I’ve figured out the secret of happiness, and it doesn’t involve money, or technology, or things.  Like Dorothy, the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, I guess I’ve known this all along.  It just took a family reunion for it to come out and shine like a giant lightbulb over my head.  I realized that all of my fondest memories involve spending time with people I care about.  Usually with food, but not always.  Just talking, hanging out, no cell phones, no activities, except maybe walking as we talk, or driving.

We just spent a week in South Carolina for a joyous occasion:  a big bash to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday.  But it wasn’t just the party that made the week so special.  It was the opportunity to spend time with my brother, Bradley, my sister-in-law, Carole, and their beautiful daughters, Elizabeth, Grace, and Caroline.  It was just sitting there watching my kids, Blair, Andy, and Josh, and my nieces playing hide and seek, swimming, playing killer badminton in the back yard — just enjoying each other’s company.

For some reason, that time together just opened a floodgate of happiness inside me, and all of these memories came bobbing to the surface like sweet, serene little sailboats.  My mom wasn’t at the party; she died seven years ago.  But she’s there at every meal, when we say the blessing she and my dad taught us.  All our kids know it.  We all say it and we sound, for a few seconds, like Gregorian monks doing a soft chant at restaurants.  Mom’s there at birthdays, too, when we make “the cake” — originally my dad’s mother’s recipe, she made it ours, and now it belongs to the kids.  A chocolate sheet cake with an icing that features an entire box of confectioner’s sugar.  Not remotely healthy, but incredibly good.

While we were there, we went out for barbecue (mustard-based sauce!), fried chicken and catfish.  Fried okra, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, banana pudding, hush puppies.  All 12 of us, taking up two tables, people reaching across each other to share yummy bits from our plates.  Like many meals, it ended with what the French call an “embonpoint,” a noticeable rounding of the belly as we slowly walked back to our cars, and more than one of us said, “Oh, my God.”  We say that after big holiday meals, too, when we stroll very sedately around the block — as if we could walk off what we just ate.

We don’t eat that way much anymore, but those foods, and so many others, are  associated with memories.

I remember a trip to New England in 1992, when I was pregnant with Blair.  I had been so morning-sick, not able to keep anything down for weeks.  (Fun fact: When you throw up Campbell’s Chicken and Stars soup, if you’re not careful, the stars will go right up your nose and you have to blow your nose to get them out.)  Mark and I flew into Boston, rented a car and drove right up the coast.  We stopped in Kennebunkport, and I had my first bouillabaise.  It was right at the beginning of my second trimester, and all of a sudden, I could enjoy food again.  Like a miracle, I wasn’t just eating the oyster crackers that came with it, but the actual fish stew!  I’d never had anything so good.  But I also remember just being with Mark, seeing a part of the country we had never seen, and enjoying our life together.  We went to a bonfire in New Hampshire, and we had Maine lobsters for the first time.  I remember talking to fellow college magazine editors, our faces red from the bonfire.  The night was cold, so we were sitting on logs around the fire, dodging sudden sparks, looking up at the stars, and feeling how good it was to be alive.

I remember after our friend, Linda, died, and Mark, Blair, and our kids’ godmother, our friend Marion, went out to eat.  I don’t remember what we ate, or the name of the restaurant, but I remember that we spent a long time there, sharing our memories of Linda, healing with food and company.  I remember going out to a pub called John Steven in Fells Point, on the water in Baltimore, with good friends from Johns Hopkins.  One of them, Martha, dubbed these events “5:01”s, because at one minute past five, we were out the door of our office.  We would grab a big table and just sit there, eating shrimp steamed in Old Bay, talking about how crazy our jobs were, feeling more sane by the minute.

There’s a restaurant in Baltimore called Woodberry Kitchen, and we used to go there with our friends, Lisa and Eric, and take up space for two or three hours.  The food was great, but that’s not why we stayed so long.  In Scottsdale, Arizona, we went to one of those expensive restaurants where they grill meat and bring it to you on skewers.  I remember it fondly, not just because the food was excellent, but because we got the chance to catch up with Mark’s mom, Sally, and his sister’s son, Logan, and to see what an impressive young man he has grown up to be.

I remember when Mark’s brother, Scott, and his wife, Jen, and their young daughter came to visit us and we managed to enjoy breakfasts together in our kitchen, despite the fact that we had to keep moving down the table because the sun was shining with blinding vigor through the big window.

