Archive for July, 2012

Jade East

July 22, 2012

There is nothing romantic about cleaning a bathroom. Rusted razor blades hide in the medicine cabinet. Strands of hair stick to porcelain surfaces. The wrappers on band aids in a hinged-top metal box are so old they fall apart with only slight pressure of thumb and index finger. I’m on my knees, cardboard box to my left, trashcan to my right, sorting my father’s medicinal, toiletry, and cleaning supplies. It’s hot in here and the humidity of a June day in Chesapeake is almost unbearable. My limp hair won’t stay put in its rubber band and falls into my face as I reach way back into the cabinet for the last bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a half empty can of shaving cream. I’m trying to salvage what’s left. My dad doesn’t need this stuff anymore. He died on Mother’s Day.

I always hated cleaning the bathroom, my least favorite chore, and I always got stuck with it. I lean back against the tub, close my eyes, and wipe the back of my hand across my sweaty forehead. My Dad’s radio in the dining room croons an old, sad country song. None of us likes hillbilly music, but no one has the courage to change his station. I hear my step-sister in the kitchen, rattling glassware, arranging it for the auction house to pick up. In another room, one of the girls exclaims over an old photograph. “I haven’t seen this in years.”

We’re all here, minus our parents, my father, their mother, both dead within a year of each other. It’s their house and we feel like interlopers and thieves, deciding which items to take home with us, which to sell, which to donate, which to throw away. Every piece we touch goes into a box, even the objects that have held a place of honor for years. Rooms empty one memento at a time.

“I’d like this little pewter clown,” my step-sister calls from the other room.

“Put it in your box,” I call. My step-mother collected clowns, had hundreds of them. My father collected frogs. I’d most likely find a small one to place in my box to remember him.

The cabinet under the sink is bare. I rise and look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Evidently, I am an adult now. I think it happened May 13th.

Shaking my head, and looking away, I open the wooden cabinet on the wall above the toilet. My father’s salves, liniments, after shave lotions and razors display themselves in neat colorful order from tallest to shortest. Some are still new in the package and others are waiting for him to return to finish their contents. I open each container, judge its usefulness, its age. I toss his Carmex lip balm and the ever-present tin of Cuticura ointment, underarm deodorant, and a 1960’s safety razor.

The last item is a clear bottle with green liquid. I’ve never seen it before. The label is black with a green and gold border. Asian characters above the words JADE EAST are written in a bamboo shaped font. I unscrew the black cap and inhale. I close my eyes and swear my father is standing right there in front of me. It is his scent. I thought I had lost that forever, but here it is in this square glass bottle.

I run into the other room and call my step-sisters to me. We pass the bottle around and I watch my own reaction repeat itself with each girl. We take turns dabbing a drop behind our ears, enjoying my dad’s spicy scent. Leslie hands the bottle to me. “You should keep this,” she says.

I hold the bottle to my chest. I’d offer it to them, but can’t bring myself to. I want this treasure. I want to be able to open the top and find my dad when I need his presence. I never knew my father wore cologne, never thought about it. I did know his scent though. No other man in my life carried it.

I walk back into the bathroom and place the bottle of Jade East carefully into my cardboard box of keepsakes.

Derecho

July 12, 2012

“Get back in the house!” Bruce yells at Ryan from the driveway. If the wind wasn’t howling so loudly, Bruce’s voice would be much louder and more forceful. Ryan hears his dad though, turns, pulls hard on the front storm door and opens it against the straight strength of the Derecho. He squeezes his lanky, sixteen year old frame through the opening, then the door slams shut behind him. I’ve never heard or seen such wind. Even when we had the tornado touch down near us, the storm was over almost before it began. This wind won’t stop, won’t even slow.

“What does he think, I’m five years old?”

“He just wants to keep you safe.” I answer in a shaky voice from the darkened hallway. Our lights died within ten seconds of the storm, no warning, no time to scavenge for candles or flashlights.

Ryan moves the curtain aside at the door and peers out, watching as the lightning flashes a second’s worth of brightness. I can see the tall oak trees shaking and bending, whipped back and forth, shuddering. I find myself shuddering along with them. I reach out to Ryan and wrap my arms around his shoulders. He’s as tall as I am.

“He and Ben are out there running around in the damn wind, and he wants to keep Me safe?” the youngest of my boys pouts.

“Watch your language,” I say. “Your dad and Ben were out there already, working in the garage. They’re trying to secure whatever they can,” I explain.

“I know what they’re doing. I could be helping,” Ryan says, trying to pull away from me. My grasp tightens and he relents, sighing. I imagine his eyes rolling.  “You think I’m five too,” he grumbles.

