When Maturity Strikes

I have to admit, we have a pretty great kid.  True, the teen years have been trying at times, but every now and then our son, Joshua, takes a giant leap of maturity.  We first witnessed this when he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in October 2016.  What an amazing day that was as we watched Joshua, no longer a little boy, stand before his leaders and peers and promise to do his duty to God and his country and to serve other people.

Of course, being an Eagle Scout wasn’t a magic fix against the angst of the teen years, and once in a while his Dad and I had to be the heavies in a situation.  People have complimented us on how well we raised Joshua, telling us what a pleasure he was to have around.  We tilted our heads, plastered on a smile, said thank you, and thought to ourselves you only say that because you don’t live with him.  We’ve learned to chalk it up to Joshua being a typical teen.

On occasion, however, he does something that shocks his father and me to the point that we can’t quit talking about it.  Like today, for example.  Joshua works at a local grocery store one or two days a week.  It’s his first job, and he takes it quite seriously.  Already he’s making comments that let us know the good work ethic we instilled in him is paying off.

As if working hard and earning his first turkey this Thanksgiving (he was so proud) wasn’t reward enough for me and my husband, Joshua said to me, “Hey, Mom.  Why don’t you give me the grocery list, and when I get off work, I’ll do the shopping.”  Imagine the few stunned seconds that preceded, “Oh, okay…”  Where did that come from?  I know he’s extended his employee discount to us (another fact about which he was proud), but to actually expend his own time and energy shopping for the family?  Has the lesson of caring for others finally sunk in?

I made an extremely detailed list for him including brand names and item counts.  He laughed at me, but he folded it up and placed it in his wallet.  We made sure he had a secure form of payment, another thing for which he must display the ultimate responsibility, and then his father dropped him off at work.  And as I mentioned above, we could not stop talking about it all day long.

William repeatedly wondered aloud what made him offer to do the shopping.  I got tears in my eyes and immediately envisioned Joshua as the CEO of a major corporation sitting behind a mahogany desk in his top-floor office with a picture of him working at his first job in a frame with a photocopy of his first paycheck.  If you don’t understand my leap in logic, you’re probably not a woman and possibly not a mother.  In any case, I built a little wiggle room into the grocery list in case he makes a small error, and I left the choosing of flavors for certain items up to him.  Let’s pray my coaching on how to pick a good apple sticks.

Now if we can just get him to pick up his room on a daily basis.

Washing Dishes

It’s the oldest girl’s chore to wash the dishes.  She will do so without complaint, drying and stacking them on the cupboard shelves.

“Can’t we run the dishwasher?” she asks.

“No—that thing makes too much heat, and it’s already eighty-five degrees in here,” her father replies.  Disgust tinges the edge of his words, and he shakes his head at her like she’s an imbecile for even asking.

The girl’s brother and two younger siblings, a girl and a boy, wear the smiling faces of obedient, compliant children.  They dash away amidst the tension their older sister has created.  Their smiles have more to do with not having to wash dishes in the August heat.

And so the girl suffers alone as her family seeks shade in the darkened family room and cool beneath the ceiling fan.  She’s up to her elbows in hot, sudsy water, thinking about how her father never used to speak to her in that tone when he spoke to her as a child.  He developed the manner in the sixth year of his second marriage when his new wife had their first child, the little girl.  It worsened when the boy was born, as if her father was obligated to speak to her this way.

She’s not paying attention, and her hands slip off a plate.  It lands on the two inches of counter space between her and the sink, bouncing twice, before it shatters into a million shards.  All she can think is that she didn’t know a plate could bounce.

“I’ll replace it,” the girl says, sensing her father’s wife behind her.  No doubt the woman had come to criticize the girl’s work, but a more fortuitous situation presented itself.

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman says.  There is no inflection in her voice, no understanding in her eyes.  “It was ugly and mismatched anyhow.  The last one from your grandmother’s set.”

It is not the last one, but it might as well be.  There’s a saucer under a dying jade plant in the family room, chipped and stained from soil leaching out the hole in the terracotta pot.  The girl will pay for the broken plate with money earned from her job as a lunch counter girl at the golf course because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, when the sun dips behind the pines in the backyard, the girl sits in a lawn chair and drinks iced tea.  Her bare feet brush over the fuzzy, silver leaves of lamb’s ear she planted around the air conditioner compressor last year.  She thinks to herself that she cannot remember a time when there wasn’t lamb’s ear in her life.  Even at the apartment complex where she lived with her mother and brother.  And she thinks that it is stupid to have whole-house air conditioning and not use it.

There was an old couple who lived on the first floor of the complex who kept lamb’s ear in planters on the concrete porch.  She would slip down to visit them while her mother slept off her third-shift weariness.  Her brother sat in his playpen in front of the TV turned to Sesame Street.  The old man and woman knew the girl never had enough to eat, but they were also poor.  They fed her ice cream floats made with Pepsi and sent her home with bouquets of lamb’s ear.  Her mother spanked her when her brother ate one and got sick.  Then her mother got sick, and finally her dad came to visit.  She remembers him calling his new wife from the green phone hanging on the kitchen wall.  His finger absently picked at the peeling, flowered wallpaper.

