Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Christmas Eve Ever

It was snowing for real. Cottonballs from the sky.

I ran over to Dart Drug to buy a bag of kitty litter—for the car, just in case. Back at the apartment, I filled my Jazzercise water bottle and grabbed a Snickers bar—for my stomach, just in case. Went back to my bedroom and threw my afghan—varying shades of blue in a mountain range pattern—over my shoulder. That’s as far as I went with regards to safety measures. I was in a hurry. When you want something as bad as I did, you throw caution to the sled dogs.

I was excited. My breath came out in little cloudy mushrooms as I brushed and scraped snow and ice off my blue Toyota. I looked at my French’s mustard yellow gloves and frowned. Wrecked. My mouth pulled to the side for a moment, then up into a smile. After Christmas sales.


“Sis, it’s me. I’m here in D.C.,” my brother had said when he called.

“How? When?”

“I took the train from Charlottesville this morning. Thought I’d come up and spend Christmas with Amy and her family.”

“Oh.” So, you won’t be alone on Christmas Eve.

“They want you to come out,” he said. “Amy’s family says no one should be alone on Christmas Eve.”

I looked up at my bangs. “They said that?”

“Yeah. I’m going to put Amy on. She’ll give you directions. ‘kay?”

 I drove Route 50 to the Beltway. Then to an exit. And then some more. I looked in my rearview mirror. All I saw were the parallel black lines my Toyota had left in the powdered sugar snow.

It occurred to me that usually I was afraid to drive in the snow, especially if I was going to work. But tonight was Christmas Eve, and I was going to Christmas in the country. Surely, Christmas there would be different . . . better . . .

 I turned right onto their private road. It wasn’t paved but it wasn’t terribly bumpy. Seemed like it had been scraped recently. Bet they have a John Deere something or other for times like this.

I turned off the radio and cracked the window so I could hear the silence. Country silence is quieter than city silence. That night it was if the world was wrapped in Santa’s beard or in the wool of one of the sheep in the Christmas story.

The road seemed to go on forever. I was getting to the point where I thought maybe I’d taken a wrong turn. Then I saw the light. It was golden and dim. I squinted. What makes that kind of light?

 As I got closer, I saw that the light was lights and they were coming out of the ground. I pulled over to the right and shifted into park. Set the emergency brake. I got out. In the headlight glow, I saw that the light came from bowls, made of ice, holding creamy, chubby pillar candles. Their flames shimmied and bowed to the wind.

I looked up from the ground lights and peered up the road. Where’d that come from? I guess I’d been watching only what my headlights illuminated. At the top of the hill, was a house, very grand and beautiful. There was greenery and a red bow on the outside of every window. There was a candle on the inside of each as well.

I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t want my tire tracks to mess up the perfect snow in front of their house. I got back in my car and flipped down my visor. I watched myself put on Revlon Cherries in the Snow lipstick. I turned the velvet collar of my dress coat up to keep the back of my neck warm.

I walked up the road towards the house. I squinted at it. I’ve seen this house before. Then I remembered where. It looked like the inside of a snow globe I’d seen at the Christmas Shop in Manteo, North Carolina.

When I was about fifty yards from the house, I stopped. After a minute or two, it occurred to me that I was waiting for them to lift up the edge of the glass dome and let me in. Into their world.

I was twenty feet from the porch when the front door opened. My brother and his girlfriend filled the doorway. His buzz cut and her mass of flame-colored waves were backlit. I don’t know why, but I didn’t say anything. I stood in the shadows by the side of the road, watching them.

“She’s here! She’s here!” I heard Amy say. “I can see her car out there.”

“Hallo!” my brother called. “Hallo!” the echoes multiplied.

I stepped into the porch light glow and waved. “Merry Christmas!” I said. My greeting went far, in every direction, in the navy night.

Amy waved excitedly like it would bring me to her faster. I climbed the steps and she threw her arms around me. I’ve never met you, but you sure do seem to like me.

 Inside the front door, Amy held her hands out. “Coat, slippers, cocoa.”

I tilted my head. “Huh?”

 She spoke slower. “Give me your coat. Change into slippers. Then get cocoa from my mom.”

I handed her my coat. I added my boots to the line beside the door. There was a basket of brand new slippers, all colors and sizes, on the other side of the door.

I bent down. “I’ll take . . . fuzzy and red, size small.”

When I stood up, there was Mom with a mug of cocoa and a smile.

“You’re beautiful,” came out of my mouth before I could stop it.

“And you,” she said, as she handed me my cup.

I stuck my nose inside and felt cocoa steam collect on my face. I lifted my head but kept my eyes closed. I inhaled.

“What do you smell?” Mom said.

My face squinched in concentration. “A peppermint at the bottom of the cocoa . . . pine . . . a wood fire . . . paperwhites . . . wassail maybe? Or is it oranges studded with cloves?”

I opened my eyes. She was still smiling. “You should be a sommelier.”

“A some of what?”

She chuckled and tucked her arm inside mine. “A sommelier--sort of a wine expert,” she said. “You have an excellent nose.”

 We walked down the central hallway. Suddenly she stopped and turned to face me. “I’m sorry,” she said. She put her hands on my shoulders and kissed the air beside each of my cheeks. I smelled her perfume—Ralph Lauren’s Lauren. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”

I looked away from her eyes. They looked like swimming pools and I felt like I was falling . . .

“Where is everyone?”

“Probably under mistletoe somewhere,” she said. “We’ll find them. Sooner or later. Would you like a tour?”

I nodded, my eyes huge.

We ended up in the kitchen. “Does every room have a fireplace and a Christmas tree?”

“Just about.”

“And nativities,” I said. “Do you collect them?”

“We do.” She picked one up and put it in my hand. “This one’s from Israel, like Jesus.”

“It’s beautiful.”

I sat in front of the fireplace in the kitchen ‘til my cheeks burned. I put my fingertips to them. Hot. Dry.

 “Come here,” Mom said.
I joined her at the island in the middle of the kitchen.

She patted the marble surface. “Put your face here.”

The marble instantly soothed. I flipped my face to cool the other cheek. I stroked the chilly top. “Italian?”

She nodded.

I looked up at the soaring ceiling with its tic, tac, toe beams. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”

She gazed up too. “Do you get Metropolitan Home magazine?”

My mouth fell open. “Wow!”

We were silent for awhile and it was fine.

“When I grow up, I wanna be just like you.”

 She smiled a little.

 I bit my lip. “Did I say that out loud?”

 Her smile grew.

 I put my face back on the marble. “Sometimes I think I have Tourette's.”

 She reached across the island and rested her hand on my hair. “You’re so much like your brother.”

I sat up when Amy burst into the room, in song. “Here we come a caroling . . .” She looked at Mom, then me. “It’s time! To the music room.”

 I looked at Mom. “You didn’t show me that one.”

