How do you tell your 12-year-old son that his best friend has died?

When we left Florence the day after Christmas, Colin was doing better. They were weaning him off the ventilator. He was responding to his parents and siblings with smiles and nods. I thought that he might actually beat the odds.

The weekend before Colin got sick, he’d stayed with us. I had noticed, at one point, that he seemed paler than usual. However, he’d behaved normally, rollerskating on Friday night and throwing popcorn at the screen on Saturday during the love scenes of the latest Twilight movie, which he and Ben were required to attend because I’d promised Ben’s sister I’d take her and a friend.

As usual, Colin and Ben had alternated between playing outside and coming in to play video games. Colin’s energy level seemed normal to me, and I was paying attention because his pallor worried me. It was winter, and he was fair skinned, I told myself. Nothing to worry about. But I was wrong.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, Colin had leukemia. When his mom took him for his annual checkup, the doctor gave him a chicken pox booster — recommended at age 12. But because of the as-yet-undiagnosed leukemia, the vaccination overwhelmed his system, throwing him into an extremely rare illness, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH. Basically, in HLH, your immune system goes into overdrive, and begins attacking your organs as well as the virus it’s actually after.

But HLH starts slowly. After spending the weekend with us, Colin wasn’t at school on Monday. Via computer, Colin told Ben he had chicken pox. He sent Ben a photo of a few welts. Okay, sometimes a booster will do that. It’s rare, but it happens. I still didn’t worry.

Then Colin went into the hospital. Doctors at McLeod were stymied. His condition worsened. He was transferred to Columbia and placed on a ventilator. The doctors in Columbia finally diagnosed him with HLH. Now, I worried. As a nurse, I knew the odds. I also knew that Colin’s mom, a Pediatric Intensive Care nurse, knew the odds.

But the news was good. They were treating him with chemotherapy. Colin’s condition began improving. They began weaning him off the ventilator. He began responding to his parents and siblings when they spoke to him.

So I thought it was safe to follow through on our after-Christmas plans of a mountain trip. We made it as far as Rock Hill. On Dec. 27, my phone rang. Colin’s dad was on the other end. Colin hadn’t beaten the odds after all.

So how do you tell your 12-year-old that his best friend has died? Colin, the person who got his sense of humor. Colin, the person who said he’d go to IB with him. Colin, his wingman on the soccer field. Colin, his best friend in the whole world.

You go into his room, and you say, “Ben, I need to tell you something.” Then, because there’s no way to soften the blow, you say, “Ben, Colin has died.”

And you hold him in your arms while you both cry.

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Rainbow Risks

There’s always a fad: pet rocks, mood rings, troll dolls, Cabbage Patch dolls … the list goes on. And your kids always want whatever it is.

About 2000 or so, Rainbow flip-flops made it from California to South Carolina and became the latest thing. My children begged for them, but I refused to spend $20 apiece on three pairs of flip-flops that they’d outgrow in a few months.

One late August afternoon, I’d picked them up from after-school care and we were driving home. School had started, summer was ending, and a store we were driving past was advertising a sale on Rainbows. Unfortunately for me, Adam could read.

“Hey, Mom!” he said. “They’re on sale!”

I was in nursing school and I must have been especially tired that day, because I caved. Pulling in to the parking lot, I said, “We’re buying the flip-flops and nothing else.”

As we entered said establishment, I noticed a young man sitting on a bench out front. Tattoos covered each arm, and his facial piercings were numerous. This should have alerted me, but as I said, I was tired.

We entered what appeared to be a surf shop — t-shirts and flip-flops, in-line skates, skateboards, and surfboards surrounded us. They had children’s Rainbows, and we found the correct sizes.

Adam, about 8 years old, wandered back into the t-shirts.

“Hey, Mom, look at this!” he called, holding up a shirt that was entirely inappropriate for his younger siblings to see.

“Adam, put it back,” I said, herding Mary and Ben to the cash register to pay for the three pairs of still-much-too-expensive-but-at-least-on-sale shoes. As I focused on getting out the credit card and signing my name, Mary, age 5, and Ben, age 4, stared into the glass display case in front of us.

“Mom, what’s that?” Ben asked, pointing at something in the display case.

I realized, much too late, that the case displayed rubber body parts with piercings. And there, among the ears and the noses and the eyebrows, was a breast with a nipple ring. Which, naturally, was what Ben was pointing at.

“Let’s go,” I said, snatching the bag from the cashier’s hand and hustling Mary and Ben outside. Adam finally tore himself away from the t-shirts and followed us.

Yes, they got their Rainbows, along with an education in body piercings and, um, highly inappropriate t-shirts.

I think now about how we must have looked to the people who worked at the surf shop — young suburban mom, Toyota minivan, three young kids — wandering into the land of body piercings and sex wax.

As I said, I was tired. And the shoes were on sale.


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First Love

One of my earliest memories is of wading in the ocean. We were in Wilmington, N.C., to visit some elderly relatives of my mother’s. For whatever reason, we had some down time, so my parents took my brother Rusty and me to the beach to entertain us.

It wasn’t summer, and Rusty and I were dressed in our Sunday best to meet the old ladies. It was probably cold, but I didn’t notice. All I remember is I had to get in the water.

“Don’t get your clothes wet!” my mother admonished. Really, I didn’t mean to! But I couldn’t resist the ebb and flow of the waves. The sound, the movement, the water crashing on the sand, curling into it, then flattening out, receding, only to do it again. And again. I loved it.

I don’t remember meeting the old ladies that day, although I’m sure we did. All I have is that little snippet of time we spent at the ocean.

Looking back, I’m surprised at my love of water. My mother tells me that as a toddler, living in land-locked northern Alabama, I would wake up terrified, screaming about “sharps” under my bed. Now, I wonder how I even knew sharks existed. There was no Discovery Channel. We didn’t even have a TV. “Jaws” hadn’t yet been written.

