Monday, December 28, 2015

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep ...

 I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray my soul a book to take.

I don't want to take along just any old book. I want it to be the one with an ending so strong that it stopped my ticker for good. The book would have to tell a story compelling enough that I couldn’t put it down until I'd read the last page, especially if I even had an inkling that I was about to journey to the great beyond. I want to see the words, “The End,” and then close the book and do a bad imitation of Porky Pig saying, “Ebity ebity … that’s All, Folks!
Reading in bed has been a nocturnal habit of mine since the day I learned to make sense out of sentences. When Mama threw away my pacifier, I latched onto a soon-to-become dog-eared Golden Book, The Pokey Little Puppy. Mama read it aloud until I fell asleep and that's the reason substituting a book for a pacifier became a lifelong habit. When I was younger, I would read until two or three o’clock in the morning and still wake up at seven fully charged and ready to take on a busy schedule. Since age has begun to creep up on me, however, I consider it a major achievement to knock out two or three chapters before fading into the abyss of sleep.
Many of my After Fifty friends, have developed sleep issues over the years. They often complain to me that they either cannot get to sleep or they wake up in the middle of the night and find it impossible to get back to sleep. When this happens, they slip out of bed and stumble around in the dark so as not to disturb the one snoring next to them. We all know the one in question: the one that always makes it to Slumberland in record time. No doubt there have been moments with strong desires to murder the one in question, but on advice of counsel, I respectively take the Fifth.
I am not an insomniac, but if I were and if I did not keep a tall stack of books on my bedside table awaiting my nocturnal pacification, I might choose to grab my Bible and open it to the book of Genesis where the history of mankind has been duly documented. Adam begat Seth, who begat Enos, who begat Cainan, and on and on in an exhaustive account of who gave birth to whom and who ended up being kin to whom. If I find myself fighting insomnia, and if reading the long list of begats fails to put me in a coma, I hope somebody will just shoot me.
But I hope to meet my maker just after finishing a great novel. I will willingly exchange my earthly bed for an eternal four-poster after reading a work of Nora Ephron. With her humorous words floating just outside the brink of my brain, how could I not go happily to that Big Humor Writer’s Conference in the Sky?
I could also be content to make my exit holding onto the words of Rick Bragg. I am okay making the trip way up North while hanging onto words from a good ol’ boy because I am Southern to the bone. I could easily drift off to Forever Land with Bragg’s sentences rebounding on the walls of my mind. I just hope and pray I won’t be going too far South to that other place even hotter than Dixie. 
“My people tell their stories of vast red fields and bitter turnip greens and harsh white whiskey like they are rocking in some invisible chair, smooth and easy even in the terrible parts, because the past has already done its worst. The joys of this Southern life, we polish like old silver. If words more precious to any Southerner have ever been written, I have yet to read them. Thank you, Rick Bragg.
At this point in my life, I have no immediate plans to read myself into the Big Sleep, but one of these nights I suspect I will finally climb Jacob’s Ladder with the words of Nora Ephron, Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty giving me the boost I will most likely need. I hope to arrive grinning like the humorist I strive to be while clutching a much loved, dog-eared Golden Book in my hands.
“Hey,” I plan to say to my three treasured muses. “Have y’all ever read, The Pokey Little Puppy?”



Thursday, December 24, 2015

Wrap It Up!

“The best gifts are wrapped in love and tied with heartstrings.”

On this Christmas Eve day,  I invite you to join me in creating a living symbol of what Christmas is all about
By pulling together, we can build a huge Christmas tree designed and adorned by the power of love. We can trim it with people of all sizes and colors, and then light it with the brilliance of their imaginative ideas.
The gifts underneath the tree are plentiful because there is more than enough to go around.
Peace of Mind is in the large white box and Health is wrapped up in pink.
Talent is bursting from its confined package like multicolored confetti!
Faith, Hope and Love all bask in the glow of gold and silver, while a bright yellow box of Enlightenment opens up right before our eyes.
Contentment? It is packaged in many different colors and designs.
At the top of our tree, a brightly shining star illumines each gift, each life and each open door. That star is called free will.
The largest gift of all is an unfilled box of Christmas Spirit. If we put ourselves inside that box, we can fill it with food for hungry people, solutions for drug and ecology issues and freedom for those living behind walls of fear, hate, and ignorance.
Charles Dickens wrote, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
Let’s do it! Let’s wrap up that thought with love, tie it with heartstrings and place it under our tree so that everyone in the world can always have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Got Milk?


