Backyard Philosophy

When I started blocking out this piece, I had half a mind to send it off to Garden & Gun as a potential submission for their column “Good Dog.” However, when I started reading through the previous installments to make sure my piece had the style, tone, and voice they’re looking for, I noticed something that threw a Mason jar of cold water on all my big ideas. By each contributor’s name, I saw phrases like “author of more than thirty books,” “senior writer for the New York Times,” and “Pulitzer Prize winner.” But despite the fact I don’t have the pedigree those other folks do (Ha! See what I did there?), I went ahead and submitted it. Sadly, three months have gone by with nary a peep from those fine folks, so I have to assume my piece was DOA.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow was a damn fine dog. And this is a story that needs telling—regardless of where it’s published. I hope you enjoy.


The concept of carpe diem has always resonated with me, but Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Virgil, Horace, the venerable prophet Isaiah, or John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society) have little to do with it. Most of the credit goes to Shadow, a black spaniel mix my family adopted in the early 90s.

He came into our life the way a lot of strays do—by happenstance. My father, a co-manager of a SAM’S Club and well on his way up the corporate ladder, finally knuckled under to my grandmother’s assertion that “Every growing boy needs a dog.” (Apparently girls like me could manage without help.) So we bought a copy of the Ocala Star-Banner, looked through the want ads, and found a few people in town who were looking to match homeless pets with owners.

“Now, don’t forget,” Dad said as he buckled his safety belt, “we’re not gonna get the first dog we see.”

“Alright, Dad,” we both chirped from the backseat, unaware we’d soon make liars out of ourselves.

We figured we’d start with the pooch closest to us and work our way out from there, but there was no need. The second Shadow came walking around the corner—replete with feathery feet, wavy Cocker Spaniel ears, and caramel-colored eyes—we were smitten. And when we heard that he was found shivering in the median of I-75 and jumped into the man’s car without hesitation, well, it added a second seal to the deal.

My brother and I fell on him like a couple of overzealous courtiers, and Dad realized his earlier decree had been rendered null and void by a wet nose and wiggly butt. He sighed and asked, “How much?”

“Nine dollars,” the man replied.

It had cost nine bucks to run the ad in the paper for a few weeks, and that’s the only thing he was looking to recover from the deal. Dad only had a twenty, and no amount of reasoning could get the Good Samaritan to take it. So we shot off to the corner market, bought three Coke Icees, and came back with change. A fiver and some singles exchanged hands, the gentlemen shook on it, and we went home with a dog—our dog—in the back seat.

Shadow (so named because of his black fur and despite my aggressive campaign to name him Falkor, after the luckdragon from The Neverending Story) was a dog of many quirks. No matter what we tried, he wouldn’t bark. He didn’t like his feet touched. He sneezed when he got excited. He was especially fond of hors d’oeuvres he snatched from the cat box. But strangest of all were his eating habits. If you gave him a hamburger patty that had been broken into pieces, he’d gobble it down. But that same piece of meat served whole? He didn’t know what to do with such bounty. Rather than eat it, he’d stand patiently by the back door with the food in his mouth, waiting to make a deposit in the Backyard Building and Loan.

No matter what we gave him—hot dogs, Rice Krispie treats, pieces of steak— if it was served in bits, it went straight down his gullet. Whole, it went uneaten into the ground. My guess is he wanted to put it away for hard times. After all, his life had been one of want, and having a ready meal under a nearby tree was probably a solid idea.

His incessant need to save made me think of my grandmother—gone four years earlier thanks to breast cancer—a woman whose fists the world had methodically tightened through poverty and hard work, hunger and necessity. A survivor of the Great Depression, she washed and reused tinfoil and disposable plates, stuffed her house with furniture she might one day need, and haggled at farmer’s markets with a zeal that would have impressed even Scrooge McDuck.

But there was one thing stranger still about Shadow. The dog loved ice cubes. If we gave him a piece, he’d chomp on it in the corner of his mouth, his lip curled like some furry version of Edward G. Robinson. (Yeah, see…. I got this ice, see…) One hot summer day, we kept feeding him cubes. With pieces one through seven, he happily crunched away and begged for more, but number eight was a bridge too far. He pocketed it and headed for the back door. We all watched as he selected a spot under a sago palm, dug a small hole, and dropped his already melting prize inside.