“Honey, the kids are going to come stay with us for a while.”

With one sentence her life changed forever.  She and her brother had a new home and a new mommy who never let them forget that she sacrificed her career in banking to raise them.  Then came the two new siblings who the girl tried to watch over when she wasn’t being shooed away by her father’s wife.  She didn’t want her new sister and brother to eat lamb’s ear.  They are old enough to know better now.

She remembers when each of those babies came home from the hospital.  Everything smelled new then, like baby powder and plastic toys.  Plenty of pictures exist of these events, pictures with the girl’s profile or arm just barely captured in the frame. That’s when she realized her position was oldest girl, not oldest daughter.  Her brother is nowhere to be seen.  In fact, except for school pictures, there are very few of the girl and her brother since the arrival of their new siblings.

The sky turns dusky, then the shade of a bruise, and when the bats swoop from the trees, the girl goes in.  Her family already retired upstairs for the night without calling to her.  She is old enough to get herself to bed.  First, she must do a load of laundry that includes her bras and pantyhose.  Her father’s wife made her wait until laundry for the rest of the family was done because no one else needed to wash their items on delicate.  The girl doesn’t want her things ruined; she has to buy them herself.  No matter.  It is cool in the basement, and she can doze on the day bed while watching reruns of ‘80s sitcoms on the black and white TV her father keeps on his workbench.

The girl falls asleep to the rhythm of the washer and dreams about the Gibson Girls in the wallpaper behind her father’s bar.  She sees herself in the bust-enhancing gowns with her hair piled elegantly on her head and a bouquet of lamb’s ear in her hand.  Many suitors try to tempt her with ice cream floats, but the girl knows she is not free to accept, and so she runs away, Cinderella-style, to a waiting sinkful of dirty dishes.

The Truth in History

Tim Eady’s father worked for Mrs. Burton during the winter months when the construction crews were laid off. Occasionally, Tim’s father landed inside work hanging cupboards or finishing baseboards. This year, all the new homes were completed on time inside and out. The first flakes of snow saw the departure of a handful of families for Florida or one of the Carolinas, seeking work to tide them over.

Tim’s father would have gone, but his mother said it made no sense to pull Tim and his two sisters out of school for three months. The girls had started third and fourth grade in the fall. Tim was in his junior year. Besides, his mother expounded, Tim could hunt again this year, and they’d be near family come Christmas. Not to mention Florida never had snow for Christmas, and what’s Christmas without snow? Tim’s father grew up with fireworks in Charleston for Christmas, but he just shrugged his acquiescence.

Mrs. Burton lived on the outskirts of town and drove a faded, red Ford pickup. She wore a plastic bonnet over her hair whenever she went out, rain or shine. Every day found her in heels and pearls with a lace hankie tucked beneath her watch band on the underside of her wrist. When Mr. Burton died, she went right on living at their farm instead of selling and moving in with her sister in town. From the porch of her home she fended off foreclosure and potential suitors with Mr. Burton’s double-barreled shotgun. She also grew shrub-sized, pink begonias in wash tubs on that porch.

Canning, gardening, and tending chickens kept Mrs. Burton involved, as she called it, and gave her purpose in life. She also baked and attended Bible study, joined missions’ teas and volunteered at the library, participated in the fair and collected clothes for the migrants who worked the lettuce farms every summer. Much to her shame, she could not sew, but a few frenzied days of her clicking knitting needles produced some of the finest afghans to ever grace the back of a couch.

There were no animals in her house save only a yellow canary in a cage in the living room. The bright little bird never sang until the day his mate died, and then he chirped his fool head off every waking moment of the day. Mrs. Burton thought this morbidly hilarious. She had one of her church friends make a double-layered cage cover of black fabric to place over the bird when she needed it to shut up. She wasn’t unkind to animals. She just believed they belonged outdoors. She fed hundreds of strays and wouldn’t kill a snake in her yard. In autumn, when the corn grown on her land leased by others had been harvested, she walked boldly among the cattle let out to graze the stubbled fields.

the-truth-in-history

Winter on the Farm by Guy Whiteley

Tim’s father started with fence repair, and since there were miles of fence, he was guaranteed steady work. But his father wasn’t the one to prolong a job just to draw out a paycheck. Tim hunted the woods skirting Mrs. Burton’s fields and occasionally stopped to talk with his father when he worked the fence closest to the woods. A sharp crack in the distance always brought his father’s head up and a smile to Mrs. Burton’s face. Then she’d drive the truck back in the direction of the shot, stopping to pick up Tim’s father, and together they’d find Tim and the deer he’d killed. She waited in the truck while Tim and his father loaded the deer in the bed.

“Now Tim, you put plenty of them newspapers down under that doe when you hang her in the barn. At least an inch thick. Sprinkle saw dust on any blood that soaks through, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Rake it up and throw it all in the burning barrel with the paper and guts when you’re through, son.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then she’d drop his father back off wherever he’d been working and drive Tim to the barn where he’d dress the deer. There was a handy block and tackle setup with a crank handle for hauling the deer up toward the rafters. Tim supposed Mr. Burton had rigged it for getting heavy stuff up to the loft. Mrs. Burton brought him hot tea and sandwiches, the same delivered to this father, and when the job was done, she’d drive him to Fulmer’s to have his deer processed.

