Friday, May 28, 2010

Burying Barney

My best friend buried Barney Fife all wrong. Karen Dandelet was my best friend. She lived right around the corner from me in the 70’s. At night, we could see each other when we looked out our bedroom windows.

Barney was her hamster. Next to each other, Barney was our best friend. We played with him every single day. We always got him out whenever we watched our favorite tv program--The Andy Griffith Show.

“Man, Don Knott’s Adam’s apple sure is big,” I’d say.

“Andy Griffith is pretty good looking for an old guy,” Karen’d say.

Karen named her hamster, Barney, after Deputy Fife. ‘Cause they both had bug eyes.

Karen was crying Sunday night when she called to tell me Barney had gone to hamster heaven while I was at church camp down in the southern part of the state. She gave me a quick rundown of his funeral, in between sniffs.

I didn’t take her fresh grief into account when I said, “I can’t believe you buried him in cardboard. Now we’re gonna have to do a grave digging do-over.”

You see, by that point in my life, I was pretty much a pet burying expert. Karen hung up on me. She’d never done that before.

The next morning, I told my mom there’d been a death in Karen’s family. She let me walk over to the Dandelets’ even though it wasn’t yet nine o’clock.

I knocked on the screen door so the doorbell wouldn’t wake her four brothers. Karen’s eyes looked red when I stepped into the living room.

I put my arm around her and squeezed. “Sorry I was mean last night.”

She pulled away and headed for the back door. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”

“He was only two,” I said as we walked down the back porch steps. “How’d he die?”

“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.

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 like that.

Karen shook her head. “Nah, he was just flopped over on one side.”

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

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

Karen closed the garage door behind us. We stepped into the wet grass, and I took a deep sniff of summer—Karen’s mom’s roses, the honeysuckle climbing the fence, the mock orange bush on the other side.

We walked out to the apple tree. Karen pointed to a round spot of fresh dirt clods by the trunk. 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, and grabbed a handful of dirt. It stuck together like pie crust dough.

“We could make some cool pinch pots outta this stuff.”

Karen turned 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 against the tree. She crouched 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 here. 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. Peanut butter still came in glass jars back then, and those are the best thing for burying dead critters. 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 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. I was a bit freaked out about seeing him. What if he was crawling with worms?

Not to worry. There were no worms. He didn’t even smell like death. 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 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 at me. Finally. “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.

After awhile, I glanced at my watch. “I have to go home for lunch 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 nose. “I like that idea.”

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

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

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

“Dear Lord,” I said. “We’re gathered here to bury our beloved pet, Deputy Barney Fife. He was a good friend and a great pet. We ask Sir, that you and he forgive us for the time we blew his cheeks up like a balloon. And we pray he forgives us for the many baths we gave him in my bathroom sink, but wasn’t he cute when he did the dog paddle?”

Karen tapped my shoulder and whispered. “Tell him we’re 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 will take her to Petland to 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 sun through the apple tree leaves. Without thinking, I started whistling the Andy Griffith theme song.

Karen looked at me and smiled. And started whistling along.

(FYI, this is a new and improved version of a prior post--Oct. 12, 2009.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Signs, Miracles and Wonders

Let me tell you something.  You stick around me, you're gonna see miracles.  Why just last year, I got stabbed in the heart and here I am today.  Alive and kicking, and telling the story.

It was last summer.  I walked into the kitchen--mailpile in one hand, antique letter opener in the other.  I made it to the stove, and then the pain came.  Like someone was trying to use chest spreaders on me while I was awake.  No.  It was more like someone drove a corkscrew through my skin and into my breast meat, right next to the mole I need to get looked at. 

My breath sounded like I had a tracheotomy--gaspy, rattley.  I turned around.  No one.  I backtracked in my mind.  What was I doing when the pain came? 

I looked at the mailpile, now on the floor.  Oh.  Yeah. 

"Come to this college!"  And, "Have we got a university for you!"

The tears came out of nowhere.  My baby.  My firstborn.  She'll only be with us one more year.

I pulled a chair out and let my knees bend.  It wasn't Anthrax, but it made me sick, just the same. 

On December 1, you came into the kitchen where I was making your dad's lunch.  You sighed noisily 'til I turned around and faced you. 

You grinned.  "All my college applications are done!"

In the middle of February, you and Daddy wrastled FAFSA, that monstrous, financial, how-much-we-gonna-give-you beasty, to the ground.  He raised his hand at the dinner table.  You laughed and slapped it.

March arrived and I considered taking up nailbiting again.  The end is near.

The third week of April came and went.    On the days I beat you to the mailbox, you'd find me.  "Did I get mail today?"

