Archive for the ‘Daily Writing’ Category

There was Only One Mike Powell

May 28, 2012

This Memorial Day is especially hard for me. My Dad passed away on May 13th after battling Lymphoma. He was a career Navy man, twenty-two years in the Navy (USS Iowa and the USS America), then worked twenty-two years Civil Service. The walls of his office at home were decorated with plaques and certificates of commendation. He was so proud of his country.

I wore his Navy ring on a chain around my neck today in his honor and below is the piece I put together for the minister to read at his funeral. On this day of remembrance, I have a new and much better understanding of the sacrifice and service of our veterans.  I will miss you Daddy.

 

I remember his visits when I was a little girl. He came fresh off the ocean, tall, handsome, and bearing gifts:  a set of dolls with costumes and matching hats, a tiny leather purse with a “Paris” label,  a royal blue tapestry decorated with solid white kittens, and the best present of all, his time.   

I knelt on the couch, holding the sheers back, my faced pressed to the glass, waiting.  He drove a shiny blue car. I got to ride up front with him. He pulled to the curb, looked up into the mirror, ran his hand through his wavy hair and put on his sunglasses. 

 I jumped down from the couch and ran outside to meet him, a whirlwind of arms, legs, ruffles and ribbons.  He picked me up and swung me around, laughing and calling me doll baby.  Mama handed him my overnight bag.  I never looked back.

 My Daddy and I had fun. We went to the Gypsy Hill Park, rode the little train through the tunnel. He folded up his long legs so he could sit beside me, his strong arm wrapped around my shoulder, his sunglasses on my nose. He smelled like spice and his face was a little scratchy. We laughed and ate ice cream and drove fast with the top of the car folded down behind the back seat.  My hair blew into my eyes, and it didn’t matter.

 “I bet Grandma fixed a good dinner for us. We’d better head over there before we’re late and get in trouble,” he said, laughing.

 Those two days with him went as fast as the previous six months went slow. On my way back home in the car, I couldn’t talk. I was too busy holding back tears.  “No tears,” my Daddy said, “we’ve had too much fun to cry.”

 He carried me to the apartment door, my fingers holding tight to the back of his shirt. As he left, my sound was a wail; my grief, determined.  Daddy had gone back to sea and my Mama knelt down before me.  “I found something special for you while you were gone,” she said with her hands behind her back.

 I looked up, tears running off my chin.  I couldn’t talk.  She smiled at me and presented me with a small, orange-striped kitten.  I reached out and took the ball of soft fur. I held him in my arms as I cried, my tears making wet spots on him.  He was nice, but he wasn’t my Daddy.

 I realized early on that nothing  or no one could take the place of my Daddy.  There was only one Mike Powell.

 

 

Prom Night

May 12, 2012

 

It was prom night and my mother had spent all she had left from her paycheck on that long periwinkle blue dress I’d been coveting for months. She curled my hair into long ringlets and applied my make-up herself, matching the eye shadow to the color of my dress. She dabbed a drop of Chantilly behind each of my ears and loaned me her good pearls.  She stepped back and smiled. “You look stunning,” she said.

She took photographs of me and my date on the front porch of our duplex and helped me fold the bottom of my dress into his truck so the door wouldn’t close on it.  She blew me a kiss as we drove away.

Seven hours later my date carried me to my mother’s front door and rang the bell. I was too drunk to stand. The world spun. Half a fifth of Jack Daniels didn’t mix well with Dr. Pepper and a virgin drinker.

“Why in the hell did you let her get this drunk?” My mother questioned my date, but didn’t wait for an answer. She directed him to carry me upstairs and deposit me on my bed. She then escorted him from the house.

My mother was the one person I could count on to be there for me, no matter what. Whenever I was sick, she was the one with me on the bathroom floor, holding me, pressing a cool washcloth to my forehead, whispering that everything would be alright.  She made homemade chicken soup when I had a cold and bandaged my scraped knees. She stayed up late helping me staple and paste construction paper models of the universe for a school project, and sat on the kitchen stool reading off the recipe for enchiladas I planned to take to Spanish class. She woke me in the mornings for school and made sure I ate a hearty breakfast. She patted my back and held the tissue box when a boyfriend dumped me.

After my date slipped from the room, I lay on my bed dreading my mother’s wrath. She knew how to make me quiver with a look. She knew how to make me cry just by expressing her disappointment. She knew the most painful punishments. I was in trouble and dreaded the consequences.  I fell asleep with my head full of spinning fuzz, but I was sober enough to know I needed to atone for my sins.

The first wave of nausea woke me. The room spun. I swallowed convulsively. I was going to throw up. I still had on my long formal dress and it tangled around my legs as I tried to weave my way to the bathroom. I pulled the dress above my knees and attempted to run, but the spin of the room and my navigation skills didn’t match. I bounced around in the door frame of my room and lurched across the hallway to the bathroom. I missed the toilet, spraying vomit across the small tiled space. I knelt before the toilet and heaved what remained of my stomach contents into it.  I couldn’t find a washcloth to wet with cool water. I couldn’t find my legs to carry me back to bed. I lay alone on the bathroom floor,  slick with my emesis, and fell back to sleep.

I woke again some time later. The house was dark and I was still alone. The smell of my own sickness overcame me and I lifted my upper body, embraced the commode and vomited the bile that had collected during my sleep.  My hair was stuck to my head, wet and sour smelling. My beautiful dress was slimy and ruined. I couldn’t remember ever being so sick.

I dragged myself up and into the shower, dress and all. I turned on the water and stood under its spray, heaving and crying. Where was my mother when I needed her? How could she sleep when I was so sick? How was I going to make this right? How could something that started out so fun, turn out so horrible? How was I going to live through this disaster? What would my mother do to me?

I left my dress in a heap in the tub, spread one bath towel on the floor so I wouldn’t step into my own vomit, and wrapped the other towel around my wet body. I stumbled back across the hall and fell into bed, my hair a tangled mess, my make up streaked down my face, and I slept.

