Monday, May 27, 2013

Only A Quarter

The creamy silk kimono slipped over my head and slithered down my straight-as-a-stick body. Goose bumps popped out on my arms making me shiver. The fabric was soft, intoxicating. It lapped me up in cool luxury so different from the utilitarian cotton normally worn during the war years. The mirror was hung high on the wall and I had to stand on a chair to see myself. The reflection put a grin on my face.

The kimono was cherry bomb red. Embroidered oriental designs flitted like butterflies over the top and down the sleeves. Black satin frogs attached themselves to the front of the bodice as if marking a territorial lily pond in the silky-smooth fabric.

Only the day before Uncle Jimmy had burst into our house loaded down with presents brought back home from Guam where he had been stationed. His gift to me was the tiny silk kimono that perfectly fit my five-year-old bones.

I was ignorant of the war then raging in the Pacific  and in Europe. I had no way of knowing that more body bags were sent back from overseas than miniature silk kimonos or other souvenirs brought home to kids by those in the military.

To my child's way of thinking, red silk pajamas as light as the breast down of a wren, were much more glamorous than the heavy blackout curtains Mama lowered each time an air raid siren broke through the peace and quiet of home. Softer, too, than the wartime cotton fabrics she sewed to make my dresses. It was more fun to play dress-up than to ride on the handlebars of my brother's skinny black Victory bike.

World War II would be over before the end of that year. Peace treaties would be signed and reconstruction begun on a war-ravaged continent. Even so, young boys in neighborhoods all over the country would keep on playing Army. Strutting ramrod straight, they swung souvenir bayonets taken from dead Japanese soldiers or wore helmets left behind by a dwindling German army.

My silk pajamas however, were kept safe and pristine inside a mahogany chest of drawers. In years to come, they would remind me that beauty can always be found, even in the midst of chaos.

My earliest years were spent listening for air raid sirens; watching Mama count out food rations; wondering who Gabriel Heater was and why he was so angry.

I ate silently because children were seen and not heard back then, while Mama and Daddy spoke quietly of a distant relative who had lost a leg in the war or a neighbor's son who had lost his life.

I watched from my window as my brother and his friends morphed into pint-sized soldiers yelling "Geronimo!" before mowing down the pretend enemy with pretend Tommie Guns.

When the war was over, we watched movies about men who were tortured by the other side, fingernails torn out with rusty pliers, bamboo stakes driven into their ears. Incomprehensible horrors to any sane person.

We cringed into our theater seats during those movies and after going to bed at night, we experienced one nightmare after another, if we slept at all. Even so, the next time a war movie came to town, we went to see it. We stood in line for however long it took, holding a quarter tightly in our sweaty palms, eager to plunk down the cost of learning how to hate.

Twenty-five cents was all it took.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hands That Rocked The Cradle

Old age sneaked up on me last night while I slept. In eight seriously short hours, my hands morphed into those of my mother’s.
While gazing at the reflection in my bathroom mirror I saw that my kneecaps had crawled up to reside forever underneath my eyes. My teeth were yellow and they were not like that yesterday. I would need to use half a box of baking soda to get them white again. Since Clorox is not an option, I just won't smile all day. Who knows, I might not crack my yellow teeth again for the rest of my life.

Ten extra pounds appeared on my scales this morning. Ten pounds! That’s a whole dress size. I’ll be sipping cranberry juice and taking up residence in the bathroom until the mortician comes to claim my bones.
Wasn’t it just last week that I was folding baby diapers and making formula? Okay, so maybe that’s stretching it, but it seems like last week. It seems like I dropped the kids off at school, went to my exercise class, played three sets of tennis, did the laundry and then cooked a healthy dinner for a family of four all the while grinning like a Cheshire Cat. With white teeth. 
My hands — my mother’s hands —are useless to me. They refuse to do what I tell them to do. When I order them to pick up the newspaper from off the floor, to wash the breakfast dishes or to pick up the comb and rake it through my tangled hair, they totally ignore me. Why should they pay attention when these hands do not belong to me.
The awful truth is, I don’t want to comb my hair because I don’t relish going anywhere near a mirror. Lord knows what other changes might be waiting to jump out at me.
If my hands would function the way they ought to, I would email my kids today. I haven’t heard from either one of them in a while but they are busy with jobs, families and their own issues. Still, I miss them a lot today, more than usual. Maybe I will call them tonight when I won't have to eat up my minutes if I can get my decrepit fingers to manipulate the miniscule numbers on my iPhone.