As a reward for feeding the family, Tim’s father allowed him time off from helping with chores to tan the hides of any deer he shot. Mrs. Burton graciously let him use her barn as a workspace. It took Tim a few tries, and a lot of trips to the library, but through his trials and errors he became skilled at producing supple, quality leather. That Christmas, everyone in his family and Mrs. Burton received moccasins. The following year, he sold his hides and earned such a reputation that hunters began bringing him their hides for tanning. Tim’s father let him keep the money he earned, so Tim made sure his father saw him spending it on jeans and shoes for school, fabric for his mother to make his sisters’ dresses, and books for the three of them. Reading was the only thing he had in common with the girls.

When the fences were done, Tim’s father worked in and around the barn. Tidying and repairing kept Mrs. Burton’s farm neat as a pin which always humored Tim because she was a bit of a pack rat. At least the newspapers in the empty stalls were stacked neatly as were the towers of plastic flower pots from the nursery. If she had one of something, chances were she owned at least a dozen of whatever it was. Radios, all in working order and dusty, lined the shelves next to the wood chipper. Scythes and shovels stood like troops at attention five deep against the walls of her garage. More canning jars than she could use in a lifetime even if she broke half of them waited patiently in the cellar next to coils of chain covering the floor and shoe boxes full of different sized knives. But Mrs. Burton wasn’t stingy. From her own personal stores she’d supply whatever need demanded filling.

“Ain’t you worried about rats around here, ma’am?”

Aren’t, Tim—and no. The threat of death keeps them at bay.”

Tim assumed she meant the smell from his hides, and he worried that her comment had been a request to tan them elsewhere. He’d meant drawing rats all over the farm with the promise of hiding places and knew they were attracted by the smell of a fresh kill, not repelled. He let it go when she hinted at a pair of fur-lined slippers.

That year’s wood supply diminished quickly when the weather turned for the worse, and Tim’s father had to drag downed trees from the woods. They worked together bringing the logs in to the barn where his father sawed them into manageable pieces and split them. Tim stacked it on the back porch, sneaking a peek in the kitchen windows where he could see Mrs. Burton sitting at her kitchen table writing out recipe cards. On his third trip from the barn to the porch, he felt a twinge in his throat and a flush of heat on his cheeks. He straightened from piling wood and swiped the back of his glove across his forehead, moving shaggy, wet bangs from out of his eyes. As he did so, he made eye contact with Mrs. Burton who waved him in. She met him at the back door and led him by the arm to sit at the kitchen table.

“My boots, ma’am.”

“It’s just snow and sawdust. Nothing that won’t wipe up.”

Then she put her cool hand on his sweaty neck to draw him forward. He blinked like a toad in a hailstorm when she pressed her dry lips against his forehead and held them there for half a minute.

“Mm…hmmm… You’re fevered.”

Tim sniffed hard to no avail and employed his coat sleeve to stem the flow of what felt like hot water dripping from deep inside his head. The heavy canvas raked his nose but absorbed nothing. Mrs. Burton had turned to the stove to make chamomile tea, but even without seeing she knew to grab the box of tissues and place them on the table beside Tim.

A few minutes later as the kettle whistled, the indeterminate voice of Tim’s father rang out. His footfalls pounded the steps and back porch, preceding a woodpecker’s rap on the glass pane of the back door.

“Come in,” Mrs. Burton called.

“What’re you doing in here, boy? I been calling for you.”

“He’s got a fever.”

“That so?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Burton’s word was final, and Tim’s father finished cutting and stacking wood on his own.

“He don’t mean to be hard,” Tim said as he sipped his tea.

“He could take unemployment like other men do.”

“Naw, he couldn’t, ma’am. Pride won’t let him.”

“Mm…hmmm,” Mrs. Burton said into her own teacup. Then, “How are your studies going, Tim?”

“Good, ma’am. I got a B+ in Algebra and an A- in English.”

“How’s your Science and History?”

“I’m working a solid B in Science, but History is kind of boring.”

“And what grade does boring translate to, Tim?”

“A C-, ma’am.”

“Oh, Tim,” she said, placing her hand over his, “History is too important to forget.”

“It’s all just memorizing dates and the bad things people do to each other.”

She cooed like a dove behind her slim hand, and Tim understood her to be laughing at his assessment of History class.

“Yes, well, I suppose it’s the way History is presented that makes it interesting or not. Why don’t you slip off your coat and boots, bring your tea, and we’ll sit in the living room?”

Tim had never been in the inner sanctum of Mrs. Burton’s home. She never forbade him from entering; none of the jobs she had for him ever took him beyond the kitchen. She settled him on a love seat with a mound of embroidered pillows and a red and blue afghan. Tim’s size twelves stuck out, and he overlapped his feet to hide the hole in his sock exposing his big toe. A dull thud permeated the frosted windows; Tim’s father was splitting chunks of freshly sawn logs.

