Up Front – Vol. 14, #26
“And there were, in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour (sic), which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” said Linus to his Peanuts pals, referencing the New Testament’s Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 8 to 14.
That, Linus, and Christmas cards, say I. Christmas cards, which, inexplicably, seem – for me – like a heavier lift than an Immaculate Conception. Boosted by Thanksgiving’s momentum, I silently vow to take the task on early, well in advance of the actual holiday itself.
It’s starts with an idea. This year – I’ll make a sketch. Getting young women (my daughters) to agree on a photograph of themselves that they both like…forget it. I’ll draw something. The basic idea: Our three faces, interpretative rather than realistic (it’s what people who can’t draw – like me – pass off as art) and some sort of distant star above and beyond us, a reference sufficiently ambiguous to suit the viewer’s imagination, but with obvious significance to us.
A few days pass before I summon the courage to put pencil to pad. Staring at a photo on my desk – one that I love but my girls ironically vetoed for a previous year’s card – I sketch. I am surprised with the precision coming from my hand. A near-exact re-creation of my older daughter’s head shape, hair, cheek definition, eye contours – it’s her, for sure. Then, the nose…things are starting to go awry. The mouth – my version is monster-like, cartoonish, the evil mouth of a villainous man.
Perhaps forcing persistence, that very evening, the night of the aborted first draft, I announce my plan to the girls by phone. “I’m drawing us. And above us is a star. It’s like a reference to the divine and also a metaphor for Mom.”
Cringing a little, I await their predictably annoyed and virtually singular response. To my amazement, neither balks. Rather the opposite: They both seem to like where I’m going with this card thing.
Except I’m hopeless. Writer’s block is a form of fear. Sketcher’s block marries that same fear to ineptitude. Face it: There’s no way I’m custom-crafting homemade cards.
“If you can’t get it done, we can take a picture outside of the coffee shop in Cutters Point aprons,” my ever-increasingly entrepreneurial elder offspring suggests, “and send it to people for New Year’s.” While I like the premise, a New Year’s card seems like a cardboard reminder that I’ve been embarrassingly lazy or thoughtless (You sent us a card but we left you off our list) or both. So it’s now or never, and never is not an option I’m willing to entertain…at least not quite yet.
It’s 2017. I’ve got an IPhone. One that holds 1,779 digital images, as of last count. Among those 1,779, surely I’ll find a pic of the three of us – one that captures their conspicuous loveliness and, at the same time, doesn’t make me look too old. The odds favor success. Reality does not. It’s been years since I’ve coerced them to join me in a single shot.
I have lots of images of me with Gabby – she loves the camera as much as it loves her. I have precious few with Sofia, my camera-shy firstborn. So many of the pictures in my digital library are composed of places or food. Most of the people portraits are action shots. If I go with them does it look like I’m saying, “Look at my awesome, exotic, active life. I hope you get to do something cool in the next 12 months, too?”
We’re three now, four if you count the cat. But we’re not four/five. How did we confirm through our card that we both miss Her terribly and yet we’re hopeful and doing okay? How does a photo or a saying or a drawing demonstrate that we hold fast to our history at the same time we choose to live in the moment to honor it today? What is too morbid? What is too cavalier?
It’s agony, the card decision. Never mind the act of writing, addressing and sending a stack that is likely to reach a dozen dozens or more. Like so much of the season, we replace its true spirit with overwhelming dread. So I come back to Linus and his scripture recitation and subsequent parting shot to his down-in-the-dumps friend, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
As it will continue to be until the end of time, with or without the help of my card.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #25
This might be the least entertaining but most substantive version of my column this year. I don’t anticipate much opportunity for pithy phrasing or clever metaphors. It’s likely to be a very vanilla recitation of facts. Please consider staying with me to the closing signature anyway.
Black Friday came and went, along with the requisite TV footage featuring crowds rushing Wal-Mart’s doors, elbows flying, X-Box bargains in their turkey-and-Budweiser-blurred sites. With less noise or drama but arguably as much or more societal import, Giving Tuesday followed on November 29. Giving Tuesday is a five-year-old initiative, designed to connect diverse groups of individuals, communities and organizations around the world for a common purpose – to celebrate and encourage charitable giving. Last year, 700,000 individuals made more than 1 million online gifts to philanthropically-focused organizations in 71 countries. With an average gift in excess of $100, the initiative launched from the 92nd Street Y on New York’s Upper East Side has, in half a decade, grown into a global giving bonanza that raises more than $100 million in a single day.
Positioning Giving Tuesday a few days after Thanksgiving, our national day of gratitude, is genius. We celebrate the gifts we enjoy and begin a season of anticipation and renewal with the coming of Christmas. Plus, end-of-the-year tax planning provides a pragmatic push. Perhaps you received email solicitations from local groups that perform public good. Maybe you clicked on the associated “donate now” tabs in response. As communities go, the residents of Skidaway Island are as generous as they come.
A week has passed since Giving Tuesday, but our collective generosity and the institutional needs of the organizations that do so much good in our community remain. To that end, indulge me as I highlight one such group in which I am personally involved.
Horizons Savannah is a local affiliate of a national organization (more than 50 such “chapters”) that provides low-income students with invaluable summer learning experiences. Programs are designed to maintain and advance the learning that kids do during the regular school year, while providing a safe, constructive, nurturing and fun environment for study, play and social development. Five days a week over a span of six weeks, students engage in a variety of activities, including project-based learning and traditional academics, college tours, cultural exploration, swimming lessons, art, music and weekly field trips. Young people, Pre-K through 12th grade, participate free of charge. Horizons Savannah currently serves more than 200 children. Evidence proves that the Horizons experience improves a young person’s chance for academic success during the subsequent school year, leading to a more productive and rewarding life down the road.
My job with Horizons is easy. I serve on the organization’s board. But I have a window to the quality of the real heavy-lifting behind the curtain. Christy Edwards, Horizons Savannah’s executive director, is a supremely committed and talented educator, honored for her impact on local youth. The unsung heroes are the teachers and volunteers – many of the latter local students themselves – who make the extensive menu of programming run smoothly and well. Trust me – I know how exceptional and exceptionally dedicated these people are. At night, tired from running around and ignoring the effects of one treatment or another, my wife sat in her office and studied advanced math so she could earn the privilege – in her 50s – of teaching young kids. The couple of years she enjoyed as a Horizons teacher were among the best and most fulfilling in her too-short life. Following their mother’s example, both of my children worked as program counselors during their summer breaks. As simple as it is profound, more than once I’ve heard the words in my house, “I love those (Horizons) kids.”