We lived in the middle of nowhere, and my only social outings were Sunday School and church (my dad was the minister for three small Presbyterian churches in Sumter County, Alabama. Seriously — the middle of nowhere). I don’t remember sharks being the topic of any Sunday School lessons. My parents read Dr. Seuss and Madeline to me in the evenings. But somehow, sharks swam through my nightmares.

When I was six, my family moved from Alabama to John’s Island, S.C. The manse was fronted by Bohicket Road and backed by Bohicket Creek. My dad built a dock. My mom decided Rusty and I needed to learn to swim. She signed us up for lessons at the Y in Charleston.

The high school students teaching the lessons were clueless. I’m sure they were just doing what they’d been taught, but their approach wasn’t reassuring. They took us by the hands, and had us put our heads in the water and kick. The scariest part? As they walked backwards, pulling us with them, they took us into water that was over our heads. Yes, they could stand up in it, but we knew we couldn’t.

At the end of the first lesson, they had us jump off the diving board into the deep end. I was 8, and Rusty was 6. We were both smart enough to know that was a really bad idea for someone who couldn’t swim. We also didn’t know our instructors well enough to trust them to catch us.

I jumped anyway — hey, oldest child, can’t disappoint authority figures, even if it kills me!

But Rusty refused. He also refused to enter the water again, screaming every time anyone tried to pick him up and move him toward the edge of the pool. Both of our parents began to attend our lessons, in an effort to reassure him. It didn’t work.

Eventually, my mother made some inquiries and found a retired Marine sergeant who taught swim lessons in a backyard pool. He was calm, he was competent, and he was patient. By the end of the summer, both Rusty and I could swim and dive.

In spite of that less-than-reassuring introduction to swimming and my early fear of sharks, I was never afraid of the ocean. I loved our summer trips to Hilton Head with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on my father’s side. I loved camping at Edisto Beach State Park with my parents and siblings as a child, and looking for shark’s teeth on that same beach as a teenager.

I remember running into the waves, ignoring my parents’ directives not to go past my knees. I loved the energy, the sound, the smell of the salt water.

I no longer live on the coast, but I find I need to return regularly to recharge, listen to the waves, and reconnect with my first love — the ocean.

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Eat, Prey, Blood

Chapter One

I wasn’t going to be able to talk her out of it. My mother was determined to spend the summer in Italy. And I was going with her, whether I liked it or not. And the answer was not.

I kicked a rock down the sidewalk in front of me as I headed toward school. It was the last day of my junior year, and I was ticked. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school was supposed to be fun, carefree. Swimming. Sailing. Sunbathing. A summer job selling Italian ice outside of the aquarium with my friends Claire and Johan.

But no. We were going to Italy. Sounds wonderful, right? Wrong. We weren’t going for fun. Our trip was for my mom’s job. In a week, we’d fly to Rome, then take a train to Montepulciano.

Monte what, you ask? Whoever heard of that town? The Etruscans, that’s who. They founded it. My mother is a professor of classics, which means she spends lots of time studying ancient Romans and Greeks and the people who came before them, like the Etruscans.

“Mom!” I’d whined. “Do we have to go for the entire summer? Really?”

She’d reminded me that a summer in Italy is an experience many 16-year-old girls never have, and I should be grateful. Huh. I’m not sure why my mom thinks digging up information on people who’ve been dead and gone for thousands of years equals fun.

My mom had looked tired that day, dark circles under her normally lively blue eyes. The spring humidity made her short blonde hair curl softly around her pixie-like face, but the animation I was used to seeing there was missing. I felt guilty for being such a self-centered jerk. But I couldn’t help myself. I really, really didn’t want to go.

“Listen, Katie,” she’d said. “I understand you’re disappointed about not spending the summer with your friends. But it’s important that we go to Italy this summer.”

“Why? Why THIS summer?” I’d pouted. “Why can’t it be next summer? Or the next one? Why THIS summer?”

Let me set the record straight — I appreciate everything my mom has done for me. Both she and my dad did their best to make sure their divorce didn’t disrupt my life too much. I was ten when she and my dad split up. My dad is Italian. He’s an archaeologist, and that’s how they met — he was a visiting professor of archaeology at the College of Charleston one semester, and they fell madly in love.

And just as madly out of love 11 years later. Grown-ups. Don’t ask me to explain it, because I don’t understand it myself. Anyway, he stayed on in Charleston after the split because of me, at least until last year when he got an offer to lead a dig outside of Montepulciano. My dad grew up there, and we used to visit every summer before my grandparents died and my parents divorced.

I hadn’t been back since the summer I turned seven. And that was just fine with me. I couldn’t imagine being in Italy without my Grandmother Fiero there. I didn’t even want to think about it.

But none of that matters. My mom’s planned everything out. She’ll be doing research and I’ll be helping my dad at his archaeological dig when I’m not helping her dig through old tomes at the library. I’ll miss home. And my friends. I’ll even miss the tourists.

Claire’s parents had offered to let me spend the summer with them. Claire had started going to my school the same year my parents divorced, and she’d helped me through a lot. I spent so much time at her house and she spent so much time at mine that we were essentially family.

But my mom had said no to that, too.

I caught up with the rock and gave it a particularly vicious kick, sending it skittering into the intersection in front of me. I watched as it bounced into the gutter, stopping in front of a run-down house with a For Sale sign in the front yard. A man in a long black coat stood on the front porch. He had his hand on the doorknob, but turned as he heard the rock hit the curb. Icy blue eyes met mine for a second, then he disappeared into the house.

Why was the guy wearing a long leather coat in Charleston in June? The temperature at 8 a.m. was about 80 degrees, and it was already so humid I was sweating standing still. And still, the guy was dressed like a spy from some ancient British movie. Or Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Weird.

Just then, the light changed and I crossed quickly, eager to get to school. I forgot about the man and his strange attire as soon as I spotted Claire waiting for me in front of the high school building.