When I was little, Mama started baking for the holidays around the first of December. Having grown up during the Great Depression, she remained haunted by the things she’d wished for as a child. They became her two extravagances as an adult: food and shoes. Christmastime for our family meant plenty of cakes, pies, cookies and bedroom slippers.
      There was a pecan tree in our back yard, which Mama claimed to be allergic to, so my brother and I were sent to collect the nuts for her holiday baking sprees. We would pick them up off the ground, put them in paper sacks and carry them back to the house. It was our job not only to pick up the pecans but to pick them out as well. We used a hammer for cracking and an ice pick to clean out the bitter tissue hidden within the fine, ribbed folds of the pecan meat.
      Mama would bake a batch of cookies, give us two to eat, then put the rest in the freezer for later. The day our new chest-type freezer was delivered, Mama crammed everything in it but dust bunnies. 
      If there had been a contest, Mama’s fruitcake would have won. Both my brother and I loved it so. It was full of candied cherries and pineapple and the pecans we had labored so hard to pick out. No figs, dates or raisins. Nothing dark and gooey.
      On fruitcake baking day, the warm fragrance that wafted out of our old kitchen, that lingered in each room long enough to make our stomachs growl, is a memory etched on my heart. It might have been the almond flavoring that added punch to the aroma, but I suspect it was Mama’s extra helping of soul.
      The other day I came across an old cookbook that had belonged to my mother. There were pictures of pies and cakes filled in with a red Crayola, my favorite color. Gazing at the faded pages, worn now by many seasons of use, I cried a little bit.
      I saw where Mama had scribbled down some of her favorite recipes, everything from sugar cookies to rum balls. I found the Coconut Pecan Pie she had concocted herself that had once won a cooking prize. The family favorite, Chicken Perlow was written on an index card and stuck in the middle of the book. And there, next to made-up recipes and ones borrowed from magazines or good friends, was her original white fruitcake recipe.
      The smell and taste of that fruitcake snapped my synapses to attention like a rubber band. I had never baked a fruitcake, but my taste buds clambered for that long ago holiday delicacy. I decided to bake one for Babe and me. If it didn’t flop, I’d bake another for my brother. 
      Christmas music filled the house as I mixed the fruit, nuts and almond flavoring. By the time I packed it all in a tube pan, I was grinning all over myself. The sweet fragrance drifted through my own house this time, and it was almost like going back to the womb.
      I followed Mama’s directions exactly, the one exception being the use of a pressure cooker. She steamed her cake for an hour, then baked it for another two. That method will remain untried by me, since Babe is convinced that I’d blow the house to kingdom come.
      Three hours later, I took the cake out of the oven and placed it on a rack like the recipe instructed. It cooled for thirty minutes, but I could stand it no longer. Upside down it went on the cake plate, where I allowed it to rest for a bit.
      The next time I checked, it looked like the heart of the cake had been pulled up and out, as though it were a watermelon. Candied fruit and nuts decorated the kitchen counter, the floor, and eventually the bottom of my shoes. It was a mess, but the cake smelled wonderful — just like Mama’s.
      I could have cried, I could have repeated well-rehearsed expletives or pitched a fit, but I didn’t. I went instead to my bedroom where I keep a pair of old pink bedroom shoes under the bed. The heels are worn down and thin, the terry cloth has been smoothed over time. They had once belonged to Mama — a Christmas gift, no doubt. I loved having them under my bed, so that is where they lived.
      I slid the shoes out, put them on my feet and flip-flopped my way back to the mess awaiting me in the kitchen.
      What would Mama have done with this situation, I wondered. She’d have said, “Oh, for God’s sake! When life deals you crumbs, make crumb cake.”
      I grabbed a handful of the sticky mess and rolled it into balls. Then I called my grandsons in from where they were digging up all my St. Augustine grass.
      “Y’all come in here. You’re about to be the first person in the civilized world to sample a Gummy Bear Ball.”
      They gobbled them up as if they were one of the starving children in China Mama used to tell me about when she was trying to get me to eat everything on my plate. When I asked how they liked the treat, they grinned and said, “Got milk?”
      Mama would have liked that answer.

One Old Bathrobe . . . Priceless

My first thought
on this chilly anniversary
date is Mama, gone now
these 27 long years.
My eyes seek out her bathrobe
the one I keep
hanging on the bed post.
Crawling on my hands and knees
over rumpled quilts
and Downy fresh sheets I
take the robe from its resting place
and bury my face. Drawing deeply
I inhale the remaining
essence of her warmth,
breathe the last drops of
my mother.
Under my bed with the
toes peeking out are Mama’s
pink slippers.
I pull them out
and slip them on my feet.
For a very few seconds
I am part of her again, womb-like
and safe. With her robe
wrapped around my heart,
my day begins softly
with a memory.
Her life, her love
and her ability to bake
a damn good fruitcake!
 
