Crimes of Passion

            When I was a child, my family was poor. We always had food, clothes and a place to live, so we weren’t destitute. Much of what we did have came from relatives. This included everything from furniture to food.

            I don’t recall ever being extremely hungry, but I was never full. Apply this to not just the physical sense of lacking food, but to the emotional. I missed something that was wholly mine. Yearned for something that had never been owned, worn, felt by someone before coming to me.

            At the time I lacked the words to describe the feeling. There was an emptiness that was never filled. As a consequence, my eyes sought objects that were small, so insignificant that they would not be missed.

            My mom frequented the Five and Dime, a general merchandise store that catered to people like us. My mom loved to roam the aisles, feeling this, holding that, occasionally buying the things she came there for: a spool of thread, buttons, a swath of fabric.

            Perhaps I learned from her that it was okay to pick up and hold things that you weren’t going to buy. Maybe I was taught to slip things in your purse when the owner wasn’t looking. In later years I learned that my mom often left stores with hidden items. If that was true, then I was an observant understudy.

            My sister’s birthday was approaching and on this trip to the Five and Dime my mom needed candles for the cake. In that section there were tiny pink dolls, plastic cribs to match, and paper umbrellas on thin sticks. I wanted them all. One of each size, shape and color.

            Something inside of me must have known that it was not okay to pocket too many items, at least not on one trip. My hand reached for a plastic baby on its own accord. It felt smooth and easy to touch. It weighed nothing. It fit perfectly in my small hand and even better in the pocket of my jacket.

            I wanted more. The crib, the umbrellas. I trembled and sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t talk. When we approached the register I knew I was going to get caught. My eyes looked down. I feared that the owner could see guilt, could see the inside of my pocket. He said nothing.

            On the way home my fingers held that baby, still inside the pocket. At home I buried it in the backyard, hiding the evidence.

            One plastic baby didn’t satisfy the want inside me.

            The next visit to the store I pocketed a box of six crayons. The problem, I realized once home, was that I couldn’t use them without my mm knowing that she had not paid for them. The crayons joined the plastic baby in the backyard.

            By now I was a seasoned thief. I planned my outfit, making sure I had at least one pocket. I knew I had to roam the aisles like my mother did, feeling this, picking up that, examining something else. When mom led us to the trinket aisle I knew what I was going to take: an umbrella. The problem was, which one. I chose the blue. It slid into my pocket just as the other things had done.

            By now I wasn’t afraid of looking at the owner. After all, I had stolen before and not gotten caught. With the umbrella secure, I accompanied my mom to the register, stood complacently while she paid, then walked out. Except something different happened.

            The owner asked my mom to wait, but not until after I was outside. I don’t know what was said, but when my mom stormed outside and grabbed me by the sleeve, I knew I was in trouble. She dug in my pocket and produced the umbrella. With it held aloft, she pulled me back inside the store. She handed over the umbrella which was now broken thanks to her tight grip.

            I was told to apologize. I refused. I had done nothing wrong in my mind. I had seen my mom slip things in her purse over and over. If I had to apologize, then so should she. I didn’t say it, thankfully.

            After much prodding I mumbled an apology. The owner then forbade me from ever entering his store again. I thought his punishment was excessive considering it was only a tiny umbrella.

            My parents decided I need moral guidance so they enrolled me in a Brownie troop that was being formed at the Catholic School I attended. I didn’t know anyone and had no intentions of making friends with them.

            I don’t know how I knew, but I understood that the girls and mothers who ran the troop came from wealthier families. It might have been the newness of the girls’ uniforms versus my faded one from a thrift store. Perhaps it was because the mothers wore necklaces and earrings, something my mother didn’t have. Maybe it was the way they treated me: like an idiot who didn’t understand English.

            It wasn’t on the first meeting, but maybe the third, that the mothers had planned a craft activity. It involved the use of colorful rubber bands. I don’t remember what I made, if I made anything at all. What I do recall in vivid clarity was the desire to own the bag of rubber bands.

            My palms began to sweat. My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bag. Whenever a girl took a rubber band from the bag I cringed inside. I wanted that bag so badly that my stomach hurt.

            I had to have it. I had to take it home. But how? How could I sneak it home without being caught?

            The solution came when it was time to clean up. The bag still sat on the table, all alone. It called my name. I moved closer to it. The desire intensified. I checked to see where the others were. The girls were giggling off to the side. The mothers were in a circle, talking. No one was near me. No one was watching.

            The entire bag of rubber bands slid into my school bag. I latched it shut then hurriedly left without saying goodbye.