I feel my baby’s heart beating beneath my right hand and remember a time when he was pre-school age and easily corralled. When he was five, I could scope out most any situation and make the tallest tree in the yard off limits, lock the doors with deadbolts too high for little hands to reach, or secure the sharp knives in a special drawer. Now, the gate is harder to close, the tether looser, this sixteen year old wants to run free. I hold him back as best I can. His older brother and father are outside braving hurricane force winds, daring limbs not to crush them, shining lanterns and flashlights into the shaking trees. They hear the same strong two hundred year old oak crack, splinter and crash to the ground as I do.  I can’t see out the door. Their flashlights have disappeared, the lightning has stopped.

“I don’t see them anymore, Mom.”

“Me either, let’s go,” I say, pulling the front door open.

We step onto the porch, take off in a full run toward the steps to the driveway. Lightning flashes and the huge tree branches seem to grow straight out of the ground. Leaves and branches are everywhere and we fight our way through and around them. The wind is still blowing, pushing us backward, sending small pieces of wood stinging  into our faces and arms. My heart is racing. I hear its beat in my ears. The sound is louder than the roar of the derecho. I’ve heard people on the news say, “The wind sounds like a freight train.” This wind is louder than that.

Ryan is ahead of me, fighting through branches, yelling for his dad and brother. Another flash of lightning. I hear crashes in the woods. The ornamental grass across the driveway, waves like a giant cheerleader’s pom-pom.

“I said, get in the house,” Bruce yells from somewhere to our left.

“You’re alright,” I yell just as loudly, relieved but still worried. “Where’s Ben?”

“He’s right here with me. We’re coming. Run back to the house,” he growls, grabbing Ryan’s arm and turning him, pushing me afterwards. We run up the steps, all four of us trying to get to the safety of our cinderblock fortress. Ryan wrenches the storm door open, and holds it as the rest of us fall into the front hallway.  Ryan squeezes through and the wind slams the door shut behind him.

“Why would you leave the house when I told you to get inside,” Bruce yells at us from his bent position as he tries to catch his breath.

“We were worried that you were trapped under that damn tree,” I yell back.

“It almost got us,” Ben says from behind me. “Five seconds before, or five seconds after, we’d’ve been mashed flat.”

I take a deep breath and hug myself tight, trying to stop the shaking.

And the wind blows, and blows, and blows, with no reprieve for an hour and a half. We watch and listen to trees uproot and crash to the ground, feel the house shake from the force of impact, listen to the howl  and grimace at the pressure building in our ears. It eases, then builds again.

And as fast as the derecho came, it leaves. The air stills to a dead silence and the humidity rises. We step outside to witness the damage. The flashlight illuminates shadows and hulks all around us and unfamiliar. We walk the driveway, car to car, hoping, praying. Not one is flattened.  The tree that fell behind the garage, grazed the back wall with its very top branches. The yard and highway are a mess though, a massive cleanup that will take more than a week to complete, but nothing and no one is hurt.

Cars are lined up on the highway, just the other side of the driveway in front of the house. A huge white pine lays from guardrail to guardrail and beyond. People empty from cars to survey the damage and possibility of moving forward. Forward is not an option. Neither is backward. A heavy black power line, sparking on one end, lays across the road.

“Let’s go get the saws,” Bruce says to Ben. “We’ve got some clean up to do. May as well start now.  Don’t have enough beds to sleep all these folks.”

Ben turns and walks to the garage in search of his work gloves and McCullough chain saw.

Ryan and I turn and head toward the house.

“Where are you going Ryan?” Bruce asks.

“To bed I guess.”

“Oh no you don’t,” his father says. “We need your help. No time like the present to learn a trade. You might have a future as a lumberjack.”

Ryan turns back as the clouds lift from the face of a bright moon and I see a smile on my baby’s face.

Custard Pies and Family Reunions

July 5, 2012

Egg custard pie was my favorite. Mama stood in the kitchen, Grandma Payne’s recipe card propped at eye level in the window, the green glass mixing bowl in front of her, as she combined milk, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla. She whisked the mixture and poured it into the unbaked pie shells resting on the oven racks. She slid the metal rack carefully into the oven and closed the door. As minutes ticked, the aroma of the baked custard filled the room. She only made them for special occasions, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and family reunions. She always baked two, and two were never enough. Not a piece was left after the first round of dessert.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were close together, but the family reunion was in June. Six months was a long time to wait for my pies, so when the time rolled around, I was excited. Mama spent the morning baking and my mouth watered until I didn’t think there could be any wet left in it. We loaded the car and headed to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

Grandma had been cooking all day the day before and all that morning too. Her kitchen table was covered with bowls, platters, glass jars, dishes, and baskets. Potato salad, baked beans, a picnic shoulder ham, chocolate layer cake, deviled eggs, three kinds of homemade pickle, strawberry jam, buttery yeast rolls, cookies, and fried chicken waited for places in the picnic basket, coolers, and trunk of the car. After arranging, rearranging, stacking, and praying, the trunk finally shut, but the two custard pies were still in the backseat of the car. Mama and Grandpa always rode up front and argued over directions. Grandma and I rode together in the backseat, ignoring them and telling secrets.

