This past Sunday was a special day for me and my family - it was my dad's birthday. And he would have been 69.
As most of you know by now, my dad died seven years ago just before his 62nd birthday. He had been diagnosed with cancer in December of 2005 and then passed away just seven short months later at the end of July 2006. Getting the news that he had cancer was horrible and surreal on its own - something that happened to other people's dads. Not mine. But having to sit around a hospital room as he slipped away, knowing we couldn't do anything to stop it . . . well, it still feels like a nightmare that I hope and pray I'll wake up from. That my alarm will go off any minute and I'll wake up to a world where my dad is still on the other end of the phone, calling me "Atticus" and asking if I have enough gas in my car. But I know that's not my world anymore. And it never really stops hurting.
I remember back in 2007, as his birthday approached, I began dreading it with every ounce of my being. I mean, he had only been gone a little more than a month and the pain was still very raw. The last thing I wanted to do was handle this reality. How on EARTH would we face this first birthday without him? How would we find joy? How would we find something to celebrate?
How do I find some Paxil? Good LORD, I'm depressing myself here . . .
ANYWAY, as that first September 1st rolled around, my mom had a brilliant idea: we'd all go to the mall armed with $10 bills and give them away to people who did something nice or thoughtful or chivalrous - something that reminded us of our dad. It was an amazing and uplifting idea. And, since my mom is particularly talented at finding something depressing in every situation (she can turn any conversation into a discussion about death or diabetes in 12 seconds flat. I've timed her.) we were even more impressed with her idea than you might think.
And so a tradition began. Now we meet at my mom's house on September 1st and write a card to our prospective recipients. This year we wrote the same thing we wrote last year: "I lost my Dad (father-in-law/husband/grandpa) seven years ago. He always inspired us to be thoughtful, kind and concerned with the needs of others. So every September 1st we celebrate his birthday by looking for people who possess the same qualities that made him so special to all who knew him. You did something today that reminded me of him and I wanted you to have this little treat so you would know I think you're special, too! Thanks for being a part of my Dad's birthday celebration." We've also started writing my blog address on the back of the card so folks can go read about this tradition that they are now a part of. Then we put a $20 bill in the envelope as their reward and head up to the mall or some other public place to look for people who do nice things: opening the door for someone, picking up a piece of trash, letting someone go first on an escalator. Not earth-shattering things by any stretch, just every day kindnesses that seem to get lost in the shuffle.
So this year we met at my mom's, wrote out our cards, and loaded them up with our $20 bills. Then we headed up to the mall. Once we got there, we all divided up so that we could go on the hunt for our card recipients. The kids all decided to go with me because, well . . . everyone say it with me . . . I'M AWESOME. Actually, truth be told, there WAS some discussion as to whether Emma and Savannah would go with me this year. It seems that they thought it might be too "chaotic" for all of us to be together this year. I think they get "chaotic" and "ridiculously awesome" confused sometimes so I chose to not be offended. Well, who am I kidding? I was a LITTLE broken-hearted over the whole thing. But, luckily, I was able to drown my sorrows in a chocolate double doozie from the cookie stand and all was well.
But I digress . . .
The four kids and I walked and looked. Looked and walked. Then sat and looked. Then stood and looked. Then walked to the pet store to "look for nice people." Then walked and looked some more. But we had no luck. Not one person holding a door. No one stepping aside to let an elderly person pass by. No mind-blowing escalator etiquette. Nothing. Eventually, we ran into Erin and found out that she was having the same luck we were having so that made us feel a bit better. Then Emma and Savannah decided to go with Erin despite my overwhelming awesomeness. So Ben and Avery and I drowned our sorrows in some Dippin' Dots.
Don't you judge me.
