In the fall of 1969, my mom and dad were newly married. They were home one night, no doubt staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when the phone rang. It was my grandfather, Mom’s dad, and he needed a ride.

My Grandfather was a retired Navy man, and after he retired, he went to work for a munitions company. This was at the height of the Vietnam War, so business was booming, no pun intended.

He was an executive of some sort and often had to “entertain” people after work. And he sometimes drank too much at these meetings, as he had on this night. And on those nights, he called Mom to come to get him.

It would be a quick 20-minute trip these days, what with the new interstates and all, but in those days it was two lanes and traffic lights all the way, so it was an hour’s drive, easy.

Mom and Dad set off through the hot sticky night to pick up my grandfather and drive him and his car home.

My grandfather was six feet tall and had long ropy muscles that looked like the metal cables that ships tie to the dock with. His cheekbones were prominent, and he had eyes that would stare a hole in you. He had been a Frogman in WWII, and then was shot down over Korea during that war and was lost behind enemy lines for more than a week with a broken arm before he fought his way out to the DMZ and was found. He did not suffer fools, and he had not wanted my mom to marry my dad.

But this night was different. The business meeting must have been a good one, as my grandfather was in a good mood, and apparently felt generous.

He was a social drunk. When in his cups, he was always full of advice, and this night was no different. He wanted to stop at a diner and get some coffee and food, to “settle his stomach”. After they ordered, Mom went to the bathroom, and my grandfather began to hold forth on Dad, giving my newly married, 18-year-old father life and business advice.

He watched Mom’s back as she walked to the back of the diner and disappeared into the bathroom, then leaned back in his chair, holding his cigarette between his fingers, and turned to Dad.

“Young Feller, let me give you some advice. If you ever want to get anywhere in this life, you got to get noticed. People need to know your name. Hopefully, it’s because of something good, but it’s even OK sometimes if it’s for something bad. But if you are gonna get ahead, you have to get noticed. They have to know your name. People can’t help you if they don’t know your name.”

When Dad told me this story, he laughed at this point, because he said that about then, Mom was coming back from the bathroom, and my grandfather suddenly straightened up and changed the subject, as if they had been swapping dirty jokes unfit for mixed company.

* * *

One Saturday in August of 2013, I, along with some other volunteers from a local church, was threatened with arrest for giving food to hungry people on a sidewalk in Raleigh, NC. It’s a long story, and one I’m tired of telling, but I got a lot of media attention really fast – Time, Newsweek, NPR, and Fox were all blowing my phone up, and the city got a lot of negative attention. The week before, Forbes had named Raleigh, NC the most hospitable city in the nation, and then this happened.

The city made a few missteps, strategically, and one of them was when the Mayor called me and asked me, point blank, what I wanted. Up until then, I had not realized we were negotiating. I just wanted to be left alone, so we could keep giving hungry people food. Had they apologized and told us to carry on, we would have. But, I figured, if they were asking what I wanted? Well, I had a list.

Eventually, much of that list got implemented. It cost the city more than $5 million dollars. Policies got changed. Programs got funded. Buildings were built and people got hired. But all of that was later.

There were endless meetings in those days – I made the rounds, meeting City Council folks, the mayor, police officials, the talk shows, and reporters. It was my first real immersion into political life. Baptism by fire.

My Dad was back in Mississippi, where he worked for the county as their Emergency Management Director. His whole life was politics – he had to get budgets passed, and he had to advocate for Federal dollars – both to the Feds to give them to his county and to the politicians in his county to accept them. He had to work with people who were different than him and thought differently from him.

“You can’t always control who you have to work with, but you have to find a way to work with them just the same. In both poker and life, Son, you have to play the cards you are dealt, not the cards you wish you had.”

The weeks this fight with the city was going on was one of the times I felt closest to my Dad. We talked on the phone often. He was my coach through this world of politics and relationships, my wartime consigliere.

My notes from those conversations are filled with soundbites.

“You have to let them think they won. That doesn’t mean you can’t get what you want, but they can’t think they lost.”

“You have to give something up, so they are happy. So ask for things that will never get approved, so when you give them up, they think they beat you.”

“They have to justify whatever happens to the people who elected them. So make sure they have a story that makes them look good.”

“If you are going to keep living there, you have to be able to look these people in the eye when this is over and work together on the next thing.”