“Everyone remembers history differently, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Burton paused her rocking chair to trace her finger through a fine silt of dust on an end table. She frowned and rolled the gray film into a ball to be flicked away with her thumb.

“Did you know I used to keep this house spotless? Spotless without a single thing out of place.”

Tim couldn’t, and wouldn’t, contradict her for he had nothing to compare to except the twine tied bundles of magazines bordering the room and baskets of yarn on every available surface not taken up by a knickknack.

“Mr. Burton insisted on it. Said his mother kept a spotless house, and so would any woman fit to marry. Guess that means I wasn’t fit for marriage to Mr. Burton.”

“But you said you did keep it clean, ma’am… or do.”

“I tried at first, but my efforts always fell short. Mr. Burton could only remember how perfect his own mother was, and it’s that history that came between us.”

Tim shifted on the loveseat. He slurped tea and waited to receive whatever Mrs. Burton would say.

“Then there’s the history of excuses I made when I couldn’t be seen in public because the bruises Mr. Burton left showed up on my arms or face. Only so many times a woman can wear long sleeves in the summer or walk into an open cupboard door.”

“Ma’am?”

Longing glances toward the barn couldn’t will Tim’s father to fetch him home. All he could do was watch the windows darken with twilight. The sky thickened with clouds promising snow that night.

“I always said the dusting wasn’t going anywhere, so what’s the rush? It’d be there when I returned from grocery shopping or running errands. But Mr. Burton wanted it done now o’clock.” She chuckled at the joke. “And the pendulum of his fist always swung on time. Sometimes in the middle of the night for no reason.”

Tim coughed until his chest rattled. He had no place to expel the viscous secretion, so he pretended to sip tea and deposited in the cup.

“So I dusted, and I cleaned, and my fingers and knees went raw from my attempts to please Mr. Burton, and people called me eccentric. Said I was too particular about my house and that it was too clean for a body to feel truly welcome. That’s the history people in this town remember.”

“Ma’am, it’s getting on dark, and my father will just about be done, I’m sure.”

“There’s a light in the barn, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She licked her lips and said, “Do you think I’m eccentric, Tim?”

“Ma’am?”

“I thought I might as well live up to their opinions of me.”

“Whose, ma’am?”

“Oh, you know. Those gossipy, ole biddies at church. I started by saving newspapers because they’re so harmless and absorbent. That’s how I justified it to Mr. Burton, by making newspaper seem useful in more ways than one. He didn’t care as long as the house was dusted. Then I save wooden thread spools, bread wrappers, and twist ties because they were easy.”

Tim thought of the coffee cans of said items stacked on the kitchen counters.

“Did you know there’s a bedroom closet upstairs chock full of peanut butter, pickle, and mayonnaise jars?”

“No, ma’am. I did not.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I suppose them rocks lining the flower beds were part of it, too?”

A nightingale laugh trilled from her lips, and the passion of memory glowed in her eyes.

“Exactly, Tim. I’d forgotten the rocks. And see how easy it is to mix up the real stuff with the useless? You’re such a smart boy to remember.”

Her praise solidified them in unwanted knowledge. Tim sat forward and placed his teacup on the coffee table.

“You’ll remember my history when I’m gone, won’t you, Tim?”

“Where’re you going, ma’am?”

“I don’t care if you correct them in their erroneous beliefs; I just need one person to know the truth.”

“What truth is that, ma’am?”

“I hated dusting. Can you do that, Tim? Can you remember my history the way it really happened?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A soft silence fell between them, ruptured by Tim’s father poking his head in the back door and calling out.

“Hey, boy—I’m warming the truck, so get your stuff and c’mon.”

“Yes, sir,” Tim called back.

He and Mrs. Burton stood at the same time. She carried both cups into the kitchen and set them in the sink. With her back to Tim she said, “The only paper I never saved was the one with Mr. Burton’s obituary in it.”

Tim jammed his arm into a coat sleeve and asked why not.

“I didn’t have to. Everyone remembered for me, told me about it all the time. They never found his body, you know. They dragged the lake come spring where they thought he’d gone in, but they never found it. That lake is so big and too deep. Three in one, really.”

“What was he doing on the lake, ma’am?”

“Trying to save some little kid who’d fallen in.”

“I thought he was ice fishing. Did the kid die, too, ma’am?”

“Huh? Oh, no… I guess I was wrong. I saw a red and blue knit cap on the ice as we were driving by and figured it belonged to some kid out there skating who should of known better with the thaw making places thin. I drove back to town as fast as I could and went straight to the fire department, but it was too late. I couldn’t remember where he’d gone in. Mr. Burton was lost.”

A headache and stuffy ears made it hard for Tim to think. Finally, he asked, “Where were you coming from that day, ma’am?”

“I don’t understand? What do you mean, Tim?”

“When you and Mr. Burton were driving by the lake, where were you coming from?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t suppose, but you remember everything else so well, ma’am.”

“Very good, Tim. We must keep our histories truthful.” She took a deep breath. “From the hardware in Austinville.”

