isn’t enough, but it is all I have….. thank you!

Holy Week 2021

I start every day the same, with this simple prayer, “God make me 1% better today than I was yesterday.” Some days I succeed, some days I don’t.

As I drive to work, I pass a sign that says, “Just love everyone, I’ll sort ’em out later. – GOD”

I do my best to let these two messages be my guiding lights. Like I said, some days I succeed, some days I don’t, but like everyone else, I am a work in progress.

As we start our journey of Holy Week, I was thinking this morning, as a society we have forgotten the promise of that Holy Week so many centuries ago.

When I was a child, I was taught that Jesus went to the cross for ALL of our sins. He didn’t do it for men, or women, or whites, blacks, Asians, gay, straight, rich, poor, Republican or Democrat, he died and three days later rose from the dead for ALL of us.

I have always taken comfort in that promise of the death and resurrection in knowing that Jesus did it as much for me as he did anyone else. I am no more or less important than anyone else. I’m not worthy of that grace, and neither are you, but our Lord gave it to each of us, a gift we should embrace and respect, it was for ALL who believe.

Sadly, I think many of us, myself included, often times forget the ALL of us part.

Maybe, just maybe, if we thought more about the ALL of us part of the Holy Week promise and less about our differences in race, sex, status and beliefs we would all be better off and more like Christ.

What Would Jesus Do? He Would Love First.

2020 – Git Outta Here

I guess I should have known on New Year’s Day, when I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a Mac truck that 2020 wasn’t going to be great, but it took a few more days to realize just how bad it was going to get.

Nursing what I thought was “the flu,” I spent 7 days at home before going to the Doctor on the 8th, which led to an immediate trip to the Emergency Room and 3 days in the hospital for what at the time was believed to be bilateral pneumonia.

After a few weeks of recovery, it was time to start moving forward. Since selling my former business, I had made the decision to take my brand “Of These Mountains,” to the next level. For months I had pondered how was best to make this happen and by early February, I had my eyes set on a retail shop.

With the help of my niece, Chelsea, I found the perfect spot in Clarkesville, just 30 miles from home and went about setting up the store with a projected open date of early March.

As I went about getting the store ready to open, I was beginning to hear about this mystery illness called COVID that was affecting people and highly contagious.

I kept working and on March 2nd, set up just the way I envisioned, with great excitement my retail store opened.

We were open for 2 weeks and then closed for 5, due to COVID quarantines and closures.

Not long after going into quarantine, I had to say good-bye to my best friend of 15 years. Rosalita “Lita” Grace Rumsey, was my companion through life’s ups and downs. She came into my life at 6 weeks old and never once was there a day that I regretted the decision to invite her into my life.

Lita’s health had been going downhill for a few months, and eventually with the help of my Vet, the decision was made to say good-bye. I prepared my heart and Brett came over to prepare a final resting place for her in my bed of hydrangeas.

To say quarantine was hard is an understatement but going through it without my Lita made the time almost unbearable.

I’m one of those people that often gets way too into my head, quarantine amplified that for me. Depression, self-doubt, lack of structure all crept into my psyche and I had to work hard to make sure I stayed strong and not get bogged down by all that was bad, but find some sources of sunlight in what were very dark days.

I sunk myself into some creative marketing for work, lots of binged television and too much food; reopening my store 5 weeks after closing. To say those first couple of months after opening were unplanned is an understatement, but people’s generosity with online orders and visits to the store upon reopening got me through.

If I am honest, the first quarter of 2020 was my worst. The rest of the year was different than normal, but I was able to keep my business open and our new storefront has been successful, and we continue to get picked up by additional retailers.

With the emphasis to online shopping our website performed well, and this year Of These Mountains gear was shipped to 30 States, plus Puerto Rico and Canada, something I am incredibly proud of and grateful for!

2020 brought about many changes to daily life. Now a mask is a common part of my wardrobe, hand sanitizer is a constant and while not refusing to live in fear of the virus, I am constantly aware.

I still don’t feel comfortable in large gatherings, while I will go to a restaurant, I am selective and the thought of jumping on a plane for an overnight stay anywhere is far from my thought process.

For me, a particularly difficult part of COVID has been my distance from friends. I’m a hugger and need those interactions, I enjoy spending time with friends and family and while I still get to see those I love, it isn’t as much as I want. Much of that is my choosing, but I also believe it is the prudent decision.

While COVID brought our world to a standstill, there was more that made 2020 one that will always be remembered.

We saw the issue of racial injustice move to the forefront. I believe that every life matters, as does our nation’s history, however, I also believe that when one segment of our population is pained, we all are hurt. When we see citizens murdered simply for the color of their skin, we as a nation still have much work to do and I pray that one day we will get it right.

All Americans have a place in our society and once we embrace the mantra that all men are indeed created equal, we will be a better world for it.

With all that happened in 2020, to me the most frustrating was our national elections. We saw every segment of our nation’s institutions questioned and degraded.

I saw friends and families split over this election and my prayer for 2021 is that those divisions may somehow be brought back together. I stand by the belief that no election, of people that will never know me and from their actions prove daily they could care less about me will ever split me from those I love.

I may not agree on many things with those I call family and friends, but an election is not going to split me from them.

The biggest gut-punch of 2020, was all those who suffered and died alone. Dying alone is my biggest fear and the thought of having someone I love in the hospital taking their last breath not being able to feel the comfort of those who love them is debilitating.

