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After more than a decade, this memory lingers…

It was another day in Paradise. My daughter and her boyfriend, my grandson Lee, my better half and I were enjoying a fine sunny time on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

Better Half and I were dressed for dinner – bermuda shorts, polo shirts and Sperry Docksiders. Our attire was nearly identical, after all, we go steady. We were plopped in beach chairs, marveling over the indescribable grandeur of the Gulf of Mexico. Behind us, about one hundred yards of sparkling quartz sand spanned the distance between the water’s edge and the beach house, where Daughter and Boyfriend were transitioning from soggy sandy beachwear to Tommy Bahama tropical wear.

Four-year old grandson, Lee, was unwilling to call it a day and pleaded with his mother to allow him a  little longer to roll in the soft cool sand and play with his boogie board in the gentle breakers of the Gulf. Better Half and I were assigned to be on the qui vive, since we werealready on the beach enjoying the golden hour views.

Our dear friend Weepy, a long time beach-front resident of the Gulf coast, knows weather and her forecasts have been proven to be correct many, many times.  She often says, “When you are on the Gulf and you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes and it will change.”

I was reminded of Weepy’s weather wisdom when I noticed the golden hour had changed to a rather overcast hour. I looked in the direction where Lee was playing along the shoreline.

Startled, I saw the small lad was a bit too far out in the water. The waves had gained some energy and Lee was bobbing in the swell like a sea gull. I yelled and waved at him to come back. Lee kept bobbing. Not wanting to be an alarmist (I have been accused of being excessively overprotective), I asked Better Half, “Does it look like Lee is drifting further out in the water?”

Her one word reply – yes – was scarcely spoken before I kicked off my shoes and headed for the surf. By this time Lee was drifting farther east and south of where we were sitting. Wild and frantic, I plunged into the water, trying to reach him. I knew the only thing keeping him above water was the little boogie board attached by rope to his wrist – a ridiculous substitute for a proper personal flotation device.

Unable to swim because I skipped swim lessons as a kid, I hopped and dog-paddled toward the diminishing sight of Lee. Fully clothed, out of breath, crying and chest pounding, I began to doubt if I could complete the rescue. Since that scenario was unthinkable, I stayed the course, hampered by my clothes now heavy with water and by the notion that I was most likely having a heart attack right there in the good ole Gulf of Mexico.

Fixed on Lee’s ever distant position, I was startled when I heard a deep voice behind me, “Joy, what’s going on?”

It was Boyfriend! Tall, young, strong, and able to swim, he quickly reached Lee and carried him back to solid ground, reaching landfall before I did. Everyone was gathered around Lee – Daughter, Boyfriend, Better Half and finally yours truly, soaking wet head to toe and looking worse than bedraggled. Better Half handed me my eyeglasses, which apparently I had let fly along with my shoes eons ago.

Everyone was smiling and two of us were crying a little too. After Lee coughed up all the salt water he swallowed during the ordeal, he wanted to know if he could go and play in the surf again. “Maybe tomorrow,” his mother answered.

The remainder of our vacation was as pleasant as it always is on the Gulf Coast – despite weather changes and near drownings. We enjoyed late breakfasts, good books and card games during rainy periods. When the sun graced us with her bright light, warmth and harmful UV rays, we made our way to the beach, loaded down with coolers, chairs, snacks, towels, binoculars, shell, fish and bird field guides, fishing gear and bait, hats, a radio and and a few toys for Lee too.

We never took our eyes off of Lee – sporting his new life vest – as he played in the water near the shore. One afternoon, Lee and I were building the umpteenth sand castle of the week. I couldn’t forget the sight of him tossing about in the tide and after the rescue being so dispassionate about the event.

My profound curiosity about Lee’s experience of being alone in choppy seas led me to ask a question. “Lee. What where you thinking about when you drifted out so far into the water and couldn’t get back to shore?”

So young, confident and trusting was he that little boy replied, “I was thinking: I wonder when somebody is going to come and save me.”

I believe most women who are old enough to have grandchildren can look back at their lives as well as contemplate the present and realize just how many lives they have tried to save, to bail out or liberate.

I have done my share of attempted rescues. I have come to the aid of family and friends to free them from poor grades and poor choices, from health issues and economic woes, from drug and other addictions, from loneliness, fearfulness and defeat. My family and friends have done the same for me – sometimes successfully, but often not. Heaven knows I’ve needed to be rescued on more than a few occasions.

Even now I would dive into the deep to save Lee’s life. Be that as it may, it’s much more likely that the now tall, strong, fifteen-year-old Lee would play the role of life guard and I the role of grandmama who never learned to swim.

