Category Archives: Family

Life, Death, Memories and the Open Road

I wrote this on July 29th while driving with my roommate through New Mexico. We were taking my Hyundai Santa Fe to Santa Fe, crossing an item off my summer bucket list.

The broken white lines and telephone poles zip past.
New Mexico’s landscape rises and falls, grasslands and scrub brush.
The mountains are distant and we’ve not yet hit the desert.
And I think about road trips made my Papaw and Mamaw Hale, in the wide sedans we used to sail like ships across the hill country highways of Central Texas.
Papaw was Truman Preston Hale, a true Texan, a man of deep love and few words.
Tall with vice grips for hands, made strong by decades of hard work, but a mechanical mind every bit as sinewy despite only a few years of formal education.
His weathered but warm face was always crowned with a Western hat, felt in the winter and straw in those brutal Lampasas summers. A Stetson Open Road is what I remember though I don’t know that he had a preferred model.
He always looked forward to seeing us, always made a point to full his pockets with loose change, soft orange candy peanuts, chewing gum and hard butterscotch candies wrapped in cellophane.
He never went far without a coffee can for spitting tobacco juice into, and he always had a pocketknife at the ready.

When we emptied my grandfather's chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

When we emptied my grandfather’s chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

Those same vice-grip hands were equally at home fishing, shelling pecans from the tree in the yard, fixing cars, hand-mixing the world’s best milkshakes with just a spoon and a tall aluminum glass, or giving a 6-year-old grandkid’s knee a squeeze on a road trip as we zipped through small towns like Hico, Evant and Adamsville.
He took my dad on road trips as a boy. They saw the Grand Canyon and who knows what else, my dad, no doubt sitting like I did – staring at the lazy gliding buzzards in those impossibly vast Southwestern skies. Maybe he gave my dad a wink and a squeeze on the knee or a tousle of his hair – my Papaw’s love language I guess.
We never talked much. But I always knew where I stood with him, nonverbally. Still, I would have loved a day inside his head, or to take a trip like this and see the land through his eyes.
I remember my last few visits with him, in a nursing home in Temple. He was moody from the pain and didn’t want to eat the bland food. A notoriously picky eater with a cast-iron stomach, I can’t count the times I saw him consume meals of just tamales and piping hot black coffee.
I tried to have the conversations there that we didn’t have before. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember and now I teach kids how to write and tell stories, so I place an enormous value on words. But it seemed forced and he was in pain sometimes and seemed confused at others.
And we didn’t need the words anyway. We knew where the other stood, I believe. Right until the end. I would rub his silver hair on top of his head, up where the Stetson Open Road used to sit, and pray silently.
And every now and then as I’d walk by his bed, I’d feel a light tap on my knee, and when I’d turn to see him smiling, I could read every word on his face.
The road stretches on and we’re still an hour or more from Santa Fe. Dramatic clouds fill a towering sky, in every direction, as far as I can see.
My face and t-shirt smell like Old Spice aftershave. I was running low on my more expensive cologne and saw the familiar bottle in the grocery store. If it was good enough for Papaw, it will do the trick for this trip at least.
I’m in the passenger side as my good friend has driving duty and I’m still full from lunch of coffee and green chile stew.
I want to lay back and rest my eyes, so I cover my face with a Texas Rangers ball cap. Can’t help but think an Open Road would do this job better.
My first chance to hold my newest niece, Joy Tatum Hale.

My first chance to hold my newest niece, Joy Tatum Hale.

It was the third time we’d had a moment like this. But for me, it was very, very different.

I drove down to Jacksonville on a Sunday and met my parents at my brother’s church. I got to surprise my mom and dad who hadn’t seen me in a few months, my mom in tears after seeing how much I’d changed since she’d spent more than two months by my side in Denton County hospitals in the fall.

After church, we went with Graham, Leslie and the two little girls, along with Aunts DJ and Ann to Spring Creek Barbecue in Tyler and then to our hotel to get a night’s sleep before heading over to the hospital the next morning to welcome the arrival of niece #3.

