The Gift Of The Open Door

You won't know what is waiting for you...or who is waiting for you...until you find your way home.

In honor of Memorial Day, this post is dedicated to the men and women who bravely served our country, yet never got to come home. Perhaps someone will read this post today and say, “Come home,” to someone who has been waiting to hear those words.  Tomorrow may not allow the same opportunity.

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Whether you like dogs or not, it does not matter.

Whether you have witnessed a tornado or you haven’t, it does not matter.

This story is about a dog and a tornado, but there is more to it than that.

There is much more to it than that.

This story is about coming home. And there is not one person in the entire world that does not need to hear these words at least one time in his or her life.

If you find yourself here today, there is a reason.

I invite you to seek that reason within the words that I write today.

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*Out of respect for these individuals, names have been changed.

I have been heavily focused on the incredible survivors of the April 27th tornados that left a wake of destruction and suffering in the state in which I reside.

I can’t stop the tears when I see the indescribable damage and loss in my community that will take years and years to repair, and may still never be the same.

I can’t stop the tears when I hear the astonishing stories of survival that people miraculously lived to tell.

And for some reason the story of Shelby The Dog has left a lasting impression on me.

This is Shelby’s story, yet it is more than a dog story, and it is more than a tornado story. It is a story we all need to hear…

In the wake of the destructive tornado on April 27th, my husband, Scott, chose to be trained as a leader of an UMCOR Early Response Team. His UMCOR team was among the first to assist tornado survivors at the location of their home, or in some cases, where their home used to be.

Before his team could help clear debris and sift through the wreckage to find valuable family mementos, the team was required to obtain permission from the homeowner.

Through this initial conversation with the owner, my husband was granted an invitation into the most painful, horrific, and miraculous stories of survival and faith.

I will never forget the night my husband came home and told me the story of Mr. Frank*.

Mr. Frank lived in a remote, rural area north of Tuscaloosa. He lived on a meandering country road that held five long-standing homes. All the homeowners were related to each other, except for Frank and his wife, Betty*.

In preparation of the EF5 tornado predicted for his area, Mr. Frank and Betty went to a designated tornado shelter. This decision undoubtedly saved their lives, as all five houses on their road were leveled by the mile-wide tornado. Tragically, the lives of several of his beloved neighbors were taken.

Mr. Frank had not been able to take his dogs with him to the shelter. Thus, the first thing he did upon return to his demolished home was look for his two dogs.

He immediately found one that did not survive the storm. His other dog, Shelby, could not be located.

Mr. Frank and his wife returned to the site of their desecrated home each day. Despite being in a state of shock, they were forced to comb through the massive heap of rubble in an attempt to recover a mere shred of something valuable from their past.

What is left of Mr. Frank's home can be seen here.

But there was just one thing Mr. Frank was desperate to find. He wanted to find Shelby, dead or alive; he just wanted to know where she was.

Then one morning, five days after the dog had been carried away by the storm, Mr. Frank got down on his knees and prayed for the return of his dog. He was willing to accept if the dog was dead; he just wanted his dog back.

A few hours later, a small black dot appeared just on top of the hill that overlooked Mr. Frank’s house.

It was Shelby.

With an unbelievable amount of strength after the trauma she had endured, she came running down the hill into her master’s open arms.

Mr. Frank was not able to tell my husband that story without crying. He surmised that Shelby had ridden the storm for miles and miles. Wherever that storm took her required at least a five-day journey to return home.

She was now more than simply “Shelby The Dog.” She was now famously known as “Shelby The Miracle Dog.”

As Mr. Frank lovingly held Shelby in his arms against the background of mass destruction that surrounded him, you could easily see he was holding much more than simply a dog he loved.

Mr. Frank was holding his living, breathing, tangible sign of hope. Despite all odds, Shelby was alive; Shelby came home.

If you are like me, you have tears in your eyes right now. For some reason, this story causes me to become very emotional every single time I think about it.

I do like animals, but it’s not like I am a huge dog lover. For several weeks, I tried to figure out why this story meant so much to me. These questions haunted me:

Why did you write, “Dog flying in tornado came home” in your writing notebook and circle it in red pen?

Why have you been waking up at night feeling the need to tell the world about Shelby?

Why does this story mean so much?

I did not know the answer…until yesterday.

Yesterday I had a vivid flashback to my senior year in high school. I was sitting on my bed and my mom came in the room to talk to me.

(Keep in mind, I was not the easiest teenager. I was in the stage where I only allowed my parents minimal interaction with me, was not overly friendly, and appeared annoyed by anything they had to say.)

Yet, despite the fact that I was a self-centered, difficult brat, I was not so self-absorbed to realize what my mom was saying to me was huge.

I can still hear her voice, her inflection, as she said these monumental words: “Rachel, I want you to know that no matter what you do, your dad and I will always love you. No matter what happens, you can always come home.”

I nodded and said, “O.K.,” pretty much acting like it was no big deal.

But I knew it was a big deal.

It was a big deal because she meant it. She meant every word like it was her heart and soul.

I was her heart and soul…that is what she was telling me.

I now knew that even if I got myself into a mess of trouble…drug addition, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, it would not be the end.

I now knew that even if I made a horrible, stupid, costly mistake, I would not be discarded, unwanted, and abandoned like trash.

In the breath of two mere sentences, I became fully aware of just how much my parents loved me. And suddenly my doubts and fears about being “good enough” or “perfect” were put to rest.

My parents loved me because of who I was, not because of what I did or didn’t do.

What a gift I was given… the gift of an open door. No matter what, I can always come home.

And now, I long for the day when I can speak the same two sentences to my own daughters.

And I know exactly how I will tell them.

I will share the story of Shelby The Miracle Dog. Then I will say this:

No matter how tattered and torn you are, no matter how many wrong turns you have taken, no matter how far off the beaten path you have gone…you will never be lost. My precious daughters, I will never stop loving you. No matter what happens, you can always come home; I will always be waiting for you with open arms.

I am simply the messenger on this journey to grasp what really matters. It is by the grace of God, Mr. Frank and Shelby the dog that I have this message to give. And today’s message, which has been placed upon my heart for someone who is reading these words today, is this:

Even if you think you are not good enough,

Even if you think you have made too many mistakes.

Even if you think you are a lost cause,

Even if you think you burned too many bridges,

Even if you think you do not measure up,

Even if think you have used up all your chances,

Even if you think it’s too late,

I have news for you.

It’s not too late to come home.

It’s not too late to come to that place of loving forgiveness and acceptance. Whether that place is in your own heart or in the heart of someone you loved and lost, it’s never too late to open your arms and let the healing begin.

You may be tattered and torn.

You may have walked some very painful miles.

But you won’t know what is waiting for you…or who is waiting for you…until you make your way home.

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*If you are reading this today and have a child or a teenager, give them the gift of the open door. Don’t wait to tell him or her that you will love them always, no matter what. Tell them today.

*If you are reading this and have been estranged from someone you love, there’s a chance that…

Someone may be waiting to hear your voice.

Someone may be waiting to hold you in her arms.