The next morning, I could see the light through my closed eyelids, but my head hammered so badly I was afraid to open my eyes. The headache made me nauseous all over again. I knew today was the day of reckoning. I would be on the receiving end of my mother’s wrath. I would be grounded until I left for college. I’d never drive again or see my friends. My boyfriend was history. My room would become my jail cell. My television would be disconnected. I’d lose contact with the entire outside world. I wanted to roll into a ball and die.

I opened one eyelid. The room wasn’t spinning anymore. That was a good sign, but the light sent an excruciating bolt of electricity through my skull. I closed my eye again. I listened for sounds of my mother, kitchen rattles, vacuuming, the crack of a bull whip as she honed her aim. I cringed. She wouldn’t actually use a bull whip would she? I didn’t know. I’d never done anything like this before. The only sounds I heard were the birds outside my window and they were screaming.

I continued to lay there. I couldn’t get up. My head pounded. Movement made me sick. The thought of food made me sick. The thought of television, radio or reading made me sick. Then, I heard a faint sound from the first floor,  footsteps ascending the stairs leading to the upper floor, leading to my room. They were my mother’s footsteps, slow and steady, sliding onto the hardwood steps one at a time. I counted them, trying to remember how many would bring her to the landing, then to my door. I hid behind my closed eyes and waited.

When her footsteps stopped and didn’t move past my door, I pictured her there, veins bulging at her neck, her eyebrows knitted, her fists clenched, her mouth a thin line of anger. I imagined her toe tapping against the floor. I knew she was standing there waiting to mete out my punishment.

I opened my eyes to slits and met my mother’s gaze.  She stood leaning against the door jamb, arms crossed, but not looking like the monster I imagined. She didn’t say anything for the longest time. She just stared at me, her daughter, a towel covered, bedraggled, tangle-haired, make-up smeared, head pounding, mess.

When I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer and wanted to whisper to her to take out a gun and shoot me, to put me out of my misery and hers, she raised her hand, pointed a finger at me, smiled,  and said, “Bet you never do that again.”

Then she turned away, walked back down the stairs, and left me to clean up my own mess.

 

Ups and Downs

May 2, 2012

I enter the Hampton Roads Tunnel and the rain suddenly stops. Usually I don’t like the tunnel. Going from bright sunshine into darkness illuminated only by artificial lights and knowing I’m underwater frightens me. Today, the tunnel is a relief, it feels like a refuge from the storm. The serenity only lasts a minute or two before I’m spit back out onto the bridge spanning choppy water. My windshield is pelted by rain. I look to the horizon and spot one lonely sailboat, its triangles of white canvas, stark against an all gray waterscape. I think the boat a brave little vessel to be bobbing there.

The tunnel separates my home from the land of my father. He is a retired Navy man. He still wears his USS America Cap with its pins attached when he ventures out for appointments and to run errands. Hampton Roads is home to military families, active and retired. There’s a sense of urgency here that I have not felt in other places.  I only lived here for the first two years of my life, and I don’t remember those. My mother and I moved three hours west in 1963. I’ve only come to visit since then.

Last Thursday and Friday when I was here, I had such hope. My father was better. He was still weak and he tired easily, but he was less pale. His hug felt tighter around my shoulders. He was able to drive us to the commissary for groceries, and to the Mexican Restaurant for dinner. He collected the chicken eggs in the morning and washed a few dishes in the sink. His biting sense of humor seemed to be returning and he had regained ten of the twenty-three pounds he’d lost after the first round of chemo. The suspenders he wore to keep his pants up looked endearing.

Bev called this morning to tell me he was being taken to the Emergency room. We knew this new round of chemo would be difficult, make him weaker, more susceptible to infection, possibly take away his wavy white hair. He took the treatments all day Thursday, half a day Friday and then went for a blood booster shot on Saturday. Bev and I kept in close contact over the phone each day.  We strategized my visit to coincide with our projection of the worst. By our estimation, Sunday would be the day the effects of chemo would begin to hit my father. Our projections were twelve hours off. By Sunday morning, he’d fallen twice from the side of the bed and the pain in his back was so severe he couldn’t move without screaming.

I had spent all day Saturday and early Sunday morning cooking in preparation to leave Sunday afternoon. I wanted to take enough food to carry us through the difficult part of the chemo. No one has the energy to cook after care-giving. I gathered all my things, packed the food in a cooler and picked up the interstate three miles west of our house. I tried to concentrate on the book being read to me on CD as I drove. Twenty minutes into the trip, I gave up, ejected the CD, and listened to my thoughts for the rest of the drive.

The hospital is only four blocks from my father’s house. It’s easy to find. The parking is atrocious though. I circle and circle the emergency lot, hoping for someone to get well enough to leave so I can claim their space. I pull out my cell phone and call Bev.

“We’re still in the emergency room,” she says. “Room thirty-four.”

“As soon as I find a parking space, I’ll be right there,” I say.

I wind my way through the emergency department until I come to the last row of doors on the last hallway. The door is shut, the blinds closed. All I can see is darkness. As I raise my hand to knock, a nurse comes up behind me.

“Can you wait here just a moment?” she asks, not waiting for me to answer. She shuts the door behind her, leaving me to wonder.

Panic sets in. Am I too late? Has he died while I was searching for a place to park? If I had known I would have parked in one of those ‘Employee of the Month’, or ‘Doctor Only’ spaces. I’d have double parked and not worried about the towing bill.  I’d have left the car running with its driver door open, not worrying about it being stolen.

The nurse comes back out and ushers me into the room. My dad is laying flat on a stretcher, his face so pale and drawn, he doesn’t look alive. His eyes are closed. He grimaces; and I let out the breath I’ve been holding.  “We’ve given him morphine,” the nurse says from the door. “It should kick in pretty soon.”

