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Going to the beach has changed a lot since my younger days, many of which I whiled away on the white sands of Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast. My best friend and I would ease on down the road from Citronelle to the coast with little more than our bathing suits and a towel. No cooler. No umbrella. Maybe some sunscreen. Maybe not.

It seems most everyone else on the beach with us took a similar approach. There might have been someone with an old Igloo and a 6-pack or two, a few boys might toss around a football to show off for the girlies, and, every now and then, you might luck up on a hotel that had rental chairs with an umbrella shading them. But for the most part, people just sat in the sand and baked or dabbled about in the waves. Life, and the beach, was simple then.

A recent trip to Florida got me thinking about how different beach goers are today, and I’ve decided that nouveau coast crawlers fall into a few distinct categories.

  1. The Readers – Usually found curled up in a sliver of shade with a hardback version of War and Peace, the Reader would much prefer to have stayed inside in the cool and dark. The Reader only goes to the beach because the rest of his family wants to and because it affords him long stretches of uninterrupted book time. If given half a chance, however, the Reader will sneak away to the nearest book store forsaking the smell of salt air for the scent of ink and paper.
  2. The Minimalists – These folks wander out on the beach, drop their towel in a wad on the ground, and head into the water. They seem to enjoy being completely covered in sand and having all of their things covered in sand. The Minimalist tends to be a practitioner of yoga and can often be seen running through a quick Sun Salutation or standing on their head or contorting themselves into crane pose. While I do admire their rock-hard abs and sinewy strength (my only six-pack is in the cooler with some limes), I don’t admire their sandy butt cheeks all up in my ocean view.beach
  3. The Tent-makers – If you get up around dawn and look out the window, inevitably you will see some poor fellow dragging a monstrous party tent to the edge of the water. Go get yourself a cup of coffee and sit on the balcony and watch him wrassle the thing up, fighting the wind the whole time. As you make your way through your second cup, you can see him struggle with sandbags and stakes and string while his brothers in arms join him in a similar fight to raise their shelters. I always imagine that there is a wife somewhere, still snoozing, who has demanded that he drag out at the crack of dawn to claim the best spot — or else, mister! By 8 a.m., your peaceful view of the waves lapping against the sandy shore will be almost completely obliterated by a rainbow of nylon shelters often proclaiming allegiance to one team or another. Throughout the course of the day, large, extended families will huddle like refugees under these contraptions, constantly scooting around to stay out of the sun like a herd of cows under a singular shade tree. Come cocktail hour, otherwise known as 4 p.m., as you relax on your balcony with an icy libation, you can watch the same Sad Sack(s), only now a little drunk and a lot sunburned, trudge back out to the shoreline, wrassle the whole thing down, and drag it across the lava-like afternoon sand with a look of resignation knowing that he will have to go through the whole rigamarole again tomorrow. Now that’s a vacation.
  4. The Boozers – It’s one thing to have a few cold ones on the beach. It’s another thing entirely to commence to drinking all day, fall across a few sunbathers, holler out some team chant or obscenity, and pass out face-down in the sand. Moderation, dear people, moderation.
  5. The Leopards – You can always tell a leopard by his spots…of sunburn. These are the people that haphazardly apply sunscreen and wind up with clumpy, sandy, white smears of SPF 100 over some of their parts while totally neglecting some of their other parts resulting in an unsightly pattern of frog-belly white and angry red spots. And much like a leopard whose spots will never change, these people will never learn the art of sunscreen application and will forever be outed by their blotchy flesh.
  6. The Hunters – Out at dawn and toting a Walmart sack are the Hunters, combing the beaches to claim every good shell that has washed up in the night. Heads down, shoulders hunched, eyes sweeping the surf, they are on the hunt for the big one, the real treasure, the one just like they saw at Souvenir City. No mere angel wing will suffice.
  7. Sporty McSportenstein – A vigorous dawn jog amongst the Hunters and the Tent-makers is not enough. Sporty will spend the day paddle boarding, canoeing, wakeboarding, and bike riding. By the end of the day you’ll think his little section of the beach is an Academy Sports and Outdoors ad. If you look close enough, you’ll find a Reader hiding under a surfboard praying that he/she won’t be asked to participate.
  8. The Ballers – Whether it’s football, baseball, pickleball, paddleball, beach ball, volleyball, bocce ball, frisbee (just a flat ball), and/or corn hole (technically a beanbag, I know), these folks must constantly be throwing something to somebody, usually in front of all the other vacationers. Note to all y’all Ballers: If you find yourself having to say “I’m sorry” to your fellow wave watchers more than twice in a period of a few minutes as they dive away from your instrument of destruction, you should shove it where the sun don’t shine…back into your beach bag.