Horizons works. For all of us. For the kids, who get a learning leg-up. For the volunteers, who receive the gifts that come with performing noble service. For society, which benefits as together we work to help people extract themselves from the grips of poverty and despair. If you want to know more, help out, donate, whatever…check out horizonssavannah.org. Or email me – email@example.com.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for your generous spirit. Have a special holiday season.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #24
We lost a member of The Skinnie family, and a familiar face to many Skidaway residents, last week. Don Jeffrey McElveen passed away on November 15. Don was 76 at the time of his death.
You might know Don as the dapper man who helped you find the perfect tie to go with the sport coat you just bought. For 55 years, he manned the shop at John B. Rourke, dressed impeccably and accessorized with an unwavering smile. Don’s commitment to customer service was legendary, so much so that, with Don, you never felt like a customer, rather one of his many friends.
When we started this magazine without any previous media experience and nothing more than an idea to sell, Don was the first advertiser to sign with us. Since our debut issue in September of 2003, Don’s distinctive John B. Rourke ads have held a prominent place near the front of our book, detailing the best in local men’s wear, more than 300 times. Because folks like Don showed faith in our fledgling team, we have been able to deliver you this magazine, free of charge to you, for more than 13 years running, fortnight after fortnight, without fail.
Don was born in Savannah, and active and recognizable in the community, nurturing a variety of interests and countless precious relationships over the years. Not many years ago, he married Landings resident and leading local philanthropist, Carolyn Luck, and they lived happily together in our community as Don transitioned into retirement, albeit an active one.
Personally, I am forever grateful to Don for the loyalty and kindness he has shown me, characteristics I hope to emulate in my own life with a fraction of Don’s aplomb. Every two weeks, my parents drive around town, dropping copies of our newly-printed issue at advertisers’ doors. Typically, my dad chauffeurs and my mother runs in an out of stores and offices, carrying a bundle of Skinnies under her arm. Almost every two weeks, while Don was working at his haberdashery, my mother reported back some version of the same story: “Those men are SO nice.” She often relayed some generous compliment that Don offered about me or my family or my work. And, invariably, she confirmed that Don was grinning, laughing and generally lighting up the room. He had a natural gift for making people feel welcomed, whenever he was around.
We appreciate Don’s support, friendship and counsel over the years. We’ll miss him. But we won’t forget his contagious smile.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #23
It’s Election Day. I just voted a few minutes before sitting down to write. The feeling as I walked across Perry Street towards the Civic Center (my polling place) and back with a peach sticker on my chest – profoundly anticlimactic.
You’ve read, heard, talked about the presidential election every day for a year and a half. Public servants – up and down the ballot – campaign with an all-consuming fervor that leaves little time for governing. News people forsake the stories of what’s really going on in our neighborhoods and across the globe in favor of playing to our basest partisan instincts and love of a good game or fight. So Election Day is like the Super Bowl. It’s generally more interesting during the run-up than the few hours in which the pigskin is in play. When the final whistle blows, the slates go blank, and every team in the league gets to getting ready for next year. Next year…it’s going to be different…it’s going to be “the one.” Until it isn’t. Rinse. Repeat.
We have plenty of reasons to be cynical. But, at least for today, I’m choosing glass-half-full. Not because of blind stupidity, but rather faith in the genius of our founders. Remember grade school? Learning about “checks and balances?” For some reason, it’s one of the concepts that almost everyone retains from his or her early education years. Perhaps because it’s what saves us as a society. Looking over each other’s shoulders with the basic shared objective of ensuring the republic survives. So, whatever happens, I believe we’ll manage to keep ourselves from completely imploding. There are enough people who genuinely love the notion of what we can be to keep the rest of us from dragging us into the abyss. We don’t have a king (or queen), or dear-leader-for-life. Rather, we have institutions designed to supersede individual interests (it doesn’t always work, but the original intent is noble), so no one person can completely screw things up for us all.
Yet each of us one-persons can have a big impact on making things better well beyond a single touch of a screen on the second Tuesday in November every couple of years or so. Merriam-Webster, after devoting the first two definitions of “election” to political concepts, writes number 3 like this: “the right, power, or privilege of making a choice.” Therein lies the true importance of the word.
All day, every day, I have in-the-moment opportunities – privileges loaded with responsibilities – to choose one course of another. Do I walk towards a familiar face and say “hello,” or do I angle away in hopes he or she doesn’t notice me? Do I smile or scowl? Do I pick up the phone or ignore the call? Do I finish a task or put my work away? Do I say something nice or skewer with caustic aggression? Do I keep running or slow to a walk? Do I do what I know to be “the right thing,” or think, “screw it…maybe next time?”
This isn’t meant to be preach-y. More confessional, if anything. Because I am prone, just as we all are, to make more than my share of bad choices when faced with either/ors like the ones above. But what Webster tells me is that having the choices in the first place is a privilege. And with that privilege comes power. Power to make the world a little bit better or a little bit worse.
Politicians are interesting, entertaining, necessary…especially in a democratic republic as vibrant as ours. And we get caught up in their pursuits, largely as an exercise in giving life to our own hopes and fears. But the real elections that matter, the ones that shape the destiny of humanity, are the little decisions we each make hundreds of times each day. Get more of them right than wrong, and mankind will be fine.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #22
If you bred a mountain goat with a jackrabbit, you’d get Martha. Martha, whom I chased, dragging my tongue, from 14,200 feet to 15,300, in quest for the Chikana – Inka Cross – facing Humantay Peak in southern Peru. From 12,700 to the lake at 14,200, for the first two miles of the trip, Martha hung in the back of the pack, while my little crew of three bolted ahead. Several times, we stopped and waited – sometimes close to 10 minutes – practicing yoga poses, snapping triumphant photos and swapping stories of home (theirs being Toronto).
At the lake, the Canadians and I spread out on big, flat rocks, enjoying both the sun and our quarter-hour margin of victory. When Martha arrived, she ducked behind a boulder and reappeared in a bathing suit, an interesting visual counterpoint to the glacier rising up from the opposite bank. This was my first sign that something was up.
