Friday, April 30, 2010

No longer strangers


Dear Lynda,

Hey! You have been on my mind so much for the past few months as I’ve gotten ready to celebrate Homecoming at The W this year. It was a big Homecoming for me and my friends from the Class of 1985. And wow, did we have a LARGE time! Such a large time that it's taken me a couple of weeks to put into words some of my recollections from that incredible weekend.

It would’ve been an even bigger time had more of my classmates been there. But Penny, Michelle, Judy, Gay, Sandra, Tina, Lynne, Laronda, and a few dozen others who were there took full advantage of the opportunity to gather back on that campus that means so much to all of us.

Michelle Byars Gray and I decided we needed some quality time back on campus so we took off work and ended up there around noon on Thursday. After eating lunch at The Little Dooey, we traipsed to The W to visit some people and places near and dear to us. During one of our adventures, I happened upon an old banner that had been signed by students and faculty in celebration of an athletic victory. You can’t imagine how excited I became when I unfolded it and saw your signature toward the top of it. I was somewhat surprised that mine wasn’t close by since we were fairly inseparable that year of our lives. Although it wasn’t nearby, I did find my autograph – not surprisingly written in D’Belle green Magic Marker – toward the middle of the cloth. Nisa and Michelle probably jumped six feet when I spotted my name because I squealed so loudly. And the squeal got higher pitched when I noticed that my good friend, Betty “Boop” Vick, had signed her name right next to mine.

That may seem like a simple discovery to you, but it was just a small concrete evidence for me that I – that WE – had truly once belonged there.

Oddly enough, Michelle and I hung out with students on Thursday who weren’t even born when we were coeds in Columbus. But that didn’t matter one bit. You see, we are connected and could relate to one another because of that thin, blue thread that binds the hearts of W Girls no matter if they attended classes in the same decade or not. And though we know that fact, it’s always fun to see it played out.

We were very excited that we happened to be on campus for the two-year Interclub March. Seeing those Blacklisters, Jesters and Maskers march toward that group of juniors lined up outside of the Café Olay brought back so many memories for us.

Although I didn’t let it show, I am still a little scared of one of those groups and watching them march toward me did make me a little nervous. It was awesome, though, to see a tradition that we consider somewhat sacred still taking place – even though their swaggers were a little different from the swaggers we were used to seeing. It was OK, though, cause it IS their school now and their two-year clubs.

After the march was over, I popped around the corner of the cafeteria with Michelle and snapped some group shots for my friends who weren’t able to be there that afternoon. Course it was funny watching the club members attempting to figure out which group I belonged to and what number I might have been in that particular group. A couple of people just outright asked me and I smiled and recalled the story of the late night that Penny, Jane Allen and a couple of others bestowed that sacred honorary 12 upon me. Although I’m certain there are others with similar experiences, I’m not certain many of them ended up in the group graduation photos at Mag Chain like I did.

I definitely thought of you as I looked in the faces of those girls wearing the red Xs and black eye patches. I really don’t think I ever told you how proud I was of you when you pledged Blacklist. We both know I had hoped you’d get a call from another two-year club, but that didn’t happen. Although I got to see you wear your white sweater a couple of times, I never got to see you function with the other girls in your line. That’s something I honestly still regret 25 years later.

I thought of you, too, as we ate dinner at The Goose with Michelle, Nisa, Amber and the rest of the crew. I wondered just how many Diet Cokes and Zero candy bars we had consumed from that place. Although the interior looks a lot different than it did when we spent so much time there, I could close my eyes and be transported back in time to that corner booth where we would sometimes sit and talk.

I especially thought of you later that evening when we were on front campus and I stepped up on the famous Jesus Bench. Just how many nights did we find ourselves having long conversations there? Much of the time you would sit on one end of that half-moon shaped concrete bench while I would stand – or pace – on the other end. I can still remember the specifics of some of those conversations all these years later. I found myself standing there sucking back tears because we were never able to maintain the bond we formed there. And I didn’t understand why and regretted it deeply.

Even though you weren’t at Homecoming physically, I saw you almost everywhere that weekend. I saw you in the faces of some of the students we met. I saw you sitting on the front steps of Stovall and recalled that last conversation we had there on the night of my graduation May 11, 1985. I felt your arm around my shoulder each time we sang “Friends.” I heard you helping me sing harmony on “Hail to Thee.” Our friendship was nestled very prevalently between the lines the characters spoke in “The Long Blue Line” theatre production Friday night.