            My mom was waiting outside. We drove the long way home in silence. At home I took my school bag into my bedroom as I always did. I removed the rubber bands and hid them in my underwear drawer. Moved them to under my mattress. Stuffed them in a shoe. Found a hole in the back of my closet and stuck them in there.

            When my mom finally asked how the Brownie meeting went, I told her it was dumb and I never wanted to go back. That was a lie. I had had fun. The mothers were kind. I felt safe there, at a time when I needed safety. I feared that the girls and mothers knew I had taken the rubber bands. That was the reason I couldn’t return.

            My crime of passion ruined what might have been a good thing.

Reliving a Moment


Every time we drive to Utah we travel past the spot where my daughter’s car slid off the road on a snowy winter day. Even though years have passed since then, goose bumps still break out all over my arms. Not only that, but shivers shake me to the core. You would think that time would dissipate the feelings, but it hasn’t. Just thinking about it now fills my eyes with tears.

At the time my daughter lived in Tooele, Utah; a bedroom community located about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. While it seldom gets deep snow, it is subject to what is called “lake effect,” meaning that moisture is pulled out of the Great Salt Lake, turned into some form of precipitation, and then dumped on Tooele.

When we arrived that January, there was already some snow on the yards and grass medians, but not on the roads.  No snow was expected; not a surprise considering our long drive from California was under bright blue skies, generally a harbinger of things to come.

On January 3 my daughter wanted to drive around the Oquirrh Mountains to West Valley, a substantially larger city with many shopping options. The purpose of the trip was to exchange some Christmas gifts that either didn’t fit or weren’t needed.

She was eight months pregnant at the time, with a nice round belly filled with a yearned-for little boy. I was excited to go, as shopping trips with my daughter had been few and far between over the years due to the distance between us. My husband and I figured out that if we drove, we could visit more frequently, which meant more opportunities to visit stores.

It snowed the night before our planned drive. Not a light dusting, but a sizeable storm that dropped a six-inch layer of snow. It continued to snow quite heavily all morning, depositing another four inches.

Footsteps were quickly filled and the increasingly heavy load caused tree limbs to droop. The roads which were normally clear had a thick covering.

Nevertheless, my daughter was determined to go, convinced that once we got out on the freeway, all would be fine.

We took the youngest daughter, now two, with us. Once she was settled into her car seat, we took off. It’s a twelve-mile drive from where they were living just to the freeway. No matter time of day the road is busy because it’s the only way in and out of the Tooele City. Because of the expected traffic, my daughter figured there would be safe paths despite the still falling snow.

She was wrong. There road was not dusted with snow, but rather held an accumulation of more than four inches despite traffic. And it was till snowing as we approached the I-80. In fact, the weather and roads worsened once we were heading east. Snow that should have been mashed was not. Blizzard-like conditions blurred our vision.

I tried to convince my daughter to turn around at the first opportunity, saying that we could go another day, but she was insistent that the highway would be clear the further we traveled. We moved on with windshield wipers working at high speed.

As a person who learned to drive in California’s East Bay, I was unfamiliar with conditions like these. I was nervous, terrified and anxious all in one. My hands gripped the armrests and my knees shook.

This stretch of I-80 is a major connector between northern California and states east. It is always filled with semis pulling multiple trailers, tourists, trucks of all shapes and sizes, and any other vehicle possible, all traveling at seventy miles an hour or more. It is two lanes in each direction, and because of the high speed, care must be taken even in the best conditions.

Due to the snow-covered roads and limited visibility speeds were down to sixty miles an hour, somewhat of a comfort since it was slower than normal. Even so I felt it was too fast to safely maneuver in case of an emergency.

Shortly after entering the highway we saw that the snow accumulation was getting worse. The sky was one huge gray cloud, so no relief was in sight. Because of the treacherous conditions I finally convinced my daughter to return home. When she agreed to get off at the next exit, I was relieved.

The sign appeared, but when we could see that no one had driven that way since the snow had begun, we chose to continue on. The next exit in the same condition, with deep snow and no tire tracks. The next one seemed to have tracks that were only partially filled-in, so she decided to exit even though we were still a mile away and our vision was partially blocked by swirling snow.

As we approached the exit my daughter made a slight pull on the steering wheel, heading us toward the ramp. Just as it was time to commit to leaving the freeway, we saw that no vehicles had passed that way recently, and although there were tracks, they were quickly filling.

Deciding that this was not a safe exit, my daughter corrected by turning slightly to the left.

That small movement was enough to send us slipping and sliding down the highway. We found ourselves in the fast lane, then into the slow. We drifted toward the shoulder, back to the slow, over into the fast, and at the last, we hit some hidden ice and gradually, in what felt like slow motion, slid closer and closer toward the shoulder.