Martha toweled off, and the 12 of us – nine trekkers and three guides – formed a semicircle in front of two small men in traditional Quechuan dress. Shamans, the pair, we soon learned, led us through a spiritual ceremony honoring Pachamama, Mother Earth, asking her to bless us and the ones we love. We wore bright-colored hats and each of us committed a special intention to three coca leaves we held in our hands. One of the Quechuans, Celsto, I think it was, chanted over each of us in succession, using our names. The Toronto husband, Murray, is 6’ 5.” When it came time for Celsto to pat Murray’s head with an alpaca sac as part of the ritual, both Quechuans, neither taller than 5 feet, laughed out loud.
Aside from that moment of comedy, the ceremony felt unexpectedly profound. A cynic might see a pair of hired performers playing to an assembly of pampered, first-world fools. What I saw, what we saw, were human beings, different but the same, linked by reverence for the things they can’t completely explain.
You feel it in the mountains, more so than anywhere else – the presence of God, or Pachamama, or whatever you want to call the sum of your hopes and fears. The scale is staggering; you’re conspicuously small. The wind is the breath of the divine. Maybe that’s why I keep finding crosses in the most peculiar spots. At the top of a particularly hairy section of the Via Ferrata near San Cassiano in the Dolomites. On the spine of a steep gravel hill looking over the high Chilean desert. And at the apex of a grueling switchback ascent a few minutes before a freak hailstorm, three days by foot from Machu Picchu. The Italian one was a minimalist creation in stainless steel. The Chilean – stockier than its Italian cousin – a handsome, aging skin of peeling white paint on what-looked-like concrete in natural dull grey. And in Peru – something like a plus sign superimposed on a square with a big hole in the middle of both, crafted from wood that must have been lugged up from the valley far below.
Just like the spectacular Spanish Colonial Cathedrals where I hit my knees in Lima then Cusco a few days before, the Chikana took my breath away, literally, as I tried in vain to keep pace with Martha on the brutal trail leading to the non-Christian cross.
Martha let me and the Canadians scamper ahead all morning. Later, I overheard her say, not maliciously, to my ear, “Some people always need to be in front…”
Martha’s 64, and Alaskan, which I mention because it saves me from stringing together a bunch of other adjectives to describe her untamed spunk. Evidently, she goes slowly to be with Gayle, her partner, who has progressive MS. Compassion before ego. A living lesson in Gore-Tex and boots.
Hopelessly pursuing Martha and Javier (our local guide) for more than 1,000 vertical feet was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And among the most instructive. There will always be someone smarter, stronger, prettier, more successful, even when you’re feeling like you’re at the top of the heap. And there will always be those who are inspired to build crosses, in places that are easy to reach and places that are not. Trying to understand the latter truth makes the first one so much easier to bear.
At night, the Quechuans built a fire at base camp. They burnt the coca leaves upon which we had wished, in a paper package that included such disparate components as gummy bears, yarn and purple corn. Celsto prayed over each one of us again, this time using a bench when Murray’s turn came. As my intention floated on embers on the way to infinity, I suddenly had an unassailable belief that what I had wished for would certainly come true.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #21
The last few days have been the nicest of the year. Uninterrupted blue skies and a hint of autumn cool. Since Saturday, the city has been soothingly quiet. Not that the scope or scale are the same, but I sense similarities – minus the excruciating heartache - in our collective spirit to the days I wandered New York streets waiting to catch a train home after 9.11. People seem a little nicer than usual to one another. The normal rhythms of life thrown out of whack, folks are finding ways to help each other.
I find families spending their days picking up debris in the parks and squares. The team that runs Mate Factor – fortunate not to lose power – has kept the place open, even all through the night on the first days following the storm, to serve the community and first responders. My coffee shop colleagues showed up at the store, even as we had no electricity, to get things ready for when we would. At Savannah Power Yoga, classes were free and available up until and as soon as the worst of the winds and rain, so that people could have a place to convene, move and decompress.
On Sunday, despite a city on near-lockdown, I walked to 11:30 Mass at the Cathedral, to find a total of six other worshipers and the parish priest. It’s stunning how sacred and comforting such a grand space can feel when it’s nearly empty but still serving as an active sanctuary.
The human spirit finds the best version of itself when faced with unusual challenge and crisis. Institutions might struggle, but individuals rise to the occasion.
One of our most dear and loyal readers, emailed me this morning, and from her warm and simple message springs an idea for our next issue. Please help us highlight the heart of our community. Without power for close to five days, neighbors pulled together to help neighbors until the lights came back on (today). Please send us your photos of the storm and its impacts. But, along with such pictures, share with us uplifting anecdotes like the story of a couple clearing fallen trees from the other yards on their block. We need your input to make the issue the proper tribute that it should be. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, with any submission you think your fellow readers might like to see.
Thanks goes to the staffs at The Landings Association and The Landings Club for their obvious and tireless vigilance, diligence and advocacy on behalf of the whole of Skidaway Island. These organizations demonstrated that they are well prepared and proactively engaged for and during crises.
We look forward to a return to normalcy, while commending you all on your resiliency and compassion.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #20
Did I misremember the parking spot? I left it there Friday and it was now Monday night. At my age, things might not always be so retrospectively clear.
Think back: You flew to Dallas. You knew to move your truck for the weekend, lest a street-sweeping citation greet you upon your return. Liberty Street – it’s a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning sweep…so that’ll work. There’s a spot right in front of Soho South. Perfect. Pull in. Check the lock-confirmation horn twice, just to be sure.
I’m sure that’s right. I can see the replay in my head. But it’s Monday night, and the street in front of Soho is bare.
Calm down. Maybe you have it wrong. Walk around. A few blocks in each direction. All of my usual spots. It’s 10:30 at night. Why did I wait so late to check? Keep looking. Keep walking. Keep hope alive.
Nothing. Nowhere. It’s finally happened to me, I think to myself – urban crime.
“911, where’s your emergency?”
“It’s not really an emergency, actually, just a stolen car. Is this the right number to call?”
“Do you see them taking it now?”
“Um, no…and, sorry, it’s a truck.”
“Where are you?”
“Liberty Street, a block from my house.”
“So you returned to your house and saw that your car was stolen?”
“What do you mean?”
“I returned to my house from a weekend away on Sunday night. I used my other car today. I went to move my truck just now, and that’s when I realized it was gone.”
“So you returned to your house and noticed your truck gone…”
“(pause) Not exactly…okay, sure.”
“Where do you live?”
“Where are you now?”
“Liberty, remember?” I wished I hadn’t let that last bit slip.