 She shrugged. “I knew we’d end up there eventually.”

My brother stood behind Amy at the island. Amy drummed her fingernails and took turns staring at me, then Mom.

The side door to the kitchen opened and a sparkly wind blew a man in. He was tall and his cheeks had been whipped ruddy by the wind.

 He looked around the room and then his eyes camped on me. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas!” He squinted. “You’ve got your brother’s blue eyes.”

 He turned to face my brother. “The fireplaces are hungry,” he said. “We must appease them.”

Together they went out into the night.

Amy and Mom led me down a back hall. “Was Dad a Marine or a model?” I said to their backs.

“A lot of the first. A little of the second,” Amy said over her shoulder.



You know you’re in a rich person’s house, when there’s a music room. And, you know you’re in a rich person’s home when just about every wall is glass and you’re not cold, even in the dead of winter.

 We stood around the grand, not a baby, piano and sang every Christmas carol in the hymnal. Mom played beautifully. Her fingers had perfect piano playing posture. Amy sang beautifully, her voice a sweet, clear soprano. When she sang O Holy Night, I almost cried.

 “It’s time,” Dad said when there were no more songs to sing.

 I looked from face to face. “For what?”

Everyone followed him into the room with the biggest fireplace of all. The furniture was Shaker—elegant but not soft, so I opted for a floor cushion the size of my car.

 When everyone was seated and staring at him, Dad began. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” He recited the whole thing from memory--no notes, no Bible.

 The fire warmed my cheeks. The story warmed my heart. After he said, “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,” he reached into a basket beside him. He took out a candle and lit it from the fireplace. He handed it to me. He did it four more times, one for each of us.

 It’s perfect. I didn’t think this night could get better, but now it is.

 We sat in our little circle, each of us staring at our flames. We watched them flicker and bow. I let a drop of hot wax splash into my palm. I pressed a finger into it, to make a print. I smiled.

I glanced at my watch. Midnite, on the dot. I closed my eyes and sighed. I opened them when I heard Amy sing.

“Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.” One by one, we joined her. I looked up at the ceiling. Adopt me. Please.

Part of me didn’t want to leave, but part of me did. I wanted to stay with them forever, but I also wanted to go home and write everything down. So I wouldn’t forget. Ever.

When I got out of the Toyota back at my apartment, I saw a basket on the back seat. There were presents in it. I carried it inside and put the packages under our little tree. I unplugged the lights and headed back to my bedroom.

Five minutes later, I came back out. I plugged in the tree and sat cross-legged beside it in my pajamas and robe. I opened the presents. They’d given me the slippers I’d worn. And, there was a pair of beautiful, fuzzy mittens. In a box the size of a coffee cup, I found the nativity from Israel. I stroked the smooth wood.

I looked up at the white paper star on top of the tree. “Star light. Star bright,” I said, then I stopped. I picked up the little wooden nativity and cradled it in my hand. “Actually, I don’t want to make a wish. I want to say thanks. No one should be alone on Christmas Eve, and I wasn’t. And Christmas in the country? It was different . . . and better."

Every Christmas season, I think of that night. The memories are treasures to me. I don’t remember what the people looked like so much as I remember how they made me feel. Even though I wasn’t part of their family, they treated me like I was. Even though I wasn’t a believer, they treated me like I was.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Prelude to The Best Christmas Eve Ever

To me, nothing says Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, like potting the first amaryllis in early December.  Not too long ago, as I tucked the fist-sized bulb for the soon to be huge, glorious and blood-colored flower, into the drier than dry potting medium, I thought back to the best Christmas Eve ever.  It was twenty some years ago and I was all alone, sort of.

It was a Christmas Eve in the '80's, my first one after graduating college.  My roommate had left to go home for the holidays at noon--his home being Moundsville, West Virginia.  My boyfriend would do the Feast of the Seven Fishes thing with his family that night, then he'd get up early the next morning and drive three hours, way too fast, so we could be together before noon on Christmas Day.   Until then, I would be all alone. 

Around six in the evening, I put on my fluorescent orange winter coat.  I didn't buy it because I was a hunter.  I bought it because it reminded me of high school.  I wore a lot of fluorescent orange in high school.  I told people it was my favorite color but really, I liked the attention it got me.  I liked attention--all kinds.  That's probably why I rubbed Skoal and ate popcorn at the same time at that one party in Old Town.  I never did that again 'cause it made me some kind of sick.

I slipped my feet into my duck boots which were knockoffs of the real ones you can order from Lands End.  I tied the long laces in double bows, then zipped my coat and went outside to inspect the silent night.  I shuffled through the snow, trying to make a solid line with my feet instead of a dotted one.  I stood on the sidewalk at the edge of Route 50 in Fairfax, Virginia.  My breath looked like a diaphonous megaphone.  The street lights seemed to have halos. 

I looked left towards Fairfax Circle, and then right towards Washington D.C..  I couldn't even count a dozen cars on the road.   I squinted, trying to see inside the Dart Drug across the way.  Only the manager was there.  He looked lonely too.

I tilted my head back.  I sighed.  No stars.  City lights and puffy snow clouds concealed any and all heavenly bodies. 

I looked over at the Dart Drug again.  The lights on the Christmas tree in the window winked at me.  It seemed they were flashing to the rhythm of Jingle Bells--Blink, blink, bliiiink.  Blink, blink, bliiink. 

The star on top of the tree was big.  Too big really.  It looked like it was fashioned out of gold foil, studded with yellow mini lights.  As I squinted at the star, it seemed to shoot out light beams.  I had a thought.  "Star light.  Star bright.  First star I see tonight.  I wish I may.  I wish I might.  Have the wish, I wish tonight."  I narrowed my eyes and focused on the star.  "I wish . . . I wasn't alone on Christmas Eve."  I said it out loud, so whoever was in charge would hear me.  I waited.  I expected.  Zilch.

I walked back to my building.  Outside my door, I stomped snow and ice clods onto the coir doormat that proclaimed, "'Tis the season!"  Inside the door, I left a trail of boots, hat, mittens, coat, muffler.  Who cares?

In the kitchen, I watched my reflection in the window as it filled a mug with half water, half skim milk.  The Times Journal cup went into the microwave.  A finger pushed, "Beverage," then "Start."  The reflection leaned against the cabinet.  Drummed fingers on the counter.  Jumped, when the microwave dinged.  Three scoops of International Coffee powder, hazelnut flavor, went into the mug.  The reflection paused its stirring, then added another spoonful of powder. 

I got bored watching my reflection.  It looked tired.  I got out a can of whipped cream.  I shook it, then sprayed in a circle, sculpting an ascending spiral on top of the foam.  I went to put the can back in the fridge.  I looked left and right, as if . . . then opened my mouth and aimed the whipped cream nozzle inside.  I sprayed until it sputtered. 

