R.I.P Mr. Owens. Thanks for helping me find my voice.

One of the sad truths about living far from where you grew up is that you sometimes miss things: bits of news, classmates’ birthdays, passages – and tragedies. 

I missed a big one, and want to thank an old friend for sharing through Facebook the death of someone who changed my life.

His name was Lloyd Owens. I didn’t know until after I’d graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that he had any other name by Lloyd.

No matter. He was just Mr. Owens to those of us in chorus.

He was Mr. Owens to those of us who worked on the stage plays at Tarboro Senior High: Lil’ Abner, Guys and Dolls.

He was Mr. Owens to those of us whose lives he touched, whose spirits he lifted and whose personas were molded by his generous spirit, his huge love of life and his constant nurturing.

He was one of those teachers, coaches, mentors who took seriously the job of nurturing children. It wasn’t just a job. We could tell that he loved it, and he loved us.

As for me, he helped give me my voice.

It was my greatest challenge, my dual personalities: I was secretly shy. No one knew it because I participated in everything: student government, athletics, cheerleading (Yes, I know some consider it a sport.), drama club, French club, band and – gloriously – the chorus.

And since most of the singers who auditioned for roles in the annual spring play were from the chorus, I got to watch up close something I’d wanted to do forever.

One year, we were doing “Guys and Dolls,” my favorite musical for years. “The Color Purple” and “Hamilton” have since stolen my heart. But back then, Guys was everything. I didn’t want a starring role. I just wanted to sing on stage.

The first auditions were in Mr. Owens’ office – and I was so nervous. He listened for a just a few seconds, stopped me and said. “Come back when you’re ready. Know the words. Feel them. Make them yours.” And with a flick of his hand, I was dismissed.

I learned the words. I learned the song. And on the day of open auditions, in front of every other hopeful, I stood at the edge of the stage to sing “This Is My Country.” I chose it because it was easy, there were no high parts, it was perfect for my voice range.

And I got out one full phrase – “This is MY country, land that I love…” – before my throat closed, and I couldn’t go on.

Mr. Owens didn’t prolong my embarrassment. He said, “Try again when you’re ready.”

Decades later, when I decided to become a newspaper columnist, it was because I’d finally found my voice, and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I just wasn’t meant to sing the words.

I still love to sing. I didn’t try again until church choir on Sundays and a charity talent show one Friday night, with “My Funny Valentine.” I thought of Mr. Owens and wish I had sent him a video, showing that my becoming a columnist shook off the nerves that had made it hard for me to be on stage.

Now I’m a public speaker and commentator without fear. I appear on television without blinking. I might even make a record.

I’m sorry I didn’t go home and tell him “Thank you for helping me find my voice. I came back when I was ready, just like you told me.”

Tarboro has lost a beautiful, kind man, who nurtured kids and helped us all find our voices, our callings, our joy.

There is no greater legacy than that.

ROCHELLE RILEY’s essays on this blog are personal. No reprints without permission. You can read her newspaper columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.

Misremembered Childhood: It’s not what we thought it was

I want to thank my friend, Lynne, for sharing on Facebook an essay from The American Prospect called “The False Glow of Remembered Childhood.” It debunks the myth that an old America was simpler and makes clear that the America that we remember, no matter who we are, is what we were remembering as children. It begins:

“Three years ago, John Boehner was doing an interview when he lamented, perhaps with a tear peeking its way through the corner of his eye, that Democrats “are snuffing out the America that I grew up in.” As Michael Tomasky noted at the time, the America Boehner grew up in (the 1950s) featured things like strong private-sector unions, a 90 percent top income-tax rate, enormous public-works projects, and a moderate Republican party, presumably all things Boehner wouldn’t like, not to mention Jim Crow, terrible discrimination against women and gay people … you get the point.”

Paul Waldman, who wrote the Prospect piece, also quotes from an interview in Salon, where Adam Goldberg, creator of ABC’s The Goldbergs, expresses a similar sentiment:

Why do you think audiences will be interested in a family show specifically set in the 1980s?