Someone may be waiting to say, “I’m sorry.”

Take the first step. Walk toward that person with whom you have been estranged. Reach out your hand and ask him or her to come home.

*If you are reading this and have deprived yourself of full and complete happiness and love because you have not felt “good enough” or worthy enough, isn’t it time to come home?

To everyone reading this: Life is too short to fold your arms. Open them like Mr. Frank did when he saw Shelby run down the hill and collapse into his arms. It’s never too late to find that place of loving forgiveness and acceptance; it’s never too late to come home.

If you feel this is a worthy message, please share it.

Did You Get The Memo?

The readers of this blog have been doing something I wasn’t expecting.

But as I have discovered on this journey, the most meaningful things come unplanned; the most powerful things come unexpectedly.

This is YOUR story…

A few weeks ago I learned that my blog was brought up during a business meeting.

Apparently someone mentioned being overwhelmed by commitments, communication overload, and the inability to enjoy their family time.

“Have any of you read Hands Free Mama?” One of my readers asked the group.

When they shook their heads no, she immediately went to a computer and pulled up the blog entry entitled, “Dear Distracted Dad.”

She printed it, copied it, and distributed it to the curious group.

Once everyone read the entry, she said, “Now let me tell you my story.”

This is what she said:

When my son asked me to go on his field trip, I had no intention of taking an entire day off to spend thirteen hours on a field trip. But he was very persistent, and I finally gave in. This post, “Dear Distracted Dad,” deeply resonated with me when I initially read it. I saw myself in him! So I knew what I had to do. I took the day off, told my assistant not to call me unless it was a real emergency, and left my phone in the car for the entire day.

My son quickly realized that I didn’t have my Blackberry.  He commented that he couldn’t believe I wasn’t on my phone, and then he actually thanked me. That is when I realized how critical it was that I went on this trip and more importantly, that I truly spent the day with HIM.

This person did not have to share her story with the group, but she did. Why? Because the simple act of putting away her phone for the day made a profound impact on her child. And once you feel the powerful connection created by being Hands Free, you want others to feel it, too.

When you cross over into the joy that is Hands Free, you want others to come with you. It happens to me every day. And it’s happening to you.

A day later, I received this message from a reader:

I was driving home from my mom’s house the other day when I saw a beautiful little girl jumping on a trampoline in her back yard. She had the most beautiful curly blonde hair. I had to stop my car for a few moments just to watch her. She was in complete bliss – bouncing up and down on her trampoline with her curls just flying wildly. It made me happy to see that much “pure” happiness in her.

I was hoping that her mother was standing in her kitchen… looking out the window at her lovely, happy child in the backyard.

Just in case she wasn’t… I pulled around to the front of the house and left one of my business cards tucked under the “flag” on her mailbox. I wrote handsfreemama.com on the back in big red letters.

I hope the next time I drive past their house that I see both of them jumping on the trampoline.

This reader did not have to leave my website address on that mailbox, but she did. Why? Because her eyes have been opened to the beauty found in the simple, every day moments, like pure elation on a child’s face. And she realizes these moments must be savored before they are gone, never be retrieved again. And once that realization happens to you, you want others to have it, too.

When you cross over into the joy that is Hands Free, you want others to come with you. It happens to me every day. And it’s happening to you.

One of my readers tried to describe the Hands Free concept to her retired father, but she could only cry. Through her tears, she said, “Could you imagine what it would mean if we could really live like this?”

Her father’s profound, yet disturbing, response was this: “Your generation has reached a true crossroads in the Information Age. The pace of progress has dismembered us as humans.  Our ability to connect with people is withering.  We long for this calm presence of mind that we must willfully work to get.”

When I initially read his comment, I was speechless. I felt overwhelming sadness and despair. I couldn’t take my eyes off the word “dismembered.”

Helpless thoughts filled my head and weighed heavy on my heart. We have lost control of our lives; it is too late for us.  The warp speed pace we keep, our tightly packed schedules, and our obsession with technology is the norm now; we are too far-gone to come back.

But then like a tiny beacon of hope, I thought of the woman who passed out my blog entry at the business meeting. I thought of the woman who left my website address on the mailbox. I thought of the way my inbox fills with messages like, “Please keep writing!” and “Thank you for changing my life. Someday my children will thank you, too.”

And that is when I realized there is hope for our generation and hope for the children of our generation.

Being Hands Free is not just what I want. Others are longing to hear this message, too. And once they do, they hold on to it just long enough to feel its impact, and then they graciously pass it on to someone else.

In your hands, the message to grasp what really matters is multiplied…

If you have ever clicked the “share” button,

If you have ever forwarded one of my posts via email,

If you have ever posted my website on your Facebook page,

If you have ever written about Hands Free Mama on your own blog,

If you have ever “tweeted” one of my posts via Twitter,

If you have ever told someone to check out my website, you are the reason…

You are the reason that a child was the focus of dinner conversation instead of the screen of a Blackberry.

You are the reason that a child was tucked into bed with a story and “Talk Time” instead of being rushed away.

You are the reason that someone talked to her child in the car instead of talking on the phone.

You are the reason a family drew closer, a couple reconnected, a grandparent was listened to, and a mail carrier was blessed.

You are the reason that instead of continuing to be dismembered, fractured, incomplete, distracted, unfocused, and disconnected, someone is starting to become peacefully whole.

Like me, you have discovered the joy found in living Hands Free is too good to keep to yourself. Like me, you want to live in a world where grasping what matters is more important than holding tightly to perfection, distraction, and the insignificant.

I didn’t expect to have so much company on my journey to go Hands Free. But now, I can’t imagine walking this path alone.

In your hands, this message has a chance to alter life as we know it.

And I see something peaceful, something real, something stunningly beautiful just upon the horizon.

And I know you see it, too.

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Memorial Day weekend is just around the corner. Make it a weekend worth remembering!  Choose one idea from this list of Hands Free tactics and do it this weekend. Now spread the love of The Hands Free Revolution by clicking the “share” button below and let someone else know about the joy found in living a Hands Free life!

The life-changing possibilities of these two actions are endless. What a gift you hold in your hands. Thank you for being a part of the The Hands Free Revolution!

Shells of Change

Shells of Change

We are merely shells until we are filled,
Inner greed and self-obsession silently killed.

We are merely shells until we are washed clean,
Soothing painful scars and hurts unseen.

We are merely shells until we are shining in the sun,
The moment two hands stretch to become one.

We are merely shells until we are held upon an ear,
Whispering, “Shhhh…I’ll quiet your fears.”

We are merely shells until we are polished by a wave,
Radiantly beaming from each life that we save.

We are merely shells until change comes from our hand,
Calming the mighty winds that shift the fragile sand.

I have learned on this journey to live Hands Free that the most meaningful things are unplanned. The things that matter most simply unfold if you let them.

This was not the post I planned to write today, but the words found their way to paper because I could not stop them from coming.

There is a reason.

The inspiration for this poem came from talented artist and writer named Barb Black. She lives in Washington. I live in Alabama. She does not know me; I do not know her, but we were brought together by a storm. I translated Alabama’s tears into words; she reached out to wipe them.