And then, there they were.  Yeses.  Nos.  Waitlist notifications.  Only thing was, you didn't want the yeses.  Not the ones you got.

I scowled at the sheet of fancy schmancy college letterhead.  "What do you mean, 'no?'  Do you know how smart, beautiful, and special  she is? 'Cause if you did, you wouldn't have said, 'We regret to--'"

Your dad stood in our ruby red foyer and shook a college letter.  "Are you crazy?  You'll only give her $10,000 a year when tuition is fifty grand a year?  You can take your financial aid and--"

The letter fluttered to the floor. 

I nibbled my lower my lip.  This isn't the way we thought it would be.  They're all supposed to want her.  They're all supposed to give her full rides.  Because she deserved it.  Her grades and test scores were amazing.  She was president of this club, historian of that one.  She had extracurricular activities and service hours out the wazoo.

I couldn't find you after supper that one night. 'Til I peeked in your room.  Picked my way through the piles of dropped jeans and open AP textbooks.  Followed the sounds of sobs and sniffles.  Did you know I was there?  I heard you tell your pillow, "I worked so hard.  For nothing.  No one wants me."

I backed out of the room on tiptoe.  Went to the bathroom.  Blew my nose.  Wiped my eyes.  I looked up.  I have no idea what you're doing, God.  But please.  Fix this!

I tried to sound casual at dinner the next night.  "What about that one school?" I said.  "The small liberal arts school in Virginia--Washington and Lee.  They accepted you.  We just haven't gotten the financial aid packet."

You stopped chewing.  "So?'

"We should take a look.  Since it's--"

Your eyes narrowed.  "My only hope?"

I winced.  "I was going to say--'"

"So how did you like Washington and Lee?" my Facebook friend, Becky, wrote on my wall.  "I know a gal in admissions.  Want me to put in a good word?"

"It was gorgeous," I typed.  "All brick buildings with big, white columns.  We saw the stable where Robert E. Lee's horse, Traveller, lived.  Can you please ask your friend when we'll get the financial aid offer?"

Two hours later you got an email.  "There's a problem.  We never got your parents' tax info from last year.  There's no financial aid money left.  If you accept, be prepared to pay full tuition and board.  All four years." 

I put my hand over my mouth.  One year is a brand new car--a really nice car.  I wiped the sheen of sweat off my upper lip.  I guess I could get a job.  Not be home for the other two.

I snapped my fingers.  Think.  Think.  Who can help?  I looked up.  "Help.  Please?"

Then I remembered.  Bob.  Bob can help.  Bob was my high school buddy.  We'd been in choir and Latin together.  He graduated from Washington and Lee.  Alums have influence, don't they?  And he did.  He called the admissions department and said nice things about you.  Then he called me with a plan A and a plan B.  Plan A was good, but Plan B was great. 

My heart felt like it was going pitty pat as I walked through the house looking for you.

"What would you say to a gap year?" I said.  "If you take a gap year, you can re-apply for financial aid, both meritorious and need-based, for the following year."

Your mouth fell open.  Your tired-from-crying eyes brightened.  You started to smile, then I saw you stop yourself. 

"I've always wanted to do a gap year, but Daddy said no kid of his would ever--"

I put my pointer finger on your full, cherry-colored lips.  "Hush.  You leave Daddy to me."

And then the oddest thing happened.  Before I even practiced the conversation in my mind, your dad came up to me as I was typing away on the computer that night.

"I was just thinking," he said.  "As I did the dishes.  What if she joined the Peace Corps for a year?"

I stopped typing and turned to face him.  "That's a gap year."

"No, it's not.  Travelling around the world partying, that's a gap year."

"They both are, silly rabbit."

Bob said the gap year had to be worthwhile.  "No working at McDonald's," he said.  "Have her do something like Americorps Vista or Habitat for Humanity."

"Or a mission trip," you said, when I got off the phone.  "Can I? Can I?  Hunh?  Hunh?"

And then the next week our pastor told Daddy, "I know this guy.  He has a ranch for disabled kids in Honduras--"

I shook my head.  "No way."

Your dad grinned and nodded.  "Way."

I watched you when Daddy told you the news.  I could tell your heart was probably going pitty pat inside your chest. 

You spoke so quietly, I could barely hear you.  "It was so awful.  So very awful.  And now it's great.  Really great."

Daddy's chest puffed out.  "I told you two all along this would work out.  I had faith."

I stuck my bottom lip out.  "I trusted God too," I said.  "I just wasn't sure what he had in mind."

You looked at me, and it felt like your gaze might burn a hole in my cheek.

"He answered your prayer," you said.

I tilted my head.  "He what?"