We are given opportunities to help others along our path and we do. But can we truly take responsibility for someone else’s life? Do we have the capacity to deliver others from challenges they face? If our efforts to save others become overwhelming, then what?

Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of my favorite poets wrote “The Journey”, a poem that offers her wisdom to the would-be saviors and those waiting to be saved.

The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, please enjoy the following poem, written about five years ago. I have included some photos of the garden today, which is planted with herbs and a few tomatoes.

Joy's herb garden, painted pot courtesy of Children's Advocate Award Luncheon 2010

Spinach Salad

by Joy Godsey

This tiny garden —

a raised bed — was once

the sandbox of a child.

Long bereft of plastic

shovels, toy trucks

and cars, its mitered

two by fours now

corral a winter

Favorite watering can framed by incredible spring blooming vine

harvest of greens. Tough

sturdy collards line

up beside a row

of ruffled spinach destined

for a salad plate

dressed with firm

white mushrooms,

boiled eggs crumbled,

toasted almonds

and a piquant

sauce that

the child

will refuse

to eat.

Overview of Joy's garden with Sally's tomatoes front and center

During a recent visit to Mexico Beach – a tiny gem situated alongside some of the most beautiful and benign waters in the Gulf of Mexico – a friend showed up brandishing a shiny new metal detector. One of my many secret desires is to own a metal detector, so I pushed myself leapt out of the Adirondack chair in which I had faithfully lounged for the past hour or so. “What’s that?” I inquired, wide-eyed and sidling up close to the object of desire.

My friend, a serene and gracious person, was unperturbed by my eagerness. With a beautiful smile, she explained it was her new metal detector and unselfishly handed over the device. With wide sweeps and satisfying beeps I quickly detected 3 bottle caps, a wine bottle foil, and a nail buried in the sand. Quickly bored contented with my findings, I handed the detector back to my friend, who strolled along the beach in search of fresh treasures.

Tiny treasures

Tiny treasures

Later that evening, after my friend departed for higher-yielding territories, our friend and hostess Weepy joined my partner and me on the deck for cocktails. Weepy had a story to tell. It seems that earlier that day she observed a tourist cutting sea oats on the beach. “He must have been semi-gay – carefully cutting each plume and arranging then admiring the bouquet held in his fist,” said Weepy. (Note, the semi-gay comment was not meant to disparage, but merely describe the plunderer’s methodology.)

Weepy was incensed. Having lived beachfront for many years and survived plenty of storms, she knows just how important the berms of sea oats are to her property and her community. My mind wandered as she continued to rant about the miscreant who dared defy Florida state law and risk a $500 fine for a vase full of sea oats.

I began to imagine Weepy as a super hero – defender of dunes,  sister to sea oats, avenger of blight – racing down the beach in tall white boots stenciled with sea oats and a bright green cape billowing in her wake! As I created this vision, I began to realize that the lovely sea oats that grace the beach are indeed treasures worthy of our protection. Moreover, people like Weepy, who care enough to defy interlopers and defend the ecological balance, are also treasures to be commended and emulated.

View from Gull Haven

View from Gull Haven

As I idled through the next few days, I discovered many other treasures on the Forgotten Coast. Among them are an Osprey flying close by clutching a fish in her talons, early morning deer tracks in the sand, the soft Gulf waters warming me as I cast my fly rod into the swell, thousands of frolicking mullet fish that have never taken my fly, millions of sea shells, and some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets the planet offers.

Day is done

Day is done

If you are interesting in visiting this area, I recommend Weepy’s Gull Haven. For more information, please leave a comment.

What does Van Morrison, Kilgore Trout, Peter Fonda and the waitress from the Lighthouse Cafe in Wewahitchka, Florida have in common? Hint: each are referenced in this story as having something to do with honey. And honey, dear reader, is today’s blog topic…

A raging Memorial Day thunderstorm had chased my traveling companion and me into a local cafe in the small Florida panhandle town of Wewahitchka – noted for its Tupelo honey, Dead Lakes and legendary girl’s softball team, the Gators. We dashed from the truck into the cafe and, instructed to sit anywhere, selected a small table near the enormous window that spanned the front of the restaurant. Apparently the plate glass window had replaced large overhead doors of what was formally a gas station and automobile repair shop.

The Dead Lakes in Wewa

The Dead Lakes in Wewa

Our waitress approached. Her friendly smile showed several teeth were missing. “Whatcha’ll gonna have, honey?”

We placed our orders for fried shrimp baskets with sides of cheese grits and slaw, then sat back and watched the torrent. We were in no hurry to go back out into the rain so were unperturbed when the service was a little slow. Each time the waitress passed our table with someone else’s order, she would stop by and say, “Yours’ll be out in just a few minutes, honey.” When she appeared to be in a rush, she would shorten the endearment to an expeditious: hon.