Barb has designed a beautiful note card entitled, “The Winds of Change,” for the survivors of the devastating tornados that hit Alabama on April 27th.  The proceeds of the cards will directly impact two families that have lost more than words can describe in this post. You can read more about Barb’s beautiful gesture here.

Barb’s name was #27 on The Alabama Angel Impact List that I have been keeping since April 27th.

There is a reason.

And you can bet this Hands Free Mama will take time to say “thank you” in a post that has yet to unfold; I am still processing it in my dreams. (Those are the best ones.)

But for now, I leave you with this:

Have you filled your shell today?

Have you filled someone else’s shell today?

You might find, like the 27 angels on my list, that when you go to fill someone else’s shell, you end up filling your own.

That’s just how it works.

Isn’t it beautiful?

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We are all called at some point to reach out to someone in pain. Perhaps the Alabama tornado tragedy has not been the right time for you. No worries, for your chance will come, my friend. There will be more storms, figuratively and literally that will bring a chance for you to reach out. In fact, I am certain there is a storm going on in someone’s life at this very moment; someone you know is going through a storm every single day of the year. Find out who it is and then fill…fill…fill…that empty shell. And watch as your shell begins to shine like never before.

*If you are interested in purchasing a set of the individually hand made “Shells of Change,” note cards click here.

The Trip To Nowhere

You don't need a navigation system to go to this place of critical awareness.

What I am about to tell you may surprise you.

It is not something I like to advertise about myself. In fact, very few people know this about me.

I have a problem, but I have managed to hide it well.

Yet, in order to share this story, I must divulge this little known personal fact and allow you to “Take a Look In My Closet.”

And once you hear this, you may never want to ride in the car with me.

You will never want to follow me to a destination.

You will never again ask me for directions.

You see, my sense of direction is terrible. Actually, it is worse than terrible. My sense of direction is non-existent.  I may be the only person in the world who can get lost despite having a navigation system, a map, and written directions.

It’s that bad.

And you want to know the really sad part? I have spent my whole life watching my sister navigate with ease.

At age five, she looked at a map for 30 seconds and began directing the entire family around Disney World, including the eleven foreign countries of Epcot. Twenty-five years later we return to the Magic Kingdom with my children and my sister calls out to her nieces, “Don’t bother with a map! Aunt Rebecca remembers where everything is located!”

My sister got the Supersize Sense of Direction Gene. And what little tiny shred of directional sense I started with has been slowly drained away each time I got lost.

The last little bit of directional sense I owned was completely sucked away three weeks ago when my four-year-old had to remind me that I parked on the other side of the outlet mall when I clutched her hand tightly and screamed, “I think our car has been stolen!” (It’s true. I can’t make this stuff up.)

But it wasn’t until recently that I made the worst navigational flub in even my own long history of embarrassing wrong turns and directional mishaps.

And sadly, I took three little innocent victims with me in the process.

Although this story does not illustrate one of my shining moments, the lesson I received in the process surpasses my need for self-preservation.

For it is in the moments that I want to scream, “This is not what I had planned!” that my greatest Hands Free revelations come to light.

For it is in the moments that I become lost, something far greater has a chance to be found.

This is my story…

I recently got to be a chaperone on my daughter’s preschool field trip to a precious farm that was about 45 minutes north of our city.

Several mothers and fathers drove students to the farm in their personal vehicles.

As I mentioned earlier, I hide my “problem” well by learning to compensate. Not only do I have a navigation system, but I always MapQuest my destination before I go. Plus, the preschool staff kindly handed out written directions. I refer to that trio of navigation as “The Triple Threat” and never drive to an unknown location without them.

I had the pleasure of transporting my four-year-old daughter and two precious little boys.  One of them was way smarter than most four-year-olds I have ever encountered. He had many opinions, which he impressively backed up with riveting facts. He was there to teach and inform, whether we liked it or not. He reminded me of my college history professor that had a similar cowlick. From here on out, I will refer to this boy as “Little Professor.”

Then there was this teeny tiny little soft spoken boy. He was agreeable to anything and everything. He nodded “yes” and “no” and always remembered “please” and “thank you.” I will refer to him as “Bambi” in my story because he truly was that sweet.

Then there was my laid back daughter who is the best car rider in the whole world. As soon as the car begins to move her thumb goes right into her mouth. I will call her “Easy Rider.”

The field trip had concluded. It had been a great day. The weather was perfect; the owners of the farm were warm and inviting. The animals fully cooperated with the small people who offered feed from their sweaty little hands. No one got stung by a bee or had to go home with wet pants.

Cars began departing the parking lot. My three passengers all wanted to buckle themselves, so I practiced “Waiting Joyfully” as they did so.

Within two short minutes all the other cars were gone. I got a little panicky feeling in my gut.

What if I get lost?

But then I reminded myself I was armed with “The Triple Threat” and confidently told myself I would be fine. I could get us home. No problem.

I hopped on the interstate and began to drive. And drive. And drive.

I thought to myself, we should be getting close to home now.

(Now I am not making excuses here, well, I guess maybe I am, but please keep in mind I did not grow up here. I have lived in this area for three years and have not ventured around the state much at all. However, when I saw a sign for a town that I knew was in the OPPOSITE direction of my home, I knew I had a made a terrible mistake.)

I pulled off. The children, who had been chatting nicely with each other (except for the thumb sucker who was now looking glazed over), suddenly sat up and looked out the window.

“Uh…Miss Rachel…” Little Professor was the first to speak up.

He broke the bad news to me ever so gently, “I think you went the wrong way.”

Then Bambi in a meek and bewildered voice, “Are we lost?”

Then Easy Rider, “Mama, are we almost home? I am tired.”

I knew it would be best to remain calm, so I had to take a few breaths before I responded. I did not want the children to return home with a new list of vocabulary words that would have made Bambi’s grandmother blush profusely.

Unfortunately, profane words are about the only words that come to mind when you realize you just drove the WRONG WAY for 45 minutes!!!!

But I managed to swallow the curse words and exhaled slowly.

I released the death grip on the steering wheel and wiped the sweat from my forehead.

I took my foot off the gas, resisting the urge to drop the pedal to the floor and squeal my tires as I merged into southbound traffic.

“Kids,” I calmly informed them, “Miss Rachel went the wrong way. We are not lost. I know where we are, but it is going to take a little time…I mean…a LONG time…to get home.”

I let them know that I would call their teacher and she would call their parents so they would not worry.

Then I said this to them, or maybe it was more to myself, “Everything will be alright.”

I thought they would fuss. I thought they would whine. I thought they would pout. I was certain one of them would angrily demand to see my driver’s license.

But they didn’t. Not a peep. They sat there like perfect little angels.

The only one whining, fussing, and pouting was the Big Baby behind the steering wheel.

In my mind, a huge melt down was taking place…

I thought about that one precious hour I was supposed to have at home that was now gone.

I thought of all the things I had planned to accomplish in that one hour that would now have to wait.

I berated my navigation system and considered throwing it out the window.