When I look back on my life, it won’t be to praise myself for that time I climbed a 40-foot wall and did a zip line, despite my awful fear of heights.  (Although I do recall the love and support of friends and my kids, and am grateful I am not still up there on that platform of terror.)  Instead, I’ll remember things like driving with my dad.  When he comes to visit us in Arizona, he likes to hit the road.  We’ve been down to the Sonoran Desert near Mexico, and up in northern Arizona, to the Painted Desert, to the Red Rocks of Sedona, and the tiny mountainside village of Jerome.  We have the radio on, but mostly we just talk for hours.

At our family reunion, we went to the beach.  Carole and I walked for what seemed like miles, our feet always in the water, the wind and sun in our faces, just talking.  Then we came back and with Mark, watched the six cousins play in the ocean.  There was a shark attack the next day at that same Isle of Palms beach.  But when I think back on that beautiful day, what I’m thinking about is the time spent with people I love.

I remember trail rides with Blair and, back in Virginia, with Mark, including a day when I took one for the team and smushed a giant horse fly on Prancer’s rear end with my bare hand.  I couldn’t let that bastard bite him.  I remember playing cards late at night, many nights, with Mark and Bradley, laughing and making up our own game rules and having a blast, then going for a food run well after midnight.  Hours doing farm chores side by side with Andy, or working puzzles with Josh, or reading aloud to all three kids.  Riding a slow ski lift in the summer to the top of Mount Humphries in Flagstaff with Mark, the kids and Andy’s best friend, Kevin, and watching clouds form from the snow that blew off the peak — we were up that high.  Sitting on my porch swing talking to my friend, Patrice.  Singing “Sound of Music” songs with my friend Karen in third grade.  Riding bikes and singing TV Western theme songs with my friend Kathy in junior high.  In high school, spending hours on the phone with my friend, Sheila, and driving around with Leigh Anne, stopping for late night doughnuts at Mr. Donut, where she worked.  We lived in Lexington, Kentucky, and we would drive around at night with the windows open, smelling the tobacco drying in the big barns.

In my dad’s neighborhood in South Carolina, we always walk down the hill to the Saluda River, which is cold for some reason.  We try to skip stones in it, but we never have the right angle, so they plop instead of skip, and we feel the cool breeze rising off the river and watch for the bubbles where fish come up to eat bugs.

None of my favorite memories have to do with cell phones, or multi-tasking, or trying to do too much, or worrying about stuff like money or thinking about work.

Instead, they’re all memories where I just realize for a second, “This is it, right here.”

I just finished writing a book with Patrick Walsh about the history of the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins.  It was founded by “Diamond Jim” Brady, a grateful patient of Hugh Hampton Young, the father of modern urology.

Diamond Jim loved to go out to eat with friends, and once described his preferred dining style this way:  “Whenever I sit down to a meal, I always make it a point to leave just four inches between my stomach and the edge of the table. And then, when I can feel ‘em rubbin’ together pretty hard, I know I’ve had enough.”

Clearly, the man ate too much, but he knew how to live.  He loved people, and people loved him back.

That’s what it’s all about.  This is it, right here.

©Copyright Janet Farrar Worthington


If you ever want to strike terror into the heart of your kids, I can recommend two ways:  One is to yell, “Where’s the Midol?” and watch them scatter.  The other is to sing the opening theme song of the old TV show, “Hee Haw.”  The words are simple, but the delivery is everything:   “Hee hee, hee haw haw! Hee hee, hee haw haw! Hee hee, hee haw, haw, haw, haw, haw, haw, haw.”  This has, at least on my kids, an effect similar to what I imagine that of a stun gun to be.  They gape in horror at the donkey-like sounds coming out of their mother’s mouth.

The thing is, as I sing it, I can hear Roy Clark’s banjo and Buck Owens’ guitar kicking in.  That show was a hoot, and if you are of a certain age — and if, like me, you grew up with only four channels and very limited TV options — you may have watched it, too.  When my kids were little, I used to sing, “We’re not ones to go ’round spreadin’ rumors. Really, we’re just not the gossipin’ kind.  Oh you’ll never hear one of us repeatin’ gossip.  So you’d better be sure and listen close the first time.”  There was Grandpa Jones, and Minnie Pearl, and then Archie Campbell, who would sing, “Where, oh where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over, and I thought I found true love.  You met another, and (raspberry), you were gone.”  That was a big hit when my kids were babies and I would rock them and sing.  And Junior Samples, at BR-549.  The man was a genius.

I grew up in the South, in Texas and then in Mississippi and Kentucky.  My childhood was punctuated with regional Southern ads that were folksy and sweet — dinosaurs compared to the slick commercials that everybody sees today.  There was a cartoon for Domino’s sugar with a little train chugging along.  “Domino’s sugar, so pure and fine, best sugar on the Sugar Town line… whoo hoo… Sugar Town line.”  There were Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, hawking Breeze Detergent with the special enticement of a lovely dish towel in every box.  “But you cain’t buy ’em,” Dolly would say, “You can only get ’em in boxes of Breeze.”