“Is that near your house?”
“A block away.” This time I held my tongue and didn’t add ‘still.’
“Hold tight, help is on the way,” she expressed with urgency now.
“On the way where? Here on Liberty or to my house?”
“Where are you now?”
“Help is on the way to your house.”
A half an hour later, a young Metro officer came walking down my block. “Good evening, sir. Did you report a stolen car?”
“Yes, well, a truck.”
“What kind of truck?”
“A white Ford F-150, 2016, I think.”
“Do you know the tag number?” he asked.
“No, it’s registered to my farm and the paperwork is in my office,” I said, apologetically.
“What’s the name of the farm?”
Why? I thought to myself. “G and S,” I offered, anyway, shortening the name.
“I think I know where your truck is. It was found parked in a weird location and the responding officer had it towed.”
Visions of broken windows and ransacked seats. “What do you consider a ‘weird’ location?” and I pointed west, I’m not sure why.
He responded, “I don’t know the details, let me make a call.”
He tried to walk out of earshot, but I’m too curious for that. Imagine my shock to learn that the police ordered a tow – it hadn’t been stolen after all – even though I had parked in a perfectly legal spot.
Like Starsky and Hutch, we began to sift through the details of my misfortune. We requisitioned incident reports. He called the responding officer, then the towing desk, then he retreated to his car either to think or make some notes.
Here’s what we learned: On Saturday, the day after I had flown to Dallas to visit my daughter, a woman from one of the trolley companies put a bag on the meter governing my spot. Keep in mind, I don’t pay meters. As a downtown resident, my parking sticker sits proudly above the left-hand side of my dash. Later that same day, a trolley company rep noticed that my truck had not yet vacated its space (although the car in the next arbitrarily-bagged spot had, clearing considerable room in front of Soho South). The trolley lady called the cops and pushed for a tow. As she later described to me on the phone, just as her CFO did subsequently, “We had people paying good money to rent a trolley for a wedding reception…what did you want us to do?”
“Um…try to contact the vehicle owner. Use the other empty spaces. But since you didn’t do that, how about paying for the tow?”
I have a Georgia tag. It’s 2016. We have computers and phones and all kinds of fancy stuff. Oh, and there’s that sticker on my windshield that provides my address (one block north). Given there is no record of a phone call or a visit to my home, it seems the policeman decided that trying to reach me was too inconvenient for him at the time.
I learned from my investigative partner – Officer FK, I’ll call him to keep his full name out of print – that protocol suggests reaching out to a legally parked resident who is about to get towed. According to Parking Services, towing a resident’s vehicle that is sitting in a legal spot that was bagged after his arrival is not standard procedure. According to trolley company CFO, I’m flat out of luck.
“I’m not paying you a penny,” the trolley company CFO barked. Admittedly, he was off-put by the news that I publish a magazine. “You’re blackmailing me,” he protested, which seemed a little dramatic to me. “Anyway, I don’t know anything about downtown parking or traffic regulations and neither did (my colleague) who called the police. I don’t live downtown and neither does she.”
“You’re saying that your business is operating commercial vehicles downtown and your company has no institutional knowledge of downtown parking or traffic regulations??? What if your cardiologist told you he had never studied the human heart?” I think it went over his head.
“I owe you nothing. And we know people we can contact to ‘respond to’ you if you publish something in your magazine.” He must have been kidding, right?
What’s the point? This city just can’t seem to get out of it’s own way. When you do all of the little things poorly, you have no chance at doing the big things right. I’m out $300 to go along with the nearly 20 grand I’ve already paid in property taxes. For what? To get my own car that was legally parked back in my possession after spending more than 10 hours on the phone, at Precinct 2 headquarters, at some metro towing authority annex on Chatham Parkway, and in my own head. All so some wedding tourists don’t have to walk an extra five steps.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #19
I’m inclined towards solitude. Quiet is among my favorite sounds. But sometimes silence is piercing. So it was last night.
We’ve pushed hard to renovate our coffee shop (Cutters Point, in Sandfly, if you haven’t heard). Risking conceit: The place looks great. During the facelift, we had to close the doors for a couple of days. Concerned about disrupting our guests’ routines, we manned folding tables out front of the store and offered coffee and snacks on-the-house. Goodwill aside, would folks come back? And would they embrace the updated interior design?
One thing I’ve learned with age: People don’t like change. So even as I believe in our strategic decisions regarding enhancements to the business, I was biting my nails when we disengaged the locks.
The first morning brought hiccups. New design dictates changes to our work flow. We bumped into each other more than we normally do. As a human cluster formed around the service counter where folks pick up their drinks, I scanned the faces. What was probably the look of indifference or distance associated with a daydream seemed like a scowl of discontent. Face after face, I imagined disgust. Later, my staff veterans assured me that the flurry and wait times are de rigeur. “They’ll be back.” And I sighed relief.
We reopened (inside, as we offered drive-thru service after our two free giveaway days) on Friday the 9th. By the end of the day, we had served almost exactly the same number of people we would have on a typical Friday before I bought the place. I took this as a good sign, and we moved on to the next piece of our business plan.
For most of 13 years, Cutters Point has been open from 6:30 to 6, Monday through Saturday. With increased activity around Sandfly, we see an opportunity to create a place for people to congregate or quietly enjoy dessert and coffee before heading home for the night. Sunday, too, represents room for growth. So we’ll be here for our neighbors seven days a week.
But patience must accompany the best laid plans…
Monday, the 12th, some time after noon, we filled our pastry case with freshly baked cakes and pies. I puttered around the store, working on our updated price list (believe it or not – some are coming down), keeping one eye on our sweets selection, all the while. Around 3:30, a woman in scrubs bought a slice of key lime. The first. Perhaps not as momentous as the births of my children, but not far behind, or so it felt.
From 4 to 6, I was off-site, called to a meeting doubling as welcome distraction. My plan had been to go home after, and cook something for myself. Instead, contrary to my own wishes, I steered back towards Sandfly, curious as to the fates of my cakes and pies.
Muted ecstasy. Negative triangular space in both the chocolate and coconut rounds. Two pieces gone from the marble cheesecake. Another key lime had disappeared, too. Doing the math, the experiment is only about $100 to the bad so far.
I opened my computer and grabbed a stool near the front door, conveniently, if not coincidentally, as close to the cakes and pies as a person can sit. With zero advertising, no “open” sign, front windows devoid of “hours” postings, and a parking lot as empty as a federal building on Labor Day, I had nothing more than hope on which to rely. Our first night in business had arrived.