We had one single purpose for our visit to Wewahitchka on this Memorial Day and that was honey. We were in town to purchase our annual supply of Tupelo honey –– made from the nectar of the white Tupelo tree that grows only alongside the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers and collected by L.L. Lanier and Son –– a third generation bee keeping family.

Lanier & Son bee hives

Lanier & Son bee hives

For those who haven’t partaken of this sweet treat, Tupelo honey is celebrated as some of the finest honey in the universe. Ostensibly Van Morrison agrees and sums it up in the lyrics to the title track on his 1971 album, Tupelo Honey: “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey / Just like honey from the bee.”

Evidently, this honey is so seriously good, a film entitled Ulee’s Gold was produced starring Peter Fonda in the role as bee keeper –– a character patterned after old L.L. Lanier himself. During a 1997 interview, Fonda reminisced, “I found a lot [of my character] in my father. He kept a couple of hives and I can see him hop-footing it across the lawn, thinking he had a bee up his pant leg.”

In the Florida panhandle from April to May, the moment the bees begin working the blooms of the Tupelo trees, bee keepers strip the hives of all their stored honey. When Tupelo production is over, the hives are harvested before it can be mixed with additional honey sources to ensure the product can be certifed Tupelo honey. Good white Tupelo, raw, unheated and unmixed with other honey will never granulate. This kind of honest-to-goodness honey is as close to the impenetrable swamps of the wild rivers of northwestern Florida as a human can get.

River swamp with cedar and tupelo trees

River swamp with cedar and tupelo trees

So here we were in Wewa (as it is known by the locals) on a stormy Monday in search of genuine unadulterated Tupelo honey. We knew where to go, we’ve been here many times before. We turned off County Road 71 onto Lake Grove Road and drove until we saw the open gates at L.L. Lanier & Sons’ establishment.

I steered my truck along a sandy drive, dodging puddles deep enough to swallow up the lazy wet hound that ambled from the junk-strewn yard.  I stopped next to the side door of a decrepit house where various-sized jars of Tupelo honey were displayed on an upturned 55-gallon wooden barrel. An old cedar board hand-carved with the word “honey” lay half-buried, along with a collection of broken toys and rusted tools, beside the porch.

I stepped out of the truck to inspect the jars and an elderly woman appeared from the house. I could hear the indistinct sounds from a television in a nearby room. “Kin I hep ya?” she asked.

L.L Lanier's offerings

L.L Lanier's offerings

“I’d like a case of the eight-ounce jars,” I replied. Then, “I wish I had some of those biscuits from the Lighthouse Cafe to go along with this good honey. But anything is good with this honey spread on it.”

The old woman looked puzzled for a moment then came back, “Me? I don’t like honey. I like syrup, but not honey. That’ll be fifty-four dollars.”

I hastily pulled the cash from my wallet and handed it to the woman who thanked me, then stepped barefooted into the house. I loaded the honey into the back seat of the truck and backed out of the yard, pleased that I had scored another year’s supply of Tupelo honey and a few jars to share with friends and family as well.

I know I’ll return again to Wewa to buy up next year’s honey stock… just like Kilgore Trout wrote in his last known poem:

When the tupelo

Goes poop-a-lo

I’ll come back to youp-a-lo.

I found the following quote on an online fishing forum I visit from time to time and it reminded me of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago.

 

“If you fish hard and the fishing becomes your life, sooner or later you fish with ghosts; eventually you become one.” ~  Bob White

 

Lepomis macrochirus aka bluegill

Lepomis macrochirus aka bluegill

 

 

Rivalry

 

Near day’s end I sat  on the stone bench 

and watched my shadow spill into the narrow 

valley then spread halfway up the hillside.

 

It wasn’t too late to go fishing. Looking down

the footpath leading to the river I 

noticed my shadow was already there. 

 

Soon I stood in the shallow water with my back 

to the sun and saw my silhouette waving from 

the opposite bank, over where the fish would surely be 

 

drawn to whatever tiny talisman she had tied to her line.

I lifted my old Sage rod and false cast once or twice

before allowing the fly to light upon the darkening water. 

 

A strike! My standard response: Beginner’s luck

and  glanced to the other side of the stream 

to see if my shade had caught a fish. 

 

Her leader stretched tight and she mimicked my rhythm

as I stripped in the line to retrieve my small prize. A bluegill 

flashed into the air, glistening orange in the setting sun. 

 

I looked up and watched my shadow gently remove 

the swallowed hook then hold up the fish for me to admire,

not for its bright underbelly, or quick black eye,

 

but for its wide girth, its heft and length, 

for its large size made record-breaking by the angle 

of the sun and a lifetime of fish tales and lies.