2020 saw the loss of wonderful friends, family and acquaintances that deserved a homegoing celebration for the lives they led. This year robbed us all of being able to say an appropriate good-bye and providing the love to their families they so need.

While living through 2020 has been a challenge, the year also brought about much of our best.

We saw teachers and front-line workers get the respect they deserve. When cities stopped at 7PM each night to cheer for doctors and nurses changing shifts all that is great about America shone through.

Parents became teachers and teachers finally gained the respect they have so long deserved finding ways to educate our young over computer screens instead of in a classroom. I worry about what effects distance learning will have on our youth long-term, but the ingenuity of those who work in education has been nothing short of heroic.

During this year, we have all witnessed the best and worst of our world. While the bad often seems to be what gains attention, I hope we will never forget the good we saw. Neighbors being neighbors, delivering food, checking in on each other and simply showing compassion.

Yes, there is no other way to say it, 2020 was horrible, but the light that makes Americans great did shine through. 2021 will certainly have challenges and who knows what is yet to come, but I remain convinced, that as long as we share our grace, kindness, and love for others, we will persevere.

I pray that 2020 one day will be a distant memory and as we round the corner towards a new year, we will all be blessed with good health, love, friendship, and kindness that can overcome anything thrown our way.

Git outta here 2020 and Welcome 2021, I pray you do us well!

BJ

Every class has one, that special person that lit up a room when they entered. For the Rabun County High School Class of 1982, that person was BJ Southards.

A striking beauty, with her long blonde locks, BJ could have easily been one of the mean girls, but she was anything but.

With an impish grin, BJ could melt anyone’s heart and she displayed kindness to everyone. As a cheerleader, she epitomized Wildcat Spirit, and her quirky jokes could make even the most serious situation light-hearted.

BJ was my friend, but she was also everyone’s friend. She treated us like family and her sweet spirit was always on display.

Growing up, I can honestly say I never saw BJ “have a bad day,” and most certainly can’t think of anyone who didn’t simply love her.

BJ was loved by her classmates and teachers alike, BJ was just one of those people.

I haven’t seen BJ since we were in our mid-20’s, but when I think of her, I still remember her as vividly as the last day I saw her. Beautiful, smiling and lighting up the room.

Sadly, life wasn’t kind to BJ in her later years, but today, she sings with angels and her smile and youthful spirit has been returned to her in heaven.

Every class has one and yesterday we lost ours, God bless you BJ and thank you for being a light. You will be missed and remembered as a friend to all.

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, it is one of my favorite holidays. It’s a no-pressure day; just a time to enjoy those you love and make memories.

This year, Thanksgiving will be different for many. The COVID-19 pandemic will prevent some from traveling, some will not be able to gather because of illness and others will find an empty seat at their table missing those who have been lost. I pray for those families, I pray they have peace and are blessed by wonderful memories of days gone by.

As I look back on my memories of Thanksgiving, it is split between three very special series of my life.

As a child we spent our Thanksgiving celebrations in Rochelle, GA. I was born in Rochelle and we moved away when I was still a baby, but during the years my family lived there, we found a chosen family of Hudsons and Hornes and Conners and Mashburns and Reids and Whittakers, those Thanksgiving dinners would sometimes be 40, 50, 60 or more people. We were a rambunctuous bunch that gathered each year for feast upon feasts and laughter than would carry us for many years to come.

I still look back on those days in Rochelle as some of my favorites. Surrounded by music and catfish ponds and pecan orchards and cow pastures, the days spent in south Georgia during those Thanksgiving celebrations are etched into my memory forever.

When I moved to Florida, I developed my own chosen family. Neighbors and friends that I experienced every aspect of life with. During those years we saw marriages and divorces, new babies, tragedy and joy, but most of all we found laughter.

I will always remember my Florida Thanksgivings as large gatherings of pot-luck dinners and more laughs than I can ever count. When I look back on my life, these days are the fondest, when life was carefree, we were a combined bunch whose lives intersected through business and developed into one large family.

A mix of people who grew together and while now distanced, always a “go to” group that holds a special place in my heart.

While I would love to spend just one more Thanksgiving with our family friends in Rochelle, or my chosen family in Florida, my most beloved holidays are found with my own family.

We aren’t a large group, we never have been, but we are tight-knit and can hold our own on the rambunctuous meter.

Through the years, the seats at our table has changed. We have lost and we have gained, but each person who occupies a seat at our Thanksgiving table holds a special place in my heart.

Like most families, we don’t always see eye to eye, but when the chips are down or the important things in life come up, we are there for each other.

Our Thanksgiving consists of recipes passed down from generation to generation and as we gather, my mind will be drawn to the people who no longer physically sit at the table, but are there in our hearts.

My mother loved Thanksgiving, she cooked for days preparing far too much food, cooking the recipes of her own mother. She cooked with love and she worked hard to make each gathering special.

My daddy enjoyed any day that his boys were all under one roof, surrounded by his grandchildren and his family. He thrived on days like Thanksgiving and made sure to “taste test,” everything that came out of the oven.

My grandparents and my favorite Aunt were often found at our table on Thanksgiving, when we gather this year, I will think back on the memories of my life that they created and remember them fondly.

This year, as I sit with my family for Thanksgiving, I will thank God for each of them. I will give thanks for memories of the past and pray for what is yet to come. I will pray that better days lie ahead and I will give thanks for lessons learned in both hardship and good days, I will also give thanks that each of you have a place in my life and heart.

Happy Thanksgiving, may our lives continue to be enriched by the past and future.