In the dining area, I sat on a folding chair at the card table.  I hummed, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in between sips.  When the faux coffee was gone, I ran my finger around the sides of the mug, collecting the hazelnut dregs.  I slurped on my finger as I relocated to the sofa.

I put my feet on the coffee table and stared at the little Christmas tree.  The tree only wore two things--multi-colored lights and white snowflakes.  I'd cut the snowflakes out of a couple sheets of Xerox paper I brought home from work.  I'd get my decorations for next year the weekend after Christmas when "everything must go."  Maybe my boyfriend and I'd get Poinsettias or Mimosas at Sunday brunch before we shopped.  Cocktails always seemed to help us find better bargains.

I stirred my bangs with a puff of air.  If I went to bed now, the night would go faster and the morning would come sooner.  I glanced at the VCR under the tv.  8:30.  Pathetic.  I rocked myself up and off the sofa and headed for my bedroom.

When the phone rang, the noise bounced off the walls.  It sounded sort of like a Salvation Army bell being rung really fast, pause, again.  I thought about not answering it.  Maybe I want to be alone on Christmas Eve, just to know what it feels like, just this once. 


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Worst Christmas (Eve) Ever

I knew I was in trouble when my husband questioned the pile of packages by the front door.

"I have a good excuse," I said.

One of his eyebrows went up.  "Really?"

Both of my eyebrows went up.  "Really," I said.  "These are the Christmas presents I bought and wrapped for your mother to give to the kids."

 "My mom got them stuff already."

Something in me twitched.  "She did?  Why?"

"'Cause she wanted to."

"But . . . this is how we always do things.  She buys.  I fly."

"Not this year."

Something broke inside me.  My holiday spirit engine gasped.  It shimmied.  And then its chugging stopped.  The Christmas carol soundtrack stopped playing in my head.  The skippy spring to my step flattened.  My shoulders descended a good two inches.  Ah man!

And then, it happened again.  We walked into my mom's house less than a week later and her hearth was covered in red and green packages with smooshed, pointy, pre-tied bows.  Furrows plowed themselves into my forehead.  The two shopping bags of packages I was carrying fell to the floor with a thunk and a rattle.

"Uh . . . Mom?  Did you forget how we do things--you buy, I fly?"

She smiled.  "I don't know what got into me.  One day I got a burst of energy and there was this great sale at the mall . . . "

For the second time in a week, my holiday spirit engine went boom.

I stared at the fireplace for a few minutes--almost hypnotized by the blueish yellow flames licking out of the fake logs.

"They got double presents," I said, without moving my lips.

"Excuse me?" Mom said.

I went into the bathroom and washed my hands.  And put on lotion.  And tried on every shade of lipstick on Mom's vanity.  I put the toilet lid down and had a seat.  I counted on my fingers.  "They got presents from my mom.  They got presents from his mom.  They got presents that I bought them from my mom.  They got presents that I bought them from his mom.  They got presents from us.  They got presents from Santa."

My mom was happy.  His mom was happy.  He was happy.   The kids were ecstatic.  Everyone was high on holiday spirit but me.  All the stress I'd put myself through--making the lists, checking them twice, shopping all over hell's half acre and the Internet, wrapping, hiding.  And I didn't need to do any of it.  Well, I didn't need to do half of it.  I'd put myself out, way out, for nothing.  All that Advil, for nothing.

And that's not all.  The double presents thing?  It fed the fear inside me.  You see, I have this fear that all the stuff, the mile high stack of stuff that no one really needs, makes Christmas Day into Stuff Day.  It seemed to me that all the focus on buying, giving, getting, repeat takes all the focus off the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

My husband had compassion on me.  He patted my back.  He rubbed my shoulders.  He murmured, "There, there, everything will be all right," as I shuffled around mumbling, "It's going to be Stuff Day, not Christmas."  Resentment etched frown lines around my mouth.

A few days later, we headed out for a holiday party.  One of our children dawdled and I growled at her, a little too loud, a little too mean.  We stood in our foyer, the front door open, the cold night air coming in around the storm door frame.  Then my husband said two of the words that are forbidden in our house, and then some. 

"Shut . . . up!" he said.  "You're going to ruin Christmas Eve for everyone!"

The kids looked at me, then my husband, then each other.    I winced and looked at my feet.  I knew I deserved it.  Not in front of the kids, but still . . .  My husband went out to start the car.

I slunk out into the freezing night.  Bitter cold but no snow.  Yet another reason to be a sadsack. 

I climbed into the SUV.  The silence was too quiet, even on the Silent Night.  I turned the stereo on.  Charlie Dodrill sang to me.  "I am under the impression that it's all for me."  I looked at my Granny Smith apple green gloves and waited for someone to say, "Hey, they're singing your song." 

Before we got out of the car to go into the party, my husband put his hand on my sour green apple gloves.  I looked at him cautiously, like a whipped dog.  He looked sad.  "Sorry."  He mouthed the word.  I blinked slowly.

As I remembered that night just now, I figured out something.  That Christmas Day was not Stuff Day.  That Christmas Day was Grace Day.  Three kids got way more than they expected, way more than they deserved.  The half-empty glass person might call it gluttony.  The half-full glass person would call it grace.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I Pity the Fool

Psalm 53:1 tells us, "The fool says in his heart, there is no God."  That scripture makes me feel like a small, white, female Mr. T.  I read it and think, "I pity the fool."

One time I sat in an adult Sunday School class and the teacher said, "If you think God comes to you in visions in the bathtub, you are certifiably crazy."  I never went back.  Know why?  'Cause I don't see dead people, I see God.

I see visions of me on a potting table, made of old barnwood, with a one inch lip on all four sides, for my fluids, just in case.  It's out in an open field and it's a sunny day.  I look like a life-sized, girl version of the board game, Operation. 

God stands next to the potting bench.  His hands are working inside me.  Tweeking a spleen.  Polishing a wishbone.  My friend I ask God questions to said it sounds like part of the Song of Solomon.  I like the translation that says, "You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride, a secluded spring, a hidden fountain."

Another time, I saw God hold my heart.  Actually, I just saw his hand.  It looked like the giant hand chairs outside of Cool Ridge on High Street.  The ginormous hand was holding my heart and my heart was huge too and it was aqua.  God knows aqua is my favorite color.

When I think about God it's like I have to set off a M-80 in my brain.  Not to hurt it but to clear out the junk--the recipes, pin numbers, and vocab lists from high school.  I have to do that to even begin to think on God.  He made and he knows every person--past, present and future.  He is aware of every thought, prayer and deed they will ever come up with before they ever do.  He intimately sees the detail of every creature, every cell.  He knows the greatest thing beyond my peewee comprehension and he knows the least thing ever--sub, sub, sub-atomic stuff.