“This stuff affects people personally, but these folks don’t treat it as personal. It’s just another day at the office for them. Next month they will be working on other things that people feel just as strongly about as you do this. Their lack of involvement emotionally in this is an advantage for them. Your passion is an advantage for you. But make sure your passion doesn’t eat you because you don’t win a war by dying for your country.”

But my favorite conversation, and the one that stuck with me the most, was the night before the big Council meeting deciding if the $5 million dollar package would go through. I was on the rocking chair on my front porch. It was an unseasonably warm night in late fall. We were months into this campaign. I was on my phone to Dad, while watching my inner-city neighborhood come to life as it often did around dusk. I was nervous.

It was then that he told me the story about my grandfather and the advice he had given him.

“I think he was right, in one regard. Folks can’t help you if they don’t know who you are. Nobody’s gonna speak up for the redheaded guy with the nice smile. One day, bad things will happen, and when that happens, you will need friends and people who know your name.

He chuckled at this point. “I’ve seen the news stories. You have that part covered, it seems.”

“But I’m older now than your grandfather was back then, and I would say that while it’s important that people know who you are and what you can do. I think that if you work hard to be good at your job then you don’t have to rub it in people’s faces. They will know.

“Work hard to be indispensable to the work, and invisible to the process. These politicians aren’t going to tell their people how awesome you are, because then their people will start thinking maybe they should elect you instead of this politician. But they will know. And they will remember.

“Some work needs doing. And it’s easier to get it done if your name doesn’t have to be attached to it. You can accomplish great things if you don’t have to be the one to get credit for it. The people who need to know will know, and if they don’t, the people who know your name will tell them.

“So let them have the headlines, and while they are flashing those around, you get your $5 million dollar package passed.”

* * *

I’m an organizer these days. I am the invisible man, off to the side in the group photos. If the press prints my name, that’s a failure, because this work is not about me, but the people I work with. My work is to find out what issues are important to the people I work with, and then we develop strategies for them to get what they want.

I hold press conferences where I’m not in front of cameras – I’m the guy with a clipboard writing down what media responded to the press releases I sent out. I draft op-eds that get published under other people’s names. And when our people ask me what we should do, I ask them, instead, “What do you think we should do?”

Because some work needs doing, and it’s easier to get it done if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.


The 18th of October was the first night it got cold this year. Cold enough to frost. Cold enough to kill the remnants of the basil plants in the pot on my deck. I was at a community meeting around 7:30 at night when Renee sent me a text:

The heater won’t come on.


HVAC problems worry me. They are expensive. They require tools I do not have, tools that are expensive and that I will rarely use otherwise. And it requires specialized knowledge I won’t use elsewhere. So I end up paying someone else to do it, and can’t know if they are doing it right or not, or ripping me off or not.

When I was growing up, Dad was an HVAC technician. He worked for a propane company that sold furnaces, and he spent most of his hours crawling under people’s houses if he was lucky or in their attics if he were not. He always wore a blue work shirt, with the shirt pockets bulging with papers, small screwdrivers, a dial thermometer, and a penlight. The tuft of chest hair poking over the top button, the trucker’s cap on his head. Small me would wrestle with him on the floor, and he would amuse me to no end by making his pupils dilate with his penlight.

Dad eventually went into management, and then in my late teens, left that field to go into Emergency Management professionally. But he kept his tools and his licenses, and so he was the person everyone called when there was a problem with their air or heat. This side hustle bought our Christmas presents most years, paid for trips otherwise out of reach, and I’m pretty sure made my getting my class ring possible my senior year.

Dad and I both could work on cars. We both knew how to build buildings and make furniture. But only Dad could do HVAC work. It was magic.

If your car’s AC was running hot, he would bring his gauges and his tank of coolant the next time he came over. On holidays, his opinion was sought on noises the furnace was making. The last time he was at my house, I sought his advice on moving the condensing unit so we could put add another deck. Once, he troubleshot and fixed my AC in North Carolina over the phone from North Mississippi.


But Dad’s gone now, and so when the heater doesn’t work, you take your chances with somebody a friend recommends, and you hope they are honest and hope they are competent, and you realize, once again, how you are more alone in the world than you had expected to be at your age.

Today is the second anniversary of the last time I heard my daddy’s voice talking to me. The last time I heard him call me “Son.” It was the day he told me how tired he was, the day he told me he needed to hurry up and get better because the EMS folks needed him to do his job so that they could do theirs.

I told him I was worried I would call when he was sleeping.

