I Don’t Want A Big Birthday Party!


How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? 

~ Satchel Paige

Even though she was born in America during The Great Depression, my stepmom Cullene seems almost ageless. She’s been that way to me for years and so much so that once she moved into her sixties, I never could remember exactly how old she was.  After asking her more times than I should, I finally just started doing the math myself and even now I still have trouble reconciling her actual age with her active life.

As you may have guessed, today is her birthday.

She doesn’t want a fuss and has countered each suggestion for something more noteworthy with the dexterity of an athlete and firmness of someone who will not be swayed from what she wants. We finally settled on a small family celebration with just a few of us gathered round to eat, sing, and celebrate what is certainly a special day for us even if she would rather not make a big deal of it.

My sister Jennie and I have not been very closed-mouthed about which birthday this is (think big one) and Cullene would likely be horrified to know how many strangers now know about her birthday.  I think we are just so impressed with the way she seems virtually unchanged by the passing years that we cannot help but brag on her.

She has been my guide in so many ways since she married my dad in 1972 and watching her carry on as she does makes me rethink what life can be like as I move through my fifties and plan for the future.

I have been in the Atlanta area for about the last month and I arranged the dates of my visit in part so I could be here to celebrate her birthday. Most of us would think of this one as a more significant birthday, the kind where a big party is almost expected, but respecting Cullene’s wishes, we will keep the gathering small.

I have written about the profound impact of her influence on my life in several earlier posts and you can read some of them here and here or even more if you put her name in the search column on the right.

Cullene has agreed to let me take a few photos, but she has never been a fan of having her picture made and from the look on her face in the photo above I think her lack of enthusiasm for the camera began at an early age.

Happy Birthday, Cullene!

Mother’s Day – Blooming Through The Bitter & The Sweet

Some celebrations are not always happy ones and Mother’s Day probably causes more angst than most for many people each year. If you’ve been reading GOTJ for long, you already know some what makes it both bitter and sweet for me.

The sweet is clearly visible in the image above. My daughter Miranda is only a few hours old in this photograph of my step-mom Cullene, holding her for the first time.

What I know best about ” mothering and being mothered ” I learned from these two precious people and it’s important for me to be sure they know it especially on days like today.

Cullene, like most mothers would tell me not to get her anything to mark this day, ” No gifts please, a card will be fine … ” and I understand exactly where that comes from especially with a child of my own, but while a card may be enough for her it isn’t enough for me.

Being so far away, I miss spending time sitting and talking with her in the chairs by the kitchen fireplace like we do when I’m there, making it more important for me to give her a little reminder of how much she means to me since I’m not close enough to show her in other ways.

A few years ago, I discovered that my favorite tree from my home in Georgia also grows here in Cornwall. Being in the southwest of England, we have just the right kind of environment Dogwood trees need to thrive and bloom.

When I first saw pictures of the jewelry my friend Leslye was making I fell in love with one piece in particular and it pleases me greatly to be able to give one of her dogwood flower necklaces to Cullene for Mother’s Day.

Leslye was the first blogging friend I met face to face as she lives in Atlanta and we’ve seen each other a few times since. Fittingly for today, her blog is a mother-daughter collaboration where she and her daughter share their photos and thoughts.

I like the idea of Cullene having a tangible reminder of what I am aware of everyday … that I am better able to bloom through the seasons of my life due in large part to her care and nurturing.

She won’t see this post until after she opens her present so I’m giving you a sneak peek at the lovely work Leslye does over at Autumn Sun Jewelry.

Autumn Sun Jewelry

Autumn Sun Jewelry

I’ve included two images so you can get a good look at the necklace before it’s boxed up by Leslye and sent, along with the bottom one so you can see it as Cullene will when she opens it.

Isn’t that the sweetest way to wrap a gift inspired by nature … I wish I could be there to see her face!

Going Home

Marg & Miranda - 1990

On Christmas Eve, my step-mom’s Aunt Margaret died. Born in a small town in Alabama, she was the youngest of ten children and the last one to go. Called Marg by her family (pronounced like Mog) she was more like an older sister to Cullene than an aunt making the loss even deeper for Cullene who is an only child.

Later today she will be going with my sister Jennie to Marg’s military funeral in the town where they both grew up. I wish I could be there too. Marg was just about my favorite of Cullene’s family although she wasn’t the only one in that group that knew how to have a good time. She was quick to try to make you laugh and I always loved a visit that included her.

