It was Friday, September 29, 1989. I remember the twang of the B-52’s on the radio that morning: “If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says ‘15 miles to the Love Shack.’ Love Shack, yeah, yeah….” Except I wasn’t headed down the Atlanta highway or headed for a love getaway. Nope. Not this day. On this day, I got in my Honda. I was big as a whale. Nine months earlier, I had spent my time at the Love Shack. On this particular day, I headed down Highway 51, having contractions along the way to the hospital in Stillwater.
Twelve hours later…
It was 11:56 PM. The doctor said, “Do you want to have this baby on September 29th or the 30th?” 9/29/89 had a ring to it, so I plucked up strength enough and gave another push.
And with this little baby Andrew Riley, 8 lbs. 8 oz., came a love and joy and pride I never knew.
Looking back over thirty years, I remember so many moments of greatness, and I realize how often you have to keep plucking up strength enough and giving yet another push.
And today Happy 30th Birthday to my love and joy and pride, my courageous and strong son Andrew!
The first time I fell in love, I was five—and I fell in love with a monster. The Monster at the End of This Book starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover. The illustrated Grover would read the title page, and when I turned the page, he would freak out in all caps:
“WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the first page what did that say? Did that say there will be a Monster at the end of this book??? IT DID? Oh, I am so scared of Monsters!!!”
Overcome with fear, Grover would muster the strength to politely ask me not to turn the page, which of course, I did. I knew Grover’s words by heart, and in my five-year-old mind, my impersonation of his Sesame Street voice was spot-on. I flipped pages as he tied them together with rope, nailed one page to the next, built a brick wall, and BEGGED me to stop turning pages. In the end Grover finds himself at the end of the book. He. Is. The Monster. And this Little Golden Book taught me some important life lessons.
Lessons from Grover: Labels lead to misunderstandings, and even monsters can be furry and lovable. Fear can be crippling, and more often than not, outcomes don’t turn out as bad as the build-up in your head.
I suppose my love of a good story started here with Grover, and I suppose that same love compelled me back to school to become an English teacher. I suppose this love is why I’ve spent the last twenty years in the classroom, and I suppose it compels me now to write stories of my own. And most of all, I suppose I owe the lovable, furry old Grover a huge debt of gratitude for forever changing my life.
I wish I could remember the specifics of all the books that follow. The details now blur in my mind, lucky for you. This could have been an extra long post. In short, I LOVED them all. In my perfect hypothetical library, these books would stand proud in my bookcases waiting for someone like you to flip their pages and escape to another time and place.
Top Favorite Books of My Life on Earth by Crystal Byers
The Help by Kathryn Stockett*
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini*
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry*
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant*
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden*
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls*
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt*
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou*
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Book of Bright Ideas by Sandra King
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain*
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton*
Me Before You (#1) by Jojo Moyes
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
I gravitate toward historical fiction and female perspective and memoir and young adult fiction. Anyway, I typed the list in random order, so #1 means nothing other than the beginning of my list. I can’t answer the “What’s your favorite book” question. I can only give you my top 24 and let you know I have trouble cutting my list short. On a second look, I asterisked the ones that truly star in my top ten or twelve, so if you’re looking for a MUST-READ, start there and Google to help you find your next favorite book. Oh, and I left off the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series, which I LOVE, as well as some classics because I’m nerdy, but I have to shout out my all-time favorite character Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. You see, my list could’ve gone on and on, so I just stopped at #24.
Your turn. Summer approaches, and I'm a teacher. What's my next MUST READ?
( Blog if I want to, blog if I want to. You might blog, too, if it happened to you ).
December 30th came and went. Celebrations commenced with family and friends. And my heart is full. This year proves that good things come to those who wait.
My 2018 began in approximately 400 square feet at the La Quinta where we (a trio of Byers plus our Rainy dog) would rest and breathe for six more months. Reconstruction continued on our Harvey-wrecked home, and the year whizzed by in a blur. The first half of the year now seems like a fuzzy dream that left me with an eye-opening perspective and an ever-expanding heart, I carry 2018’s lessons forward. I carry them in my heart. While trudging through flood water with a water-proof overnight bag on my shoulder and my chihuahua in my arms, I stumbled upon life’s deepest secret.
