Looking toward the stars from Old Algiers

All hope isn’t lost — and this is how I know.

On Thursday, my husband and I drove to New Orleans and sat on a bench in Jackson Square waiting.

My husband didn’t mind carrying the oversized gift bag containing a small red telescope, glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars, copies of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Lightning Thief.”

I had never met the young man I had bought the gifts for, but amidst all the Katrina anniversary hubbub, he was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his birth. I wanted to celebrate with him and his mama.

Every now and then, the stars align and the universe, along with everyone in it, seems to want to be certain that we keep hope alive. Thursday was one of those nights.

It was also one of those nights that makes me reconsider the ancient Chinese belief that each of us who are supposed to meet are connected by an invisible red thread — which may be long and twisty. However, if we’re supposed to meet, eventually we will.

Ten years ago in the wake of Katrina, a young mother named Qiana Ruffin ended up at Lafayette’s Cajundome as an evacuee. In the chaos of thousands of people in the Cajundome parking lot, Qiana grabbed me as I walked past. She’s not sure why I was the one. All I know is there were lots of other people around, and Qiana was distraught bordering on hysterical. When she told me what was wrong, I understood why.

In the course of the storm, levees breaking and hospitals evacuating — she had gotten separated from her newborn son. Someone had given her a tiny list of seven Louisiana hospitals where he might be. She had called them repeatedly, but no one knew where her son was.

By the time our paths crossed, she had been searching for him and seeking help from any and all sources for three days. Once I started making the calls and queries for her, other volunteers got involved. We were able to find the baby within an hour.

We didn’t call any different or magic numbers than the ones she had already been trying, but for reasons long, complex and sad enough to make me cry forever, when I asked the same questions trying to locate her missing newborn son that she had been asking for three days — we got a different answer.

The baby was in Baton Rouge. A volunteer took the parents to pick him up and the Ruffin family was gone from my life. They left me which much to consider — primarily the lesson of responsibility that those of us who have a voice have one for those who don’t. That lesson was seared in my soul in a way it hadn’t been previously.

And for 10 years, that’s where the story ended for me.

Back then, when I got back to the newsroom, I wrote a news story about it. With all the news of that time, the story ran on page 2A. I never forgot their names and searched for them to no avail.

Two weeks ago, Qiana Ruffin sent me a Facebook message and told me her son really wanted to meet me. My husband and I decided to come to New Orleans and throw him a little birthday celebration. Wrapping up Katrina’s most lingering story for me was a good way to mark Katrina’s 10-year anniversary.

The invisible red thread connecting us was definitely a long and tangled one, but Keldon Ruffin and I finally met Thursday night.

As I was planning our evening, I considered taking Qiana and Keldon to my favorite New Orleans restaurant — Irene’s on St. Philip toward the edge of the French Quarter. I called to make reservations and explained the circumstances of our celebratory dinner. Chef Nicolas Scalco, son of owner Irene DiPietro, called me back. He and I had never met either, but we had one of those conversations that restores your faith in humanity. He told me he was a dad and couldn’t imagine what Qiana had gone through. He assured me he and his staff would make the night one to remember and asked if he could take our photograph to hang on the wall of his restaurant.

If you haven’t been to Irene’s — go. The charming little restaurant with its impeccable staff serves food so delicious that sometimes after I eat there, I dream of its red sauce. It’s been my favorite New Orleans restaurant for years. On Thursday night, its status moved up from there.

From the moment we arrived, Chef Scalco and his team went to unheard heights to make our unlikely party of four feel special. They did little and big things all night long that still make my eyes well up.

It was a night of a thousand small beautiful things tinged with other moments of clarifying heartbreak.

Things like Qiana pulling out her 10-year-old copy of the story I wrote about her search for her son that ran in The Daily Advertiser. She explained that the very tattered copy was one of her most prized possessions. She keeps it in her box of special things, but it had clearly seen better days.

Things like the chef preparing cannelloni, a dish they had taken off the menu years ago. I mentioned how much I had loved it when we chatted on the phone.

Things like the whole restaurant stopping to celebrate with us when they brought out a birthday cake with a tall sparkling candle for Keldon — and in that moment it really felt like they were all with us, all rooting for Qiana and Keldon.

Things like Keldon being more enamored by the sparkly thing than actually eating his cake.