Zola Sorrells Hall
September 27, 1914
December 22, 1988


Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Tallest Man I Ever Knew



            With few exceptions, (i.e., Babe, who eats anything not Super Glued to the floor), Yankees will always yell "Whoa!" to boiled peanuts as a viable food source. They fail to embrace its subtle salty flavor and delicate, firm pip. They turn up their noses to the South's unofficial favorite food without even tasting it. I'll never understand that.
            Popping a warm boiled peanut in my mouth at this time of year reminds me of a very special character I used to know named Shorty.
            He was a black, mentally challenged and desperately poor dwarf. 
            No one was ever quite sure how old Shorty was, only that he had been around since the early Thirties and that he eked out a living, if you could call it that, by selling boiled peanuts for twenty-five cents a bag.
            He wore an uninterrupted smile on his face, which showed off his teeth (all different sizes and all crooked), while emphasizing gums the color of a poppy. When he talked, it was like he had a pound of sand in his mouth, but that never bothered him. Or me. I understood every word he said.
            Shorty was especially nice to my boys when they, too, wore snaggled teeth and didn't know pea turkey about bigotry, racism, riots or state flag dissension. He didn't let things like that concern him. He just wanted to make people smile.
            When he spotted us walking down the street, he would run up and turn cartwheels on the sidewalk. He flipped this way then that until we laughed and shouted, "Way to go, Shorty!"
            Then he would clap his hands and say, “Hey! Looka heah! See wha' I kin do?” He’d stand on his hands and walk up and down the street resulting in more applause and a generous tip, to boot.
            Shorty had few, if any, advantages in life. Everyone in town knew this and because he was loved, he was well taken care of by the good people of Walterboro, South Carolina. The clothes he wore were donated, but due to his size, they always needed to be altered. Still, they rarely fit, even after being cut off, stitched up, and remade. As a result, he wore wide suspenders to keep his pants from falling down, which gave him the appearance of a pygmy clown that P.T. Barnum might have snatched up in a New York minute.
            When jumbo white peanuts came in season in August, Shorty never failed to save us four bags of that first crop because he knew how much we loved them. One jumbo makes a nice mouth full, tender and sweet—it's the mother's milk of boiled peanuts.
            Shorty would say, "Dem's paper shell peanut," and for a long time I thought that's what they were called. I later discovered that paper shell belongs to the pecan family, but Shorty wouldn't have cared about that. Me, either. To this day, when I eat a jumbo, I think paper shell. It suits.
            I can't remember a time or a season when Shorty was not doing some form of business in downtown Walterboro. At summer's end, after the peanut crop was plowed under, Shorty would sweep up all the dried hulls around his stand in order to make room for other entrepreneurial endeavors—odd jobs that kept the quarters rattling in his pockets until the next peanut season. He shined shoes, raked yards, ran errands and did any kind of chore for very little money.
            Kids would pay him to stand on his very large bald head.
            "How much you gimme?" he would ask in that mouthful of grits way he had of talking.
            "A quarter," was the standard response. As soon as the top of his head hit the sidewalk, all of the coins he had collected that day would invariably spill out of the pockets of his oversized, suspendered pants. He would scramble around collecting all the loose change rolling down the sidewalk and into the street. He never stopped talking the entire time.
            Shorty remained lovable, friendly and childlike, bless his heart, despite the teasing of at least three generations of children. I cringe when I think about it now; I can only hope that the kids were never unkind. Shorty was, after all, a performer who reveled in his fifteen minutes of fame. When money spilled out of his pockets, not one child ever took a penny from him; most often they joined in to help him pick up the rolling quarters.
            A few years ago, I was leafing through a book about Colleton County, looking for faces I had known in years gone by. And there, in all his glory, smiling and grinning with a mouthful of snaggled teeth and Geranium colored gums, was Shorty. Several pages were devoted to the gentle little man who made a difference, despite his size and limited abilities. By doing the best he could with the hand of cards he was dealt, he earned a place in the town's history and in the hearts of its people.
            Today as I tell this story, I have difficulty believing that Shorty's humanness was not diminished in some way by the handstands and cartwheels he performed on command. Walterborians, both black and white, tell me that is not the case. Shorty was no victim, they say. He was that single sunbeam on an otherwise dark day.
            Shorty was the tallest man I ever met.



Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Just Sitting


“If you could sit on a park bench by the ocean and visit with anybody living or dead,” a friend asked me, “who would it be?”
Flannery O’Connor crossed my mind, as did Eudora Welty. I would so love to pick their brains!
But the person I would ultimately choose was never famous. He didn’t write a book or cure a disease. He didn’t do anything to distinguish himself outside of the small Southern town in which he was born. Given what he had to work with, however, he accomplished quite a lot.
That person was my father whose life ended too soon.
 “There are two things you need to remember,” he told me when I had been married for almost a month. “Number one,” he held up his index finger, “don’t buy packaged hamburger meat in the store.”
“Why is that, Daddy?”
He sighed. “Butchers grind up all the unmentionables, slap a label on it and call it hamburger. Trust me. Don’t eat it.”
When Mama and Daddy were first married, long before he got into law enforcement, Daddy was a salesman for Kingham and Co., a meat processing plant in our town. It was just after the Great Depression, long before the FDA began cracking the whip. Seeing cow parts processed for human consumption was a vision burned onto the walls of his brain. I never saw my Daddy eat a hamburger and especially not a hot dog.
 “Okay, the second thing you need to remember,” he said, “has to do with coffee. It always tastes better if you drink it in a thin cup.”
I was a young bride at the time and needed practical advice: hints on balancing the budget would have been nice, or thoughts on how to keep love alive in my new marriage. What did I get? My Daddy, serious as a heart attack, enlightened me with a list of stomach-churning ingredients in hamburger meat after which he told me to drink my coffee in a thin cup. I didn’t get it. I kept on downing Folgers Instant in thick mugs, the kind that would not shatter when thrown at my husband because Daddy didn’t tell me how to keep love alive.
So what would we talk about today if we were sitting together just visiting, as my friend suggested? What would we say to each other while sea birds skimmed over the ocean and dogs barked in the distance?
Before any conversation could begin, I would pour freshly brewed, steaming French Roast coffee into two bone china cups. I would add a splash of cream to mine while Daddy, being the coffee purist, would shake his head in disapproval.
No doubt he would admonish me. “I thought you had better sense than to mess up a good cup of Joe with milk.”
I would take Daddy’s hand in mine and hold it for a while. I’d try to memorize the shape of it while running my fingers over his knuckles, nails and his FBI Academy ring. I would examine both sides of his hands in an effort to determine whether either of my sons had inherited his bone structure.
After a few minutes of quiet time, I might say, “Hey, Daddy, what do you regret not doing while you were still alive?” Secretly, I would want him to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t hug you more often.” Most likely he would reply, “I regret not catching the SOB that robbed the First National Bank!”
I would want to tell Daddy that, in spite of the missed opportunities that lingered between us, I had loved him deeply and respected him for what he had accomplished with so little formal education. I would tell him how much I admired him for taking responsibility for our town’s safety, even if our family was too often shortchanged. I would tell him that I was proud of the difference he had made in our little town.
“You were important to me, Daddy.”
Maybe I would ask him to put his arms around me and hold me for a few precious minutes letting him be my daddy again for a while. “Let’s pretend the years have not gone by and that I’m still your little girl.”
Hoping he would laugh, I might attempt to say something humorous. If successful, I would then burn the vision of his smiling face into my brain so I could carry it with me until we meet again at the all-you-can-eat, artery-clogging hamburger joint in the sky.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Sunny Side of the Street

