The Call I Thought Would Never Come

Friday, May 1, 1982

I was startled by the sound coming from the kitchen. It was recognizable, but louder than usual. Almost deafening. The hair on my arms stood up, like when I instantaneously avoid a wreck in the car.

The second ring came before I could move toward the telephone hanging on the wall in the kitchen. Slowly removing the receiver calmed my brain and allowed me to speak.

“Hello. This is Leatha speaking.”

“Mrs. Ritchie, I am glad I caught you. This is Sue Steven from Wake County Social Services. Do you have a few minutes to talk? Is Mr. Ritchie there?”

The hair on my arms laid down comfortably. I pulled a chair to the phone. “Yes, Sue. I am happy you called. Bob is not home from work. Are there more questions about our goals for adoption?”

Sue hesitated a bit. I could hear her speaking quietly to someone else, but I did not understand what she was saying.

“Mrs. Ritchie, I’d like to speak to both you and your husband about a child available for adoption. When will he be home?”

I was numb. I’d been waiting for this call for three years. Actually, all my life.

We have talked endlessly with family, friends, and social workers about this possibility. I had been unable to conceive because of multiple surgeries to remove benign abdominal tumors and finally had a hysterectomy.

Not all the advice we got was positive. My dad was most hesitant. He said, “You don’t need to take on someone else’s problems”.

Family knew what we learned. Perfect babies are nearly impossible to adopt. Adoption of older children, siblings, or international adoptions held more promise. We tried all options – directly from a family, private agency, and county social services. Nothing had happened.

“Bob usually gets home around 6:00. In a few hours. But if I call, he will stop everything and buzz home. Can you tell me something? Please tell me anything you can.”

“Mrs. Ritchie, as you know we have been searching for the right fit for you and your husband. You have been very open to age, gender, race, and special needs.”

My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it over her voice. She must have heard it too. She paused for what seemed like a long time.

I searched for information. “Sue, is there someone ready for placement?”

Silently my brain was running fast. Could there be more than one? Is it a young child, siblings, older child, someone who needs us as much as we need them? With the phone still at my ear, I stood up took a step from the kitchen and looked down the hallway. I could see through the doorway of the empty room we someday hoped would be a child’s room. Inside was a collection of bedroom furniture, gathered but not arranged. Tonight, we might know more about how to set the room up.

“Mrs. Ritchie, Are you there?”

I pulled myself back to the kitchen and stared at the phone. “Yes. Sorry. I am here. Give me a quick summary and I will call Bob to come home.”

I was feeling excited, anxious, and nervous. I was trying to listen, but I could only hear bits of words.

“a beautiful girl. 8. special needs. not standing. lax lower body muscle. happy child.”

Again, my brain was churning thoughts/ideas. Eight – need to set up the twin beds. Wheelchair – will it fit? A girl. Beautiful girl – won’t need the crib.

I was thinking, not replying. Taking notes on the slip of paper I pulled from the grocery list pad attached to the wall.

Sue paused and I butted in. “Whew. I get why you want us both on the phone. This is a lot for me to absorb. Let me call Bob and tell him to come home.”

“That will work for me. I will be in the office until 6:00, but I will also give you my home number so you can call me there later.  Leatha, this is indeed a lot of information. We will have several conversations about this over the next weeks. We will not take the next step until you feel comfortable all your questions have been answered.”

“Sue, what is the next step?”

“Meeting her.”

I nearly fainted.

I dialed Bob’s office number hoping he was sitting at his desk next to the phone. He evidently was. He picked up right away. Before he said a word, I blurted out.

“Bob, social services called. They have a child for us to consider. An 8-year-old. We need to talk with them together. Can you come right home?”

“I’ll be right there.”

Miraculous! He usually asks questions to clarify. He is a processor. An engineer brain. Likes to see the plan. Instead, the phone clicked off right away.

In less than 30 minutes Bob was home.

I pulled two sheets of blank paper from a school notebook. One for me and one for Bob. As I started to rewrite my notes, I realized what a jumbled mess they were. I really didn’t understand what I heard or wrote.

We needed something to drink. I poured two glasses of iced tea. As much as I felt a real drink would help, I knew we needed to keep sharp.

I heard Bob’s car turn in the driveway. Emotion overtook me. I ran to the car and almost before he fully stopped, he released the seat belt and I grabbed the door handle. He stood and without a word we hugged. A good tight hug. I was sobbing. He was calm.