I hug Bev, lean to kiss my dad on his forehead, wheel the rolling stool in the corner of the room closer to his bedside. I take his limp hand in mine, and wait.

An Uncut Patch of Buttercups

April 22, 2012

I clip the ipod shuffle to the frayed neckline of one of my oldest son’s threadbare tee shirts. I’ve stolen the shirt from his drawer. The sleeves are cut off and the faded gray form hangs loose on me, great for catching a breeze as it blows through.  I secure the ipod ear buds, slide the power button and feel the beat from Dwight Yoakam’s White Cadillac travel from my head to my feet. I rock across the front porch on my way to meet my nemesis, the red troy built push lawnmower. I prime the machine and pull the start cord. The mower roars to life and my battle with the grass and my exercise plan begins.

I hate walking a track, riding a bicycle to nowhere, or sweating on a treadmill. I want to know, right away, that the work on my muscles is providing a reward I can see. I’ve found that cutting the grass gives me some instant gratification, an increased heart rate, and a neatly manicured yard.

Bruce looks at me and shakes his head. It’s the ipod. He thinks I’ve gone all-teenager on him. He doesn’t own an ipod or anything with ear buds.  He’s a retired mechanic with a lawn maintenance and mulching business. The sound of his machines provides a melody only his ears can hear. He likes being able to pick out anomalies in motor sounds or just listen to a gentle smooth-running purr. The ipod may speak teenager to him, but our teenage years are well behind us.

We met when I was sixteen, a senior in high school. He was older than me, already graduated and working. He took me to my prom in his ’76 Ford Pick-up. We slow danced to Bob Seger on the radio in my mother’s kitchen.  Life was big, our future endless. Together, we could accomplish anything.  Some thirty years later, we find togetherness in yard work.

My mower is not self-propelled, and it takes me four hours to cut the entire yard. I usually break the work up into smaller parts during the week. At the end of seven days, it’s time to start over again.  Mowing would be easy if the task ahead of me was all flat ground, but we have some killer hills. I sweat and my legs burn.

Bruce takes the weed eater and heads to the steep bank at the front of the property nearest the highway. He cuts the steepest hills and follows behind me at a covert and safe distance to catch my misses. I’ve told him he’s not allowed to direct my exercise plan or my mowing. He’s a perfectionist; I’m not.

I head to the backyard and begin mowing rows back and forth, under the clothesline and around the outdoor wood burning furnace, all the way to the garden gate and just to the opening of the tin roofed shed. I move the youngest boy’s bicycle and prop it against the picnic table. Buttercups are tall and bright in the yard. Their height makes my visual track easy to distinguish. The right side of the yard where I’ve cut is all short grass and green, the left side, uneven and tall with thousands of yellow dots. Creedence Clear Water Revival sings Bad Moon Rising as I turn the corner to the side yard, mowing between the lilac and mock orange bushes, around the peonies and under the snowball bush. The slope in the yard is higher here and I work harder.

We used to listen to CCR when we camped by the river after we were first married. Fire-roasted hot dogs on sticks, Proud Mary rolling from the radio,  and star gazing outside a pitched tent was all we needed or wanted. We were the only two people in the world.

My legs begin to wobble and my throat is parched. I shut off the mower and grab my water bottle from the steps leading to the shed. I go in search of some shade to cool off a bit. As I round the corner of the house I meet Bruce. He’s leaning against the shaded wall, drinking from his own bottle of water. I join him and the two of us rest and wipe sweat from our faces.

My ipod switches to Bob Seger’s We’ve Got Tonight, the first song we ever danced to. I smile and take one of the ear buds out, placing it in Bruce’s ear. He smiles back, remembering. He takes my hand and leads me to a small patch of uncut buttercups in the front yard, and the two of us slow dance to a memory.

Bring Your Camera

April 18, 2012

“Come with me to deliver this load of mulch,” Bruce said last night after supper.

I never know what our trips will bring. He doesn’t usually ask me along; so I know when he does invite me, there’s something he wants me to see.

“Bring your camera,” he added as I walked toward the front door.

The dump truck is an International road tractor. You need a ladder to climb up into the thing, but once there, you survey the world on your side from a high vantage point.  Bruce started the engine and pulled out of the driveway.  We bumped along Rt. 250 toward the foot of Afton Mountain. At Rockfish Gap Country Store, we took a left onto Old Turnpike Road. It’s a gravel road I’ve never traveled. On our right was an old factory with abandoned cinderblock buildings, peeling tin roofed structures, loading docks with bay doors rusted shut, old equipment smothered under weeds and vines, and off in the distance stood a tall, brick smoke stack.

Bruce stopped the truck next to the Realtor’s For Sale sign. “I wonder what this used to be,” he said.

“I don’t know, but it sure is a mess,” I answered.

He’s been looking for a little piece of land to move his mulch business to. He needs a place where a tractor trailer can get off the main road easily, turn around, and dump the load.

“I’d love to have it if the price was right,” he said.

“Oooh no,” I said. “There’s too much to clean up here and you don’t know what that factory made. It may be one of those situations where the EPA has to get involved, asbestos clean up, lead based paint, underground oil and gas tanks. Can you imagine what a mess that would be? How much money you’d have pour into it? And that would be after you bought the property.  You can just put this idea right out of your head,”  I stated with crossed arms.  My tone must have sounded firm enough, because he pulled back out onto the road mumbling something about “just a thought.”

The road was narrow and the truck is big and wide. I was glad not to have met any cars coming. They would have had to back up, or pull over if they’d met us.  The Blue Ridge mountains rose to our right. We were so close to the foot of the range that we could see individual trees where the slope graduated upward. Spring hay in the pastureland between us and the mountain waved under the breeze. A fence stretched along the roadside with rails arranged like clasped gray fingers. The sun had dipped below the mountain and the warm spring air had begun to cool.