She arrived just as scheduled. That’s the way c-sections work, I suppose. I had only heard of the term before my first niece was born, more than 5 years ago. I’ve learned a little since then, but I haven’t asked too many questions. Some things are better left with a little mystery to them for the time being.

This was our first Texas baby, and so, the first one I was able to greet in person on the day of her birth, big sisters Ava Grace and Edy Rose having been born in Arkansas.

There’s more to read, but first, here’s a few iPhone photos from the big day and my darling nieces.

As I drove to East Texas early Sunday, the day before the delivery, to hear my brother preach, I was overcome by the East Texas pines and the beautiful blue sky, textured with towering white puffs of cloud. I couldn’t help but thank God for the gift of life. The gift of a new life in our family, a new baby to hold, a new little girl to watch with anticipation and “joy” as her personality develops, as she takes on the qualities from the two families that have been poured into this precious little vessel.

But also the gift of my life, which I almost lost in the fall due to a series of circumstances that I have yet to write about here. I’m not ready to, not yet.

While making that drive, I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out and let the air whip across my arm. Just to feel that… to smell the scent of piney woods, and animals, and burning fuel and the warmth of the blacktop, and to know that I was traveling to spend time with my family who became legends for their faith and love and devotion among my friends and co-workers while I lay in a Denton County hospital bed unconscious. We both quietly and publicly celebrated both of the twin gifts of God – the creation of life and the sustentation of it, and we understood it in these terms because of an even greater gift of life that we all hold in common… the supernatural, everlasting life that comes through faith in Jesus.

They’re mysteries all – the creation, the sustentation, the atonement. And even though we’ve fashioned explanations medical, scientific and theological, for me they still retain the mystery that points to the biggest, most wonderful mystery of all – that the Supreme Being who created and sustains all things in the universe loves us and wants to relate to us. Thankfully we don’t need the explanations to enjoy the mysteries – especially in the moment. As C.S. Lewis wrote, a man who is hungry doesn’t need to understand the intricacies of nutrition and digestion to appreciate a meal and know that it is a life-giving thing for him.

It’s been eight weeks to the day since I walked into that room and met that beautiful girl for the first time. I was happy to be given camera-duty (my comfort zone!) to capture all the moments between the parents, big sisters, grandparents, great aunts and even long distance moments with my sister and Leslie’s sister (through the miracle of iPhone). There were plenty of posed shots, with me fussing over lighting (especially for the photos of me holding Joy), Leslie still trying to influence “quality control” of the images even though she had just delivered a baby, but the best moment of the morning was totally unrehearsed.

Ava Grace was finally given the opportunity to hold her little sister for the first time. She couldn’t take her eyes off of Joy, and for a rare moment seemed completely oblivious to the rest of us in the room. She slowly rocked her sister in her arms, bent her head low, and softly sang a lullabye of her own creation. I recorded the song on an iPhone, but modern technology can’t reproduce the pure sweetness of the moment in that hospital room in Tyler, Texas. It just illustrates another remarkable mystery that I’ve discovered since becoming an uncle. I can’t explain how it’s possible to love someone so deeply when you’ve never even seen them before. But I think it is, once again, a small slice of the creator inside all of us. After all, He knew us before the foundation of the earth, and we are only able to love Him because He first loved us.

With the blog posts I wrote for Ava and Edy, I shared lyrics from songs from New Jersey-born folk singer John Gorka’s 1998 album “After Yesterday” where he spends a few songs with some nice reflections on becoming a parent himself for the first time. The first two girls used up all the thoughtful, reflective, serious lyrics. So for JOY, a song on the album that has always brought a smile to my face.