Things like the chef taking a photograph of our party of four to frame and put on the wall of his restaurant alongside the other photographs of more likely suspects.

Things like Qiana and I having a real conversation about what she needs to do to get her GED.

Things like Keldon telling us he wants to be a football player when he grows up and Qiana quickly telling him that he has to get an education first.

Things like the story of their neighbor, who is also rooting for them, who made special arrangements to bring them to the French Quarter that night.

Things like walking with them after dinner to meet the bus that would take them home. It was a walk that felt a lot like being Cinderella after the ball. The chef and I could do what we could to make the night almost perfect — and it was — but the reality was that they had to go back to a life that isn’t an easy one.

The experience of meeting Qiana 10 years ago has, through the years, made me contemplate what is necessary to teach people who don’t know how to be their own best advocates how to do a better job of getting people to listen to them. I am not certain a well-designed program will work. Maybe the only solution is when one end of the red thread meets the other that we figure out how it is we can help each other — and we keep helping until it doesn’t make sense to do it anymore. Surely, we are a long way from that.

In the meantime, there is a little boy near Old Algiers who has a red telescope now. I hope and pray that he will continue to look toward the stars.

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$10 dinner for four — for sure

$10 dinnerWith the start of the new school year, my family and I have started a new program. I asked our oldest, Greer, who is a senior this year, to pick one night a week when she would cook dinner. I gave our youngest, Piper, who is in the 8th grade, the option to continue with her kitchen cleaning responsibilities or add cooking into the mix as well. She also chose to cook.
Greer will cook dinner Monday nights and Piper will cook Thursday nights. I added the caveat that if they needed anything special for their meals, that I would give them a $10 budget. Our pantry and refrigerator stay well stocked — I thought the budget was generous. Friends have advised me otherwise. However, for now, we will stand by the $10 and see what transpires. Plus, I’d rather the girls get more practice cooking before we start splurging on more expensive ingredients!
There are other stipulations to our so-called Teenage Cooking Plan. Only one of them can cook pasta each week. To be fair, we’ll rotate weeks. Also, there has to be something green on the plate.
In their first week of cooking, they both surpassed all expectations. Greer made bowtie pasta with clam sauce — and a salad). Piper made chicken and vegetable tikka masala with rice — and a salad. To be clear, Greer made the clam sauce from scratch, and Piper used a packaged sauce for the tikka masala. Either way, they were both delicious meals, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
I posted a photograph of Greer’s meal on Facebook and explained the parameters of our little project. Many of my friends couldn’t believe the $10 limit I had set. I got so much flack about it, I decided to prove a point.
On Tuesday, I went to the grocery story with only $10. I wanted to see if I could buy all the ingredients for a complete meal to feed a family of four. For the record, I succeeded and had many options. I chose to buy a pack of chicken wingettes ($5.10), a bag of black beans ($1.88) and rice (.88 for the whole bag) — totaling $7.86. I had the stuff for a green salad at home and added those into the mix. My salad fixings cost less than the $2.14 I had left on my budget.
Plus, the meal was easy to fix. I just soaked the beans, drained them and cooked them with an onion and a can of Rotel. For the chicken wings, I sprinkled seasoning salt on them and put them in the oven to roast — delicious. The next thing I did might not make it in the kitchens of healthy fanatics, but I did it anyway. After the chicken had been cooking for about 20 minutes, I prepared to cook the rice. I took the cookie sheet out of the oven and poured all that greasy goodness into the pot where I would cook the rice — scrumptious.
I want my daughters to learn what goes into cooking a meal and how much less expensive it is to eat at home than going out for dinner. With a little thinking and elbow grease, it’s possible to prepare fantastic meals at home on a low budget. Plus, once the meal is prepared, we get to sit at the table and eat together. As this is our oldest daughter’s senior year, we are appreciating that the normal evenings of the four of us being at home together are numbered.

Are you up for the $10 dinner challenge? Send me a pic of your ingredients and meal to be featured!

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Call tugs at my Katrina heartstrings

Like anyone else who was in South Louisiana in 2005, the looming 10-year Katrina anniversary has had me remembering details from that nightmarish time. Even so, I was surprised when a message popped up on my computer screen Wednesday night.

“Hi My name is Qiana Ruffin on Sept. 3, 2005 u wrote a story about my losing my son through Katrina I been try to reunite with u.”