I lifted my camera when I saw three deer standing in the field adjacent to the truck, but the side mirror obstructed my shot and I put the camera back in my lap.  “If you wanted me to take pictures,” I said, “we should have come back later in the car.”

“Keep your britches on,” Bruce said. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

We traveled for another two or three miles before making a sharp left and climbing a steep driveway. The road surface was littered with large loose gravel and good sized pieces of crystal quartz. I could hear them hit the bank as the truck rolled over them and they shot out from under the tires. The driveway was rutted from rain and we bounced from side to side in the truck seat. I hoped this realignment of my brain was worth it.

At the crest of the hill, spread out before us, was the acreage of our destination, a flat, terrace of spring green dotted with hot pink and white azalea bushes under weeping willow trees. The view of the mountains was crisp and clean. My intake of breath was audible. Bruce looked over at me and smiled. He pulled up beside an old weathered gray barn with a rusted tin roof. It leaned back against a tree, tired from years of holding farm equipment and bales of hay.

The farm house was circa 1920, a non-descript two story brown dwelling with square white pillars holding up the porch roof. I was not impressed with it.  What caught my eye was the small rock house to its right. It was quaint and old, probably dating back before the Civil War. The mortar around the rock was rough placed and the craftsman had taken something like a stick and traced a line in the mortar around each stone.  We have many rock walls, pillars and buildings in Albemarle County, but I had never seen one made like this. The roofline had been changed at one time to add height to the cottage, and the structure had a later addition, crafted by a different rock mason. The lines were missing. The two windows facing us were stained glass. The door was a wide paneled mahogany with a white porcelain knob.    “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Thought you’d like it,” Bruce said as he tipped the dump body and unloaded the mulch.

The owners of the property had been spreading the last load of mulch Bruce had brought and came over to the truck to hand him a check. Bruce is not shy.  “She’d like to see the rock cottage,” Bruce said motioning to me with his thumb.

“Sure, come on in,” the woman said. “I’d love to show it to you.  As much work as I did to the place, I like to brag about it.”

And it was lovely, with its original hardwood floors, exposed beam ceilings, stone fireplace and walnut mantle. She had sanded the wood to its original burnished finish and was in the process of taking the layers of paint off the inside rock surface of one wall. A huge high four poster bed sat in a corner of the front room near the fireplace.  I had my camera in my hand as I walked through the cottage admiring the renovations that brought the original look back to the building. I didn’t take any photographs though.

We thanked the owners for the tour and climbed back into the truck. “I could stand there and feel myself transported back in time,” I said to Bruce.

“Why didn’t you take any pictures?” He asked.

“I felt funny taking pictures of the inside of someone’s house with them standing right there,” I said. “Like maybe they’d think I was casing the joint.”

Bruce laughed. “I think you look pretty trustworthy,” he said. “Besides, they have my name, phone number and address. You wouldn’t get very far before you were caught.”

“Oh well,” I said. “I guess I missed out. I’ll just have to keep the pictures I have in my head.”

We left the way we came. As we turned at the bottom of the hill, I pointed and called out, “Wait! Stop! Look at this.”

“Oh yeah, I saw it the last trip,” Bruce said. “I thought you had seen it.”

“No, I missed it. Pull over,” I said. “It’s so sweet. I want to get out and take some pictures.”

He pulled over in front of another stone cottage and let me slide out. He drove the truck down a ways from the cottage and waited for me.

The building looked to be constructed by the latter mason who had added onto the house we’d just come from up on the hill. This rock was smooth on the surface with neat mortared edges. The small entryway was framed by a pillared arch. Two round-top windows on either side of the front door reflected the yard’s white dogwood trees in their dark surface. A rock chimney rose from a roof shingled in weathered gray cedar shakes. A neat stack of firewood sat near the front door. Its small split logs ready to warm the little house.

To the right side of the cottage, a retaining wall made of the same rock rose behind the building with a set of stairs climbing along its side to access an upper level door that lead to a room that had been dug out of the hillside above.  The door mirrored the same rounded arch as the porch and windows.

Bordering the tiny front yard, a rail fence stood next to an old fashioned climbing red rose, its fragrance perfumed the evening air as no hybrid rose could.

I stood staring at the cottage for a long time after I took my photographs. I imagined its interior inhabited by elves or fairies. I smelled the aroma of meat stew simmering over an open flame in the fireplace. I tasted buttery cornbread cooked in an iron skillet. A grandmother rocked in her chair, reading to a child from a storybook written long ago.

“You alright?” Bruce called from the truck.

I put the camera into my pocket and walked down the hill to the dump truck. “I want that little house,” I said.

When we got back to the old factory, Bruce pulled to the side of the road again and stopped. “You want to take some pictures?” he asked.

I looked at him and frowned. “No,” I said. “I thought we decided against this.”

“We?” he asked.

“I’d rather have that cute little rock house back there,” I said smiling, my arms crossed over my chest again.

Bruce crossed his own arms and smiled back at me. “There’s no ‘For Sale’ sign there,” he said.

Grandma’s Lilacs

April 8, 2012

 

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

  APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the   dead land, mixing
Memory and desire,   stirring
Dull roots with   spring rain.
Winter kept us warm,   covering
Earth in forgetful   snow, feeding
A little life with dried   tubers.

–T. S. Eliot

 

 

 

I round the corner of my house with the lawn mower this evening and I’m met with an overwhelming sense of my grandmother. Her lilacs are blooming and their scent brings her right to my face. Years ago, she planted the bushes from several slips her mother had given her. She told me the story of the lilac’s trip east. She carried them with their roots wrapped in wet newspaper and as soon as she and Grandpa arrived home, they dug holes and planted the slips in the ground, one at the back corner of the house, one next to the back porch, and one at the pig pen. She planted them in the fall, when they could set their roots and rest over winter. By spring, she said, they were settled and ready to grow. Her lilacs are tall and full now, their roots run deep.

