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Happy Birthday, Dear Sweet Pea

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How I won the Husband Jackpot…

It all started in the summer of 1982. I had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to new adventures in the college world in a few months. I had been seeing someone most of my senior year of high school, and we were still dating, although no longer exclusively. He was a nice guy, but we were not well suited for one another. A longtime friend of mine from elementary school, Gary, was working with Jeff, aka Sweet Pea, at Winn-Dixie and suggested to Jeff that he might ask me out. And he did. And the rest is history.

Well, sort of.

I should give a bit of background at this point. Jeff and I were 2 years apart in high school and, while we didn’t really know each other, we knew each other’s faces and were aware of each other’s existence. I actually worked up the courage to ask him to the Y-Teen Formal (Y-Teens was an all-girl club at school and the formal was a girl-ask-guy affair, like Sadie Hawkins dances. He already had a date. I was mortified. I never spoke to him again until he called to ask me out on our first date.) For this reason I call Gary’s fix-up of us not a blind date, but a “nearsighted” one.

I remember our first date vividly. He took me to see “Tron” at the theater and when he took me home, I invited him in for a glass of tea so we could talk some more. He stayed a long time…a REALLY long time. We talked and drank tea and he kissed me goodnight and it was a perfectly lovely evening, one that I hoped would repeat itself many, many times. And it did.

Our courtship was not without its rough patches, and our marriage has had a few of those as well.  Relationships involve flawed people and, as such, are subject to those people’s foibles and mistakes.  I will admit in writing, for all the world to see, that most of the foibles in our relationship have been mine.  He knew I was crazy going into this shootin’ match.

He was born on December 5, 1961.  Mom Cutshaw always said that it took her 16 years of marriage to have 3 children, and it did.  Mom and Pop Cutshaw were married in November, 1945, eloping when he came back from the war.  In June 1950, Jeff’s brother Howard was born, followed by Bridget in January 1955.  Mom Cutshaw joked that she “watched 1960 really close!” , but alas, Jeff came along in December of 1961.  (He graduated from kindergarten as Howard was graduating from high school.)  Mom Cutshaw told me that she knew the morning after they conceived him that they’d made a baby.  I for one am eternally grateful that they did!

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Among all the other reasons that Sweet Pea is special, the most important to me is that after all these years together, he can still make me laugh.  He is, in fact, the funniest person I’ve ever known in my life.  And considering some of the characters in my family, that is indeed saying something!

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He is also generous and tenderhearted.  I’ll never forget the times he has come home after a holiday shopping trip with misty eyes because of some child’s heartbreaking Angel Tree request for warm socks or a winter coat.  I have never been more proud of him than when he learned how to give injections to Mom Cutshaw as she battled cancer.  He is a sweet, decent, caring man, one who married into my family and loved them like his own.  And they loved him just as much, Mama most of all.  It was Mama, in fact, who gently pointed out to me that with Jeff, I seemed to laugh a lot.  I think she knew I would marry him long before I knew it.

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We’ve had a wonderful life together so far, with the good times more than balancing the bad ones.  And now with his birthday once again approaching, I just wanted to take a moment to share why he is so wonderful, why I love him so much, and to say that I am forever grateful for having won the Husband Jackpot when I married him.

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And as I have shared in other places, I have to share my favorite picture of us together, lovingly captured by Howard a number of years ago.  The looks on both of our faces pretty much express the totality of our life together.

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Happiest of Happy Birthdays, my precious Sweet Pea!  It may be your birthday, but I am the one who receives the gift.  Thank you for giving me a life I could never have imagined without you.  I love you with all my heart, for all my life.  ❤

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Creature Comforts

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Why I need a dog in my life…

My days off this past weekend were wasted, and wonderful! I didn’t accomplish anything except sing in church and get a lot of rest, which I sorely needed after the prior weekend’s concerts and church solos in an unheated sanctuary. I didn’t even do any reading, which is unusual for me on my days off from work. I just rested.