“Son, these days, it feels like I am always sleeping. I’m tired of being tired.”

Dad died 48 hours later from COVID, contracted in the line of duty. Sometime around 1 PM, two years from the day after tomorrow.

Today, on the two-year anniversary of the last time I heard Dad’s voice, I had an HVAC repairman in my house. He is honest, forthright, and competent. He’s done minor things for me over the last two years and was originally recommended by a friend. I like that he is a one-man operation. I like that when I pay him, that exact money feeds his family and pays for his kid’s school, just like Dad’s customers paid for my high school trips. I like that he doesn’t sugarcoat things.

But the work, while competent, doesn’t seem like magic when he does it. And it’s just another reminder that I am more alone in the world than I thought I would be at this age.

The P Word

They had just opened the four-lane divided highway between my hometown and the county seat, some 15 miles away. They had been working on it all my life, and now it was wide open, and I had just gotten my driver’s license.

In those days, I drove a 1972 Ford Torino with a 302 V8, a 4-barrel carburetor, and a speedometer that went to 120, even if that was largely aspirational. The wide, straight lanes were irresistible to me and others, and it quickly became the place where races happened. Which is how it came to be that I was doing 85 miles an hour when the blue lights showed in my rearview mirror, and my heart was now in my throat as the Highway patrolman was walking toward my car.

He looked at my license and then looked at me.

“Are you Hugh Hollowell’s boy?”

This is one of the downfalls of having a dad who everyone knew.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I should give you a ticket. But at the speed you were going, it would be expensive. I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. But I am going to call your Daddy and tell him about this.”

I gulped.

“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I would just as soon have the ticket, and Daddy not know anything about this.”

He howled, he laughed so hard.

“I bet you would. OK, consider this a warning. It’s lucky for you I know your daddy. Get out of here, but for crying out loud, son, slow down.”

With both hands on the steering wheel, I drove home at 45 miles an hour, aggressively using my turn signal.

* * *

Because of all the struggles around the water system here and the utter unpredictability of when they will get it straightened out, I bit the bullet and bought an under-sink reverse osmosis water filtration system.

It cost around $200, all told, and it took a rather lazy 2 hours to install. I needed a drill, a ¼-inch drill bit, a Crescent wrench, a pair of Channel Lock pliers, and a Phillips-head screwdriver, all of which I already had. I’m pretty sure a plumber would have charged around $300 to put it in, plus parts, and if you had bought it from a door-to-door sales company, it would have probably been around $1800.

I was telling someone about it and my decision to do it, and they said, “You’re lucky you know how to do that.” Well, in the first place – I didn’t. I mean, I had never installed a reverse osmosis machine before. But the instructions were understandable, and I took my time and worked through them.

But It wasn’t that I was lucky – it’s that I was privileged.

Privilege is a polarizing word these days. But it needn’t be. It just means you have access to something someone else doesn’t have.

Like, with the water filter. It was simple for me to install and I could afford to do it and had the time to do it. None of those things are guaranteed to be true for someone else. If I worked at Dollar Tree, I probably wouldn’t have a spare $200 lying around. I used simple tools, but if I had to buy them for this task, it would have added substantially to the cost. I had the 2 hours to spend doing it. I had a father who taught me to be confident with tools and handwork.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m a homeowner, so I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to install the water filter. I know how to read and have good reading comprehension skills. I have internet access and a credit card. I have no physical impairments that would prevent my doing it.

And every one of those things is a point of privilege. I carry many other points of privilege as well. For example, I’m a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-read, Christian male born in the United States of America. In the world I live in, every single one of those points gives me access to things other people don’t have. And I didn’t ask for any of them.

Other people that Highway Patrolman pulled over that day did not have access to having a father that worked in EMS. I wasn’t smarter than those people, more affluent than those people, or have an easier life than those people. I just had access to an advantage they did not. And because of that, I did not suffer a penalty they would have. Or, put another way, my relationships gave me privileges (like freedom from the consequence of my actions) they did not have.

In the same way, my privilege buys me freedom from uncertainty around the quality of my water that some of my neighbors do not have. It doesn’t mean anything except that I have access to things they do not, through no fault of my own or theirs.

Since most privileges we have were not asked for, I see nothing to be ashamed of for having them. I’m not ashamed I’m white, not ashamed I grew up with a father who taught me to use tools, not ashamed I’m male. It was not my doing that I should have any of these advantages, yet I have them all the same. It is much like having won the lottery without having bought a ticket.