The most important thing I wrote down accurately was case worker’s phone number.  I dialed the number as soon as Bob had settled down at the kitchen table. When the ringing began, I sat down beside him and put the earpiece between us.

Sue spoke after two rings. “This is Sue Stevens. Mrs. Ritchie, is that you?”

“Yes, it is. And Bob is here too.”

The next thirty minutes I tried to be the listener and let Bob asked questions.

“Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie we have a child for you to consider. It is a baby girl. Eight months old.”

I gulped. “Eight months? I thought you said earlier the child is eight years old.”

I directed my gaze to Bob to take in his reaction. “A baby! Sue, we were told the wait would be years for a baby.”

Bob put his index finger to his mouth and summoned me to be quiet. I could barely control my excitement.

Sue continued. “You both have expressed interest in a baby, even if there are special needs. This child will need medical care, much engagement from you, and the resources available for her development.”

Bob asked to get right to the point. “What is the diagnosis?”

“Mr. Ritchie, we are unsure. What is most prominent at birth was lax muscle tone in the lower half of her body. Many tests have been done to understand the cause and prognosis. According to the physician’s report there was fetal distress, so she was delivered by C-section. A CAT scan revealed a moderate degree of hydrocephalus. There appears to have been a brain injury in labor or at delivery which is likely to be the reason for the lax muscle tone and could contribute to other developmental delays.  The doctor’s report says cerebral palsy. I’ll pause and let you ask questions.”

The questions came quickly from me, “Are they seeing significant development delays? Is she getting medical care now? What can you tell us about her foster parents.”

From Bob, the questions were practical and pragmatic. “How will she need to be cared for? What is the prognosis for her future? Why has it taken so long to place her?”

Sue answered each question as if she were reading from a medical report. “She lives with very experienced and loving foster parents who take her to medical appointments, participate in therapies, and is fully engaged in the Early Childhood Intervention program. The baby is making gains in her development and growing fast. She sleeps and eats well, babbles age appropriately, and is a happy child. The doctors and our agency feel we now know enough for placement.”

“Mr. Ritchie, with regards to the future. Doctors are not able to predict. The neurological and motor injuries may mean she may not walk or talk. Cerebral palsy is very different depending on the damage and the on-going care. If you’d like to go further, you will meet the pediatrician and medical care team, they can be more specific.  You will also meet the early childhood intervention specialists to tell you more about her development thus far. They will recommend care and explain the resources available to the family.”

The pause was deafening. I turned away from the telephone and looked at Bob. He was staring at the table, not moving a muscle. I could tell he was worried. In the beginning he was not convinced adoption was a good option. If we could not have a child of our own, maybe that was meant to be. He told me early on in the process that he was afraid we shouldn’t do this.

All I could feel was happiness. A baby like this was left by parents to fend for herself. To make it into this world with all those challenges. I wanted to do this. Love and care would make all this possible. And all those resources. It wasn’t like we’d be doing this on our own. I’ve wanted to be a mother all my life. This was our chance.

Sue broke the silence. “Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie, this is a lot to think about. You take time to talk, get family advice and make a list of what else you might want to know. We can talk next week.”

I put my hand on Bob’s hoping to feel agreement. I asked, “When can we see her?”

Bob squeezed my hand and nodded.

Later that evening, as we continued to talk about all that we knew and what we didn’t, Bob said, “You know once you see her, you will be in it for the long haul. What about talking to all the specialists first?”

We met the baby three days later. The meeting place was at a church nursery. The room was dark except for light peeking through the curtains. We had been told she was sleeping, but we could go in. She lay in the bassinet in a dress which looked like she was ready for a special occasion. A light blanket covered her legs. She looked angelic. The blond curls showed she had been moving around. Some were over her forehead and cheeks.

I reached down to move her curls so I could see her face. She squirmed a bit but did not open her eyes. I reached for her, both hands under her cradling the back and head. I lifted her to my chest. Her neck was strong. She allowed me to bring her to my shoulder.  I saw no signs of special needs. Just a beautiful baby who needed us. And I needed her. Bob was right. At that point, I was in it for the long haul.

After a few minutes, I looked over at Bob and turned her toward him. At first awkward, then with comfort, he brought her to his chest. She fit just right. Bob closed his eyes as if praying. It was the best snuggle.

Tear flowed down my cheeks. She was home in our arms.

With therapy, love, and care from a village of people, our daughter grew to meet her developmental milestones and overcome the gross and fine motor challenges. She did well in school, graduated with honors, finished college and is a great human.

