Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Graduation and #momfails

The day Bryce graduated from high school, the entire family came to celebrate.  We ate lunch in a private room at The Gristmill.  The windows were open to this glorious, rainy day and the room was decked out with blue and white decor, and baby pictures of my little man-child.  

Aunt Lou and Uncle Michael gave Bryce a pizza box with lots of “dough”.  And my sister, Abby demonstrated gang signs with him - in case he might need this in a dark alley someday.  It was a fabulous party.

Bryce was overwhelmed with the love and generosity of friends and family.  He wasn’t necessarily thinking about his first rent payment coming up in August or the groceries he would inevitably need when he moved out on his own.  But that’s okay.  His life was short and I’m glad he lived every moment the way he did.  Bless him.

Later that day, we caravanned to San Marcos for the graduation ceremony, preceded by a quick dinner at one of Bryce’s favorite restaurants - Fazoli’s!  As fitting for me and my family, something urgent and crazy happened as we were eating.  Bryce suddenly revealed to us that he might possibly be dressed inappropriately for the ceremony.  A friend had just texted him and mentioned they were supposed to wear a long sleeve, collared shirt and a tie. 

Looking back, I suppose this is common knowledge that most mothers should know.  Erik and I both graduated high school.  We are not complete idiots.  But when your 18-year-old walks out of the house showered, shaved and wearing nice jeans and a collared golf shirt, you call that a success. Did I miss the NBHS memo about the graduates’ dress code?  I’m not saying I did, but possibly.  #probably

One thing about us – we are super-efficient in an emergency.  So when we realized he was not dressed up to par, the whole family went into crisis mode.  Instead of avoiding eye contact with my mother, which was my first instinct, I looked to her in desperation.

Leave it to my mom, she said, “Well, there’s a Goodwill in this parking lot." Oh Lord Jesus, a Goodwill.  When has one been more thankful?

Also, Bryce’s baby sister broke her sandal while we were eating so we also needed a quick solution to this dilemma.  This second catastrophe might cause some mothers to panic, but I’ll be golly dang if there isn’t a Payless in the same parking lot as the Fazoli’s and the Goodwill.  Again, middle-class Americans say Amen when there is a Payless where you need it most.

So to divide and conquer as quickly as possible, some of us went to Goodwill while the rest of us went to Payless - Ryan hopping on one shoe and Bryce rolling his eyes at the ridiculous dress requirements for graduation.

In less than an hour, we were all dressed appropriately, including functional shoes and a remarkably cheap and only slightly-used shirt and tie.  We hustled to the venue and into the arena, snipping and biting at each other along the way.  Oh yes, families.

We got inside, took our seats and I noticed my sisters with their heads together in deep discussion and seeming at least semi-panicked. Since we’ve solved all of our apparel problems, I can't imagine what could possibly be wrong now.

Kelly laughed nervously as Abby pointed out that Bryce’s name was not on the list of graduates in the program.

Oh holy hell, seriously? 


To understand why the absence of Bryce’s name in the program is so funny to my family, I have to briefly take you back to 1998 when I graduated from Texas Tech.  

It had taken me several years to get through college, while on the other hand my little sister Kelly had breezed through and was graduating right on time with a four-point-OH…So even though we started 3 years apart, we actually graduated on the same day.

For a couple of months, my parents had been receiving mail about Kelly’s graduation and all the bullet points that she needed to address in order to get her actual degree.  Each item on her to-do list had been checked off, re-checked and double checked. 

But since I was married and not living with my parents, my mother was not getting my graduation mail.  And since my mother KNEW ME and knew my history of procrastination, denial and fiddle-de-dee, she wasn’t entirely sure that I would be getting my degree along with Kelly on that cold, December afternoon.

How embarrassing would that be!?  After all, there was a party being planned for the graduates.  And about 30 family members were going to be in attendance at both ceremonies, including Papa with his Igloo cooler of Dr. Peppers, Snickers and summer sausage with crackers...that's right, in the Texas Tech coliseum.  I like to imagine the people sitting around us and what they thought about our snacks and the pungent smell of that sausage.

Now that I’m a mother, I totally get why my mom was so nervous about whether I would truly graduate that day.  But at the time – I was all “OH MOM, it’s fine.  Why can’t you just believe in me?”

My mother and I remain shocked that I DID in fact graduate that day.  But there was a little stress leading up to that moment when I finally walked across the stage. She likes to bring this up at dinner parties.

(Side note:  While I felt I should be carried out of the arena amidst flowers and confetti, try to remember that Kelly graduated the same day, on time, AND she carried the flag at her ceremony because she had the highest GPA in her college.  I was so proud of her and I still am.  When I grow up I want to be more like her.  And also, I never can let that flag thing go.  It entertains me immensely to mention it to her from time to time, as only a teasing older sister would.  Also great fodder for family dinners.)

Now back to my first-born’s high school graduation in May 2015.  His name is not in the program and my little sisters are looking at me like history might try to repeat itself, or re-write itself.  I’m relating even more to my mother as I subtly look around for Bryce's little neck to wring and thinking of all the ways I can yell at him for too many skipped classes, or whatever the case may be.  

I grabbed the NBHS program and flipped through the pages and found his name. 

It’s under Michael Bryce Hughes…under the M’s, not the B’s.  Oh my baby sisters, please watch as I moon-walk away from you with extreme attitude.  I wish I had some summer sausage and a DP to settle my stomach.

We cheered and cried a little as they called his name.  I can still see those long legs saunter across the stage and that precious grin that still melts my heart.  No one can tell that tie is from Goodwill, right?  Even the shirt looks new if you ask me. For real though, with this smile, who cares what you wear!