I was in full panic-mode: I couldn’t speak, think, or offer words of advice. My brain was frozen as my wide open eyes stared at the embankment ahead, wondering what fate had in store for us. I should have been screaming, crying, hands up preparing for the impending impact, but I just sat there.

The minivan’s rear spun once more to the right, taking us completely off the road. I feared a rollover similar to ones my husband and I had seen on our drive to Utah. But for some reason, despite the combination of speed and slippage, we remained upright.

When we did come to a stop and all seemed well, we looked at each other and breathed a sigh of thanksgiving.

No one was hurt. The van was not damaged. No vehicle had struck us as we careened out of control. Although the lanes had been crowded with a variety of vehicles, any of which could have sent us to our deaths with even the slightest of impact, we had escaped without impact.

After a brief interlude of blessed relief, I decided to get out to see if where we had landed was safe of if we should immediately abandon the vehicle.

Because of the proximity to the Great Salt Lake, the water table is quite high all along that stretch of road. The freeway bed is raised so as to avoid flooding, but since the shoulders drop off steeply, the depressions paralleling the road often are filled with water. In this case, there might have been marsh to suck us in, a patch of dry land or a thin layer of ice that might crack.

I needed to see for myself what the surface looked like so as to determine our next steps. What I discovered would decide whether we could remain in the vehicle until help arrived or get ourselves and the baby out as quickly as possible.

Imagine my relief when there was no evidence of water lurking under the covering of snow. The ground seemed solid beneath the layers of snow and I sensed no layer of ice.

If ever my faith had been tested before, this surpassed anything I had ever experienced. I truly believe that my Lord and Savior was watching out for us because we had landed in a spot that, I hoped, would keep us safe from sinking.

Neither my daughter nor I had a cell phone which meant we had no way to call for help. Not knowing what else to do, I climbed up the hill to the shoulder of the freeway and began waving to passing vehicles.

I was not dressed for the cold and so my fingers and toes so began stinging. My breath came out in puffs and my face was freezing. I knew that I couldn’t stay out there for too long, so I prayed that someone would see me and quickly come to our aid.

I smiled when a semi driver honked and waved. A variety of trucks passed, many of them honking. This reassured me that someone was calling for help.

A woman pulled over on the shoulder despite the risk of being hit. She ran over to where I was standing, dressed in high heels and a tight skirt, waving her cell phone. She asked if I would like to call for help and was shocked when I told her I did not know how to use a cell phone.

While she made a call, a snowplow went by in the fast lane. The driver honked and waved, reassuring me that several people now knew where we were. Hopefully they all realized our predicament and that help would soon arrive.

The woman told me that someone had alerted Highway Patrol. I expected her to leave since she seemed dressed for work, but she stayed.

I was surprised when another vehicle pulled over behind the woman’s care. This time it was a young man wearing a Fire EMT jacket. He approached the car and immediately went into rescue mode, asking over and over if everyone was fine. He asked my daughter to open her window and unlock the back door so he could check on the baby. He asked my daughter how far along she was and whether or not she needed assistance.

A third vehicle stopped while this was happening, this time a man dressed in his winter Army uniform. He took charge in a confidant, militaristic way. Speaking softly, he asked my daughter to get out of the car. He told her to leave the baby, reassuring her that all would be safe.

He got in, strapped on his seatbelt put the minivan into gear. When he stepped on the gas the car crept forward, slowly, slowly, until the front wheels reached the solid ground of the shoulder. He turned the front wheels to the right, bringing the car entirely on safe ground. He put the car into park, and when he got out, he told my daughter to stay there for a while until she was calm enough to drive.

All three remained with us while my daughter sat with eyes closed. I know that I was giving thanks and I believe that she was doing the same.

When my daughter waved, indicating that we were ready to leave, the woman, the EMT, and the Army officer got in their own vehicles.

In the safety of the warm car we watched them pull away, thanking God for sending kind people our way. If not for them, we might have sat perpendicular to the highway for a very long time.

We knew, without saying it, that our trip to West Valley was not going to happen. My daughter stated that the best place to turn around would be the exit for the airport, as it would be heavily traveled, so that became our target.

Out on the freeway she drove at about twenty miles an hour, terrified that we would slip again. It was a good decision because about mile down the road we passed an accident scene. A minivan like ours had gone off the road and overturned into the water. Victims had been pulled out and lay there covered with body bags. It was chilling.

Another half mile along we passed another accident. This time a small pickup truck was in the median between east and west, facing the wrong direction. It was on solid ground and the occupants seemed to be okay.