And nobody came.
Small business isn’t the domain of calm and measured response. If you’re not careful, each minor speed bump metastasizes into Mount Everest in your mind. My rational self argued with my internal cynic – “Just give it time.”
I called my daughter – the older one. She, the reasoned pragmatist, wise beyond her years. “Don’t worry, it will catch on,” she said. “Test it for a while and, if it doesn’t work, pull the plug…like, maybe, two weeks.”
Two weeks???!!! I’ve worn the same pair of socks for that long when in a bind. Should I abandon my lifelong ambition to own my own café for no more than a fortnight of unfortunate nights?
So I invite you, each and every one, to drop by. Anytime. Seven days a week. Check out our new digs. Have dessert. Come Monday, allow us to make you a sandwich for lunch. We’ll be there, on Skidaway Road, waiting for the opportunity to be a bright spot in your day (or night).
Up Front - Vol. 14, #18
As I type, I’m watching through a window as a small crew of men pluck Spanish mossfrom the tree limbs in Chippewa Square. Armed with long rods fitted with small grappling hooks, the men reach high and tug down hard, swiping grey-green clumps, dropping their quarry in piles growing on the brick paths below their feet. The men continue their strange dance, awkwardly extending, struggling to steady the poles that would dwarf a giraffe’s neck. Pull after pull after pull, the moss comes down, until the trees that inhabit the northwest corner of Forrest Gump’s square are stripped bare.
Nope. It’s the production crew for the cable TV series, “Underground.” Per one of several letters distributed to “area neighbors and businesses” and signed by “Laura Bryant, Location Manager/Underground; Beth Nelson, Executive Director – Savannah Film Office; and Susan Broker, Leisure Services Bureau,” Underground is “a scripted series about the Underground Railroad, set in 1857.” Purportedly, it’s the “first episodic television series filmed wholly in this area.” You’ll be happy to know you can catch it on iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu (if not an actual broadcast network).
As a Downtown devotee, I’ve made my peace with inconvenience. Do I enjoy inching along beyond a trolley every time I leave from or return to my house? No. But I get it. The engine of prosperity is rightfully far more powerful than my personal comfort meter. When I bought a house in the middle of the Historic District, I knew what I was signing up for. Life is filled with tradeoffs. You can’t live along a fairway and lament the stray balls that fly into your yard. Similarly, with the privilege of owning an amazing piece of history that looks out onto a vibrant urban green space comes the occasional frustration associated with parking blocks away from my front door. There’s an energy in my neighborhood that fuels me. I love my home, and I’m not likely to leave.
So, typically, I’m fine with notices like the one from Laura/Beth/Susan. Let the anti-everythings rant and rave. I’m a pragmatist, and a capitalist…things are going to be okay. But something about this note struck me differently from all of the others that have slid through my mail slot over the years. “In keeping with the period, we will put down a dirt/mulch composite on some of the asphalt roads around the square. We have permission from the City to remove some of the Spanish moss from the trees…”
Let’s take a second to consider the two sentences in quotes. Laying a composite seems reasonable, since the production team will remove the material when their work is done. The streets that surround the square will be closed, but we’ll find alternate routes. But removing Spanish moss from the trees? Given that they’re bagging it up and toting it away – there’s no replacing this natural guest that rests on our giant live oaks’ limbs.
Spanish moss is a live flowering plant, indigenous to this area and other hot, humid climes. It hangs from its hosts’ wooden arms, moodily dancing with the warm breeze. Its quiet existence provides visual icing on our city’s already delicious eye-candy cake. Spanish moss is arguably the most iconic flora feature in our picturesque cityscape. Chippewa Square i a centerpiece of the city we show to the visiting world (it was home to Gump’s bench; Oglethorpe presides over its center with his sword pointing south; nearly every tour leads on or around its red brick cross-grid). Destroy one of its organic components for a minute or two of film? I’m no tree-hugger, but it seems like a bad idea.
I called Beth, then Laura. To credit both, each took my call. And each listened patiently as I expressed my concerns. Admittedly, my response is largely emotional…the whole endeavor just feels mishandled and ill-conceived. When Beth and Laura assured me they have the blessing of a guy in city government who focuses on arbor issues and another guy who used to before he retired, I blanched, perhaps irrationally. And then I focused on process. The unilateral decision to eradicate a thriving natural organism that is central to our city’s visual identity, followed by a printed pronouncement without any explanation as to rationale: Amateur hour…I think I might have used those very words. Would you prune all the flowers from someone’s azaleas for the sake of your own commercial expedience and tell him not to worry because the plant is a perennial? You would if you wanted a fight.
“It’s just the low-hanging stuff,” Laura said as consolation.
“Yeah, just the part you can see.” Admittedly, I stole the lin from my buddy, but it provided me a perfect reply.
“I’m just the messenger,” said Laura, ready to get off the phone
Sometimes it feels to me like we, as a community (greater Savannah), suffer from an irrational inferiority complex. It compels us to believe that the world really, really likes us, enough to want to shower us with its (the world’s) largesse. And we seem desperate, like the child of an alcoholic, to please it (the rest of the world) and prove ourselves worthy of its (the world’s) love and adoration. We embrace grandiose fantasy without asking a single critical question. Do billion dollar, film industry mini-cities complete with monorail systems simply fall from the sky and land in places like Effingham County? If you read the headlines of our morning paper, they do. Does an economy seamlessly transform itself from one focused on tangible-if-unsexy pursuits – shipping, agriculture, manufacturing, national defense – to one where everyone is engaged in something fun and clever and inexorably tied to a MacBook Pro? If you listen to many of the voices in the air here, you might believe it so. Do high-rises and commercial centers and $10 million riverfront homes rise naturally from the coastal soil? Some folks seem to think so. What does all of this unfettered optimism yield? Big, empty tracts of oft-writ-about land, and other non-things.
Back to Chippewa Square. The Spanish moss must come down. Not because it’s period-inappropriate – presumably it hung from similar trees, albeit smaller then, in 1857. Rather, Ohio isn’t the plant’s natural home. And today’s Underground shot – it’s set in 1857, in Ohio, which is pretty far from here.