He looks just like an angel when he’s sleeping

There’s a little piece of heaven where he lies

He looks just like an angel when he’s sleeping

But he looks like Charles Bronson when he cries

He looks like Charles Bronson when he’s crying

He doesn’t have a mustache, but he’s trying

When he’s content, he’s like a present sent from paradise

But he looks like Charles Bronson when he cries

Joy Tatum’s Vital Statistics

  • Weight – 7 lbs., 14 oz. (bigger than both her big sisters)
  • Birthday demeanor – Just chillaxing in everyone’s arms.
  • On her birthday, May 6, the following people were born: French Revolutionary figure Maximilien Robespierre (1758), Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856), American Explorer Robert Peary (1856) who claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole, silent film actor and heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (1895), American director and actor and radio dramatist Orson Welles (1915), baseball hall of famer Willie Mays (1931), American boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (1937), singer-songwriter Bob Seger (1945), former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (1953), actor George Clooney AKA “Booker” from Roseanne (1961), Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (1982), and NBA all-star Chris Paul (1985).
  • On her birthday, May 6, the following people died: Author Henry David Thoreau (1862), “Oz” author L. Frank Baum (1919), German actress Marlene Dietrich (1992), hall of fame pitcher Robin Roberts (2010), actor George Lindsey AKA Goober Pyle (2012).
  • Famous events on May 6 – King Henry VIII ordered that English-language Bibles be placed in every church in England in 1536; Louis XIV of France moves his court to Versailles in 1682; Arkansas seceded from the Union in 1861; Crazy Horse surrendered to US troops in Nebraska in 1877; the Eiffel Tower officially opens in Paris in 1889; an executive order by Franklin Roosevelt creates the Works Progress Administration in 1935; the airship Hindenburg is destroyed after catching fire in New Jersey in 1937; John Steinbeck wins the Pulitzer Prize for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940; Bob Hope performs his first USO show in 1941; Roger Bannister becomes the first person to run a mile in under four minutes in 1954; Kerry Wood strikes out 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit shutout to tie Roger Clemens’ major league record in 1998.
  • May 6 is also International No Diet Day and Teachers Day in Jamaica.
  • For more breaking Joy Tatum, Edy Rose and Ava Grace news, check out Leslie’s outstanding blog.

Joy came in the morning

Nothing to see here people… for the moment.

Yeah, I’m failing a bit as a productive blogger on this site. I’ve had a lot to think, write and reflect on lately, but I just haven’t done much with it.

However, I am getting more regular (insert your fiber joke) on my photo blog which you can see here. So that’s something, write right?

I do have another sweet little niece on the way, courtesy of my sister-in-law Leslie, so I’m already looking forward to welcoming her via blog, like I did in 2007 and 2010.

But until then, if you’re looking for a regular and rewarding read, direct your attention to writings of this exceptional young woman. You’re welcome.

Two Wonderful Women

I’m doing this entire post via iPhone, so let’s see how it goes.
Twenty-three years ago yesterday (May 8), it was Mother’s Day. I was 10 years old. I don’t remember what I got my mom, if I got her anything at all. I’m not sure it mattered, because she was having what I’m sure was her most memorable Mother’s Day ever.
Seriously, I think I could give her an all-expense paid European vacation and it wouldn’t trump the memory of Mother’s Day 1987. Also I couldn’t give her an all-expense paid vacation to Tulsa right now even if I wanted (enjoy the flowers Mom).
On that day in ’87, our family welcomed my baby sister Casey into the world. I’ll never forget my brother’s first words upon seeing her.
“It’s a boy!” he cried. He’s gotten a lot smarter since then.
“No Graham,” my mom said. “It’s a little girl. This is your little sister Casey.”
Now she’s no longer little, though she’s still our Caseybug. She’s receiving her diploma from College of the Ozarks today and we couldn’t be prouder.
And to top that, she’ll start a graduate school counseling program in the fall. The picture below is Mom and Casey at Babe’s in Roanoke, Texas, moments after she was notified of her acceptance in the program.
So Happy Mother’s Day Mom (I’m sure it’s another memorable one up there in Missouri). And Happy Birthday and Graduation Day Caseybug! And thanks to God for the blessing both these women are to me, and the cool way these two great days will always be linked in my mind.

The prettiest Rose I’ve ever seen…

Safe in my brother's arms, little Edy Rose lets everybody know she's finally here.

