Personal Journeys past

A follow up on some of our favorite stories from 2017

Mother of reinvention

There is a herd of elephants stampeding overhead. I glance at the lobby wall clock: Yep, it’s class change time at Connections School of Atlanta. Twelve teenagers — double last year’s number — make quite a racket, especially when each one must greet the other 11.

I’d thought all that noise would have upset them. But they seem to have a particular appreciation for high-fiving one another between classes. Perhaps because they didn’t think they’d ever get to do it.

Half of them head to world literature where the soft rumble of rolling desk chairs above the lobby quickly replaces the elephant stampede. It soon gives way to the Audible narration of the book “I Am Malala.”

The other half settle in to learn the physics behind the temperature regulation of their brand-new aquarium. They’ll use that knowledge to perfect the environment for the trout eggs arriving next week. This spring, they’ll release full-grown trout into the Chattahoochee River.

When Connections opened, I was most thrilled by our freedom to celebrate our students’ quirks. This year, I see what most thrills our students is exactly the opposite. Here, in addition to being “adolescents with special needs,” they are teenagers. They eat their own body weight in pizza, sing along to their favorite pop songs and horse around in the halls between classes.

These days, I revel in our students’ joy in the typical high school experience. And no event highlighted that joy quite as well as their sensory-sensitive prom last May.

***

“Just lean against the wall, like you’re hanging out,” I beg. Gabriel sighs, but grudgingly humors my enthusiasm as I take picture after picture. It’s not every day my teenager goes to his first school dance — nor that Connections throws a prom for its inaugural class.

At school, the teacher-chaperones finish tying one last gold balloon to the front gate and gather Gabriel and his classmates to welcome their special guests: next year’s incoming class. Their anticipated entrance does not disappoint. Catherine is the first to arrive. She co-opts the closest adult as her footman and exits the car as though alighting from Cinderella’s coach. If I were wearing a blue chiffon ball gown trimmed with butterflies, I’d act like a princess, too.

Parents remain on the sidewalk as instructed when our children go inside. For the first time since I helped start the school, I stand on the outside with the rest. So this is what it’s like having a teenager with his own weekend plans.

I go to a quiet dinner with my husband.

The event, I am told, featured a few unusual touches in addition to established prom standards.

Crisp suits and silky dresses? Sure. But also flip-flops, Disney princess costumes and tuxedo-print T-shirts.

A glitter-backdropped photo booth — and a bin of Legos across the hall.

Five-foot speakers blasting a throbbing bass line? Not so much. Dancing? Absolutely.

The photos show a seamless blend of typical and atypical, of expected and unexpected, of quirky and traditional — just like Connections and its growing community.

Alison Auerbach

Life with Shirley

When “Life with Shirley” was published last March in the AJC, I heard from people all over the country with similar stories of love and affection for their housekeepers. I also heard from housekeepers who had similar bonds to the families that employed them. And most them had the same question: What happened to Shirley’s family after she died so young? I wanted to know, too, and now I have part of the answer.

As a tribute to Shirley, who died at age 33 in 1978, I arranged to have a headstone made for her unmarked grave at Lincoln Cemetery in southwest Atlanta. I chose pink granite since that was her favorite color. The process of getting the headstone installed involved many questions about Shirley’s family, none of which I could answer.

Shirley had six sons but I couldn’t find a trace of them until I decided to dig deep with a paid online search.

After a lot of dead ends, I started to find bits and pieces of information that led me to her grandson Demarius, whom I contacted via Facebook. I sent along a link to the online version of my essay. Within an hour, he responded.

“Thank you for reaching out to me. I just read your AJC piece about my grandmother and I thought it was such a loving tribute. As you know I did not get to meet her so hearing a bit about her life was quite meaningful.”

My heart swelled reading that and resulted in an hour-long phone conversation. I learned that of Shirley’s six sons, only Reginald and Roger are still alive. The others, including Demarius’ father, all died young, just like Shirley, due to a congenital heart defect.

Demarius, 27, attends Boston University and works with the Episcopal Service Corps in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. He was recently asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to join the Community of St. Anselm in London for “a year of study, prayer and service,” he said.

He told me about a cousin who he thought was named after Shirley, but who went by Punkin. So I looked her up on Facebook and when her profile picture popped up, I just about fell out of my chair. I could see the eyes of my old friend Shirley looking back at me. I sent a message and hit the jackpot with her reply: “Good morning Mr. Chris McGinnis my name is Shirley Louise Walker. I’m the granddaughter of Shirley. My father was her first born and I’m the oldest grand. I would love to have a conversation with you to learn more about the woman I’m named after.”

Our first few phone conversations lasted hours. In a strange but wonderful way, it felt like I was picking back up where Shirley and I left off in 1978.