It’s pouring now. The cameras are covered with plastic, the crew taking cover inside First Baptist Church. Not a single frame of film (or the digital equivalent) has been shot. Working outside in Savannah in late August without a weather contingency (a one-day daylight-hours window?)…oops. Somebody forgot to tell the Ohio re-creators that it storms here this time of year, more or less every day. Oh well, at least that pesky moss won’t get in the way.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #17
Occasionally…rarely…I phone this column in, figuratively. This is one of those occasions. Time dictates it. My girls and I went to San Diego, Portland and Bend, Oregon for 8 days. As soon as we returned, we’ve gotten back to work preparing for our Cutters Point re-launch, which is scheduled for the Tuesday after Labor Day. We’re expanding our menu to include items like sandwiches, pies and cakes. We’ll be open longer hours than we are now. You’ll be able to drop by for a coffee drink, a sweet treat, or a savory snack until 9 o’clock Monday through Saturday. So, if you’re heading to Sandfly for dinner, we’ll be an easy and appealing second stop. We’ll also operate on Sundays, making us a seven-day-a-week small business. In addition to these operational changes, we’re remodeling…refreshing our décor and creating more comfortable seating and spaces to gather for our guests. Of course, we’re open now while we do all the necessary behind-the-scenes things required to ensure a smooth retooling period.
I’ve officially owned the coffee shop since July 7, and it’s been fun figuring this business out. To all of you who have supported us through our ownership transition – thank you, very sincerely. To those yet to discover us – give us a try. We’re on Skidaway Road in Sandfly, in the front cluster of stores at Norwood Plaza. Our mission: To serve as a bright spot in each of our guests’ days. Please allow us to demonstrate our commitment to this simple philosophy.
And thank you for your indulgence as I take a break from my normal essay writing this week. My kids both head back to college soon, so I’ll return to my keyboard with vigor next issue.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #16
My friend’s wife is very sick. She doesn’t have much time. She spends most of each day and night in a rented hospital bed in the living room of the big house she and her husband built together. They had planned to pass many happy years in their grand, empty nest. There, they would slowly drift together into old age, comfortable and content.
My friend is struggling. His home, the product of his life’s work, is more prison than palace now. But his is a sentence he’d gladly serve indefinitely, if it meant keeping his wife breathing in the institutional bed. He leaves almost never, venturing only as far as Publix, less than a two-mile drive. Their children visit. Grandchildren, too. But seeing the little ones is bittersweet, as he knows she’s heartbroken that she can’t do more than watch them from her bed.
They play Yahtzee, he says, though it’s tough for her to record her score. She gets up, slowly, to labor to the bathroom or the kitchen table, where the meals he makes await. He’s a skilled cook, Belgian by birth. These days he loads his dishes with extra butter and cream. He coaxes every latent bit of flavor from each creation, without concern for calorie counts. There’s no point in moderation now.
We had a hospital bed, too, for a week or so, nearly two years ago. Maybe it’s the same one my friend is renting today. By the time we had it delivered to our home, it was too late for Yahtzee. Past the point for cooking, too. One night, there was a movie. The bed was strategically placed in front of our basement big screen. But she wanted to try the couch, and she stretched out there head-to-head with her not-so-little-anymore girl. They leaned against one another as best they could manage. I heard them laugh. Gabby’s full-throated, Louise’s muted, sneaking out the side of her seizure-twisted mouth. I fed her half-spoonsful of sherbet, softened in the microwave. A microwave I hadn’t used before that week, and haven’t had the occasion to since. She swallowed a few. Most of the others dripped down her cheeks and fell to the sheets, wrinkled hopelessly atop the rented bed.
I remember thinking as I stood by the bed – no matter how small this new world of ours is, no matter how different from our expectations, I’d be happy to live in it forever. More time, that’s all I asked for it. I remember, then, being angry at the notion of “quality time.” How arrogant to grade a moment on its substance! Time, its existence alone, was plenty good enough.
My friend asked his hospice nurse for a prediction. Four weeks, maybe six. But things could change.
“Is there a chance she gets better?” I asked, and I’m not sure why I did.
“No,” my friend said, and he did something with his eyes that I can only describe as a shrug.
I tried to remember when I tossed the lottery ticket from my mind.
I always thought we had a chance. Someone gets better…why not her? She’s incredibly tough. If anyone can win this fight, she can. We said it. To each other. To ourselves in our heads. To our families. To our friends. Every day. Until the day I ordered the bed.
We bought a table that now sits where the bed once was. It separates the comfy couch from the oversized TV. My kids put bowls of popcorn and drinks and magazines on its rustic wood top when they hang out in that room, which is quite often when they’re home. I like it down there, too. So does our cat.
My friend’s living room is beautifully appointed. There’s nothing missing that should be there to make it complete. But when the hospital bed is gone, and he’s ready, I think I’d like to take him shopping for something to put in its place. Like I learned, he might be lonely, but he’s not alone.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #15
The news is bad one day, worse the next. Yet, pure joy reveals itself simply, subtly - when we need it most.
I visited my older daughter in New York. She’s living and working there for the summer, and she’s over the moon about it. Her wide-eyed excitement reminds me of her mother and me. We were similarly mesmerized by the Big Apple a few decades back.
For years, we ignored the sidewalk-stacked piles of garbage bags and the ever-present smell of urine in the air. Without protest, we paid hundreds of dollars a month for a parking space in a lot that was more than 15 minutes by foot from our front door – and firmly believed we had cut a sweet deal. Our kids attended school in a building that had once been a modest single-family home, until its conversion into a facility hosting pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. The girls called their teachers by their first names, per school policy. For this, we paid more than double their tuition here at Country Day. On Fridays, we crawled along the Long Island Expressway, sometimes burning four hours to move 100 miles, to escape the city we loved so dearly.
There’s a thing New Yorkers do – they convince themselves, subconsciously, that their perpetual discomfort is normal. Not only is it normal, but it warrants paying a premium at every turn. We – Louise and I – absolutely loved it there…until we left, unceremoniously, 14 years after we met on a Manhattan sidewalk. Although Louise kept a torch lit in her heart for the big urban life, we gladly made Georgia our home, and every time I flew back north I counted the hours until my return flight.
My hope has long been to keep my kids close. If Sofia becomes a doctor, she can practice anywhere – why not right here? Maybe I can build a family business, and Gabby can return triumphantly from college and work at my side.
And then I saw the magical Manhattan glow in Sofia’s face.
