A damp chill in the early morning air, unusual for April this far south, makes me shiver. My azaleas and dogwoods are laden with buds yearning to give a color show of pinks and whites.

“Maybe my wisteria will be in bloom when we get back,” I say to myself.

“Come here and tell me what you think,” Tom calls.

Milk crates and boxes filled with antique glass bottles are packed in the rear cargo hold of our SUV. Like a chess player contemplating his next move, Tom, my husband, is surveying the situation—rotating the multi-sized containers until he makes a space for “just one more.” We are preparing to leave for a collectibles show and sale in a small Virginia town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Where in the world are we going to put our luggage, our clothes on hangers, and my tote bag?  I  ask.”Something’s  got to give.”


The April tax crunch and an impending audit of our family business have pressure-cooked the creative juices and energy out of me. Tom rarely smiles. Our tempers flare—often. Silence follows. We’ve settled into a rhythm: Work. Sleep. Eat. Work. Sleep. Eat.

Five hundred miles of interstate stretch from Memphis to the Virginia state line. West to east we follow a route we have traveled many times. Tom drives, with a slight hunch of his shoulders, leaving a space between the seat and his back. I absentmindedly reach over and rub his back, circling my fingers over flannel and the nape of his neck.

I see cows graze in a pasture, dots of black scattered across a pasture of brown and patchy green.

“There are your cows,” says Tom with a knowing smile.

As I begin to tell a childhood story about my pet cow, I stop myself and apologize for re-hashing a tale he has heard many times during our 30 years together.

“It’s okay,” he says. Tom smiles, reaches over, and squeezes my hand.

Nearing Nashville, the road begins a gentle climb, bordered by an irregular wall of layered rock. Small trees struggle to maintain their footing as they grow through crevices in the stone. A few reddish brown leaves have hung on to their spindly branches since autumn.


A sign greets us: Welcome to Virginia. Virginia is for Lovers. The interstate winds slowly, flanked by deep ditches and streams of water littered with broken Styrofoam, food wrappers, and beer cans. Tidy white clapboard houses, with painted shutters and porches for sitting, live in the shadow of houses with unhinged shutters and collapsing porches.

JESUS IS LORD. WE SELL GUNS. proclaim the signs nailed side by side on the back of a weathered shed with a rusty red metal roof.

“Oh my goodness!” I exclaim. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Our route leads us off the interstate to a two-lane highway with the occasional pothole. I hear the tinkle of shifting glass in the back of the vehicle and gasp. Tom assures me his careful packing will protect the fragile bottles from breakage.

Spring is coming slow here, also. The forsythia is starting to splash her cheerful yellow against the canvas of winter’s lingering gray. Slips of green are pushing through the pea-gravel at the side of the road. The mountains rise above this plateau, inviting us to travel to higher ground.


photo by Lisa Phillips

Good Grief!

I wonder how many “eye rolls” a mother receives from her child[ren] during her lifetime. My mom is eighty-one, and she can still provoke a heavenward roll of my eyes. Why should I be surprised when I catch my grown children having an ocular revolution as a sign of disapproval or exasperation for something I’ve said or done?

I don’t remember at what age my children began sighing, shrugging their shoulders, and baring their teeth at me.

“My role in life is to embarrass you,” I would declare to them with a relaxed smile.

*  *  *  *  *


(Image from “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz)

My twenty-four-year old son and I have a new tradition of meeting for breakfast a couple of times during the week. There is a locally owned breakfast spot we have dubbed, “our place,” but one recent morning, we decide to try the breakfast fare at a nationally-recognized restaurant known for its omelets, massive muffins, and pancakes.

When we arrive at the restaurant, the hostess shows us to a booth and gives us laminated, grease-smudged menus. K starts perusing the multiple pages of choices. I prop my elbows on the table and smile to myself while gazing at his handsome face. His new beard suits him. He looks tired. I wonder how late he stayed up the previous evening.

“Mama, decide what you want,” he implores. “I’m hungry.”

I sin by asking: “What time did you get in bed? You look tired.”

“Mama, I’m fine. I’m fine,” he says. “Good grief.”

The eyes roll.

