One shining moment

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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

I like to think I’m a deep, complicated person, but really there are just a few things you need to know about me to really know me. I love family, dolphins, Jesus, the Rockettes and sports. Not necessarily in that order. And before you haters get all judgy – and you know who you are, for me, sports and family have always been deeply intertwined. I’ll get into that later. Oh, and the other thing I love is being a Virginian. Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina since 1995, but I will always – always – be a Virginian.

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Home is where the heart is. For reals.

This revelation was never more apparent to me last week when the University of Virginia Cavaliers played Texas Tech in the finals of the NCAA basketball championship. ACC basketball is a religion if you live around Tobacco Road as I do and UNC, Duke, and NC State are the Holy Trinity. UVA is treated as that second cousin by marriage that you can’t quite remember how you’re related to.

I was born in Virginia and lived in several cities there for the first 39 years of my life, but none longer than the dozen years I lived in Charlottesville. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever live in a prettier place and it is not surprising that C-ville often pops up on lists of one of the best places to live in the US.

My father was a UVA alum and I grew up going to a lot of Cavalier basketball and football games with him. They lost a lot back then, but it never seemed to deter his enthusiasm for the ‘Hoos – the unofficial nickname for sports teams of the school. He would always say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda (his nickname for me).” Most times, next time took years.

Dad had great seats for UVA basketball – on the floor a few rows back from the team. You could hear the squeaking of the players’ sneakers and the coaches yelling at the refs. As a kid it was all pretty exciting, especially the coaches cussing, and we enjoyed some glory years when NBA Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson led Virginia to two final four appearances.

When my dad passed away in 2002, UVA’s fight song was played on the church organ at his memorial service and his absence was a strong presence on Monday night as I settled in to watch the game. I could almost feel him next to me on the couch. Our father/daughter bonding was mostly done over watching games and I’m so grateful that I inherited his passion and appreciation for sports. Sadly, my dear wife cares less about sports than anyone I have ever known, and she went to bed before tip-off. I was left to virtual watch with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris who lives in Crozet – a charming little town just outside of Charlottesville.

UVA led for most of the game but lost a 10-point lead late. That’s when I grabbed a

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How my sister “watched” the game.

picture of my dad off my bookcase and held it the rest of the game. Laugh if you must, but I don’t think I would have made it through those excruciating last minutes (including an overtime, are you kidding me?!) without him. My sister had stopped watching on TV late in the first half – she couldn’t take the tension and relied on me for text updates. I felt like an old-time Western Union operator sending telegrams. UVA is up by two. Stop. Texas Tech just hit a three. Stop. I’m having a heart attack. Stop.

As victory seemed so secure that even UVA couldn’t blow it, I texted her to turn the TV back on so that she could bask in the victory. When it was over – really over and we had won – I called her and we both sobbed. No words. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life. Oh, and just to be clear –sure, I was thrilled that UVA won, but those tears weren’t for a basketball game. No, they were for my dad. I got to witness one of my father’s wildest dreams come true and that, my friends, truly was priceless.

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My Instagram post after UVA won. And, yes, those are tears in my eyes.

That night – actually, the next day – when I finally got into bed at 2:00 AM, a montage of all the games I’d seen with my dad went through my head. I’m sure I smiled the whole night through and I wasn’t even tired when the alarm went off at 6:00 AM. And the first thing my wife said to me was, “Well, I guess your team won.” Bless her heart.

Yes, “my” team won, but it was so much bigger than that. Charlottesville won. Ever since the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017 when self-proclaimed members of the alt-right and white nationalists marched to promote white supremacism, Charlottesville has been identified with harrowing images of hate. None of us who love Charlottesville will ever forget those images – angry white men marching with tiki torches  on UVA’s main quadrangle and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” We were completely gutted.

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Get off my lawn. Seriously.

That’s why a basketball game felt so important. It provided some healing, if just for a few hours, for a community that really needed it -in the transcendent way that few other experiences can. Chris texted me a few days after the game – she had been down to the notorious Corner – a seven block area of bars, restaurants and shops that serves as the hub of UVA social life. It is the home of Mincer’s, a fourth-generation family owned business selling UVA merchandise since 1948. Mincer’s was where most of my dad’s Christmas presents came from every year, because one really can’t have too many UVA coffee mugs.

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Dad’s Christmas haul always included lots of UVA merch.