I saw an ad for a cream that makes age spots disappear. I might buy some when I go to the drug store ... if I ever leave my house again. I may decide to stay put and watch my teeth turn even more yellow. Mama slapped all kinds of stuff on her face every morning, noon and night and she always brushed her teeth with baking soda. It didn’t help her any. Not only did she get age spots and yellow teeth, obviously, she passed them on to me.
Thanks a lot, Mama.
If I start dieting today I could lose the ten pounds I gained before Christmas. But what if my extra weight is water retention? I would have starved myself when all I needed was a fluid pill.
I don't have anything thawed out for supper, but so what? We can catch an Early Bird somewhere. Our meals are coming around earlier and earlier. Pretty soon, we'll be eating supper at noon. Cooking for two doesn’t pay when Early Birds are cock-a-doodle-doing on every corner.
It would be nice if talk shows would occasionally cover important issues like age spots, drooping flesh, flabby thighs, wiry gray hair and hearing aids. An entire week could be devoted to women caught up in the process of aging. But they won’t happen. They will showcase models from Victoria Secrets or actresses with skin so tight they resemble the Sears Tower gargoyles in Chicago. Don't they know that we women of a certain age do not do Victoria Secrets? We're too busy looking in the mirror and finding a stranger when we're not staring at our mother's hands attached to our own wrists.

Heads Will Roll

I loved the sound of my mother’s voice. It was pure Southernness, magnolia smooth. I heard it as she was wheeled into surgery. She told me not to worry, that she would be back. She was wrong.
One day last week while grocery shopping, I heard her voice again. She told me to buy brown sugar. As clearly as if she had been wheeling the cart herself, she said, “Go over to aisle six and pick up some brown sugah.” When she wanted to, my mama could smooth out the end of a word and cradle it in mid-air for five minutes. Listening to her talk was akin to taking a snooze in a Pawley’s Island Hammock.
Right after the brown sugar episode, I heard her singing an Irish ballad one day while I was making up my bed. I remembered that song from my childhood — a sad tune. I used to go to bed with tears in my eyes after she had sung it to me. But last week, when I heard the familiar soprano melody drifting through the house like elevator music, oddly enough, I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I felt like I had just slipped my feet into a pair of old Weejuns.
Cooking supper that same night, (chicken and dressing, butter beans, rice and sliced tomatoes), I heard her voice again. She told me to put more sage in the dressing. So! We were back to the Seasoning War, were we?
The next morning while driving to Savannah, she broke into the Oldies But Goodies I was listening to.
“Turn around and go home.” The voice said it as if asking me to pass her some more of that cornbread dressing (the one that needed a touch more sage).
Up to that point, I had not responded to any of this odd communication from my mother. After all, she had been dead for ten years and besides, I didn’t talk back to her even when she was alive. But the idea that I should deep-six my shopping trip to Savannah based on a voice only I could hear? Well … that wasn’t going to happen.
I told her to bug off.
For the rest of the ride, her voice Xeroxed itself in my ears. Go back home! Go back home! Go back home! By the time I got to the Savannah Mall my head was spinning from the pounding in my eardrums.
Glancing in the mirror at Macy’s, I saw that I was turning green around the gills, so I started to think maybe I should forget shopping and go home. The thought of wrapping up in the cocoon of my own little nest began to feel right, so I left the mall and headed back to St. Simons without any of my proposed purchases.
I boogied down I-95 thinking Ibuprofen thoughts washed down with a chilled martini when Mama’s voice suddenly blurted out again.
“Slow Down!”
Since I was doing a bit over eighty, I said, “Yes ma’am.” But my headache did not slow down when the car did. Can’t win ‘em all.
I closed my eyes for only a moment and when I opened them again, the first thing I saw was an overturned eighteen-wheeler only a nanosecond in front of me. I braked as fast as I could and was barely able to avoid broadsiding a truck full of iceberg lettuce.

I watched in horror as hundreds of small green heads rolled off the truck and down I-95, gaining momentum as they bounced up and onto unsuspecting cars. Grateful that my own head was still attached, I gulped air (lots of it) while my heart did a Myrtle Beach shag step.
Later back at home as I snuggled down in a fetal position, I thought about what had happened. That got me thinking about Guardian Angels. Could they be real?
Had Mama come back to be my personal G.A.? Well, anything is possible, I supposed. Hadn’t I been saved from becoming an Interstate Tossed Salad by a voice from … from out of the blue?
So now whenever I hear a voice, any voice at all, I listen up. For all I know, it could be my Guardian Angel hovering over my shoulder with winning lottery numbers.
Even angels know that writers don’t earn squat.

