Today Is Not About Me: It’s About the People Who Made Me, Me

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Today is my birthday, and no, I am not just writing a blog post so you can tell me Happy Birthday. But hey, if you want, there’s always the comment section below.

Why I’m writing is because (1) I like to write, and (2) I wanted to take a moment to give my gratitude to the people in my life from start to present who made me who I am today, which is a bit of a herculean task that I will generalize, by and large, for the purposes of this entry. I’m not going to attempt a complete list of thank you’s because that would be an endless blog post, and one that ends with me forgetting someone, and more than one at that. I will, however, attempt an abbreviated narrative of thank you’s that might not be so abbreviated when it’s all said and done. And while I didn’t write out anything pertaining to my Granny and Papa Pillow, or Papa Hamlett, I have plenty of stories and gratitude for them as well. A couple include:

P.S. I just wrote for a solid three hours straight, and will admit I have yet to proofread this, so if you see a typo, let me know in the comments. As for me, it’s time to listen to Bruce Springsteen, then take my dog for a walk.

Childhood

I was fortunate to have amazing parents. I really was. And, I’m fully aware of that because I know some of my friends, past and present, didn’t have it as easy as I did growing up. I’ve written at length about my dad on my blog, who I lost in 2009 from leukemia, so I won’t rehash any of that; but I will say this: my dad was a poet and didn’t know it, and the one letter he wrote me in 2008 carried that same poetry that I constantly refer to even today. To excerpt:

You must live each day to make the best of what you have. Think about all of the positive things in your life and get out and do the simple things like walking [and] playing with the dog. Look up at the blue sky above your head. If it’s raining, watch it fall . . . Think about this time in your life as a learning experience because that is what it really is . . . Once again, play the cards you have in your hand at this time and make the best of it. You are still young and have a lot to look forward to . . . Remember you are being tested and will learn from every experience if you will only stop and think about it.

My dad didn’t consider himself a writer, but was a constant scribe in jotting down little notes and to-do’s, and should have bought stock in sticky notes he used them so much around the house. He could make a dog laugh when telling a funny story when he got home from work and sat in his recliner with my cat Gus nestled on his belly and a bowl of chocolate ice cream just above her. He was my dad first, just as I think dads should be, and led by example, not speaking all that much, but when he did, it was full of wisdom. He was like the Pete the Cat of dads.

My mom was and still is the talker in the family, so what little my dad did speak, my mom more than made up for. I’m not knocking my mom in this regard. It’s who she is. She’s a communicator. If you know my mom, you may also find it as humorous as I that she was a librarian assistant for most of her life, which meant she existed in the world’s quietest place for more than eight hours a day.

I hope my mom is not reading this as a backhanded compliment, because that’s not what I’m trying to achieve here. What I’m really trying to say is that my mom is vocal in her affection of her kids — my sister Jennifer and me. She has always championed us in our strengths and never made us feel our weaknesses are even weaknesses. That’s a very good quality to have as a mom, because otherwise, you’ll live your life with insecurities big and small, with an unsturdy foundation as you go about your daily existence.

Does it drive me a little crazy she’s always the first to leave a comment on a blog post I write? Yeah, sometimes. But she’s my mom, and was my first reader when I was a kid and always strives to be my first reader even now. If I ever finish this book I’m working on, I’m sure she’ll be the first one to buy a copy. She’ll probably sell copies out the trunk of her car at church if I were to ask her.

Then, there’s my sister Jennifer, or as I call her, Jaunfa. My sister used to put the fear of God in men when I was a kid, and to be honest, probably still does. I probably avoided numerous fights as a kid because other guys my age were scared my sister would beat their ass if they laid a hand on me. She actually beat the shit out of one of my friends with a tennis racket once. And when I say beat the shit out of one of my friends with a tennis racket, I mean, she literally hit the poor kid over the head and in the body with a tennis racket — not the stringed part either, the metal frame — until he ran home crying and told his mom.