Our Boy Roy, our little Terrier mix, rested with me, or more accurately, a lot of the time he rested ON me. Maybe it is the changing weather, or maybe he is just a little moody lately, but it seems like he has been wanting to snuggle closer in recent weeks. Not that I mind, of course. He is a sweet little companion, and a source of warmth for me in more ways than one.

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Physically, he puts off a lot of heat, which is so welcome when I plop on the couch or into bed at the end of a long day. At my age and with my hormones doing whatever it is they’re doing, I freeze all day and burn up all night. The cold actually seems to bother me more, and Roy is like a little furry space heater when I get home from work.

Then there is the warmth of companionship that he provides me, a relationship spoken in the language of scratches and belly rubs, snuggles and dog kisses.  He listens without interrupting, or judging, and he never tells my secrets.  He never cares if I haven’t had a bath (sometimes I think he prefers it that way!) and his idea of an excellent adventure is a ride with me to the pharmacy drive-through.

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 He seems to want to do whatever Jeff and I are doing, even if what we’re doing is nothing.  He seems content simply to be with us.  I have heard some people say that dogs don’t feel emotions, and that they are not capable of loving their people.  I can’t bring myself to believe that.  I have cried and had a dog put his head on my chest, sighing as I sobbed.  When I fell years ago walking Ernie The Wonder Beagle and broke my leg, I dropped his leash, but he never left my side as I crawled to get back into the house.  When I have been at my lowest, I have looked into the soulful eyes of a dog and felt the warm comfort of a creature looking back at me with nothing but love.

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Old Scores

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Musicians’ tools of the trade…

This past weekend was a musical extravaganza for me, very busy and extremely rewarding.  Knoxville Choral Society and Chamber Chorale, accompanied by members of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, performed our annual Fall Concert on Saturday evening at the historic Bijou Theatre downtown, and presented an encore performance Sunday afternoon at the Community Church in Tellico Village.  I was indeed blessed to take part in these concerts and to have been chosen as a soloist.  I no longer take these blessings for granted because I know my days as a soloist are limited. I’m getting older every second, after all, and nothing lasts forever. 

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Between those performances I also had the communion solo for two church services.  So it was a very busy weekend, and I will admit that by the time it was all finished, I was pretty worn out.  Still, this kind of activity gives me much more than it takes out of me.

Part of the concert program was the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah”, a familiar and beloved sacred choral and orchestral work, and a demanding one.  My “Messiah” score is the one I have used for every performance I have ever done since college.  It is 31 years old.  I purchased it as a college freshman because my voice teacher wanted me to learn some of the soprano solos in it, and even though we did not perform “Messiah” that year, he knew I’d need the score for the next year (and for the rest of my life!).  So he told me to go ahead and buy it.  It may be the single most-used piece of music I own to this day.

Even when I have sung portions of the work with church choirs that used a different edition, I have always used my own score.  It is old and worn, with some dog-eared page corners and rusty marks from paper clips of years gone by, like little scars on the page.  It contains markings from the conductors I’ve worked with and from the voice teachers who have coached me, as well as my own unique system of symbols and notes to remind myself to watch, to straighten my tone, to shape a phrase or to raise my eyebrows so I don’t go flat.  It’s a sort of shorthand developed over decades.  I have my own language of markings, and every other musician I know has theirs as well.  It’s as unique as a fingerprint, and just as personal.

As I have asserted before, I am a collector, of objects and of memories, and I am sentimental about all of them.  My “Messiah” score is much more to me than a piece of music.  It is Scripture set to music, the story of Jesus in types and shadows, and as substance and promise fulfilled.  It is also a sort of scrapbook, a memory album of the many times I have raised my voice to offer the gift God gave me back to Him, alone as a soloist and with a chorus of other musicians.  So much more than words and notes on paper, my ‘Messiah” score is a trusted friend, filled with my memories of musical offerings past and dreams of the ones yet to come. 

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Falling

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Why this is a hard time of the year…

I awoke to gentle rain this morning and would have loved to stay in bed, cocooned in sleepy warmth.  But there is work to be done and a living to be made, so I reluctantly dragged myself from my cozy bed and got my day started with the regular routine of vitamins, bath, makeup/hair and getting dressed and out the door.  Our Boy Roy is a morning dog, so as usual he got up when I did and kept me company as I went about my morning.