Last night, Claire had come over to help me pack for Italy.  My mom and I live in an old house in on Elizabeth Street, near the harbor. It’s not South of Broad (the fancy area where everyone who’s anyone lives), but it’s still pretty cool.

Our house is one of those long, narrow, three-story houses with a hallway that runs straight down the middle from the front door all the way to the back door. Supposedly the houses were built that way so ocean breezes could blow through and cool them off during the summer. Ha. Like that really worked. Thank goodness I was born after air conditioning was invented.

“What will you need in Italy?” Claire had asked. “Isn’t Europe cooler in the summer than Charleston?”

“Northern Europe, yes,” I’d said. “But it gets plenty hot in Montepulciano. It’s just not as humid as it is here.”

We’d picked out t-shirts, shorts, jeans, and a bathing suit. I needed some new sandals, and my mom had told me to take something dressy, too, so Claire and I had made plans to go shopping this afternoon. Not that I was happy about the reason we were going.

“Hey! I want a pair of white sandals, and my mom gave me money so we can both get a pedicure this afternoon, too,” she said, bouncing on her toes. “I’d really love bright red, but my mom thinks pink would be better … what do you think?”

I smiled, taking in Claire’s energy. She was always like this — bouncy, energetic, up for anything. “I think we’d better go with pink. Maybe we can get red later this summer, once we have a tan …” I trailed off, realizing I wouldn’t be here later this summer.

“It’s okay, Katie,” Claire said, reading my mood. “You paint your toenails red in Italy and I’ll paint mine red here, and we’ll post the pictures on Instagram.”

“It won’t be the same,” I said.

“No, it won’t, but it’s just for the summer,” she said. “Just two and a half months. Ten weeks. Seventy days. But who’s counting?”

I laughed, somehow cheered by the thought that Claire was going to miss me, too.

As we entered the classroom, we were greeted by Mrs. Mills, our home room teacher. She was holding a list of student names and a red pen.

“Books not turned in will have to be found by the end of the day, or paid for,” she said in her no-nonsense voice. Mrs. Mills turned to me.

“Katherine? Do you have all of your books?”

My name is Emily Katherine, but just about everyone calls me Katie. My mom’s name is Mary Elizabeth, but everyone calls her Libby. It’s a southern nickname thing – we get not just a nickname, but one based on the middle name.  To make things even more confusing, my mom and I have different last names. I’m Katie Fiero, and she’s Libby Legare, pronounced, in Charleston at least, Luh-gree. She’d gone back to her maiden name after the divorce.

Claire and I turned in our books, watching anxiously as red check marks filled all the appropriate squares. We sat down in our seats to wait as other students trickled in — some with books and some with excuses. Johan, who’d been my friend since preschool, stood in front of Mrs. Mills, his voice rising as he insisted that a book had been in his backpack the day before, and he knew he hadn’t taken it out.

“Go check your locker again, Johan,” she said. “Here. I’ll write you a hall pass.”

Johan, red-faced, stalked out of the room to look again. “I know it was in there,” he muttered to himself as he passed us.

“I wonder what he lost?” Claire whispered. I shrugged back at her, shaking my head to indicate I didn’t know.

“Hey, I need to talk to you about something,” I whispered back. “Last night after you left, I got an email from my dad. He said he wants to explain my ‘heritage’ to me, and that’s why we’re going to Italy this summer. What do you think he’s talking about?”

A strange look passed over Claire’s face, and was gone so quickly I thought I’d imagined it. But the grimness in her voice was real enough.

“Katie,” she said, taking a deep breath. “What exactly did the email say?”

“Here, I printed it out,” I replied, pulling out the piece of paper and handing it to her.

“Katie,” my dad had written, “I’m happy you’ll be spending the summer helping me at the excavation site. It’s time you learn about your heritage. Love, Dad”

Last night, I had stared at the message for a full five minutes, trying to figure out what he was talking about. What heritage?  Explain what? My Italian heritage? I knew I was half Italian. Pizza, spaghetti, garlic. Dark skin, eyes and hair. We’d spent summers in Italy when I was small and my grandparents had still been alive. I spoke enough Italian to get by.

What more did I need to know? What more could there be to know?

Claire’s normally fair skin was paler than usual, but her tone was normal when she spoke.

“Maybe he’s found something related to your family at his dig,” she said, handing the printout back to me.

“Whatever,” I shrugged, shoving the email back into my book bag. I really wasn’t interested in any more ancient history, and I had no idea what the Etruscans could possibly have to do with me. Just then, Johan returned. He spoke to Mrs. Mills in a low voice, and took his seat on the other side of me. He was empty handed, and he looked upset.

“What’d you lose?” I asked him.

“A library book,” he said. “I put it in my backpack last night, but it’s not there now. And it’s a really old book, one that you’re supposed to just read in the library. Miss Bell let me take it home yesterday if I promised to return it today.”

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“History,” he said, shrugging. “I’m just doing some research.”

I stared at him.

“Research? On what?” I asked.

“Um, just some stuff,” Johan said, looking uncomfortable.

The bell rang, and I swallowed my next question as Mrs. Mills gave me her best no-nonsense glare.

As Mrs. Mills called roll, I wondered about the real reason Johan had checked out a restricted book the day before school ended. Because he hadn’t really answered my question. If he thought “just some stuff” was going to get me off his back, then he obviously hadn’t been paying attention for the past 16 years.

“Okay, students,” Mrs. Mills called out. “It’s time for the convocation. Line up and walk quietly to the gym.”

We were having an awards ceremony today for undergraduates. Seniors would be recognized at graduation on Saturday, but today, students in other grades would get their awards.

We lined up, with Claire in front and Johan behind me. As we passed the lockers, I thought I saw the hem of a long black coat disappear around the corner in front of me. Seriously? Was the weird guy in the black coat at my school now? As we reached the corner, I slowed down and looked, but the hall to my left was empty.

“Move it, K,” Johan said.