I could go on and on about my sister (did I mention she once won a bodybuilding competition and has participated in Ironman events?) and my parents; but in summary: I had a strong foundation with a solid roof over my head, literally and figuratively. So, big ups to my dad for impregnating my mom with me and my sister, and for doing your due diligence to raise good kids, despite what anyone may have thought about us in our teenage years. On that note…

Teenage years

Funny story, and those that knew me back then may not even be aware of this, save for my parents and grandmother; but when I was a senior in high school, I was threatened with constant suspension from high school, and told I would be sent to the disciplinary school in Jetersville, Virginia, known as the Piedmont Alternative School that serves Nottoway, Amelia, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Lunenburg, and Prince Edward counties. As a student within Charlotte County, I was told this was my destination; and that if I refused to attend, I would be expelled from Randolph-Henry High School.

I didn’t have any true behavioral issues, and I never missed a day of school (quite literally: I had perfect attendance and even received an award). As a lifelong Spelling Bee winner (my stiffest competition was always Larry Wade from Phenix Elementary to Randolph-Henry), I was even secretly on the Forensics Team for spelling.

With all that said, why was I told I would be sent to Piedmont? A mohawk. I had a mohawk. A very tall mohawk that grew to over 12” tall and one that I eventually cut because I was getting neck problems having to stick my hair out of the side of my window while driving to school (true story) in a car appropriately named Ruby Subaru, after the Rancid song, “Ruby Soho.” My mohawk was deemed a behavioral issue and a violation of school dress code and was supposedly causing a disruption to students trying to learn. I even found myself the subject of a Richmond Times-Dispatch article.

You would think I was waving my hair all about in class, shouting, “I have a mohawk! I have a mohawk!” But I wasn’t. That would have been silly. Also, for the record, it’s really easy to see around a mohawk because it’s very streamlined.

What the authority figures at the school didn’t realize, however, is that people had my back. People I didn’t even know that had my back had my back. Many knew I was being threatened with suspension. I was even called out in front of my classmates during our senior assembly to start the year, and to my surprise, a few students got up out of their seats and protested on my behalf. Josh Napier was the first to stand up. Then, Kim Reinhardt. I knew both, but neither were in my close circle of friends, so honestly, it’s a moment that has stuck with me since because I’ll never forget them for doing that. That moment, was the reason a petition got underway to, and I’m not shitting you, “Save Jeff’s Hair.”

One of the first to start the petition was my friend and cousin Shauna Tuck, who, sadly committed suicide a few years ago. Within a week, over 650 students (in a school of roughly 700) had signed the petition, including some of my teachers like Andrew Prophett, my advanced political science teacher that used to debate democracy with me in class while I advocated for a move toward a peaceful anarchist society. Hey, I said I had a mohawk, didn’t I? Punk rockers tend to lean toward anarchism. It’s just who we are.

Anyway, my parents, who I’ve mentioned above, got involved, as did my Granny Hamlett, who was the first female mayor of Drakes Branch, Virginia, back when women didn’t really run for office. I may be getting my history lesson wrong here, but I believe she was the first female mayor ever in Charlotte County, and one of the first in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments section below.

My grandmother called the Superintendent and the Principal, and scheduled a meeting, and let’s just say she had her way with them in the meeting, and pretty much dared them to do what they had said they were going to do, which was suspension, alternative school, and ultimately expulsion if I didn’t cut my hair or attend Piedmont.

So, here’s to my Granny Hamlett for being a kick-ass woman that never took any shit. I’m pretty sure this is where my sister gets it from. You can read a few entries I wrote about my grandmother on my blog below:

Oh, and I kept my mohawk for as long as I wanted and graduated with my class. Take that, authority.

Young adult

So, this blog post is getting super long, so I’m going to start flying through the rest, and apologize for making this brief to those I give a shout out to as Charles Barkley would say.