As 6:00 approached, we knew we were in trouble. The crowds would soon be clearing out of the mall and we all still had our cards to give away. We planted ourselves in front of the doors going out of the mall, hoping to find someone who would open the door for another person. But everyone was using the automatic door. So much so that a line of about 15 people waiting for the automatic door began to form. And the non-automatic doors? Well, it was appalling - I've never seen so many people letting the door shut in another person's face. It was ridiculous. So there the three of us stood, still holding our dang cards. That's when we decided that these desperate times called for desperate measures - it was time to stage something. We talked about dropping something to see if anyone would pick it up but we decided that was too predictable. Then we came up with the idea that Ben would walk ahead and trip and fall to see if anyone did anything. Since Ben is the closest thing to a stunt man that I know, he was the perfect candidate for our desperate ploy. He looked up at me, gave me a slightly dramatic head-nod, and quickened his pace to get ahead of me. Avery and I watched him with great anticipation. And he did not disappoint. He spotted a lady coming toward him so he went into action. He performed a move that I like to call "boy stubs his toe on large, invisible boulder and flies through the air." It was beautifully executed, perfectly timed. Avery and I had to fight the urge to do a slow clap in admiration of his skills. And what did our passing lady do? She looked down at Ben, adjusted her direction, and walked around him.
Ben, not one to be deterred, decided to try it again. As we approached Banana Republic, he noticed a sale sign standing outside the doors to the store and said "Catchy, I'm gonna go run into that Banana Republic sign." So, again, he got ahead of us, pretended like he was looking at something on the other side of the mall, and ran into the sign. Upon impact, he threw up his arms dramatically, kicked his feet up behind him, and sailed forward and to the ground. Just then, a Banana Republic employee came out, looked at Ben, checked his sign for damage, pulled the sign inside the doors, and locked up the store. Ben got up on one knee, threw his hands in the air, and said "SERIOUSLY??"
It was NOT a good night for finding small kindnesses!!
As the crowds started thinning out, we decided to plant ourselves outside the mall to see if we saw anything out there. And, finally we had some luck!! First, Avery saw a girl she deemed worthy of her card. But I'll let Avery tell you herself . . .
From Avery (8 years old):
After about an hour, we walked outside because we weren't getting any action. So we walked out there to see if we could see anyone opening doors. So then, Ben, Catchy and I were just looking really hard and we still couldn't find anybody. So then we walked inside. We walked back upstairs and we looked in Dillard's and Macy's. Then, we went back downstairs and we looked in Forever 21. Then we didn't have any luck at all, so were just kinda sitting in places looking everywhere and then on our way going back outside Ben was acting like he tripped. And then Ben tripped the first time and then he did it again and he did it right in front of the store. A worker came out and just moved the sign and didn't help Ben at all. Then we walked outside and we kinda just were like looking around everywhere. I saw this little girl about 7 or 8 and she opened the door for her mom and her mom had a stroller. Then her mom walked off and her mom said, "come on!" And then she said, "hold on." Because she wanted to help somebody else with a stroller that she didn't know. And I thought that was really nice of her to do that, so they were really fast and walking the opposite way. So, we had to run, run, run! We caught up to her and told her what happened to my grandpa and gave her the envelope. We asked her what her name was and it was Maggie. We asked her to take a picture with me and she said, "sure!" And so then Catchy took the picture. And then we walked off and so did they and we saw them open the card and they had a surprised look on their faces because there was $20 inside! And that is how we celebrated Grandpa's birthday. The end.
After Avery gave her card away, we decided to stay in the same spot to see if we saw anyone else doing something nice. As we were standing there, I saw my friend Ashley and her mom so I chatted with them for a second. Naturally, based our luck thus far, I figured I had lots of time to chat with my friends. But after just a minute or two, Ben spotted someone and we were off on our chase to give a card away . . .
From Ben (9 years old):
Avery just finished giving her envelope and I bet this is a big surprise to you, but Catchy saw a friend!! [can you HEAR the sarcasm, folks??] And so she was talking to her friend and I saw this guy that held open the door for a LOT of people! And so we went up to him and he had 2 grown adult girls with him. We told him the story and he looked pleased and then he walked off. Oh! His name was Rob! We were waiting to see if Catchy would get anybody, because she hadn't found anybody to give her card to. So while we were watching to see if Catchy found anybody who was doing anything nice, we saw Rob stop and read the card. And one of the girls with him finished reading and turned around and put both hands on her heart and then opened her arms to us. And then she waved and then the other girl and Rob waved, too. Then they turned back around and then turned and waved again. Then one more time after that.