And by and by Christopher Robin came to an end of things, and he was silent, and he sat there, looking out over the world just wishing it wouldn’t stop.” ~A.A. Milne

Entirely too much time has passed since I visited the mother of my childhood friend. I look at the diminutive woman seated across from me and marvel that at eighty-four years old, her unlined face shows not even a trace of sorrow or sadness. Her smile is wide, her eyes brighter than mine, her laughter is a violin lightly plucking the strings of my heart.
“I remember the day we first laid eyes on you,” she says, as a mischievous glint appears in her old eyes. Thus begins a story told and retold for most of my life, yet one I never tire of hearing.
“Y’all had just moved to town.” She grins. “My chirren were in the backyard playing when all of a sudden Dickie let out an awful scream. Like to scared me to death.”
She looks at me, shakes her head and in a pretty good imitation of two-year-old Dickie, says, “Huh hit me on my head wit’ da’ cat!”
Contrite even after all these years, I feel the color of embarrassment slowly crawling up my face.
“Law, I looked up to where the child was pointing and saw you for the first time ever. When I asked who you were and where you had come from, the other kids said they didn’t know, that you just wandered up.”
She cocks her head to the side and purses her lips into a tight smile. “I was trying to figure out what I should do with you when I saw a lady walking toward the house. It was your mama, ‘course, looking for you all over the place. Child, you were just a baby, yet you crossed that big street all by yourself when you heard the other kids playing. I reckon you wanted to play, too.”
I was three-years-old at the time and from what I’ve been told, it would not be the last time I wandered away from the home fires. “So how come I hit Dickie with that mechanical cat I’ve been hearing about all these years?”
She shakes her head. “Who knows? You had hold of it. He wanted it. You had no intention of giving it to him and that was that. It was the day you and Peggy began your life-long friendship. People always thought y’all were cousins. Your mama, bless her heart, and I became friends for life, too.”
This beautiful lady sighs contentedly and shifts slightly in her straight-back chair, a necessity since her recent lumbar surgery. The almost imperceptible movement is as close as she will come to a complaint of any kind.
We speak of family, both hers and mine. We talk of my grandchildren and her grands and great-grands. She digs out a shoebox full of wedding pictures and babies born to people I have yet to meet. She tells me how happy she is in her new living space at The Home, and how lucky she is that there is a screen door she can open anytime she wants to feel a nice cross-breeze.
We don’t talk about Peggy, my very first friend, gone now over ten years. The pain is still too raw for us both. My gaze drifts from time to time to the same picture of Peggy that sits atop my desk at home, but still, neither of us broaches the subject. Instead, I ask about Peggy’s youngest son.
She laughs out loud. “That boy will never change. Why, he could tee-tee on your foot and make you believe it was raining.” She laughs some more. “But he’ll yank the shirt off his back and give it to you if you say you like it, then hug you so hard you’ll beg for mercy.”
So much like his mother, I think, and draw in a breath. “He was in Seattle with Peggy,” I say, “where she went for the bone marrow transplant. So was I. That boy was so concerned about his mother. We all were.”
My other mother looks down quickly and I fear I’ve opened a wound not yet healed and I’m immediately remorseful. She looks back up at me and for a moment, we share the depth of our sorrow and our need for closure.
“My Peggy was such a brave girl," she says. "She so hated having to give up. Because of her, we all learned a thing or two about courage, didn’t we?”
I catch my breath again and hold it inside. I don’t want to cry in front of this stalwart woman who has buried a son, a daughter, a husband. Who only three years ago survived the incredibly invasive Whipple Procedure for pancreatic cancer, who smiles at and speaks to every person she meets while pushing her walker down the narrow hallway of The Home. I know precisely where Peggy got her courage.
Stooping down, I give her an awkward hug and a light kiss on her rose-petal cheek. “I’ll come back to see you soon,” I tell her.
“Well then, we’ll catch up some more another time,” she replies. I nod my head, but my heart tells me that there will probably not be another time for the two of us. 
Only after her door has closed behind me do I allow a well of tears to bathe my sad, sad soul.