When graduation was over we gathered outside and waited for him to join us.  Ten minutes turned into 20, then 45 minutes, and I’m calling his phone and asking where in the world he's run off to.

Finally, he calls me back and says, “Uh Mom, I didn’t get my diploma.  It wasn’t in that big leather thing they gave me on stage tonight.”

I had been wondering what would finally push me over the #momfails ledge today.  This must be my moment.

I gingerly step away from the group (and out of hearing range from my mom and sisters) and in a motherly-growling-stage-whisper I said, “Get your butt out here and do NOT tell anyone!  Also, what do you mean you didn’t get your diploma?!?” 

He had no idea why, but said they told him to come to school next week to get it straightened out.  To be honest, Bryce didn’t sound very worried.  Should I tell Erik now or wait until my ears stop ringing? 

As we walked to the parking lot I prayed, Dear Heavenly Father, please do not let my mother ask to look inside Bryce’s blue leather diploma which is currently empty and without a degree. 

And thankfully, she didn’t ask.  Evidently God knew I could very well start gnashing my teeth and shedding my garments to be caught in yet again, another embarrassing predicament as the world's worst mother who buys cheap sandals and doesn't know what kids wear to graduation. 

We all loaded up and drove Kelly back to her car at Fazoli’s.  I walked to her car with her and whispered, “Ok, be cool.  But Bryce didn’t get his diploma tonight.  It wasn’t in the book and he doesn't know why.”

I’ve seen Kelly laugh many times, but in this instance she had to hold onto her car door as she doubled over in hysterical laughter.  Thanks sis, appreciate the support.  Mom wanted to know why we were laughing.  I just told her it was nothing as I assisted Kelly into her car and closed her door for her.   I know she laughed all the way back to Round Rock.

A few worrisome days later, Bryce went to the high school and got his diploma.  The only reason it had been withheld at graduation was because he had an outstanding library book.

Oh this book?  The one on your bedside table that I’ve been dusting around since October?  The school needs this?  Is that how library books work?  OK, easy fix.

I congratulated myself for not having thrown the book away or donated it to...well, you know where.

I didn’t mean to tell this story today.  I woke up to a very cold, rainy day in Little Rock, Arkansas. Erik has been traveling since before Christmas so my parents were kind enough to stay at home with the girls while I came with Erik this time. 

With the sound of the rain and the cozy king size bed, I thought it might be the perfect day to stay in bed and just cry.  There are days I do this and I’m not ashamed of it.  The miracle is that I don’t do it every day.  Some days I just have to sleep, otherwise I might go crazy in my grief.  Then there are other days I feel strong enough to look at pictures and reminisce.  This is evidently one of those good days.

It’s fortunate when thoughts of all my #momfails can segue into a funny story where everything turns out okay and no harm is done.  Bryce graduated high school that day.  The golf shirt we bought him (which he hated) was replaced by a $10 dress shirt and tie from Goodwill and has generously been re-donated.  And Ryan’s cheap sandals were replaced with another pair of cheap sandals.

I don’t hold this particular day against myself.  It's too funny looking back now.  There are plenty of other days and moments that I can draw to mind when I want to blame myself or hate myself on Bryce’s behalf.  I think every mother keeps a running tab of her mistakes and even her near misses.  

I read about #momfails all the time.  Don't we all laugh and see ourselves in every situation?  We forgive each other, hug other mommas and confide that none of us know what we're doing.  We extend such grace to our fellow moms.  But so often, not to ourselves.

For me, it's been a very hard thing that the door has closed with Bryce.  My time with him is past. I thought I would have longer.  But I can't teach him anymore.  I can't try to correct my mistakes with him.  I can't apologize or tell him I love him ever again.  I have to basically forgive myself for being a human parent.  A less than perfect mother for him.  

Occasionally, I go back and read my blog post from September 2015. Never Enough.

I wrote about letting go and allowing Bryce to move out and start his new life after graduation. Even then it seems God was preparing me and helping me develop a new level of trust in Him. Perhaps talking to me about cutting myself some slack in parenting, and reminding me that I was never intended to be a perfect mother.  I was, however, intended to be Bryce's mother.  And I feel pretty good about that. 

Oh, Lord thank you for giving me some laughter in the midst of my tears today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Learning to Fall

A few weeks ago I started going through old photos and videos on my computer.  I laughed and cried as I reminisced over a lifetime of memories and the joy and trials of raising three kids in our little house in South Texas.  

I have scrolled through this index a hundred times – but now that Bryce is gone, each frame has become more important….a precious lifeline to his facial expressions and the sound of his voice.  There is nothing more priceless than this not-large-enough collection.

I came across a series of videos I took on my phone back in April.  One evening Bryce had come home to do laundry and eat dinner.  His little sister had just bought a Ripstik with some Christmas money she had been saving.  Since Bryce was our resident expert on anything skateboard (or danger) related, he was more than happy to join Ryan outside as she tried to figure out how to ride this new toy while wearing her new Mohawk helmet (which is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen).

A Ripstik is a cross between a skateboard and a snowboard, and trust me, it’s difficult to ride.  Or maneuver.  Or whatever one does.  I put a foot on it once and was positive I would spend the next day in traction.

But Bryce knew how to do it and was willing to teach Ryan how to ride it.  So I watched without comment the night he taught her to ride.  

I was speechless when she fell HARD onto the street, and Bryce didn’t run to help her up.  

Instead I saw him get down on the ground and demonstrate…not proper foot placement, hip movement, balance or how to avoid that unavoidable fall backwards for beginners.  

But he showed her how to fall – literally.  

I watched him put his hands behind him demonstrating how painful and dangerous it would be to fall incorrectly.  If you put your arms down to break your fall, you could easily break your wrist, some fingers or even your arm.  It’s better to land on your bottom.  You’ll most likely bruise and be sore, but an injury to the bottom is preferable to broken bones. 

