Dinner Talk

By the time Stan Ellis was finished mucking out the stalls, his seventeen-year-old body was exhausted. After a full day at school followed by band practice, it was a lot of work. He made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pulled out his homework, and began studying for a Physics test the next day.

Just as he finished reviewing the final chapter, Grandpa Ellis, a seventy-year old rancher, came in the kitchen. He still smelled of the outside, despite the shower he had obviously just taken.

“We’re having spaghetti tonight. Is that okay?” he asked as he pulled a pot and lid out of the cabinet.

“Sounds great,” Stan said. “Can we have a salad too?”

“If you make it.”

Stan opened the refrigerator and pulled out lettuce, radishes, and cheese. He got a tomato off the counter and bacon bits from the pantry. “So, Grandpa, are you going to give me the money or not?”

“Can you explain it to me again?”  Grandpa dumped a handful of spaghetti noodles into a pan of boiling water, and then wiped his hands on his jeans.

“I’ve got to turn the money in tomorrow,” said Stan, “or I can’t go to Disneyland.”

“Why’re you going there?”

“I told you three months ago,” Stan said as he finished assembling the salad and flopped into a hand-hewn kitchen chair. “I’ve asked over and over, but you haven’t given me a dime.”

Grandpa Ellis stirred the noodles with a wooden spoon. “Well. Let’s see. What extra jobs have you done around the ranch to earn the money?”

Stan sighed and ran his hands over his lanky brown hair. “I dug the weeds out of the pony pens and I trimmed the bushes along the drive.”

“That’s your job,” Grandpa said.

“According to that line of reasoning, then anything I do around here is my job,” Stan said. “Look, Grandpa, I really want to go. I’ve got to pay the full amount tomorrow or I’m out.”

Grandpa slipped a loaf of French bread out of its wrapper and laid it on the cutting board. He picked up a knife and sliced off four hefty pieces. “Explain again the reason behind the trip.”

“The band’s marching in the Main Street Parade and performing on the stage in Tomorrowland.” Stan leaned his chin on his hands and looked at his grandfather with sparkling eyes. “I want to go.”

After popping open a jar of sauce and pouring it into a pan, his grandfather sat down.  “How much are we talking about?”

“We’re flying, so that’s about $300. No hotel costs because we’re going to sleep in a gym at a local school. They’re feeding us breakfast and dinner. Admission to the park is about $100. The only other cost is for my lunch.”

“So about $500?”

Stan shrugged. “Yeah.”

“I don’t have that kind of money.” Grandpa walked over to the stove, poured a little oil into the water with the noodles and stirred the sauce.

“You sold a foal last week to Mr. Newton for over a thousand dollars.”

“I paid bills with that money.  We still owe Smith’s Hay and Feed over two thousand and Bill’s been asking for his money since he fixed the truck last week.”

“But, Grandpa, everyone else is going.  It’ll look funny if I don’t go,” Stan whined as he flopped his head down on his crossed arms.

“Set the table.  We’ll be eating in about five minutes.”

Stan stood, shuffled to the cabinet, and with seemingly superhuman effort got down two plates and glasses.  With an audible sigh, Stan set them on the placemats.

“Quit making a big show.”  Grandpa Ellis strained off the water from the noodles and then dropped in a slice of butter.  He tossed the noodles, poured in the sauce, and carried the pan over to the table.  “Sit down and let’s talk.”

Stan scooped a mound of spaghetti onto his plate and sprinkled on a heavy layer of Parmesan cheese.  “It’s during Spring Break so I won’t miss any school. You filled out the permission form and I turned it in.  Mr. Hayfield’s already paid for my plane ticket.  I can’t back out now.”

“I can’t recall filling out any form.”

“Well, you did.”

“What was I doing when you handed it to me?”

“Washing dishes.  You told me to put the form on the table, so I did.  When you finished, you filled it out and handed it to me.”

“You tricked me or I’d never have signed.  You can’t go, Stan.  I’m sorry.”

Without finishing his meal, Stan got up from the table and ran to his room.  The slamming of the door shook the whole house.

After wiping off his mouth Grandpa cleaned up the kitchen and then went into the front room.  He unlocked the small safe in his desk and pulled out a wad of money.  Slowly he counted the bills.  When finished, he locked the safe, closed the door and went upstairs.

“Can I come in?” he said after knocking on his grandson’s door.

“Sure.”

Grandpa extended his right hand. “Here’s the money.”

“Really?”  Stan’s face glowed with surprise.

“Yeah.  I was hoping that you’d changed your mind and didn’t want to go all the way to California.  Just in case, though, I put the money aside.  I’m going to sell Misty to Steve Carlson this weekend.  I’ll use that money to pay off bills.”

