(This is the final installment of a three-part series on why we gave each of our boys their name. Barron’s birthday is Feb. 6, so today’s post is timed to coincide with that wonderful, life-changing event. Happy 22nd, Barron!)
What’s in a name? For us, it’s family.
Our three boys are roughly four years apart in age. We wanted each to have a strong, distinctive name. Carla and I always thought names had more meaning when they came from beloved and respected ancestors. Passing on their names extends the memory of those who have gone before and gives our children a differentiator in a world where so many boys their age bear trendy names.
Naming was the opposite of parenting. It became harder as we had more children. With each child we learned how to be better parents, but with each male child, we had a more difficult time selecting a name we liked with a meaningful family connection.
Our first born is Barron Elliott Wallace. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say we decided what our oldest son would be called about six minutes after we got engaged. As soon as we started talking seriously about our future, we settled on family names like “Ruth” and “Helen” for a girl and “Barron,” Carla’s maiden name, for a boy.
Continuing Carla’s family name is a lot for Barron to carry, but since she was an only child, we both felt the urge to give her family name to our firstborn. “Elliott,” his middle name, originated with my grandmother. Her maiden name is both my and my father’s middle name. It rolls off the tongue in combination with “Barron,” and it pays tribute to my father’s mother’s family.
Barron likes the distinctiveness of his name. He appreciates his connection to his roots. As his college studies focus on furnishings and interiors with an emphasis on historic preservation, he lives into his name. He is pursuing a career restoring objects and structures from the past.
Whenever anyone brings up the youngest child of former president Donald Trump, our Barron is quick to point out, “I had the name first.” He’s soon to be 22 years old, and I cannot imagine Barron having any other name.
It’s hard to remember what life was like before children.
Raising our three boys has taken so much attention and energy that it sometimes feels like Carla and I did not exist as a couple before they came along. The truth is, we dated for eight months before getting engaged, married four months later, and had Barron four years later. We had five whole years together before kids.
Although I honestly cannot remember a monumental conversation in which we concocted our plan for a family, Carla does and recounted it to me in detail. We sat in the driveway of first house after a dinner out and discussed taking the plunge. I do remember quite clearly that our plans after marriage included graduate school and having multiple kids. We had one summer of adjusting to life as husband and wife before starting our plan.
In the late summer of 1997, Carla began traveling from Macon to Lawrenceville two nights a week to attend the University of Georgia’s part-time Master of Social Work degree program. She was working at the Bibb County Department of Family and Children’s Services and knew a master’s degree was the best way to improve her skills and advance her career.
At the time I worked as a reporter at The Macon Telegraph, moving from general assignment features to news in the fall of 1996. I covered business and local government, which meant I frequently attended council meetings and committee hearings at night, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays when Carla was in school. It was a difficult schedule for both of us, and it was made more difficult by the stress of Carla’s two-hour school commute, one way.
About two years into Carla’s degree program, I transitioned to The Telegraph’s bureau in Warner Robins and began covering Robins Air Force Base. I no longer had meetings to cover at night, but I was driving 30 minutes south to Warner Robins while Carla was still commuting to Lawrenceville for classes. Within a year, I was back at the main office, promoted to assistant metro editor and working longer hours, including weekends.
In the first four years of marriage, we did not see each other much, and when we weren’t working, Carla was doing schoolwork. Our intention to delay having kids seemed rational and wasn’t hard to follow through on. We did not have time to have kids at that point in our lives. It proved to be a wise choice. As Carla progressed past the half-way point in her degree, we decided it would be OK to start trying, not knowing how long it would take to get pregnant.
During that stressful time I developed a deep distaste for the phrase “trying to get pregnant,” particularly in polite conversation. Everybody knows what causes pregnancy. Telling anyone “we’re trying to get pregnant” is advertising more about your life than I am comfortable with. Although it took 18 months, Carla and I acknowledge in hindsight that the timing worked out for the best. Her last few months in school were incredibly challenging, and if she had been pregnant on top of juggling work and school, she may have damaged her health and the health of the baby.
Carla finished her master’s degree in May of 2000. By that time, I had transitioned out of journalism to work in public relations for Mercer University. As I submitted my resignation to Telegraph editor Cecil Bentley, he asked if there was anything they could do to keep me or if this was a “lifestyle decision.” I answered truthfully, “It’s a lifestyle decision.”
By the end of the summer of 2000, Carla had earned her master’s degree and was pregnant. Goals 1 and 2, check and check. That fall, Carla was promoted to a manager at DFACS because of her master’s degree, and I started the MBA program at Mercer, taking one prerequisite during the day and one at night. We were working our plan.
Our family expanded in February 2001 with Barron’s arrival, but by the time Carla’s six weeks of maternity leave ended, she was not ready to resume full-time work. She resigned from Bibb County DFACS where she had been working in foster care in-take, an incredibly draining and challenging job, to take on family assessments on a contract basis for one of DFACS’s contracted providers.
Carla bore the brunt of the stress, trying to adjust to a new baby, making appointments with families, and writing the comprehensive assessments. Meanwhile, I was working all day and taking classes two nights a week. It was difficult by any measure.
By the time Barron was two, I was offered an opportunity to leave Mercer and build a media relations program for the Atlanta-based non-profit, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I had been wrestling with a sense of calling to some form of ministry, and at CBF I would be reunited with my former Mercer boss, Ben McDade. Hesitant to uproot our family from Macon, I commuted to Atlanta four days a week for five months before we succumbed to the reality that we would have to move.
We settled in Lilburn in March 2003, found a church home at Parkway Baptist Church in John’s Creek, and enrolled Barron in the Smoke Rise Baptist Weekday Preschool. We put down roots and settled. I traveled five to 10 nights a month for work, and Carla shifted from contract social work to teaching at Barron’s preschool. I was still finishing my degree, but our schedule seemed more manageable.
Having four years between our first and second child was the right amount of time. I finished my MBA in May 2004, and my travel schedule for CBF abated to only half as many nights a month. Harris joined us in May 2005, and we began the adjustment process all over again.
Through it all, we had lots of help from Carla’s parents and our church family. Through the schools and Cub Scouts, we began to feel a part of the Lilburn community, and we at least had access to babysitters, giving Carla and I a night out occasionally.
As we settled into life with two kids, we reached the crossroads of whether to call our family complete with two boys or try for a third child. Being an only child, Carla liked the idea of a large family with siblings interacting and lots of activities to keep us occupied. I grew up in a house with three boys, so that dynamic felt familiar and actually fulfilled a prophecy – or maybe it was meant as a curse – my dad would pronounce us when my brothers and I acted up: “I hope you have three boys, and they keep every light on in your house all the time.”
When Carlton arrived in the fall of 2008, our family felt complete. We had three healthy children, and it seemed greedy to want more. They were four years apart in school, so each one was in a different phase of childhood, keeping us busy and our lives full. We also thought the spacing would help when it came to paying for college one day. We had conversations about what it would be like to have a girl, but as I often said to Carla in those days, “Trying for a girl is how you end up with four boys.”
