Week Thirty-Five: "Meeting Mom"

This is my mom. YWAP - mom3

She is an absolutely beautiful woman, inside and out. Five-foot-two and full of spunk. Just over forty years ago she was a much larger version of herself, all on account of yours truly.  You see, she gained so much weight carrying me that the doctor was afraid it might make for a troublesome delivery.  He would constantly caution her against consuming too much unhealthy food.  My mother would always listen closely to his advice.  Then, upon exiting the office, she would promptly hit the A&W drive-in for a burger, fries and a large chocolate milkshake.

Prenatal prevention of post-partum depression, I guess.

I was born at 3:53 pm on June 8th, 1973.  Dad wasn’t around.  He was busy moving the car to avoid paying a parking ticket when his time was to expire at 4pm.  Mom, however, was present during the entire ordeal.  When I finally came bursting forth into this world, I weighed a whopping 9 pounds and 4 ounces.  Upon seeing my chubby, angelic face for the first time, my mother’s loving response was,

“See doc, I told you I wasn’t a lard ass!”

She had me at “lard ass.”

I have loved this woman my entire life.  While dad has taught me the value of a job well done and the gift of storytelling, mom has taught me all about the twin joys of spontaneity and compassion.  I will never be able to repay her for all she has given me.

But once a year, I try.

They call it Mother’s Day.  Back in May, I was wracking my brain, trying to decide what to get the woman who gave me life.  In the Year Without A Purchase, “stuff” gifts are off the table.  No small kitchen appliances or home décor.  I do have a stash of makeshift science experiment kits - Mentos and 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke - that we’ve been giving as gifts to the kid’s friends for birthday parties.  But mom has been there and done that.

I contemplated creating some original artwork or handicraft for her, but my skills have scarcely improved since the last time I fashioned her a macaroni necklace back in the third grade.  And today, I’m afraid mom would rather cook such an item as wear it. In fact, I suspect that’s what happened with the original.

Then I remembered that our YWAP rules permit us to give “experience” gifts.  So I thought, “How about a nice lunch date with Mom?”

To be a suitable experience gift, we would have to go to one of Mom’s favorite places.  That meant no Buffalo Wild Wings or any other establishment featuring large screens showing sports.

So, last week, I met mom at the Cottage Café.

The Cottage Café is not exactly my style.  Sure, I may not be the most manly guy on the planet.  My love of televised sports and mastery in the art of flatulence is far outweighed by my ability to joyously demonstrate “Jazz Hands” and my intimate knowledge of color palettes.

I’m an autumn, for those scoring at home.

But the Cottage Café may be the girliest restaurant on the face of the earth.  The place makes me look like a professional wrestler.  It’s covered in lace doilies and filled with scented candles and household knick-nacks.  At the door, they do a quick blood screen.  Those measuring high in testosterone are given a fanny pack shaped like a uterus.  All the animals on the menu are given a complete facial and pedicure before becoming a key ingredient in my tiny, girl-portion-sized sandwich.  Those caught talking about football are strapped to a chair Clockwork-Orange-style and forced to watch the Lifetime channel.

I’m telling you.  It’s that girly.  But the food is amazing and Mom loves it.

On the day of our date, I met her in the parking lot.  She gave me a hug and we walked together into the restaurant.  We gave our name to the hostess and waited for a table.  The place was packed!  I glanced around and noticed two other guys in the restaurant, but I was the only male under the age of 65.  I suspect the other fellas were former electricians slowly losing their hearing.  When their wives said “Cottage Café,” they heard “Wattage Delay” and came running.  Now they were draped in gingham napkins eating pimento cheese crackers and wondering why no one’s asking them to fix the wiring.

But the Cottage Café’s pimento cheese will do that to a guy. They bring you a plate of it as a complimentary appetizer.  It’s so good it’ll make you forget anything you were worried about before.

Kinda’ like Mom.

Once we were seated, time just stopped.  You see, it had been a while since I had talked to my Mom.  Sure, we get to spend time together now and again.  But usually we’re surrounded by lots of other people.  Or kids.  Or meals to prepare.  So four hours at a family party becomes only five minutes of actual contact time.  The rest is spent mopping spills, filling plates, cutting food, and cleaning up.

But this was different.

It was an honest-to-goodness talk.  No distractions.  No agendas.  Uninterrupted conversation as beautiful and sublime as uninterrupted sleep.  The depth of it leaves you feeling so refreshed that you feel like you can tackle all of the world’s problems with a smile on your face.

We ate crackers while reminiscing about childhood.  I picked from her salad while we discussed the issues of the day.  We contemplated dessert as mom shared with me her thoughts on her future with my Dad.  Where they might live.  Where they might go.

And two hours passed.