I’ll be writing more about these folks in the memoir I am writing, so stay tuned for that; but I do want to give my gratitude to my former boss Austin Algeier (check it out, I spelled your last name correctly I bet) and Jay Taylor, who gave me an opportunity and a job when I was down on my luck, financially and mentally. For example, Jay, drummer for the infamous band Uncle Screwtape and member of the notorious Phenix street gang The Aces, happened to be at a party I was attending in 2001.

I wasn’t actually 21 at the time (I was 19), but while I stood out in the driveway of Dwayne and Scott’s old house just outside of Charlotte Court House, Virginia, Jay offered to pick up some beer and cigarettes for me at Corner Market since he was getting ready to make a beer run. We were low, and the night was young. As I handed Jay my money, I made the comment, “Well, here’s the last penny to my name. I’ll take Marlboro Lights in a hard pack and King Cobra.”

Jay replied, “You need a job? We need a cutman,” referring to the construction business he was in with Austin.

I said, “Hell yeah, I need a job. No one will hire me.”

And Jay responded, “I’ll pick you up Monday at 7 a.m.”

And I said, “No shit?”

And Jay said, “No shit.”

Long story short: I worked in construction for a few years with Jay and Austin, then one day learned my friend Jeremiah was diagnosed with brain cancer, which served as a big wake-up call for me about my trajectory in life, and decided to apply to take night classes at Southside Virginia Community College, because while I loved the people I worked with, I knew construction wasn’t really for me. I feel I was good at what I did, but not exceptional. And, I’m not exceptionally handy with tools. I can build a website for you in a day and run all types of code left and right, but I really can’t build a house for shit.

Austin was very accommodating, allowing me to leave work early when needed to get to my classes on time. Jay, too, was accommodating in the fact that during some of our long commutes to work he would allow me to study in route to the job site, even though I know he would have preferred to listen to music or BS a little.

Once at Southside, I had professors and staff that believed in me. Mrs. Lisa Dunn-Back and Judy Lloyd, and my basketball coach Dennis Smith, even the President Dr. John Cavan. From the day I started, Mrs. Back saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself.

“You should apply to UVA,” Mrs. Back said.

Honestly, I thought the woman was crazy. The University of Virginia — me? What?

Lo and behold, a couple of years later, when it was time to apply for a four-year university, she grabbed me in the hall on my way out and on the last day to apply to the University of Virginia, and said, “Jeff, you need to apply. Please come into my office and apply. I will sit with you.”

So, that day, I sat in Mrs. Back’s office and completed my UVA application from start to finish, writing essay after essay, and answering question after question. And damn if I didn’t get an acceptance letter in the mail not long after. I was even invited into an academic program for a select number of students, which I accepted.

I came to find out that for a letter of recommendation the entire faculty at Southside Virginia Community College had written to the University of Virginia on my behalf. When I graduated Southside, I found myself the center of attention on graduation day — on stage and even on a CNN telecast. Me — a lost kid who, only a few years before, was standing in a driveway half drunk and unemployed at age 19, that had graduated high school two years before and too young to understand where to go in my future.

Adult

I’m fortunate enough to still have many of the same friends I grew up with in childhood: Robbie, Gary, Dwayne, Josh, Andy, Rick, and everyone else. I’ve lost a few close friends along the way like Jeremiah, Brian, and Scott, and I miss them dearly and daily. If I started writing all my words of gratitude for these individuals, again, as I mentioned before, I would never stop. So, I’ll point you instead to:

As you grow older, you grow apart oftentimes, and distance doesn’t help as we’ve all scattered in different directions as the years have passed. But I can say this, and I know it will always be true, that whenever I see any of these guys, it’s just like old times, and I love them for that. And just because you aren’t mentioned here doesn’t mean I don’t feel the same way about you. You know who you are. Jeez, this is starting to sound like an Academy Award speech.

To my wife and kids (also my dog, Motzie): you are as beautiful as the first day I laid eyes on all of you with hearts of gold to match. If I start writing about you all here, I will probably start crying at my keyboard. Actually, I know I will start crying. I get emotional like that, and super sentimental. I show you, or always aim to show you, my love for you daily and in person, so there are not enough words that can ever describe my feelings for you. Thank you for always being there for me, through thick and thin, good and bad.