In declining heath after a stroke two days before turning 87, she eased gently out of life just as the much of the world was slowing down to focus on family and Christmas celebrations.

I’d like to think that there a was great party waiting for her after she let go. With nine brothers and sisters all gone before her, I can almost hear her feet on the front porch and the screen door slamming shut behind her. Her brother Bab’s there too hurrying across the room to snatch up his baby sister folding her into a big hug before shouting over his shoulder and calling the family in with the words “Hey everybody, Marg’s finally here!”

I wrote a post that included memories and more about Marg last September and have copied it below. 

Making Gifts From Photo Memories

I used to make large and unusual photo collages to give as gifts to mark special occasions. I began doing it about 25 years ago when I became frustrated with the amount of photographs I was taking and the lack of ways to display them. Albums seemed tedious and too many framed images felt more like clutter than a way to share a memory.

I came across a photo in my files of one collage I made and thought some of you might be interested. It was a gift for my step-mom’s aunt Margaret who served in the Navy during WWII and stayed in long enough to retire.

Born in a small town where everyone knew and loved her, her desire to see a bigger world and the courage to venture into places where women from small towns usually didn’t go, would have made her my type of role model when I was growing up. I put this together for her 80th birthday about eight or nine years ago. It’s not my best collage, but it is one of my sentimental favorites.

It’s smaller than most of the collages I’ve done in the past, only about 24 inches tall and 14 or so wide. I didn’t have as many photos to work with as I normally do. I’m used to having loads to choose from, but because it was a surprise I had to work with what Cullene had on hand.

Knowing that the Navy was such an important part of Margaret’s life, I enlarged a V-Mail letter and envelope from my great-uncle Hugh who died towards the end of WWII. I used it as a backdrop and tried to position it so that it would not be obvious that he was writing to his parents.

I wanted to project a feel for that time during her history and thought it was a good stand-in since I didn’t have any written by Margaret. I made photo copies of the old photos Cullene gave me and tore the edges before gluing them on with rubber cement. I like to use different textures normally and this was actually a bit too glossy for me.

Personalized Party Favors

I also made little party favors (memory items) for each guest at the 80th party to sit at each of the place settings. I based it on a story Cullene told me about how in those days small happenings made the newspaper in the close-knit community where she and Margaret grew up.

Since she broke her arm playing on bales of cotton, I decided to make mini bales with a laminated photo copy of the news clipping attached to it. I can’t help thinking how nice it would be to live in a place where a little girl’s broken arm during play was part of the news.

Hidcote – A Birthday Stroll Through One Man’s Garden

I often wish that my step-mom Cullene could be by my side as I explore new places during my travels with John. She’s content to travel less these days although you would never guess it based on what she manages to accomplish while out helping others.

We had a chance to talk about all the places we would go if I could persuade her to cross the ocean just one more time, but she feels the need to stay closer to home. She gives so much of herself to those around her and both family and friends are the recipients of her loving attention, but it does leave her with less time for herself.

Today is her birthday and without giving away her age (not that she’d likely care) I am glad to note that this is the 39th birthday I’ve had the privilege of sharing with her even if from a distance. I wish I could be there to make this day special for her or even better if she could be here with me. I’m stealing a bit from the children’s book author, Dr Seuss, ” Oh, the places we would go … ” in order to tempt her.

I left her a gift that will be appropriate for the photos in the birthday post today, but I misplaced the card and did not realize it until it was too late so I’m hoping that this post will act as a substitute for a more traditional birthday card. It is sent with great love and a not so subtle hope of enticing her over when the time is right for her to fly again.

Happy Birthday, Cullene.

You can go here to read about Lawrence Johnston who was often described as a ” self-taught gardener ” and spent much of his life creating the gardens at Hidcote. (Click to enlarge photos)

Can you guess where Cullene might use the birthday gift I left for her?

Not Half, But Whole – Remarriage & Children

Bryan Cooper, Cullene Harper, Jennie Harper, & Elizabeth Harper - April 14, 1975

Young children can’t always grasp the concept of how they are related when parents divorce, find new love, and have more children with new partners and spouses. When they each bring children from previous relationships to the new family, the soup becomes an even more complicated mix of half and step siblings making it sometimes necessary for a flow chart of sorts when explaining family ties.