So as you head down to the beach this summer, think about which category of beach-goer you fall into and try to spot the others. No matter who you are, the main thing to remember is to be respectful of your fellow vacationers. Don’t block their view. Don’t disturb them with your games. Try to be mindful of your space and their’s.

Oh, there’s one more category:

  1. The Observer – Under her rented umbrella, sipping on a Corona with lime, carefully taking notes about you will be the Observer. She will be wearing dark glasses and a wide-brimmed hat to obscure her eyes. If you cross her field of vision, you should be aware that you are only providing her with inspiration for a story and that she thanks you, even if you did hit her with your pickle ball.

Money. Politics. Religion.

Granny said one should never discuss these three topics in polite company. The key word here? “Polite.” That’s why even though I am a writer, a blogger, I try to avoid these topics. Manners, y’all. Manners.

But sometimes you have to wade into the muck. Sometimes you have to speak your piece. Granny, forgive me.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine, a black friend. She told me how she and her mother had traveled from Birmingham to a small central-Alabama town to go to a particular shop. She mentioned that they had been scared to make the drive. Scared. Not because they worried about having a wreck, or a flat tire, or running out of gas. Scared because they were two black women driving through a rural, white county.

Scared.

I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never experienced that sort of fear. It’s never even crossed my mind. As a woman, I’ve certainly been cautious about where I went and when I went there, but I’ve never been scared because I was white. I’ve also never been scared because I was straight. I’ve never had anyone make disparaging comments about Husband and me, or our family, or our lifestyle. At least not to my face.

But here’s something that does scare me: Intolerance. And ignorance. Both of which breed hate. Both of which make people scared.

The recent tragedy in Charleston where nine black people were gunned down in their church by a white boy in addition to the Supreme Court’s decision that gay couples are entitled to marry has ignited tremendous, contentious, and often ugly debate. Should the Confederate flag come down? Should it stay up? Should judges follow the Supreme Court’s ruling? Should they issue any marriage licenses?

And throughout this debate the South has gotten a bad rap — rightfully so —  because we are shackled by our collective ignorance and intolerance. We are blinded by years of dark history we can’t seem to overcome. We are deafened by the pounding of Bibles. And despite the fact that I am Alabama born and bred, I’ll be the first to admit that Southerners are many bad things, including racist.

So is everyone.

As long as there are people dragging their knuckles across the face of the earth, there will be someone who doesn’t like somebody else because of the color of their skin. Black. White. Mexican. Asian. Mixed. There will also always be homophobes. And radical Christians. And anti-Semites. And pro-lifers. And pro-choicers. And chauvinists. And feminists. And terrorists of all stripes. And fat shamers. And victim blamers. And people who just flat don’t like you for no apparent reason.

Is it right? Well, no.

Is it wrong? Well, yes.

But it’s human nature. Everyone has at one time or another — no matter how much you try not to, no matter how much you want to deny it, no matter how much you wish you could say you didn’t — had a hateful thought. I’ve had plenty of thoughts I wish I hadn’t. Thoughts that caught me by surprise. Thoughts that I was ashamed of. You have too. And if you say you haven’t, you’re either a bald-faced liar or too blinded by your prejudice to recognize the hate in your heart.

So what is to be done? What is to be done in the last state to legalize interracial marriage (not quite 15 years ago)? What is to be done in a state that insists on winding up on the wrong side of history?

Better. That’s really all we can do. That’s really what we have to do. Better. Every day.

We have to listen better. Speak better. Try to understand better. Mind our own beeswax, cornbread, and shoe tacks better. Learn better. Love better. Live better.