I stop mowing. The soft green leaves of the lilac press into my face; the sweet smell that always reminds me of my grandmother envelops me. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and stand with the lawn mower vibrating in my hands.

I remember her clipping bunches of the blossoms when I was a little girl. She’d set them in a quart mason jar on the kitchen table, filling the house with their perfume. I’d press my face into their lavender blooms then too.

“There’s no better spring fragrance,” she’d said. “When you get old enough to have a house of your own with a yard, I’ll give you a slip from my lilac.”

Sometimes, I helped her weed, prune and tend her perennial and annual beds. I handed her the clippers or trowel. I’d run to fill the watering can with water from the well.  I got my knees and fingernails dirty digging in the warm, rich soil. We knelt, side by side in reverent homage to the gifts of the land.

I wanted a slip from all her flowers. I imagined the yard of my grown self. It looked just like hers, the lilacs in exactly the same spots, the iris in a bed out front, surrounded by river rock, the mock orange at each corner of the property, their sweet fragrance carried to the center of my home by a spring breeze.  On Mother’s Day, I’d take out the hanging baskets from my earth floor basement around back of the house and fill them with potting soil, then add the salmon colored sultana, water their roots, and hang the baskets from eye hooks my grandpa would place around my front porch for me. My imagination did not wander far from the reality I knew as a child at my grandmother’s. My mother and I lived in an apartment with a parking lot instead of grass. We didn’t have flower beds like Grandma.

“I’ll put them on my kitchen table,” I said to her so many years ago. “Just like you.”

She died in September of my twenty-fifth year. Her body was planted in the ground where her roots could rest through the winter.  My husband and I bought her house, the only house I felt attached to growing up. The home and yard of my imagination came to me from my grandmother’s nurturing hands. Her lilacs became mine, her perennial and annual beds, mine to tend. Her legacy lived on through me.

The first spring she was gone, I clipped and carried a bouquet of our lilacs in a mason jar to her grave site. I wanted to bring a piece of home to her and a sense of peace to myself. The two of us visited a long time there in the cemetery.  I gave her the news of her snowball bush, the forsythia and japonica in the front yard and the bridal wreath out back. I told her how the peonies had sent up their shoots between our house and the Thomas’, and I let her know that the frost had not killed the cherry tree blooms. There would be pies cooling on her windowsill come summer.

My garden tools live where hers did. My hanging baskets swing from the eye hooks placed there by my grandfather. The scent of mock orange wafts through the house on a spring breeze the second week of May each year, and the lilacs bloom right on schedule.

Twenty-six years have passed since Grandma died, and on this Easter weekend, her spirit rises in me. I cut off the lawnmower and go to the basement in search of my clippers. I cut the blooms from her lilacs, fill a mason jar with cold water from her well, and place her gift to me on our kitchen table.

“I’m Sorry”

April 1, 2012

With my tax documents on the front seat of the CRV this morning, I drove to town. Mrs. Gordon was waiting for me at her apartment complex north of the city. She’s an elderly lady who retired from GE years ago, but prepares taxes to supplement her Social Security.

I hate the main drag north of town with its thirty traffic lights and twelve lanes, its strip malls hugging the highway, its allotment of daily accidents, so I try to avoid it. I took the off ramp from Rt. 250 onto Barracks Road. That’s where several of  the homeless people panhandle and sleep under the overpass.  The city clear cut the trees last year to discourage the vagrants from gathering in the undergrowth. The city put up no trespassing signs. The homeless population has decreased from this spot, but they are not extinct.

As I slowed at the traffic light there at the end of the off ramp, I noticed an older man with a slight frame. He wore a white goatee and his hair was a little long and tangled. He stood with his cardboard sign. “Trying to get to N.C.” it read. “Please help.”  I’d not seen him before. He was dressed in faded blue jeans and a brown button down shirt. He had no backpacks or duffle bags, only a fine tremor as he stood holding his small, square sign.

I pressed the button to lower my window and handed him a five dollar bill.  He took the money and said something to me, but I couldn’t hear him over the traffic sounds. He smiled though, and put the five in his front pants pocket. I looked up to see if the light was green and saw a city policemen walking toward the old man. I pointed out my window at the officer so the older man wouldn’t be surprised. I rolled up my window and started to pull away, the light had turned green.

The policeman held up his hand, stopping me, and motioned for me to roll my window back down.  I did.

“You know you are breaking the law,” he said, frowning at me.

“No, I didn’t.” I replied.

“He’s trespassing,” the policeman said, pointing to the old man, “and you are breaking the law by giving him money.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“He’s trespassing, you’re breaking the law, and you’re sorry,” the officer said, shaking his head and turning from me to the homeless man. I felt dismissed and pulled away.

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who have quick come-backs. I never do. As I drove toward Mrs. Gordon’s apartment, my anger grew. I could feel its heat move from my stomach up to my chest and into my red face before my eyes began to water. I pounded the steering wheel and yelled inside the car for no one to hear, “I’m not sorry for breaking the law. I’m not sorry for giving someone five dollars that I worked for and can decide who and who not to give it to. I’m not sorry for rolling down my window to try to help someone.”

After dropping off my taxes and hugging Mrs. Gordon, I drove back the way I came. I hoped to see that police officer. I wanted to stop and talk with him. I wanted him to know how I felt.

I was ashamed of myself.   I wanted to let him know from my mouth what a disgrace I think it is to make a law that forbids someone from asking for help; and what a disgrace it is to make a law that forbids someone from trying to help. I realize he has to uphold the law, but I wanted to see a bit of compassion on his face. I wanted him to understand.  I wanted him to be sorry too. I wanted to know if he had ever been trying to get somewhere and needed someone to help him.

 

 

 

 

Early Spring

March 22, 2012

I look out my open living room window and see bright spring color. A breeze, still cool, but warm enough to hold the promise of April’s temperatures touches my face. Our weather comes from the west and this is the coldest room in the house, but my view is cheerful. The trees, bare, just days ago are full and ripe with bloom. The red-pink of japonica, yellow of forsythia, and white of bridal wreath vie for attention with the purple of crocus and the lavender of violets. Days are longer. People whistle walking down the sidewalk, and smile.