My family chuckled, both bemused and entertained, and called relatives that night to tell them the story. But it was a moment so adorably woebegone that I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along with them. We fed Shadow so often there was no need to forage in the backyard, but every so often, we’d catch him digging up his bounty and gnawing on a disgusting, dirt-covered goodie. The thought of him looking for that ice cube and finding nothing broke my selfish, sixteen-year-old heart in a way that nothing else could. So a vigil of sorts began. I stood on our screen porch and watched every time he was let out, waiting for him to return to the spot that I knew sat empty, plundered by meteorological forces beyond canine comprehension.

A few weeks later, my hunch paid off. Shadow headed for the sago palm, and I went inside to the freezer. Walking across the yard, my right hand already numb with cold, I couldn’t decide if what I was doing was noble or beyond ridiculous. More than once, I almost dropped the ice and went back inside. But I could see him digging, digging, digging…until he hit the spot where the treasure should have been. Then he stopped, paws in the earth and head cocked to one side in bewilderment.

There are moments when you know things with a certainty beyond argument. There’s no way to predict when or why they happen, and there’s no denying them when they do. Like a solid thump in the gut, they nearly knock you over and then fill up every hollow in you with the knowing until your bones are heavy with it. I felt it the first time I was betrayed, the instant before I was named the winner of a scholarship, and the early morning hour when my beloved grandfather passed.

“Hey, boy,” I said, reaching down with my free hand to scratch behind an ear. Shadow turned his dirt-covered face up to me, and while distracting him with lovin’, I stashed the cubes in the hole. He must have heard them clicking together because his head whipped around, and once he saw the loot was once again where he’d left it, the poor thing nearly wiggled and sneezed himself to death with the joy of it.

Smiling, I sat down on the ground beside him, not caring about the palm fronds poking me in the arm or the Florida sun sitting heavy as a blanket on my bare shoulders, and savored the matchless sight of a happy dog.

For the Record

I have come to terms with the fact my grandfather will forget my name one day. Already, he struggles to find it as he gropes through the jumbled memories in his brain, sifting for it the same way we once did for sharks’ teeth on Jupiter Beach. Sometimes, he calls me “James,” the moniker I share with my great uncle and great grandfather, probably because he’s known it longer. It’s engraved more deeply into the gray grooves of his brain, and the disease gaining ground there will have a harder time eroding it. I like to imagine James is a stubborn root that refuses to be pulled out or a well-supplied soldier at the beginning of a lengthy siege. James is a fighter, and its defeat will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.

To salvage as much of him as she can, my grandmother, who I’ve always called Nonnie, asks Papaw our names at least thirty times a day, beginning at breakfast.

“Tell me your daughters’ names again,” she says as she places his morning pills on the napkin next to his plate.

“Sherry and Jamie,” he proudly replies, knowing both are right.

“Jamie’s your granddaughter,” she replies, washing down the lump of misery in her throat with a drink of scalding coffee. “Anita’s your other daughter. Now, tell me your grandsons’ names….”

When she can’t bear to listen, she has him write down our names on a sheet of paper over and over again, like he’s a child being punished after school, forced to scratch out, “I will not forget my homework” one hundred times on the board. His handwriting, never prize worthy, is nearly illegible now, and his brain can’t process letters the same way it once did. There are times when “Sherry” is written “sHErrY” and my name is spelled five different ways. Some days, the names won’t come at all, and his pencil tip breaks under the pressure of his frustration.

There are also times when I’m Amy, Cammie, and Tammy to him, too, and the fact that they rhyme only cracks my heart instead of breaking it outright. It’s close enough to tell me I’m still in there somewhere, like an old photograph just beginning to get grainy and fuzzy around the edges.

“That’s okay, Papaw,” I tell him as we sit out by the pool one Saturday. “It’s in the ballpark.”

The word triggers something in his brain, lashing two memories together like lifeboats in a storm, and he looks at me with such clarity I almost forget that dementia, unlike amnesia, isn’t something you recover from.

“Do you remember going to Busch Stadium?” he asks, smiling broadly.

I can only bite my lip and nod. “What do you remember, Papaw?” I ask. And he tells me his recollections of that afternoon.


I remember it well. I couldn’t have been more than seven the first time he led me through the massive gates at the ballpark with one of my tiny hands in his. In the other sweaty fist, I carried a new St. Louis Cardinals pennant that soon snapped in half because I shook it to pieces in my excitement. While the rest of my family went off to buy hot dogs, Cokes, and pretzels, Papaw and I joined the river of people flowing through the stadium and fought our way through to buy a scorecard.

“If you want to understand the game, you have to have one of these, baby girl,” he said. “It helps you see and remember what happened.”

We reached our seats and, while we waited for everyone to join us, Papaw pulled a pen out of his front shirt pocket and began filling out the lineups. He started with “Smith,” the most common of names, but I knew who it was. Ozzie Smith, A.K.A. “The Wizard of Oz,” was the lead-off man and had long been my favorite player because he always did a back flip the first time he took the field and was so fast that he made seemingly impossible plays look simple. Ozzie didn’t field so much as dance, anticipating the ball’s every movement when it left the batter’s box.

“You put ‘one’ here where it says ‘number,’ and ‘Smith’ under ‘name,’” Papaw said, slowly writing the information on the card and letting me see it. “Then you have to put in their position. Smith is a shortstop, so he’s number….”

I counted the positions on my finger. One was the pitcher, two was the catcher, but I always struggled to remember if the shortstop was five or six. I was about to give up when he reminded me.

“Smith starts with an S just like…”

“Six!” I shouted happily. “He’s position number six.”

For me, most of the game passed in a whir of color and excitement. I was often distracted by the organ music, the box of Cracker Jacks I munched on, or the people around us, but I checked in with Papaw periodically to see how the innings looked on that scorecard. Each player had twelve perfect boxes in line behind his name, and the diamond in the center of each held the results of each at bat. A darkened line with “1B” written to the side meant a single while that same line paired with “WP” or “BB” meant the man reached on a wild pitch or a walk. “K” facing right meant a man struck out swinging while a reversed one meant he stood there and took the final one of an at bat. I learned how to mark a stolen base, a fly out, and even a homerun, and what could have been an impenetrable mess of data made sense because my grandfather served as my very own Rosetta Stone.

There was something appealing about the scorecard to me, and I found myself more drawn to it as the innings passed. I liked the way it told the story of a game in only a few lines and letters, as terse and beautiful as a haiku. When the bottom of the ninth came around, Papaw asked me if I wanted to help, and I eagerly crawled into his lap and took the pen from his hand. Comfortably perched on his knees, I watched and carefully marked down the combination of plays that produced the Cardinals’ winning run (single, sacrifice fly, stolen base, and double) and left the crowd screaming with excitement. The moment, unlike my crooked and wobbly lines, was perfect.


Why can’t our memories be like that? I ask myself as I listen to him talk, furious that the outcome of an inconsequential game can be recorded forever while my grandfather’s memories wash away like sand pulled into time’s dark sea. Maybe it’s because the game is a two-dimensional thing, a mass of data—nothing more runs and outs—while humans are flesh and bone. A baseball scorecard is a simple retelling of facts in the correct order. There’s no need to record a player’s motivation, his thoughts during a given at bat, or even how he felt watching a third strike whiz past or legging a single into a double. But life is made up of so many things that cannot be quantified or accurately described. The only accurate record of it lives on in memory. Beautiful. Complete. Vulnerable.

No matter how many pictures we take or how many journals we fill with our thoughts, we can never capture the essence of what matters in our lives or why. It breaks my heart to think I can never explain to anyone how much I love the crinkles that collect around my husband’s eyes when he smiles or why no broccoli casserole in the world will ever taste as good as my mother’s. I can’t tell anyone exactly what it felt like to become the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree or to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower at night with the twinkling lights of Paris laid out beneath me like gemstones on black velvet. Those precious things, if I lose them, are gone forever. After all, no one saw, tasted, or felt what I did in those moments—and even if they had, their memories would be uniquely theirs. Not mine.


“…but I couldn’t even keep a scorecard anymore,” Papaw says, his voice pulling me away from the painful thoughts in my head.

“What?” I ask him to repeat, embarrassed for having tuned him out, even for a second.

“I remember teaching you how to keep a scorecard that day,” he repeats. His voice is patient, the way it used to be. “But I doubt I remember how.”

Phrases like “I doubt I could…” are dementia-speak, convenient euphemisms for truths too brutal to face. We both know he could no more keep the system of lines and letters straight in his befuddled brain than I could when I was seven. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.

But I do. I know because he taught me how. The memory of learning it from him is in my head, and I’ve reinforced it by keeping dozens of scorecards since that Elysian afternoon. What is lost to him forever is not lost to me yet. The memory of it is safe for now.

“Hold on just a sec,” I tell him and dash indoors.

Thanks to the Internet, it takes less than a minute to print out a blank scorecard. It’s not the same as the full color ones at the ballpark, those edged with player stats and ads for beer or car dealerships, but it’ll do. I come back out to where he sits, staring at the pool’s placid and glossy surface. Like him, it’s no longer rushing from one place to another, compelled by the irresistible force of gravity to seek lower elevations or by heat and cold to take on other forms. It strikes me then that both of them have reached a place of stillness and will, over time, evaporate away. And there is little I can do about either.

But, for a moment, I see Papaw kneeling by the side of our pool in Arkansas, still wearing his work clothes. His tie is flipped up over his shoulder, and his bright plastic Wal-Mart nametag, the one that reads “Boyce—General Manager” flaps wildly in the summer breeze. In his hand, he holds a bright green garden hose that is happily burbling and spewing a stream of clear water into the pool.

“Whatcha’ doing, B?” I ask him.

“Filling up the pool, baby girl. You and your brother sloshed half the water out of it playing today,” he replies, laughing to tell me he’s not the least bit angry about it. He promises me we’ll swim later and play Marco Polo until it gets dark and we have to watch out for bats drawn down by deep end’s bright light.

I know he’s the same man I knew then, but he’s somehow smaller now. Dimmer. Like a lamp whose oil is running low. I know his lost memories aren’t as easy to replace as those gallons of water once were, but I tell myself refilling him temporarily is well worth the effort.

With my laptop under my arm, I walk toward my grandfather, waving the scorecard as excitedly as I once did that poor, doomed pennant. He smiles. And for a moment, he is so much like his old self that my soul is flooded by a pleasure too sweet to describe. It’s a gossamer thing, as pale and delicate as cotton candy, and I savor it until my jaws clench and my eyes water.

It’s 3:30, and on one network or another, a game will start in less than thirty minutes. That’s just enough time to look up the rosters and put each player’s name, number, and position down for the record.

Love Letters

For those of you who read my previous post about storytelling and how my first attempt at it went, I thought I’d show you what I can do with a little more time and a keyboard in front of me. I submitted that blog entry for my creative non-fiction workshop class to get feedback, and now it’s time to re-submit the new and improved version, written for readers rather than listeners. I’d love to know what you think!


Love Letters

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I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Unlike other states with sexy selling points like Broadway, Hollywood, or Disneyworld, we’re best known for cotton, catfish, and the only diamond producing mine in the United States. We also grow half of the rice consumed in this country each year. Wahoo, right? Granted, being able to lay claim to Johnny Cash, John Grisham, and Maya Angelou is a bit of terrific, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that our state’s unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Folks from “The Natural State,” we’re a little…different. One only need examine the teeming multitudes at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game to see why. It’s the only place in the South where grown men slap plastic Hog Hats on each Saturday and scream, “Woo pig sooie!” without thinking themselves the least bit odd. However, I can honestly say that none of those bleacher warriors can keep up with my great uncle Darrell when it comes to idiosyncrasies. My grandmother’s baby brother was the quintessential Qualls, even more so than his twin brother, Doug.

We Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in our presence, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my forty-year-old cousin, Lyndal, lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times for no other reason than to irritate my great grandmother. He only stopped when she flipped him the bird and he couldn’t catch his breath because he was laughing so hard.

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Darrell was a Qualls through and through. Tall, lanky, and long armed, he always made me think of Ichabod Crane, and like his literary look-alike, he took his food seriously. So much so that he brought his own onion to cookouts just to make sure he’d have enough. Always optimistic, he refused to let anything—even losing a finger to diabetes—get him down. “I can’t give you high fives no more, Jamers,” he once told me. “How’s about a high four?”

Though he never enrolled in college, he was highly intelligent and creative, which is a lethal combination in a super villain, but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. For instance, I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.” Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply?—”Little Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.”

Like many men in the small town he called home, Darrell worked at the pulp mill. He was put on the night shift but wasn’t one of the men throwing wood chips into machines or hauling away the finished product. He sat up in the control tower watching lights blink and gauges move on a leviathan control panel. Unless there was a blockage somewhere in the machine, the water pressure got too high, or a possum got into the factory (which happened once), he had little to do. It was a job custom made for boredom, which was the last thing Darrell needed.

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So he started writing letters to his first cousin, Leroy. Like many members of my family, Leroy was a veteran of a foreign war, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which one. It was likely Vietnam, but it could just have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives, including Darrell, have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and bumping around. That’s why I’m convinced he made the same deal as Dick Clark, that or there’s a painting somewhere in his attic that shows his true age. My right hand to Jesus, the man looks the same as he did when I was nine and had a crush on Prince.

Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing to me when I was a kid. I remember he always wore tattered ball caps, their logos made indecipherable by sun and sweat, and he had small eyes, a large nose, and an overbite, which made him look like a rabbit. He never married and isn’t comfortable around a lot of people, but he had an imaginary friend named Oliver who was always after him for something. He turns the television off during the commercials to save energy and is always on the lookout for pieces of Styrofoam to add to his collection. But one of the oddest things he does happens whenever he comes around to eat a meal with us. He loads up his plate, grabs a napkin and fork, and proceeds to stand in a doorway to eat it.

“Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asks, though we all know he’ll answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He comes back to refill his plate or glass and then returns to the doorway to continue chowing down. And he can put it away, perhaps because it can go straight down his leg.

One of Darrell’s chief delights was playing elaborate jokes on Leroy, some of which involved a bit of spontaneity. Once, he picked his unsuspecting cousin up at his house and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Leroy assumed the jaunt might take them as far away as Memphis, less than two hours up the road. But when he saw the sign for Chattanooga, he knew he was doomed. They ended up driving all the way down to Florida to visit us.

Darrell repeated the gag years later and drove Leroy—who didn’t have more than ten bucks in his wallet or a change of underwear to his name—all the way to California. As they crossed the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts, Darrell got the bright idea to turn the on the car’s heater and laughed silently as Leroy tugged at his sweat drenched collar and repeatedly said, “I don’t recollect the desert being this hot.” When he told Doug about it, his brother could only ask, “Son, weren’t you a might bit hot, too?” Even Darrell’s answer was uniquely him—“Hammers, yes, I was hot!” I suppose, even for the prankster, great art is born of suffering, and Darrell was willing to do whatever it took in the practice of his craft.

A four-day practical joke is a fine thing, but Darrell was never one to settle. He once got this strange notion that he would pretend to be a salesman and write letters to Leroy to get him to purchase what he called “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each handwritten epistle, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles. He also told him where to leave the cash and when, using a different drop point each time. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving the cash under a rock on the corner of the porch, and other times, it involved hiding the money between cans of yams at the corner store.

He made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. After all, his brain always needed something to do, especially at work, so he came up with titles like:

The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel

Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars

The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen

Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia

How to Grow Yellow Blueberries

and (my personal favorite)— How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity

Every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail, and he kept this up without fail for nearly seven years. Never once did Leroy order anything, and he never knew it was Darrell who was behind it all. Perhaps because it was harder to research a company without the Internet or Leroy wasn’t a naturally inquisitive person, but in all the years this went on, he asked very few questions about the letters. He just kept reading and tucking them away in drawers or throwing them away. Darrell also avoided the subject because he knew he’d burst out laughing if it came up—that and he knew he’d have to write any book Leroy ordered. And the secret sat undiscovered for years like the arrhythmia that would suddenly steal him from us in 2000.

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At Darrell’s funeral, we were all sitting around the house after the graveside service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and wedged smiles on our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal, and bland—like a rental house with its white walls and tan carpet.

At the end of a frustratingly long day, the ladies from the church packed up the legion of casseroles, pies, and salads that invariably show up where death comes to visit. As I picked petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, we talked about how we’d rather just be chunked in a hole or cremated and scattered on the field at Busch Stadium. Finally, my aunt Nita asked, “What do you think Darrell would’ve said about all this?”

That question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about the dearly departed over a fresh pot of coffee and slabs of Mary Katherine Schug’s homemade, three-layer coconut cake, the one that involved an entire bottle of Wesson Oil and reduced those who ate it to shameless plate licking. You can guess which story eventually came up. Mind you that up until this moment, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Doug and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was behind them funny letters a way back yonder?”

When Doug (who, having lost a twin, was more heartbroken than he let on) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a joyful, full-bodied chortle replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of guffaw that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.

It was just what we needed and what Darrell had been waiting for, but not because he would have felt he deserved anything special. There were actually two essential things to understand when it came to my great uncle—the sheer genius of his quirkiness and just how fiercely he loved. He could no more have left us brokenhearted than he could have turned down a plate full of fried catfish, and I think that was his reason for writing those letters all along.

Writing is So Much Fun That I Do It for Free

Because I’m a writing fool (who also happens to have MS), I have volunteered my services for the Georgia MS Society, which is located here in Atlanta. In fact, today I went to a training session in order to become an official peer counselor for newly diagnosed people, which will likely be a post of its own once I’ve had enough time to process everything I absorbed today.

Here is my first piece for their newsletter, a service provider spotlight for a local neurologist who is taking steps to eliminate Multiple sclerosis. If you would like to read it in a larger format, click on each page and the the + sign when it is full screen.