Maybe I’m too naive, too innocent, too Pollyanna. Maybe we can’t do better. But I think we can. If we look back to Granny’s advice, we’ll find a key – not to avoid these hard, painful, important topics, but to approach them as members of a “polite” society. Listen to the arguments. Research the history. Speak clearly and calmly. Educate yourselves. Be civil. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, just for a minute.

Imagine that you are black or gay. Imagine that your family/lifestyle/job/home/church is threatened. Imagine that you are scared.

Then do better.

There is a cranny way back in the farthest corner of my brain. In that cranny lives a memory. Buried far beneath the births, deaths, tragedies, joys, holidays, and everydays that have piled on top of it, this little fragment has languished, long undisturbed.

At least, that is, until the other day when KA-BLAP!!! Just like that, it came rushing back all at once. A deluge of images. Like watching telephone poles race by the car window.

What, you may ask, drew this memory out from its peaceful, dark hidey-hole?

A magnolia — rather the scent of a magnolia.magnolia

It was about dusk. Husband and I decided to take a stroll through our neighborhood because that’s what you do on a hot, summer night when you’re too restless to stay inside but not motivated to do much of anything else. You walk. Slowly. Aimlessly. Feeling the still night air wrap you in its swampy embrace.

When the air is motionless and heavy, the summer scents seem enhanced, heightened, ponderous. And as we passed an ancient magnolia tree, the sweet, lemony tang of its perfume engulfed me and lifted me up to the tippiest of its tip-top branches, and suddenly I could see out over the piney woods of South Alabama. At least in my mind’s eye.

You see, as a child, I was a climber. I’d climb any tree just to see if I could, and I had decided to climb Granny’s magnolia tree. The one way down by the road. The one by the gate. The one I’d never conquered. A relatively low-hanging branch was all I needed. My arms reached for it. One great heave. Get a knee up! A leg! Push! Push!

And just like that I was on my way up.

Like a ladder I climbed that old tree. Climbed until the branches were thin and the trunk swayed under my weight. Climbed until I couldn’t climb any more. So I sat. I sat in the shade of its thick leaves, shiny and velvety. Sat among the blossoms. Sat breathing in the fragrance of its great, white blossoms. I sat for what seemed like a long, long time drinking in the sounds around me, the sights, the smells.

Looking toward Granny’s house, I wondered if it was getting close to lunchtime. Had they called for me? Would I even be able to hear them? Would they hear me if I called out? Would they even miss me if I got stuck in that tree, never to be seen or heard from again, pecked apart by the buzzards that always seemed to circle?

The number one thing a tree-climber learns is that going up is easy. The trick is getting down. And now, for the first time, I wondered if I could.

With hands slick from sweat and grimy from the bark, I slowly made my decent. Don’t look down. Just feel your way. Don’t panic. One foot. One hand. There’s a good branch. There’s another. Hold on. Breathe. Just fill your lungs with the soothing scent of mother magnolia, and she will gently let you down to earth again.

And that she did, way back then and the other night when a faint breeze blew the scent, and the scene, away.

Olfactory memory. That’s what it’s called when a mere smell triggers something deep within you. A gift. That’s what I call being transported back in time forty years straight to the top of a tree.

Today I witnessed history.flag

On this misty, gray morning, I stood outside the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham and watched a bright rainbow flag wave as Alabama became the 37th state to allow same-sex marriages. I watched Jefferson County Probate judges uphold the law and defy bigotry, hate, and fear. I saw families embrace, relieved and joyful that they are now afforded equal protection under the law.

Today I witnessed history.

I stood in the crowd, jostled about as the first couple emerged and were enveloped by supporters, their banners protecting the two women from agitators, zealots, and proselytizers brandishing crosses and spewing vile words. I watched while supporters and protesters sang “Jesus Loves Me,” their voices blending together in a loud chorus, their ideologies like oil and water. I saw that both groups believed those words to be true.

Today I witnessed history.

I stood on the grass in Linn Park and watched two women promise to love, honor, and cherish each other forever and ever, Amen. I watched them choke back happy tears and remembered how my husband and I were married at this same courthouse. I saw that I had taken for granted how easy it was for me to marry the person I love.

Today I witnessed history.

