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.

Photograph

Zara wrenches the key from the lock as she pushes the door open and calls, “Jan, where are you?”

A feeble voice from the bedroom replies, “In here still.”

“How pathetic,” Zara mumbles.  She slams the door shut with her foot and tosses Jan’s spare keys on the countertop.  Six plastic shopping bags, two to an arm and one in each hand, cut into the sleeves of her jacket and across her palms.  She hoists the bags upward with a groan and deposits them beside the splayed keys.  A quick survey of the apartment reveals that Jan hasn’t made much progress in the hour Zara has been gone.

“Oh, hey…you brought food,” Jan says.  “Thanks.”  Her slippered feet scuff the hardwood floor as she shuffles into the living room.  She wears a nappy, pink robe over the faded Superman t-shirt and sleep pants Zara found her in that morning.  A black and white photograph in a silver frame rests against her chest, safely embraced within her arms.

“I thought we agreed you’d start clearing out Jay’s stuff while I was gone,” Zara says.  She shoves perishables on the refrigerator shelves, cans and boxes in the cupboards.  Then she turns her attention to the newspapers and magazines strewn across the coffee table, couch, chairs, and floor.

“You don’t have to do that,” Jan says when Zara scoops up a stack of Jay’s photography magazines.

“Yes, I do.”

“No—you really don’t have to do that.”

Panic and annoyance strain Jan’s voice.  She abandons the photo on an end table to follow Zara to the garbage shoot in the hallway.  A brief wrestling match ends with the magazines scattered across the hallway floor.  Zara plants balled fists on her hips and taps one Christian Louboutin; the red sole is soundless on the sculpted carpet.  Jan cannot look at her best friend when she stands with the magazines clutched to her heart.

“I’m not ready to let this stuff go yet,” she offers as an apology and walks back to her apartment.

Halfhearted attempts at straightening no longer appease Zara, and she knows it’s time to confront Jan.  She lures her friend’s attention by sitting on the couch with legs crossed, arms folded.

“I thought you said we should get busy cleaning,” Jan says.

“It’s past the time for cleaning, Jan.  We need to talk.”

“It’s too soon.”

“No, it’s been three weeks since Jay left you for his assistant, Chrissy, and in those three weeks you’ve allowed your life to—I don’t know—something between fall apart and explode.”

“Are you judging me?  How can you expect me to deal with this right now?  I didn’t think you’d be so cruel.”

“Oh, spare me.  Just because everything in your world is going to hell in a handbasket doesn’t mean it’s affected everyone else.  I haven’t changed, and for that you should be glad.”

Shock etches Jan’s face, drawing her brows downward, and she says, “Damn, I admit I was just trying to buy some time, but you really are being mean and hurtful right now.”

“You need me to play it straight with you,” Zara says, punctuating the air with a condemning finger.

Jan knows this to be true.  She crumples into an armchair, still holding the glossy magazines.  Emotions sting her eyes.  She sniffs hard to keep from sobbing and pulls a wadded tissue from her robe pocket to dab at the wet trails on her cheeks.

“I’m just so embarrassed.  In front of all my friends and family.  My co-workers even.  For something like this to happen.  I mean…no one—no one—saw it coming.  Least of all me.”

Zara remains seated, aware that this little outburst confession is Jan’s way of softening up the other person thereby distracting them from what needs to be dealt with.  It would be so easy to slip into the crowded space of the overstuffed armchair and wrap her best friend in a hug.  But then Jan would never get out of Jay’s old pajamas and on with her life.

Instead, Zara claps her hands with a slow, rhythmic beat.  Twenty claps before Jan bursts out, “Okay—fine!  What the hell do you expect me to do?  You’re so smart?  You have all the answers?  Well, I’m listening.”

“Getting pissed off about this is a start.  At least I know you’re still alive, that there’s a hot-blooded woman in there.  You used to be so strong—”

“I am strong, Zara.  I’m just tired.”

“Yes, well, stewing in your own misery isn’t the answer.”

“Then what is?”

“Tell me something, Jan.”

“What?”

“How is it that you can wear his pajamas and sulk around this apartment all day, holding photographs that he took in Hawaii and act as if Jay’s not the reason you’re so miserable?  I mean, he up and left you in a single, freakin’ day!  Who does that?”