Are you ready?
Here it is.
Life’s Deepest Secret.
You can’t take it all with you, and you can’t save it all, but in the end, things don’t matter.
But people do.
My dear friend Pamela introduced me to e e cummings. I carry his words, and he shares my deepest secret. Thank you Poetry Foundation.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
As a soft April rain kisses Houston, I recollect another cloudburst or two, one in particular. An Alabama Rain, singing me a lullaby, eleven years ago.
I stepped off the plane in Mobile with my friend Martha. As we descended the escalator to claim our luggage, our friend Mona waited, waving from where she stood next to the carousel. Through the airport windows, dark clouds covered the Alabama sky, and raindrops fell. With bags in hand, we dashed from the airport to the car, the rain drenching us all, our spirits remaining high and dry. However, the rain was relentless throughout our five-day stay. The three of us, Martha, Mona, and I, went out to eat in the rain, we shopped in the rain, and just hoping the sun might show its shining face, we drove by the beach in the rain.
One day after shopping in picturesque downtown Fairhope, we hopped back into the car and Mona said, “I wanna take ya’ll to this new little country store between here and home. The two girls who opened it are too cute, and so is their store.”
At the store, a two-story, clap-board house with wrap-around porch, nestled amid enormous Live Oaks and backing to Mobile Bay, we met the owners and browsed. With a note of Southern charm, one of the ladies said, “We were thinkin’ about havin’ a wine-tastin’. Would ya’ll like a glass of wine?” I couldn’t refuse hospitality like that, and neither could my friends. With beverages in hand, we moved outside to the covered front porch to sit a spell and watch the gentle rain.
About that time, a precious, tiny black puppy, pranced up on petite ballerina feet, flipped-up tail wagging, collar connected to a leash held by her foster dad. We admired the cuteness, and the man struck up a conversation. “This little girl was found walking in the rain,” he said, “so we named her Rain. I’ve kept her for the past week, and she’s a good girl, but I have three dogs. These ladies here at the store are going to take her picture and put her up on their bulletin board to help me find her a home.”
Meanwhile, I picked up the eight-pound, eight-month-old Chihuahua/terrier mix, and she licked my face. Martha laughed, “Crystal, I think you need that dog.” She continued, “I think you need to fly her back to Dallas….I’ll dog-sit whenever you need me…”
I grew up with a dog, but my kids had missed out on that experience. Drew would be starting his senior year, Lauren would be a sophomore, and she had been angling for a Yorkie. A dog consideration rested on the table, and this one did need a home. No doubt, she was adorable. So I took the man’s phone number, thinking, If I wake up tomorrow, thinking about that dog, I’m going to take her home.
Well, not only did I wake up the next morning thinking about the dog, I couldn’t sleep at all that night, the puppy on my mind had wiggled its way into my heart. Martha was right. I needed that dog.
Like Martha said, I brought the puppy home to Texas from Alabama. Evoking my inner Paris Hilton, I carried Rain in my newly-purchased dog purse right onto the plane and stowed her below the seat in front of me. She was that tiny and that perfect.
The breeze has blown Rain and me from state to state, city to city. Still an excellent traveler, always up for the next adventure, always ready to “go.” Eleven years later, she has survived the rising waters of a hurricane and homelessness more than once. Rain loves hotels, awaits me with her waggity tail each day, and continues to teach me a lesson or two about being happy anywhere, as long as I have my people.
Beyond our day jobs, Kody and I moonlight as managing partners and co-owners of Three Keys Properties, where we invest in and re-design residential fixer uppers, improving neighborhoods one house at a time. We’re not quite Chip and Jo. Less charming. No shiplap experimentation. No aspirations for our own show. However, Kody finds the deals, I have an eye for aesthetics, and together we grow in our experience.
Why Three Keys? One might ask. Bear with me.