Remember Tennessee Pride?  There used to be a cartoon hillbilly who would sing, “For real country sausage, the best you’ve ever tried, pick up a pound or two of Tennessee Pride…” and at the end, somebody would say, “And they CALL the packages Tennessee Pride!”  I was a pretty good mimic, and I could drive my mother nuts with that one.  Also, in a huge Southern accent, “It’s not fried, Momma, it’s Shake & Bake!”

When I was at college at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, there was an extremely local commercial for Emma’s, a florist.  A man would say, “Emma’s, the supuh-lative florist!”

I love local ads, because they show the heart and soul of a town.  In an age when restaurants and grocery stores are largely interchangeable from place to place, it’s so nice to see something not corporate, not fancy, pretty low-budget, made by the people who live nearby.

For that matter, I miss hokey old shows and the respectful nod to our rural heritage like “Hee Haw,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,”  “Green Acres,”  and my favorite, “The Andy Griffith Show.”  It’s a shame that I can’t go up to someone much younger than myself (except my kids, whom I’ve indoctrinated) and say, “I’m a-pickin’…” and have the response be, “and I’m a-grinnin’!”


This post and all blog content Ⓒ Copyright Janet Farrar Worthington.

Josh was late for school today.  This is only the second time this year, so that’s really good for us.  Usually he gets there with as many as one to three minutes to spare.  I hate being late.  And yet, I am often late.  Something always happens.  For one thing, the act of picking up my car keys seems to activate Josh’s colon, so there’s that.  “Why didn’t you go when I asked?”  “I didn’t have to go then!”  “You make me crazy.”  “I can’t when you already are.”  “Hurry up!”  “Start the car, I’ll be right there!”  Once there were cute, happy snails right behind the car and we had to move them.

But it’s usually okay, because I have the Mom Mobile, and I know how to use it.  It’s a 2004 Toyota Sienna.  I’ve put 200,000 miles on it.  If you are ever driving before 8 am and you see a woman in a minivan with hand prints and/or dog prints on the windows and a school sticker on the bumper, and that woman looks as grim and determined as John Wayne in “True Grit,” holding the reins in his teeth and firing a rifle with the other, here’s some advice:  Get out of the way.  Every morning in America, millions of minivans and SUVs rocket toward schools.  Maybe the kid, like Josh, is putting on his socks and shoes in there.  Maybe the mom, like me, is quizzing her kid on geography or spelling, eyes never leaving the road.  When Blair and Andy were in high school, many’s the time I would sign some form that needed a parent (forging Mark’s name if it needed both), or scrawl an excuse for the tardy slip while Blair held the wheel.  My kids have all come up through the ranks as co-pilots.  “Andy, I need my sunglasses.”  Andy whips out the case, holds it at just the perfect height, while I take off my glasses and make the switch.  “Shades deployed,” he will report.  Co-pilots know that when Mommy goes to the ATM, it’s their job to get the card out, be prepared to take the receipt and cash and put them in my wallet, and zip the purse.  When we’re at the drive-through, they have the correct change ready by the time we get to the window.

So, our ride to Mile High Middle School goes something like this:  Shades deployed.  Hold on tight as we go over the major potholes in our driveway (I have an estimate from a paving company ready to sign, but first we need to fix the roof).  Go as fast as reasonably possible on our dirt road, speed up when we hit the street, have our morning prayer for the family said by the time we get to the stop sign, so I can make that big left onto Williamson Valley Road, a four-lane feeder that will get me toward town.  Speed up around the curves where the traffic cops don’t hide, slow down where they have been known to lurk.  Thread the needle between someone in the turn lane and someone in the right lane.  I’m coming up on the elementary school, which has its own crazed moms and road-clogging minivans clogging the left lane.   Left on Iron Springs, where I can usually zip through traffic like Sandra Bullock driving the bus in “Speed.”  There are a lot of oldsters in Prescott, pleasant retirees — around 8 am is middle of the morning for many — heading to the grocery store, not a care in the world, moseying along and enjoying life.  Meanwhile, I’ve escalated to Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” status, my Defcon 3, except I’m not driving through San Francisco, and instead of the zippy jazz soundtrack, I’ve either got classical music, calming smooth jazz, or if it’s really stressful, the spa channel on satellite radio going.  Also, we’re buckled up.