He didn’t show her how to never fall, because Bryce knew it was inevitable.  So being her protective big brother, he showed her how to fall better.

And boy did he know how to fall.  This is the kid that I’d nursed dozens of times – scrapes, bruises and cuts just because he couldn’t resist that steep hill in Landa Park.  Or that difficult trick he was always trying to perfect.  I once found out from a neighborhood mom that Bryce had been hit by a car while he was skateboarding.  An actual CAR….driving down the street.  He told me it was just an ‘old lady’ and I was like ‘you better be glad they drive slowly!’  (Yes, my life.)

For sure, if it was something that was possible, Bryce was going to be doing it over and over.  And if he succeeded, he would only do it more.  I already knew this.  

So I’m watching these videos of Bryce and Ryan….and I’m thinking for the millionth time since he died on July 30 that I can’t do this.  I just cannot.  I’m remembering that night in April, what we had for dinner, what we talked about, that sleeveless flag shirt he was wearing.  I hear his voice and I’m missing him so much it physically hurts.

Suddenly I am so aware of the truth.  

We are all falling.  Going to fall.  Perpetually falling.  Getting run over, because we are having fun or not paying attention, or just because we are living in this world.  Human.  Past the age of zero….

The truth is there is no graceful way to fall.  We all come out bleeding.  If we are living.  If we are in the real world.  If we have children and family we love.  Friends we love.  There is no stopping the cuts and scrapes in this life.  

But here is what I want people to know about our journey – it’s not God who wounds us.  He doesn’t choose who gets hurt or who loses children.  It’s just the fallen state of this world and none of us make it out without falling once or a thousand times.  Some falls take an hour to recover from, or a year.  And then other falls last the rest of our lives.  We never fully recover.  

I'm sure if Bryce could teach me how to fall now - how to persevere through his death, land correctly, that he would do his very best.  
But Jesus.

He walks with me through this valley and gives comfort and peace.  He’s faithful to grant mercy in those moments that it’s hard to breath or when my heart explodes into pieces.  

And learning to fall…..oh I am finding a great lesson in that video of Bryce and Ryan that I watch over and over.  As Bryce shows her how to not land on her wrists, I’m reminded not to land on my pride or my self-preservation.  

God isn’t looking for me to survive this or to show the world that I’m strong.  God is looking for me to turn to Him, depend on Him.  To write something down that might encourage the next grieving mother.  Or the next person who has lost anything that makes them want to stop living.  God is looking for me to point to Him – even as I’m weeping into a pillow on Thanksgiving Day.  Or grieving Christmas. 

And oh how I fail Him.  I want to talk about ME.  How sad I am.  How sorry I feel for Erik and me and the girls.  How much I miss Bryce and how unfair I feel it all is.

But I fall to scripture.  I fall to my past experiences with the Lord.  I believe He is good, no matter how loud my screams or the voices of the enemy are that invade my thoughts.  I learned my lesson in the desert.  He was faithful in the desert, so I know He has to be faithful now.

In His great mercy, there’s not an instant that is more that I can bear.  He is faithful in the seconds…in the moments.  We keep breathing, living, functioning, and decorating Christmas trees, making hot chocolate, doing laundry, shopping for Christmas gifts.  The great irony of life – when you literally survive losing a child.

It’s not a cliché – though some might hear it that way – His grace is sufficient.  We keep going.  Keep hoping.  We continue to wait.  And we learn how to fall.

Isaiah 13:15 "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in Him."

Sunday, September 18, 2016

First Things

Unanswered prayers…oh how they wound us.  Especially when those prayers are for our children.  And when a child dies, a lifetime of unanswered prayers fall flat in the desert.  Dried up and shriveled.  Wasted breath, perhaps?  Lost forever.

The agony of those first days and moments after child loss are naturally accompanied by these sad, dark thoughts.  When the guests go home and the leftovers are frozen; when the flowers die and the cards stop coming – the gloomy thoughts are all-consuming.  It takes effort to breath, much less to take captive my thoughts and bring them under the authority of Christ.

But if I listen closely with the tiniest effort…when I draw near…God whispers new promises.  New thoughts.  A different perspective that defies anything earthly which can only be explained by the supernatural, omnipresent Love of a Heavenly Father.

Soon after Bryce died and before I started asking God for anything more than my next breath, I started hearing a still, small voice.  It didn’t make sense to me at first, and it didn’t seem to match what the present circumstances were. 

“What if all your prayers for Bryce have been answered?”

God’s voice in the form of a question.  In the darkest moments, this is the question I kept hearing.  And I kept pushing it down thinking it didn’t make sense because my prayers WERE NOT answered. 

Nineteen years, 6 months and 23 days’ worth of prayers for Bryce’s health and a long life; for a godly wife and children; for a career he loves.  Unanswered prayers.  Lord, I’m so confused, why do I keep having this thought?

Another thing that happens when you lose a loved one, especially a child I would guess, is that you immediately want to know more about Heaven.  Where is Bryce?  Without a doubt, he has not just vanished.  He is definitely somewhere.  But where?  And what is it like? 

I’ve studied Heaven before, but suddenly what I knew wasn’t enough.  I needed more.  I had to put my hands on it, touch it, hold it – what is Heaven?  Within a few days after Bryce's funeral, I devoured two wonderful books about Heaven and revisited one of my favorite sermon series from Gateway Church.  I wanted to swallow them whole! 

I'm sharing the links here for my new friends who are also grieving the loss of a child.