I never noticed that tables turned several times as we savored our time together. People coming and going while we sat still.  In some ways, it was like we were getting reacquainted.  She was getting to know the man that grew from the little boy that cluttered her house for nearly twenty years.  And I was getting to know the genuine, flesh-and-blood woman that lives underneath the SuperMom cape she wore during my youth.

And I think we like each other.

People say it’s hard to make new friends later in life.  I say that’s a bunch of bunk.  New friends are right around the corner, just waiting to be rediscovered.

So, next time you’re stressing about what to buy the woman who has everything, take her to lunch instead.

You never know who you might meet.

Week Twenty-Four: "Photographic Memories"

I love looking through old photo albums.  We have some fantastic specimens from the mid-70’s.  Giant puffy volumes covered in padded fabric that may have been harvested from a couch in Burt Reynold’s bachelor pad.  They smell like an old librarian’s purse seasoned with a splash of Aqua Velva. Vintage.

But there’s something missing from the albums.  Namely, photos of my childhood birthday parties.

My first thought is to blame birth order.  My sister came first.  There are so many baby pictures of her, you can put them in a stack, hold them tightly, flick through them with your thumb, and relive the first three years of her life as if it were a home movie.

Next came my brother.  He was the first boy.  ‘Nuff said.

I was the baby.  Tucked away deep inside the album is a picture of me in a onesie, and one of my high school graduation.  Nothing in between.  With three kids, my parents were just too exhausted to advance the film on their old Vivitar camera.

Alright.  Maybe I’m exaggerating.  But not much. The real reason there aren’t any photos of my grade school birthday parties is because I had only one.  That’s right.  Just one official party where I sent real invitations.

I was four years old.  Even though it was long ago, my memories of this party are vivid.  I wore my favorite outfit – a tan jumpsuit/overalls combo that my mom made for me with a pattern she bought from Montgomery Ward’s.  It was covered in little cars.  I had a yellow cake with chocolate icing.  I blew out the giant candle shaped like a "4".  We played red-rover and I busted through the line.  I got to hold Amy Clifton’s hand during said Red Rover game.

Note to self:  wear more jumpsuits.


But I never had another birthday party.  Sure, I invited a friend or two over and we went swimming, or saw a movie, or blew a bucket of tokens at an arcade, but nothing official.  It’s not like my parents banned parties as “the devil’s handiwork” or anything.  In fact, my mom encouraged them.  Every year she would ask, and every year I would decline.

You want to know a secret?

I didn’t want to have another birthday party because I was afraid two things might happen.  I was afraid no one would show up, and I was afraid everyone would show up.  If no one showed up, that would tell me my friends weren’t really my friends.  And that’s not something I wanted to know.

And if everyone showed up?  Well, all eyes would be on me, and that’s just too much pressure.  I know it’s surprising to think that a guy who publishes a weekly blog about himself would shy away from attention. But it’s true.  A me-centered party seemed kinda’ overindulgent for someone who hasn’t done anything special beyond surviving the not-so-mean streets of a suburban Oklahoma City subdivision for another year.

And yes, I can hear you saying, “This guy needs a therapist.”

Fast forward 35 years.  In preparation for my 40th birthday, I told my wife I didn’t want anything special.  No parties.  I just wanted to relax with my family and have some cake and ice cream.  And, with our “Year Without A Purchase” in full swing, I knew that Gabby would have to work wonders to throw a major fiesta.  After all, she’s into decorations.  I kept my eyes on our supply of toilet paper Ziploc baggies just to make sure she wasn’t pilfering from the stash to make streamers and homemade balloons.

The morning of my birthday came early.  Call it neuroses, paranoia, or simply a healthy lifestyle, but I wanted to give myself the gift of accomplishment by running farther than I ever have before.  So I woke up at 6:00, strapped on my running shoes, and gave father time a one-finger wave as I walked out the door.  Gabby, face down in her pillow on her side of the bed, mustered a muffled “Happy Birthday” before I set out.


My Dannemarathon lasted just over an hour.  When I arrived home, I was greeted by the smell of Gabby’s famous chocolate chip pancakes and two very loud, overly-excited children.  According to my calculations, these two small people were burning the caloric equivalent of a surprise party of 40 full-grown adults.  And it was exactly what I wanted.

I peered over toward my seat at the table and spotted a couple of envelopes and a CD case.  Gabby instructed me to open one of them.   Inside the first envelope was a homemade card that read simply “The Grey Owl flies at midnight.”  Nothing more.  The reverse side was printed with the date, “August, 2013."  I smiled a mile wide, as I knew this to be the secret code of my college buddies signaling a get-together was imminent.  Some of these guys I haven’t seen in years, and a surprise trip to see them is one of the best gifts I could have received.