“I think the ’80s works for a TV show because it’s the last time the world was simple. It was before the Internet really changed everything and made the world really small. Today the whole notion of family is a bit different: You can reach out and if you don’t get any support at home, you can find a like-minded family on blogs or on Facebook. In the ’80s your family was the people in your house, at your dinner table, and the people you went to school with, those were your friends. You basically couldn’t find other friends. So it was really the last time where the world was still simple and small.”

No, no, no. The ’80s wasn’t “the last time the world was simple,’ ” Waldman writes. “The ’80s was the last time when your world was simple. Can you guess why? Because you were a child!”

You should read the entire Waldman piece. It’s wonderful and reminds us that “…any time you’re tempted to say something like ‘The world was a more innocent place when I was a kid,’ try to remember that that’s kind of like believing as an adult that your dog really did go to live on a farm upstate.”

I thank Lynne and Paul Waldman, who remind us that our memories are tainted, nurtured, affected by age.

I wouldn’t wish to trade this century I’m living in for the last or the life I’m living now for my mom’s. On the other hand, I know there was no twerking. And that is one memory I’m keeping.


The Jar: Counting our blessings all year long in 2013

The Facebook posting stopped me short.

A California nonprofit was encouraging Facefriends to find an empty jar and – beginning January 1 – filling it up regularly with good things that happen all year. Then on New Year’s Eve, anyone who does can open one of The. Best. Presents. Ever.

I’m in.

I’ve done this before – on a smaller scale. When I’ve hosted celebrations, I’ve given guests cards to write notes. No further instructions. Some of those have been among the most moving, special gifts I’ve ever received.

And at a recent work anniversary celebration, I hired a photo booth and I have dozens of photo strips of and with friends.

But this? This is something different. This is a reminder to take a moment every now and again over an entire year and celebrate.

I always say: Celebrate the small victories. They count.

Now, we get to count them.

I’m doing it, and I’m excited about it. Who’s with me?


The veterinarian asked me to cook what?

I knew something was wrong when I walked in from a debate watch Monday night, and there was no pitter-patter of little feet at the door.  It has been years since my lovey, Desi, had not run to the door from whatever comfortable perch he had found to demand that I transition quickly from newsroom slave to his slave.

But I opened the door, and nothing happened. I called out. Nothing. My heart began to pound.

By the time I got to the stairs, he was coming down, quickly and quietly – not slow and tentatively. He was almost himself, except he didn’t bark. And he didn’t jump.

I kept an eye on him. I checked his food dish. I manipulated his four limbs and checked his stomach. Nothing bothered him. Well, except half-ass walks.

During a full week of fighting a virus that had me bed-ridden, his walks were more less walk and more stand. I could barely make it to the end of the block, so his beloved jaunts through the neighborhood had become bathroom breaks. It didn’t matter that we were doing them four times a day.  They were too short.

By Wednesday, he had decided he was sick of food. Even with a regular walks resumed, he still looked like he felt puny. He didn’t even wake me up in the mornings. He always would wake up before I did, eager to get out the door.

On Wednesday evening, he threw up while we were walking. He didn’t eat his dinner. Thursday, he ate only half his food. Early Friday morning, he threw up in the middle of the night.

So Friday morning, we walked down to the vet, where everyone, for just a minute, stopped working. They all love him art his vets. They know he’s the world’s best dog.

The vet checked his teeth, lymph nodes, chest, stomach. His temperature was normal. His reaction to being poked was normal. He was even bouncing around, tail wagging.

The doctor said it was probably something he ate. The doctor said that it might if, for two days, I cooked for him, something bland like boiled chicken and rice.

I just looked at her.

Then I said OK.

Then I picked up the phone, fully intending to call my late grandmother who as walked me through cooking anything my entire life. But she has been done now 12 years now.

And that is the last time I cooked rice.

Things turned out OK. I grabbed Success “rice in a bag” and some boneless chicken breasts and a Dutch oven from the supermarket. I followed the instructions and then promptly went online and forgot that anything was boiling on the stove.

Ten minutes later, the smell of burning plastic sent me racing to the kitchen.

I had left a plastic spatula on the stove – too close to the gas burner. It was melting exactly when I was supposed to stop cooking (Cue “Twilight Zone” music).

The rice was perfect. The chicken was, uh, chicken.

Desi devoured it. He’s better. He’s taking a nap now. And I know that I can, indeed, cook rice.

And I will do so for people one day real soon.