So after Ben and Avery gave their cards away, it was time to meet up with everyone so that we could go to dinner and hear about everyone else's stories about the good things they had spotted at the mall. I was a little bummed about not having been able to give my card away - that was a first for me. I had almost given my card to a man who let me get off the elevator before him even though I was standing behind him. But I had hesitated and then he was gone. I was REALLY bummed at that point because I thought I had missed my opportunity. But then, as we walked into our chosen restaurant for dinner, a man wearing an LSU shirt held open the door for my entire family. Holding the door is in itself a nice thing. And definitely something that reminds me of my dad because he was a gentleman through and through. But when you hold the door for a huge family and risk them getting ahead of you on the waiting list at a restaurant, that's an even bigger thing. Again, I hesitated for some reason. But then he sat down on a bench with his wife on one side and my niece Avery on the other and he started joking with Avery. That's when I decided to give him my card. My dad loved all kids but ESPECIALLY his little pack of grandkids. So when this man demonstrated two of my favorite qualities about my dad, I just KNEW I had to give him my card. Even if he WAS an LSU fan . . .
Turns out his name is Chris and he was visiting from Louisiana. So I was a little more forgiving of his attire. He and his family were seated just behind us at the restaurant. As they were getting ready to leave, Chris came over to talk to us again. But you'll have to wait to hear about that . . .
Once we had placed our order for dinner, our favorite part of the evening began - the telling of all the stories. I love how excited everyone gets for this part of the night, adults and kids alike. So we went around the table and everyone got to tell about their chosen recipient. There were imitations, dramatic reenactments, and even a gasp or two. And I could recap everyone's stories in my own words for you but don't you think it would be more fun for them to tell you themselves? That's what I thought, too.
But first . . .
Brian, Brian, Brian. AGAIN he forgot to send me his story. Well, I take that back. He sent me a text that said, "4-year-old Rachel opened the door for her mommy to push the stroller through." But I know from hearing him tell us about his choice this year that she was the most precious little girl, that her mother said that she never meets a stranger, and that she showed that door who was boss - keeping it open so that her entire family could get through. Here she is with her family:
Okay - now it's time to hear from the rest of the family . . .
Really right away I zeroed in on a family out school shopping. They had a set of grandparents with them and the Grandpa was handicapped by bowed legs & bad knees.....hobbling cheerfully with his cane. I stalked them for almost the entire 2 hours!! I just knew that old guy would gladly give up his seat on a bench, but the opportunity never really presented itself. Soooo I had TOTES wasted my time and now the mall was CLOSED!! I made my way down near Dillard's where we were to meet up. Emma, Erin and I were debating whether we should "plant" an opportunity. So that is exactly what I did! We saw two guys leaving FootLocker, so I loosely rested my phone in my pocket and turned my back to them. I started walking towards and talking to Emma and Erin and let my phone fall out of my pocket. Erin was facing them and she said right away they saw that I had dropped my phone and then one of them - Chris - called out "ma'am!" and picked up my phone. He walked it over and handed it to me with a great smile. I explained that we have been doing this every year since my dad died in 2006. They were both very sweet.....Chris had a great Southern Gentility about him. Thanks, Chris, for being a true Southern gentleman!!
From my mom:
My job is to roam the food court in search of a man who has taken off his hat while he eats. The reward that I carry in my envelope is higher than everyone else’s because men who don’t take off their hats while eating or upon entering someone’s home was one of Charlie’s pet peeves. Now, it wouldn’t be his BIGGEST pet peeve, mind you. That honor would go to me borrowing his razor.
But I digress . . .
I’ve been doing this for about 7 years now so I know how hard it will be to find and accost my hatless hero. I started out this year watching the lines of people in front of each eatery. When I spotted someone wearing a hat, I stalked ‘em until they started eating. I got so excited a couple of times because a guy would take off his hat but then just kind of run his fingers through his hair and back would go the hat. At some point I thought mall security was going to come and question me about why I kept walking around and around looking like I was checking out what people were eating. I get it. I do. Every time I would pass a table where guys were sitting I would kind of duck my head the tiniest bit so I could see if one of them had stowed a hat on his lap. Of course, when I saw there was no hat there, I would frown at their laps. I can’t be held responsible for how they interpreted that, right?