She lives on the sixth floor of a six-floor walk-up, at the top of 120 steps. She rides the summer subway to and from work, and reports that she regularly arrives at her office concealing a layer of sweat. She burnt her chin on frozen pizza, the kind of dinner that the limits of her kitchen and budget demands. She met with a guy for career advice, and he promptly told her she was too nice to make it in finance. When she told me about the conversation, she used mild profanity (which she never does in front of me) to properly describe the man, and neither of us blinked an eye. Her life happens mostly along three axes that link her apartment, her office and her gym…sort of small for the biggest city in the U.S., but that’s how it tends to work there. And she’s demonstrably the happiest she’s ever been.
Friday, she came to my hotel straight from work. In heels, she’s taller than I am. Wearing a proper jacket and pants, she was a newer version of the image of her mother that lives in my mind. We walked to dinner, negotiating the best route – she hasn’t yet completely mastered the appropriate usage of “up” and “down,” as in “town.” She tends to consider everything to be down. I corrected her, which resulted in the only tension during the two days. After we finished eating, I said I wanted to stroll down to Little Italy to a cigar store I know, fully expecting her to take her leave. “Cool, let’s go,” she said to my surprise, and we wandered around Lower Manhattan until after 11 o’clock.
The next morning, she showed up for breakfast promptly at 9. According to my Fitbit, we covered 18 miles on foot – visiting the Museum of Modern Art, Eataly, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Lego store along the way - by the time we called it a night after a long, decadent dinner. We gave each other a big hug outside her apartment, as the 120 steps would have been overkill for me at that point.
Not once, when we were together, did she seem to want to be anyplace else. Nothing could possibly feel better to a father than that.
Reliving every minute of the trip during the flight home, I realized and have come to accept that there’s nowhere else she wants to be a young woman than in the city where I was a young man. I recall my singular focus back then – New York or bust. She has it now, same as I did. And I’m good with it, to my own surprise. After all, I still have a guy who cuts my hair when I’m up there…so here’s to killing two birds with one stone.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #14
As of June 30, 2015, I report to nobody, professionally, that is. The mix of exhilaration, possibility, anxiety and uncertainty is awesome. No paycheck. No company-provided insurance. No performance reviews. No schedule. Just two metrics – Am I living up to my own expectations? And, am I properly providing – opportunity, challenge and security – for people who rely on me?
Declaring independence is the first step, but nothing more than that - a step. Making it work – standing alone, thriving…that’s the really hard part. But nothing is sweeter than the rewards you accrue when it does (work).
As a nation, we have made it work. Better and faster than any state before us. It’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Compare our list of innovations – contributions to the advancement of man – to the greatest societies. We look pretty good. Generosity – we have that covered, too. Genuine desire to do what’s right and just – it lives within our collective core. Nowadays, making such statements without qualification or apology is uncommon. Even those who love this country often preface their praise of her with, “While we’re not perfect…” Nobody is perfect. Nothing is perfect. Except a perfect deity, if you so believe. So the above-quoted conciliatory opener is redundant and unnecessary. Two hundred and forty years ago, our forefathers and mothers decided to take a shot at the self-governance thing, and they thrived, as have generations of their sons and daughters since. And the world is a better place, by a lot, than it would otherwise have been had the whole thing never happened.
My older daughter is living and working in New York this summer – between her junior and senior years of college. She telephones with an exuberance in her tone that I can’t remember hearing before. She loves her work, feels useful. There’s something about paying rent, meeting life’s daily responsibilities, finding your way from place to place, making choices (little and big ones) and living with the results…it’s the first taste of true freedom. There’s nothing like it. It’s great to be on your own – and even greater when you can be so and contribute meaningfully to something greater than yourself – company, community, country, mankind – at once.
Today, the day after the Fourth, I celebrate dependence. Constructive dependence, anyway. Fifty-three years ago – July 5, 1963 – my dad married my mom (they weren’t my dad and mom at the time). Like many couples, they have remained committed to their union for a very long time. They are a complementary team in nearly every way. They argue and annoy one another at times. But each has always genuinely valued the other. He appreciates her, and she him. One protects the other. They are at once loyal, kind and fierce.
Just as determined independence has fueled American exceptionalism, so has keeping promises that would be easier to ignore. My parents have been guided by their promises to each other for more than a half century. It’s an example I can’t hope to replicate, but I can pray for the character to continue to try.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #13
When you’re young, you have plans. The Skidaway Island Class of 2016 proves it. Starting on page 25, you’ll find your Skidaway neighbors who have graduated from high school this spring. These young adults share their what-comes-nexts with us, and you’ll see hints of bright futures behind big smiles.
When I was that age, I wanted to be a doctor. Until the uncertainty around medical school admission painted the prospect of college as less fun than it otherwise might be. So I studied engineering, without any inclination to become an engineer. I took a job in consulting, even though I was fascinated by stocks and bonds. Eventually, I found my way to business school, and 26 years on “Wall Street,” as people like to say. All this in preparation for my work now – editing magazine stories, pulling weeds in a farm field, renting de facto closets to people with excess junk, and serving coffee and scones. Which is a roundabout way of saying: “The best laid plans…”
If I were delivering a commencement speech, I’d need less than a minute to communicate what I’ve learned: Never stop imagining what might be, thinking about what could be. Be open. Hold the steering wheel firmly, but follow life’s roads with insatiable curiosity, wherever they lead. You’re unlikely to end up in the place you set out for, though you have a very good chance of getting exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Am I supposed to sell cappuccino? We’ll soon find out. Many mornings during the last 13 years, I’ve sipped an Americano and read the Savannah Morning News in the counter seat next to the wall just inside the door at Cutters Point Coffee in Sandfly. In a little more than a week, my team will assume the responsibility of building upon the legacy of community-focused service established by the shop’s founders, Bruce and Patti O’Donnell. It’s a privilege to have this opportunity.
Running a coffee shop was never part of my life plan. In fact, it was so far from front-of-mind that it took me a few months to realize Bruce was alluding to a prospective sale. But things happen, and I began to ponder what-might-be. It’s rare in commerce to find true alignment with respect to the motivations between two parties to a deal. Such, though, is the case with Cutters Point. Bruce and Patti care deeply about their guests, their team, their products, their core values, and the sense of place that they have established a few yards off the shoulder of Skidaway Road. I share their mission. At Cutters Point, we will continue to endeavor to “be a bright spot in the day of each or our guests.”