"Heaven" by Randy Alcorn

According to the Bible, this irresistible urge to know more about Heaven is not a new emotion.
“He has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  Ecclesiastes 3:11
We all long for Heaven, only realizing it a fraction of the time.  The discontent and discouragement we have here is an inherent part of our genetics put there by a God who wants us to long for Him.  To long for Heaven. I love the word “eternity”.  The word implies there is much more than what I see.  And it promises I haven’t seen the end of Bryce.    

C.S. Lewis said:  “There are second things, and there is a first thing.  If we seek after second things, we lose both first and second things.  But if we seek after the first thing, second things are thrown in for free.”

What I began to uncover in those quiet, sad moments is that Heaven is a first thing.  THE first thing.  Seek FIRST the Kingdom of God.  I incredibly began to come across every note scribbled in my Bible claiming Heaven for Bryce.  His name is written many times throughout the pages of scripture, highlighted, underlined and dated - all evidence of a mother's petition before God to remember His promise when that sweet boy gave his life to Jesus years ago.

I joyfully began to comprehend what the small voice was telling me.  The prayers I prayed for the second things might not have been answered.  But the ever important prayers for God's promises and Heaven had indeed been answered.  Every place in my Bible with Bryce’s name and a date, I’ve since gone back and added July 30, 2016, the day the promise was fulfilled.  Some pages also envelop tiny pieces of dried funeral flowers, so very precious to me.

Other than Bryce walking through the front door, I can’t think of anything else that could bring the comfort and peace that this realization brought me.

Yes, I would bring Bryce back if I could, perhaps selfishly.
No, I do not think it was God’s will for Bryce to die at 19.  This is not supposed to make sense and it never will.

And yes, the grief and sadness seems to be getting worse instead of better.  I’m told that’s normal.

BUT God put eternity in our hearts for a reason.  Nothing on earth can satisfy, not truly.  It is noble to pursue the second things.  God gives good things and wants us to ask for them.  But when we live life praying only for second things (including healing or blessing) we are putting ourselves at the center of the gospel instead of God. 

A life lived pursuing only the second things will bring disappointment.  This I know.  He doesn’t answer every prayer. 

Today I’m thankful for the prayers that have been answered.  I’ll spend the rest of my life being sad that Bryce isn’t here swimming in the river, going to school, getting married, having kids.  But I’ll also never let myself forget that my most sacred prayers for him were indeed answered.  

As the mother weeps, the Father reminds her – your prayers are answered.  That makes me love God even more.


Saturday, August 27, 2016


She said Bryce was in critical condition.  I asked over and over what happened, but she couldn’t tell me over the phone.  She gave me the address to the hospital in San Marcos and told me to hurry.

My brother-in-law Chris once told me something he learned during a survival hike in Utah.  The first 4 seconds of a traumatic situation are the most important from a mental standpoint.  You decide within 4 seconds whether you will survive a situation or not – this decision may be made either consciously or subconsciously.  

Twenty minutes later we walk into a spinning, noisy, suffocating emergency room.  I’m so hot, but I’m shivering.  Where is Bryce?

The nice lady at the desk calmly stood and said, “We are going to take you to the CCI waiting room.”  How did she know it was us?  Did I say something to her? I can’t remember.

CCI? Cardiac Care ICU?  It must be his heart, I think.  Something happened with his heart.  Do I have the names of Bryce’s pills written down?  Should I call his cardiologists in Dallas?

Then we are being led down an empty hallway and into a small, quiet waiting room.  No, no, no, no.

Please do not close that door behind us!                                                                                   

Erik is saying over and over, “What happened?  Just tell us what happened.”  Three nurses and a doctor come in and close the door.  The doctor says, “It’s the worst possible thing.”


Someone is screaming.

We cry, we fall. 

Where is the verse in the Bible that says God will not give us more than we can handle?  I’ve heard it my whole life, quoted it to others.  And until this moment I believed it.  But THIS I cannot handle.  God knows this is not something I can survive.  Doesn’t He?  I’ll find that scripture later.  It’s probably highlighted in pink or yellow in my Bible.  And underlined.    

The timelessness of the situation is hard to remember.  Minutes or hours?  I want to just cry, but we have to ask what happened.  Will knowing what happened help this make sense?

The same nurse I had just spoken to on the phone said Bryce was at the river in San Marcos and jumped into the water and never resurfaced.  She said friends tried to find him and then the first responders got there in minutes and pulled him out of the water.  They worked on him on the bank of the river and then brought him to the hospital where they did all they could.  He was pronounced dead there.  But he was gone at the river.

She said hospital policy is to send a patrol car to our house to inform us, but she preferred to have us come to the hospital so they could provide us with more details, as well as assist us in seeing his body.

Oh the tiny things we become grateful for.  The bitter medicine we must swallow to make us feel better.

Hand in hand with sorrow I go.  I must see him.

We came to the room where he lay, covered in a sheet and his long legs hanging partially off the end of the short bed.  The nurse said, “Do you want me to pull the sheet down, or do you want to do it?” 


I said, “Please just do it.”


“Can you please close his eyes?” I asked the nurse.  She said she would try again.  But she couldn’t. 

Those precious eyes, now green and translucent.  Not ready to be closed, so still and peaceful.  This cannot be real.  I’ve never seen him so still.  If I stand here long enough I know he will look over at me. 

Erik and Lexi are at the door.  They can’t come any further.  I want to run, but I have to look some more.  I have to make sure.  I watch his chest to see if it’s rising and falling.  I see the blood under his head.  It must be true.

“I’m so sorry, baby.”  I can only cry and touch his soft, curly hair.  I want to remove the sheet and examine his chest and his arms.  But I’m too scared.  Can I hold his hand?  I think I’m going to fall down.


It’s been 27 days and I’m still standing in that room just looking at him.  I’ve slept, showered, eaten, visited with friends and family.  I’ve said goodbye to his body at the church.  I’ve wept buckets.  I’ve hyper-ventilated and broken down to the point I think I might be insane.  But through all that, I’m still standing right there in that spot, looking at that sweet boy and waiting for him to wake up. 