Sometimes when I pray, I picture God and Jesus and heaven.  Do you ever do that?  There was a lady mystic who did the same thing, centuries ago.  I read about her in an A.W. Tozer book.  I'm glad I'm not alone.  I spend a lotta time wondering if I'll be able to see the Spirit in heaven.  Will he be an aqua silvery mist, hovering over us all?

Some believers poopoo me trying to envision God, saying I'm trying to create my own God like that guy who wrote The Shack.  To them I say, am I so very different from Moses?  He wanted to see God too and Bible scholars call him great.  I just wanna see whatever God will show me, even if it's his back side.

Sometimes I picture myself up in heaven with God and Jesus.  I sit criss-cross, applesauce on the floor of the throne room.  In fact, I sit snuggled right up to them.  My left arm is looped around God's right leg and my right arm is looped around Jesus' left leg.  Don't ask me if their legs are flesh, spirit or polished bronze.  They just are.  God and Jesus pet my hair as I take it all in--endless worship, passionate intercession.  Crowns are flying everywhere and those wild, flying creatures--all eyeballs, wings and praise?  I come undone.

One time . . . no . . . there's been lots, Jesus asked me to dance.  We danced on the crystal sea.  I think maybe it was the Sea of Galilee.  When we dance it's like I'm a cross between a kindergartener and an eighth grader at her first dance.  The kindergartener part of me stands on my daddy's feet to be taller, to let him lead.  The eighth grader in me laces my fingers behind my date's neck and melts against him, longing to be one.  And then the best thing happens.  A hole opens in my chest and his.  And my heart beats inside him and his heart beats inside me.  We are one.

I'm not making this stuff up.  I saw it all with the eyes of my heart.  It's not imagination or  fantasy like some will no doubt say.  Those people who put God in a wet matchbox?  I pity them too. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Are We There Yet?

It always took forever and a day to get to Granny and Grandad's.  Know why?  'Cause my dad drove so daggone slow!  Do you have any idea how long it takes to get the 45 miles between Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia, when you drive 45 miles an hour?  Darn tootin' it takes an hour!  And that's if no one got car sick.  Whenever that happened, we always had to pull over and let whoever barf in the designated coffee can.

My three older brothers and I tried to make the time go faster.  We’d play the Alphabet Game or Bury the Cows, but it didn't help much.  Even though the big, green "Stink Bridge" outside St. Albans smelled worse than the container of ham salad my brothers tried to make into catfish bait, we were always glad to see it. 

"Won't be long now."

Granny and Grandad lived on Swarthmore Avenue in Charleston.  The turn into their driveway was tight.  I always closed my eyes and waited for the scrench of Buick Skylark bumper on metal fence post.  Miraculously, it never came.

When I opened my eyes, there was Tara, or what I imagined Tara looked like, before I saw Gone with the Wind.  If you looked at the house from the driveway, it was pretty ordinary, just a larger than average, brick Cape Cod.  But if you walked around to the front, it did a presto change-o into a mansion, thanks to the semi-circular appendage that was more veranda than porch.  What made it truly grand though, was the presence of four white columns that supported the porch roof.  I'd hang onto a column and do a skippy dance around it, leaning out like half an 'x.'

Someone would always shout, "Last one in is a rotten egg." Twenty seconds later we'd be inside the house, lined up like the von Trapp kids, for Granny kisses.

"Go see your Grandad," she'd say as she swatted each of us on the behind. 

Grandad was usually in a suit and most times we found him in the living room, reading The Charleston Gazette.  He'd pound each boy on the back and say, "How much do you weigh, son?"  We spent many an hour speculating why he always asked that.  Then he'd pull me onto his lap, and my feet would dangle over his shiny wingtips as he scraped his face against mine.  I don't think he shaved on Sundays 'cause his face always felt like 80 grit sandpaper. 

I remember his breath the most because it was what I dreaded most.  If I had to say which smelled worse, the Stink Bridge or Grandad's breath, I don't know if I could.  I've smelled that odor a couple times since.  It's a cross between unflossed teeth and stale coffee.    I reckon it could've been worse--if he licked an ashtray or ate a chili dog with onions.  I have always been a faithful flosser, thanks to Grandad.

On the other end of the smell spectrum was Granny's rump roast.  It was to drool for.   When I heard the oven timer buzz, I'd hightail it into the kitchen.  If she was in a good mood, she'd let me chew on the roast beef strings.

Granny always carried the roast platter into the gymnasium-sized dining room with much pomp and circumstance.  She was a very good cook, and she knew it.  We'd eat off delicate, white with gold trim china plates, even it it wasn't a holiday.   

My brothers and I would make mashed potato dams and flood 'em with Granny gravy that was more au jus than gravy.  The boys and I would wolf down firsts, seconds, and thirds, as fast as possible in order to get to the best place ever.

The attic was the best place ever because my grandparents lived through the Great Depression.  When you live through a depression, you save stuff.

There were hundreds of books up there.  I liked to sit on the old brass bed, under a quilt, and read the first pages of as many books as possible.  I wanted to see if any of them were interesting.  They never were.  I mean, what story in a super old book could measure up to the adventures of Nancy Drew or Alec Ramsay and his big, black stallion? 

The boys would root through scads of military uniforms and paraphernalia.  Dad had four brothers, so there was lots of both.  I'm pretty sure my brothers were looking for guns.  Boys like guns.  My brother John could make the best machine gun noise ever.  Hold your mouth like you're gonna blow a bubble and say to-to-to-to super fast.  I don't know why, but it always sounds better when it comes from a boy mouth.

When my brothers weren't around, I'd hold Granny's evening dresses in front of me and look in the giant mirror, tilted against the wall.  I'd rub my cheek against the satin lapel of Grandad's tuxedo and inhale the sharp scent of moth balls.  They must be important to wear these super nice clothes.  

One time I asked Granny about her fancy dresses.  "You can't look like a tramp when you visit the Greenbrier, you know." She told me that as  she gave her hair a hundred brushstrokes.  I nodded like I understood.

One day I found four unopened boxes under the brass bed in the attic. 

"It's probably beans," one of my brothers said.  "They ate a lot of beans during the Depression."  

I found a pearl-handled knife and sawed through the stringy packing tape.  All four boxes were full of Estee Lauder beauty cream.  My brothers couldn't believe it. 

"I was sure it'd be food," one of 'em said.  

I knew why it wasn't canned goods.  Granny stockpiled beauty cream in case Mrs. Lauder stopped making it.  Granny loved her country, but she didn't want to stop being pretty on account of the war.  

It always made me sad when Mom or Dad called upstairs.  Sometimes they wanted us to come down for a bowl of Valley Bell Ice Cream, but more often than not, it was  time to go.  

Sadder still was the day 20 years later when my dad called.  I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time.  

"They've got a dumpster pulled up to Granny's house.  They're throwing everything out but furniture, china, and silver." 

My bottom lip came out, and I slumped over on the sofa.