I said some not so nice things to my brain, which I felt had so badly failed me.

I complained about being tired and cursed my lack of insight to put some Diet Coke in the car in case of dire emergencies such as this one!

I whined about having to drive for another 90 minutes when all I wanted was to be home.

And then suddenly, I looked in my rear view mirror. And what was staring back at me snapped me back into reality; it was the Hands Free Slap In The Face that I desperately needed at that moment.

There sat three beautiful, healthy, completely original, adorable and positively brilliant children who continued to chat and look out the window as if they were happily riding the train to visit Santa at the North Pole.

You would have never guessed they had just been subjected to a 45 minute ride to Nowhere, only to be informed that we would not be getting out, simply turning around to travel back home from Nowhere for 90 minutes!!!

Finally Control-Freak-Plan-Everything-to-the-Last-Minute-Obsessive-Compulsive-Fly Off-The-Handle-When-Something-Goes-Amiss Drill Sergeant Rachel shut up just long enough to hear her calm and logical Hands Free inner voice pipe up with a few questions:

When do you have 90 minutes of exclusive, non-distracted time to talk with your child and her dear little friends? When do you have 90 minutes to know the inner workings of their creative little brains? When do you have 90 minutes to not be anywhere but where you currently are, enjoying THIS moment that has been gifted to you?

Now. You have it now. And you may never have it again.

So stop wasting this PRECIOUS time complaining about what could have been. And start enjoying what IS.

Perhaps this could be the best mistake of your life, Rachel.

And then in my cheerful teacher voice I announced we would be playing a game to pass the time.

Really? We will? Could that really be me? (Drill Sergeant Rachel often doesn’t know when to quit.)

I gave them a letter of the alphabet and they had to think of a food that began with that letter. They thought of all kinds of interesting and delicious foods.

With food words like pepperoni, pretzels, and popsicles the mile markers came quickly.

Then we moved on to animals. They named animals they had seen that day on the farm. They thought of animals they have longed to see in real life. They named animals that were just funny words to say.

With animal words like monkey, mongoose, and muskrat the laughter came easily.

And after that we moved on to movie characters, which was Easy Rider’s forte. She even forgot about how much she loved her thumb to participate in this discussion.

With names like Captain Underpants, Cat Woman, and Care Bears, time and place completely disappeared, only the here and now remained.

In fact, I forgot my own agenda; I was absorbed into the moment, the sacred moment that I held in my hand and had almost tossed away in frustration and anger.

I decided this experience might be one of my best Hands Free lessons thus far. And my “teachers” were all under the age of five, less than four feet tall, and often chew with their mouths open. But they knew things that I didn’t about surviving…no, make that thriving, in times of frustration and hostility.

The Lessons of the Little People:

*Always look at the bright side. Or as Bambi put it, “At least we didn’t drive all the way to California.”

*Games make you forget that you are in a car. Or as Easy Rider put it, “Oh no! We are home already. Can we keep driving so we can keep playing?”

*You don’t need technology to occupy yourself. Or as Little Professor put it, “This is TV Free Week; we cannot watch a movie or we will all kill our brain cells.”

And finally,

*If you find that you are lost, might as well make the most of it. Or as Bambi said, “This was fun being lost with you, Miss Rachel. Can I ride in your car again?”

Just look what I found when I ended up in a place I thought I didn’t want to be.

I am so glad I didn’t miss this trip…the priceless trip to Nowhere.

In fact, I think I will make a point to return to that wondrous place again soon.

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Next time you find yourself in a place you really didn’t want to be or didn’t plan to be…open your eyes, open your heart, and open your mind. Maybe this is exactly where you are supposed to be.

Some Rain Got In

I didn’t want my four-year-old daughter to be thrust into the agonizing side of reality, not this soon.

I knew this day would come, as it has for all of us, but I wanted to shield her from the pain of loss, the finality of death, and the worry of the unknown for just a bit longer.

But there are things I cannot control, so I am trying to see the positive.

Twenty days ago, I would not have been able to tell this story. But today I can.

And there is a reason.

Whether the “storm” you or your child faces is literal or figurative, may this message remind you that from within the painful depths of a scar, light can be found.

Bring on the light.

This is my story…

In the minutes after an EF2 tornado tore through my neighborhood upsetting the balance of tranquility and safety, my neighbors ran out of their homes. People began immediately surveying damage, moving fallen trees, removing mangled trampolines from unbelievable places, and placing tarps over punctured roofs and blown out windows.

All three exits and entrances to our community were impassable, so the only help we had was from each other.

Whether your own home had damage or not, everyone came outside. There was a need to be simply together, either assisting one another or processing what had taken us all by complete surprise.

Since there was no school, no electricity, and limited phone access, my daughters and I walked around the neighborhood for several hours, stopping to ask people how they were doing and asking them whether or not they had suffered damage.

As we walked, we continually spotted sights that made us gasp. It is not every day you see enormous, historic old trees completely uprooted like matchsticks along our daily thoroughfare. Suddenly you realize how truly small and vulnerable you are.

It was the trees without tops that disturbed my oldest daughter.

She said, “It looks like a huge axe came through and chopped off their loveliest part, Mama.”

My youngest daughter was especially perplexed by our good friends’ loss of their chimney. She perseverated on the fact that the tornado had just blown their chimney right off. It became her job to check every home we passed to see if they still had one.

If she couldn’t spot a chimney, she would point her little finger and with utter dismay report, “Their chimney blewed right off, Mama!”

She then was quick to note if they had a hole in their roof or missing shingles. Little did I know that surveying roof damage would become her latest obsession since Polly Pockets.

Later that evening a tornado of epic proportions was predicted for our area. This time we were prepared in the basement with a surplus of flashlights, a battery operated weather radio, water, and other necessities.

Thankfully, my husband was with us this time and had the insight to also gather our bicycle helmets, (which I take this opportunity to make a public apology to him for joking about his thoughtful, perhaps life-saving, action).

While many precious lives were lost, destroyed, and turned upside down in those horrific hours, my family remained safe, unharmed, and untouched. I am determined not to go a day without being thankful for that fact.

Our home and our possessions were intact; yet, it saddens me to realize that something was lost.

My four-year-old child’s perception that life is safe, predictable, and void of devastation and pain was completely wiped away.

I would like to deny this truth. I would like to say I am over-reacting. But I can’t and this is why…

Here is the new reality:

*My daughter doesn’t say “Nortado” anymore. She pronounces “Tornado” perfectly. It is now part of her frame of reference. She knows how to say it, what it does, and how it can literally tear life and limb from its innocent bystanders. Furthermore, she uses the words “destroy,” “dead,” and “orphan,” like they have always been part of her vocabulary.

*My daughter doesn’t live in the world of Disney movie endings anymore. She now knows that a kiss or a magic potion cannot bring people back to life once they have died. She knows many people were killed in the storm…even Mommies, even Daddies, even little children just like her.

