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

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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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47-year-old letter leads to mystery


The letter was dated June 14, 1967.
An unknown postal worker had hand stamped the envelope and its .05 stamp: “PM JUN 15 1967 Garden Grove, Calif.”
What happened next remains a mystery, but the letter was finally delivered, with no fanfare, last week — a mere 47 years late.
Addressed to Mr. JB Ray, in a neat, artsy handwriting, with A’s that look more like triangles, the letter was delivered to the exact street address written on the envelope to a home in the River’s Bend neighborhood, here in Lafayette.
No one who lived in the home or any of the surrounding neighbors knew or remembered a Mr. JB Ray. Tommy Sheppard, a friend of the owner of the home, happened to be visiting when the postman nonchalantly delivered the letter.
The letter ignited something in Sheppard. With the homeowner’s blessings, he and his wife set about on a mission to find the letter’s rightful owner. First, he posted a picture of the envelope on Facebook, asking for help in finding Mr. JB Ray or anyone connected to him.
I saw the image and was mesmerized with the possibilities. I contacted Sheppard and went to see the letter.
“I didn’t want to read it,” Tommy said. “But my wife read it and said it was one of the most beautiful letters she had ever read.”
By the time I arrived, Tommy had decided to read the letter too.
“Jan, you’ve got to read this letter, and we’ve got to find these people,” he said.
That’s how I came to be the fourth person to read the letter since it was written more than 47 years ago. When they handed it to me, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the paper and the overall pristine condition of the envelope and letter.
“Where could this thing have been for all those years?” I asked myself. There wasn’t a tear or bent corner to be found.

Dear Dad,
Being alone you have plenty of time to think. You think about the turn of events that caused the past and question the present — and then you wonder about the future. … You’ve been the pillar of strength of our family. From the beginning with Rita’s illness, to the accident and other hardships, not to mention some I may not know about. Gray hair and wrinkles in the process but no weakness — just strength.
And maybe you’ve questioned your judgment and aren’t sure if you always did the correct thing. You’ve raised a family that’s devoted to each other and held together by love. This is the true criteria.
You’ve got what other men long for but never obtain. I’m not sure how I’ll turn out, Dad, but I can only hope that I’m half the man you are and that my children will love me as much as I do you.
It’s hard to write a feeling, but I’ve tried. I’ve thought about this letter a long time and, of course, Father’s Day would be the appropriate time to send it.
My only regret is that I’m not there with you to shake your hand and say, Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Your loving son

I agreed with Tommy — we had to find someone alive who was connected to this letter. In a perfect world, both parties would still be alive and well, but since the letter referenced gray hair in 1967, I knew that the father was likely not still around.
Maybe the son was — which made me wonder if he thought his father had received the letter and had not responded. Maybe I could find him to let him know the truth.
So, I set off on a wild goose chase to find him. The problem was he only used his dad’s initials in the address and didn’t sign the letter with his name.
Three days later, I had what I believed to be the letter writer’s phone number in hand, I called the number and a man answered.
I said, “Mr. Ray?”
The voice said, “He’s gone to the store…”

Come back next week to find out about Jan’s conversation with the man who wrote the letter to his dad back in 1967 — and the twists, turns and help along the way to find him.

