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.