Looking back, I have no regrets. We made the best decisions we could at the time, and I love each of our boys for their unique personalities, gifts and challenges. We are a complete family, full of activity, laughter and love. Our plans proved sound, and I wouldn’t trade lives with anyone.
Dad was a preacher and Mom was a teacher, so many of life’s lessons were given to my brothers and me explicitly and directly.
They were not shy about telling us exactly what to do, both in the moment with an assigned task and in the future with big life decisions. I still remember the speeches on saving money, dressing well to earn respect, eating my vegetables, getting enough sleep and brushing my teeth. It was all helpful and sound advice.
But what I remember most from my parents came from their example. Here are the most impactful lessons I learned from my parents that have stuck with me to this day:
Cleanliness. I’ve heard my dad tell the story so many times I can recite it from memory. When they brought me home from the hospital, my mom was overly concerned for my hygiene. She bathed me two or three times a day. She disinfected every implement or toy I could touch, and she worked diligently to ensure my environment was as germ free as possible. Throughout my youth, keeping my room clean and assisting with the household chores like emptying the trash, vacuuming the floors and doing the dishes, were all non-negotiable tasks on my agenda. To this day, I remain fastidious about my hygiene and keep a clean house. Carla often accuses me of being unable to sit still and relax because I’m always wiping a surface, sweeping up the crumbs or picking up fallen tree branches and leaves from the yard. I don’t know if it was instilled from infancy, but it’s a lesson I learned well from my parents.
Responsibility. Our first house in Bedford, Texas, had a two-car garage, and we kept at least one side cleaned out for parking. Automatic garage door openers were a luxury back in the 1970s, so when I got big enough to hoist the door open, that was my job. My dad would pull into the driveway, put the car in park and announce, “Garage door opener, ho!” I jumped out, ran to the door, heaved and tugged at the handle until it got to eye level and pushed it over my head in triumph. This was my job, and I learned to do it consistently and without complaint.
It was also an opportunity for a lesson in economics. A few months into the assignment of this new chore, my dad called “Garage door opener, ho!” and I paused.
“Dad, I think I should be paid to open the garage door,” I offered, a little hesitant.
“Sure! Glad to pay you!” was his surprisingly enthusiastic response. “How much do you want? A nickel? A quarter? How about a dollar every time you open the garage door?”
“Yeah, a dollar sounds good,” I replied, a huge grin emerging at my successful negotiation.
As I opened the car door to rush to earn my first dollar, my dad offered one more point.
“One thing, though. Dinner tonight will cost you $3.50.”
I paused, thought about it, and realized I would quickly be in the hole financially.
“I think I’ll just open the garage door for free,” I said and never again demanded higher wages.
In my lifetime I have earned promotions and pay raises, but I have always been more motivated by trust and a sense of responsibility than accolades or money.
Faithfulness. My parents brought me to church just a few weeks after I was born, and I have missed few Sundays since. We never questioned church attendance in my family, even before my dad went into the ministry. Before he joined the staff at our church, he did everything he possibly could as a volunteer – teaching Sunday School, visiting prospects and the sick, assisting with construction projects and cleaning the church. My mother was just as committed, singing in the choir, playing the piano, keeping the nursery, and teaching adult women’s Sunday School. They were unbendingly and unerringly faithful to the church. As my dad used to say, “Jesus loved us so much that he gave His life for us. The least we can do is show up at church a few times a week.”
I am just as serious about my church attendance and involvement today. My family has made it just as habitual as I did growing up. They have learned to expect worship to be a part of our Sundays even when we’re on vacation. That can mean an intimate service with just our family or at the church with the people we are visiting. Love of the church is hardwired into my who I am, and I can’t imagine life without it.
Hard work. From the time I was big enough to push a mower, yard work has been the instrument to teach me the value of hard work. I can still hear my dad’s voice, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” Raking, pulling weeds, digging lines for a sprinkler system, push mowing, picking up tree limbs and Spanish moss, cutting back bushes, pruning trees, and weed whacking on a nearly three acres of Central Florida property taught me to be diligent in gathering facts, conducting interviews, making calls, writing, editing, re-writing, taking pictures, updating web pages, meeting deadlines, responding to emails, drafting speeches, hosting media, creating integrated marketing communications plans, posting to social media, compiling budgets, building presentations, speaking to groups, doing on-camera interviews, managing a staff and much, much more. A good work ethic has been universally helpful to me. Seeing both of my parents work hard taught me that it should not be dreaded or avoided. Hard work should be the norm and the fruits of that work should be enjoyed.
Unselfishness. Both of my parents in different contexts put others first. My dad had a congregation of people for whom he would drop everything and go to the hospital to visit, pray with or counsel. He would show up in suit and tie to my games and performances, never complaining that he was too busy or too tired to watch yet another basketball game. My mom worked all day and prepared us nutritious meals every night, rose early to fix our lunches, and went without a lot of sleep to take care of us. I can also safely say she cared nothing for the hours of sports she endured on television or the hundreds of arcane conversations on the nuances of “Star Wars.” As a result, I rarely think “What do I want to do?” but instead try to anticipate what my family needs or wants, and I work to make that happen. I have learned to give up food on my plate, take the broken chair, pass up the game on TV, and even, on occasion, shop for home furnishings on a fall Saturday. I strive to be unselfish in my decision making and focus on putting others first.
Don’t follow the crowd. I have been taught to “take the road less traveled” since I first heard “broad is the way that leadeth to destruction” from Matthew 7:13 as a child in church. It was always more important to my parents that we do what was right than what was popular. This was true for fashion, music, movies, going to prom or anything that could be detrimental to our Christian witness. It started out for me as avoiding “the appearance of evil,” but I have more universally applied this principle to life decisions requiring a moral choice. I learned to avoid situations where people are behaving inappropriately or illegally. I try to choose what’s right vs. what’s convenient. These lessons have given me a spirit of independence and the ability to think for myself.
Laugh. My dad remembers jokes even when he can’t remember the day of the week. He has always displayed a knack for humor. My mom’s sense of humor can be off beat, but I can still hear the sounds of her laughter when she got together with her sister, Wanda. When my brothers and I were old enough to get away with it, we worked at making my parents laugh when we were around the dinner table. We saw how much joy it gave them. These days I don’t laugh enough, but repeating that scene around my family’s dinner table with my boys is hopefully teaching them how life-giving joy and laughter is.
Have adventures. The year my parents packed our car in secret and took us to Houston and Galveston on Thanksgiving has been forever imprinted on my identity. They taught me that anything can happen when I least expect it and it can be amazing. Dad explained the trip as we got in the car as “We’re going on a drive.” For almost the entire three-and-a-half hour trip we asked “When are we turning around?” to which my father replied, “Do you want to turn around?” I learned that sometimes it’s better not to turn around. It’s better to discover the adventure around the next bend. Having adventures, not knowing what is coming next, building anticipation and injecting surprise into life adds depth and meaning to our existence. It’s essential when life gets too predictable and hum drum. I try to remember to give my family little adventures whenever possible, and I got that from Dad and Mom.