My heart skipped a beat.

After all this time, I couldn’t believe this woman had found me.

In the message, she went on to give me a phone number and asked me to call. Then she added, “He is big now and he truly wanna to meet u.”

She was referring to Keldon, her then-infant son — who will turn 10 on the Katrina anniversary. I assured her that I truly wanted to meet him too.

He was born prematurely the day Katrina hit. On the day after Katrina, the hospital sent her and her husband home. The baby stayed because of his under-developed lungs and possible heart issues.

The next day, the levees broke.

The hospital did an emergency evacuation. The parents went back to the hospital to get their son and found it empty. Someone there gave them the names of hospitals around the state where they might find their son. Qiana and her husband called every hospital repeatedly. Every hospital told her that they didn’t have her son.

By Friday, she and her husband were at the Cajundome in Lafayette still looking for their son. I was a reporter at the time and was walking in to cover First Lady Laura Bush serving lunch to evacuees.

As I walked by, Qiana grabbed my arm.

Last week, I asked her a question I had always wondered about: Why did she approach me?

She said, “Maybe it was God who told me to. I don’t know why.”

When she grabbed my arm, she said, “I can’t find my baby.”

I eventually learned the whole story. I went to the same people she had asked for help. Within an hour, we found her baby. He was in Baton Rouge. According to her, “Some volunteers took money out of their own pockets and gave it to us to catch a bus to Baton Rouge.”

But just as they were getting on the bus at the Lafayette bus station, another volunteer pulled up in her car and offered to take them directly to the hospital. There, they were reunited with their son.

I remember her husband so well. From the Cajundome, he had walked to all the hospitals in Lafayette, asking if any of them had his newborn son.

When Qiana and I spoke Thursday, I asked about her husband.

“We separated after 17 years,” she said. “The pressures of Katrina turned out bad for him.”

I asked what had happened after she got her baby back and we parted ways. She told me that they lived with her husband’s family for a little while. Then they moved to Atlanta for 18 months before she finally returned to New Orleans as a single mom.

“My house was totally destroyed,” she said. “I had to start all over.”

She told me, that in the years since, she had been working at Arby’s on Canal Street.

“But they closed. They say they’re renovating. They’re trying to get a liquor license. Have you ever heard of such?” she asked. “Only in New Orleans.”

In the meantime, she’s doing hair and says she’s occasionally the candy lady.

I asked exactly what she meant by that.

“I sell zuzus, candy, cold drinks, chips in my neighborhood,” she said. “All the kids love the candy lady.”

At 36, she’s just become a grandmother. She says her new little grandson looks exactly like Keldon did when he was a baby.

“We never found out from the hospital what happened,” she said. “All his records were washed away. Took me about two years to get him a social security number and birth certificate.”

When I first called the phone number she had given me, another lady answered the phone. I asked to speak to Qiana and the lady who answered said. “She’s not here, but I know who you are.”

I could hear a young child in the background talking to her.

“Yes, this is her,” the lady on the phone told the child. “I know you want to talk to her.”

And so she gave him the phone.

“This is Keldon. I want to meet you,” the little voice said.

“And I want to meet you, too,” I assured him.

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The space between grief and hope

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In the week after the shooting at The Grand in Lafayette, Louisiana, friends and strangers folded 2,000 origami cranes and created two senbazurus for the families who lost loved ones. This is a watercolor of some of the cranes..

This is what I know — the space between grief and hope is fragile.

Upon further reflection, maybe I don’t even know that. Maybe there’s not a space between those two opposing emotions. Maybe sometimes they overlap making those of us experiencing them even more confused and muddled?

Whether the emotions are side-by-side or overlapping, I know that the energy required to balance grief and glimmers of hope has worn many of us down in recent weeks.

In the time since the shooting at The Grand Theater, many of us  have straddled that space between grief and hope much of every day. Personally, continuing on with the work in front of me has felt like anything but business as usual. In fact, getting the work done has felt more like a betrayal to friends directly involved with the tragedy than the right thing to do.

However, the bottom line is that the same friends would be horrified at the thought of work not getting done or not focusing on making the world a better place — or life just not being lived to the fullest.
Surely in the face of such tragedy in our community, we can do something to be better. To be kinder. To more fully appreciate those we love and care about. To share more bounty and beauty with those who have less than.