"Gosh, Dad," I said.  "Why didn't you tell me sooner?  It's not like I live 45 minutes away, you know."

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Man Who Loved Me First

The man who loved me first was as big as Andre the Giant.  You know . . .  the really big guy in "The Princess Bride."  His name was Francis.  It was a family name but I was the only one who knew it.  Everyone else called him Frank.

He lost a whole lotta weight one summer.  Afterwards, he still weighed three of me.  Well . . . maybe two and a half, but when you're 6'4," that kinda weight's okay.  I always wondered if he went on that diet for me.

Frank was from the bottom of the state.  His daddy was rich from things that came from the earth but you'd never know it.  Frank wore Wranglers and flannel shirts like the rest of the guys. 

Frank loved me.  I could see it when I looked in his eyes, even though I'd never  been loved before.  His eyes were the color of God's green velvet.  You know . . . moss.  And when he looked at me, the moss color would darken, like the sun was going down in the forest.

I also knew he loved me 'cause he wouldn't step back from a hug when I did.  When someone that big hugs you, you can't help but feel safe.  Like, when you're playing Hide 'n Seek and you're behind a refrigerator and you know they'll never find you.  They'll have to yell, "Olly, Olly, in come free."

Frank loved me even though I baby powdered his dorm room one afternoon in October.  I'd been T.G.I.F.'ing in Sunnyside and I was feeling ornery, like I had a bee in my bonnet or somethin.'

Frank always ran a fan in his room.   Big people seem to be warmer than the rest of us.  I skipped down the hall in my cut-off jean shorts and my I Heart New York t-shirt.  I had an open container of Johnson & Johnson baby powder in my hand.  When I ran by the common room, Stu, the photography major who sounded like a Sleestak when he breathed, said, "Here comes trouble."  He had that right.

Frank left his door unlocked most of the time.  I think he did that in case I stopped by.  And I did, quite often, just to see his moss eyes go dark.  I flung the door open and shrieked, "Boo!"  Quick like a bunny, I shook baby powder into the fan wind.  Then I ran.

From my room six doors down and six doors 'round the corner, I heard the roar.  It sounded like the Wabash Cannonball.

Frank's hair looked like an old man's at dinner that night.  He heard me fuss that all the Drumsticks were gone out of the ice cream freezer.  He handed me his.  "I only took one bite."  I looked in his moss green eyes and felt bad.  I shouldn't have baby powdered a guy like him.  A guy who'd give someone like me the last Drumstick in the dining hall.

I'd always wanted to be loved.  All my high school girlfriends had been loved lots of times but not me.  My daddy always signed his letters with "luv," not "love."  I always wondered if that was the same thing.

I guess guys didn't know that inside, I was the kind of girl who'd sing, "Stand by Your Man," even though I didn't care much for country music.  The thing is, I had a hunch me and Cyndi Lauper had been separated at birth.  And one time, I almost won a Madonna-Look-Alike contest. 

I was in my Granny's black cotton, zip up the front, strapless and whale-boned slip and everything.  I even had on 38 black rubber bracelets between both my arms.  In the end though, a frat boy won.  He had the frat-boy-crossdressing-is-hilarious factor working for him.

Frank gave me a hug afterwards and bought me a beer.  He wouldn't let me open it with my teeth like I usually did.  He pulled a Swiss Army knife out of his Wrangler's.  It had a bottle opener on it.  I sniffed.  "Thanks."

I knew Frank was a good man, even though he wasn't 21  yet.  His face was serious more often than not.  In my woman's heart, I knew he'd be a 'til death do us part kinda man.  Just not mine.

Sometimes I think about Frank.  Part of me wonders, like I reckon all women do, what would life be like if I'd picked Frank to stand by.  I best put that thought away.  I've made my bed, now I've gotta lie in it.

Frank . . . if you're out there, you might not wanna know it, but I love the bed I made.  Every night I lie in it with an exceedingly fine, 'til death do us part kinda guy.  He may not have loved me first, but I'm believin' he loves me best.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I love long fingernails, especially when they’re the real thing. But they can’t be too long. Those ones that are so long they curl under? They freak me out. Have you ever seen the woman who got into the Guinness Book of World Records for her super long nails? That picture always triggers my gag reflex. It’s like her curly-q fingernails reach off the page and touch my uvula.

All my life I wanted long nails but for the longest time I didn’t and couldn’t have them because I bit mine. I didn’t bite mine as short as my college roommate though. She bit hers halfway down the nail bed and she had eczema. Or was it (the heartbreak of) psoriasis? Her hands always looked like they were made of pink phyllo dough that hadn’t been sprayed with water, the way they tell you to do on the box.

I remember the first time my nails were long enough to paint. I painted them, “Poppies Will Make Them Sleep” red. I walked into my brother’s hospital room with my hands leading the way and my fingers splayed out so that even on pain meds, he couldn’t miss them.

His smile was weak but it made me happy. Of my three older brothers, he and I fought the most, but after he was in the hospital for four weeks, I started to miss him.

“You stopped biting them,” he said, his eyes only half open. “Did you do that just for me?”

“Yep,” I said. It was a lie. Well, half a lie. I gave up biting them so that I could show him I cared, the way some people give up eating for a little while to get closer to God. But in the end, the long nails were for me.

Growing up, I bit my nails constantly. I usually sat on my hands because they were so ugly. In addition to being a nail biter, I was a wart magnet. I had warts on every single one of my fingers, all over my cuticles. I had little bumpy wart frames around each gnawed fingernail.

I’d paint the warts with Compound W and blow on them ‘til the stinging stopped and the nail polishy medicine turned white. Then I wrapped them in Johnson & Johnson medical tape. I did this like, forever. Besides not working, this ritual was really unattractive. I wonder if people thought I had leprosy?

One day though, all the warts disappeared. My family went to Myrtle Beach (along with everyone else in West Virginia) for a week and I think something in the salt water ate my warts. Yay me!

A few years back my mom gave me some high tech nail strengthener. She’d bought a bottle for her and a bottle for me off an infomercial. It worked great!

Almost every day when I walk my son to the bus stop, if I’m not wearing my apple green leather gloves, I hold my hands out and admire the long, painted, slightly squared tips.

Sometimes I walk with my eyes closed. “Thanks God . . . for my now long fingernails. I think it’s you giving me the desires of my heart, now that I believe in you.”

One day Mom turned my hands over and looked at the undersides of my nails.

I snorted. “What? Do you think they’re fake?”

She let go of my hands.

I made a snot face. “You’re the one who gave me the stuff that made ‘em long, remember?”

That’s how good they look now. Still, it bugs me that my own mom doesn’t believe me. I don’t lie much these days.

I had fake nails for a little while but they drove me nuts! I gave them to my husband for his birthday ‘cause he really likes long, painted nails, especially when they’re red. I had them put on at the beauty school.