Next up was the CD case.  On the front was a beautiful photo of Gabby and the kids, each holding a guitar.  I asked where she had the picture done, and she told me that our friend Mari Wilkes, a professional photographer, was happy to donate her services to the cause.

Inside the case were three CD’s and a thick booklet.  As I leafed through the pages, I saw a list of songs, submitted by friends, that reminded them of me, along with a story of why the memory was stirred.  It’s over fifty tunes ranging from “Never Gonna’ Give You Up” by Rick Astley, submitted by my brother because “Scott and Rick Astley have never been seen in the same place at the same time” – to “Play That Funky Music White Boy”.

Submitted twice.  I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended.

Every single song told a story, and conjured a wonderful memory.  When I put the CDs in the player, the first song on the playlist wasn’t a song at all.  Apparently, Gabby had coordinated with my family who own and work at World Music Nashville to commandeer their studio for an evening and capture my kids’ voices on tape.  First up is a priceless interview with Jake.  Gabby asks him all sorts of questions about me, and he answers in his tiny, toothlethhh voithhhh.

Next up brought me to my knees.  It was Audrey’s song to me.   Every night she asks me to sing her to sleep with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”  As a gift to me, Gabby had her sing along to a version of the song recorded by a children’s choir from Newtown, Connecticut.  Instant waterworks.  In four weeks of CD ownership I have played it almost as much as my old Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette.  It’s a treasure.

That night, a makeshift party erupted at the house.  My mom and dad stopped by.  And my sister and her family picked up my favorite cake from the grocery store.  I had made a giant pot of spaghetti sauce that afternoon, so we all shared a meal crammed in our tiny house.  I couldn’t help but think, “It doesn’t get much better.” Especially because we were scheduled to start our summer vacation the next day.  A drive to the Florida Gulf coast to meet up with my family (sister, brother and parents for a week of beach fun.  A perfect “experience gift.”

The next day, we filled the car with gas and enough highly processed snack foods to send the entire state of Montana into a diabetic coma.   I was looking forward to the drive to Florida for two reasons.  First, the kids are allowed to eat whatever they want and partake of our vehicle’s DVD system on long trips.  It’s a small Dannemiller family policy shift that creates harmony in the car.  Second, the snacks and entertainment lull the kids into a rare, trance-like state allowing Gabby and me to have uninterrupted adult conversation for hours on end.

I popped one of my new CD’s into the car stereo and kicked off the Gab-fest.

“So, what do you see yourself doing once Audrey starts kindergarten?  It’ll be the first time we’ve had both kids in school.”

I waited for a meaningful response.  Instead, I heard,


“Audrey.  Starting Kindergarten.  Are you excited?”

I glanced over at Gabby and caught her texting.

“Oh.  Yeah.  Sorry.  Just trying to see where your sister is.”

“Why does it matter?  We’re not in any big rush.  We’ll all get there today.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

But the texting continued for the whole drive.  We’d be talking and then Gabby would take a break to send more messages.

“Don’t you just want to listen to your CD?” she would ask.

Irritating.  I didn’t realize I was such a crappy conversationalist.

The drive lasted eight hours.  After that much time at the wheel, I was ready to sit on the couch and have a cold drink.  According to the GPS, we were less than a  minute away.  I started to look for the others’ cars, as Gabby had told me they arrived before us.

And that's when I saw her.  A woman.  The spitting image of Carla, an old friend from Austin whom I haven’t seen in years.  She was standing next to my dad on the porch of a beach house.  She looked scared.  I thought to myself, “What a coincidence!  That woman looks like Carla.”

Then I looked closer.  “Wait… I think it is Carla!  What a coincidence that she happens to be in the Florida at the same beach house at the same time as us?! “  I turned toward Gabby to say, “Can you believe it?!”, when I noticed she had a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes.

I looked back at the porch and saw a flood of people come out of the house.  More old friends.  Gabby’s dear family.  Other kids.  Twenty-seven people in all.  All making a surprise trip to Florida to celebrate a week-long birthday party.

For me.

Gabby had been planning it for 18 months.  How everyone kept the secret, I’ll never know.

I was absolutely floored.  It took me several days for the surprise to sink in.  The week is a beautiful blur of time with people I love. Sharing meals.   Riding bikes.  Swimming.  Playing in the sand with nieces, nephews and other kids.  An honest-to-goodness heart-to-heart talk with my old pal David.  Sitting on the porch drinking beer, telling stories for hours on end with family and friends, old and new.


* my huge, crazy family


*Love them Taylors!  David and Carla.  And no, I'm not pressing charges.


*Me and my wonderful wife.  I'm almost as tan as her.  Almost.


* The whole Brand clan


* Boys memories being made


* The big kids


* Jen and John on the beach

It’s the best gift I could have received.  Far greater than anything item Gabby could have purchased from a store.

And the best part?