You were the first person I wanted to call to tell how much fun the D’Belle party was this year (despite the fact that you were a Reveler, you always were supportive and loyal to D'Belles, too). I wanted to share with you how, for the first time in many years I felt a real bond with the D’Belles on campus and how much fun I had getting to know them. I wanted to excitedly tell you how I can’t wait to take the opportunity in the future to get to know them better despite the fact I won’t wear a green dress for them!

I thought of you while singing “Desperado” at karaoke and wondered what crazy song you and I might have chosen to sing as a duet.

There were so many times during that weekend that I thought of you that it made me miss you even more. And missing you made me miss others who weren’t there as well.

The past few years have been filled with challenges and changes for me on a personal level. And our alma mater seems to have been somewhat inundated with challenges and changes in her own right. There’s been a fight over the alumni association and a battle over changing the name of our beloved university. And there’s even been talk of merging with Mississippi State. Although I’ve had an opinion on every issue that has faced The W, I’ve been unusually quiet which is, well, unusually uncharacteristic for me. I can’t explain why, really, other than I’m just weary of all the bickering. I have opted to let someone else battle in the ring while I chose to do my fighting down on my knees. I still believe in the power of prayer and have entrusted God to work on behalf of our beloved Mississippi University for Women.

He truly knows best anyway.

Although I don’t know what the future holds for The W, I can’t help but believe that whatever does happen, those of us who have become connected by the heart there will remain that way. And I’ve got to believe that somehow the world will see the value of The W just as we did as students and as some of us still do. All of us chose that quaint little campus nestled near the heart of Columbus because we had a desire to belong somewhere. And it seems those of us who return there frequently do so because we have the desire to make sure our connections to one another remain intact and sure. Just as we want our university to remain intact and sure.

As quirky as it may sound, I need The W active in my life because it keeps me grounded. And that’s why I’ve remained so loyal to her for all these years. I’ve never really had much else to give, but I’ve tried to keep that intact. There’s a song we used to sing in D’Belles called “Mansions.” Oddly enough, I was discussing the lyrics to it with another D’Belle earlier tonight and explaining that although I didn’t have a lot financially to share with my club – or my alma mater, either – I certainly have lots of intangible things to give. The song pretty much says it better than I can: “We may not have a mansion, we haven’t any land, but we can give you sisterhood just come and take our hand …”

Sisterhood. That’s what I found 26 years ago when I became a “W Girl.” And that’s what I still have with those who I went to school there with and those who I have met since then. We may not keep in touch as often as I’d like or as often as we should, but that doesn’t mean I care any less about you. Or that my support of you has waned either.

You don’t find those kinds of connections many other places and I’m so grateful we have them at Mississippi University for Women.

As another D’Belle song states, “We were different worlds apart, we’re now the same. We laughed and played, and loved together like in a game. You could have stayed outside my heart, but in you came. And may our club just grow in love forevermore. This love for you has no beginning, it has no end. To you may all, my all and more, it’s always there. Though I’ve never given much to you before. God help our club just grow in love forevermore.”

Ditto for our alma mater.

Your former “bestest buddy,”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Seeking Those Familiar Places When Times Are Tough

In my former life in journalism, I wrote a personal column that was printed in the newspaper each Friday. I tried not to skip too many weeks. Some of my columns were worth reading. Some, well, not so much.

Although I often dreamed of my columns being considered good enough to be compiled into a book, that never happened. But I did attempt to keep a collection of all my columns. I have a blue binder containing most of the ones I wrote during those more than two decades buying ink by the bucket.

Someone asked if I would share an old column here from time to time. Since some of them are like old friends and I enjoy "visiting" them, I will honor that request. This column ran in December 2002.

Human nature is a funny thing.

When life gets too intense, we tend to seek out

Whether it’s a mother’s shoulder to cry on, a
grandparents’ home to visit or just a plot of land in
the middle of nowhere, we can often find solace in

Whenever life seems at its worst for me, I have
familiar places where I gravitate.

When times got toughest as a student at Mississippi
University for Women, I’d find myself at the “Jesus

Looking on a campus map, you’d never locate this spot.
It’s not officially marked as the “Jesus bench” at
all. It’s a simple, concrete bench - a gift from an
earlier graduating class at The W - that was positioned
on front campus almost directly across from the school’s Baptist
Student Union house.

Seeking direction often during that period in my life,
I tended to walk around the beautiful campus.
Sometimes the walks came during the day while other
times I chose to walk at night. Many of the walks were
solitary ones, but often friends would join me as I
traipsed around that campus in the heart of downtown Columbus.

