Archive for February, 2013

Her Still, Perfect Form (part 1)

February 24, 2013


They liked to sleep in. Emma’s breathing was not the best, and it took her a while to gather energy. Jack just liked to laze in bed. Emma was usually the first one up, walking barefoot in her long flannel nightgown to the sink to wash her face and brush her teeth. She looked in the mirror, patted her hair into place and pinched her cheeks for color. Then, padding over to Jack’s bed, she leaned down and kissed him awake.

Opening his eyes, he reached up, touched her face and said, “there’s my morning sun.”

“Oh stop that foolishness Jack and get yourself up. Breakfast is coming,” she said.

They ate all three meals together in their room at the nursing home. The dining room was just too crowded and they would have to share a table with other people. Somehow, in their sixty-two years of marriage, they stayed selfish enough to be an exclusive pair. They didn’t plan to be childless, but when no babies came, it was alright.

Emma knew how to arrange a dining experience; she had lots of practice. Forty-three years before, she and Jack met at the cafeteria in town. She set tables.

“I knew she was the one for me the minute I looked at that sweet face,” Jack told everyone who met them. “Just look at her. Could you have resisted?”

“Don’t you believe his stories,” Emma said, smiling. “He didn’t really know until the second date.” Then, they both laughed.

Emma pushed their over-the-bed hospital tables together in the center of the room, covered them with a white linen cloth, and placed the vase with a silk rose in the middle. Jack had given her the flower for her birthday. When the stainless steel cart brought their meal trays down the hall, Emma assumed the role of waitress, placing the plates, glasses and utensils in perfect order on the couple’s make-shift dining table. She unfolded the napkin and tucked it under Jack’s chin. His button-up shirts never had a stain.

Jack didn’t have nice shirts until retirement. He was a hard worker, did manual labor, got his hands and clothes dirty. He and Emma lived in West Virginia. He dug coal from the age of ten. Emma had the education. She could read, Jack couldn’t.

The couple enjoyed a small mountain cabin with a garden spot out back. Electricity and running water came later on. Family was close by, and their church was just down the road. They lived in the same small town, in the same house, until Jack retired. That year, their minister died. His widow gave Jack all of the pastor’s clothes because the two men were the same size. Emma liked seeing Jack dressed up, so did Jack. Wearing those clothes made him feel a little closer to God. When he and Emma moved into the nursing home, Emma only packed Jack’s “preacher clothes.”

In the afternoon, when Emma napped, Jack drew. He used colored pencils, and though his artwork was not learned by formal training, he showed natural talent. “My Mama used to ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ over my pictures when I was a boy,” Jack said. “She would take me outside with my paper and pencils and point to trees, flowers, mountain ranges, creeks and animals for me to draw, then she’d tack the pictures up on the wall at home. She’d show them off to anyone who visited. Weren’t for her, it never would have amounted to much. Heck, didn’t really amount to much anyway, but people from as far away as town came up to the house for me to draw them. I even made a little money sometimes.”

Several of Jack’s pictures were framed and hung on the wall in his and Emma’s room. The one of Popeye was his favorite. “I always loved ‘ol Popeye. He’d pick up that can of spinach and get so strong, nothing could beat him or take his girl away,” Jack said.

Some of Jack’s projects took days, some only hours. He drew cars, trains, mountains, birds and houses. Sometimes he sketched staff members’ faces to give away as a thank you for being kind. A nursing assistant asked him once, “Where are your drawings of Emma, Jack?”

“I never drew Emma,” Jack said. “Oh I tried. Just couldn’t do her justice. Look at her. Only God could draw something so beautiful, so I drew love birds instead. That one’s her and this one’s me,” he said pointing to the pair of framed birds on the wall.

When people came to visit, Jack looked over to Emma for all the answers. His hearing was not so good anymore, and of the two, he considered her the smartest. He always had. She smiled graciously, and carried the conversation, while he smiled and nodded. Emma’s steadfastness reassured Jack.