“Thanks, Grandpa! You’re the best!”  Stan, even though he was a little too old for hugs, jumped up off his bed and wrapped his arms around his grandfather.

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Holiday Blues

What do you tell the children

who find no quarter under their

pillows – the missing gift of the

tooth fairy – when the proper

homage has been paid?

 

What do you tell the sad little girl

whose stocking is empty

Christmas morn – after leaving the

last cookie and a small cup of

milk – the thanks for the Santa

who never came?

 

What do you tell the young boy

who has no basket to leave on

the table – decorated with colorful

paper eggs and filled with shredded

newspaper – and all that’s inside are

a few stale jelly beans?

 

What do you tell the teenager

whose fifteenth birthday came and

went – with no party, no gifts, no

happy times – to mark the majestic

coming of age?

 

What do you tell the lonely ones

who never get a heart-shaped card

or candies – a sign of friendship and

love – who had only wished that just

one person would care?

 

What do you tell the children

who have no masks, no quirky

costumes – in celebration of All

Hollow’s Eve – and so can’t knock

and threaten tricks?

 

What do you tell the little ones

who have no feast to cram into

their mouths – in honor of those who

survived – and so bite into stale

peanut butter sandwiches?

 

What do you tell all the unloved

children, young and old, who rise

day after day – wanting nothing more

than a gentle hug – and receive

harsh words instead?

 

For some children have everything

they could ever want while others

have nothing but emptiness – no

hope for more – the rejoicing washes

over, leaving not a drop of joy.

 

Let us cry for them.

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Happenstance

 

What if my family had never moved

From Ohio to California

And yours had never come from Nebraska.

What if we both hadn’t found jobs

Working for the same government agency.

What if I hadn’t transferred to your office

And my deck wasn’t right behind yours.

 

What if you hadn’t smiled at me,

A smile that lit up your blue eyes.

I might not have smiled back

And we might not have worked together,

Gone out on cases together

And talked, discovering things that we

Had in common as well as things that

We didn’t.

 

If all those things had not aligned just right,

If things didn’t happen the way that they did,

We would never have met.

We would never have gone on the first date

Or fallen in love

Or married

Or had three wonderful kids

Who grew up to be amazing adults.

 

Things that were meant to be,

Happened, in just the right order,

Better than what a mystic might

Have predicted looking in her crystal ball.

 

We are together by chance,

But we have stayed together

Because of love.

 

 

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Defying the Odds

Neither of my parents went to college. In fact, my mother never attended one day of high school. None of my aunts or uncles or even not one cousin enrolled in college. It just wasn’t something that was done in my family.

I was fourteen when I began dreaming of going to college. Because of a lack of family history, I really had no idea what college was about. For me, it was a means of escape. If I could go to college, I could legally move out of the house without first being married. And I had no intentions of marrying as a teen.

My academic career was less than glorious. Kindergarten was not mandatory back then, but my parents sent me to a private school because of fears that I was backwards. They were right. Unlike my classmates, I did not know my colors or shapes, knew nothing about the alphabet and was weak in numbers.

I worked hard, though, because I wanted to please my teachers. I graduated and went to first grade, still a bit behind, but with enough skill to get into the Catholic elementary school.

I struggled, to say the least. By fourth grade I was still not a good reader. I was embarrassed to be the weakest student in my class, and so, when my reading group was called to the front, I hid at my desk. Stupid, yes. Logical, though, when considering the embarrassment factor.

At home, determined to improve my skills, I erased all the answers on my worksheets, lined up my dolls and made them do the work. I repeated this process over and over until I could get the correct answers every time.

I truly believed that working with my dolls is what turned me into a scholar. It was not the help of a teacher, for I cannot remember a single time when someone helped me. I also know that it was not due to anything my parents did as the only time they checked my work was to see if I was earning As. If not, then a spanking ensued.

I stayed in one Catholic school or another until seventh grade. I continued to be one of the weakest students, but thankfully, others were in worse shape than me. The one thing that I was really good at was penmanship. I loved the whorls of cursive. The flow of one letter blending into the next was a thing of beauty.

Once math started making sense, I excelled there as well. Numbers could be trusted to always mean what they represented.

Unlike letters, which changed sound on a whim. I did not know the difference between a long vowel and a short, could not explain why some words rhymed with cow and others, spelled similarly, did not. How would and wood sounded the same and that there were many versions of there, you’re and too.

I transferred to a public school for eighth grade and promptly fell in love with my teacher. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had. I would have done anything to please him. In fact, when he assigned a research report on a college, when I found a Bennington College (his last name), I chose it as the subject of my paper.