We knew the day and time in advance. My sister-in-law Leslie was scheduled to deliver her second daughter by c-section on Thursday morning. The only concern was whether little Edy Rose, the babe in question, would cooperate with her mommy, daddy and the doctor’s plans. At 7:50 yesterday morning, my sister Casey sent me the first photos of my new sweet niece. Edy Rose was right on time! And for the second time in less than three years, I became an uncle. 

As I reflect on little Edy’s arrival, I can’t help but recall my thoughts when her sweet big sister Ava Grace was born in 2007. Most of the same feelings are there – there’s a little person a few hundred miles away in Fort Smith whom I’ve never met, only seen in pictures, and yet I wonder if I could ever love her more than I do now. 

But the truth that I’ve found is that yes, my love will grow into something more full and complete than it is now. It definitely has with Ava Grace, the way my heart melts when she says “Coe-wee” or when she lets me hug her or leans in for a sloppy kiss. And so it will grow with Edy Rose too. It will grow not because she’ll become more precious, but because as she grows, I’ll be better able to see God’s craftsmanship and blessing in her. 

I’ll see more of her mother and father and my parents, all whom I love deeply, and the traits my sister and I share with her. I’ll see all the similarities and differences between her and her big sister and how they’ll grow (with prayer and guidance) to celebrate both in their love for each other. 

Check out this little beauty!

When I reflected on Ava Grace’s birth, I reflected on the idea of fatherhood for myself. I said at the time that I didn’t know whether I’d ever be a father myself, but that I knew it required a lot of grace and trust. I knew I could stand on the grace, but still had a ways to go with the trust. 

In the past few months, the answer to that question for me is becoming clearer. And the trust is coming along nicely as well, thanks to the one who is always faithful. I can’t help but look at these pictures of Edy Rose with a swell of hope for the future. 

As I sit here listening to the same John Gorka album I was thinking about when Ava Grace was born, I have to quote another beautiful song, “Cypress Trees,” when I think of what I’m praying for this beautiful family of four. 

Maybe we will grow together 

like cypress trees in summer 

standing close and tall, green fingers in a row 

Maybe we will grow together like cypress trees. 

And that’s my prayer. That by God’s grace and Leslie and Graham’s faith and obedience, this branch of the Hale family will grow in love, a little grove of trees whose lives become intertwined and bonded, as they wave in the gentle breeze and grow strong and reach and stretch their green fingers under the cool of the rain and warmth of the sun. 

Edy Rose’s Vital Statistics 

  • Weight – 7 lbs., 12 oz. (a tad bit bigger than big sis)
  • Vocal chords – By all accounts, in perfect working order (it runs in the family).
  • On her birthday, Jan. 21, the following people were born: King of France Charles V, also known as Charles the Wise (1338), Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824), French fashion designer Christian Dior (1905), German highwire acrobat Karl Wallenda (1905) founder of the famed Flying Wallendas who said “Life is being on the wire; everything else is waiting,” WWII hero Major Richard Winters (1918) who was a major character in HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” American actor and “Players’ Club” spokesman Telly Savalas (1922), longtime college basketball coach John Chaney (1932), American disc jockey Wolfman Jack (1938), Golf legend Jack Nicklaus (1940), Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (1941), Former Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates (1946), “Carribean Queen” singer Billy Ocean (1950) – “Get outta my dreams, get into my car,” current Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke (1950) and current Attorney General Eric Holder (1951), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953), American artist Jeff Koons (1955) famous for his stainless steel baloon animals, actor Robby Benson (1956) who provided the voice of the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” actress Geena Davis (1956), NBA stars Hakeen Olajuwon and Detlef Schrempf (both 1963), Run-D.M.C. DJ Jam Master Jay (1965), actor Ken Leung (1970) who plays Miles on “LOST,” singer Cat Power (1972), and Spice Girl Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton (1976).
  • On her birthday, Jan. 21, the following people died: King Louis XVI of France (1793), Russian leader Vladimir Lenin (1924), writer George Orwell (1950) – author of “Animal Farm” and “1984,” film director Cecil B. DeMille (1959), singer Jackie “Mr. Excitement” Wilson (1984), Hall of fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer (1993), Elvis Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker (1997), Hawaii Five-0 actor Jack Lord (1998), and singer Peggy Lee (2002).
  • Famous events on Jan. 21 – Louis XVI, former King of France, was executed during the French Revolution in 1793; future Confederate president Jefferson Davis resigned from the US Senate in 1861; Albania declared itself a republic in 1925; USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1954; Vietnam War Battle of Khe Sahn begins in 1968; commercial flights by the Concorde began in 1976; President Jimmy Carter pardoned all Vietnam War draft evaders in 1977; Iran hostage crisis ended when American hostages were released after 444 days in 1981; and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his second term in 1985.
  • Jan. 21 is also Flag Day in Quebec, Grandmother’s day in Poland, and National Hug Day in the United States.
  • For more breaking Edy Rose and Ava Grace news, check out Leslie’s outstanding blog.