She is perfect.

Christmas Tree Dressing

From My TurnA Nash Sisters Novel

Annie’s description of the Walsh family tradition of dressing the Christmas tree.

Preparing the tree is the most celebrated activity in our home. Our custom is that Jon did the decorating with the children. I would grab a cup of coffee, sit on the couch and watch father and children bond in a way that’s like no other. Detangling lights would take patience. Stringing them round and round took creativity and planning. Jon was insistent they were spread just right. As the children unwrapped each ornament, they talked about its beauty and significance. This was always the best activity for father and

I suggested we bring that tradition here. Once the tree was up and stable, I called all the men into the room.

“As a new Grand Nash Christmas ritual, the men will dress the tree with the children. We all brought a few ornaments to contribute to this tree. As each ornament is unwrapped, the children from each family can tell us about it before you men
hang it up.”

What is your tradition for getting the holiday decorations out and ready?

Grateful Goodbye

I was fortunate to attend the funeral of a wonderful work friend. I was asked to say a few words about Martha at the service. Saying goodbye to loved ones is always tough. I was especially sorrowful because it has been many years since I’d seen her. I did not know she was ill. I felt guilty. Had I not done enough? Why didn’t I reach out more often?

A funeral is a place to feel all of this. To reflect. To remember. As I was preparing my story of Martha, I felt overwhelming gratitude. My words came out this way.

In 1992 I met Martha. I was a regional manager for Bright Horizons Children’s Centers. We were recruiting teachers and staff for the soon-to-open Glaxo Child Development Center in RTP, NC.

We were fortunate to have more than one hundred applicants for the open positions. Someone quickly brought Martha to me for a second interview. It only took a few minutes to understand we must hire her. Her resume showed she was very qualified for a teaching role, probably overqualified. In the next few minutes of the interview, it became clear we needed her intelligence, compassion, and genuine love for children on this very new team. 

During orientation of the new employees, Martha’s many talents with her colleagues began to shine within the crowd. People were seeking her advice. Not only about how to work with very young children, but about life in general. There was laughter and encouragement everywhere Martha was.

It wasn’t long before I knew we needed her in more than one classroom. We needed her in all classrooms to influence and coach the teachers. She helped organize the environment to nurture optimal confidence and learning for the children. Patterned after Martha and how she did her job, we created the Program Coordinator position for the Glaxo center. The first at Bright Horizons.

The role, especially the way Martha did it, later served as the model for hundreds more talented teachers in Bright Horizons Children’s Centers all over the United States.

As the number of child development centers grew, I asked her to replicate that success in other centers. She became my educator extraordinaire, for parents, teachers, administrators, and center directors.  Martha invented another new Bright Horizons role, that of Education Coordinator supporting multiple early childhood centers.

But more than that, Martha became my friend. She made me laugh or gave a hug when things were not so funny. She shared herself unconditionally. With her beside me, I learned to be a better mother, wife, and leader.

Martha was my counsel in building a wonderfully diverse group of employees.  She seemed to have just the right advice for everything. In fact, the regional leadership team recommended we all get bracelets that reminded us WWMD What Would Martha Do.

After she retired from Bright Horizons, I missed her. We all did. But I knew she was out there influencing others. Likely she was spending more time with her family, children, and grands. For certain, she’d be generally helping others become better people.

Today as I say my final goodbye to Martha, I thank you all. For giving me her time, talent, and herself. I am grateful that some of Martha rubbed off on me.

Take one more look at her picture.

Ahh… that Martha Lewis smile. It could make your day.

If it’s been some time since you’ve spoken to someone that had a great impact on you, do so now. Put an appointment in your phone calendar right now to do it. Rather than message or text them, call them. Even better yet, write them a letter they can read and re-read whenever they need your influence and gratitude.

Marie Nash

At age 13, Marie Frances Nash was told by her momma that Marie’s first father was Frank Pollard.

Before that it hadn’t mattered to Marie. She had a loving family. There was her best cousin, Suzy, who became her sister. They grew up together in the arms of their aunts, momma Ethel, and papa George.

It was with Suzy that Marie experienced death for the first time. Aunt Dianne, Suzy’s momma, was sick for a long time before dying. Watching someone die and figuring out how to mourn was difficult. It formed the bond that Suzy and Marie never broke.

Frank came out from the shadows asking for forgiveness by sending money, buying Marie a car to drive while at North Carolina State College, and visiting whenever momma would allow.