“Why over there, ma’am, when we got a perfectly good hardware in town?”

“Because the road back took us past the lake, Tim.”

“What did you buy in Austinville, ma’am?”

“Matches, Tim. I had a lot of stuff in the burning barrel that needed burning that night.”

Three honks from the driveway told Tim to hurry up. He zipped his coat and shoved his feet into his boots without tying them.

“You take tomorrow off, okay Tim?”

“Yes, ma’am. My mom’ll make sure I don’t escape the house for school or work once she finds out I’m sick. I’ll be laid up with Vicks all over my chest and a hot water bottle tucked in my side. She still gives me baby aspirin, but at least I get ginger ale and popsicles.”

Mrs. Burton smiled at Tim’s mother’s doctoring skills.

“Well, it sounds reasonable to me.”

“I’ll see you when I see you, ma’am.”

“Goodbye, Tim.”

Mrs. Burton watched Tim and his father out of sight. In the morning she’d take a bag of horehound over and see how Tim was faring.

The Ashtray

A low rumble buzzed in the little dog’s chest. His wet obsidian eyes watched the young man moving about the room gathering items and folding clothes to be placed in the suitcase lying open on the bed. Gary Hoover didn’t pay the terrier mix no mind; he knew the dog took its cue from its mistress. His mother got the dog when Gary was three; she called the mongrel her second son.

Like any other day, today found Lisbeth Hoover installed in her favorite armchair with the dog wedged between the ham of her thigh and the armrest. One massive hand with fingers splayed across the dog’s back lent comfort to the agitated beast. The other held her trademark Marlboro, and the candy dish on the table beside her overflowed with ash.

“Peppy don’t like whatch yer doin’,” Lisbeth said.

“I can’t do it nowhere else,” Gary replied.

He considered pulling the curtain across the wire strung from one side of the living room to the other. His father put up the makeshift divider when they moved in to the miniature apartment. He had secured the heavy gauge wire he brought home from work with eyebolts in the burgundy walls.

“Looks like a whorehouse in here,” Lisbeth had complained.

“Yeah…well…”

His father never finished his sentence. He never finished looking for a job that would pay for an apartment where Gary could have a real bedroom. He also never finished his marriage or his promise to teach Gary how to pitch a baseball. The only thing he finished doing was leaving bruises on Lisbeth’s face and arms. Gary was five when they had moved in, six when his father left.

That was the day Lisbeth sat down. She sat and smoked, watching the sun come up and continuing long after Gary had gone to bed. His ample mother smoked and became a mountain of flesh spilling over the chair, conforming it to her shape. Every few years, a new chair had to be found in a secondhand store and dragged home because they didn’t own a car and had no friend’s willing to haul it for them. Lisbeth and Gary ended up on some kind of assistance because his mother couldn’t work. He really never did know why.

What he did know was that their life was as secondhand as the chairs his mother ruined. Food stamps, government cheese, turkeys and hams from the Catholic Church every Thanksgiving and Christmas, clothing and shoes from the Salvation Army. Fist fights behind the school for wearing items recognized by their former owners. The fabric of their existence reeked with the smoke of failure not unlike the flowered upholstery covering his mother’s latest acquisition.

the-ashtrayThe only nice thing they owned was the carnival glass candy dish his father’s mother had given Lisbeth on her wedding day. As a toddler, Gary earned a hard smack to this pudgy hand the first time he ever reached for the dish. His blue eyes, level with the table where the dish sat, never released the brimming tears. He could stare for hours at the amber glass shimmering with rainbow iridescence, and often did, falling asleep in front of the table on which it stood as if reluctant to abandon a sacred shrine.

His grandmother would cover him with a blanket. His mother started using the candy dish as an ashtray. His family was told to find someplace else to live, and Gary never saw his grandmother again. At least they were allowed to take the ashtray with them as they began the house-hopping journey that led them to this place.

The beautiful dish couldn’t contain the quantity of ash Lisbeth deposited within its fluted borders. Even she knew it wasn’t suitable for the purpose to which it had been condemned. Gary always emptied the dish two or three times a day without being asked or thanked. He would barely have it back in place before another inch of spent tobacco would drop off. Sometimes it would land on the table or chair, and once on Lisbeth’s threadbare dress, and burn an abstract pattern into whatever it touched.

Less mesmerizing than the carnival glass was the never-ending smoke curling upward from the tip of Lisbeth’s cigarette. It trailed through the bird’s nest of grizzled hair framing his mother’s face, staining the gray yellow, before it moved on to touch the doilies, lampshades, and ceiling with its filthy fingers. His mother, ensconced in the arm chair in the dark corner of the red room with the shades pulled and smoke wreathed about her head, presented a glimpse into hell.

“What’s this fancy school got you think you need so bad?” Lisbeth asked. She ran her big paw over Peppy’s head, stretching his eyes until the whites showed and yanking his ears.

“I earned me a place with my good grades. You’d of known if you’d come to graduation.”

“In what—this piece of shit dress? All I ever had I gave up for you. I was the one that stayed, remember?”