Year in review

Dear friends,

Even though I’m still at work, surrounded by papers to grade and e-mails to send, and lessons to plan, I still feel a definite excitement not just for the new year, or the next semester, but just life itself.

2009 ended well for me. I reconnected with an incredible woman through a series of circumstances that just don’t seem coincidental, and today marks one month since our second first meeting. I feel God is growing and stretching and shaping me in new ways as I discover, for the first time, what it’s like to really experience this kind of relationship. I’m thankful that Dani is a part of my life and I’m looking forward to getting to know her and her very cool son, Spencer, more and more.

It was also a very good year for my newspaper. My kids put together three top-notch issues, earned the Best of Show award at the state convention, and pulled in a slew of national awards for last year’s papers. I’m thankful to them for making me look so smart.

It was also a good time for family. Three different occasions this fall, either my brother, sister, Dad, or a combination of the three were able to come to Texas for a fun weekend. Whether it was “Screams” with Graham, UT-Baylor with the whole bunch, or UT-North Carolina hoops with Truman, I had a blast and reminded how blessed I am to have these bonds of love and friendship with my family, not to mention how rare it is that we all share the same faith.

But most important, I got to have an incredible time of revival during my Thanksgiving visit to my hometown. It was something that I prayed for with a pastor at The Village, and God definitely answered that prayer with abundant blessings. Even as I got the difficult news about the health problems of a spiritual mentor, the Lord turned it to good by awakening a spirit of prayer in me that I hadn’t known before. 

2009 was a good year. And 2010 is starting well. It just feels like a bit of reset in my life. There’s been so much starting and stopping and stalling and starting again over the past 32 years. And while I know the road ahead won’t be easy, I’m confident that it will be good.

My hope is in Christ and my prayer is to learn to trust and love and enjoy him more each day.

Wishing the same for you, Happy 2010!


Natural State of mind

Ava Grace and her Daddy after an evening cry

Ava Grace and her Daddy after an evening cry

I’m on the tail end of my annual summer break escape from Texas to Arkansas trip, and it’s been a blast.

I got here late Saturday night and I’ll head home in a few hours. I always enjoy visiting, but it is nice to climb back into your bed for the first time in a week. Hello sheets and pillows, hello comforter (how apt your name is now), hello lumpy mattress – ah, the devil that I know. (if you really don’t care about the details of the rest of my trip… stop reading now)

Continue reading

Second glance

Just a tiny splash of color

Just a tiny splash of color

Here’s another look. I decided to bring back the color in her eyes. It’s kind of a clichéd technique, but I think it looks good here.

I’d also like to note that you are never quite so overrated as when your family overrates you, but it’s nice to hear just as well.

Give ’em Howl, Red?!

The new logo for the former Arkansas State Indians

The new logo for the former Arkansas State Indians

So the Olympics were a blast… but now it’s time for football. College kicks off tonight with high school ball to follow tomorrow. The pros are wrapping up their final preseason games and my fantasy lineup has been set for two solid weeks.

One game I’m excited about this weekend is Arkansas State University (my first school and still my favorite team – think of me as a Cubs fan, only more rare) taking on Texas A&M at College Station on Saturday.