I’m the eldest of four girls with only two of us having the same set of parents. Born in 1962, Margaret and I are two years apart. Ten years later, our sister Pam was born into our mother’s second marriage. I remember hearing words like half-sister then and even though I was a reasonably intelligent 9-year-old, I was a bit confused by the concept especially having only just met four step-siblings that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

By 1974 my youngest sister, Jennie, was born on Easter Sunday and being halfway through my thirteenth year, I had a better understanding of the half not whole concept at least in theory. Nicknamed Bunny, by her granddad, she was the child of my dad and my stepmom, Cullene.

Margaret and I were living in Tennessee when the news came of her birth, having been moved away from Georgia by our mother after a judge decreed my dad should be able to see his children more than one Saturday a month.

By the time Jennie was celebrating her first birthday in the photo above, I was living in Georgia with my dad and Cullene watching them navigate through territory that looking back, was more recent and familiar to me than it was to them.

Jennie was born to Cullene when she was forty having passed the age when she thought she’d ever have a child and with twelve years between my dad and his last diaper change, I’m sure he felt as if he were learning everything again for the first time.

In my life with my mother and sisters in Tennessee, I had been largely responsible for overseeing Pam’s care and knew the kind of childcare things that an older sibling knows when there’s a big difference in ages. ” Watch your sister, ” was an all-encompassing directive that could include bathing, feeding, or playing, and I was good at it.

While planning my escape to Georgia only six months before this picture was taken, I hadn’t realized that saving myself might mean losing my sisters. After I left, my mother cut off all communication and moved my sisters to another state changing my sister Margaret’s last name in the process. I lost my relationship with Margaret for the ten years that followed and four-year old Pam grew up with no memory of me, a situation that she and I have never recovered from. Despite my previous efforts, Pam and I are strangers.

In the image of above, you can see me hanging on to my sister Jennie’s birthday hat. After my move, I remember feeling as if I were free-floating and barely secured, much like the hat with only the tiniest bit of pressure keeping me grounded and in place.

That I am only half in the picture feels like an apt metaphor for how I felt about my life then. Everything familiar was gone and even though I was finally safe from the life I had been forced to keep secret, I was struggling to adjust to one without my sisters, Margaret and Pam, and my mother too, despite her treatment.

I began this post with a whole different focus. I was looking for a cute photo to add to a Facebook greeting for my sister’s birthday when I found this one. Having recently had a conversation with John about children and how little they may understand the half versus whole concept when new siblings arrive, I was struck by the memory of this time in my life and today’s writing shifted direction.

My youngest sister Jennie is 37 today, an age I remember so clearly it feels like five minutes ago. I’m sure she would say I’ve been trying to boss her around her whole life while dispensing advice as if I were a third parent or an older aunt, but I have always seen her as my sister, the baby for sure, but always whole and never half.

Although not the big birthday post I’d envisioned, I want to say, ” Happy Birthday Jennie,” from your sister Elizabeth, who once felt half, but now understands whole.

Sisters - Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jennie Harper - 1974

Day Six – The Birthday Girls Go To London

Elizabeth, Cullene, & Margaret-February 1973

The other day my sister Margaret and I were talking about our birthdays this month. If you have been reading my posts over the last few days then you know I’m having my 50th birthday this Friday and Margaret will be right behind me with her 48th on September 28th. It almost doesn’t seem possible that both us are now significantly older than our step-mom Cullene was in this photograph. Sitting demurely between me at twelve and Margaret’s smiling ten year-old self, I am sure she had no idea the direction her life was about to take.

She was a new bride in this photograph and at thirty-nine never expected that she would give birth to my youngest sister a little over a year later. It’s been 38 years since this picture was taken and several things strike me about this image. Margaret still laughs in the same way she did back then and I still smile large enough to see my back molars most of the time. I don’t think I ever noticed that Cullene is sitting in front of my favorite flower which as it turns out is Margaret’s favorite too.

Two years after this photo was taken and not long after our birthdays in 1974, we were separated by bad circumstances for a ten-year period where celebrating our birthdays was not something we were able to share. In fact, the last time we had a chance to celebrate our birthday’s together in the same year, we were twelve and fourteen and let’s just say right now that 36 years later, we plan to make up for all of those missed birthdays.

We are off to London in a few minutes to spend the next week celebrating the chance to see more of the world together along with sharing a room … something we haven’t down since we were about as old as we are in the photograph above. Watch out London!