Kiss My Grits

I was born and raised in South Carolina, and for that reason, bugs know better than to mess with me. However, my Yankee husband, Babe, starts scratching and fidgeting when the outside temperature edges over 65 degrees.
“That mosquito almost ate me alive! This damn humidity will kill me if the bugs don’t get to me first! Sand gnats? A nuclear warhead couldn’t blast those critters away!”
When he gets to what the Florida Yankees call no-see’ums, I pack and pout and stay like that all the way up to his hometown in Western Pennsylvania.
Once there, we lug our stuff into our cabin, which more often than not is when we discover there’s no water. It’s been a long drive and I’m so cranky my cat disappears under the bed and may never come out again, but Babe is deliriously happy. He puts a grin on his face and looks pretty much like The Joker in Batman.
“Don’t you feel it? Huh? Don’t you? Huh? No humidity!” Next thing I know he’s spit-polishing his nine-iron.
I make up the beds with fresh linens, cram the refrigerator with food and clean the toilet that flushes only when it wants to. By the time pale slashes of cool, mountain sunshine garnish the inside of our cabin, I can almost manage to smile.
Babe is setting up a golf match before I’ve had my first cup of Starbucks the next morning. Gulping down breakfast like it’s his last meal, he brushes past me with a wink and a pat on the butt, which does nothing to improve my mood.
“Ten o’clock tee time!” he quips before leaving me alone with pale slashes of sunshine, a paranoid cat and a temperamental toilet.
Southern to the bone, I feel like a foreigner this far above the Mason-Dixon Line and long to be down South where I belong.
After several days of homesickness, I figure there’s really no point in wallowing in misery, so I volunteer to read my Southern stories to residents at a local retirement home. Because I am a ham, I read them aloud, savoring the smiles on the wrinkled faces of my captive audience. Most of them are charmed but there is one exception.
Mrs. Beekabolly’s dark eyes stare straight ahead, making it impossible for me to wrench a smile from her. For years, she was a librarian so I wonder if she may be trying to shush me. I try to ignore her but her eyes keep me coming back for more shushing. I begin to think it might even be a North/South thing. What if she holds me personally responsible for the Civil War? It happens.
Autumn comes early to Northwestern Pennsylvania and by mid-October the leaves on the ground resemble an Amish quilt. Faded bathing suits that hung on the line all summer are brought inside and packed away for another year. Five consecutive cool nights send a clear signal that it’s time to clean out the refrigerator and start packing. Woo Hoo!
I no longer hold out any hope that Mrs. Beekabolly will ever cotton to my jocularity, but just in case, I save my most humorous story to read on the last day.
After the reading is over, I am warmed by the hearty applause from the group of seniors I have come to know and learned to love. I hug them all and silently pray that they’ll still be around when we return.
I am preparing to leave the nursing home when Mrs. Beekabolly taps me on the shoulder. She’s holding out a brown paper sack, her spooky eyes still boring into mine.
“This is for you,” she says without smiling.
“Why, Mrs. Beekabolly! Aren’t you sweet.” I’m stunned.
“Open it,” she commands.
I put my hand inside the sack and pull out a five-pound bag of Jim Dandy Grits. “What’s this?” I’m grinning like a fool but she continues to glare. No surprise there.
“Its grits,” she says like I’m stone stupid.
“But why?” It’s no secret that Yankees totally hate grits.
“Got ‘em over in Altoona. If you freeze ‘em, they’ll keep till next summer.”
“Next summer?”
Her face softens and a gentle smile graces her tight, lizard lips. “While you were reading your stories, I heard homesickness in your voice, so I figured if you had a bag of grits up here waiting for you, it would be the touchstone you need to bring you back.”
I’d have bet anything that Mrs. Beekabolly had been trying to catch every one of my grammatical errors. But that wasn’t it. All summer long, she had been listening with her heart.
We look at each other and something sweet passes between us.
“Thank you, Mrs. Beekabolly. I’ll see you next summer.”
“Then you better write a bunch of new stories, Missy,” she quips. “I’m old, but I’ve got a memory like Jumbo the Elephant and I can’t abide reruns.”
A thin smile touches her lips again but I catch it and hold onto it as she strides out of my life for another year.

The Saving Grace

“Old age is when former classmates are so gray, wrinkled and bald, they don’t recognize you.”