I stood among gay and straight, black and white, men and women, all gathered together to celebrate the dawn of a new era in Alabama. I watched the old guard of conservatism give way to a new regime of tolerance and acceptance. I saw the dark clouds part and the sun shine through.

Today I witnessed history.

Orange_juiceOrange juice.

Oh, how those 2 words haunted me.

Orange juice. Orange juice. Orange juice.

Sounds just like Audrey. At least according to Ronnie. Scrawny, freckled, buck-toothed Ronnie — my fourth grade nemesis.

Once he made this brilliant connection, that’s all he called me. Over and over again in his singsongy, squeaky voice. I hated the nickname. And I hated Ronnie.

All through the fall he doggedly continued to call me by his chosen moniker. In the classroom. At the buses. On the playground.

“Red rover, red rover,
Send Orange Juice right over!”

The worst part? You have to run right over. Everyone knows who Orange Juice is so it’s not like you can stay in the line quizzically looking around.

Who is this “Orange Juice” to whom they refer? Me? Certainly not.

I wanted to run right over and knock Ronnie’s protruding front teeth down his throat, but all I could do was hurl myself through the clasped hands, tumbling past their grins. The faster I got back in line, the faster they would forget. Send somebody else on over.

I hoped that the long Christmas break would cloud Ronnie’s memory. Maybe distracted by toys, and candy, and Santa Claus, he would forget all about me. I was wrong. On the very first day back, even before the Pledge of Allegiance, I heard “Heeeeyyyy, Orrrr-aaaannngggeee Joooooossssss!”

I shot him my stoniest, nine-year-old glare.

Whither, you moron, whither under my icy stare.

Ronnie didn’t whither. In fact, my increasing exasperation only added to his delight. “Whatcha mad about, Orrrr-aaaannngggeee Joooooossssss?”

January turned to February, and the class Valentine’s Day party was coming up. We were going to have cupcakes and Kool-aid. The teacher instructed us to bring Valentines to exchange. “Remember, bring one for everyone,” Mrs. Turner said.

Everyone? Even my arch enemy? Even…him!?

The night before the party, I sat at the dining table with my box of paper Valentines. Mentally, I went down each row in the class addressing each little envelope. Pamela. Alice. Amanda. David. Darrell. Stanley. Rachel. Mark.

Ronnie.

Would he know if I spit in his envelope?

The next day, I got to school with my little sack of Valentines. The classroom was decorated with construction paper hearts and the reading table held the cupcakes and Kool-aid. Mama came to the school for the party along with some of the other mothers, and when everyone had assembled, Mrs. Turner said “Alright, children, you may get up to trade your Valentines!”

We began to file around the room, putting a little card on every desk.

“Where’s my Valentine, Orrrr-aaaannngggeee Joooooossssss?”

Right here! I thought, as I reared back and kicked Ronnie as hard as I could square in the shin.

And here! And here! And here!

I kicked him until he crawled under the table of cupcakes to get away. I kicked him as the rest of the class stood in stunned silence. I kicked him for every time he had called me that awful name.

I kicked him until Mama dragged me away.

Mrs. Turner made me sit in the corner for the rest of the party. I didn’t get a cupcake. I didn’t get any Kool-aid. I didn’t care.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Ronnie, I thought with a smile. Love, Orange Juice.

The pearl handle pocket knife.

Once Christmas long ago Granny gave Baw a pearl handle pocket knife. A gentleman’s knife, it was a fine little thing, a knife you could take to church. No, it’s wasn’t any ordinary everyday knife to scrape the dirt from under one’s nails or sharpen a pencil. It was fancy, like a piece of jewelry you could carry in your pocket.

Somehow, though, in all the Christmas whirlwind of tissue, colored paper, and ribbon, the pearl handle pocket knife was lost. Baw was crestfallen. Despondent. A search was launched. Had it been thrown away with the trash!? The knife was never to be found, and we never knew what happened to it.

And so the pearl handle pocket knife became part of family lore.

Every Christmas since, when someone receives a tiny treasure, as soon as the teensy gift has been opened and exclaimed upon, someone will say, “Put it away! Don’t let it be like the pearl handle pocket knife!” You can count on it. Every year.