It’s the first full day of spring. Sometimes, in years past it’s been so cold the first day of spring that only the resilient daffodils show their colors above the snow on the ground. This year the season came early. Dogwoods will bloom well before the town festival and the Bradford Pears have already begun to shed their blossoms. The early birth seems to be pushing time forward for me, pulling up that hope still dormant in me.

It’s Wednesday and I know in two more days I’ll see my father. I can’t help but wonder how much thinner he’ll look this time, how much of his hair will be gone, how bent he will be over the walker. I know how he sounds. I talk to him every night. His voice is scratchy and ancient. His breathing is labored. He’s scheduled for a blood transfusion tomorrow. Those make him feel better.

I pick up the phone and make the nightly call. The phone rings and rings, then the line connects. “Can I call you back in ten minutes?” Bev’s harried voice asks as soon as she picks up the phone. Something is terribly wrong, I know it. I pace the floor, looking at my watch every thirty seconds, trying to push the time forward by the sheer force of my will. He’s stopped breathing, I think. He’s fallen again. His temperature has reached that critical one hundred seven degrees that sends you into brain damage. I can see her pouring ice cubes over him to cool his hot skin. I can see his eyes rolling back in his head.

When the phone rings exactly eighteen minutes later, I am breathless. “Hey,” I say.

“I guess you think I can’t tell time,” Bev says, a smile in her voice. My heart rate calms. “That’s OK,” I say. “I knew something was up.”

“We had just walked in the door from the chemo when you called. They started the drip at 9:30 and we didn’t get in the door until the minute you called just after six-thirty.”

“How’s he doing?” I ask.

“Pretty good. For some reason his appetite increases on the days he gets the chemo. He chows down on those peanut butter crackers they give out. I packed a cooler this time to be prepared. He nibbled all day long.”

I’m glad to hear his appetite has increased. The last time I’d seen him he said everything he ate tasted like cardboard or worse. Even fudge ripple ice cream, his favorite, held no appeal. Now he was eating yogurts, peanut butter sandwiches, apple slices, and pretzel sticks. My spirits lift.

“Here’s your Dad,” Bev says, handing the phone to him.

“Hi daughter,” he rasps to me.

“Glad to hear your appetite’s better,” I say.

“Things taste more like they’re supposed to. We stopped on the way home and got a hot fudge sundae.” I imagine him sitting in the car, spoon to mouth, eyes closed, savoring his ice cream. It makes me smile.

“Yum,” I say. “Wish I was there to have one with you.”

“Me too. You still coming this weekend?”

“That’s my plan,” I say. “Anything I can bring you?”

“Some of that warm weather you’ve been having up there,” he answers. “I’ve been waiting all winter for some spring.”

I think I’ll cut some japonica, forsythia, and bridal wreath from the bushes, put the branches in a vase, and carry them to Chesapeake with me. It seems a little early spring is good for the spirit.

“Surprise”

March 8, 2012

The problem with giving my husband too much credit for a job well done is that he takes over my project. After I found this sad little kitchen cabinet on the porch of a local antique shop and Bruce talked the owner down a hundred dollars from the asking price, I guess he felt like his bartering skills gave him special privileges.

We stopped off at the hardware store on our way home with the cupboard to pick up some sandpaper blocks and a putty knife I wanted. I planned to scrape the curling peels of paint and sand down the finish to a “distressed” look. I saw the end result in my imagination. Sometimes I don’t have the words to describe what I want. It takes action to reveal my intention.

“You want to do what?” Bruce asked.

“I want to feather out the bare spots, elongate them, flatten the edges of the paint so they don’t look chipped.”

“Why don’t we just refinish it?” Bruce asked.

“I don’t think I want to do that,” I said. “Do you have any idea how many coats of paint are on this cupboard?”  From what I could see of the layers, there were at least four different colors and probably some varnish to boot. “It would take weeks to scrape all that paint off and you don’t even know what’s under all that mess. It could be some ugly-grained wood. Besides, if I don’t like the way it turns out, I can always slather it with a fresh coat of white paint.” 

Bruce and I have refinished our share of furniture. It’s hard work, scraping, sanding, applying chemicals that burn your hands and your nose, that ruin your favorite knock-around clothes.  I have a love for primitive pieces though, and we have rebuilt jelly cupboards, lingerie chests, dressers, wardrobes, and farm tables.  My favorites are the pine pieces we’ve refinished with their warm tiger stripe grain glowing a soft golden brown when rubbed with tung or linseed oil.  With this project, I didn’t feel up to the intensive labor involved in stripping it. Besides, this was the cabinet I fell in love with, not some undressed version in Bruce’s imagination.

He bent down and looked under one of the shelves. “Might be pine,” he said, plying me with possibility, but I was trying to stand firm in my conviction. I really liked the distressed look of the kitchen cabinet, and that weary façade enhanced the chicken wire covering the areas where there was once glass.

I ran my hand across the cupboard door. I turned the wooden spool knob. I wondered about the family who first owned this piece and how proud they must have been to have it standing in their kitchen. “Look at it,” I said. “It’s charming just like it is. All it needs is a little TLC, just some touch-ups, a little scraping and sanding, that’s all.”

“It needs a whole lot more than that,” Bruce mumbled under his breath. Louder, he argued, “I don’t think it would be so hard to strip it,” as he scraped at the peeling paint with his chisel, sending little chips flying toward me and raining down on my head. He wiped away the paint dust with his hand. “See,” he said, “not hard at all.”

Once the man gets an idea into his head, it’s there. He doesn’t listen.  I tried again. “Do you see how the front of the cabinet looks?” I asked, pointing to the areas of worn paint with wood grain showing through. “That’s how I want the whole thing to look.”