One Saturday afternoon Jack came out of the room looking for Emma. He wandered the long hallways, knocking on doors, peering inside to see if she was there. That night, his usual sound sleep was interrupted. He got himself up in the wheelchair to check her bed. She was gone. He wondered where she was, what had happened to her. It wasn’t like her to be out after dark, gone in the middle of the night. He wheeled to the door of the room and asked a nursing assistant passing by if she had seen his wife.

Part 2 here:


February 17, 2013


If I didn’t know better, I’d say buying this house was just an excuse for Bruce to acquire another trailer. He’s obsessed with them. Is there such a thing as a hauling fetish?

“We have to be able to pull it with the Explorer,” he said.

“We have another truck you know?” I said.

“We have a flatbed work truck and a dump truck. You want to haul the stuff to the little house in Chincoteague with the dump truck?”

“Yes ,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Let’s take the dump truck and park it on the tiny lawn on Ocean Blvd.”

“See what I mean,” he said. “We need a smaller trailer, one we can park beside the house.”

I sighed. There was no sense arguing. He’d win anyway. So we built a trailer, painted it and waited for the state trooper to come approve it for tags. We loaded it and left at two-thirty on a Thursday morning, headed for Chincoteague, and a one o’clock closing appointment at the office of a lawyer on the island.

We pulled into McDonald’s parking lot at eight-thirty and went in for a cup of coffee and a long wait. Storm clouds gathered to the west and the air hung heavy. We took a corner booth and watched as a light mist turned into a solid downpour. I wondered if this was a sign. I’m always looking for metaphors, rain is a big one.

“It’s been raining like this for a week,” the man in gum boots sitting across from us said. “Mosquitoes worst I’ve ever seen.”

I was ready to run, taking my down payment, our brand new trailer filled with household items, and my dreams back home again. An epic flood and/or plague of mosquitoes was about to descend on my hopes and I didn’t seem to have sense enough to heed the warning.

“Stop worrying,” Bruce said, sighing. I looked at him. I hadn’t said a word. He patted my hand.

The phone rang at ten o’clock. It was Debbie, our real estate agent. Her son was being taken to the emergency room with shortness of breath and chest pains. Did we mind holding off on the final walk through of the house until she went to check on him? Oh dear, another sign.

I assured her that was not a problem, we didn’t have the appointment to close until one o’clock and I wasn’t worried about the walk through anyway. We had met Melva’s daughter and son-in-law on a previous visit and were certain they hadn’t stripped the house of copper pipes or aluminum siding. Debbie agreed to call as soon as she was certain her son was alright.

The phone rang at eleven-fifteen. It was Debbie. “He has pneumonia and they’ve given him some heavy doses of antibiotics. He’ll be fine. Can I meet you in ten minutes?”

We drove with windshield wipers sweeping water away at high speed and arrived at at the house at the appointed time. We pulled into Melva’s driveway. I stepped out of the truck and into soggy grass. Water seeped over the soles of my sneakers. We dashed through the door of the screen porch, and watched as rain poured off and through the green plastic awning above us. Leaks we hadn’t seen on sunny day visits dripped at our feet. Another sign, I thought.

Debbie unlocked the door to the house explaining that Melva’s daughter had been overwhelmed with packing and the ordeal of moving her things. They’d expected the house to stay on the market for awhile and thought they’d have time to go through the process slowly. Whatever was left in the house and sheds that we didn’t want, we could donate to the local Opportunity Shop or the Hospice Thrift Store.

The house was as if Melva had cleaned up after her breakfast and gone for a walk. Everything was clean and in its place, all the rooster dishes on plate hangers lined the kitchen walls. Cabinets held china, glassware, pots, pans, and even food and spices. Drawers contained silverware, cooking utensils, handmade hot pads, and birthday candles. Melva’s mop and broom hung in the closet along with the apron she wore to keep her dress clean. Fabric softener with the picture of a teddy bear on it, sat on top of the washer.