The rain intensified as I drove to work and as the rain fell, so, it seemed, did the remaining leaves on the trees.  It’s always a little sad when the last of the leaves drift to the ground, especially when a rain seems to beat them down prematurely.  But it is November, and the leaves can’t hold on forever.  The rhythm of the seasons is unstoppable, and as fall deepens and winter approaches, the last of the leaves must inevitably let go.

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This time of year brings memories of Mama in the hospital and a different letting-go process, as she began to release her earthly life and turn toward her Heavenly one.  From her hospital window we could see the shifting seasons as the vibrant autumn leaves fell softly from the trees outside, whipped by wind sometimes, or battered by rain.  Inside her room the only color seemed to be pale…pale walls, pale sheets, Mama’s pale face.  Her whole life she had been so vibrant, until sickness drained all the color out of her.

So it is with the death of the leaves in the fall, and with Mama’s dying process that I always seem to re-live at this time of year.  I like to imagine that Heaven is filled with all the beauty of all the seasons, all at once.  We can witness the majesty of snow without being cold, the rich reds and golds of fall, and spring and summer’s lavenders, pinks and greens will be more saturated than we can begin to imagine here, with no harsh winds or battering rains.  Our loved ones’ faces will be rosy and glowing with perfect health and wholeness, and the Sun of Righteousness will shine His radiant light throughout Heaven’s kingdom.

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Piercing Memories

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Style, substance and sentiment…

Aunt Ruby pierced my ears the first time when I was 7 or 8 years old.  I don’t remember exactly when she did it, but I remember the setting vividly.  I sat at the end of the kitchen table in the house on Arnold Street.  She rubbed my earlobes with alcohol while Mama looked on, probably expecting me to change my mind at the last minute.  After each earlobe was sterilized, Aunt Ruby took a blue ballpoint Bic Stic pen and marked a spot on one ear and then the other, making sure they were straight and even.  After this, she sterilized her sewing machine needle with alcohol and poked holes in my lobes as quickly as possible, (she never bothered with trying to numb them using ice cubes) inserting a pair of her own 14-karat gold stud earrings as my starter pair.   She had cleaned them with alcohol as well, and instructed me to twist the posts around several times a day and to dab more alcohol around them daily to avoid infection while they healed.  I was not to remove or change earrings for 6 weeks, again, to minimize the risk of infection.

I remember that it hurt a little, but it was not too bad, and there was only a tiny little bit of blood.  Most of the shots I’ve had in doctors’ offices have hurt worse than getting my ears pierced.  I couldn’t wait for my Daddy to come home from work so I could show him my newly pierced ears.  I felt very grown-up and sophisticated, like I had taken a step toward adult ladyhood.

Mama always joked that her body would reject anything that was not at least 14-karat gold, and she always wore good earrings because her ears were sensitive.  And she insisted on my wearing good earrings as well to avoid irritation and infection.  She began to build me a small but good quality jewelry collection and taught me how to appreciate and care for good earrings, rings and necklaces.  Once I got older and realized that my ears were less sensitive than hers were, I ventured into the world of fashion or “costume” jewelry.  I’ve even been known to wear colorful thumb tacks in my ears if they matched an outfit!

When I left for my freshman year of college, I received 2 pairs of earrings as gifts.  From Dad I received a pair of gold ball studs to go with the add-a-bead necklace Mama had been adding to for me (they were all the rage at the time).  And my brother, Reed, gave me a pair of small, beautiful pearl stud earrings almost exactly like the ones of Mama’s that I had borrowed so many times for dressy occasions.

Summer after my junior year of college I had Aunt Ruby pierce my ears a second time.  I was engaged and my sweet husband-to-be had given me 2 pairs of earrings while we were dating, and I knew I wanted to wear both pairs on our wedding day.  Once again, I sat at the end of Aunt Ruby’s kitchen table with alcohol, Bic Stic pen, and sewing machine needle at the ready, the accoutrements of the familiar ritual of piercing and bonding.  Again there was a sting and a bit of blood, and the familiar instructions for keeping my new piercings infection-free.  This was June of 1985.  I remember the date because a friend from school got married the next week and she noticed my new piercings at the reception.