They sure were pretty, but man, they were a hassle. Every week, one or two of them would pop off and I’d have to go back to the beauty school, with my daughter in a pumpkin seat, and get ‘em glued back on.

I never mastered life with super long nails. How do you go to the bathroom with them? How do you change a baby’s diaper with them? How do you pick coins off the ground? How do you open a car door without breaking one?

I pulled all ten of them off after three months. That night, my husband looked across the dinner table at my hands. His bottom lip slid out. “All gone?”

I nodded. “All gone.”

He’s happy my long nails are back now. I have to give him some credit. Since he adores long, painted fingernails, he does the dishes more often than not these days.

“It’s washing dishes that makes them break, right?” he said one night.

I felt my head go up and down. The truth is, it’s the being in the dishwater that makes fingernails weak and I always wear yellow, Playtex gloves when I do dishes. But, if I get out of doing dishes several nights a week, maybe I’ll just let him keep thinking that doing dishes equals short, stubby nails.

Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure there’s another reason he does the dishes, besides the fact that I hate it. I think he thinks that if he helps me out in the kitchen, I just might help him out in another room of the house later in the day. Maybe, just maybe, he’s right.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ode to Lacy June Bug Lulu Bell

I used to be real scared of death ‘til I lived through four funerals in a year. I used to stand at the back of the viewing room and admire the flowers. I’d sign the guest book and say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Then I’d look at the coffin in the front of the room and drum my fingers in the air. “See you in heaven . . . I hope.”

I remember when our Beagle, Lacy June Bug Lulu Bell, died. I hate to say it, but it was her own doggone fault.

Being a Beagle, she loved to run and she loved to pillage trash cans. One day she picked the wrong time of the month and the wrong trash can. Within twelve hours she wasn’t eating or drinking. Our vet, Dr. Doom, performed multiple surgeries on her, removing highly absorbent objects from her small intestine.

We called him Dr. Doom because he was a pessimist. The vet techs would say, “Lacy’s doing better. She tried to bite us today.” That’s a good thing? Dr. Doom, who looked like John Malkovich, would shake his head. “She’s not out of the woods yet.”

Every night for two weeks we’d visit Lacy after supper. She’d be lying on her side and her tail would thump once or twice. Cody Brook would squeeze her two-year old hand through the bars and pet Lacy’s silky ears. I’d stand behind her and sniff.

Every morning I called the vet’s office and they’d put me on hold. Dr. Doom would come on the line and say, “She’s hanging in there, but you may want to start thinking about—“

“Gotta go,” I’d say. I didn’t want to think about what he wanted me to think about.

One morning Dr. Doom called me before I could call him. My heart jumped into my throat. Josy, then five years old, was doing a paint-with-water picture at the dining room table. I walked into the living room so she couldn’t hear my conversation.

“Lacy died in her sleep,” he said.

I whimpered.

“She looked peaceful.”

I fell back on the sofa, feeling like the air’d been let out of me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I mean . . . ‘bye.’”

Josy bounced into the room, waving her wet painting of Princess Jasmine and Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali A Babwa.

“Looky! Looky!” she said. She stopped waving her picture when she saw my face.

“What’s wrong?”

I wiped tears and snot away with my robe sleeve.

Josy looked at it and said, “Looks like a slug trail.”

I didn’t smile. “Lacy died this morning.”

I prepared to fold her sobbing form into my arms.

Instead, as I watched her, I saw her frown turn into a smile, kinda like a rain storm turning into a rainbow.

“It’s okay, Mommy,” she said.

My head dropped and my mouth fell open.

She flipped her palms up and threw one of her little girl hips to the side. “It’s just the circle of life.”

I squinted at her.

“You know,” she said. “Like in the Lion King?”

I shut my mouth and shook my head. I patted the sofa beside me.

She ignored the pat and headed back to the dining room. “I’m going to paint Belle and the Beast next,” she said over her shoulder.

I thought of Lacy again and sighed. I let my body fall over. The sofa caught me.

“Thanks Walt Disney,” I said to the fireplace. “For providing grief counseling to my kids.”

The phone rang but I ignored it. I listened to Dr. Doom leave a message.

“Let us know if you’ll be picking up Lacy or if you prefer cremation,” he said. “Oh, and if I didn’t say it before, I’m sorry for your loss.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Going Batty--Part I

I used to be afraid of bats because I thought if one bit me I'd get rabies and have to get 27 shots in my belly.  But a few years back, I got a blood clot and had to get 10-12 shots in my stomach anyway so now bats don't scare me so much.

Me and bats go way back.  They  used to get in our house in Huntington through our barn fan.  I'd be having sweet dreams, lying in my French Provincial bed, which sat on lime green shag carpet, safe inside my four Baby's Breath Pink walls.

In the middle of the night, my three older brothers would come tearing down the stairs yelling, "Bats!  Bats!  To arms!  To arms!"

I'd get my hamster Houdini out of his cage and take him under my percale sheets and quilt.  "Don't be afraid," I'd whisper.  "The Bat Busters will protect us."

The boys would then race down the stairs to the basement.  Our dog, Holly, a Beagle/Spitz mix, would follow them, doing the Beagle howl with great passion.  Dad would bring up the rear, grumbling and taking the Lord's name in vain.

In the basement the boys would don their Bat Buster regalia--winter coats, boots and gloves.  "Don't leave any skin showing," Dad always said.  "Those little flying rats will sniff it out."

The boys would each grab a paper grocery bag from behind the stand-up freezer and cut holes for their eyes and mouth.  After they put the bags on their heads, Dad would hand each of them a Wilson tennis racquet.  Back up the stairs they'd gallop, carrying their racquets and making a racket.  "En guarde!" they'd yell, stabbing the air with their racquets.  "Touche!"

Before they went back to the second floor, they'd call out to Mom and me.  "Women and children!  Abandon ship!"  We'd don robes and slippers and scurry towards the front door.  I always took time to clip a leash on Holly because I worried that all her howling might attract the bats.  Mom would grab her lighter and cigarettes so she could have a quick smoke during the bat break.

The boys would run up the stairs and back down, whooping and hollering and swinging the racquets.  I don't remember them ever killing a bat though one time one of the boys did sustain a minor head injury.

I'd stand outside on the front walk with Houdini in my robe pocket and Holly by my side.  Mom would stand on the other side of me, blowing smoke rings over our heads.

"Don't kill the little guys," I'd yell.  "Just shoo 'em out the front door." 

Mom would put in her two cents.  "Make sure you scare them good, so they don't come back."

Dad would stand in the hall, between the two bedrooms, giving orders.  After all, he had served in the Navy in World War II.  "Men, there's one in the corner above you," he'd shout.  "Swat it!  Shoo it!"