I wandered the house, picking up her things, wondering how she must have felt, leaving them all behind for the last time. Her bed was made with lavender scented sheets and a hand made quilt was pulled neatly under the pillows.

Her toothbrush and tube of toothpaste stood in the china holder at the sink in the bathroom; her shower cap hung on the back of the door. Up in the attic, her canning jars and pressure cookers waited for her to return from the farm stand with beans, or tomatoes, or cucumbers.

I felt like I was breaking Melva’s heart. Oh my, another sign.

Bruce inspected the front window and door locks, the screens on the porch, the attic for leaks and the bathroom for water pressure. All was in order.

The phone rang. “Hello,” Bruce said, then silence. Finally he said, “Sure, we’ll see you at three then.”

My face must have revealed my anxiousness. “It’s alright,” Bruce said to me. “Some of the closing papers haven’t arrived from the bank yet. He’s pushed closing ahead two hours.” Oh no, another sign.

After the inspection, Debbie suggested we go to one of the local restaurants for lunch and listed some gift and art shops we might be interested in visiting. She said we could unhook the trailer and leave it in the driveway. It was no problem.

We returned to McDonalds and ordered from the dollar menu, ate slowly, deciding what we would do with our time until three o’clock. The forecast hadn’t called for rain, only a twenty percent chance of showers. It fell steadily and in driving sheets at times. Bruce, always prepared, had packed tarps for the trailer and covered everything securely before we unhooked from the trailer. Neither of us packed our foul weather gear though, and agreed that thrift store rain coats were in order. We headed to the Opp shop. The coat rack sported two slickers just our size. Was this a good sign? I wondered.

We spent over an hour in the junk shop, browsing, trying to remember what Melva didn’t leave in the house that we might need. We came away with a coffee maker and two mugs. Melva had fancy tea cups and instant coffee.

At three-fifteen we hadn’t heard from the lawyer and I couldn’t stand the suspense anymore. “No word yet,” he said, sounding frustrated. “They emailed wanting to know if you had flood insurance. I’d sent them the policy five days ago, but I re-sent it,” he said. “I’m still waiting to hear from the bank’s closing officer so I can fill out the numbers and email them back to her. Settlement shouldn’t be this difficult.”

“Do you think it’ll still be today?” I asked. “We planned to stay the night at the house. We didn’t make other arrangements.” My heart sank, this was another sign.

“I’ll call the loan officer and let them know that. You call them too. They’ve had every document they need for almost a week. There’s no excuse for this.”

I telephoned our loan officer at the bank. She and I have been corresponding since the process began, and she’s been nothing but helpful. She felt my frustration and assured me that she would stay as late as she needed in the office to make sure that the closing officer had our papers to the lawyer before the end of the day. “You won’t have to drive five hours home tonight, if I have to drive the papers to you from here,” she said.

Bruce and I slogged out to the truck and drove to the beach at Assateague. We parked facing the ocean. I sat silently, watching the waves crash onto the shore under a now gray drizzle of rain. Everything looked deserted, no colorful umbrellas, no children running after beach balls. Even the gulls were hunkered down, looking bleak.

“Do you remember when we bought your Grandma’s house in ’86?” Bruce asked.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling.

“We suffered the same red tape and frustration. It took a week longer to close than we thought it would. Some HUD paper was lost, remember?”

I had to think way back. “Seems to me I do remember,” I said.

“It’ll work out. You worry too much. If we don’t get in tonight, we’ll stay at the Best Western, no big deal.”

I kept looking at my phone, at the time readout, willing the thing to ring. It was almost five o’clock. Didn’t lawyer’s offices close at five o’clock? We opened the cooler and shared a box of raspberries and a banana. I dug around in the glove box and found a plastic spoon. We shared a container of cottage cheese and blueberry yogurt. Bruce scraped the sides of the plastic yogurt box and looked in the cooler again. “Nothing else in here,” he said. “I could go for some seafood.”