God knows! I told Him a long time ago that this is not something I can handle.  I told him the loss of a child is not a burden I could ever carry. 

And the truth is, I can’t.  And He knows.

In moments we think we will implode.  Or die along with our child.  He doesn’t let us.  And why?  When all we want is to absorb that pain and that death.  Why won’t He let me die along with Bryce?  That would be the only thing that makes sense.

But in His grace…He doesn’t allow more.  Only enough to ground us.  To demonstrate His great strength.

He only lets me cry so much.  And then I have to brush my teeth.  I can only writhe in sobs on my bed so much.  And then he lets me think about what I’ll wear to the funeral.  Thank God for His great strength.

And it is Great, my friends.

I’m amazed that I can get my girls back to school.  I can cook dinner with the help of mom.  I can talk to Erik about his job and the decisions he’s making.  I can take care of the life insurance and the hospital bill.  How can life go on?

But it does.

That is how I know God is real and how I know His word is true.  Because in this moment He is all or He is nothing.

Jesus, You are all or nothing.

In this moment He is everything.  He has to be.  I’m clinging onto the hem of His robe.  I’m asking for a miracle. That we may live.  That I may breathe and that my daughters may continue to live.

Merciful God, there is nothing now but you.  Please soften the blow and help us see a way out of this darkness.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

To An Athlete Dying Young

** A.E. Housman and Hebrews 12 Rephrased **

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the marketplace;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
But eyes that shady night has shut
Will see in Christ the death-chain cut.
And solemn silence gives way to cheers
When Heaven retunes our earthly ears.
For Christ has run His fateful race;
Now follow His “Athletes” in their place.
Fixed on Him, their treasured prize,
They run to the cheers of Paradise.
So set, before its echoes fade,
His fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
His uncontested Challenge Cup.
For on the Cross, His laurelled head,
Gave strength and life to the life-less dead;
And Heaven’s honor trumps earth’s renown
As withered garland gives way to crown.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Cowboy & the Seamstress

When we were little our Grandma (Ruth Wells) made matching outfits to give her grandchildren every year at Christmas.  It was always the last present we opened and the one that drew the most excitement from this giggling pile of little girls.  She would spend weeks measuring us and keeping her patterns and material hidden in her sewing room.  And on Christmas Eve we finally got to see what she had been working on.  We were never disappointed.
Once we had put on our new clothes and taken a thousand pictures in front of the old gas stove, Grandpa (George Claud Wells) would load us up in his pickup, or our station wagon, and take us all over town to show off our new duds.  In the mind of a child, I used to think we were showing off what an impeccable seamstress Grandma was.  It was a pretty amazing sight to see seven little girls walking up your sidewalk in matching dresses.  But later it dawned on me that Grandpa was showing off his grandkids as much as the beautiful work Grandma had done.  Gosh, they loved us so much.
When I think of the days Grandma spent sewing and wrapping those gifts, it brings tears to my eyes.  Back then I knew it was something really special, but as an adult my heart can hardly handle how precious it was for her to do this and that we got to share it with our siblings and cousins. I think that was her point all along.
I wanted to share some of these pictures this Christmas as a way of recognizing and saying thank you to Grandma for all the hours, needle pricks and times she had to wrestle us to get the correct measurements for our Christmas gifts.  And also I wanted to brag on her talent as a seamstress.  (I can hear her scoffing in Heaven telling me to hush!) 
Here is the first picture we have of matching clothes she made for us.  Little rainbow colored wind-breakers.  This picture speaks to the dedication and determination of our mothers to get a picture of us together.  Not one smile.  Not one.
This is 1977, so there were only five of us.  There were still 2 little girls and a little boy to come later..... 
from left to right:  Kelly, Cassie, Amanda, Jennie & Sarabeth
In 1978, Grandma got serious with the Christmas dress sewing.  Look at these precious dresses she made!  This was the year Altah joined our family.
from left to right:  Jennie, Cassie, Kelly, Amanda, Sarabeth and baby Altah
One of my favorite years was 1980.  Grandma mixed it up a little bit giving Sarabeth and Amanda the peach dresses with brown blouses and the Wells/Morrison girls the blue.  And I love the bottom picture with Grandma and Grandpa.  Sarabeth, Abby and I were piled onto Grandpa's lap and Kelly is posing with Grandma.  Uncle Bob snapped the photo and accidentally caught Grandpa smiling.  He wasn't necessarily one to smile for pictures.
top picture left to right:  Kelly, Cassie, Sarabeth, Jennie.
bottom row:  Altah, Amanda and baby Abby
1981 ushered in the year of the cousin lineup by age.  You can see our photos are getting a little more organized as we get older and our parents found ways to coax us into submission.  This lineup continues today - almost every time we are together we line up and strike a pose.  Note the mismatched, knee-high socks, oh dear!  This year we even got matching puppy-penny banks to complete the ensemble.

In 1982, Grandma made us matching prairie skirts and ruffled shirts.  What little girl in 1982 didn't want a prairie skirt?  I thought these were SO STYLISH!  And I'm amazed that our hem lines are all the same length even though we were different heights.  Did she do that on purpose?  I love the bows in Cassie and Altah's hair.  And Amanda and Kelly are holding hands.  Just adorable.

1983, the year of the sailor dresses!  This picture makes me smile because I imagine the conversations had by Grandma, Mom, Aunt Cathy and Aunt Sarah about making sure we had matching white socks this year.  I have to admit, the white socks do complete the look.  I also like to call this the year of the mullet.  It will be with us until the late 80s....thanks Mom.