I’ll bet some of these on this list have already filtered their way down to my children. At least, I hope they have. And I hope my boys know where these qualities and habits come from. Their grandparents are remarkable in ways they may not have fully appreciated.
In honor of my youngest brother’s birthday yesterday, here is the second part of an appreciation of my brothers. If you missed part one back in March, you can catch up on my thoughts about my middle brother, Lee, here.
Lyle Elrod Wallace joined our family January 13, 1981, disrupting the roles and responsibilities each of us understood. Lee went from being the baby to the middle son, and I went from carefree older brother to frequent caregiver and babysitter. His birth came with complications, but not long after, he was thriving and playing his part as the baby absorbing all of the attention.
Dad often resorted to a rhyme when introducing us for the first time, particularly to older people, who visited the church — “We’ve got Lance with the ants, Lee with the fleas and Lyle with the smile.” Maw Maw, my mother’s mother, frequently told people without apology, “Lyle is the best behaved and best looking of the bunch.” The baby of the family always comes out on top in familial comparisons.
By the time he became aware of social hierarchies, Lyle understood that our household was divided into two classes: royalty and the serfs. He, of course, was royalty, and Lee and I were the serving class known as “the brothers.” When chores were handed out, he just assumed they were meant for “the brothers” and did not apply to him. He calculated, correctly, that if he just waited, the compulsion that had become ingrained in Lee and me to accomplish assigned tasks would take over, and we would do the chores without him lifting a finger.
This may have caused resentment at the time, but it didn’t last. Maybe it was that smile. Or maybe it was his low-key, cool personality. Whatever tools and tricks he employed, I liked that he rolled with punches and took life as it came to him. He didn’t seem to get worked up about anything.
One day when he was in elementary school and I was off at college, Dad rushed out of the house, late for some commitment for the church. He forgot to take Lyle to school. When Lyle came downstairs and realized he had been left at home alone, he didn’t panic or go into hysterics. He just settled in for an unscheduled holiday.
When Dad came home for lunch he was shocked to find Lyle on the couch watching TV.
“What are you doing here?” Dad asked in amazement.
“Eating a popsicle,” Lyle casually responded, TV remote in hand.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“You left me.”
Neither Lee nor I would have had the courage to confront the truth of that circumstance or sit by so calmly when an obvious catastrophe befell us. Lyle took it all in stride.
I also admire Lyle’s pursuit of education and adventure. After high school, he took a year to work and study at Word of Life Bible Institute in Schroon Lake, N.Y. Born in Texas but Central Florida-bred, Lyle had barely seen snow in his life. Word of Life afforded him the opportunity to run games at “Snow Camp” for churches and youth groups. Lyle confessed it was the coldest year of his life, but I respected the boldness required to immerse himself in such a contrasting climate to his upbringing.
He went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Arlington Baptist College and started working in churches immediately, starting with the church I grew up in, First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas. When he finished college, he married and took on the pastorate of a small church in Junction, Texas. A couple of years later, he was back in the Metroplex getting his master of divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary. When that project was completed, he started his Ph.D. studies and accepted the call to pastor Talty Baptist Church southeast of Dallas.
Talking with him now, I get the clear sense that he’s a deep thinker. He’s open to new ideas but understands what he believes and why. He doesn’t pick fights over theology or politics, but always seeks to learn and teach. I don’t think it’s just his type “B” personality. He’s driven to know more and comprehend better, a trait we could use more of in today’s polarized world.
Lyle isn’t just a career student, though. Like Lee, he, too, learned — eventually — the value of hard work. To support his family and pay for graduate school, he worked nights as a janitor at the Birdville School District. Humbling and grueling, Lyle listened to class notes on his headphones while scrubbing toilets, sweeping gyms, and polishing floors. He no longer believed he was immune to dirty work. He stuck it out when many people would have given up. When the boy commits to a goal, he sees it through.
In ministry, many of the pastors I’ve known were always looking for the next, bigger church that could pay them more. When opportunities arose, they followed their ego and blamed the “call to a new ministry.” Lyle sticks to his word. He stayed at the small church in the middle of the Hill Country of Texas much longer than anyone else would have, making way less than anyone else would have, to make an impact no one else could have. Now, he’s building a church at Talty, patiently helping his congregation to grow in faithfulness and in size. Now that the world has emerged from the lockdown phases of the pandemic, Talty Baptist is poised for explosive growth. I believe God is blessing that church through and because of Lyle’s dedication to them.
Always able to express himself through photography, music, drawing, graphic art, and well-constructed sermons, Lyle is excellent at gift giving. I love to see the joy on my boys’ faces when they open a special graduation, Christmas or birthday gift that is obviously a hand-crafted item that speaks to their interests and passions. I am grateful Lyle cares enough to create gifts that connect with people, and I envy his creativity and craftyness.
As the years and miles between us pile up, I find I am drawn to reconnect with my brothers and rediscover the bonds we forged growing up as preacher’s kids. I look forward to creating new memories and taking the opportunity to let them know just how special they are. Happy birthday, Lyle!
When I was a cub reporter at The Macon Telegraph back in the early 1990s, copy editor Randy Waters once gave me a backhanded compliment that has stuck with me:
“Lance, you’re the funniest guy I know who can’t tell a joke.”
Randy was right. I’ve never been good at remembering jokes, but as a middle-aged father of three, I am gaining proficiency in the stock-and-trade of dads everywhere… the dreaded Dad Joke.
To help me in this pursuit, my own father gave me three joke books for Christmas, which I have already begun to study intently, much to my family’s chagrin.
Growing up in church gave me an appreciation for emotional storytelling and the use of humor.
Good preachers have a knack for remembering and telling jokes, both from the pulpit and in social settings. One of the first jokes I ever remember my childhood pastor, Bro. Billy Mauldin, telling went something like this:
A man goes to prison, and the first night while he’s laying in bed contemplating his situation, he hears someone yell out, “44!” Uproarious laughter erupts from the other prisoners.
He thought that was pretty odd. Then he heard someone else yell out, “72!” That was followed by even more laughter.
“What’s going on?” he asked his cellmate.
“Well, we’ve all heard every joke so many times, we’ve given them each a number to make it easier.”
“Oh,” the new prisoner said. “Can I try?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
So he yells out “102!” and the place is dead quiet, save for a few groans. Confused, he looks at his cellmate who is just shaking his head.
“Hey, what happened?”
“Well, some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.”
I puzzled over that joke for a while. Like most kids, I was a literal thinker. I thought it was funny because what made the prisoners laugh was the way the joke teller pronounced the numbers. I didn’t get it until I was in my teens, much older than I should have been to understand a joke as basic as this one.
I don’t remember jokes very well, but this one has stayed with me. It’s both a meta joke — a joke about a joke — a proverb. The truth is, some people can’t tell jokes. Spend two minutes with a comedian you’ve never heard before on YouTube, and you will see what I mean.
Humor is something I’ve always appreciated and tried to bring to my conversations. I hope this year to prove Randy wrong… not by being unfunny but by adding joke-telling to my humor repertoire.
But then again, some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.