Once upon a time, after nineteen years of marriage, I called movers, packed my bags, and left Kody behind. The details no longer matter. Neither one of us could afford to stay in our home without the other, so sadly we lost our most-favorite house…a spacious kitchen, ample storage, oversized master, en suite garden tub, best shower so far, his and her walk-in closets, a sparkling pool, a relaxing spa…so many things to love including my good friend, neighbor, and walking buddy Martha.
Within a year of the divorce, I missed “the family,” Kody hung in there as my “friend,” and together we vacationed as “friends” with our kids in the Big Apple. I ❤️ NY, and I returned to my rented Plano townhome realizing that I ❤️ Kody, too. Sometimes time and space and amazing food and art museums and Broadway and romantic cities reveal the importance of people and things once taken for granted. Somewhere in that timeframe, Kody purchased a house in foreclosure, a dilapidated structure with beautiful bones and a sordid history. There may or may not have been a prostitution ring living and working in that house, abundantly wired, for surveillance purposes I presume. I swear. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Somehow we both related to taking on a neighborhood‘s dirty secret, giving it new life and a renewed sense of hope.
I remember sitting on the back patio of my townhome on a clear fall day, the sun shining, and Kody asking for my advice on his new renovation. I flipped through the Sherwin Williams paint color fan deck, searching for the perfect exterior trim color, matching the chip to the metal trim of MY patio furniture—Enduring Bronze. Eventually I assisted in decisions on flooring, granite, and interior paint as well. Somewhere along the way, Kody’s house felt like MY house, so I called movers, packed my bags once more, and moved back in with Kody. Together we lived in sin. (I joke—I’m pretty sure that God approved of my decision to live with my former husband of nineteen years).
During our live-in-lover stage-of-life, my parents looked forward to their 50th wedding anniversary, and my dad planned a family celebration on a Mediterranean cruise for my mother. The family included my sister and brother, their spouses, and me and my boyfriend Kody. I cannot condense this story with justice, but all of my blabbity-blah leads up to the formation of Three Keys Properties. If an extended, kind-of-cute love story interests you, click the link of The Deep Sapphire Blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Anyway, while on that cruise, outside of Kuşadası, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus, Kody and I drank from three sacred water fountains, which, according to our tour guide, symbolized health, wealth, and love. (As an English teacher, I loves me some good symbolism). After quenching my thirst that day, I kissed Kody before writing a little prayer of gratitude to God for my family’s health, wealth, and love. I stuck the little piece of paper into a prayer wall with a million other prayers. And before the end of the day, June 23, 2011, Kody asked me to re-marry him on the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean, ring and all. Ironic, right? I say, “Name it and claim it.”
Side story: Kody had this thing (and still does) about spotting 11:11, mostly on digital clocks, but anywhere really…addresses…telephone numbers…consecutive 11s continued appearing. “It’s 11:11,” he would say, and with or without him, I began noticing the number coincidence, too. Apparently, many people see it, and theories abound on the 11:11 meaning. Google it. Angels are communicating…make a wish…oneness. Once engaged, we chose November 11, 2011, which seemed the obvious date for wedding #2.
A few years after incorporating as one in holy matrimony, we decided to incorporate for residential redevelopment purposes in an official limited liability company. While brainstorming business names, Kody came across the symbolic meaning of three keys. When worn together, they unlock the doors of health, wealth, and love, which we continue to name and claim, not only for us, but for anyone we work with along the way.
Upon arriving in Houston, we moved into another fixer upper, a mid-century modern home, built in 1960. We consulted with interior designer Jessica Brown, who drew a new blueprint, and then started from scratch to build a network of home specialists–contractors and painters, flooring and brick and foundation guys, window installers and plumbers–in a new city. We stumbled through finding the right contractor to accomplish the goal, tearing down walls and redesigning an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining space while expanding the existing laundry room. After months of construction, two contractors, and phase one completion, we planned to update the bathrooms and create a new outdoor living space when Hurricane Harvey poured trillions of gallons of rain upon the city of Houston, flooding our investment and, just like the board game Trouble, sending us back to start. Slowly but surely, Three Keys Properties makes a comeback. 6″ x 36″ wood look porcelain tile installation close-to complete, an expanded master bath soon-to-be a reality. Photos and home again…in the not-so-distant future.