1984 - behold a son is born!  Finally, after seven granddaughters they finally got a boy.  When Matthew was born in June, Grandpa said to my mother, "Thank you, Chloie Jan."  I swear Grandpa has tears in his eyes as he looks at Matthew in this picture.  He adored Matthew.  And the feeling was 100% mutual.

You can't go wrong with the 1985 sweater vest and matching skirts.  Sarabeth and I were excited to match for the first time ever.   Grandma must have decided it was no longer cool to wear matching dresses to church with your sisters.  But out of town cousins, no problem!  And what better compliment to the vest and skirt than the faux coach purses!  We thought we were so grown up.

In 1987, nothing was more rad than a comfortable sweat suit.  I don't believe Grandma sewed these, but here we are nonetheless in our lineup with Matthew bringing up the rear.

Matthew revolted in 1988 and decided he did NOT want to bring up the rear this year.  So he is posed right in the middle and looking just like my nephew Sawyer.

In 1990 Grandma gave us all beautiful sweaters.  They didn't match, but the theme is still the same. 

Note the nativity set over Cassie's left shoulder.  That was the neatest, most precious set of wise men, shepherds, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.  You might not believe it, but Grandma let us take it all down and play in the floor with it every Christmas.  Even after the angel broke her wing. I'd be embarrassed to say how old I was the last time I did that.

This was our last Christmas with Aunt Sarah.  She died December 21, 1991.  I love this picture of Grandma & Grandpa with their kids.  And I can hear Grandma's laugh from here.

Aunt Cathy, Dad & Aunt Sarah with Grandma & Grandpa

We celebrated Christmas 1991 just a couple of days after Aunt Sarah's funeral.  My Grandma made that decision without hesitation.  She wanted us all to be together and she knew we needed each other.  I love her for that. 

Christmas 1992 was our last holiday with Grandpa.  He died in August 1993.  He doesn't look well in this picture, but he was content with Matthew in his lap.  My Grandma used to say that Matthew added 10 years to Grandpa's life.  I believe that.

In 1993, Grandma made us all pillows.  By the time we were this age, the kids' table wasn't just where the little ones sat to eat Christmas dinner.  We were having very grown up conversations about all kinds of things, most of which will remain private amongst the eight of us.  I think we realized after losing Aunt Sarah and Grandpa so closely together how much we loved each other.  So we treasured each other even more and shared even more laughter and tears than ever before.

1994 was the year of the vests.  And I somehow became the shortest member of the family.

I'm sharing this picture because it was taken on Christmas Eve 1994 in downtown Tahoka.  And because I'm upside down.  Not sure whose idea that was.

Another favorite of mine - in 1995, Grandma made us each a framed picture of a little girl wearing a dress made from the same material she used to make our dresses in 1981.  And Matthew got a picture of a little cowboy wearing a coat made from the slicker Grandma had made him.  You can't see it, but he's also wearing some shiny spurs!  I think we all cried when we opened this one.

1996 was the last Christmas we spent at Grandma's.  It was also the year Erik joined the family.  Grandma made each of us a wall hanging.  Erik and Matthew got matching Texas Tech patterns. And for the first time I wasn't the oldest!  Erik took my spot at the front of the line which I loved.

Christmas of 1997 we spent at Methodist Hospital in Lubbock.  Grandma had been diagnosed with lung cancer that later spread to her brain.  We were allowed to bring a little food into the hospital waiting room along with some presents.  Then we wheeled her bed in and had Christmas as usual.  Bryce was almost one, so he entertained Grandma in his little Santa outfit as he ran around charming the nurses and all of his cousins.  Grandma died in March 1998.

If you've taken the time to scroll through these pictures, thank you for letting me reminisce.  When I look at these photos I am overwhelmed with the sounds and smells from Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa's house.  If I close my eyes, its like no time has passed at all.

But what I love most about these pictures are the faces looking back at me.  I recognize my own kids in my brother and sisters.  I recognize my nieces and nephews in the eyes of their great-grandparents.  And I see all of us for who Grandma and Grandpa saw us to be - perfectly flawed, basically unblemished little pieces of delight who they loved and doted on as long as they could.  If we could only love ourselves as much as they loved us. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Story as a Vet - by Jim and Chloie Jan Wells

What is a Veteran?

A “veteran” –whether active duty, discharged, retired or reserve—is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to “The United States of America”, for an amount of “Up to, and including his life."

That is honor.

Jim:                       I am honored to be asked to speak about veterans and share my story of serving in the US Army. How many of you have a veteran in your life? A father, husband, brother, friend?

Chloie:                 Jim as you all know is a quiet man of few words.  That was never more true than December 2, 1969 when The Selective Service conducted its first draft lottery since 1942.

I was in the dorm at Texas Tech along with many other girls sitting by the radio listening to the numbers being called for the draft. We were anxiously awaiting the numbers for our boyfriends and brothers, knowing that men we loved could possibly be drafted to serve and end up in Viet Nam.

The first third of the 366 numbers drawn would be drafted; the second third would be possibly drafted; and the bottom third would not be called to serve.

The unthinkable happened when my former college roommate’s husband was number 1—September 14!  I could hardly breathe until at last Jim’s number was called—April 2—number 271.  He was in the bottom third—he would not be called to serve.

Little did I know that he had already decided at some point that he was going to enlist when he graduated from Texas Tech.

Jim:                       Being part of the military was something I just knew I would always do. My granddad Hale served in France in WW I, my dad and many of his relatives and friends served in WW II and Korea. It just seemed like the natural thing to do with my life—sign up and serve.

Chloie:                 I could not wait to talk to Jim the next day to celebrate his lottery number. But when we met on Tuesday morning as I was all smiles and so thankful that he was safe from the draft, he told me he was going to enlist!. I tried to explain to him that he did not have to sign up—his number was in the bottom third—he was safe from the possibility of going to war.