One of the more frequent co-walkers was Lynda Harris,
my best friend at the time. Many times we ended up on
front campus with Lynda sitting at one end of the
“Jesus bench” and me standing and/or pacing on what
was left of the other. We’d debate theology, talk
about dreams and goals or discuss future plans we had
for our lives. Since I was a senior and Lynda was a
sophomore, some of our talks centered on how we
intended to remain in close contact after my

Odd how some things don’t happen as you plan them.

Growing up in Corinth, I could always find complete
solace on the front porch of Granny Hughes’ Franklin
Street home. No matter what mood I was in when I got
there, life got better perched on the top step of that

One of my earliest tastes of freedom came when I
learned to ride a bicycle. I started out with a small
blue bike that almost every one of my cousins and my
sister used to perfect the bike-riding skill. Being
the youngest, I got the bicycle when it was far from
its prime. But I loved it all the same.

One Christmas, I got a green three-speed bicycle that
upped my freedom greatly. The next summer, some of my
neighbors and I began riding our bicycles around town.
One of them owned a bicycle that had an odometer attached to his front
wheel and we found it was not unusual for us to cover
60 or more miles in a day.

Much of my rides included trips across town to Granny
Hughes’ house. Most of the time, I’d arrive at her
house, store my bike under her side porch and let
myself in because she was always talking on the phone
when I got there. It wasn’t until years later that I
realized Granny had stood at the door and watched
until she saw me peddling down the street and would
then phone Mama to let her know that her youngest had
safely completed her journey.

My bike riding ended about the same time I got my
driver’s license - which upped my freedom of mobility
a great deal. Even though I could get further in the
Gremlin (aka Jose the Wonder Car) than I could on my
bicycle, I’d find myself frequenting the same places.

Especially Granny’s front porch.

Mama, Aunt Peggy and Aunt Millie put Granny’s house on
the market shortly after her death in 1979. My parents
considered buying the house themselves, but I think my
negative reaction - given out of a heart broken from
grief - was one of the deciding factors in not
purchasing it.

And though my home is filled to the brim with
memories, there are times today when I wish we’d made
that move across town.

In 1992, life as I knew it changed forever when Mama
died. A few Christmases later, I deeply missed the
tradition of gathering on Franklin Street that our
family had followed for years. Depressed and dejected,
I found myself once again being drawn to that front
porch. Knowing the owners, I felt quite confident that
they wouldn’t mind if I spent some time on the stoop
in an attempt to relieve my holiday blues.

As I sat there wishing I could have just one more
Christmas in the house, I didn’t realize that the
owners were actually inside. Seeing me on the front
porch, and knowing what memories that home held for
me, they came to the door and asked if I wanted to
come in for a visit.

It was probably the best Christmas present I’ve ever

Even today, I find myself drawn to that home on
Franklin Street when life deals its hardest blows. I
don’t stop and sit on the front porch as often as I
once did. I’m trying to learn to suck it up and work
it out on my own. Thankfully, though, I know the
couple who call the house their home today.

And I honestly think they will understand if, one day,
they look out the window and see me sitting there.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Forever connected by those long blue ties that bind

An offense almost changed the course of my educational journey – and quite honestly my life.

Those who know me well know that I’ve never been all that feminine. I’ve worn a dress or 100 in my lifetime, but it’s never an article of clothing I’ve ever enjoyed putting on my body. I’ve always said my material of choice has always been denim. And I’m glad that I attend a church that blue jeans fit so well into the dress code.

Because of many things I can't control and some that I can - my size, my heighth my short hair and my affinity for blue jeans - people have sometimes referred to me as “sir” or just outright called me a boy. Very little makes me as mad as someone doing that and, since I consider it very derogatory, I often return a similar remark by switching up their gender or just saying something like "I’m a girl, ugly!"

It may not be the nicest comeback for me to offer, but it gets my point across that they made a crucial error in judgment. Cause I am definitely a girl – have been since birth and always will be.

As a junior in high school, we would often have college recruiters come to our classrooms to talk to us about the colleges or universities they represented. One sunny spring day (yeah, all these years later, I still remember the time of year and the weather outside – it made that much of an impact on me), a recruiter from Mississippi University for Women came to our math classroom. After going through the spiel about the Columbus school, she began passing out information packets to the girls in the classroom. When I held out my hand to take a packet, the recruiter took it upon herself to quickly remind me that it was a “single-sex university” and men were not admitted there. I narrowed my gaze, looked her directly in the face, and explained in a not-so-nice tone that I WAS qualified by gender to attend her university. You could say that she had certainly sealed the deal for me ever wanting to go there.