What Gary remembered was every bitter word his mother used to fight his father for not being the man she loved. He waited for the familiar version of events to spill from Lisbeth’s slack mouth.

“I didn’t ask for his sorry hand in marriage. That was my daddy’s doing when he learnt you was on the way. I coulda been a soldier’s wife, going to fancy military balls and wearing long dresses and pearls. Your daddy, your real daddy, was a marine.”

Gary’s hands trembled as he buckled the straps in the suitcase then closed the lid and locked it.

“I’m going to study mathematics at the university, and I got a job at a warehouse loading trucks to help pay,” Gary said.

“Well you be sure to send notice of your highfalutin self to your daddy living over in Coyle with his new wife and kids.”

The young man stood with his suitcase gripped in one hand, a bus ticket in the other. He wasn’t sure how much of what his mother said was true or which man she spoke of. His eyes were trained like a pointer’s on the only door leading out of their firetrap apartment. He tucked his ticket under his arm, walked to the door, opened it, and said, “I’m leaving for school now, Momma.”

“I see that, Son.”

Another caterpillar of ash crept from Lisbeth’s cigarette.  She watched it fall on the growing pyramid in the beautiful ashtray.

This Mothering Stuff is Hard

eagle-medalSince our son’s birth, I have enjoyed some amazing milestones with him. There were the obvious ones of first tooth, first step, and first word. The day I put him on a school bus for kindergarten was a thrill. I wasn’t afraid for him at all because my husband and I raised a tough little man. He was the type of kid who would scrape his knees to a bloody mess and worry more about returning to play outside than he was about the sting of hydrogen peroxide on the open wound.

Then there was a day ten years ago when Joshua decided he wanted to join Cub Scouts. He had tried T-ball and tennis, but Tiger Cubs appealed to him more. The first night he joined, throwing his stick of wood into the fire and announcing his name to the Pack, he declared he wanted to be an Eagle Scout. He stayed with Cub Scouts, achieving many more incredible milestones, and finished by earning his Arrow of Light during his second year of Webelos. Next came Boy Scouts.

About his time, Joshua started middle school. Homework, girls, and friendships became a little more difficult. Our sweet little boy turned teen, and a strange new creature emerged. My husband and I thought we were going to lose our minds at times as we dealt with this always hungry, often cranky, and sometimes smelly person. Through it all, Joshua kept plugging away at Boy Scouts, and he did quite well.

Mounds of pictures of Joshua at various Scouting functions piled up, and I always thought I’d have time to scrapbook them. And then one day, the time was gone. Joshua completed all the requirements toward the rank of Eagle and passed his Board of Review. We were ecstatic, the grandparents were over the moon, and even close friends and acquaintances smiled with pride when they heard. I tried to pack ten years’ worth of scrapbooking into a month and a half all the while planning Joshua’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor.

I put my entire life, including my writing, completely on hold because that’s what a good Eagle Scout Mother does. There were times when I wanted to quit making additional sacrifices on top of those I’d already made, but instead, I told myself to quit being a martyr and press on. Well, Joshua’s Court of Honor took place this past Saturday. I’m still receiving compliments for hosting an amazing party, and my dear husband defers any praise to me for the whole event. With a deep sigh of satisfaction, I turned Joshua over to another plateau of maturity. Only the feelings I expected didn’t occur.

Every time I looked at his shirt and merit badge sash bedecked like a four-star general, I tingled all over. That must be the pride, I thought. Only there was a lingering sense of melancholy. I chalked it up to post-party let down and laughed it off with the thought of now what? Occasionally, my eyes would tear up for no explainable reason.

Now don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want to abandon Joshua completely, but I did believe I’d relinquish him somewhat to his future. I’m not so sure that’s how motherhood works. My own mom confirmed this for me when she admitted that she still thinks of me and my brother as her babies, and the addition of spouses and grandchildren only provided more people for her to pray and worry over. In short, motherhood never achieves the status of finished.

What am I going to do when he graduates high school and leaves for college? How am I going to survive his engagement and marriage? What if he and his wife live out of state when my first grandbaby is born? And when he becomes the Prime Minister of Israel, next to the red phone on which he takes important calls relating to the administration of the country, he’d better have a gold phone labeled Mom.

I remember the night I gained the courage to turn off the baby monitor because it was extremely sensitive, and every time Joshua rolled over in his crib, the sound of crinkling sheets woke me up. I thought I’d never lose what my sisters-in-law dubbed my Mommy Ears. Little did I know that the tradeoff would be an increase in the footprint our son left on my Mommy Heart.

This Stinks!

One of the best parts of being a parent is getting to torture your teenager. It is why my husband and I were put on earth according to our teen, Joshua. We make his life miserable by expecting him to unload and load the dishwasher, sweep the floors, feed the pets, empty the trash, take out the recycles, keep his room clean, keep himself clean, do his homework, and get good grades. I’m sure you can see what horrible ogres we are.