What’s your favorite joke? Leave a comment below to share. You can credit the source or rely on the old adage that originality is the ability to forget where you heard it. Clean jokes only, please. This is a family blog.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami 18 years ago this week led to one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.
On December 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean creating a tsunami that killed 227,898 people in 14 countries. The epicenter was just off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a remote area without much connection to the outside world. At the time, I worked as director of communications for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a faith-based non-profit headquartered in Atlanta with about 200 field personnel all over the world, working alongside the most neglected people groups in some of the most difficult and hard-to-reach locations.
Indonesia was among the countries in which CBF field personnel lived and served, and though there weren’t any in Banda Aceh, CBF was well positioned to respond on the island of Sumatra in a number of locations that were not in the news and not receiving help.
I had been on staff for a couple of years by that point but had not traveled outside North America for work. The Asia Team lobbied CBF leadership for me to come to their summer team meeting in Thailand and visit the relief work in Aceh. The idea was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. Carla and I were expecting our second child in late April, and I had never been to Asia. The language and cultural barriers intimidated me, and I thought the trip could be too difficult to attempt.
Anita and Jack Snell who were the associate coordinators for mission teams in Asia at the time, convinced me otherwise. They assured me the trip could be structured so that I would spend time with Asia Team members in Chiang Mai, Thailand, first. That would help me get acclimated before traveling to Sumatra and the tsunami-affected area. They promised I would have CBF field personnel with me at all times, helping me navigate the language barrier and travel logistics. I would only be unaccompanied on the flights from the U.S. and back. I accepted the challenge, and as I went through the regimen of inoculations and medications to visit a disaster area in the tropics, I began to gain confidence that I could do it.
Harris arrived a couple of days late, on May 2, the eve of our eighth wedding anniversary. We adjusted to having a second child in the house, and Carla’s parents were a big help during the transition, particularly with Barron, who was then 4. Carla was less than thrilled about me being overseas for 10 days, but she knew how important the trip was to me, to the field personnel who needed their story told and to CBF, which had received millions in relief donations and needed to show supporters how their funds were being spent. These were the days before ubiquitous cell phones and not everyone had an international calling plan. Contact would be infrequent. That would prove to be one of the most difficult challenges of the trip.
I took a small carry-on suitcase with three changes of clothes and a backpack for my camera and toiletries. I had to check a box of curriculum for a field personnel family’s homeschooling, but otherwise I traveled light. My itinerary was a little convoluted: I flew U.S. Airways from Atlanta to Chicago and Chicago to Tokyo and Tokyo to Bangkok where I arrived late the next night.
I was supposed to spend the night in the transiting hotel in the Bangkok airport, but I missed the posted signs, and, after going through customs with my checked box, I ended up exiting the airport at the international terminal. Rather than take a taxi to a local hotel for a few hours of sleep, I decided to trek over to the domestic terminal and tough it out before catching the Thai Air flight to Chiang Mai. I navigated a confusing labyrinth of sidewalks and hallways, following the signs to the domestic terminal. After about 15 minutes, I emerged into a plain, empty terminal with orange, molded, hard plastic seats bolted onto metal frames as the only places to sit. I found a payphone and used the calling card I had been issued to call Carla and assure I had arrived safely and was alright, though I was not convinced of the latter at that exact moment. I then picked a seat and tried my best to get a couple hours of sleep in an unforgiving chair.
The Thai Air ticket counter opened about 6 a.m. and I was first in line to change to the first flight of the day, scheduled for 7 a.m. I checked my box of books, and to my great surprise and relief, the agent looked me up and down and said I needed an emergency row seat. I didn’t have to ask nor was I charged an extra fee. The flight was only half full and lasted about an hour. The flight attendants barely had enough time to serve breakfast and reclaim the service items before we landed.
I took a cab out to the resort compound. The drive up the mountain from the airport to the resort was a mix of simple huts, beautiful, tree-covered mountains, clear skies, and incessant beeping by the driver to clear dogs out of the roadway. For the first time since I had left the U.S. 24 hours earlier, I felt like I was in another world.
When I arrived at the hotel, the Asia Team meeting was already underway, and I walked in a few minutes before my turn on the agenda. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I said something to the effect of “I’m from the main office, and I’m here to help.”
That was not a completely welcomed message. Field personnel were passionate about their work, but administrators from headquarters were not always helpful to them. Nestled into the forested hills of northeastern Thailand, the conference center was a beautiful setting with amazing flowers and decorative landscaping. The buildings were wood and had all the markings of Thai architecture with the unmistakably Asian curves and flourishes. Clearly a tourist destination, the facilities were equipped with western toilets. My experience with a much anticipated “squatty potty” would have to wait until I reached Indonesia.
On my second night, a group of CBF field personnel and their families were going to the night market in Chiang Mai and asked me to tag along. They showed me all the diverse finds at an Asian night market, including an array of fried insects to enjoy. I did not partake in the delicacies, but with their help I was able to negotiate prices and make a few purchases. I wasn’t accustomed to and didn’t like haggling.
It was late when we got back to the resort, and insect and frog song filled the night. Just a few feet from the door to my room, a large, dark brown, spotted rock caught my eye. It was about four inches long and appeared to be moving. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a horned beetle. It was beautiful and I’m sure harmless, but I admired it from a safe distance as it slowly crawled along the walkway.
The days in Chiang Mai passed quickly, and I acclimated to the time difference and the humidity, which reminded me of living in Florida. When the team meeting ended, a group of us traveled a couple hours’ drive from Chiang Mai to Fang where CBF field personnel Ellen and Rick Burnette operated the Upland Holistic Development Project. The UHDP helped people sustain themselves from agro-forestry, growing food on small garden plots, raising pigs and even farming catfish in water tanks. The area where the Palaung and Kachin people, hilltribes displaced from Myanmar, were given to settle by the government was mountainous and tree-covered, a difficult place to grow sustainable crops. I saw the impact of the Burnette’s work firsthand and met the local people who were training to run the facility and sharing their knowledge of crops and agricultural techniques that worked well in the region. I spent the night in the UHDP’s Resource Center visitor accommodations, which were spartan but clean and comfortable, only slightly disconcerted by the sounds of insects hitting the screen on my door. I had nightmares of the beetle from Chiang Mai attacking.
The next day I covered my neck, wrists and ankles with 100 percent DEET insect repellent, probably ensuring I will one day develop cancer, and went with the team to a Palaung village out in the jungle. I had tea in a gracious and welcoming family’s home as Rick translated how they had fled their native Myanmar and were now making do without legal status in Thailand. After a few hours in the village, we trekked back to Fang to pile back into the small van for the drive back to Chiang Mai. I suddenly became very aware of the time and worried that I would miss my flight to Bangkok.
A few hours later, we arrived at the hotel where the rest of our party was staying in the heart of Chiang Mai. With the help of the field personnel, I flagged down a motorcycle taxi called a tuk-tuk and sped off to the airport. No amusement park ride could compare to that adventure. I clung to the rail with one hand and my suitcase with the other. It was close, but I did make it to the airport in time to make the flight, though my boots were covered in jungle mud, and I reeked of jungle sweat and DEET.