Flash forward 20 years to 2005.  It was October and the weather was cooling off.  Aunt Ruby was 80 years old at this point and her eyesight was failing.  I’d been wanting one last piercing in my left ear for quite a while and I figured I’d better go ahead and have her do it before she got to the point that she couldn’t anymore.  This last ritual did not take place at the kitchen table on Arnold Street.  Aunt Elaine’s husband was dying with cancer, and Aunt Ruby was staying with them for comfort and moral support.  So my last piercing happened in Aunt Elaine’s bathroom.  It was, I am positive, Aunt Ruby’s last piercing as well.  She didn’t have the hand strength she had enjoyed when she was younger, and she had a little more trouble getting the sewing machine needle through my earlobe.  Again, a little sting and a bit of blood, piercing and bonding.

I am very sentimental about my piercings because of the stories behind them.  Aunt Ruby pierced countless ears of family members and neighborhood girls (and the occasional boy).  Each earring has a story as well.  Some were Mama’s, some gifts from The Aunts, some from Jeff, my sweet husband.

And you might ask, why 5 piercings and not 6?  It’s a good question.  The best answer is that I’ve always felt a little bit askew, like nothing about me really “matched”.  The 5th piercing reminds me that it’s OK to be a little off-center, a little quirky.  Aunt Ruby loved me, quirkiness and all.

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Beauty, Truth And Goodness

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Thinking upon these things…

This weekend was Homecoming on the campus of my alma mater, Carson-Newman University (although it was still Carson-Newman College when I graduated), an event which I always anticipate with excitement and joy.  This particular weekend was unique in that on Friday, current and alumni members of A Cappella Choir gathered in the sanctuary of First Baptist on the corner of campus to rehearse and record a Christmas CD.  Approximately 180 singers assembled, graduates from the 1950’s all the way up to last year, as well as current student members of the choir.  This event was held in honor of Dr. Eric Thorson (“Doc”) and his 30th anniversary directing A Cappella Choir.

I looked forward to this for months, imagining the fun of seeing old friends and sharing memories and fellowship, as well as the chance to make music with them and a number of my current crop of Delta Omicron students for whom I serve as Chapter Mother.  I knew it would be a special time together.  In my head I knew this…but I had no idea how glorious the experience would actually be.  I am still overwhelmed and processing all of it as I write and share here.

We began the day with a welcome and some announcements from Doc, and for our sound check we sang the college hymn, “God of Beauty, Truth and Goodness”, a beautiful hymn commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the college.  My ears and heart were filled with the sound of all of us lifting voices to one another and to the God we honored with our hymn.  And tears began to flow as I remembered so many wonderful times in the choir when I was a student.

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My years in A Cappella happened on the cusp of a changing era.  Prior to Doc’s tenure with the choir, A Cappella was directed and led by Charles Harrison Jones, affectionately known by decades of students as “Fessor”.   This man was a legend and lots of my peers were so intimidated by his reputation that they would not even audition for him.  I guess I didn’t have sense enough to be scared, because as a freshman I auditioned and was accepted into A Cappella in the fall of 1982, my first semester of college.  In the second semester I was accepted into a select group from choir known as “Renaissance”, which sang featured selections as we toured during spring break.  Fessor could be intense at times, and he was a big personality with a conducting style as unique as his DNA.  I remember how he used to go down the row and have people sing phrases individually, sort of like a vocal pop quiz.  One day he did this with the sopranos, and when he got to me, I sang my phrase and he pointed and me and shouted “GOOD!”  And I shouted back just as loudly, “THANK YOU!”  Someone told me later on that they couldn’t believe “a freshman had the nerve to do that!”  It was just me being me, even way back then.  And Fessor appreciated that.  My freshman year was his last year directing A Cappella, and I have always been so proud to have sung in Fessor’s last A Cappella Choir.  After he retired and I had graduated, he was directing another choir and he graciously hired me as a soloist for a couple of concerts, which were my very first paying gigs as a singer.  He referred me to another director who hired me for more work.  Fessor demanded musical excellence and valued work ethic and character.  He was a gifted musician, and one of the humblest people I ever met.

My sophomore year was when Doc took the reins of A Cappella upon Fessor’s retirement.  Doc also had the “joy” of being my academic advisor for my college years.  I have always said that he did a tour of duty getting me out of school on time and deserved combat pay and a medal for doing so!  In his own humble way, he always chuckles and says it was no big deal.  HIs conducting style was, and is, very different from Fessor’s, and there was a period of adjustment as he began his tenure with the choir.  As different as their personalities and conducting styles were, they shared a passionate commitment to excellence in musicianship and a self-effacing humility.  I consider myself doubly blessed to have sung in Fessor’s last A Cappella Choir and Doc’s first one.  Now I sing with Doc as he conducts Knoxville Choral Society and Chamber Chorale, and it is a joy to have the opportunity to continue my musical journey in this way.

On Friday as we sang the college hymn for sound check, the voices of generations of alumni and current students washed over me in a wave of emotion.  I felt a surge in both my soul and body and almost came completely undone by the magnitude of it all.  And I distinctly felt the presence of our beloved Fessor, who passed away several years ago at age 92.  He was with us in that room.  And I believe that both he and the Lord were pleased by our efforts as we sang and recorded our Christmas offering, adding “The Benediction” at the end.  I had the best seat in the house, on the front row between 2 of my very talented Delta Omicron students with a row of my peers from the 1980’s right behind us.  Past and present folded around me like a warm hug.

“The Lord Bless You and Keep You” by Peter C. Lutkin has been A Cappella’s closing benediction for decades, even since before Fessor’s time with the choir.   It is as sacred to us as scripture, which, in fact, it is.  The words are taken from Numbers 6: 24-26.  It binds us to one another, to members past, present and future.  We hold hands as we sing it, a tradition that I believe my peers in the 1980’s started, although I could be mistaken about that.  We never use music.  We don’t need it.  The singing of it evokes memories of tours, concerts, musical and spiritual moments shared, friendships forged, lessons learned and, I believe, a foretaste of what Heaven must sound like.

Beauty, truth and goodness indeed.

Steppin’ In It

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Because life is short

Sometimes walking along the path of life, I step in it. You know the “it” I mean…the metaphorical pile of poop that stinks up my shoes and makes a bit of a mess. The only way to avoid steppin’ in it is never to take a step at all.

Before Mama died, I was much more insecure about reaching out to people who might reject me. I was afraid of getting hurt and looking foolish. Mama’s death changed my perspective about many things, including risk. In the 18 months following her death, 5 of my co-workers experienced the death of a parent. In each case I had a choice, either to risk reaching out in compassion or to stay inside myself and my own grief. And in each case I opted to reach out…to take the risk of opening myself to another hurting person. And I never regretted it.

Right now I have several friends who are dealing with illness and grief in their lives, and since their lives touch mine, I am touched by their suffering. My heart hurts for all of our feelings of helplessness and lack of control over circumstances. Self-preservation nudges me to isolate myself from their suffering in an effort to minimize my own.

But my heart of hearts urges me to step into their pain, to lean into human frailty and to try to shore up those around me who suffer. As I walk alongside, my shoes may become soiled with their blood, sweat and tears, and my arms may ache from trying to help carry their load. But it’s the only way I know to live.

My life is constantly teaching me lessons about how fragile we humans are, how fast time passes and how important it is not to leave things undone. I do not want to die regretting the thing I DIDN’T do or say. Sometimes saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done means steppin’ in it…and if that’s the case, then so be it.

Jesus knows the path we walk, including through the valley of the shadow of death. He knows what we step in. He washed the disciples’ feet, after all. I like to imagine a welcome mat at the pearly gates where we can shake off all that we’ve stepped in here as we prepare to enter Heaven.

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