But if you are fortunate enough to have more than others – more food, more advantages, more skill – it’s incumbent on you to use that for the benefit of those who don’t.

So I am not ashamed I am priviliged. I’m just ashamed of all the times I didn’t use those privileges to benefit folks who don’t have them.

The Third Row

Monday morning at 7 AM I was heading north on Interstate 55, heading toward my hometown. A woman I knew had died. She and her husband lived down the road from Mom on a few acres we had sold before I was born, and she and Mom were close.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of going to their house. The adults would play Yahtzee, and I would play in the living room, on the improbably white carpet. He was a few years older than Dad, and they had grown up together and had similar interests. They were very much a part of my life growing up.

Our lives revolved around the church down the road. It was a small brick building in those days before they added the fellowship hall and the new sanctuary. My granddaddy’s name was on the cornerstone, and my uncle had run the electrical for it when it was built. And generations of my people are buried across the street, in the cemetery there, including Dad.

They don’t really use the old sanctuary much anymore. It’s still there, though, and when I had finished eating my spaghetti Monday in the fellowship hall after the service, I crept over to the old building to look around.

It still looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except it doesn’t, mostly because I’m no longer the same. The first thing that grabs me is how small it was, just six rows or so of pews, and none of them really long. No wonder it always seemed packed in my memories.

The hardwood floors are still there, blessedly uncovered by carpet, as is the fate in many churches that tire of the upkeep required for hardwoods. The area behind the altar rail is carpeted now as it was then, although, in my memory, the carpet was maroon instead of the blue it is now. It is, of course, entirely possible they changed the carpet in the last 40 years, but it is far more likely that my memory is playing tricks on me.

The pulpit is now in the new sanctuary next door, with a piano in its place, which in my childhood was in the alcove to the right of the door. There was no sound system in those days, either, forcing Brother Leon to use his preacher’s voice.

The Heinrich Hoffman print of Jesus praying in the garden the night he was arrested is still there, in the same spot it was every Sunday of my youth. Just out of the frame of this shot, there were additional pictures of Jesus on each side wall, one a headshot and the other an improbably young Jesus, also prints from Hoffman. The headshot is still there, but the picture of adolescent Jesus is gone, a nail still sticking from the wall being all that proves I was not making it up.

Adolescent Jesus captured my attention to no end as a child. I would stare at him on the wall, beardless and with unruly hair, and wonder if he knew what he was in for, if he got in trouble a lot, and why his dad didn’t make him cut his hair.

The hymn board is still there, too. It always had the list of the hymns we would sing today, along with how much money folks had put in the offering the week before. I liked that the hymns were enlisted, as I would go through the hymnal and find the songs ahead of time and slip pieces of paper in to mark them so that I could find them later instead of being flustered and pressured when they were announced. Even then, I was searching for coping mechanisms.

In my memories, as a family, we always sat in the third row in this photo, on either side, but always toward the aisle if we could. I have lots of memories here. Mr. Hays interrupting the preacher, mid-sermon, that he had preached too long and it was time for lunch. Billy, who was what my people called slow and would now be considered special needs, always sang off-key but made up for it with volume and exuberance.

And I remember my daddy’s hands, curiously enough. In this memory, we are on the right-hand side of this picture, on our customary third row. He was wearing his one suit, dark blue, with a white shirt and red striped tie. I am to his left, and the preacher is praying. Daddy’s elbows are on his knees, his scarred fingers interlaced, forehead resting on his clasped, callused hands. His eyes were scrunched closed tightly as if, by sheer concentration, his petitions would go to the head of God’s line.

You could not have convinced me then that they did not.


I used to believe in talent. These days, I’m not sure I do.

In high school, I took the ASVAB test – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. Basically, it was a tool the military-industrial complex used to filter students with skills that would be valuable to the military into the recruiter’s hands.

Which is pretty screwed up if you think about it. But anyway.

A thing that absolutely shocked literally everyone who knew me was that I scored ridiculously high on the mechanical portion of the exam. Things like they show you a series of interlocking gears, numbered 1-7. And then they ask, “If gear #3 turns clockwise, what direction does gear #1 turn?”

Like that. I did really well on it.

I was not known for my mechanical ability. I was known for my reading. I was known for my acne. And that was pretty much it. If I had a talent, it was not anything mechanical. It was reading and writing.