My high school class reunion is in full swing and here I stand in the middle of the room surrounded by a bunch of people I sat next to in the lunchroom or shared a class with for twelve of my much younger years. Would I recognize any of them if we passed each other on the street? I don’t think so.
For instance, my friend Annie told me that the woman over by the window is none other than Jean Marie Smith. Surely, Annie is mistaken. That woman is way too old and out of shape to be the Beauty Queen we all loved to hate.
My mind is temporarily bogged down on Memory Lane when I feel three sharp taps on my shoulder. Turning quickly, I come face-to-face with an old man way too close to my personal space. He's grinning like he just discovered Viagra. The scary thing is, he looks familiar.
“Hey!” I smile big as you please, pretending I know who he is.
“Don’t you ‘Hey me, girl! I want a big ol’ hug.” His larger than life hands swoop around me and pull me into a Goliath Grip. “I swannie. You look good enough to eat. Yessiree, bobtail.”
Recognition hits me. The old fool hugging the daylights out of me is Jimmy Clyde Lewis. Had there been senior superlatives for Most Un-popular, Most Obnoxious, Most Un-attractive, Least Athletic, Worst Dancer and Least Likely to Succeed, Jimmy Clyde would have be high school history today.
He squeezes me again and it feels like he broke a rib. His nose is almost touching mine.
“Lemme get a good look at you, girl.” I think he ate every deviled egg on the buffet table; his breath smells like a coffin.
“Show me that ring finger,” he commands, sounding way too much like the guy in Fifty Shades of Grey. My wedding ring glares back at him and I’m so glad I remembered to dip it in ammonia before leaving the house. He blanches as though he’s been hexed.
Quickly snatching my hand away, I dazzle him with a ten-karat smile. “That’s right, bubba, so back off.”
And he does.
A giggle sifts its way through the surrounding noise and I turn to find a woman who looks old enough to be her own mother. The genius who invented nametags deserves a Nobel Prize.
“Martha Linn? Is that you?”
She giggles again before stepping forward with her arms outstretched. I respond in kind. It has been fifty something years since we’ve seen each other, and I don’t mean to be cruel, but in all that time I don’t think the word diet has been her ongoing conversational topic. 
She steals the next half hour from me by relating every inconsequential thing her grandchildren have ever done or not done. I remember that Martha Linn as a detail kind of person, but having to listen to the Social Security numbers of all seven of her grands is cruel and unusual punishment. TMI, in Martha Linn’s case is a HUGE understatement.
The minute she stops to catch her breath, I jump in like Esther Williams in a 1955 swim film. “I’ve got nine grandchildren. I call them the Grandkids from Hell.”
No sooner have the words left when my lips when she backs off from me as if I am breathing fire. Hands that only moments ago patted me with warmth and affection have turned into fingers threatening my eyeballs.
“Those children gotta be saved,” she shrieks. “The Rapture is on the way.”
I back away from her as though she has explosives strapped to her sizable waist. Lord, have mercy. The woman thinks I’m serious. “Oh, Martha Linn, you’ve got it all wrong. Let me explain...”
She covers her ears with both hands, squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head back and forth.
“I cain’t and won’t listen to another blasphemous word from your sinful lips.” Then her voice takes on a whispery tone. “I’ll pray for your little ones.” She opens her eyes. “I’ll pray for the evil to be flushed from their lives. Will you kneel with me and plead for the souls of your little grandchirren?”
Dropping to her knees, she mutters what I assume is a prayer, although I wouldn’t bet on it. She is speaking in tongues. I back away fast trying to get away before she can open her pocketbook and bring out a bunch of snakes.
Could this be the same Martha Linn aka Martha Sinn? She was the only person who knew how to roll a doobie? Holy Herbal Cow!
Pretty soon, I come up on David, another old classmate. By this time, I am in bad need of a double martini very dry, and I don’t care if it harelips every born again Baptist and snake handler in the county.
David was the quietest boy in our class, so shy he was almost invisible. My oh my. How people change. The good looking, hunky face I’m gazing at is graced with large, sympathetic, Omar Shariff molten chocolate eyes. I am torn between staring at him and searching for the martini of my dreams; I decide to do both. My voice is steeped in angst when I say, “Oh, David, am I glad to see you. You look like somebody who takes a drink. Please tell me I’m not wrong.”
Laughing out loud, he nods. “Like a fish. Just ask my wife, Grace Ann. I was chilling out on the porch with a bourbon and branch when she noticed that you appeared to be undergoing baptism by fire courtesy of St. Martha Linn. Grace Ann said I should grab my slingshot and do my David and Goliath act, so here I am.
I glance over his right shoulder looking for Grace Ann so I can blow her a grateful kiss.
“She’s the one holding the martini glass,” he says, grinning.
Like it says in the Bible, “By grace, ye shall be saved.”  PTL!

A Cakewalk is Not a Piece of Cake

Once while visiting Saluda, North Carolina, Babe and I got bored staring at kudzu and decided to look around for a sweet little cabin to buy, not too old and not too big and hopefully in foreclosure. 
            
"Now's the time to pick up a little place on the cheap, Babe. Besides, if I spend another Georgia summer with 100 degree weather competing with my hot flashes you won't need a Bic to light your grill."

He had just polished off a huge cheeseburger at the Saluda Grill after which he ate half of mine, which was a good thing. Mama always advised me to, “Never ask a husband for anything until his belly is full.” Mama didn't raise stupid children. 

I reached over and wiped the catsup off his chin, batted my eyes and gave him the cheerleader smile designed to make him believe he's still captain of the high school football team. 
            
"So, let's find us a cozy little cabin nestled close to town, Babe. That way, we can ride our bikes to the store, okay?"

He licked off what was left of the catsupand cocked his head. "That was a trick question, right?"

That's when I knew I had him.

"The people here are so friendly. I loved it when that couple flagged us down like we were long lost cousins."

Babe said, "You mean those tourists asking for directions?"

I rolled my eyes. "Just saying ..."