After all the fuss and fury was over, the boys would come out and fetch Mom and me.  Even with their winter coats on I could tell their skinny boy chests were puffed out a little bit.  "Everything's fine," they'd say in deeper than usual voices.  "The coast is clear now.  You all can head back to bed."

Mom would tuck her hand into the loop of a son's arm and look back at me and wink.  "I feel so safe having all these strong men in the house, don't you?"

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Warped and Twisted

Jake and Wilbur lived in the same dorm, on the same floor as me, my sophomore year of college.  I'll cut to the chase and tell you right now, they were real sickos.  I may not be speaking the truth in love but I promise you this, I am speaking the truth.

Some folks thought they were brothers because they both had buzz cuts the color of straw.  Jake was taller though, his eyes the color of blue copier paper.  Wilbur 's face had known acne and his eyes were the color of a puddle.

When Jake and Wilbur were bored and/or drunk, they'd drive around Morgantown, looking for roadkills.  They kept a coathanger in their car at all times.  Whenever they saw a roadkill they'd pull over and get out of the car with the coathanger and a camera.  Wilbur would lift the roadkill as best he could, using the coathanger, and Jake would get a picture.   There was a corkboard on the door of their room and it was covered with roadkill candid camera shots.

It was for this reason I renamed Jake and Wilbur.  I called Jake Warped and Wilbur Twisted.  The names stuck.  Pretty soon, everyone in our dorm was calling them Warped and Twisted.

One day, Warped and Twisted turned their attention to me.  I don't know what got into them.  Not sure if they did what they did because they liked me, or because they didn't.

It was almost dark.  Seems like most bad stuff happens when it's dark or pert near.  I walked off the elevator and into the common area and there they were, waiting for me.  They were not in their usual attire--jeans and flannel shirts.  That day they were both dressed in camouflage gear, like they were going hunting or something.  They had a weird look in their eyes, like the zombie dancers in Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Without speaking, they positioned themselves on either side of me.  They each grabbed one of my arms, firmly but not gently.  They led me over to, then down on, a chair they'd placed nearby.  Using electrical tape, they secured me to the chair.

Next they sprayed me in the face with whipped cream.  When I opened my eyes I could see little white puffs on my eyelashes.  Then they shook bottles of beer and opened them, using their teeth, a favorite party trick of theirs.  As soon as the beer started spraying out, they pointed the bottles at me and doused me from head to toe.  I felt my flesh pop out in goosebumps as the cold beer soaked into my clothes.

I decided early on that stillness was my best strategy.  I didn't think I was in danger, per se.  My guess was they just wanted to do a real good job of humiliating me.  If I whooped and hollered for help, it would attract a crowd which was probably what they wanted and definitely not what I wanted.

Warped knelt down and fished a string of Christmas lights out from under the sofa.  Twisted laughed but to me it sounded like a donkey choking.  Warped walked around me, wrapping me in the Christmas lights.  I looked at my knees.

Warped and Twisted then pushed me across the floor of the common room.  I kept waiting for the chair to hit a crack in the floor or a snag in the carpet. I envisioned the chair falling forward.  There would be a loud thunk as my head encountered the floor.  Surely my nose would break and blood would spray everywhere.

Warped and Twisted continued inching me in the direction of their goal.  I looked from under my whipped cream lashes and saw they were heading towards an electrical outlet. My broken nose concern was replaced by the possibility that fluids and electricity might kill me.  Snap!  Crackle! Pop!  Smells like chicken! 

They plugged me in and I waited.  Twinkle, twinkle!  Sparkle, sparkle!   I picked a spot on the ceiling and stared at it.  Would my death be fast or slow?  It was neither.  Something, God's hand maybe, spared me.

Warped and Twisted weren't finished  yet.  They pushed me back across the common room and onto the elevator.  My broken nose fear returned with each jerk of the chair.  The guys leaned down and in and grabbed the underside of the chair seat.  I could smell beer and chili dogs with raw onions on their breath.  I held mine and shut my eyes tight.  I will not cry.  I will not cry.

"Uh, uh, uh," came out of Warped.  On the third 'uh,' they lifted me up and into the elevator.  They held me for a minute, a foot off the floor, then dropped me.  My teeth made a snapping sound.

Twisted kept his finger on the open door button.  Warped produced the roadkill coat hanger from his back pocket and handed it to Twisted.  He stepped backwards off the elevator and reached into the cargo pocket of his pants for his camera. 

"Lift her up," Warped said.  Twisted hooked the hanger into a beltloop of my Levis.  He pulled up, using both his hands.  The waistband of my jeans cut into my belly.

"Smile," Warped said.  He grinned, showing big yellow teeth.  I turned my head as far as I could to the right.  Flash!  I blinked several times, trying to get rid of the spots on my eyes.

Warped and Twisted started laughing--a choking donkey and a goose on coke.  The guys pointed at the floor under my chair. 

"Looks like she wet herself," Warped said.

I wondered if I had, then realized it was beer dripping off me.

Warped stepped back on the elevator.  He leaned across me and hit all the buttons--G-9.  We rode up, the door opening at each floor, people staring, and we rode down, the door opening at each floor, people staring.  Then we did it again.

The whole whipped cream, beer, Christmas light,  elevator nightmare made me appreciate Jesus because like him, I was abused, mocked, stared at and not rescued.  People looked away so they wouldn't have to be responsible. Some even laughed.  And me, I remained silent.  Lamb led to slaughter, no sound does it make, silent.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Best Friend Buried Barney Fife All Wrong

Watching the Andy Griffith Show was my best friend, Karen Lambertson’s, and my favorite way to pass the time besides creek walking and riding bikes in the graveyard.

Every week we’d sit in her living room or in my basement and whistle the theme song, marvel at the size of Don Knotts’ Adam’s apple and comment that Andy Griffith was pretty good looking for an old guy. When Karen got a hamster, it was only right that we would name him (Deputy) Barney Fife. His eyes after all, were rather buggy, just like Barney Fife’s.

“You did his burial all wrong,” I told Karen when I got home from church camp.  You see, by that point in my life I was pretty much a pet burying expert and Barney had gone to hamster heaven while I was at camp down in the southern part of the state.

“How’d he die?” I asked as we walked out the back door of her house.

“Last week he was running so much on his exercise wheel, I had to put him in the basement so I could sleep.”

“Could’ve tried some WD-40 on his wheel,” I said, as we went down the back porch steps.

Karen snapped her fingers. “Ah man. I didn’t think of that.”

“Maybe he had a hamster heart attack,” I said. “When did you figure out he was dead?”

We stood in the back yard. “Mom noticed it when she was switching a load of whites from the washer to the dryer.”

“Did he have rigor mortis?”

“Who’s Vigor Morris?” Karen said.

“Rigor mortis,” I said. “It’s when their legs stick up in the air.” My oldest brother was going to be a doctor when he grew up. He taught me all kinds of cool stuff.
Karen shook her head. “Nah, he was flopped over on one side.”