Once in high school, everything fell into place. My hard work paid off. I was no longer the bottom of the barrel, but sat comfortably at the top. I was repeatedly on the honor roll and earned certificates right and left. I excelled in Latin and math and got by in English and Science, even though in both of those subjects, I often felt I was reading in a different language than all the other students.

Toward the end of my freshman year, my parents made plans to move to California. I researched colleges there and was pleased to discover the existence of community colleges which were practically free. It meant that I would be able to go to college!

This was a dream come true. No more worries about being married off to a Neanderthal neighbor. I could focus on a dream that meant more to me than any other dream I’d held before.

In California, I found high school work incredibly easy. My grades were the highest I’d ever had and I excelled in Spanish, Math and PE. English was still a struggle, but with hard work Science and History were subjects I mastered.

I told myself that I had the skills to go to college, and believed it.

In my senior year I applied to a variety of colleges, including one in Ohio near where my grandmother lived. I was accepted in every one. All I needed was financial assistance, which came in the way of a full scholarship to any college in the state of California.

When the news of my scholarship reached my high school, my counselor called me to her office. She pulled up my records, then proceeded to tell me that I’d never succeed in college, that I should consider getting a job and getting married.

When I left her office I was seething. I swore that I would prove her wrong. I told myself that at the end of my first semester of college, I would bring her my grades and show her that I had the skills to succeed.

And I did.

Her response was one of surprised shock. She apologized for assuming that I would fail, and then praised me for my hard work.

To me, earning her praise was the first of many highlights in my academic career. No one had believed in me, but I did. I told myself I could do it, and I did.

 

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Earthquake!

 

When I was a senior in college I lived in an apartment suite with three other girls, one of them from Japan. Three of us were used to earthquakes as we all lived in northern California. The fourth girl, who was my roommate, had never experienced an earthquake and so had no idea what to expect.

I was quite seasoned in that department, for when I arrived in California in June of 1964 there was a rollicking earthquake that sent me sprawling on the floor. I watched in horrified amazement as telephone poles swayed back and forth, leaning so far as to give the impression that they were soon to fall. Nothing so dramatic happened, but that quake left a lasting impression.

Over the next several years as I lived in various houses around the Bay Area, I had felt many small quakes that made me a bit nervous, but not as terrified as the first one. In fact, it seemed that the more quakes I felt, the less they disturbed me.

In September of 1979 I transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The first year I lived in a towering residence hall. From my seventh floor room, I often felt the building sway. Each time it upset me, thinking that at any moment the whole thing would crumble to the ground with me trapped inside. To defray some of my fears, I stood at my window and watched nearby buildings sway along with mine, thinking that if they didn’t fall, my building wouldn’t either. Afterward I never saw any evidence of destruction.

One beautiful spring day I was up on the roof sunbathing. I had lathered myself up and gotten comfortable with one of my textbooks. I grew sleepy and just as I began to drift away, a rolling quake hit that brought me to my feet. From my lofty perch, close to the railing, yet far enough that I wouldn’t fall off, I watched neighboring buildings sway. Sirens went off, fire engines zoomed past and a series of ambulances raced down the streets.

To the best of my knowledge, no one got seriously hurt, but a few older folks supposedly suffered heart attacks.

The following year I moved into a large multi-bedroom house that was sponsored by the Soroptimist Organization. All the girls in my building were low income like myself. The organization allowed us to live rent-free as long as we maintained excellent grades and were never in academic difficulty. We also had to keep the facility spotless and host the organization whenever they chose to hold fundraisers.

Over a period of several months earthquakes regularly shook the house. One time I was sitting on the toilet. I imagined myself being found in the ruble with my pants down. That frightened me so much that from then on I tried not to stay in the bathroom for any longer than absolutely necessary.

The number and intensity of the quakes intensified as the year went on. Because the building was old and shook in a frightening way, I was afraid to live there, so for the next school year I applied to the senior dorm across campus and was accepted.

I had not visited the building before move-in day, so I was surprised to find that it was about the same age as the Soroptimist House. It was also located near to train tracks which caused the building to shake and sway whenever a train went by.

I convinced myself that it didn’t matter the age of the building or the periodic shaking for I was happy to live with other seniors and to be free from the overarching demands of the Soroptimists.

Unfortunately that year was a particularly fertile one for earthquakes. We were shaken regularly, but seldom while we were in the dorm.

When one hit whenever I was in class we were evacuated into the quad, a grassy area in the center of campus. It became an expected ritual. Earthquake, evacuation, sitting under the shade of a tree. It was almost bucolic and definitely lured me into a false sense of security.