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Turning into leaves of gold

Ginkgo leaves in Grand Coteau

Little evidence supports my illusions of a green thumb in and around my home. Even so, the lack of proof has never slowed my fascination with certain plants — especially orchids, maidenhair ferns, Gerber daisies, California poppies, hydrangeas and ginkgo trees, with the gingko tree being my favorite.
I first learned about the ginkgo tree the summer after my ninth grade at a horticulture camp at Mississippi State University.
Yes, you read that correctly. When I was 15, of my own volition, I spent a week at a “camp,” where we walked for miles and miles to look at specific plants (in July in Mississippi) and then went to botany and plant science classes the rest of the day.
I went to the camp, not out of any special interest at all, but because in a process I imagined to be as secret and ceremonial as a coronation, the Garden Club ladies from the small town where I grew up, selected one high school-aged girl to attend the camp each summer — and that year, they picked me.
With about 30 other kids about as interested in horticulture as I was, we trounced all over campus and in and out of laboratories. We saw rare plant specimens and learned about propagating, hybrids, splicing, canning fruit and winemaking.
On one tour, we stopped in front of a tree. I’m unsure why I remember almost every word the horticulturist said next, but I do.
“This tree is special. It is a living fossil, related to no other living plant. The ginkgo dates back 270 million years. Whatever killed the dinosaurs didn’t kill it. The trees originated in Asia, and the female trees produce nuts that are popular in some Asian dishes, but stinky from the tree. The tree’s fan-shaped leaves are distinct. It’s one of the slowest growing trees around, and it’s almost indestructible. In fact, some ginkgo trees actually survived the atomic blast that hit Hiroshima.”
Even though horticulture wasn’t my thing, the ginkgo tree was amazing.
A few years after the horticulture camp, I graduated high school and ended up attending Mississippi State as a student. Almost every day, I walked past the beautiful ginkgo tree I had learned about a few years earlier. As I passed it, I could almost hear the horticulturist saying, “This tree is special. It is a living fossil….”
However, when fall found the ginkgo tree and its beautiful leaves turned a shade of gold I had never known, my appreciation for the tree skyrocketed. In those golden days, the ginkgo became my tree. Like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, I dreamed of “Somewhere that’s green” and planting my very own ginkgo tree.
As it turns out, buying a gingko tree isn’t always easy. Once we moved to Louisiana in 2001, I began my quest for a ginkgo – at nurseries and online. I’m good at such searching, and I was rather relentless.
Even so, I came up empty handed every time. Time passed, but I never gave up on my ginkgo.
Nearly four years ago, my husband and I were struggling to decide where to send our daughters to school. I won’t go so far as to say it was the ginkgo tree in the circle drive in front of the Academy of the Sacred Heart that made the decision for us, but that tree certainly didn’t hurt. Learning that the Sacred Heart ginkgo was the oldest one in Louisiana was lagniappe. On our tour of the campus, I stood in front of the school, focusing on the ginkgo instead of the monumental live oaks.
About a year later, I attended Conge, the school’s spring festival. Away from the hubbub of the games and confetti eggs, the school hosts a plant sale. Various people donate plants. I was walking by the plant sale, on my way to get a glass of lemonade and happened to look down.
Much to my amazement and shock, I was looking at three little trees with fan-shaped leaves for sale.
I could barely speak and wondered if I was seeing clearly. I stuttered to the volunteer, who happened to be the Sacred Heart groundskeeper, “These are ginkgo trees?”
“Yes,” he said. “They’re $6 each.”
I could barely form words. “I’ll take them,” I said.
And I came home and planted my three waist-high gingko trees, remembering all the while that they’re one of the slowest growing trees on earth.
Even though my thumb isn’t very green, my ginkgos have survived. Almost every time I pass them, some little ginkgo-related memory sneaks in my head.
This late in the fall, all of the leaves have dropped from one of the trees and only a few remain on another. For some reason, the third tree still has 39 beautiful golden leaves clinging. I know that it’s just a matter of time until they fall too.
But come springtime, they’ll be back.

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Try the Gratitude Experiment


Last week, I found a list of stores that wouldn’t be open on Thanksgiving. I shared the list with friends saying that I wanted to make a special effort to do business with stores that chose to honor the holiday that I believe represents so much of what makes our country special.

My cousin, Melinda Henderson Kyzar, a missionary in Prague, sent a message agreeing with my assessment. Her dad was a missionary in Korea and the Philippines. Though she’s as American as can be, she has spent most of her life living in other countries.
After reading my list of stores, she sent me a message to say that she agrees. She said she was in the States for a few days recently looking for Thanksgiving decorations to take back to Prague
“I found it surprisingly difficult to find much because Christmas retail was already in full-swing. I wondered if America wasn’t going to give up Thanksgiving altogether one of these days,” she wrote.
She went on to ask if it wasn’t possible for us to keep one day set aside to give thanks and not make people work at retail stores?
“I have lived overseas for most of my life and have seen how foreigners have a fascination with American Thanksgiving. It is a unique holiday that is so much a part of the soul and emotions of Americans — that we can never adequately explain it to them. We need that day,” she said.
I believe she’s right. Gratitude is such a vital part of living an abundant and happy life. Scientists have proven time and again that being grateful simply makes people happier — and being grateful is something that we can actively work toward. It’s not like saying, “I need to be happier,” and then sit and try to be happy. Being grateful is active. We can demonstrate our gratitude to others. Being grateful can be practiced.
After years of research, psychologist John Gottman recently announced in a study that lasting relationships come down to two things — kindness and gratitude. Gottman and his wife have researched what makes relationships work for the past four decades, studying thousands of couples.
While the Gottmans research couples and relationships, I believe almost all lasting relationships come down to those two traits.
In my book, kindness is trickier that gratitude. Sometimes when I’ve sincerely tried to be kind, I later learn that my actions were misinterpreted. Don’t worry — that won’t stop my efforts toward kindness! However, my real point is that while gratitude may seem to be about what we offer others, it is so much more about what being grateful to others does for ourselves.
Gratitude makes us happier.
Gratitude makes us better friends.
Gratitude makes us better parents.
Gratitude makes us better children.
Gratitude makes us better employees.
Gratitude makes us better managers.
It just makes us better all the way around.
And this week, we have a whole day set aside to focus on being grateful. May each of us use this week and time to reinforce a daily practice of gratitude throughout the year.
Try an experiment of reminding yourself to say and demonstrate your thanks at least five times a day. Try to tell people thanks in real time – sincerely, but if you realize you haven’t said thanks to enough people before you go to bed, send them a thank you email. Whatever it takes, just be and show your gratefulness.
See what happens. I’d love to hear about your results.
Therefore, go and be grateful!

Email Jan Risher at

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