On the flip side, I also realize we have to have emotional downtime — we just aren’t wired to feel at full capacity every moment. We need time when we just focus on learning to juggle or watering the plants or chopping onions. We can’t live with full intensity, even in appreciating those we love, all the time — our brains and bodies couldn’t handle it.

I was happy that in the face of tragedy, Lafayette offered free counseling to anyone who thought they might need it. In fact, on Friday afternoon, I decided that an objective ear would be a good way to help me have a better weekend. I just needed to talk through my own concerns, fears and grief with someone who I didn’t feel like I was burdening so that I could put the jumble in my head into some kind of order. So, I took advantage of the free counseling.

The counselor helped me realize that the way I was feeling was typical. She gave me a handout from the American Counseling Association that was full of good advice. All in all, here are its messages:

Take care of yourself. This is a time to “put your own mask on first.” If you don’t you can’t take care of others. Personally, I love to get massages. I decided to treat myself to an extra massage. Figuring out the best ways to tend to yourself — and doing those things on a regular basis — improves life exponentially.

Maintain a healthy routine. Be sure to eat, sleep, exercise and maintain as normal a daily routine as possible.

Pay attention to your emotional health. Remember that a wide range of feelings during these difficult times is common. Know that others are also experiencing emotional reactions and may need your time and patience to put their feelings and thoughts in order.

Be extra patient and kind with others. They may be struggling too. Give them the benefit of doubt.

Limit exposure to the topic. Take a step back from the media exposure. Individuals of all ages may experience stress reactions when exposed (even through media) to shootings or mass violence. According to the ACA, “Changes in eating and sleeping habits, energy level and mood are important signs of distress. Watch for regressed behaviors, such as clinging in children and intense emotional reactions, such as anxiety or a strong need for retribution in adults.” Going to see a counselor is sometimes a healthy option.

Keep your friends and family close. We all need a little extra tenderness sometimes. Rely on those who know you best and love you most.

Remember what makes you happy and provides comfort. Take some time and do those things that calm you.

Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes asking for help takes more courage than going it alone. Be brave and let others help you when you need it.

I’m working hard to slow down and spend time with the people I love most. Indeed, life does go by way too fast.

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Seeing departure signs in some big airport reminds me of…

On a ferris wheel in Budapest on a trip that changed my life a long time ago.
Atop a ferris wheel in Budapest on a trip that changed my life a long time ago.

In the words of the great poet, Jimmy Buffett, “Changes in attitude, changes in latitude. Nothing remains quite the same.”

When you live in Louisiana, July can be the longest month. Traveling to cooler climes is literally a breath of fresh air. Our family vacation to Northern California and Lake Tahoe came at the right time, and much to our bliss, it required the daily use of fleece and sweatshirts. We all came home refreshed and ready to face the workaday world.

Traveling revives me in a way that nothing else does. I can’t do justice in describing the richness it has brought to my life, the friends I’ve made in new places or the relationships strengthened by the shared experience travel offers. Therefore, I encourage everyone I know or meet to travel as much as possible.

Get a map. Buy a travel guide. Drive your car or buy the ticket. Just find a way to get to a place that you want to go — whether it’s because someone invited you once upon a long time ago, because you saw a picture that you can’t get out of your head or because you read a book or saw a movie set in a place that tickled your fancy. Be it near or far, find a way to get there.

As a parent, I’ve tried to create as many travel opportunities as possible for my children. Maybe it was the right thing to do. Maybe it wasn’t. The jury is still out. Maybe travel can’t be fully appreciated until you’re the one footing the bill. (For that matter, maybe nothing can be fully appreciated until you’re the one footing the bill!)

But travel doesn’t have to be all about expense. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. I believe the greatest enjoyment in experiencing a new place comes in that perfect balance of planning versus spur of the moment. Without enough planning or research, you won’t make the most of the experience. However, with too much crammed into too few hours, you will wear yourself out and it will all be a blur. As with the rest of life, the magic happens somewhere in between. For me, travel is more about realizing a new way of looking at things than it is about seeing the sights — it’s about truly being somewhere as opposed to doing something.

On the other hand, as James Michener, one of my favorite writers, said, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”

Eating the food, learning about the customs, respecting the religion and interacting with the people are the ingredients required to yield the kind of adventure that opens the door to a place and says, “Come in. Enjoy. Tell me about yourself and let me tell you about me.”