"Remember that night we went to church?  And you prayed for me?  You said, 'Lord, please shut all the wrong doors and open the right one.'"

I squinted my eyes to remember, then I smiled.  "I did pray that, didn't I?"

You nodded.  "Yep."

I cupped your cheek with my hand.  "It wasn't that those schools didn't want you, baby.  It's that God didn't want you at those schools."

You put both your hands over your heart.  "It's a miracle," you said.  "My very own miracle."

I lifted my chin and held up my pointer finger.  "Oh, there will be more," I said.  "Trust me.  You stick around me, you're gonna see more."

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Star Is Born

Did I pull you away from a hot date?  That's what I wanted to ask the nurse midwife.  This wasn't what I expected at all.  She was supposed to be rubbing my back.  Spooning ice chips into my mouth.  Instead, she leaned against the wall in her periwinkle scrubs.  Kept snapping her gum.

"Can you break my water, or something?" I said.  "So we can get this party started?"

'Cause I'm not smiling anymore.  Not like I was when I walked into the hospital two hours ago.  Back then the nurses had talked me into going natural.

"You can do it, honey," they said.  "If  you're smiling and cracking jokes when you're seven centimeters dilated,  you'll be fine."

Found out later, they needed natural births to even out the statistics of all the epidural labors.

The midwife uncrossed her arms, checked out her manicure.  "Sure," she said.

The long crochet hook-looking instrument felt cold against my thigh. The gush of fluids was warm.

Almost instantly, hard labor ensued, and I wished I hadn't been so eager for the party.

The tears came.  Then the cussing.  "It feels like I'm pooping out a globe."

"That's bowel pressure," Miss Personality Plus said.  No duh.

My fingernails bit into my husband's arm. 

He petted my hair.  "Won't be long now."

I squinted and hissed at him.  "Get your face out of mine.  You're stealing my breath."

And then 20 minutes after Mother's Day was over, you slipped into the world.  Looked like a golden buddah baby.  'Cept you weren't bald.  You had loads of black hair.  It stood on end, once they wiped you dry.

I marveled how your head was round, unlike our firstborn's.  She'd looked like a conehead from Saturday Night Live when she came out.  Way back when.

"That's one of the benefits of a quick, natural delivery," the midwife said.

That and being able to get up and walk to the bathroom five minutes after the baby squirts out of your body.  I thought that was pretty cool too.

I craved sour stuff when I was pregnant with you.  Pickles, mustard, Subway veggie sandwiches with Italian dressing.  I paid the price for that.  You turned out feisty.  We called you Sour Flower and Sass and Vinegar.

But when you were sweet?  Oh my!  You'd hold the sides of my face and say, "I love  you, Mommy.  With all my heart."  You stole my breath, but I didn't mind at all.

When you hit six months you stopped growing.  Everything but your head circumference. 

"Is there a history of growth disorders in your family?"  The young doctor asked me that.  Didn't put her hand on my shoulder, or pat my knee, or anything.

I looked at my feet.  "I'll ask and get back to you."

Thing was, you were such a mellow baby.  Never yelled for nothing.  Not for a diaper change.  Not 'cause you were hungry.  I just fed you whenever I remembered.

After that, I did everything everybody told me.  Fed you every three hours.  Drank fennugreek tea.  Had a shot of Guinness Stout every day.  Bit by bit, you grew.  Not a lot, but enough to smooth out the ditches in the young pediatrician's forehead.

When you were two, that whole year?  You wore a dress every single day.  And a high ponytail too.  That's the way it had to be.  And those red glitter Mary Jane shoes from WalMart?  You wore them out 'cause you loved Dorothy, and her little dog too. 

You'd clutch a throw pillow to your chest and stick the middle and ring finger of your left hand in your mouth.  You'd suck 'til your knuckles had little teeth impressions.  The sucking always started when the flying monkeys appeared.  And when you laid down at nap and night, you were fine as long as you had those two fingers in your mouth, and a cloth diaper to rub against your peach skin-feeling cheek.

You didn't talk much 'til you hit three, and then it was like your mouth was a river and someone opened the locks and dam.  We couldn't stop the words from coming out.  Sometimes we had to put you in the dining room while we ate.  To give our ears a rest.

Right before you started kindergarten, I cut your hair.  I couldn't get the brush to the end of it without you pitching a fit, so I took my big, blue sewing scissors and cut off six inches of brunette shine.  I still have it.  In a jar, on the shelves, in the tv room.

One day you told me where babies come from.  You were in the first grade, and some little boy had told you on the schoolbus.  Right after he kissed you on the mouth.  I remember thinking, "Oh, so that's why some people homeschool."

One time you slept over at my friend, Barbie's house.  She had a daughter about your age.  Barbie called me the next day, full of giggles.