Facebook chat leads to . . . wait for it . . . an actual phone conversation and a good moment between old friends

So anyway, there was a moment this morning that reminded me of when we used to talk to each other in person.

I had sent a friend a Facebook message that I needed to talk to him. He said he’d call right away. Then he asked for 20 minutes to freshen up. I told him that was fine. It would give me time to put on some pants.

It was funny, for a minute.

But then I realized that I had not seen my friend in a year. It had been more than a year. Now, we’re not great friends. We don’t visit each other’s homes or go to lunch every week. He’s more a friend of a girlfriend who moved to Los Angeles and became a celebrity journalist and was no longer the bridge that connected me to this great guy, who’s a married father and writer who’s awesome but whom a single woman can’t hang out with alone.

But when I said I needed to chat, his response was immediate: Let me freshen up and call you. He was still funny and still my friend.

We talked. It was great. I needed a favor. He was as happy to help as if he’d seen me last week.

So I may invite his family out to dinner because we can’t lose people. When we do, we lose moments we’ll one day wish we had.

A Perfect Fourth of July Celebration: Scrabble, Hot Links and Love

LAKEWOOD, Colo. _ If you ever need instructions on how to celebrate the 4th of July, there’s a couple just west of Denver  who could offer a few lessons.

I went with my sisterfriend April to the ultimate barbecue. Burgers, hot dogs, fruit salad and nachos were the appetizers! And tables were set up across the yard for Bid Whist, Dominoes, chess and, yes, I was in heaven, Scrabble.

But this wasn’t your usual Scrabble. These wonderful women of age played using Independence Day rules. You could look up your word in the dictionary BEFORE you placed it on the board. There was no time limit. If you wanted to stop and talk about each word before the next person’s turn, that was perfectly acceptable.

And when it was time to eat, the game wasn’t paused. It was over.

Oh, the eating. Our hosts, Clinton and Barbara, took to a microphone to announce the rules: Guests aged 55 and older had to go first.  I’ve never seen so many people announce their retirement dates, AARP card numbers and how many grandchildren they had to get to the front of the line.

But why not? The menu was: ribs, collards, potato salad, bean salad, tossed salad, corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, hot links, corn bread and pasta.  (Oh, there also was catfish, but it was a third course!)

Other rules? Children were not allowed at the food table; parents had to make their plates. (I LOVE that rule) and anyone making a plate for a senior could enter the house first. One woman announced she was making a plate for her mother. Her mother said: “I can make my own plate!”

There was an entire separate table with 19 cakes, cupcakes and pies. And there were six coolers of every possible drink you could crave. Sangria flowed from a dispenser on the patio.

No gathering that large on a holiday could end without talk of politics, and there was plenty. But I’ll save that for my column.

This big moment was about meeting new people, watching children with painted faces play and enjoying hot sausages that make your eyes water and potato salad made the way it should be (with pickles, boiled eggs and a dozen spices).

Happy Independence to Us!

The past, the present and the future

I watched three children walk down the sidewalk on my street. They were like The Three Bears. The oldest was texting on a Smartphone, as sure of her step and the girl in the viral video who walked into a fountain so intent she was on her screen. The middle child was a few years younger, her phone a little bigger. She was watching her screen. But she occasionally looked around, pigtails moving with the motion, to notice the things she passed, a cat on a wall, a passing car. The third child was a boy of about seven or eight. He was carrying a feather. He moved his fingers along the plume, watching them move back into place. He was the one with the right idea. My favorite line in literature comes from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” a story of powerful, hatred, survival, redemption and love. Shug walks a compliant Celie, who has been abused and mistreated her entire life, through a gorgeous field of nature, a field of glory. They pass purple flowers and Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” The greatest show on Earth happens around us all the time. If we occasionally put down the phones and the tablets and the work and the bagge of life – and just watch, oh the things we’ll see.

The best gift of all

This Christmas, I am working harder on holiday gifts than ever. This year, I’ve decided not to buy them. This year, I am writing letters, notes of admiration, realization and reflection, for my dearest friends.

The decision really made itself. I just returned from a trip to Dakar, and just didn’t have time to spend in stores trying to decide which thing that my friends already own I should try to replace. I imagined strolling down aisles and through department stores and the very idea gave me a headache.