Something about traveling keeps us young. Seneca said, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” So if, as the English scientist Ashley Montagu said, “The idea is to die young as late as possible,” — travel could be the key.

If you’re looking for a sign, here it is. Go somewhere. And when you get home, tell me all about it at JanRisher@gmail.com.

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My dad and a driveway

photo (4)

On the left, writer Jan Risher – age 4, laughing beside her dad, Gary Risher, on the front porch of their home in Hickory, Mississippi (not the driveway home mentioned in the column below because this childhood was in an era without photos by the thousands!).

The people who built the house where I grew up had a giant RV.
To accommodate the RV, they built the biggest, smoothest, paved driveway anyone around there had ever seen. Other than a giant crack about 17 feet from the street, which I referred to as the driveway’s fault line, that driveway was as smooth as soft butter.
When I was eight, my dad gave me a pair of super cool skates — almost like the ones you rented from the skating rink. I spent hours and hours upon hours skating around that driveway.
When I was nine, my dad put up a basketball goal on the far side of the giant driveway — and my whole world changed. I played and practiced basketball almost every single day. Playing basketball on a smooth as silk driveway in a neighborhood full of boys does wonders for a girl’s social life. As the years passed, on most afternoons, about six kids came over, and we played basketball. Guests knew they had to leave the driveway open, so they parked on the side of the road to leave room for the daily game softball.
Afternoon basketball was our lives until I turned 12.
That’s when my dad got me a skateboard — believed to be the first skateboard in those parts. It was yellow, and the wheels had ball bearings and riding it was as smooth as the driveway.
No driveway has ever been a better one for skateboards. As long as I stayed on the house-side of the giant crack, I could make magic happen on that skateboard. The other side of the jagged crevice in the cement was much more littered with rocks. I deemed the street-side of the driveway fault line far too dangerous to skate on or really venture into often (except to check the mail).
Occasionally, when all the neighborhood boys would come over (with those faded circles on the back pockets of their jeans), we tried to do both skateboard and play basketball — to mixed results. Once we played softball in the front yard, but a broken window sent us back to the driveway. It was a safe place to play, and we did so until the streetlights came on, and everybody had to head home.
Though the driveway was my paradise, it was on occasion the bane of my existence. When I got in trouble, my father made me sweep that blasted driveway — and I really really hated sweeping that driveway. Once, I had to sweep it every day for three weeks in a row. I have never fully recovered from the injustice of that punishment — and the driveway was so big that sweeping it took at least 90 minutes. So, I had plenty of time to contemplate that unfairness!
When I turned 15, my dad and I drove to another town, and he bought me a blue Toyota Corolla with a standard transmission. I drove the car home from the dealership on my own, but it was really in that driveway that he taught me how to change gears.
We did not live in a fancy house. We did not take big trips to see the world. What we had was a driveway. Now I realize that somewhere along the way, my father figured out how to make the most of what we had. My dad and that driveway shaped so much my life and perspective.
Happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the other fathers out there — whatever style driveway you have, may you take the energy to make the most of it.

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Festival with a Buddhist monk

While celebrating Festival International, my family inherited a Buddhist monk.

To explain, he and I have met before. He’s a dear man from Nepal. A friend was hosting him around Festival where he had spoken at an event.

Our unexpected group walked around town to a couple of stages before settling at the one near the courthouse in a small patch of very wet grass. Our friend, who had been hosting the monk, was called away for volunteer duties. So he stayed with us.

Background on how we Festival: My family hates to lug chairs, but I believe doing so is worth the hassle. Per normal, I was the only one in my family who had brought a chair.

About 30 minutes in, I realized the monk needed a chair. So, I did what you do when a monk wants to sit and gave him my chair. He explained that he had a friend coming to meet him soon.

My family and friends moved away from us a bit, standing closer to the stage to have a better view. The music was too loud to have a conversation. After a while, I got tired and found a tiny patch of wood against a makeshift hurricane fence and sat.

I had not expected to go to Festival International and find myself sitting basically alone, leaning against a hurricane fence, looking at wet grass. But that’s where I was and what I was doing. In retrospect, I realize that only because a Buddhist monk was involved, I decided that I might as well embrace the moment — rather than find somewhere better to be. You just don’t scurry with a Buddhist monk.