I divert my attention to the menu. The “make your own omelet” looks enticing, as do the potato pancakes, but I haven’t had french toast in ages. I flip over a couple of pages, and I almost flip out.

“Oh, look. Their old people menu is for the fifty-five plus crowd,” I squeal.

This is a rite of passage for me, sort of like turning twenty-one and ordering my first adult beverage.

A fledgling waiter, followed by a geriatric waitress, approaches our table.

“Don’t say anything,” says K. “You will embarrass him.”

I am not an obedient mother.

“I promise I am fifty-six,” I announce as I order my cheap omelet.

The eyes roll.

*  *  *  *  *

The childish things never given up—a roll of the eye or a heaving sigh—are softening my transition into the fifty-five plus club. The easy banter I enjoy with my children serves as a buffer for my heart as they continue to grow away (or get away) from me.

I just have to roll with it.


It was the evening of October 18th, 1985. I remember the exact date, because I had accompanied my (then) boyfriend, Tom, and his mother to a Tex-Mex restaurant to celebrate her birthday. Tom’s mom and I had spent little time together during the two years I had been dating her son. I felt as buoyant as the bright, helium balloons hugging the ceiling of the cantina. At the same time, I was nervous and anxious to please. Mrs. Phillips was a “proper” Southern lady.

Later that evening, Tom and I—his mother was not with us—were sitting on his ugly, sturdy couch striped in bachelor-brown colors, when he declared: “Well, I guess we ought to get married.”

There was no kneeling or “prithee,” but a decisive suggestion by this man who had been pegged by his friends and family as “not the marrying kind.”

I don’t remember if I said yes to the question hidden in his declaration, but I do remember sliding from the couch to the floor where my purse was and retrieving a snippet of a newspaper ad hidden in my wallet. It was a picture of an engagement ring. I tossed it into my beloved’s hand.

“How long have you been carrying this around?,” he asked.

“Oh, for about a year,” I replied with exaggerated eyelash flutter.


We were to be married almost ten weeks later on December 21st. The planning was fast and furious. Early on, I took my future mother-in-law to lunch to share the plans with her. In her gracious way, she informed me I had misspelled Tom’s father’s name in our engagement announcement in the local newspaper.

Later that week, I found out that Tom’s father had died on DECEMBER 21st in 1972. Almost blubbering, I approached Mrs. Phillips and apologized for my—for setting the date for the wedding on the calendar day her husband had died.

She tried to console me and said: “Now, we will have something happy to celebrate on that day.”


A longing for my childhood home ambushed my heart when Tom and I were driving home to Memphis after a three day honeymoon spent in the Ozark Mountains. It was Christmas Eve. I felt like a little girl again on a night-time car ride “gone looking at the lights” in the country. As Tom and I passed decorated houses, I exclaimed about the Santas and reindeer on roofs, hundreds of lights strung on double-wide trailers, and the front-yard nativity scenes with plastic Holy Families.

The transition from honeymoon to the first Christmas dinner with my husband’s family felt awkward to me. Tom’s mother was not my mother. I did not feel free to hug her or re-share the details of the wedding with her. I wanted my mother. Mrs. Phillips was kind, but I sensed a welcome cloaked in caution. Since Tom’s father had died, it had always been her and her sons at the Christmas table.


I sat still and silent—a feat for me—as the gift-giving and unwrapping began. We took turns opening our cards and reading the sentiments aloud. Gifts were opened. Quiet thank-yous were said. The wrapping paper was smoothed of its wrinkles, folded and saved to be used again.

I was a naive bride immersed in my own sorrow about leaving the familiar and cleaving to a stranger whose holiday tradition seemed stripped of joy. I was unable to recognize the power of grief to isolate and insulate a family from intrusion.

All I could think about were the festivities taking place at my aunt and uncle’s house three hundred miles away. Torn, crunched wrapping paper would carpet the floor, and ribbon would stick to shoes. The tree would be real and huge. Someone would be banging out “Silent Night” on the out-of-tune piano, and the women in the kitchen would be having simultaneous conversations about new babies, holiday weight gain, and which gospel quartet would sing-in the New Year at church.

I wanted to go home.