Punkin, 38, works for Coca-Cola and has four daughters and one granddaughter, and she’s a firecracker just like her namesake. Even though she never knew her grandmother, Punkin told me that she always has a stash of Doublemint gum and Jergens lotion at home, just like her namesake.

The grave marker Chris McGinnis had installed for his childhood housekeeper, Shirley Walker.  Contributed photo

The grave marker Chris McGinnis had installed for his childhood housekeeper, Shirley Walker.  Contributed photo

We eventually met in person in October when I was back in Atlanta visiting my family. We bonded over plates of fried chicken, greens and macaroni and cheese at Paschal’s. Afterward, we visited Shirley’s grave together.

I’ve long felt like Shirley’s spirit was talking to me and watching over me like a guardian angel. But with the discovery of her family, I feel like she’s now talking through me to her grandkids saying, “Hey, I was here. I made a difference and I love y’all!”

Chris McGinnis

Leaving Atlanta

I finally felt it on the train to New York and during the few seconds it took for my little family to dart across Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn during the New York City Marathon. It was that feeling I had been seeking during the first few weeks in Connecticut of being home after leaving Atlanta.

We’d caught the commuter rail into Manhattan from Connecticut. It was early on a Sunday morning, but the train quickly filled up with families and couples heading into “the city” for a day of fun. I didn’t know any of these people — but they were my tribe.

Growing up on Long Island, I’d taken the train into New York countless times. As a child, I’d go with my family to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or with my older sister to peruse vintage clothing stores downtown. Later, it was the premier destination for a night on the town.

Yet what awaited us in New York this day wasn’t fun. In fact, we’d crossed the marathon not on a dare, but because it stood between us and the funeral of a friend. He was 43 years old and simply too young to die.

I felt a deep sadness at his passing, a sense of impotence. But the somber moment also put my particular struggles into sharp perspective.

The fall had been a long, hard slog. A recurring Google alert I had set for myself read: “Is walking the cure?” Google alerts, Post-it notes, scraps of paper shoved in my pocket. Until earlier this year, it was how I managed my life in Grant Park, teaching, editing, writing and running after my 5-year-old son, Leo. The reminders keep me on track with writing assignments, grant applications and groceries.

Not so with this note. “Is walking the cure?”

I was grasping at a solution because since leaving Atlanta last summer, I’d begun suffering from chronic insomnia. I could log at best six hours of shut-eye night after night, despite putting in long hours as a professor of Italian at the University of Connecticut and jogging around the field behind my house.

I searched for explanations. Was it the new house? Was it living in a small town? Was it simply too much change? Maybe all three? It had taken months for my partner, Mike, and I to find a house in Connecticut that we wanted to buy. Once we found it, we scrambled to prepare our Grant Park home for sale and arrange our cross-country move in time for Leo to begin kindergarten in August.

My final days in Atlanta were spent simultaneously working, packing and setting up “goodbye play dates” for Leo. I was also reckoning with the fact that after more than a decade in Atlanta, I was leaving the city most likely for good. I had to say goodbye to living in my beloved bungalow neighborhood. Goodbye to the tropical weather that can linger from March until November. Goodbye, more pointedly, to the city where Leo was born – and where I became serious about my writing.

Mike, Leo and I arrived in Connecticut on Aug. 11 after a tense car ride where we jostled for space in my Volkswagen with scads of stuff that I wouldn’t entrust to the movers. A mere two weeks later, Leo would start kindergarten and I’d begin the commute to UCONN on Connecticut’s rural eastern edge.

I immediately began re-integrating myself into family life — the main reason we had undertaken the move. Most of my extended family lives in the Northeast so the calendar quickly filled up with a pool party at my aunt’s house and a visit with my uncle who was in from the West Coast. I was desperate to realize the promise of our big decision immediately. As if I wanted a receipt for what I had “bought.”

But in the restless hours of the night, in a bedroom that seemed incredibly small, I sensed there was some kind of malaise. Leaving Atlanta wasn’t a mistake per se. Yet, the relocation had severed something — something fundamental that kept my little brain humming. Atlanta had been the city not just of Leo’s birth, but also the city of my creative rebirth. I ceased merely filing news stories as a journalist and began penning essays and short stories.

In Atlanta I had a daily routine that filled me with as much pleasure as any intoxicant: go to bed early, wake up seven to eight hours later, and start writing. It was what I did most days for the last five years. And Atlanta’s late-dawning mornings suited the budding writer in me just fine. The city — and the house — remained sleepy and dark while I wandered all over my imagination.But once I arrived in Connecticut, I had too many other responsibilities. So what to conclude? The decision we made is a good one – an investment in Leo’s future. We’ve moved closer to the important people in our lives. But perhaps the takeaway is this: Adulthood means doing the right thing even though it doesn’t feel right — and won’t feel right for a very long time.