The sun was beginning to set, but I could still see clovers growing in the grass. Looking at the clovers made me remember how when I was a little girl during school recess, I was the queen of making clover necklaces and crowns. I had a secret method that my friends couldn’t master because their fingernails were too short. Since I was there, I decided to try my hand at making a clover crown again — and on a tiny patch of dry in the midst of wet grass near the Buddhist monk on a chair listening to Feufollet, I realized that making a clover crown takes more concentration than I remembered.

I began my efforts just to pass the time, but thinking about nothing but how to make the most out of a short-stemmed clover or how to tie it just right became a zen-like experience. I spend most of my life thinking about what I consider to be fairly complex issues and problems. Sitting there, I had decided to be exactly where I was — something I clearly don’t do enough.

Generally speaking, my life is full of interesting people, places and events, but as strange as this may seem, that hour I spent combing the grass for clovers and carefully putting together an ornamental clover crown was the most relaxed and happy I had been in a long time. It took the universe sending a Buddhist monk for me to get the message that I need to scurry less and be where I am more.

My husband and family returned and wondered if we could move on, but the monk’s friend had still not arrived. My husband joked that I would have forced anyone else out of my chair, but I was too afraid of 10 years of bad karma for kicking a Buddhist monk off my perch. I am not proud to admit that my husband is correct.

What if I treated everybody as if they were Buddhist monks? Just imagine the difference.

We ended up waiting for his friend for a while. I just made more clover jewelry. Whether it was the sheer proximity of the monk or something else, the zen vibe was spreading. When I finally got up, I was in better spirits than I’ve been in a long time. Chasing fun doesn’t lead to happiness. Treating others with respect and being where you are does.

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17 years (and rules) of parenting

I am not a fan of spoiled children.
However, 17 years into parenthood, I understand how spoiling a child happens — much better now than back in the years when I would have been an absolute perfect parent, if I had just had any children. Ah, I knew so much more back then. These days, I realize that loving your children inspires you to do crazy things and go to absurd lengths to make sure their lives are the best they can be.
The question now is: have we gone too far? Did we cross the Rubicon somewhere along the way? Instead of creating wiser children with greater insights and perspective, have we created spoiled, entitled children who don’t appreciate the value of the work required to allow for all the bounty of their lives or have the spirit of service such opportunity obliges?
Some of the advice I’m about to give may seem harsh. Some of it is appropriate for children of all ages. Other bits may most appropriate for kids ages 10 and up. At any rate, I’d like you to learn from my mistakes:
1. Do not buy your child a smartphone. If they must have a phone for safety reasons (because landlines are few and far between), buy them a no-frills flip phone. Not giving your child a smartphone will help you and your family avoid so many problems.
2. Regardless of what type of phone your child has, check it regularly. Children’s brains aren’t fully developed. They make stupid decisions sometimes. They also don’t want you to know just how poor their decision making ability is. Checking their phones is illuminating.
3. Enact a no-technology-in-the-bedroom policy. Trust me on this one. They can have their computers in the den or at the dining room table, but don’t let them cocoon themselves in their rooms with their computers.
4. Limit their computer/television time to no more than two hours a day.
5. Don’t chaperone every school trip or Scout trip your child takes. Really. They need to spread their wings and learn how to negotiate the world without you.
6. If you miss a game or school performance, your child will be fine.
7. Make them go outside.
8. Play board games and cards with them.
9. Learn something new together — jiu jitsu, SCUBA, ballroom dancing, golfing. Find something that you’d both be willing to learn and do it together.
10. Create opportunities for your children to visit with old people.
11. Make your children load and unload the dishwasher or wash the dishes.
12. Find other chores for your children to do in the house. They need to understand early that operating a house doesn’t just happen. You’re not doing them a favor by teaching them otherwise.
13. Teach your children to cook. If you can’t cook, ask a friend who can or take a class together — or find a class for them to take. Everybody needs to know how to cook the basics.
14. Let your children prepare the occasional meal. They should also have to clean up their own mess in the kitchen.
15. Teach your children to wash, dry and fold clothes.
16. Teach your children to set a proper table.
17. Sit down at a table together for a home-cooked meal at least three times a week.
To be clear, my children have smartphones. I wish they didn’t. They don’t wash the dishes every day, but they do on most days. They know how to cook and could cook a meal for the family if necessary — with a little luck, it wouldn’t be chicken nuggets and mac n’ cheese.
Following these rules doesn’t ensure perfect children, but it does teach children something about what’s required to navigate the world beyond their parents.