Fifteen years ago, I remember my mother-in-law, a lady from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, saying to my husband Tom and me: “I want to start giving you the family things so you can enjoy them, and the children can grow up with them.”

Since the time she entrusted us with the family heirlooms, I have endeavored to give them meticulous care without creating a museum-like atmosphere in our home. Our children have learned to appreciate their heritage because of the stories told by their grandmother, ones in which they are related to the settlers of Jamestown, U.S. Presidents, scalawags, crazy aunts, and sturdy women who saved the family furniture during hard times. The silver, china, books, and furniture handed down to us are not “just things,” but they reflect the lives of those whose faces speak from their portraits on our walls.


My favorite part of preparing for Thanksgiving is when I hide in the silver closet like a Confederate hiding from the Yankees. I pull out silver place-settings, serving pieces, bowls, trays, goblets, and napkin rings. The late nineteenth century Haviland Limoges china, delicate, but durable, is arranged in my china cabinet. I hold my breath and move in slow motion as I retrieve dinner plates, bread plates, butter pats, serving bowls, and meat platters from the shelves.

Everything is carried to the dining room, and I begin to dress the table based on the number of guests I will feed, and the dishes I will serve. I think to myself: Will I use napkin rings or tuck the napkins under the plates? Tablecloth or place-mats? Iced teaspoons?

I fuss over the details of creating an inviting table, not one that is high-brow, (dinner attire is flannel and denim), but a table-scape of respect and gratitude for the women of past generations who set this family table for Thanksgiving.

photo(32)A cooking marathon begins in my kitchen on Thanksgiving morning and by dusk, the turkey is resting plump and tender on the Haviland platter. It is time to dim the lamps, light the candles, and call our dear ones to the table. Tom usually interrupts the loud, pre-dinner banter, but sometimes our son will play the antique tabletop chimes to announce that dinner is served. A blessing of praise and gratitude is prayed. When the eating begins, the room grows quiet except for the “mmms” heard as we taste the richness of the food. Hearty appetites satisfied give way to hearty laughter, and everyone pushes back from the table and begs off dessert until later.

I am weary, but satisfied, content to linger at the table. I think about the father-in-law I never knew who, forty years ago, sat at the head of this  table and buttered his bread and stirred his iced tea with the silverware that bears his monogram. My husband and children have the same monogram engraved into their DNA, and with His gracious pen, God has written me into the same story.


A Grocer’s Daughter

I grew up in a grocery story. This is a family story that began before I was born. My father began working in the early fifties as a bag boy (also known then as a sacker)  for a small grocery chain near Nashville, Tennessee. He and my mother met in the store, and a romance that began with a smile ended up at the end of an aisle—a church aisle.

By the time Dad’s little pumpkin, as he liked to call me, entered the world, he was moving up the hierarchy of management. When I was eight years old, a new store in the chain opened, and Dad was appointed the manager. I knew my Daddy was THE BOSS, and visions of free Hershey Bars danced in my head.

When I accompanied my mother to do the grocery shopping, my dad would often walk with me to the cold drink machine (pronounced cold “drank” by some Southerners). The machine was located next to the shelves lined with Cheetos–the puffy kind that painted my fingers orange—and other salty snacks: Mr. Peanut peanuts, crispy pork rinds, corn chips, and skinny, fat-enriched potato sticks in a can. My cold “drank” of choice was Nehi Orange in a glass bottle, purchased for a dime. I’d stick the coin in a slot, open the machine door, grab the neck of the bottle, give it a tug, and out it came, cold and sweaty in my hand.

On the weekends, the “sample lady,” Mrs. Wise, served small cups of the store brand coffee, “Fit For A King,” and petite biscuits filled with Tennessee country sausage. The fragrance of breakfast greeted the customers as soon as they crossed the threshold of the store. Mrs. Wise was gracious to me and turned her head, pretending not to notice the multiple times I swiped biscuits from her serving tray.

In that store, I received a cornucopia of knowledge about fruit and vegetables from my dad. Tap a watermelon. If it sounds hollow, it is ripe and ready to cut, eat, and let the juice run down your chin. A ripe cantaloupe smells sweet. Pull back the husk of an ear of corn and look for plump rows of kernels unblemished by rotten or wormy areas.