Don't Forget To Brush

Don’t Forget To Brush
By Cappy Hall Rearick

My ultra-independent mother died a good many years ago. Until she got sick, Mama would have eaten dirt rather than ask anybody for help. Imagine my surprise when she called me to housesit for her while she was in the hospital and asked if I might stay on for a while afterwards. Her cancer diagnosis was not good.
I was happy to be at home again, but the days were long with nothing to do until she was discharged. That's why I decided to organize her house. Lord knows it needed it. I threw out half-empty cold cream jars in the bathroom, old dusting powder boxes and hundreds of rusty Bobbie-pins. She never used up an entire bottle of shampoo, but neither did she throw away the little dab always left in the bottom until it was the consistency of lard.
When I finally brought her home from the hospital, her bed was turned down and ready. I had made it up myself with freshly starched, sweet-smelling sheets. Her pillows were fluffed. It was a Southern summer day, hot outside but cool indoors thanks to the blessing of air conditioning. I helped her into her gown and in no time she was sleeping as one can only do in one’s own bed.
What a perfect time to clean out the kitchen cabinets, the Martha Stewart side of me suggested.
Besides being a clutter bug, Mama was a sucker for gadgets. She had QVC on speed dial and the number of her credit card was posted in their VIP file. She had many sets of cookware so old that they were sticky with baked-on grease. There were enough can openers in her kitchen to lift off a space shuttle.
I sat down on the floor and began to sort through drawers crammed with gadgets, many of which seemed to have no purpose whatsoever. A niggling voice intruded from time to time telling me to stop what I was doing. It implied that my time would be better spent reading a magazine or taking a long walk. But I ignored that voice. After all, what I was doing was necessary, important.
I so wish now that I had listened.
Mama ate hardly a mouthful of scrambled eggs and only sipped at her coffee the next morning.
“Heartburn,” she said and headed toward the bathroom to freshen up.
“Do you need my help with anything, Mama?”
“I’ll be just fine,” she called over her shoulder. “My teeth feel like they haven’t seen a toothbrush in over a year. I can't wait to brush them.”
After she assured me she could manage on her own, I put the uneaten scrambled eggs in the garbage disposal and filled the dishpan with sudsy water. Less than two minutes later, she called for me to come.
Fearing the worst, I took off down the hall on legs that felt like I was wearing hip boots filled with mud. I imagined blood all over the bathroom and Mama on the floor helpless and scared to death.
When I reached the bathroom, the door was standing open. There was no blood and my mother was not lying on the floor unconscious. Grasping the rim of the sink for balance, she stared at me with a perplexed expression on her pallid face.
“What is it? Are you alright?”
“I can’t find my toothbrushes.” She looked as though she had wandered into Oz and didn't know how to click her heels and go home again.
“Right there.” I pointed toward the sink. “Hanging in the holder.”
While cleaning the bathroom the day before, I had carefully examined all of her six toothbrushes. Most of them were pretty shot. That’s just like Mama, I had thought as I tossed five of the over-the-hill brushes into the trash.
“I don’t see but one of them,” she said, clearly exasperated. “Where are the rest?”
 “Are you talking about those old toothbrushes? Those ratty looking ones you have had since FDR was President?”
In no mood for my brand of humor, she made a face. “What did you do with them,” she asked.
“I threw them out, Mama. I know how you hate to clean, so I got rid of them for you.” I paused, beginning to feel seriously uncomfortable about the whole thing. “Were you saving them for some reason?”
Mama fixed me with a look that I will never forget. “I’m not dead yet,” she said.
My heart plummeted. I opened my mouth to explain that I was only trying to help but the words got stuck in my throat. The look she gave me had ripped out my heart and those three words of hers stomped it to pieces.
After what seemed like a long time, I repeated, “What were you saving them for, Mama?”
She shook her head. “I don’t like using the same one every time I brush my teeth. Now, it looks like the only one left is that new one and it’s not even broken in.”
She let out a heavy sigh before slipping past me and climbing back in bed on her own, as if to say she wanted or needed no assistance from me.
She must surely have felt her life slipping away just then, out of her control. Not only had cancer invaded her body, seized her energy, health and longevity, but even the idea of cancer had snatched away her smallest possessions.
The idea of cancer and that she was going to die soon was at the root of my so-called good intentions. At some level I had know it. Worst of all, she knew it right away. By ignoring that niggling voice in my head, I forced my mother to look at her mortality before she was ready to do so on her own.
I lied to myself with all that phony baloney business about keeping busy. In actuality, I was trying to get a jump on things. I knew I would be the one responsible for sorting through all of her QVC purchases and I would be the one to call Goodwill.
Now, every time I brush my teeth, I am reminded of my callous disregard for her rights of propriety. I wish I could undo my over-zealous plan to organize her personal space; the shame of it burns my soul anew each time I squeeze a tube of Tartar Control Crest.
However, like my mother before me, I am now a proud collector of toothbrushes. Four different colors and shapes hang side-by-side in the holder above my bathroom sink. I double-dog dare anybody to throw one of them away before the final “Amen” is said, before the last shovel of dirt has been heaped upon my eternal resting place.