“Let’s see what the wood looks like underneath,” Bruce pushed. “Here, I’ll turn it over and scrape a section that’s not so noticeable.”

“No, that’s alright. I’m going to work on scraping and sanding. You go ahead and work on that lawnmower carburetor over there.” Bruce shrugged his shoulders and turned to his workbench, picked up the carburetor, his screwdriver, and began working on the hunk of metal in his hand.

I took up my putty knife and began scraping the curls of paint. When all the loose paint was chipped off, I took the coarse sandpaper block and started the back and forth rubbing that softens the edges of chipped paint. The emerging hints of wood beneath shone gray under the paint. A fine white dust powdered the floor under my ministrations.

After three hours of sanding, the bottom of the cabinet was looking like I wanted it. I stood back, pushed my hair off my forehead with the back of my hand, rolled the tension out of my shoulders, and wiped my dusty hands down the front of my jeans. I turned to Bruce who was putting the carburetor back on the lawnmower. “What do you think?” I asked.

“Can’t see a whole lot of difference from here,” he said, getting up and walking over.  He reached out and ran his hand over the sanded areas. “Ok, I see what you’re doing. And you like the way this looks?” He asked with a frown.

“I think so, but I’m not finished yet.  I won’t really know until I get more of it done. I’m a little worried about the shelf here though,” I said, running my fingers over the work surface of the cabinet. It had suffered the most damage from years of being used as a cutting board or chopping block. “It has some places that are really gouged out.”

Bruce bent down and lifted his glasses to peer under them. “Look, the paint’s a lot thicker on this part. I don’t think it’s going to feather like you want it to,” he said, chipping at a small crater with the putty knife.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway, I think I’m done with it for today. I have the funeral to go to in South Hill tomorrow. I’ll work on it again Monday.” My best friend Trisha’s mother had died and the service was three hours away.

I left for the funeral the next morning and didn’t think much about my little cabinet in the garage until I pulled back into the driveway late that evening. The light was on in the garage, and the door was open. I smelled the high-inducing fumes of lacquer thinner. I felt my stomach drop as the realization and dread filled me.  I took a deep breath and looked through the door.

There was my cabinet, turned on its side with my husband bent over it, covered in paint dust. He looked up at me and grinned with his excitement.  I stood there stunned, absolutely stunned. It was like coming home to a room whose walls had been a familiar white to find them painted purple. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was stare.

Bruce called out a hearty, “Surprise!”

Yep, I was surprised.

“ I’d have gotten more done, but I thought you were going to be gone longer,” he said.

“Oh,” I said with a weak smile. “You’ve been busy.”

“Worked on it all day long for you. What do you think?”

What could I tell him? That I wanted to cry? That I wanted to ask him what in the heck he thought he was doing? That I wished he’d stuck to repairing his lawnmowers and left my cabinet alone? That I wanted to turn back time and give his free day back to him again? That I hated what he’d done?

Half of the cabinet was down to its natural wood.  All the chicken wire had been pulled loose and was in a tangle on the garage floor, and Bruce had worked the whole day on the cabinet…for me. He was happy. He thought I’d be happy. “I’ve been thinking,” Bruce said.

From the looks of it, he’d been doing more than thinking. “Yeah?” I asked.

“Are you OK?” he asked, looking at me and frowning.

“I’m OK, just tired. It was a long trip and just such a sad day,” I said.

“Oh shoot, I didn’t think,” he said, straightening up and coming over to put an arm around me. “How was the funeral and your trip?”

“Lots of people there,” I said, hugging him and staring over his shoulder at my half naked cabinet. “She was loved. Trisha did alright. I didn’t stay for the meal afterward. I wanted to get home before dark, thought I might work on the cabinet a little before I went to bed.”

Bruce isn’t one for funerals or emotion. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or ask me about mine much. He does tangible things to show his love and support, like refinishing a piece of furniture.

“So, what I was thinking,” he went on after his brief assessment of my emotional state. “We could put glass back into the top where that god-awful chicken wire was, or do you remember the tin my Daddy put in the pie safe he made? He got a pattern from a book and punched the tin himself with a hammer and nail. We could do that.”

“I really hadn’t thought beyond sanding it,” I said.

“Well, let’s sleep on it,” Bruce offered. “We’ll figure it out tomorrow.”

Yep, tomorrow, I thought. We’ll have to figure this mess out tomorrow.

The Lure of Chicken Wire

February 29, 2012

Have you ever fallen in love with a piece of furniture? Out of the blue, just looked at it and said, “Oh my gosh, I have to have that dresser,” or “that’s the prettiest blanket chest I’ve ever laid eyes on,”  or “I can’t imagine sleeping under any other headboard but that one?”  Well it happened to me again on Saturday. I was driving past the Greenwood Country Store, and there it sat on the front porch, pretty as you please, a kitchen cabinet.  It called to me. I could hear it through the closed windows of the car, and as I got closer, I realized this was the exact same piece of furniture I had missed out on five years before.

It looked at me and said, “I need a home.”

And it did.  I felt just as sorry for that piece of furniture as I would a stray dog. It almost looked the same as it had five years before, but was now a bit worse for wear.  When I parked the car in front of the store, I was also in front of the cabinet. It was like a hoosier cabinet, but a poor man’s version. It stood about five feet tall, three feet wide, and two feet deep. The bottom half had closed doors with a wooden spool knob. The top was what grabbed my heart though. At one time, I think the cabinet doors had four panes of glass, but something must have happened to break them, because in their place, was chicken wire.

The last time I saw this piece of furniture was at the antique sale at the park in town. The cupboard had a three hundred fifty dollar price tag then, and I didn’t have the funds to buy it. Bruce said he wasn’t putting three hundred fifty dollars into anything that had chicken wire stapled to the front of it.