A waitress wearing a Smiley Face name badge ambled over to the table with our check. The total was somewhere around ten dollars. Babe's eyes blinked like strobe lights. "This can’t be right," he told Smiley Face who squinched her brows into a frown. 

"What's wrong with it? I figured it up myself." She glared at Babe with a look that said, “For your information, I made straight A’s in school.”

Babe rattled off the list of food we’d ordered including fries, onion rings, shakes and two cheeseburgers with double cheese. "I don’t think you charged us enough," he said. 

Smiley Face's scowl quickly eased. "I added that thang twice so I don’t think it’s wrong. People ‘round here don't usually order everything on the menu all at once.” She snatched the bill out of Babe’s hand. “Let me see that thang again."

She looked it over and shrugged. "Nothing wrong with it. You wanna pay more, that's okay with me. I got a grandkid wants a iPad." She smiled to show off her new dentures. 

"Now, if y'all have a taste for dessert, I've got just the thang for you," said Smiley. 

Babe's brown eyes instantly morphed into liquid chocolate.

"Mr. Gleason, who's lived here since the day he drew breath, just found out that he needs a operation so folks in town got together and figured out a way to help him 'cause he needs us. We do that 'round here for our people.”

Thinking we should donate to the cause, I dug inside my pocketbook for cash, but she stopped me. 

“Huh uh, hon. Keep your money. We're having a cakewalk over to the Fire Hall to raise money so he can hire somebody to nurse him after he gets out of the hospital. He’s a proud man and don't take kindly to charity, so this is how it’s got to be. I donated two big ol' pound cakes I baked my own self and long about five o'clock, there'll be serving barbeque. All you can eat for five dollars.”

Knowing how Babe's mind works, I knew he was figuring out how much barbeque he could pile on one plate for five bucks. Remember that movie about a pig named Babe? Well ... 

“Y'all know what a cakewalk is, don’t you?” Smiley sat down between us. 

The only cakewalk I could think of was in a story by Mark Twain. As though clairvoyant, Smiley filled in the blanks for me.

“You get in a circle and mosey around while the music plays. When it stops, if you're standing in front of a cake, you git to take it home with you. You’d be lucky if you won one of my pound cakes 'cause I use real butter.”

After eating the biggest cheeseburger on the planet, cake, barbeque or anything else didn’t interest me, but I fell head over heels in love with a small town that cares so much about their people that they hold fund raisers. 

“C’mon, Babe,” I said grabbing a real estate brochure. “Times a wasting. My intuition tells me there's a cozy little cottage about to get a down payment.”

He rolled his eyes. “Can we go to the cakewalk first? It would be a shame to pass up Five Buck BBQ.”
*****

Authors Note: Sure enough, we found that cottage and even managed to scrape up the down payment. Oh happy day!

The Hills Are Alive


"Man Plans and God Laughs." – Anonymous 
Babe and I are spending a month alone in a cabin in a cozy little town nestled in the North Carolina Mountains. With one General Store, one cafe and a one-woman Post Mistress, it is perfect for a second honeymoon.
The town is set miles away from anything resembling a road to anywhere. We got lost three times before Babe grudgingly asked directions from a toothless man walking down the road. The fellow's tight lips barely moved when he spoke, but his beady eyes glared with unconcealed suspicion.
When we arrive at our cabin late in the day, we high-five ourselves for having chosen a remote spot that the Grandkids from Hell couldn't find with a NASA tracking system. Later, we drive down to the Grill for a bite to eat.
A middle-aged dude with deep wrinkles and a gray ponytail is the entertainment. His name is Jesse and he tells local stories while strumming on a homemade Mountain Dulcimer. After a bit, Judy, the tired owner, server, cook and bottle washer, appears. She is yawning.
"Tonight's special is mesquite broiled salmon, fresh asparagus, sliced local tomatoes and real mashed potatoes. $5.95."
Did she say $5.95? We gawk. At which point did we hope on a time machine? One look at the wine list convinced us that we were in a time warp. We hadn’t seen Ripple in years, but tonight the slightly fruity bouquet tastes like champagne.
I look into Babe's big brown eyes. "Isn't this romantic? No traffic, no over-priced meals. It's turning me on, Babe."
The next morning, he drops me off at the General Store and takes off in search of a golf course.
Sawdust covers the store floor and I spend a minute or two dumping it out of my sandals. I see items only my grandmother would recognize and she went to her reward forty years ago. Sour Gum Molasses, dusty bottles of black stove polish, Black Drought Laxatives. I gently squeeze a red, robust Better Boy tomato as thoughts of a BLT cause me to swoon.
I am lost in a tomato fantasy when Charley, the owner of the store introduces himself. For the next half hour he tells me more than I want to know about his spastic colon and erratic prostate. I blush with every mention of his bodily fluids.
He tells me about his sister, too. "She's ninety-three," declares Charley. "Got mad as a wet hen when the doctor tole her to stop blackberry picking. She makes home-made jelly."
Personally, I think she ought to buy Smucker's and spend the rest of her days watching Driving Miss Daisy on HBO, but Charley doesn’t ask me what I think.
"She's got some allergies," Charley says. "Cain't get up the hill without sneezing. Doc says she's liable to sneeze herself into a coronary she don't look out."
Charley, the only real butcher in these parts, provides fresh meat, fish and produce to the Grille next door. Judy, of the amazing $5.95 salmon and asparagus, is his wife. A common door between the buildings remains open so that when somebody orders a hamburger, Judy yells, "Grind me off a pound, Charley!"
Babe finally returns, and can hardly wait to tell him about this tiny community. I now know everybody's name and ailment like they are my own relatives. I’m yakking away as we drive up Smith Hill to our cozy cabin, ours for twenty-nine more days.
As we round the bend, my mouth does a flip-flop. "Babe? Is that ... Naaah, it can't be. Oh my lord! It is! How did they find us?"
The Grandkids from Hell are waiting to pounce. Babe is trembling. I am this close to telling him to hightail it back down the hill, but one look at my grinning son interrupts any idea of a retreat. He's standing knee-deep amid the chaos and he looks like a basset hound caught in quicksand.
"Surprise, Mom!"
"I'm starving, Mammy!" #2 Grandkid from Hell sidles up and gives me a cursory hug. "Whatcha got to eat in those bags?"
His big brother, #1 Grandkid from Hell, nags, "You inhaled two hamburgers and a milkshake in Spartanburg. No way you're still hungry."
#2 fixes him with a look. "Shut up," to which #1 tells him to shut up which launches the shut up yourself contest that is still going on to this day.
#3 Grandkid from Hell crawls up the side of my car like a tree frog. Help me Jesus and tell me how to get back on that Fifties time machine.
"Hey Mammy," #3 hugs me tight with sticky chocolate fingers and hangs on. The rest of his forty pounds dangles and thumps on the side of my car. "Can I sleep in your bed tonight?"
Tears begin to free-fall down Babe's face.
The honeymoon is over.