Remember I said Jim was and is a man of few words…he had never mentioned to me that enlisting was part of his future and we were even talking about getting married. But Jim’s few words carry a lot of weight. He said to me, “It’s something I’ve got to do. It’s my duty to serve.” And so it began…

James Tom Wells, 1st Lt. in Military Intelligence, U.S. Army
Jim:                       February 1970—My parents took me to Amarillo for induction and I was sent to Ft Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training.  When I left Amarillo it was 50 degrees out and I was wearing my Levis and boots. When I arrived at Ft. Leonard Wood, the snow was a foot deep and it was the coldest I’d ever been.

Most of the guys in my unit were city boys from Chicago and Peoria, Illinois. And most were high school graduates or drop outs who had been drafted.  I got to call home occasionally on Sunday afternoons.  Phone calls were few and far between and only lasted a few minutes. So letters were the main way my family heard from me.

In early May 1970 I got my orders to report to Ft Benning, Georgia on June 6 for Officer Candidate School. I called Chloie and said let’s get married when I get home.

Chloie:                 The army does not give much information and certainly not in a timely way. Jim could not get a specific date for when he could come home so setting a date for our wedding was difficult. We decided to get married on Wednesday, May 27, hoping that would work.

He got home on Saturday, May 23. We got our license on Monday and had a wedding shower that evening.  The rehearsal dinner was on Tuesday, and we got married on Wednesday. We left for our honeymoon to San Antonio and Dallas, and were gone for 9 days. We came back so I could start summer school at Tech and he left 2 days later for OCS.

I did not see him again until the end of August.

Bridal shower held at Madeline Hegi's home, May 25, 1970
Jim:                       OCS was a highly pressurized situation for 22 weeks. I had different leadership positions that changed every 3 days. We were either in the classroom discussing infantry, armor, and artillery tactics, or in the field where we practiced map reading, leadership strategies and marksmanship.

Chloie:                 Mother, Daddy and Ruth (Jim's mother) helped me move to Georgia in August 1970 after I graduated from Tech, bringing enough of our wedding gifts to set up housekeeping.

Family members were allowed to visit their candidates on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and we happened to arrive on a visitation day.  So that evening I went to an OCS wives meeting where I learned about the rules I was to follow. These rules were very strict and were strictly enforced. Public displays of affection, traffic violations, or any other inappropriate behavior could result in having our soldiers dismissed from OCS.

I had not seen Jim since early June and needless to say, I was so excited. However, the public display of affection rule also applied at our visitation times. Wives were not allowed to touch their husbands AT ALL. Mother and Ruth hugged Jim and Daddy shook his hand while I just stood there smiling sweetly.

Jim:                       Chloie arrived at the 12th week mark when we were intermediate candidates and we celebrated with a banquet and dance at a hotel in Columbus, Georgia. 

Chloie:                 The 12th week party was a special event marking the first time the candidates had been off post and had the chance to celebrate with their wives or girlfriends. I wore a semi-formal dress that Ruth made for me.  We also had to wear gloves to go through the receiving line to meet the field grade officers and their wives. Some girls did not have gloves so we would take ours off after going through the line and send them to the back of the line for those who didn’t have any.

I just want you to know that as a girl from a small town in Texas, I knew more about good manners and hospitality than most of the wives from large cities. I have Mother, Bettye Green, Madeline Hegi and the School of Home Economics at Texas Tech to thank for that, as well as all the ladies of Tahoka who set such a good example for me. As military wives, we were involved in all kinds of teas and balls and I never felt inadequate to handle a social situation.

Jim still had to live in the barracks at that time. My apartment wasn’t ready for about 10 days so I lived with Monty McGinty and her son during that time. Her husband was in the class ahead of Jim so it was good to have a face from home so nearby. Fred and Mable, Monty's parents, came for a visit, bringing me gifts from home and taking me sightseeing with them.

After the 12th week party, the candidates were able to come home on most weekends unless someone messed up, but the wives would not know that until we went to pick up our husbands at noon on Saturday.  On several occasions, the XO would come out and say, “Go on home ladies. Your men won’t be coming home today.” We would sadly drive back to town and have a slumber party.

On the weekends when Jim was at home, I would cook a big breakfast on Monday morning and have him back on post by 5:30 a.m. The first time I dropped him off, there was a sign that said “No left turn between the hours of 0600 and 1800”. I had no idea what that meant so I would not turn left for fear I would get a traffic ticket. I made many right turns before I was able to find my way off post. I was terrified of breaking one of those rules.

Jim:                       At the 18th week mark, we became senior candidates which signified that the hardest part of our training was over. At that point we were choosing which branch of the army we wanted to be in. The top six candidates got to choose infantry if they wanted it. I chose the oxymoron unit—army intelligence-- and received orders for Ft. Holabird, Maryland.

The 18th week party was a huge formal event and a real celebration. From that point until graduation, the candidates were able to leave post in the afternoon and spend the night at home.

Chloie:                 About the 20th week, Jim had to go on bivouac for a week. We decided that I should go see Jim and Andra Solomon in Columbus, Mississippi where they were stationed. I went to the bank on post to get some cash to buy my bus ticket and headed into Columbus. In my excitement, I failed to notice a school zone and was pulled over for speeding. We had a Ft Benning sticker on our car so I knew the policeman would know we were military. I was absolutely sick. I went straight to city hall to pay cash for my ticket. I did not want to write a check and leave any kind of paper trail that could trace me back to Jim.  I then had to drive back to post to get more cash for my bus ticket.