Chris had gone to get her championship T-shirt – the exact same one that the team wore after their victory. She has lived in Charlottesville for over 40 years and those events almost two summers ago wounded her deeply. She texted me an adorable picture of herself in her shirt, and wrote, “It was so cool to see so many people, townspeople mostly, not students, so excited to be buying shirts – young, old, black, white. This is the Charlottesville I know and love.”

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Winning fits Chris to a tee. We have been through a lot of losses together – in all manner of ways.

I am far from naive. I know a basketball game can’t resurrect Heather Hyer, the young woman fatally run over on the Downtown Mall while peacefully protesting the Unite the Right rally, or erase the years of bitter racial conflict surrounding Mr. Jefferson’s University that was built by slaves. As UVA Associate Professor Lisa Woolfork reflected in an op-ed piece for CNN, “They are NCAA champions. They are students who worked diligently in their courses and on the court. They are not hand sanitizer. Their accomplishments should not be used to conveniently expunge traumatic racist history or clean the reputation of this city.”

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I made a somber visit to Charlottesville a few weeks after the Unite the Right rally.

She’s right. We all love a happy ending and often gloss over the ugly origin while skipping through the agonizing middle, but there can be no shortcuts on the road to redemption. And it can never be a tidy process. We must continue the difficult conversations and we are compelled to sit with discomfort. Our country is deeply broken, and no sporting event on earth can eradicate the deep and painful scars of the past, but for one shining moment in April, Charlottesville felt whole again.

And I was home.

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A community celebrates a championship…

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and the journey to redemption for this city I love continues.

 

 

 

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The long road home

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Woodlawn.  Photo courtesy of Tom Glass.

Home has been a moving target for me for a long time now – 15 years to be exact. That’s when both of my parents died and grief ran me into a ditch.  Years later, my emotional GPS has been searching for an alternate route home. It’s a bit like that ring toss game at the carnival. Sometimes I get tantalizingly close to it, but I can never quite snag it. But just like that silly game, I always want another chance even though I know it’s most likely rigged.

Well, last weekend I landed the ring. I found home for a few days in a 220-year-old house in the tiny town of Flint Hill, Virginia. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley so I suppose it makes sense that the road home would lead there. The five-hour drive from Winston-Salem to Flint Hill is literally a map of my life – Route 29 North through Lynchburg, where both of my parents were born and raised, on through Charlottesville, where I lived for over a dozen years and spent some of the happiest times of my life.

I know that stretch of road like the back of my own hand – every wrinkle, every vein, every scar. I’ve traveled that highway my entire life and there’s a point shortly after you pass through Madison Heights on the way to Charlottesville that you come over the crest of a small hill and get your first full on view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My heart has always skipped a bit when I get to this spot. Those majestic mountains are in my DNA. “God’s country” as my Dad always said.

Remnants of Hurricane Harvey were chasing us on our drive up last Friday, so my mountains were cloaked in an eerie fog – but I knew they were there. They’ve always been there. This is the road home to me.

My dear wife and I have been spending Labor Day weekend with our friends Phyllis and Tom for the past several years at their country home in Rappahannock County. I met Phyllis 24 years ago when she was my boss at a national non-profit organization in Washington, DC. She was way way up in the management chain and I was a low-level development officer. And she was the most intimidating woman (or man for that matter) I had ever met. I was terrified of her and relieved our paths rarely crossed.

I laugh when I think about those days now. I was such a greenhorn and she was so polished in her tailored suits and high heels. I can’t really trace the timeline of how she became, outside of my mother, the most influential woman in my life. I know she was a mentor and a teacher and in many ways still is. Then somehow, after we both went on to different jobs, she became a dear friend and now is the closest thing I have to a parent – which is kind of funny since she is only seven years older than me. I can’t really explain it but I just know what it feels like. She is the person whose opinion matters most – the person I want to make proud of me – the person I go to for counsel – the person who believes in me unconditionally. I love her beyond measure – although, truthfully, she can still terrify me a little. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I guess I’m always a little fearful of disappointing her and that keeps me on my toes.

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Phyllis and me on my wedding day. I think she was almost as happy as me!

Phyllis married Tom six years ago at their country home, Woodlawn. He is adorable and brilliant – he’s a builder, a painter, a potter and a prolific – if sometimes meandering – story-teller. He is a perfect match for Phyllis and he makes her laugh on a very regular basis. This is a very good thing because Phyllis is a very serious person – that is unless she’s singing and dancing to some of her favorite tunes. She just gets shit done and the world is a better place because of it.