So is walking the cure? Maybe.

As we sat on that train to New York last month, I didn’t actually give it much thought. Instead, I reveled in how “normal” it felt to take the train to Manhattan. Ticking off the stations along the route, I was suddenly aware that the move to Connecticut was allowing me to fulfill a duty, one imparted to me by my Catholic upbringing: visit the sick, bury the dead.

When we arrived at the funeral, we were given exquisite red roses, and we took turns laying them to rest on the body of the friend we were laying to rest. Unbearably sad.

Nonetheless I was gratified that attending the funeral required only a car trip followed by a train ride. Since college, I’d hopscotched around the country and the world. How many funerals had I missed? I’d sometimes dispatched my parents in my absence. Now I could fulfill my solemn duty in person.

That’s nothing that would work as the sunny caption for a postcard of my new life in Connecticut. But it speaks to why I had come back: to be a part of the lives of my family members and longtime friends who were as good as family. My people.

It will take a long time for me to walk the streets of my new town and feel the hum of contentedness that gathered inside anytime I tooled around Grant Park and looked at the downtown skyscrapers in the distance.

In the meantime, though, I will be here for my people.

Jeanne Bonner

Family legacy

Vince Zangaro is just a call away.

That’s what he tells caregivers in the Alzheimer’s community when he shares his cellphone number publicly on social media.

A 42-year-old musician with 00-gauge holes in his earlobes, bleached hair and skin adorned with tattoos, Vince identifies first as a caregiver. His father, Albert Zangaro, has lived with the debilitating disease for 14 years. And Vince has made it his mission to see that his father enjoys the best quality of life possible. But it wasn’t always that way.

Last May in Personal Journeys, Vince talked about having to come to terms with his responsibilities as a caregiver. It took him a while to realize that what he had previously perceived as missed opportunities in his career were the building blocks of something much more important in his life: a meaningful relationship with his father.

Along the way, Vince became an activist on behalf of other caregivers grappling with the same challenges.

In September, he helped raised $30,000 for the Dementia Spotlight Foundation by organizing the 5th annual Alzheimer’s Music Festival in Woodstock featuring day-long performances on two stages.

His contributions were recognized in October when he was asked to speak and his band was invited to perform at the 30th Anniversary Summit of the Rosalyn Carter Institute for Caring in Americus.

“Former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter were in the front row of tables,” Vince said. “Pretty surreal moment. Mr. Carter even pointed at me with a smile a couple of times during the performance.”

He’s been invited back to perform in 2018.

Meanwhile, Albert is doing well despite having a hard time getting out of the house, which is tough for the already isolated family. But they stay hopeful and take stock in the little joys.

“He’s been energetic lately,” Vince said. “Walking with a bit more pep to his step.”

Ellen Eldridge

Haleigh’s hope

When Haleigh Cox was just 6 months old something happened to her brain. It might have been a stroke, doctors aren’t sure, but she suffered brain damage. As a result she began to experience more than 200 strokes a day. Haleigh’s parents, Janea and Brian, searched the medical community for answers and came up short until they discovered that a regimen of medical marijuana oils was the only thing that provided relief.

Janea Cox was instrumental is getting a Georgia law called Haleigh’s Hope Act passed, which allows registered patients to possess up to 20 ounces of low-THC oil for medicinal purposes. Because it remains illegal to produce or dispense the oil in Georgia, the Coxes have to go to Colorado twice a year to purchase the drug.

Now 8, Haleigh has just a couple seizures a day, and that’s permitted her to make some developmental advances. She can respond to yes-or-no questions and is increasingly aware of the world around her.

But for all the improvements the treatments have made in Haleigh’s life, her mother is still battling for patient rights.

“Still fighting. Still travelling to Colorado. Still working with Haleigh and the doctors. Still trying to get laws to make sense for families like ours,” said Janea, in a recent telephone conversation outside a Macon hospital where Haleigh was admitted with a medical complication.

Now that Janea has had a taste for initiating legislative change, she’s trying to get a Certified Nurse Aide waiver passed in the legislature next year that would allow parents to work with home health care companies to receive payment for being full-time caregivers to their children.

“Georgia better watch out, I am a mama on a mission,” said Cox, who credits the Personal Journey about her daughter’s plight for “helping me gain the courage to fight.”

Adam Kincaid


ABOUT THE STORY

We close out another year of Personal Journeys with a look back at some of our most memorable stories from 2017. We are deeply grateful to all the individuals who have opened up their lives to us and allowed us to share their stories week after week. And to our readers we want to say, thank you for joining us on our storytelling journey. See you next year!

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com