Not too much further along, on our side of the highway, off the road and upside down in the water, lay what was left of a minivan. Emergency vehicles were there, lights flashing. As we drove past, we could not see the condition of the passengers, but I think we both knew.

We safely negotiated the airport ramp and came to a stop at the lights with only a tiny bit of a skid. We crossed the overpass and returned to the highway, now heading west without incident. Still going slowly, we drove in the far right lane, my daughter holding tightly to the steering wheel.

Perhaps we had gone two miles before we passed another accident, this time where body bags lined the side of the road.

We said little on our return trip because I think we were both in shock.

Once we were back at my daughter’s house, I fell into my husband’s arms, tears pouring down my face. I was grateful to be alive, grateful to be able to see him and the rest of the family.

Several hours later I fell into a deep sense of despair, thinking about how differently the ending might have been. I kept myself grounded by reminding myself that we escaped thanks to the grace of God.

I haven’t driven past the spot of our accident in quite a while, but I know that the next time that I do, the same feelings will arise. The space between survival and death was tiny. If we had stopped six inches along the freeway there was the possibility that our back wheels might have been in the muck. Six inches saved three people from impending death. Six inches allowed three people to return home to rejoice in thanksgiving.

People say that you should get back in the saddle after being bucked off. That by trying again, you can conquer your fear. I believe this is true because when I returned to the scene on our next visit to Utah, I was able to relive that terrifying journey, see how close to meeting my Maker I truly was, and rejoice in the time that I have been graciously given.

He Smiled

Imagine being able to say that OJ Simpson once smiled at me!  Guess what? It really happened. This is the story of my “brush” with the famous.

When I transferred to the University of Southern California in the fall of 1968, I knew little about college football.  At the time, I was soon to discover, USC was an athletic powerhouse, thanks to a phenomenal bunch of handpicked athletes in a variety of sports. The Trojans dominated in football, men’s and women’s basketball and swimming.  Not only that, but their track and field teams were equally strong due to multisport athletes.

Football begins the season. Banners covered surfaces all across the campus. Rallies were held every day and when the teams weren’t at home, all ears were tuned to the radio. You either followed the sports or you were an outcast. It was that simple.

The athletes, no matter what sport or how great they were, dominated the social life of the campus. Partying to celebrate their successes was a nightly affair since some team played almost every day, whether at home or away. If they weren’t off playing or pratcicing, they strutted their stuff around campus, practically oozing greatness.

I quickly learned the “culture,” of partying. There was a booze-filled affair the night before a game, partying during the game, and another party after the game, all in celebration of a victory won or a record broken. And if you didn’t find what you were looking for at one party, all you had to do was stroll down fraternity row to find another. This was especially important if you didn’t like the booze being served or the music thundering out onto the street.

None of the better-known athletes lived in the Greek houses and few had their own apartments. Instead they had their own dorm which was shielded from the peasants by locked doors and glazed windows.  It was rumored that their meal options weren’t the standard bland food that the rest of us got: instead legend had it that they feasted on huge, juicy steaks, fresh vegetables and a cornucopia of cheeses and desserts.

When they had nothing better to do they swaggered about campus in their lettermen jackets emblazoned with every type of recognition (except for a noticeable lack of academic awards). That’s not to say they weren’t capable, but at that time, achievements on the field or court were what kept them at college, not the grades received or classes taken.

With their rippling muscles, impossibly broad shoulders, and over-confident leers dished out to fawning fans, they stood far above the crowd. And they knew it.

Periodically small groups of “stars” strolled through my dining hall, snickering at the dismal fare splattered on institutional grade plates and trays.  I imagined that they had just dined on mounds of steak cooked to perfection, served with steaming mashed potatoes and crisp fresh greens.

Equality among students did not exist and there was no pretense of leveling the playing field, because the athletes were, literally, the bread and butter of university funding.  The stronger the athletes, the more likely the university would rack up victories, which then correlated to increased donations from alumni.

If I hadn’t been awed by their very presence, I should have despised the athletes for they were the epitome of all that I was not.  My family was low income which qualified me for a rather generous “pity” scholarship from the state of California. Without that gift I would not have been at such a prestigious college as USC.  But, like the vast majority of students, I didn’t hate the arrogant athletes, but rather worshipped the ground they walked on.

One evening, in a rather unusual move for me, I got as dressed up as I could and went downstairs where a dance was being held in the cafeteria.  I am not sure what possessed me to go as I was a horrific dancer.  I was also painfully shy and so operated solo the vast majority of the time, in classes as well as while on campus.

I did have friends, academics like me, but more extreme for their heads dwelt more in the clouds than in reality.  None of them were what I considered marriageable as they were more interested in finding a spouse to complete a given responsibility than having a relationship of equals. But, like any teenager, I yearned to have a boyfriend.  The dance “called” my name, speaking to me of an opportunity to meet, greet and date and so I went.

