Friday, November 26, 2010

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 of 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."

Monday, November 22, 2010

This Is the Day

In the night
I made nests
Of Double Bubble pink cotton batting
To protect the bluejay blue
Eggs of my joy
I swaddled the orbs and whispered
"Don't crack.  Please don't break."
I would cry.  I would die.  Maybe.

I mounded the fluff over top the happy spheres
Making protection against disappointment
Delay.  Lost things.  "Dulles, we have a problem."

I pressed pink softness against my lips
Tamping, muting, containing
The raucous, ebullient spray of aqua Alka-Seltzer foam
It longed to projectile  from within to without
I spoke inside my mind.
"Not yet, my pretty fountain."

I imagine they, and she, fear the depths
And the altitudes of my emotions
Eighty-nine days ago they glimpsed a dropperful of my despair
Before I tamped, muted, and contained it
But joy?
Surely joy cannot be contained.

Friday, November 19, 2010

In Search of Excellence

I stood up and faced the ten people gathered around our dining room table.

“Will you excuse me a minute please?”

I ran upstairs and stuck my head in a laundry basket.  And screamed.  When I raised my head, I saw my husband’s pant leg.

“Something wrong?”

 I looked up from my crumple on the floor.

“It’s not perfect.”

He shrugged.  “It doesn’t have to be.  It’s excellent.  That’s enough.”

Last year my Thanksgiving hoohah was a bit of a fiasco.  I decided to be cool and brine my bird.  Nowhere in the directions did Martha Stewart say it would take the turkey three times longer to cook due to its 48 hour soak in salt water.
Thankfully, all the guests were polite about the very delayed entrance of the main course.  We actually started out fine.  The wassail was perfect, all simmery and cinnamony in the crockpot I’d wrapped with fall foliage paper. It made the house smell like it had one foot in November, the other in December.
The appetizer buffet was stunning.  I had to smack the kids’ hands with a wooden spoon to keep ‘em from spoiling their appetite with shrimp butter on toasted baguette slices.  My ma-in-law and I vied for the biggest glutton title with the Bon Appetit spiced pecans.  My husband single handedly polished off the roasted bell pepper and havarti slices on fancy crackers. 

When I heard the oven timer buzz, I clapped to get everyone’s attention.
 “And now, for the main event,” I said.  “Give me a few minutes to get the turkey out of the oven, and we’ll get this feast started for real.”
My husband hoisted the big Tom Turkey out of the oven and onto my Granny’s cream ironstone platter while I got the side dishes squared away.  Nutty green beans go in this bowl.  Garlic mashed potatoes go in there.  My sister-in-law’s best-ever-she-won’t-give-me-the-recipe sweet potatoes stay in the baking dish she brought 'em in.  My own stuffing concoction goes in our wedding anniversary bowl.   Did I miss anything?
I peeked over my husband’s shoulder as he sliced into the bird breast.  He jumped when I squealed.  The carving knife clattered on the stove top. 
I waved my arms.  “Stop!” I said.  “The juices aren’t running clear!  The package said the juices have to be clear.  Else people'll die of salmonella.”
My husband looked from me to the turkey.  I pushed potholders at him.
“Quick!  Put him back in the oven.”
I increased the heat 25 degrees and slid the roasting pan all the way back and left.  I crammed the side dishes onto the racks, hoping to keep them warm too.  I flipped my hair back and smoothed the front of my cute aqua and lime Anthropologie apron.  I headed into the dining room--a basket of warm cheddar pecan biscuits in one hand, a crystal bowl of soft, salted, Amish butter in the other.
"Everyone get a biscuit and butter.  It’ll tide you over ‘til turkey time.”

My husband checked the bird thirty minutes later.  He stood in the dining room doorway and shook his head ever so slightly.  I choked on my biscuit bite.  I wadded my pilgrim and Indian print napkin and dropped it on my empty plate. 
“Here.  Let me take a look.”

My mother-in-law followed me into the kitchen.  She touched me lightly on my shoulder.
“Why don’t we start with the side dishes?” she said.  “While the turkey finishes up.  It’ll be fine.”
I stuck out my lower lip and sighed.  “Okay.”
We took everything out of the oven and arranged the bowls on the kitchen table.  I put a little calligraphied placard in front of each serving dish.  The guests filed in, loaded their plates, and returned to the dining room. 