“Sorry,” I replied absently, wondering if I had imagined it or if the guy in the black coat was now wandering around our school. Was he the parent of a student? Did we have any new students? Would a new student even start on the last day of school? That was crazy. I shook my head. I must have imagined the whole thing.

The hum of excited voices echoed off the rafters and flowed around us as we settled on the bleachers in the gym. I turned toward Johan and asked him, “So why’d you really check out that book?”

“I just wanted to get a head start on my senior thesis,” he said.

“Seriously, Johan. How much research could you do when you only had the book for 24 hours?”

“Well,” he squirmed, obviously not wanting to answer. I narrowed my eyes at him. I had all day. Or at least the next hour. He was trapped on the bleachers with nowhere to go.

“Um. Okay. I noticed that in every culture, there are stories of vampires, werewolves, and other monsters. I thought it would be interesting to dig a little and see where these myths come from. And why there are similar stories all over the world, stories from long before there were any telephones or computers . It’s not like people in the 12th century were emailing back and forth or anything.”

“Johan,” I said. “My term paper this year was on Celtic myths. I can give you a copy if you want. Plus, I’m going to Italy this summer to help my dad on a dig. I could probably help you out with some research while I’m there.”

“That’s part of the reason …” he paused as the principal called Claire’s name.

We were silent as Claire squeezed past us to go receive her award.

“Part of the reason what,” I said.

“Katie, there’s something I really need to talk to you about,” Johan said.

“Emily Katherine Fiero.”

It was my turn to head down to the floor. I smiled at Dr. Puckett, shook his hand and took my award.

“Johan Edmund Meyer.”

I passed Johan as I headed back up the bleachers and he headed toward the front. When he returned, he sat down and looked at me.

“What?” I asked, taking in the look on his face. “Are you surprised I got the English award? You’ve got to let me beat you at something.”

“No,” he said. “You deserve the English award. Your Celtic myths paper was really good. It’s Montepulciano. It’s not safe.”

“Johan,” I said. “That’s ridiculous. It’s a dusty Italian town where nothing ever happens.”

“Katie,” he said, running his hand through his light brown hair, his brows drawn down over his sea green eyes. “You can’t go.”

“Believe me, I’ve tried to talk my mom out of it. Claire and her parents even said I could spend the summer with them. But my mom is determined. She wants me to spend the summer with my dad, bonding, since I haven’t seen him in so long. So I’m going. But I’ll keep in touch with you by Facebook and Skype,” I said brightly, wondering about his sudden interest in my summer plans.

Really, it’s not like we’d ever been anything other than friends. Although, now that I thought about it, this would be the first summer since we were born that we hadn’t celebrated our birthdays together. Ah, the benefits of having birthdays a week apart and mothers who were best friends.

“So … are you worried about turning 17 without me? Afraid it won’t happen if I’m not here?”  I asked teasingly.

“No, it’s not that,” he said, turning red. “It’s … Oh, never mind.”

Johan turned back toward the front of the gym, and I realized the last award had been handed out. As we stood and headed down the bleachers, I tried to figure out what really had Johan so upset. I was pretty sure spending a boring summer helping my parents with their work gigs didn’t deserve that kind of concern.

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A Real Love Story

I wrote this last summer for our family newsletter, but thought it worth repeating as Valentine’s Day approaches. — BRD

One summer when I was about eight years old, I was at my grandparents’ house for a visit. It must have been their anniversary. Granddaddy jokingly told me my grandmother had been “a forward young woman.” He said they got engaged after she plopped down in his lap in his office at UGA and demanded to know when he was going to marry her. Grandmom was horrified by this account, and adamantly denied Granddad’s version. I asked what had really happened.

Here’s the story, as I remember it: Fielding Dillard Russell and Virginia Boyce Wilson met as students at the University of Georgia. She was an undergraduate working on a degree in physical education, and he was a graduate student working on a degree in English literature. One day, she went by her English professor’s office to turn in a paper. When she arrived, she found two men in the office. One was her professor. The other was Fielding, her professor’s office mate. She told me that she thought he was attractive right away. Grandaddy with car

        The attractive guy my grandmother fell for.

I don’t know what transpired in the office that day, but one Friday not long after, Fielding and his roommate at UGA offered to drive Virginia home to Duluth to visit her family. There was a drenching rain storm that evening. When they slid down the muddy drive into her family’s yard, Virginia rushed inside to beg her father not to invite Fielding and his roommate to spend the night.

I know, I know. Why not? There was an awful storm outside! Her reason? Because other boys had driven her home before, and after spending the night, came out of the guest bedroom rumpled and dirty, with greasy hair and BO. She told me that she didn’t want to see Fielding like that. I’m pretty sure she didn’t explain all of this to her father. He probably thought she particularly disliked this young man, instead of the opposite. But he did as she asked, and didn’t invite the boys to stay.

My grandfather then picked up the story, telling me that he and his roommate ended up stuck in a muddy ditch somewhere between Duluth and Athens. Leaving the car, they finally made it back to their dorm close to sunrise, covered in mud and soaked to the skin.

But Virginia didn’t see the handsome prince looking like a frog, and so their courtship continued. After Fielding completed his master’s, he took a job teaching high school in Monroe, GA. Virginia remained at UGA to complete her undergraduate degree, and they kept the postmaster busy delivering letters between Athens and Monroe. Eventually, Fielding again made the trip to the Wilson home in Duluth, this time to ask Donald Wilson for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Donald must have said yes, but Grandmom and Granddad never did tell me exactly what happened when he asked her to marry him. Granddad stuck to his story, and Grandmom just pressed her lips together and shook her head.

Fielding and Virginia were married at the small Presbyterian church in Duluth, Ga., on Aug. 3, 1931, a typically broiling hot north Georgia summer day. Granddaddy told me how he and his twin, William, climbed in through the window of the minister’s office so they could reach their positions at the front of the church without walking up the aisle in front of the wedding guests. Of course, they could have arrived early and entered the minister’s office the normal way before any guests were seated, but where’s the fun in that?

