At the threshold

Mama and Daddy at our wedding rehearsal dinner in Nashville,  June 1980

Mama and Daddy at our wedding rehearsal dinner in Nashville, June 1980

“The pressure of adversity is the most powerful sustainer of accountability. It’s as though everything you do is multiplied by 50 in order to surpass those with a head-start. I was never capable of slacking when at the threshold of failure.”
Criss Jami

One year ago, for Mother’s Day, I posted about my mother’s incredible determination to press on through some daunting physical challenges.  I’ve often joked about how like my mother Jeff is, but over the past 18 months, I’ve thought of that in a more serious context.

The photo above was taken less than five months after my mother’s craniotomy to repair a hemorrhaging aneurysm at the base of her brain.  If you look closely at the left side of her face, you can see the slight indentation of her skull at the temple, and a tiny bit of drooping of her left eye. I was thrilled to have her at our wedding in any condition, but was especially proud of how beautiful she was, wearing a gown she had made herself not long before the wedding.

Watching Jeff (and now Matt) survive circumstances most of us can be thankful we will never face, I have thought often about my mother and others I admire, whose courage and tenacity are a legacy of strength for all who know them.  My Aunt Peggy, my sister Carla, and my friend (Jeff’s Aunt) Gloria all come to mind when I think of those who have overcome.

I know there are readers of this blog who have prevailed, and are still fighting, through similar challenges; at least one of you is a three-time cancer survivor!  Recently Michael sent me a link to this wonderful video by an artist new to me, Mandisa. The song is set against inspiring video clips of Robin Roberts, Scott Hamilton (a performer I admire as a brother in the faith) and Gabby Giffords.  I hope seeing these amazing people will lift your spirits.  As you hear Mandisa’s encouraging words, think of all those whose perseverance has inspired you – including the person you see in your mirror!

One year ago on Mother’s Day:

The world would kick the beam



  1. Your mother looks so pretty and bold. Stitching her own clothes – hats off to her!
    Today during a debate in the class on food and lifestyle, one student said everything will come to an end the minute we come to know we are fatally ill -that made me think. I know how my father gave up hope and lived in constant fear of death. I am sure he would have lived longer if he had decided to fight. The indomitable spirit of those who choose to fight, is amazing. It’s a choice between life and death – salute to those who choose life.

    • Bindu, my mother is definitely a bold person. And I agree that the will to live goes a long way in helping us overcome life-threatening challenges. When Jeff was first diagnosed with a disease that carries a devastatingly poor prognosis, we were advised by several medical professionals NOT to think of cancer as a death sentence, but as a chronic condition — not something one dies with, but something one lives with. Certainly it changed Jeff’s life permanently, and thus changed ours, but the transformation has not been without its blessings. Among which are all the people we have met here at this blog! I am so happy you are with us here.

  2. Happy Mother’s Day to you Julia! What a remarkable Mom you had as a role model ~ and what a remarkable one you are today! ♥

    • Thanks M, I appreciate your kind words and unfailing generosity. I hope you have a wonderful day today, also!

  3. Michael

    Today in honor of mother’s day I am baking my wife a carrot cake. She has to work today at the Care Center in Des Moines. So Raynard shoot me a little arrow prayer.
    Glad you liked the video. I hope that Mandisa has finally been able to move beyond the insults given her by Simon on American Idol.

    • Michael, I know Raynard will be proud of you for baking your wife a carrot cake, as am I. Plus that’s a relatively healthy treat to have. Maybe I’ll try baking one for Jeff on Father’s Day, he used to love that kind of cake and might be able to eat it again by then. From what little I can deduce from the American Idol clips I’ve seen, being insulted by Simon Cowell is rather a badge of honor after which many people have gone on to great success. 😀 I’ll bet Mandisa got a lot of motivation from knowing she would prove him wrong.

  4. Rene

    That is a great song & video, and makes me resolve to be more of an “overcomer.”

    I pray that Matt awakes this morning, stronger than yesterday. And that you get some rest (I’m “resting” at my mom’s house this weekend).

    • Thanks Rene, I did get some rest and Matt seems to be having a much better day today. We will be back at the hospital for much of tomorrow for post-op checks. Hopefully they will tell us everything is going good. I’m so happy you were able to be at your Mom’s home this weekend!

  5. Carlyle

    Inspiring Blog !! Julia Your mother thanks you.

    • Thank you Daddy. You two are the source of a great deal of the inspiration in my life!