These requests are usually met with heart-wrenching sighs and occasional eye rolls, sagging shoulders, and shuffling walk as he wanders off to complete this drudgery. This frees up me and the hubby to invent news ways to torture him right out of existence. And sometimes, the opportunities just present themselves in the form of stinks bugs.

this-stinks

Public Enemy Number One

I don’t remember stink bugs when I was a child. I’m sure I would have because the name alone invites ridicule; but truly, these foul little creatures seem to have materialized from nowhere. At the end of summer, just as the temperature is changing to give us frosty mornings, warm and breezy days, and chilled nights, the stink bugs show up. They cover the screens of every window and door, walk around looking menacing, and make the most horrible buzzing noise. I’m not an entomologist, so I assume the stink bugs are looking for a warm place to crash in the winter. Every now and then, one makes its way inside. If I leave the windows down on my car, they climb in. Joshua is terrified of them.

Picture this: I’m driving along one day with Joshua in the passenger side when I spied a stink bug on his side of the vehicle. It took my wicked mind only a split second to devise a plan.

“Hey, Josh? Don’t freak out, but there’s a stink bug on your side.”

“What? Where?”

“It’s moving.”

The brilliant little stink bug must have overheard our conversation because it flew off right on cue. Joshua freaked out, looking all around him for the flying demon. I actually lost sight of it for a moment because I needed to keep my eyes on the road. Joshua, who was seat belted, twisted in his seat peering into the space between his chair and door or between his chair and the center console. I saw the stink bug had landed on the far side of the visor in front of him. It was barely visible from where I sat. The tips of its legs gently curled around the edge of the visor.

“Mom—where is it?”

“Right here.”

I flicked the visor down toward Joshua which sent the buzzing offender flying toward his face. He screamed like a little girl. If I hadn’t been driving, I’d have been rolling on the floor. Then in a microsecond, he managed to unbuckle himself and dive head first between the front seats, landing in a gangly heap in the back.

For the sake of this post, I actually measured the space between the seats: it’s eight inches wide. At the time, Joshua was probably 5’ 10” – 5’ 11”. How he managed to jump from a seated position, fly between the seats without touching either side or the gear shift, and land in the back without breaking something is beyond me. It sure does make for one hilarious post. We never found the stink bug.

The Party’s Over

RegretDrake wished he had taken his Mom’s suggestion to wear a warmer coat. He didn’t know how long they’d be standing here while the cop gave them sobriety tests which they all ended up failing spectacularly. Devon and Tony couldn’t quit shivering beside him, and he wondered if it was from cold or fear.

He didn’t know how the cop couldn’t be cold in short sleeves. This guy wasn’t even shivering, no goosebumps on his brawny arms. Just cool and collected, so polite as he questioned the three of them about where they were coming from, what they had been doing. He sounded like Drake’s dad discussing his job at the dinner table in an even voice without much inflection, like the buddy he ran into earlier at the convenience store when he purchased that twelve pack of beer. Not at all condescending.

With hands jammed into his pockets, shoulders rounded, Drake answered yes, sir, and no, sir, with the thin veneer of false compliance barely concealing the resentment in his voice, the scowl on his face. He should be back at the party, but that idiot Tony had volunteered them to make a beer run. The party where the girl with the long mane of thick, black hair had stood beside him all night, bumping his arm every time she sipped her drink. He had wanted to rake his fingers through her hair, pull it back into a ponytail, and give it a gentle tug. The memory made him smile, and he snorted a laugh through his nose. Tony elbowed him in the side and hissed, “Quit it, man. You’re gonna piss this guy off.”

But his resentment wasn’t directed toward the cop who pulled them over for erratic driving. He just didn’t like the guilt lodged between his shoulders like an ax blade. Guilt ruined fun, and that’s all they’d been doing. Having fun. You want something to make you feel like you’ve done a good job, something to talk about at roll call tomorrow? Go check out what’s happening three blocks down, two blocks over. That’s the place to make the real bust. The place they just came from. The house where the dark-haired girl who nodded and smiled when Drake refused the joint was probably already dancing with someone else. The house with white lines on the glass coffee table.

Still, he can’t blame the cop for doing his job. Of course, he could have chosen to be a furniture mover based on the size of his biceps. One of those guys who lifts refrigerators and wardrobes by himself, strapped to his back, and not a single grunt as he walked up or down stairs. Weren’t cops supposed to be soft in the middle from driving around all day, eating doughnuts? Drake should be able to outrun this guy in his black, laced up boots that looked slightly military and weren’t meant for running like the cross trainers Drake wore. He could sprint away from this cop like a cheetah running from a wombat. Out distance him in nothing flat.

But then the cheetah would grow tired after the initial burst of speed. He would hear the steady beat of the wombat’s boots behind him closing the distance, each methodical step brining the wombat closer to the spent cheetah. Like an endurance runner. Drake shuddered, and the bright idea to run was squashed like a lightning bug in the hands of a devious five year-old. Yeah, this cop probably ran marathons.

Drake shook his head because he knew they’d messed up and were in serious, serious trouble. Something cold and wet hit his face; something more than mist but less than rain. The damp seeped into his clothes, and regret drew his chin down to his chest. Drake’s eyes stung and he wasn’t having fun anymore. He wanted to go home. He wanted the lead weight on his diaphragm that made it hard to breathe to disappear. His mouth tasted sour.