Fielding and Virginia honeymooned in Virginia Beach, Va., driving there in William’s car, which he lent them as a wedding present. After the honeymoon, they moved to Monroe, both teaching high school there for a year. Fielding applied for a job at South Georgia Teacher’s College in Statesboro, Ga., and was thrilled to be hired, especially as Virginia was now expecting their first child. They moved into a boy’s dormitory on the college campus, where they were dorm parents to young men studying at SGTC.

Virginia began her career as a teacher in Bulloch County elementary schools, and Fielding started his career as a professor of English literature at SGTC, which grew into Georgia Southern College and eventually, Georgia Southern University. And while being dorm parents provided them with room and board, there were drawbacks, at least to Virginia’s mind. Virginia told me that she knew the students were taking bets on what day the baby would be born. She prayed she wouldn’t go into labor at night, when all the boys would be in their rooms, gleefully waiting to see who won the pool.

Fielding Jr. was born on Oct. 14, 1932. (I don’t know who won the pool.) Fielding and Virginia moved out of the dormitory the next summer, and rented a small house near campus. William Don followed on May 3, 1935, then Richard IV on July 14, 1941. Then finally! A daughter, also named Virginia, was born on Nov. 28, 1946, which happened to be Thanksgiving Day that year.

The year Richard was born, Fielding and Virginia had managed to save enough money to build a house at 12 West Kennedy Street, within walking distance of the college campus. A contractor built it using plans Virginia drew herself. The house included a guest room and bathroom on the first floor, and three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a study for Granddad on the second floor. The downstairs guest room hosted many relatives over the years, including a pregnant Aunt Caroline (one of Granddad’s sisters) and a young Raymond Jr. while Raymond Sr. was posted overseas during WWII.

It all sounds so wonderful and easy when told like that. But Fielding and Virginia married during the Depression, and were raising small children during the shortages and rationing of World War II. Fielding Jr. kept their one automobile held together with twine and his inherent mechanical genius. After Richard was born, Fielding Sr. spent long periods away from home working on his PhD at George Washington University. Any one of these things could have stressed a marriage to the breaking point. But Fielding and Virginia not only persevered; they thrived. Eventually, the house at 12 West Kennedy Street became a second home to Fielding and Virginia’s nine grandchildren. The house has been a constant in a life of moving (a side effect of being preacher’s kids) for me, Rusty, Jamie, Patience and William, as well as Bill Jr., Shannon and Aimee. Margo and Virginia lived there while Virginia worked on her master’s and EdD, and the rest of us visited for weeks at a time during the summers, giving our parents much-needed breaks.

We didn’t see it that way at the time, of course. It never crossed our minds that our parents might be chortling with glee as we waved good-bye to them from the back window of Granddaddy’s car. Our grandparents loved having us, and we loved going. To us, Statesboro was a magical place, with stairs to slide down, a large yard to play hide-and-seek in, magnolia trees to climb, and the country club pool, where we splashed and swam while Granddaddy played tennis. Sometimes, we took tennis lessons there, and even attempted to hit a few back over the net with Granddad.

My childhood memories include Granddaddy reciting Chaucer or Shakespeare at the dinner table, and reading sonnets he had written Grandmom. I remember visiting Grandmom’s fifth-grade classroom, which was full of snakes and turtles and other creatures, something I now realize is fairly ironic as she didn’t allow animals inside her house. I remember receiving postcards from around the world after they retired and began traveling in Europe, both on their own and sometimes with Uncle Jeb and Aunt Ala Jo. They also made a trip to the Far East, visiting one of Granddad’s former students in Japan and Richard in Thailand.

Virginia and Fielding were married for 62 years. Fielding died on Feb. 15, 1993, two weeks after having a stroke. Virginia lived for 15 more years, dying on April 22, 2008, a week after her 97th birthday. And they weren’t just married for 62 years. They enjoyed being married to each other for 62 years. They disagreed on things, yes, but they adored each other.

When I was a child, that adoration and mutual respect seemed as natural as breathing to me. I now realize that doesn’t always happen when two people marry. Sadly, there are some people who go through their entire lives without ever witnessing that kind of love. Yes, they had disagreements. He loved Chinese food. She hated it. He drove like a maniac. She was more cautious. He believed in large, extravagant gestures. She was frugal. He thought bathing too often dried the skin. She believed daily baths were a must. His study looked like a tornado had gone through it, depositing books, papers and clothing in random places, from the tops of the bookshelves to under the couch. The rest of the house was as neat as a pin. He thought every home needed a dog – or two. She wasn’t really a fan, and didn’t allow animals inside.

Even as a child, I knew these things about them. I saw them disagree, compromise, work through problems. But I never saw them be rude to each other.

At the funeral home visitation for Virginia, one of the photos displayed was of my grandparents on the beach at Hilton Head, holding hands and smiling into each other’s eyes. It’s a candid photo, taken by a child or grandchild, and they’re not just smiling – they’re really smiling. They’d been married nearly 60 years at the time. I was examining the picture when daughter Virginia (my aunt) walked up. Virginia said, “Look at the way he’s looking at her.” I replied, “Look at the way she’s looking at him!” and Virginia said, “They ruined it for the rest of us, didn’t they?”

I laughed, because I knew exactly what she meant. Not everyone gets that kind of partnership when they marry. They weren’t just husband and wife – Fielding and Virginia had the kind of love Disney just attempts to portray. So yes, we Fielding Russells have very high expectations of our significant others. It’s because we know that kind of partnership does exist in real life, not just fairy tales. We witnessed it in Virginia and Fielding, and all of us are richer for having been included in the warmth of their love.

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The Closet Chronicles: Denim Blues

Blue jeans. It’s a love-hate relationship. I’ve loved them ever since I bought my first pair of Levi’s. I’ve hated trying to find a pair that fits ever since I bought my first pair of Levi’s. People complain about shopping for swimsuits? Jeans are worse.