Home Cooking – Love Southern Style

A Meat & Three

In the American South where I have spent a fair amount of my life, the expression  ” A Meat & Three ” means home-cooking to anyone looking to fill up on food that makes them think of family meals and Sunday dinner after church at Grandma’s house.

Nobody does this type of meal better than my step-mom Cullene and today after years of enjoying her cornbread muffins, I discovered how she makes them so perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

It’s a secret she learned from her mother and I’m glad I took a moment at lunch to find out just how it’s done. I’ve been eating Cullene’s cornbread muffins since I was twelve and only now thought about asking how she makes them so taste so good.

I’ve made them for John a few times and I have to say I don’t think he has been that impressed with mine. Cornbread muffins are not high on the list for meals in Cornwall, but armed with the secret to the crunchy outside I think he may find them more to his liking next time we have a southern style dinner of  ” A Meat & Three.”

Dixie Carter – A Strong Southern Woman

(Internet photo)

When Dixie Carter died last Saturday, Julia Sugarbaker breathed her last too. Although Julia Sugarbaker was only one role she played during a lifetime as a working actor, it is the one I will always associate most with her. Writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason may have created the feisty southern character, but it was Dixie Carter who made her come alive.

During the late 80’s and early 90’s there were several television shows I tried never to miss, and Designing Women was one of them. While I always pictured myself as more Murphy Brown than Julia Sugarbaker, my step-mom Cullene could easily have been the model for the well heeled, articulate character, who was always willing to fight for the underdog or let someone know when they had pushed her just a bit too far.

As I’ve gotten older, I know there have been times in my life when I might have been channeling versions of all three women, calling on some secret source of inner strength that even I was not always aware was waiting in reserve. Take a look at this video where Julia speaks her mind one more time if you are not sure of what I mean. Dixie Carter may be gone, but she lives on in her children, in the roles she created, and in women who cheered each time Julia Sugarbaker stood her ground, leading the way for southern women who were watching like me.

With Grace And Heart

E w cullene

Christmas 1992

When you marry a divorced man with children especially in 1972, you can generally feel pretty secure that interaction with his children will be limited to weekend visits and school vacations. At most, you might have to adapt your summer work schedule to accommodate a few consecutive weeks for a longer visit, but you never consider that a few years later and directly on the heels of giving birth to a child of your own, that your household and your heart will suddenly be asked to stretch open enough for a mixed up fourteen year old girl to make her home there.

Looking back now 35 years later, I am still in awe by the way my step-mother Cullene handled this major life change. Despite juggling multiple responsibilities including a six month old baby, a full time job and helping to care for assorted elderly relatives, she welcomed me into the home she had created with my father. If she had concerns about adding one more to the list of those who needed her, I never felt it as she made room for me with an amazing amount of compassion and grace.

She wouldn’t have known then how desperately I needed a place of refuge and how if my request to live with them had met with resistance, I would have headed for the streets which would have seemed safer than the home I was in. Their home was a direct contrast to my previous life and for the first time, I felt safe.

I like to tell people than most of what I know about hosting a party or event along with good manners and appropriate behavior I learned by observing Cullene during my teen years. What I don’t always say is that Cullene inspired me early on with her business style and her stories of smoky rooms filled with tough talking journalists who thought a woman’s only place on the news page was in the society section. Her tales of taking on editors or working her way up later in positions generally reserved for men made me see a larger world for myself. I didn’t know then what my life or work might look like later, but listening to her I was sure that I wanted to be like her pushing the barriers others might try to impose.

It would be a one sided view of this generous woman if I didn’t say that much of what I’ve learned about giving of myself has come from observing Cullene do for others. She is always at the ready with a healing word of support or assistance for people in need often to the point of denying herself. While I could never be as unselfish as she so often is with others, I do know that there have been many times when in doubt that I have considered what Cullene might do in a similar situation.

She has been a sweet fallback of love and support during times when I needed it most, generously offering what I was frequently too stubborn to accept.  I am enormously grateful my father made the wise decision he did when he asked her to be his wife 37 years ago and more importantly for me, that when the situation required it, she assumed the position of mother to a teenager with little experience other than a strong internal foundation supported by heart and grace.

Today is Cullene’s birthday and even though I sent a little something by mail, I wanted to say more to honor this day and her significance in my life.

Happy Happy Birthday Cullene…I hope it’s great one!

The photo above is my favorite picture of the two of us and I love how there is a little heart hanging over our heads.