After we touched down and I emerged from the familiar domestic terminal, I cabbed from the airport to the Bangkok Christian Guest House where I was to meet Anita Snell, my guide for the next leg of my journey. The Asian Baptist Graduate Seminary board was meeting, and after a quick shower, I had the opportunity to do interviews and take photos. Though I was exhausted and ready for sleep, several of the board members insisted we go to the night market, so I could see the real Bangkok.
My guide was Graham Walker, associate dean of Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, with whom I had worked before joining the staff at CBF. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he grew up in Asia as a missionary kid. He knew the area and could speak the language. At first, the night market seemed to be the same as in Chiang Mai. The area was more developed and modern, but the booths with fried grasshoppers and other insects was the same. We turned a corner and Graham pointed down the street. Through the dim lighting, I could make out young girls, no older than 14 or 15, all sitting on what looked like stoops outside of apartment buildings. We were approached by a man who tried to direct us to a particular building, but Graham, usually outgoing and friendly, became cold and direct. He informed the man we were not interested in what he was selling. I took me a minute to realize what was going on, but when the man said in English “Girl, boy or girl boy?” I felt sick as I began to understand what I was seeing. While I know human trafficking takes place in my home city of Atlanta, seeing it up close and out in the open gave me a new compassion for how miserable the lives of those poor children must be. Graham told me that many of them were from the rural parts of Asia, either sold or kidnapped into this life. We were only on the street a couple of minutes, but the experience was burned into my memory.
The next morning, I left for Singapore, which stood in stark contrast to Thailand. Thoroughly modern and pristine, Singapore had patrols of armed soldiers in the airport. Mindful of the story from the 1990s of the American teenager who had committed some minor crime and had been beaten with a cane for his punishment, I was sure to be as respectful as possible, following all instructions as I passed through customs. That night, Anita took me to a very western-style shopping and restaurant area where we ate Mexican food, Singapore-style, and we went to visit a friend of hers in a nearby apartment building. Everywhere we went was clean and landscaped to perfection. With the exception of the ever-present military, it seemed like utopia.
The next day I connected with the Uzzles, a family who had been leading the relief effort in Aceh. Former field personnel who were living in Kentucky at the time of the tsunami, they were called back into service to help channel the emergency aid and help the people there get back on their feet. They were friendly and gracious, and even their children welcomed me into their family with open arms. They had all the qualities necessary to succeed in that environment: openness, kindness, the ability to speak the language, and patience to explain everything I didn’t understand. We flew from Singapore to Medan and changed planes in Medan before heading to Banda Aceh.
The airport in Banda had not received outside flights for years before the relief workers began pouring in after the tsunami. The area was embroiled in a simmering civil conflict with a group of armed rebels seeking to withdraw from the Indonesia government’s authority. There were armed guards at periodic checkpoints around Aceh, but otherwise, there were no signs of conflict. The military presence wasn’t nearly as noticeable as in Singapore.
We were greeted warmly at the airport by a local man who served as the team’s driver. The Uzzles had clearly developed a close relationship with him, and they laughed together as they embraced. Before heading out to the town of Sigli, about a two and a half hours east of Banda where CBF’s work in Aceh was based, they took me to the hardest hit areas of Banda, including a sprawling coastal area where all but a few buildings were flattened to the ground. It took my breath away just how awful the moment the wave hit must have been. They explained that most of the debris had been cleaned up, but the government had not yet allowed rebuilding to begin. The survivors were displaced, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives without loved ones, and in many cases, without the possibility of earning a living.
On the drive up and around Mount Seulawah Agam, we stopped to shoo monkeys off the road, the first time I was able to see monkeys up close during my trip. The winding road was often not much more than a path of crumbling asphalt, but our driver expertly navigated the twisting paths dodging ox carts, bicycles and wildlife.
The Uzzles were staying in a comfortable rented home in Sigli, and Scott spent the evening on the front porch catching up with the locals. They laughed, and he paused to translate the jokes for me. It was genuinely warm companionship in any language. As I settled in for the night, the call to prayer at one of the nearby mosques started up over a public address system. It was Friday, and because Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, there were mosques within walking distance of everyone in the town.
I learned to navigate the intricacies of Asian toilets, which was essentially a hole in the ground with a small platform built around it. You have to squat over the hole and then use water from a pot or small reservoir called a bak to clean yourself and flush away the waste. There’s definitely a trick to it, and Americans are notoriously bad at both aim and clean up. Not every home had running water to a bak. Many families in the area went to large baks at their mosque to draw water for daily use. When we began checking on the redevelopment projects that day, they took me to a mosque where the bak served a large number of families in the community. It was the first project they undertook in Sigli, and CBF personnel built trust and reliability in the community by completing it. I was impressed with how they worked with the locals, observed their customs, spoke their language and work alongside them, not for or instead of them.
We went to the CBF office in Sigli, and Scott showed me a large dry erase board with a chart listing active projects and completed projects. There were more than 13 significant projects that had been completed on CBF’s list.
For three days I met people who fought through tears and struggled through a translator to tell me their stories. Our driver lost his wife and children in the tsunami. For reasons he couldn’t explain or understand, he survived. Everyone in Sigli lost family, and most lost their homes.
They took me out to several small villages outside of town where pumps had been installed to provide clean water not contaminated by the tsunami. Small children came to me and touched my arms and looked at each other and laughed. Scott told me I was only the second white person they had ever seen.
“They want to know if the color comes off,” he said.
We went to one village that had recently been built. There were long row houses built on stilts, about five feet off the ground. Painted bright yellow, they were the Indonesian equivalent of the FEMA trailers given to hurricane victims in the U.S. This particular village was a leper colony that been relocated from the coastline about a mile into the interior. I talked with a man who missing most of his left arm and right foot. He smiled and told me, through Scott’s interpretation, to “Thank America for me, for sending food, water and supplies.”
I nearly broke down in that moment. Despite all he had been through in the tsunami and its aftermath and suffering from a debilitating illness, he expressed gratitude. It was a profound lesson that I try to remember when I face challenges in my relatively luxurious circumstances.
The island of Sumatra is beautiful, defying description. It is unlike any place I had ever been. Volcanic mountains jut up suddenly in the middle of palm tree-lined fields of rice, and golden sand beaches receive the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The people were kind and gracious, and the food was among my favorite from limited international travel. Their coffee was strong and sweet, and I brought some home to share with Carla and enhance the telling of the details of my trip. There were plenty of noodle and rice dishes, some on the spicy side. I had sugar cane juice, fresh squeezed from a roadside stand with a wooden foot-operated mashing device. I ate plenty, avoided non-bottled water, and managed to go the whole trip without getting a stomach ailment.
When it was time for me to return, the journey home was long, not broken up with days in between as it had been on the front end. It started with the 2-and-a-half-hour drive back to Banda where I caught a flight to Medan. At the airport in Medan a man helped me with my bag, before I could refuse, so I tipped him nearly all my remaining Indonesia currency, the equivalent of about a quarter, U.S. He was clearly disappointed. From Medan I went back to Singapore with only about an hour before my flight to Bangkok. This time, I overnighted in the transiting hotel I had missed on my entry to Thailand and boarded an early morning flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. From Tokyo I re-entered the U.S. in Chicago where I went through customs and faced a several-hours delay on my flight back to Atlanta. Having a lengthy delay on the last leg of two days of travel is tough. I just wanted to be home.