While it was never easy to find a great-fitting pair of jeans, it used to be easier. And not just because I used to weigh less. The problem is the number of choices you’re confronted with today: shelves and shelves of different washes, different cuts, different levels of disintegration. Did you know there are both “distressed” and “destroyed” jeans? Did you even know your jeans could be distressed? And who knew people would actually pay money for something labeled destroyed?

When The Gap stopped making their “reverse fit” jeans about 15 years ago, I gave up trying to find jeans I truly loved and resigned myself to wearing “almost” jeans — jeans that were not quite right, but close enough. Then … it happened. I found a pair of Ann Taylor Boyfriend Jeans. And fell in love all over again.

But there were two problems standing between me and true love. First, this pair was tan, not blue. And I found them at a consignment shop, which means they were the only pair there. No different colors, washes, levels of wear and tear. Just this one pair.

I know what you’re thinking — just go to the Ann Taylor website and order what you want! But, brand new, these jeans cost about $80. Ehhh … there’s only so much I’ll do for true love, and $80 for a pair of jeans ain’t one of ’em. And then I remembered I’d been selling clothing I no longer wear on eBay. Could I find a blue pair of the exact same jeans on eBay? Hmmmm. Let’s see …

I’m an expert online shopper. At least I thought I was. But my online purchasing over the past 20 years has pretty much been limited to L.L. Bean and Lands’ End, with the occasional foray into Eddie Bauer-land. As it turns out, eBay is different. The search engine doesn’t limit itself to what you’re actually searching for. Those items will be closest to the top, but if you keep scrolling, you’ll run into bunches of things only peripherally related to what you want. I found this out the hard way.

The first time I typed in “Ann Taylor Loft Boyfriend Jeans, size 8,” yes, there were blue jeans. This is when I learned the difference between “distressed” (holes and rips) and “destroyed” (huge holes and rips). I wanted jeans that were a little less ventilated. So I kept scrolling … and yes! There they were! No holes, Ann Taylor blue jeans! Only $7.99! So I hit “Bid Now,” and they were mine.

I waited impatiently, stalking the mailman daily. Finally, they arrived! Beautiful, blue, no holes! Beautiful, blue, no holes, size 8 Ann Taylor Modern Skinny jeans. Not just skinny jeans. Modern skinny jeans. The legs fit like sleeves. On my arms. I didn’t even try to put them on my legs. It might’ve taken the Jaws of Life to free me.

How did this happen? I went online and looked. Sure enough, the description said “skinny jeans.” I’d been so excited by the lack of holes and the great price I hadn’t noticed that eBay’s search engine casts a wider net than I was used to. Okay, I would try again. This time, I was prepared! I knew what I was looking for.

Or did I? I found another pair and ordered them. This time, they were too big. Sigh. But my dad didn’t call me stubborn as a mule for nothing. And the third time was the charm.


I am now the proud owner of a wonderfully comfortable — and flattering — pair of Ann Taylor Boyfriend jeans, size 8. They’re distressed, but I’ve made peace with that. Just don’t tell my kids, because I’m the person who refused to buy them the super cool pre-ripped American Eagle jeans at the mall a couple of years ago.

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The Closet Chronicles: Adventures on eBay

So in order to raise money for my brand-new wardrobe, I’m selling the clothes that no longer fit my life on eBay. It sounds so simple, right? People talk about it all the time. You’ve heard it over and over again: “Oh, I sold it on eBay.” “Oh, I bought it on eBay.”

Yeah, right. For an INFP (see Myers-Brigg personality test) like me, the only part of my personality profile that actually likes eBay is the introverted part. Hey, selling stuff face-to-face is not something I do well. I HATE yard sales — both going to them and putting them on. But online? Yeah, I can do that.

But, and this is a big but, there’s the rest of it to contend with: setting up an eBay account. Setting up a PayPal account. Connecting the two. Taking photos of the things I’m selling — well, okay, as a former journalist, I can handle this part. Downloading said photos to computer. Measuring clothing. Describing each item accurately. Pricing the items. And once they sell, packaging, weighing, purchasing the right amount of postage, and taking packages to the Post Office.

The ladies at the Post Office nearest my home have been great, I must say. It turns out that there are now a million bazillion different ways to categorize and send something through the USPS. And about the same number of different envelopes, boxes, etc., to pack items in. The key is packing the item in the correct container. As it turns out, this is trickier than it sounds.

Turns out, Priority Mail is not the same as First Class Mail. Who knew? Certainly not me. And it turns out that the padded flat rate envelope is not the same thing as the plain flat rate envelope — even though both of them say “Flat Rate Envelope” in red letters — all caps mind you — right on the front. The problem? The padded flat rate envelope costs more to mail than the plain flat rate envelope.


It took me about three tries to get that one right. Also, it’s not possible to send something First Class if it weigh over 13 ounces. So, eBay purchase number one: a digital postal scale. Another caveat: it’s not allowed to send something First Class in a post-office supplied Priority Mail envelope. So, eBay purchase number two: plastic mailing envelopes for sending items that weigh under 13 ounces.


So now I’m all set. I have a mini-home office. My supplies are my cell phone camera, a computer and printer, a small digital postal scale, packing tape, scissors, and a tape measure. It’s not a simple as it sounds. But it is doable.


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The Closet Chronicles: Purging

I’m in the process of purging my closet. It’s full of stuff I don’t wear — even some things I’ve never worn — all hanging there assaulting me with guilt every time I look at them. So I’m getting rid of them. Take that, you traitor! Off with your hanger!

How am I getting rid of them? A friend has shown me how to sell items on eBay, and it turns out people really like L.L. Bean stuff. Which is good, because I’ve got a lot of L.L. Bean stuff to sell. Also Doncaster. And Chico’s. Even some Lands’ End, Hanna Andersson, and Eddie Bauer. Ouch. If I start to add up the dollars, I’ll have to go flay myself. Okay, deep breath. Let’s move on.