My oldest brother prayed.  "Lord, we thank you for this bountiful array of food.  Bless it to our bodies, and please, comfort my sister in her time of distress."  

Thirty minutes later my husband checked the turkey.  Twenty minutes later he inspected it again.  

He whispered to me as he sat down.  "Think I'll wait an hour before I look again."

I took a swig of white wine.  “You know what?  Just leave it in there ‘til it’s black for all I care.”
My mother pointed her fork at me.  “Actually, this is good for my hiatal hernia,” she said.  “Small amounts of food throughout the day are much easier to digest than large meals.”
I tried to smile.  “Thanks, Mom.”

When we were done with our stuffing and veggies, I stacked my plate, our son's, and my husband’s and stood. 

“Forget about the turkey,” I said.  “I’ll give everybody some to take home.  Who’s ready for dessert?  There’s Praline Pumpkin Pie or Frozen Caramel Pumpkin Torte.  Both with homemade hazelnut whipped cream.”
I started the coffee and cut five pieces of each dessert.  Plopped a dollop of whipped cream on each one.  My husband set a coffee cup on the kitchen table in front of me.  I started to take a drink, but stopped.  I sniffed.  Wrinkled my nose.
“What’s in it?  It smells different.”
He grinned.  “Shot of Bailey’s,” he said.  “Figured you might need it.”
I felt my nostrils flare and my eyes start to burn.  He patted my back.
“There, there.  Think excellence, not perfection.”

I turned to face him, hands on my hips.  "This won’t happen next year.”
He cringed.  “We eating out?
I snorted.  “Heck no!  I’m gonna cook the dang turkey the day before.”

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Do

I do miss her. 
I do.
I didn’t.
At all.
And then one morning, I did. 
In the marrow of my bones like flu

She’s so lovely.
Within and without
And very far away
I can’t be there in hours
I can count on my fingers.
She’s loving them right now.
Surely they love her too.

You’re welcome, God.
‘Cause we gave her back to you.
Like Hannah did Samuel
With his little robes that got bigger each year.
She’s like Samuel, you know.
Loves you.  Lives for you.
Follows you wherever.

My heart is not like yours, God.
It’s finite.  It’s flesh.
You always see her.
I can’t wait to.
I’ll attach myself to her
Like white cat hair on a black sweater
I’ll twist a curl ‘round my pointer finger.
Tuck her in bed.  Here.
Listen to her laugh.
Take in the tales of the life she lived
Among the golden children with glossy, no moon night hair

I’ll give her chocolate and snacks
Fix all her favorite foods—sausage and biscuits, turkey and stuffing, Chinese chicken salad.
Close my eyes and sing along as she plays, “Ode to Joy” on her flute.
I’ll tell her she is wonderful.
Over and over.
And that I want to be just like her when I grow up.
I do.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Buried Alive--A Love Story

I am Lazarus.  I am.  By a different name, but still.  See, I was done with this life.  Buried for all intents and purposes.  Swaddled in grave clothes and everything.  Let me tell you something about grave linens.  They wrap you snug as a bug in a rug, but then you can't really see, hear, taste, or feel much at all.

This one day, Jesus called out to me.  'Cept he didn't say, "Lazarus, come out."  He used my name instead.  And he whispered this other thing.  Real quiet like.  So no one could hear but me.

"Beloved."  He called me that.  "Believe."

I liked him a whole bunch by then, 'cause really, this was the second time he said my name.  Naw.  It was more than that.  How many days had I been alive by then?  It was at least that many.

There weren't a whole lotta people outside the cave grave when I emerged.   No one had hired professional mourners or anything.  Truth be told, not many folks even knew I was dead.  Guess they figured if I was breathing, that was enough.

I walked out, and Jesus took me in his arms.  He carefully, tenderly really, unwrapped the spiced linen strips.  Then he European air-kissed me, 'cept his lips, all puffy and wine-colored, pressed into my face.  Under both cheekbones.  At the same time.  His fingers caressed my chin as he looked into my eyes.  Actually, it was more like he fell into my gaze.

"Beloved."  He called me that.  "The king is enthralled with your beauty."

Right then and there my knees buckled, and I tell you what.  Someone shoulda taken a picture and put it on a romance novel 'cause what we had? What we've got?  It's a love story that'll transcend time.


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