“Josh, check the time.”  Josh, a good co-pilot, knows this does not mean the car’s clock, which I keep 14 minutes fast as a buffer from life, but the accurate one on my phone.   Molly the Lab, taking up the whole back seat, is oblivious.  She’s biding her time waiting for the much slower drive home, when I roll down the window and she gets to stick her head out.  (Stanley, our Cocker Spaniel rescue, doesn’t really like the car and stays at home.  His choice, he’s always welcome to go, and we always ask.)

Next week, major milestone,  I am getting a new car.  Well, new to me.  It’s a 2007 Honda Pilot, with only 75,000 miles on it.  It is very clean.  It does not smell like chicken nuggets, or fries, or spilled soda.  There is no dog hair.  No empty water bottles rattling around.  No hand sanitizer or Starbucks napkins in the glove compartment (fun fact: Starbucks napkins are really soft and great for nose-blowing if there’s no Kleenex).   It has never hauled members of Blair’s varsity girl’s soccer team or Andy’s cross-country team, never had Josh’s smelly hockey bag left there in the hot sun.  That’s okay.  We’ll break it in.   It’s going to be a great Mom Mobile II.


This post and all blog content Ⓒ Copyright Janet Farrar Worthington.

I just vacuumed my kitchen table.  Don’t judge me.  I was vacuuming the wooden floor, using the attachment, and I noticed some crumbs on the table.  Then I went ahead and vacuumed the countertops.  They look pretty good.  I’m tired, I’m in a hurry, I have more work to do this morning than I can possibly get done, so I’m doing what I can do.  I haven’t taken my shower yet but I’m wearing workout clothes, which I hope makes it somewhat more acceptable that I look like crap.  I’m in Survival Mode.

Survival Mode is when you just do what you have to do.  You wake up and hit the ground running.  I get up at my customary 6:30, awakened as always by Molly putting her big Lab head by my pillow.  Let out the dogs, feed the dogs, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, give Josh a 30-minute snooze alarm, empty the dryer, load the dryer, load the washer, check on Andy, who is a freshman in college but living at home, to make sure he’s got his alarm set, exchange multiple texts with Blair, our daughter who is at college in Tucson.  7:00, start fixing Josh’s lunch for school, give him one last snooze, fix his breakfast, get Mark’s lunch ready and find a dishwasher-safe travel mug.  I hide the ones you have to hand-wash.

Josh and I were up late last night doing his homework.  He has just started middle school.  I know every grade, because I obsessively check the school’s website.  They had a video on insects in science, and Josh was supposed to take 25 notes.  He took 11, and got an F.  I just realized that he might be able to pull up the grade by fixing the paper and turning it in again.   The problem is, he didn’t remember the video anymore.

“What was on it?”  “Insects.”  I Googled and found numerous possible videos, hoping we could just watch it again, struck out totally.  So I started asking about bugs.  Were there ants?  Yes.  Can you remember anything they said about ants?  Leaf cutter ants can hurt a forest.  Okay, let’s make a sentence about that.  Moths?  No.  Butterflies?  No.  Termites?  Yes, the soldier ones have big heads.  Also, the queen lays thousands of eggs a day.  We couldn’t find out how many, but we found a sentence in a BBC story online that said the queen lays an egg every three seconds.  Somehow we figured out a daily number of eggs that this equals.  Cockroaches?  Yes, they can make your food bad.  So can weevils.  Locusts?  Yes.  Bees?  Check.

Butterflies?  You just asked me that.  I’m sorry, I’m tired.  By now we were at about 8:30, I had gone to the grocery store, taken Mark’s shirts to the cleaners, picked up Josh at school, picked up our farm share and made kohlrabi pickles, sautéed the kohlrabi leaves, candied some carrots, and then balanced all that healthiness out with sloppy Joes and Tater Tots.  Mailed the signed form required for the roof people to fix our chimney cap, which leaked in the big storm we had this week.  Wrote two stories for one of the five publications I’m simultaneously writing for.  Wasps?  No.  There was some bug that lives in the water.  Water strider?  No.  Get back on Google.  Water boatman.  Okay, what do they do?  I can’t remember.  Butterflies?  Yes.  Really?  Yes, the Monarch butterfly has a long tongue.  Thank God!

We finally got to 19 facts.  If the teacher accepts them all, that will be 76 percent, which is better than 44 percent.  Josh has A’s in everything else,  except for this one bad grade, so I hope we can get this resolved and get on with our lives.  Tonight we have choir at church at 6 and hockey across town at 7, so Mark will come and get Josh at choir at 6:30 and take him to hockey, then I will leave choir and spell Mark at hockey until it’s over at 8:30, hoping to God that Josh will already be done with his homework.  Also I signed up to bring a fruit plate to school tomorrow.  I have no fruit.


This post and all blog content Ⓒ Copyright Janet Farrar Worthington.