It’s weird. I look at all of these clothes and wonder who I was when I bought them. Why did I think I needed two identical wool blazers in two different colors? Why did I think I needed two wool coats — one black and one brown? Actually, I know the answer to that one: I used to think that everything had to match. Exactly. If I was wearing a black skirt and black shoes, then I needed the black wool coat. If I was wearing a brown skirt or slacks and brown shoes, then I needed the brown wool coat.


I’m selling both blazers. I never wore either one of them. I’m selling the brown wool coat and keeping the black one. Why? I only need one dressy coat, and black is more versatile.

But it turns out I’m not just trying to figure out my closet — I’m trying to figure out who I am. Or rather, who I am now. I’m still a mom, but my children are all taller than I am at this point. They don’t need me like they once did. So while I’m still a mom, I’m now the mother of young adults, not little kids.

I’m divorced, so I’m no longer a wife. One of the biggest purges is the dressy clothes, because not only am I no longer a wife, I’m specifically no longer a businessman’s wife. The clothes that I bought to wear to dinners, fundraisers, political events — out of here. The clothes I bought because I felt like I had to maintain a certain appearance — definitely out of here. Getting rid of them is actually a huge relief. Cathartic, even.

I’m keeping a couple of favorite pieces — a classic black dress, long-sleeved, v-neck boucle wool. A pair of black chiffon palazzo pants. A short-sleeved black velvet top with a sweetheart neckline. Black Tahari pumps with little velvet bows on the toes. I might one day again be invited to a dressy dinner party. Add some pearls, and I’ll be good to go. Some things never go out of style.


It’s the everyday I need to ponder. I’m 53. I want to dress fashionably, but I really, really don’t want to be one of those women who dresses so completely inappropriately for her age that people cringe when she shows up. I know that I like classic, but I feel like I’ve been going too classic — preppy to the point of boring, even. I’d like to change that.

I’ve been a journalist, a stay-at-home mom, and a nurse. As a newspaper copy editor, I didn’t have to dress up because I didn’t interact with the public. Stay-at-home mom — definitely jeans and t-shirts because, well, dirt, food, blood, vomit — it’s a messy job. And nurse? I wear scrubs to work. Solves all of those problems.

So — who am I now? The clothes I’m keeping and the ones I’m buying to replace what’s going will possibly let us know. Stay tuned.

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Incredible Find #1: The Recycled Closet

First in a series of articles on interesting places to shop and eat in Rock Hill.

The Recycled Closet – Classic with a Twist

The first thing you notice when you walk in The Recycled Closet is the décor: vintage suitcases artfully stacked, colorful scarves tied to the handles; vintage bird cages perched atop old books; locally crafted pottery displayed on wall shelves.

The second thing you notice is that the clothing’s arranged by color: pale pink to fuchsia to orange to red on one rack, butter to lemon yellow to lime to emerald green on another, pale blue to turquoise to navy on another.

The small shop, located in Catawba Corners Shopping Center, 2210 India Hook Road, sells an eclectic mix of clothing, house wares, and vintage items. The high-end clothing ranges from classic to quirky.

“My assumption is that you already have the basics,” proprietor Lori Benson said. “You come here to build on your basic wardrobe, add color and personality.”

Benson grew up in Japan, the daughter of a U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant. She met and married Keith Benson while he was serving in Japan and they were both taking night classes at the University of Maryland, Asian Division. She earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management, and planned to one day operate a bed and breakfast.

But marriage and four children put that plan on hold. When her children were little, Benson began buying and selling clothing on eBay as a way to make money. “I was seeing all this awesome stuff in thrift shops that people were getting rid of. There’s so much waste!” Benson said. “You’d be amazed at the awesome clothes I find that still have the tags on them!”

The Recycled Closet is not a consignment shop, though many items are used. Benson personally does the buying for the shop, open every day except Sundays and Wednesdays. Benson travels extensively through North and South Carolina and Georgia to find the unique items she stocks.

When Benson opened The Recycled Closet in December 2013, she sold only clothing.

“But I started decorating, bought a few furniture pieces,” Benson said. “I added a few old luggage pieces, some vintage items. And people who came in to look at clothes began asking if the other things were for sale, too.”

So she thought, “Why not?”

Now, in addition to clothing, the shop offers hand-made, one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, old typewriters and cameras, vintage hats and purses, pottery, lamps, even furniture. Benson also has a fondness for sock monkeys, which can be found peeking out from unexpected places throughout the store.

“In Japan, people don’t really shop in department stores,” Benson said. “Everything is boutiques, one-of-a-kind items. That’s what I’m trying to offer here.”

The store has a homey feel. There’s a comfy arm chair beside Benson’s desk, where customers sit and visit with Benson, or tired spouses can put up their feet. Recently, a woman came in to look at clothes, and while her husband was sitting in the arm chair, he spotted the vintage typewriters. He ended up buying one, and used it to write Benson a poem that now sits framed on her desk.

Another customer bought an old rocking chair, painted it bright red, and made it the center piece of her preschool classroom’s “reading corner.” She came back after school started to tell Benson how much the children and other teachers love it.

The brands Benson offers are high-end: J Crew, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, White House Black Market.

“I’ve gotten so I can tell who made something by feeling the fabric or looking at the cut,” Benson said. “I don’t even have to look at the tag.”

Benson’s goal is for customers to be able to come in and find something that defines their unique style and personality, whether it’s clothing or a decorative piece for the home.

That philosophy is reflected in her store’s motto: Life is too short to wear boring clothes.

“I sell designer clothes without the designer price tag,” Benson said. “I think people should be able to dress stylishly without paying a fortune for it.”

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Identity Crisis

Thanks to Mike for the first sentence and to Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds for the writing prompt. Here’s my homework, turned in early:

Juan Carlos Torquemada y Torremolino bore an unbearable name.