We had shop class, which I liked the idea of, but it was filled with what I would now call toxic masculinity (including the teacher), and even then, it felt icky. Even today, I seldom fit into all-male spaces and don’t do bro-culture well.

My Dad was very handy. I would much rather read a book. It used to frustrate him to no end that he wanted to teach me how to work on cars, and I wanted to read.

“Hugh’s just not talented,” people would say. “He’s more of a bookworm.”

I don’t really think that’s a thing. I mean, I did well on that test – I obviously had an aptitude for thinking about things mechanically. But I still couldn’t use a hammer to save my life. And since Dad’s effortless way with tools was my basis of comparison, I felt uncomfortable and awkward. I was comparing my 2 weeks of experience to his 30 years of experience and was mad because he was better at it than I was.

He wasn’t necessarily more talented than I was – he had more experience than I did.

This Sunday afternoon, our kitchen sink clogged. This was particularly annoying because it clogged right after I had made waffles, but before we washed the dishes. I emptied the sink of all the dirty dishes and then plunged for a while. Nothing doing.

I then went to the hardware store and bought a 25-foot-long drain snake (I thought I had one, but maybe not because I couldn’t find it). After 30 minutes of cursing, I had a clogged pipe AND was the owner of a drain snake. Wherever this clog was, it was more than 25 feet away. But the washing machine drained fine, so I knew the clog was between the sink and the washing machine.

I went back to the hardware store and bought some sulfuric acid. Poured it down the drain and went to bed.

Monday, when I woke up, the drain was clear. Yay! I ran water for a while, and it worked. I set about my day. Just before lunch, I began to wash some dishes and realized it was clogged again. Dammit! And I had an afternoon of meetings scheduled.

Last night after supper, I climbed under the house and saw the culprit – a section of the drain pipe that had been repaired long ago just before where the washing machine drains was catching debris from the disposal and had clogged. The repair was questionable in the first place, and the drain pipe was cast iron, original to the house. I could buy a 50-foot drain snake and probably get it, but the problem would still remain.

So this morning, I was at Home Depot at 6 am, and I bought a 10-foot length of 2-inch PVC and two generic fernco couplers (to connect the PVC to the cast iron) for about $30. I crawled under the house and, using my $14 angle grinder, cut the cast iron pipe on the downhill side of the suspected blockage. It was relatively dry, so it looked like my thesis was correct. I connected the franco coupler and one end of the PVC pipe to the cast iron.

I laid the PVC pipe along the existing pipe to measure 10 feet and then cut the cast iron pipe. This time, it was filled with nasty water, proving the blockage was in the 10 feet I was removing (probably at the damaged spot). In 10 minutes, I had the fernco coupling connected and had moved the plumbing strap from the old pipe to the new one.

I went inside and washed my hands and face in my unclogged sink.

14-year-old me would have been amazed at 50-year-old me’s “mechanical ability.” Lots of y’all think I am “very handy.”

Nope. I just have done this before. I have replaced bad pieces of drain pipe before, did a shit ton of research at the time, and learned about fernco couplers. I have used an angle grinder before. I knew how to get under my house.

But the first time I did it, I didn’t. That was when I bought the angle grinder. That was when I did the research and when I watched all the YouTube videos. This time, I didn’t have to. I wasn’t talented – I just had experience.

My Favorite Sandwich

Until my late teens, my Dad worked for a propane company.

He literally sold propane and propane accessories.

In rural Mississippi, propane is a big deal. I live in town now, and we have natural gas piped in, but folks who live out in the county buy propane, and a giant truck comes out to your house and fills up a huge tank, and that is what fuels your water heater and your cookstove and your heater. Every small town in Mississippi has at least one propane dealer, and in my hometown for most of my childhood, that dealership was run by my daddy.

Now, they sold propane, but the propane accessories was where the money was. The showroom at the front of his building had propane cook stoves, propane fish cookers, and propane grills for sale. The markup on these was high, and after all, the more things you owned that used propane, the more propane you would buy. So every summer, they would have an Open House of sorts, where they would do some sort of sale and set up a grill in the parking lot in front of the building, and there might be balloons and, to highlight the cooking ability of this grill, Dad would put a couple of pounds of bologna on the rotisserie.

It was smart on a number of levels: Bologna was cheap, so this promotion was low cost. It highlighted a rotisserie accessory, which most folks didn’t have, and so they couldn’t replicate it without buying one. It smelled amazing, so it intrigued people who stopped by. And it just tasted good.