“I’m not very hungry,” I pouted.

At five-fifteen I had given up hope and was ready to head to a hotel. We turned the truck around and started for Chincoteague. The phone rang. “I think we’re ready,” our lawyer’s voice said. “Come on to the office; we’ll start signing the papers.”

It took five minutes to get there. Our soggy shoes squeaked our arrival as we hung our slickers to drip from the coat rack in the corner. Mr. West, dressed in his tweed jacket welcomed us with a firm handshake and a smile, then pointed in the direction of the conference room. “I’ll be right with you,” he said. “Just have to make a few more copies.”

We sat down at the long conference table. The windows faced the bay. Ducks waddled through the yard, pecking at something in the grass. Bruce pointed to the sky. “Rain’s on its way out,” he said. “Sky’s getting lighter.” He comes from a farming family. He knows the weather.

Twenty minutes later, after signing what felt like hundreds of forms, Mr. West handed us the keys to our new house, to Melva’s home. We gathered our raincoats and draped them over our arms as we walked to the truck. The sun was shining over Chincoteague Bay. I took it as a sign.

The Inspection

February 10, 2013


We offered a low bid for Melva’s house. She counter-offered, and the push and pull of home buying began. Finally, we signed a contract contingent upon the home inspection.

We wanted to be there for the walk through, and could only come to the island on the weekend. The inspector squeezed us in on a Sunday morning at the end of August. Our realtor called to let us know that Melva, her daughter, and son-in-law would also be at the house that day, packing.

I imagined Melva’s last weekend in her home of sixty-two years. I saw her walking from room to room, her fingertips sliding across the dark wood furniture she’d polished to a shine over her lifetime, picking up and sorting through her hinged-top sewing box filled with spools of thread, needles, sock darner, and seamstress scissors. I could see her apron-clad figure standing at the gas stove, turning crisp slices of bacon that morning before church. I watched her drink her final cup of coffee at the kitchen table and peer out into her backyard one more time while she washed the dishes.

When we walked into the house, Melva’s daughter, Lynn, and her husband were wrapping photo frames and a collection of fine china in newspaper. Melva was not there. Friends had picked her up for church.

“This is so hard,” Lynn said, shaking her head. “I never thought I’d be packing away my childhood.”

I thought of our place back home, my grandparent’s house, its corner kitchen cupboards built by my grandpa, the water dipper hanging above the sink, the aroma of grandma’s lilacs in spring, my view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the front window, all my memories. I couldn’t imagine letting go.

Lynn reminisced about the house, and growing up in the neighborhood, aunts, uncles, and cousins, school, church, and the ice cream parlor, all within walking distance. The ocean was only a bicycle ride away, and the island kids used to ride the Chincoteague ponies bareback.

“When Mom and Dad built this place, they had less than five thousand dollars, and decided they would build a fireplace later when they could afford it. It never happened. By the time Mom was forty and gave birth to me, her only child, a fireplace was no longer a priority.”

As we stood and talked, we watched the inspector go from room to room, heard him turn on faucets in the kitchen and bathroom, then pull the attic stairs down and climb up. After a bit, he came down again and exited the front door. The four of us watched him shrug into a disposable white coverall in preparation to slide under the house. We listened as he bumped around under the floor where we stood. Bruce and I paid him little attention as we stayed and talked with Lynn, gathering the history of Melva’s place.

“I’ve always wondered what the hardwood floors would look like under this carpet. I bet they’re stunning,” she said.

Bruce and I finally left Lynn and her husband to their packing and joined the inspector outside in the yard.

“What’s the verdict?” Bruce asked.

I held my breath. I had already fallen in love with Melva’s place. Lynn’s stories had cinched it.