He slouched, shoulders rounded, burdened not only by the hopes and expectations of parents and grandparents, but countless forebears before them. Juan Carlos imagined them standing in a line snaking back through time, like his reflection as he stood between the two mirrors hanging opposite each other in the entrance hall of Aunt Sarah’s house.

He stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his too-short jeans and stared at the toes of his scuffed and dirty running shoes, which stood in stark contrast to the richly colored Persian rug beneath them.

“Juan Carlos! I believe you’re even taller today than you were yesterday!”

His aunt bustled into the room, her white hair piled high on her head. She was an energetic woman, always moving, talking, cleaning, straightening. She’d been widowed young, and had raised four children alone in a world that wasn’t particularly friendly to women, especially women who spoke their minds. But that had never stopped Sarah.

“My goodness! Your jeans are two sizes too small! And your shoes! A disgrace! What is your mother thinking?”

Sarah kept up a running critique of Juan Carlos’ appearance as she handed him the basket of food she’d prepared for his and his mother’s dinner. It was a daily ritual. They both knew Juan Carlos’ mother, Maria, wasn’t thinking anything. Or anything about Juan Carlos and his clothes, anyway. Juan Carlos wasn’t sure what she thought about, since she rarely spoke these days.

After his father’s death, his mother had sunk into a deep depression, leaving Juan Carlos carrying the burden of running the household, as well as the weight of his father’s name and the expectations of all of those ancestors, on his too-thin 17-year-old shoulders. Juan Carlos wondered if that’s what had finally broken his mother – her inability to stand up to her father’s constant criticism once her husband was no longer there to give her strength.

Maria’s father owned the town’s only bank, and never let anyone forget that his many-greats-ago-grandfather had sailed from Spain with Christopher Columbus, one of the first people to set foot in the New World. He pretended he didn’t know his great-etc.-grandfather had been an indentured servant, released from a Madrid debtor’s prison by Queen Isabella when Columbus needed a cook at the last hour. The bitterness at the trick Fate had played on him by making his only child female tainted every interaction he had with Maria.

Juan Carlos sometimes wondered at the difference between his aunt and his mother. Why did life break some people, but make others stronger?

Sarah was his father’s older sister. She lived a block away from Juan Carlos and his mother, and she made dinner for them each day. Juan Carlos got up each morning, made breakfast for himself and his mother, and went to school. Sarah looked in on Maria at midday. In the afternoons, Juan Carlos worked at his family’s hardware store. On his walk home, he stopped by Sarah’s house to pick up dinner.

Their family had once been large. But now Sarah and Juan Carlos were the last two members of his father’s line living in the town his great-great-grandfather had founded.

Sarah’s four children had left the dust of Rosewood behind years ago. Sarah Jean had moved to New York, dropped the Jean, and gone to work as an editor at a glossy fashion magazine. Mary Catherine had moved to Chicago, changed her name to Cate, and worked at an advertising agency. Juan and Carlos, twins who were Sarah’s pride and joy, had moved to Los Angeles, changed their names to John and Carl, and become actors working as waiters.

Juan Carlos envied his cousins’ glamorous lives. On visits, they talked of fashion models and movie moguls, famous names mentioned casually like Juan Carlos might mention Lila Beth, the annoying girl who lived across the street and insisted on walking to school with him every morning.

They’d known each other since birth, and her recent metamorphosis into someone who looked like she belonged on the pages of Sarah Jean’s magazine had been disconcerting to Juan Carlos. But when she opened her mouth, she was still the girl who had cut chunks out of his hair when they were three; pushed him out of a pecan tree, breaking his arm, when they were ten; and punched him in the nose when he tried to kiss her on her thirteenth birthday. He’d spent the money his dad gave him for her present on candy, which he’d eaten, and thought a kiss would work as a substitute. She’d disagreed.

She’d recently taken to calling herself Libba – “See, Juan Carlos? It’s Lila and Beth put together!” she’d explained. Libba didn’t sound much like either Lila or Beth to Juan Carlos, but he’d listened without commenting. She refused to answer when people called her Lila Beth, which had caused Libba’s mother to take her in for a hearing check, but had been effective in getting people to switch.

Juan Carlos wished he had the courage to change his name, become someone new. But which part of himself would he cut away, to be hidden in a locked box at the back of a closet and pulled out years from now and examined like an artifact from another life?

The part of himself that liked living in a small town, the part that was comforted by his father’s name above the door of the hardware store, and his grandfather’s name across the double glass doors of the bank? The part that wanted to stay here in Rosewood, where his life was charted out, as predictable as the bank’s opening and closing times, from birth to death?

Or the part that longed for freedom, that wanted to live in a big city where he would be just another face in the crowd, where no one knew or cared that his grandfather had sailed from Spain with Columbus, where he would be free of the burden of expectations placed on him by an unwieldy, computer-confounding name that never fit into the little boxes on a standardized test?

He wondered which choice he would regret more – staying or going? Would the guilt he felt at the thought of leaving his mother, apparently permanently broken by his father’s death, outweigh the freedom that would come with shedding the expectations of the past? Would he end up miserable, unable to enjoy his new life, constantly looking backward toward Rosewood?

He trudged toward home, the weight of the basket rounding his shoulders even more than usual. He pulled the mail from the mailbox, stuffing it in the basket as he climbed the back steps.

Juan Carlos put the basket on the kitchen counter and pulled out the mail: a copy of Sarah Jean’s magazine, the electric bill, and … a fat envelope from the University of Chicago. He tore it open, his eyes searching … and there it was, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the University of Chicago’s Creative Writing Program.”

Juan Carlos took a deep breath and stood up straight as a huge weight he hadn’t even been aware of carrying lifted, leaving his chest free to move in and out again. It turns out he’d known the answer all along. He could be Juan Carlos Torquemada y Torremolino, because author’s names could be as long as they wanted them to be. He could be himself, all of himself. And he would be.

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