If I have learned anything, it is that a person’s stuff, no matter how insignificant it may seem to me, is worthy of my respect.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Put Some South In Your Mouth

Any Georgian worth his salted peanuts knows that the Merry Month of May means only one thing: the Vidalias are here. Last season’s leftovers are yesterday’s news. Imports? Seriously? May is when the too-often ignored great state of Georgia moves front and center to become Old Glory’s Star of the Month.
When those sweet, edible, multi-layered bulbs make it to our house, it gets crazy. Life as we know it shuts down so that my Yankee husband, Babe, can pay homage to a forty-pound box of Vidalias stinking up my otherwise sweet-smelling pantry.
As soon as the truck from Vidalia rolls into town, Babe rushes to greet it. He is the picture of a proud Pennsylvania-Yankee-turned-Georgian. It’s as if his sole purpose in life is to be the first person on St. Simons Island to bite into that blessed little onion that puts Georgia on everybody’s mind. While the produce truck unloads, Babe stands at attention looking more Southern than Robert E. Lee.
Once he gets the onions back home, he can hardly wait to crunch into his first Vidalia of the year. For Babe, that moment comes as close to a religious conversion as a man can have. He makes himself a white bread sandwich stacked with thick slices of Vidalias and slathered with Dukes Mayo. (I keep his cardiologist’s number on speed dial.) When he takes that first bite, he makes noises more appropriately heard in the X-rated section at Blockbusters.
“You know, you could just tell me how it tastes, Babe,” I say, “with words. Those sounds of yours are making me blush.”
He closes his eyes and slowly moves his head from side to side. I’ve learned to pay close attention so I don’t miss the only bodily movement he makes before drifting off to Zen City.
I love to cook, but during that first week of May when Babe goes certifiably Vidalia crazy, he commandeers my kitchen claiming Squatter’s Rights. I’m almost afraid to go in there. The other day while he and an onion sandwich were tripping down the yellow brick road, I opened the pantry door hoping to find a jar of peanut butter. What I found instead gave me the vapors.
“Babe, you didn’t just fall off the cliff, you catapulted into Onion Overkill Canyon. We won’t live long enough to eat six varieties of Vidalia Onion catsup, twelve bottles of Vidalia salad dressing, Vidalia pickles in every shade and hue of the color spectrum. Your onion obsession is starting to scare me.” Thoughts of intervention nagged at my brain.
“You need help, Babe. It’s time to bite the bullet instead of the onion.”
“No,” he said and took another bite of his obscene sandwich.
“You need the patch,” I told him. “The Vidalia Onion Patch.”
His eyelids flickered and he turned to meet my gaze. He appeared to have returned from Oz and seemed to be cognizant of his surroundings. Still grasping an obscenely thick onion sandwich in his hands, he inclined his head toward me.
When finally he opened his mouth, three days of stored onion breath smacked my kisser like thrust from a Stealth Bomber. I staggered backwards. That X-rated onion breath of his should have come with a warning label.
“Babe, that Vidalia,” I said while backing away from his toxic breath, “has been buried in Aunt Piddy Pat’s root cellar since Sherman lit up Atlanta on July 22, 1864.”
He put an unconcerned look on his face, gave me a mock salute and then crunched down on another bite as though he was eating an apple. He grinned with his mouth crammed full.
Before I could slip out of the room, he said, “I’ve got one lil’ ol’ thang to say ‘bout that, Miz Scarlett.” (His pretend Southern accent could have put Paula Deen to shame.) 
 “Well, Fiddily-dee-dee, Mr. Rhett. Do tell.”
“Vidalia Breath is the South’s secret weapon to keep the Yankees from coming back. So hang on to yo’ Confederate dollars, my ageless Southern Belle, ‘cause if they try filling their carpetbags with Vidalias to take north of the good ol’ Mason-Dixon,  the South's gonna rise again.”
I yawned. “Frankly, my dear …”

Babe’s Vidalia Onion Dip

            1   large Vidalia onion, chopped
            2   cups Dukes Mayonnaise
            1  8 oz bag shredded Italian cheese blend
            2   Tbsp crushed red pepper
Preheat oven to 375F.
Mix all ingredients in bowl and then transfer mixture to 8×8 casserole dish.
Bake 30 minutes until golden brown.
Serve immediately with French bread and you’ll put some South in your mouth.