I have photographic proof.  My very own, official birthday party.  With real invitations.  Vivid pictures on paper and in my memory.  Just perfect for an album.

And the only thing missing is the Aqua Velva.

Week Twenty: "It's In Our Nature"

I don’t feel like being funny today. I know.  Funny is in my nature.  My default response.

But not today.  Today I feel like crying.

Because my nature is Okie.  I spent 26 of my formative years in the state.  Oklahoma City is my home.  It’s where I learned to ride a bike, kiss a girl, and properly eat a lamb fry (don’t ask).  It’s also the place where I learned to look a man in the eye when shaking hands, to leave things better than you found them, and to offer help to strangers.

Don’t let the Okies fool you.  You might mistake the slow, easy drawl in their voices for a lack of intellect.  But remember, humility is a requirement for Oklahomans, so they develop their accents accordingly.   It’s there to mask the wisdom that lies beneath.  Anything else would be too preachy.

This week, I was scheduled to teach a workshop in The Power of Positive Influence to a group of safety professionals at OG&E, the electric utility based out of Oklahoma City.  I arrived on Sunday and was greeted by tornado sirens in the parking lot of my hotel.  But I wasn’t scared.  Growing up, the sirens in my neighborhood were tested every Wednesday at noon.  Like clockwork.   So, for me, the sound generates the same feelings of nostalgia that seagulls and crashing waves might bring to someone who grew up near the beach.

But the sirens weren't a test.  On Monday morning, a couple of the workshop participants were no-shows.  They had been called to the town of Shawnee that had been hit by a tornado the night before.  Their job was to keep the community safe from downed power lines and restore service.

On Monday afternoon, the tornado sirens sounded again.  The remaining participants – all safety guys – made sure we knew where to go in the event we were directly in the storm’s path.  Luckily, we were over ten miles away.

By 3:30, they had all heard of the destruction in Moore, and requested an early stop to our class.  On the way out the door, they were thanking me for my time, and apologizing in advance.

“We might be up all night helping get the downed lines out of the way for rescue vehicles and such.  So, no offense if we look a little sleepy tomorrow, or come in late.  We promise it’s nothing personal.”

Guys like this already have a Master’s degree in positive influence.  We cancelled the rest of the week’s classes.

By now, you all know what happened.  The town of Moore, Oklahoma is devastated. The rest of us watch and weep.  We cry for the families who lost their homes.  We ache for the parents who lost children.  And we look for ways to help (here are some).  It would be criminal to do nothing.  Like sitting next to a guy having a heart attack at Applebee’s and asking him if he was going to eat the rest of his chicken fingers.

And I’m still here on the red dirt soil of Oklahoma for a few more hours, just a stone’s throw away.  But my hands are tied.  It appear that Oklahomans are too good at helping.  Local news stations are begging people to stay away from the area.  They have been inundated with volunteers.  So the volunteers bring supplies.  With lines stretching out on the highway past midnight.  Cars loaded with shovels and gloves.  Pickup trucks filled with diapers and stuffed animals.

This kind of generosity breeds strength and character.  Like my grade school buddy Trevor, now a state trooper for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, who logged a 19-hour shift.  All he asks in return for his service is that the next time you see a cop or a firefighter, you give ‘em a hug.


And then there’s Jay, a high school classmate, who just last week posted a photo of his fun new landscape lighting project.


And now finds a whole new landscape.


* Jay's house yesterday afternoon

Hard to believe.  The strength required to come back from this is more than I can imagine.  But I know he will.  He’s an Okie after all.  I only hope that when I bumped into Jay and Trevor walking through the halls of Yukon High School, that some of their strength rubbed off on me.  It’s one thing to go through a year and not buy any stuff.  It’s an altogether different thing to save a life or rebuild one.

Humility can humble you like that.

At times like these we think of the important things in life.  Friends.  Faith.  Family.  We tell people we love them.  We hold our wives a bit closer.  We hug our kids a little more often.  It’s good for the soul and it deepens relationship.

At the same time, it can be sad.  I blush at how many times I have used tragedies like a metaphorical Post-It note.  An outward reminder to focus on what’s important.  Part of a to-do list.  And the problem is this: that Post-It note is not a part of me.  It’s not my default response.  It’s something I keep on a shelf until the next tragedy comes along.

And it’s sad.

So today, my prayer is for Oklahoma.  May wounds be healed and hope restored.  May those who have been affected see God in the face of strangers and helpers.

And my prayer is also for all of us.  May we all look to make our lives a constant reminder of what’s important.  To sift through the rubble of the day-to-day and find that shining point of light that sustains us all.

Because, whether Okie or not…

It’s in our nature.

(image below courtesy of Nancy Dodd Poole whose niece and nephew assisted with yesterday’s clean up efforts.  It reads, "The most important things in life aren't things.")