  6. Amy

    Happy Mothers Day. We love Mandissa. We really rooted for her on AI. That was awhile ago. 🙂 Hope you had a great day. Love ya.

    • Thanks Amy, Happy Mother’s Day to you too! (I just ate a delicious corn muffin, guess where I got it? 🙂 ) I had never heard of Mandisa but I really liked that song, it runs through my head a lot now.

  7. Sheila

    Happy Mother’s Day to you, Julia. I’m so happy that you are home and spending this day with Jeff and Matt. What a wonderful blog today! I hope that your Mother had a day of many blessings as well! I have shared the blog and the Overcomer video with so many others today. You must know how very special you are to so many…. everyday! 😍 Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, thanks so much for your kind words and wishes. I did have a nice Mother’s Day. Tonight I got to visit with Grady, Megan and Drew via Skype so that was a nice treat too. He is getting very active and busy! Happy Mother’s Day to you too!

  8. raynard

    Julai, I am humbled that you and Michael would think of me and baking in the same sentence. You both “stumbled( like Columbo & Inspector Clouseau upon why I dont charge people for my baked cakes. So as to encourage and inspire them to excerise the gift God gave them to bless others with it. Hope you Julia had a good Mother’s day. I cooked breakfast for my wife. She turned around and cooked dinner for me before she went to work. Chicken Cordon Bleau from scratch. It was so much, I”m going to take it take it to work for lunch tomorrow.If the route we are taking goes near you this coming weekend, I’ll drop you a line or some pictures. be blessed. here are 2 tributes to my late mother Mary C. Shellow
    A Different kind and version of a fish story.
    I remember as a kid growing up in nyc, my mother always had a big fish tank. There were big goldfish with the big eyes, the black mollies, catfish and little ones too.I look back and it was so amazing to me that she had very little formal education and wasn’t a good reader(this isn’t a slight or insult) took care of those fish without all the modern tool that are out now.when it was time to clean the tank, she would get pots from her kitchen and scoop out all the water. She would put the fish in those plastic large Tupperware bowls and sit them on the floor. After all the water was out of the tank, she would scoop out all the gravel and boil it ontop of her stove to clean it and run a water hose from the outside of the backyard , all the way to the front living room where she had her 55 gallon fish tank.she did this for years and never asked anyone to help her until she got older in her 60’s.I remember I when I was a teen if I was around I was “the chosen one” to go with her on Saturdays to the pet store and buy more fish..I can recall the time when she woke up one morning and one of her big eyed goldfish had no eyes and one other had one eye.she called the pet shop in a panic and they said to flush them. Thank god she waited and found out that the large catfish she had turned on those 2. She got rid of that catfish by giving it to one of my older sisters.I remember her telling me stories about fish jumping out of the tank in the middle of the night flopping on the floor and she would hear them cause her bedroom was close by and putting them back in the this way brought to my memory the other day at work I thought remember when I wasn’t saved in my mess of a life, flipping and flopping around and God’s loving hands put me back in the water so I could breathe again .not like the 2 times when I was very young and almost drowned cause I didn’t know how to swim that he had to get me out of the water. But the water I was first referring to was as I thank and praise God for who is and what he has done in my life and being a God of second chances and my life to him didn’t depend on if he gambled and played roulette or poker at alantic city or las vegas or a scratch off lottery ticket or seen his shadow on grounhog’s day…to god be the glory and all those who read be blessed and smile ..
    Creative Commons: Attribution

    Posted: 02-06-2008 10:09am by Raynard shellow+

    Before “Oprah, “Big Momma” ,’Madea” there would be my mother.She didnt “yell or scream at you like, a Army or Marine Drill instructor, Football or Basketball coach. The Board “she corrected you with wasn’t from” the Health or Education.. You remembered in her kitchen , there was “ no “Bam” , “pinch of this” or even “red wine” like the old cajun guy” Justin with the red suspenders.

    The food she feed us “was food for your soul and it wasn’t “organic” , gluten free or “low fat.

    Too many of us complain about “what we didn’t have but we came out better for it.

    Don’t spend your life comparing yourself to others or you will “spend lots of time at the pharmacy “picking up meds” .. Everyday is a new day “even if your eyes see the same things everyday.

    She told me” about church” in a non religious way. She had heart knowledge but never told you to

    “buy a fireproof suit and a air conditioner” where you were going when you left this earth.

    If she were here today, I would keep her out of the kitchen for a day and wait on her hand and foot. I still remember when she got her first pair of designer jeans and “tennis shoes” .