Author's note:
Since this writing, Both Charley and his sister have died. She's up there in that big blackberry patch in the sky, while he's grinding off another pound or two of prime hamburger meat in the largest General Store in the history of the world.

The Amish Way


This is an essay written by Rod Dreher, assistant editorial page editor for the Dallas News. I cut and pasted it on my desktop in order to re-read it whenever I needed to. After last week's tragedy in Paris, posting it on my BLOG seemed like the thing to do.

The views expressed here are Mr. Dreher's own but I certainly agree with him. 

Is there any place on earth that more bespeaks peace, restfulness and sanctuary from the demons of modern life than a one-room Amish schoolhouse? That fact is no doubt why so many of us felt so defiled – there is no more precise word – by news of the mass murders that took place there. If you’re not safe in an Amish schoolhouse .... And yet, as unspeakable as those killings were, they were not the most shocking news to come out of Lancaster County.

No, that would be the revelation that the Amish community, which buried five of its little girls, collected money to help the widow and children of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who executed their children before taking his own life. A serene Amish midwife told NBC News that this is normal for them. It’s what Jesus would have them do.

“This is imitation of Christ at its most naked,” journalist Tom Shachtman, who has chronicled Amish life, told The New York Times. “If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else who says they’re imitating Christ, but the Amish walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”

I don’t know about you, but that kind of faith is beyond comprehension. I’m the kind of guy who will curse under my breath at the jerk that cuts me off in traffic on the way home from church. And look at those humble farmers, putting Christians like me to shame.

It is not that the Amish are Anabaptist hobbits, living a pure pastoral life uncorrupted by the evils of modernity. So much of the coverage of the massacre dwelled on the “innocence lost” aspect, but I doubt that the Amish would agree. They have their own sins and tragedies. Nobody who lives in a small town can live under the illusion that it is a haven from evil. To paraphrase gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil does not run along the boundaries of Lancaster County, but through every human heart.

What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger.

Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.

In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children’s funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace.

But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned the occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.



Tuesday, October 27, 2015

It’s Never Too Late

My friend Henry Mitchell’s first short story collection, Dark on the Mountain, will be available November 10 in print and the Kindle edition can be pre-ordered now from Amazon. His other books are all available on Amazon.com. Check him out. You'll be glad you did.
Henry’s venture into fiction writing is an inspiration to any and all writers, no matter what the age and/or background.

It’s Never Too Late

After working for fifty years as a visual artist (sculpture and painting), I began to experience difficulty in discerning colors. When my opthalmologist diagnosed macular degeneration, I told the Main Muse, “I want to spend my declining years doing something I can get better at.”

“I’ve been telling you for years to write. Now or never,” she said.

I wrote a novel. I had no earthly idea what to do with it, knew even less about how the publishing business works. Two years and two hundered queries later, I read in a trade journal about a new publisher in the UK wanting short stories. I wrote a short story. They accepted it, and I began my continuing education about surviving editors.

A year and a dozen stories into our marriage, Alfie Dog Fiction decided to begin publishing novels. I sent an e-mail. “I have this novel manuscript.”

My editor, Rosemary Kind, replied, “Send it.”

Two published novels later, with a collection of short stories coming out Nov.10th, and a third novel set to launch next fall, I think I might be a real writer after all. I just wish I’d started at least a couple of decades sooner. I’m not likely to be in the world long enough to write it all down. Some readers might claim that a mercy, I suppose.


My advice, which you haven’t asked for after all: If you have any thoughts about writing fiction, don’t wait until you know better. The stories are out there. They will find you unless you hide.