Marie began having babies. She was good at it. She had three by the age of 26. Her momma was never far from her.

Soon it became Marie’s turn to support momma, Suzy, and Frank when the family foundation needed strengthening.

Get to know Marie more deeply in all three Nash Sisters novels.

The Third in the Series.

The year they will never forget – 1954.

It was one of the hottest summers in history. In North Carolina hot summers mean warm water in the Gulf Stream bringing the powerful hurricanes close. Too close.

Before that there is a horrible car crash. A baby tries to come early. And nobody can find Ethel.

Plans change. Nothing is normal. What will they do?

They step up. They take a turn being what is needed, rather than what is normal.

Revelations come pouring out from all directions.

What a year!

Beauty is what I feel when I see you.

As a child and into my adulthood, my mother would say to me nearly every day, “You are beautiful.” It was never contrived, nor did she have to search for the reason to say it. She never meant it as how you looked when you dolled up for an event or changed your makeup routine. To mom, beauty was the way she felt when seeing or talking to you.

As I age, recognizing beauty becomes easier. I notice more often how people speak to one another, stare longer at beautiful actions, and I listen intently for the goodness in stories. The new generation calls it having all the feels.

Sometimes beauty bursts in front of you. Almost startling you. I am quick to capture it. To hold it. To secure its memory in my brain.

But most of the time beauty evolves slowly. A change in season. I have to be paying attention to notice. Maturity changes the beauty into something even better.

I think that is what my mom wanted. Not only a moment of beauty in nature or her children but noticing how they change and blossom further.

You are not beautiful because you have a new haircut. It is because you love yourself.

You are beautiful because you offered to help, to visit, to spend time with another, corrected a wrong, took responsible for your role in a friendship or family, and much more.

So, when I wore my handmade clothing, added a hand-me-down straw hat, put on somebody’s sunglasses and got my picture taken. Mom said, “you are beautiful”. I wasn’t really. But I was hers.

What does beauty mean to you?

The Crash That Changed Lives

It’s a 1953 Buick Skylark. A real beauty. But not for long. In the third Nash Sisters series, chapter 1, it is demolished in front of Marie’s house. It is not the worst that happens in 1954 to Nash family, but pretty close. Marie tells how it all started.

As my momma would say, “It is hot as hell out here.” And she would be right. I can’t remember a summer like this. The weather guys said we had more days over 100 degrees this summer than any other year on record. I believe it. I looked at the thermometer hanging under the crabapple tree—96 degrees. I looked at my watch to make sure it really was morning. Yep, 96 at 11 o’clock. And that’s in the shade. I am standing under the canopy of the tree, fanning my face with my hand, rocking from side to side trying to create some breeze up my dress. Jimmy, my two-year-old, is pulling at my skirt. My fourth child is in my belly, and it’s a heavy one.

I know we had a record-breaking hot summer two years ago, but I was not pregnant then. Although I seem to always be pregnant here in my adult life. I had Jimmy in June ’52 before the sweltering heat settled over Raleigh. At this time two years ago, I was 20 pounds lighter than I am now. For sure this is the hottest I’ve ever been.

My husband, Al, likes the fact that he has a large family. But he doesn’t have to carry the babies inside ’till he is about to explode. And he doesn’t have to endure the most excruciating pain ever giving birth. We both wanted children, but that was before I understood how much work they were. My friend Susan and Aunt Annie make it look easy. They talk about all the fun they have with their children. Susan says being a mother is a gift from God. Well, after this one, because it is coming whether I like it or not, I have plenty of God’s gifts. He can stop with that bequest.

I’ll call Momma later, as I do every Sunday night. Maybe she can give me some new ideas about enduring this heat. I have tried all of her earlier ideas—put a cold, wet cloth around my neck and drape it down my chest, stick my head in the freezer while fanning with the church fan, drink plenty of cold water, sit down in a chair and stick my feet in the freezer, and never leave the shade during the day.

On our last call she said, “Heavens, Marie, you learned how to make ice cream at the knees of North Carolina’s best ice cream maker. Keep doing it and eat it all the time. It doesn’t matter how fat you get right now, you got three kids and one more coming any day. Nobody’s looking at your figure.”

Oh, gee thanks, Momma.