Of course, she attempted to rectify her mistake and offered me not only the information packet, but some stickers and a MUW T-shirt as well. I never said a word to her, but the glare I was giving her finally sunk into her brunette head and she moved on.

Since I had known pretty much since birth that I was destined to attend Northeast Mississippi Junior College (what it was named back in the “dark ages” when I was a child), I never worried much about where I would attend school after high school graduation. And the fact that NEMJC had the best band program in the state at that time somewhat sealed the deal for where I would spend the first two years of my college career.

Oddly enough, I never really could get peace about where I would spend the remaining two and what college or university name would be on my diploma once I earned it. I dreamed of far off campuses like Rutgers University in New Jersey, New York University in the Big Apple or the University of Missouri at Columbia, the premiere journalism school in the country at that time.

My parents, who held the most control over this decision since they held the bank account at that juncture in my life, were not so keen about any of those choices. My father, who was one of the most over-educated people I knew and had attended at least 16 different colleges and universities at that point in his life, was quite convinced that a higher education experience in Mississippi was the best path for his younger daughter.

So convinced, in fact, that he could not stop touting how much I would get out an education from Ole Miss. No offense to my friends who have enjoyed going to school in Oxford, but nothing made me well, want to throw up more than to think about having to commit to two years there. I had visited the campus several times and knew that I did not belong there. It was too large and, in my mind at that time, way too preppy.

Still not certain where I would be transferring to in the fall, my friend Sandra and I decided to go to Mississippi State and visit a couple of our friends from high school one weekend so I could determine of Starkville could be the “right fit” for me. As we were leaving Booneville, though, Sandra asked me if I minded stopping in Columbus for her to complete some paperwork for enrollment at, yep, you guessed it, Mississippi University for Women.

Although I wasn’t happy about it, I agreed since she was driving and I still wanted to spend the weekend in Starkville.

Arriving on campus, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful The W was. It literally looked like something out of Southern Living magazine or some other coffee table periodical. The architecture of the buildings on front campus was amazing and the grounds were so well-kept it seemed you could literally eat a picnic dinner from them without a gingham blanket.

Stopping at the admissions office, Sandra was signing some paperwork when someone asked me the magical question: so where are YOU attending college next year? “I don’t know,” I quietly replied. And before I knew it, that someone had arranged for a student to take me on a tour of the campus.

Walking down the street, the student began to point out nearby buildings of interest and spouted of the history of them. I heard the first few sentences, but half a block into the tour it seemed as if the heavens has parted and God Himself spoke, “This is where you belong.”


Seriously … I heard it – first with my heart and then, seemingly, with my ears.

I choked back tears and thanked the student for the tour after it was completed. She smiled and said, almost knowingly, “See you soon.” Convinced that I might decide to go to school there, the admissions officer we were dealing with sent home a packet of information with me.

It was a very silent ride to Starkville. For the first five or so miles, I looked out the passenger window trying to sort out in my mind what had just happened. “I think …” I began, breaking the silence in Sandra’s car.

“You think what?” she replied.

“I think I might belong at The W with you,” I said, as a tear starting to trickle down my cheek. The offending comment made by the college recruiter years prior, oddly enough, never really entered my mind for longer than a millisecond and definitely never played a role in my sudden desire to go to school there.

All weekend I worried how I was going to tell my parents I wanted to go to school in Columbus. I wanted to call them and just get it over with, but I knew that kind of discussion really needed to be done face to face. So I waited until we got home on Sunday.

Gathering my parents together around the kitchen table – where so many other family conferences had been held before – I slowly described how The W looked and how I felt on campus there. “I just feel like I belong there,” I ended my tale. “And that’s where I would like to transfer this fall.”

My mother never said a word. She had never been too convinced that Ole Miss was the place for me either and worried her youngest child would spend more time conducting extra-curricular activities rather than finding herself in the classroom. It was my father who spoke up and said, “But I really think Ole Miss is the better choice for you academically.” I gathered my thoughts for a second and replied, “Daddy, it’s either The W or McDonalds – you make the decision.”

Knowing he had very little to argue with, Daddy said that he trusted my judgment and agreed to let me go to The W. We filled out the proper paperwork and got the financial part settled. I went to orientation that summer, met with my advisor and got a schedule filled out that I could live with.

Being the last one of our little group from Northeast to decide to go to The W, I was the odd one out when it came to a roommate and I had to take the luck of the draw. And boy was that not so lucky! I survived that semester, though, and convinced my parents prior to Christmas that I would function better in a private room. Since I’d obtained – on my own initiative – a scholarship from The W, they allowed me to try the next semester without a roommate. It worked so well that I didn’t have one my senior year, either, except for the first few weeks a girl I knew from Northeast was on campus before she went home to Ripley to student teach.

