Recently, I spent time in the tri-cities of Rutherford County, N.C. Spindale, Forest City and Rutherfordton make up this trifecta of small towns nestled in the foothills.

Our first stop was Copper Penny restaurant in Forest City. While we were waiting on the rest of our group, I noticed the hardwood floors and tin ceiling and felt a familiar pang of nostalgia, a longing for something I never had and that’s now impossible to experience. 

Half the battle is just getting out of the house and on the road. Whenever we travel, we all understand that if we need to leave at 8 a.m., we will pretend that we really have to leave at 7 a.m. so that we can actually lave by 8:45 a.m. 

We set the alarm clock an hour earlier than any sane person would deem necessary, more than enough time to pack the car, eat a nutritious breakfast, run through the checklist of things that need to be turned on and things that need to be turned off, water the plants, leave a note for the house sitter so excruciatingly detailed that it resembles a manuscript, and say ‘goodbyes’ to our pets in a fashion that is so cute and so urgent that they seem confused, and probably alarmed, at what is unfolding here in front of them.

My grandfather loved guns. He had a magnificent collection, including a dazzling array of pistols, shotguns, and rifles, some very old and exotic. These he kept locked in a gun cabinet that was strictly off limits not just to children, but to anyone. Most days, he wore a pistol strapped to his side just like Wyatt Earp, though his was more likely to be used to shoot a copperhead or water moccasin than some rounder in a saloon.

Breathing in the good

My life is starting to even out. And while I’m happy about this, a peaceful, comfortable life doesn’t offer as much column fodder as a melancholy, tragic one. 

Five years ago, my mom found out she had breast cancer. Then a year after that, when she was in remission, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. It was complications from multiple myeloma that ultimately took her life. 

“I’m absolutely starving,” my wife says, digging through her purse for something as I walk into the kitchen, clearing my throat to get her attention. “Wow, don’t YOU look nice!”

I do feel pretty spiffy. I am wearing my new brown pants and a striped blue shirt. My belt and my shoes match. My hair is combed and sprayed, though it is really not so much “hair” as the suggestion of hair, a few brave and resilient strands that remind me on darker days of crabgrass growing in the crack of a sidewalk. She finds this preferable to the way I used to wear my hair, which is not at all — in those lonely days before she came into my life, I shaved my head, fancying that I looked more like Yul Brynner or Mister Clean than Uncle Fester.

I have a tattoo on the inside of my right wrist that says, “Everything ahead of me.” I got it at a time when I felt so bogged down in an ever-present mire, life felt like quick sand. From my mom’s death to a marital separation, it was one traumatic thing after another.

The only way I could get through a day was to think of a happier, more optimistic future. Seeing the words printed on my body was a constant reminder.

One of Zeb Smathers’ earliest memories is sitting in the cereal aisle of his grandfather’s downtown Canton grocery store, which wasn’t open on Sundays and didn’t sell booze.

“When the movie Ghostbusters came out there was a Ghostbusters cereal and I remember pleading with granddad,” Smathers said. “Mom would never allow us sugary cereal.”

Except for the year our daughter, Kayden, got the flu and we had to make the best of spending Christmas at home with one of our youngsters battling a fever of 102, our kids are accustomed to hitting the road pretty early on Christmas Day. Ordinarily, they have no more than a couple of hours to marvel over their presents from Santa before they have to strap in and nestle in the backseat of the car for a long winter’s nap of three hours or so, about the time in takes to get to my hometown of Sparta.

Once the roads became sketchy, I became familiar with the territory.

Caught you being good

My dad called the other day and said he had a fun Christmas surprise for my boys. Knowing my dad this “surprise” could have been anything. This is the man who gave my older son a fake zippo lighter when he was 2 years old. When you popped open the top, it said, “Get ‘er done.”

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