I finally made it back to Atlanta in the early evening, and Carla, Barron and baby Harris greeted me at the top of the escalators in the North Terminal. Harris had visibly grown during my 10-day excursion, and Barron seemed shy and a little afraid of me. Maybe it was the two-week beard I was sporting, or maybe he had just missed me and didn’t know how to express it. We hugged and cried a little, and I tried to hit the high points of what the trip had been like. It was impossible to sum up.
I’ve not made any other trips in my life like the one to Southeast Asia, and I doubt I ever will again. The 18 intervening years has softened some of the sharper edges of my experience. My memories may not include what were key details at the time. I do remember my impressions, though, and what real beauty, hospitality and recovery look like.
People have been sending Christmas cards at least since 1611 and the custom expanded to include family Christmas letters over the years since. The family Christmas letter has been much maligned because of its blatant glossing over negative events and exaggeration of family members’ accomplishments. Seeing as how I am in public relations, that describes my day job perfectly. So with that in mind, here’s the Wallaces’ 2022 in review:
This has been another exciting year for the Wallaces. Carla and Lance celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and were even able to get away together for a few days in June for a trip to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. They continue to enjoy having her mother, Cynthia Barron, close by at the Sheridan at Eastside, a senior living community in Snellville. Lance’s parents are enjoying retirement in Lake Wales, Fla., but not enjoying the now regular visits from hurricanes and tropical storms. They weathered this year’s Hurricane Ian much better than the last storm’s eye to pass over their patch of Central Florida paradise. We hope to visit them and enjoy some warm winter weather the week following Christmas.
While Carla continues to manage the household, care for her mother and hold many leadership roles in our church, Lance shifted jobs this year, moving in September from associate vice chancellor for communications at the University System of Georgia to vice president of marketing and communications at Oglethorpe University, a private institution in nearby Brookhaven, Ga. He enjoys the work and especially likes the shortened commute. Oglethorpe is a fascinating institution with a unique look and feel and a compelling history.
Barron is in his fourth year of college, his third at the University of Georgia. He worked his second summer at PASSPORT youth camp, this year as a Bible study leader. He is playing trumpet for the Georgia Redcoat Marching Band and reveling in his opportunity to play at such high profile events as the national championship game last January in Indianapolis and the recent SEC Championship game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. He hopes to end 2022 with a New Year’s victory for the Dawgs over Ohio State and the chance to kickoff 2023 with a return to the national championship, this year in SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif.
Barron transferred into the three-year furnishings and interiors program at UGA in the spring semester of his second year. This will afford him one more fall in Athens. He’s currently working toward securing a design internship for the summer of 2023 and enjoying his coursework and design projects.
Harris has completed the first semester of his senior year at Parkview High School and is immersed in the challenge of picking a college. His fall semester included serving as band captain and playing trombone for the Parkview Marching Panther Band, which was able to accompany the football team to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs this year. He will also travel with the band to perform in the prestigious Music For All National Festival in Indianapolis this spring. He puts his leadership skills to work in many extra-curricular activities including the Gwinnett Student Leadership Team, Parkview Student Leadership Team, Tri-M music honor society, and his favorite activity of all, the Mock Trial Team. He has been named lead defense attorney for this year’s team, and he looks forward to competing in early 2023.
Harris will graduate in May 2023 and is currently applying to colleges. He applied during the early action period to the University of Georgia and was accepted. Harris recently attended the President’s Scholarship Competition at Georgia College and State University and was awarded the Trustee’s Scholarship, the highest financial award offered at Georgia’s public liberal arts college. Harris has been granted admission and invited to scholarship weekend events at Mercer University and Oglethorpe University in the new year. He is also awaiting an admission decision in the spring from Emory University where he hopes to attend their Oxford, Ga., campus for his first two years of matriculation before completing his undergraduate studies at the main campus in Atlanta. It goes without saying that his long-term plan currently includes a law school, and do not be surprised to see his name on the ballot for governor of Georgia in 2038.
Carlton is in the eighth grade at Smoke Rise Prep School and working on his audition for the theatre conservatory at the Gwinnett School of the Arts housed at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville. He hopes to attend high school there and is working to be one of the 25 rising freshmen selected countywide. His vocal performance and dramatic monologue audition will be the first week of January, and he should learn of his acceptance by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, he is continuing to participate in music, dance and drama through the Smoke Rise Academy of Arts where last year he performed the roles of Mr. McAfee in the summer intensive “Bye Bye, Birdie,” Genie in the middle grades production of “Aladdin Jr.,” Mr. Bumble in the high school production of “Oliver,” and was a member of the ensemble in Smoke Rise’s Junior Theatre Festival competition show, “Beauty & the Beast Jr.,” which won its group allowing them to perform on the festival’s main stage before a crowd of nearly 8,000. He is currently working on two productions for the upcoming Junior Theater Festival in January 2023, and has also auditioned for roles in the high school group’s production of “The Sound of Music” in the spring of 2023.
As you can tell from our letter, we are exceedingly proud of our three boys and grateful to be surrounded by good friends and neighbors in the Lilburn community and at Parkway Baptist Church. This has been a wonderful year for our family which included trips to visit Lance’s parents and Universal Studios Orlando at spring break, Santa Rosa Beach for the July Fourth week and a recent Christmas trip to New York City that included Broadway shows “Beetlejuice” and “Phantom of the Opera” as well as the Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall.
We appreciate all of you and are particularly excited to receive your Christmas cards each year and learn how your families are growing and experiencing life. We hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. Keep in touch and stay safe and healthy.
For me the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of life’s big questions. One of my discoveries is how the simple pleasures contribute to my quality of life. Here are the little things that have come to mean a lot to me:
Cup of coffee. I drink coffee twice a day. I have a cup when I first get up in the morning, and I have another cup around 3 in the afternoon. I drink coffee black with the rare exception of adding a flavored creamer to a cup of decaf on winter nights. I joke that I drink coffee for its medicinal effects rather than the taste, but the fact is, I have come to appreciate strong, smooth coffee. I like it hot, not warm and never iced. The experience is best when it’s quiet, and my brain sparks to life as the warmth of each sip washes over me.
Hot shower. I confess: I take long showers. When the weather is cold, I take even longer showers. Even if my skin is pruning, and I risk being late for work, it’s harder to get out when the temperature differential is greater than 10 degrees. Our house has a tankless hot water heater, and for the first time in my life, I can take a 20-minute shower without running out of hot water. It is a luxury I enjoy. When I have to cut my shower short, it’s an inconvenience that influences my mood negatively, as much as I hate to admit it. Relaxation and deep thoughts make the hot shower a daily ritual that contributes to my well-being.