Early one February morning in 1971, around six, the building shook with such ferocity that my three suitemates were all awakened. At first we gathered in the kitchen which separated our rooms, when as the shaking intensified, we split apart so we could stand under a door frame, supposedly the safest place.

My roommate was so terrified that she fell at my feet, grabbed my ankles, and begged me to save her. I uttered as comforting words as I could, but I was scared that I was going to die. The shaking seemed to go on forever.

When it finally stopped, my roommates and I discovered huge cracks running down our walls and chunks of plaster that had fallen in our showers and on our beds. We were evacuated to the street, where we stood in our nightgowns, clustered in groups of equally frightened students.

When we were allowed inside, we dressed for class and headed off. Later on we heard on the news that the quake registered 6.5 and caused heavy damage to buildings, highways and bridges. It threatened a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley, which leaked a steady stream of water that, thankfully, did not flood low-lying valleys.

Our building survived. While we were at class, maintenance came in and cleaned up the mess. When we returned to our suite, fresh plaster covered the cracks.

For days afterward our building shook. There were a series of mini-quakes that hit at all times of the day and night, but even after they stopped, we were sure that each passing train was another quake.

Years went by when only periodic mild quakes rattled us in the San Francisco area. None of them rattled me like the one in 1971. Each time one hit, I’d stop what I was doing, look around for cracks, decide whether to get up and look for a safe place in which to be, but then when things stopped shaking, I continued doing whatever it was that I had been working on.

Things changed in October of 1989. I had just picked my kids up from a friend’s house when the sidewalk moved like waves. The surge was so strong that my friend and I were thrown to the ground. My eight-passenger van rocked and rolled. My kids, who were inside, looked at me through the back windows and screamed.

It was terrifying. Not only did the sidewalk buckle, but telephone poles swayed back and forth with such ferocity that it was surprising that they didn’t bend over and crack apart. We were all so shaken that we didn’t move for several minutes after things settled down.

My first thoughts were to call my husband, but I had to wait until I got home to do so.

Later we learned that it was a 6.9 quake that caused substantial damage and killed 67 people and over $5 billion in damages.

I am grateful that we have been blessed with calm years since then, but I am ever alert for the next one.

I’d also like to report that I have an emergency bag packed and ready to go, but that would be a lie. It’s almost as if I don’t prepare, it won’t happen, but that’s a stupid way of thinking.

Meanwhile I’ll think about that bag and hopefully, act on it soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Halloween Memory

The only part of Halloween that I ever liked was the endless pursuit of free candy. From the time my brother and I were in middle school, we would roam miles from home knocking on doors on streets that we barely knew. It took us hours, and at times our pillow cases would become so heavy that we’d go home, empty them out, then head out again.

I hated wearing costumes. I disliked having my sight blocked by masks, I detested makeup, and despised trying to come up with something to wear that resembled a costume. My most frequent costume was that of a hobo as all I had to do was put on overalls.

When I was thirteen my middle school decided that it would celebrate Halloween and that all students were expected to dress in costume. I panicked when I heard the announcement. It was bad enough to walk about my neighborhood under cover of darkness. This would mean parading about campus under fluorescent lighting!

I worried about this for days. I was a painfully shy girl who never raised a hand to ask or answer a question in class, and now I was going to have to expose myself to potential ridicule if I chose to dress in an unpopular or outmoded outfit.

When time ran out, the only thing I could come up with was my mother’s WAC (Women’s Army Corp) uniform from World War II.

What seemed like a good idea when I got dressed in the morning, quickly became a terrifying experience once I arrived at school.

My teacher, thrilled to see the old uniform, made me stand in front of the class and share my mother’s story.

To make matters worse, much to my dismay, she sent me up and down the hall, dropping into every single classroom to share. At times I barely got out a few words as this required me to speak before students I did not know.

It was such a horrible experience that I did not go out trick-or-treating that night and for several years after.

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The Laugh

 

The laugh is a miracle waiting to happen

A gurgling stream bouncing over life’s boulders

Riotous, rollicking wit on which to lighten

Burdensome weights from heavily bent shoulders

 

Fluffy clouds frolic freely through each person’s mind

That soon bubble out in side-splitting guffaws

A feeling so wondrous, magical in its kind

Unique in its effect; mood altering awes

 

Liberally dished out in portions humongous

No meager spoonfuls for humanity’s sake

Spread across boundaries, in actions so wondrous

That ribs crackle, tears flow, and sides quickly ache

 

The sun’s golden rays blossom majestically

Illuminating rainbows in bright hues

Emotions explode into sounds musically

Harmonious tunes blend in colorful hues

 

Burdensome miseries removed from memory

Riotous, rollicking times for the taking

Gurgling rivers of life’s hilarious story

The laugh, a miraculous joyous speaking

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