Dad bought “local” from area farmers before “local” was part of the American food conversation. Clear glass jars of dark amber sorghum molasses made by a nearby Mennonite community enticed customers with the promise of a sweet, thick, syrupy spread for a hot buttered biscuit. Freshly dug sweet potatoes were piled high in bins, ready to accompany a customer home for baking or to use in a Thanksgiving casserole with sticky marshmallows on top.

My dad is eighty-four now, and he does the grocery shopping for himself and my mom. When I visit them, I enjoy accompanying him to a large, sprawling market unlike the grocery store where I grew up. As he gets in the car, he pats his shirt pocket to check if his coupons have stayed put. His eyes light up as he tells me the latest prices for items and compares them to the prices during his days at the helm of his store.

As soon as we enter through the sliding glass doors, Dad steps nimbly and heads for the produce section, leaving me behind as I struggle to pull out a shopping buggy that is stuck to the one in front of it. I see him from afar surveying the displays and posted prices.

I catch up with him and say, “You ran off and left me.”

He walks with purpose like a physician on her hospital rounds examining patients. He thumps and listens, feels and sees as he diagnoses the health of the produce with ease and expertise.

I look at his hands, speckled with age, and I am thankful for the work of those hands and his kindnesses to customers and vendors, and to me. I remember the fizzy, orange taste of a Nehi, the clink of the glass bottle against my teeth, and the fragrance of sausage frying and coffee brewing.

“Come on,” Dad says. “I need to get some yogurt for your mama.”

As I turn my buggy around, I tap the corner of a display of red polished apples and several roll from top to bottom. I quickly rearrange the wayward apples.

As always, I’m a grocer’s daughter.

Fruit and Vegetable Market

Where I Am: My Graceland

My son and I are sitting on a stone bench situated high on a bluff in Memphis, Tennessee overlooking the Mississippi River, the mighty river that pens its meandering signature from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. I love to come here. The river gives me an encore of a show I have seen many times. I gasp and exclaim at the beauty of its ever-moving sameness.

The early afternoon sun is bright. I raise a hand over my eyes, squinting to watch a barge heavy with cargo move slowly down-river. From my balcony seat, the water’s surface appears lazy and smooth, but the current beneath runs deep, swift, and true.

“Let’s get with it, Mom,” says my son, K.T.

He and I left work (my husband is our benevolent employer) to head down to the river for an impromptu photo shoot. I need an up-to-date picture of myself. Last year I lost my hair as a result of the chemotherapy I received for breast cancer. The swift and terrible current of the cancer did not pull me under (or should I say put me under—six feet under). I am here. I have hair.

“Mom, turn your head a little to the right,” K.T. commands. “To the right, Mom. To the right.”

The river has ruined me. I don’t know my left from my right.

“Okay. These shots are fine, and it’s hot as Hades out here,” moans my 23- year- old photographer. But, he humors me and agrees to see if we can do better on Beale Street.

We travel a short distance east of the river to stroll along the three blocks of Beale Street barricaded for foot traffic. In the evening, the street is ablaze with neon signs beckoning tourists and locals to come in and sit a spell, drink a Memphis brew, and listen to the bluesy rock and soul music.

 The crowd is light this afternoon. The street seems to be snoozing, but it is awake, bleary-eyed after hosting a fine party. The easy, soulful sound of a saxophone wafts into the street like the aroma of Memphis barbecue slow-cooking over a fire.

K.T. puts his hand on my shoulder to gently push me along. The souvenir shops are open, and I slow down when I see swivel-hipped Elvis dolls, Graceland snow globes (even though snow is a rarity in Memphis ), pot holders, lunch boxes, and gold-studded jackets shining through a window. A kingdom of Elvis kitsch.

Elvis may have “left the building” thirty-seven years ago, but in the words of singer-songwriters Over the Rhine, “The King Knows How.”  He still knows how to call his lovers to Memphis.

We walk on through a back-alley to get to our car. K.T. holds the door open for me as I slide into my seat.

“Thank you for today,” I say. “No problem,” he replies.

I take the camera and scroll through the pictures until I come to one I like. The river is my backdrop, and there I am, alive and well.