Which one could use another sweater? Which one might like another pair of earrings that are more my taste than theirs? How many more ties can I buy?

Nope, this time, this year, I am using the gift God gave me to create a unique gift for each of them: notes of encouragement and gratitude, words to let them know how I feel about them, how much I appreciate them being in my life.  If they take them in the right spirit, they won’t think I’m dying and saying goodbye, but will understand how much I love them.

I made three exceptions: my friend, Shelley, who is among the smartest, funniest and most practical people I know. I got her a picture frame. She’s already decided what to put in it. my friend, Phyllis. I had decided before I left that I wanted her to have something tangible that she could show off; and daughter, sister, brother, aunt and cousin, who comprise my nuclear family, the core that is left back in North Carolina. I knew before the plane took off for Senegal that I would bring them something back from there.

Everyone else gets the best of what’s inside of me, what I think of them and feel about them.

I hope they appreciate the words as much as I appreciate them.

9/11 began as horror, became about heroes

I am grateful that, 10 years later, I wake up in bed, in my house, in a free America and my first thought is: “I have to water the dog”- not anything else, anything bad, anything ugly. Minutes later, I remember the heroes . . . and the smoke . . . and the children . . . and the heroes.

It isn’t that I wasn’t prepared for today and hadn’t been reminded that today is today. But my goal is not to treat the anniversary of America’s worst day since World War II, since the assassinations of JFK and King, like a holiday. Unlike Christmas, that has its own smell and feel from moments before you wake, I didn’t want this to become a day devoted to sadness and memories of death.

I wanted to wake today, oblivious to terrorists and fully embracing the life I can have only in America. I wanted today to be about living harder than ever, with more purpose, because I am living for some who aren’t here.

When recalling 9/11, as my newspaper asked me to do, my memory was instant – the children, those who watched strangers and those who watched their parents die. (Read my column at freep.com/rochelleriley.)

But to really recall the first moments of 9/11 I had to call my daughter. As always she was my first thought, and her memory was stunningly clear. She recalled it in that breathless get-it-all-out-at-once way that I used to write:

“We were in art class and our art teacher, Ms. Rubel got pulled into the hallway by the principal and we didn’t know what was going on, but we thought it was weird that we were allowed to still talk in class. They came back, and and she said we weren’t going to have class today and they turned on the TV, and we were all sitting there watching it and right then, the second plane hit the second tower and at that point, I remember we were watching, but didn’t understand. From what I remember, a newscaster said a second plane just hit the World Trade Center, and they showed a picture of the plane hitting, and they were talking about how we might be under terrorist attack. The teachers wer all sitting on art stools and it went from one’ teacher in the room to five or six teachers. We didn’t know what to do. Then Gabrielle started crying and everyone else started crying and said they wanted to go call their moms and dads. They took people in groups of three to call. I said, “Mom there’s something going on with some airplanes. And you said, ‘Did they tell you about it?’ And you came and got me. (My daughter, when she was even younger, thought I had the ability to fly over cars when I needed to arrive in an emergency).. . We went back to the newsroom. I was sitting there watching it. . . You turned to something else for me to watch, and I had lots of food and pen and paper so I could draw. I wasn’t that scared because I didn’t understand. The only time I was scared was at school when someone said they were coming there next. You explained it to me. We called Grampa to see where he was, and you told me he hadn’t gone into the city.”

And there it was. The only connection we might have had, that we knew of, was not made. So it, like the Space Shuttle Challenger, became a horrible tragedy that we watched from afar. Moved, sad, tearful, stunned, we lived with for days with no personal connection.

Until they talked about the fire companies that ran in when others ran out – and didn’t come back.

We know firefighters.

We know police officers.

We know soldiers.

And from that moment, the tragedy became more than a horror we watched from a distance on TV. It became personal. It became about the people whose faces we saw but didn’t recognize that we knew belonged to someone.

I didn’t show my daughter, but I cried a little every day. So as we’ve done every anniversary of the tragedy, I will find something to do today to help someone else, something in honor of the heroes.

The martyrs. The firefighters. The ones who gave their lives to make us pay attention to our safety, our power, our place in the world. We must never forget them.

Thank God for them, every one. Ten years later, thank God.