“Obviously Jay does.”

Zara startles when Jan bursts out in maniacal laughter.  She uncrosses her arms and leans forward, ready to catch her friend if she starts running and shrieking hysterically, which is exactly what Zara expects from her friend right now.

“Oh, oh my god…how did I fall to such depths?” Jan asks through laughter and tears.  “And don’t even think of saying this isn’t my fault.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Yeah, well, maybe Jay leaving me isn’t, but allowing myself to get like this is.”  Jan indicates her unwashed, disheveled appearance with both hands.  The magazines fall from her lap as she stands, spilling into the piles at her feet.  “You know what’s been on my mind today?”

“What, honey?”

“Will that bitch show up at Jay’s funeral or will she be granted calling hours of her own?  You know, like when feuding families host separate baby showers or something?”

“Oh, Jan…”

“Now that his body washed up on shore, it’ll be sent back to me.  The wife.”

“Do you need me to go with you to identify it?”

“No, his brother flew down to Cozumel to do that.  Then there was a bunch of paperwork, and the authorities acting all superior because Jay’s brother is American, and finally they cleared the body for shipping.  So much for their Caribbean vacation.”  A derisive snort is on the cusp of more crazed laughter, but Jan reigns in her emotions.  “The body.  Because that’s all Jay is anymore.”

“I guess what I don’t understand is why you aren’t furious with him for what he did.”

“You want me to hate him, I know you do, but I can’t, Zara.  There wasn’t enough time for me to become angry with Jay as the cheating husband.  He left me on Friday and died on Monday when his boat capsized in a storm.  For me, he was still the man I loved, the man I married.  Does that make sense?”

“I suppose so.  No, not really.”

“If he hadn’t drowned in that storm, if he and Chrissy were still touring the world and taking gorgeous, award-winning photographs for prestigious magazines a year from now, then yeah…I’d be looking at this from a whole different perspective.”

Zara sighs and tosses her head from side to side.  She still cannot comprehend Jan’s passivity, but she hopes to give the appearance of understanding.

“All right, then.  The order of the day is to find a new perspective for you,” Zara says.  “One for you, about you.  Okay?”

“What does that mean?  I’m still not quite ready for any major changes.”

“The only thing you need to do right now is get out of those smelly pajamas and into a hot shower.”

“That’s it.”

“One thing at a time, Jan.”

“Then what?”

“Then we’ll see about getting some orange juice—”

“The orange juice turned.”

“How the hell does orange juice go bad?”

“I don’t know, but the last time I tasted it, it was fizzy.”

“That’s disgusting.  Okay, shower first then tea and toast afterward.  One little thing at a time.”

“That’s your big answer for fixing my life?  A shower, tea, and toast?”

“I don’t have the answers for your life, Jan.  You do.  I’m just here to help you unearth them.”

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.

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.

Longing For Winter

Longing For Winter“I’ll wait for you right here.”

She listened as he walked through the house, the closing door indicating his departure, a long silence during which she envisioned him performing the tasks in preparation for mowing the grass, and finally the sound of the tractor rumbling awake.

Long shadows grasped at the remains of the day and sleep tempted her eyes with long, slow blinks. Neither was a match for her desire to read or reclaim her love’s presence. She hadn’t lost his company in its entirety, but as long as the days continued to lengthen with the promise of daylight, her man would be hard pressed to sit still beside her reading a book.

He came late to reading, not discovering his favorite genre until well into adulthood. Other hobbies, perfectly acceptable activities, had always led him in other directions. This, combined with his mind’s pressing need spurred on by guilt, was why he rushed to complete as many chores as possible from dawn to dusk on the weekends.

And if pressed to admit, he would confess that reading during the long hours of summer was burning precious daylight that could be spent performing all those tasks that required his attention. The list was never-ending. This was why she longed for winter.

For every day past the summer solstice, every minute of daylight lost, brought her a tiny bit closer to reclaiming her love’s presence. Summer would be bedded beneath their children’s return to school and the soft crinkle of autumn’s falling leaves. Schedule and routine would return with chill air and morning frost. The blanket of nightfall would once again shroud the days and return the husband to his wife, their time once again entwined.