This Christmas, the presents had all been opened, the pearl handle pocket knife invoked, and all the trash gathered and taken out to the dumpster. As we were basking in the holiday glow and contemplating a preprandial libation, it occurred to me that I had not seen Mama open one of my gifts to her — her main gift — a string of quartz, pearl, and turquoise beads. Had I wrapped it? Where was it? Surely she had gotten it. Surely.

I tried to be sly.

“So, Mama, did you open all of your presents?”

“I think I did,” she said.

“Did you have one from me? Maybe a smaller gift wrapped with a bigger one?”

“I got the socks you gave me,” she said.

By this time I had attracted the attention of Daddy, Husband, and Brother.

“Was there anything else in the sock bag?”

“Well I don’t know,” she says. “The bag has been thrown away.”

Thrown away. Thrown away? Just like the pearl handle pocket knife!

We dashed downstairs and out into the alley where the dumpsters stand. To our relief, our bags of trash were still close to the top. By perching on the retaining wall and leaning most of my upper body into the belly of the beast, I was able to reach our garbage bags and drag them out past the dinner remnants, commode parts, and other refuse. Frantically flinging wrapping paper right and left, and attracting more than one curious look from passers by, I managed to find the missing gift bag.

And the beads were still inside, waiting to be unwrapped. Waiting for Mama. Found, unlike the pearl handle pocket knife.

Found!

Found!

What else did we find amongst all that trash? A happy ending! So next year as we unwrap our gifts in a flurry of colored paper, ribbon, and tissue, instead of worrying about what may be lost forever, we can remember what was found, and laugh as we recount a new piece of family lore — the tale of how we fished a string of beads out of the dumpster on Christmas day.

16 hours.

That’s how long I was in my mother’s home for a Thanksgiving visit before I found myself with not one but two different kinds of product in my hair.

My limp, straight, ornery hair has been a source of consternation to my mother my whole life, and one day, by God, she will conquer it and give me the bouncin’ and behavin’ blonde locks a self-respecting Southern gal is supposed to have. It started with my first permanent wave around the age of six. Mama managed to get one picture of me with a halo of golden curls. Then it went straight again. Defiantly straight.

Over the years we have tried pin curls, pink sponge rollers, hot rollers, curling irons, back combing, teasing, rats (the kind for hair fixin’ not for killin’), professionals with chemicals, a thing called a hot comb, the dreaded bonnet hair dryer, crimping, those spongy twisty sticks, and sheer will (and a whole lot of Aqua Net) to make my hair big. And it will get big, gloriously big…for a little while. Then it’s stubborn straightness takes over making it point like an arrow to the ground.

An arrow bursting Mama’s big hair bubble.

But my mother will not accept defeat. And this Thanksgiving I was on her turf. With the turkey in the oven, appliances of hair torture at the ready, and time on our hands, it was time to try again.

That’s when the product came out. Applied only to the roots, mind you. Lifting the hair. You must lift the hair. Lift it.

IMG_4117

Then came the heat. If you look closely you’ll see that my right ear is about to be burnt slap off my head. There is pain in beauty, y’all, and vicey versey. Deep, I know. You’ve got to invoke a little Southern Zen to endure the beautification process. Or drink. But we’ll get to that.

IMG_4118

Next was a different kind of heat. The pulling, tangling kind.

IMG_4120

Then rollers. Lots of rollers. Unlike our hot rollers of yore, these Velcro thingies actually manage to grip the strands and bend them into submission. Plus they stick to your head so there’s no need to gouge those pin things into your scalp to get them to stay. Progress.

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Then I had to go let it set for a while. That’s what the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is for. And mimosas. You need something, for pity’s sake, to make you forget how your ear stings and remember that you are just a hair away from real beauty — big hair beauty.

Giddy with anticipation, and certainly not the aforementioned mimosa, we unroll our way to the big reveal. Will it curl? Will it at least wave? Will all this time and effort and product and heat and Velcro be for naught?

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Voila! Big hair for me. Well sorta. Comparatively.

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Now I know my hair will not rival Farrah’s famed mane, but it is bigger than it normally is. Really. Downright puffy, I’d say. And it lasted. All day. Even in the South Alabama humidity.

Oh, sweet victory! Thank you, Mama.

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