The dining hall had been transformed, as much as possible, into a disco dance hall.  With lights down low, revolving points of light danced across the walls, creating an eerie spectacle of glowing, gyrating bodies.  It wasn’t Halloween, but the bizarre lighting gave off the same feel.

The music was ear-shattering making it impossible to do more than look at all the beautiful people.  I meandered about the perimeter of the room with a plastic smile glued to my face, hoping that just one person would nod kindly in my direction. Once my circuit was completed with no takers found, I wanted nothing more but to leave this place of loneliness among confusion.

I headed toward the door, but just as I got within sight of the doorjamb, the crowd parted as miraculously as the Red Sea.  In walked none other than OJ Simpson, flanked by two humongous football players.

OJ was an incredibly handsome man with an earthy skin tone that spoke of roots, faithfulness, integrity, and family.  His eyes sparkled and a shy smile gave a sensuous lift to his lips.  I saw no semblance of arrogance, but warmth.

Like the rest of the crowd, I stood transfixed, enjoying simply being in the presence of greatness.  This was OJ’s year, the year he earned the Heisman Trophy, broke a number of records, and was first pick in the professional football draft.  Everyone knew that he was bound for the record halls and that his name would be spoken around the world.

As the trio neared me I was shoved back into the crowd.  I didn’t mind, for I intrinsically knew that these men were well beyond my social reach.  What I didn’t expect or count on was being seen.

As O’s greatness neared me, his eyes glanced in my direction and he smiled.  Not an I-want-to-talk-to-you smile, but one that recognized me as a fellow human being.  Since the contact was short-lived, I realized that there was the possibility that the greeting wasn’t even meant for me.  I acknowledged that OJ was simply flashing his famous smile at everyone, sort of like the priest sprinkling Holy Water over the congregation in a quick pass down the aisle.

Even though I knew that the encounter meant nothing to OJ, I stood a little taller and felt a tad more important than I had before.  It was a moment that I will never forget.

     Ode to Food

Food, glorious food!

Sumptuous tastes of

Slowly roasted beef

Drowned in onions

Covered in gravy

 

Potatoes gently

Browned, sprinkled

With parsley and chives

Arranged in spirals

Delicate designs

 

Green beans bathing in

Mushroom sauce, topped

With fried onions

Or drenched with butter

Stacked like lucky logs

 

Delightful desserts

Sugary cookies

Mouth melting cakes

Devilish  custards

Compelling desire

 

More, much more, awaiting

Consumption by

Mere mortals yearning

To taste the nectar

Of the golden gods

 

Food, glorious food!

Mama’s Voice

Low and sweet Mama called, “Honey Bee,” and when Collette arrived, Mam wrapped her with a smile and glittering green eyes. “Can I have some cold water?”

“Of course, Mama. Want anything else?”

“We have any lemon bars? I’d love a piece.” Mama resumed rocking, eyes closed, mind most likely drifting somewhere in the past.

Collette nodded knowing that Mama was happy. It didn’t matter that names got mixed up. Collette didn’t bother asking anymore if Mama remembered who she was. Suzanne, Maria or Abigail. Or rare occasions when Mama’s eyes were wide open she knew Collette. Maybe today was one of them, but if pressed, Mama grew upset.

“I got your water,” Collette said as she placed the glass in Mama’s hands and a small paper plate with a tiny bite of lemon bar on a rickety wooden table next to Mama’s chair. Collette then sat in the empty rocker, the one Papa used way back when.

“This is nice,” Mama practically sang in that not-quite-southern twang of hers. “I love me some cold water when it’s hot like this.” She closed her eyes and resumed rocking, humming a church song that Collette barely remembered.

“Is that “The Old Wooden Cross”?”

“Nope. Rugged. It’s Rugged Cross. Much more meaning to it.” Mama began singing, “I love that old Cross, but then she stopped and tears filled her eyes. “Darn I forget the words.” Her knees started bouncing, a sure sign of distress. “I forget everything these days. Half the time I don’t even know your name.”

“Collette. I’m Collette, your surprise baby daughter.”

Mama stared at her as if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I didn’t have no surprise baby daughter.”

Collette patted her mama’s right knee, just enough to add comfort. “It’s alright. Not important. Have some lemon bar.” Collette put the plat in Mama’s hand. “Just a piece. No more right now.”

“I haven’t been to church in ages. Not since Matthew died. I just can’t bear walking the same places he walked.”