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Warmth from long ago and my grandmother’s coat

My grandmother's coat

My philosophy on packing is loose. I pack quickly and take the basics. Knowing if there’s something I really need that I forget, I’ll be able to get it at my destination.
That reasoning is why last year when my family went to my parents’ home in Mississippi for the holidays, I didn’t take an appropriate winter coat. Generally, the items I fail to put in my suitcase are small — like lipstick or a hairbrush. Their absence inspires a quick run to the nearest store where I pick up a new tube of Highbeam Tan or Rum Raisin or a $4 plastic stick with bristles.
A coat is a different matter. In the small town where my parents live, options are limited. However, when I was in my mom’s attic looking for an extra roll of wrapping paper, I spotted a rack of old jackets. I chronicled my brother’s high school sports careers with one letter jacket after another. A once-brilliant white letter sweater that I wore with pride throughout my sophomore year was there too.
And then there was a simple, black wool jacket with a Peter Pan collar that was like a time-traveling relic.
I had never worn it, but I knew exactly who had. She must have had others, but this was the only coat I ever knew her to wear. I realize it would fit me and put it on in the cold attic — a familiar warmth washed over me. It was my sweet grandmother’s coat. It had outlived her by a long shot.
This coat was the one I remembered snuggling up to when I was younger and spent more time in her lap than I probably should have. She was a better storyteller than she realized, and though her spirit was as bright as the flowers of her garden, the sadness losing children before their time was always close to the surface. That kind of loss and sadness resonated with me as a child — much as it does still with children everywhere. I would sit in her lap, the rough wool coat feeling scratchy to my cheeks, and ask for her to tell me her stories again.
I had my favorite stories — the ones I could almost recite with her, but I also asked questions to see if there might be stories she had forgotten to tell me along the way. I asked about when she was young, when my mom was young, when they used to go places by horse-pulled wagons and anything else I could think to ask. Of course, she told me plenty of those stories in warmer times while not wearing the coat, but its collar and felting were distinct and unmistakable.
I wore the coat out of the attic and asked my mom if I could wear it home. She said I could.
Since then, it’s sat in my closet until the cold weather returned in the last week. On New Year’s Eve, I put on the old coat to watch fireworks with friends. Once again, it enveloped me with a special warmth. It was still in near perfect condition, only missing one button. Its pockets were perfect and knowing my grandmother’s hands had spent so much time in the same pockets made it feel even cozier.
I was certain my grandmother wore it in the 1970s. I knew the coat had to be at least 30 years old, but it was in near perfect shape. It didn’t have a label in it, but I did find a tiny tag that said, “National Coat and Suit Industry Recovery Board.” With just a few minutes’ research, I learned that the particular version of the label in my grandmother’s coat was only used in the years between 1938 and 1964.
In actuality, the coat was more than 50 years old — and only missing one button.
My grandmother did not pack for trips haphazardly or last minute. She didn’t run out to pick up new versions of the items she owned but failed to pack. She bought things that lasted in a way that my children may never be able to understand or appreciate — and that I barely remember.
Even so, as cold blows in and this new year launches, I have the coat around my shoulders as I type. I am grateful for its thick wool, its silky lining and its soft, perfect pockets and the way it conjures up my grandmother’s warmth.

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47-year-old letter mystery solved

First page of Jace's letter

Part 2 of a column tracing a 47-year-old letter from a son to his father, delivered two weeks ago to an address in Lafayette. Columnist Jan Risher tracked down the letter writer. 