Winter evenings feel shorter to the senses. Our eyes see the dark and tell our minds to go to bed unless one’s eyes are trained upon a book, and then the mind willingly travels all over the world and throughout time. The couple would be together in body, yet journeying in their separate worlds. She could hardly wait for the ritual to return.

She knew better than to press him now while there was still work to be done. She would only succeed in crushing his fragile, growing love of reading. It was also not important that he ever read as voraciously as she. What was important was their silent togetherness that began on Friday evenings and lasted until he returned to work on Monday: the time they spent reading.

Dusty and smelling of grass, he tiptoed to the shower. When he reappeared, he settled on the couch. His deep breath of satisfaction turned into a stretch and a yawn. She looked up from her book to assess his closed eyes and lolling head. He was asleep, but she was the one dreaming of early snow.

Equine Medicine

Equine MedicineEveryone knows what big babies men are about illness.   One little sniffle and they’re down for the count. Then it’s, “Sweetie, could you bring me some hot tea with honey,” and “Honey, how about some chicken soup?” Next thing you know, your big baby is asking for tissues, Tylenol, NyQuil, cough drops, the heating pad, extra blankets, Vicks, etc., etc.

I’ve fluffed pillows for my own big baby, laid cool clothes across his forehead, run for warm socks and Theraflu in the middle of the night when he woke up with chills. I’ve administered B-12, zinc drops, vitamin C, and Echinacea. And one time, I even held his hand and shot nasal spray up his nose because he has this thing about his nose. He can barely stand for the doctor to touch it. It’s quite hilarious.

Anyhow, during a routine checkup for my big baby, the doctor asked if he wanted a flu shot. Now my baby knows how bad flu can be for someone who has dealt with asthma all his life. You don’t want flu on top of that. So naturally, he accepted the shot.

I asked him how his doctor visit went when he came home. He told me that all was well and that he got a flu shot. I snorted because I am the exact opposite of my big baby when it comes to health.  I am not cautious, I put off going to the doctor as long as possible and usually only go kicking and screaming, I would die in my own bed before admitting that I was sick, I only do shots if they’re in glasses, and I think doctors see you coming with dollar signs dancing before their eyes.

So, I had to rag on him just a titch about the shot.

“Boy, did they see you coming. You go in for one reason and they score big bucks getting you to take a shot.”

“Well, this way I won’t get flu.”

“Do you know how many people get the flu anyhow? And they probably wouldn’t have if they hadn’t taken the stupid shot. You’ll be sorry.”

Now this may sound harsh, but we’ve teased each other quite wickedly for over twenty years of marriage. We totally get each other’s sense of humor. Besides, a few months later, big baby had his revenge. I developed the longest lasting case of flu I have ever had. And no, I hadn’t taken the shot.

Weeks after my doctor somewhat proudly announced that I had flu (I suspect he felt bitter yet superior over my stubbornness), I was still suffering under the effects of the illness. I couldn’t regain my energy which left me listless and not a little crabby.

One day, while complaining about how long it had been since I felt well, big baby reminded me that I hadn’t taken the flu shot. He even suggested that I probably should have and said something like who’s sorry now. Well, of all the gall! Can you believe he’d kick me when I was down? I summoned what little energy I could to retaliate.

“Yeah, well, you’re like an old draft horse, you know?”

“What do you mean?”

“They lead you where they want you to go, and you comply. Just strap on a bag of oats and ole Willy will take the shot. I, on the other hand, am a thoroughbred.”

“Yeah! High-strung, stubborn, and unpredictable!”

(Long, long pause for shared laughter. Still laughing. Still laughing. Finally, we’re winding down.)

“Okay, I’ll own that one.”

So while I still refuse to get the flu shot every year, at least I know big baby will care for his stubborn pony.

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.

Apple Seeds

Warmth from the sunbaked, terracotta tiles radiates through the bottom of his thin-soled, canvas shoes. The old man eases himself into a wrought iron chair beneath the jacaranda tree. He slips a pen knife from his pocket; he isn’t supposed to have it, not after Crazy Effie threatened one of the orderlies with her nail file during breakfast. Now they’re all supposed to cut their sausage links with a fork or spoon. This place, this rest home for the retired, treats them like imbeciles. He chuckles to himself as he watches his friend, Wade, drooling as he sits strapped into his wheelchair, napping in the sun. Maybe some of us are, he thinks.

