Guntersville—we are hurricane evacuees in upper Alabama. The destruction from Hurricane Michael is all over television. It’s sobering to see. If the storm would’ve moved a few miles west, it would’ve ruined our home on the Choctawhatchee Bay.
The woman who cleans our room this morning brought her daughter to work. Her daughter is in sixth grade.
“My name’s Samantha,” says the girl. “I’m helping my mom clean today.”
Samantha holds a basket of cleaning supplies. I introduce myself, but before I can finish talking she says in a shy voice:
“I already know who you are. My friend reads your books.”
And it takes all I have not to cry in front of this sixth-grader. Maybe it’s becasue I’m a softy. Or maybe it’s because of the storm. Or maybe it’s because in this child’s eyes I am a writer.
A real writer.
About me: I wanted to be a writer ever since before Samantha’s age. And it was a ridiculous idea for a kid like me to hold.
After all, I didn’t have the confidence God gave a turtle. I was shy, lazy, slow, I made terrible grades in school, and I was a lousy first-baseman.
As it happens, Samantha and I have a few things in common. My mother was a cleaning lady many years ago. She toted vacuums, carpet cleaners, laundry bags, and spray bottles by the metric ton.
She scrubbed toilets, washed windows, mopped floors, and emptied crumbs from toaster ovens.
My mother was our family’s champion. She was a college graduate; a hard worker; she could grow anything in container gardens; she could make quilts from old clothes; she could bake fresh bread that attracted people from four counties; she could read an entire novel in two sittings; she could memorize entire passages of scripture—mostly pertaining to being nice to your sister.
She was above no task, and beneath no one. She taught me to appreciate art, music, and literature. She taught me to hold the door for anyone who bore the title: “Ma’am,” “Miss,” or “Mama.”
And when times were lean, she cleaned houses.
My mother also threw newspapers for the Northwest Florida Daily News when she wasn’t cleaning. My sister and I helped her.
We spent our mornings in my mother’s old Nissan, weaving through residential streets before sunrise. I would hurl papers like footballs at elderly men who checked their mailboxes wearing only their underpants.
And it was in that same passenger seat, after throwing newspapers one morning, that I decided I wanted to be a columnist. It was here that I fell in love with written humor, and the art of the six-hundred-word story.
“Mama?” I asked her once, “you think I could ever be a newspaper columnist?”
She stared at me with warm eyes. “You can be anything you wanna be. You hear me? Anything.”
And even though I was an under confident, below-average kid, this woman told me that I was a special. And I half-believed her.
The truth is, I’ve never felt like a writer. No matter how many columns I write, I can’t seem to feel like a columnist. Instead I feel like an imposter.
After all, writers are poets, masters of prose, literary artists, and thinkers. They use large words, sip fancy bourbon, and wear clawhammer-tail tuxedos to cocktail parties
People like me, however, write about things like ear wax, domestic squirrels, bloodhounds, our parents, and occasionally, baseball. It’s hard to feel like a writer. No matter how old I get, I’m always going to be someone who threw the paper with his mother.
Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of this. People like me come from strong stock. The world might not always notice us, but we bear the genes of heroes.
Our forebearers were men who worked overtime, fighting sleep deprivation and fatigue. We come from brilliant women who hold their spines stiff in the face of life’s torrents, and scrub toilets.
From parents who paid bills with peanuts. Who ate heartache for breakfast, disappointment for lunch, and still managed to wear a smile for supper.
People who work in the background of the Great American Masterpiece. People who take their kids to work with them. Who show them how to clean windows, how to throw newspapers, and how to dream big even though they are afraid to.
They teach their children things you can’t learn in man-made institutions. They teach us that even though life is not pretty, it certainly is beautiful.
They teach us that we are above nothing, and beneath no one. They love without asking questions. And in the wee hours of the morning, after throwing newspapers, they tell their boys that they can grow up to become writers if they want. Columnists, even.
Sometimes, I go through life not knowing exactly what or who I am. But today, a sixth-grader made me feel like a writer.
Thank you, Samantha.