The soft glow of headlights fuzzed by the condensation reminded him of the cotton balls his mother used to remove her makeup. His mother. Drake wondered if the officer would let him call his mother so she could bring him a warmer coat.

~~~~~

Thank you to HBSmithPhotography for the picture.

Pause and Effect

Jetty

Every now and then, she gives herself the small pleasure of the freedom to breath. This decision toward independence is the zipper separating her responsibilities from her desires; the two halves fall away.

Only then is she able to see clearly the obstacles in her life. They don’t always approach head on, and she must look to the right and the left to see what blocks her journey.

When she clears her horizons of the minutiae of daily routine, her existence reorganizes into a system of priorities. The hazards of life recede, her vision focuses.

The path of her life is steady, extending toward a ribbon of hope. She can grasp it for herself now as there is plenty for her future. In doing so, she combats the crumbling edges of false perceptions and keeps the rolling tide of disappointment at bay.

Inspection of herself and her life grounds her. Dreams take flight and possibilities are realized. Reordered, she continues in the role of woman, wife, mother.

~~~~~

Thank you to HBSmithPhotography for the amazing photograph.

Spread the Love

One of my earliest memories of butter includes sitting on the carpet in the kindergarten classroom, all of us in a large circle, passing a massive canning jar from person to person as we shook the sealed jar full of whipping cream as hard as our little arms could manage. We’d been told that this would produce butter. I remember my skepticism, but since I loved butter, I gladly took part and watched the magic unfold.

It’s funny how many of my food memories are attached to my Grandma Smith, but I believe her kitchen is where I developed my love of butter.Butter versus Margarine There was something different about the sunshine yellow block that sat in her cut glass butter dish. It was lighter, sweeter than the golden-colored sticks of ‘butter’ we used at home. As a young child, any yellow, creamy substance that one spread on toast or crackers was referred to as butter. My mother provided the explanation of the difference, and I learned the definition of margarine. It wouldn’t be until decades later that I learned what an evil substance margarine is, but I digress.

Grandma Smith would bring me packets of real butter from restaurants where she had dined. Nothing against my mother, but she used margarine for years until I finally convinced her to switch. Glory be–my taste buds rejoiced and food became so much tastier.

Where is all this leading you ask? To my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, of course. I’ve already established that as an author, I love to feed my fictional characters. Twice I reference butter specifically, once in conjunction with biscuits and again with cornbread, but what I want my readers to understand without mentioning it every time is that butter is my fictional characters’ ingredient of choice when it comes to cooking and baking.

As I wrote the scenes involving food and envisioned the preparation, butter was always in the picture, sitting in a crock or dish, just within reach of the experienced hands that would lovingly incorporate it into the recipe. I’ll spare you the debate on the health benefits of butter versus margarine and simply say don’t fear butter and all things in moderation.

To sum up this post, I made butter with my son because I wanted him to experience how easy and fun it is. The added step of washing the butter is new for me based on research for this post. The instructions for this activity follow. I highly recommend doing this with your kids because the memories you’ll make are priceless.

Enjoy!

Homemade Butter

2 c whipping cream (Raw cream from grass-fed cows is recommended, but store bought organic will work as well. This quantity will yield approximately ½ c of butter.)

sea salt

I used a stand mixer with a wire attachment for this process and chilled the bowl and wire attachment prior to using.

Pour the cream into your mixing bowl, filling the bowl halfway so it does not overflow as air is whipped into the cream. Mix on a medium-low speed to prevent splashing. As the cream thickens, you can turn it up to medium.

This process should take about 15 minutes but can vary depending on how much cream you are using and what type if mixer you have. Whipped cream will develop first. When the whipped cream begins to deflate, watch closely as your mixture can rapidly change to butter. To prevent splashing, cover the bowl with a lightly dampened tea towel.

When the butter begins to clump and stick to the whisk, it is done mixing. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer to separate the solids, butter, from the liquids, buttermilk. If you want it to last for more than a few days, you need to wash the butter. This will remove as much buttermilk as possible to keep the butter from going rancid. Put the butter back in your mixing bowl and cover with clean, cold water.

Use a large spoon to press the butter into the sides of the bowl. The water will become cloudy as the buttermilk is removed from the butter. Pour off the cloudy water and add more fresh. You can repeat this process until the water stays clear. Stir in a large pinch of amount of sea salt for every ½ c of butter.

Store in refrigerator or at room temperature if you will use it within a week or two.

Italian Cooking

Dana Dances

Dana Dances

The picture of the little girl dancing on the couch caught my eye as I was playing on Pinterest one day.  A short story flooded my head, and I simply had to open a Word document to get it all down.  What followed has been revised and researched several times until I was completely happy with the story.  Of course, I’m a writer, so even after I post this I’ll probably find something I would have changed.  We all know if I did that, nothing would ever be posted.  So, grab a glass of chianti and a plate of your favorite pasta, tuck your napkin into your collar (don’t splash the screen), and enjoy some “Italian Cooking.”

Italian Cooking

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