Jace Ray does not remember writing the Father’s Day letter to his father, but he remembers the summer of 1967 well — and he’s able to put the pieces together.
“It was the summer of love. It was California in 1967. It was the Vietnam War,” the 69-year old said last week by phone from his home in Bisbee, Ariz. “Going to California was not like Lafayette — having crawfish and a good time in Breaux Bridge or some place. “
After Ray graduated from high school in 1963 in Texas, his parents moved to the River’s Bend subdivision in Lafayette.
“I went to USL for a couple of years. Then, I told my parents that I was going to go out there and check out California. It was an adventure, but it was also very sobering,” he said. “I went to find myself. Spending time on my own made me appreciate my dad in a way I hadn’t before.”
When Father’s Day that summer rolled around, Ray decided to put thought to paper.
The problem came somewhere along the way between his Garden Grove, Calif. apartment and his parents home in Lafayette. No one knows where the letter has been for 47 years between its mailing and delivery.
For whatever reasons, the letter was finally delivered to the correct address two weeks ago. Tommy Sheppard, of Lafayette and a friend of the home’s owner, set out on a mission to track down the letter writer. When he posted it on Facebook, I took the bait. After visiting with Sheppard and his wife, I began to search.
After initial searches had come up empty, I decided to ask Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux for help in finding a complete name. Comeaux was as interested in the mystery as I was and went beyond finding the homeowner’s name to doing a bit of online research to find some of his family’s names as well. We knew we had the right family because the letter mentioned “Rita,” — and this family had a daughter by that name.
One of the daughters died a few years ago. Her obituary provided the next clue that helped connect the dots — her husband’s first name. They had lived in Texas. He remarried, and his new wedding announcement gave me enough clues to find a phone number.
A lovely lady answered the phone. In as few and as un-creepy words as possible, I explained why I was calling. I told her I had found her wedding announcement. She told me they too had a beautiful love story. She also told me that Jace, the letter writer, was alive and well and living out West last she heard.
She offered to try and get him a message. I waited more than a day and didn’t hear from them. When I called back, I spoke with her husband. He was as nice as he could be and gave me a phone number for Jace. As an afterthought, he gave me an address too.
A lovely lady answered that number too. I began to explain the call. She said, “Honey, you’re calling Kentucky and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Fortunately, now I knew he lived in Arizona and realized the area code digits were transposed. I called the new number again and asked for Mr. Ray, the voice on the other end said, “He’s gone to the store.” I explained and was assured he would call back.
About an hour later, my phone rang.
“This is Jace Ray.”
Sometimes after searching long and hard for something, finding it doesn’t seem real. I explained the letter saga. He gave me his address in California from 1967. He gave me his parents’ address in Lafayette. He told me his sister’s name and explained her illness as a child.
I asked if he wanted to hear the letter. He did. When I finished reading the complete letter, there was silence on his end.
“Golly, I wrote that?” he said.
I said, “I believe you did.”
“Wow. Golly. That’s intense,” he said. “I’m sorry Dad didn’t get it.”
“I am too,” I said. “That’s why I wanted to find you — to let you know he never got the letter. I didn’t want you to think he knew all of this and didn’t respond.”
“Oh, he knew. Later in life, I told him. He passed away when he was 81. This letter was kind of a script to what I said later on,” he said.
I called Ray back a few days later after he had a chance to process the news.
He told me years after he wrote the letter — he and his dad had “the old man-to-man talk” on the back porch.
“Dad never told me he loved me,” he said. “He was of America’s greatest generation. He lived through the Depression. He was a man of few words, but I was really desperate to hear those words. I wanted to get his blessing as it were. Once I hugged him and told him I loved him. He said, ‘Me too, son,’”
And that was as close as he got, but as they were talking that day on the back porch, Ray said he had an epiphany.
“I was using some terminology and psychology words I’m sure my father wasn’t aware of,” he said. “Dad was sitting there smoking his pipe. All of a sudden, I had a revelation. Dad wasn’t very talkative, so instead of asking him about his feelings, we got to one syllable. I said, ‘Dad, was it OK with you that I ended up the way I have?’ He said, “Yeah, it was. You ended up a good man.’“
I asked Ray if he makes it a point to tell people he loves them.
“Oh yes, I do,” he said, “Linda, I love you,” he yelled to his wife.
I could hear her laugh through the phone and yell, “He tells me he loves me all the time.”
Ray laughed too.
“I make it a point of telling people I love them,” he said. “I ‘m not afraid of those words. In retrospect, I feel like I’ve got the strong, good qualities Dad had — I’m conscientious. I have a good work ethic. I speak the truth and walk in the light.”
“I’m sure your dad is proud,” I said. “He loved you.”
“Oh, I know he did,” Ray said.
On Monday, Sheppard sent the 47-year-old letter back across the country to its writer, this time by registered mail.
The last I spoke with Ray, the letter had yet to arrive.

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