Just when I was about to give up I spotted this young man sitting with a cute little girl and a man. And there was the hat. I didn’t even have to duck my head. I was so happy. I sat down with them and promptly started to explain to the older man, thinking he might be the young man’s dad, why I was interrupting their little snack. After explaining everything I turned to the young man who told me that the older man - his uncle - didn’t speak English. I should have guessed that when he looked at me like I was a little crazy. But since I find that I get that reaction a lot it doesn’t always mean someone doesn’t understand English, just that they don’t understand Nora! The young man’s name is Anthony and he is 17. When I asked my usual question about why he wasn’t wearing his hat he said that his mother taught him to take it off but, anyway, he just likes it better off. Close enough! It made me happy and I just looked up and thought “well, Charlie, some moms are still teaching it. But I think it is going the way of calling cards, curtsies and the whole idea of women and children first. Love ya.”
From Savannah (10 years old):
So I was sitting down with Dearsie and we were looking one way, but I just decided I would turn my head the other way and see if anything was possibly going on. And what do you know, I saw a wheelchair! So, I told Dearsie, "Dearsie, let's go follow that wheelchair and see if anyone does anything nice for them." And so, we were walking, they stopped a few times and so Dearsie and I had to pretend we were looking at the booth closest to us. They finally started walking. So, we walked for a little bit and then we noticed they were going to an elevator. So, Dearsie and I decided that we were going to go in the elevator also. The wheelchair wasn't really going into the elevator and we did not know what they were doing, so we were stuck and didn't know what to do. We decided, well it would be awkward and obvious that we were following them if we just stood there with them, so we just decided that we would just get in. We thought they were just going to find out. And then we figured out that the person in the wheelchair had a wife and some kids and a few other adults with him. So, there was this lady who held open the door of the elevator for Dearsie and me and then she just kept her arm there to see if that wheelchair was going to come in not knowing that they had family behind them. And so, all of a sudden, she heard the guy in the wheelchair and the guy pushing the wheelchair say, "come on guys, run, run!" Because they wanted to catch that elevator so they didn't have to wait. The lady who was holding the door held the door open the whole entire time. Most people wouldn't have the patience to do that and would just let the door close. So, once everyone was in the elevator safe and sound, I whispered in Dearsie's ear, "when I get out of this elevator, I'm gonna give it to that lady." So we got out of the elevator, and she was walking very quickly. And so I had to kind of run and catch up to her. Then I told her about my Grandpa. She said, "God bless you" and we walked away. At first she said, "no, I won't take your money!" But, then we said it was a tradition and so she has to take it even if she just passed it onto someone else. And that was who I gave my card to.
I'd like to say here that Savannah told us at dinner that she had forgotten to ask the lady's name but that she believed that the lady looked like a "Sue." Ben disagreed and stated authoritatively that she looked like a "Pam." But Avery insisted she looked like a "Barbara." These are the kinds of vigorous debates we have in the Palmore family, friends.
Now, let's continue . . .
I saw a mother and her daughter get aggressively stopped by a kiosk employee so he could demonstrate his curling irons to them. The mom didn't seem too interested in stopping but the daughter really wanted to so the mom obliged. When the man was finished curling the little girls hair she was super excited. She was begging her mom to buy the magical curling iron. I thought to myself that there was no chance this mom was going to dish out over $100 for the curling iron. I should have never doubted this woman, as she broke out her credit card and made her daughter's day. It reminded of me of Charlie because I have heard countless stories of how he would have done anything to make his girls happy. I approached the woman and explained to her our tradition and gave her the card. She was very appreciative and very leary of me at the same time so I wasn't able to get a picture with her. By the way, if one of my daughters would have looked at me the way the girl looked at her mom, I would have bought them whatever they asked for...
Can't wait for September 1, 2014!