Tom originally discovered Woodlawn over a decade ago when it was a dilapidated abandoned structure in a field in Appomattox County, Virginia. The house was originally constructed in 1797 and Tom had it dismantled, every piece labeled like the biggest IKEA dresser ever, and moved 150 miles to Flint Hill where he lovingly and painstakingly restored it. It is simply amazing.  You can read about it here.

I’m always excited to visit Woodlawn but was even more so this time because my sister from California was back east for a couple of weeks and met us there. Unlike George Costanza, I actually like it when my worlds collide and I love that Phyllis and Tom and my sister have become such good friends. They even pulled off an international surprise together back in May when our trips to Amsterdam overlapped and they showed up at our hotel bar the first night of our journey. The real surprise was that my sister was able to keep a secret for more than an hour.

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Amsterdam. We’re going to go on EVERY vacation with Phyllis and Tom. (They just don’t know it yet.)

I could feel my heart swell as we turned on the long and dramatic approach to Woodlawn and glimpsed the most defining feature of the house – its double chimneys.  My sister met us at the top of the steps. She was, as always, dressed to the nines even though it was a Friday afternoon in the country. That girl’s got style for days. She always has. When she was 12, she memorized my mother’s credit card number for the local department store and used it – lying to the store clerk when they asked if she had her mother’s permission. I would have never been able to pull it off and I’ve often said that if I had half of her chutzpah, I could be anything I wanted to be.

She has a huge and demanding job running several breast cancer centers in Southern California and is constantly on one of her two (ugh) cell phones. She’s utterly glamorous and spends more on cosmetics in a year than I have in 60. We laugh at how very different we are in so many ways. And yet, we are as close as two sisters can be. I speak on the phone with her at least once a day and I was giddy to be in the same time zone – much less house – as her for a long weekend.

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Sisters are everything.

My parents always made coming home special. My dad would meet me at the front door – even in his later years when he was disabled and on a walker. And my mother would stock the kitchen with many of my favorite things. Phyllis does that, too – a case of sparkling water and several good bottles of big red wine. It’s no small thing to be known in these ways.

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Breakfast Souffle. Phyllis is the best cook I know. And I know some very good cooks.

But I really knew I was home later that evening when I went downstairs to the ground floor – the house has four floors – to get something. Sounds carry easily over Woodlawn’s ancient beams and boards and I could hear music playing and laughter and the voices of the people I love. I could hear the clanking of flatware as my sister set the table. It was the sound of family. It was the lyrical sound of the living. I stood very still and listened and let those sounds wash over me like a sacrament.

I was home.

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Window on Woodlawn.

We were bathed in the warmth of candlelight at dinner – my very favorite kind of dinner – long and leisurely where no one is looking at a phone or a watch or a stupid TV. Jesus, why don’t we do that more often? We all ate and drank too much, well, everyone but Phyllis – she has the discipline of a monk and the figure of Helen Mirren. Probably not a coincidence.

We slowly dropped one by one and said our good nights. I went downstairs again to my sister’s room – I could see from under the door that her light was still on. I gently opened the door to find her reading. I climbed into bed with her and I was 15 again and she was eight and we talked softly for what must have been a very long time before I kissed her goodnight. I climbed the stairs to the top floor and found my wife fast asleep with the lights on – she’d left them on for me. Most vampires get more sleep than me but that night, I slept in what must be what heavenly peace feels like.

There’s a special mojo in the air when you’re sleeping under a roof with people you love. It’s almost palpable. It’s like the best sound machine ever – so good you don’t even know it’s on. I was the first one up on Saturday – it was a deliciously cool and rainy day – the kind my sister and I both love. I tiptoed down the creaky staircase and went to sit on the back porch. That’s another ritual of home – the staggered pilgrimage to the kitchen as everyone awakens. I was lost in my thoughts when I heard a tap from the kitchen window – it was Phyllis – smiling and letting me know that the coffee was ready.

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A misty morning at Woodlawn.

I’ve watched enough Hallmark specials to know that a house does not make a home. It’s the people.

I’ve also spent years trying to fill the holes ripped in my soul from too many losses and too many disappointments. Last weekend, I was full in a way that I had not felt in a very long time. You know the feeling – when your heart feels too big for your chest – but not in a tight way. No, in a way that makes you feel whole.

A way that makes you know you are home.

 

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Family.