There have been numerous decisions that I’ve made in my lifetime that, in retrospect, weren’t the best decisions I’d ever made. But my two choices of where to further my college education don’t fall in that category. I’ve never, ever regretted going to Northeast for the first two years of college. I loved being a part of the Show Band from Tiger Land so much! I made some of the best friends ever and have managed to maintain contact with many of them over the years. A few of us have taken a short hiatus in our lives, but not totally in our friendships and we have managed, after time, to reconnect. But even still, regrets – yeah, Frank Sinatra – I have a few …

I enjoyed being elected Northeast Student Government Vice President and taking over the office from someone I literally idolized at the time, Cathy McCommon. I enjoyed the somewhat popular on campus at Northeast. I knew lots of people and felt as if I had lots of friends there in Booneville. I never really felt that way in high school and it was a truly nice feeling.

Transferring to The W where I literally knew six or seven people on campus, I really wasn’t scared because I totally felt it was where I belonged. Even though people in my junior class pretty much had their established groups of friends, I did manage to break into a few of them. And I also managed to make friends with the underclassmen – especially some of the freshmen who were newbies on campus just like me.

Oddly enough, there was never a time that I felt like I didn’t belong at The W which was something that was one of my biggest fears about going to the University of Mississippi. I pledged the Dixie Belle Social Club and found a place not only in that group, but made friends with members of the other social clubs on campus. I sang alto for two years in the Baptist Student Union Girls’ Ensemble and became close to the other singers. I even became “bestest buddies” with another member of the group during my senior year – a friendship I regret not cultivating on into adulthood.

The campus newspaper gave me plenty of experience with feature writing and photography. And I was asked by the editor to put my photography talents to work with the yearbook as well during my senior year. A good percentage of the photographs in that book were taken with my old Minolta XGA.

Throughout the years I have remained as connected to my alma mater as life would allow me. It’s helped that I’ve never lived too far away from the quaint little campus in Columbus that I couldn’t get back for a day trip or a weekend visit.

The W is one of those places that is hard to explain to those who have never experienced it – and often misconstrued by them. But, for the most part, the loyalty of W Girls to our alma mater – and to one another, truthfully - is fierce. And we are all knit together by a thin blue thread that connects all our hearts – whether or not we attended classes on campus at the same time. And we might not always agree with one another, but you let our university or one of us become threatened in some way and well, you really don’t want to see the fury of a W Girl who thinks she or her fellow W Girl has been scorned.

Some of my closest friends throughout my life have been people I either attended The W with or have met since then. I’ve sought advice from many of them and obtained the sagest. At the more difficult times in my life, it’s my fellow W Girls who have been the first at my side whether literally or just a phone call away.

This week as I anticipate celebrating my “Halfway to Golden Girl Status” Homecoming, there are a handful of women who are going to be in Columbus who I literally cannot wait to see. Lots of time has passed since we shared late night dreams of our future sitting on half beds in our dorm rooms, sang class songs in the cafeteria together, pledged our loyalties to our social clubs and walked down the sidewalk in front of Callaway Hall, sidestepping to that old tune and holding tightly to the traditional chain of magnolias we carried on that sultry May 11 morning. We have all had heartbreak and successes, goals achieved and plans shattered. We’ve loved and lost. Yet, just as our alma mater has withstood the sometimes meaningless and often merciless attacks throughout the past 25 years, we, too, have survived.

And, for the most part, we all are stronger because of the challenges we have faced.

Although some folks may argue that who I am was formed within the first few years of my lifetime, I think that who I am – and who I am becoming – should be credited to a hodgepodge of variables. Whether you think those from The W who have influenced me the most and helped me to become the person I am today should be chastised or praised is up to you.

What’s my supposition? The best parts of me are because you loved me, you believed in me and you even – unashamedly and fiercely - supported me. You even protected me when I needed it and were unafraid to reprimand me at the times when I needed that, too.

And for that I am eternally grateful.

I’ve struggled today to find the exact words to tell you how much. Although this is a good try, I don’t think it quite captures or defines what a difference you have made in my life. And, once again, I’ve turned to the written word to express myself. Although some people think I hide behind written communication, I’ve just always felt it was the best way I could express what is truly in my mind and definitely in my heart.

So, if our paths cross this weekend and I look at you as if I want to say something profound and, instead, hug you a little tighter and hold the hug a bit longer than normal, please remember what I’ve written here.

And know you’re one of those whose influence has developed me into me.