It wasn’t complicated: He went to the meat counter in the Big Star grocery and bought a 5-pound chub of bologna, which is just bologna that hasn’t been sliced. It looks like a huge hot dog more than anything else. It has a red plastic skin, which must be peeled away. Then it was threaded onto the rotisserie spit and scored about a quarter inch deep along its length in a criss-cross pattern. Then it was cooked for a good hour or two over medium heat and was periodically basted with a cheap bottled barbeque sauce.

The heat made the surface split along the score marks, and the sauce would seep into the cracks, and the barbeque sauce would sort of candy on the surface. He would keep one going all day, and would have another cut up into small chunks, which were speared on toothpicks for the customers to try as samples. But one advantage of having a dad who was the manager was that you didn’t just get the small samples: You got a barbeque bologna sandwich.

It involved a hamburger bun, toasted. On it, you put a dollop of cheap bottled sauce, a half-inch thick slice of barbeque bologna, all topped by a generous scoop of cole slaw. It won’t taste right unless it is served on a cheap paper plate, accompanied by a handful of Golden Flake potato chips, and paired with an ice cold Coke in a glass bottle that was purchased for a quarter from the cold drink box in the warehouse.

And for best results, it should be handed to you by someone who loves you.

A Closet Full of Grief

In the Looney Tunes cartoons we watched on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, there was a recurring gag where there was too much stuff in the closet. Someone would open the closet and more things than should fit in a closet that size would fall out, burying the person who opened it.

Grief is like that, sometimes.

It’s overwhelming in the beginning. You give some of it away and learn to live with some of it and the rest you don’t actually deal with right now, but instead, in order to function, you put it in the closet and it won’t really fit so you stuff and punch and contort and finally, you get the door closed so you can keep going with your life because we live in a capitalist society and your mortgage doesn’t go away just because people you love died.

So it’s all stuffed in that closet. And because you stuffed it in there – I mean, it may have taken a few weeks or even months to get it in there, but it was in there, and you had to lean against the door to get it shut – but because it’s stuffed in there, it was hell to get it all to fit. But you did.

And life goes on and most days everything is fine and sometimes you are whistful and sometimes you miss them and sometimes you walk by the closet and see the door and remember what’s in there, but you know it’s going to be a mess if you open that door, so you keep on moving.

But the problem is that we don’t live in a vacuum. Other people are moving around in our life as well, and one day, with no ill intent at all, somebody or something is gonna open that door and it will all fall out, but instead of burying them, it buries you. And when that happens, you have no choice but to sit in the midst of it and pick it all up again, handling each piece, looking at it this way and that, as you put it all back in the closet.

This is why this afternoon I was driving down the Interstate, tears streaming down my face. An old song came on the radio about a child’s love for his father and, without warning, ripped that door off its hinges.

Chips and Cheese

In high school, I worked at a grocery store after school. I worked from 4 to closing (which was 8 PM) during the week, and usually a good eight hours on Saturday, and would sometimes work on Sundays from 1 when we opened after the church was out, until 6 when we closed. Sunday was the worst because on Sundays you had to both open AND close.

It was a small town and a small grocery store. It was roughly the size of a Rite Aid or small Walgreens. I didn’t work every night, but most of them. I generally pulled 25 hours a week or more – probably more than was wise for a kid my age, but I loved it.

But the best part was after I got home. By the time we closed the store, it might be 9 before I got home during the week. Supper would be long over, and my brothers in bed, but Mom would leave dinner out for me, and I would fix myself a plate and heat it up in the microwave. Often she would then put everything away and go lay down and read, and Dad would sit up to watch the news before bed.

This particular night, I had gotten in later than normal and was starving. Mom had fixed Taco Salad for supper, which was what she called it when she would spread crumbled tortilla chips on a plate, then cover the plate with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheese, which was then topped with “taco meat”, which is what we called ground beef with an Old El Paso seasoning packet added, and jarred salsa and sour cream. It was very filling and good and seemed exotic in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1986.

All the ingredients were left out on the counter, waiting on me to put them together. Mom was already in bed, reading, and Dad was watching the end of a show, in anticipation of the news. I piled all the assorted goodness on my plate and, as I often did on those nights, sat in the living room with Dad and ate while we watched TV together.

When the show ended, I got up to put the food away. Dad followed me into the kitchen.