When I told my girlfriends what had happened they were equally horrified for me so I was sure Jim was going to get kicked out of OCS. All I could think of was how disappointed George Claud (Jim’s dad) was going to be if Jim was dismissed. And the fact that I couldn’t tell Jim right away what I had done made it even worse.

The next day I left on the bus for Mississippi. I sat right behind the driver the whole way with my nose buried in my book. We had a long layover in the downtown Birmingham bus station which in 1970 was quite an experience for a young Texas girl.

When I told Jim Solomon what I had done, he died laughing and assured me Jim would not get kicked out of OCS. I couldn't relax until my Jim got back and I could tell him what I had done.  We wives took those rules very seriously.

Jim:                       The last week of my training I was privileged to raise and lower the post flag every day. That was a great honor for me. Traffic stops on military posts and soldiers stand at attention at these two times every day.

You may not know that at movie theaters on post before the feature begins, the Star Spangled Banner is played and the audience stands in salute to the flag.

Another great honor for me while in OCS was leading my platoon as we passed in review for graduation before the base commander.

Patriotism is alive and well on our military bases throughout the world. Soldiers respect the service of veterans that served before them and want to continue the honorable standards they lived by.

We formed many friendships at OCS and still hear from one good friend every year on November 19, our graduation day. Some of the guys in my company went on to lose their lives in Viet Nam and others still suffer from wounds, malaria and the effects of Agent Orange.

As a 2nd Lt., we left Columbus, Georgia the next day with everything we owned in our car or on top of it! What an adventure to tell our parents and friends goodbye and drive up the east coast to Maryland.

Chloie:                 For the first time since May 27, we lived together every day. Being assigned to Ft Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland afforded us the wonderful opportunity to live just 20 miles from Washington, DC, as well as in the heart of so much early history of our country. We visited the Capitol several times, toured Williamsburg, Gettysburg, Ft McHenry, and even spent a weekend in New York City.

Jim:                       Ft Holabird was a small post, with a chain length fence around it. It was in the heart of the industrial district of Baltimore. I was adjutant to the deputy commander of the intelligence agency. 

In February 1971, we learned that Ft Holabird would be closed and the intelligence unit would be relocated in Ft Huachuca, Arizona. Of interest is that Watergate prisoners were sent to Ft Holabird to serve their sentences.

June 1971 found us heading west and ready for another adventure. Ft Huachuca is located south of Tucson very near the Mexican border. It is at the base of beautiful mountains and was a great assignment for us. My Aunt Barbara and Uncle Sarge lived about 50 miles from us and we visited Tombstone, Bisbee, and Nogales, Mexico. We made so many good friends there and again were able to travel and enjoy that part of the country.

I was very fortunate with the assignments I was given and being honorably discharged as a 1st lieutenant. Chloie and I grew up being away from parents and family.

Col. Peterson and Chloie Jan pinning on 1st Lt Bar, November 19, 1971

 Jim and Chloie Jan at Mike and Beth Huffaker's Wedding, June 1971
 Thirty-six years later our son made the decision to enlist in the US Army after he graduated from West Texas. He said joining up was something he felt like he ought to do.

It was with pride that we took him to Amarillo to be inducted and watched him fly away to Ft Knox, Kentucky for basic training. It was a proud day for us and our daughters when we attended his graduation. He was sent to Ft Hood, Texas and six weeks later was deployed to Iraq. In three years he served two tours in Iraq and now serves in the Army Reserve.

Matthew's graduation from Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, February 2009

Jim and Matthew looking at his new rifle hours before departure to Iraq

                        Matthew leaves for his first deployment to Iraq after midnight, May 3, 2009
 Matthew was in Iraq at the time of the Ft Hood shooting. Many of his friends had families living on post and were very worried until they found out they were safe. The soldiers were furious that their friends and loved ones were in that kind of danger on an American military post.

Times have changed from my time in the military to Matthew’s experience. We wrote letters while Matthew emailed and called us on computers. We could communicate with him on Facebook and Skype with him, allowing us to see his face.

 In my era, soldiers were not honored or respected, but thankfully that is not the case today. Viet Nam veterans were spit on when they returned home.  But Desert Storm veterans were welcomed home by ticker tape parades. Matthew has been thanked by strangers and had meals paid for by anonymous Americans.

Chloie:                 I never welcomed Jim home from war but we had that experience with Matthew twice. Both times he returned from Iraq our family was at Ft Hood to welcome him home.

Families gathered at the parade field and were able to watch the soldiers come off the plane on a large TV.  They were hard to identify because they all were wearing shades and caps. Children would crowd to the screen searching for daddy. When we heard a man say, “Look, there’s your mommy,” our hearts were in our throats.

Jim:                       The soldiers boarded a school bus and were driven to the parade field where balloons, flags, music and Welcome Home signs were waiting. The bus parked across the street from the field and the soldiers got off. Over the PA system, the announcer said, “Move that bus!”, and it drove away.  Then we saw our soldiers march in formation onto the parade field where they were commended for their service to their country.

When the soldiers were dismissed, families ran onto the field carrying signs so their soldier could find them. These were two of the most thrilling events of my life!
I love my country and am proud to have served in the military. I am so thankful that our soldiers and veterans are respected and honored today.

Matthew arrives home after his 2nd deployment, Fort Hood, Texas, November 2011
Chloie:                 Jim was never in harm’s way during his time of service. But he was willing to be. For that, I have the greatest pride and appreciation for him. It was an honor to be a military wife and because of that experience, I was able to wholeheartedly support Matthew’s decision to enlist.

Jim:                       You probably have stories you could tell of the veterans in your lives and I appreciate the opportunity to share my story.  God Bless our Military and God Bless America.
Jim & Chloie Jan give Veterans' Day talk at Phoebe K. Warner Club, Tahoka, Texas November 10, 2015