*My daughter no longer believes that just because we live in a brick home we are safe from the destruction of the outside world.  She saw with her own eyes that strong wind, flying debris and falling trees can make their way into the safe sanctuary of our walls. Furthermore, she heard her mother cry out to God, the only One who could protect them when all other sources of protection are futile.

*My daughter no longer thinks everything can be repaired instantly or return to “good as new” condition. She monitors the roof damage on certain houses in our neighborhood and asks me to drive by them daily. She is terribly disappointed to see many are still not repaired or that some are only half way finished. She now knows damage like this takes time and effort to repair. And she is sadly aware that some places, some people, and many lives will never be what they were before.

But then there is also this…

*My daughter doesn’t think she is too little to make a difference to someone in pain.

*My daughter realizes she has far too much and it is her DUTY to give some of it to someone who has less.

My daughter welcomed the opportunity to give her beloved princess dresses and special toys to a three-year-old girl who lost her home and all her possessions.

*My daughter now knows that when it is all said and done, she doesn’t want “stuff” in her hands; she wants a hand in her hand.

*My daughter now knows that if she were hurt or abandoned, God would send angels to come to her aid.

*My daughter knows she holds the words to ease someone else’s pain, and this is the gift she was meant to give in her lifetime on earth.

My daughter sang "Amazing Grace" to two little tornado survivors and their grandmother.

Those are the things I try to focus on when I wake up in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face as I try to shut out the heart breaking stories and scenes of loss that are now engraved inside my brain.

And like my daughter, I too, am fixated on the blue tarps that still sit atop my neighbor’s roofs.

I find myself repeating this mantra:

A hole was made. Some rain got in…but so did some sunshine, so did some sunshine.

Then I think about my daughter’s heart:

A hole was made. Some pain got in. But so did some compassion.

And so did a greater understanding about the preciousness of life.

And so did her desire to help someone else in only the way that she can.

This was not the way I wanted her to learn these valuable lessons. This was not something I would have chosen for my daughter, for my neighbors, for the good people of my state.

But it happened. And you better believe I will use it for good.

A crack was made.

Some rain got in.

But now out of that very crack, light has come pouring out.

May my child’s newfound light shine where it is most needed.

Bring on the light.

********************************************************************

I think we can all agree that life can be cruel, throwing us challenges and heartaches when we least expect it. It can be tough on us as adults, but we tend to worry most about how these experiences affect our children.

It may not be a tornado, but there are plenty of destructive forces that can change lives in a moment…divorce, disease, loss, death, financial problems, the list is long and devastating. But instead of seeing the scars upon our children (or on yourself) as purely negative, try and see the positive. Focus on the opportunity for growth, increased strength and character, and a chance to ignite a newfound compassion that did not exist before.

From the site of the scar a beautiful light can come pouring out. And the light might just be bright enough to heal a broken heart.

No Thanks Necessary

The week before Easter, I had a proposal for the good people of The Hands Free Revolution. I asked that we ban together and collectively recognize those who are underappreciated and often forgotten.

And our targets were the faithful trash collectors and mail carriers that diligently serve us in rain, shine, sleet, and snow every single day.

I asked that your family choose one day of the week leading up to Easter to leave a small token of appreciation on your trash container or in your mailbox. I made this request in a post entitled, “There Will Be Tears.

It was my hope that our gestures would touch someone’s heart to the deepest level, the level at which emotion is so moving it is revealed through one’s tears.

And happy tears are the best kind of tears.

My daughters and I had recently left treats for our trash collectors and mail carrier on Valentine’s Day, (you can read about the amazing results of that action in “The Clean Lines of a Loving Heart”). Yet, the girls were excited to do it again, this time uniting with our entire neighborhood and possibly with my blog readers from all over the world!

They were excited about the possibilities, and so was I.

In my neighborhood, Thursday, April 21st was the day.

Unfortunately, it happened to be one of those mornings. (You know the kind of morning where you are surprised that one of your children is not dropped off at school with a disoriented expression, still in her pajamas, sporting major bed-head, munching on a Pop-Tart.)

Well, at least we managed to get the two Easter baskets to the end of the driveway and another one safely tucked inside the mailbox.

But aside from depositing the treats in their proper location, every other intention I had that morning managed to slip right through my fingers.

I planned to catch the garbage collectors en route and witness their surprised reactions first hand.

 

It didn’t happen.

I planned to drive around the neighborhood and take pictures of the colorful gifts that sprinkled life onto the dismal, gray trash containers.

It didn’t happen.

I planned to stop at each treat, read the children’s beautiful notes (while wiping away tears), and admire every creative illustration.

It didn’t happen.

I planned to hug the life out of Mrs. Jackie, my mail carrier, when she delivered my mail.

It didn’t happen.

I had all the best intentions. But yet,

I didn’t get to see their joyful faces.

I did not get to see the precious hand-made cards.

I did not take any photos showing the incredible number of participants in this community gesture.

I did not get to see the results of our actions.

I did not get to see how it all turned out.

And I didn’t get to see if there were any tears.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

I felt like I truly let you all down. Everyone wants to hear how the gift is received. Everyone wants to hear the happy ending.

But then my Hands Free inner voice came to my rescue. (For as many times as that voice can annoy me with ridiculous requests, it does manage to keep Control-Freak Excessive Planner Extraordinaire Rachel in check.)

And this is the poignant reminder I received from my Hands Free inner voice:

A multitude of children just spent the last several days shopping, baking, icing, creating, stuffing, writing, drawing, and even praying for complete strangers.

These children did not do this because they were going to “get” something; they did not expect to have a reciprocated Easter basket on their doorstep when they got home from school; the thought of a “thank you note” from the trash man didn’t even cross their mind. Those are not the reasons why they did it.

The reason they made treats and set them in an unusual place was for one simple reason.

They did it to make someone happy.

Pure and simple. No strings attached. No “thanks” necessary. Just wanted to make someone smile.

That’s all.

(If that is not a lesson for the Hands Free Mama in training, I don’t know what is.)

Now this…THIS….is exactly how I want to live my life: Expressing love and kindness to those around me without expecting anything in return, without expecting a reciprocated favor, without waiting for a thank you… simply expressing acts of kindness to others because it is the right thing to do. Because that is how I would like to be treated. Because exhibiting love toward someone else without a hidden agenda is a generous and content way to live.

And if these children could set their gifts upon the trash can with the mere satisfaction that they PROBABLY made someone’s day, then surely I could be satisfied with that, too.

Now at this point, I could wrap this baby up and tie it with a bow.

But there is more to the story. And it is too good not to share.

As I have seen time and time again on this journey, the best things come from the unplanned. The most meaningful things are unexpected. The best things come when I simply let things BE, when I let them unfold the way they were meant to unfold.

A few days after I let go of the need to know how everything turned out, I received this message from a dear neighbor:

I just happened to see Miss Jackie on the day of her surprise and wanted to tell you about it…

Miss Jackie pulled up in our driveway to give me a package. My three-year-old son and I came out with her Easter basket.  She began to cry. Through her tears, she said, “I have never experienced so much love and gratitude from a neighborhood like this before.”

Then she opened the door to her truck. There stood a heaping pile of cards and gifts.