It will be a cold day in Phoenix when he allows them to remove his pen knife from his possession. It’s nothing special. No insignia from a branch of the service or Boy Scouts graces the mother-of-pearl sides. It’s just a nice knife he bought at Woolworth’s when there was still one at the mall. He thinks there might have been a matching razor with it but can’t say for sure. He’s used it to open everything from letters to wounds. Years of grime need to be wiped from the space where the mother-of-pearl meets the metal. Hell, maybe it’s not even real mother-of-pearl.

Apple SeedsHe removes a green apple from his sweater pocket. The bulge caught the eye of every resident he passed, making them wonder what he had smuggled out of the dining room. Green apples are his favorite, and the pretty Hispanic girl who runs the dining room, Gina or Tina, he can’t remember which, always keeps a few in the cooler for him. She knows he likes them cold; he must make more of an effort to remember her name.

Carefully, with much consideration and turning of the apple over and over in his hands while worrying his dentures with his tongue, he decides where to make the first cut. The vibrant green skin breaks with a crisp snap and a soft spray of juice as he slices along the entire curve of the apple. He licks the tartness from his thumb. With a gentle twist, he separates the halves.

Two seeds pop out onto his lap. He draws his knees together to catch them before they fall to the greedy earth hiding between the tiles below, enticing with the promise of life. He knows what the seeds do not: nothing disruptive, certainly not an apple tree with a vast and reaching root system, would ever be allowed to flourish here. Both seeds are pinched between his forefinger and thumb, and then placed gently on the tip of his protruding tongue.

The old man enjoys the bitter-almond taste of the seeds. He always chews them. While most people, especially his lazy grandchildren, only eat the flesh of the apple, the old man consumes every part of it except the stem. He savors the acrid taste of the seeds as he cuts a slice from one half of the apple, eating it off the thumb on which it is balanced, his knife held securely in the same hand. Another seed is visible but trapped in its pocket. A little surgery with the pen knife frees it from its fibrous prison. This seed is bigger because it did not have to share space with a sibling.

His wife once told him the taste of the seed was from the cyanide within. It seemed like a fact she would know, so he never questioned her on it. From then on, he made a point of eating every seed especially if she was watching. I’m building up my tolerance and recognition of cyanide in the event that someone tries to poison me, he had teased her. She retorted that if she wanted him dead she would use the cast iron skillet on his head while he slept. Their wicked sense of humor shocked most people, even their friends.

He wonders how many apple seeds he’d have to eat to escape this place. It’s so beautiful, Dad, his daughter had said, with flowering trees and benches, shuffle board courts and walking paths, a chess club and whirlpool. Who had she been trying to convince? One little tumble down the front porch steps and the next thing he knew, he was an inmate at Buena Vista Acres. His daughter believed she was doing him a favor moving him to Arizona to be near her. As if a fifty minute drive was near her. He might as well still be living in Ohio for all that he sees her.

If he could see anyone right now, it would be his wife. He crushes two more seeds between his back teeth, the ones that are still real. More of the apple is consumed, more seeds discovered. More memories flirt with the edges of his mind. The white walls of the main building shimmer with early morning heat, the brightness nearly blinding him even though his eyes are averted. Bittersweet and tart, apple seeds and life. The core of his existence chewed away to nothing. He will not let it poison him. He kisses the stem and flicks it into the bushes.

As he returns to his room for a nap, he waves to Maria, the dining room attendant. Maria, just like his wife. He smiles to himself, proud at having found a way to remember her name.

I Went Hunting in the Bushlands – Guest Post by Don Ake

 

It is my very great pleasure to be able to share this guest post by fellow author and blogger, Don Ake.  Don, who should have been a standup comedian, but he informs me that his timing was off, frequently blogs at Ake’s Pains about everyday life.  It is his unique perspective on otherwise common occurrences that make his posts so memorable.  You simply cannot get through one without laughing until your eyes tear up all the while shaking your head and saying, “Oh, Don…”

So, without further ado, please enjoy Don Ake’s guest post:

I Went Hunting in the Bushlands

GetAttachment (2)Sometimes men have to do things they don’t really want to do all for the benefit of their marriage. Okay, many times we must do these unpleasant things. All right, often it seems that marriage can be just one uncomfortable thing after another.