If you enjoyed what you just read, help others find it on the web. I’m no longer on Facebook, but if you still are, consider sharing it there. You can also copy and paste the link in the url above and send it to friends and family by text and email.

jeffrey pillow photoWritten by Jeffrey Pillow, author of the coming-of-age memoir in progress When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, which you can read on this blog as it’s being written. When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 is a story of growing up in small town America in the 1980’s in a teeny tiny town known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia. It is a story of life and friendship in the face of terminal cancer. Want to read more blog posts? Visit the blog archive. You can also subscribe to this blog to receive updates of new posts by email.

Photo: Jeffrey Pillow. “Dad and Son.”

19 Comments

  1. This is like thanksgiving before Thanksgiving. And it was funny as hell in some parts too. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    • Ha! Thanks for reading dm. When I set out to write this, I had no intention of it growing to be so long so I appreciate you sticking it out.

    • I was hoping the humor would translate over in this. I had fun writing it. I hope others had fun reading it.

  2. Happy birthday! Hope it’s being good to you

    I always love to get an email that says you’ve posted something new.

    I love your writing.

    • It has been a good day. I had three goals: (1) write, (2) take a long walk, and (3) eat dinner with my wife and kids. Check. Check. And, check. Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoy getting those email notifications and that you click on them too.

    • Thanks Rachel. Good to hear from you. I’m pretty sure I just missed your birthday, which I feel pretty sure is in October, right? If so, happy belated.

    • Thanks Rachel. Happy belated to you as well. I know you had one recently, too, if I remember correctly. I apologize for my delay in replying back. I didn’t receive a notification about this comment for whatever reason.

  3. I absolutely loved it! I laughed. I shut my eyes and went back to those years as I read it. My comment went to my FB page where I shared it for some odd reason. Keep writing; you make me very proud!

    • Ha! Thanks. You know, I actually had forgotten about some of this until I started writing, then everything started connecting. I could have written all day once I got started, but I figured I probably should wrap it up at some point.

    • Thank you Debbie. It was indeed a happy birthday. I apologize for my delay in replying back. I didn’t receive a notification about this comment for whatever reason.

  4. Happy Birthday! I enjoyed it! Your Mama’s voice popped in my head when you were talking about her. Yes, your sister must have gotten her kick ass from Nita. Nita was one of the most strong, opinionated, women I have ever known. I miss her.

  5. I loved this! You have such a gift! Happy Birthday and may The year ahead be filled with blessings!

    • Thanks Barbara. That is very kind of you to say. I apologize for my delay in replying back. I didn’t receive a notification about this comment for whatever reason.

  6. Jeff,
    Wow, a writer- a rebel to the man- who knew? I read your blog and it took me in so many different directions. As a mother, I pray I am always the first to like a picture, or a comment, or a thought. I hope I am always the first advocate… And one day I hope someone beats me to it by voice or in writing and that’s how I will know, I can step aside because they will be loved.. almost as much as I love them. I read your thoughts on family and I compared my family against yours and I hope my children will write or think at least similarly of myself and my husband. I try so hard to set a good example. I always thought you and your sister were just great. You were both so kind, beautiful and handsome, good grades and athletic. Your parents were role models to society because without the love and support they showed you, your contributions would not be so great. Your depth, your thoughts- probably a gift from your father, your spoken word and actions a gift from your mother, the nicest librarian ever. You and your sister were always close too – man I hope that my children will also maintain their love and closeness. I do remember that mohawk and I can not imagine with how great you and your family were they were making such a fuss over hair.. I bet they wish hair issues were their only problem now. Happy birthday. Thank you for being an inspiration, for making the years count. For verbalizing thoughts, simple thoughts that mean so much. The world needs more of this common, simple thought. These common thoughts are ties, links, they are without discrimination, in these thoughts we are the same.

    Many blessings

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