By Wendy Hodge
Her name was Gussie Coxwell. She was the twelfth of thirteen children. She grew up in the South when cotton was king and nobody had much of anything else to show for their years of labor – just cotton and children. She was almost six feet tall, thin but surprisingly strong… picking cotton will do that to you. She had more Native American DNA in her blood than anything else. She became a wife, a mother, and, eventually, a grandmother to nine. I was the youngest of those nine.
My grandmother and I spent many days together – mostly golden, hot summer days – out in the country. I watched her tend her garden, and I watched her cook. To this day, I can close my eyes and smell the air that hung over the kitchen table where she would lay out a feast for every meal. This was well before microwaves, and all the dishes were hot… at the same time!
I consider that now, as a microwave aficionado, to be nothing short of a miraculous gift.
There were times, many of them I’m sure, when my endless questions about so many subjects, must have driven her to distraction. But she was ever patient and calm. A favorite topic of mine was “Who Was the First To… ?” I ended that question a thousand different ways. “Who was the first to wear socks with their shoes?” “Who was the first person to say ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezed?” “Who was the first person who decided to light something on fire and try to smoke it?”
She would answer, sometimes with a laugh but always with a smile, “I’m sure I don’t know, Wendy Lynne.”
My other verbal hobby was to pose questions about the future. “What do you think I’ll look like when I’m 30?” (This seemed about as ancient as I could possibly ever get.) “Do you think people will ever live on the moon?” “Who will be the hundredth president of the United States?” “Will people still wear socks with their shoes in the year 2100?”
Looking back now, I realize that she must have sensed what I couldn’t fully communicate even to myself – I want to live forever…. Not out of some inflated sense of self-importance, but because I want to know. Everything. I’m outrageously curious and just plain nosy.
At the height of summer, the year I was 11 years old, my grandmother and I stood in her garden. In my memory, the air itself vibrated and shimmered with heat, and it was a golden light that left a halo around everything that stood still. I don’t remember how long we’d been standing there or how many questions I’d asked. But I do remember how she put her hand on my arm and locked her pale eyes on mine and said, “Wendy Lynne, today is the only day we’re standing in. Take a good, long look at it.”
Here I am, 40 years later, still hearing those words, still learning that lesson.
The other day, I was at a friend’s house, discussing a book she has written. We stood at her kitchen table, looking at illustrations and discussing how best to finish this project. She is a whirlwind of entrepreneurship, with so many irons in the fire and more energy than I have ever been able to conjure up. The two of us stood there, discussing all her business ventures, and then our talk turned to relationships, as it always seems to do when more than one woman is in the same room together. I heard myself saying, “I can’t wait for the day….” And she echoed that sentence, “It will be so nice when I finally…”
And I heard my grandmother’s voice interrupting… “Today is the only day we’re standing in.”
I shared that with my friend, with complete acknowledgement that I am nowhere near mastering this simple truth. We agreed, the two of us, that we have so much to be thankful for, so much to enjoy and to relish, and that we both need to be reminded to enjoy the moment.
It’s human nature, isn’t it, to think ahead… to look to the future…. to long for what is to come.
We speak longingly of ‘‘once we’re done with diapers,’’ ‘‘the day the kids are all in school,’’ ‘‘when they can drive themselves all over town’’ or ‘‘when I get that promotion,’ ‘when we buy that house,’’ ‘‘when I finally retire.’’
But life, our real and only life, happens in the day we’re standing in. It happens right now.
Learning to find the joy in this day, in this moment, is the key to being not just happy but also content. I am convinced of this.
And so, I drive every Saturday, in search of the unexpected and glorious. I stop and talk to people I’ve never met before in the hopes that they will share their story with me. I circle the block to hear the end of my favorite song on the radio. I go outside when it rains so that I can truly feel the weather.
Yes, I plan for the future. I look forward to living on the water in a far-away country with my best friend whom I love.
But I also sit across the table and look at his face on a Wednesday night when there isn’t much time and there are a thousand distractions, and I smile and count myself as lucky as I’ve ever been. I haven’t perfected this yet, but I’m learning. I’m still asking questions, but I am listening to the answers all around me.
Today is the only day I’m standing in. And I am standing with arms outstretched and heart wide open.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.