Mama said in that sweet, persuasive voice of hers, “Maybe it’s time you and I go. Sunday’s tomorrow. Preacher Davis will be leading the service. Oh, my, I love the way that man calls on the Lord.” She set the plate on the little table and leaning on her cane a little too much for Collette’s comfort, headed inside.

“Where you going?” Collette grabbed glass and plate. Can’t leave nothing outside unless ou want birds and raccoons and stray cats coming around.

Mama’s words floated over her shoulder as she turned to go down the hall. “Got to pick a dress for tomorrow. Folks haven’t seen me in a while. Want to make a good impression.”

Collette frowned. She didn’t want to go to that church any more than she wanted to go to the one at home. Matthew loved the Church of Christ chapel in downtown Chillicothe because he felt more comfortable with the merchant families that came to his five-and-dime store. Collette grew up in First Baptist in Sterling Crossings, the church her Mama still loved, but it was a thirty mile drive from home.

Collette pulled a whole chicken out of the refrigerator and washed it off in warm water. Using the butcher knife she cut it in pieces. Froze half. Rubbed the rest in a mesquite marinade. Zipped it up and put it in the fridge for cooking later. Next came shucking corn and peeling potatoes. She didn’t like potatoes, but Mama said it wasn’t a proper meal with spuds of some kind on the table. Tonight she’d bake them so she could control how much sour cream and butter landed on Mama’s half.

“I found me a dress,” Mama said. “Lookee here.”

It was an old yellow cotton dress that Mama last wore to the Fourth of July Picnic four years ago. It hung a bit loose, but the pride in Mama’s voice kept Collette’s mouth shut. “Pretty color. Perfect for summer.”

“Hm, hm. I know. Your daddy bought this for me on one of his trips out of town. I think it’s from North Dakota, but I’m not sure. Every time he went away he brought home something. Sometimes a bolt of cloth. Once he gave me a pretty necklace. When I asked where he got the money, he wrapped me in his arms so tight I could barely breathe.”

“Nice memory.” Collette lead Mama down the hall to change back into her every day clothes. “Lift your arms.” She pulled the dress over Mama’s head and hung it on the closet door.

“That’s what caused me to kick him out. Smelled perfume on him. A kind I never wore. Knew he was cheating. He didn’t deny it. Just picked up his traveling bag and left. When that door slammed shut I yelled to never come back. He didn’t.”

Collette brushed her mama’s hair. She had to be gentle as there wasn’t much left. Mama had what they call female pattern hair loss. She’d asked her hair dresser last time she’s had a trim. Paula, that was her name, said there wasn’t anything to do about it except keep it clean and use a soft brush.

“Why you using that soft thing?” Mama said.

“Paula said it’d be better on your scalp. Like a massage.” Finished, Collette pulled hairs from between the bristles and dropped them in a nearby garbage can. “Let’s get your clothes on so as to be ready for dinner.”

Mama started humming again, this time a song Collette knew and loved. She sang up high in her soprano voice while Mama hummed the alto line. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”

By the end of the song they’d returned to the porch, Mama in her rocker and Collette heading down the metal steps to pull the laundry off the line. She hated that Mama’s clothes hung out front for the world to see, but everybody in the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park did the same. At least Mama’s house wasn’t worse off than the others’. Joe Maxwell’s siding was peeling off and Pete Smith’s windows were covered with plastic to keep out insects, wind and rain.

Matthew had kept up the place, hosing down the outside and replacing any windows that cracked. He’d kept the appliances working and even when he was feeling sorry for something he’d said, installed two room air conditioners, one if the front room and one in Mama’s bedroom. He’d done all that even though it wasn’t his parent’s house and without Collette asking.

Mama was asleep when Collette finished folding and putting the laundry away. She got out the chicken and placed it on a plate for carrying outside. She fired up the gas barbeque she’d given Mama back when her mama still cooked. Thank goodness she’d brought a new tank or she would have had to cook if in the oven.

Her cooking skills were limited. Mam had tried to teach her, but Collette’s head was in books. She was always reading. Most of the time for school, but she’d read just about everything she could get out of the town library. Then she’d gone off to college where she’d shared an apartment with three girls she didn’t know. They rotated cooking duties so she checked out a Campbell’s Soup Cook Book because the recipes were simple.

Potatoes in the oven. Chicken cooking. “Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. You need anything?”

Thinking maybe her mama was asleep, Collette stepped as lightly as her two hundred pound body would let her. Mama’s floor creaked and groaned anyway.

At first glance, she thought Mama was asleep. She often slept ten or more hours a day. That’s why Collette had come home. Someone needed to be with Mama night and day and there was no one else to do it. No money to pay for help and even if there had been, Mama was too embarrassed about the condition of her house to let people inside.