She pointed to the abundance and said, “This is better than Christmas! Y’all have blessed me! Y’all have blessed me so much. You just don’t even know.”

And then she began to cry again.

The next day, I opened the mailbox to find this:

Our sweet mail carrier had written a thank you note to the multitude of families who had given her a treat that day, even taking time to lovingly attach a purple curled ribbon on the outside of every card.

Even though I fully realized that the beautiful outcome of this gesture of kindness was not the part that mattered, I will admit it is nice to know…

It is nice to know that most people want to be a part of making someone’s day.

It is nice to know that children still choose card making and cookie baking over video games and iPads.

It is nice to know how easy it is to touch someone’s life.

It is nice to know parents welcome the opportunity to teach their children the importance of kindness.

It is nice to know the power of many hands coming together toward one goal.

It is nice to know people still write thank you notes.

It is nice to know that little things do mean a lot.

It is nice to know there are still happy endings…even if you don’t always get to see them. 

Oh yes, and it is nice to know people still shed tears.

It sure is nice to know that yes indeed, just as I hoped, there were tears.

And they were the happy kind.

*************************************************************************

If you think this is a worthy message, please click the “share” button below. In your hands, this message holds the power to touch the lives of hundreds of people who are often forgotten and unappreciated. It doesn’t take much to spread a little love … whether you see the happy ending or not. 

Visit “The Hands Free Revolution” on Facebook for more inspiration and tips on how to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters in life!

Walk By Faith

What can be learned from the incredible tornado survivors of April 27th is a lesson for anyone who wants to make every moment in life count.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of these incredible souls.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog entry entitled, “There Is A Reason.” In it, I let readers know they could expect to see some posts that have derived from experiences I have had regarding the tornados which occurred on April 27th that killed about 350 people and injured thousands more across seven states.

I hoped to make it clear that you did not have to be directly (or even indirectly, for that matter) impacted by the tornados to gain from these messages.

You merely have to have a desire to make the most out of this one life you have been blessed to live.

I am so glad you are here. I think you will be glad you didn’t miss this one…

I am preparing to write letters to three people that I don’t know. I am following my own Hands Free advice by using the strategy, “Take Time to Say It.”

I have seen, time and time again, that we often have the words someone else needs to hear.

The first person I am writing to is Miss Dottie Mae*. She is in her 70s. She used to be an elementary school teacher. Her passion in life was traveling around the world, but not for leisure, she went on countless mission trips in her early years.

Her husband, who passed away one year ago, was a former professor at the University of Alabama. He became very ill in the last years of his life. She lovingly cared for him day after day in the corner bedroom of their ranch style home in Tuscaloosa.

Thirteen days ago, Miss Dottie Mae hid in a closet when the earth shook with the violence of an erupting volcano. She cowered in utter fear, as the sound of something alive bore down her neighborhood obliterating everything in its path.

She wore the hallow look of shock and devastation of someone who had suffered extreme trauma when the UMCOR Early Response Team from my church came to her home.

After speaking to her with compassion and hearing her beautiful life story, my husband asked if they could help her by removing debris from her yard and her home.

Miss Dottie Mae only wanted one thing.

She wanted to salvage the furniture from the room in which her dying husband lived his last days.

These precious items that held great meaning were trapped beneath the enormity of a 200-year-old fallen tree that had crushed that particular part of her home.

That is all she wanted.

The team moved her husband’s bed and chair to a location in her home where it would be free from the ailments of damaging wind and rain.

The Early Response Team prayed with Miss Dottie Mae before they headed off to the location of their next work order.

I can’t seem to stop imagining what Miss Dottie Mae did after the team left her home.

I imagine she placed her fragile, aging body upon her husband’s bed.

I imagine she stretched her body out, yet kept her arms wrapped around her body, as if to remind herself she didn’t dream the last thirteen days of her life.

I imagine she could feel the warm tears flow from the corner of eyes, down the sides of face into her hair and finally onto the bed that had held her true love.

And for the first time in thirteen days, she felt comfort.

She couldn’t see him, but he was there; he was there. She knew with certainty that she was not alone; he was there beside her. And had been there all along.

We walk by faith, not by sight. 2 Corinthians 5:7

The second person I am preparing to write a letter to is Mr. Franklin*. He is in early 60s. He was forced to retire as a garbage collector six months ago due to severe injuries resulting from his fall from garbage truck going 30 m.p.h.

Mr. Franklin’s knees are in bad shape. He has a hard time bending over. But that did not stop him from doing his passion.

The remains of what had once been beautiful flower beds and lush greenery stood out like precious gems against the disarray and destruction which now covered the front yard of his home.

Thirteen days ago, Mr. Franklin hid in a shallow trench under his home where a heater used to be.  He remembers being huddled there with his battery-operated radio, which he eventually had to turn off because he couldn’t bear to hear, “It’s coming! It’s coming, and it’s a killer,” one more time.

He recited Psalm 23 over and over as his ears popped and the foundation of his house shook violently above him.

Mr. Franklin had a look of helplessness when the UMCOR Early Response Team arrived at his home.

He pulled up his pant leg and showed the team the unsightly scars from his fall from the garbage truck. It was as if he had to show these men and women why he could not clear the wreckage from his yard and home him self. He clearly wished he could.

When asked how they could help him, Mr. Franklin only wanted one thing.

He wanted to be able to access his garden, which was currently buried underneath huge trees and dangerous debris.

That is all he wanted.

I thought about what Mr. Franklin did after the team prayed with him and departed to their next work order.

I imagine he went to his garden, which he truly believed had just been cleared by angels on earth.

In his mind’s eye, he envisioned what was to come: plump red tomatoes, crisp green beans, enormous cucumbers and vibrant heads of cabbage.

Then I imagine he very gingerly kneeled down in the rich, resilient soil.

I imagine he dug his hands deep into the healing earth that quickly became saturated with his flowing tears.

And for the first time in thirteen days, he felt comfort. He couldn’t see Him, but He was there; He was there. He knew with certainty that he was not alone. He was by his side. And He has been there all along.

We walk by faith, and not by sight. 2 Corinthians 5:7

The third person I am writing to is actually two people. They are small children, a brother and sister. One is four-years-old and the other is five. They reside with their maternal grandmother.

I do not know where they hid during the tornado, but I am certain that is an unbearable story to hear.

The monster tornado ripped through their town, destroying their home and mangling all their possessions beyond recognition.

But there is more.

This mile wide tornado that took their home and everything inside, also took their mother.

Unlike Miss Dottie Mae and Mr. Franklin, they have nothing tangible from their past to comfort them.

But there is hope in this story, and someday I pray for the opportunity to share it with them.

These two precious children have an angel who lives in Georgia.

This total stranger (to both them and to me) knew they were in need before I even knew their names.

Within a day of learning of their situation, this angel provided for them with the kind of generosity and selflessness that creates an illuminating light in a tunnel of darkness and despair.

And she is just the first of many angels who will come into their life at exactly the precise time they need it.

They cannot no longer see their mother, but she is there; she is there. They are not alone; she is right there beside them. And she will be there all along sending angels, sending angels.