It will be the first game with our new mascot, and I’m finally coming around on the whole Red Wolves thing. If it boosts our profile in the world of college sports, bring it on.

The Aggies are favored by 19 points. I’d like to get a piece of that action. I don’t think they can cover.

Football season fires me up because it’s one of the first signs that the summer is ending and autumn, my favorite season, is on it’s way.

I’ve developed quite a few autumn traditions over the past few years and it’s really helped make the season fun. Here are a few.

  1. Fantasy football in the Lonestar League (with yours truly, 3X Champion).
  2. Reading “Autumn Begins In Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright (one of my favorite poems… I read it in high school and always think of it when autumn comes around).
  3. Our annual trip to Screams.
  4. Staying up to watch Sunday night football and chatting with Graham and Dad on the cell phone.
  5. Hitting the sideline of the first home football game with my photographers to give them some one-on-one pointers.
  6. The first trip around in the truck with the windows down to let in the crisp, chilly air and the autumn smell of burning wood.
  7. The switch back to Central Standard Time and watching it grow darker, earlier.
  8. Decorating my apartment for Halloween and watching the live Ghost Hunters special on SciFi.
  9. Meeting coworkers for dinner after school at Angelina’s or Razoo’s for some warm, spicy food.
  10. Heading to Texas Stadium for the Battle of the Ax.

This post was a little bit on the loose side, but I am just ready for fall. How about you?

A name that gleams like new money

Nobody writes like Rick Bragg.

Nobody rolls over those honey-smooth Southern phrases like sausages on the skillet (he wrote last year in SI that Alabama had paid Nick Saban enough money “to burn a wet dog”). Nobody paints pictures with words quite like this one-time college dropout turned Pulitzer Prize winner from North Alabama. I know it’s not good for me to read Bragg when I’m trying to write a book of my own. Typically his work makes me swear off writing altogether for a week or two. It’s like trying to settle for a peanut butter sandwich when the smell of somebody’s barbecue is floating through your open window.

Ava\'s Man by Rick Bragg

But I have to do it. I’m reading Ava’s Man, the second of three memoirs, this one focused on Bragg’s maternal grandfather. I thought the first one, All Over But The Shoutin’ , was just about the finest thing I’d ever read. After finishing the prologue to this one, I’m not so sure anymore.

Here’s an excerpt from what I’ve read so far…

In a time when a nation drowning in its poor never so resented them, in the lingering pain of Reconstruction, in the Great Depression and in the recovery that never quite reached all the way to my people, Charlie Bundrum took giant steps in run-down boots. He grew up in a hateful poverty, fought it all his life and died with nothing except a family that worshipped him and a name that gleams like new money. When he died, mourners packed Tedegar Congregational Holiness Church. Men in overalls and oil-stained jumpers and women with hands stung red from picking okra sat by men in dry-cleaned suits and women in dresses bought on Peachtree Street, and even the preacher cried …

… I wrote this story for a lot of reasons, but for that above all others – to give one more glimpse into a vanishing culture for the people who found themselves inside such stories, the people who shook my hand and said, “Son, you stole my story.”

Some of them would admit, shamefully, that they battled with the past all their liives and never quite knew whether to be proud of their people or ashamed … For them, the past was a door they locked themselves – but in the closet late at night they could always hear those rattling bones.

But I am proud of Charlie Bundrum. I want my grandfather to walk out of the past – with Ava, God rest her soul, beside him. If what I have heard about Charlie and Ava is true, he would not have minded having just a little bit of a head start on her, so he could have some fun before she got there.

As for me, I got what I came for.

Charlie Bundrum, though I never even saw his face, would have wanted us. He would have held us high in one of those legendary hands, like a new bulldog puppy, and laughed out loud. He would have watched over us, slipping us Indian head pennies and Mercury dimes. And every Friday, when my momma went into town to cash her check, he would have fed nickels in the mechanized bucking horse outside the A&P, to see us ride.

– Rick Bragg, Ava’s Man