Nobody with money lived out here, far from the center of town. It wasn’t on the wrong side of the tracks as no train came through, but it was the neighborhood that even the police didn’t like to enter. Not because of gangs, but because everything was so run down and dingy that it broke hearts to think that people actually lived there.

The tilt of Mama’s head wasn’t right. It leaned too far to the left at a crazy angle that made it appear as if someone’d snapped it. And her left arm hung limply over the chair’s arm, fingers too loose for comfort.

“Mama,” Collette said as she touched her mama’s shoulder. “You okay?”

She wasn’t and Collette knew it when she first saw her leaning like that. Mama had grace, even asleep. It didn’t matter how ragged the hem of her dress was, that dress was spotless and freshly ironed. A wide-brimmed fancy hat sat on that head everywhere she went, but her best ones only came out for church. She had ones with feathers, some with ribbons, a few with both. Mama knew which hat matched which dress and nobody ever changed her mind.

And when Mama walked about town with her head high and back straight as steel, people thought maybe she’d come from money. One of them debutante girls who’d fallen from grace.

Truth is, her family was dirt poor. Her daddy had been a tenant farmer who moved the family wherever he could find a bit of work. One time they lived in the barn with the horses. In summer it stank of moldy hay and manure. In winter their breath froze in midair.

The woman in the porch, this person leaning over the chair, was not her Mama. No pretty tune emanated from her lips, no humming “Precious Lord” in that sultry sound of hers.

Collette sat in her rocker and picked up her mother’s hand. She turned it over and rubbed the palm, over and over in gentle circles. “Mama, I guess your time has come. Too bad we’ll miss church tomorrow.”

Sobs broke loose, the loud racking kind that indicates a hurt so deep that it’s hard coming back. Just as in a movie, Collette felt a ray of sun warm her tear-streaked face. She looked up and noticed a flock of starlings high above, swirling in massive ever-changing streaks of black. They’d been Mama’s favorite birds because, as she’d said, “Them birds are like some people. They run in crazy circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Ain’t gonna happen.”

Mama’s voice was the sweetest thing Collette had ever heard. In times of trouble Mama sang to her soft, gentle songs of love and redemption, “Jesus Loves Me” a favorite of both of them. Collette closed her eyes and listened for the words:

Jesus loves me! He will stay,
Close beside me all the way;
He’s prepared a home for me,
And some day His face I’ll see

Even though Mama was gone to a better place, that home that Jesus has waiting for her, Collette would miss her Mama. No more late night bathroom runs. No more stories about the granddad she’d never known. No more cleaning this rickety home. No more humming in her precious Mama’s voice.

 

 

 

 

Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

Our Life Stories

 

all of life is a series of

nonstories

the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of

doing

but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited

near-misses

chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds

and

soon-to-be forgottens

all stories untold

mysteries locked

romances closeted

things never experienced

foods never tasted

but secretly yearned for

nonstories frozen in place

and time

with no characters to lament

plots stagnant

themes dragging behind

do we obsess

over the lost stories

and live life in a

vacuum?

NO

we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless

possibilities

My Legacy

When I am gone what do I expect?

Do I want people to miss me? You bet.

But not for long.

I want them to think fondly

Of whatever good I might have done

To recall interesting experiences we shared,

But then I want them to move on,

Forging their lives as the independent people

I hope they are.

My legacy is formed by my writing,

My singing, my service to church,

My work as a teacher

Being mother, wife, friend.

That’s enough for one person,

Don’t you think?

I pray that I won’t leave behind

Too many memories of mistakes I made,

Too many thoughts of things I said

That hurt feelings

The times I wasn’t empathetic enough

The times when I was so self-focused

That I failed to see the worry in those around me.

That’s not the legacy I hope to leave behind.

I don’t hope for fame after I am gone,

Which is good as there will be none.

I am an ordinary person who lived an ordinary life.

That’s my legacy and that’s enough for me.

 

 

Gift Giving

From the time I was a little girl I loved giving gifts much more than getting them. This applies to all occasions, not just Christmas.

Why? I love watching the expressions on faces as they open each item. It thrills me when the person’s eyes light up and a smile graces their face. It lets me know that I have chosen wisely.

Therein lies the problem. I love the thrill of the hunt: finding just the right gift for each individual on my list. Flannel pjs for the grandkids? Perfect. New shoes for Mike? Yes.

I leave home with something in mind to search for. If I’m lucky, I’ll find it in the right size and color and at a discount! Yippee.

On the way I might find other things that tickle my fancy but had never entered my sphere of interest. That makes the trip worthwhile. Finding wonderful things to give to the people I love.