“Wait a minute”, he said. “I need a snack.”

He took down a large supper plate – one of the white Corelle plates with the blue flowers they had gotten as newlyweds – and spread chips over it in a single layer, edges just barely touching. Then he picked up the block of good sharp hoop cheese we always seemed to have in our refrigerator and, holding the box grater in his left hand, grated cheese over the tops of the chips in a dense layer, coving the chips until only the undulations of the chips under the cheese betrayed their existence.

He took this mounded plate of yellow marvelousness and put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, during which time the cheese melted and spread over the chips, flowing into the cracks and bubbling on top. He took it out, pulled a chip from the edge of the plate, watched the melted cheese string stretch an improbable length before breaking, then picked it high in the air and, head tilted back, put the whole thing in his mouth, cheese string first, the way some people eat spaghetti.

Then he shut the microwave door and went into the living room to watch the news. I had watched all this with curiosity, just waiting to see where this was going. Suddenly, the spell broke.

“Wait, “ I said. “I want some!”

“Well, make you some of your own. What do you want me to do, write the recipe down for you?”

So I made some, exactly the same way, and just as I walked into the living room, the news came on the TV. We sat together on the couch, in silence, with nothing heard above the sound of the TV but the crunching of chips and occasional sighs of satisfaction.

The Storm

Her name was Betty, and how exactly we were kin is a long story that involves marriages, divorces, widows, and time, but it’s far easier to just tell you she was my cousin’s wife which, while true, downplays her role in my life.

She had always been beautiful – I remember being six or seven and going to the bank where she worked as a loan officer and seeing her at her desk, in the lobby, thinking she must be the most beautiful woman in the world.

Her husband was my cousin but was also 30 years older than I was, and 10 years older than Dad. He was the oldest of his generation and served as sort of the patriarch of our extended family (see, I told you it was complicated). He died 24 years ago, but since then, Betty had stepped into the role. And for the last 15 or so years, she put together a potluck dinner on Easter Sunday.

For most of that time, I lived far away. In 2019, I was on staff at a church, and it was my first Easter there, so I felt like I needed to be there. We left right after but got there just as everyone was leaving. In 2020 they canceled because of COVID. In October of 2020, Dad died.

In 2021, it was back on, and it was fabulous. Renee and I had been locked down for more than a year at that point, our vaccinations were current, and so we made the trip north, our first real trip in ages. We took the Natchez Trace north, spent the night in Tupelo, spent an afternoon in Oxford, and then on to home, turning a three-hour trip into a 24-hour one, but feeling a little bit alive again.

Betty was 79 at that point, and all during the pandemic had been in the most severe of lockdowns because of her health. But now there were vaccines, and she was fully vaccinated, and this was the first time she was in the presence of people who were not carefully screened or her doctors. After a full year of virtual isolation, she was there, grinning like a cat in the cream, so happy to just see people.

She would come up to folks and say, “I’m fully vaccinated. Can I hug you?”. I bet she hugged everyone at least twice. We all had so much hope that the nightmare was over then, in the spring of 2021 after the vaccines came out.

Betty talked to me last year about how it just seemed wrong without Dad there. Dad was always the man with the camera at any gathering. And 2021 was the first year he wasn’t. We all felt his absence.

In August, Betty would suddenly die from an unrelated illness.

So this year was very solemn indeed. A whole generation was gone. And while it was so good to see everyone, it was far from festive.

On the way home after the potluck yesterday, we got caught in a rainstorm. I hate driving in the rain under the best of times, and this was more than 2 hours of brutal rain and thunder and lightning, and being buffeted all around the road. It was exhausting.

Driving back home from being in my hometown is always a time of introspection for me, as I reflect on the ways things turned out, on roads not taken, promises unkept. None of that is easier when you are doing it in a thunderstorm.

We stopped at the rest area to get some relief from the storm, to stretch, and catch our breath. And standing under the pavilion, watching the rain pour around us, we read the text message from a dear friend telling us that her husband – who has been fighting COVID for months – is most likely going into hospice later this week and that, baring a literal miracle, he won’t be recovering.

Well, shit.

I stare at the rain some more before getting back in the car to continue toward home.

So much loss in the last few years. Every time I’m convinced I cannot take more, more happens anyway.

We were some 30 minutes away from home when the sun came out. It was still raining, but it had slowed dramatically, and the sun was shining fiercely and, off to the east, I saw a large double rainbow arching up from the horizon.