“Nothing worse than what you see with most of these older houses. Contractors didn’t have a specific code for footings and beams under houses back then. There’s some sag under the house, but nothing that can’t be shored up. I’ve seen a lot worse. At least this one has cement footers. Some on the island have oyster shell mixed with mortar as their foundation. Those are the houses with a tilt.”

We’d seen some of those structures. They resembled drawings in a Dr. Seuss book.

“What else?” Bruce asked.

“A few plumbing issues, not enough pressure in the shower and a few leaks under the house. A little rot under there as well, but not too much, easily fixable. That front window needs replacing, but you knew that already. Roof looks like it’s good for another fifteen years or so. Some of your electrical outlets need upgrades. I’ll fill out a report and send it to you so you can get an estimate on the repair cost.”

I sagged with the news. My excitement turned to trepidation; and I began to doubt our decision. Houses involve upkeep and cost, a never ending place to pour money. Something was always breaking at home and trips to the hardware store were weekly events. I was quiet on the way home, estimating costs in my head, thinking about the coastal area, worrying about taxes, insurance, and not living close enough to keep an eye on the place.

While my doubt grew, Bruce’s excitement expanded. It works that way with us. He emailed the inspector’s report to a Chincoteague contractor for an estimate of repairs. Then Bruce began gathering construction and yard tools. He started talking about building a trailer to pull behind the pickup to carry what we needed for the weekend after closing.

Meanwhile, I stepped back, calculating potential costs and tuning to the weather channel to follow every forecast mentioning hurricanes and slow moving low fronts dumping rain. I worried about another flood like the one in 1962. We hadn’t checked the price of propane, or asked how much the electric bill was each month. Water had to be another cost, and what about trash collection?

I closed my eyes and wondered what my husband had gotten me into.

part 5:

Crunching Numbers

February 3, 2013


I drove toward home extolling the virtues of Melva’s Place on Ocean Blvd. Perfect size house, wide street with space to park and store the boat trailer, two sheds, and large attic for storage, a house on the island that cost less than any house in our county at home. It was downright cheap in comparison.

Bruce sat quietly in the passenger seat, calculator in hand, punching numbers. “Interest rates are as low as they’re gonna go,” he said. “It’s probably the best time to buy.”

That sounded positive.

“We’ve spent over three thousand dollars in rental and hotel costs since we found the island. Multiply that by ten years. That’s wasted money.”

That sounded positive.

“Chincoteague is in a flood zone. No getting around that. The house is about two and a half feet off the ground. Anything south of Maddox is listed as three feet above sea level, anything north of Maddox is listed as six feet above. Ocean Blvd is just one street south. I’d say it’s probably between three and five feet above. The ’62 flood had six feet of water covering the island.”

That sounded negative.

“Could we move it to the lot, or raise it?”

“I don’t think you’d want to do that, costs too much. We looked at that when we were considering the house on Bunting Road. Remember, this house was built in 1950. It survived the flood of ’62. Gotta have flood insurance though, that’s probably a big cost to think about.”

Darn, another negative.

“Did I mention the workshop?” I asked smiling, “It has electricity and a cement floor, all those woodworking tools.”

“It’ll be the first part of the property under water in a flood too,” he said laughing at my feeble attempt to sway him. At least he was laughing.

We were almost home before Bruce said, “I think it might be a good investment. We could use it to stay in when we come to the island, and rent it out when we’re not there. When I talked to Debbie she said if we rent it to expect eight to ten weeks of rental at eight-fifty a week. That should be enough to pay part of the utilities and taxes. Not sure about cost of insurance.”

This sounded positive. I had gone from mere hoping to imagining pulling into the driveway and spending the night in Melva’s four poster bed.

“I didn’t go under the house, or look at the plumbing and wiring. We’re not even considering buying this property without an inspection. You know what we found under your Daddy’s house when we went to sell it.”

I did remember. Rot and a repair bill to the tune of over fifteen thousand dollars.

“Let’s make a ridiculously low offer and see what happens,” Bruce said.

part 4: