Empty Nests and Full Hearts

I jotted these thoughts a while ago while watching a mama mourning dove raising her babies. Sent them to a friend wrestling with the reality of her kids leaving the nest.

I watched a mama mourning dove raise a baby just outside my kitchen window this spring. I discovered her by accident when I went to plant flowers in a hanging basket and off she fluttered! I peeked at the eggs, smiled, and planted those flowers elsewhere. For the next several weeks I watched that peaceful little gray mama shelter those eggs, sitting still, rocking slightly in the breeze, enduring sun and rain and me looking out the window at her sometimes. We made eye contact. (Yes I know it’s a bird. But still.) I thought of her a lot. A few weeks later I saw the funniest looking little gray baby poking its beak out of that nest! The mama was extra vigilant then and I kept my cat away from the back yard. Just in case.

That baby grew fast! In just a few weeks it was too big for the mama to sit on any more. They just snuggled close together and I liked that a whole lot. It was sweet to watch. And then yesterday morning I heard cooing and fluttering, and when I looked out the window, the nest was empty. No mama. No baby. Not on the ground, not nearby, just gone.

I wonder if the mama looks back on those days in her cozy little nest wistfully. Not sure if birds have the ability to remember and reflect. For sure she did her job well, and now it’s on to the next thing. She’s not moping around the nest. I haven’t seen her. Probably she’s somewhere getting a pedicure and eating a worm souffle, I don’t know.

Even in the craziness of family life, and I’m sure you know this, there is a normalcy, a cadence, and right now, that’s missing. Nothing feels normal at the moment except this notion that more change is on the horizon. And you know what? That is okay. We can adapt to pretty much anything. Our growing/grown kids have shaped and made us, even though the void left by their absence is, initially, huge. Alone, after all those years of togetherness…is that supposed to be a goal? My daughter has suggested I foster dogs. I would be the woman walking around the neighborhood with crazy hair and fifteen dogs on leashes. Not letting any of them leave. No, I think that’s not my best bet.

So I don’t have all the answers, or even many answers…but I can tell you, you’re not alone in grappling with this transition. Don’t lose your sense of humor. And I’ve seen your family photos. You HAVE to have that. Any family as close as yours, or mine, has shared experiences that can cause laughter to erupt without warning. And now, at the moment, tears. So hang in there, my friend, and keep smiling.

I was working on a project site today and met six of the sharpest young sailors in the fleet. They were part of a working party and OH BY THE WAY if you ever need to get anything done, you call on a Navy working party, and there is nothing you can’t do with their help! Anyway I enjoyed meeting them, and talking with them, and they were delighted to just have somebody talk to them that wasn’t trying to sell them something at a mall kiosk. I thought of all the Navy sons and daughters I’ve known and loved through the years, and how reassuring it is to know that our country is in such good and capable and energetic hands. And I thought, I don’t wish them back here. They are doing what they trained to do. They’re ready. They’re strong. And it’s time.


Issues and Bear Hunts

I read an essay by a favorite writer this week (Joseph Epstein) in which he delved into words and their meanings. Three words, in particular. It was one of those things I read, and read again, and thought about, and kept thinking about.

The words? Pretty simple. Issue. Question. Problem. We use them all pretty freely. Especially “issue.” Wow, do we love that word. Everybody has an issue with something. It’s a fairly safe word. There’s just not a whole lot of accountability there. You can’t argue with the statement, “I have issues with…” Whatever. Big hairy spiders. Fried food. Thunderstorms. Inconsiderate neighbors who party in their pool at all hours like they are the only people on the planet.

It is possible that we have somewhat overused the word “issue” in our modern vernacular. And the danger in doing that is when a word can be such a gigantic blue tarp covering all manner of situations and conditions, it can lose its original intended use and meaning. As Epstein says, “A happy vagueness resides in the loose use of the word issue.

What’s the difference between an issue, a question, and a problem? Aren’t those words reasonably interchangeable? Can’t we have, say, hair issues, hair questions, and hair problems?

Of course! But I love how Epstein, while working as senior editor at Encyclopaedia Brittanica, learned the distinctions between those three words from HIS chief, Mortimer Adler: “A problem calls for a solution, a question for an answer, and an issue is something in the flux of controversy.”

How much more clear does it get? It seems like it’s so easy to use the word “issue” to cover a host of subjects precisely because it requires no action. It’s fairly innocuous. It doesn’t demand an answer or a solution. It just IS.

So if, when we assume, we make asses out of you and me (c’mon, that’s how teachers taught people to spell ‘assume’ when I was in school), what do issues make? Isses? Out of you and…well…us? It’s not very elegant. But maybe issues just make IS-es that hover around wringing their little soft hands, muttering quietly, getting underfoot, and interfering with progress. We can’t resolve them. We can’t get around them. We can’t dismiss them. What do we do with them?

When my daughters were little, they adored the book Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. Relished it. Asked for it nightly. Word to the wise: This. Is. Not. A. Bedtime. Story. Why not? Well, because despite its lovely illustrations and lilting storyline and deceptively small size, it is an action book. It draws you in. The bear hunt demands action. It just does. And the best person I know to read the bear hunt story is my mother’s oldest younger brother Dan, who absolutely nails the cadence and drama of the story and leaves streams of hysterical kids in his wake like a comet, none of whom are remotely ready for bed. But I digress.

When we go on a bear hunt, we encounter all kinds of things. Gates. Mountains. Giant fields of wavy grass. Rivers. Caves. And eventually…the bear itself! Likewise, when we go on an “issue hunt,” we encounter all kinds of things. Mostly giant question marks. The main one being, is this really an issue? Or, based on Epstein’s definitions above, is it a problem that has a solution, or a question that has an answer? And, like the bear hunt, the only way to resolve that question isn’t to waffle around in definitional limbo. (You know you like that phrase. Feel free to use it somewhere. It’s on the house.) You can’t go over, around, under, or beside the issue. You have to face it head on, and see whether it really IS an issue.

Turns out most of the things we call issues these days really are problems and questions masquerading as issues. They can be solved. They can be answered. And we can move on to bigger and better bear hunts.

Best You Ever Tasted

Recently our area was featured in Southern Living magazine. I read that photo-studded feature with interest, nodding like a proud parent when I recognized familiar places. Turns out there are quite a few places I don’t know around here. And it turns out the editors of that great publication missed a few places I’ve discovered in my decades here as a geographical in-law. Like where to go for certain things. And when I’m looking for a one-stop shop for some of the best local produce, baked goods, and now a brand-spankin’-new seafood counter, I know exactly where to go.

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Ever had a near-religious experience sifting tiny red-skinned creamer potatoes through your fingers? Driven an hour for the season’s first Silver King sweet corn? Followed your nose to heaping flats of fresh local strawberries stacked near a giant inflatable strawberry?

Burris Farm Market in Loxley, Alabama is a favorite Gulf Coast vegetation destination. It’s usually a challenge to find a parking spot in the gravel lot because so many people are discovering the place. Tourists and locals alike meander through shoppers deep in thought and market workers restocking the broad tables and enormous bins, weighing the merits of pole beans versus snap beans, reaching for baskets of perfectly ripe local tomatoes still warm from the field, and hefting watermelon, cantaloupe, grapefruit, and crisp apples into their carts. I plan whole meals around a solid head of broccoli and a straw basket of sweet potatoes. All the ingredients for the freshest pico de gallo are laid out on beds of crushed ice, ready for the picking, and I daydream down the length of a whole wall of dressings, pickles, preserves, and the best local honey anywhere. A bottle of Vidalia onion–tomato dressing seems to have my name on it and it lands in the cart next to a bunch of the sweetest new Vidalia onions.

When the season is right, cartons of fresh marionberries big as a man’s thumb turn up near buckets bursting with bouquets of fresh cut flowers. Tables heavy with local peaches sweeten the summer air. Outside, a deep overhanging roof provides just enough shade for giant hanging ferns.

Waiting in line to pay for my bounty, I page casually through a couple of cookbooks written by the grand dames of the market’s Burris family. I’m immediately struck by the sense of being in the writer’s kitchen, getting a firsthand lesson on how to cut up a chicken for chicken and dumplings, glaze a Smithfield ham, and assemble banana puddin’. Of course the cookbook finds its way into my basket. How can you put a price tag on a lifetime of Southern kitchen experience?

A cheerful café anchors the market’s north end. Colorful posters, vintage metal signs, and antique kitchen tools brighten the walls. Ceiling fans trace lazy circles overhead, stirring the air and sending the heavenly fragrance of fresh baked breads and pies past the noses of folks patiently waiting their turn at the counter or settled in sturdy metal chairs around wood-topped round tables that have heard a lifetime of conversations. Because you can fit more people around a round table. Everybody knows that, right?.

And the glass-faced counter is a triumph. Crusty loaves of homemade bread, fresh-baked pies oozing jeweled fruit filling, thick, chewy chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies, inch-thick lemon bars dusted with powdered sugar…it’s almost impossible to choose just one thing. The menu, written on a chalkboard behind the counter, changes by season. Spring is always strawberry shortcake. Summer is cobbler — peach, blackberry, apple, and strawberry. Fall is apple crisp and pecan pie, and the cooler winter months are given over to chocolate temptations including, near Christmas, triple layer Red Velvet Cake. Banana puddin’ is always on the menu, and so is Mississippi mud cake, and bread pudding.

No matter how disciplined I am going in to the café, I always seem emerge with something for now, and something for later, and a guilty grin on my face. In fact, wandering through the market, it’s pretty much impossible to find anybody unhappy in there. You know you’re surrounded by people who hold the secrets to life — or at least the secrets to eating well.

You know you want to go. Burris Farm Market is on the corner of South Hickory Street and Highway 59 in Loxley, Alabama, about 40 miles west of Pensacola. It’s open every day, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Trust me. It’s worth going.