We walk by faith, and not by sight. 2 Corinthians 5:7

I am simply the messenger on this journey, and it is by the Grace of God, and by the Liberty Crossings United Methodist Church’s Early Response Team that I have this message to give:

It is time to stop letting the material things that we think we need, want, and desire be the things that give us meaning in our lives.

It is time to stop judging our success by the amount of money we have, the square footage of our home, the size of our waist, or the number of awards on our wall.

It is time to stop filling our schedules with so much excess that we barely have time to think, let alone breath, and take in the joy and beauty that surrounds us.

It is time to grasp tightly to that which will sustain us when all our “things” are taken from us and we are left with nothing.

What we can see with our eyes fades.

What we can feel in our heart endures, lasts, sustains, and comforts.

Even when we have nothing but the clothes on our back, we will still have something to carry us.

It’s time to walk by faith, and not by sight.

I’m ready. Are you?

*******************************************************

For months I have been struggling to grasp what truly matters. And now? The answer has been thrown into my face like a cold bucket of water.

The things that mean ANYTHING at all in this lifetime are not things. What matters is the love between family members, the memories we create, time spent together, helping our brothers and sisters in time of need, moments of solitude and gratitude with The One who sustains us. What truly matters is nothing you can buy in a store and nothing with a screen or buttons to push.

Take some time today to make a list of what really matters to you. If your home and your possessions were gone tomorrow, what would sustain you? Then make every effort to grow closer to that which you cannot see, but what you can feel in your heart and in your soul.

*A final note: my deepest gratitude goes to my husband, Scott, who looked into the eyes of Miss Dottie Mae and Mr. Franklin and listened compassionately to their stories so that they could be shared through my hands. May we all be changed, as he has, by the heart-breaking sights and stories he experienced while helping these incredible survivors.

There Is A Reason

As I help my Alabama neighbors salvage anything from the desolation that is now their life, I am being overwhelmed with powerful messages. And you need not be a tornado survivor to gain from them. These messages are for anyone who wants a wake-up call about what truly matters in this one life we have been blessed to live.

When I began this Hands Free journey nine months ago, I did not know where it would take me.

I didn’t plan to come here, to a place of introspect so deep that it hurts.

But this journey has taught me the most meaningful things come from the unexpected, from the unplanned.

And then there are The Reasons.

There is a reason I decided my journey to grasp what really matters should be open for the whole world to read.

There is a reason I am privy to people’s most inner pain and struggle to find meaning in their life.

And as of late, there is a reason I found myself hugging my daughters against my chest in a dark basement praying for the safety of our lives.

And there is a reason my husband was among the first responders to the destroyed homes and collapsed lives of incredible survivors.

And there is a reason that “Now Is The Time,” the entry posted one day after the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina occurred, has become my most popular post to date.

There is a reason my blog subscriptions have dramatically increased in the past ten days.

There is a reason I wake up at 3:00 a.m. with words so moving that I stumble to the kitchen to write them down.

There is a reason the messages derived from the killer tornados of April 27th are coming faster than I can write them.

And the reason is yet to be revealed.

But I do know one thing: These messages are at the heart of what it means to truly grasp what matters in this precious life that could so easily be gone tomorrow.

And to be changed by them does not require that you survived a tornado, ever witnessed a tornado, or even heard the word “tornado.”

You merely have to have a tiny, yet undeniable inner urge to make the most out of this one life you have to live.

And you do. Because that you are here.

And I hope you will stay as I write these messages that were created in the chaos and rubble of a tornado, and in the hearts and souls of its survivors and angel helpers.

And these life-changing messages will fall into the category, “There Is A Reason.”

These messages will come on no particular day and will be in no particular order. They will come when I least expect them, yet they will come when someone most needs to read them.

They will come simply because I have no other choice than to write them.

And to deny these messages would crush the very heart of what it means to be Hands Free…which is what brought me here in the first place.

And there is a reason.

You may find yourself in a place you didn’t plan to be,
Seeing things about yourself you do not want to see.

But I implore you, even beg you, if I may,
Not to shield your eyes, not to look away.

For it’s when delving deep that a silhouette appears,
An outline created from hidden hurts and darkest fears.

Of the person you have always longed to be,
Through the eye of the storm, we can finally see.

My friends, I hope you will stay to see your silhouette.

There is a reason.

*****************************************************************************

Do you ever feel like your life is a chaotic storm? Do you find the way you live your life in conflict with what your heart and soul truly feel is important? Do you ever long for a “wake up call” about just how precious each moment here on earth REALLY is? Well, I didn’t plan to come here on this journey, but my eyes have been opened. And I am not going to look away.

Where I am going is painful; it is not pretty, but through it I am gaining momentum against the excessive distraction that blinds me from what really matters. Through the eye of the storm, I am able to see.

I hope you will stick by my side. Together we will get to the heart of the matter. And that is where I long to be. How about you?

You Deserve A Day

You deserve a day to dance with the one you love, in barefeet and soft grass with angels singing from above.

Mother’s Day is just around the corner. I know many moms and grandmothers will receive lovely gifts, gorgeous flowers, maybe even breakfast in bed. And let’s hope all mothers receive a break from any and all domestic duties!

But there is something from which most women never get a reprieve.

There is something that sticks with many women and mothers every single day of their life; and this “permanent fixture” prevents them from living in full and complete joy.

I am referring to that harsh, inner critic that lives and breathes in all of us, (some with voices louder than others).

I am talking about that negative, nagging voice that goes straight to our greatest insecurities, directly attacking our most vulnerable and tender places.

I am referring to the hurtful voice that we can never quite silence, no matter what age we are or how long or impressive our list of achievements.

But today, in honor of Mother’s Day, I am asking you to give one beautiful woman in your life a break from that voice.

And you have the power to do it.

For one woman today, you can replace the negative messages with words that are loving, accepting, and kind.

For one woman today, you can silence the mean and nasty inner critic and allow the voice of forgiveness, mercy and grace to speak.

“But how? I am not very good with words,” I can hear many of you say.

Not to worry, because words are my specialty. And I am honored to give them to you. The only condition is that you must share them with someone else.

These words are for any woman in your life who is a mother, has acted as a mother, or may one day become a mother.

This is for any woman you think deserves to have a little kindness, a little compassion, and a little love planted inside her heart to grow and flourish.

This is for any woman that comes to your mind as you read this.

This is for her…

You Deserve A Day

You deserve a day to feel beautiful in your own skin,
A day where certain body parts are neither too fat nor too thin.

You deserve a day to see your valued presence on this earth,
A day where age, weight, and IQ don’t determine your worth.

You deserve a day when you can speak your mind with ease,
A day where every dream you ever had is yours to seize.

You deserve a day where your thoughts go up like bright balloons,
A day without judgment and ridicule to last for many moons.

You deserve a day to feel good in the place you are,
A day to embrace your imperfections and heal your hidden scars.

You deserve a day to feel proud of the life you’ve made,
A day where regrets and past mistakes suddenly fade.