"She's so funny.  Me and Jeff videotaped her.  In case cable ever goes out."

You told Barbie you were gonna adopt a Chinese baby girl someday.  "'Cause I know where babies come from, and that's not happening to me!"

For five years, you wanted to be a marine biologist.  "I'm gonna have a pet rat, and it's going to ride on my shoulder whenever I go down in my sumbarine."


"Right.  Sumbarine," you said.  "And I'm never gonna move away from you and Daddy."

"But there's no ocean in West Virginia."

"I don't care."

And then one day you didn't want to be a marine biologist anymore. 

"Drama's my thing," you said.

Your dad and I looked at each other.  "We know, honey," we said.  "We've always known."

We knew it from the first time you sang, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' with Judy Garland.  We saw it when you twirled around in the size 2, yellow Belle dress, when you were six.  You had skills.

You still do.  When you walk onto a stage, all eyes are on you.  How can they not be?  You have it all.  Beauty. Presence.  Voice.

And you're still wee.  For the longest time, I thought it was all my fault.  That I wasn't a good mommy.  That I didn't feed you enough.  Then, when you were 11, we went to that family reunion on Daddy's side, and your daddy and me?  We were about the tallest people there. 

I looked at him, and he looked at me, and we lifted our chins.  "Oh.  So this is why she's so--"

This week marks 15 years since you arrived.  Since the party started.  And well, since a star was born.  Happy Birthday, Plum Ball.  Cookie.  Sandwich Child.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ugly and Beautiful Secrets

Every time the phone rings these days, I look at caller i.d..  Is it her?  Is it Mom?  Did she like it?  Did she think I did a good job?

See, I've taken to giving my mother stories.  Truth is, they're all I can give her right now.  And in them, she gets what she always wanted--my ugly and beautiful secrets.  Some of 'em anyway.

Telling stories is the way I remember.  When your childhood was sharp and poky, you tend to put all the pieces in a box for later.  For when you have the gloves of time passed.

I used to tell my stories to counselors.  Now I tell them to paper.  For the longest time the telling was bitter, but one day it turned sorta sweet.  I got my box out, and surprise!  Not everything in there was awful.  Some pieces were kinda pretty.  Some made me bust a gut.

I've been thinking about the Ten Commandments lately.  One in particular.  The one that says honor your mother and father and it will go well with you.   I did okay with Dad, but he's gone now. 

Mom's a different story.  Not being close to her, the way most of my friends are with their moms, makes me feel bad sometimes.  I thought maybe things'd be better if I made a list.  Of good stuff I remember, instead of bad. 

I like scallops, but Mom loved them first.  She loves stories.  I do too.  She used to take me shopping, and in between Stone and Thomas and Nassar's, we'd get club sandwiches, wavy Lay's potato chips, and made-in-front-of-you cherry Cokes.  "This'll pick us up," Mom always said.

She taught me to embroider, but I don't do it much now.  She was a nurse, and she told me to always take aspirin with tea or pop.  "The caffeine makes it work faster." 

Sometimes we'd dress up and go to the Elephant Room in the Hotel Frederick.  The sweet, super old waiter with shiny mahogany skin would scoot my chair in.  My patent leather mary janes would dangle above the plush, crimson carpet.  "May I  have a Shirley Temple, please? With two maraschino cherries on a pink plastic sword?"

Mom showed me how to grow lilies of the valley, zinnias, and snapdragons.  "Put your finger inside there," she'd say.  "It's like a little mouth, don't  you think?"  We'd go out in the back yard and pet the catkins on the pussy willow bush.  She'd smile.  "Don't they feel like kitten paws?"

I don't remember her saying no much.  "Since I'm in fourth grade now, can I have my birthday party at the roller rink?"  "Would you let me take horseback riding lessons with Karen Dandelet?" "Is it okay if I take the car tonight?"  "Can I go to Myrtle Beach with my friends after graduation?" 

Mom did tell me no once.  "Do not ever, ever smoke cigarettes.  You'll die of cancer.  My best friend's husband had to get a talk box put in his throat because of cigarettes."

She'd found my friend, Suzy's, Eve cigarettes in my room.  "But Mom.  They're not mine."

She pursed her lips and squinted.  "Sure.  That's what they all say."

Suzy and I laughed about the cigarette situation that night.  Back then, whenever I was on the phone, I'd stretch the phone cord 'til it didn't have loops anymore.  I'd hide the mouthpiece in my hand so Mom couldn't listen.  I don't want you to hear me, because I don't want you to know me.

But now thirty years later, here I am.  Sending her stories, so she can know me.  Me and my ugly and beautiful secrets. 


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