A nap. I function best on eight hours of sleep. I rarely get seven. My best compensation is a 15- to 20-minute power nap, which I typically only get on weekends. If office culture every changed to embrace a post-lunch quick snooze, I’d be great. Instead, I rely on that afternoon cup of coffee to get me through the workday. It’s a great feeling to wake up refreshed after just a few minutes of sleep, and I am never tempted to stretch a nap. Those longer naps interfere with my night’s sleep and disrupt my circadian rhythm. I nap best reclining rather than prone, and I enjoy being able to nap warmed by the sun.
Going for a run/walk. In my heyday, I ran 6 miles five days a week with a long run one day a week. I was out the door by 5:30, and taking the 45-50 minutes before my day started felt essential rather than extravagant. Over time, injuries and aging forced me to alter my routine. I ran every other day and mixed in cross training and strength training. Various injuries since turning 40 like plantar fasciitis and hip flexor pain prompted prolonged layoffs, but I was eventually able to resume running. Two years ago, though, was the permanent end to my running for fitness. Knee pain from March to July sent me to the orthopedist, and an October diagnosis of a meniscus tear was finally cured with arthroscopic surgery in November. When I fully recovered, I wasn’t able to hit the roads with the same speed and endurance. I eased back into walking, which includes a two-mile walk on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and a five-mile walk on Saturdays. I it less exertion but it still helps me clear my head. The slower pace has the added benefit of helping me notice more about my surroundings and conditions. I see and appreciate the sunrise, feel the breeze and smell the honeysuckle. I have learned not to take pain-free movement for granted, and the mental and emotional aspects outweigh the cardiovascular benefits now that I’m over 50.
Conversation with Carla. Having an uninterrupted conversation with my wife was one of the most elusive activities during the lock-down phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We spent more time at home and around each other than ever before, but so did everyone else in our house. This deprivation illuminated just how much I value and enjoy our talks, no matter the topic. Whether it’s planning the next household project, dreaming of the next vacation, working through our worries for our boys or planning for our future, these dialogues fuel our relationship in a way that draws us closer and connects us. They tend to happen when we’re on a date at a restaurant or on the balcony of the beach condo on vacation. Getting away was difficult under quarantine, but it showed me the acuteness of my need for it. I am my best self when I’m grounded in my relationship with Carla.
Laughter around my table. The best antidote to the pressures of life is the tension release brought on by laughter. When bickering is replaced by heartfelt laughter, all is right with my world. No matter who induces it, laughter injects my spirit with a hopeful enthusiasm. It gives me perspective. It helps me see the blessings rather than the challenges. It washes the negativity out of my system and clears the air in the relationships in our household. I find that humor gets harder with age. I’ve heard it all at this point, and I’m harder to impress. Refining the comical helps me appreciate the deep, authentic laugh more and makes its effect on my mood more dramatic. Laughter is truly the best medicine for keeping my family positive and supportive of each other.
There are many other moments that bring me joy, but these are the simple pleasures I find most meaningful at this stage. If I have these in my life, I am truly blessed.
Survival depends on very little – food, water, shelter, clothing. Fulfillment requires healthy relationships, meaningful work and serving others. Convenience is more complicated.
Reflecting on what I cannot live without is an examination of convenience. Everything on this list contributes to my comfort, productivity, or entertainment, but it isn’t necessary for survival. That said, this list says a lot about me.
Coffeemaker. I had my first cup of coffee as a sophomore in college in 1989 at the appropriately named Coffee Kettle restaurant in Troy, Ala. I drank coffee then as now – for its medicinal benefits. Then, I relied on the caffeine boost to power through all-night study or paper writing sessions. Now, it helps me wake up in the morning and it fuels me past my afternoon lull. When I first started the habit, I was like a lot of newcomers to the beverage. I added copious amounts of sugar and cream or creamer to my coffee. That changed in the fall of 1991 during my journalism internship at Knight-Ridder Newspapers’ Washington Bureau. On a crisp fall morning I was at the office coffee station filling my cup with sugar and creamer when the bureau’s office manager came in to get her morning coffee. A refined and attractive middle-aged British woman, she always struck me dumb when she spoke to me. She looked at my coffee accessories and declared “That will kill you.” Internalizing her disapproval of my doctoring, I ceased at the moment to add anything to my coffee and learned to drink it black. When I set up housekeeping for the first time in the summer of 1992 at an apartment in Macon, Georgia, I purchased my first coffeemaker. It wasn’t top of the line, but it got the job done. Even when I go on camping trips, I make sure to bring along a kettle and the easy “boil in a bag” coffee. It’s a dependency and a creature comfort not required for life, but it’s an addiction I choose not to forsake at this stage of my life.
Hot water heater. I have taken cold showers in my life, and with the exception of the time I was in Lake Wales, Florida, helping my parents clean up from the damage of hurricane Charley, I did not welcome the experience. Even during the summer, I like to take long, hot showers. I think deep thoughts. I have good ideas. It’s relaxing. But the temperature really matters. One of the best amenities our current house possessed when we bought it in 2013 was a tankless water heater. Only when the power is out do I have to forego hot water, and in those rare instances, I have chosen to postpone showering until the water is hot enough to turn my skin pink.
Air conditioner/heater. My father-in-law, Lanny Barron, believed the most significant culture-changing invention to impact life in the South was the invention of air conditioning. It’s hard to argue. Air conditioning has turned us into indoor people, lowering our tolerance to temperatures that in the past would have been ideal for outdoor play. Lately, my preferred indoor temperature is a higher than it used to be. I can live with 75 or 76. When the AC goes out completely, it quickly feels unbearable when temperatures reach 82 or 83. A couple of years ago we replaced the main AC unit in our house. Supposedly more energy efficient, the new system controls the humidity indoors as well. That’s a welcomed innovation that adds to our summertime comfort. Of course, these days the air conditioner is dual purpose and has a heat pump as well. As I age, I find that I am more susceptible to cold and probably need the use of the heater as much or more than the air conditioning. The lower range of comfortable temperatures for me these days is 71 or 72, and I confess to having to wear a fleece pullover and sit under a blanket while watching TV at night from fall to early spring.
Refrigerator. Whenever thunderstorms render us powerless, we must contemplate the question of whether the food in our freezer will thaw or the contents of our refrigerator will spoil. In those cases, my under-appreciated fridge takes on greater importance. We have leftovers after nearly every nightly meal. I rely on the bounty of the Tupperware-enclosed morsels tucked away in the refrigerator for my lunches. Our refrigerators allows me to get the most mileage out of our meals and feel thrifty in the process. I have a simple standard for selecting my lunch menu: the food in the fridge that is oldest and will spoil first. I eat that, racing the clock (or calendar) to consume the substances quickly deteriorating, When going to the office, I carry a large lunch bag with the plastic ice blocks to keep my plate of leftovers safely chilled before warming them in the microwave.
Microwave. Speaking of microwaves, it goes hand-in-glove with the fridge. The bounty of leftovers cannot be properly enjoyed without a microwave. I still remember the late 1970s when microwaves started appearing in people’s kitchens. It was an unfathomable innovation that reduced meal preparation times to minutes. There are a still some dishes better heated up in the oven, but if I’m honest, I will often sacrifice quality for timeliness. There are a few foods that are improved by a few seconds in the microwave. At my age, I try to limit my carbs, but occasionally, a pastry or doughnut warmed for 10 seconds or so in the microwave really hits the spot.