We went into the garage and Karen got a shovel and handed me a spade.

“Should be fairly easy to dig him up since it rained all morning,” I said.

Karen closed the garage door behind us. We stepped into the grass and I sniffed. “Fresh cut grass and rain on blacktop. I love the way summer smells.”

We walked out to the apple tree. Karen pointed to a round spot of fresh dirt clods at the base of the tree. She put her foot on the right side of the shovel back and pushed down hard. The soil was West Virginia clay--rusty in some spots, the color of Velveeta cheese in others.

I dropped my spade, bent down and grabbed a handful of dirt. It stuck together like pie crust dough. “We could make some cool pinch pots outta this stuff.”

Karen nodded, turning more soil over.

“You know why we gotta do this, right?” I said, throwing the clay ball up in the air and catching it.

“’Cause we don’t want to eat Barney in our applesauce next summer,” Karen said.

“Yep. Too bad you buried him in cardboard.”

Karen leaned the shovel up against the tree. She bent down and put her hands into the small grave. She pulled out Barney’s coffin. It was floppy with ground moisture but still recognizable as a Hartz hamster food box.

I held my hands out. “Give it to me. You go in the house and get something else to bury him in.”

She turned to go.

“Get a Cool Whip container or an old Skippy jar,” I said. Back in those days, peanut butter came in glass jars. Glass jars are the best thing to bury dead critters in, the small ones any way. Glass lasts forever in the ground.

Karen held up a Jif jar and a paper Big Bear bag as she came out of the house.

“That’ll do just fine,” I said.

We sat criss-cross, applesauce on the ground beneath the tree. Karen laid the grocery bag on my lap and I placed Barney’s burial box on top of it.  I was a bit freaked out about seeing him. What if there were worms coming out of him?

Not to worry. There were no worms and he didn’t smell like death yet. He smelled like wet hamster food. His nose was pointier than usual, having been smooshed into the corner of the box for a week. The white places on his body were multi-colored because Karen had wrapped him in the Sunday comics.

“I thought it would keep him warm underground.”

I leaned forward and wiped a tear from her freckly cheek. “Ah, Karen. That was sweet of you.”

She looked down at him. “He kinda looks like he was just born, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, the way he’s slimy from the underground moisture, that’s like placenta.” I said. We both sighed.

 “Poor little guy,” Karen said.

I tried to think of a way to cheer her up.  "Remember how he used to flick his poop?"

Karen smiled.  “It always stuck on my wall and looked like polka dots.”

I found my clay ball in the grass and squeezed it.

Karen started to giggle. “Remember the time we were mad at Chucky and we put Barney poop in his Coke bottle when he wasn’t looking?”

I laughed. We sat in silence for a little while. 

I glanced at my watch. “I have to go home for supper soon. Did you get a rag to wrap him in?”

Karen pulled a cloth diaper out of her back pocket. She leaned over and rubbed it against my cheek. “Is this soft enough?”

“Yep. That’ll do.”

I picked up Barney’s cold, stiff form and placed it in the middle of the diaper. I folded the left side in, then the right. I brought the bottom half up, then the top half down. I put my hands on top to keep it from springing open.

Karen unscrewed the lid from the Jif jar. I pressed the Barney bundle to make it even smaller and slid it inside.

I took a miniature golf pencil and a piece of crumpled notepaper out of the back pocket of my jean shorts.

“Let’s both write a note so if anybody ever digs him up, they’ll know what kind of animal he was and that we loved him a whole lot.”

Karen nodded and wiped her snot on her wrist. “I like that idea.”

She wrote her note and I added my part under hers. She stood up and screwed the top on the Jif jar.

“Don’t put him in the hole yet,” I said, standing up. “I wanna say a few words first.”

We bowed our heads. Neither of us had ever been to a funeral but we’d seen them on tv.

“Dear Lord,” I said. “We’re gathered here to bury our beloved pet and friend, Deputy Barney Fife. He was a good friend and a great pet. We ask sir, that you and he would forgive us for the time we blew his cheeks up like a balloon. And we pray he'll forgive us for the many baths we gave him in my bathroom sink but he was so cute when he did the dog paddle.”

Karen tapped my shoulder and whispered. “Say sorry for the time we gave him a teaspoon of your dad’s beer.”

I nodded. “Yeah, Barney. We’re sorry about the beer incident even though you seemed to like it. It probably wasn’t the best idea.”

I ran out of things to say and we were quiet for a minute. “Oh, and please comfort Karen in her sorrow, Lord. We pray that her parents would let her go to Petland and get another hamster this weekend. We pray this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Karen crossed herself ‘cause she’s a Catholic.

“Amen,” we said.

Karen put the box in the hole and grabbed the shovel.  As she covered the box with dirt I looked at the setting sun through the apple tree leaves.  Without thinking I started whistling the Andy Griffith theme song. 

Karen smiled.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Of Roadkills and Such--Part I

As the weather chills, I have a chilling memory, more than one actually. I’ll dole them out like M&M’s in a Halloween fun-sized bag. One for you . . . one for you . . . and one for you.


I got in my car to drive to a funeral. I flipped the fan to high and waited for the air to turn warm. I rubbed my hands together. “Should’ve brought my gloves.”
It was my second stop of the day. The first had been to speak to a group of women. I was wearing what my husband calls my Johnny Cash outfit—head to toe black. There was however, the sparkle of a big, Madonna-sized rhinestone cross. It lay cold against my sternum.
Abe Lincoln said, “You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time.” I thought of this as I drove I-68 towards town.

I was slowing down on the off ramp when I saw it—an almost roadkill, a squirrel. My heart made a trek from my stomach to my throat. I dearly love furry things, preferring them to be alive. I have a friend who says, “If you want to wear fur, don’t shave.” I agree.
On the exit ramp I pressed the brakes harder, trying to buy time to assess the situation. My eyes vacillated between courage and fear—looking, looking away. I tried to swallow what felt like a soggy wad of tissues.
I glanced in the rearview mirror. No one was behind me. I could take all the time I wanted to watch, and not, Mr. Squirrel’s demise.
As my car crept towards him, my brain fast forwarded to a conclusion. My knuckles turned white on the steering wheel as proximity confirmed my theory. My eyes and nose burned with soon to be tears.
Someone had just run over the little guy, but not all of him. A car had crushed him from his squirrel waist down. His top half seemed fine. In fact, his front end was running to and fro, but his back legs and tail were going nowhere fast.
I knew what I should do. I should get back on the interstate, circle around and come back and put the poor thing out of his misery. I should make his front end match his back. I didn’t though. I didn’t have the guts, pardon the terrible pun, to do it.
With tears streaming down my face I drove on to the funeral, on to more death. I hated my cowardice and prayed that someone braver and kinder would squash Mr. Squirrel and morph him from almost roadkill to roadkill for real.


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