I know the old story about how, after destroying the world with a flood, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of that promise was a rainbow. And if I’m honest, I always wondered why a rainbow would be taken seriously as such a sign.

But yesterday – on Easter Sunday, no less, when I had come through that storm and was carrying so much death and despair with me, when I saw those bows in the East I knew that we would get through. That we could keep going. That we had to persist, to carry on, and build a better world.

So I kept driving.

All the Confidence in the World

It was sometime in the first week of August of 1990, and I was a guest of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, on a small island off the coast of South Carolina for what they euphemistically called “Recruit Training”, and what the rest of the world called Boot Camp.

It was a hot and muggy day and the combination of the physical exertion and the extreme heat and the overwhelming humidity left your uniform soaking wet all the time. Then you would get chaffing on your inner thighs from the wet uniform always rubbing, and if you were not careful, you could end up with an, um, inner-thigh infection. I went through baby powder like it was water in the desert.

After a long day of classes and physical activities and then marching hither and yon and the evening meal, we came back to the barracks and took a super-fast shower, and then enjoyed our daily hour of “free time”. The name “free time” might conjure up images of playing poker and telling jokes, but alas, we were not the Air Force. Instead, we were to speak in low tones, write letters home, study our sacred texts, or polish our boots. And during the midst of all of this, we got mail call.

Mail call was the best. Dad had been in the service, and he knew. So my parents took it as their mission to write to me every day and to get as many people as they could to write to me. Dad used his new (remember, this is 1990) PC to make labels with my address that he blanketed our hometown with. I got a lot of kidding because I always had so many letters at mail call, but that was just jealousy.

It turns out there’s a little bit of jealousy in the best of us.

Anyway, I know it was 1990 because that is when I was at Boot Camp. And I know it was the first week of August because that was the week before we went to the rifle range, and I remember this happened right before we went. And I remember it was hot and muggy because it was always hot and muggy.


And so, this particular day, I am sitting on my footlocker at the end of my bed, in my underwear and t-shirt, polishing my boots when my name is called out and I run “with a sense of purpose” in my flip flops to the front of the squad bay and get my four letters. One of them was from Dad.

Mom would always handwrite her letters, but Dad’s were always written on his dot matrix printer. And on that night, I read the words he had never said out loud:

“I have all the confidence in the world in you. I know you can handle it. Sometimes I have not told you how proud of you I am of you. I really am. I know that sounds mushy, especially in a letter, but take it any way you want.”

I quietly got up and walked to the bathroom, where I sat in a stall and cried and cried. Because in 18 years I had never been the sort of person anyone had confidence in, and he had never told me he was proud of me.

I mean, I knew he was. He told other people he was proud of me, and they would tell me how proud of me he was. But he never told me. In later years, that changed. He told adult me any number of times, and not in a letter, but face to face.

But that was the first time. The first week of August 1990, when I was 18 years old, far from home and sent to learn how to kill people in the Marine Corps Approved Manner.

I don’t take praise well, and sometimes I wonder if it’s because it was so rare growing up. I was always the kid who had amazing grades except for the C or D in math class or the kid who read a lot but had terrible hand-to-eye coordination. Any accomplishment I had came with a caveat – always.

And so last night when my friend Amy complimented me on my writing in front of other people, my first instinct was to minimize it. To downplay it. All my old fears about imposter syndrome kick in, and I feel like any praise I am getting will inevitably come with a caveat, with an asterisk beside it, will somehow be less than genuine, or at least not the whole story.

I don’t hold it against my Dad that he didn’t know to tell me he was proud of me. He had been left fatherless in a man’s world at 7 years old, and when I was born he was but 20 himself, and children raising children is never a good recipe. They did the best they could with what they had, and again, to his credit, he worked hard to make up for it late in life.

When he knew better, he did better.

But there are some cycles it is up to us to break, so I try hard to accept praise when it’s handed out to me, hard as it is for me to believe.

But more than that, I hand out praise like it’s cotton candy at the carnival. Yes, I want to see your poems and artwork. Yes, I want to hear your dreams. Yes, I want to know what you’re working on. Yes, I want to know what your big scary plans are, how you want to change the world, or at least how you want to change your world. Even if I barely know you, I want to be your biggest fan. I see you doing hard things, and I’m damned proud of you for making it this far.

I have all the confidence in the world in you.