    Whenever we moved somewhere, she was “more resourceful than “McGuiver” and “The Lone Ranger” before the electricity and gas were turned on. She finally broke down and brought a

    Big Fake “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree And” it didn’t smell like “pine or “cats watering it”

    The branches of “The Family Tree may of gotten longer, but they still need to grow stronger and it all starts “at the roots with tender loving care for all others.

    The Giving and sharing of your time, your talents and the things you do well, “doesn’t come

    from “The Mall or “Walmart.” Reality TV is someone else’s reality, put into “a script to follow.

    Sometimes your life ‘can be like the Movie “Blazing Saddles” with all the different scenes coming

    together and we all can use a good laugh these days..( remember how the movie ended)

    Happy Mother’s Day to all Mother’s be encouraged and Blessed and let’s all be grateful..

    • Raynard, thanks so much for these sweet memories of your Mother! It is very touching to read how diligently she took care of the fish, and I’m sure that was nothing to the way she took care of her family. That’s an interesting comparison you made to your own life, and I’m glad you were rescued by God when things were bad. I love your quotable quote there: “Reality TV is someone else’s reality.” We are all the stars of our own lives and we can make the story a happy one! Thanks for being here and kudos to your wife for making you a gourmet dinner after you fixed her a Mother’s Day breakfast!

  9. Larry

    Maybe you can bake him a Creomulsion (cough syrup) Jam Cake! Just ask Grandmother for the recipe. We all get a good laugh when we think back on that cake. No coughs here! Happy Mother’s Day and may God bless you and all the mothers past, present and future. See if Jeff remembers that cake?

    • Larry, I’ve heard Jeff talk about Jam Cake, but not sure I remember the story about the cough syrup…I’ll have to ask him about that one! 🙂

  10. Julia, Happy Mother’s Day to you and your mom.

    • Thank you, Merry! I hope you have had a wonderful weekend. Today was sunny and quite warm here, a nice Mother’s Day treat.

  11. LB

    Happy Mother’s Day to a woman who is the definition of mother

    • LB, what a lovely compliment! Maybe the nicest one I got this year. I really appreciate it! ❤

  12. Michael

    The cake turned out OK-but a little on the heavy side. I called my son and he had, “shrimp and grits” at a restaurant near Canton. This is something I have not tried yet.
    Our friend Joyce has her commencement tomorrow from General Seminary in Manhattan.

    • Michael, I think carrot cakes are always heavier — more substantial — just think of that as extra nutrition! I hope you used cream cheese icing. That’s my favorite thing about carrot cakes. If I make one for Jeff, I will have to exercise great discipline to make sure enough icing makes it onto the cake since I will be “tasting” it a lot! Congrats to Joyce – a great milestone!

  13. Michael

    Your mom obviously exhibits much courage, grit ,determination with a quiet regality? Does she not exhibit some of those qualities we associate with Southern ladies of a certain generation? And are not some of these qualities what come to mind when the epithet -Southern Belle- comes to mind. I only hope my granddaughter Norah might come to have some of the same qualities. Oh and guess what; another granddaughter is on the way- a sister for Norah.

    • CONGRATULATIONS! A sister for Norah – that is wonderful news! Now I’m hoping extra-hard that you do end up moving to Atlanta.

      As for my mother, I would say her regality is often not as quiet as some of us might wish (Daddy I hope you are reading this 😀 ) I’m told that her childhood nickname was “Queenie.” But, I have to say, there is definitely something admirable about a woman who can dig in the dirt, wield a rake, grow organic vegetables, run a business, give away a good portion of her material goods and live so frugally that she continually gets teased about it, yet still maintains an air of noblesse oblige about it all. One thing is for certain: there will never be anyone quite like her. And yes, Southern women do have a unique sort of strength, whether they are black or white, young or old. Hard to define but easy to recognize. It’s no surprise to me that women as different as Maya Angelou, Flannery O’Connor, Condoleeza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, Dolly Parton, Harper Lee and Nikki Haley all have been strongly influenced by their ties to the South.