As a young teenager, my sites were set on a surgeon’s scrubs. At 51, I’ll try not spill smoothies on my apron, but it’s nearly impossible to keep my jeans clean when I’m digging in the dirt.
Be open. You’re going somewhere, it just might not be where you think.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #12
She hugged me. On her own initiative. Not reluctantly, as it had been for a while.
I was bound for LaGuardia, stopping the taxi in NoHo to drop her at the corner nearest her summer home – a sixth-floor walk-up apartment with a roommate. We had spent two days moving her in. Per my Fitbit, we climbed an average of 36 flights each of the two days, and walked more than a total of 20 miles – back-and-forth from our hotel and all around Lower Manhattan, revisiting the landmarks of our long-ago lives. The kids’ preschool. The apartments in which they slept in cribs. The bakery that still sells their favorite brownies. Their mother’s decaying Chinatown loft – Louise’s home at the time of our first chance encounter outside a restaurant on far-north (for us) 71st Street.
We shared two delicious dinners; we negotiated a 60-day gym membership for 20 bucks; we braved Bed, Bath and Beyond, hanging a collection of heavy bags from my outstretched arms for the trek from Chelsea to a point southeast of NYU. And on the second night, despite her newly delivered mattress in its place, sheets and duvet and pillows on grand display, she said the magic words without ceremony or pause: “I think I’ll stay with you at the hotel again.”
The morning of the hug, we awoke and walked west. We stopped in every store and stall in Chelsea Market – an edible Louvre to our food-obsessed eyes. I had an English muffin, which, to my surprise, looks nothing like the things in the Thomas box. We searched to no avail for tri-colored Italian almond cookies to bring to my dad. We gawked open-mouthed at the fish store that had transformed from its concrete-floor-rubber-hoses-pouring-into-converted-garbage-pails self of 1996 into a distressed-wood sushi fantasy with $30-a-pound slabs for the home cook for sale across from the Parisian raw bar. We spilled back outside into the building sun and hailed the cab that would lead to the hug.
She seems happy, at peace.
What do I want for Father’s Day? Exactly that. Nothing more.
My own dad isn’t a young man anymore. But he’s youthful as 81-year-olds go. I’m different from him, I’ll think at times, conscious of a single thing in one of those moments. Other times, I recognize evidence that we’re the same. The truth is – we’re neither, and we’re both. I’m a product of him, but the individual that he provided me the platform and strength to be.
I have learned much from my father, and yet I’d have a hard time crafting a coherent list. Fortunately, it’s distillable: Family matters. There is no privilege so profound, no obligation so serious, no worry so heavy, no reward so sweet, as being a dad. My father has lived his life that way – every single day - which has made it a natural thing for me to approach fatherhood the same way.
A very smart man whose job requires knowing these things said something shocking yesterday. Chatham County – by some measure I have been unable to verify – has one of the worst teen-pregnancy problems of any population center in the U.S. My research puts us in the “bad” category, but this man places us among a tiny sliver of the worst. Either way, I’ve done some math.
(Disclaimer: You could probably find data or perform calculations that would yield different absolute results – I didn’t apply sterilized, statistically-perfect rigor to my work - but the gist of your findings would likely be consistent with mine.)
The inner-city poverty rate here is roughly 73% above the national average, while our inner-city teenage pregnancy rate is 59% higher than the national rate. When the man who was talking to me shined his light on this truth, my eyes bulged. We talk about crime. We talk about educational deficiencies. We talk about a lack of economic opportunity. But a reasonable person could easily conclude that our systemic problem is simple: Kids aren’t (generally) able to successfully raise kids. If you live in a place where an unusually high number of adolescents are giving birth, you end up with a similarly outsized proportion of the population in financial dire straits.
Which brings me back to Father’s Day. And Mother’s Day, too. Hallmark holidays, perhaps. But we celebrate Veterans. We honor explorers. We fete past presidents. The Almighty warrants a collection of days each year. Yet at the core of a functioning, sustainable culture we find parents. People who consistently put the wants/needs/happiness of other people ahead of their own. The idea of selfless love might be the most important thing that we pass on from generation to generation. Thank you, Dad, for showing me how.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #11
For many, Memorial Day marks the effective arrival of summer, even if the calendar waits a few more weeks. Three-day weekends spiced with cookouts and beach trips are the norm. As a nation, we’ve been “celebrating” Memorial Day for almost 150 years. So, perhaps, it’s a good idea to take a pause and consider the history and meaning of the day itself.
Memorial Day is a product of the Civil War, a reverential tribute to those who had fallen in combat when the states battled among themselves. With General Order 11, Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s directive named the prospective occasion “Decoration Day,” consistent with the general’s desire to decouple the day with the anniversary of any specific battle.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873, and the rest of the Northern states followed suit by 1890. The South resisted, honoring their dead on different days through the end of World War I. After that epic global conflict, the nation began to salute all of America’s war dead on the designated day, rather than focusing on the Civil War exclusively.
When Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971, the legislature ensured a quartet of annual three-day weekends by re-establishing four federal holidays on specified Mondays throughout the year. Consequently, Memorial Day now falls on the final Monday in May.
“In Flanders Fields” is a renowned battle poem written by a Canadian physician-soldier during World War I. In his rondeau, John McCrae writes:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Georgia-born professor Moina Belle Michael was inspired by McCrae’s moving lyrics and replied with her own:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
Michael suggested that her fellow Americans wear red poppies on Memorial Day as a proper tribute to fallen soldiers. She started the movement herself, donning a flower on her own lapel and selling poppies to her friends and co-workers, donating the proceeds to servicemen in need. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922, the American organization, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, launched a nationwide initiative to sell poppies. Within a few years, disabled veterans were crafting artificial poppies for the VFW to use in its fundraising work.
Memorial Day has evolved into a fun-filled long weekend of sun and summery celebration. But its true essence is confirmed in the The National Moment of Remembrance Act, passed by Congress and signed by then-President William Clinton, in 2000. The legislative measure’s text provides for “a symbolic act of unity, to observe a National Moment of Remembrance to honor the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.” In a Presidential Proclamation issued on May 26, 2000, Clinton proclaimed Memorial Day, May 29 of that same years, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and designated 3 p.m. local time to join in prayer and to observe the National Moment of Remembrance. Today, citizens are encouraged to stop for a minute at 3 p.m., wherever they might be, and “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.’”
So set your phone to alert you Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. Stop for a minute and reflect. And have a spectacular summer, too.