Recently, I did something for the first time in my life in an attempt to please my wife. I actually went to a nursery and landscaping store to buy some shrubbery for my wife’s birthday.   Now you must understand I am not a horticulturalist. I am probably a horti-counterculturalist. I am not interested at all in bushes or shrubs. I don’t even notice them unless they grow so much they get in my way or they start to die. At which time I say astute things to my wife such as, “That shrub needs trimmed,” or “That bush looks likes its dying; maybe you should do something.”

So, why did I find myself anxiously looking over a large selection of greenery? Two years ago the township decided to clean the drainage ditch at the side of our yard for the first time in 19 years. They came out one day without warning and completed the task. They had the option of clearing all vegetation within five feet from the ditch to give their equipment proper clearance. Fortunately, to get to our ditch they could have gained access by clearing only about a foot of foliage. Unfortunately, they decided to take the whole five feet.

My wife had spent years getting that part of the yard just how she liked it. It was beautiful, even to a horti-counterculturalist like me. My wife was livid. She wanted to scream at our trustees. Of course, screaming wouldn’t bring back the plants and such, so I offered to pay for professional landscapers to redo the area next year.

But my wife didn’t take the deal. Probably a combination of principle (Why should we pay for someone else’s stupid behavior) and personal feelings (This is my yard and I will deal with it.) However, what was left of the bushes and shrubs after the township massacre started to regenerate. Just like when we suffer a setback in life and think the situation will be horrible forever, it does get better over time. In this case, the bank actually started to fill in wonderfully. It looked great except for two noticeable gaps.

Of course, men are great for closing gaps. We don’t like gaps. Gaps are bad. So, I made the decision to buy my wife some shrubbery for her birthday, and thus I stood in the middle of this garden store with nary a clue as to what I needed.

Fortunately, Brad soon appeared to assist me. Brad was a handsome, strapping young lad, and I’m sure the local women enjoyed having Brad tend to their bush and shrub needs. But Brad was not just “beefcake,” he was very knowledgeable about his products. Of course, my questions were limited to, “How big does that one get?” I selected a holly-type bush, and Brad suggested I get a male and a female. Apparently, these plants engage in some type of procreating activity. Who knew? I must have missed that lesson in biology class. I had no idea how they accomplished this, but they must do it after dark because I have never, ever, witnessed this hot action and am sure I would remember if I had.

So, I got the two holly “love” shrubs and bought a Korean type plant just in case my wife did not like the other selections. You might say I bought the third plant literally “to hedge my bet.” Har, har, double har!

When my wife saw the bushes, she was not pleased. We have our own domains in this marriage, and by my purchase, I had crossed into my wife’s landscaping territory. I knew that was a risk but thought that I had the benefit that it was a birthday gift going for me. I was wrong.

She looked scornfully at the holly plants and said I wasted my money because she could easily transplant some from her mother’s yard. I’m thinking, “If this was so easy to do, why wasn’t it done at any time in the last two years?” Of course, I don’t say this out loud because you don’t stay married for 30 plus years by actually saying every thought that comes to mind. Do you?

I had prepared for this outcome however. I had told Brad that my wife might not like my choices, and he assured me the shrubs could be returned if not damaged. So, I calmly presented the receipt to my wife and encouraged her to take them back and get what she wanted.

Secretly, I hoped that she would keep them. I had made the trip to the nursery, and I had actually put some effort into my choices. In addition, for GetAttachmentsome strange reason I was growing fond (har again!) of the Korean one. Now there would have been a time that I might not have wanted my wife to interact with that plant-stud Brad, but it wasn’t an issue now.

I believe after the shock wore off, my wife realized that I had tried to do a good thing, and she decided to plant the bushes. She ignored my advice not to plant the Korean one on the north side of the property. My concern was that a North Korean plot would turn into a communist plant, and I knew from old movies how damaging a communist plant could be to your operation.

So my wife is happy. I am happy. And the bushes appear to be enjoying their new home. I don’t know if the male and female have engaged in, well, nature type activity yet, but I’m sure they will when they get to know each other better and the time is right.

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