Smartphone. As much as I hate to admit this, I am dependent on my smartphone. Not only do I make use of myriad apps for daily conveniences, if I have a moment of unstructured time, I look at it for no good reason. On the plus side, it serves as my alarm clock, and the time function comes in handy with my workout routines. Speaking of working out, the Run Keeper app and an app from the physical therapist helps me track my fitness and rehab from recent knee surgery. The calorie counting app has helped me maintain a healthy weight for more than two years, and the weather app is the first one I open each day. I use my notes app for keeping up with my “to-do” list, movies to watch on family movie night, TV shows to enjoy with Carla, and other essential data I need to keep at my fingertips for odd moments, like my license plate number. The texting function keeps me connected with family and friends, especially during the isolation of the pandemic, and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) app means I never have to wonder where I’ve seen that actor before or if this movie will have inappropriate content for my children. I can “doomscroll” through the news and fake news, wasting time, or, on occasion, see what my friends and family are up to. The ESPN app lets me see the scoreboard of whatever sport is in season, and my podcasts are never far away, giving me hours of good content to absorb. On the downside, my phone also has my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Reddit accounts just a click away. I recently deleted all of the time-wasting games, and I really have tried to cut back on the amount of time I stare at my phone. I am glad that I now only have to carry one smartphone having ditched a separate work phone. I can’t live without my smartphone, but there are many days I fantasize about trying.
Toothbrush. Last but certainly not least is a device so simple and basic, I take it for granted most days. Good dental hygiene has been instilled in me since childhood, and with the combination of my mother’s good dental genes and my dad’s insistence on brushing and flossing, I’ve managed to live 50 years on this planet without a cavity. On those rare times I’ve been without a toothbrush, I’ve resorted to using my finger, but nothing beats the plain ol’ toothbrush at keeping your teeth clean and healthy and your breath fresh.
There are a lot of climate control, food storage and preparation, and hygiene-related items on this list. I’m sure there’s more I could include, but for now, let’s leave it at that.
We have to be careful when we plan something special for our family because if we do it once, the boys will insist on making it a tradition. This is especially true of Christmas.
We begin the season by decorating our home the weekend after Thanksgiving, often getting a jump by hauling the bins of decorations from the basement on Friday. On Saturday, we go out for a big breakfast at IHOP and head to Lowe’s for a tree. Since our oldest son, Barron, joined the University of Georgia’s Redcoat Marching Band and has to play at the annual Georgia-Georgia Tech game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we’ve had to move up the timetable on this tradition to Black Friday, but that hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm.
There was one year, though, when the boys’ enthusiasm was greatly dampened. I didn’t realize how important the ingrained tradition was until the boys threatened to boycott Christmas altogether when we went to Home Depot for our tree because it was closer to IHOP than Lowe’s. When we pulled into Home Depot, the boys were aghast and refused to get out of the car.
“You are ruining Christmas!” they protested.
We had no choice but to load up and drive down Highway 78 the two or three miles to Lowe’s. We have been able to get the boys to expand their idea of the tradition in recent years because the quality of the Lowe’s trees diminished so greatly. In 2019 and 2020 we bought our tree at Randy’s Water Gardens in Lawrenceville, which they tolerated only because we also went to Lowe’s to buy replacement light strings, spotlight bulbs or other items that enhance our home’s holiday visual presentation. It is worth noting we have been back at Lowe’s the past two years.
While decorating the house, rather than the strains of Christmas music, we typically have college football on. Because our decorating falls on Rivalry Weekend, we have our pick of intra-state match-ups to serve as our background noise. Our preferred games are Georgia-Georgia Tech and Auburn-Alabama, but others fill in so that there’s not a gap from noon to midnight.
The decorating is not complete until the boys’ Christmas ornament for the year has been revealed. Carla began the tradition when Barron was little, and we thoroughly enjoy picking the ornament based on something significant from their lives that year. The plan is for each of our children to get 21 ornaments as keepsakes when they leave home. It brings us so much joy to decorate with these glass ornaments and listen to the boys reminisce about each one.
Our Christmas season has some traditions driven by the boys’ involvement in band. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections at the Christmas concert each year, including Barron’s turn to take the baton and conduct the Parkview band in “Sleigh Ride” during his senior year as drum major.
We’ve also enjoyed the annual Lilburn Christmas Parade. We started participating with the Cub Scouts, but the Parkview Marching Band has been our reason to attend in recent years. Bundling up and finding a good spot helps us enjoy this community event and appreciate the quality of life we enjoy in Lilburn.
As Christmas approaches, we pick a night to go out to dinner and drive around looking at Christmas lights. We used to listen to our favorite Christmas CDs, like Harry Connick Jr.’s “Harry for the Holidays,” but thanks to Spotify, we now have a playlist that includes all of our favorites, including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Merry Christmas from the Family,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The restaurant changes each year, but the laughter and imitating Nanny’s pet phrase “Look over yonder!” are always a treasured feature of the evening.
Our Christmas Eve traditions include church, eating soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and watching “A Christmas Story.” One year the power went out in our neighborhood, and we went to La Sabrosita, a nearby Mexican restaurant that has since closed. We learned that disruptions to traditions can make the event more memorable. By the time we got home, power was restored, and Santa managed to find our house as usual.
Bedtime on Christmas Eve has been pushed back as the boys age. They no longer rush to bed so Santa can come. Christmas morning, though, still comes early as they cannot contain their excitement for exchanging gifts. Harris, in particular, has the most enthusiasm, stemming from his love of Lego. He knows that in order to complete the sets he gets for Christmas, he’ll need to start early.
To allow Carla some time to enjoy the day and not spend all Christmas in the kitchen, our tradition is to have brunch. She’ll make a breakfast casserole the day before and throw it in the oven before the presents are unwrapped. We always have pastries with it and often a tray of oven-cooked, brown sugar bacon. We spend the day in our pajamas and enjoy Christmas music all day long.
After Christmas we go to Florida to see my parents and about every other year some combination of aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s the one time of year they get to experience Lake Wales, Florida, where I last lived at home, and, frankly, it’s the best time of year to visit. The humidity is low and the temperatures are typically in the 70s. Granny and Paw Paw have lots of outdoor fun in their yard, including a tree swing, fire pit, and outdoor games like croquet and carpet ball.
Carla and I got engaged on New Year’s Eve, but we don’t have any traditions for ringing in the new year. Many years, we’ve been in bed asleep by the time the calendar flips over to the next year, but we have tried to attend parties with friends on occasion. The last time we tried to host, our children were young, and all our friends, who also had small kids, left by 9 p.m., exhausted from wrangling their offspring, who were getting cranky from staying up past their bedtime. We decided a long time ago that ringing in the new year is overrated.
Our holiday traditions are important to our family, and I can’t wait to see what traditions our boys create with their families one day.