  14. Loving your message here as well as the video Julia. When faced with the thought of losing, hope and belief that you’ll overcome, is the only way to survive the day to day weight of emotional trauma. I don’t think trauma is too hard of a word either. Being physically ill is hard enough, but I think the emotional part is devastating too. Both on the patient and the family. When my dad was ill and in the hospital (many times) it was really hard for me to clear my face and heart of the fear, so that I could be an encouraging and joyful light in his day. Then, 10 minutes into a visit I’d stop seeing the tubes and beeping equipment and it’d just be dad, same as always. Even though he was ill, he wanted to know all about how *I* was doing, the house, my pets. I had come to help cheer him on, but he in fact would made me feel better. I’m really grateful for those times, in a way, they were the most honest and bare emotions we ever shared. Do you feel that way sometimes?

    • Yes, I felt that way sometimes when we would visit with Ben during the six months after he was diagnosed with the brain tumor. And then I have enjoyed just being with Jeff and Matt through all the hours at the hospital. One does get somewhat used to the machines and interruptions, though they are always annoying, and the times when the patient is feeling well enough to visit are precious times to share. As you mention, they are also intensely intimate in a way that “normal” life is not.

      You mentioned how you would be there to cheer your Dad and it would end up that he cheered you – it reminded me of the night before Mother’s brain surgery, they kept sticking her and sticking her trying to find a vein for the IV, it got pretty bloody, and when it was all over she told the nurses “after that I need an ice cream!” When they brought it and left the room she gave it to me and said “Here – I ordered this for you!” 🙂 That will always be a precious memory for me. Here I felt like an adult but I still delighted in my Mom giving me ice cream at sad time. It’s hard to realize that she was then about 8 years younger than I am now.

  15. PS. Hope you had a wonderful Mothers Day xoK

    • Thank you, I did. It was nice and peaceful, and I had a Skype visit with Grady, Megan and Drew after spending the day with Jeff and Matt. It doesn’t get better than that. 🙂 (** except maybe for a live visit with Grady 😀 )

      • 😀 oh I’m glad little ‘Mr Adorable’ was part of your special day. All that cuteness in such a compact little bundle must just make the sunshine like never before.

        • Yes, he is a cutie. But he’s so busy now that they have a hard time getting him to focus on the computer during Skype calls. He is more interested in everything else all around him. I can’t wait to see him again!

  16. Michael

    Yes here is a tip for the carrot cake; don’t use the canned Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It has little flavor and is a big let down-my mistake. Like you say, the best thing about carrot cake is the icing. I am sure my grandma used real cream cheese for her cakes. I would send you a pict but can’t download from my phone.
    I heard a little interview recently of Harper Lee still going strong at 84? I think she lives in NYC. She has just allowed, for the first time the digital release of her book.

    • Yes, cream cheese icing is so easy to make (I think it’s basically just softened cream cheese and confectioner’s sugar, and I like it to taste more cheesy than sugary) so even I would probably not use canned frosting for that. I believe Harper Lee retired to her Alabama home town (Monroeville?) and lives there now.

  17. Michael

    There is a back story to the carrot cake I will share at some point. I used the Duncan-Hines mix and tweaked it with walnuts and extra fresh carrots. The funny thing was I was not sure how to prepare the carrots and spent some time cutting them into small Julienne pieces. Later Verie told me you use a cheese grater–funny.
    Harper Lee- must be a very interesting person. I am not that familiar with Nikki Haley. When I visited the Atlanta history center- and the Swan House- there were a couple of sections donated by Jane Fonda. I hesitate to bring up her name, but can she be recognized as a member of select sisterhood of southern role models?. Probably not. And she will probably never be forgiven for her actions during Vietnam; nonetheless, I have appreciated her philanthropy and I loved her in the “Dollmaker.” Her performance was truly unforgettable.

    • Michael, that is funny about the carrots – I can’t imagine how much time you must have spent painstakingly cutting them, but I’ll be the resulting cake was interesting to say the least! You can grate them like cheese, using the teeny-tiny side of the grater or the larger one, but either would go much, much faster than cutting! You will know next time.

      You are right in supposing that many southern women will bristle at the hint that Jane Fonda is southern; I don’t think she has a drop of southern blood in her body. She lived in Atlanta part time during her marriage to Ted Turner, so that’s probably where the donations came in. She is kind of the antithesis of a southern woman; she appears stronger on the outside than she is on the inside, it seems to me. With a southern woman it’s just the opposite. They don’t call them “Steel Magnolias” for nothing.

  18. MaryAnn

    My, my! I was unaware of your mother’s brain surgery. It speaks volumes of the courageous stock from which you hail! (and you are “hale” & hardy: play on words, since they both fit!)

    • Thank you, Mary Ann. Mom’s courage through that entire ordeal was a wonderful example for us.

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