You deserve a day to be loved without restraint,
A day free from being judged as a sinner or a saint.

You belong in a valley with pink daffodils beneath your feet,
You belong in an orchard with apples tasty and sweet.

You belong on a lazy hammock with an icy cold drink in hand,
You belong in a field of yellow sunflowers fragrant and grand.

You belong in the sunshine and never in the rain,
You belong in a place of safety far from misery and pain.

You belong on an island with coconut breezes in your hair,
You belong in a peaceful sanctuary far from worry and care.

You belong in place of forgiveness and grace,
You belong with rays of hope shining on your face.

You deserve a day, if not one thousand more,
To be celebrated, appreciated, and lovingly adored.

*********************************************************

If you received this today:

Someone thinks you are beautiful.
Someone thinks you are amazing.
Someone’s heart beats for you.
Someone is grateful for your love.
Someone can’t imagine life without you.

May all these good things come to you simply because you have loved someone like a mother, and there is no greater gift than that.

Today’s challenge is one of my favorite Hands Free tactics which is called, “Take Time to Say It.” Someone came to mind while you read this. You know what to do. Click the “share” button below. Send it as a message of gratitude for all she has added to your life. This message is meant to be shared. Let her know that she deserves at least a day, if not one thousand more.

Thanks For The Memory

Jimmy and Dot Dixon with their granddaughter days after they lost their home.

This post is dedicated to the beautiful couple pictured above, Jimmy (83) and Dot (82) Dixon who have been married for 64 years. The tornado that ripped through Alabama on April 27th took away their home and all their possessions, but it did not take their precious memories. Let today’s post inspire every single one of us to call a loved one today and listen to a memory.

The first grade classes at my daughter’s school recently did a special project in which they interviewed a grandparent. The children were required to ask several questions about the grandparent’s life, childhood, and fondest memories. Also included in the project were pictures of the grandparent in different stages of life.

I think it is safe to say that take home projects from school commonly produce grumbling from parents (me included). But I can’t help but think that what began as a grumble ended as a praise of gratitude.

Perhaps the same realization that occurred to me a little over a year ago also occurred to one of these parents while doing this project.

I am talking about this simple, yet painful, truth: The memories that live in our parents will also die with our parents and grandparents. Unless. Unless we uncover those treasures while they are still attainable and find a place for them to reside within our hearts.

And the treasure discovery begins with a question.

And we must listen, really listen if we want to preserve this treasury of information.

This is my story…

A little over a year ago, my mom suffered from a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or a “mini stroke”. There was a brief time after the episode that we did not know whether or not she would retain her memory. By the grace of God, my mom fully retained every single one of her memories.

Although I had not begun my Hands Free journey at that time, I was not too distracted by the insignificant to see the sizable wake up call standing before me with flashing yellow lights and a bull horn.

This disturbing wake up call shook its head and disappointedly said, “There are so many things you don’t know about your parents. Ask! Ask! Ask the questions while you still can.”

So my oldest daughter and I began a month long mission: To call one grandparent each evening and ask one question about their past memories.

Once my daughter saw the journal in which I would record their memories, she began recording, too.

The call lasted approximately three to five minutes. Sometimes we would even give the grandparents a “heads up” about what we would be asking them next time, in case they wanted to think about it (or look forward to it).

In a mere three to five minutes per night, my daughter and I found out things we did not know…

We heard their stories of hardship …

PawPaw had no TV, no phone…the only radio he listened to was the one in the car. He got his first cell phone when he was 62 years old.

Grandpa Ben (my daughters call him “GB”) only had two or three birthday parties throughout his childhood. He told of his surprise party at his sister’s house when he was eight years old.

PawPaw had an outside toilet until he was eighteen years old.

GB got ten cents from the tooth fairy.

We heard their stories of happiness..

PawPaw rarely got presents on his birthday. But when he was ten, he got a bike. He was the only one in the family who got a bike. His brother helped him learn to ride.

MeMe loved it when it snowed on her birthday so she could make a snowman with her little sister.

We gained insight into childhood pain and loss…

MeMe had her appendix out when she was ten years old. She missed her sister dearly and was only allowed to wave to her sister at the window because children were not allowed in the hospital.

MeMe’s dad lost his toes to frostbite and they snuck her into the hospital to see him. She remembered that he looked terrible and she thought he was going to die. He survived and learned to walk with a limp.

PawPaw told of his grueling experiences with Polio. He told of long hospital stays away from his family, operation after operation, wheel chairs, iron lungs and learning to walk again.

Grammy told of her hospital stay when the pain in her stomach was unbearable.

And times of mistakes…

GB found matches, lit one, and made a black mark on the floor.

Grammy got in trouble by the operator for using the phone, and she also stepped on a neighbor’s pie that was cooling.

MeMe had to wear a piece of paper over her mouth in school for talking too much.

We heard stories that made them more real…

MeMe’s first boyfriend was Lester in the first grade.

PawPaw’s pet beagle, Pal, would pull him in a wagon.

GB’s favorite toys were his plastic men soldiers. He watched “Red Skeleton” with his parents on a black and white TV and loved to play Monopoly.

MeMe remembered her first phone number was 4701 R, and three rings meant the phone call was for their family.

I wish you could see my daughter’s face as she listened to her grandparents’ stories. It was clearly better than any book I could have read her before bedtime.

And before she hung up, she always said the same thing, “Thanks for the memory.”

I didn’t tell her to say that, she just did.

But several months later, an unexpected benefit of The Nightly Question Call came to light.

My daughters and I visited one of their grandparents at his place of employment for the very first time.

In several of the different departments we got the same response from his coworkers upon meeting us: “Is this the family who asks the questions?”

Then his co-workers bent down to my daughters and said, “Your grandpa would come in every day and tell us what the question was for the night. We love to hear the questions!”

And through tearful eyes, I saw that not only had my daughters been given a gift by hearing the memories…so had their grandparents.

They looked forward to our calls.

They looked forward to sharing their memories.

They looked forward to that connection with their granddaughters.

They looked forward to sharing their story with someone who cared to listen.

The Power of a Question.

It only takes three minutes, but the impact is life-changing.

Rather than staying buried and never to be discovered, a treasure can be extracted from the heart and mind of a loved one. And this treasured memory will live in the heart of the grandchild who hears it. Perhaps one day she will tell it to her own child.

The Power of a Question.

Go on and ask. Ask away. Ask while you still can.

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You may be growing tired of hearing about the tornado that has completely devastated my state, but now I see things differently than I did one week ago. And I am simply the messenger of this journey writing what is placed on my heart and in my mind.

As so many people dig through the rubble that used to be their home, special momentos from their past, like old pictures, become valuable treasures. And the memories of the person who survived to tell them, well, those memories are priceless.

Old pictures of our parents and grandparents are valuable treasures.

My Hands Free challenge to you is to push away distraction for five minutes today and pick up the phone. Call a relative and ask them to send you an old photograph, ask him or her to tell you a childhood story, and then listen, listen as if this is the last conversation you may ever have.

Someday it will be.

Grab those treasures while you still can.