“Oh I’ve found you,” I said to the little cabinet, knowing this was a match that was meant to be. I got out of the car and stepped up beside the piece of furniture. I pushed on it to see how sturdy it was. It stood solidly, didn’t even groan under my weight.  I opened the cabinet doors to find four holes drilled into the back, and a shelf missing. There were layers and layers of peeling white paint on the outside and someone had painted the upper inside of the cabinet turquoise. Still, it made my heart happy to find it even in the shape it was in.

The bell jangled when I walked into the store.  “Come on in,” the owner said. “How are you today?”

“Doing fine,” I said. “How much you want for the white cabinet on the porch?”

“Two-fifty,” she said.

Well that was better than its original price of three-fifty, but with all the wear, the holes and peeling paint. I still didn’t like it two-fifty worth.  I called Bruce.

“What kind of shape is it in?” He asked.

I explained.

“Where are you gonna put it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I really like it. Remember we saw it a few years ago? Beverly showed it to us at the antique show and I wanted it then.  I still want it.”

I could hear Bruce scrubbing his face with his hand, trying to remember something that he hadn’t liked to begin with, and not having luck.

“I know you remember the chicken wire,” I said, trying to make him remember.

“No, I don’t,” he mumbled, and then said something about wanting a Mercedes Benz himself, but not needing one.

“You ought to see it though,” I said. “At least come look at it.”

“The trailer’s hooked to the truck. I’m not going to drag all the lawn mowers up to Greenwood. Offer her one-fifty and see what she says.”

I walked around the store. I hate haggling. My mother’s an antique dealer and my husband wheels and deals all day long with equipment. I was not born with the haggle gene.  I looked at china plates, antique school desks, framed prints of horses and children, silver plated tea sets, and tin biscuit cutters. I wasn’t interested in any of those items. I was gathering courage.

“Would you take less for the cabinet?” I asked.

“How much less?” the owner asked, looking out the window at my little kitchen cabinet.

“One fifty?” I asked.  I know I flinched when I said it. That offer seemed like a slap in the face to me.

“I can’t take less than two hundred,” she said. “The couple next door bought it from me for three-fifty, used it as an entertainment center until they found something better. They’d like to at least get two hundred for it, no less.”

Now I knew why there were holes in the back, and it made me mad. Why do people want to ruin something perfectly wonderful?  “I’m just not sure I can afford two hundred, and they drilled holes in the back,” I complained, hoping she’d see my side. When she didn’t come around, I said, “Let me call my husband.”

I went back out to the car and called Bruce back. “Come and get me,” he said. “I’ll ride with you to take a look at it.”

As I drove home, I thought about someone happening upon the store and my cabinet, whisking it out from under me before I got back. I drove like a mad woman, taking all those crooked back roads like something big and bad was chasing me. I kept hearing that cabinet call my name.

When we arrived back at the store, Bruce got out and stood in front of the cupboard.  He frowned and I just smiled big, so excited to find it again, to have the opportunity to actually own it, hoping my enthusiasm would rub off on my husband.  “You realize its been sitting out here in the weather for awhile don’t you?” He asked me. “The paint’s peeling. Who drilled holes in the back?  There’s a shelf missing.”

My little cabinet sagged under Bruce’s scrutiny and insults. Leave it to Bruce to point out everything about that beautiful piece of furniture that needed fixing.  I countered with every good point I could think of. “It’s a perfect small size for the house. It has good storage space. It’s quaint and original.”

“Original is the word alright. Whoever saw chicken wire on the front of a kitchen cabinet? The only thing chicken wire will keep out of a kitchen cabinet is chickens and they don’t roam around inside the house.”

“The chicken wire was what drew me to it in the first place,” I said. “It’s my favorite part of the piece. Don’t you remember it now?”

He didn’t.

We walked into the store and Bruce scanned the shelves, picking up old tools, looking for a brass belt buckle. He showed the owner a picture of the vintage candy machine he has in the garage. He wants to sell it and hoped she’d put it on consignment.  He stalled, not saying a thing about my cabinet, making me squirm.

Finally, he asked the owner about the piece of furniture. She repeated her story to him. “I can’t take less than two hundred. The couple is already losing money on it.”

“They didn’t do it any favors by drilling holes in the back, adding that turquoise paint or letting it sit outside for the paint to peel.  I can’t see putting more than one-fifty into it,” Bruce said, turning back to a cross cut saw on the shelf closest to me.

I had my checkbook with me. I had two hundred dollars. I was willing to write the check, hand it to her. The little white piece of furniture was out there on the front porch, begging. I inhaled, starting to say something, but Bruce shot a look at me.  I kept quiet, but the owner didn’t budge.

“You open tomorrow?” Bruce asked.

I had a funeral to go to the next day. I couldn’t come back the next day. Someone might buy it before the next day. What was my husband thinking?

“Twelve to five,” the owner said.

“We might be back,” Bruce said, taking my hand and leading me out the door.

My hang-dog look didn’t stop him. Bruce didn’t turn back, didn’t even look back, didn’t slow his stride. He walked out the door and past my cupboard. It whined behind me. I followed Bruce, planning to give him a piece of my mind once we were in the car. I’d stomp back into that store and buy my cabinet, support or no support from my husband.  We stepped off the porch, Bruce opened the car door for me, and I sat down heavily into the seat, crossing my arms over my chest. Before he could close the car door though, the owner came out with a cell phone pressed to her ear. She held up a hand, beckoning us to wait.

“They said they’ll take one seventy-five,” she said.

“Tell them we’ve got one-fifty,” Bruce said.

I held my breath, and so did the cabinet.

I beamed as we placed my little kitchen cabinet gently into the back of the Honda.  “Come on little cabinet, we’re going home where you belong,” I said, hearing the piece of furniture sigh contentedly as I closed the hatch.

We got in the car and left the store behind. “Thank you,” I said to Bruce, leaning over to give him a peck on the cheek.

“Chicken wire,” Bruce said with disdain as he shook his head.