From the yard, I could hear the radio inside switching from news to songs. “We’re Gonna Rock Around the Clock Tonight!” was playing. It’s depressing. I will never be able to rock around the clock again, unless I am up nursing a baby. I don’t remember the last time I slept all night. Another song comes into my head. One that is more what I want. Doris Day’s song, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Yeah, that’s what I wish for.

I was jerked from my dreams by a thunderous noise. The ground actually shook. It sounded like a tree falling or cars crashing. Or a tree coming down on a car. I grabbed Jimmy’s hand and ran around the house to the front yard. Sure enough, there was a car turned on its side in the deep ditch in front of our house. There was smoke billowing from its hood.

My feet stopped like I had reached the edge of a ravine and if I took one more step we’d fall into a bottomless pit. I jerked Jimmy’s arm swinging him off his feet, propelling him behind my back. Jimmy shrieked, “Momma, no!”

I hoisted Jimmy on my hip and carried him to the front door of the house. Shouting at my children inside, I yelled, “Al! Mary! Come get your brother!”

I could hear the children running toward the front of the house. I opened the door and practically tossed Jimmy inside. “Stay in there, children. You hear?”

Slamming the door behind me, I ran toward the car. The neighbors must have heard the crash or Jimmy’s shout. Half dozen people were sprinting into our yard—mostly women. The men were at work.

Even though I didn’t want to, I ran toward the car. I stopped short. I recognized the car. “Oh my God, no!” I screamed.

I could not make my feet move. The red Buick convertible had its top down. The man in the driver’s seat was slouched forward. His head was on the huge steering wheel. Blood was everywhere—on the dashboard, windshield, and gushing from wounds on his head. I didn’t know for sure who it was because his face was turned away from me. He was not moving. I could not see a rise and fall of his chest. He did not seem to be breathing. I wanted to vomit.

Do I write for me? Or for readers?

When I began writing my first fiction novel, I was motivated by a dare. And a deadline.

In 2018 I was part of a writing group. The leader of the group Lee Heinrich, an editor and publisher, placed an opportunity in front of us. “We will hold an author meet-and-greet in a few months. Those of you who have published books, choose one to showcase. Each author will have six minutes to read a portion of their book to the audience.”

At that point I had no published book. Just snippets of stories I created from entries in my journals. It felt like a dare. Family and friends had been telling me for years, “you should write a book about that.” I could tell a good story, but I wasn’t sure my writing was audience worthy.

I expressed my mixed emotions to Lee. She dared me, “Show me what you have. Get me a first chapter by next month’s meeting.”

A whole chapter in a month? A first chapter can’t be written without the whole story in mind and flushed out characters. Right? Is that possible in four weeks?

I went straight back to my office, dusted off the white board, and started to plan a novel. The characters had been swimming around in my head for decades. I would use them. My experiences and observations of family, which everyone was telling me to write, were there.

By the end of the week, I had a story of sisters who relied on each other even when life placed challenges in front of them. I now needed to build the characters. Who are they? What was the first tragedy they faced? How could they make it through?

The second week, I began to write. Ethel and Dianne Nash are sisters. Dianne is on her death bed.

Who is most affected? Dianne’s only child, Suzy, whose father previously died.

Who helps her through it? Her cousin Marie, Ethel’s daughter. Suzy’s mother by preparing for the inevitable. Family conversations about the memories.

Why was I doing this? The deadline stared me in the face. I needed to devote more hours to writing this. And most of all, I wanted to get the story on paper.

It was like magic. The characters became real. The story flow was making sense. A favorite quote from a writing course, Show Don’t Tell was my guiding light.

I sent the first chapter to Lee right before our group’s scheduled meeting. Her response was quick. “Wonderful book emerging. I love the way Marie’s is trying to understand death. Powerful.”

There it was. The new motivation to write. The reader.

After The Nash Sisters was published and sold, the reviews were very positive. Readers were moved by it. They couldn’t wait to read the next one.

Wow! I thought it was just me that loved these characters.

Memories of Shiny Brite Ornaments

I remember well the ornaments on the family Christmas tree growing up. My favorites were the delicate glass ones handed down from my grandma, or new ones bought that looked like grandma’s and great grandma’s collection. I get to revisit them as we decorate our tree each year. The yellow, red, and blue ones pictured here are all that is left from generations gone by.

In doing research for the last chapter of the 3rd Nash Sisters novel, I rediscovered those ornaments and their story. It was a delightful find! Memories and emotion came racing back at seeing the variety from the 20s through the 60s.

I hope you enjoy reading this and uncovering memories of Christmases past.