Sooooo, this was a tough year for me. At the end of two hours at the mall, I had nuttin'. Not even one that I wished I had used mine on. I was getting really desperate because I didn't want to come up empty-handed and, more importantly, lose my turn telling my story at dinner. So, we start walking out of the mall and I'm frantically looking for someone, ANYONE to do something nice or even just kinda nice. I saw this couple walking in as we were heading out and they looked super cute. They were a little older and the man just seemed to have this sweet little smile on his face and they seemed so happy and in love and I thought, HERE IT IS. I watched and waited and sure enough, he grabbed the door for his wife and was starting to walk in, but then he saw some young girls coming up, so he stopped and backed up and let them go through too. I swear I heard angels singing! I was so excited! I walked right up to them and said, "excuse me sir, can I talk to you for a minute?" He looked at me, looked at his wife and said...wait for it....wait for it...., "NO" and then he kept walking (insert record scratching noise over my angels singing here). I was so taken aback, I had to look back at Catherine with a quick, "no he di-ent" face and she gave me an "oh yes he did face"! I didn't even know what to do! Just as I was about to yell, "ABORT! ABORT!!", I hear my guy say, "okay, go ahead". I think it was just a case of mistaken identity? Maybe he thought I was wanting to sell him and his wife one of the curling iron wands from Matt's kiosk? Anyway, I start telling my story, but I was stumbling all over myself because I was a nervous wreck at this point and I'm pretty sure I had not one drop of spit left in my mouth. Catherine, bless her, jumped into help and as we told the story, they seemed to be taking it all in and appreciating what we were out there doing. My warm and fuzzies were back in full effect and I was ready for my photo op (cue my angels again). We asked them if they would mind taking a pictur-" NO. NOT THAT. We won't do that. Nope. " I think I actually had to take a knee at that point, but it was all a bit of a blur, so I can't be sure. Soooooo, not my best outing, BUT I hope after they read the note, they realized that I wasn't some crazy lady trying to accost them or possibly blow their witness protection cover (What? It's possible...Mickey Featherstone, was that you?? Donnie Brasco? eh?? eh??). Nope, I'm just a girl celebrating her daddy.
And from Emma (12 years old):
Zip! Nada! Zilch! Goose Egg! At the end of the night, despite her best efforts, Emma did not find anyone to give her card to. [Side note: the next day (Labor Day), Emma saved a little three-year-old girl named Lily who had jumped in my mom's pool without her floaties on. We were all sitting around the pool when Tammy saw Lily jump in. Before any of the adults even had time to jump into action, Emma was flying into the pool. She had seen the whole scene unfolding, as well, and was in the water about a half second after Lily. So I think Emma should give HERSELF her card. Can I get an Amen??]
As we were finishing up dinner, Chris (my card-recipient/LSU fan) came over to our table. He had read his card, and even better, had pulled up my blog and read a little bit about our tradition and about my dad. He had noticed in my "About Me" section that I am a lawyer and a Christian and he joked with me about THAT oxymoron. He visited with us for a minute about our tradition and then went back to his table. As his family was about to leave, he stopped by our table again and said "I'm so sorry to interrupt but I want to tell you that I'm a Christian, too. I'm also a state trooper and a Baptist preacher. And as I've been sitting over here, I've had a verse on my heart for you all and I just can't leave without sharing it with you. It's 3 John 1:4: 'I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.'"
I honestly can't think of a better way to have wrapped up our special celebration. What a gift to have had our paths crossed with his that night. I'm so glad I didn't waste my card on the elevator guy . . . :)
So that's it. That's our 2013 Charlie Palmore celebration. It was tough to find people this year so my mom thinks that maybe we should mix it up and go out of town to do our birthday celebration next year. She suggested "Satchmo" which, after a few minutes of some really talented deductions, my sister Erin figured out meant "Schlitterbahn," a water park in Galveston. So, perhaps we'll have more luck next year in Satchmo or wherever we may find ourselves. But, you know - even though we had a harder time finding folks this year, we still found some great ones. And, as usual, we had our hearts touched in the process.
But, most importantly, we had an evening filled with memories and reminders of a wonderful man who was taken from us far too soon. A man we miss every day and whose love for us somehow continues to surround us even seven years after he went Home. A man worthy of celebration.
Happy birthday, Dad.