“Oh no,” Mama said. “We forgot the pies. Where will be put them? There’s no room in the trunk. It’s slam full.”

“Let’s put them in the floorboard,” Grandma said. “There’s plenty of room for Margaret-Dawn and me if we scootch together a little bit.”

I slid over close to Grandma and she hugged me tight against her soft padding. She smiled down at me.

Mama carefully placed the plastic wrapped custard pies on the floorboard behind the driver’s seat. “Now you watch your feet,” she said to me. “Don’t be stepping in my pies.”

All went well on the drive over the mountain. Grandma and I counted cows, looked for John Deere tractors and whispered secrets about a package of chocolate chip cookies with my name on them packed into the corner of the picnic basket. We laughed at my silly joke about the chicken and the lollipop, and decided what we were going to fill our plates with when we got to the reunion.

Two and a half hours after we left Grandma and Grandpa’s, Mama pulled off the main highway onto the gravel road leading to the picnic shelter. I could see all my aunts, uncles, and cousins up ahead. While the women arranged dishes on the long tables, the men unloaded coolers of drinks and fired up the grill for hamburgers and hot dogs. My cousins were already having fun. Some pitched horseshoes, others unloaded fishing gear. Several flew kites.

The car rolled to a stop and I slid across the seat to jump out the door. I felt the mistake before I saw it, the soft squish under my foot.  In my excitement, I put my foot right in the middle of one of Mama’s custard pies. “Oh no,” I said looking down at the sneakered instigator.

“What’s wrong?” Mama asked, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror.

I felt the heat rise into my face. “I stepped in the pie,” I whispered.

“You didn’t!” Mama yelled.

“Don’t you get on her,” Grandma admonished. “She was just excited. Besides, it’s my fault. I told you to put them on the floor. No harm done.” She frowned at my Mama, giving her the look my Mama often gave me.

“No harm?” Mama asked, her own face turning its own shade of red as she opened her door and turned to open mine. She flung it wide and stared at the ruined pie with the imprint of my shoe neatly cratered into it. “Look what you did,” she accused, as I started to cry.

Grandma patted my knee. “Don’t you cry. We have enough food to feed an army in this car. No one will ever know there were two pies. It’ll be our little secret,” Grandma said, winking at me.

Mama rolled her eyes and huffed her anger as she grabbed the remaining pie and turned to the trunk with her keys in her hand. Grandpa opened his door and headed to the back of the car to help her unload. Grandma sat still, waiting with me, handing me a tissue from her purse. “Don’t you feel bad,” she said. “Accidents happen to the best of us. I dropped a whole bowl of watermelon on the floor this morning. You just sit here with me for a few minutes and get yourself together. Let your Mama work off that steam she’s built up.”

I sniffled and stared at the stupid pie.

“You should have seen that mess I made,” Grandma said. “Watermelon from one end of the kitchen to the other. I wanted to cry too, almost did. Then I got to thinking.”

I looked up at her. “You did?” I asked.

“Yep, sure did. More for me, I decided. I cleaned that mess up, ate the pieces that stayed in the bowl ’til I had my fill and threw the rest away. No harm done. Just a little clean-up, that’s all.  Reach down there and hand me that pie,” she said.

I reached down and picked up the still plastic wrapped dessert and handed it to my Grandma. She held it in one hand as she fished around in her purse with the other. Finally, she pulled out a plastic spoon and smiled.

I looked at her, confused.

“Clean-up,” she said. “I always carry one of these for just such an occasion.”  She wiped the spoon with another of her tissues. She grinned at me. “Let’s unwrap this and have us some.”

“But it’s ruined,” I said.

“Tastes just as good with a footprint as without,” she said, unwrapping the pie and digging in for a bite. Then she handed me the spoon. “See how lucky we are,” she said. “A whole pie all to ourselves.”

I grabbed the spoon and dug in.

“You sure you didn’t plan this all along?” Grandma asked me, winking and wiping the corner of her mouth with her tissue.

To this day, custard pies are still my favorite.

Grandma Payne’s Custard Pie Recipe

3/4 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tbl. flour
2 cups milk
nutmeg

Mix sugar, salt and flour well. Add eggs, milk and vanilla. Mix all well, pour into deep dish unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle nutmeg on top of pie. Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees, then turn down to 325 degrees. Bake until pie is done (knife comes out clean).