I’m not as excited about wrapping as I used to be. In the past each gift would have tied with a color-coordinated ribbon and topped with a bow. I might start out that way, but as time passes and my back begins to hurt, I give up on fancy and go with simply getting the job done.

Since all my kids and grandkids live far away, I have been spared hours of wrapping. I do online shopping and so packages are delivered in brown boxes or green plastic bags. Certainly the excitement for the recipient has been downgraded as there are no colorfully wrapped gifts from me under the tree, but the idea is still there. I have thought of them, chosen something, and had it sent to them.

I also love gifts for myself, but the act of unwrapping them in front of an audience intimidates me.   I don’t like being the center of attention, everyone focused on my eyes and lips, waiting to see if I smile.

Interesting dichotomy, right? What I enjoy most about being the giver is what I dislike the most about being the recipient.

One good thing about getting older is that there are fewer opportunities to open gifts in public. For many years now it’s been just my husband and I on Christmas Day. An audience of one.

We work hard to find appropriate gifts for each other. Mike gives hints…but mostly it’s me telling him what to buy me, where to find it, what it looks like, how much it should cost. He’s great at following suggestions. In fact, he loves it when I practically outline for him what would be nice gifts for me. But sometimes he surprises me.

For example we often pass a jewelry store on our walks about the neighborhood. One time I spotted a necklace that I liked. No price was posted so I didn’t know if the jewelers prices were reasonable or not. I never told Mike to buy it, but one time we went past and it was gone. Imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a box and found it nestled within!

When I was a kid my family had an interesting unwrapping routine. Each of us would hold a gift in our laps. At a nod from my dad, we ripped off paper, ribbons and bows altogether. The item was revealed, hopefully appreciated, then we moved on to the next box. There was little giving of thanks or admiration. It was open, open, open.

My husband’s family, however, had a different ritual which we adopted for our family and still follow today.

We each hold a gift in our laps. One person opens their gift, we appreciate it, give thanks to the giver, then move on to the next person. It is a slow process. When our kids still lived with us, opening gifts could span hours with breaks in between to eat breakfast, stoke up the fire, go to the restroom, get something to drink.

I loved it. Instead of the mad dash that I grew up with, there was now a patient revealing. It allowed me to do that which made me happiest about gift-giving: watching the faces of those I had chosen gifts for.

Today I began the wrapping of gifts. My first gifts are for an exchange tomorrow. Each time had to be Christmas-themed and under ten dollars total. Since I am a great sale-shopper, I found awesome things that stayed under the limit. I can hardly wait until tomorrow when the exchange happens.

I then wrapped the gift for the teenager from the church’s giving tree. She only asked for leggings, but she’s getting two books and a gift card as well. Each of them is wrapped and nestled into one large box. I wish I could see her face when she gets to unpackage all those things! I hope she is excited.

During this time which can be hectic, please reflect on how you feel about gift-giving. Which part excites you the most? The hunt? The wrapping? The giving or the receiving? Or maybe all of it!

 

A Lament

 

You loved me when I was sick.

You held my hand

Placed cool washcloths against my forehead

Took my temperature faithfully

Fed me homemade chicken soup

Until I was better

And then we returned to normal.

Me, the athletic daughter

Disinterested in things of the home

Not wanting to marry at fourteen

And then I’d fall ill again

Mononucleosis

Too weak to walk down the hall

To lift my head to sip water

And so you cradled me

and allowed me to lie, to skip school,

to lounge around home because I hadn’t

studied for a science test

But then I had to go to school

And then we returned to normal.

You demanded that I learn to cook

Said that I had to clean house,

Including wiping down every leaf of every plant

You occupied my time with busy work

Never once praised me for my grades

Even when I got accepted to a good college

With full scholarship

And then I needed surgery

To remove a section of bone that had become infected.

You sat by my bedside at the hospital

The doting, loving mother for all the world to see

A mirage, but no one but me knew that.

When I moved out you cried.

Was it because you’d miss me?

Or that you wouldn’t be able to control me?

I never knew.

But when I had my first child,

You rose to the occasion.

Moved into my house.

Took over cooking, cleaning, caring for the baby.

You criticized every choice I made.

Even tried to convince me to leave my husband.

But by then I had become wary

Of your moves, your words

And so I didn’t listen.

And things returned to normal.

Until the next disaster.

Each time you pushed aside your angry,

Jealous words

And moved into my world,

Taking over

Or at least trying to

But as I aged, I grew in confidence

And learned that I could stand tall,

Knowing that my husband was there

To support me, love me,

Always and forever

And not just when sickness or injury

Came to visit.

And so life assumed a new normal.